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Empty Spaces On A Map
by Patricia Misiuk
Joseph Conrad said the most interesting
places are the empty spaces on a map. Many of us have plodded through rehashed
histories about the Louvre's art treasures. Remember those ho-hum long-winded
narratives about the movers and shakers buried in Westminster Abbey? While we're
at it, let's lose the tour guide spiel about a Dublin restaurant's nightclub
Time to switch gears. What if I told you I
tripped on a cobblestone in that restaurant, gashed my chin and ended up in
stitches (literally) after visiting a time-warped Dublin hospital? Got your
attention, didn't I?
Isn't my story about an unscheduled visit to an
emergency room more interesting than, say, a write-up about a crooner's
rendition of "Danny Boy"? You betcha. And wouldn't you rather read about my
night in a New Zealand jail rather than someone else's stay in a four-star
hotel? Of course.
Writing about the detours and unscheduled stops
Conrad refers to often results in a byline AND your name on a royalty
Most of us have mishandled luggage, breakdown in
communication, and overbooked flight episodes to share. Adding a smidgen of
tourist board information to personal experiences provides the recipe for a
travel article that editors buy. Commit Conrad's mantra to memory, focus on your
unique adventures, and write.
When concentrating on the uncharted destination,
it helps to view the incident from all angles. Now, a little background about my
night in jail. I was tapped out: no money, no place to stay, and no prospects of
a job. A police officer sympathized with my plight, let me sleep in a jail cell,
perused the want ads, made a phone call and bingo, I rejoined the ranks of the
gainfully employed. My resume now included tomato picker. And a few of my
coworkers, incidentally, were expatriates and prisoners.
The contract labor exemplified the "toughest job
you'll ever love" motto of the Peace Corps. I lived in a work camp, bounced
around in a paddy wagon en route to the farm and fine-tuned my harvesting
techniques by imitating Maori women.
Compacting all the facets of those two weeks
into a single article would be like eating my way into oblivion at a cruise
ship's midnight buffet and then gorging on an entire cheesecake. Make the meal
and your article more palatable by dividing them into bite-size hors
I parlayed the memories of my brief career into
several pieces. One concentrated on the no-frills communal living in the labor
camp. Another spelled out permits necessary for work and job sources. A day in
the life of... article enlightened the reader about the backbreaking work and
how I tempered the torture by emulating Maori harvesters. One could also trace a
tomato's life cycle from seed to salad.
As with any writing, empty-space-on-a-map pieces
warrant descriptions involving all senses.
* The sooty exhaust from our convoy of vans
smelled like New York's Holland Tunnel during rush hour.
* With pickers hailing from Australia, Asia and
Germany, verbal exchanges sounded like a United Nations General Assembly
session, but without the headsets and simultaneous translations.
* The bed sheets rubbed against my aching body
like coarse sandpaper.
* The tomato tasted as if it has been seasoned
with a dash of sugar and a pinch of salt from Mother Nature's spice
Detailing more than the visual elements of the
experience adds depth to the piece.
Other been-to-one, been-to-them-all empty spaces
on a map most of us inevitably pass through are airports. Chances are, we've
logged countless hours staring at flight postings and scarfing down concession
stand hot dogs. And who hasn't encountered a concourse vendor, the kind that
seems to sprout from the Tarmac like a phoenix from the ashes? These merchants
hawk yo-yos or model planes that fly magically during the demonstration but
crash once we test-drive them at home.
Zoom in on that airport scene and an article
takes shape. The next time your flight is delayed, redeem your airline meal
voucher and invite the vendor for coffee. Interview him. What attracted him to
his work? How much does he earn on a good day? An off day? Met anyone famous?
What off-the-wall scenarios has he witnessed? His turf, albeit small and
unmapped, is yet another of Conrad's spaces that deserves a visit.
Try as we may to structure and control
itineraries, no trip would be complete without an empty-space-on-a-map incident
or two. I'll cite a few personal ones that evoke a been-there, done-that
* I lost my way to the Eiffel Tower and
discovered my year of high school "parlez-vous francais" was totally useless in
the real world of the French-speaking populace.
* On another continent, I inadvertently grabbed
the wrong suitcase from the luggage carousel and failed to realize my error
until I arrived at the hotel. The bureaucratic red tape to recover my valise was
frustrating, time consuming and, fortunately, grist for the article
* In Rome, I boarded the wrong bus, ended up
marooned on an empty space on a map until a local escorted me to the proper
station and then insisted on paying my fare.
The next time you travel, take a guidebook and
map. Reserve an entire day to marvel at the Louvre's art treasures. In London,
ride the tube and visit the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Then book
passage on the ferry across the Irish Sea. When you land in the Emerald Isle,
sample an Irish coffee and listen to the familiar refrains of "Danny
But soon, you'll be fed up with the
if-it's-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium regimen. Break free for an hour, a day, a
week. Rent a car, ditch the road map, and let your adventure evolve. Chances are
excellent you'll land in an unnamed area, an empty space on a map, a place you
will write about and share with the world.
© Copyright 2000, Patricia Misiuk
Patricia Misiuk could have been the sole interviewee for Studs Terkel's "Working." Her jobs have ranged from migrant work in New Zealand to the replenishment of sanitary products in the "Big Apple's" restrooms. When she grows up (she is 61) she wants to be a columnist. She still works at "McJobs" but "writing is what she does."
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