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Talking travel with author of "The Snake Charmer"
He also writes frequently about travel and culture for The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Adventure, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times. He currently lives in Bali.
The NYT review of Snake Charmer declared the book's protagonist, herpetologist Joe Slowinski, a "Class A jerk." From all the research you've accumulated, what's your take on the guy?
The Times review presented a very shallow analysis, concentrating on one sliver of a complex character -- 5% of the book yanked out of context. It's true that Joe was ruthless in his pursuit of knowledge, and rubbed some people the wrong way; but few scientists bother with "please" and "thank you."
Joe was also widely loved and respected by his colleagues. One fascinating reflection of Joe's personality, which I never could find a place for in the book, is that no fewer than SEVEN people told me that he was their best friend. That seems truly remarkable to me -- how many people have that kind of impact on the people around them? And from his colleagues he commanded widespread respect for his brilliant mind and original thinking, more important qualities for a scientist than simple niceness. Joe Slowinski truly did not care what people thought of him, which is a key aspect of what makes him so fascinating.
You traveled to Burma in the process of writing the book. What was it like to travel in one of the world's most closeted countries?
In some ways, travel in repressive totalitarian regimes is easier -- as long as you're willing to pay. That's the upside of corruption: as long as you have American dollars and don't show any interest in the Army, they'll usually do whatever you ask.
Why did you decide to pursue this project (especially when his adventures have been covered before, in Outside Magazine, for example)?
Mark Moffett's article in Outside was an excellent account of his personal recollections as a member of Joe's final expedition, and a good starting place. However, no one had ever attempted to do a detailed, objective reconstruction of Joe's final trek, and it proved to be the most interesting research I've ever undertaken. The first time I heard of Joe Slowinski was his obituary in the newspaper, which a friend clipped for me. It came out more than a month after he died -- he received his fatal bite on Sept. 11, 2001, and the attack on America just ate up the news.
As soon as I read it, I thought, this would be a fantastic book -- what a story! The sheer drama of it seemed so compelling. I had an instinct that a life that ended that way must have been interesting from childhood on -- and that proved to be true. Joe Slowinski's whole career was fascinating; his last expedition into remote northern Burma was the tragic finale of the drama.
Many readers will be jealous to hear that you live full-time in Bali. Sounds like the dream home. Any downsides or is it umbrella drinks on the beach all day long?
Living in Paradise has the advantages you suggest -- one of the most gorgeous beaches in the world is a five-minute bike ride from my house, and the Balinese are among the most interesting and lovable people I've come across. It's probably the best place in the world to have car trouble, people are so kind and eager to help.
The main disadvantage for me has been the lack of outside intellectual stimulus, but Bali is getting more connected all the time. When I came here 9 years ago, there were no decent bookstores, the world's slowest dial-up internet service, a bottle of scotch cost $50, and so on -- now we have gourmet food shops, book shops, reasonable DSL internet, and so on -- but residents complain that every step "forward" makes the place a bit less special. The price of globalization.
Besides your work as a nonfiction author, you're a prolific travel writer. How do you pick your stories?
I must answer you as a journalist. Every story I do is based more or less equally on two factors: I try to find places that I really want to go and a good market that might be likely to take an interest in it. They are two totally different worlds, the places I want to go and the places editors need to cover, and they're both always shifting. I did a story about Shanghai for Condé Nast Traveler in 2001, concentrating on the futuristic architecture; and since then, especially during the build-up to the Olympics, there have been a zillion stories about China, Land of Tomorrow. Now I'm totally China'd out, but travel editors can't seem to get enough. That's not a knock to China; it's just that my interest is much more in seeing places unlike any I've seen before.
Your favorite trip in Asia?
A hard question. Maybe it was my first trip to Laos, in 1994, when there was no tourism. Luang Prabang was a quiet little village with two crummy hotels, 500 ancient Buddhist temples, and thousands of monks, gentle young rice farmers coming to this holy city to meditate and beg alms. It was incredibly beautiful and moving. Now it's another pretty place to get a massage and a manicure, a pizza and a beer. That kind of other-world experience is harder and harder to find -- you have to go to the places you've never heard of. By the time a place has made it into the magazines, it's already been mainstreamed.
You've been to some pretty grungy locales. What's one place, if any, that you refuse to visit? (Sudan, North Korea, etc?)
I would love to go to North Korea -- it's practically at the top of my list. The Sudan...no thank you. The difference? As a foreign visitor, I know I would be secure in North Korea; but in Sudan they're shooting real bullets and have hideous incurable diseases. When I was traveling in Cambodia in the days when the Khmer Rouge were still active, I always followed what I called the Driver Rule: if the driver was willing to go someplace in his own car, the probability was that we would get home safe -- the driver always knows more than you do. If the driver refuses to go, then you don't want to go there either.
What's your travel style? Do you try to map out most of the details beforehand? Or just play it by ear? Any tools of the trade you can divulge?
I used to play it by ear, traveling without a map or a plan -- until the night I had to sleep (or tried to) in my tiny toy Fiat, after I arrived in Florence and found out that there was a dentists' convention going on, and the nearest hotel room was 50 miles away. I do like to plan at least two or three days ahead. The tools of the trade vary from place to place. One of the most essential (and most difficult) tools to pick up is learning what people mean when they give you a polite refusal. In Asia, "It's impossible" may mean it's really impossible...or it might mean "You're not paying me enough." Here in Indonesia, it took me years to realize that "thank you" means "no."