The Way of Wanderlust with Don George

Don George, travel writer
Posted: 3/28/16 | March 28th, 2016

One of my all-time favorite travel writers is Don George. He’s not a big name like Bryson or Pico Iyer, but his influence in travel writing is everywhere and goes back decades. He’s been editor of The San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, literally wrote the book on travel while writing for Lonely Planet, is an editor-at-large for National Geographic, and started the Book Passage Travel Writers conference!

I first met Don about five years ago at a writer’s conference. Don’s ability to be descriptive and vivid, and convey a sense of place when writing astounds me. He draws you in in a way very few travel writers can. (And he’s a really nice guy, too!)

If there’s any writer I aspire to tell a story like, it’s him. (Sorry, Bryson. You’re #2!)

Last year, Don finally published into a book called The Way of Wanderlust. It’s a collection of his best short stories. I read it earlier this year and, today, we’re here with the man himself to talk about his book, travel writing, and much more:

NomadicMatt: Tell everyone about yourself and how you became a travel writer!
Don: In high school and college, I wanted to be a poet. I didn’t even know “travel writer” was a real profession. After graduating from Princeton, I went to Europe for a year, interning for the summer in Paris and then teaching in Athens for a year.

A piece I wrote in a grad school nonfiction writing workshop about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (which I did on my way back to the US from Athens) got published in Mademoiselle magazine. And suddenly I started thinking about writing stories based on my travels. I began to write more travel stories while teaching for two years in Japan.

When I returned to the US, through an incredible series of serendipities, I ended up being hired by the San Francisco Examiner while the travel editor was on a leave of absence. And that’s how I became a travel writer.

What made you finally decide to put your best work in a book?
I’d been thinking of doing this for a while, but I never had the luxury of free time to make this collection happen. In 2012, at the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference, I met a wonderfully talented young writer-artist named Candace Rose Rardon, who, over two and a half years, helped me find and organize my hundreds of published stories, choose which ones to include, and determine the final shape of the book.

And she created the beautiful, wanderlust-ful cover illustration for the book, as well as transporting maps and sketches for the inside pages!

Now that this book has been published, it has come to mean more to me than I could possibly have imagined. It feels tremendously rounding and fulfilling. I’m absolutely exhilarated to have my life — my travels, my writings, my philosophy — out in the world in this very palpable way, between two covers.

How come you didn’t write a memoir or novel?
Well, this really is my memoir. For my whole professional life, I’ve been a travel writer. I go out into the world, have adventures, make connections, and bring back stories. And I always put the best stories into my writing. So these stories, collectively, are my memoir.

For me, writing about reality — trying to evoke and understand my own experience as completely and deeply as possible — is more appealing and fulfilling than fiction.

Why do you think people consume travel books so frequently? Some of the top-selling books always seem to be about travel.
I think many people love to travel and they can’t always travel actually, so the next best alternative is traveling vicariously, through someone else’s account of his or her travels. Other people love the idea of travel — of experiencing foreign places and cultures — but without the inconveniences and hardships of the journey.

For them, too, travel literature is the perfect solution: they get the excitement and learning of travel without the mosquitoes and mystery meals.

So, you’ve been in the writing industry for a while. What’s changed?
I could write a book about that. Actually, I have written a book about it. Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing, which I first wrote in 2005 and which I updated extensively for its third edition a couple of years ago, goes into great detail about changes in the writing and publishing part of the travel industry over the past two decades.

As for the larger travel industry, the changes have been enormous, seismic, but I think the biggest change is instantaneous connectivity, which has its good and bad aspects. Compared with when I began world-wandering 40 years ago, it’s infinitely easier to get information about the world now, and to make and maintain connections around the globe.

But on the other hand, whether you are at home or on the road, it’s infinitely easier to get distracted by technology and connectivity — tweeting and Instagramming every moment — so that you miss the deep essence of the world around you. The kind of immersive, lose-yourself-to-a-place travel that I like to practice doesn’t lend itself very well to non-stop Facebook updates.

Much as I love connecting with people at home and around the globe on social media, the real richness of travel for me is in plumbing the depth of the moment, being entirely present, taking the world into me and losing myself to the world at the same time.

What are some of the failings you see with online travel writing and blogging?
The main failing I see is the same failing I’ve seen for years in the unsolicited submissions I’ve received as a travel editor: the writer doesn’t know the point of what he or she is writing. If you as a writer don’t know your point, there’s no way I as a reader am going to take away a point.

I think writers and bloggers should always ask themselves why they’re writing what they’re writing, what they want the reader to take away. And I think they should carefully consider the shape they’ve given their creation, how they’re communicating their point to the reader.

