Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity is a trained assassin. Suffering from severe memory loss, he doesn’t immediately remember that, but he does have some clues to help him discover his past. For one, he notices that he notices everything. People’s movements, their weights and the nearest exits in a building, Bourne is hyper aware of his surroundings.
This extreme attentiveness is known as situational awareness. It is the ability to accurately observe your environment and quickly orient what you have seen into a useful context. I first read about this, oddly enough, in the Art of Manliness. In it, writers Brett and Kate McKay argue that situational awareness is a useful skill for everyone to have, not just warriors.
I’d add that it’s especially important for travel writers.
As travel writers, we need to be able to observe and synthesize vast amounts of information in order to record it and share it with others in the most truthful way possible.
While I’m not suggesting we travel like we’re CIA agents, running through the streets hiding behind objects and giving distrustful eyes to everyone we make contact with, I am suggesting that travel writers need a higher capacity for observation than a typical traveler.
“Situational awareness is really just another word for mindfulness, and developing mine has made me more cognizant of what’s going on around me and more present in my daily activities,” McKay said.
So how can we gain this skill? One way is by traveling in “Condition Yellow.”
Gun-fighting expert Jeff Cooper describes Condition Yellow as a level of his color code system designed to “help warriors gauge their mindset for combat scenarios,” the article states.
Condition Yellow is described as “relaxed alert,” meaning that though there is no immediate threat, you remain aware of your surroundings.
As travel writers, we can’t let our nerves or confusion of a new place get in the way of our observations. Our job is to report what we see and to bring a reader into the situation with us. When our nerves are frazzled or we’re easily distracted, we’re already failing. A narrow focus can cause us to miss important details in our environment.
In fact, Condition Yellow means using all five senses to absorb details we might otherwise have missed. Look all around you. Make mental notes of what you see. What are other people doing? What does it smell like? What do you hear or don’t hear? We travel using all five senses. A good travel writer will transmit those sentences to the page.
Truth is, the best travel writers probably already have the beginnings of situational awareness. Nothing like a trained assassin, but enough to completely take in their surroundings and tell the story to others.
The trick is not just to be aware, but to remember what we saw. This is why we keep notebooks. We’re not trained assassins and our memory is likely more in tune with that of an aging librarian – nothing to scoff at, but nothing to trust after a 12 hour day of non-stop stimulation.
If situational awareness is observation + orientation, the orientation in travel writing is the difference between a superficial story and a story with a sense of place. Ask yourself, “What’s the baseline?” That is, what’s normal in this situation?
Obviously this will be different for individual people and individual environments, but knowing what is “normal” will help us to find the extraordinary, which will help to find the story.
What stands out? What in this situation or place is novel? That’s your story.
Perhaps we don’t want to learn how to use a sniper or safely jump from skyscrapers, but we’d do well to borrow this particular skill from Bourne. Good travel writers can recount tales, but the best travel writers, like a warrior who observes and orients in a matter of seconds, knows which information to use and which information doesn’t advance the story.
In other words, the best travel writer is traveling in Condition Yellow.