After last weekend’s Book Passage Travel Writer and Photographer’s Conference, I came away thinking of travel writing less as a fun way to expand my portfolio of published clips and more as a path to world peace.
It shouldn’t have surprised me, I know. I have two degrees in international business, driven by my belief in a quote attributed to one of the founders of my grad school: “Borders frequented by trade seldom need soldiers.” Yes, commerce was a part of it, but my real interest in international business was seeing the world and getting to know other languages, cultures, belief systems. (Or, as my dad used to sigh when faced with an undergraduate tuition bill: “Are you sure you don’t want to be a flight attendant instead?”) Each time in my business career that I had the chance to work with colleagues or clients in another country, my own sense of the world grew a little larger. And whether I liked it or not, I was an American ambassador in that role, with all the responsibility the title entails. Conversation by conversation, meeting by meeting, I had the chance to build bridges of understanding with people from other countries. (My all-time favorite business book? Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, about the nuances of business etiquette around the world.)
Then I remembered how much I hate accounting a few years back, and became a writer. Something like that, anyway.
I’ve always thought that travel writing would be a nice way to combine the education my parents bought me with the one I’ve gotten one keystroke at a time. And the Book Passage’s annual conference in nearby Marin County was the only place to start. I won’t drop all the names here, but if you check the covers of any guidebooks or travel magazines or newspaper travel sections you have lying around the house, there’s an 80% chance their authors were my teachers last weekend.
Also, yes, because I know you, Midlife Mixtape readers: one faculty member was a Brat Packer. Andrew McCarthy was gracious, self-effacing, and funny, and clearly held in highest esteem by the travel writing greats. If you want to feel close to Blane again, go buy his book.
The days were long, conducted in the nooks and crannies of Book Passages’ fabulous Corte Madera location. We learned what travel editors look for in a story pitch (hint: don’t pitch “The Pubs of Edinburgh” to a magazine for a driving association.) We learned the travel writing clichés to avoid like the plague, from “city of contrasts” to “quaint” to “off the beaten path.” We learned that if everything goes right, there’s nothing to write about.
When the sessions ended, well after dark, we cocktailed, karaoked, and ate delicious dessert waffles.
Mostly, we were reminded that travel makes our worlds both bigger and smaller. In the course of the weekend I heard stories about how a broken down bus in a dusty Indian village was the start of a beautiful friendship, conducted mainly in pantomime; that a nightmare before a solo trip to Turkey was an inverse reflection of the kindness shown on the actual trip; that charm lurks even in the most packaged hotel experience, once you throw s’mores into the mix. (True story: the small group that workshopped the s’mores story was led by Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet, who had never heard of s’mores before. It’s not often you have the chance to teach the world’s most famous traveler about a new cuisine.)
But the session that got me right in the tear glands was on Sunday afternoon, called Travel That Makes a Difference. Four panelists, all esteemed travel writers, talked about the moments in which they realized how powerful travel writing is in protecting vulnerable places and people. If you want to make grown travel writers cry, ask them about the transformative kindness they’ve experienced on the road.
Tim Cahill, founder of Outside magazine, called it “the conspiracy of caring” – the power travel writers have to make people care about and conserve places that they may never even see. Jeff Greenwald, whose website Ethical Traveler educates travelers about the social and environmental impact of their decisions, shows how travel can be a potent form of diplomacy, and gives travelers a forum through which their united voices can serve the world community, handed out bookmarks with 13 Tips for the Accidental Ambassador. They include “curb your anger and cultivate your sense of humor,” “learn and respect the traditions and taboos of your host country,” and “learn to listen.”
Every night when I got home from the conference, exhausted, I stayed up another hour to catch up with the news in Ferguson via Twitter. And it struck me how the lessons we learned about being good travel writers – to listen, to be respectful, to maintain a sense of possibility, to understand that “different” is not the same as “bad,” and above all to not panic when things went wrong – is exactly what’s needed in Missouri, and everywhere else in our country, right now. We don’t need a passport to exercise these practices. We are Human Race Ambassadors, with all the responsibility the title entails.
Wonders await out there, in this cruel, crazy, beautiful world. Get moving.
- An Irreverent Curiosity by David Farley
- The Best Women’s Travel Writing edited by Lavinia Spalding
- Pass the Butterworms: Remote Journeys Oddly Rendered by Tim Cahill
- Shopping for Buddhas by Jeff Greenwald
- And of course, the Bible of travel writing by supermensch and founder of the Book Passage Travel Writing Conference, Don George: Lonely Planet Travel Writing.
I’ve been doing a little travel, at least on the Interwebs, in the past week…
What’s that creak in your hip? Check for the Top 9 Signs You’re Hurtling Toward Middle Age, over at NickMom.
And Huffington Post picked up my piece on advice to an incoming high school freshman, called “Find Yourself a Lisa.” PS Brian saw it on Facebook and accepted my apology for insinuating that he drank strawberry wine coolers back in the day.