What exactly is a travelogue? Or, asked differently, what is it not? A travelogue is not an advertisement that tries to sell specific destinations to its readers. A travelogue is not a guidebook with a list of the top 10 best restaurants or massage places. Rather, a travelogue is a creative narrative of someone’s experiences while traveling.
Travelogues focus on and celebrate the differences in traditions and customs around the world; very often, they’re conversational in tone and filled with funny details (see, for instance, Bill Bryson’s Stories from a Small Island). Good travelogues contain vivid descriptions and sensory details; unexpected, maybe even transformative experiences; and accounts of interactions with local people. Travelogues can also combine fictional and factual elements, as one of the greatest travel writers, Bruce Chatwin (1940–1989), beautifully demonstrated (e.g. the stories dealing with his trip to Australia, The Songlines). Fictional or non-fictional, funny or not – above all, a travelogue must tell a story.
The following two travelogues, written by creative writing students in the fall semester 2022/23, each tell a story. One takes place in the Ecuadorean rainforest, the other in Venice.
Yes, I do!
By Gaia Braßeler
Cesar stares at me: “You know you’re supposed to just chew it and then spit out the rest, right?” No, I didn’t know that. It’s only my second time eating ants. Tuntiak laughs at me: “Didn’t your parents teach you anything? Your stomach will be in pain after this.”
It’s a sunny day in the rainforest. We’re sitting on a bench in Tunants. Music starts blaring, the generators are on. It’s the first day of a three-day party to celebrate the founding of the village. There will be food and games and performances by the students. Yesterday we caught a whole pot full of ants to contribute something to the big meal.
I remember the first time eating ants a few months ago. A little girl came up to me and put them on the table. “Quickly or they will fly away. And make sure to remove their pliers, so they don’t cut your tongue. They can even cut through rubber boots, you know?” I do now – they cut through mine last night.
It’s easy to collect flying ants. To attract them you put a flashlight into a pot; once they’re caught, you quickly remove the flashlight and close the lid, shake the pot, and voilà: You´ve got yourself a nice snack. Toasted and with salt, they taste a bit like chips. At first, I was struggling with eating the live ones, but I didn’t want them to fly around the room, and not eating them would have been incredibly impolite. As a matter of fact, I seem to have very bad manners over here. When I first arrived, I didn´t know that refusing any food or drink was an insult to the person offering, their family and the whole village. I insulted many people.
Tunants is a one of the bigger villages in the area. It has nine houses and a school. And sometimes electricity. This weekend, people from all over Taisha came to celebrate, sell food and jewellery, and take part in the soccer and the dance competitions.
Taisha is the biggest canton with the lowest population density in the province of Morona Santiago in Ecuador. According to Wikipedia, Morona Santiago’s main source of income is the tourism industry, but in the last eight months, I’ve only met one other tourist. A poor guy who fell asleep on the wrong bus and woke up to find himself looking out the window at the rainforest without a clue where he was. He didn’t speak any Spanish but managed to make the bus stop when he saw me and my friend walking along the side of the road. We told him to just wait for the next bus in the opposite direction. There’s only one road here, so the buses just go back and forth. When we came back four hours later, he was still sitting in the same spot. He didn’t know he had to wave for the bus to stop.
Most people who live in Taisha belong to the Shuar, one of many Indigenous peoples of Ecuador. By the time of the party, I had already learned some of the Shuar language and culture. Enough to get by, or so I thought. Not enough, it turned out. I created a huge scandal by both dancing with the same man three times and by misunderstanding and accidentally saying ‘yes’ to a marriage proposal by a man I had no intention of marrying. When my host family kicked me out for my behavior later, they didn’t make it clear which one was worse. I’m still wondering.
By Justus Runte
On the morning of our journey, I wake up with a sore throat. The next twelve hours spent on the overnight train don’t help improve my condition. Upon arriving in Venice, we are exhausted and cold. It’s late November, and walking through the crowded city with our heavy backpacks is the last thing we want to do. We finally sit down in the small Café del Vicolo in one of the narrow alleyways and wait for the owner of our rental to bring us the keys. We order cappuccino and learn our first sentence in Italian: “Avete il latte di soia?” Next, we have our first, certainly not our last Spritz and try not to appear too much like American tourists. I wash down a pill to suppress my intensifying symptoms while Luki reads a passage from the novel Journey by Moonlight aloud. Here, Hungarian author Antel Szerb writes about a failed honeymoon in Venice.
This trip is not for pleasure – we’re here on a university excursion. We are here for the arts, the culture, and our education. We take this endeavor very seriously. In between our numerous cappuccinos and Spritzs, we walk around the great exhibition spaces of the Biennale with our notebooks and pens, using big words like transcendental, sublime, and existential to show how invested we are. We are not pretentious, we just try to fit in.
On our last day, two well-dressed strangers approach us in a gift shop. They give me their business card. They work for a modeling agency in Milan. We take the train back to Germany with stomachs full of pasta, Spritzs, and cappuccinos. And heads full of art, dreaming of a life as a model in Italy.
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