September 2, 2014

Is all writing travel writing?

New Zealand

Some writer once said; “There are only two stories: man goes on a journey; or stranger comes to town.”

Some other writer said; “Those are the same story.”

The quotes above have been attributed to writers as diverse as Dostoevsky and John Gardner. Despite their flippancy, there’s an undeniable verisimilitude there – a sense that yes, we are constantly stuck (or liberated) in the same tale, time after time: the same quest, the same novel.

True in a way, but every single perspective is unique and new and completely unknown to science. I’m lucky enough to teach writing at a small New England college, and every week I’m reminded of the newness of experience – when I read a student essay about the first time they traveled to Europe, or went abroad for a semester, I’m completely absorbed, even though I’ve read those types of essays before. But each view is unique, each experience individual.

But – taking into account the anonymous quotes at the beginning – there is this sense that all writing of a certain kind can be reduced to commonalities, to large scale, Way-Out-In-Space-Google-Earth perspective. In this sense, I would offer the following: all writing is travel writing.

Travel writing is fun to read, hard to write. Good travel writing does two things simultaneously; it takes the reader on a vertiginous journey through narrow mud-walled towns, or along alpine goat paths, or through bustling marketplaces; and it also marks the internal journey of the writer, the transformation that takes place. And while we love poling down some jungle river the color of tea, or palavering with herders in some felted yurt, if the author isn’t taking us on the interior journey, we are bored.

Leonard Michaels has this to say about stories in his essay ‘What’s a Story:’

The problem with storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of “and then”) and the latter belong to art.
Transitions versus transformations is a good way to look at it. Both words start with the prefix ‘trans’ which comes from the Latin and simply means ‘across,’ but have different meanings. ‘Transition’ comes from the Latin transire, which means to go across, hence over. It has cognates in trance, transient, and other words, which overall create an etymological pastiche that brings to mind rootlessness. Transform, on the other hand, while it shares the same prefix, is rooted firmly in the word ‘form,’ which means shape.

‘Transformation’ means to change the shape of; literally, to become another form.

Stories can provide us with both of these experiences. Good literature can take us on a journey, a quest, and we can be ‘transient’ for a bit while we read. But great books transform; remake us in some new shape. Books help us redefine our interior landscape; our moral and spiritual superstructures. Recently, I’ve been paging through two Paul Theroux classics; Riding the Iron Rooster and The Happy Isles of Oceania. And while Theroux can sometimes be criticized as a cranky old man, he is a master of balancing the personal with the external, giving the reader hearty glimpses into his own personal transformations and journeys and quests. It’s a balancing act to be sure – we want our sub-continental marigold merchants but also want to know our author and how he or she is like us.

Reading his old classics compelled me to pick up Theroux’s newest travel book. The Last Train to Zona Verde, which came out last year, is about Africa. Theroux has written about African journeys before – Dark Star Safari was a bestseller – but this book is so much better, for reasons I’ll explain briefly. Africa, in Dark Star, is the backdrop to Theroux’s usual thoughts on travel and people and himself, but it lacked – for me – that edge that good travel writing needs. I liked it fine, but Zona Verde seems to me to stand against the times in a way that’s edgier, angrier, more insistent and interesting. In Dark Star, we hear a lot about how Theroux is writing an “erotic novella” during the trip. But in Zona Verde, we are given a much different impression of why the septuagenarian novelist and travel writer is absconding to the land of lions and giraffes.

Theroux tells us early on that of the reasons for going to Africa, “The main one was physically to get away from people wasting my time with trivia.” He then goes on quote at length from that other great wanderer, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in ‘Life Without Principle;’ “I believe the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things…so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.” Right; hello, Facebook newsfeed.

This sense of separation Theroux is looking for – and is willing to travel the remote regions of Africa to find – is central to our understanding of self, particularly in the age of iPhones. “To travel unconnected, away from anyone’s gaze or reach, is bliss,” Theroux writes, and particular attention should be paid to his word-choice; ‘unconnected’ is perhaps a direct reference to the ‘connectedness’ that the internet provides.

Theroux gets right to the point as he relates his adventures with the !Kung in South Africa. “Travel in Africa was also my way of opposing the increasing speed of technology – resisting it and dropping back, learning patience and studying the world that way.” That patience, he believes, is exemplified by the !Kung. Theroux likes them, though, that much is clear: “And I was thinking, as I thought for years traveling the earth among humankind: the best of them are bare-assed.”

Part of getting out and about in the world – part of any real journey – is that vital separation from what we expect at home; annoying details, obligations, and trivial matters. Once we start traveling, the triviality is blasted to bits and we’re mercifully released from the impingement of pop culture and domestic concerns; we’re happily returned to a state of wonder and curiosity.

One of the things about travel – both in the world and within ourselves – is the opportunity to explore regions that we’ve never been to before. “But there is such a thing as curiosity, dignified as a spirit of inquiry,” writes Theroux. It is that spirit that allows us to wonder, to imagine, and to be the best bare-assed specimens we possibly can.

If ‘stranger comes to town,’ and ‘man goes on a journey’ are in fact the same story, then the common theme is that of movement, of adventure, or getting out there in a new place, or meeting new people. The common theme is simply walking out the door.

