Mission Improbable – The Trouble with Traveling to Improve your Country

From February to June 1787, with all of his necessities packed in a single trunk, Thomas Jefferson traveled “incognito” by coach, barge, and sometimes mule across most of France and Northern Italy. Reading the extensive diary he kept of the trip, one encounters many passages like the following.

In the boudoir at Chanteloup is an ingenious contrivance to hide the projecting steps of a staircase. Three steps were of necessity to project into the boudoir. They therefore made triangular steps, and, instead of resting on the floor as usual, they are made fast at their broad end to the stair door, swinging out and in with that. When shut, it runs them under the other steps. When open, it brings them out to their proper place.

jefferson1787I don’t quote this because it was Jefferson’s most electrifying prose; it’s not, and to be fair, he never intended to publish it. What is striking about the diary is what it says about Jefferson’s sense of the grand purpose of travel, evidenced by the wealth of detail describing everything from soil types, methods of grape cultivation, the relationship of social conditions to regional crops, and sketches of practical contraptions like the one above. Every page reveals a man bent on devouring as much practical information as he could with an eye toward using it to improve both himself and his country on his eventual return to Virginia. In addition to scouting markets and securing contacts for American agricultural producers (which were his primary duties as a minister), he brought back with him new varieties of plants, architectural designs and ideas he would later implement, plans for technological devices, and an unparalleled expertise in European wines and viticulture. Not too shabby for an 18th century backpacker.

Despite competing with the leisure travel industry for our hearts and minds, the idea of traveling to improve one’s country is still discussed today, though it more often falls under the purview of travel scribes than presidential hopefuls. One of the most vocal and visible contemporary champions of what you might call national-improvement travel is the writer and entrepreneur Rick Steves. In his recent book, Travel as a Political Act, Steves explains the book’s eponymous theme thus:

When we return home, we can put what we’ve learned – our newly acquired broader perspective – to work as citizens of a great nation confronted with unprecedented challenges. And when we do that, we make travel a political act.

steves wine

Rick Steves, travel writer and man of a sober age.

Steves’s notion that travel can improve one’s country echoes Jefferson, who wrote to his nephew in 1787 that “men of a sober age” could travel to “gather knowledge, which they may apply usefully for their country.” There is however an important difference between them: The country Jefferson came home to was agrarian, weak, and relatively undeveloped, so many of his observations found an appreciative audience among a people who felt they had something to learn from Europe. In contrast, Rick Steves has to chip away against the popular conceit that America is exceptional and has little to learn from Europe – least of all the French, whose label as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” has been un-ironically accepted as the last word on France by the millions of FOX viewers who never quite grasped that learning international studies from Homer Simpson is a bit like learning feminism from Archie Bunker.

Attractive Expressive Young Mixed Race Female Student Sitting and Talking with Girlfriend Outside on Bench.

So like, oh my god, I have to tell you about this thing they use in Europe called the metric system…

But like Jefferson, Rick Steves is also a man fired with missionary zeal. In the book, he writes cogently about successful heroin maintenance programs in Switzerland, Sweden’s commonsense approach to underage drinking, the liberal stance toward prostitution in the Netherlands, and several other battle-tested European social policy triumphs. This is well and good until one recalls that Europe is no longer some distant land from which letters take weeks to arrive and none but seamen, diplomats, or the very rich will ever see in person. Another difference between Jefferson’s time and our own is that the traveler coming back from Europe today isn’t really telling people much that they haven’t already heard.

So if we know about these things, why don’t we implement all these great ideas? Part of the answer lies in yet another important difference between the worlds of Jefferson and Steves: today’s traveler is sharing his European insights with countrymen who are too often hypersensitive to criticism (Love it or leave it!) and who seldom give a hot damn what Europeans do, think, or say. While some of Jefferson’s contemporaries may have replicated the “ingenious contrivance” he observed in the boudoir, today the phrase “solution X has worked in country Y” is rarely the premier feature of a persuasive discourse or a winning debate.


Reality star Sarah Palin gazes vigilantly at Russia.

You don’t even have to look as far as Europe to overlook an idea. Case in point, socialized medicine in Canada. You can be for it or against it – and I frankly don’t care which – but one thing that should be very clear by now is that its implementation doesn’t lead down the dreaded “slippery slope” to inevitable and abject totalitarianism, as many Americans strangely imagine despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For some Americans this is as easy to debunk as literally looking out the window (there goes Sarah Palin’s excuse), yet to point out that Canada has socialized medicine but no dictatorship is to be cheeky or obtuse, not a Jeffersonian visionary.

