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January 29, 2007

The dangers and joys of travel writing: a Q&A

As I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog, college students researching journalism, travel literature, and Americans abroad interview me quite frequently. I rarely see the final result of these academic research projects, but I always find the interview process interesting — and hence I will share some of these interviews in coming weeks.

I’ll start today with this 2006 Q&A from Syracuse student Tatiana Munoz, about the inherent challenges of travel writing:

How long have you been a travel writer? Did you have any experience in any other aspect of journalism before you ventured into travel writing?

I’ve been a full-time travel writer since November of 1998. Apart from a few freelance gigs here and there, I was never formally into journalism before that. I’ve never had a newsroom job.

What countries has your career taken you to?

Over 50 countries around the world, though I’ve done most of my work in Asia, the Americas, and Europe. A selective sampling of some of the countries I’ve reported from is online here.

Some might speculate being a travel writer is all glitz and glamour. However, journalists often argue that couldn’t be farther from the truth. How do you view your job in relation to other journalists in the newsroom?

As I said, I don’t have any newsroom experience, so it would be hard to compare. But the glamour aspect of travel writing is somewhat of a myth. People have this impression that travel writing is a permanent vacation — that you’re out there on some beach, sipping cocktails and writing about it. To the contrary, travel writing is very much a job, and it’s all about the work you do, and how well you do it. You have to talk to people, study the history and culture of the place, have experiences, gather practical information, get into adventures. It’s often fun, but it’s often frustrating. Not everyone can pull it off effectively.

I suppose there is a certain glamour to the job that comes from traveling overseas a lot, but it certainly isn’t leisure travel. You are out in the world investigating, seeking, distilling things into narrative. Travel writing is one of the last great “generalist” professions, where are you integrating all this knowledge — geography, history, religion, language, culture, art, literature, music, architecture, ecology, biology, anthropology, sociology, storytelling, politics, philosophy — into one coherent narrative that communicates place and culture to the people back home.

What are the dangers travel writers face on a frequent basis? What are some underlying dangers the public would never guess you have to deal with?

The dangers depend on where you go, and the terrorism fears one reads about these days rarely factor into the situation. Unless you specialize in war-zone tourism (which isn’t terribly ethical, considering that this implicitly encourages your readers to compromise their safety for thrills), dangers are going to be workaday dangers: common crime, road accidents, bribes, and sickness. Sickness is especially relevant since I often write about adventure travel, and this takes me to remote areas. I’ve had cholera, dysentery, giardia, malaria, you name it. This is much more of a concern for me than is terrorism or political danger.

How, if at all, has your job been effected by the numerous acts of terrorism taking part across the world? Are there places you simply would not travel to right now?


The only way terrorism has affected my job is that it lessens market demand (from publications) for areas that are perceived to be dangerous, like the Middle East. I was living in Asia when 9/11 happened, and the demand for Asia stories really dried up for awhile, because advertisers and readers were skittish about that part of the world. But in time the market demand returned.

The only places I wouldn’t travel to now are explicit war zones, like Iraq, parts of Afghanistan, parts of Sri Lanka, parts of Columbia, areas of Africa. I don’t do war zones — not just for safety reasons, but because I object to the fact that war somehow legitimizes a place geographically. Why flock to political hotspots? Why not go to Eritrea or Paraguay or Azerbaijan simply because they are wonderful places?

What is the most dangerous or most frightening experience you have had while on assignment?

I’ve had a handful of dangerous experiences: cholera in Laos, dehydration in Israel, paramilitaries in Burma, whirlpools on the Mekong. I got drugged and robbed in Turkey (not frightening, really, because the drug gave me amnesia and I don’t remember a thing past a certain point). I’ve driven some dicey mountain roads in India and Peru. I can’t say that any one instance stands out. Riding a moped in Thailand or getting to drunk late at night in a dicey part of San Salvador can be much more dangerous than the Indiana Jones type stuff.

What makes you want to get up and do this every single day? Why not work with entertainment or political journalism?

Like anything you love, it’s an obsession. I think about travel all the time. I’m always scouring maps, memorizing cities and valleys, reading up on new places. Every time I read history or anthropology or spirituality, I mentally tie it into travel somehow. Travel writing can be hard to maintain financially, but finances don’t matter as long as I can keep doing what I’m doing. I’m sure entertainment and political journalists – the ones who love their jobs, anyway – are similarly obsessed.

What advice would you give student journalists today, who are working with the hopes of one day becoming a travel writer?

