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The World’s Best Travel Writing ed. by Tim Cahill

May 29, 2011

I love the Best American series in general, but the annual travel anthology might be my favorite. It’s like a series of teleports to the most random corners of the globe. Sometimes inspiring, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, these collections always give me a handful of new places to add to my mental atlas and a few new writers to check out. I bought the 2006 edition because I like Tim Cahill and I’d once picked it up in a bookstore and read a bit of the David Sedaris piece. It starts: “On the flight to Raleigh, I sneezed, and the cough drop I’d been sucking on shot from my mouth, ricocheted off my folded tray table, and landed, as I remember it, in the lap of the woman beside me, who was asleep and had her arms folded across her chest.” It just gets better from there.

Some of my favorite pieces include:

“The Selling of the Last Savage” by Michael Behar, about a tourist outfit that promises first contact with natives in West Papau, Indonesia, but may be, the author suspects, an elaborate scam.

“How to Sail Across the Atlantic” by Paul Bennett, about the trials, tribulations and titillation of living life on a thirty-eight-foot sailboat.

“Ain’t It Just Grand” by Kevin Fedarko, about the last run of eighty-seven-year-old retired river guide Martin Littman, a pioneer of running dories (small, hard-bodied boats) down the rapids of the Grand Canyon.

“Out of Ohio” by Ian Frazier, a melancholy, beautifully-written personal account of a trip back to the small town where he grew up and all the memories conjured by it.

“XXXXL” by Michael Paterniti, the touching story of a trip to visit Leonid Stadnik, a giant who stands 8’4” and has size 26 feet, in rural Ukraine.

“Airborne” by Sally Shivnan. This was maybe my favorite. A mix of poetry, trivia and tangential musings, it examines the commonplace and often-taken-for-granted experience of viewing the United States through the window of a passenger jet on multiple trips across the country.

I never skip through an essay, even the few that I find less interesting. Because you never know when you’re going to come across a mind-blowing anecdote or fact, such as this one from George Saunders’ piece on Dubai:

“How you get a date if you are a teenage girl in Saudi Arabia: Go to the mall, wearing your required abaya. When a group of young guys walks by, if you see one you like, quickly find a secluded corner of the mall, take out your cell phone, lift your veil, snap a picture of your face. Write your cell number on a piece of paper. When the boys walk by, drop the scrap at the feet of the one you like. When he calls, send him your photo. If he likes the photo, he will call again. Arrange a secret meeting.”

Wow? Are you kidding? I find that kind of stuff so fascinating. From the tiny cultural differences to the descriptions of the planet’s most grand landscapes, the World’s Best Travel series never fails to imbue me with a sense of awe for the world in which we live. No exception with this edition.

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