Interview by Rolph Potts
Inspiration for traveling:
A combination of things: I grew up in a starving artist family and never found the opportunity to leave America (except to Mexico) until college; also my family moved across the country when I was ten and I think after that I always felt a bit uprooted, and in search of a true homeland; also, when I was eighteen, I read Tom Robbins's "Jitterbug Perfume." The main character discovers, before most of the rest of the world does, that the world is round. I still remember the quote that corrupted me: "The world is round. A man can do many things. I am young and free and the world is round, round, round." (Or something close to that). Boy did that resonate. It occurred to me how easy it is to travel, how much easier than in the past, particularly when people still believed the world was flat. We are incredibly fortunate to live in an age when traveling is easy, and it would seem terribly ungrateful to take it for granted by not going anywhere. But these answers are all pretty abstract. The concrete catalysts for my travel life were a college French teacher who talked me into backpacking Europe, and then the fact that I was offered a job after college, teaching in Korea. I had no money to travel and discovered that by taking this job, I wouldn't need any — my employers would pay for my plane ticket and my housing — how could I resist?
Favorite country and/or place to visit:
I suppose my favorites are Bali and Lombok. I'm sure there are those who would disagree with me, but I find those two islands in Indonesia offer the perfect combination of all great travel-related things. What I mean is, in every country I've visited, while I've found plenty to appreciate, there have been a few aspects of the place that I haven't absolutely loved (the food in China, for example, or the weather in England). But I find Bali and Lombok amazing on almost every level: people who smile with every muscle in their face, just as warm and welcoming as their climate. Sumptuous food. A faith (Hinduism) that is gentle and exquisite. Unrivaled scenery. Gorgeous snorkeling/diving. Incredible beaches. A shopper's paradise. The culture (dance, music, art) is fascinating. Lots to see and do. Some travelers complain that the Balinese merchants are always "in their face" — I've gotten to know and love the Balinese/Lombok people, so this part of it doesn't bother me.
I befriend as many people as possible — other travelers as well as natives. Word of mouth and an openness to meeting new people is, in my opinion, the best way to find the road less traveled. Eight years ago, in the Vatican, my best friend and I met Fabrizzio and Antonio, two young men working at St. Peter's Basilica. They asked to take us out that night. Now, most women would probably have said no to two strange Italian men asking them out. And — most women would not have been driven around to see the (then) recent mafia bomb sites, or the "lovers' point" of Rome (our escorts were perfect gentlemen) which offered an extraordinary view of the city, or to a tiny back-alley restaurant that served some of the most exquisite Italian food I've tasted, or to a monastery on the top of a hill, where we came to an enormous, very forbidding-looking iron door and were instructed to look through the key hole. It revealed nothing except the Duomo, snugly framed in the keyhole, about the size of my thumb, glowing like a miniature nightlight. It was one of the perfect moments of my life.
I think it helps to have a small personal project or goal while on the road, such as finishing a series of short essays about the place you've visited, or painting one small watercolor a day, or just learning a new skill in each place you visit — whether it's asking the fruit seller on the beach to teach you to carve a perfect pineapple; or learning to play a traditional instrument; or exploring something of the religion. Whatever interests you — whatever part of the culture you want to take with you.
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What is art but a way of seeing?” –Thomas Berger