Meaning Lab
#107: How a really good travel writer approaches her experiences abroad—and at home (feat. Erika Fatland)

#107: How a really good travel writer approaches her experiences abroad—and at home (feat. Erika Fatland)

Comfort, discomfort, curiosity, and surprise: Erika Fatland goes through them all in her effort to understand other people and where they live.

The Person and the Situation is a book by social psychologists Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett, originally published in 1991. The argument made by Ross and Nisbett was that context matters. Human beings don’t behave in a vacuum, unaffected by the circumstances of society, history, and culture. The job of the social psychologist is to understand both the person and the situation. Without a proper appreciation of the larger context, it’s impossible to know what to make of any given observation about human behavior.

But a limitation of the project set out by Ross and Nisbett is that social psychology has always had a limited ability to study “situations.” It is, after all, psychology—not anthropology. Psychologists tend not to study humans in their natural situations; they try to recreate paired down versions of them in the lab. It’s not the same thing.

This is something Ross and Nisbett, I think, appreciated. Nisbett went on to publish a book called The Geography of Thought, about how people from the West think differently from people in Asia. But another way to approach this problem is not from the psychology side, at least not directly—to start not with the person, but the situation itself. This is what I like about really good travel writing.

The job of a travel writer is similar to the job of the anthropologist. It is to go to a place and get a feel for what people are up to there. Then to come back and report to the rest of us what it is you observed. But the problem with ethnographies by anthropologists is that they’re usually not that fun to read, obsessed as they are with kinship structures and long-standing epistemological debates within their field. Good travel writing has the same incisive edge as an informal ethnography—and has the benefit of being much more engaging. Good travel writing is an exploration of the person via the situation.

For my money, the best author doing this kind of travel writing today is Erika Fatland. Erika is the author of three travel books, including Sovietistan, about the post-Soviet states of central Asia; The Border, about the countries bordering Russia from North Korea and Mongolia to Finland and Norway; and High, about the countries of the Himalayas. She speaks six languages, including Russian, and is currently adding more. She also trained as a social anthropologist for her master’s degree, which probably goes a ways toward explaining where that incisive edge came from.

Erika’s approach to travel writing incorporates her own travel experiences with deep readings of a country’s historical, cultural, and economic circumstances. More than other travel writers I’ve read, she relies on her conversations with people she meets in the places she goes—usually finding at least one common tongue between them—and uses these interview as a foundation for her own observations. In this conversation, we talk about the point of travel, Erika’s formative experiences and how she became a travel writer, her approach to writing, how her relationship with Russia has changed through the years, and some of her favorite (and least favorite) countries she’s visited.

[This interview has been edited and condensed. Full conversation available via the podcast.]

I want to start off with a difficult question and see what you have to say about it. What, in your opinion, is the point of travel?

I think humans have always traveled. That’s why you will find human settlements all over the globe. So we are, from the very beginning, nomads. So I think it comes kind of naturally for us. I mean, you would never really see a dog or a horse or a giraffe, you know, just travelling just to visit the neighboring giraffes to see how they are doing. So this is something specifically human.

I think it comes from curiosity. For me at least. But very often I must admit the part of travel I enjoy the most is when I’m back home again and it’s all just distant memory. Because my life in Norway is very comfortable. I live in a very comfortable flat, I have a very comfortable office and so on. So travelling means leaving this comfort and venturing out into the unknown. And that is of course also the attraction.

What would you say was your first formative travel experience that really kind of put you on this track of really going further and deeper in travel?

I would say probably the most formative experience was when I went to France. So not to a very exotic place, not to a very far away place from Norway. But I’m from quite a small village in Norway with 2,000 inhabitants. And as a teenager, I was longing to get away from there. And I didn’t have many friends and well—it was a very small place. There was this exchange program that Norwegian pupils, high school students, could take three years to do the whole baccalaureate in French in France. And so I got admitted to the program in Lyon. And that meant leaving my village as a 16-year-old, having to learn a new language, having to adapt into a new, very different school system, and also having to manage all these kinds of practical problems. The gas went out, and we had to call the gas company and explain the problem in French and so on. I think this just made me feel very independent somehow. And I felt that, okay, having mastered this at the age of 16, well, now everything is possible. I can go anywhere.

