Thursday, October 30, 2008

Still Waiting For Snow in Havana

For the 17th straight year the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for the United States to end its embargo with Cuba "as soon as possible."


The embargo seems as outdated as America's electoral college used in next week's presidential election. Whomever is the next U.S. president should heed today's 185-3 vote in favor of repealing the embargo. For the Associated Press story click here.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Biblioburro (Donkey Library)

Many people talk about the benefits of education, a high-paying job, better health and lifespan, and a more productive life. In the United States these people are often educated or rich enough to do something about it.


Yet most Americans don’t do much. Luis Soriano doesn’t fall into either of these categories. He is a primary school teacher. He earns a typical Colombia teacher’s salary of $350 a month.

He grew up in a small town in northern Colombia called La Gloria. Because of a rise in guerilla violence in the area, Soriano left as a child to live with his grandmother in Valledupar. When he returned to La Gloria at age 16, he realized the positive effect reading had on the local children who were poor, and worked as a teacher reading them books. A few years later he began traveling the region with books he read to children before they could borrow them. His two donkies, Alfa and Beto, helped him transport these books.

“This began as a necessity; then it became an obligation; and after that a custom,” Soriano told the New York Times. “Now, it is an institution.”


It’s not always easy though. In July, he fell off his donkey and broke his leg. Two years ago bandits tried robbing Soriano at a river crossing. When they found he had no money, they tied him to a tree. Though donations have helped him expand his original 70 books to his current collection of more than 4,800, it is a labor of love. He opened a restaurant two years ago just so he could feed his family and make ends meet.

Children in this remote area of Colombia can now have wonderful experiences and new ideas thanks to one man’s Donkey Library.

If you would like to donate books or money to Luis Soriano's Biblioburro, you can contact him at: (57)1-311-573-2019 or eldoctosoriano@hotmail.com. Keep in mind that Soriano speaks only a little English.





Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Woo-Woo

The older I get the more I am convinced that many of life’s most compelling moments are spontaneous. More exactly, if you keep your mind and eyes open, you’ll experience enjoyable surprises.

This morning was one of those times. Walking down Chicago Avenue I saw a man at a bus stop dressed in a full Cubs uniform. I knew right away who it was, and for good reason. Ronnie “Woo-Woo” Wickers is the only person in Chicago who wears a complete Cubs uniform every day. He told me later that he owns a bunch of them in blue, gray, and white.


For those outside of Chicago, let me tell you about Woo-Woo and why I was so happy to run into him. Woo-Woo was born premature on Halloween in 1941, and raised by his grandmother, who took him to Cubs and White Sox games. He had an early affinity for the Cubs. Since 1969 he has gone to virtually every Cubs home game. For many years he worked overnight at Northwestern University as a janitor. He continued to work night jobs so he could go to the Cubs games. The 1980s were difficult for Woo-Woo. His grandmother and girlfriend died, and he was often jobless and homeless. In a May 1985 the Chicago Reader wrote: “Wrigley Field’s most visible fan has no home, no job, no family to speak of, but when the Cubs win he’s happy, and when they lose he’s still happy.” When he missed a few home games during the 1987 season, Cubs fans worried that he might have died. He contacted news organizations saying he was alive and well. In 2005, a documentary film was released about Woo-Woo. Now, nearing his 67th birthday, Woo-Woo has no wife and children. He does have the total love and appreciation of Cubs fans and plans on going to games, and chanting his trademark Woo! like a mating seagull. He wears a full Cubs uniform every day, no exceptions. I told my dad about Woo-Woo and he said he wanted a photo of Woo-Woo and me. Coincidently, I was carrying my camera today because I was working on a photo story earlier this morning.

I introduced myself to Woo-Woo and explained that I had told my dad I’d get a photo with him. Woo-Woo happily obliged, and I then asked if I could have a photo of just him. “Sure, take as many as you want,” he said.


After the photos, I asked him what he was doing. He said he was on his way to vote early, and invited me to tag along.

