By Krishna Rau
For most people, travel is about vacation. It’s about getting away from it all, away from work, away from people – even getting away from yourself. But for the creator of the zine Holiday In Other People’s Misery, travel is about going further into yourself, putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, and generally exploring despondency – yours and the fellow traveler-sufferers around you.
“It was basically a way to help me reflect on a sort of catharsis I was going through,” says San Francisco based
Misery mastermind Tapil. “And what better place to go through catharsis than in the steely womb of a shitty, sweaty, fluid and funk-filled Greyhound? And what better way to reflect on it than through an open letter in the form of a zine?”
Tapil isn’t the only citizen in the borderless world of independent culture who approaches travel as a mixture of self-help and the muse. For many denizens of the world of DIY, travel is as at least as much about the journey as it is the destination. It’s about striking out for somewhere else because where you are — mentally or physically — has become dull, routine, or downright miserable. The journey, despite the miles grinding by under the wheels of the bus, is often an inward one. And, in fact, after spending a week trapped in a Greyhound or staring at a van broken down in the middle of nowhere, many indie travelers end up realizing that they can escape just as well by staying at home.
“My zine really isn’t a travel zine at all,” says Jeff Potter, the publisher of the Michigan-based Out Your Backdoor. “It’s a ‘bloom where you’re planted’ zine. I encourage people to find the secret, preserved places of culture and creativity that are close by. You might have to travel a bit, but usually not too far. If you go anywhere that others are going, the jerks there are ready for you, geared up to fleece you, to jam you in with other jerks. You don’t want that. Turn your own world instead into a place worth traveling to. Find an old mom ‘n’ pop shop down the street and explore that instead.”
Perhaps the ultimate embodiment of this approach to travel is found in the infamous Infiltration zine, put out by Ninjalicious, an unassuming resident of suburban Toronto. For years, Infiltration, the zine “of going places you aren’t supposed to go”, has advocated illicit exploration as a form of travel, arguing that you can have fun infiltrating hotels, hospitals, and abandoned subways all without leaving your own city. Explains Ninjalicious: “I see big things for the hobby of urban exploration as the world fills up with more urban space, more abandoned buildings, more tunnels, all eagerly waiting to be discovered and explored.”
Infiltration the paper zine has spun off into a website – – where you can not only find the bulk of Ninja’s detailed explorations, but you can also explore the global infiltration movement, seventy or so sites each hosting their own infiltrations. Most of these – from abandoned railway yards in Detroit to empty buildings in Moscow – are done by local residents, once again testifying to the motif that you don’t have to actually go anywhere, to go somewhere.
“It’s that real, authentic, angsty experience of transformation in what almost seems like a letter from someone you’ve met,” says Tapil. “I think these experiences often take place through people’s travels, and that the traveling itself is usually sort of a metaphor for transformation. That’s how zine travel writing differs from most conventional travel writing: it’s concerned with the journey and the experience of actually traveling — moving — rather than the mundane destination.”
This approach to travel and vacation ends up exploring extremely personal and awkward moments, incidents that are as much about individuals’ struggling to be themselves in a conformist society, as they are about the pleasures of vacation. Joanna Pawelkiewicz, the author of the Toronto-based Giant: A Zine About Size and Ethnicity, recently put out a road-trip issue in which she chronicles some of the difficulties she experienced as a large woman traveler.
“Considering that this is the travel issue and I am fat, I feel compelled to write about what it’s like being a fat woman traveler. I might state the obvious (although not unimportant) constraints: sexual harassment, fear of an unknown city after dark, cramped bus/plane/train/boat seats and the difficulty of hoisting my big ol’ behind onto the upper bunk of standard-issue hostel accommodations. (Note to all fat travelers: When in New York, avoid the Sugar Hill Hostel. Their hand-made bunk beds offer little reassurance when trying to negotiate a 200 lb + booty onto the upper bunk.)”
Whether you can personally sympathize with Joanna’s travails or not, reading Giantmeans learning a little bit about someone else’s perspective on the world.
Tapil’s Holiday in Other People’s Misery expertly evokes a god-awful journey — hours trapped in a mobile Greyhound bus. But we also learn about why he decided to undertake such a trial.
