Q: What’s the book’s core message?
A: Finding authenticity. Authentic travel isn’t a necessity for an enjoyable trip, but anyone who has experienced a dose of it can attest to its value. The superhighway of mass tourism has made it seem impossible for many to experience anything culturally genuine. There’s a Starbucks or McDonald’s on every corner, tour groups get herded from cruise ships to buses, and homogenized Western creature comforts have popped up everywhere. Surprisingly, with a few tips and a shift of perspective, this elusive feat has never been easier.
Q: So how does one find authentic travel?
A: For starters, it’s learning how to travel like a guidebook author, not a guidebook reader. We travel writers don’t have super-human powers. Anyone can do it. Instead of following specific recommendations, travelers can use travel writers’ techniques. If you want a local restaurant without tourists, don’t look in a guidebook or travel magazine article; look at a new restaurant review in the local newspaper and use Google Translate to read it. Or ask to a local who doesn’t get so many questions… as simple as asking the breakfast waiter at your hotel instead of the concierge, who is likely sending many tourists to the same spots.
Can what you pack determine if you meet locals?
A: Oddly, yes. You may be inadvertently packing things that keep you at arm’s length. Are you bringing headphones to tune the locals out or a guitar to share your music? Are you bringing a camera that takes pictures or a Polaroid that allows you to instantly print and share photos with locals?
Does one have to search hard to find something authentic?
A: Not at all. It can be as easy taking a few steps from an overcrowded tourist area in, say, Bangkok, and hopping on a cheap, local bus to transition from a touristy experience to a local one. Or check out the local event listings and head to a nearby concert instead of the made-for-tourists show at the hotel or cultural center.
Q: How does Globalization factor into this?
A: I think globalization cuts both ways. It makes the Hilton in Shanghai feel like the one in Denver. But it also allows you to easily host foreign travelers in your own home, get an authentic foreign meal close to home and see a musical performer or speaker on tour in your own home. Just as you can go to the other side of the planet and have a very western experience, you can also stay at home and have a very rich travel experience. Globalization has forced to us to reconsider the notion of travel. It’s not just geography; it’s a mindset.
Q: If you’re suggesting people try something new, how do they find the time?
A: By cutting out dependence on the “must-sees.” We’ve become hooked on a “must-see” travel mentality. It’s part of the modern Tourism Industrial Complex. The media knows we click on these “best-of” lists, so they provide more of them. The traveler gets exposed to more of these pre-trip “best-of” lists, which reinforces the desire to do these things. The local infrastructure simply tries to satisfy the demands of the visitor. Then visitors show off these experiences in social media, which reinforces the checklist items within their networks. I’m not suggesting that people avoid all the famous attractions, but these things are more like a main course or side dish, not the entire meal. It’s okay to skip a few.
Q: Why did you write it?
A: Part of it is personal… the idea has been burning a hole in my head for a while and it feels cathartic to finally have it out. In travel writing, the industry seems to demand stories like: “Three perfect days in X city”, “Top 10 cool, cheap hotels in New York”, “Look at these amazing, glamorous hotel pools (slideshow)”, “follow the footsteps of this historically famous person you’ve never heard of,” “Chart of the best spas and what they offer.” It feels a bit like the media is churning these out again and again. I wanted to try using a new, visual format to take another look at travel and push readers to rethink the way they approach it and engage with their surroundings. By using photos, I wanted to take this rather heavy topic and make it lighter and more entertaining.
Q: How long have you been working on this project?
A: I got started on the college lecture circuit about 12 years ago. I decided to use a very visual presentation – about 500 slides in a hour – and almost none of them were text. I could see first hand how this played with the audience and they responded well to it. About 10 years ago, I started to think how this might work as a book that could appeal to a broader audience, and I’d play with some of the images and text, but it look me several years before I settled on the travel guide outline – that is, following a typical guide book chapter set up (where to go, what to do, what to pack, etc.). Once I had that, the book started to come together. But it takes a while to come up with this stuff and work through it. It may feel effortless when you flip through the pictures, but trying to find those unique angles that don’t feel forced and then finding the right image and paring them just so with the shortest possible text is a lot harder than just writing a story.
