My Perfect Adventure
Before she was a number-one New York Times bestselling author—her 1,000 Places to See Before You Die set record sales for a travel guide—Patricia Schultz was already a veteran travel writer with bylines in Harper’s Bazaar, the Wall Street Journal, and Conde Nast Traveler. She’d also done much work for the Frommer’s and Berlitz series of books. After 1,000 Places became a smash hit, Schultz executive-produced a Travel Channel television show based on the book.
Though she’s based in New York City, she’s always on the move. We wanted to know more about what keeps Schultz going, so we asked her questions that led her to divulge her best tip for seeing great art in Italy, to reveal her reverence for Pico Iyer and Helen Keller, and to answer whether she’s really been to all those thousand places in her book.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
Though so many new places call, I would return to Florence, where I lived for three years after graduating from college. I love hotels of all sorts, but would forego today's Ferragamo designer hotels to stay in my former 16th-century-tower studio on Via Bounarotti, named after Michelangelo's family who lived nearby. It was a tiny five-story walk-up with a postage-stamp-sized bathroom whose luxury was its 360-degree views and proximity to Piazza Santa Croce. I would spend the early hours wandering the back alleyways of the centro storico not yet discovered by tourists, brushing against the spirits of the great Renaissance artists who found their inspiration here—Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio. If you slip into the Uffizi Galleries an hour before closing time, you can have much of the museum to yourself and gaze transfixed upon their master works, running the risk of Stendhal's syndrome, a faintness or dizziness brought on from viewing so much great art under one roof. As a university student back home, I memorized these iconic paintings from textbooks, never expecting to one day stand before them.
If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Mongolia. I am regularly asked if I have been to all the thousand places in my book, and my answer is no. But from all that I have ever heard from those who have returned, and from all I have ever researched or seen in films or documentaries, I know that Mongolia, the world’s most sparsely populated independent country and home to famously hospitable people, deserves to be experienced. And sooner rather than later. It’s not a particularly easy (nor inexpensive) trip and, like all else, I hear much has been changing. In July, I am hosting a trip there with Nomadic Expeditions, making this dream come true.
What’s the best place you've ever visited?
Many experiences were truly once-in-a-lifetime for me, from Bhutan to Ladahk to Papua New Guinea to Patagonia. Ethiopia was especially magical because of its unexpectedly beautiful landscape, gentle and gracious people, and its stunning underground churches of Lalibela that are close to 1,000 years old. They were created with an engineering prowess so sophisticated that no one can explain it, thus the legend that a legion of angels was responsible. Just a few weeks ago I returned to Luxor, ancient Thebes, in Upper Egypt and had a "moment" at the Temple of Luxor. The sun was setting on the Nile as the lights came on to illuminate the temple ruins, and from the mosque built within the temple, there sounded the call to prayer. I knew that I would always hold that moment with me. I love Egypt and it breaks my heart that so few people are experiencing it these days.
If you could have lunch with any explorer, who would it be and why?
Pico Iyer's travel writing is some of the most authentic and inspirational that I have enjoyed, though I don't imagine he will be calling me for lunch anytime soon. Of those who have gone beyond, I'd love to have a conversation with Helen Keller, though I'm not sure how that would work. She once said, "Life should be a great adventure or nothing at all." She fearlessly explored unchartered landscapes and embraced life in a way that people far more privileged ever could or will. I have adopted her timeless mantra: "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” That's how I felt at Luxor.
What’s something you can’t travel without?
If you're looking for something more original or romantic, you probably won’t want to include this answer, but it is my Blackberry. It facilitates my trips enormously, helping me to maximize what is always a too-limited amount of time I have in any one place, and enabling me to be away from home and professional obligations for long periods. And just when I start forgetting how remarkable it is to be receiving emails deep in the rainforests and high in the Himalayas, I lose the signal and am reminded again of just how exciting it can feel to be untethered and unconnected.
When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda?
First, putting my head in the time zone of the destination, and trying to convince myself that's going to help with jetlag. I will have set up a walking tour for first thing the next morning, to get my bearings and to understand something of the lay of the land. All guides are not created equal and I do my best to find a great one; I have way too many questions to spend time with someone uninformed or uninterested. Though I will have done my homework, I pick their brains for tips about how to spend the remaining hours and days once we part ways and I am on my own.
What motivates you to keep writing?