I think this is crucial, I think more young people should do this. I’m kind of worried now that doing an exchange year is not that common that it used to be. And having a gap year before you start university seems like it’s not that common anymore. But I think it’s really important because it is so formative, and you’re so shapeable when you are young.

Speaking of the importance of transcending your comfort zone… When you are a young Norwegian teenager in a very small village, the set of places you can go to that takes you behind what you know is pretty much everywhere. But as you’ve traveled more and more, how do you deal with expanding that familiarity—does it still feel important to continue to expand your comfort zone in that way? And what does that look like for you?

Well, I am expanding my comfort zone or leaving my comfort zone all the time. But that is very linked to my profession, because now I have become a travel writer, which was never really my plan. My plan initially was to become a novelist and write remarkable novels that would change the history of literature. That hasn’t happened so far. But I am very happy writing travel books. As of now that is my profession and I really love it because it also forces me to travel in a specific way. I have to get out of my comfort zone on a daily basis because I have to engage with people, I have to talk with people, I have to go to places. I would never have just gone on a vacation, just to relax. But now I’m doing it for the purpose of the book, which is always my leading star. And that is not the most comfortable way of traveling, but it’s definitely the most interesting way of traveling.

Now for instance I’m working on a book about the Portuguese Empire and that has led me to visit places I would never have gone elsewhere—I promise you—and I wouldn’t really recommend anyone to go there, like Guinea-Bissau, one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. I did not really enjoy my stay there that much, I must admit. But now, having come back safely from Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Bissau is what I talked the most about, because it was most interesting.

On the bright side, unless you’re drug smuggling and if never picked up a bag in the jungle that you don’t know what is, you don’t have to worry about that.

You mentioned learning French, but you’re an accomplished language learner. You speak English, German, French, Italian, and Russian, in addition to your native Norwegian. And it also sounds like you’re in the process of picking up Portuguese and Arabic. But I wanna ask you about the Russian in particular. You mentioned before we started that Dostoevsky is one of the things that got you really into the language, his Crime and Punishment. So what did that initial connection with the country and the language look like for you and how have your feelings about that country changed over time?

Well, Russian is difficult. It’s not as difficult as Arabic, but it’s still very, very difficult. So to learn Russian just takes a lot of time and effort. Now my Russian is not perfect, but it’s functional. So I can travel in Russia and other Russian-speaking countries and make myself understood, and even more importantly understand what people are saying to me—which was my goal, and which has really come in handy.

My first encounter with Russia was when I still didn’t know any Russian. I was going to high school in in Finland, because after two years in France I felt kind of like: “I’ve stayed two years in France. I know French by now. I know the school system. I have to move on.” Then I spent the last year in Finland. And then you’re very close to Russia. So one weekend I joined a bus trip with one of the teachers filled with mostly pensioners and retired people. And we went to Saint Petersburg. But on the way we stopped in Vyborg. And Vyborg used to be part of Finland until the Second World War, up until the Winter War. And this was now—it’s more than 20 years ago—so that means that many of the people on the bus, those old people, some of them were born in Vyborg or they had family from Vyborg, so they could remember how this city had looked like. And it used to be the second biggest city of Finland and it used to be one of the most beautiful cities of Finland. Some of the passengers just burst into tears when they saw what had become of their birth city. Because somehow everything in Russia just falls apart. They are not very good at maintenance. So that was my first impression of Russia and then of course in Petersburg something quite different. It’s a very beautiful city.

But that was my first brutal impression and that kind of continued because Russia is a very brutal place. It’s not a very pleasant place and people are not necessarily very nice to you, especially if they have some kind of uniform and some kind of power. Then they tend to be quite bullish. And that was a shock to me. And when I came back to Russia the second time, that was some years later, and I was doing a summer course in Russian, just outside of St. Petersburg. I decided to go all in because I was studying social anthropology after all. I decided to do my field work in Russia. I felt I had to go all in.

