Worst Journeys contains 55 stories, primarily in prose form, by some of literature’s best travel writers. They relate all sorts of hellish situations, from the banality of dislikable traveling companions, to exceptional, near death experiences. It was a pleasure to discover writers who have had similar experiences to me, and a relief that I have not had the misfortune of some of the more adventurous.
Jan Morris is the optimistic traveler that I should like to be. No matter how grim the experience, she finds no excuse for self-pity, and there is no mishap, however grave, that cannot be accommodated with a glass of Chardonnay.
I've so far been lucky enough not to be robbed while traveling, unlike Stephen Brook. He describes how his ignorance led him to check in to a whorehouse masquerading as a motel, and the consequent theft of all his belongings. It was easy to sympathize with his British sense of outrage in the face of American criminal activity and laid-back policing.
A collection of essays on the effects of war provided the most appalling travel experiences. P.J. O’Rourke visited Northern Ireland in 1988 and witnessed an “acceptable level of violence.” Gavin Young revisited Hué in Vietnam in 1968 and discovered how friends coped with US bombing, day and night over 14 days. Bruce Chatwin got caught up in a coup in Benin, was arrested, accused of being a mercenary and faced execution.
But it’s not all harrowing. Al Purdy’s poem recounting an episode in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago when he had to do in rocky terrain what bears do in the woods, left me yelping with laughter.