Are they doing it in as evocative and thoughtful a way as possible? Are they honoring the reader, the subject, and themselves in their work?

Don George travel book coverWhat advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read my books! HA! While that sounds self-serving, I have poured everything I’ve learned as a travel writer and editor over four decades into the Lonely Planet travel writing book, and embarrassing as it is to say, I think it’s a really terrific introduction to the art, craft, and business of travel writing.

Beyond those two, I would advise aspiring writers to read great travel writing wherever they find it, in books and magazines and online, and whenever they find a story they really love, to read that work once for enjoyment and then a second time for education: to deconstruct the writing so that they understand how the writer created the magic.

And then, of course, I would advise them to write and write and write. Attend writing-related conferences, workshops, and events. Network. Join a writers group. And finally: don’t give up; follow your dream.

Going back to travel, what was the moment that made you say “this is the career I want?” 
I vividly recall one moment from the beginning of my career. My first assignment was a one-week windjammer cruise in the Caribbean. I was simultaneously nervous and incredulous to the core.

On my first morning on the ship, I woke up and went out on deck. Huge white sails were flapping under an intensely blue sky brightened with billowing white clouds. A brisk, salt-tinged breeze was blowing. I stared at the blue-green Caribbean all around and at a palmy island ringed with white sand on the horizon, and I remember thinking, “Wait a minute. My trip has been paid for, I’m actually getting paid a salary to stand here, and my job is to have the best experience I can and then write about it. I must be dreaming!”

Astonishingly enough, I’ve experienced this same moment time after time over the past 35 years. I can still hardly believe that I’ve been able to make a living doing the two things I love: traveling and writing.

What are your tips for travelers on how to get the most out of travel?
Learn some key cultural and historical facts about a place — and some essential everyday phrases — before you arrive. Travel with an open mind and an open heart. Engage with the locals, respectfully and enthusiastically, and always be ready for serendipity to take you by the hand and lead you down a wonderfully unplanned path.

What was the worst thing that ever happened to you on the road?
Many decades ago, on a three-month wander through Asia with my then-girlfriend and now-wife, I got extremely sick in rural India, so sick that I could hardly stand up, much less walk. My petite wife almost had to carry me through the airport and onto our plane, fighting her way through an agitated, shoving crowd of travelers who wanted our seats.

What’s your biggest travel regret? Mine is never studying abroad while in college.
I know it sounds a little absurd, or at best Pollyanna-ish, but I don’t really have any travel regrets. Well, I guess I regret that I ate whatever it was that totally incapacitated me on that long-ago trip in rural India.

But then I wouldn’t have learned that my wife could be Superwoman when needed!

How do you specifically try to travel deep and “get to know a place?” Do you stay with locals, call up a tourism board, or leave it to fate? What do you do to get under a place’s skin?
Most of my professional life, I haven’t had the luxury of staying for more than a couple of weeks in a place — often it’s even less than that — so I’ve learned to streamline the getting-under-the-skin process by asking a lot of questions, sometimes of other travelers, but mostly of locals. I ask them to tell me what they love about their place, and that tends to open up doors and insights.

I also practice what I call “the fine art of vulnerability,” opening myself up to a place, taking some risks (though always listening when my gut tells me not to), and making a fool of myself when necessary. I find that when you pour enthusiasm and passion and appreciation into the world, it comes back to you a hundredfold.

Some lightning-round questions: Window or aisle?
If I’m flying in the daytime over somewhere I’ve never seen, window. Otherwise, aisle.

Favorite airline?
Tie between Singapore and Cathay Pacific.

Favorite destination?
The places that have the deepest roots in me are the places where I’ve laid the deepest roots in my life: France, Greece, and Japan. My life is so inextricably intertwined with Japan — I lived there for two years and have been back dozens of times, my wife is from there, her family still lives there — that I’d have to say Japan is my favorite destination. But in another sense, my favorite destination is the one I was just in, where I inevitably experienced or learned something rich and rare and life changing.

How many languages do you speak and which ones?
I speak French, Japanese, and whatever Greek I remember from the year I lived there four decades ago.

Place you most want to go to but have never been to?
Much to my friends’ astonishment, I’ve never been to Laos or Bhutan. I’d like to go to both of them.

Place you would never go back to?
That restaurant in rural India.

Don is one of my personal heroes and his book, The Way of Wanderlust, was a really good read. I especially loved his story about his long journey through Pakistan.

Since the book is a collection of short stories too, it’s easy to pick up and put down without getting lost! For more of Don, you can visit his website.


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