Novelist Geoff Dyer strayed far from his London home, backpacking through India, Thailand, New Orleans, Miami, San Francisco, Libya, Morocco and Italy, among other destinations. His travelogue, "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It" (Pantheon), was recently published to critical acclaim. Dyer reflected on his misadventures during a recent visit to Los Angeles.
QThe seasoned traveler often develops something of a protocol. What principles guide your voyages?
A It's always great to have a guidebook, even though that's considered square and boring by some people. On top of that, I talk to other people who have been to the places you are going to, since paradise a year ago is overdeveloped a year later. One of the really nice things about travel is that the more you do it, the more you realize that people are pretty decent the world over. . . . You can, by and large, trust people. Trust is nearly always rewarded.
Can you recall the last time your trust was betrayed?
I was in southern Morocco with my girlfriend about 15 years ago, and we fell for the "Blue Man" story, a well-worn tourist hustle.
We went out to see the legendary "blue men," mythic nomadic figures [of the desert] . . . Maybe half an hour later this elemental figure arrived -- the blue man. What he said was translated back to us: "Why have you come to this land, when you've got everything you need where you come from?"
He then said, "How did you get here?" We said in a plane. And he replied, "But that's incredible. How can people as big as you get into that tiny thing up in the sky called a plane?" We were thinking we were having this great anthropological first -- that he had never seen Westerners before.
Then he started showing us all of his trinkets. In the classic way of the hustle, it wasn't that he started to sell things to us. My girlfriend and I whispered to each other, "Do you think there's any chance we might be able to buy stuff from him?" Would he deign to sell us some of this indigo cloth? Could we have one of those bracelets?
The moment we got back to town with our worthless trinkets, the spell was broken. Of course, we had been had. But we got what we deserved.
What's the trick to making fast friends on the road?
There's a lovely line of D.H. Lawrence's: "When I was young I had very little patience. Now that I'm older I have absolutely none at all." The travel scene is the opposite of getting cornered by a bore at a cocktail party and not being able to get away. Actually, you can get away. You can always move on without giving offense.
Also, this is a cliche, but don't prejudge people. All the time when you travel you meet pretty extraordinary people who don't look like the people I'm normally drawn to -- the tattooed, pierced weirdos, who often turn out to be conventional people.
When I was traveling on the cheap in Asia, I found that many backpackers were avoiders of life, lazy gits with little to say.
Some backpackers, if they had stayed at home, would likely be working in a factory or a fast-food joint. For someone who has not had much education at all, whose prospects at home would be reduced to brain-numbing labor, it's an achievement to opt out and embark on a life of adventure that raises the possibility of enlightenment. . . .
Recently, I was in Tahiti and I was staying at a big hotel, a Sheraton. That experience turns the world into a huge golf course. Even the ocean looked like it was part of a golf course.
This kind of tourism is marked by a lack of independence. Everything is arranged for you. All your relationships are just with slaves, the servants of huge multinational hotel chains. There people are snooty and dismissive of backpackers, but all hail the backpacker in comparison, because they have an authentic experience and the money they [spend] goes directly to the family that owns the pension. In a version of the Bryan Adams song "18 Till I Die," I'll be a backpacker till I die.
You write, "All visitors to the developing world, if they are honest, will confess that they are actually quite keen on seeing a bit of squalor." Do you remember when that idea struck you?
I was in Bombay when I met a Swedish couple that had accidentally wandered into a slum and some beggar had pushed a dead baby into their faces as a way of getting money. I was absolutely appalled, but at the same time there was a frisson that, "Oh, they had a real, authentic ghetto experience." You hear so much about the people living on a garbage dump in the Philippines, so in a way these places find their way on the tourist's itinerary in the same way that the Taj Mahal does.
Why do you refuse to take photos when you travel?
When I get photographs back, there's a sense of heart-sinking disappointment. Nothing looks that good . . .
Instead of having memories, you just have photographs. And you tend not to see things other than the view through the viewfinder.
Why do you think that "Something about South Beach [Miami] urges you to visit spots where people have been gunned down or have thrown themselves off a balcony?"
I think that would be an example of just the kind of writing I like -- a crazy idea with absolutely no justification that contains a highly contingent truth.
I would have to give you the T.S. Eliot defense. When he was asked what was meant by the line "Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree," Eliot replied, "It meant, Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree."
-- David Wallis