SUSAN ORLEAN: ROAMING WITH A SENSE OF PURPOSE
Susan Orlean is more than a travel writer—she’s a storyteller, who happens to tell lots of stories about foreign and exotic places. To date she’s published seven books, including “The Orchid Thief,” which later morphed into the movie “Adaptation.” She’s currently working on a book about the life and times of Rin Tin Tin—a German Shepherd who starred in more than a dozen silent films (and a few talkies).
With deadlines looming, Susan made time to talk to How I Travel about why she’s so in love with life on the road. Read more to hear about her first experiences as a road-tripping writer, why she likes to travel with an objective in mind and her method for choosing a good spot to eat.
My first travel memory was a cross country road trip with my whole family.
I was about five and we drove from Ohio to Texas to California and back home again. I still think about that trip even now. It was just so full of vivid moments for me—both the experience of being with my family and seeing places that I’d never imagined before. I kept a little journal of that trip. I don’t want to exaggerate my talents but somehow it inspired me. That was probably the first time I thought about writing.
I’ve always been a very curious person and travel is the ultimate treasure box for a curious person.
You are constantly encountering new and unfamiliar people, landscapes and customs. In that way travel became a very natural extension into my investigations into the way we live and how we live.
Frankly I prefer traveling for stories.
I feel like I’m paying better attention. I find myself more purposeful and more motivated. I feel like travel can at times be a little numbing—you’re in a new place, you’re overwhelmed, you don’t know which way to turn to experience things. When you’re traveling with a story in mind it kind of sorts out the chaos for you.
I’ll sometimes advise causal travelers to come up with their own projects when they’re traveling. They can use it to help them make the experience feel more thematically interesting rather than just walking around. You still open yourself up to every bit of serendipity and exploration but…I compare it to going to a giant flea market: if you walk in and there’s nothing that you collect, it just looks like a jumble of stuff but if you walk in thinking “I’m looking to collect interesting wire objects” suddenly the flea market becomes this wonderful scavenger hunt. I think a lot of people when they travel just get numb. There’s too much and they don’t know how to experience it all. They come away disappointed. That’s why a lot of people just go somewhere where there’s a beach, because you go there and know you’re going to have the experience of a beach.
That being said, I actually feel very inhibited if I’m too boxed in.
I like the opportunity to just let things happen and see what I encounter. I always feel constrained to anything beyond the day I arrive and the day I leave. I’m much happier if I have a very open schedule and I also feel like that’s when things are really fun.
To me, over preparation is one good way to kill the enjoyment of travel.
I like to go in blind. I will do basic research to know just how to get from place A to place B so not to get caught completely flat footed and give myself something to do right away. But I really prefer being surprised. It’s too easy to learn every single thing about a place and even view it on Google Earth and then when you get there you have nothing left to learn. While I think it’s useful to know a few highlights, I also think you should feel entitled to take the trip the way you want it to go.
What I think is very funny is that people don’t make the time to go to museums in their own hometown but they feel obligated to go when they’re traveling.
I was in Madrid awhile ago and everyone said “Oh you’ve got to go to the Prado.” But a really great museum like the Prado isn’t particularly Spanish, nor is the MET in New York City especially American. Those are amazing institutions and if that’s something you love then you should certainly see it—but I think the obligation to see those cultural high-watermarks can sometimes end up being kind of meaningless. It may be more fun and more interesting to go wandering in the side streets. It just so happened that as much as I love painting, I wasn’t in the mood while I was in Madrid. I wanted to be out in the street spending as much time as I could just walking. So I ended up not going to the Prado…and I felt fine about it. I’m not a believer in having that checklist where you’re like “Well if you didn’t see ‘that’ then you didn’t see Madrid.”
There’s a lot of guilt associated with how we travel.
It takes a certain confidence to say “I’m gonna see what’s interesting to me and I’m not gonna think that I needed to spend three days at the Louvre if I’m not that interested in art.” Luckily I travel so much that I’m able to say “I don’t care what anyone says is the way to travel, this is what I’m gonna do.”
I like going anywhere.
If I’m sent to Midland, TX for a story I just find that it’s so much fun to see something new. There’s a great thrill of finding something you like when there’s no expectation. I think we’ve come to undervalue visiting American cities.
The place that I love the most, which a lot of people don’t go to, is Bhutan.
It’s difficult to travel there but it is extraordinary. It really is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been and in many ways the most pure.
I’m not somebody who seeks out monkey brains to eat.
That’s not my style, but I do love street food. I seem to have good radar for finding good places and I tend to avoid asking the hotel concierge. You have to work a little hard at asking local people to recommend something and making sure they understand that you don’t want to go to the place with the tourist buses. I was in Morocco last year and I was traveling with two young Moroccan guys and I said: “I’d love to go someplace that you’d go.” They ended up taking me to a tourist place with belly dancing and the whole routine. It was so frustrating to me because quite clearly they would never eat there. Finally I persuaded them to take me to some hole-in-the-wall where they would eat and the food was great. Look for a busy place where most people are local and you’re probably going to find a good spot.
I think it’s very useful to spend at least one day getting your bearings with no huge agenda in mind.
I like to start with a good walk. That’s the best way to get a street level view of where I am and get oriented. Then maybe I’ll pick one place that I already know about that seems interesting and head over there. A lot of times I’ll just go shopping the first day. I love talking to shopkeepers. Not at the tourist shops but at the little out of the way places that people other than tourists would go.
Traveling alone has some tremendous advantages.
People are much more willing to talk to you and you’re more motivated to talk to other people. If you’re traveling with a friend, your spouse or your family it can sometimes be very hard to really engage in a conversation with someone else.
If you have a hobby at home and you’re in another country that’s a fantastic way to connect to the place in an untraditional, non-tourist way.
When I was writing The Orchid Thief it was very interesting to me to talk to collectors who told me that when they visit other countries the first thing they do is to see if there’s an orchid show going on or a club having a meeting. Those things instantly vault you over the trough of tourist malaise and into a local experience.
I’m not a hostel-goer.
I like to be comfortable. I think I’m too old and too interested in a hot shower.
I would love to go back to India.
I spent one day there, which is hilarious because how could you possibly spend one day in India? It’s one of the more complex and enormous countries on earth. I was on a flight that got grounded in Calcutta and I was absolutely entranced.
I’m a great believer in short trips and I’ve made every use of them on account of now being a parent.
I think you can have a very interesting experience in four or five days. You don’t have to go in trying to see an entire nation in one trip. That’s where a real sense of focus can really help you.
I think long trips can be kind of boring frankly.
I don’t love traveling for weeks and weeks. I like to get home. I honestly prefer the one-week trip. I really encourage short trips and encourage people to think in those terms. The average traveler can have a better time doing a week somewhere and never getting to the point where travel fatigue sets in.
I don’t think travel necessarily has to be exotic.
I don’t think you have to go very far—it’s the state of mind that you’re in as a traveler that’s important to me.
I love travel because I love life.
To me traveling is the process of always expanding my understanding and surprise in what life is all about.
“How I Travel” is a new BootsnAll series publishing every Tuesday in an effort to look at the unique and diverse travel habits of some of the world’s most well known and proficient road warriors. Got ideas for who we should talk to? Drop us a note.
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all photographs provided by Susan Orlean and may not be used without permission