Being And Nothingness: Questing For Indolence In Ubud

OCTOBER 5, 10:30 a.m. — I’m sitting by my private villa’s footprint-shaped infinity pool at the Royal Pita Maha resort in northern Ubud, Bali. I’ve been on Bali for five days now as an invited guest at the gloriously cornucopic and chaotic Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, a five-day literary love-fest that brings together 130 writers from more than 20 countries with hundreds of literature enthusiasts to celebrate words and humanity. We’re in day three of the festival and I’m totally loving it. I’ve already had stimulating conversations with dozens of wonderful worldly people and I feel that my personal planet is broadening and broadening with each encounter.

And that’s in addition to the sublime joy of being in Ubud itself, which – once you get away from the main drag, which is clogged with motor scooters, taxis, touts, trucks and tourists – bestows still a little piece, and peace, of heaven.

I taught an all-day travel writing workshop (with students from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, England and the U.S. – we were a world-girdling odyssey without going anywhere!) two days ago and pontificated on a panel about travel writing yesterday. Tomorrow I have a full day of back-to-back panels on travel writing, the intersection of food and culture, and the future of publishing – but today, my schedule is enticingly, exhilaratingly, panel-free.

I have been thinking that I should spend the day exploring the less-touristed northern and western corners of Bali, or paying homage to some of the island’s renowned temples, or re-visiting the villages I wrote about on my first journey here 34 years before….

But sometimes as a travel writer you have to do things that just don’t come naturally, that take you way out of your comfort zone. And today, I’ve just impetuously decided, is one of those days. Sitting on my terrace under the batik blue sky, contemplating a day that stretches as infinite as the pool before me, I’ve resolved to try to do something that I haven’t done in a very, very long time: nothing.

That’s right, I’m immersing myself in indolence.This is a challenge. I haven’t been indolent in so long that I can’t even remember what it feels like. But I suspect it’s kind of like riding a bike. Or not riding a bike …

Indolence is the inspiration for innumerable vacations every year, but as a travel writer, I’ve always taken a gritty pride in never being indolent. Perhaps because most people assume that all travel writers ever do is lie under palm trees doing nothing, for most of my professional life I’ve sneered at the notion of lying under a palm tree doing nothing. I’ve pitied the poor salarymen and women who spend their holidays basting on beaches and call it travel.

But after two of the most hassled, harrowing, hectic, pushing-me-to-my-limits-and-beyond weeks of my life just before I galumphed onto a plane for the 24-hour passage to Hong Kong and Denpasar, I’m having a mini-epiphany about indolence: it’s time to embrace it.

11:30 a.m. — Indolence isn’t easy. I let my guard down for a moment and before I realized it, I’d swum a dozen laps in my private villa’s oh-so-private pool.

I swam naked, if you must know. I started to ease myself into the pool in my bathing suit, and then I realized that no one could see me and that normal patrons probably pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege of jettisoning their swimsuits and surrendering themselves to the bath-warm, arak-clear liquid in all their newborn glory, and it seemed heresy for me not to do the same. And now I’m lying (naked, if you must know) on a very comfortably padded chaise longue, on a soft towel striped in shades of sand and brick under a wide green sun umbrella, worshipping the gods and writing in my weathered and oh-so-understanding journal …

I’ve got my trusty Lonely Planet guide to Bali by my side, and I just thought that I could write a brilliant meta-postmodern-deconstructionist-neo-existentialist story about a travel writer exploring Bali by lying poolside in Ubud for an entire day reading the Lonely Planet guide to Bali – and then that seemed so entirely not indolent that I dropped the idea like a hot corn fritter.

Vigilance is all …

1:00 — I just went for another quick swim – the water was calling me — and now I’m lying on my chaise longue and the thousand shades of green on the hillsides around are massaging my mind and the sun is a heated compress on my back and the palm fronds rustling in the wind and the intricately thatched roofs and the artistically arranged rocks are all gamelan-ing in hypnotic synesthesia, and I’m thinking the truest way to achieve indolence would simply be to be, to be here now, and I’m realizing there is really only one way to do this, and that is to simply put down my pen and do nothing at a

[Photo credit: Don George]

Previewing The 2012 Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference

Every year peoples’ lives are changed utterly by the Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference. I know because they tell me. Every year I get a dozen emails from people who say their careers have taken off, or they’ve been inspired to travel around the world, or they’ve gotten a photo or a story published, or they’ve landed a magazine assignment or a book contract because of something they learned, someone they met, some connection they made, at Book Passage.

