Exquisite Corpse - Issue 3
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Traveler's World
by Peter Weverka


It was a stroke of luck, like discovering gold in a dustbin, and Tuesday afternoon found me knocking at the door of the house where I had purchased, at a rummage sale three days earlier, all 41 issues of Traveler's World. A kindergarten teacher I know has me looking for magazines with interesting pictures for her students to cut out. I examined a few issues, noticed the photographs of faraway places, and purchased the lot. Without realizing it, I had acquired a rare literary treasure. I own a complete set of Traveler's World, volumes I through IX, published bimonthly from 1950 to 1958.

Traveler's World is perhaps the only honest travel magazine. That in itself is remarkable. But doubly remarkable is the magazine's camouflage aspect. Judging by appearances, Traveler's World is no different from other travel magazines. On the cover is an exotic cliché (pristine beach fringed with palms, red-tile roofs and winding streets seen from a balcony) and a headline ("Paradise for a Song," "Havana's Historical Haunts"). Turn the pages and you see giddy ads for resorts, cruise ships, and hotels. Honeymooners relax beside swimming pools (and you can't help but imagine what those horny honeymooners will do when they return to their hotel rooms). Peasants in colorful garb dance at festivals, the plaza strung with paper lanterns. A rusty cannon points at the ruddy sun, which is setting over the sea, which is supporting a fishing boat.

Only by reading the articles -- and reading them thoroughly -- do you discover that the travel magazine is a ruse. The exotic photographs, traveler's tips and advertisements camouflage a literary magazine, and a good one, too.

A middle-aged woman answered the door. Did she know anything about the box of magazines, Traveler's World, that I bought at her rummage sale?

"You want to talk to my aunt," she said. "Mary Harris. I think Mary is awake. Wait a moment and I'll see."

Mary Harris, Managing Editor; I recognized her name from the masthead. After I devoured all the Traveler's Words, I examined mastheads. Marry Harris was managing editor from 1950 to July, 1958, when the publisher of the magazine, Dale Rockingham, fired her.

"I deeply regret the excesses that have marred the pages of this magazine," wrote Rockingham in his View from the Helm column. "Those who were responsible have been made to walk the plank. We have a new navigator and new crew. Join us, won't you, as we explore the Latin American, Caribbean and South Pacific touristical zones?"

"She's hard of hearing," Marry Harris's niece told me as we walked down the long hallway of her Victorian house. "You'll have to speak loudly."

The parlor to which she led me overlooked a garden. And there, her hair a wispy gray, in a tall wing chair, amid the doilies, the cut glass, the porcelain figures and the polished furniture, sat Mary Harris. She wore enormous glasses and purple slacks. She sat regally, her legs crossed, her shoulders squared, her liver-spotted hands folded over a bony knee.

"You've been reading my magazine?" she asked. And when I assured her that I had, she said, "Then you're one of the few who actually read it. Traveler's World was a trade magazine. Most people don't read them you know. They turn the pages, they linger over the pictures and advertisements, but they don't read them. I was in the business fifty years. Most magazines are for selling ad space and that's about it."

I told her that I had never encountered such eccentric writing in a travel magazine. Between conventional descriptions of tourist accommodations and attractions (their prices duly noted), Traveler's World authors wrote about what concerned them, distressed them, inspired them, or exhilarated them. For example, take the work of Jason Dern. Between 1952 and 1956, Dern traveled across Latin America, from Mexico to Chile, and filed twenty articles along the way. Dutifully, he described tourist accommodations and sites wherever he went, but he always came around to his obsessions: the poignancy of solitude, the evanescence of desire, the ever-presence of the historical past.

My favorite Jason Dern article ("Uruguay the Enchanted Land," January 1956) describes a "navel-eye" that stared him down in a hotel room late at night in Montevideo:

I tried reading a book but couldn't. I was exhausted -- thoroughly exhausted due to the heat and all the trudging I had done during the day -- but couldn't sleep. Then I noticed it: what can only be called a navel-eye staring at me from the corner of my hotel room. Where mold had warped the plaster, where the weight of the centuries-old building had collapsed the corner of my room, the wall looked exactly like a navel. And it stared at me. I couldn't take my eyes from it. I felt that the navel-eye knew me through and through, knew my worst fears and highest aspirations. It mocked me and loved me at the same time. It seemed to peer at me from the other side of eternity, from the all-knowing place, and all of the sudden I felt puny and negligible, as if my life meant nothing.

I turned out the light, but in the darkness I could still feel the navel-eye looking at me. It pierced my solitude and bore into me with all its strength. I started to shrivel. I started to get smaller and smaller. I could feel my body fold into itself, as if I were becoming a fetus again. Finally I screamed. I couldn't bear another moment of terror in that room, so I packed my bags and took a bus ($3.50) to beautiful Colonia, a resort on the Rio de la Plata. The traveler will want to visit Colonia, a historical city that boasts of spacious villas and La Equitación, the famous horse-riding competition and festival. The festival is held in the last week of October. Be sure to make your reservations early, since the hotel rooms, which range at this time of year from $5 to $12, fill quickly.

"I don't suppose you remember Jason Dern's 'navel-eye' article?" I asked Mary Harris. "He saw a 'navel-eye' in the corner of his hotel room in Montevideo. I've seen the eye myself ten or fifteen times."

