A Rough Guide to travel writing

Mike Kielty 31 January 2008

Award-winning travel journalist Mike Kielty experiences the strange delights of Uruguayan buses.

Consider the following description of a holiday job: you are to be sent around the world to explore the famous towns, indulge in the local food, and embrace the traditional customs of nations notorious for puzzling the Western imagination. Your airline tickets will be paid, your meals and sleeping arrangements provided for, and to round things off, you will receive a decent pay cheque. It is quite easy to be self-congratulatory when writing for Rough Guides travel books (particularly after your previous holiday employment included work in the local Council's Tree Department) but as I look back over the review of Uruguay that I wrote recently, it seems fair to say that travel writing requires much more than just plucking a few choice lines out of the air.

Seasoned South American backpackers think of Uruguay as el pais pequeño, ‘the little country' jammed between the continental giants of Brazil and Argentina. For many, it is just a stopping-off point between the bright lights of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, nothing more. As I set foot on the plane bound for the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, I knew that it was my job to make those travellers pause for thought.

Two weeks later, the night-bus back to Montevideo pulled out of a quiet beachside bus stop some time after midnight. I wearily placed my rucksack on the luggage rack and, with all thoughts regarding travel-writing at the back of my mind, I crashed on to my seat and shut my eyes. This ‘little country' is larger than England and Wales combined, and while a day or two sipping beers with surfers in the pretty fishing villages of the eastern coast had provided some excellent relief, the trip had still been exhausting. I was ready to lie back, dream of England, and await my arrival in Montevideo the next day. It was only after a couple of minutes that I noticed the stench of stale beer and shag tobacco. Long journeys with chain-smoking companions were common enough in Uruguay, and I would have continued sleeping without concern had I not then been rudely awaken with the ominous call, "Hey ingles!"

The man standing before me was not young, perhaps in his mid-fifties, but his broad chest, lovingly combed moustache and fiery red cheeks reminded me so much of Bluto from Popeye that I was immediately on the defensive. His beret and riding boots indicated that he was one of the gauchos, the old cowboys who still farm the huge cattle ranches of Uruguay's interior with a notoriously rugged sense of independence. He held a whiskey bottle in one hand, a rolled cigarette in the other. "Esto es mi asiento" ("that's my seat"), he announced darkly. He then launched into a drunken speech that woke everyone else on the bus. My Spanish had improved remarkably over the preceding weeks but not to a ripe enough understanding of Uruguayan rural expletives to fully gather his line of argument. The anger in his tone, however, was clear enough; foreigners were obviously not flavour of the month.

I was just about to leave when a smart lady, bedecked in a business suit and carrying a laptop, raised her head from the seat in front. She took one look at me and Bluto and snapped something sharply at him, before turning to speak to me in perfect English. "This is a non-smoking bus!" Thoroughly chastised, the old gaucho dropped his bottle and walked glumly off the bus. I wondered silently at the wonderful variety of characters that any trip on this continent produces, lay back and immediately fell into a blissful sleep.

You can go crazy wandering the world as a travel writer, trying not just to analyse the things you see and people you meet, but also (crucially) your own, partial response to them. At the end of this most brief of tours, I left Uruguay with many memories of such unexpected, occasionally wonderful experiences with its passionate, kind and unmistakably South American people. Perhaps such memories are all that any of us, even writers, can expect to come home with. What better reason could we go on holiday for?

Mike Kielty