I was supposed to live with a family, but the language school placed me with an old babushka in one of those grey Khrushchev apartments. And they all look the same, so I got lost every day, just trying to keep in every door until I found the building that was mine. And that was like a second cultural shock. I had spent the spring in Guatemala studying Spanish. Guatemala is very far from Norway. Saint Petersburg is like a two-hour flight from Oslo, and still this was a huge cultural shock. And there was a heat wave in Saint Petersburg that summer. My hostess would walk around naked in the apartment and encourage me to do the same. She was a terrible cook. I’m pretty sure she had tuberculosis, and she was watching Putin on the news constantly. That’s what she did. And then it kind of dawned upon me like, why Russia? Why Russia? Why not Italy or some pleasant place? But I think that is the attraction with Russia. It’s not a pleasant place, but it’s like a constant riddle. There is something you don’t understand. And that said, people can be very friendly too, as long as they’re not wearing a uniform.

Of course, now after the full-scale invasion started last year, my relationship with Russia has changed a lot, and I think so has everyone else’s. I think Russia is becoming a very dark place; it’s becoming a very nationalistic place. They have always had these tendencies, but now it is becoming mainstream and that perspective is very rapidly dominating. When I started learning Russian, Russia was a hybrid authoritarian regime, and now it’s a full-scale dictatorship with no room for criticism. So it is becoming a very dark and gloomy place. I’m still fascinated and I haven’t been back now for five years. And I do hope I can go back one day and write a book about Russia, but I don’t want it to be a book just about Putin and politics. I want it to be a book about Russia. And Russia is so much more than just politics and Putin and Moscowans and Petersburg. There are, for instance, 193 different ethnic groups living inside of Russia.

I’m not a big optimist when it comes to the future of Russia, because what I see lacking in Russia is that after the Second World War. In Germany, they dealt with the past and they dealt with it quite harshly. And that has never happened in Russia. They have this kind of victim mentality. They never really dealt with the Soviet past. They never dealt with Stalinism and the gulags. And they just see themselves as victims. And that just doesn’t make sense. It’s the biggest country in the world. It’s still an empire. And they see themselves as victims. But I think that’s what justifies the war, the ongoing imperial war in Ukraine.

Speaking of culture shock and places with a dark side: I want to ask you about your experience traveling as a woman, particularly traveling alone and oftentimes in countries that may have different sort of norms than your native Norway or other places in the world. How does your experience as a woman shape your experience as a traveler and the accounts that you bring back as a writer?

I’ve written an essay about this once [in Norwegian] and I’m trying to remember the title. In English it would be something like “a travelling alien,” because that is how I perceive many places. They just seem as very strange. People often look at me and think: “A woman travelling by herself, her poor husband sitting by himself for weeks and months in Norway, no children. What is this creature?” So they’re just seeing something very strange.

But that said, I think it’s a huge advantage to be a female travel writer, because in many places, especially in the very traditional places, Muslim places like Pakistan, many of the places I visited in Pakistan would be inaccessible to a male writer. They would not be allowed to enter the village. They would not be allowed to enter the family home. In many places my male guide and interpreter had to be left outside in some male guest house where he was drinking tea with other men. And I was left inside. Of course I can talk with the men, the men will talk with anyone. But I can also talk with the women. In many places would never be allowed to talk to a male stranger. So I think it’s a huge advantage. I can access both worlds.

And somehow, the most common question I get when I give talks is, is it not very dangerous to travel the world alone as a woman? Somehow people seem to think it is a disadvantage and that it’s very dangerous to travel alone as a woman. And of course... There are some risks that men would not have. But mostly people are kind, mostly people are helpful. Of course you have to use your common sense. I would never ever go to a bar and have too much to drink so that I could not take care of myself. But I wouldn’t do that in Oslo either. So you have to use your common sense, but I think the advantages are much, much bigger than the disadvantages.


You mentioned that Guinea-Bissau has made a special impact on you in your recent travels. I have a vague idea that it’s in West Africa, but beyond that, I can’t say that I know much about it. What stood out to you about that place and your experience there?