Books that change us – books that transform – are in essence travel literature. As I get older, I’m less and less interested in the distinction between external and internal travel, as I think real travel, or adventure, never exists in singularity – real travel, real writing, and really great books take the reader on both the external and internal journey, and when I come back to the real world after reading such a book I’m not quite the same as I was before. I’m a bit dusty and road-worn.

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Category: Travel Writing

August 30, 2014

Why We Buy Dumb Souvenirs

souvenirmasksHere’s a curious trivia tidbit from U.S. history: In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams took leave from their Europe-based diplomatic duties and traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the home of William Shakespeare. Not much was recorded of the occasion, but one fact of their pilgrimage to the Bard’s birthplace stands out: At some point during the tour, the two American statesmen brandished pocketknives, carved a few slivers from a wooden chair alleged to have been Shakespeare’s, and spirited them home as souvenirs.

In retrospect, it’s easy to look back on this incident and conclude that — in terms of travel protocol, at least — Jefferson and Adams were complete knuckleheads. The thing is, I haven’t seen any evidence to prove that, as world-wandering travelers, our quest for souvenirs has become any more logical or dignified in the ensuing 220 years.

I mention this because I recently traveled to Key West, where a popular section of Duval Street is crowded with souvenir boutiques. In a certain sense, this stretch of Duval felt a tad anachronistic, since — in the age of eBay and similar online shopping venues — you don’t have to travel to a place like Key West to load up on painted seashells and exotic cigars. What struck me more, however, was not the items typically associated with Florida, but the bizarre overabundance of souvenir t-shirts, which said things like “Tell your boobs to stop staring at my eyes,” or “Farting is my way of saying I (heart) you.”

In one sense, it seems ridiculous that anyone would travel to Key West and buy a t-shirt that has nothing whatsoever to do with south Florida (“I’m not a bitch, I’m ‘Miss Bitch’ to you”). Still, bringing home a tacky keepsake from Key West can serve as a sort of travel credential — an existential referent that proves you went to south Florida and got drunk enough to exercise bad judgment. Similarly, for Jefferson and Adams, those Stratfordian wood-shavings were tangible proof that they had journeyed across England and touched a chair that had, presumably, once cradled Shakespeare’s butt.

Indeed, in most cases it would appear that souvenir hunting is not a meaningful examination of place so much as it is a litmus test of our own whims and preconceptions as travelers. In Egypt, for example, generations of tourists have obsessively sought relics that remind them of the Pharaonic landscape they’ve seen in books and movies. Hence, all the major Egyptian tourist sites do a steady trade in fake papyrus, Great Pyramid paperweights, and alabaster Nefertiti statues — none of which would be found in the home of any self-respecting Egyptian. Similarly, in Calcutta’s New Market, an unspoken caste system exists between Indian shoppers and souvenir-seeking tourists. The travelers instinctively gravitate into boutiques that sell carved elephant figurines and decorative jars of saffron, while the Indians shop for rubber bathmats, stainless steel pans, and digital calculators. The implication here, of course, is that buying an electric blender might be more representative of day-to-day Calcutta life than buying Kashmiri silk (though, admittedly, a blender would not look as good in your living room).

Although it may be tempting to blame this discrepancy on modern misconceptions, the tourist quest for souvenirs has always been somewhat skewed. In ancient Anatolia, locals hawked supposed Trojan War relics to credulous Greek travelers, and excavations in Italy have suggested that ancient Romans had a penchant for cheap glass vials painted with pictures of contemporary tourist attractions (none of these have been proven to be snow-globes, to my knowledge, but it’s easy to draw a parallel). In medieval times, Christian pilgrims wandering the Holy Land proved to be among the most gullible relic-hunters in human history, as they carted home enough crowns of thorns, Holy Grails, and apostle-femurs to stock a macabre, New Testament-themed WalMart.

If any world culture deserves mention for its souvenir idiosyncrasies, however, it is the Japanese, who have long considered the giving of gifts to be an essential social ritual. Since taking a leisured journey carries a cultural sense of shame at leaving one’s home duties, Japanese travelers reflexively seek out omiyage — small gifts that will be presented as an act of respect to the family members and coworkers they left behind. So common is this practice that some Japanese airports stock souvenirs from around the world in an effort to save travelers the hassle of finding them in their actual destinations. Hence, a given Japanese girl’s bedroom might feature a Mickey Mouse clock, a miniature Eiffel Tower, and a carved Balinese frog mask — each of which represent her father’s past trips to Florida, Paris, and Indonesia, and all which were purchased at Narita Airport.

In pointing out the global-historical foibles of souvenir-seekers, I don’t mean to position myself above the madness. Like so many tourists before me, I, too, have been known to display weakness in the face of Peruvian weavings, Latvian amber, and Korean lacquer-ware.

I’ve found, however, that bringing these items home and putting them on display has taught me an interesting lesson. Whenever I stroll into my office and gaze at my Mongolian masks and Syrian worry-beads, I find that they don’t evoke my Asian travel memories quite so effectively as the beat-up, navy-blue “Bruin Track & Field” t-shirt I wore in both countries.

Strange as this may seem, it makes perfect sense: When I bought the masks and the worry-beads, I was shopping — but when I wore the t-shirt I was hiking across the steppes beyond Ulan Bator, or exploring the mountaintop monasteries outside of Damascus.