No doubt mindful of these obnoxious tendencies, Steves is obliged to draw doomed analogies between constructive personal criticism and criticism of one’s equally beloved country:

I enjoy bettering myself by observing others. And I appreciate constructive criticism from caring friends. In the same spirit, I enjoy learning about my society by observing other societies and challenging myself to be broad-minded when it comes to international issues.

I’d be out of my depth to deal with the question of whether the average person strives to better themselves, but even among people who do, this is a leap that many still don’t make. Whatever the reason for that, it leads me back to a pet peeve of mine regarding some of the grand claims that are occasionally made in praise of travel, namely, the idea that the inevitable consequence of travel is growth, openness, or some other species of personal improvement. While it appears to make intuitive sense, the continuing struggles of people like Rick Steves to invite their fellow Americans to brook even well-intentioned and thoughtful criticism suggests to me that there are in fact prerequisites to this happy side-effect – call it ugly-american-thumbhumility or openness if you like – and that travel does not necessarily teach us those things. Traveling certainly affords the opportunity to learn, but in order to learn something it seems we must first acknowledge that we have something to learn in the first place. Without that, the opportunity is wasted, as evidenced by every self-assured ding-dong, dipshit, and dunderhead who strapped on a backpack and came back with his ignorance intact.

I’m not saying that travel has not cracked open a stubborn nut here and there and managed to ram home an essential truth, welcome or not. That happens, though it strikes me as less common. It’s also not hard to find examples of travel gurus (Steves is one) advising us to open our minds prior to traveling in order to get something out of the experience. In other words, we generally become travelers by becoming open, but you can’t count on it happening the other way around.

If our goal is to better our country, is there still a point to purposeful travel, or is bettering ourselves the best we can do? And if openness is the main requirement to do that, does travel need have any role in that at all?

The big question seems to be: how do you learn openness?  I don’t really know, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re headed into a boudoir in Chanteloup, you want to be ready for anything.


Hello there, sailor.

Korea Through the Eyes of Foreigners (through the Eyes of Koreans)

My latest over at Sweet Pickles and Corn: Sometimes the things that foreigners like about Korea are the simplest (OK, except maybe for ddeok).

Korea Through the Eyes of Foreigners (through the Eyes of Koreans).

via Korea Through the Eyes of Foreigners (through the Eyes of Koreans).

Five Things I’m Telling Myself to Feel Better about not Going to Thailand this Winter

Anyone who has been to Thailand may appreciate this latest post, though anyone who has not been there may appreciate it more. Plase check it out:


Five Things I’m Telling Myself to Feel Better about not Going to Thailand this Winter.

Interview with Rob Whyte, Lonely Planet Korea author


Anyone who travels and writes has at some point thought about being a travel writer. For most of us, that dream remains confined to diaries, blogs, local websites, and missives to our friends and family back home, but some itinerant scribes of course do make the leap to professional travel writing. Rob Whyte is an instructor at Busan University of Foreign Studies, and he’s also been a part-time travel writer for about the past ten years. He co-authored editions six, seven, and eight of the Lonely Planet Korea guidebooks, and has a host of other travel-related writing to his credit, including other upcoming Lonely Planet publications on ethnic food.

I recently had the pleasure of joining Rob on an early morning hike from Haeundae to Songjeong Beach via the Moontan Road, a shady wooded trail that snakes around Dalmaji Hill past urban farms, outdoor gyms, and over the tracks that carry the Mugunghwa trains to local points north. We talked travel, writing, and the ins and outs of getting paid to do both at the same time.

How did you get the gig for Lonely Planet?

Rob: I guess like a lot of people when I was younger and I travelled, Lonely Planet was the go to book, and before I came to Korea I of course bought the book. The one I had was written by one guy and his name was Jeffery, I don’t remember his last name, and he had a Korean wife. I remember looking at that picture and saying “Maybe one day that could be me.” And then about four years later that was me. And so – how did I get in? – I just looked at their website and I applied. They have a formalized application slash test process. I passed the test, and then about a year later I got an invite to contribute a small part to the upcoming book. That was the first one and there’s been a few after that.

What was that test like? Was it writing samples or an actual test test?

Rob: Yeah. It was not a test in the Korean sense of test. It was, I guess, an applied test. I had to write a small piece, and they had a specific word count, and make a map, and submit it on deadline. So they check those three parts: the quality of the writing, can you stick to the word count – word count is vital in that business – make a map, and that was the first part.

