I was sat amongst the immense audience at the TBEX Athens closing conference, waiting for the last speaker to take to the stage. As this ‘suit’ walked into the spotlight, I wondered how and what he was going to preach to his many eager listeners. Why should we travel? Why should we all quit our jobs and simply up and leave? Like many prior to Robert, I was anticipating the underlying hints that wealthy parents were the means behind his many adventures.
He began with an account of one of his expeditions, a trip to Siberia – counting moustaches. After that I thought that maybe I was wrong. And I was…
Robert has experienced a lot more than the average Joe and you can see from his passion and enthusiasm that it’s those very traits that got him to where he is today. As former spokesperson for The Lonely Planet and current Travel writer for The National Geographic, his CV is the envy of all bloggers and writers worldwide. His presentation at TBEX was awe-inspiring; I only wish he had more time to tell us more. I knew that I’d want to connect with him, but unfortunately anyone who has been to a TBEX conference knows that trying to find that one person in the crowd is a little difficult between the constant eating, partying and, of course, selfies!
Nevertheless, I decided to email Robert a few months later and I wasn’t expecting a reply. Lucky for me, I heard back almost immediately! I was elated that he had taken the time to respond, and it is my privilege to share that with you…
Robert, did you always want to be a travel writer? Did you or do you have any other career ambitions?
I don’t think I knew travel writing was really an option when I studied writing in college. I wanted to see the world, live abroad, study abroad. And I did all that. And in doing so I realized I could stop writing about rock bands and start writing about travel. And it made even more sense for me.
I always wanted to write though. Whenever I hear people say “I want to be a travel writer, because I love to travel,” I have to groan a bit. Who doesn’t love travel? The field stands to have a brighter future if travel writers are there, first, because they want to write. I wanted to write.
Do you remember the first piece of travel writing you did and what it was about?
In 1996-97, I was living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, teaching English and editing stories about agriculture yields for the English-language Vietnam News. But they let me write too. I did some record reviews, articles on movies at local theatres. And then I wrote a travel article for expats and visitors about monkeys on an island near Nha Trang, then another about hill tribe villages near Buon Ma Thuot in the Central Highlands. Basically I found a way to get published locally — back before blogs — and had my “clips.” I used those to get an editing job at Lonely Planet in 1998. I was with Lonely Planet for 15 years.
What is the main motivation and inspiration for your travel and your writing?
They say everyone loves an underdog. But it’s a half-lie. They only like underdogs who win.
I like the underdogs who lose too. And always try to pick subjects — be it guidebooks I worked on, or articles I write — for destinations or places that don’t regularly get the limelight, or even have the means to say much for themselves. That’s why I had Siberia and Bulgaria at the top of my guidebook wish list with Lonely Planet, why I wrote about Burma during the (misunderstood) travel boycott, and why I’m spending a month writing an article on the Oklahoma Panhandle right now.
The panhandle is perfect for me, a rectangle of unwanted plains. For years, in the 1800s, it was literally No Man’s Land, unclaimed and unwanted. It’s also unlucky. It was the hardest patch of the Santa Fe Trail to cross, and later the heart of the Dust Bowl. I see it as something of the polar opposite of a “travel destination,” but one with fascinating people and stories and empty homesteads to tramp around and cow auctions with burger bars and huge skies, the biggest really. Wherever there’s people, there’s a way to have a memorable travel experience. And a memorable travel story.
Italy is easy. But I see it as my duty to look out for the panhandles. They’re everywhere, because — hey — even in New York City, the Bronx is a panhandle. If “travel” doesn’t look out for these guys, really, who will?
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to be a travel writer?
I don’t know what the future of “travel writing” is. We are amidst a surge of user-generated content and that overused buzz term of “travel like a local.” Both of which, if you do the math looking forward, writes out any need for “travel experts” or “travel writers.” Don’t let it. Be honest. Care. Learn to write. Write well. Find stories not told. Not easy targets or noisy Top 10s already out there. Don’t limit yourself for the short-term gain of free trips as a so-called “influencer,” a notion I think that will die very soon. But write to create something that truly adds to the conversation already out there. We have to believe that it’s necessary, and if not us, no one will write it. And the travel world will be a somewhat diminished one.
So Robert, what’s happening for you in 2015?
Well, people ask how to be a travel writer, then there’s the reality of a question like this. And I don’t know what’s happening for me in 2015. I actually have no plans yet, other than writing about the panhandle and another lined up article in early February. Last year I made about $100 in all of January, then $300 in February. And I was honestly scared of what I would be doing. And it turned out 2014 was one of my biggest, most productive years. I’m not worried about 2015. Yet. But I want to offer the reality check that freelancing is very hard. And I’m OK with that.
It’s easy to forget the real reason some of us write about our travels. It’s so simple to follow the crowd and write the mini-guide or ‘top ten’, as he explains, but what do people really want to read? I have personally been extremely inspired by Robert and his accomplishments, and his simple reminder that travelling is not the overused clichés it’s beginning to become. The adventure is what you make it.