“I’m sorry about the Cubs,” I said.
“It’s ok, we’ll get ‘em next year,” Woo-Woo said.

He had gone to both home playoff games a few weeks ago. But baseball didn’t seem to be on his mind. He was struggling for money. For a guy who goes to every Cubs home game, job security can be difficult. He says he shovels snow and helps out at birthday parties to earn money in the Major League Baseball off-season, which naturally is his off-season, too. Now we were wandering down the sidewalk, Woo-Woo carrying a small tote bag, looking for the place to vote. He said it was on LaSalle Street, but didn’t have the exact address (LaSalle Street is many, many miles long). He wasn’t scared to ask. As we crossed the street a pretty blond woman stood at an intersection. “Smile honey, your hair is as shiny as the sun,” Woo-Woo said. At first a little self-conscious, she let out a big smile. I couldn’t help but smile, too, watching Woo-Woo wander around asking anyone who he thought might know the polling location. I tried asking Woo-Woo if he had something with the address on it, but he’d just cut me short, “It’s here on LaSalle.” Woo-Woo crossed the street and entered a cell phone store. Two employees, a middle-aged man and young woman, stood behind the counter at the empty store. The man recognized Woo-Woo, and asked him who he was voting for. Moments earlier Woo-Woo confessed he was a registered Democrat.

Obama! Woo!
’08! Woo!
Obama! Woo!
’08! Woo!


Woo-Woo chanted a mantra that earned him his namesake.

“Don’t say that,” said the man behind the counter with a slight grin. “You’re going to make a lot of people upset around here…. You’re going to vote for Bush.”

Perhaps the man was a Republican. Either way, Woo-Woo was in a good mood and let the three of us know.

Black, white, pink, or gray! Woo!
Obama is here to stay! Woo!


As we walked out the door, Woo-Woo leaned toward me and whispered, “A lot of white people don’t want a black president.”

The man behind the counter had pointed out the big red brick building across the street. It was a living center for the disabled, serving as an early polling station. Woo-Woo entered cheering his mantra.

Obama! Woo!
’08! Woo!


“You can’t say that in here,” said a woman working in the lobby.
“Why not? This is a free country.”
“This is a polling center. You can’t say that.”
“This is America,” said Woo-Woo in a louder voice as he raised his chin. “We’re about to make history!”

A lady working at the front desk was smiling. Woo-Woo and I took an elevator to the fourth floor, and walked into the polling room. He started his chant again, only this time the polling officials were really serious, and he stopped.

“I don’t care if Oprah walks through these doors with her entourage,” said one of the polling workers. “I would tell her the same thing.”

They still had their hands full with Woo-Woo. He didn’t have his contacts in.

“These might help,” said the man running the polling room as he handed his glasses to Woo-Woo.

I read the info on a fill-in sheet for Woo-Woo. Then the man with the glasses led Woo-Woo through the polling machine, clarifying his options and which buttons to press to get to the next screen. All the polling machines were electronic and hooked up to a main database. At one point, Woo-Woo blurted aloud, “What is this crap?”

“You might want to change your terminology,” said the man helping Woo-Woo. The man was patient and good for the job.

“I voted,” said Woo-Woo with a huge grin a few minutes later as a woman escorted us to the elevator. “You can’t stop me! Nana nana nana!”

As we walked out of the lobby Woo-Woo couldn’t resist.

Obama! Woo!
’08! Woo!


The woman sitting at the front desk was still smiling.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cubans Hope for Obama

Now that America’s presidential debates have finished tonight, I have been pondering the future of Cuba-U.S. relations and the current embargo. Many Cubans are following this election closer than me. They are digging deeper than the propaganda they are fed from the country’s daily newspaper, Granma. Fidel Castro, who is supposedly ailing, wrote nearly a dozen editorials harshly criticizing America’s election process as well as John McCain and Barack Obama. Many Cubans, however, are not falling for this rhetoric that has lasted nearly a half century. The young people (Keep in mind that almost 73% of the island is under the age of 50.), especially, want an open travel policy with the U.S. They are more exposed to the world than their parents and grandparents thanks to their limited use of internet and television. Ideas are changing, if not out in the open at least in the minds of the young people. A few young Cubans I know have added me as a friend on Facebook. They are also are in touch with reggaeton music and the latest MTV music videos.



