Travelers' tales have cast narcotic spells ever since Herodotus enthralled ancient Greece with his descriptions of Phoenicia or the first sailor spun the first yarn about a massive squid -- dispensing that vicarious buzz of actually having been somewhere. If the main reason we read at all is to escape ourselves and our sock-strewn carpets and the same old swatch of sky over the same old Wal-Mart, then true accounts of real escapes transform our transit into a near-total immersion. Reading about good writers' trips is the next best thing to being there, or sometimes actually better, because you can emerge from those pages clean and dry and not riddled with intestinal parasites.
In this X-treme age, in which your bingo-playing grandparents just got back from Ulan Bator and your mail carrier kicked butt on the latest Survivor, it's not enough for travel writers just to travel anymore. Now they have to go somewhere outrageous or lethal, or if they go somewhere ordinary they must arrive with an insane agenda. In these self-indulgent times -- some would say narcissistic -- travel narratives are as much about the teller as the tale. When ex-Seventeen reporter Forman recounts circling the globe with her ex-punk librarian husband, Nick, in You Can't Get There From Here, she radiates all the look-at-me clamor of a self-described "weird girl" and "self-righteous brat." In these Dr. Phil days, travel writers are constrained to spill, disgorging shameful confessions alongside descriptions of hammocks and yak milk. In this explicit era, travel writers have to tell us when they get some.
Or not. Forman comes right out and broadcasts the news that -- between nightclubbing with members of a not-exactly-queer third gender in Tonga and talking gangsta rap with Tanzanian rappers -- by the time she and Nick reached central Asia, "we'd stopped having sex." Ohhh-kay. They reconnected in South Africa, though, and "it felt like a second honeymoon." Later still in this quirky, chatty narrative, they hit Amsterdam, where a savvy prostitute warned Forman that marriage "is like a poison."
Overlaying one's own sojourn over a historic or celebrated one is a classic starter. Sometime painter James Morgan (who honed his chops as a teen, painting Elvis Presley over and over and over) left Little Rock to follow in his idol's footsteps through France, Corsica and Morocco; the warm if often wistful result is Chasing Matisse. British newspaperman Andrew Eames retraced Agatha Christie's journeys via the Orient Express. In The 8:55 to Baghdad, his sections on Christie -- though it is fun to picture her screaming hysterically when awakened by rampant cockroaches at 2 a.m. in Iraq -- take a dusty, faded back seat to Eames' own droll, keenly observed real-time saga, in which a canned drink called Pipi Bubble offers succor in Bulgaria; the odor of Venice's canals "was so strong you could have taken it away and colored it in"; and Trieste's port is a huge abandoned wasteland ("You could parachute a Disneyland in here, and still have room for a university)." Eames dubs Turkish high schoolers clad in plaid uniforms "teenage clan McTurks." The real mystery afoot is whether your laughter will withstand Eames' relentless mockery of Americans -- for example, the two Arizona backpackers who visit Sarajevo "because friends had told them it was a cool place . . . to buy cool T-shirts with real bullet holes."
Eames traveled to Baghdad so that you wouldn't have to -- not anytime soon, at least. Performing a similar service, the New York Times' Howard W. French visited Kikwit, Zaire, during the Ebola outbreak, and Monrovia, Liberia, as "looting binges and torrential, blinding rains" ravage a city where rival armies fire RPGs. Warned by his Monrovian host that "we were free to wander outside the embassy compound, but . . . if we did so, we would be entirely on our own and should not count on being rescued," French wandered anyway, encountering the corpses of those "who had been caught in the crossfire, or executed during stickups." French's fiercely sad A Continent for the Taking is armchair travel for those who need reminding of how lucky they are to have armchairs.