California-based Jeff Greenwald is the author of six travel books, several of which were written in Southasia. His best-known titles include Shopping for Buddhas, The Size of the World (for which he created the first international blog), and most recently Snake Lake, set in Nepal during the 1990 pro-democracy uprising. Greenwald recently spoke with Himal Southasian about which comes first, the travel or the writing.
Did your family travel much when you were a child?
My family didn’t travel very much; most of my early journeys were through movies or books. I loved looking through National Geographic, of course, as well as picture books of the American Southwest – a place that seemed as magnificent and alien to me as the Moon. Also I grew up during the dawn of the Space Age, so the lunar landings, Star Trek and movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey fuelled my wanderlust.
Which came first, the love of writing or the love of travel?
The love of writing must have come first, as I kept journals from the time I was a kid. Travel really sharpened my focus, although my first trip to Europe – at 17, right out of high school – threw me for a loop. I was completely unprepared to take on the world at that young age. I came home to New York with my confidence badly shaken. It wasn’t until I left two years later, having moved to California, that the two passions began to work together. By the time of my first major trip, at 24, they were so entwined that it was impossible to imagine travelling without writing.
Has the act of writing letters played any significant role in your professional life?
Hugely significant. My very first book – Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal – was a collection of letters written to my artist and writer friends in 1983 and 1984, while I was living in Kathmandu on a journalism fellowship.
How do you go about writing about a place while you’re still in the place itself?
Most writers I know keep a little notebook with them at all times, and are vigilant about recording scenes or bits of dialogue. The little details slip away so quickly, it’s essential to keep writing every day – especially during travel. Keeping an up-to-date journal takes real discipline on the road: there are so many people to meet, so much to explore. One has to give up some of those opportunities and find a balance between pure experience and the hard work of writing. It’s tough love, but there’s no other way. So no matter what’s going on, I take an hour or two to record each day’s events. Even if just in sketch form. It doesn’t always take much; sometimes a few well-chosen words will recall an entire scene.
Do you consciously select themes that require extensive travel?
I think I’ve selected a life that requires travel. The variety of human culture and experience has always fascinated me, and from the time I was a kid I knew I wanted to visit every corner of the globe. But my motives for travel have changed. As a teenager, I did it to inhabit the same world as my literary heroes – people such as T E Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Leonard Cohen. I was collecting destinations, putting metaphorical pushpins in a world map. After my first trip to Asia, in 1979, though, everything changed. Travel became a luminous practice all its own, and travel writing a way to express my delight and annoyance with the human condition. Also, I’m very much a creature of habit, and travel is the antidote. It’s the best way to leave our comfort zone. It slaps aside habit and routine, and shocks us back into paying attention.
How do you prepare to write about a particular place or journey?
My favourite stories are those that start with the seed of an idea, but unfold in completely unexpected ways. I almost never know the structure or main points of a piece I’m writing beforehand. Aldous Huxley once said that ‘To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.’ For me, that joy of discovery is the heart of travel, and the reason I write. Even so, I do basic research and make sure I’m on the right wavelength for the new world I’m about to enter. What’s the political situation? What are the main social and environmental challenges? What are the cultural taboos and what kind of gifts do people value? Knowing some background invites deeper experiences. And when I’m lucky – like during my recent visit to Cuba – I find the truth in Huxley’s words. Much of what we assume about any place is totally different from what we discover.
When writing about your travel experiences, how important do you find it to adhere exactly to the reality?
I try to adhere to reality as closely as I can. If there are boring or plain unpleasant times, I’ll just ignore them. Who wants to hear about a three-day train ride, if nothing really happens? But there are always tidbits, isolated incidents that conspire to shatter the boredom. Like the time when, during a seemingly interminable crossing of the Atlantic by ship, the captain introduced me to a stowaway; or when a little girl on a long bus ride in Mexico presented me with some fresh strawberries, which she had washed in shampoo. Sometimes, though, fictionalisation is necessary. For instance, in Snake Lake, my new book about the 1990 Jana Andolan in Nepal, I had to conceal some identities and create new characters to fill in for people I’d known during the revolution.
Choosing the elements for each story is one of those intuitive things, and it’s what defines a writer. For me, when something happens that’s both surprising and enlightening, it will probably find its way into my story. One example appears in a scene in Snake Lake. It’s May of 1990, and I see a young boy in the Khumbu wearing what looks like a silver button on his jacket. It was actually a button of Queen Aishwarya, but the boy has rubbed her picture off. I knew immediately that would make it into the book: that powerful, shocking image of the monarchy being expunged, and replaced by a sort of mirror. Similarly, in 1996, I interviewed the Dalai Lama about his views on computer science and space exploration. Though the interview was amazing, what I remember most vividly today was what happened when His Holiness accidentally knocked my pen off the table: He dropped to the floor and crawled under the couch to retrieve it.
As a writer are you more predisposed towards finding relatively ‘undiscovered’ places, people, things?
I once read a funny comment by one of the Russian cosmonauts. ‘“Every day, a new discovery” was the motto for our mission,’ he said. ‘If we didn’t discover anything new in our experiments, we would discover what was for lunch!’ I feel the same way.
Is there anything you would like to say about the genre ‘travel writing’? How do you react to being called a ‘travel writer’?
Let’s face it, between information technology and a mushrooming travel industry the world seems a lot smaller than it did back when I started. Some of the mystique of the genre has definitely been diluted by the globalisation of cultures. I think ‘travel writer’ is fine if you’re writing specifically about travel as a vacation, or as an armchair diversion – like in the Sunday paper Travel section. But I prefer the broader label of ‘journalist’. Most of what we used to call travel writing is now just creative non-fiction, set somewhere other than our home – which most things are! I see myself as a journalist who happens to travel, and the themes I focus on – environment, culture, science, human rights – are pretty universal.
What made you write three travel books about Nepal?
When I was 25, travelling through Europe, I met a beautiful young woman in the Athens Museum. She was a medical student, taking a couple of weeks to explore Greece before going off to study Ayurvedic medicine in Kathmandu. I’d never heard of Nepal, but we fell in love. When she left, I stayed in Greece and worked like a dog to be able to go to Asia and meet her. Kathmandu turned out to be the most exotic, inspiring and human place I’d ever been. The romance itself went nowhere, but it was a powerful catalyst. Kathmandu became my spiritual home.
Do you think that people travel today for the same reasons that they used to?
British journalist G K Chesterton once wrote that ‘A traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.’ People tend to be tourists for the same reason as always: to see the Grand Canyon, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal. People travel for a million different reasons, but the motivation always comes from someplace mysterious: an unanswered question hiding within themselves. And people also travel for altruistic reasons: to be helpful in places in crisis, or to educate themselves about the social and political realities of the developing world. Those are fairly new travel trends, and I like to think they represent a kind of progress in our sensibilities.
Is it sometimes lonely to travel, or hard to translate yourself to others?
Solo travel is often difficult, and the nights can be long. Once in a while, though, if you are footloose, you fall into encounters or situations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise – say, to a couple – and that’s the payoff. That’s when many of the best stories happen: when you can be yourself, by yourself. But like everything else, it’s a trade-off. A good travelling companion can open doors, and provide a different perspective on a place. My preference is often for finding travelling companions on the go.
Is travel addictive?
Absolutely. It’s the kind of high that keeps you coming back for more. And even within the broader category of travel, there are various experiences that are in themselves rare, but somehow addictive: seeing a tiger in the wild; witnessing a solar eclipse; climbing a high ridge in the Himalaya; eating Italian gelato; that first exotic cup of coffee in an unexplored city. As the great traveller Freya Stark once wrote, ‘To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.’