Perceptive Travel Writers at Work #4: Richard Arghiris

Richard Arghiris has one of those stories that will make adventurous small children want to be travel writers when they grow up.  Born in the UK, he recently packed up shop in London and has relocated to Central America to write (and also to relax, although he sounds pretty busy to me). He’s written for newspapers like the Independent and the Observer, and he’s also co-author of a number of Footprint guides, to Mexico and Nicaragua, among others.

He was updating his Nicaragua book when I contacted him to chat about his remarkable Perceptive Travel story, A Requiem for Bluefields, Nicaragua, so we talked via email.

Alison Stein Wellner: I typically start out by asking how a writer came across their story, and what made him/her decide to write it. It seems clear since you’re writing a guidebook and now live in Nicaragua that you’re doing extensive in-country research. What made this particular story about Bluefields stand out as one you wanted to tell? Was there one particular encounter, or was it something that gradually crept on you over time?

Richard Arghiris: I spent over a month in Bluefields with my partner, Jennifer Kennedy, whilst we interviewed over a dozen people about Law 445, also known as the Demarcation Law. The idea was to self-publish a series of articles and videos about the political changes occurring on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, specifically those affecting the land tenure and human rights of the region’s Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. By the time we’d finished travelling around and talking to people, I had several ideas for potential articles, one of which was a piece about Bluefields.

I have to admit, initially, I was not particularly keen on the city. But as time went on and I got to know it better, it started getting intriguing, in a dark sort of way. I quickly realised that Bluefields would make the subject of an interesting desintation piece, albeit a visceral and alternative one, that perhaps conveyed some of our research into the region’s political background too. It seemed an appropriate idea for Perceptive Travel.

ASW: I’m intrigued by what you’ve said about not being so keen on the place. I’ve found in my own writing that the places I’ve liked the least, personally, are the places I’ve been able to write about the most. (So in a perverse way, I enjoy being unhappy in a place.) Have you found this in your work before?

RA: Yes, I have often written about places I don’t like, as well as negative experiences, although I’m not sure why I focus on those things more than ‘nice’ stuff. Partly, I find it difficult to write convincingly about joyous or beautiful things. Partly, I think, it’s a matter of what’s compelling. Unpleasant places may be uncomfortable to visit, but from a writer’s perspective they’re rich in material.

Take the Mexican border-town of Ciudad Juarez, for example. Ciudad Juarez is the infamous murder capital of Mexico, epi-centre of an escalting drugs war and a squalid dump by most accounts. It draws the worst of all worlds and has very little to offer in the way of charm. Its a quintessential border-town. Ugly, threatening, dark. Now I’m not suggesting anyone should visit the place for pleasure, but if you’re looking for exciting material, somewhere ‘interesting’, somewhere challenging, then it’s going to be a rewarding destination on some perverse level. Ultimately, you can suffer a great amount of pain if you’re onto a good story.

“The port was delirious with activity. Beyond a warren of dank brick alleys where consumptive sailors sweat out their sins, gangs of inebriated fishermen shared cigarettes and bantered. A ripe aroma of rotten fruit, diesel, dead fish, and grease suffused the air. A procession of weathered vessels bobbed past concrete piers where laborers loaded and unloaded supplies. A confused volley of orders, enquiries and insults flew back and forth like a flock of deranged sea–gulls.” – From A Requiem for Bluefields.

ASW: Your story struck me as an “anti-travel piece”, in that the destination doesn’t seem incredibly appealing. This is its own genre, of course — I’m thinking of this Magic Mountain piece in Harper’s. As you approached the piece, was this something you worried about — were you ever tempted to “nice it up” some?

RA: In the interests of balance and variety, I tried to pepper it with other flavours, but not too much. Nothing is ever a single shade of misery. Fortunately, Perceptive Travel is an open-minded and alternative outlet, so ultimately I didn’t need to worry too much about the audience feeling comfortable. The piece was not obliged to be ‘nice’.

