Celebrating Dirty and Divine Travel Experiences Jacki Lyden does some armchair traveling with writer Susan Orlean, the editor of The Best American Travel Writing 2007. The book includes dispatches from locales as exotic as the back alleys of Beijing and as peculiar as a toilet.
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Celebrating Dirty and Divine Travel Experiences

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Celebrating Dirty and Divine Travel Experiences

Celebrating Dirty and Divine Travel Experiences

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

A woman, a lover and the mountains of Bhutan, a flight to the Antarctic, the back alleys of Beijing or the vastness of what it is that makes the American West a metaphysical as well as a physical landscape. These are but some of the 20 stories that make it into "The Best American Travel Writing of 2007."

Susan Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is an inveterate traveler herself. She's the editor of this collection and joins us now.

Welcome, Susan Orlean.

Ms. SUSAN ORLEAN (Staff Writer, The New Yorker; Editor, "The Best American Travel Writing of 2007"): Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

LYDEN: You've got an introduction to this book about traveling. You said that it's not about finding something but about getting lost. Could you expand on that a little bit, please?

Ms. ORLEAN: Well, I do think that travel - well, we have usually a goal, you want to see the Eiffel Tower, you want to see the Alps, you want to see Mt. Everest, well, that's certainly a part of travel. I think what really motivates us is being out of our familiar environment and being in a strange place and sort of discovering yourself out of context. You step out of ordinary time. It's a meditative, experience that normal life doesn't allow. The experience of going somewhere and savoring the way it smells or feels or imagining what it means.

LYDEN: I was very taken with a piece that visited a place, which I have been to as a reporter many, many times, and that's a piece that comes from Jerusalem. And I was thinking that I've usually had to see that place under deadline and for a news story. And this writer looked at something different, entirely. This is piece by a young woman named Riza Grushka(ph) about a blind self-styled prophet named Arrei(ph).

Ms. ORLEAN: This is one of my favorite pieces in the book. For one thing, the writer took a place that anybody who reads a newspaper thinks they're familiar with. But I had actually never read a piece like this which talked about the experience of living there and how the city, because of its spiritual significance, attracts hundreds of people who imagine themselves to be prophets or messiahs or visionaries, was really an astonishing fact.

I had never thought about this before, that, of course, Jerusalem would be a place where somebody who thought they could see into the spiritual meaning of life would feel they needed to live.

LYDEN: Well, classically, I believe travel writing has always taken people to exotic places, it starts with Marco Polo. You've included an absolutely beautiful piece here by Peter Hessler, who wrote for The New Yorker, about the back alleys of Beijing and Hutong culture. I know that these places have been threatened by development as China moves towards the Olympic Games. But this piece really slowed me down and took me into these little nooks.

Ms. ORLEAN: What's interesting about this piece is travel writers used to be correspondents who were going places no one dared to go, no one could go. Now everybody can go everywhere. So what does a travel writer do? One thing they can do is, Peter Hessler does in this piece, is capture time, a place that's vanishing that won't be there.

LYDEN: Well, it's called "Hutong Karma." And I was just wondering to one of these little Hutong's with him just a little bit. He's writing about a club that develops around this marvelous thing that's come to the Hutongs, these little neighborhoods which are so nook and cranny that you couldn't even have a store there. All the vendors have to come through and cry out, night selling or water, beer, the beer woman wakes him each morning. But this club forms around a toilet, a WC, and there's a chairman.

Ms. ORLEAN: I love this piece because all of his writing is both very poignant but also really funny. And this particular story is just hilarious, where people bring folding chairs and sit around and gather, and turn it into a sort of new community gathering place, and it's a toilet.

A lesser writer could make this seem ridiculous, and it could read as something very demeaning. And instead, I really feel the piece sort of celebrates the enterprise of the people in these little neighborhoods. It's very respectful without missing the point, which is this…

LYDEN: The social fabric that he's leaving here. I think that's what it really is about, this incredibly wonderful and rich social fabric that - with the destruction of the Hutong, of course, the fabric itself is shredded.

Ms. ORLEAN: Right.

LYDEN: You also included in your introduction essay an absolutely fantastic story of your own, which I think many people might relate to, about falling in love with a tour guide in Bhutan. So you actually - this we might not all relate to - you actually thought you might marry and sort of have a communal marriage between Bhutan and Manhattan. Of all the trips you've endured, why do you write about this one?

Ms. ORLEAN: Oh, God. Well, it's very funny because I normally don't write much that's really first person except for a very particular reason, which is that the whole nature of travel is romance. It's about reinventing yourself and seeing yourself in a new way. So romance seems very much part of it. And I think that's why I ended up deciding to spill my gut in the introduction here and confess my own folly.

LYDEN: And I'm very glad that you did. And what's even better is that if you want to do this travel by the fire, in your armchair, with a glass of wine, it's perfect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Susan Orlean, thank you so much for editing these stories and sharing it out.

Ms. ORLEAN: My pleasure. Thanks.

LYDEN: Susan Orlean is the editor of the 2007 edition of "The Best American Travel Writing."

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