Travel Writing and International Relations

“Be careful when you go to Brasil, it’s very dangerous!” I was thirteen when I went to Rio de Janeiro for the first time and after all the warning I was ready to face a war zone.

I must confess, as soon as I got off the plane and jumped on a cab, those advices became very meaningful. My surreal adventure was starting: we were racing other cars through the largest streets I had ever seen, giving right of way to nobody, ignoring most roadsigns and my parents were chatting and laughing with our swarthy taxi-driver as if everything was normal. After ten minutes of reckless driving, I was happy to see that we were still alive and certainly not the passengers of the craziest car.

The Corcovado and the Pão de Açucar were still wrapped up with the first-morning haze but the city was far from being asleep: brave early-risers were already running up and down Rio’s beaches, buses darting blatantly and local lanchonettes releasing their typical smell of misto quente, a toasted ham and cheese sandwich.

After a couple of months hanging around Rio and traveling throughout Brasil, I realised how distorted our European impression of other countries was and embarked on my battle against prejudice, initially by word-of-mouth, then through my blogs and articles.

During the Cold War, Brasil was a third-world country, and the most common mistake we could make in Europe was to consider it as semi-primitive. Now Brasil is going through a major development, imposing itself as one of the world's future superpowers, and boasting a vibrant civilisation and intense culture.

The role of the travel writer becomes crucial when the goal is to introduce cultures, lifestyles and reasons why a country could not develop the same way as others. In a nutshell, making people more aware of the world we live in.

I’ve always thought that travel writing was not just a “job”, but a mission, and the task of the travel writer one of the hardest to accomplish.

Being a journalist entails huge responsibilities: since the birth of the profession it became immediately clear that the press had a massive power on the public mind.

As early as the eighteenth century, journalist Eleonora De Fonseca Pimentel devoted her life to the revolution. In a Naples oppressed by the Bourbons and shaken by the echoes of the French Revolution, she carried out a battle against the exploitation of the poor. Despite her noble roots, she couldn’t spare herself from being executed for what she believed in, the importance of educating the population and giving them the tools to improve their living conditions.

We don’t have the Bourbons anymore, but in an era where democracy is becoming an empty word, where the political class is seen as belonging to a separate dimension from the rest of the population, the role of the journalist is one of monitoring and denouncing political decisions that have devastating consequences. One of the most inspiring examples of today’s journalism is Australia-born author and documentary film-maker John Pilger. War reporter and outspoken critic of Western governments’ foreign policies, his definition of the profession reaches its very soul: “It’s the journalist’s job, first of all, to look in the mirror of his own society.”

Among all specialisations, travel writing involves some of the heaviest burdens: putting its readers altogether in another country and making them feel, understand and appreciate other cultures.

If this sounds like a hackneyed expression, it’s when the travel writer starts witnessing realities unknown to most people and uncovered by most media that this cliché takes on a deeper meaning.

I think combining the passion for traveling with a good grasp of history and global affairs will show the traveler a world where most media are controlled, used and abused by the political and financial power and in which the “propaganda model” suggested by Chomsky and Herman has become daily routine.

That’s why it’s vital for travel writers to carry out an accurate research before boarding on a plane, trawling through the social and political background of a nation: they are about to become the eyes and the ears of the country they will visit, and have the tools to discover a place's more intimate soul, capturing the essence of people's mentality and traditions, to be able to outline a true x-ray picture of what they see.

So, for example, if you go to Chile you’ll be able to sense the consequences of one of the bloodiest and darkest fascist dictatorships that literally put the nation on its knees from the 1973 until Pinochet’s gradual departure.

Not only can travel writers see and describe such phenomenons, but I think they also owe their readers an accurate explanation of why such events could happen, what is the history behind today’s societies and what are the factors that pushed the country in that specific direction.

At the same time, if not combined with traveling, research runs the risk to overlook the human element of a population, possible to be captured only first-hand. Every human being has something to tell, every single person has done something worth mentioning and remembering and books cannot contain everything.

Dealing with social issues cannot be detached from travel writing, it’s part of the same mission: to engage the community on challenging distorted visions of the world and on raising consciousness that we all live in the same planet, share the same resources and deserve the same respect. This will inevitably add to everybody’s civic sense and make people demanding a better quality in articles and tv shows.

Ambitious task and big responsibility, but necessary to make our contribution to building hope for a better world. With all this in mind, I consider as my departure point Derrick Jensen’s beautiful thought: “If we wish to stop the atrocities, we need merely to step away from isolation. There is a whole world waiting for us, ready to welcome us home.”


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