#BPTravel 2013: Thoughts On Travel Writing And The Journey Of Life

Two weeks ago, one of the most intense and invigorating periods of my year occurred: the annual Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. For four days, some 90 students and 25 faculty members met in an intimate bookstore in Northern California for workshops, panels, and evening events that celebrated travel writing, travel photography, and much more.

Over the four days of the conference, as every year, unanticipated insights took seed and risks took flight, and some profoundly important lessons and dreams were conceived. Usually I write a piece summarizing the conference for Gadling, but this year an excellent summary has already been posted. And somehow, what I want to say about the conference, or about the thoughts that emerged from the conference, all seemed to come together in my concluding speech.

In those final remarks I said some things I’d planned to say and some things I absolutely hadn’t planned to say, things that just spontaneously erupted in me as I talked. That eruption, I think, is part of the magic of an event like this, where unexpected connections and mysterious interweavings occur, where you learn things you didn’t even know you were learning and grow in ways you didn’t even know you’d grown.

Here are some excerpts from my remarks. I hope they touch you with something of the spirit those four days cultivated in me, and I hope they enrich your journey, in the outer world and the inner world, too.


One of the things I like to preach when I’m in my preacher mode is that whatever you put out into the world comes back to you a hundredfold, and I feel like this conference embodies that. The generosity that the faculty put out comes back to them. The risk-taking that you put out comes back to you in the best possible way. So much of it is about you going out into the world with the right spirit. The world rewards you when you do that, and I hope that’s one of the takeaways you’ll bring back into the larger world from this conference: What you put out into the world comes back to you….

For me this year is especially important. A month ago, a great party was held in this very room. The occasion was the fact that I had one of those unfortunate birthdays where you age by 10 years overnight. I went to bed in one decade of my life and woke up in another. That birthday was my 60th birthday. For about two years prior to this, 60 was the Voldemort of birthdays for me. I could not pronounce its name out loud. I was so absorbed in the idea that turning 60 meant that I was really, really, really old. And I didn’t want to deal with that. I just wanted to ignore it, or deny it.

And then I had an epiphany, that this is what happens in life: You have a fear and the more you deny it, the more you empower that fear. And then the more you decide to embrace that fear, you immediately empower yourself. I realize that turning 60, or saying that I’m turning 60, is not a death-defying act. But for me it was a very big leap of something. I decided to just say, “OK, world, I’m turning 60.” And it felt great.

What this taught me about fear was that we have the ability to either create a fear and let it grow and prosper, or deflate a fear and take it away. And on the road, as in life right here at home – I believe that we’re always on the road, wherever we are – the way you get rid of a fear is you embrace it. So I embraced that. And I hope that’s a takeaway for you from this conference: that whatever your fear is, embrace it. Embrace it.

It’s about risk-taking. It’s about journeying into your discomfort zone and how that can magically open things up for you. I think that’s an important lesson….

What it comes down to for me is that while I believe that our souls go through various mutations and continue when our physical bodies don’t, I also believe that our souls inhabit our physical bodies one at a time, and we’re here right now, each of us in our physical presence and with our souls, and for all practical purposes, this is it: This is our one chance to live life as fully and gracefully and graciously and lovingly as possible. This is it.

Every single moment, this is it. This is your moment. This is your moment. This is your moment.

The more you infuse those moments with integrity and honesty and passion and attentiveness and the desire for quality and the desire for connection – and to me, the word that really summarizes all of these is love – the more that you infuse every single moment of your path, of your journey, of your life, with love, the bigger and better and richer you become. And everybody around you becomes bigger and better and richer by that too.

And that’s travel, that’s travel writing, that’s travel photography, that’s dish-washing, that’s laundry – it’s really everything, it’s a part of every single thing that you do.

What I hope you’ll take away from this on your journey is that it’s your responsibility to be a steward of the planet, to be a steward of your own stories, to give them the care and the nurturing that they need and to let them out into the world when they’re ready to be let out into the world, and to be a steward of your relationships and connections with other people.

I hope that you will spread the love that you felt here. If you take the seeds of love away with you and scatter them around the planet, we’ll all be so much the richer for that, and this world will be such a better place for that. That’s your sacred responsibility now, your sacred trust.

