My Perfect Adventure
The Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building may be on your list if you’re visiting New York for the first time, but how about Billy Joel’s high school in Long Island? Probably not, but if you talk to Robert Reid, a front man for Lonely Planet in the United States, you might just be convinced to expand your itinerary.
Of course, as the guidebook giant’s U.S. travel editor, Reid can tell you a lot about major attractions like Lady Liberty, too. Since joining the Lonely Planet team 13 years ago, he has traveled the world and written a couple dozen guidebooks, and today he frequently discusses travel trends for national media, including NBC, CNN, and MSNBC. But catch up with Reid and you’ll see he’s more of a champion for lesser-known, quirky destinations, such as streets with bizarre names or a rock star’s high school—spots which might not seem like must-sees but help give a city its character. He highlights some of these destinations in a series of short homemade videos he produces for Lonely Planet; in one episode he explores Long Island by using Billy Joel’s lyrics as a guide, and in another he travels with a Monopoly board to Atlantic City to visit the color-coded properties in real life.
Here Reid tells us what he wants to do during “moose month;” how a kind old man helped him fall in love with a Burmese city; and why he likes to side with the underdogs, especially when they lose.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I often travel alone, so I’ll go with a perfect travel day in some random place. Definitely it starts with coffee on a lively square of a walking town. I’d walk up a hill or tower for a view and then have another coffee in another square. I’d shop for stationary items, new pens and diaries, and probably get a couple I really don’t need to add to the pile. I’d get a bike and ride a flat leafy path along a river for a few miles, then get a sandwich, some soup or curry in a public market with counter seats. I’d daydream about what life would be like in the place, and stop in realtor windows to see how much apartments cost in the center. I’d chase down some sort of history in the place I read about before—the setting of a painting, or more likely a street name dropped in a ‘70s rock song, or a funny named street I noticed on a city map. Then I’d have a nicer meal for dinner and see some music or a local sporting event. If I were lucky, I’d witness those moments when locals forget where they are and get enveloped by pure joy. I feel it too, seeing it.
If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
There at least 100 answers to this, so I'll opt this time for something relatively close and accessible. I'd love to go canoeing in Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park for a week during May, a.k.a. “moose month.” To me, moose are the bulldogs of the wild: every time you see one, it just makes you a little happier. And I often prefer moving when traveling, so if I had a chance to slowly drift through the woody rivers, looking for antlers and camping in the trees.... Yes. I'd like to do that.
Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
It's hard to give a gold medal to one of so many great experiences in travel. I love Mexico. I love Vietnam. I love Bulgaria and London, and seeing redwoods and walking tallgrass prairies in the middle of nowhere. For now, though, I'll say Mrauk U, Burma. It's an ancient Rakhaing capital near the Bangladesh border. You get there by a flight to Sitwe, then a five-hour boat ride with rolly polly hills in the distance, and then finally you reach Mrauk U, where villagers have goat herds and plots of vegetables in simple hut-like homes amid a site of hundreds of temples that span centuries. People are wonderful there. One old man, shirtless and wearing a skirt-like longyi, chased me down on my $1 rental bike, yelling “yo yo.” When I turned, I found he was holding a 100 kyat note that had fallen out of my pocket; it was worth less than 10 cents. Angkor Wat and Bagan (in Burma) are great archeological sites, but Mrauk U is still alive—with life today still running alongside the site itself. And that was the best part.
If you could have lunch with any adventurer, explorer, or athlete, who would it be and why?
Of all time? If so, I'd eat with Robert Louis Stevenson. The author of Treasure Island, he was a tiny Scottish guy who had long hair and wore velvet jackets, and he was much more than just a pirate guy. He led an incredibly adventurous life—his travels went far beyond the usual Victorian-era itinerary. He honeymooned in an abandoned California mine, roamed the South Pacific in a sailboat, lived (and died) in Samoa, canoed across Belgium and France, and hiked with a donkey in Languedoc-Roussillon, a part of France that's still seen as off-the-beaten track 140 years later. I see him as sort of the patron saint of travel. With his donkey in the Cevennes, he discovered he travels “for travel’s sake,” not necessarily getting anywhere. This is the sort of journey-over-destination travel creed people are still discovering. And he may have been the first to note it. Plus, I went to Stevenson Elementary in Tulsa, Oklahoma; maybe he'd get a kick out of that.
What's something you can't travel without? And why do you need it?
We always forget, but there's very little we really need. For me, though, it's mandatory to have a sturdy notebook with college-rule lines and an unartful cover, as well as a really good pen or two. Sometimes you can't find them locally—though I always try to use a local diary to document a trip. I carry it wherever I go and seriously guard it more carefully than my passport.
When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
A walk. I have a pretty good sense of direction, so I'm looking out the window as I go to my hotel and start to put a place in terms of orientation—landmarks to the south, or west. A plaza or monument I had read about. Then I dump things off, and take a little walk, perhaps up a hilltop or a clock tower for a view. Just go! I go with eyes open to get a feel of where I am. I’m too excited to eat, but after a bit I might stop for coffee so I can sit and stare.
What motivates you to keep traveling?
Other than it being so much fun? Do you know that song “She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain When She Comes?” Well, I'm not that passive. I want to go around the mountain and meet her halfway on the other side. I'm just curious to meet people and see things, if there’s something a block over that’s interesting or exciting or downright bizarre. To me, new experiences in familiar places are as good as new ones in places I've not visited. I have no particular checklist and zero interest in tabulating the numbers of places I've been. I don't even know how many countries I've visited.
