“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. That’s what Joan Didion wrote in her book of essays The White Album in 1979, but it’s been true since the dawn of time. Storytelling is the most ancient form of connection – and also survival – that we know our species has relied on going back further than we can trace.
From myths and legends that pass wisdom down through the generations to accounts of travels in faraway lands to stories that warn of danger and teach survival, a good storyteller has not only been a fun person to have around, but also a necessary one. And because we are perhaps the only animals that create and tell stories the way we do, this tradition is one of the things that defines and binds our humanity.
In the years that I’ve spent travelling the world, my understanding of why we travel has really come back to this simple and very ancient human need; to tell stories. My job as editor of Boat Magazine (boatmag.com), a travel and culture publication that focuses on a different city for each issue, has been to uncover stories in different cultures and bring them back to my own – to appreciate and to learn from them.
The interesting thing about this aspect of travel is that to be a good storyteller you have to be a good listener. The person at a party who holds everyone’s attention is the one whose memory has absorbed the details and nuances of a situation so fully that to recount them is akin to breathing. The layers within those kinds of stories transport an a dience straight to that time and place. The characteristics that make a good storyteller are the same ones that make a good traveller, too. It’s that ability to listen with every sense you have to whatever culture you find yourself in. Absorbing the details, mixing them up, making sense of them; this is what makes us human. Against all the odds and despite all of our differences, this is our common ground. Not long ago I was able to visit Myanmar, a country that had been largely closed to visitors for six decades under a harsh and complicated government. Yangon, which means “end of strife”, is the former capital city, and one that I’d been dreaming of visiting for years. Since 2011, when a new civilian government was established (though not without some controversy), Myanmar has been slowly opening up. It is an unprecedented time for the country and for Yangon.