Okay, so now I’m in this limbo because I’m working on this book about the Portuguese Empire, and I have now finished almost all of the travel research. I’ve been traveling for more than a year, more or less constantly. It was a huge empire, going down the African coast and continuing in Asia to India, but also to places that it lost quite quickly to the Dutch, like Malacca, some islands in Indonesia, and even Japan (the Portuguese were the first Europeans to trade with Japan). So it was a huge empire—and let’s not forget Brazil.

Guinea-Bissau was one of the colonies that Portugal stubbornly kept until 1975. And it’s a very small country, one and a half million inhabitants, and it is an extremely underdeveloped country. If you look at the statistics, they do very well in all the statistics you don’t want to be on the top list—like childhood mortality, etc. Their main source of income is cashew nuts and drug smuggling because it’s a huge hub somehow from South America through Guinea-Bissau and then somehow to Europe. I have not figured out how this works but it’s a huge source of income for Guinea-Bissau.

On the bright side, unless you’re drug smuggling and if never picked up a bag in the jungle that you don’t know what is, you don’t have to worry about that. It’s a very safe country, because there are no tourists there, so they don’t have any crime related to tourists. And there are very few rich people, so they don’t really have any crime related to rich people either. They have one paved street in the capital, and that’s the only paved street in the entire country.

Usually when you travel, you can pay yourself out of discomfort. You can hire a car and a driver and hence avoid public transport. Not in Guinea-Bissau, because there are almost no private cars. So you are stuck with these German minibuses that still drive the dusty roads of Guinea-Bissau.

They have some beautiful islands. They look like Bahamas, just outside of the coast, but they have no boats. So it’s a very difficult country to travel around in. And also, on one of those remote islands, if you read the guidebook it will say that it’s a matriarchy. I wouldn’t say so because it was when I started asking people, the men had the last word. But it’s been some of those islands that have developed some very strange rituals. Like one that we visited, they didn’t have electricity, not because they couldn’t have it, but because they didn’t want to have it—because they wanted to stay traditional. On one island we visited, they had this rite of passage. If you wanted to become a full man—I mean you could get married, you could have children, as usual. But before reaching the final stage, around 40, that’s when the men would tend to do this last passage. Because if you wanted to have your own house, move out from your own family’s house, and have your own house with your own family, you had to pass this final milestone. And that consisted of going into the jungle, on this quite small island, and living isolated by yourself, not seeing other people—leaving, if you had kids and wife, leaving them behind, saying goodbye forever, and stay there in the jungle, isolated… for eight years!

And then you just ask yourself, how did this come into being? What happened? I don’t have the answer.

I’ll ask you one final question here. What are three books that have most influenced the way?

Definitely Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, because that book made me want to learn Russian and learning Russian has transformed my life. My plan learning Russian was to read Crime and Punishment in Russian and I am currently part way through. It’s a lifelong project. Another book would be The Empire by Kapuscinski, because it shows what travel literature, if you want to call it that, can be. It’s a very... what’s the word? I don’t find the word, but just read the book and you will see for yourself. It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. And then... Thirdly—when you make this list, it’s kind of unfair, because there are so many books that would be on my top three—but if I would have to choose a last one, I would go to the children’s author Astrid Lindgren and her book about the Brothers Lionheart, which I read as a child. It’s a beautiful and sad story that shows you how you can travel in your imagination to different worlds, quite literally.

Erika, thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.

It’s been a pleasure.

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If you enjoyed this conversation, you might also like my interview with John Kaag. John is a philosopher in the classical style of one who believes that ideas should teach us how to live well. His writing also have an important travel component, particularly his book Hiking with Nietzsche, which explores the writings of the philosopher in the place where it was written. You can find that episode here:

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Meaning Lab
Welcome to the Meaning Lab podcast. In each episode, I talk to a scientist, author, or artist about their approach to meaning-making — from language, to productivity, to writing, to travel. It's all fair game, as long as it gets us closer to understanding how we make sense of the world and our place in it.