#lpmemories: Some Personal Reminiscences And Reflections

When news emanated from the Melbourne headquarters of Lonely Planet two weeks ago that the iconic publisher of guidebooks and related travel titles was laying off up to 80 editors and other staffers, shock waves reverberated throughout the travelsphere. LP is the world’s largest guidebook publisher, with 500 titles covering 195 countries, produced by hundreds of writers and editors, and speculation surged in social media and old school journalism circles alike that this move portended the end of print guidebooks, or at least the demise of LP as a guidebook power.

Shortly after the announcement and its aftermath, LP’s new owners, NC2, which had purchased the publisher from BBC Worldwide in March, released a statement saying “At the end of last week, Lonely Planet began engaging with its global workforce regarding its plan for the future, which includes a restructure of the business. Since that process began, reports have emerged in the media that Lonely Planet has plans to exit the content business. These reports are untrue and stand in stark contrast to the company’s renewed commitment to great content for both print and digital offerings. … Lonely Planet remains committed to delivering quality content to our travellers, as we have over the last 40 years. There are currently no plans to reduce our breadth of destination content, or our product offering in digital or print. Large scale cuts to our guidebook publishing list are unfounded and categorically untrue and Lonely Planet is committed to continuing to publish guidebooks.”

Despite this assertion, debate about the fate of print guides in general and LP’s in particular has spread, and some other publishers have been moved to reaffirm their commitment to keep their guidebooks in print. Pauline Frommer, who with her father recently reacquired the Frommer trademark from Google, wrote to me in an email: “Starting this October, we’re going to be putting out 30 new editions: 10 will be updates from the very popular Day by Day series, and 20 new guides in a series we’re calling The Easy Guides. … We hope to be up to 80 titles by next fall. (We do recognize that digital media is a huge tool for travelers and so concurrent with the print publication of the guides will be the publication of e-books and apps, and the upkeep and expansion of Frommers.com.)” And Rick Steves, head of his own eponymous empire, wrote me: “I am very much committed to print. … Our guidebooks are literally selling better than ever. I have 30 or 40 in print and, as I have every year for the last 25, I’m in Europe right now for 4 months researching with my team.”

No clear conclusions about the future of publishing can be drawn at this point from the LP news, but one truth has emerged very clearly from the reaction to that news, and that is how deeply important guidebooks are to many people, how they become intimately interwoven into the narrative of our lives. This truth has found poignantly rippling expression in a Twitter thread – hashtagged #lpmemories — started by longtime LP author Celeste Brash.

“I started #lpmemories in reaction to all the layoffs because I was sad and sharing the good times with people was a therapy,” Celeste wrote me.

“The first post was on July 19th: ‘Once, in Sulawesi I had the honking King of taxi drivers. He honked at sticks in the road when he had nothing else to honk at #lpmemories.’ I followed this with two more #lpmemories, then Zora O’Neil, another LP author, chimed in. I did a few more, then LP authors Sally O’Brien and Sara Benson got in on it. Elizabeth Eaves got in on it somewhere in between as the first non-LPer, so I tweeted: ‘Thanks @ElisabethEaves! Hoping #lpmemories are for everyone, @lonelyplanet users, authors, whoever.’

“The first reporter to pick up the story was Bronwen Clune from the Guardian. Then everyone started writing about it, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Time, the Telegraph and then the New Yorker. It’s just taken on a life of its own. But the story was always the same (and based on Bronwen’s information — she was the only one who reached out), that #lpmemories was a sort of eulogy for LP and guidebooks in general. I’m not sure either of those are dead. My original intention was just to think about the good times in honor of my colleagues who had just lost their jobs and LP which had just fired a big part of the heart of the company, the many people who made it what it is.”

A week after it launched, the #lpmemories thread had lengthened to many hundreds if not thousands of tweets, with posters ranging from battle-scarred LP author-veterans to everyday on-the-road enthusiasts. Reading the thread feels like attending a joyous-sad, wanderlust-full wake-cum-celebration, filled with nostalgia-drenched 140-character recollections of misadventure and magic.

