Explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton was quite possibly the greatest vagabond in history. In his lifetime he lived diverse cultures, broke boundaries, and did most of it without much in the way of resources or travel money.
As I listen to the call to prayer outside my window, I can’t help reflecting on the amazing life of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Quite possibly the greatest explorer and adventurer the world has ever known.
Burton was born on the 19th of March, 1821 in England and died at the age of 69 in Austria-Hungary on October 20, 1890. During his life Burton was a writer, explorer, anthropologist, ethnographer, soldier, spy, linguist, and poet.
He is said to have spoken twenty nine languages and was the first European man to go to many places in Asia, Africa,and even to the United States where he infiltrated and exposed the bizarre beliefs and customs of the Mormons in Salt Lake City.
Why does the call to prayer remind me of him? For one because he was the first European to make the hajj and disguised as an Arab he entered Mecca. For two because Burton was in fact, a Muslim. Third, Burton was the translator of The Thousand and One Nights which is probably the best known collection of stories concerned with Arab and Muslim cultures ever written.
In addition to these achievements he also translated the Kama Sutra and was the first European to see the source of the Nile River. His writings included studies of human behavior, ethnographies, travel writing, books about sexual practices, and more. He was a cofounder of the Anthropological Society of London before most people had any idea what anthropology was (although most still don’t).
To a certain extent, Burton was hated and persecuted for his honesty, his refusal to bend before the man, and the suspicion that rather than having masqueraded as a Muslim, he might have actually been one.
Burton always claimed to be a Muslim, but after his death, in an attempt to save her reputation, his wife Isabel published a biography that most believe to be false in which she claimed he was always a strong believer in Christ- like her. She also burned all of his unpublished writings so that her account was the only one which people could turn to. This went specifically against Burton’s wishes, but he probably didn’t care much since he was already dead.
To understand just how many books Burton wrote, how much ground he covered, and how incredible the man was you need only read his fascinating biography.
Travel writing is a dangerous business. No doubt about it. Most of all, it’s dangerous for your bank account! Of course, that’s just writing in general. The travel part…
We travel because we suffer from too much curiosity Here are a couple of links you might enjoy about the dangers of travel writing.
First of all, a great article from the New York Times about one of the first budget travel writers in the business- John Wilcock.
Here is an excerpt:
JW: Today everything’s available.
NYT: So what does that make the role of travel writers today?
JW:Everyone’s turned into a travel writer. It started when people who were bankers and people like that went on vacation and realized that if they wrote something about the trip they could maybe take it off their taxes. But today, basically everybody writes about their travel. I don’t suppose you can say there’s nothing left to discover, but it certainly is hard.
NYT:Should we be happy or sad about this?
JW:It’s just an inevitable development. The way the world has gotten smaller all the time, it’s easier to get around. it’s easier to fly everywhere. That Ryanair guy started doing $1 flights to obscure towns that nobody had ever heard of before all of the sudden they became tourist centers.
NYT:You wrote in the 1970s that most most travel writing is just “public relations bull.” Is that true today?
JW: Things have changed a lot since then. One of the things I’d like to claim is that the underground press changed the nature of almost all newspaper and magazine writing. Travel writing today is much more interesting than it was in those days. When I was working at The Times everything was incredibly impersonal. Basically, you weren’t allowed to have an opinion at all. And nowadays it’s almost the reverse, almost everything is written from the personal point of view. So things have changed tremendously.
NYT:What was this Travel Directory you founded?
JW: When I first went to Mexico, I wrote in my column that I’d like to call and see people along the way. From that evolved a directory back in the early ’60s, which eventually had people all over the world in it who were willing to offer varying degrees of hospitality to travelers.
NYT: It sounds like the original CouchSurfing.
JW: It wasn’t called that back in those days, but that’s what it was, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could still Google the Travel Directory. I bet it ended up somewhere. [Note: It did.]
NYT: I assume that at 83, you travel a bit more luxuriously than you used to.