Although I object slightly to the ‘anti-travel’ label, I get the point about ‘destination appeal’. There is an argument to be made that the real ‘anti-travel’ camp lies squarely in the mainstream. Travel journalism, on the whole, averts its gaze from the realities of the world. In fact, for the sake of sales, it positively denies them. It’s a sad truth that the genre is now little more than glorified advertising for the tourism industry. It has more in common with copy-writing than journalism, and historically, this was not always the case. Once upon a time, travel journalists reported realities, rather than sold destinations. Third world poverty is ‘not nice’, but it is a reality, and a very visible reality for anyone who travels in any one of the world’s impoverished nations. Why aren’t travel journalists reporting it more? The answer is obvious and two-fold. Editors don’t want to publish it. People don’t want to read it. That’s fine, but I can’t pretend the situation is very nice when I can see very well that it’s not.

ASW: I take your point, and quite agree that it’s a shame that the typical travel writer’s lens is often narrow and distorted. But building on this, do you also feel that travelers (not just writers) should go and see these places for themselves? There’s an argument to be made in favor of that, but then you do get into some of the voyeuristic
concerns of  so-called “dark tourism” — I’m thinking now particularly of the controversies surrounding slum tours in Mumbai, the favela tours in Rio.

RA: I don’t think it’s necessary for travellers to actively seek out dark and dangerous places (unless they feel particularly inclined), but when confronted with a difficult or disturbing scene, they should not look the other way. That is, they should not censor uncomfortable realities. Full awareness of the good, the bad and the ugly is what’s needed if we’re to understand anything. Ignoring life’s shadow side is about as clever as a full frontal lobotomy.

All that said, I think that most travellers are out to expand their awareness anyway. Otherwise, why travel?

I did not know people were running slum tours, but it doesn’t surprise me. Whether or not these are a good thing probably depends on the conduct of the operator. There’s no reason why slum tours can’t be ethical, enlightening and helpful to the communities that participate. It doesn’t have to be tasteless and voyeuristic.

The main thing, I think, is to emphasise the human aspect, rather than the photo opportunity. There’s nothing negative or controversial about rural community tourism, for example, which involves immersion in impoverished and underprivileged farming communities. People often come away from such tours with a new-found gratitude and humility. Some even report powerful life-changing experiences. Why can’t slum tours be positive too? After all, poverty is not a crime.

“Wherever I went, there was a palpable sense of loss—not of material riches, but of culture. Since the 1990s, an ever–advancing migratory tide has been eroding the coast’s fragile ethnic fabric. The ancient Rama language, now spoken by a mere handful of elders, is close to total extinction. The Creoles, once Bluefields’ most populous group, are now marginalised and impoverished.”Them mestizos is taking over our land.” An angry community leader, Merryl Campbell, had informed me one morning in a smoky cafe. “If we not careful, sometime soon, Bluefields ain’t gonna be called Bluefields no more. It gonna have some Spanish name, name after some Spanish hero, their hero. You know what is Bluefields?” He said defiantly. “Cotten Tree, Beholden, Old Bank, Pointeen—That’s Bluefields!” – From A Requiem for Bluefields

ASW: Are you able to discuss what other articles or projects may come from your Bluefields research?

RA: I’ve now blogged a few pieces about the Caribbean Coast, including some interviews with people who are either technically or politically involved in the demarcation process. It might all be a bit specific for a general audience, but perhaps useful for anyone who has an interest in indigenous rights. Beyond that, everything’s speculative, although I’ve been trying to get more travel pieces placed with websites and printed publications.

(To see some of the blogged articles, log onto Interamericana and scroll through the features in the banner. Some other Caribbean Coast pieces are also listed underneath it.)

ASW: When and where did you actually write the piece? Did you start to write it when you were in Bluefields? And where, physically, do you write generally?

RA: I wrote this piece sitting at a table in my house in Leon, northwestern Nicaragua. I usually share the house with 8-10 other people, so my work-space doubles up as a dining space. I’m basically nomadic, so I set up my work desk wherever I can. I would like to have a dedicated office but for that I would need a dedicated home somewhere. This is not likely any time soon as I am moving south to Panama soon, and then, afterwards, who knows where. Thank god for laptops.

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