There is an overwhelming majority who prefer Obama to McCain, not because he’ll necessarily be the better president for the U.S., but because of Obama’s stance on the current embargo versus McCain’s view. NBC News reporters interviewed 100 people in the streets of downtown Havana with the following results: 63 said they preferred Obama, 2 preferred McCain, 13 had no preference, and 22 declined to answer.

The Cuba-U.S. blockade began during the Cold War. Recent American presidents have only continued the bloqueo to win votes in South Florida. This blockade is so obviously political when you consider: the anti-Castro community in Miami, Cubans are very hospitable to American tourists visiting their island, and America is still the seventh largest exporter to Cuba (4.3% of Cuba’s imports are from the U.S.). But Cuba needs even more help now. It was the worst hurricane season in Cuban history this summer with an estimated $5 billion of damage. Supplies have always been scarce but in many places it is feeling like a flashback to the “Special Period.” An estimated 500,000 Cubans are living in government shelters due to the damage from Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike.

In January 2007, I took this photo of local children flying kites and hanging out on the malecón in Baracoa, an eastern town in Cuba.


Hurricane Ike devastated Baracoa, causing five-story waves last month (September 7, 2008).

The chance of U.S. help won’t happen until President George Bush leaves office. Under Bush’s tightened restrictions, Cuban-American families can only visit their relatives in Havana once every three years. This means if you are a Cuban-American with a dying father, you cannot visit him on his deathbed in Cuba if you’ve seen him in the past three years. And when you do arrive, you cannot give your family more than $300. How does that help family values? Many Cubans are asking the same question. They believe Obama might be their answer.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Manny Being Manny ... or Manipulated?

Manny Ramírez was one of the main reasons the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2003, ending The Curse, and more importantly, my ability to use it to get the upper hand in a Yankee-Red Sox argument with my godfather. Manny was also one of the main reasons the Chicago Cubs Curse will last more than 100 years. The previous statements are true because Manny is one of the greatest hitters of my lifetime.


For all his consistently brilliant hitting during his Hall of Fame career, Manny is often scrutinized by the media. Many reporters say Manny doesn’t respect the game. Tim McCarver went as far to say his behavior in Boston this summer was “despicable.” Others simply enjoy telling each other “Manny Being Manny” stories. Obsessed Red Sox fan Bill Simmons wrote a 9,000-word story on Manny Ramírez, "Manny Being Manipulated," for ESPN Outside the Lines.








Manny is perhaps the most misunderstood superstar athlete playing today. Part of the reason is that he gives ambigious answer to controversial questions like he did this week. (Simmons wrote: "In February, Manny told WBZ's Dan Roche, 'I want to stay in Boston. I want to finish my career here, but it's up to them ... I'm not the one who writes the checks.' Last weekend, he told the L.A. Times, '... I was unhappy for eight years in Boston but still put up great numbers.'") Another reason is that he is very likeable most of the time. He carries a contagious smile and a friendly, aloof demeanor. He makes you run to tell your friends another Manny Being Manny story, such as the following ones Simmons wrote about in his in-depth story this week:

Manny routinely stuffed uncashed paychecks in the top shelf of his locker. Seems he rarely got around to cashing them. The checks were for $978,000 every two weeks during the season…. Manny lived in a one-bedroom condo outside Boston until David Ortiz joined the club and made him relocate to the presidential suite at the Four Seasons… (Manny) liked living in both places....

Manny nearly changed his mind at the last minute when he realized he couldn’t bring Frankie Mancini along with him. Who’s Frankie Mancini? The Cleveland clubhouse attendant who set up the pitching machine for him every afternoon. Think about that for a second. It’s patently insane….



