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#BPTravel 2013: Thoughts On Travel Writing And The Journey Of Life

Don George BPTravel
Candace Rose Rardon
Two weeks ago, one of the most intense and invigorating periods of my year occurred: the annual Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. For four days, some 90 students and 25 faculty members met in an intimate bookstore in Northern California for workshops, panels, and evening events that celebrated travel writing, travel photography, and much more.

Over the four days of the conference, as every year, unanticipated insights took seed and risks took flight, and some profoundly important lessons and dreams were conceived. Usually I write a piece summarizing the conference for Gadling, but this year an excellent summary has already been posted. And somehow, what I want to say about the conference, or about the thoughts that emerged from the conference, all seemed to come together in my concluding speech.

#lpmemories: Some Personal Reminiscences And Reflections

Lonely Planet memories lpmemoriesWhen news emanated from the Melbourne headquarters of Lonely Planet two weeks ago that the iconic publisher of guidebooks and related travel titles was laying off up to 80 editors and other staffers, shock waves reverberated throughout the travelsphere. LP is the world's largest guidebook publisher, with 500 titles covering 195 countries, produced by hundreds of writers and editors, and speculation surged in social media and old school journalism circles alike that this move portended the end of print guidebooks, or at least the demise of LP as a guidebook power.

Commencement Address: Five Lessons From The Road

Flickr, roger4336

One year ago I attended my daughter's graduate school graduation. And this Sunday I'll be attending my son's college graduation. Two major rites of passage in the span of one year. It feels like a quantum life-leap.

These endings, and beginnings, have made me want to write my own Commencement Address, to synthesize and sculpt into some kind of word-permanence whatever wisdom I've accumulated in my five-plus decades on this planet. In some ways this feels like my last opportunity to convey something essential, important, life-bonding and life-liberating, to my kids.

So I've started to try to distil what I've learned in my adventures, and in looking back, I've realized that in many ways my education began when I graduated from college and moved to Paris for the summer and then to Athens for a year on a teaching fellowship.

Five Scenes From A Spring Sojourn In Kyoto

Grant Martin, AOL

I've just returned to Japan to lead a tour of Kyoto and Shikoku for two and a half weeks. In my first 24 hours here, in Kyoto, I've tried to pay special attention to everything because I know that our first impressions in a place are always the freshest. After a day or two, the initially striking detail becomes commonplace. Three things have struck me tellingly in these first 24 hours. The first is the way every package in Japan – the toothbrush in my hotel room, the little cookie wrapped in plastic, the dried squid I bought in the convenience store – comes with a tiny triangular slit cut into one end, so that you never have to struggle to open it. The second thing is the ubiquity of vending machines. One of the first things I noticed after going through customs in Osaka airport was the bright blinking vending machines that offered both hot and cold drinks – actually, I'd forgotten about the hot drinks and only realized this with a start after I pushed what I imagined was a nice cool ice coffee and picked up a hand-burning hot coffee instead. Last night I passed literally a dozen vending machines in the two-block stroll I took from my hotel in Kyoto. And the third thing is this: this morning, my first morning in Kyoto, I took the elevator from the 14th floor to the second-floor dining room for the breakfast buffet. On my way back to my room, I shared the elevator with three neatly coiffed and coutured middle-aged women. They were going to the 10th floor, and when the elevator reached their floor and the door opened, the women all bowed to me and said, "O-saki-ni, shitsureishimasu." Translated, this means: "Excuse me for leaving before you." For me, these three things symbolize Japan's pervading thoughtfulness, dedication to service and consideration of others. It's wonderful to be back!

Travel Writing Legend Jan Morris To Appear Onstage In New York May 8

Legendary travel writer Jan Morris is making a very rare visit to the U.S. next week to appear in an onstage conversation with me in New York City on Wednesday, May 8. The Wales-based author of more than 30 books, ranging from the masterful essay collections "Journeys," "Destinations," and "Among the Cities" to such classics as "Pax Britannica," "The World of Venice," and "The Matter of Wales," Morris is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She is also the last surviving member of the expedition team that made the first successful ascent of Mount Everest 60 years ago this month. As fate would have it, Morris's dispatch announcing the team's success appeared in the London Times on the same day as Queen Elizabeth's coronation, a life-changing tale she recounts in her book "Coronation Everest."

