I have this little eccentricity about travel writing: I gag whenever someone casually uses “explore” in any form. For example, “I explored Sweden this summer.” Or Twitter bios that say stuff like “I’m an explorer who is determined to visit every country in the world.”
OK, I’ll admit that these are legitimate uses of the word, according to the dictionary. But to my ear, casual use of “explore” is self-aggrandizing travel writing ego inflation. I reserve “explore” for those who are the for-real first-timers, those who assume big risks and go places where no signs point the way. Neil Armstrong stepping off the LEM – that’s an explorer. Not a kid backpacking in France after graduating high school. The badasses who made it to the North and South Poles first? Explorers. Some dude eating “street food” in Chiang Mai? Not.
It’s like being a professional musician. People have paid me to haul my gear to venues, set it up and play. But I never tell anyone that I’m a professional musician. I don’t make my living that way, and just about every studio musician on the planet could hand me my ass on a platter, musically. I’m a decent local musician. I can do stuff on a guitar that most people on the planet will never be able to master – I know this from the small number of people I’ve tried to instruct, and the mind-boggling frustration of watching them flail at riffs I can nail at will. For all that, I’m a hack compared to working pro musicians. I know it, and I respect their abilities and knowledge too much to equate my meager abilities to theirs.
For the exact same reasons, I never call myself an explorer. I go to remote places, sure. I’ve been to many places where other people died through bad decisions or rotten luck. But signs generally point the way. Someone got there first and did the heavy lifting for us all.
Likewise, I never say that I “discovered” anything during my travels.
Feel free to explore possibilities in your travels. Write all you want about what you discover about yourself. But think twice before calling yourself an explorer, or saying you are discovering Southeast Asia or wherever your next trip takes you. Challenge yourself to find a better word, to accurately represent what you do.
You’ll be a better writer for it.
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