“The horror of being locked in a moving vehicle for more than a day, with forty-two other screaming, crying, farting, snoring, shifty, angry individuals — all of them ready to get to where they’re going. But I’m too scared to hitch-hike or train-hop. Too broke to drive or fly. And I want to be alone for a while. I need a vacation. A sort of cheap, miserable holiday. That’s maybe the only great thing about bus travel; at some point, your batteries run out, your ears start to hurt, your eyes get irritated from the yellow overhead light, and you’re forced to think for a little while. Or at least to stare out the window until. Until what? Until you can’t bear the thought of another thought or stand the sight of nothing anymore. I guess it’s more or less like Zen… And it’s only sixty bucks.”
It’s that sense of the search for the soul of the road that connects alternative travel and alternative travel writing to underground culture history, points out Christopher Frey, the publisher of Outpost magazine.
“There’s been a counter-cultural side to travel since the ’50s and ’60s,” says Frey. “The hippies and the beats were all going to India and Japan. You look at someone like Alan Ginsberg; he went so many places before it was even politically acceptable. Even Kerouac’s On the Road is essentially travel. It’s about people and America, but it’s also travel.”
One might even argue that counter-culture travel has always been less about the journey and more about the spirit, the possibility, of transformation. From On the Road to Infiltration, we seek to reinvent the world around us in the hopes that we can reinvent our selves. It’s that subjective approach to travel which makes it a perfect topic for zines and other forums of alternative culture. And of course, travel can also epitomize the rebellious spirit: Few things are more DIY than abandoning everything, getting in the car or the bus or hitching a ride or simply walking, just to be going somewhere different.
These days, mainstream travel magazines and travel agencies also promise difference. When Kerouac was on the road, the mainstream had not yet embraced the notion of travel as a spiritual exploration, travel as an adventure in and of itself. You went to the beach. You went to Paris. Now it is an accepted sales strategy to depict travel first and foremost as excitement and adventure – the closer you get to a near death soul shifting experience, the more it’s gonna cost ya! (All too often, though, the promised adventure turns out to be the same old thing: people paying big money to go with people just like themselves to somewhere just like their home but with better weather and a couple of famous buildings.)
Perhaps that’s why we are now seeing indie culture depictions of travel manifest themselves with such a distinctly interior vision. Even road-trip zines like Let’s Travel the Trans-Canada Highway or I’m Johnny And I Don’t Give a Fuck maintain a solipsistic inward focus; the trip is ultimately not a search for strange new lands, but for the self. For the reader, these kinds of travel zines can be somewhat claustrophobic. Reading about being trapped in a bus or a van for mile after mile is not necessarily an inducement to follow the allure of the road. But reading travel zines is even less about the journey than the zines (and zinesters) themselves. You don’t read them to plan your next vacation or even how to get there from here. You read them to learn about people – the people who do the traveling, and the people the travelers meet. Difference has always been the quality most prized in the alternative world. Music that’s different, film that’s different, different literature, different art. And travel, theoretically, is all about difference. The indie culture perspective on travel as spiritual journey is now grasping for a way to preserve the difference of that approach by seeking a vision for travel that acknowledges its romantic (thus potentially dangerous) potential, even as glossy magazines fromNational Geographic to Outside muscle in on the increasingly generic “travel as transcendental danger” concept.
“The mainstream mags only print lies about these subjects,” says Backdoor‘s Potter. “They miss the point. They’re trying to sell stuff. Whereas travel and adventure are about doing. And of course for most people they’re about doing on the cheap, making do with what you have. So these are two ripe topics for telling the truth and zines are the only place you can do that.”
The content of Montreal based Let’s Travel the Trans-Canada Highway is hardly earth-shaking. But the pleasure in reading about buying hot dogs in Toronto or about the 10 worst places to live in the Maritimes if you are an electronic musician (“Electricity? What’s that?”) is not the uniqueness of the material, but the simple honesty with which the material is conveyed. It’s about the essence of travel, a merging of new experiences, new people, new cultures, even as we see the same old thing again and again. Here’s a bit from Trans-Canada on wandering through Los Angeles via public transportation:
“We proceeded through Beverly Hills, where we were immediately involved in a slow speed accident, a Dodge Neon having made a left-hand turn, poorly I might add, into our path. I didn’t really feel much of an impact as we tapped the Neon, but the woman sitting in the third seat apparently did, as she flung out of her seat like a champion, hitting the ground and calmly saying ‘My back, my back.’ Cha-Ching!!! Perhaps next issue LTTCH will fake a spinal injury for profit, but not today.”
