That elusive sense of place

[words and photograph by Mark Eveleigh]

Some wise soul – I forget who – once said that the single most important ability for a travel writer was to be able to impart a “sense of place”. (There was also something about powers of recollection but I forget what that was too).

In this modern age, it’s also frequently necessary for a professional travel writer to be able to disconnect from a place entirely. There are times when you have to teleport yourself at will to another far removed – and completely different – location.

This is the case now as I sit in a hotel in Rio de Janeiro and try to get my thoughts in line for a story that has been commissioned on a Middle Eastern desert expedition that I did last year. There can be few places on our planet that are more radically different than the bustling samba-throbbing streets of Rio’s Lapa neighbourhood and the broodingly desiccated wastelands of Oman’s Empty Quarter. Under such circumstances it can sometimes be a real struggle to establish a sense of place.

The ideal scenario is that we produce sellable items while on the road, market them when we return to the office and file them shortly after that (and get paid within a reasonable period too). In effect, though, the most exciting stories will continue to sell – assuming they are relatively timeless – for up to two or three years after the event. And as deadlines are invariably tight, we might find ourselves on a long round-the-world trip trying to beat a deadline for an Australian story when we have already moved on down the road through Indonesia and Thailand. Last week I enjoyed the rare privilege of actually filing a story from Rio while I’m still in the city and am able to draw in the inspiration around me. That doesn’t happen often.

I still think that freelance travel-writing is probably one of the best jobs in the world but the hours are insanely irregular, the pay is erratic and the working conditions are such as very few unions would ever stand for. I am, hands-down, the worst boss I have ever had. But we are in a production business and have to deliver no matter what, from whatever location we happen to be in at the moment. And, above all, we still have to strive to capture that elusive “sense of place”.

Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote to a regimen or if he waited until inspiration struck. The grand old man of literature responded that he waited for inspiration to strike… but that he always ensured that it began striking at 9 o’clock each morning.

1 Comment

  • Great blog, Mark! I just discovered your website and blog while doing some research on Thailand’s Sea Gypsies…I stumbled across an article you wrote about them. I look forward to reading more of your work in the future!

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