Manny’s behavior was even unusual for him this summer in Boston. Though he had given the Red Sox two World Series titles, he still got a general bad wrap from the Boston media. Maybe Manny felt that no matter how many homeruns he hit or how many games the team won, fans didn’t truly appreciate him. When the team lost and he was in a slump, they turned on him. It’s not the first time this has happened in Boston. Don’t forget, the greatest hitter to put on a Red Sox uniform refused ever to tip his cap after hitting a homerun, including his famous homerun in his last career at-bat. Ted Williams never tipped his cap, not even once, just to get back at the occasional boos he felt were unmerited from Boston fans. But let’s cut to the chase. The lifestyle and money were two good reasons for Manny to jump ship. Manny never totally fit in Boston. People were too white and uptight for him. Los Angeles is a much better fit. (Manny recently told the L.A. Times, "Baseball in Boston is like a Sunday football game, but played every day. We lose in L.A., I go to breakfast and people say, 'Well, you'll get them tomorrow.' In Boston, it's 'Hey, what's going on, the Yankees are coming.' It's just a different atmosphere. The fans in Boston got your back no matter what, but I'm talking about the people who write all this bull because it means so much to them. If your happiness depends on Boston winning or losing, you have to get a life.") Maybe this is why he belted two homeruns and batted .500 in the first-round series to help the Dodgers sweep the Cubs. Then again, it always comes down to the money no matter how much you try to look at it from a baseball purest point of view. Simmons blames it all on Manny’s agent Scott Boras, saying that Boras is “one of the worst human beings in America who hasn’t actually committed a crime.” Even with this strong of a comment, Manny’s motives still remain a mystery.


There is a strong possibility Manny might help Los Angeles play Boston in the World Series. Whatever happens, however, he is a free agent after this season. He might wind up wearing a Yankee uniform next year, but no matter where he ends up, baseball followers will end up saying the same thing, “That’s just Manny Being Manny.”

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Postmodern Marco Polo

After I introduced myself to Rolf Potts at a small bookstore on the Northside of Chicago, he thanked me for skipping the vice-presidential debate to be there. I wanted to thank him first. After all, he has influenced my life as a traveler in way like no one else. A year and a half ago, I read his first book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, which inspired me to move to Colombia and teach English. Before I had left, Potts responded to an email I had sent him, saying his teaching experience in Korea was “life-changing.” I can now say the same thing for my time spent in Bogotá.


Though I have done a lot of traveling, Potts is a professional at it. He has been traveling for a decade, writing for publications such as National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times Magazine, and Salon.com. He’s one of only five living travel writers who make good money. (This A-list includes Bill Bryson, Tim Cahill, Pico Iyer, and Paul Theroux.) All good travel writers do it for the love. This is evident in Potts new book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: stories and revelations from one decade as a postmodern travel writer, which includes endnotes that act as a teacher’s guide to the travel writing process. Potts stopped in this cozy Chicago bookstore as a part of a tour to promote this book of collected travel stories. It was his second stop on the tour, and there were only a half dozen people that had come to see him. One couple had driven from Toledo, Ohio, for the book-signing. I no longer felt so special making the journey from Chicago’s Southside. We were all happy to see Potts, and it felt more like sitting inside someone’s living room than a public event. After a brief reading from the endnotes in his book and a related photo presentation, we spent the next couple hours drinking wine and talking primarily about travel and writing.


When he was a teenager, Potts was fortunate and witty enough to understand a valuable lesson about travel. Rolf’s grandfather had retired as a Kansas farmer, and having worked hard his entire life, would now be able to take the trips he always had wanted to do. Unfortunately, at this same time Rolf’s grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, and his grandfather never went anywhere, spending the remainder of his life taking care of her. Rolf learned that life is uncertain, and that he couldn’t postpone his travel ambitions. After graduating college, Rolf lived in a Volkswagon van for eight months traveling the U.S., only to run out of money, having written a book about this experience which wouldn’t sell. So he taught English in Korea for two years and traveled for another two years from his teacher’s money. During this time, mostly in Southeast Asia, Potts earned his break writing a travel column for Salon.com. He has since become a professional travel writer, sharing his advice and interviews with other professional travel writers on his website and blog. Even though I read Vagabonding, meeting Potts was just as exciting for me. I found it very easy to relate to him and his approach to life. “I think Americans need to travel more,” he says. “I think it’s a good thing that will make us less isolated and parochial and naïve about the rest of the world.” His biggest challenge may be putting those lessons into words. Potts explained his desire to “get away from the old clichés of culture, and try to interpret a changing and inventive globalized world.” In his introduction to Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, Potts wrote:




















