Jason Cochran

Stuff you never knew you never knew

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Me in St. Petersburg. This fabulousness was bankrolled by work.

Anyone with a laptop and fingers can now transmit their adventures in a new genre of humbebrag lit that can alternately inspire and inflame.

But here’s the elephant in the chat room: Some travelers have more resources than you.

Seems to me we have made great strides in using the Web to plumb new cultures, previously hidden facts, and other realities. Bloggers reveal every angle about themselves, no matter how personal.

Except one. Of your favorite bloggers, or of your favorite writers in the travel section, who talks openly about how they’re funding their public displays of inspection?

There are steadily tweeting travelers who are quick to count the countries they have seen and flout their upgrades and elite status, but who confesses the origin of the dollars that made it all happen?

I’m not talking about sponsored trips. I don’t have much objection to freebies (provided, in my opinion, they don’t ensure gushing press—although without an organization to oversee their ethics, who’s to say which bloggers speak true). Although the reverse alchemic combination of travel’s high expense and publications’ low editorial budgets has made professional travel writing a pursuit best suited to rich people, that is not to say there’s anything faulty with the discoveries that come out of well-funded trips.

I just wish I knew now and then. Because one of the essential tenets of emotionally resonant writing is that I can put myself in the shoes of the person I’m reading.

We all want to visit Yap and Bhutan, and it’s very nice to see that Instagram shot from that Grenada all-inclusive, but be honest: Do I really stand a chance of seeing it, too?

That’s why there is two kinds of travel coverage. One is what I call wish book: You read it to peer through a portal and to dream you are there, too. The other is service journalism. Sometimes, they’re combined, but usually, the service information is relegated to parentheses or a sidebar. The most detailed service journalism outlets are gradually going out of business in favor of gossipy click fodder, which seems to indicate that increasingly, readers would rather dream than do.

But how many times have you read something and wondered how on earth the writer was able to swing it?

Money is the blind spot in most travel coverage, and the system is set up that way. I have been pitched by publications whose editors told me never to mention costs—as if readers don’t care. Talk of money is often considered rude, a transgression against the reader or worse, against advertisers.

As Western society metastasizes into class inequality, this money question matters.

The forces that want you to drop a bankroll are more powerful than the ones that want you to have a spiritual connection that costs nothing. It’s more seductive to paint romantic images of self-actualization and sensual indulgence than it is to hammer out vulgar discussions of practicality.

Writers go into molecular detail about food, a vital resource, so why not go into detail about the peculiar pressures that limited monetary resources put on a traveling soul? Has travel writing become so presentational, so stage-managed, that the realities of the person delivering their reflections is no longer expected to be present in the work? The best actors bring their whole selves to the role, but travel writers stage little productions in which the destination, not themselves, is the only star being exposed.

Perhaps resources should more often be a natural part of the narrative, partly to build trust and rapport with the reader, but also partly because if they’re not mentioned, I’m going to wonder. Is this just a playboy bragging about his conquest? Is this a form of condescension—that they are the adventurer but I am only a lowly reader?

Some of the greatest historical travelers — Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Bruce Chatwin — were able to go places because they were rich or had patrons, but their audience usually knew it. Ulysses S. Grant took a post-presidential worldwide trip so epic that it contributed to his bankruptcy and required him to provide for his family by selling his memoirs.

Being wealthy didn’t take anything away from their wisdom. It’s not an ethical accusation. But knowing my favorite blogger makes it happen because they have a trust fund would, inversely, make me feel less left behind—because I’d know how they got a head start.

Even Anthony Trollope knew this. As he wrote in Travelling Sketches, when it comes to voyagers, “to do all that can be done for the money is the one great object which he has ever in view.”

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