Isn’t it amazing to have discovered a place that stays like a beauty spot in your life and generates a sense of personal belonging. Traveling demonstrates the beautiful paradox of stillness and motion where one is believed to get lost, following a story that is written to be read and inspire others.
On January 6th, 1994 in Oaxaca, Mexico, Jeff Greenwald had seen plenty, discovered the unknown and decided to type down every experience on his Omnibook 360. He revolutionized the travel tales and the art of storytelling, extensively. Read on his intriguing story from becoming a globetrotter to blogger to a best-selling author.
1. Hi! Welcome to the Tripoto community. Please introduce yourself to the community members.
Hi, I’m Jeff Greenwald, and I’ve been in the travel journalism world for almost 30 years. Before that I was a visual artist—working in sculpture, designing some crazy-looking playgrounds of all shapes and sizes, and chasing after public art commissions. Some of my books include choice scenes from my younger days, but suffice it to say that I got sort of discouraged by the insular art world and decided to pursue writing, which is more merit-based; not everyone knows a good work of art, but most people know when they’ve heard a good story.
At this point I’ve published six books, including the new 25th Anniversary edition of Shopping for Buddhas, arguably my most popular book (though I’m partial to The Size of the World and Snake Lake). Five of my books are travel narratives, and one – Future Perfect – is a really fun book about Star Trek in global culture. But there’s a fair amount of travel in that book, as well.
Two other things the Tripoto community might like to know. First, I launched a one-man show in 2003 called Strange Travel Suggestions, a solo play based on my many travel tales – the show moves forward as audience members spin a beautiful “wheel of fortune,” which determines which stories I’ll tell. So every performance is unpredictable and different, even for me.
The second thing is that I co-created (also in 2003) and direct a wonderful non-profit called Ethical Traveler, which is a portal where travelers can inform themselves, read current news and take action on human rights and environmental issues. Our premise is that international community travelers has tremendous economic power, and we can change the world if we “vote with out wings.”
2. You have been given the title of being the world’s first travel blogger. How do you feel about this? Does it change the way you think about yourself as a blogger?
Well it’s true, I did create the first Internet travel “blog”—I started it on January 6th, 1994 in Oaxaca, Mexico, and wrote a total of 20 during the following nine months—but I’m not sure people know this, because the word “blog” wasn’t invented for another five years! All of the blogs became distinct mini-chapters in The Size of the World, placed between other chapters. And of course I continued doing Internet dispatches for many newly created websites after that. But although I do still write Internet reports from the field, it’s not how I identify myself. In fact my personal blog is poorly maintained; most of my travels are now documented on Facebook. The problem is that if I publish on a blog, it’s much harder to sell the story to a print outlet or to a well-paying website, like the BBC.
This picture was taken by my traveling companion, Anna Jahns, in the bleak Mauritanian desert on my actual 40th birthday: March 6th, 1994. Our vehicle had broken down, and we were marooned in the Sahara. I am seen wrapped in a traditional burnoose, writing a blog entry on my OmniBook 300.
3. How has the medium of travel blogging evolved over the years? How easy or difficult is it to create and curate a travel blog compared to when you started sharing your travel stories?
Ethical Traveler just did a news story on the most literary travel blogs, and the way the field has evolved (and is evolving!) is dizzying and fascinating. It’s become so widespread that keeping up with even the best bloggers is nearly impossible—or a full-time job. As for the process, it’s certainly much easier to do it now than it was back when I started. People thought I was crazy – they literally laughed at me when I told them I wanted to send a story from my computer back to the US. But we found ways to make it work, because you could get dial-up transmission. We’re talking s-l-o-w – like a couple of hours to upload a transmission the length of this interview, with no pictures! We actually sent the first picture ever transmitted over the Internet from Nepal – a picture of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, sent from a big computer outlet in Kathmandu to my editors at Wired – and it took about a day!
4. What is your take on volunteer tourism as it is right now? As someone who volunteers extensively when traveling, how important is it to promote such programs across the globe?
To be honest, I rarely volunteer when traveling; usually I’m brought in and paid for my efforts. When I worked on tsunami relief in Sri Lanka, for example, I was employed as a Communications Director for Mercy Corps; when I did volunteer reef checking with EarthWatch in Thailand, I was on assignment for a magazine; when I taught English in Nepal I was a teacher at the American Language Center. The only time I really served as volunteer was in 1979 at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp, during the Cambodian civil war.