Tracking this journey has been profoundly poignant for me. I was the Global Travel Editor at LP from 2001-2007, and I have my own treasure chest of indelible memories from that period, but much more deeply, the company has been an integral part of my traveling life since the summer of 1978, when I set off from Tokyo for a two-month meander through Southeast Asia with a compact yellow book titled South-East Asia on a Shoestring in hand.

Already dubbed the Yellow Bible by fellow backpackers, this guide — increasingly tattered, beer-stained, curry-spattered, starred, underlined, and scribbled-in-the-margins as the trip progressed — became my invaluable travel counsel and companion; it told me where to eat and stay and what to do, but even more importantly, it gave me essential bits of history and culture that taught me how to act respectfully in a place and how to peer under its surface and get a sense of its heart and soul. Years before Lonely Planet co-founders and Shoestring authors Maureen and Tony Wheeler became actual friends of mine, they felt like friends because of their ground-level approach to foreign cultures and their personal voice that seemed to speak directly to me -– and to all my fellow tribe members who traipsed around Asia clutching their tome like a talisman.

I used the Yellow Bible to navigate Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It took me to Lake Toba and Yogyakarta and Bali, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca. When I was marooned by a missed bus connection in what seemed a middle-of-nowhere place called Kuala Kangsar, it comforted me with news of a historic temple I should visit. And when I arrived exhausted and famished in Penang, it led me to a soul-reviving guesthouse and a street-stall feast that was one of the best meals of my trip. The Wheelers’ advice was straightforward and simple, and delivered with we’ve-done-this authority and god-we-love-travel passion.

Recalling this period now, 35 years later, it feels to me like the beginning of a travel revolution. Coinciding with larger economic and technological changes that suddenly enabled more and more travelers to venture more and more widely around the world, the LP guidebooks inspired and empowered people to explore on their own. And crucially, by example and edification, they encouraged travelers to take seriously the history and culture of the places they were visiting, to take time to learn about the beliefs and practices prevalent there. Do so and you’ll have a deeper, richer, happier experience, they preached. And they were right. But the usually unspoken and even more important message was that this kind of attitude/approach was fundamentally important on a human level.

In this sense, I believe that the Wheelers, and other early, enterprising guidebook creators who promulgated similar principles, played an immeasurably important role in encouraging travelers to become better world citizens, to be both knowledgeable and empathetic about other peoples and places, and to appreciate the everyday from the local person’s perspective. Like the best travel writing of all kinds, their work — and the works of the hundreds of similarly impassioned and empathetic writers and editors they hired over the years — brought the world closer together.

Consider the ever-expanding ripples of this effect over the company’s 40-year history, and you could argue that on a popular, person-to-person level, LP has contributed as much towards world understanding and peace as any other institution on the planet.

Of course, I’m biased. From 2001 to 2007, I wrote a weekly column for lonelyplanet.com and was the global spokesperson for LP. I’ve edited seven LP literary anthologies, with an eighth scheduled for publication next year. I’m the author of LP’s Guide to Travel Writing, which has been the signature creation of my professional career. So I owe a great, great deal to Lonely Planet. In addition, Tony and Maureen Wheeler are personal friends, and though I left the LP staff six years ago, I’ve maintained friendships with dozens of colleagues in its Melbourne, London and Oakland offices.

But for two decades before I joined the LP staff, I was just a far-flung fan like any other, relying on its guides to find my way around and into more than 80 countries, from the haute cafes of Paris to the hinterlands of Pakistan. Perusing the guidebook on the plane became a rite of passage for me, the blessing of each new adventure. It opened the portals of possibility, posing the head- and heart-quickening question: What wonders await?

Many of those wonders were pointed out in the books, but equally important, the books gave me the grounding confidence to venture out and find other wonders on my own. This is just as much a legacy of LP for me as the hostels, festivals, and off-the-beaten-path attractions it spotlighted. LP gave me the courage to leave the guide in the guesthouse and explore beyond its pages. Ironically enough, it made the planet less lonely, more friendly. It paved the path to a truth I found time and time again: that people around the world generally care for each other, whatever their background, ethnicity, and political and religious beliefs, that kindness is the glue of human connection.