JW: No, I still travel as cheaply as I can. I don’t look 83, I look about 60-something, and I’m actually pretty active still. I’m not really handicapped: my eyes are going a bit and my hearing’s going a bit, but otherwise I’m in pretty good shape and I live pretty much the way I always have. When I’m staying with somebody and they say “I’m sorry, we only have a couch,” I say “Listen, I’ve slept on billiard tables and in bathtubs.” I’d like to think I’m as adaptable as I always was.
So, it’s never been easy, but in terms of competition, there has never been more. Even in the ‘vagabond’ niche which I started writing in in 2001 when there were about three people using the term. Check out this great new vagabond blog.Vagabond Paris
Artemis’ quest has been to “find some new way to define personal happiness.” Answers to life’s big questions, he discovered, require mobility. “When most people are born they are taught they need to own certain things. We’re all embedded in a matrix designed to keep people at work.” People, who admire his decision, always wistfully say, “I can’t be that courageous. I can’t be that brave.” He adds, “But I’m not much any of those things… I’m just a little crazy. It’s a different mental place.”
A space that’s proved instructive. “A day has not gone by that I have not learnt something new, or met someone interesting. I spend a good portion of my time finding out what makes people happy. For some people it’s their kids, for some it’s perfecting juggling, or finding a great jazz concert, or finishing a piece of art.
Why Paris is special
Paris, a hotbed of artists, many living in squats and communes, has proved an ideal base. “It’s friendly to people who don’t have a steady job. Who opt for a free and liberal lifestyle.” The Parisians have also proved to be endearingly open-minded. “Sometimes I’ll be at a bar and start talking to some guy. As we’re leaving, he’ll say, ‘So where are you headed’ and I’ll say, ‘Turn down the street. See that lamp? I’m there.” And he’ll say, “Oh that’s cool. Why don’t you crash on my couch instead.”
And finally, here is a small feature from the blog A Dangerous Business where they showcase a traveler or writer each week and discuss the dangerous business of travel writing. Can you guess who this is?
1. How do you define the word “traveler,” and why would you consider yourself one?
It’s a funny thing, this idea of travelers and tourists. To me, a tourist is someone who has a set agenda. They know where they will go, what they will do, and when they will return. A traveler, on the other hand, operates on an altogether more free form consciousness. Plans can change, and when you travel, if you aren’t flexible, you often miss out on the best things. Yes, I’m definitely a traveler, but sometimes I don’t even like to be labeled by this definition. I almost never have the budget to travel so one way tickets usually get me to my destination. Over the past decade, I’ve learned that as long as I can carry all my possessions, it’s cheaper to actually move to a place. Not to mention the experience of living and working in a foreign culture gives you an even broader perspective than just traveling there. As such, I’m often a traveler, but more often I am what I like to call a ‘moovist’. I move to new countries more often than I travel to them.
Are you a travel writer? What do you think? Is it a dangerous business? Is there a way to earn a living at it?
In early October of last year, I and seven other members of a conservation corps (usaconservation.org, not a bad gig for the youthful vagabond, free housing off project, free food on, free time to explore the American southwest on and off), head eastward, Texas-bound, after a tough 8 days working on trails at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southeast New Mexico. We head to Guadalupe and Big Bend National Parks and Terlingua.
Our first stop is Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the largest wilderness area in Texas, just over the New Mexico-Texas border. In the midst of the Texas desert, a cool calm stream runs through McKittrick Canyon under the rocky cliffs. When compared to the rest of Texas, there is no comparison. Texas is known for its flatness, its uninteresting monotony, so mountains are a welcome change. The Canyon has life “that is part desert, part canyon woodland, and part highland forest.” We arrive at noon, set up tents, and start hiking.
Early in the hike, we see a rattlesnake. I almost step on it, it blends in so well with the shadows and rocks. We wait for a few moments for it to slink away. And it does, retreating with a sort of sullen hurt pride, snakily twisting its way across the rocky desert floor, aware of its lowliness. Don’t tread on me, the snake seems to hiss. Definitely a Texan snake. We circle carefully around.