Indeed, as novelist Anatole France once noted, I’d wager that “it is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.”

In Stratford-upon-Avon, at least, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams might have done well to heed this advice.

Tip sheet: Souvenir strategies that can reduce the knucklehead factor
1) Don’t confine the notion of what a souvenir is.

Souvenir boutiques will be found in abundance in any major tourist area, but that doesn’t mean you must confine your souvenir-hunt to specialty shops. Any token of your trip — from restaurant placemats, to pressed leaves, to local candy — can serve as a personal keepsake. If seeking gifts for loved ones at home, check department stores and supermarkets before you hit the souvenir shop — odds are you’ll find something cheaper (and just as authentic) in these types of places.

2) Save souvenir shopping until the end of the journey.

Let a souvenir be a souvenir — a keepsake of experience — and don’t go off shopping for knickknacks before you’ve had some real travel adventures. Not only will this give you a social context for your destination before you start commemorating it with collectables, but it will also save you the hassle of dragging this newfound loot around with you as your journey progresses. An added bonus is that, as a shopper, you will have a better sense for the price and quality of your souvenirs once you’ve traveled and made some comparisons.

3) The experience is more important than the keepsake.

In the end, shopping anywhere is still just shopping. Don’t let the hunt for souvenirs get in the way of amazing travel experiences.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on May 9, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Money Management, Travel Bargains, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

August 24, 2014

An interview with Freelance Writer Joe Henley

As part of some tips for successful travel and freelance writing, I decided to interview Joe Henley. He is a Canadian freelance writer and death metal singer for Taiwanese band Revilement who has spent the past few years living in Taiwan, and will released his debut novel, “Sons of the Republic”, on American imprint Library Tales Publishing on September 12th 2014.

He’s an example of someone who set out to live in a foreign country and worked hard to realize the “writer’s dream”. I asked him a few questions to bring his experience as a useful example for other budding wannabe Vagabonding writers. read on… and as Joe says, keep writing.

How did you become a writer in Taiwan? Is being a white English native speaker an asset to break into a foreign country’s journalistic and media scene?

I started off working in academic publishing. I worked a somewhat dreadful desk job for years, actually, churning out articles and test materials for ESL publications. For that particular job, being a native English speaker was definitely part of what got me hired. There are labor laws here preventing companies from hiring anyone for jobs related to the ESL field who don’t come from certain countries wherein English is the official language. Then I started off getting freelance gigs on the side, and gradually built up my stable of regular jobs to the point where I was able to quit that job almost two years ago. It was fucking glorious.

Joe Henley (11 of 33) copyIs writing your main source of income, or is it still some sort of a part time job?

Now it’s my main source of income, though I do still supplement with other work. I’ve got a bit of a radio voice so I can get gigs doing voice overs for various things here and there. But mainly it’s writing and editing now.

Is travel writing a viable market in Taiwan, or do you have to write across different topics/platforms to make ends meet?

I think you definitely have to write across different topics and platforms to make a living. I do some travel writing for various publications, but it’s such a niche thing when you’re only dealing with one country, and a relatively small one at that. One of my regular jobs besides travel writing is covering the local music scene, but I also write about politics, sports, the arts—anything, really. You have to hustle to make ends meet, and that means being as diverse as possible. (more…)

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Category: Asia, Expat Life, Lifestyle Design, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Life

August 16, 2014

The Worst Tourists in the World

Paris20_6164I read with interest a recent study by the Trans-Global Association for Travel and Tourism Commerce, which rated the behavior of tourists from all the world’s industrialized countries. Consistently ranking last in the study — bottoming out in categories ranging from airline etiquette to podiatric hygiene — were travelers from Great Britain. “This settles it,” a TATTC spokesperson was quoted as saying. “The British are the worst tourists in the world.”

Actually, I’m just kidding. There is no such thing as the Trans-Global Association for Travel and Tourism Commerce. I made it up just now, because I know that people like to obsess over international rankings, and I’ve been looking for a chance to poke fun at the British.

Mind you, I don’t really think the British are bad tourists. To the contrary, I’ve usually found travelers from the U.K. to be friendly, well read, and quite prolific in their wanderings. You can find Brits in all corners of the world, from Valparaiso to Vladivostok, and they most always make good travel companions.

The problem I have with the British, however, is that — to a bigger extent than other travelers I’ve met — they seem to be obsessed with stereotypes of national character.

I used to think that British travelers were just disproportionately gung-ho about bashing Americans (apparently, we’re noisy, over-religious, and we’re supposed to use a “u” when we spell “color”). Over time, however, I’ve discovered that Brits also hold strong preconceptions about nearly every nationality in the travel milieu, from the Swiss (officious and dull), to the Japanese (unimaginative and over-polite), to the Argentines (narcissistic and sex-obsessed).

In fact, were I to base my perceptions entirely on the basis of Britannic generalizations, I could very well conclude that the world’s worst tourists are roughly categorized as follows:

  1. Americans: Ignorant. Loud. Oblivious to surroundings. Insincere.
  2. French: Rude. Bigoted. A trifle out of touch with reality.
  3. Germans: Humorless. Rule-obsessed. Unfriendly. Stubborn.
  4. Israelis: Rude. Cheap. Arrogant. Cliquish.
  5. Canadians: Exactly like Americans, but more polite, less ignorant, and twenty times more boring.

