“Enough with the road less traveled,” Douglas Mack said about travel. He eschewed Google Maps, CouchSurfing, and the latest edition of Lonely Planet. Instead, he used a 1963 travel book as a compass through 11 cities. Then the writer and graphic designer chronicled his “exercise in willful ignorance” in Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day.
Mack’s humorous, often self-effacing narrative demonstrates the ebb and flow of enthusiasm of long-term journeys. His book contemplates not only the things we see when traveling but also the changing nature of travel itself.
For me, as a fellow writer and serial expat who initially thought Mack was nuts, I took some time out to discuss travel and publishing with Mack. In my two-post series get a glimpse of luddite travel, rules of travel writing, and spinning travel wrongs into publishing rights. Five Wrong Turns was released earlier this month by Perigee/Penguin.
Are you a solo or accompanied traveler?
“For this trip, I traveled in two phases: first a trip to Florence and Paris on my own (to see if it was feasible and enjoyable to travel with my old guidebook); then I later met my friend Lee in Amsterdam. We proceeded to another four cities together before he had to head back to the States.
“We had met at a writers’ conference a couple of years earlier and spent all of three or four hours hanging out together. We kept in touch via email, and I mentioned this crazy idea I had and asked if he wanted to tag along as my sidekick. He did.”
What was your scariest moment, a moment in which your blood felt like razors racing through your veins?
“I’m, shall we say, a bit neurotic and prone to worrying about all the really esoteric ways that one could die while traveling. This is a recurring theme in the book: Maybe a big piece of stone will fall off the Colosseum and crush me; maybe some East German bodybuilder will have a bout of ‘roid rage and snap me in half, maybe … These are the things that went through my mind, implausible—but not impossible!–scenarios that any normal person might not consider. The fears finally began to abate by the end of my trip, once I gained more confidence.”
What and where was your dumbest moment?
“Paris. Because my own guidebook did not always provide me with the necessary details, I was often forced to rely on the kindness of people who, at most other points in life, I would go to extreme measures to avoid. As I was trying to make sense of a Metro map on a station wall one day, a group of chattering English preteen girls—sans chaperone—walked by and then stopped and asked, with a chipper preteen sneer, if I needed help. Apparently, I looked very, very lost—and I was.
“Pride, however, forced me to stammer out a reassurance: ‘No, no . . . I’m okay, thanks.’
“They didn’t believe me, and after I confessed, red-faced, that, fine, maybe I was slightly out of my element, they launched into these complicated directions for how to get to my destination. They were so young and so savvy; I felt like a tourist dope, totally humiliated. Oh, and their directions were spot-on, which was both a relief and demoralizing.”
Why no technology? How much time did not using technology like this save or cost?
“The main point of avoiding technology was to travel like a 1960s tourist. One of the things that struck me when I read my 1963 guidebook and my mom’s letters from her own days as a hippie traveler back in the 1960s was that tourists back then truly saw everything with fresh eyes. Okay, they may have seen Roman Holiday or a movie like that, but they didn’t have Flickr, they didn’t have Google, they didn’t have all the resources that we can use to over-plan our trip and see what everything will look like and what will be on all the menus, and so on.”
“Willful ignorance can lead to some problems, obviously—I almost certainly paid more for rooms and meals that I really should have, although that wasn’t just an issue of technology but also a factor of trying to eat and stay in the places in my book, which tended to be better-known than a random budge-travel place might have been. But willful ignorance also reintroduces surprise, wonder, and serendipity–three things that get lost all too often in the modern travel experience. If you’ve planned your journey down to nanosecond, down to the vista (and scoured Flickr to find the precise angles that make that vista look the prettiest), and you’ve read all the reviews on TripAdvisor, and you’ve left nothing to chance … then why travel at all?
“It’s not that I don’t love technology, it’s that, well, I don’t think travel should be too easy. To me, part of the joy of going abroad is being surprised, experiencing the unexpected, getting out of my comfort zone, and being disconnected from the familiar. Sure, it’s nice to plan certain things ahead of time and I did wish I’d had a smart phone in Venice, where I was perpetually lost … but in retrospect, no, I don’t wish I’d had that. I had to figure things it out on my own. I had to ask locals for directions. I had to be immersed in my environment—not an all-knowing screen.
“And in the future, I probably will do more research—I’ll find a middle ground between willful ignorance and over-planning.”
What problems could have been averted by the use of technology?
“Technology could have averted misery in Venice. I got so, SO lost there, and had so many horrible meals. Actually, I came to really loathe Venice, largely for those reasons but also simply because I was far enough into my trip to have become incredibly jaded about the whole thing—all the wonder and thrill was gone. (Luckily, it came back in Rome, but you’ll just have to read the book for more about that—it involves a mysterious, once-grand hotel and copious amounts of gelato.)”
What foreign travel had you done before this trip?
“I had been abroad several times before—to the UK several times, as well as Iceland and Costa Rica. But all of those trips were with my parents or other family; I had never had to plan anything on my own, much less travel by myself. Those trips certainly spurred a bit of wanderlust and made me want to explore more, but they also felt like cheating, like just being along for the ride on someone else’s journey.
“Since then, I’ve been to Mexico and Cuba—the latter with a pre-Castro guidebook. (This turned out to be way, way trickier than using my vintage guide in Europe … but that’s a long story for another time.)”
Just then Mack described a new purpose, a renewal we could say, for those travel guides that just seem old and useless to those of us who like up-to-the-minute info for our trips.
“Whenever I’m in a used-book shop, can’t help but page through—or just go ahead and buy—outdated guidebooks for various places. Guidebooks offer a really interesting snapshot of a particular place in a particular cultural moment—they’re really time capsules on a printed page. Actually, they tell you not just about a particular place, but about how people in Traveling Culture A viewed people in Destination Culture B. For example, my guidebook offered some really intriguing insights into (Cold War-era) American concepts of East Germany.”
Your travels were partially guided by love letters written from your mother when she was traveling through Europe in the 1960s to the man who’s now your father. What major differences in styles and methods of travel did you notice from that?
“One of the things that struck me about my mother’s letters from Europe was the sense of wonder and surprise evident in her tone—and much of that, I think, came from the fact that she was discovering all these places and things in real life, in real time. She didn’t have preconceived notions based on Internet research or pop-culture influences.
“They didn’t expect their pizza to taste a certain way; they weren’t measuring the tourist café against the better Italian food back home. Put another way, back then they were ignorant; today we’re delusional.”
What can we learn from your book?
“Travel really isn’t about where you go—on the beaten path or off—but what you make of it. You can take a package tour to the most remote parts of the world and still learn nothing; you be a clichéd tourist in the most overrun city and still learn all kinds of things, if you approach it with an inquisitive spirit and an open mind. It’s just as absurd to avoid a place for the sole reason that other people are there as it is to go to a place because others have.
“Let the place tell you about itself—don’t rely simply on information overload from the Internet and guidebooks and background research. Get lost. Meet new people. Trust the locals and your instincts over your smartphone and get immersed in the place and the culture.
What’s next for you?
“Let’s say pogo-sticking across the Andes. Just because.”