Escape Clauses — Getting Away With a Travel Writing Life
Bob Payne is a friend of mine, an award winning travel writer and a guy who’s been to 142 countries. His newly published memoir, Escape Clauses – Getting Away With a Travel Writing Life, chronicles some of the high and low points of that journey and it’s is available at Amazon.
Bob’s work has appeared in publications that include Outside, Men’s Journal, Islands, Bon Appetit, and Conde Nast Traveler. At Traveler, he was a long-time Contributing Editor and is believed to be their only writer ever to put the cost of a Polynesian tattoo on an expense report. It’s a wild guess, but maybe Anna Wintour has done so as well. I’ve seen Bob’s tattoo but not Anna’s, assuming she has one.
Bob and I simultaneously dwelt in the same leafy suburban New York town for a decade, raising our respective kids, and rehashing the vagaries of our profession. Bob has a lot of stories, and I thought I had heard most of them until I read his book, when I realized that he was saving the best for his memoir. Keep reading, because we just did this short Q&A and there’s an excerpt from Escape Clauses that follows.
7 Questions for Bob Payne
Everett Potter: What is the most beautiful place that you’ve been lucky enough to travel to — and what made it so memorable?
Bob Payne: Santorini, from the sea, in the afternoon light. And, for the same reason, Bora Bora, Moorea, and any of the Marquesas. All, I am sure you have noticed, are islands. Which often makes me wonder why I live in the desert, outside of Phoenix, Arizona.
EP: In the same vein, name a place that you would gladly banish from memory.
BP: Not a place, but a scene. A native on one of the more remote islands in French Polynesia climbing a coconut palm with the aid of an aluminum extension ladder.
EP: What was the hardest story you ever had to write?
BP: About breakfast cereal, for an advertising agency, during the year I made more money, and was more miserable, than at any other time in my life. On the other hand, it did inspire me to focus my efforts on travel writing.
EP: After all these years of traveling, what drives you crazy when you’re on the road?
BP: You mean crazy in a good way, right? Knowing that there’s always somewhere farther out.
EP: Do you ever stay in touch with characters you meet during your travels?
BP: Let’s see, I’m still in touch with your wife, who I met in Switzerland, before I met you. And in the early 1970s I met a guy in a bar in Belize who introduced himself by saying, “Yes, I’m a lawyer, but I know all the words to all the Jimmy Buffett songs,” inaugurating a friendship that continues to this day. I regularly exchange texts with a Samoan, a Greenlander, and any number of Greeks.
EP: Let’s say you could leave your house in the next 20 minutes, plane ticket, passport, and carry-on in hand. What would be your destination – and why?
BP: First, I’ve done it in less than 20 minutes, but that’s because all you really need is your passport. I had mine, and nothing else, when I was standing on the dock in Newport Rhode, Island, and someone asked if I wanted to fill in for one of his crew members who failed to show up at the last moment for a non-stop small-boat voyage to England. It was a delightful month-long sail, but if I were to do it again, I would want the destination to be St. Helena, the tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic where Napoleon spent the last five years of his life in exile, because I’ve never been there.
EP: Any idea where the much-maligned profession of travel writing is heading?
BP: I don’t know, but I hope it involves a lot of walking, with frequent bathroom breaks. As for being much-maligned, I can only say that I’ve talked to more than one doctor, lawyer, or company president who confessed that deep down what they would really like is our job.
Listening to the Greeks
Excerpted from Escape Clauses – Getting Away With a Travel Writing Life by Bob Payne
On the first day at my hotel, in Piraeus, the port city for Athens, I came down to the dimly lit lobby late in the afternoon to find two rough-looking men sitting at a table, drinking coffee from tiny cups and arguing animatedly about something. Perhaps to do with the government. Or the economy. Or the American soap opera, The Bold and the Beautiful, showing with Greek subtitles on the television screen mounted high on the wall opposite them.
Hesitatingly, I approached the men, one of whom had several days of stubble on his chin and the other wearing a dirty gray suit it looked as if he’d fought for, with someone two sizes larger than he was. Their appearance gave me misgivings about speaking with them. But speaking with them was why I had come to Greece. So, I asked myself, “What is the worst that could happen?” trying not to think about the veiled women in Egypt who had stoned me.
“Kalimera, hello,” I said, realizing a second too late that I’d wished them “Good Morning” when it was four o’clock in the afternoon. In the palm of my right hand, I held, as casually as I could, my tiny tape recorder.
The man with the stubble sipped his coffee, ignoring me. The man in the dirty suit stared hard, at the tape recorder and my face, before demanding, finally, “What you want?”
“I’m . . . I’m an American writer. And I want to . . . listen to Greeks.”
During the silence that followed, I had time to remember reading somewhere that the logical end of a travel tale is the return of the hero or his violent death.
The man in the suit spoke again, to his companion. “Is tape machine,” he said, pointing at my recorder. “My last year in New York, while I get divorced, I use one. I hide in my underwear.”
He leaned toward the recorder. “Hello, America. My name Kostas. I fine. You?” He smiled, not too menacingly, and pulled a chair from under the table. “So anyway, sit,” he said. “How you drink you coffee?”
That was the first of more than a hundred conversations I taped during that Greek Islands journey, employment that, above almost anything else I could think of, made me happy.