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Finding Truth Through Travel Writing

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Travel writing as a way to see the authentic side of misunderstood cultures. 

Travel writing is a unique medium in its ability to dispel preconceptions and question widely held beliefs. In the Western World, foreign cultures are viewed with an odd fascination, fashioned around stereotypes propagated by Hollywood and mainstream news. For many Americans, the term, “Middle East”, suggests endless deserts, men in turbans and camel caravans. “South America” conjures pictures of narco-cartels, llamas and Incan ruins. “Australia” is depicted in films as a land of kangaroos and vicious animals. While these pre-conceived stereotypes run deep in the States and even parts of Western Europe, they can be dispelled.

When done with authenticity and sound research, travel writing can pull back the curtains of these stereotypes to reveal the much more human truth behind far-away cultures. While tales of exotic enchantment and foreign adventures may seem more appealing on film screens, the real cultures behind them are often just as alluring.

My time in South America, Afghanistan, the Caucasus and other destinations engrained in my mind one principal fact: We are all the same. No matter how much the media or mainstream news likes to depict us as different, in essence humans across the globe tend to carry many of the same traits. We all smile and laugh. We all fall in and out of love. We all have insecurities and fears about the future. We all want a better life for ourselves and those close to us.

Whether they live in the mountains of Afghanistan, rice paddies in Cambodia, urban cities in Bolivia, or university campuses in the States, people are people. Well-composed travel writing allows readers to the people of different cultures for who they truly are instead of postcard caricatures.

A major goal of mine as an author is to give my readers an authentic sense of what a place actually looks like. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone say to me, “Isn’t Afghanistan all desert? I didn’t know they had mountains!” Once again, this seems to be a residual effect of Hollywood and Western television. Mexico always seems to be depicted through a grainy-brown filter. Countries in the Middle East or South Asia consist solely of wide-open desert spaces with camels. Russia is only depicted as freezing Siberian forests. The look I see on people’s faces when I show them landscape images from different countries is one of my favourite parts of being a travel writer.

The craft of travel writing can also come with some unpleasantries. If you want to report accurate and detailed stories you also have to be willing to talk about the ugly. I’ve written about human rights abuses in Afghanistan and violent street protests in Peru, to name a few not-so-pleasant topics. However, finding the light in what seem like oceans of darkness is what makes truly good travel writing stand out. Be willing to take that risk and tell a hard story. Your job is not to paint a picture-perfect postcard of a place. There is far more beauty in showcasing a location for what it truly is with both in its beauty and its ugliness on display.

Foreign journalism and travel writing certainly are not for everyone. They require humility and an ability to set aside biases in favour of accurate reporting that can be hard to master. However, when successful, your story can pull down the mask of stereotypes and show your readers the true face of some of the world’s most misunderstood places.

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Max Olson

Max is a 25-year-old investigative journalist and travel writer from Arizona. Max is currently working his way through Latin America, immersing himself in each location. He is focusing primarily on covering political unrest, economic conditions, and what life is like for each country’s most vulnerable people.

Website: https://www.instagram.com/maxthepilgrim97/

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