Before I go any further here, I will admit three things. First, I realize the circular logic inherent in making generalizations about the generalizations of British travelers (and I apologize if you happen to be one of those Brits who isn’t a nationalistic busybody). Second, I realize that half the readers who’ve stumbled across my column this week have skipped straight from the headline to the above list, and are now typing angry things in the comments section below (especially if they happen to be American, French, German, Israeli, or Canadian). And, third, I’ll concede that the British fixation with national character reveals an impressive knack for world geography (in contrast to us Americans, who associate “Vienna” less with a European city than with canned snack sausages).

Were I a more meticulous analyst, I might posit that this British tendency is the cultural residue of Victorian-era self-superiority (vivid examples of which can be found in most any 19th century British travel guidebook, one of which described Valencian Spaniards as “perfidious, vindictive, sullen, mistrustful, fickle, treacherous, smooth, empty of all good, snarling and biting like hyenas, and smiling as they murder”). Since I’m no scholar, however, I’ll just point out that the British affinity for stereotyping their fellow wanderers is a mostly harmless amplification of what all travelers do from time to time.

The problem here is that assessing your travel companions by nationality is rarely an earnest inquiry so much as it is a dull parlor game — an empty exercise in rhetorical one-upmanship. The worst travelers in the world are, after all, the rude, small-minded ones — and rude, small-minded travelers can hail from any nation.

Moreover, most hostel-lounge arguments about which countries export good or bad travelers fail to take in the local perspective. A few years ago, a survey conducted by international tourist offices found that the oft-disparaged Germans and Americans were rated most favorably by host communities around the world. This rating didn’t hinge on cultural or aesthetic opinions, but the simple fact that Germans and Americans spend money more generously than their tourist counterparts. Economic benefit, it would appear, was more important to local hosts than the common traveler obsessions with fashion, geopolitics, and collective behaviors in tacky backpacker nightclubs.

My point, then, is a simple one: The next time you find yourself in a heated argument over which nation produces the best or worst tourists, this is probably an indicator that you’ve been spending too much time yapping in hostel lounges and not enough time outside having engaged adventures.

And that, in its own way, means you’re a bad tourist.

Tip sheet: How to avoid being an ugly American (or wherever it is you’re from)
1) Study up on the local culture.

Get to know something about a place before you go there. Read novels and travel books about the region, and study guidebooks to learn about customs, manners, and cultural norms. Learn a few phrases of the language (such as greetings, thank yous, numbers, and food terms). Keep in mind that culture expresses itself at an instinctive level — not an intellectual level — and that different standards of time, courtesy, and personal service may apply in far-off lands.

2) Listen, and ask questions.

On the road, make it a habit to talk less and listen more. Travel is hardly the time to extol the virtues (or shortcomings) your home country; instead be curious about how people think in the place you’re visiting. Ask follow-up questions. Seek to maintain open-mindedness, which is a process of listening and considering — of muting your compulsion to judge what is right and wrong, good and bad, proper and improper, and having the tolerance and patience to try and see things for what they are.

3) Avoid arguing politics.

Avoid political proselytizing, regardless of which end of the political spectrum you think you represent. At home, political convictions are a tool for getting things done within your community; on the road, political convictions are a clumsy set of experiential blinders, compelling you to seek evidence for conclusions you’ve already drawn. If you really are liberal and enlightened (or conservative and informed) you will stop yammering about politics and learn something about the culture you’re visiting.

4) Avoid traveling in large groups.

If your sorority or church group or wiccan pilates club decides to travel to Paris or Quito or Bangkok as an eight-some, do everyone a favor and split into groups of two. This will make you less noisy, less self-enclosed, more approachable, and more open to what’s going on around you. If nobody wants to split off from the group with you, tackle the day solo. I guarantee that you will have more memorable adventures on your own than with a big group of travelers.

5) Give respect and you get respect.

Having rigid stereotypes about individuals you haven’t taken the time to know is silly in all contexts. As a representative of your own country, the best way to win respect is to show respect to everyone you meet. Odds are, your hosts will return the favor.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Oct. 9, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Hospitality, Hostels/Hotels, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

August 10, 2014

The Value of Time

It’s an increasingly accepted as fact that, as a nation, we have allowed a work culture to develop where taking time off is seen a sign of disloyalty or lack of care, and where extended time off is more of a concept than a reality. It’s also a given that more and more data suggest that the costs of this approach in stress and lack of free time for rest, recreation and family is having a profoundly detrimental effect on our society.

Traveling in Europe always brings the difference between the US and European cultures with regard to work/life balance was illustrated in sharp relief for me. It’s one thing to hear how the Europeans put priority on the “life” side of the balance, and it is another to see it in action. As many know, the Europeans enjoy social benefits such as maternity as well as paternity leave, and up to six weeks of vacation time per year.

Enjoying life.

Enjoying life.

To see the very obvious benefits of that strategic choice for a shorter work year play out in the lives of everyday Europeans illustrates the point. Watching families strolling in the parks, laughing and chatting happily, on a weekday afternoon or visiting with friends over a drink in a café—enjoying the free time their generous benefits affords them—is to reinforce any stressed-out American’s suspicion that we are on the wrong side of the equation.

