The Taj Mahal gleams white in the morning sunshine, a spectacular sight when you arrive ahead of the throngs of tourists later in the day. But the Indian city where the iconic mausoleum is located, Agra, is not so shiny, we learned at the latest salon. Poet, fiction writer, satirist and journalist Peter Gregutt described his actual travels and read selections from his (virtually finished work-in-progress) The Armpit Traveler, a collection of essays loosely satirizing the style of travel guides. In this case, the traveler is vitally interested in seeing the world on the cheap, down and dirty, with none of the usual buffers that keep the typical tourist comfortable but separated from the real life of the places visited. And while the book doesn't describe Agra, it uses made-up places that are clearly amalgams of the countless venues where Peter has rested his travel-wearied head, from remote villages in the Himalayas to a steamy hospital on the hot Indian coastal city, from the back of a bus crossing an African border checkpoint to the picturesque eastern European hamlet in the shadow of a ruined castle. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a hot-off-the-press, illustrated copy of The Armpit Traveler.
Peter's presentation sparked a lively discussion of the relationship between the writer's actual experiences and the written story that springs therefrom. (We were mostly writers at this salon.) Don't we perk up a bit, Peter suggested, when the movie we're about to watch, or the book we're about to read, is prefaced with "Based on a True Story." And yet, isn't all fiction -- all art, for that matter -- based on true stories to some extent?