All I need is one Facebook thank you for information about a tango festival in Buenos Aires or the suggestion of my favorite pub in Prague and I am good for another circumnavigation of the globe. Originally I thought that travel writing was a practical way to pacify my parents and explain my peripatetic life, make a paltry attempt to cover a fraction of my expenses, and have me feel that I had at least one foot in the adult world. But as assignments became more interesting, encouraging me to look for the lesser known, to highlight the overlooked, and to share priceless experiences I might happen upon. I appreciated the chance to share what I loved with others. My curiosity and vagabond lifestyle found an audience in those who had less time or drive, who wanted a shortcut to the places not to be missed, and I was ready with the answers. That I could one day parlay a solid writing career out of this took a long time to register—I was too busy immersed in one adventure at a time to look too far down the road.
As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, do you have any regrets?
I think I went through the regular roster of innocent choices: nun, nurse, teacher. The latter was attractive as it promised long vacations when I imagined myself trekking around the world. I always assumed that travel would be my passion and recreation, but not a profession per se. While waiting for that enigma to solve itself, I studied linguistics in college. I never studied writing nor journalism, but if Travel 101 had existed, I would have been the first to sign up. Regrets? Not one. I welcomed all opportunities that presented themselves, most of which led to unexpected benefits and unknown experiences.
How did you first venture into travel writing?
One of those aforementioned opportunities was to tag along on a fashion shoot to Key West, Florida, as the stylist's unpaid assistant for Italian Vogue for Men. When the Milanese editor had to head home unexpectedly, he asked if I could do a story for him about the town and one of its more quirky characters, Mel Fisher, a treasure hunter who’d discovered centuries-old sunken galleons loaded with precious cargo. I must have rewritten that article 100 times, but it gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction. I barely recognized it once it was printed in Italian, but it planted a seed that maybe I could land more of these assignments—and I did. They paid close to nothing, but I eventually began writing travel guides for Birnbaum, Berlitz, and Frommer's, which required me to do great volumes of work. It was a kind of grounding and training that taught me how to make a go at the world of travel writing, which is something close to impossible if you are without a trust fund or wealthy spouse.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
That generic and over-used piece of advice applies: Do something you love and you'll never work a day in your life. I would actually edit that to: Do something you love and you'll enjoy every day you work in life. For most of my life I have worked countless hours for no conventional remuneration, but my reward was the chance to travel and see and experience places that made me rich in ways hard to explain. Simply put, follow your bliss, be it travel, poetry, landscaping, baking, plumbing, or acting. Your chances for success will be far greater, and you'll have a great time getting there.
Who has been your most influential role model?
I had inscribed my first 1000 Places book this way: “How important it is to choose the right parents.” I seem to have made a very wise decision. My parents were both from extremely modest (and travel-challenged) backgrounds, yet they understood the importance of education. They also understood that education was found beyond the four walls of academia. They subsidized many of my adventures to far-flung places when they would have preferred to help me buy a new sofa. But they never questioned the joy that traveling brought me, and could only pray, I imagine, that one day it would all come together for me.
Do you have a life philosophy?
Carpe diem. Life is fragile, and not just our own. One tsunami or civil war or fire can wipe a destination off the map or make it inaccessible to us. Aldous Huxley could have been reading my mind when he wrote that we travel to discover that everyone is wrong about other places. Upon each arrival, I hope to learn, to be surprised and enlightened, maybe even blown away. Travel makes us better people and keeps us humble. The more I travel, the more I realize I have seen but a morsel of what the world promises. I hope to keep on traveling always—I adhere to that saying that we don't stop traveling because we grow old, but we that grow old because we stop traveling.
Have you ever experienced an accident during your travels that made you think twice about going out again?
I may be living under a lucky star, but nothing grave has ever happened to me when away from home. A missed flight, a lost suitcase, a bad meal of vitello tonnato in Rome 30 years ago (I haven’t touched that dish since), but nothing life-altering. When secondary things go awry, I try to dwell on the belief that all will work out for the better, a conviction hard to grasp when things are falling apart. We showed up at the Casablanca airport once at 5 a.m. for a 7 a.m. flight that didn't exist, which threw a very tightly scheduled itinerary out the window. We found a lovely cab owner called Mohammed with a beat-up Mercedes to drive us from Casablanca to Fez, with a stop at his family home where his mother made us couscous and his children sang their favorite Britney Spears songs to us. It was the highlight of our stay in Morocco.
If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
I never really had a Plan B, but I imagine this new career would have to be in the creative world and far from the corporate environment in order to keep me happy. I have always loved music and exploring cultures through their musical heritage—the top-tapping trad music in Irish pubs, the rich repertoire of sacred melodies at the annual festival in Fez, the soul-stirring gospel tunes of America's deep South, gamelan from Bali, flamenco from Andalucia, or the reggaeton of Cuba. It would be fascinating to trace the patterns of migration to see how the exchange of religion and music and culture impacted every corner of the globe.
Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list.
Antarctica, Iran, and spending an idyllic summer in Tuscany in a farmhouse with a view.