Of course, there are economic trade-offs along with such benefits. With less time focused on work and more time focused on free time, GDP is affected and taxes are high to support these benefits. Countries with a historically take-it-easy approach to life such as Italy and Spain had no trouble swapping time at work for time with friends, but how do these policies fare in the more traditionally industrious nations of the north? Does this bother many of them?

Not very much, it seems. “Everyone hates taxes of course,” a German told me, “but we willingly make the trade-off because it’s a good bargain. The time is more valuable.” Another said, “We made the conscious choice to arrange the society this way, with the emphasis on maternal and paternal leave and more vacation time. It has many positive benefits. We just do with a little less material things.”

In a surprising finding that bolsters the arguments of proponents for more European-syle work arrangements, a recent analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (link to the study is here) found that workplace productivity doesn’t necessarily increase with hours worked. Workers in Greece clock 2,034 hours a year versus 1,397 in Germany, for example, but the latter’s productivity is 70 percent higher. In other words, there’s not necessarily the direct correlation that our system is predicated on.

“You Americans kill yourselves with antiquated work policies,” says a French acquaintance. “You have two weeks of vacation, if you are very lucky. We are a very prosperous, industrialized economy with a national healthcare service too. We make it all work.”

I knew it begged an inevitable question, and my friend asked it. “So why can’t you?”

That statement and its inevitable question was put to me many times, in many places. It is a question I brought back to the US with me. It stayed in my mind as my flight arced across the Atlantic and over the North American continent, remaining as an important souvenir. The issue was never about lingering in cafés or visiting the Alps, but rather the stuff of a good life: choices, time and freedom to make of it what we will. Would you be happier and more productive if you had more of these? What will it take for us as a society to finally demand it?

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Category: Destinations, Europe, Images from the road, Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Case Studies, Vagabonding Life

July 29, 2014

Vagabonding book club: Chapter 11: Coming home

wolfe island

“Of all the adventures and challenges that wait on the vagabonding road, the most difficult can be the act of coming home. On a certain level, coming home will be a drag because it signals the end of all the fun, freedom and serendipity that you enjoyed on the road. But on a less tangible level, returning home after a vivd experience overseas can be just plain weird and unsettling. Every aspect of home will look more or less like it did when you left, but it will feel completely different.”

Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, Chapter 11 by Rolf Potts

Of all of the journeys we make the journey home is often the most displacing. 

When we take off from everything we know and dive, head long, into the great and glorious unknown, we do so knowing that there will be discomforts, things will shock us and we’ll be confused. We are mentally and emotionally prepared for the culture shock and the disparity between everything we are, everything we know, and the new realities that will engulf us.

In coming home, we often don’t take into account that, after an extended time away, living in an entirely different reality, we’re doing the very same thing in reverse. We hit the ground taking for granted that everything will be the same, assuming that we know what to expect, feeling as if it should all be easy. Except it’s not.

For me, the hard things aren’t what one would expect to be difficult: Big box stores completely overwhelm me, after a year of shopping in markets and corner stores. The onslaught of language on my senses: In my second and subsequent languages, I can choose what to make the effort to read and filter what I don’t want to bother with. In English, I can’t help but read every single word. I can listen to one conversation at a time, and let the background chatter in a foreign language rush by me. In English, I hear the guy three rows behind me in the bus complaining about his girlfriend’s mother and it drives me batty. It’s having to make a choice between twenty brands of ketchup. It’s Fox New’s trite treatment of a country no one can find on a map. It’s the sudden lack of Kinder Eggs.

It never fails, I hit the ground expecting “home” in all of it’s warm and comforting glory, and instead I find that I’m once again an alien in a strange land. It only helps marginally to remember that it’s me, not “them.” On seven levels, re-entry is wonderful. On seven more, it’s unsettling, and hard to navigate without weirding out the people who love us most. I’ve learned three things that seem to help somewhat:

  1. Talk less. (I love Walt Whitman’s admonition to, “leave the best untold.”)
  2. Listen more. (This is our approach abroad, when we’re trying to learn, why not at home?)
  3. Give it time. (In time you’ll find the ways in which the you you’ve become will integrate and enrich everything you rediscover at home.)

What about you? What are your experiences with re-entry and coming home? What have you learned? How has it changed you?

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Category: Travel Writing

July 19, 2014

Skepticism and salvation in Cyprus

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Photo Credit: TeryKats via Compfight cc

Perhaps I never would have met the Iranian had it not been for the influenza
epidemic raging across Europe at the time. Because of the flu,
Larnaca — a holiday beach town on the southern coast of Cyprus — was
nearly empty of tourists. I was walking along the deserted beachfront
promenade when a lone man in coveralls approached me.

“I am from Iran,” he said. “I think you are not from Cyprus.”

I smiled at both the man’s abrupt introduction and his unusual appearance.
He looked like he’d just come in from bow-hunting deer in Idaho: dark-green
coveralls, heavy boots, a bright orange stocking cap. He wore thick
glasses and looked to be about 40 years old.

“Yes, I’m not from Cyprus,” I told him. “I’m from America.”

