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Travel Horrors: Postscript : Bad Things Don't Happen to Me

October 30, 1994|JAN MORRIS | Morris, who lives in Wales, writes travel books and articles as well as novels, nonfiction and essays. Excerpted by permission from "I Should Have Stayed Home" (Book Passage Press)

When I was a foreign correspondent, long ago, it always piqued me that more exciting things happened to my colleagues than ever happened to me. They were arrested by secret policemen in Hungary. They were threatened by Congolan warlords. Their dispatches led to diplomatic incidents, or got them invitations to stern Presidential tete-a-tetes. Not me. As I reported year after year from around the world, crime and calamity, Mafia and minister, KGB and CIA alike took no notice of me at all.

Now that my travels are of a still more literary kind (for even when I was reporting a war or a political assassination, I always thought of myself as writing belles-lettres)--now that I am only a wandering essayist, I find that I am still immune to misadventure. The appalling events that have befallen my colleagues in this collection of stories never strike at me. Just once in a while I wish they would; but then again, what's so special about bad luck?

It is part of life's experience, that's all, and is really no more interesting, and no more useful to the writer, than the happy surprises of travel, like finding a decent pot of tea in Indianapolis, or seeing a Laurel and Hardy film in a particularly unprepossessing suburb of Baghdad. Like good news, easy travel does not often inspire literature. It is generally good only for opportunist gush in travel magazines. Yet a happy progress can provide just as valuable grist for the literary mill as any disastrous mishap.

A Sudanese minister of national guidance once told me that my professional duty was to write "thrilling, attractive and good news, coinciding where possible with the truth." I have taken his advice seriously. I don't know if there is a word for the gift of stumbling across nasty surprises, but I do know that serendipity, the gift of bumping into pleasant ones, is a most fortunate tool for the writer to possess.

Nothing very awful occurred to Alexander Kinglake anywhere in "Eothen," to my mind the supreme travel book, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, the greatest of our contemporaries in this field, seems usually to travel in a condition of charmed good fortune and self-amusement.

Not that the ability to attract good luck is really a gift (though Napoleon thought it was, at least in generals). I do think it likely, nevertheless, that if you expect the best you get the best. Being of sanguine temperament myself I have so far found in life, as in travel, that the worst seldom comes about. I never expected to be arrested, when I went prying into the secret prisons of Nasser's Egypt, or tried to cheat the Soviet censorship, and I never was; just as, contrary to many complaints in women's magazines, I always expect a good table when I am eating out alone, and nearly always get one.

I claim no merit for this. I still admire the capacity of friends and fellow-workers to get themselves into the most terrible fixes, the most daunting situations, and to turn them into literature. I would love to have been able to contribute to the body of this collection, instead of adding a quibble at the end. My point is only that the one tendency is as good as the other, when it comes to the writing art; just as the most ordinary activities of daily existence, buying a newspaper, boarding a bus, talking to a housewife on a park bench, can contribute as much to a composition as any great set-piece of the traveling experience. Perhaps one really should stay home?

It does sometimes occur to me, though, that I may be deceiving myself. Is it simply that I am better at writing about the happy than the unhappy? Do I subconsciously put the misadventures out of my mind? Have I, too, been challenged in nightmare electric baths in Japan, massaged by tattooed giantesses of Belize, assaulted by Guatemalan ants or eyed by rats in Madagascar lavatories, and simply forgotten all about it?

Surely not. Nothing bad ever happens to me.

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