Julia Kahn

An Unsung Genre of Travel Literature

Julia Kahn
An Unsung Genre of Travel Literature

“We couldn’t stand up in the bathroom,” was the first sentence of my review for the hotel in Salamanca, Spain.

The room’s ceiling slanted so severely that in order to approach the toilet or take a shower, I had to crouch and shuffle to traverse the space. Picture that scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where the chocolatier chauffeurs the Golden Ticket winners into the factory’s lobby. As Wonka crosses the room towards the last door, he begins at bend at increasingly severe degrees. Upon reaching the end, he squats as he turns to beckon the group. A child remarks, “Hey, the room is getting smaller!” to which an adult counters, “No it’s not! He’s getting bigger!” 

I included this analogy in my review of the hotel, noting that, unlike the lucky contest winners, no candy paradise awaited me beyond the bathroom. My review was the most recent in a long list of experiences shared by travelers at the same hotel in the days, months, and years prior. Following a personal tradition, after I posted, I scrolled through the feed and chuckled. One guest’s lower legs dangled off of the short mattress in their already-tiny room. Another person was too tall to sit on the toilet without hitting their head on the ceiling. Most relatable of all, one traveler bruised their forehead after exiting the shower too quickly.

Reviews have become a powerful tool to attest to quality and to attract potential business. A plethora of online review forums are open to anyone to upload feedback and ratings. Stickers from popular travel sites, such as TripAdvisor, Booking.com, and Lonely Planet, advertise scores on doors or check-in desks. Hotels and restaurants slip their TripAdvisor cards under pillows and bills. No stranger to reviewing on this particular forum in the past, I’ve been asked for my account handle when arriving at hotels or before ordering at a cafe. I suspect this preliminary question led to an immediate on-site customer appraisal. How much influence will her potential review possess within the TripAdvisor community?

Before I decided to embark upon the (ongoing) enterprise of creating and coding my own travel blog, I enjoyed leaving reviews of every cafe, restaurant, hotel, and site I visited. It became a chronological record of my adventures and captured indelible quips and stories from two hours or two days of my life somewhere far away, an archive of the good and the bad. I also found solidarity in the reviews and stories my fellow tourists left of the practical accommodations and cheap restaurants we unearthed separately together.

But to say that each review is equal would be incorrect. Writing praise and accolade-based reviews became tedious and repetitious. I exhausted the number of ways I could express my contentment with a comfortable bed, air conditioning, or tasty food. I instead uncovered endless creativity and inspiration in the exasperation derived from my travel flubs and the relief I felt from kvetching. Recounting my endless travel blooper reel became an exercise in storytelling under 100 words. 

Writing these blurbs about about my own gaffes began a ritual of reading reviews left by tourists in similar situations. Obscured within the folds of flowery, predictable superlatives and rave reviews are these uncelebrated, abbreviated narratives that deserve their own sub-genre within the increasingly-popular world of travel literature. What merits acclaim is universal. Critiques are much more fun.

Amassed within tourist review sites are tiny, unscripted recaps of experiences gone awry, exhibiting a wonderful dose of fresh originality. The grammar can be questionable, capitalization liberal, and punctuation haphazard, but for what they lack in proper structure they deliver in raw, unscripted, and abrasive honesty and utter hilarity. Pride is interwoven within the accounts of conquering wild and treacherous adventures and serves as the mark of a true globetrotter, where a stamp in a passport falls short. Standup-worthy titles such as Poisoned at this hotel, Avoid this restaurant like the plague, which you might catch here, or, BEDBUGS! have led to astonishing anecdotes at which I’ve laughed until I’ve cried. These laughs are laced with a touch of schadenfreude, finding joy at the misfortune of others, and much, much sympathy. I, too, have found a plastic nail in my ice cream cone. Yes, the communal shower at my hostel did once flood the entire bedroom.

The reviews reveal the gritty imperfections and unglamorous inconsistencies of travel smothered between Instagram posts and cheerful, buoyant travel fables. A slanted ceiling, suspiciously stained sheets, potatoes instead of lightbulbs, or crumpled newspapers in pillowcases lead to much more entertaining reviews and stories for me to tell, write, and read. I have and will drink countless cups of good coffee throughout the years at charming cafes, but only once would I discover that the doors to my hotel room locked only on the outside and live to tell the tale.