The second part, which they didn’t tell you about, is they give you feedback on your work, then they evaluate your response to their feedback. And I didn’t realize that was part of the testing process, but that’s the way they screen people who can’t take positive criticism through the e-mail. Because all of their authors are all around the world, and if you can’t keep a positive tone about criticism, they don’t really want to work with you.

They were gauging how well you work with an editor.

Rob: That’s exactly right. OK, change this and change this and if you have a sort of combative sense of ownership like No this is right and you’re wrong, that’s not really gonna fly well. So that was part of the evaluation as well.

I don’t know if people know this or not but most travel writers never eat in the restaurants they write about, and they never sleep in the hotels they write about, because they can’t afford to.

What previous writing experience did you have when you applied to them?

Rob: I had one little book, which was called Living in South Korea, and I wrote that for a small publisher in Vermont called Pro Lingua Associates. They are primarily an ESL material publisher, and they had a small branch of these Living In books, they had Living in Mexico, Living In various countries around the world, and I just pitched them and said how about a Living In Korea book and they said fine. So I had that, and prior to that I had some professional publications and work that I had done in Canada related to waste management.

So, from waste management to travel. That’s an interesting leap.

Rob: There’s a common link there but I don’t know what it is right now.

You said you didn’t write for the last travel guide edition, but are you still writing for Lonely Planet on some of their other publications?

Rob: I do the little pieces here and there, so the upcoming one on kimchi, that’s 350 words. I just like to keep my fingers in that pie as it were. Frankly speaking, the pay isn’t really worth it anymore. It’s really just about keeping that cachet going. The publishing world – the print publishing world – is undergoing great changes right now, and so, frankly the money just isn’t worth it. It’s more like, if it’s fun, OK, but it’s not for the money, that’s for sure.

In the Korea guidebooks, which sections are yours? How does that work?

Rob: The way that process starts is there’s the commissioning editor, and that person’s job is to basically describe how the project will work, everything from budget to timelines. And the commissioning editor also hires the contributing writers and assigns them territories and word counts and also specifies details about what’s to be done, what’s to be emphasized, what’s to be removed, look at the previous edition and what things can be kept or not kept. It’s called a brief, and every brief is different, and that’s usually about a ten-page document. So you have to read that very carefully because in the end your work will be judged on how well you met the brief.

So what was your territory?

Rob: My first book was my trial run, so they gave me just a small piece, and that was, I think that was just Busan and Kyoungsangnamdo. And then the next book I did was Kyoungsangnamdo plus Seoul plus the culture section. I think that was about forty or fifty thousand words. And the third book was culture and Kyoungsangnamdo. I always asked them if I could do Chejudo, but I guess I was low on the pecking order and I never got that.

Is Chejudo the plum gig for the Korea book?

Rob: Well, I think it’s probably the most fun, because it’s not so taxing, you use a lot of transportation or rent a car, and it’s, actually I’ve never been to Cheju Island so I can’t say if it’s beautiful, but yeah, usually the writers want to do that. Usually in every book, there’s what’s called the coordinating author who has the overall responsibility for the content of the book, and usually that guy gets Cheju Island.

When you’re writing for the guidebook, how much time on the road is required for that?

Rob: When I did Seoul, that required six weeks, and I would say that was just barely enough.

Rob Whyte

Rob Whyte – teacher, Lonely Planet author, and man of tremendous physical stamina.

And that was just Seoul?

Rob: That was just Seoul. I had to cover Seoul in six weeks so I rented a yeogwan room and I lived there, and basically would be working from roughly 8 a.m. to roughly 11 p.m. every day for six weeks. So that was a fairly sizeable commitment of time. When I do Busan and Kyoungsangnamdo, I used to do that mostly on weekends, because I was busy during the week, and in Kyoungsangnamdo that’s very doable. Just catch a bus to Jinju, do Jinju in a weekend, come back to Busan, and so most of this province that’s very easy to do. And Busan, I just do that in my free time. So some parts require a lot of dedicated effort and some parts can be managed within other lifestyle schedules.

The thing that maybe people don’t know about that is to be a travel writer for Lonely Planet requires tremendous physical stamina. I estimated I’d be walking 20 kilometers a day. When you factor in the walking around and even just checking motels; you typically would walk up to the third or fourth floor, look at a hotel room, and walk back down. Now, you do that 15 times a day, that’s a lot of mileage.

When you’re on the road doing the guidebook work, what’s a typical day like?

