Explore the World with a Legendary Travel Writer
Don George has been captivating readers with chronicles of his wandering adventures for four decades. Here you’ll find his best stories and essays, from climbing Kilimanjaro and contemplating the magic of Uluru to exploring the jungles of Cambodia and the backcountry temples of Shikoku. Let Don open your eyes to the wonders of the world as he falls in love in Greece, encounters whales in Mexico and elephants in East Africa, makes roof tiles in Peru, dances like a South Seas warrior on Aitutaki, and much more.
With a Foreword by Pico Iyer.
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“These stories made me fall in love with the world again.”
“Don George is an inveterate adventurer and master storyteller, with the biggest, most generous heart on the open road.”
—Andrew McCarthy, actor, director, and author of The Longest Way Home
“What shines with crystal clarity through all of these wise and wonderful essays is Don George’s irrepressible generosity of spirit. He loves the world he finds, and the world loves him back in equal measure. Those of us lucky enough to know him have long recognized Don as a seriously life-enhancing kind of fellow: this marvelous collection serves amply to reinforce the notion.”
—Simon Winchester, author Pacific and The Map That Changed the World
By Don George
I took my first serendipitous step on the path to becoming a travel writer the summer after I graduated from Princeton. While all my friends were preparing for graduate school, law school, business school, or medical school, or starting jobs with banks, I arranged to go to Europe for a year, first to spend the summer in Paris on a Summer Work Abroad internship and then to teach in Greece on an Athens College Teaching Fellowship.
When I set off for Europe, I was thinking that year would be a brief interlude between undergraduate and graduate schools, but then, one sun-dappled June morning in Paris, the course of my life changed. As I had every morning for the previous two weeks, I took the rickety old filigreed elevator from my apartment—right on the rue de Rivoli, looking onto the Tuileries—and stepped into the street: into a sea of French. Everyone around me was speaking French, wearing French, looking French, acting French. Shrugging their shoulders and twirling their scarves and drinking their cafés crèmes, calling out “Bonjour, monsieur-dame,” and paying for Le Monde or Le Nouvel Observateur with francs and stepping importantly around me and staring straight into my eyes and subtly smiling in a way that only the French do.
Until that time I had spent most of my life in classrooms, and I was planning after that European detour to spend most of the rest of my life in classrooms. Suddenly it struck me: This was the classroom. Not the musty, shadowed, ivy-draped buildings in which I had spent the previous four years. This world of wide boulevards and centuries-old buildings and six-table sawdust restaurants and glasses of vin ordinaire and fire-eaters on street corners and poetry readings in cramped second-floor bookshops and mysterious women who smiled at me so that my heart leaped and I walked for hours restless under the plane trees by the Seine. This was the classroom.
Hungry in a way I’d never been before, I gorged on Paris. I marveled at Molière at the Comédie Française and the Ballet Béjart in the park; I idled among the secondhand shelves at Shakespeare and Company, eavesdropping on poets and poseurs; I immersed myself in Manet and Monet in the Musée d’Orsay; got lost in the ancient alleys of Montmartre and the Marais; savored the open-air theater from a sidewalk seat on the ChampsÉlysées; and conjured Hemingway on rue Descartes and in Les Deux Magots café.
At the end of that summer, I rode the Orient Express to Greece and settled on the campus of Athens College. As it turned out, my fellowship duties were to teach five hours of literature and writing classes a week, write occasional speeches for the college president, and write and edit articles for the school’s quarterly alumni magazine. This left me uncharted expanses of free time, which I exuberantly filled reading Plato by the Parthenon, sipping ouzo on bouzouki-bright nights in the Plaka, communing with muses among the red poppies and white columns of Corinth, and exploring the beaches of Rhodes and the ruins of Crete. Winter and spring vacations afforded the time to venture even farther, and I wandered footloose through Italy, Turkey, and Egypt, intoxicated with the newness and possibility of this unfurling world.
My wanderlust bloomed. Every moment seemed unbearably precious, every outing an exhilarating lesson in a new culture, place, and people—full of thrilling sights and smells, tastes and textures, creations and traditions, encounters and connections: a whole new world!
That year changed my life. And as the end of the school year approached and the question of what to do with my life loomed again, I found the courage to relinquish the student’s hand-me-down desire to become a tweedy professor and choose instead the uncharted path of becoming a writer. I had no idea where that path would lead; I just knew that I wanted to walk it, wild and wide-eyed, daring to dream.
I entered an intensive one-year Master’s program in creative writing at a small school in Virginia called Hollins College. I lived in a log cabin on a lake and wrote a collection of poems, a few desultory chapters of a novel, and a description of an impromptu expedition I and a traveling companion had made up Mount Kilimanjaro the summer after my stay in Greece. I learned much about the rigors and rewards of being a professional writer that year, but no clear career path emerged. And so, as winter thawed into spring and the question-filled future arose once more, I followed my wanderlust and applied for a two-year Princeton-in-Asia Fellowship. Miraculously, I won and was awarded a position teaching at International Christian University in Tokyo.
