It was a telling sign of our 'foresight' or lack thereof, that, in the midst of South America we'd left behind the one book that really manages to capture the 'backpacker' experience of the continent – The Gringo Trail by Mark Mann. There was a certain logic to this, as we'd both read the book months before departure, as part of our 'research', and valuable space in each rucksack was reserved for new, unread books, not to mention mosquito nets, medicine, and clothes. In the end, it was just as well, as the temptation to simply follow Mann's journey around South America would have been difficult to resist. On return though the book has been regularly taken out to conjure up the past, which it does with remarkable skill.
It's distinct from your average travelogue as it reads like a novel for the greater part. Mann, an Englishman who is now based in Australia, reasons: “I’d just call it a travelogue. It’s the story of a journey. Of course it has elements of the dialectic narrative structure of a novel – conflict and resolution that sets up a subsequent conflict – but anyway I think travel writing as a genre occupies a curious position between narrative and non-fiction”.
It's the classic backpacker dream, to travel extensively and then to write it up. Was that Mann's intention when planning for the trip? “No, when we did the trip I had no plans to write about it. We were just travelling for the sake of it and doing whatever appealed to us at the time – he stresses – that’s the most rewarding way to travel, especially if you’ve got time not to feel rushed”.
He's no fan of the majority of travel writing. “To be honest, I find much travel writing a bit contrived. In many cases – he explains – you feel the writer is making a trip for no other reason than to write a book. The problem is that the writer’s journey has been planned in advance, often pegged on a tired narrative device such as retracing the steps of some past explorer or whatever, and there’s no real character development or tension because nothing really happens to threaten or challenge the writer. One way out of this is Chris Nichols’ book The Fruit Palace, where he deliberately gets into something (in this case with the Colombian drug cartels) overhis head so he can generate some real tension, but even here you wonder whether it’s not a set-up.”
There are exceptions to the rule of course, and it's no wonder that a writer with an obvious enthusiasm for travel would have some admired travel writers: ”Committed travel writing with something urgent and worthwhile to say does exist, such as Joe Kane’s brilliant Savages or George Monbiott’s Amazon Watershed.” He also rates highly some of the classic travel writers such as Bruce Chatwin, Redmond O'Hanlon, and Peter Matthiessen, and, straying of the strictly travel path, Kerouac, Hesse and Hunter S. Thompson. “I’m not consciously aware of any of them influencing the way I wrote The Gringo Trail, except, perhaps, for the way Chatwin uses the short notebook entries in Songlines)”.
His admiration of Chatwin at the same time as Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson gives some indication of his own style. The publishers, with a certain amount of marketing hyperbole, blared out on the back “Drama and discovery. Culture and cocaine. Fact is stronger than fiction”, but it is this deft mix of pop culture, comedy and culture that marks Mann’s book out.
The story, which takes in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, is that of a trip he undertook with his girlfriend, and a friend. The tensions and shifting allegiances are played out skilfully against the dramatic backdrops of the Andes and Amazonia. At the same time he manages to insert history and culture throughout, without sounding like a guidebook.
It's a terrifically raw account, refusing to glamorise the trip. Was that a conscious stylistic decision? “I wanted to leave it with rough edges because I felt it was a truer reflection of the backpacking experience and to the nature of a ‘real’ journey – in contrast to the pre-contrived type of travelogue I mentioned earlier” Mann explains. ”At the time I was writing I didn’t feel anyone had written about backpacking, so I wanted to try to capture that backpacking vibe. So, for instance, I wanted to acknowledge the way backpackers tend to stick to well-worn routes (hence the title).”