“A sign of a less sophisticated writer is the use of too many adjectives,” says travel writing teacher Don George. Don’t we throw knowing looks at each other and giggle, scratching out words from our notebooks.
I’m one of 20 participants in a one-day travel writing class in the Ubud Writer’s and Reader’s Festival, an annual literary festival held in October, in Ubud, Bali. Our teacher is Don George, the Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. “Travel writing won’t make anyone rich, but you get rich in the account of experience,” Don tells us, mopping his bald head with a towel and apologizing for sweating in the tropics.
Don starts by defining that travel writing seeks to illuminate a place, to educate and inspire people about the world, and to share the learning from travel experiences. He leads us in a walk around the cottages, like a ringmaster, transforming us into a traveling class.
We pass a garden with rows of neatly labeled organic fruit and vegetables, bursting in degrees of orange, red, yellow, and green. A gardener picks ripe tomatoes, telling us we’ll eat them later for lunch. Some of us sit on the grass, while Don tells us to be always curious and pay attention to details; that details enrich writing. And to record details we should use cameras, voice recorders, and notebooks.
“Being a travel writer is not about you, but about the reader,” Don says. He talks about how the writer illuminates the experience of travel for the reader, and how transitions, the links between one paragraph and another, are like “stepping stones” so that the reader doesn’t get lost. “You have to get to the point and take your reader with you.”
We re-meet the tomatoes at lunch, served with fried brown rice (nasi goreng), chicken, vegetables, and chilies. Then we are given an exercise: to write a paragraph about our experience in Swasti Eco Cottages and read it aloud to the group. For 20 minutes the only sounds are the scratching of pens on paper and the creaking of rickety bamboo chairs as twenty brains excavate sophisticated adjectives from the dusty drawers of memory.
“Traveling with a travel writer’s mindset allows you to become a better traveler,” says Don, before closing his lecture for the day.
When the class ends I’m suddenly the only one left standing on the quiet road through Nyuh Kuning. The scorching sun splatters red havoc across the sky, but I’m not ready to go home yet.
I find a tiny warung in front of a house and can smell coffee, and bananas being fried. Tourists wearing Balinese sarongs and spiritual rudraksha beads around their necks cycle past, perhaps to a yoga class or to dinner down the hill. Sitting down on the wooden bench with my sweet, dark coffee, I think about today. Ubud does that to me: it inspires me to reflect and wonder.
Ubud is Bali’s heart of art, culture, and spirituality. Seduced by bare-breasted Balinese sirens in that age of innocence, some came to paint (Walter Spies, Rudolf Bonnet, Don Antonio Blanco), some to make films (Charlie Chaplin and brother Sydney), and some to lose themselves in the lush green ricefields.
These artists found the Balinese pace of life charming: or, as Charlie Chaplin concluded: “From these people one gleans the true meaning of life – to work and play – play being as important as work to man’s existence. That is why they are happy.”
Many aspects of Bali remain unchanged since 1978. There is still wood carving in Mas and painting in Ubud, but as Indonesia’s most popular holiday destination, there are now five star hotels, branches of Starbucks, and buses of tourists swirling in a krumping street dance with surfer hipsters on scooters and VIPs in their own jets. Bali has something for everyone.
In the roadside warung, I push my empty coffee cup away. I’m not ready to drop everything and become a full-time travel writer, but Don’s class has given me a more thorough understanding of how to be a better writer and more importantly – how to be a better, more observant traveler.
About the author
Bali-resident Eve Tedja is amazed to find that traveling is becoming more of a profession than a novelty. Despite a few anxieties, namely flying and heights, Eve is set on seeing Nepal in the nearest possible future. Traveling aside, Eve writes, reads, and tweets (@evetedja).