Eliot Stein on travel, writing, and Sardinia

Growing up, Eliot Stein wanted to be a cowboy, Michael Jordan and a shepherd (in that order). One year, his father gave his brother and him a journal and told them their summer homework was to write a page a day until school began. Soon, Eliot wanted to combine the journal-style writing he had grown to love with the nomadic shepherd lifestyle he dreamed of having.

Today, Eliot is a professional freelance writer and photographer. He’s hosted a radio show in Tuscany, kayaked through the Virgin islands and—most recently—lived in Sardinia for several years, writing the only English-language guidebook to Sardinia penned by a local resident.

We recently caught up with Eliot via e-mail:

How have you made long-term travel work for you and how do you think others can do the same?
Like so many other travelers, I started teaching English as a way to vagabond around the world. In America we have the incredible fortune of being instantly employable in hundreds of countries just because of our language. I’ve also looked for volunteer work opportunities abroad—the kind that gives you free room and board in exchange for a few hours of service each day. Both of these are incredible ways to immerse oneself in foreign cultures without a full wallet.

What do you think are the best ways to combine travel and writing?
Go to places that inspire you to think. Don’t plan the kind of vacations that lead you racing through a city, country or continent to catch every museum, historical site or statue written in a guidebook. Allow time to sit back and observe. Keep a journal, look for the telling details, and interact with locals as much as you can. As Rolf can surely attest, the best travel writing comes from venturing off on your own and learning about places by meeting people, not by standing in long lines.

How did you come to live in Sardinia for three years?
Well, legally, there’s a lot of red tape to trudge through… or just hurdle. I had just graduated college and finished a gig leading tour groups from Sicily north to the Alps, but I had never visited Sardinia. There was something kind of sui generis and far-flung about it that really appealed to me. Plus, I was fortunate enough to find a magazine in Rome willing to publish my Sardinia articles, which led to the guidebook.

Do you think Sardinia is still relatively “undiscovered”?
It depends who you ask. Europeans flock to its beaches in droves each summer and oligarchs, soccer gods and models have been puttering around the Costa Smeralda since the ‘60s. But Americans tend to stick to the traditional north-south Venice-Florence-Rome-Amalfi Coast itinerary when traveling through Italy. In many ways, those places have become victims of their own popularity and you often hear just as much English as Italian walking down the street. In Cagliari, Sardinia’s capital, I could count the number of Americans on one hand.

Is it significantly easier to write a guidebook to a place where you live?
I thought it would be, but I actually found it a lot more challenging. Just like when a friend comes to visit your city and you end up pointing out every corner, store or landmark that is significant to you, I found myself constantly wanting to include more details than I could. I ended up writing 60 pages over my publisher’s limit!

How do you think traveling will change in the coming years?
I think the economic recession has actually done a lot to promote long-term travel. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who have lost their jobs and have decided that it’s cheaper to backpack around, say, Central America, than it is to stay at home and look for work. For many people, this is the first time that they’ve ever had the time to work abroad, volunteer or just jaunt from place to place. If the economy ever picks up, there will be a lot of folks reluctantly trading in their backpacks for briefcases, still dreaming of wanderlust. I think this latest cycle has really planted a seed and I wouldn’t be surprised if more people start looking to work as a means to fund long-term travel in the future.

Posted by | Comments (1)  | July 14, 2009
Category: General, Travel Writing

One Response to “Eliot Stein on travel, writing, and Sardinia”

  1. Susan Felderman Says:

    Hello I am heading to Sardinia and would like to connect with Eliot perhaps he could guide me to specific lodging in the traditional parts of Sardinia where I can learn how the locals live off the land. Would you be open to forwarding my contact info? No where can I find how to contact him. Thank you, Susan