Tennessee-based writer and photographer Joel Carillethas traveled to more than sixty countries. Learn more about Carillet’s writing background and experiences on the road, how 30 Reasons to Travel came to life, plus future travel dreams.
Photo by Björn Vaughn
Erica Johansson: When did you decide you wanted to become a writer? And where did you first get published?
Joel Carillet: For several months in 2003 I lived in the West Bank, volunteering for a program associated with the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. Part of my job was to write about the lives of Palestinians so that Americans back home would have a better understanding of what it was like to be in their shoes. I’ve always loved travel, but I found particular purpose in traveling to tell a story – an important story – to people back home. The hardship and risk, the interviews and analysis, the act of sorting through competing narratives and bias, I loved it all. What I loved wasn’t so much the act of writing as the gathering of material and then the finished product. Some writers are energized by crafting sentence after sentence, but this part of the process almost always drains me, sometimes thoroughly. I write because I want to convey thought and information that will crack ideological shells and elucidate the human face of our neighbor. I write because I want the reader to mull over how he or she is part of this thing called “the world.”
While in the West Bank, most of my writing was shared and circulated only informally, with just a couple pieces appearing in a small WCC publication. I was struck, however, by the feedback I received from complete strangers, and how the articles and reflections I emailed to a relatively small group of friends had fanned out and found their way into college classrooms, diplomatic offices, churches, etc. Through writing, I felt I had become not just an observer of events but a constructive participant in them.
These experiences gave me the final prodding I needed to say “yes” to an idea I’d been bouncing around since September 2001. I would fly to Beijing, spend more than a year traveling overland to Istanbul, and then write a book about the people I met along the way. The trip, begun in October 2003, marks my full-hearted attempt to make a go at writing. It would be another two years, however, before I sold my first story. Actually there were two stories published at the same time. “The Return of the Suriani” was a feature article about the Syriac community in southeastern Turkey, published by Touchstone magazine. The other story, entitled “Clutching My Soul in Paradise,” appeared in The Best Travel Writing 2006 anthology published by Travelers’ Tales; it was an autobiographical account of what it meant to be a twelve-year-old American in Papua New Guinea.
You have traveled to more than sixty countries. What have been the greatest aspects of traveling to such an extent?
Dipping my spoon into a bowl of Kyrgyz borsch, setting eyes on the absolute beauty of Everest, watching a Balinese mother and daughter walk to a temple with bowls of fruit on their heads – there is so much beauty to observe and take in, and it comes in so many forms. But in the end I don’t want merely to experience things, I want to relate, and relating is only done with people.
What I cherish most about travel is the opportunity to meet people in their own context, whether it’s an island paradise or a war zone (or, more likely, something in between the two, or a bit of both). I often tell the story of meeting a Palestinian named Abu Rajah in 2002. He introduced himself only minutes after I arrived in the refugee camp that he and his family called home. Days earlier, Israeli forces had withdrawn from the camp after a devastating battle, and in places the stench of rotting flesh still lifted from the ground as people dug through entire blocks of collapsed houses. I had arrived at dusk and this man, squatting in front of a mostly demolished home, asked if I needed a place to sleep. Abu Rajah had only one room to offer – a tank had taken out the rest, including the toilet — and yet he would share what he had with me, a stranger passing by. For much of the next week we would become friends in that tiny space, sharing food and touch, talking and listening, drinking a hundred cups of tea. I saw the pain in his wife’s eyes as she asked that I spend time with their teenage son who had visions of being a suicide bomber, just as I saw the laughter when their younger son asked to go to America in my backpack, or the generosity when, over and over again, the couple offered me the best of their food. Experiences like this do not allow you to go unchanged.
We’re enriched as we meet people, cultures, and issues outside our usual context, and hopefully others are enriched by us as well. Travel nurtures a sense of interrelatedness and leaves us dissatisfied with knowing the world merely through the television screen and newsprint, because travel shows us that you can’t actually get to know the world – and on occasion get it just plain wrong – this way.
I value tremendously how strangers have taken me in and cared for me when I’ve been robbed or sick. I carry with me the kindness of so many people. I remember Bovy, a Thai hotel manager on Ko Phangan, who traveled overnight to Bangkok to be with me when she learned I would be having back surgery later that week (while at her guest house I had severely herniated a disc). I remember Pushpa, a nine-year-old girl in a poor part of Kathmandu, who took me by the hand after I’d been devastated by the theft of weeks worth of notes and months worth of cash. Pushpa, along with her sister Meena and their widowed mother, insisted that I stay in their modest home that night, adamantly opposed to a person being alone when he’s feeling sad.