I began this rambling word-journey thinking I would recall some of my own most poignant #lpmemories. But I realize now that the path has led in a different direction, that the hashtagged signpost has pointed me to a very personal celebration of the past and a heartfelt hope about the future of LP. From the Yellow Bible to the Blue-Spined Book, LP has immeasurably enriched my life’s journey and, as that ever-lengthening Twitter thread testifies, the life journeys of innumerable people around the world. In an age when intractable divisiveness, superficial advice, and anonymous expertise threaten to become the norm, its legacy and calling seem more important than ever before.

Commencement Address: Five Lessons From The Road

One year ago I attended my daughter’s graduate school graduation. And this Sunday I’ll be attending my son’s college graduation. Two major rites of passage in the span of one year. It feels like a quantum life-leap.

These endings, and beginnings, have made me want to write my own Commencement Address, to synthesize and sculpt into some kind of word-permanence whatever wisdom I’ve accumulated in my five-plus decades on this planet. In some ways this feels like my last opportunity to convey something essential, important, life-bonding and life-liberating, to my kids.

So I’ve started to try to distil what I’ve learned in my adventures, and in looking back, I’ve realized that in many ways my education began when I graduated from college and moved to Paris for the summer and then to Athens for a year on a teaching fellowship.It was in making that uncharted leap, when most of my friends were taking the well-mapped paths to graduate school, business school, law school and banking, that I really started my own life journey. That was my true Commencement. And that was when so many lessons began to coalesce.

Here are five that stand out for me now.

1. Pursue your passion: If I have one mantra that I’ve followed throughout my life, it’s this one. It started with that impetuous decision to live abroad for a year, and it continued at the end of that year, when I had to decide whether to go to graduate school in creative writing or comparative literature. After a sleepless Athenian night, I chose the path of my passion: writing. And it is no overstatement to say that everything that has happened to me professionally since then – the fulfilling, fortuitous life I have made as a traveling scribe for the past three decades – is a result of that fateful choice.

So, my number one precept would be to pursue your passion, and to keep your mind open to the opportunities that pursuit provides.

2. Listen to your gut: Early in that Parisian summer, after a frazzling week trying to find an apartment, I was faced with two final choices. One was located in a fashionable tree-lined neighborhood and was sparkling clean and modern; in comparison, the other seemed dingy, threadbare and old-fashioned. But the latter building had towering wooden entrance-doors that opened off the rue de Rivoli, and a creaky filigreed elevator that rose ever-so-slowly to the third floor, and the apartment had airy French windows that opened right onto the Tuileries. Somehow it just felt right. I took it and the neighborhood quickly became my home away from home, where the local café-keeper automatically brought my café creme and the six-table sawdust bistro always soothed with perfect biftek-frites, and the soul-soaring Ile de la Cite was only a dusk-lit walk away. And when I came home each night, I felt like I was walking into the heart – threadbare, dingy, old-fashioned – of the city I loved.

That was the beginning of an indelible lesson: When in doubt, silence the world around you and listen to your heart. Since then, whenever I have been traveling and trying to decide if I should follow Path A or Path B, I have heeded the still voice inside me. It’s never wrong. And it’s the same with the big decisions about Life-Path A or B too. Deep inside, we know which way we should go. The challenge is to cut through the din of our fears and imposed preconceptions and the roar of others’ expectations to hear the deep core.

3. Open yourself to the universe: When I moved to Paris, the world presented me with infinite opportunities to make a fool of myself. To begin, there was my unshakeable American accent. Then there was my habit of unconsciously employing 19th-century poetic vocabulary in decidedly unpoetic contemporary situations. And of course, in terms of etiquette, I was a coarse New World refugee with no map of Old World niceties. But I waded bravely/foolishly into the social sea, and was unexpectedly rewarded. People were charmed by my ”genial” American accent, they admired that I wasn’t afraid to stretch my French in all kinds of settings, they delighted that Baudelaire and Verlaine would spring from my mouth in corner markets, and they even envied my oh-so-American ”liberation” from Parisian politesse.

The importance of this life-truth has grown exponentially for me through the years: Wherever I have wandered, I have always found that the more you open yourself to the world around you, the greater the world around opens up to you. When you approach people wholeheartedly, they respond to you the same way, and in some subtle equation of chemical interaction and energy flow, the universe responds the same way too. Yes, this means taking risks – putting yourself in situations where you don’t know the accepted way to behave, or where your fallibility may be spotlit for everyone. But perfection is a prison, while embracing your imperfection unlocks more treasures, in more unexpected ways, than you could ever have conceived.