Unlike Marco Polo, my travels were not a simple journey from Home to The Other and back. At any given moment in Southeast Asia, I was likely to run into a Burmese Shan refugee who could quote West Coast hip-hop to illustrate his plight, a Laotian Hmong tribesman who’d recently visited his relatives in Minneapolis, or a Jewish-American Buddhist who’d slept in suburban Maryland thirty-six hours earlier. Whereas Marco had traveled into a mysterious and frightening terra incognita, I was traveling into a globalized Asia that had long since been visited by the oracle of mass media and the shock troops of mass tourism.

I use the word “tourism” intentionally, since it defines how people travel in the twenty-first century. Sure, we all try to convince ourselves that we’re “travelers” instead of “tourists,” but this distinction is merely a self-conscious parlor game within the tourism milieu. Regardless of how far we try to wander off the tourist trail (and no matter how long we try and stay off it) we are still outsiders and dilettantes, itinerant consumers in distant lands. This is often judged to be a bad thing, but in truth that’s just the way things are….

After chatting with Potts, you realize his job is not a glamorous, “Indiana Jones stereotype” that many people think when they think of a professional travel writer. For every day on the road, he spends about five days researching and writing the story. About 95% of the time Potts travels alone, preferably so he can interact with locals and have more spontaneous experiences. In places like Burma and Sudan, he travels under the identity of a teacher because journalists are often seen as suspicious. His dedication has gotten him to the point where he now has book offers, television gigs, and so many options he never set out to do when he wanted to be a travel writer. Though he has reported from more than 60 countries, Potts owns a 30-acre ranch in Kansas near his family where he enjoys chopping wood and getting away from it all. He has no TV on his Kansas farm, but watches seasons of popular television shows, such as The Wire, on DVDs, 8 hours per sitting without commercial interruptions. This is what happens when you’re always on the road. I was glad he found the time to visit Chicago and talk about everything from Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” to Sarah Palin’s travel comment to his friend’s national bestseller The 4-Hour Work Week.


Potts was happy to answer all of our questions. Below are a few that I told him I’d put in my blog:


Brett Garamella: When I finished reading your first book, Vagabonding, I felt like you had a way of traveling that I could relate to that I couldn’t find talking to friends or family. A couple of months earlier I had quit my job and traveled for one month alone across Cuba. Can you briefly talk about “vagabonding” for those who did not read your book?



Rolf Potts: “Time is your true form of wealth. The philosophical core of Vagabonding is how time is what you really own. And think less about your flat-screen TV and your possessions and make yourself rich in time. And use your time in a way that enriches your life.”

BG: What is your favorite thing about being a professional travel writer?

RP: Probably just being able to do what I love, which is being able to really throw myself into travel and really throw myself into writing. And I’m not saying that everybody needs to be a travel writer, but that’s really what makes me happy. It can be a difficult job sometimes, and I come up against writer’s block or back into playing the farting panda bear game (to procrastinate on Internet) instead of writing….

There are stereotypes about travel writing, the idea that you’re sitting, drinking wine on a sailing boat and sort of living this privileged life. But at the end of the day, that’s not what it’s about. And that’s not really the most interesting thing about doing what I do. And so it’s just the raw process of doing it. It’s almost like the satisfaction of making something. The same thing would happen for a person building a house or when a doctor makes progress with his or her patients. It’s that satisfaction in anybody who’s doing what they love to do.