Before leaving for Japan, through some polite and persistent letter-writing, I was able to meet with a few magazine editors in New York, and I brought my Kilimanjaro story with me as a writing sample. To my astonishment, when I arrived in Tokyo in September, a telegram was waiting for me from one of these, the Travel Editor at Mademoiselle magazine. It read: “A hole opened up in our November issue and we put your Kilimanjaro story in it. Hope you don’t mind.”
That was my first published travel article.
Over the ensuing two years, I continued to write poetry, but I also began keeping copious journals, writing long letters, and absorbing as much travel information and experience as I could. I wrote two articles for the Japan Airlines inflight magazine and a couple more for other Asia-based publications, and then I was given an assignment by Travel & Leisure. At the same time, I ventured throughout Japan and on to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. And perhaps most important, I began to explore and frame the world with a travel writer’s mind. When that fellowship ended and the future stretched directionless once more, I felt drawn by the enlightened, cosmopolitan atmosphere of San Francisco, and moved there without home or plan. A few months later, through an extraordinary series of serendipities, I was hired as a Travel Writer by the San Francisco Examiner to replace the Travel Editor while she took a one-year leave of absence.
That was my first real job, and travel writing has been my profession ever since. Through the decades I’ve broadened from newspaper to online and book publishing, and I’ve incorporated editing, teaching, speaking, consulting, tour leading, and being a spokesperson into my professional portfolio, but travel writing has always remained at the core of what I do and who I am.
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In the thirty-eight years since that first Kilimanjaro piece was published, I have written more than 700 articles for some two dozen print and online publications. I’ve also edited ten anthologies of literary travel writing, and written a guide to becoming a travel writer. But I’ve never published a collection of my own travel pieces.
So I was thrilled and honored when the wonderful folks at Travelers’ Tales approached me about compiling a selection of my writing. At first the task seemed daunting, but as I read through those hundreds of articles, a few stood out as having a particularly powerful sense of personal engagement, and of focusing on the inner as well as the outer journey.
Aided by the editorial acumen and invigorating energy of Candace Rose Rardon, the talented writer and artist who created the enchanting cover illustrations, maps, and icons that grace this book, I winnowed these finalists down to the stories that compose the final collection.
These pieces cover a broad spectrum. Chronologically, they range from that first story about Kilimanjaro, which was published in 1977, to an article that appeared in 2015. Geographically, they roam from my childhood home in Connecticut, through my temporary homelands in France, Greece, and Japan, to my current home in California, stopping in twenty countries on six continents en route. The world of publishing is widely represented as well, with fourteen print and online outlets included.
Once we’d selected these stories, we still had to decide how to organize them. After contemplating a number of methods—by decade, publication, publishing medium, geographical setting, narrative message—we realized that the pieces seemed to fall organically into three themed sections: Pilgrimages, Encounters, and Illuminations. (To our astonishment and delight, these were the same three words I had chosen to highlight on the cover of my website a year earlier.) As we grouped the stories into these categories, we found that eleven pieces seemed to fit snugly within each. We decided to present the stories within each section chronologically, according to their date of publication, so that readers could follow the evolution of my writing. We also decided that to enhance the continuity of the reading experience, it would be helpful to include a short introductory note before each story, to set the context and background for the piece and to trace a skeletal biographical outline throughout the book.
On further reflection, we decided to add two more stories. One seemed to summarize the prevailing themes of all the pieces, and we made that the Prologue. And one addressed the larger art and heart of travel writing, and seemed the perfect Epilogue to the entire collection.
And that’s the book you hold in your hands.
In the process of reading these tales afresh, I realized that they were all the fruits of the wanderlust that had been seeded in Paris four decades before. And so “The Way of Wanderlust” seemed the perfect title for the book. The phrase has a fluid movement, an internal flow. It suggests both a journey (the path followed, the map traced/filled in) and a philosophy/life practice (as in “the way of tea”). And it captures both the adventurer/explorer and the philosopher/evangelist sides of my life and work; it has a bit of the map-maker and a bit of the pilgrim. Finally, it has a pleasing cadence and alliteration, adding a little touch of the poet who has been a part of me from the beginning.
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Now, with the finished text before me, I feel humbled, exhilarated, and blessed beyond measure. It is a dream come true for me to have this collection in print. It gives a substance, a weight, a palpability to my career as a writer that those 700 articles dispersed across the vast plains of publishing never had.