One exception is my work with Ethical Traveler, which is an all-volunteer non-profit. Yet Ethical Traveler doesn’t endorse voluntourism projects. We’re dubious about them. I personally believe they can create a strange kind of cynicism on the part of the receivers, with well-meaning travelers ducking in for one or two days without building real relationships or truly understanding the issues involved. There is no question that many are motivated by generosity of spirit. But while short stays (e.g., less than two months) can appear useful for labor-intensive jobs like painting or building, they can also be a bit self-serving—there is no genuine investment, just a few hours of labor and a photo-op for travelers. And having anonymous foreigners popping in and out of a school, community center or clinic can be disorienting, as those kinds of superficial relationships (which we are quite used to!) are alien to members of isolated, close-knit communities.
I feel very differently where animals or scientific research is involved. I am fine spending a weekend, or even an afternoon, taking a reef census of white-tipped sharks, or identifying birds on a raptor count. It’s when we come into a community, forge quick and superficial ties (often and especially with children) and leave—the “revolving door” syndrome—that disturbs me. That’s a recipe for mutual exploitation.
That said, programs where someone really enters and commits to a village or school or program are a very different situation. I’m hugely supportive of the Peace Corps and Vista and of people who volunteer with schools, villages and shelters on a long-term basis. But I don’t call this “voluntourism”—and I don’t think people coming out of those experiences do, either.
5. In a recent articles you wrote, “I don’t measure time on a geologic scale. I measure by the people who have come and gone in my life.” Tell us more about this intriguing connection with space, time and people.
Of course, we humans really can’t measure time on a geologic scale, so maybe I was being glib! (Although a huge stone arch at a nearby Bay Area shoreline recently collapsed, giving me and other hikers an awesome glimpse into that time frame… )
But it’s the people moving through our lives who define where we are, both geographically and spiritually. And the people I’ve met during my travels have shaped the places I’ve gone and the traveler I’ve become. If I hadn’t fallen for a young woman I followed through the Athens National Museum in 1979—I may never have visited Nepal. If I hadn’t sat at a random table and struck up a friendship with a guy named Rick at a Kathmandu reception, I’d never have known my godson—born seven years later. A shared cigarette on the night deck of a ship in the Maldives led to a brief but unforgettable friendship with the late Robin Williams. Chance encounters and “strange travel suggestions,” to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut Jr., are the lifeblood of every traveler. They’re one of the things that distinguish us from tourists.
But for everyone, tourist and traveler alike, friends, family and lovers are the strata that define our short human lives. They’re layered through our experiences, sometimes as bold as a layer of Navajo Sandstone, sometimes as fleeting as a vein of gold, appearing and disappearing again, providing an interwoven record of our personal evolution.
6. You are also at the helm of another project, ethicaltraveler.org. How and when did this idea come by and how is it shaping up?
The idea first took shape in 1996, when Ang San Suu Kyi requested that travelers not visit Burma while her country was under military rule. I wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Washington Post, suggesting that travelers heed her suggestion and “vote with our wings,” using our economic power to send a strong message to the junta. In late 2002, while I was on a book tour for Scratching the Surface, I mentioned this to an audience and wondered aloud if an organization could be built around those principles. The result, after much discussion, was Ethical Traveler.
We’re now in our 11th year, and things are going incredibly well. We feature great “Actionable News” bulletins, useful resources for travelers, and offer some wonderful trips – every April, for example, I lead an Artists’ Delegation to Cuba. It’s really fantastic.
But our biggest and most visible project is our “World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations” event. Starting in September, team of more than 20 researchers begins poring over the world’s developing nations. We ultimately select the ten that are making the most impressive progress on human rights, environmental protection and social welfare. It’s become a pretty exciting project. This year, on December 8th, we will hold our annual Awards Gala at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco and announce the 2015 winners.
7. Please share the ups and downs of long-term travel—and of blogging—with our community.
The ups and downs of long-term travel are legion, as all your readers know! If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have stories. We take the best and worst experiences from our journeys and turn them into tales. For myself, both the hardest and best parts come when I’m traveling alone, especially in remote areas. I love the daytime freedom, but the nights can be long.