“America!” the man exclaimed. “I have an American nickname: Harrison.
Like Harrison Ford. I made up this name because I like Harrison Ford, and I
love America. In my mind, I think that America must be like Paradise. Is
it wonderful to live there?”

“Well I wouldn’t call it Paradise, but I like living there.”

“I wish I could go to America, but I cannot get a visa. So last week I came
here to Cyprus instead.”

“Vacation?”

The Iranian scoffed. “For me, there is no vacation. I come here to fix
satellites.”

“Satellites?”

“Yes, that is my work. The police in Iran don’t like satellites, so I have
to come to Cyprus. There are many satellites in Larnaca.”

Since I was quite certain Cyprus didn’t have a space program, I decided to
clarify. “What kind of satellites?”

“Satellites!” Harrison exclaimed. He pointed skyward and waved his hands
around. “In Iran, the police say they are bad for women, so I have no
work.”

“How are satellites bad for women?”

“With a satellite, women can see too many things. They can see Dallas.”

“Dallas?”

“Dallas! Julia Roberts! CNN! The police think women will forget their
duty to Islam.”

“Oh, right. You fix satellite dishes.”

“And many other electronics. But Iran is not a good place for me to live or
work. I hope Cyprus is better. Tell me, did you come to Larnaca for
living?”

“No, I’m just here for a visit.”

“A tourist! You come for the beach, or to see Lazarus?”

“What’s Lazarus?”

“Lazarus. He was friends with Jesus. His tomb is here. Don’t you read the
Bible?”

“Of course, but I’m pretty sure his tomb should be in Israel. And it should
be empty, since the story is that Jesus raised him from the dead.”

“Yes, but after Jesus gave him life, Lazarus decided to come to Cyprus. If
you wish, I can show you where is his tomb.”

“Sure,” I shrugged. “Let’s see it.”

As I followed the stocking-capped Iranian away from the beachfront, I
couldn’t help chuckling at the thought of Lazarus choosing to come to
Cyprus (of all places) after his resurrection. I kept getting this mental
image of a post-miracle press event at the open tomb in Bethany, with
reporters shoving in to ask questions. “Lazarus,” I imagined them saying,
“Jesus just raised you from the dead after four days in the tomb — what’ll
you do now?” And instead of Disneyland, Lazarus tells them he’s going to
Larnaca.

“Why do you smile?” Harrison asked me as we went down the winding back streets of Larnaca in search of the tomb.

“I’m just wondering why Lazarus came to Cyprus,” I said. “I’m wondering
what he did when he got here.”

The Iranian shrugged. “He died again, I think.”

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
Lazarus or no Lazarus, I had never planned on going to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in the first place. Originally, my plan had been to find a direct flight from Rome to Cairo. I’d soon discovered, however, that Cyprus Air offered passage to Cairo at less than half the cost of other airlines. The only catch was a 24-hour layover in Larnaca. Always a sucker for cheap airfare, I went for it.

The drawback to this was that I arrived in Cyprus without any idea of what I
could see or do there. The tourist authority at the Larnaca airport gave
me a stack of brochures, but it seemed self-defeating to spend much time
studying them when I had only a day in the country. When I’d skimmed over
the parts about how Larnaca featured the St. Lazarus Church, it never occurred
to me that Lazarus himself might be there. The Iranian who called himself
Harrison set me straight.

“Do you believe in Lazarus?” he asked as we made our way to the tomb.

“Well, I don’t really believe he was raised from the dead after four days,”
I said.

“But his bones are here in Larnaca! Don’t you believe in the Christian
God?”

“I believe in God, but I also believe in a healthy dose of skepticism.”

“What is ‘skepticism’?”

“Skepticism is like doubt. A skeptic is someone who doesn’t believe very
easily. That’s me.”

“Do you believe in artificial blood?”

This question threw me a bit. “Artificial blood? Like in the movies?”

“No, in real life. The blood that people use.”

“I don’t think I know about that.”

“It comes from America, and doctors use it. I read this in a magazine, and
it sounded crazy. Still, I am not a skeptic. I think it is real. I want
to see it and know what color it is. I want to know how it is made. Do you
know where I might see some?”

“Actually, this is the first I’ve heard of anything like artificial blood.”

“You are a skeptic.”

I laughed. “Or maybe just ignorant.”

Harrison reached out and took me lightly by the arm. “Do you know how to
get a visa to America?” he said in a quiet voice.

“Not really,” I said. “I’m from America, so of course I don’t need a visa
to go there. Why do you want one — you want to see artificial blood that badly?”

“Iran is a bad place,” he said, ignoring my clumsy joke. “There was some
hope before, but things are getting bad. The elections will make things
worse. I don’t want to go back; I want to leave.”

“What about Cyprus? Aren’t you going to stay here?”

“My visa is only for three months. But while I am here, I want to get an
American visa. Can’t you help me?”

“I’d like to, but I don’t know anything about the visa process. Especially
for Iranians.”

“Can you write down for me your name and address in America? Maybe it would
help if I had an American friend.”

“I don’t think having an address will make a difference. Especially the
address of someone you just met in the street.”

Harrison looked a bit hurt by this comment. “But I think we are already
friends,” he insisted.