Morris will be discussing that historic expedition in our conversation. For me the meeting is also an opportunity to honor and celebrate the entire life and work of one of the most engaging and influential travel prose stylists of our time. From her magisterial "Pax Britannica" trilogy to her groundbreaking on-the-road dispatches for Rolling Stone magazine to her poignant recent book "Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere," Morris has profoundly inspired and affected me and virtually every other travel writer I know. As I once wrote for Salon, "Rereading her works, I remember how much I love her attention to offbeat details, her eye for emblematic characters, her gentle humor and pointed wit, her encyclopedic knowledge of history and art and the ongoing dance of research and apprehension, description and analysis that whirls through her writing. And, too, I love the way she approaches the world with a genuine sympathy, with an openness of mind and heart that allows her to penetrate past prejudices and preconceptions, to see the soul and spirit of a place."

An Enchanted Expedition In Kyoto

I have just returned from two and a half wonderful weeks in Japan, leading an intrepid, engaged and enriching group of eight travelers through Kyoto and Shikoku. The trip turned out to be full of magic and delight, but as I began the journey, before I knew how it would turn out, I had turned for inspiration and encouragement to the memory of an earlier journey – my very first time as a tour leader, when I had led two American travelers on an autumn tour of Tokyo, Kyoto and rural Honshu. Here is a tale from that initial tour:

On our first full day in Japan's ancient capital of Kyoto, we began with visits to three back-alley shops where traditional tofu delicacies, delicate fans and tatami mats are made. Then, when the husband of the couple I was accompanying mentioned that his mother used to love lacquerware and had a considerable collection in California, our local guide perked up. ''Oh, then I know just where we must go,'' she said, hailing a cab. ''Zohiko!''

From the moment we walked into its hushed confines, Zohiko seemed more a museum than a retail store. Three men and a woman in crisp dark suits greeted us with bows. The ground floor consisted of two spacious rooms elegantly arranged with wooden shelves and mounted display cases showcasing an extraordinary assemblage of lacquerware. There were exquisite soup bowls and small plates, flower containers, round boxes, square boxes, sake sets, green tea cup saucers, large serving trays and small personal trays, multi-layered boxes and decorative plates, all in sleek black, red and gold, adorned with intricate flowers, rolling waves, fluttering butterflies and bending grasses.

I lingered for a long time studying a set of five black soup bowls, each with a different gorgeous rendering of pine, bamboo, apricot, chrysanthemum and orchid. A strikingly simple pure red tray with two soaring gold cranes in one corner held my eye. And if I'd had enough money, I would have bought a spectacular rectangular black container with layer upon layer of gold depicting a glittering seascape with a single, pine-crowned island in the distance and thin-winged birds flocking on the horizon.

Lonely Planet's 'Travel Writing,' Edition 3.0: Soliciting Your Input

I'm in the process of updating Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Writing. The second edition was published in 2009 and, as you well know, a few things have changed in the world of travel writing and publishing since then!

As I'm trying to shape my focus and hone in on the most essential evolutions and updates, I've realized that I should seek the advice of a vast team of informed and impassioned experts: all of you who care about travel writing and travel content!

So, if you've read my book – and if you have, thank you very much! – I would be very grateful to hear any suggestions you might have for the most essential material to include and areas to cover in the new edition. And if you haven't (well, you don't know what you're missing!), I'd still value hearing from you too.

It's clear to me that in addition to covering changes in the world of print publishing, I need to focus more broadly and in depth on the explosive evolution of online publishing – the limitless proliferation of websites and blogs as well as the advent of tablet magazines – and of social media as a platform for both editorial communication and entrepreneurial promotion.

As part of this, I need to address at least briefly the marketization of travel writing and the evolution of the traditional journalist-industry relationship, with sweeping new variations in sponsorships, partnerships and press trips. In this regard I also want to try to present a balanced perspective on new (and old, and everlasting) ethical issues and considerations – and of course, consistent with the framework of the entire book, to put all this in the context of creating quality travel writing and content.

I need to address changes in book publishing as well, and the rise (in number and in credibility) of self-publishing options.

And I need to cover changes in technology and tools, and how travel writers – content producers – are using and adapting technological innovations to create compelling content.

If you are engaged in the world of travel writing/content, do you agree or disagree with the above assessments? What subjects would you add? What areas should I be sure to focus on? What examples should I be sure to include?