I also feel suffused with wonder and gratitude at two mind-spinning, soul-plucking truths this collection has crystallized: The first is that somehow I have been able to make a living pursuing and practicing the two things I love most, traveling and writing, for my entire professional life; the second is that this journey would simply not have been possible without the many extraordinary people—family, friends, fellow writers and editors, mentors, students, readers—who have guided, supported, and inspired me in innumerable small and large, life-changing ways. I cannot adequately express my thankfulness for these riches.
At some point during the course of my journey, I came to think of myself as a travel evangelist, and compiling this collection has reinforced that notion. I was profoundly influenced by a Protestant pastor who eloquently preached the gospel of love when I was a youth, and by the precepts and practices of Buddhism that I first encountered when I lived in Japan, but in many ways, travel is my religion.
As I have learned over and over, travel teaches us about the vast and varied differences that enrich the global mosaic, in landscape, creation, custom, and belief, and about the importance of each and every piece in that mosaic. Travel teaches us to embrace our vulnerability and to have faith that whatever energy we put into the world will come back to us a hundredfold. Travel teaches us to approach unfamiliar cultures and peoples with curiosity and respect, and to realize that the great majority of people around the world, whatever their differences in background and belief, care for their fellow human beings. And in all these ways, travel paves the pathway to global understanding, evolution, and peace.
Ultimately, I have come to think, travel teaches us about love. It teaches us that the very best we can do with our lives is to embrace the peoples, places, and cultures we meet with all our mind, heart, and soul, to live as fully as possible in every moment, every day. And it teaches us that this embrace is simultaneously a way of becoming whole and letting go.
That’s the way of my wanderlust. And now, with the same mixture of apprehension and exhilaration that I feel at the beginning of every journey, I let go of these tales and send them out into the world, on their own adventures. Thank you for taking them into your hands, heart, and home. I hope you find pieces that connect with your own life’s puzzle, and that confer meaning and inspiration on your wanderlust way.
Foreword: Saying Yes to the World by Pico Iyer
Prologue: Every Journey Is a Pilgrimage
PART ONE: PILGRIMAGES
A Night with the Ghosts of Greece
Connections: A Moment at Notre-Dame
Conquering Half Dome
Impression: Sunrise at Uluru
Castaway in the Galápagos
Machu Picchu Magic
A Pilgrim at Stinson Beach
Japan’s Past Perfect
Home for the Holidays: A Thanksgiving Pilgrimage to Connecticut
PART TWO: ENCOUNTERS
In Love, in Greece, in the Springtime
A Day in the Life of Dubbo
A Passage to Pakistan
Insights into Nice at the Musée Matisse
Treasures of Dubrovnik
Letters from Jordan
Baja: Touched by a Whale
Building Bridges in Mostar
Making Roof Tiles in Peru
Living-History Lessons in Berlin
PART THREE: ILLUMINATIONS
At the Musée d’Orsay
Prambanan in the Moonlight
In the Pythion of Time
Finding Salvation in the South Seas
The Intricate Weave
Unexpected Offerings on a Return to Bali
Spin the Globe: El Salvador
French Connections in Saint-Paul-de-Vence
Piecing Together Puzzles in Cambodia
Epilogue: Travel Writing and the Meaning of Life
About the Author
I became Travel Editor at the San Francisco Examiner in 1987, and began writing a Page Two column for the Sunday Travel Section shortly thereafter. I was an innocent and exhilarated editor—I wanted to transform the Travel Section into the New Yorker of newspaper travel sections—and one of my fervent goals was to publish deep, personal travel writing that vividly recreated an author’s experience but also probed into the heart and meaning of that experience. This essay, published in the fall of 1987, was one of my first fledgling attempts to do this in my weekly column. I wanted to speak directly to the reader, and I wanted to talk about a place and experience that had deeply moved me, taught me, changed me. This, I thought, was the potential of great travel writing, to create experiential bridges between reader and writer. This column was published as part of a special section on the theme of sacred places, a context that allowed me to plumb a seemingly simple place that had resonated to my core. To my surprise and delight, this article was chosen from among thousands of international entrants as the Best Travel Article of the Year in the Pacific Asia Travel Association’s annual Gold Awards competition. That award hugely buoyed my determination to continue writing in this style.
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When I think of the sacred places I have encountered in my own travels, I recall the Temple of Poseidon on the cliff of Cape Sounion in Greece, where I spent a wild night huddled in my sleeping bag among the moonlit columns, surrounded by tearing wind, the crashing of waves, and ghostly, godly dreams.
I think too of Bali, of the lush, lovingly sculpted land and the gentle people, more profoundly imbued with a sense of sanctity— of life as a holy gift to be celebrated—than any other I have met.
But most vividly of all I think of a simple plot of sand and rocks and moss in Kyoto—the rock garden at Ryoanji Temple.
