For Jonathan Shia, being a writer requires more than than knowing how to write. “It means knowing how to live,” says the journalist and editor of The Last Magazine. Today Jonathan talks about Nicolas Bouvier’s The Way of the World, the travelogue that inspired his existential revelation, and the Silk Road tour upon which he embarks this coming year:
Where did you travel, and for how long were you away?
We went through seven countries in ten weeks. We started with a train tour through northern India, visiting New Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Lucknow, and several other destinations, then spent two weeks relaxing in Phuket. Afterwards I went to visit my grandfather in Kunming in China, which is something I try to do every year now as he is nearly ninety. Then we flew to Amsterdam because my mother has always wanted to see the poppies there. Unfortunately, because of the changing weather patterns, it ended up being much too cold for them to bloom yet. We traveled to Morocco and spent a week outside Marrakech before going on a tour of eastern Morocco that took us into the Sahara and back. We spent a week and a half on the coast of Turkey and then went around Egypt for two weeks.
What surprised you most on the voyage? What delighted you?
Since I got back three weeks ago, the first question most of my friends have asked me has been, What was your favorite place? It’s a difficult question to answer, given how different all of our destinations were, but I have generally landed on Egypt. It is not very often as a traveler that you get to visit a country that is going through such intense societal change, and the contrast between what is happening there today and the beautifully-preserved, millennia-old temples is very powerful. Visiting Egypt now offers a unique opportunity to have most of the legendary historical sites largely to yourself, as tourism is down about eighty percent. The most valuable experience of the entire trip came on the very last day, when our travel agency, Destinations and Adventures, arranged a panel of individuals who have been involved in different aspects of the Arab Spring to talk with us about what the past few months have been like for them. It was very inspiring to hear how optimistic they all seemed about the future, which in all honesty looks a bit bleak, at least for the next few years. The hardest thing about traveling is finding a way to feel like you have really gotten to know a country and its people, so it was incredible being able to speak with them, even for such a short time.
Bouvier travelled with his pal Thierry Vernet, whereas you were globetrotted with your adventurous parents. How was that?
Most of my friends would cringe at the thought of spending ten weeks with their parents, understandably so, although my parents and I have become so accustomed to traveling together that I think we have worked out an appropriate balance. As with any family, sometimes we fight, but I think we have all realized how important it is to take some time apart from each other to do our own things.
What did you read throughout your voyage?
I actually packed a reading list specifically for the places I would be visiting. I started rereading Midnight’s Children a few weeks before I left for India, and also brought along Kim and A Passage to India to help me understand the colonial history a bit more. Katherine Boo’s amazing nonfiction Behind the Beautiful Forevers shed light on a different side of modern India. I also was able to read The Sheltering Sky while sitting outside our tent in the Sahara, which was a really beautiful experience, and I read The Alexandria Quartet and André Aciman’s Out of Egypt in Egypt, although Alexandria ended up being one of the places we didn’t actually visit.
Tell us your thoughts about how to be a stylish traveler, and what that means?
I imagine most people like to think of themselves as “travelers” rather than “tourists,” with all the connotations both those words bring, so I’m a little wary of answering a question that requires me to speak as a “stylish traveler.” However, I will say that what I think is most important about traveling is not saying no. The value of travel is in the difference, so even if it’s scary, I think that what matters is relishing that difference and trying to see and experience as much as possible. The world is not as dangerous as it sometimes seems.