Thank you for considering these questions. I very much welcome any input you may have.

[Photo Credit: S. Lee]

A Long Lesson From A Short Walk On The Karakoram Highway

I've just come home from a whirlwind week in D.C. and L.A. Both trips were wonderful. In D.C. I had energizing meetings at National Geographic Traveler and hosted an exhilarating onstage conversation with the amazing Alexandra Fuller, author of (among other books) Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, an extraordinarily evocative and moving memoir of growing up in Rhodesia. In L.A. I gave a talk about Gadling at the Los Angeles Times Travel Show and shared memorable moments with Arthur Frommer, Rick Steves, Andrew McCarthy, and the Times' terrific travel editor, Catharine Hamm, among many other notables of the travel world. I got back to the Bay Area just in time to emcee the February event in the wonderful new Weekday Wanderlust travel reading series in San Francisco, and then to teach a wanderful travel writing workshop at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

I'm not complaining. I'm grateful beyond words for these opportunities -- but now that they're over, I realize that I'm also exhausted beyond words. (And yes, I know I probably shouldn't have stayed up until closing time at the rooftop bar of the Standard Hotel in L.A. – but that was research!) And when I survey the Kilimanjaro of emails that need my slogging-up-the-scree responses and the queue of articles lined up like planes at O'Hare awaiting the fuel of my words for take-off – well, if the state of my metaphors is any metaphor for the state of my mind, I'm in big trouble.

At a moment like this, I know just what I need to do: take some deep breaths and transport myself back to an adventure I took three decades ago in northern Pakistan -- specifically, to one afternoon on a stretch of the wild, gritty, avalanche-threatened, pothole-punctured Karakoram Highway between Hunza and Gulmit, not far from the Chinese border.

My tour group had been bumping by van along the Karakoram for a few hours when we came to a road-closing avalanche about 15 minutes from Gulmit. Our guide set out to walk to Gulmit to get another van to pick us up, and told us to wait in the van.

We waited, and waited.

­­Waiting In The Pythion Of Time


One of my prime New Year's resolutions for this year is to put together an anthology of selected pieces from my own writing career. With 30 years of narrative stories and reflective essays to sift through, I figure there must be enough material for at least a very slim volume.

As part of this process – or perhaps just as a very clever way of procrastinating the hard work of getting started on this process – I've been reading through old journals and letters recently. This can be a dangerously detouring pastime, of course, but sometimes it turns up one of those little seeds that blossom into a whole world I had forgotten.

So it is with a letter I have just come across, written in the winter of 1976 to my parents from a Greek border town called Pythion, where I was waiting for a train to Istanbul. Sometimes it is just such global synapses – way stations – that unencumber and inspire us.

Here is part of what I wrote:

Magical Moments Of 2012: A Personal Review

As the end of each year approaches, I try to take stock of the preceding 12 months, to absorb and assess the adventures, inner and outer. Reviewing this year, I've been filled with gratitude and wonder to realize that this has been one of the most enriching, exhilarating years I've had in a long time, especially the past six months, when I managed to squeeze six special trips into an overcrowded schedule. I hope you'll indulge me in sharing some of my most magical travel moments, and meanings, from 2012.

Festive in France

The Cote d'Azur has been one of my favorite places in the world since I first landed there in the mid-1970s. This year I was lucky to be able to savor the region for two weeks in June, visiting four places I'd never been before – Marseille, Montpelier, Sainte-Maxime, and Cagnes sur Mer – and revisiting two I'd fallen deeply in love with decades ago: Nice and St Paul de Vence.

I've already written about Nice and St Paul for Gadling. Among other riches of the trip, I had the best bouillabaisse of my life at the harbor-front Miramar restaurant in Marseille and was enchanted by the ambiance of student-spangled Montpelier, where a perfect cobbled square with a perfect café under a perfect canopying tree seemed to magically appear around every corner (and where the streets flowed with wine and song on the marvelous night of the Fete de la Musique). One of the most memorable highlights was spending one precious night at the Hotel Negresco two weeks before that legendary institution celebrated its 100th birthday. What an extraordinary hotel! Part priceless art collection, part history museum, part culinary temple, the Negresco – still owned by the feisty and fabulous 89-year-old Madame Augier – is emblematic of the intelligence, elegance, and artfulness that define the Cote d'Azur for me.

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