Over the years I’ve gotten embroiled in a few of those friendly little arguments over what makes a good travel guide: one written my an “insider” who lives close and knows the culture, or one penned by an “outsider” who has opened his heart to a new culture and has a passion for telling you about it.
There is a great temptation to answer in favor of the insider. You see a lot of what they call insider guides. If they were really written by insiders, say folks who’ve spent their entire lives in a place, they could be very, very good.
They could also be horrible.
Let’s pretend my name is Gorpus and I’m writing a guide to my city, Lundistabule. I scribble furiously when I come to my favorite part, my pen guided by the gods—I can barely stop to write the title:
My mouth begins to make water thinking of the Zimple. My mother’s Zimple is my oh my so tasty my lips drip, especially when in my head it, I mean the Zimple, has just coming out a toasty auburn with black spots from my mother’s dung-fed oven (but I give you away the secret!). It is so tasty in Lundistabule we make big always the first letter for it writing it like: Zimple.
Well, ok, you see a small problem here. The writing ain’t so smooth. But the real problem isn’t the writing. I mean, who cares about the prose in a travel guide any more? Tourists, at least the ones who write me, want to be sent to the best places and eat the best food and sometimes seem to care about little else. And now we know the very best food in Lundisabule. We can live with bad prose. We have a secret. It is Zimple. We are going to devour some Zimple and amaze the friends who ask us what made our heads spin out of control in Lundistabule. Zimple.
So we buy some tickets. Since only savvy tourists and people who have gotten on the plane by mistake go to The People’s Republic of Lundistabule, the prices are through the proverbial roof. Never mind though, we’ve been seduced by the Zimple.
So we arrive in Lundistabule in July. The weather is balmy. The people are friendly although their foreheads seem a little wide. The first thing we do when we check into a hotel is to ask where we might chow down on some Zimple. The clerk looks at us as if were daft.
“But sir, it’s July.”
“Zimple, sir, is a festival food,” he starts off slowly, as if he were the teacher of very small and slightly idiotic children. “It is served around the fireplaces in our homes on the day of birth of our dear leader.” he continues, while slowly while rubbing his enormous forehead with a hand that has but 4 fingers.
“And when is that?” we ask intrepidly, our eyes focused on his four fingers, counting them silently.
“On the fourteenth of February at 2 pm,” he says dryly.
So we’re screwed. The insider could not imagine that there is a person on the face of the earth that wouldn’t have an idea when Zimple season might occur. The outsider would recognize the need to publish such critical information.
On the other hand, the passionate outsider does not have the contacts that an insider has. He knows nothing at all of the Zimple. I mean, people should know about the Zimple, they also should know when Zimple season is.
The strength of the outsider is that he sees a place from a tourist’s perspective, not a bad thing when you’re telling tourists how to see a place. The savvy insider owns the keys to a culture. So the best travel guide should come about when these two forces come together, when a tourist can be given an unforgettable glimpse of a different life style with all its different art, ideas, and ways of combining organic goods into what’s good to eat.
So what I’m getting at, in so many words, is that the best guide to Sardinia should be written by both insiders and outsiders. And the best guide to Sardinia should turn the island inside out, it should get you off the beaches for a while to see the interior, a whole other (and quite hidden) world. The guide should not gush over the beauty of azure seas, you can get that kinda self-serving prose everywhere, it should focus on the beauty in the faces of the people who make the place what it is. It should, like the philosophy that drives Wandering Italy, lead you astray.
(I, by the way, am the outsider, despite working 5 summers in the interior of Sardinia, and Paola Loi, my good friend and Cagliari resident, who doesn’t know of the Zimple but does know where you can get a great sea urchin and wild asparagus pizza, will be your insider.)