To put this another way: If you think you know everything, you’ll never learn anything; so exhilarate in the accumulation of knowledge, and in the wisdom that this accumulation will seem less and less, the more you learn.

4. Trust in the kindness of strangers: I cannot count how many times I got lost that summer in Paris, how many times I had to ask in faltering French how to get from here to there, or where this restaurant or that museum was, or how to get home after the Metro had stopped for the night. Every time someone kindly took me in hand and told me what I had to do.

And so it has been all the years since. I have an uncanny knack for getting lost and this has graced my life with kindness all around the globe. I have been invited into Greek homes for ouzo and Viennese restaurants for Sachertorte; I have learned about carpets in Jordan and tatami mats in Japan. My experiences as a traveler have demonstrated over and over again that people around the world basically like one another and want to do well towards one another. And this is by no means restricted to me. A few years ago I decided to test this thesis by asking my well-traveled friends if they had experienced the same kindness on the road. The result was a mind-opening, heart-warming collection of travelers’ tales entitled – what else? – The Kindness of Strangers.

So – don’t hesitate to rely on your fellow humans when you are in need; you will be amazed by their generosity, and hopefully you will be inspired to help others in return, creating a kindness continuum without end.

5. Don’t be afraid to get lost: This is clearly a corollary to Precept #4, but I mean it in a larger metaphorical sense as well. It is natural to get lost – in the winding back alleys of Paris and in the back alleys of life. In Paris, getting lost led to some of my finest discoveries – the peaceful pocket-park no one seemed to visit, the secondhand bookstore with the lovingly tended tomes, the fountain where the children in shorts sailed little wooden boats.

It is natural that sometimes you will feel like you’ve lost the map and don’t know which way to turn. This is when you ask someone for directions – and if you’re in Kyoto or Calcutta, some kindly citizen will go a half hour out of her or his way to deliver you to the doorstep you’ve been seeking. And you may discover some gem you would never have found along the way.

You will get lost in life as well. But getting lost bestows the possibility of getting found. The key is to never give up: open yourself to the world’s possibilities, listen to your core and consult the compass of your passion. You are the roadmap you seek. And the journey winds always inward as well as outward.

The journey you embark on is long, and full of hills and twists and wonders. You will experience more than you can possibly imagine, and as the years go by, you will see that the journey reduces to fewer and fewer things, and that these are incalculably precious.

Embrace joy. Cherish friendship. And love.

Five Scenes From A Spring Sojourn In Kyoto

I’ve just returned to Japan to lead a tour of Kyoto and Shikoku for two and a half weeks. In my first 24 hours here, in Kyoto, I’ve tried to pay special attention to everything because I know that our first impressions in a place are always the freshest. After a day or two, the initially striking detail becomes commonplace. Three things have struck me tellingly in these first 24 hours. The first is the way every package in Japan – the toothbrush in my hotel room, the little cookie wrapped in plastic, the dried squid I bought in the convenience store – comes with a tiny triangular slit cut into one end, so that you never have to struggle to open it. The second thing is the ubiquity of vending machines. One of the first things I noticed after going through customs in Osaka airport was the bright blinking vending machines that offered both hot and cold drinks – actually, I’d forgotten about the hot drinks and only realized this with a start after I pushed what I imagined was a nice cool ice coffee and picked up a hand-burning hot coffee instead. Last night I passed literally a dozen vending machines in the two-block stroll I took from my hotel in Kyoto. And the third thing is this: this morning, my first morning in Kyoto, I took the elevator from the 14th floor to the second-floor dining room for the breakfast buffet. On my way back to my room, I shared the elevator with three neatly coiffed and coutured middle-aged women. They were going to the 10th floor, and when the elevator reached their floor and the door opened, the women all bowed to me and said, “O-saki-ni, shitsureishimasu.” Translated, this means: “Excuse me for leaving before you.” For me, these three things symbolize Japan’s pervading thoughtfulness, dedication to service and consideration of others. It’s wonderful to be back!