Rob: A typical day would start probably around 7:30, wake up, and then try to find a coffee shop that’s open at 8 o’clock, which is not that easy. And then, sort of look at what you’ve done and need to do, then you have to factor in the weather as well. So if you’re up for a few sunny days you want to stay away from museums and you want to be outside as much as possible doing the outside research: parks, amusement parks, and things like that. And if it’s raining you want to try to do your museum work during the inclement weather. So you have to factor that in. And the other cool thing frankly is you just wake up in the morning and say, “What do I want to learn?” Depending on the mood I’m in, maybe I want to go to a park, maybe I want to go to a museum. It’s kind of that blissful sense of freedom, like what do I want to do – and then just do it.

So now you’ve got your plan for the day, you load up on your coffee… then what?

Rob: Load up on coffee, and in the summertime you really gotta load up on water as well because a lot of sweating, and you basically… don’t forget, in the guidebook you have to have a certain number of hotels, restaurants, and within each of those categories different price ranges, so you gotta have low, medium, and high budgets. And so you basically just hunt out those places. You work from the last book, and you try and find the new ones. What really worked well for me was whenever I met somebody, I would ask them, “Do you know a good restaurant around here?” and I found a lot of jewels like that. So it’s also a lot of talking to people and collecting intelligence that way.

Motels you typically have to do in the afternoon because they won’t let you in to see a room in the morning and you can’t do that at night either, so motels would be say 11 to 3. And the museums don’t open until ten either, so you have to factor in the time as well.

When do you call it a day?

Rob: Well it depends, right? Sometimes if I’m beat up or if it’s a travel day, then you’ve got to leave early. And sometimes if you’re hitting some bars and nightclubs, you’re out until maybe 12 or 1 and you have to exercise great restraint because you can’t drink in every place you visit.

That’s the other question I want to talk about. It’s work when you’re on the road, but you’re also travelling. How do you find the balance between the two?

Rob: I think if it’s a really enjoyable experience, it’s not work and it’s not travel, it’s exploration. That’s the way I always viewed it. What can I do? What can I see that’s new and interesting? And then, does it fit within the scope of the brief? So, you can’t go off on a tangent too much, because otherwise you’re researching something or doing something which is not going to be in the book, so that means you’re wasting time and you’re wasting money. And so a lot of the decisions you make are based on, can it go in the book? You might say, oh, that looks fun, but there’s no way I can put it in the book. I gotta blow it off.

The other thing too, and this concerns the budget: I don’t know if people know this or not but most travel writers never eat in the restaurants they write about, and they never sleep in the hotels they write about, because they can’t afford to. So the way it works with the money is the Lonely Planet gives you a budget, and that covers your expenses, and that covers your pay for your time and effort. So every time you eat, that’s coming out of your pocket. So I would be very careful on where I ate and how often I ate, because I just wanted to save the money. So that also dictated the travel experience.

When do you sit down to write? Are you gathering research when you’re on the road and then writing back at home, or are you writing a little bit each day?

Rob: It depends. What I used to do is try and find a PC bang [internet cafe], and every night spend an hour just crushing my notes and just sort of writing without thinking and grouping everything. Then take that file and upload it to my e-mail account and that’s how I saved data on the road. You want to spend at least one or two hours every day, every night, because if you lose your notes, you’re in big trouble. And that happens sometimes. So you’ve got to spend some time every day, just as a way of documenting the stuff that you’ve collected.

Now, some people drag around a laptop. I don’t really like that because it’s heavy and it’s just another thing that I have to think about. Luckily in this country we’ve got PC bangs everywhere, so that part was really easy.

Any advice for wannabe travel writers?

Rob: The biggest advice is you have to learn to show me, don’t tell me. In writing, you have to describe why something is good; you can’t say, “It’s good.” So that would be the first craft to learn: how to describe things, how they smell, activate the senses. The other advice is just to practice and build a portfolio, and that can often start with writing for magazines that don’t pay anything. Most people start out that way, so that’s a very good idea. And the other thing which we were talking about before is you have to learn to see and find the things that other people don’t see, but they’re still there. We’re not talking about metaphysical elements, we’re talking about the little things that make a difference. And you have to find that and that takes practice. So get out and, if you really want to do it, write a thousand-word piece on your neighborhood and write a map. And see how that feels.

And the other thing is too I would read a lot of travel writers. There’s a whole body of work now. Read what the other people have done. And you’ll notice that they will focus on the experiences and the people and interactions, and that’s what travel writing is. It isn’t about this museum is open from ten to two. It’s about what you can do, see, and feel.