As co-founder and chairman of the conference, I leap – well, my heart leaps – when I get these emails. Because that’s why Book Passage owner Elaine Petrocelli and I founded this conference 21 summers ago: to share our passion for great travel writing and photography, to inspire people by presenting the very best practitioners of these crafts, and to change peoples’ lives.

It’s astonishing to me that the conference is once again right around the corner: This year the dates are Aug. 9-12. The location is the same as always, Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, CA, about 15 minutes north of San Francisco. And there are still spaces open for participants.

Who will be there this year? I’m tremendously excited that the great Susan Orlean will be gracing the conference, along with award-winning actor-turned-travel-writer Andrew McCarthy, bestselling Wall Street Journal veteran Julia Flynn Siler, and travel icon Pauline Frommer. Among the stellar faculty will be photographers Robert Holmes and Andrea Johnson, writers David Farley, Pam Mandel and Chris Gray Faust, and editors Julia Cosgrove of Afar, Loren Mooney of Sunset, Jim Benning of WorldHum, Spud Hilton of the San Francisco Chronicle, David Lytle of Frommers.com, Robert Reid of Lonely Planet, and Larry Habegger of Travelers Tales – and rumor has it that Gadling editor in chief Grant Martin is flying in for a special appearance as well. You can find a full list of the faculty here.

What’s the conference like? It’s a four-day fest of morning workshops, afternoon panels, and evening readings and on-stage conversations, of passion and expertise leavened with a big helping of laidback camaraderie (and spiced with a dash of karaoke), where just about everyone mingles easily and learning happens in myriad planned and unplanned ways. For me, it’s like summer camp for travel writers and photographers. But to give you a better idea, I’ll just direct you to Lavinia Spalding’s wonderful write-up after last year’s conference. To my mind, she captures the spirit of this singular, soaring celebration that has truly become one of the highlights of my year.

If you have any questions about the conference, I’d be very happy to answer them. And if you love travel writing and photography, I hope to see you there!

To get more information and to register for the conference, click here.

[Flickr image via Stephanie O]

Paradise Regained: Revisiting La Colombe d’Or In St.-Paul-de-Vence, France

June 28, 2012; at La Colombe d’Or, St.-Paul-de-Vence:

Conjunction of memory and moment: Nineteen summers ago I sat in this limestone-terraced restaurant in the medieval marvel of St.-Paul-de-Vence, experiencing a time-stopping, life-enlarging afternoon that has become iconic for me. Now I am back, my journal opened to a page as white as the brilliant sunlight that splashes over everything here, and then to a much earlier page, all blue scribbles and a fading blush of Provencal wine.

I am ensconced under a white parasol at a red bouquet-brightened table, looking out on a somnolent scene of green hills and straw-colored houses with terra-cotta roofs.

I have just finished a truffle salad – so redolent I felt transported before taking even a bite – and now I’m sipping a chilled vin rosé, eating buttery bites of crusty-tender baguette, and sliding ineluctably into heaven once again.

I feel like I’m in a Matisse canvas – bright white flagstones and sun umbrellas, green hills, red roofs, blue sea and sky. Then the sun dapples and it’s an Impressionist scene, a Renoir moment as the maitre d’ ceremoniously ushers diners to their tables and they exclaim at seeing old friends – “You’re here! Yes, you too!” – kiss-kiss, take their seats, and sigh. The rosé flows, and time slows.

The waiter appears and – just as nineteen years before – places before me with a flourish an artful platter of grilled sea bream, dauraude royale.

Bon appétit, monsieur,” he kindly purrs, and pours some more wine.

Around me is a symphony of sounds: the clink of silverware on china, the splash of wine into glasses, the mellifluous laughter and multilingual chatter of diners in summery clothes.

An American family of three sits at the table in front of me, and I lean forward to recommend the truffle salad. They are from Napa Valley, it turns out, an hour’s drive from my home, and we exclaim at the wonder of meeting people so close so far away – and the sheer joy of sharing such a singular place on such a singular day.

The family to my left joins the conversation. They are from Newport Beach, in southern California, and have made the pilgrimage here from a cruise ship docked in Monaco for the day. Soon a woman appears at my shoulder, smiling. “Ojai,” she says, and then from the table behind me, a voice trills, “San Francisco!”We are all caught up in a buoyant bubble of bonté and bonhomie – a celebration of life’s bounty and of our own good fortune to be sharing it on this sun-dappled summer terrace in the middle of one of the most blessed places on Earth.

I take another sip of rosé, savor the perfect daurade with green beans and watch the choreography unfold – a ballet of white-shirted waiters bearing bottles and platters, the maitre d’ surveying the scene, calls for flutes of Champagne here, moans over delicate bowls of luscious red framboises there, kiss-kiss and sit and sigh.

