I once dreamt of becoming a travel writer. Being paid to fly around the world, sampling local cuisines and checking out the sights—what could be more cool or desirable? But reality interfered; a business degree led to a banking career. I couldn’t have been further away from cool if I’d tried.
The dream, however, refuses to die, and so it was with a good measure of incredulousness that I read the opening chapters of The Naked Tourist. For Lawrence Osborne, professional travel writer, demands our sympathy. Why? Because the modern traveler “…has nowhere left to go. The entire world is a tourist installation and the awful taste of simulacrum is constantly in his mouth.” Deeming the term travel writer a “lugubrious” one, Osborne insists that a man who travels to write and who writes to travel is “pathetic.”
Have you ever tried flipping burgers for a living, Mr. Osborne? Or, indeed, working for a bank?
Luckily, the plangent siren of Osborne’s self-pity dies down early; by page 35, he’s embarked upon the journey that will presumably cure his jaded traveler’s palate—a trip to a crevice of the world as yet untracked by GPS and unvisited by Westerners. Osborne plans to visit to Papua New Guinea, which anthropologists agree is amongst the least studied and explored parts of the world and where primitive cultures dwell who are still astonished by the idea, let alone the sight, of a white man. The journey to this lost world, however, takes him first to the ultra-modern city of Dubai, and then Calcutta, Bangkok, and finally, Bali, before he can fly to Jayapura.
Osborne is an excellent travel writer. Alternating his world-weary tone with fiendishly accurate insights, he unerringly hones in on the detail that sums up a place. On Calcutta: “At home and estranged in equal measure, the traveler picks his way through garbage and rubble to find a little peace, stopping to drink a milky chai at the street corners where the mango trees grow with mad abandon, their leaves shooting up among sooty architraves and rotted pilasters.” Osborne is simultaneously merciless and empathetic towards his subject matter, and for someone who complained so much at the start, recounts his very real misfortunes with deadpan humor. There is, for instance, and occasion where an ant crawls out of a biscuit he’s eating and bites him on the eye. “Within an hour, I looked like Quasimodo” he writes.
The section on Papua, however, is the most compelling—and the most disturbing—part of the book. The ethics of the proposition—a “primitive” people as a tourist attraction—seems dubious at best, and there’s a strong whiff of colonialism about much of the writing (“I gave… my punctured Therm-a-Rest to Stephanus, who had hauled my pack through fifty miles of jungle and who would relish this rubber article as an objet d’art rather than a deficient sleeping aid.”) I also found Osborne’s insistence on the otherness of those he visits rather glib (he owns up to possessing a “frivolous impression” of the Kombai people). But oh! The scenes of Papuan life are fascinating, even when they seem to have been deliberately mined for humor. There’s the episode where Osborne crunches through a “nightmare breakfast” of roasted mouse hinds. The one when he looks at the ceiling of a hut to find that the black coating isn’t soot, but hundreds of cockroaches…
Osborne’s prose is often inspired. A “sinisterly opulent” river flows nearby; a “tangled submarine forest” is filled with “arpeggios of laughter.” I often found myself rereading sentences to better savor their vividness and intelligence. In sum, The Naked Tourist is a maddeningly uneven read. Blithe Eurocentricism battles it out with the author’s piercing sense of his aloneness. Infuriating generalizations are delivered in exquisite sentences. This is a Faberge curate’s egg of a book, a bejeweled wonder—in parts. Read it and weep for what it might have been.
(This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica.)