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
St. Lazarus Church is a sturdy stone structure in a clean courtyard not far from the old Larnaca Fort. Harrison waited outside as I entered to discover a narrow maze of wooden pews, vaulted ceilings and curving stone-block columns. Ornate chandeliers hung from the stone arches, and an intricate gilded iconostation dominated the front of the church. Byzantine saints with golden halos peeked out from every wall and corner. A painted wooden altar in the middle of the church contained a silver crucifix and large glass disc fastened down with a ruby-studded rim. Beneath the glass was the yellowed crown of a human skull.

According to church tradition, Lazarus went to Cyprus in about A.D. 33 to
escape persecution at the hands of the Jews in Bethany. He settled in
Larnaca (then called Kition) and was consecrated as the first bishop of
Kition by the Apostles Paul and Barnabas. During his time in Cyprus,
Lazarus never smiled save on one occasion, when he saw someone stealing a
pot and said, “The clay steals the clay.” His melancholy demeanor was said
to be a result of the four days his soul spent in Hades before Jesus raised
him from the dead. He died for the second and final time in A.D. 63, and
the present stone church was built on the site of his tomb in the late ninth
century.

Harrison was waiting for me outside when I’d finished peering around inside
the old church. “Was it a good place?” he said. “Are you glad I showed it
to you?”

“Yes,” I said. “It was very interesting.”

“Do you believe in Lazarus now?”

“No, I’m afraid I’m still a skeptic when it comes to Lazarus.”

“I am not a skeptic. I believe in Lazarus.”

“Are you a Christian?”

“Of course not!” he laughed. “I am a Muslim.”

“Do Muslims believe in the miracle of Lazarus?”

“The Koran does not speak of Lazarus. But the Koran does say that Jesus
could do miracles. I think it is bad to be a skeptic. I think you should
believe.”

“A skeptic believes in many things, but he also doubts. All I’m saying is
that I doubt the miracle of Lazarus.”

“But how can you doubt miracles if you believe in God?”

“God is God — I just don’t believe he deals much in miracles. I don’t much
believe in believers, either. That’s how skepticism works.”

Harrison nodded solemnly. “There are too many believers in Iran. I think I
am a skeptic sometimes, too.” He paused for a moment, then went on. “Do
you think I am a good man?”

“Sure, I think so.”

“Then can you please give me your address for an American visa?”

“I don’t think my address will make a difference on your visa.”

“But will you give it to me?”

For some reason, I didn’t want to encourage what seemed like a doomed
enterprise. “It will take a lot more than my address to get you to
America.”

“But will you give it to me?”

I gave Harrison a hesitant stare, still not comfortable at being the object
of such blind hope. “OK,” I said finally. “Give me some paper.”

Harrison unzipped his coveralls and took out a small, dogeared notebook.
“If anybody asks, you must tell them I am your friend.”

“I think I can do that,” I said. I took the notebook and wrote down my
American address — touched by Harrison’s desperate sense of optimism, but
still skeptical at his odds for a new life.

When I’d finished, Harrison thanked me profusely and made vague plans to meet me that evening. After he’d gone, I stuck around the courtyard to stroll
through the Byzantine museum and examine the marble graves in the adjacent Protestant merchant cemetery.

Before I went back to the waterfront, however, I returned to the St. Lazarus
sanctuary to get one more look at what may or may not have been the bones of a man who may or may not have been raised from the dead.

 

Originally published by Salon.com in February 2000

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Category: Rolf Potts, Travel Writing

July 15, 2014

Vagabonding Book Club: Chapter 10

Offerings, Bali

“Thus, travel compels you to discover your spiritual side by simple elimination: Without all the rituals, routines and possessions that give your life meaning at home, you’re forced to look for meaning within yourself…. Indeed, if travel is a process that helps you “find yourself,” it’s because it leaves you with nothing to hide behind– it yanks you out from the realm of rehearsed responses and dull comforts, and forces you into the present. Here in the fleeting moment, you are left to improvise, to come to terms with your raw, true Self.”

Chapter 10 Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts

This chapter falls in an interesting week for me, having just finished walking the Camino de Santiago, 800 km, France into Spain a little over a week ago. It was an interesting thing, to make a pilgrimage as a non-religious person. My experience, over the years of travel, has been the same as Rolf’s, in that the moments of greatest spiritual impact and growth have, invariably, been mundane moments and not visits to great temples or sunrise yoga sessions. For me, the forward motion of travel has become a meditation of its own; a ritual that draws me back to the essentials of my internal life. Lightening my physical pack and lightening the internal loads as well.

I love the image of how travel systematically strips away all of the things that we hide behind: material possessions, relationships, jobs and titles, busy-ness, social constructs and a million other things. We’re left standing in the world, naked, with no one looking except ourselves. It is in that moment that we begin to see who we really are. Sometimes it’s necessary to walk naked for quite some distance before we can begin to pick up a few things and clothe ourselves intentionally in the lessons we’ve learned and the discoveries of self as we relate to the whole, in both the temporal and spiritual sense. To me, the truest of spiritual revelations have their boots fully grounded in the mud on the trail.

How about you? Do you travel for spiritual reasons? Where have you been? What have you learned? What surprised you about the journey?

