Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dark Travels - Stories From Tony Wheeler

One of the other sessions of the Melbourne Writers Festival was both travel, and book related, and fed my travel bug big time!

The stand out session for me was a free one at the Wheeler Centre, to listen to Tony Wheeler talk about his travels to "Dark Lands" and his new book about the same. Tony Wheeler is the name behind the Wheeler Centre, but also, of course, the co-founder of Lonely Planet.

You can just imagine the travel stories he has collected over the years! And he shared so many of them, sitting on stage sipping red wine, telling story after story. Amazing!

He talked about the concept of “Dark Travel”, being  ‘misery travel’, which is in fact getting a bit of travel blogger focus and attention of late. Places like visiting Hiroshima and Dachau count within one angle of this idea, but what Tony is talking about is places like Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, the Congo and Colombia. He travelled to a bunch of these places for this new book, to have more current stories for it. And then revisited them again, also within the process.

Tony stated that ‘places with problems are always more interesting’. He talked about the opportunity to ‘marvel at the mess we make of things’, like Chernobyl, and how people and communities get through to the other side.

Tony claimed that the Congo was the darkest – and yet the biggest and most fascinating country to travel around. He talked about how it’s been a disaster area from the start, to today, and yet a ‘wonderful country to travel around’. Plus, so many great books have come out of it, from the Heart of Darkness to (one of my favourite reads) The Poisonwood Bible. He also added that he was told that a trip to the police station there was as much a part of the travel experience in the Congo, as speaking bad French in France is!

Tony claimed that North Korea, followed by Saudi Arabia were the “maddest” places to travel to. Colombia, he said, was the place that has most turned itself around between these visits for this book.

He told the full room that he in fact spent his first 5 years of life in Pakistan, and two of his siblings were born there. 'Great to have on your passport' he quipped! Tony says that Pakistan has all of the things that people travel to India for. Made me think of standing at the gates between India and Pakistan at the border, hoping that one day we could travel around there to watch an Australian cricket tour.....and experience this land I know so little about. One day.

Tony told stories about figuring out the process to get his visa to go to Somaliland, and claimed that such crazy and bizarre processes is 'what makes travel to these places so much more fun'! He also told of the usual markings of travelling to a Dark Lands is surely the fact that your flight arrives at the 'arid time of 3am'. Ahhh, there are a few of those places around the world, indeed!

He touched on the idea of female travellers to these places, in response to an audience question. Tony reminded the room that Western women in many of the places he had talked about find themselves in the unique position of being between the elevated status with men, just for being from the West, but then also being able to connect with the women of such a place. He said that this status can lead to such great experiences and insights!

An audience member asked about the selling of Lonely Planet, and he graciously explained some of the pitfalls of the initial sale, and the status now - and the fact that whilst they had a passion for guidebooks, they 'don't have the stomach for the internet', which is where such travel books are now.

Another question from the floor dealt with the notion that Lonely Planet has changed many places, by publishing recommendations. Like Bali. Tony agrees that they 'were one of the many influences that changed places like Bali', but also spoke of the need to work with the changes, and be happy for the people and communities when things have gone well for them, or have changed for the better. He also talked about an interest in going to such places to see what went wrong in the tourism boom, and whether there are ways for a community to work through such lessons for the better.

Stories and anecdote after another, it was such an enchanting session! Tony spoke of Iran as a place people should visit - where 'poets are revered' and where 'people sit around drinking tea and quoting poetry'. He also urged the Australian audience to visit places closer to home, like East Timor, which is 'a place that needs more tourists, to help their economy'.

What an inspiring man, writer, and traveller! 

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