BG: What do you most dislike about your job?

RP: Well, I’m past the point where I’m worried about the money. (Travel writers) really have to scratch sometimes to make a living. But, one, I don’t really care anymore. I live a very simple life. Two, after 10 years I’m getting a lot better offers, TV stuff, better magazine stuff. Book royalties create a yearly stability. But maybe sometimes it’s just a struggle of trying to capture something real because I’m sort of a perfectionist in what I write about. I don’t want to just write fluff. I don’t want to just write generic service information. I want to really find something true and human about the experience. And that’s hard to do. And it’s not something that comes easy. But it’s rewarding when you come out on the other end. But there’s a lot of struggle, there’s a lot of time spent indoors staring at your computer before you come out with a story that you’re happy about.

BG: How do you take notes when you had a really adventurous day in which you will use a lot of what happened in your written story? How do you get the dialogue when you are talking to men watching an American porno movie in Tibet or lying aboard a small boat at 3 a.m. in rural Laos?

RP: One thing I do is that everywhere I go I take a notebook that I keep in my pocket (as he pulls it out to show us). I’ve found that the actual action of the event, the big things, are easy to remember, but the little things, the telling details are easy to forget two weeks or two months later when you’re sitting down and writing. So I fill up these little notebooks and I have dozens of these with those telling details of my thoughts. One to get the details, and two, to get sort of the connection to the universal because a good literary non-fiction story takes specific situations and ties them to universal ideas and makes the story meaningful to people who aren’t there. And so that’s what I put in these stories.


I actually talk about dialogue in the footnotes to my Australia chapter, about how I wrote this story for Slate and one of the guys who I quoted in the story blogged about it and he said that I understood the situation but I wasn’t quoting him as they came out of his mouth. These are the footnotes to the Australia chapter. Basically in the footnotes I said, that’s true, you can’t verbatim quotes. You have to use the short story techniques of recreating dialogue, the difference being that in a fictional short story it is fictional, whereas in a creative non-fiction you’re bound by the laws of truth and possibility. Of course you’re not doing verbatim dialogues, and you’re condensing long, rambling conversations into dramatic short ones. You can maybe reshape what somebody said, but you can’t bend what somebody said. That’s what you’re bound to by the rules. I think everyone has different systems of remembering. I have a pretty good memory. And so it’s those details that I couldn’t hear, and those bigger thoughts that I couldn’t hear. Other people keep much more detailed notes…. So it’s a personal thing. But I rarely use recorders, actually, because sometimes I feel it gets in the way of a more organic exchange, and I’d rather have fragmentary notes that come from a more spontaneous and real sensibility that self-consciously comes from a reporter.

BG: What do you think about the role of blogs with journalism and travel writing?

RP: Well, blogs sort of came in after I already started as a travel writer. I got started writing for Internet magazines like Salon. And I actually started blogging. I have five people writing my blog now. But that blog is very much tied into vagabonding, and the ethic of vagabonding. Vagabonding themes toward slow travel, and long-term travel… Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, my new book, is just a book of entertaining stories and little peeks on how they were created. So it will be interesting to see. I am one of the first wave of people, of full-time travel writers, who got their first chalk on the Internet. But then behind me by five or 10 years there’s writers who are getting their feet wet writing for blogs. And I think as long as you write well it doesn’t matter. The cream rises. So I’m sure there are blogs you go back to … people who are writing creative narrative.

I guess one disadvantage of blogs is that blog posts tend to be short. I was able to do 6,000 words or 4,000 words for Salon, but it might be harder to get a following through blog entries, where people read blogs in between their coffee breaks in their office. So it will be interesting to see what happens with blogs. Books have been acquired (from blogs). A lot of book contracts are coming from blogs, especially in the last five years.

BG: Before you became a professional travel writer, what did you envision yourself doing?

RP: I think I’ve always been a writer. After my trip around the United States I tried to write a book about it and it was this horrible failure. Even my sister said, “Rolf…” It was really a blessing because I remember all those wonderful mistakes – realizing the importance of structure in a story and remembering your audience… (Potts gets cut off as he is asked what kind of wine he wants to drink.)”

