THE travel industry may be in a slump, but travel books are enjoying a renaissance. Especially popular are literary travel books for armchair tourists. Unlike traditional guidebooks, addressed to busy tourists eager to skim the highlights of a spot, literary travel books dwell more on cultural diversity than on monuments. They disclose an impressive knowledge of a locale's recent and past history, together with its geology, cuisine, and plant and animal life.
Where the tour books rush from site to site, the literary travel book lingers on the beach learning folk songs and tasting the local fruits. The most notable virtue of literary travel books is their rich, frequently first-person narrative, punctuated with discerning description. In a field where utilitarian writing has been the rule, literary travel books offer the pulse, and often the suspense, of fiction.
David Yeadon, who has been reporting from the byways for 15 years, has evolved with the recent revival of the genre. He has mutated from tourist guide to literary adventure traveler and itinerant artist. In this, the 14th of his travel books, he recounts his journeys to the world's inaccessible locations - places like Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, which many of us would rather hear about than visit. Double-page line drawings by the author enliven each chapter.
A fine-tuned self-confidence propels Yeadon through perils in ``The Back of Beyond.'' But he is far from unflappable.
Like many of the new breed of literary travelers, Yeadon has discarded the omniscient stand of the tour guide for one that brings more humanity to the trip. Captured by rebels along the Morocco-Mauritania border, he shivers lonely and alone in a squalid hut. Reflecting on his curt behavior to a Haitian voodoo priest, he remonstrates, ``It's hard to believe I could have been so arrogant - and so dumb.''
Through all his travels, whether drowsy or daunting, Yeadon adapts to the situation at hand. His philosophy, serviceable at home as well as abroad, is ``just stay and see what happens.'' A former city planner, Yeadon had a near-death experience on the back roads of Iran, which insistently outlined to him the follies of personal long-range planning. As a result of his encounter, he became a travel writer, not so much for the scenery, but for the meditative possibilities travel affords. The planner became a ponderer. For Yeadon, travel is ``the ultimate exploration of self and all its possibilities.''
On the Greek island of Kea, where little happens, Yeadon can effortlessly throw himself into doing little. Savoring the landscape and sipping coffee in a kafeneion can soak up a day. In Khomeini's Iran, where unexpected things happened with terrible regularity, Yeadon wisely set out to visit old friends along the distant, marshy shores of the Caspian Sea, and along the way came close to being lunch for a wild boar.
In the Sahara, Yeadon adjusted easily to the lopsided lope of a camel, and learned why one should guard against sleep when seated on one. On Grand Canary Island, surely his candidate for this planet's utopia, Yeadon tarried four months, living nearly cash-free, while reviving his talent for painting and concocting novel recipes for the island's bountiful bananas.
Literary travel writers linger on a special aspect of journeying. For some it is cathedrals; others like to ride the rails. For Yeadon, the distinctiveness of a region's food holds him in thrall. This is not a book to read while dieting.
Yeadon's descriptions of the simple foods of the Middle East - the warm bread, the pungent olives, the sun-warmed tomatoes, the yogurt sweet as ice cream - make one hungry, and happy that the cuisine of the region has become a favorite in this country.
Yeadon can make even the exotic tempting. His account of the taste of fresh mare's milk sipped with yak butter and accompanied by a golden pile of fried dough, taken in the company of a family of herders on the vast grasslands of Mongolia, would lure even the fainthearted into sampling.
Because Yeadon can sit and stay a spell, rather than having to climb back on the bus, he has developed a sharp appreciation of the ordinary. The silences of the desert, a spiky highland thunderstorm, even the heat haze of the rain forest, intrigue Yeadon, and because he has the time to do so, he gives in to them. Through a passive acceptance, so contrary to the tourist's frustrations with weather delays and schedule changes, Yeadon is able to articulate another reality. As he writes, ``the endless yammer of the mind ceases ... and you feel you're disappearing into a Turner landscape of pure light.''
But not all the time. Not every day. This is no unerring guru of the outlands. The very sensitivity that sparks his quick response to a place also makes him susceptible to ``melancholic emptiness,'' an occupational hazard of excursionists. When that time comes, he knows to ``give it a rest.'' Holed up in a hotel room or pup tent, Yeadon lets his mind meander until the spell is broken. In this brief fallow stretch, he reads contemporary travel writers like Bruce Chatwin, Jan Morris, Peter Matthiessen, and Paul Theroux. Eventually, the inner journey completes itself. ``The thrill returns, given time. It always does.''
In large part, the resurgence of literary travel writing finds its source in the acutely modern sense of shrinking leisure time. We have, in a way, called these writers into being and given them not only the tenure to travel, but also the season in which to think, read, and renew.
Literary travel writers are emissaries from the world of ceaseless bother to the province where things take as long as they take. It is a measure of our era, albeit unsettling, that what we increasingly yearn for is time in the guise of a wanderer.