Ah, there are so many people I could mention, and some of them stand out not because they were good but because they impressed upon me just how rotten people can be as well. But you get the point: It is the men, women, and children in the places we visit, not inanimate things, that allow us to relate to (and not just experience) the world. I don’t at all want to knock experience – I love it! – but it’s important to be aware that traveling in the name of “having experiences” isn’t the same as traveling to participate in the world. The one is rather self-referential; the other is more interested in being a part of a community, even if only in a very modest way.
In the bio on your website I read you spent “529 hours on buses, 206 hours on trains, 121 hours in cars and trucks, and 64 hours on boats and ships” during your 14-month overland journey across Asia in 03/04. What was your preferred mode of transportation and why? And how did you manage to keep track of the exact hours? That’s impressive.
I’m fond of trains. I like the rhythmic clattering down the track, the slow pull in and out of stations, the ability to get up and walk when you want to stretch your legs or just look around. As for keeping track of the hours, this was just one of many things I was recording each day. In writing a book you don’t know what kind of information might eventually be useful, so I kept track of as much as possible. Even details I like to think I would never forget I recorded studiously, knowing that memory becomes less trustworthy the farther it moves from the event.
Your current column for Wanderingeducators.com, Hidden Treasures, does it concentrate (on) past or present travels?
A mix of both, but usually past.
I discovered your previous column, “Reflections on the Road,” on Gather some time ago. For those who haven’t read it, can you tell them what it was about?
Sure. This was my first regular writing gig, which I did for a website every other week for two years. To borrow a line from the column description, each article sought “to shed light on humanity, both our own and that of other, [and aimed] not merely to entertain and inform but also to develop a sense of connection between the reader and the world.” Most articles incorporated my photography as well.
Your book 30 Reasons to Travel is based on observations and insights from your experiences abroad. Can you tell us a bit more about the book? When did you first get the idea to write it?
When I was still writing for Gather a year ago, they approached me with the idea of publishing a book. They were about to launch their own imprint and wanted an author they liked and had experience with to be the first to publish through them (for promotional purposes). They would pay the cost of everything and I’d get royalties from all sales. The only catch was that the project needed to be completed in a matter of weeks. The timeframe was nuts, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t afford to pass up.
I considered submitting the Asia manuscript I had worked so hard on for the better part of two years (and which my diligent agent had yet to find a publisher for), but I opted to hold onto that and instead do something that would showcase both my writing and photography. The result was 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. In the past decade a lot of “list books” have been published (e.g., 1000 Places to See before you Die), but what sets this one apart-in addition to its more than 275 color photographs-is its more reflective nature. It invites the reader to consider how he or she is part of a journey that the world itself is already on. If you want a book that will tell you about plush hotels, the best places to get a tan, or how to party abroad, this isn’t for you. But if you want to consider the beauty of laughter, the value of holding a child of another race, or what a meaningful souvenir might look like, you’ll hopefully like 30 Reasons to Travel.
In making this book, I kept two interrelated realities in mind. First, not everyone can or does travel abroad. Second, many lessons of travel also have application in one’s own home or neighborhood. And so each of the 30 reasons is intended to provide food for thought not only for those who travel but also for those who stay close to home.
As for structure, the book is divided into 30 sections comprised of a short story or reflection accompanied by photographs. I kept the text portion intentionally concise – it can be read over a long cup of coffee – and for many readers this is their favorite aspect of the book. The photographs are quality, but the written word is central to the book.
What advice would you give someone who’s about to set out on a long-term backpacking trip?
Read a book or two about the places you’ll be traveling – a history, novel, or whatever. If visiting Vietnam for instance, make time to read something like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American or Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. Invariably, you’ll find the book and place in a symbiotic relationship, shaping each other and enriching your time in the country. And if you are indeed traveling long-term, carve out a period to stay a while in one place, to learn the names of its streets and people, to have locals learn things about you. Be in relationship with a place, don’t just conquer it.
Last, if time and money weren’t an object, where in the world would you travel?
Here’s one of several things I’d like to do one day: Travel slowly and by land from Everest Base Camp in Tibet to the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan or Israel. These are the Earth’s highest and lowest points, and I’d love to use this route to write a book about “highs and lows” in life.
To read more about Joel Carillet, see previously published work, images from around the world, and his photoblog, head over to http://joelcarillet.com