Q: Where did the book’s format come from?
A: It’s somewhere between a book, magazine and a visual Powerpoint presentation. With subject matter that forces the reader to rethink their viewpoint in so many ways, I liken it a do-it-yourself TED Talk on Travel in book form. The closest thing to this format is COLORS Magazine in the 1990s as conceived by graphic designer Tibor Kalman (who passed away in 1999). I worked for COLORS as a correspondent and creative consultant during this time and was influenced by it. When I started getting serious about making this book, I reached out to two former editors-in-chief of the magazine for guidance. The unspoken COLORS concept was “avenues” and “streets.” In a given issue, they’d pick a theme for that issue like, say, religion. Religion would be the avenue. And then the streets would be the various topics that intersected it like fashion, food, hairstyle, and interior design – rather, how religion manifests itself in these. So, it would show hairstyles from various religions, clothing fashion from various religions, food from various religions, etc. And at the end, there would be one editorial that typically didn’t have much to do with any of the topics. I wanted to use a model of “river” and “tributaries.” The river was travel and I wanted each subject that flowed into it to make the focus stronger and make the final editorial more a natural culmination. This is much harder to do than avenues and streets, and I’m not sure I achieved it. But it was a nice goal to aim for.
Q: There’s a lot of stuff that we just don’t think about, but makes sense once you see it. Was it easy to find these?
A: Most of the observations popped into my head when I least expected it and that never felt difficult, but it was a challenge to turn them into something more solid. Travel is ripe for this sort of thinking because when most people travel, they typically like to switch off or switch channels. That is, they like to flop on a beach, catch up on sleep, go skiing, or engage in topics they normally don’t get to pursue at home, like learning about local culture and history or taking a cooking course. We might be critical about the airline that brought us someplace and the hotel service, but we tend to turn off the critical analysis beyond that.
Q: Are humans hardwired to travel?
A: I think some people were meant to be explorers or wanderers and that served a purpose tens of thousand of years ago. Deep in our DNA, we’re basically hunter-gatherers. Our modern workforce has many people putting in far more hours than we humans were meant to work, and these people likely need some R&R to avoid burnout. But the idea of going someplace and wandering around and looking at people living their lives is a pretty unnatural act. There’s no beginning or end to the task (which may be why we’ve added our own ceremony to allow us to move on: taking a picture). In extremely touristy areas, it can also transform the way the locals behave while they’re being observed and photographed by tourists.
Q: Has travel changed a lot?
A: In some ways. There are still a lot of people traveling to fight wars or flee from them, and often in harsh conditions. But we’ve also managed to create high-end luxury travel in some of the world’s most remote and harsh environments. You can, among other things, take a luxury boat ride on the Amazon and sip Champagne in a hot tub as the rainforest passes by. You can even eat gourmet meals and get a message on the same boat. We’ve see in the price come down on a round-trip plane ticket from London – New York in 1939 of about $12,000 (adjusted for inflation) to under $1000 – which means a different income class can afford to travel. In youth hostels, once extremely social gathering centers, now has many travelers connected to home with their digital devices, barely meeting the interesting travelers right beside them. So, yes, there have been some changes, but I don’t know that I’d say they’re all changes for the better.
Q: Is travel a force of good?
A: It can be, but it often isn’t. For the person dong it, it’s typically wonderful. And many of the locals earn good money from it. But if you live in a place that receives a lot of tourists (and by that, I mean right in the middle of a very touristy area), you probably don’t care for it much. Tourist have a habit of taking over, filling up our favorite restaurants, creating long lines so we can barely get into the museums in our own towns. We tend to think of tourism as this enormous force of economic goodness (or at least that its benign), but I think it’s a bit more like wind energy. Put up some wind turbines here and there and it’s nice clean energy; create a big wind farm and it makes a lot of noise and kills the view and no one wants it in their backyard. Others might even liken it to oil energy and compare some extremely overcrowded touristy areas to an oil spill. Whatever the analogy, wee need to monitor the growth of tourism far more carefully than we do. We’ve seen it happen again and again that the very thing (typically quaintness and charming locals) that attracts visitors gets killed off as soon as the masses arrive.