Well known Vancouver based zine I’m Johnny And I Don’t Give a Fuck follows a punk band on its travels around North America, and their meetings with odd, charming or annoying people all over the continent, including an old punk/hippie in Eugene, Oregon:
“Sunshine came stumbling out of the back room, obviously having just woken up and visibly annoyed at the transpiring chain of events. He looked around the room, right past the laid back dad asking for an ambulance with as much urgency as one usually reserves for ordering pizza… He looked over the head of the Deadhead casualty asking him to solve her quandaries… didn’t seem to notice the crying, shrieking baby and catatonic mother and came over to say hi, ‘Hey alright! Good to see you made it… you guys got a smoke?'”
Zines like I’m Johnny not only give you an entirely different sense of travel – travel with no money, travel to places you don’t necessarily want or plan to visit – they also give you a sense of an indie travel community. Here, dropping in unexpectedly on people you barely know and finding a bed, food and some help fixing your VW, is all part of a commitment to a way of life that manifests itself not just via websites and zines traveling through the postal system, but also through real-life connections.
Toronto based Outpost is a glossy magazine that runs articles about exotic locales, often documenting grueling wanders through little-traveled parts of the world. But it has a wacky ziney feel, maintaining a rough-and-ready aesthetic, focusing on cultures and societies, and, ultimately, on people. Perhaps this is because the editors, like many zinesters, see travel not as spiritual journey nor indulgent vacation but ultimately as a way of connecting communities and individuals. In fact, as Frey explains, the idea of Outpost came out of this kind of conception:
“When [Outpost editor] Kisha Ferguson and I were living in Japan, most of our friends had already left Toronto and were living all over the world — Beijing, Osaka, Moscow, Texas. We’d get mail from all over. It gave us the idea for what could simply have been a zine — just collecting stories from people around the world about the culture and the people.
“When we came back to Canada, we still had this germ of an idea, and foolishly we decided. ‘What the hell, let’s go for it.'”
Tapil agrees that, especially within the smaller world of zines, community is an integral part of travel, and perhaps the main motivation for travel writing.
“If part of the idea is to create a sort of loosely-knit nomad community, then stories of people’s wanderings are perfectly suited to zines.”
The focus on people and community will always distinguish zine and alternative travel writing from corporate travel writing about the Taj Mahal or London Bridge or the latest trendy restaurant.
“Travel should be so much more personal,” says Frey. “It’s about what you choose, where you choose to go, what friends you choose to go with. Big travel magazines suck because they don’t seem to be about people and ideas. They don’t really have a lot of soul. You get the impression you’re being sold a lifestyle. You see the whole idea of adventure and extreme being commodified.”
But, to a degree, Frey warns, even zinesters and alternative travelers can fall into that trap of well-trodden and popular paths. He notes that, since Kerouac, the hippie nomad sub-culture has itself become a cliché.
“The very fact that you get the backpackers’ associations and the hostels is a sign that it’s become commercialized. You can wax eloquent about the road and getting lost and there’s some great literature about it. But that only goes so far.”
Frey cites going places that still receive relatively few visitors as a possible solution to clichéd travel writing. But the other solution is one that zines like Out Your Backdoor and I’m Johnny are exploring: Going places few travel to, even though they are right next door. It’s that aspect of indie travel writing — what you might call the community oriented approach – that allows small travel zines to, in their own modest way, link with the epic journeys to unknown lands.
“I say that the everyday things we do that connect us to life are Modern Folkways,” writes Potter in Out Your Backdoor. “They work for us like any folk ritual. However, connection just can’t be bought or sold. Folkways go against consumerism. How can culture and folkways be nourished today? That’s my interest…Call it a faith offering: if I did do another [zine], you’d get it. Otherwise, heck, I’m going to start writing regular letters again. Ya know, this whole thing started as a letter to my pals. I think I’ll go back small again.”
Krishna Rau is a Toronto journalist.
Holiday in Other People’s Misery, Tapil, 208 Valencia St., San Francisco, CA 94103
Out Your Backdoor, Jeff Potter, 4686 Meridian Rd., Williamston, MI, 48895
Let’s Travel the Trans-Canada Highway, Chris, 3603 Helms Ave., Culver City, CA, 90232 USA
I’m Johnny and I Don’t Give A Fuck, PO Box 1850 Commercial Dr., Vancouver, BC, V5N 4A0
Giant: A Zine About Size and Ethnicity, Joanna Pawelkiewicz, 158 Spadina Road, Toronto, ON, M5R 2T8
Infiltration, Ninjalicious, 152 Carlton St., PO Box 92552, Toronto, ON , M5A 2K1
Outpost, Christopher Frey, 559 College St., Suite #312, Toronto, ON, M6G 1A9