As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
Honestly? My dream was to be a starting receiver for Oklahoma's college football team, and then to see what happened after that. My only dream was to travel some and catch a selfless game-winning TD against a highly favored Texas team. I wanted to beat Texas four seasons straight. Anything after that would've been gravy. I wasn't particularly big growing up, and my parents didn't let me play in pads, but they did take me on trips. So by the time I was 16, my dream moved from football to seeing the world. That dream to travel—to live abroad, learn languages and explore lesser-known places—gradually built up over the years. By the time I graduated from high school, it was over: There was only one way to go.
When and how did you first venture into your field of work?
I was living in Vietnam in the mid ‘90s, teaching English and editing at an English-language paper there. So I used that platform to get started in my dream job genre: travel articles. After I returned to the United States, I was already a Lonely Planet fanatic, so I drove across the country from New York to San Francisco to type out a letter to Lonely Planet’s Oakland office from an empty studio apartment. It was a basic introduction letter: Can I have a job? There was no reason to move for the job before having one. I was just impulsive. In hindsight, it was pretty dumb, but I really wanted to work for them. I got the job as an editor 13 years ago and have been an editor, a commissioning editor, a publisher, an author, and now back in this travel editor role, which means I get to do the second-best thing to traveling: talking about it.
What's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring travel writer?
Narrow down your niche. We hear all the time that potential writers “want to be travel writers” because they “love travel so much.” That’s not a good enough reason. You need to love writing, too. And know how to do it.
Focus on a theme—the Pacific Northwest, battle reenactments, rock music, plastic-stool street food—and start a blog. Promote it by following travel writers with bigger followings on Twitter; it’s easy to befriend them (if you’re nice and sincere, as well as conscious about adding to the travel conversation and not just tooting your own horn and promoting your own posts). Go to blog events, such as the Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX), and travel writing workshops, such as the brilliant Book Passage north of San Francisco. Experiment with photos and videos, which not only help with search engine optimization, but can also attract the attention of potential companies that can partner with you or give you a freelance deal. You can do a road trip for a car company, a car insurance company, an air ticket/hotel consolidator like Orbitz or Expedia, or a destination-specific CVB [Convention and Visitor Bureau], and then write about it.
There has never been a better time to be a travel writer, considering how travel is growing as an industry and the means to self-publish (via blogs, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) gives you immediate outlets. Of course, at the same time, there are now more travel writers than ever before, so narrow down your theme, topic, and destination. Be an expert in it. Write well. Research. Get quotes. Don’t forget that the piece isn’t just about your trip, but must also connect with readers. And don’t worry about money at first.
Have you ever had any role models or mentors? Describe the most influential and what he or she taught you.
The two biggest role models have been my dad, who was hilarious and always sided with underdogs even when they lost, and, to be perfectly honest, the people at Lonely Planet. I went there, to Lonely Planet, and am still there, because I believe no one understands travel better. In fact, I know it. For starters, I’ve learned that you can do much more than you think, and that good travel experiences and good destinations are everywhere, even beyond the points of interest listed in guidebooks, which are mere stepping stones. The same is true for destinations, too.
I’ve learned from a publisher that says “yes” to everything and covers essentially every country that there are no bad destinations. If you try—if you try—you can get as much from the Nebraska Panhandle as a Nepal trek or a Tuscan villa (although a Tuscan villa is closer to better wine). Lonely Planet covers everything, everywhere, always—and no one else really does. I believe in that. No matter what rep a place has about being unfriendly or dangerous or expensive, there’s a way. Where there are people, there are ways to connect. Travel knows. And I’m just being honest here.
Do you have a life philosophy?
Everyone loves an underdog—but only when they win. I side more with underdogs who lose. It’s too easy to like and explore and side with winners, or big-time destinations, or the strongest contenders. But they aren’t the whole story. And travel-wise, try to say “yes” to every opportunity. Things you didn't think you'd like or want to try can be the most exciting and memorable part of a trip.
Have you ever run into a problem or experienced a near accident that made you think twice about your travel style?
Not really. I’ve done a lot of travel and have had almost nothing bad happen. There have been a few food poisoning incidents, a post office clerk in Khabarovsk who didn’t like me much, and one stolen bag in a bus station in all these years. So now I don’t make friends in public places when I have all my gear, like at a bus station, because that’s when you’re most vulnerable and a nice passerby may be trying to distract you.
If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
I’d be a sports writer, probably, but certainly a writer. I can’t help but write. I love to create things. And the buzz you get from seeing your name in print is the same whether it’s just a little post on my blog or seeing your name in The New York Times. It really is. I’d like to make little handmade 'zines, or a dozen blogs, or articles for tiny Iowan publications. And the good thing is that I’m not at all satisfied with myself as a writer. But since you can get better and better, I’m keen to work and work at it.
Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
To be honest I don’t really keep a bucket list, particularly for travel destinations. Right now I’m typing on my laptop on a rooftop overlooking the Plaza San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador's Old Town. I can see mountains, volcanoes, colonial buildings and church tops, and neighborhoods that seep up the sides of deep gorges of the Andean mountains under the blue sky. Couples walk hand in hand across the stone plaza below, and a lone truck is driving down the city’s long block, where you drive on the left side of the road, “Wee Britain” style (no one really asks why, nor do they need to). Travel-wise, the first thing that comes to mind for a bucket list is simply another day of this. And I'm certainly grateful and fortunate to have just one of them.
Also, I’d really, really, really love to be fluent in Spanish. That's my life quest I think—to master it. I’ve studied for years but I always get sidetracked, and thus stuck in lower-level intermediate courses. I need to break that barrier down, ideally by traveling and taking language courses across Central America and South America. Eventually I could access these new worlds without subtitles. And I may take a surf lesson in El Salvador, buy a bowler hat in Bolivia and hike to lesser-known secondary Incan ruins in Peru.
Other than that, the dream is to write a book. I believe in books. And I want one of my own.