Travel a lot. Read a lot. Write a lot. Unless you’re obsessively well-traveled, well-read, and committed to developing your narrative voice, you’re going to get out-written by people who are willing to concentrate on these things.

Rarely do people become professional travel writers before they have done lots of travel on their own dime – so be prepared to do that. One great way to do this is to live overseas for awhile. Get a job as a stringer or an English teacher or a bartender and experience a culture at gut level for awhile. It will make a huge difference in how you perceive and experience other cultures.

It also helps to find an area of expertise. An area of expertise might be a physical area, such as Southeast Asia or Scandinavia, or the Rocky Mountains; or it may be a travel specialty, such as extreme sports, or golf, or low-budget travel, or spa travel. Keep in mind it will take you a long time to accumulate expertise — but you’ll have fun doing it. With enough expertise, you may be able to write for (or create) guidebooks, and you can do lots of freelancing on the side.

At the end of the day, though – and I’m sure this holds true for all kinds of journalism – how well you write will make or break you. You can have the wildest adventures on earth, or understand a culture through and through, but unless you can write well, your career isn’t going to go anywhere.

Does it get lonely on the road? How long are you away on assignment at any given time?

It can get lonely, but I’m a fairly solitary and self-contained person. You have to have a personality for it, and if you get lonely easily, travel writing might not be for you (unless you want to focus on urban travel writing, like covering restaurants and nightclubs).

On assignment I’m usually away for a week to a month. I don’t like spend less than a week traveling on assignment; it’s not enough time to go slow and experience things properly. Often, I’ll put several assignments or spec projects together at once, and I’ll be gone for several months at a stretch. The longest I’ve been away from the States at a stretch was 18 months. But that’s rare.

Is it hard to maintain normalcy traveling so much? How often/how many months out of the year would you say are away?

I’m usually traveling or living overseas 8-10 months a year. Some people travel much less; others live overseas full-time. This much travel doesn’t contribute to a traditional understanding or “normalcy,” but that’s OK. I maintain my own kind of “normal” – a peripatetic normal, and that works for me.

What do you see the future of travel writing? Do you think the war and the constant threat of terrorism is going to affect the field?

War and terrorism will only affect travel writing in periodic doses. The world is a big place, and there will always be safe and fascinating places to visit and write about. In the short run, war and terrorism concerns will probably make the market demand for travel stories more conservative – less exotic, more consumerist and closer to home. But for every trend in one direction, there is a counterforce, and people will tire of bland destination reporting, and that will create a counter-market for more exotic and adventure travel writing. So I’d reckon travel writing is pretty self-sustaining.

War and terrorism aside, I think that travel writing is very much going to be affected by new media. There will always be a demand for classic, well-written prose travel narratives, of course, but blogs and podcasts and online video will affect how people learn and report about the rest of the world. This, in turn, will affect how professional writers research and sell and report stories.

Posted by | Comments (4) 
Category: Rolf's News and Updates


4 Responses to “The dangers and joys of travel writing: a Q&A”

  1. Mark Hodson Says:

    Nicely put. I like the point about being the last of the generalists. I’d say the biggest dangers are ennui and poverty. But there’s the thing: every travel writer will have a different perspective.

  2. Karen Bryan Says:

    I enjoyed reading this interview. I too picked up on the point about being a generalist as a travel writer but I think that Rolf stressed the key point that as a writer you have to be able to communicate the “spirit” of your subject to people back home. I suppose I am a travel writer if you define that as writing about travel. I write as a method of marketing my travel business, Europe a la Carte. I tend to write destination guides to less well known destinations in Europe. I don’t consider my guides to be meaningful literature, just increasing the profile of these destinations, a source of links for more information and enriching the content of my website. Hopefully readers may consider visiting one of these destinations instead of just sticking to the well worn tourist track.

    With regard to new media I agree that it will inevitably change travel writing. I’ve tried to embrace this by starting a blog on my website 3 months ago. A blog does increase visitors to my site and help you come up higher in natural searches.

  3. Fernando Shawaiki Says:

    I wanted you to know that if your eBook would have reached my hands two years ago, then all chances were that me and my husband savings, that we have laboriously saved in the bank for years, were still be in our possession.

  4. The dangers and joys of travel writing: a Q&A | Vagablogging « El Literati Says:

    [...] Rolf Potts Vagabonding Blog Rate this:Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. Tagged adventure, travel [...]

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