As we climb up higher, the typical desert prickly pear cacti and walking-stick chollas and yuccas and mesquites disappear and maples, red and orange under the warm October sun, appear. It grows colder and more colorful, more like the weather and foliage of New England than the Texas desert. We make it back to the campsite at dusk, the sun shining on the very tops of the mountains then slowly sinking down the juniper-scattered hillside.
In the morning, I wake up early while everyone else is still in their tents. We are heading to Big Bend National Park, but not for a few hours. I have time to pack up everything, put it in the van, and start climbing up one of the trails, not stopping until I reach Guadalupe Point, at 8749 feet the highest point in Texas, a 3000 foot climb from the campsite. I stay at the top for a few minutes: the wind is powerful, views spectacular. I am the highest man in Texas, actually the highest man in the US anywhere east of New Mexico. As I descend, another man is coming up, ready to take my place on Texas’ throne.
I run down, in the type of mood where one feels compelled to yodel, singing ZZ Top, those good old boogie rocking bearded Texas boys. Though by no means a sharp dressed man or a man of means, I do have some cheap sunglasses and was for eight minutes the highest man in Texas. And that counts for something.
We drive on to Big Bend in our big white van. Driving is not my favorite way to travel, but there is sort of rambling joy that comes with driving on some desolate desert road to nowhere. We are on the desolate desert road to Big Bend, and we listen to Marshall Tucker Band:
“Gonna take a freight train
Down at the station
I don’t care where it goes”
On the way, we stop at an American Legion for a piss stop. It doubles as a bar and one of the regulars there, who tells us to call him Hollywood, is a character who looks like he may have spent the last ten years continually drunk. He doesn’t stop talking for the hour we are there. Some of my favorite of his lines:
—Everyday above ground is a good one.
—I don’t need any girls. I got my dog.
— You know how Jesus died and then rose after three days. There was this gun fight yesterday. It’s documented. I didn’t even need three days.
Did he have a job? Did he have a wife? Don’t think so. He was just a pure Texas renegade in the wilds close to the border, sure of only one thing, that there was nothing sure in this world ‘cept laughter and beer, a rebel against who knows what.
We spend this night in Terlingua, a ghost town next to Big Bend filled with misfits and travelers and outlaws. When I think Texas, I think of Terlingua. To the wanderer searching for those few places in America outside the law, where unemployment and poverty and a vagabond mentality make one rich and wealth makes one strange, where indolence is seen as a virtue and ambition is looked upon as a bizarre and contagious plague that is ravaging society, Terlingua is definitely worth spending some time in, if only to listen to the stories, because everyone there has got one. The job of the people who live there is to have no job, to live their lives as they please free of all governmental influence.
Personally, I couldn’t spend all that much time there. I respect people who resist normality and live outside the law, but for a bohemian outlaw town full of dissenters from the mainstream world, they seemed a little too content with their place in life, too settled. They weren’t traveling, exploring, vagabonding. Their world was their town. Which works for some people, and I wouldn’t mind spending a few weeks there, but before long I’d get restless, like all vagabonds do. And the cure to restlessness is movement. So we go on down the road.
The next day we go on down the road to Big Bend. We stay there two days. It feels that we are not only out of Texas, but in another world altogether. To describe Big Bend is to fail. It soars above and beyond words, resisting definition and definitive analysis. The first day we lie contentedly in an oasis of warm water next to the river, the muddy Rio Grande, which rumbles through the craggy cliffs.
On our side, America. On the other, Mexico. For a second, I get the insane urge to swim across the border, illegally and ecstatically leaving my friends and co-workers behind, wearing nothing but my shorts, with no plan but to keep moving. I do not swim to the other side, since I would have to pay a hefty fine if caught. Plus, I have no ID on me, a necessity now in this world of identification and regulation. The Rio doesn’t give a damn if it’s flowing through Mexico or the US; it just flows, that’s all. Some people care though and say on this side is one country, on the other side is another, separate and far from equal. The river flows, that’s all.
And, after a long day of hikes and exploration, so do we, leaving Big Bend and flowing on to the next adventure.