I learned a new word today: sakura-hubuki. Literally this means “a rainfall of cherry blossoms.” My tour group experienced this pink-petaled rainfall as we walked along the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto past a sparkling stream. Cherry trees line the path and at one point the breeze swelled and suddenly we were surrounded in swirling soft-scented petals, landing gently on our shoulders and gathering in our hair like snowflakes. Magic!


When it rains on a spring day in the back streets of Kyoto, a different world emerges: the grays and blacks and whites of the cobbled streets shine, the fallen cherry blossom petals glisten in pink relief against the wet stone, the branches of the trees seem drenched in bright spring green, umbrellas blossom and the tittering Japanese tourists in their brilliant rented kimonos seem to have sprung from a woodblock scene.


I have just spent an out-of-time hour at a traditional tea ceremony. The gracious and elegant hostess explained the intricate choreography of the ceremony, where each minute gesture – stepping into the tea room, wiping a bamboo spoon, whisking the tea, turning the bowl toward the guest – is carefully thought out and requires weeks or even months to master. She said that “wa-ke-se-jaku” is at the heart of the tea ceremony; “wa” is harmony; “ke” is respect; “se” is purity; and “jaku” is tranquility. After an hour I emerged feeling entirely refreshed but even more, transported – as if I’d been taken to a different plane entirely. And then I realized that I had – I’d been transported to the plane of wa-ke-se-jaku.


In the cobbled, winding-lane neighborhood of Kyoto I’ve adopted as my home, I’ve just discovered a tatami-matted teahouse with its own private garden, where koi lazily swim, water plonks from a bamboo spout, and moss patches the pocks in ancient-looking rocks. I am sitting on tatami sipping matcha, thick green tea, and nibbling on a rice paste and red bean sweet and scribbling in my journal. I love the neighborhood temples of Kyoto, the perfectly tended pocket parks, the museum-like shops that sell grainy bowls and shiny lacquerware – but I feel like I could stay in this tranquil tatami-matted space for a day and a night and never feel the need to leave. I need look no further; Kyoto is here.

Travel Writing Legend Jan Morris To Appear Onstage In New York May 8

Legendary travel writer Jan Morris is making a very rare visit to the U.S. next week to appear in an onstage conversation with me in New York City on Wednesday, May 8. The Wales-based author of more than 30 books, ranging from the masterful essay collections “Journeys,” “Destinations,” and “Among the Cities” to such classics as “Pax Britannica,” “The World of Venice,” and “The Matter of Wales,” Morris is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She is also the last surviving member of the expedition team that made the first successful ascent of Mount Everest 60 years ago this month. As fate would have it, Morris’s dispatch announcing the team’s success appeared in the London Times on the same day as Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, a life-changing tale she recounts in her book “Coronation Everest.”

Morris will be discussing that historic expedition in our conversation. For me the meeting is also an opportunity to honor and celebrate the entire life and work of one of the most engaging and influential travel prose stylists of our time. From her magisterial “Pax Britannica” trilogy to her groundbreaking on-the-road dispatches for Rolling Stone magazine to her poignant recent book “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere,” Morris has profoundly inspired and affected me and virtually every other travel writer I know. As I once wrote for Salon, “Rereading her works, I remember how much I love her attention to offbeat details, her eye for emblematic characters, her gentle humor and pointed wit, her encyclopedic knowledge of history and art and the ongoing dance of research and apprehension, description and analysis that whirls through her writing. And, too, I love the way she approaches the world with a genuine sympathy, with an openness of mind and heart that allows her to penetrate past prejudices and preconceptions, to see the soul and spirit of a place.”Indeed, in the way she writes and in the way she moves through the world – in her life-enhancing enthusiasm and quickening curiosity, in the way she treats all sentient beings, humans and animals too, with a gentle dignity, in her humility, humor and wholehearted embrace of kindness as a universal ideal – she sets standards to which I aspire.

I’m extraordinarily excited to have this opportunity to talk with her onstage and I’d like to include you in the conversation. I hope you can come to the event at the New York Times Center at 7 p.m. on May 8. The evening is a benefit for the American Himalayan Foundation, and tickets can be purchased here: http://geoex2013morris-eorg.eventbrite.com/.

And whether you can come or not, I’d like to ask you: What question would you like me to ask Jan Morris on May 8?