The worst times are when things get super frustrating and I lose my cool. When I get angry or impatient. It happens to all of us, there’s no doubt, but always afterwards I can see through my bad behavior to another way I might have handled the situation. Sometimes it’s really hard—like when you just miss a once-a-day Indian train, when you’re overcharged, or when incompetence or corruption stand in your way—but I’ve never seen a situation solved by anger. Quite the opposite. As Wavy Gravy once said, “When you lose your sense of humor, it’s just not funny anymore.”
The very best times are when you meet a kindred spirit—a fellow traveler or a local—and you feel that inimitable sense of connection. Not just with the person, but with the world. You’re overwhelmed by the realization that, until that moment, the two of you were just traveling blithely along your separate life paths, utterly unaware of each other. But now kismet has conspired to put you together, it was clearly meant to be, and it’s a sign that the universe works in wonderful ways.
As for blogging, all I can really say is that, as difficult as it is, you have to carry a small pocket notebook—and use it all the time. I unfailingly find at least one hour a day, uninterrupted, to record my thoughts and impressions. Even if it’s just in sketch form. Otherwise the whole trip will just slip away. Days traveling are like dreams—you record them right then and there, or you lose them.
8. What would you like to say to people who really want to travel, but do not?
I think that people who really want to travel find a way to travel, even if it’s difficult and involves long-term saving or making some sacrifices. But there are lots of other people who like the idea of travel, and are resistant to it on a primal level. Because the hardest thing about traveling is taking that first step. It’s like jumping into a pool. There’s that hesitation about leaving your comfort zone – which is probably a hardwired impulse for most life forms — but once you’re in the water (or on the road), you’re amazed and delighted to realize you’ve entered a new comfort zone. With a whole new range of comforts and challenges.
People rarely tell me they want to travel. More often they need a sense of where to go. People want a starting point. There’s an almost unconscious fear of getting lost – the world is still so big. So I’m always ready with a suggestion, usually based on nothing in particular. Havana. Istanbul. Quito. Kathmandu. Because anyone who has read this far already knows the great paradox of travel: It doesn’t matter where you start—and everything depends on where you start.
It’s like a Zen koan, or something out of Alice in Wonderland. The most important thing is to make that initial jump out of your comfort zone. And whatever place you start will be your entry point into an infinite labyrinth of new friends, unimagined experiences, and a genuine respect for your fellow earthlings. But anywhere you begin will lead you to the same place. Eventually, as we find our paths through the maze, all good travelers get to a point where they internalize Tracy Johnston’s wonderful observation in Shooting the Boh: “How could I be lost? I was right here, on Planet Earth.”
9. The new preface for Shopping for Buddhas talks about how Nepal, and travel writing, have evolved since the book’s first publication. What would you say has been the biggest change in travel writing and how do you think it will evolve over time?
I thought you were going to ask me how Nepal has changed! I’m glad you didn’t. But I do first want to say that it’s strange and amazing to have a book out in a – gulp – 25th Anniversary Edition. In re-editing the book for the new edition I was really struck by the fact that lots of young travelers were just kids (or younger!) when the book was first released. I hope they’ll pick up a copy and enjoy the journey in this new incarnation!
As for travel writing as most travelers do it, I think thanks to the blogosphere it’s because broader, more spontaneous, and more superficial. There’s a higher value on frequent posts than in-depth posts. Literary travel writing itself has become much more female-oriented, with books like Strayed, Eat Pray Love, Year’s Best Women’s Travel Writing, etc., and the re-released Tracks redefining the genre in popular culture. There’s still a fair amount of testosterone-driven narrative out there, but we’re seeing is a shift toward more introspection, with the world-at-large as an agar for personal transformation.
But it’s an interesting question. Much of the world has now been over-written, but the ultimate journey – as I hope I convey in Shopping for Buddhas, The Size of the World and Snake Lake— will always be the inner one.
10. Any advice for everyone at Tripoto?
We’ve all heard it before, but I’ll repeat the obvious. It’s getting harder and harder to just be where we are without mediating the experience through some cool electronic toy. Lord knows, I was among the first to do this! So my advice is to unplug your devices and really engage with the people around you. We’ll have the rest of human evolution to pursue our love affair with technology, but you’ll only visit Ouagadougou once. Memorable and story-rich travel is all about person-to-person connections. Accept no substitutes!
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 Here’s the story, in Wired magazine: http://www.wired.com/2014/01/20-years-of-travel-blogs