"We all have, dear, in one form or another. Poor Jason. He had a drug habit. He also liked alcohol and harlots. I think he suffered from being alone so much on the road. Once he sent an article from Cartagena, Columbia about the whorehouses. He even described the prices and services. I didn't print it, of course. The last I heard of Jason, he was in Chile. He wired and asked for money. He wanted to take a boat to Antarctica and write about it. Can you imagine? I sent him the money, but he dropped off the face of the earth. Nobody heard from him after that."

"I was naïve in those days," she continued. "I wanted to present a true travel experience to our readers. This was the 1950s, you understand. No one had published a travel magazine before. We didn't have an example to follow. For the first time in history, middle-class people had money to spend on traveling abroad. I wanted them to know exactly what they were getting into."

"Is that why Dale Rockingham fired you?" I asked. "Because the magazine was too honest?"

"Mr. Rockingham fired us because he didn't like his magazine. He didn't like what it had become. I only met him twice, once when he hired me and once when he stopped unexpectedly in San Francisco in 1955 or 1956. He lived on his yacht. He used to wire his View from the Helm column from ports in the Caribbean and South Pacific. One afternoon he called from Hawaii, screamed at us over the phone, and that was that. He dismissed the entire staff. He objected to an article that mentioned feces."

The article, written by Stanley Kane ("Paradise Blooms in Tahiti," March 1958), tells of a visit to Papeete:

French sophistication and native hospitality have truly joined forces in Tahiti to make for a vacationer's paradise. One can eat French fare in the luxurious restaurants near the beach ($2.50 to $5.50), or sample the simpler (and some argue, healthier) native cuisine around the square ($1 to $3). I chose a continental breakfast of fruit and crescent rolls at the Café Perroquet ($1.25), after which I made a beeline for the famous beach. The water was clear and warm; the sand, white and immaculate. The beach did not disappoint, except in one regard. When I returned from my dip in the water, I discovered, not five paces from the beach tent I had rented ($.50), a turd.

Upon close inspection, I determined by its composition and odor that it was left there by a human being, not by a dog or other animal. What was it doing there? It hadn't washed onto beach; it was too far from the surf for that. In any case, my high-school French being rusty, I couldn't tell the beach attendant to please bury the unsightly stool, so I scratched a hole in the sand and buried it myself. Oh well, I thought philosophically, they crap in paradise too.

"You have to admit," I told Mary Harris, "it's not the kind of thing that normally appears in a travel magazine."

"No, it's not. But it is the kind of thing you sometimes encounter when you are traveling. Traveling is usually presented in magazines and books as a fantasy. Everyone is smiling. Everything is a novelty or an adventure. Nowadays all travel magazines cater to the fantasy. But we didn't. We didn't know any better. We thought of ourselves as reporters. We wanted to present the experience of travel, not the fantasy."

"Do you remember an article by Cynthia Zyden in one of the early issues where she imagines the Japanese reconstructing the dead?"

"Pure poetry," Mary Harris replied. "Of course I remember it. Cynthia's still with us. She married a dentist and lives in San Mateo."

In the article ("Tokyo for Budget Rovers," November 1951), the author, weary after losing her way in the streets of Tokyo, describes a crowded boulevard:

The narrow labyrinth of alleys and streets finally discharged me on a busy boulevard, a bustling street that cut straight through the city. I was grateful. I didn't know in which direction I walked, because I couldn't see a landmark of any kind or even tell where the sun was in the smoggy, carcinogenic sky, but that didn't matter. At least I walked straight ahead. At least I was making progress now.

The boulevard was a frenzy of activity. I was nearly run over by a man balancing a stack of wooden planks on the handlebars of his bicycle. Everyone seemed to be hurrying in a different direction, and everyone seemed to be on an important mission that couldn't be delayed.

The Japanese were, I realized, reversing the destruction that the bombs had caused. Bombs had blown their city to smithereens, and now, bit by bit, the Japanese were reassembling their city to erase their memories of the war. They were trying to turn back the clock. I felt that, if they could, they would sift the pulverized soil for the bone fragments and flecked blood of their neighbors and family who had died during the war. So impressive was the frenzy with which they worked, I felt they would reconstruct the dead after they had finished reconstructing their streets, houses and shops.

Sitting in a tea stall ($.25 for glass of green tea), I imagined the Japanese carrying hair and bone fragments in enormous sacks. Slowly, methodically, they sorted the hair, the specks of dried blood, the bone fragments until they had determined what belonged to whom. Then, under the supervision of their talented engineers, they reconstructed their dead and brought them back to life.

Such were the wishes, anyway, of the industrious people who swarmed the boulevard.

"From the psychological point of view, traveling is far more complex than people realize," Mary Harris said. "We tried to explore that in Traveler's World. You land in a different place, sometimes an unsettling place. Everything stimulates your curiosity. You're wide awake, certainly more awake than you are at home, although from time to time a terrible fatigue overcomes you. Sometimes you encounter dreadful poverty and you feel a kind of guilt. Sometimes you feel vulnerable or get homesick. What is homesickness? Nobody has described it adequately, but it's part of traveling too."

"A shame that the travel magazines don't take up these subjects," I said.

"A shame? Impossibility is more like it! How would they sell the ad space?"

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