To my right is a vibrant Leger mural, wrought into a section of the terrace’s streetside wall. And as I have just reaffirmed on a rambling restroom detour, the rustic interior rooms here still house an astonishment of modern masterpieces – canvases by Picasso, Dubuffet, Dufy, Miro, Chagall, Picasso, Braque, and Matisse, among many others, all given by the artists when they were still struggling unknowns to the generous and perspicacious owner, the late Paul Roux, in lieu of payment.

This place is an enchanted little world, I think – reluctant to take fork to fish, reluctant even to move, wanting to hold and savor this moment forever.

Awaiting me, I know, is a medieval meander through the cobbled alleys of St.-Paul; an espresso at the Cafe de la Place, where I will watch local gentlemen enact their afternoon rite of pétanque; and then a serene stop at the exquisite Chapelle Folon, which had not even existed nineteen summers before.

Some things change, and some things stay the same.

But for now the world is wondrously reduced to this: the sunlight catching in the canopy of branches above and blessing the hills beyond, the murmuring music of the diners behind me, the perfume of the flowers mingling with the scents of the chef’s seasonings, the exuberant atmosphere of artwork all around, the cobbled stones beneath me, the fish and bread before me, the wine as red as the flowers, the tablecloth as white as the parasol; an ineffable moment of ease and artfulness, a soul-fulfilling scene of life lived to the full.

The platter of now absent daurade has been whisked away and replaced with an ebullient bowl of fulsome framboises. Slowly, dreamily, the California fan club rises, smiles, waves, exchanges cards, prepares to go their own way – and the afternoon shimmers and sighs, as ephemeral and endless as this last glass of rosé I raise in my hand, in toast to the marriage of memory and moment in this blessed land.

Encountering Monet At The Musee d’Orsay

Reading Gadling’s marvelous Museum Month posts has reminded me of a trip I made two decades ago to Paris. I had fallen in love with that exhilarating city in the mid-1970s, when I lived there for two successive summers, first after my junior year in college and then after graduation. I returned in 1988 to celebrate the city, and as part of that celebration, I wanted to write an essay about the poignancy and power of the artworks I had discovered at the Louvre, the Musee Rodin, the Musee de Cluny, the Petit Palais, the Musee d’Orsay, and many other museums and galleries.

First I thought I would write about all the showplaces for art that I liked in Paris, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t possibly do justice to so many places in a compact piece. I had to focus. I considered describing my favorite three museums, then just one museum, then three rooms in that museum, then three favorite pieces of art there. But though I narrowed my focus more and more, every one of these subjects still seemed too broad.

Finally I decided to focus on one painting in one museum, my favorite painting in all of Paris. I installed myself near that painting for about an hour, and scribbled in my journal. I have that journal before me now. Here’s what I wrote.I have been looking at Monet’s “Les coquelicots,” the painting of two women and children walking through a field of bright red poppies on a sunny, cloud-dappled day, for about 40 minutes. It moves me just as profoundly now as it did when I was last in Paris 12 years ago; it still tugs deep within me, cuts through all the layers to something fresh and fundamental and childlike.

At first I stared at it closely, my nose within a foot of the canvas, so close that I could see the black-dot eyes of the child in the foreground – something I had never seen before, or at least never remembered seeing.

Get that close and you reduce the painting to its elements: layers of oil paint on canvas, brush strokes, dabs, tiny tip-tips with the brush. You realize just how fragile a thing a painting is, and just how common. And you realize too that it was made by a man – fragile, common – who stood at the canvas and thought: “a little more red here,” dab, dab; “a cloud there,” push, push; “how can I capture that light?”

Look at the painting closely this way for a few minutes and you break it down into an intricate complexity of colors and textures and forms.

Then step back and – voila! – all of a sudden it is a composed whole, a painting: a cloud-bright sky and poppy-bright field, a woman with a fancy hat and a parasol and a child almost hidden by the tall grasses in the foreground, and in the background another woman and a child almost obscured against a distant stand of trees. They are on a walk, or a picnic – a story begins to compose itself, to take on a life inside and outside the canvas.

And you realize that this is a kind of miracle, that colors and shapes dabbed on a piece of cloth 115 years ago have somehow reached across time and culture to touch you.

Look long enough and feel deeply enough, and your eyes fill with tears.

And when you feel these wet, cool, unexpected tears, you look around you suddenly as if waking from a dream, and see men and women in shorts, blue jeans, dresses and sportcoats, holding guidebooks and pointing at the canvas and sighing, or whispering in passionate appreciation.