BG: What about the fact that anyone can write a blog and that with the Internet, information becomes so saturated … how do you feel that relates to professional journalists today? Does this concern you?

RP: Not really. In a general journalism world people are concerned about that because blog writing about politics or blog writing about celebrities is sort of gossip driven and not really well fact checked. And people are getting their news from blogs more and more often. I think blogs sort of aggregate news or they create news that isn’t well reported or researched or fact checked. That’s probably less of a problem with narrative travel writing because narrative travel writing tends to be personal and less journalistic. If I was an international correspondent it would be a different situation. But then again, if I was an international correspondent, my story about Mr. Ibrahim (the main character in a story Potts wrote about Beirut) would say, “Local detergent merchant finds success…” It wouldn’t be about his work. It would be about the news inherent in his story. And it would never be completely distinct. But (my story) was a more impressionistic, memoir-style piece. I don’t think that is going to be an issue with blogs. Most of the travel writer blogs I’ve seen are practical. My blog is about practical information. There’s not a lot of narrative stuff. There’s a blog called The Lost Girls that just landed a book contract. Actually, I stopped at their blog during my virtual book tour. It’s three girls sort of wondering Southeast Asia and keeping a blog. It’s well-written enough that they got a following, they won some blogger awards, and then they got a six-figure contract to write Sex and the City meets traveling the world. And so, we’ll see what happens. But that just goes to show, there is narrative writing out there that shows up in a blog context that is successful, noticed, and rewarded.

BG: In your introduction to Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, you wrote: “While hard news and vacation tips have their place, the Internet has afforded travel writers a unique privilege: the simple opportunity to write about their experiences as they see fit, in their own voice, without the constraint of service information or the contrivance of a news hook.” In regards to travel writing and the “Internet vs. Printed Word,” what do you see in the future? And what will be your approach/plans?

RP: World Hum asked me a similar question in a recent interview… If I knew where it was going then I could make money as a media consultant. Travel writing is always a product of its time. Consumer travel writing is 95-98% of what travel writing is. It’s just vacation information. It’s useful things to give people ideas for vacation. It will always rule travel writing and it will always be a little bit superficial and a little bit bullshit and a little bit cliché. Travel writing is going to end up wherever most of the eyeballs are watching, be it a glossy magazine or a website or whatever. And the more human-driven stuff, the more personal stuff will sort of end up wherever it is championed or wherever people are doing it well. World Hum champions it. Travelers’ Tales does to a big extent. Certain editors do here and there. And people have lampooned travel writing for a long time. It is a very generic thing. It’s sort of this consumer thing about people’s vacation with overwrought language, and I think that will always be a part of travel writing… That’s just how it is. As online video becomes more important, we’ll have more superficial rendering of online travel videos. Actual literary travel writing will always exist as a niche. Probably a third of the stories in (my new book) are my Salon stories, and that’s because Don George is the editor of Salon and he just enabled that, he championed that. So my good stuff has come from situations where I’m working with people who recognize the value of a story that speaks human themes instead of a story that speaks to consumer themes. People need to have good information about vacations, but that’s not what travel is about. That’s why I wrote Vagabonding, and how travel is a fabric of your life. It’s an experience you can use to make your life so much more interesting. The stories that result from that aren’t always championed by consumer magazines… so it’s always going to be a smaller percentage of people who are into that really life-driven travel narrative…. I’d like to go back to those Salon days….

BG: If you could eat dinner with any 3 people in history, who would they be and why?

RP: Walt Whitman for sure. I’ve always been an acolyte of Walt Whitman. He’d probably hit on me… (Then) it’d probably be Jesus. I’d want to get down to the bottom of things with J.C. And I don’t know… that’s too tough of a question because your understanding of the figures of history are sort of given to you in this objective, third-person way…

I think Walt Whitman and Jesus would enjoy chatting with Potts over a glass of wine. I know I did.