The guidebooks will tell you that the rock garden was built in the 15th century, probably by a renowned, Zen-influenced artist named Soami, and that it is considered a masterpiece of the karesansui (“dry landscape”) garden style. It consists of fifteen irregularly shaped rocks of varying sizes, some surrounded by moss, arranged in a bed of white sand that is raked every day. A low earthen wall surrounds the garden on three sides, overhung by a narrow, beamed wooden roof; on the fourth side, wooden steps lead to a wide wooden platform and the main building of the temple itself. Beyond the wall are cedar, pine, and cherry trees.
Such a description gives a sense of the history and look of the place, but to understand its power, its pure presence, you have to go there. The first time I visited Ryoanji I was overwhelmed—first by the spareness of the site and second by loudspeakers that every fifteen minutes squawked out a recorded message about the history and spirit of the garden to the busloads of obedient schoolchildren and tourists who filed through.
But something held me there. Morning passed to afternoon, and still I sat on the well-worn platform, staring. Kids in black caps, tiny book-filled backpacks, and black-and-white school uniforms passed by, studying me while I studied the garden, and adults in shiny cameras and kimonos clicked and clucked and walked on.
Clouds came and went, and the branches beyond the garden bent, straightened, bent again. I saw how the pebbly sand had been meticulously raked in circles around the rocks, and in straight lines in the open areas, and how those lines stopped without a misplaced pebble when they touched the circular patterns, and then resumed unchanged beyond them. I saw how pockets of moss had filled the pocks in the stones, and how the sand echoed the sky, the moss echoed the trees, the wall and roof balanced the platform, and the rocks seemed to emanate a web of intricate, tranquil tension within the whole.
It was an exquisite enigma, telling me something I couldn’t put words to, and so it has remained.
I have seen Ryoanji in spring, when the cherry trees bloomed, and in fall, when their branches were bare; in winter, when snow covered the moss, and in summer, when the cicadas buzzed beyond the wall. I have been there among giggling teenagers and gaping farmers, bemused Westerners and beatific monks. By now it has become a part of me—and still it eludes me.
I love the place partly because it is so emphatically not a ten-minute tourist stop. Its dimensions defy the camera—I have never seen a true picture of the place—and its subtle simplicity defies quick assimilation. It makes you sit and study, slow down and stare until you really see it— in its particularity and in its whole, simultaneously.
And yet—and here the enigma expands—you cannot see all of Ryoanji at one time: The rocks are so arranged that you can see only fourteen of the stones wherever you stand. You have to visualize, imagine, the final one.
How wonderful! It is in this sense that Ryoanji is, for me, the essential sacred place: It is complete in itself, but for you to completely perceive it, you have to transcend the boundary between inner and outer—to travel inward as well as outward, to find and finish it in your mind.
And the gigglers, the camera-clickers, and the squawking loudspeakers are all, in their exasperating reality, part of this completion. Beyond a great irony of modern Japan—loudspeakers instructing you to appreciate the silence—they embody a much larger meaning: You must embrace them all—the monks and the moss and the trees, the schoolkids and the stones—to really be there, to be whole.
National Geographic has called Don George “a legendary travel writer and editor,” and he has been lauded as the most influential travel writer and editor of his generation. Don has been exploring new frontiers as an author, editor, and adventurer for almost four decades, and is also an acclaimed teacher, speaker, and tour leader. He has visited more than ninety countries on six continents, has published hundreds of articles in dozens of magazines and newspapers around the world, and regularly speaks and teaches at conferences, campuses, and companies from San Francisco to Singapore to London.
Don’s first job was as Travel Writer and then Travel Editor for the San Francisco Examiner. After fifteen years at the paper, he founded and edited Salon.com’s groundbreaking Wanderlust travel site, then became Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet. Don is currently Editor at Large and Columnist for National Geographic Traveler, Special Features Editor for BBC Travel, and editor of GeoEx’s travel blog, Wanderlust: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler.
Don literally wrote the book on travel writing, Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing, the bestselling travel writing guide in the world. He has also edited ten award-winning literary travel anthologies, including An Innocent Abroad, Better Than Fiction, and The Kindness of Strangers. Don has received dozens of awards for his writing and editing, including ten Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers. He is a highly sought-after keynote speaker and workshop leader, and is interviewed frequently as a travel expert. He also consults nationally and internationally on travel and social media, and hosts a popular national series of onstage conversations with prominent travel writers.
Don is co-founder and host of the award-winning San Francisco-based reading series Weekday Wanderlust, and is co-founder and chairman of the celebrated Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference.
Don grew up in Connecticut, and lived in Paris, Athens, and Tokyo before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife; they have two children. He is a graduate of Princeton University and the Hollins College graduate program in creative writing. His website is www.don-george.com.