Doug Lansky: Around the World

Travel Interviews: Jim Benning asks the travel writer about his new book, his celebration of wacky signs and, in a roundabout way, a way that pertains almost directly to travel, Liz Taylor's forehead

05.01.03 | 8:15 PM ET

Doug Lansky

Doug Lansky’s new book, First Time: Around the World, published by Rough Guides, just hit bookstores. It’s loaded with useful tips, thoughtful reflection and a healthy dose of humor on circumnavigating the globe, backpacker-style. If anyone is qualified to write the book, it’s Lansky. After kicking off a career with internships at Late Night with David Letterman and The New Yorker, he took off, traveling from Israel to Morocco to Thailand, covering 100 countries in 10 years. Along the way, he proved his stint at Letterman “working the copy machine” wasn’t all for naught. He published two humorous travel books, Last Trout in Venice and Up the Amazon without a Paddle. He has also become a regular contributor to public radio’s The Savvy Traveler. I recently exchanged e-mails with him.

World Hum: Congratulations on the new book. It happens to be coming out, unfortunately, at a time when travel is in a big slump. Are you optimistic that the climate for travel will improve soon?

Yep. There are great bargains and fewer lines at most museums, and this combo usually seems to prevail.  And unless you were planning a waterskiing vacation in the Persian Gulf, I don’t see any reason not to travel. The media has a way of distorting the risk.

Take SARS. Does it really have to be Severe and Acute?  I mean, why not rename Malaria “Brutal Burning Shaking Fever Syndrome” while they’re at it? I’m not saying it isn’t dangerous, I’d just like a little bit of perspective so I know if it’s statistically more dangerous than, say, Rollerblading. You don’t get any numbers that put it in perspective. How many of those who died from SARS were elderly and ill? How many had access to modern medical care?  How many died from other things in that same period? Just recently, over a five-day weekend of festival activities, for example, Thailand alone had 547 traffic fatalities (and 35,000-plus traffic injuries)—far more than have died of SARS throughout the world to date. (More than the 188 who died in the Bali blast, which received far more attention.)  Even Israel’s secretary of road safety has been clamoring that more people are dying from traffic accidents than suicide bombers. And they have a better traffic safety record than the U.S.

Yikes. Now you’re really scaring me. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to Thailand.

No, no, you’ll be relieved to know you may have been safer in Thailand than if you had stayed in the US. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, we have over 41,000 traffic fatalities a year right here. In fact, here’s an idea:  Maybe foreign tourist boards would be wise to use our fear to their advantage by pointing out how much more dangerous it is to stay in the U.S. With 71,000 dying of flu/pneumonia each year, over 11,000 firearm homicides, the world’s highest rate of incarceration, junk food diets that lead to countless heart failures, they could probably scare the bahoogies out of us if they wanted to. A few infographics, a deep voice, and some dramatic music ... heck, it wouldn’t even be expensive to produce.

Okay, sign me up, I’m ready to move right now. But seriously, you were willing to accept the risks and you lived to tell about it. How has travel changed you?

I’m taller now. And I eat more Indian food.  No, the real answer is that I don’t know that travel has changed my life any more than it would have changed it if I’d been in the U.S. for the last 10 years. It just changed it in a different way. I’ve picked up a few languages, married a Swedish woman, learned to use chopsticks, and can live comfortably for months with a single change of clothes.

That’s a frightening thought. You’ve always injected lots of humor into your writing. Even in this latest book, you note that your budget on one of your early journeys was “tighter than Liz Taylor’s forehead.” That’s one tight budget. Why do you think the best travel writing is often also humor writing?

With few exceptions, I think the best travel stories are about things that go horribly (but not tragically) wrong. So, what makes for a good vacation rarely makes for a good story. I’d like to think I’ve spared the reader the time I drank a pina colada on the beach, bought a T-shirt for my dad, and gave my baby girl a ride on my shoulders. (That is, until just now.)  But the trick isn’t just stepping in a steaming, fetid mound of misadventure.  You don’t want to hear someone whining about their trip either. There’s some sort of self-deprecating balancing act in the telling that seems to bring out the most entertaining story and humor at once. At least, that’s how I see it.  There’s no magic formula (two parts rubber chicken, one part Kato Kaelin, and a dash of Egyptian taxi driver), but readers seem to know it when they see it.

See? Travel writers just don’t invoke Kato Kaelin nearly as often as they should. But back to the book. You write in it that travel is an urge “best cultivated from within.” What do you mean by that?

In places like the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Israel—the big backpacking countries—there’s actually pressure to take an extended trip. However, independent budget travel isn’t for everyone.  It’s not always that comfortable. There are hot, cramped buses, showers with less water pressure than an I.V. drip, and hostel beds that sag like Michael Moore’s jeans. It takes a healthy dose of wanderlust to deal with it every day for months or years on end.  But for those ready to embrace it, the rewards are incredible.

What kind of rewards?

Each country—each region, actually—has its own pulse. Its own feel.  And that’s not going to penetrate the cabin of an airplane or the frame of a tourist bus. It’s like the difference between scuba diving and riding in a glass bottom boat. Most cultural insights and inroads must be experienced without a barrier. You often meet locals on those hot buses. You get a sense of traveling the way the locals do. Eat the food they eat and travel the way they travel and you’ll at least get a feel for their perspective, and that’s what you can’t experience by watching a video of the same trip on TV.