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Category: Travel Writing

July 13, 2014

Lessons from a tour guide, part I

This week I returned from a month and a half overseas working as a tour guide, helping to lead two different groups on an epic Best-of-Europe grand tour. The experience was a new one for me; after years of exploring the continent’s cobbled backstreets and ancient cities as a solo travel writer, I found myself with the unique opportunity of being a guide for one of America’s most well-respected touring companies.

plane image for blog

A couple of concerns dogged me as I flew over the Arctic Circle, the plane making its slow path from my home base of Seattle to the tour departure point of Amsterdam. Questions like, how would I be able to handle a large group as we steam across the continent day in and day out? And, how will the mechanics of moving groups from one site to the other in an efficient way work? But these concerns paled next to the most significant challenge: Helping the scores of American travelers connect to the history and culture of the places they came so far to experience.

Staring out my window at the endless expanse of the north Atlantic, I began to feel the weight of the responsibility settle into my gut. How do I curate this experience for our flock? I’d always done it for myself just fine; teaching others how to appreciate the richness of Europe was something I’d never needed to do beyond my writing. It was easy enough to crank out articles about the places I’d visited and about the treasures—the food, the history, the people, all the things that make up the culture—those places had to offer. Would I be able to help our travelers connect to them and appreciate them in the same way that I did?

A final goodbye to the group near the Eiffel Tower at dusk.

A final goodbye to the group near the Eiffel Tower at dusk.

The teaching I’d done before—giving free travel talks at public libraries to would-be travelers who were interested in learning how to create their own independent European adventure—was indispensable. The classes I’d taught had given me a sense of what tickled a traveler’s fancy and what common-sense issues they worried about. This gave me the advantage of being able to anticipate questions and concerns, sometime before the group members even knew they had them.

The true challenge was facilitating the tour member’s experience of the culture. It was in trying to cast new food experiences as a part of good travel, as “sightseeing for your palate”. It was in helping them fend off museum overload by urging them to see the art of the Louvre and the Accademia with their hearts rather than their mind. It was in not rushing through another “check the box” locale (don’t rush through St. Mark’s square, I counseled, just take your time and find your own way to relate to the space). And it was in fending off cathedral overload by teaching that architecture was art we walk through—art that took generations of devoted believers and craftsman to create—rather than just another drafty old building.

Helping the group appreciate the elegant, historic decay of Venice is a challenge when the city is crowded and hot.

venice 1

Finally I kept the old teacher’s maxim close to my heart: “The task of the teacher is to honor the integrity of fact while at the same time igniting the student’s imagination.”

Over the course of the following weeks I’d work on striking that balance, always trying to bring long-ago stories and long-dead people to Technicolor life. Success for the tour guide also means the tourists returning home knowing that the struggles, the tragedies and triumphs of those who inhabited the majestic castles and cobbled city streets so long ago set the stage for the world as we know it today.

The trick to achieving that was helping them forge an emotional connection to the events a given site had witnessed; that its history was not just a collection of faceless dates and facts, but human beings with hopes and dreams who lived in similarly dramatic times of war, economic uncertainty and dramatic social change. Those folks tried to make the best of it, and somehow got through it. We can too. But more than just the appreciation of history, it’s the appreciation of the culture that really informs a successful travel experience. My hope is that the tour members came away with a renewed perspective on how Europe’s endlessly varied tapestry of cultures, while wonderfully diverse, are similar to our own in the most fundamentally human ways.

If you ever find yourself in the trying but satisfying role as tour guide, I think you’ll find that those lessons are your tour members’ best souvenirs.

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Category: Europe, Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Case Studies, Vagabonding Life

July 1, 2014

Vagabonding book club: Chapter 9: Be creative

directions

“In retrospect I see that my stress wasn’t the product of indecision; the conflict arose from my impossible desire to be in all those places at once. in knowing that so many destinations were cheaply accessible at that very moment, I suddenly feared that I would never again get the chance to see them. Travel, I was coming to realize, was a metaphor not only for the countless options life offers but also for the fact that choosing one option reduces you to the parameters of that choice. thus in knowing my possibilities, I also knew my limitations.”

I was raised by vagabonds. My parents hitchhiked continents and hopped freighters in between before I was born. When I was 8 they rolled my brother and I into the back of a 1964 Ford Econoline van that my Dad named “vagabunda” and drove us into the deep south for the winter. They did it again when I was 13. Who needs third or eighth grades? We talked a lot in my childhood, and even now, about this very point that Rolf elucidates: That to choose one life, one path, one moment, is to actively NOT choose a myriad of others.

It is a thought that has stuck with me as I’ve built my own life, followed my own passions and traveled with my own family. It’s not that any one path is inherently better than another, it’s just that they lead in very different directions and one must have the presence of mind to think long term enough to see past the first bend in the road. The necessity of commitment to a path, of releasing the ties other paths might have on one’s heart, the ties that lead to indecision, questioning, and regretful “what ifs.” On the flip side of that coin, the necessity of flexibility, the willingness to trust a path to the fates and follow where they leave, and the willingness to change your mind, change your path and create a new one if needs be. Ultimately, there is much to be said for being able to come to grips with the choices you’ve made, the parameters you’ve set for yourself, the limitations of the current set of choices, and live within the moment. Accepting what is. Changing what you can as it suits you. Moving forward with purpose. Exercising creativity to keep passions fresh and alive.

How do you choose a path and then keep it interesting as you go?

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