You feel strangely displaced – for a moment it was your painting, or rather, you were a part of it, and now you are outside it again – but then you think, “This too is part of the miracle, that one painting can touch so many people.”

You think of art’s extraordinary power, that a scattering of people and poppies in a field can push age, despair, fatigue and cynicism away, can focus you so intensely on this time, this place; that time, that place.
You stand close to the canvas again and see the complexity of colors – the fields all gray, brown, green, yellow-green; the poppies red and pink; the sky a mixture of light and dark blues; the clouds gray, purple, white.

You see that the forms are simple: a gently rolling landscape; smoothly, sparingly suggested people. And that the child in the foreground holds flowers that are almost the same color as the band in his (her?) hat.
You step back one last time and see peace, lightness, a sense of infinite wonder and potential, a childlike purity.

And when you return to the luminous streets you know you will hold that vision in your head, like a handful of flowers on a country-bright day.

You know that you have returned to Paris. You know that, deep inside, you were never away.

[flickr image via biscarotte]

In Praise Of Service Journalism

service journalism - travel magazinesMy career in the travel world started out by pure luck. I was assigned to work a temp office gig in the PR department of Condé Nast Traveler for two weeks, which turned into two years at the magazine, four more at a PR agency for hotels and travel providers and two more here at Gadling. Before and throughout my career, I’ve always been a major consumer of travel media, whether I’ve used it to inspire and help plan my personal travels, as a resource for how and where to pitch my clients, or for story ideas and to keep up with industry news. Some of my favorite stories to read or write have been service pieces, the much-maligned but reader-popular side of journalism.

Service journalism has been called the “fast food” of journalism, providing the reader with “5 of the World’s Sexiest Beaches!” or a suggested itinerary for exploring the city as in the New York Times‘ regular “36 Hours in..” series. While a narrative feature might probe into a culture’s essence, or try to evoke the feeling of a certain place in time, a service piece gives you quick tips, highlights the “best” of a place and may include lists, bullets and infographics. I like the definition of service journalism as “informational“: it tells you not just about a place, but how to get there, where to stay, what to eat, etc.At Condé Nast Traveler we promoted many different magazine articles from investigative stories on airline security to roundups of romantic getaways for Valentine’s Day, and it was generally the articles on how to save money booking your next cruise, or hotel packages involving chocolate-dipped strawberries that got an editor booked on the Today Show or a mention on the Associated Press. At Traveler, I worked with Consumer News Editor Wendy Perrin, whom I might call the Meryl Streep of service journalism: well-known and beloved in the industry, frequently honored but not as much as she deserves. Wendy publishes annual guides to the best travel agents, vacation rentals, cruise ships and dream trips. She was also a pioneer in social media, as one of the first “old media” editors to start blogging, and an early advocate of social networking platforms like Twitter as an essential tool for travelers. While a guide to the best credit cards for racking up frequent flyer miles may not sound poetic, Wendy’s writing regularly affects readers in a very real way, and she maintains an open dialogue to make sure readers are taking the best trip possible.

While I might read a travel narrative or even a novel to be transported somewhere else, a service piece helps me actually get going somewhere else. It was a L.A. Times article on the Corn Islands that got me to go to Nicaragua in 2007; of the few other Americans I met there, most of them were there because of the piece as well. A recent post from Legal Nomads might look like a standard list of travel tips, but it’s peppered with anecdotes, insights and links to other travel stories, and I was transported around the world with Jodi (and craving oranges) while I read it. A Nile Guide roundup of decaying castles has me plotting a trip to Belgium. Some of my favorite and most heart-felt articles I’ve written for Gadling have included finding the expat community and tips on travel with a baby. The Society for American Travel Writers’ annual awards have a category for service-oriented stories, but a few service pieces have snuck their way into other categories, such as the deceptively simple-sounding “Ten Reasons to Visit New Orleans.”

Looking through several of the major travel magazines, most stories are now accompanied by some kind of service information: a sidebar on farmers markets to accompany an essay on eating locally, or a back-of-book addendum of hotels and practical tips for a feature on a changing city’s political landscape. Perhaps all travel media should strive for this mix of inspirational, educational and doable. Our own Features Editor Don George explains that a successful travel narrative should describe a “quest that illuminates a place and culture.” A top ten list of summer vacation may not provide such a point, but a feature on visiting the Seychelles on a budget just might. Not all service pieces have to be fluffy, or recycled from press releases, or lacking insight. They can contain mini-narratives and discoveries, and at best, give readers the tools to create their own.