But you also write that travel has changed in recent years: “Travelers who used to visit hangouts for weeks and end up staying for months or years are now more typically coming for days and leaving after weeks, or coming for days and leaving in days. They have tighter itineraries, more energy, and are about as politically active as Bart Simpson.” Has something been lost? Have travelers themselves changed? 

There are just more people out there these days. Some of today’s travelers are more culturally sensitive in terms of learning the language, participating in volunteer projects and the like. And fewer, by percentage, are free-spirit drug users left over from the hippie era.  The majority of travelers are somewhere in-between. Mass tourism for the backpacker set, you might say. The wandering journey has been replaced with more “must sees” and “must dos” and Kodak moments. By pointing this out, I hope to motivate people to seek out their own unique and enriching journey.

We travelers like to believe, on balance, that we’re benefiting the world more than we’re hurting it. But as you write in the book, the issue is complicated. What’s your assessment?

Some places are set up to handle tourism better than others. You might think of it like a nature reserve. Some get a lot of visitors, but if they’ve got a cleverly developed trail system and rules protecting it from fires and garbage, their environment can better withstand a substantial influx. In places where few go, a careful naturalist can tread lightly with low impact. But a few uninformed campers lighting fires and leaving garbage can cause a good deal of damage in such a place. Similarly, the places with the least tourists are the most fragile, and that’s where most cultural precautions should be taken. All in all, we’re watering down the cultures we’re heading to with our presence and purchasing habits, but there’s still an incredible amount of culture to experience, especially if you take the time to pursue it.

Doug Lansky

So what sort of responsibility do travelers have?

It’s nothing that complex, really. I liken it to being a guest at someone’s home. In theory, you should be on better behavior while you’re there.  More pleases and thank-yous. Chew with your mouth closed. Wear appropriate clothing. Ask permission before photographing someone. It can get a little tricky when the countries have different versions of manners than we do, but most are understanding if you’re making an effort.

The issue of photography is an interesting one. You write: “Oddly, the people who don’t seem to benefit [financially from tourism] are the ones tourists are most interested to photograph: rug weavers, cloth embroiderers and donkey cart drivers. They seem to be working like mad with little to show for it.” That’s a fascinating observation.  Is this an issue of exploitation?

It’s exploitation. And, at the same time, it’s not.  I mean on one hand, they’re using this traditional craftmanship to promote the culture and they’re profiting from it while keeping those people poor and “traditional.” On the other hand, people have been doing these crafts for ages and might lose their jobs if the market for these crafts disappeared.  What it says about us, I think, is that we like the safari concept of travel, only this version is a matter of checking out the humans in their picturesque natural environment.  We like to bring back the endemic images we’ve seen in magazines and brochures while keeping most at arms length. Or maybe it’s easier to think of it this way: You don’t want to go all the way to the Amazon rainforest and bring back pictures of the locals wearing Boston Celtics T-shirts (given to them by the last tourists who visited). As much as we might want to deny it (and I’m guilty of this as well), there’s a good deal of demand for the Disneyified version of how a place and its people are supposed to look.

Speaking of how places look, you’ve launched Signspotting, a Web site that celebrates offbeat signs around the world. What was the inspiration?   Looking through my boxes of photos, I realized I had a decent collection of funny sign photos. About this same time I was spammed with some popular e-mails of allegedly real foreign signs (e.g. “The chambermaid will service you”), but I was unable to locate actual photos of these signs and eventually concluded they probably came from the same place most jokes come from, wherever that may be. Even if some of the made-up puns are raunchier, I still prefer the absurdity of real photos—like a Gary Larson cartoon come to life.  And with so many countries putting up English signs to assist tourists, I figured there was probably a fresh and hilarious crop of postings out there.

What has been the response?

The submissions and comments I’ve been getting have been fantastic. I’m astounded daily by how much great humor is floating around out there.

That’s great to hear. Beyond the book, I hear you’re giving travel presentations on college campuses. What can audiences expect to hear? 

It’s not what you might think. At least, it’s not like the travel slideshows I’d seen before, where some guy puts up a slide and spends between three and 20 minutes telling the story behind the picture to a half sleeping audience.  I flip through the slides at nearly MTV video speed, using each image to illustrate a point, reveal a tip, or show an aspect of travel they might not expect. The aim of the talk is to help travelers avoid the common pitfalls, find a unique and enriching experience, and maintain a degree of cultural sensitivity. And to keep the talks interesting and sprinkled with enough humor to entertain even a few in the audience who don’t plan to travel.  Perhaps the best part, though, is that I get to help send a few people on their way. At each show, I hand out a two-month Eurail Pass to someone in the audience.

Nice. So I imagine, talking to college students, you have been getting a pretty good sense of how they’re feeling about travel these days. How are they feeling?

Young travelers, not surprisingly, seem to be among the most intrepid. According to the travel agents I rang up, it’s the wealthier travelers and older travelers who are most put off by world events. In fact, according to AirTreks, more American students than ever went abroad after 9/11. I think the students understand the path to global understanding begins with travel.  However, I think they also know that the path to cheep beer begins there as well.

On that note, cheers, Doug. Thanks.

Photos courtesy of Doug Lansky.

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