The Tao of Travel Writing

James Michael Dorsey

In the first century A.D. a Christian mystic named Augustine wrote, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read but the first page.”

I grew up on those words, reading the great works of exploration by the likes of Ernest Shakleton, Roy Chapman Andrews, and Sir Richard Burton, wondering how mortal men could accomplish such epic undertakings, and being years away from even dreaming of following in their footsteps. I knew from the start that I desperately needed more than just the first page.

Few people remember those names today and their accomplishments have been overshadowed by electronic sound bites that pass for news as each generation creates its own heroes.

“The Game” as the British liked to call it, the great era of world exploration, is over, as there are few corners of the earth that have not known the tread of a human boot or at least been recorded from an orbiting camera for future invasion, but there are still hidden places within that realm worth investigating.

A century ago, the great books written by explorers were the evening’s entertainment. Before the internet, television, and even the early days of radio, families would gather by the fire place to read aloud the epic wanderings of courageous men who went to remote and exotic locals, placing their lives in harm’s way in exchange for a life less mundane.

The audience for such books dwindled to a few for a while because most great stories of exploration have been told long ago, and the advance of technology has brought with it material comforts that make the pursuit of knowledge gleaned only far off the beaten path less and less appealing all the time. But as one who has followed in the footsteps of such men, I have found new stories, small stories within the great epics that are no less compelling, and are in fact often times more so, as they connect the reader, one on one, with cultural and personal insights that are lost in the larger picture.

Today, the term adventure travel represents a multibillion dollar industry mostly designed to take affluent city dwellers into remote places for brief periods of time in order to experience adrenalin rushes not readily available to those who live in steel and concrete towers, but few return with any real knowledge of culture or history of where they have been. Such journeys have become expensive trophies, squeezed into long weekends between 60 hour work weeks. While few people have the time or money to experience a major expedition, there is a great resurgence in wanting to know about those who do.

The great travel writer Paul Theroux has said, “Tourists don’t know where they have been, and travelers don’t know where they are going.” But I think it goes deeper than that. Tourists usually journey as a brief respite from lives of quiet desperation while travelers wander to learn. The more I learn, the more I realize what mankind is losing, and how quickly it is vanishing.

Having been gifted with not only the ability to bear witness to these changes but given the means to articulate them to the public has brought with it the inbred responsibility to relate what I have seen.

Another great writer, Anthropologist Wade Davis has said that on the average, one language passes from this earth each week. That is to say the final speaker of a definitive tongue has ceased to exist forever, and that is to quote an ancient African saying, “like a library burning.”

According to Mr. Davis, a language does not die alone but takes an entire culture with it, ending a unique way of life, and slipping from the collective memory of mankind into oblivion. When this happens, it is a global loss.

He has also said that there are currently some six thousand languages actively spoken on earth, but a mere century ago there were more than 35,000. Many of these current languages have fewer than a thousand speakers, and few of them are being passed on to future generations let alone being taught in schools. He asks the reader to imagine the isolation of being the last person of your tribe to speak a language. I ask the reader to imagine 35,000 different ways of living that most of us will never understand. When that final person dies, the world will never know he or she existed, let alone what that world was like.

While I have spent more than three decades wandering in the most remote places I could possibly reach, my intent has always been to sit with an individual and really learn about his or her life. I have always been aware that a roll of the dice at birth is all that has separated me from the poorest desert nomad or mountain tribesman, because of that I have always asked, “What if?”

Mursi with lip labret, EthiopiaIf I had been born in a mud hut in Ethiopia, the world would never know I existed. Since I have visited mud huts in Ethiopia, I feel compelled to let people know that is how many others live. Is there a finer classroom anywhere than sitting with a person of a different color, language, belief, or idea, and exchanging such information?

The evolution of a culture is not its death knoll, but failure to record that evolution is. How did a person from Africa become different from one in Asia? Without their stories, our planet would be one gigantic generic, vanilla flavored orb of look alikes with a single tongue having little of importance to say.

Like most naìˆve young travelers, when I first stepped out that doorway into the vast world I was full of hopes and dreams, convinced that at some remote time or place a great sadhu or shaman would impart the knowledge of the universe to me as a true seeker. While I learned no great secrets along the way, I do believe I got just a tad wiser with each trip, having no doubt that many of the people whose stories I collected are much further along the path to enlightenment than I am. People are the same the world over, but it is their stories that set them apart.

My stories are not grand tales, but rather personal anecdotes. The likes of which, in a perfect world, should be told among close friends under a crescent moon, far from any manmade sound. They are intimate stories that eventually will become lost in the fog of time as more and more of our waking hours are spent staring at one sort of electronic screen or another.

As we continue to rely on machines to make our lives better, the impersonality of such pursuits makes us further removed from our fellow man. George Orwell was right, but did not see far enough into the future where the possibility is strong that we will all live within our individual cubicles, communicating only through electronic screens using numeric codes—sending messages to Ouagadougou or Timbuktu, but having no idea where such places really are. We can now explore the world from the comfort of an easy chair in front of a computer or television, all of it second if not third hand knowledge. Unless we get up from that chair and step out the door, we will never know the tastes, smells, nuances, and imperfections that are the actual places.

Most people who live in cities are unaware that the majority of people alive on earth today live in houses made of mud, dung, or cardboard. They have never seen a television or spoken on a telephone and never will. They do not know what a computer or cell phone is, let alone electricity to power them, and they believe an airplane is either a bird or a spirit because nothing else could possibly move through the sky.

The world is full of people who can scent an animal half a mile away and identify its sex from the density of its track. They can tell the weather by the feel of the wind on their skin and the sound it makes when rustling through the leaves of a tree. Their connection to the earth is beyond the comprehension of those of us who dwell in cities because our natural senses have been replaced with manufactured ones.

After three and one half decades of wandering through the most remote places on our planet, I have come to think of myself as a conduit—relating the stories, myths, and legends of those who have no written means of preserving them, to those who have no idea such people or places even exist. To those, I have added a few words of my own; that I hope compliment those of my hosts.

I am a storyteller, a connector of cultures; that is why I travel. That is why I write.

James Michael Dorsey, pictured above, is an explorer, author, and photographer with extensive travels in 44 countries. Most of his journeys are far off the beaten path to record indigenous cultures that he uses as a vehicle to explore the relationship between man and the environment. He is a five time SOLAS category award winner for “Best Travel Writing” Published in Canada, England, Japan, China, Dubai, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. His photos were twice chosen as Kodak Internationals “Photo of the Day.” He has appeared on National Public Radio’s “Weekend America “is a Fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club. Website: