How did your career as a travel writer begin?
I loved writing as a student in high school and college—mostly poetry—and I loved to travel. When I graduated from university, I went to Paris for the summer on a work abroad program, and then I went to Athens for a year on a teaching fellowship. I didn’t think I would become a travel writer—I didn’t even know a travel writer was something you could become. But I knew I wanted to see the world, and I was keeping journals.
After getting a master’s degree in creative writing, and a series of incredible serendipities, a job opened up at the San Francisco Examiner. The travel editor was taking a leave of absence, and so I became a travel writer for a year. The week I was due to leave, a San Jose newspaper called me up and asked if I could take the retiring travel editor’s place. Incredibly serendipitous again. Then an opening came up on the Examiner’s Sunday magazine, and soon I became travel editor there, and the rest is history. I’d always loved writing and travel, and it was a shock to me that I could do both as a career.
What is the first thing you do when you arrive in a new place?
I walk. I walk, and walk, and walk. I choose a neighborhood and start walking, noticing, paying attention. I try not to choose really well-known places. Or if I do choose the popular places, like the Eiffel Tower, I’ll make sure to walk an eight-block radius around the Eiffel Tower. What’s really interesting to me is the life in that eight-block radius. What’s going to reveal Paris to you is the little shopkeeper five blocks away from the Eiffel Tower, whose family has been there for 300 years, who sells cuckoo clocks and can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about cuckoo clocks. These are the things that are going to reveal Paris to you.
I walk and I talk, and I’m always thinking: What does this teach me? What’s the essence of the place? How do I understand this place? How do I explain this place to somebody who hasn’t been here? That’s the process I’m always going through.
What does wanderlust mean to you?
I think of it as my middle name. For me, it’s this deep and abiding desire to wander as a way to understand the world and absorb the world. I see the world as a picture puzzle. My goal is to try to understand as many pieces of the puzzle as I can. Every place I go, I add new pieces to that puzzle, trying to figure out what the world’s all about, and why we’re here.
As a writer, I find deeper thematic links that help me understand that. It’s infinitely impossible to put the whole puzzle together, but it gives my life a purpose. That’s what inspires me, and what I try to pass on in my writing. I like travel writing because it isn’t just about, “Here’s the best place to eat and here’s the best place to stay,” it’s about, “What’s the soul of this place, and what does this place teach me about the human condition?”
Do you have any advice on how to cultivate a traveling mindset?
I always talk about cultivating the fine art of vulnerability. When you go to a place, the real challenge, the wonderful challenge, is to open yourself up to the place. Say, “Here I am, do with me what you will, I am open to you.” I try to do that. I like to let the place take me and lead me. The more restrictions you put on the place, the less rich your experience there is going to be. The more you’re able to open yourself up, the richer and more layered your experience will be. I try to give people the confidence and the inspiration to do that.
Is there anywhere you haven’t traveled yet that you want to visit?
Absolutely. I’d like to go to Bhutan. And Antarctica—people keep telling me how transforming Antarctica is. I have a long list. The more I travel the more I realize how little I’ve traveled, and the list keeps expanding.
Learn about the art of travel writing from Don George on a National Geographic expedition.