UVic Torch -- Autumn 2007
Spring 2008,
Volume 29, Number 1

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VOX ALUMNI

By JOHN LEE, MA'96
Photography By DOMINIC SCHAEFER


The life of a travel writer: “No, I’m not always ‘on vacation.’”

IT'S FALL 1997 AND DAY THREE OF A MEANDERING six-night trek on the old Trans-Siberian Railway between Beijing and Moscow. My reward for an exhausting year spent teaching English in Japan, the trundling Soviet-era train is the world’s longest passenger railroad—and the only one I know with hot water samovars and grubby cold water showers where hygiene fears to tread.

Despite the camp-like conditions, I’m here to catch my breath and decide what comes next in a life so far spent almost entirely at school.

Gazing hypnotically through grimy windows at sun-dappled larch forests and paint-peeled wooden shacks, I sink easily into a natural rhythm of reading, eating and sleeping. In fact, my ruminative stupour is broken only when the train lurches into occasional station stops.

At Lake Baikal, I jump out with a gaggle of excitable Chinese traders who proffer thick fur coats to a waiting group of matronly local ladies. Heavily made-up and dressed in their Sunday best, the middle-aged women squeeze into the coats and parade around like catwalk stars. Giggling and preening, they’re out for an afternoon of free fun and have no intention of buying.

Back on the train—with some buttery boiled potatoes procured from a platform babushka—I crack open my empty journal and begin writing feverishly about the fur coat fashionistas. I also mention the ancient babushkas. Then I throw in some lines about life on the train. Within an hour, I’ve written 18 pages and my wrist is aching.

When I eventually fall asleep that night, lulled by the train’s rattling soundtrack, I’m seized by the idea of becoming a travel writer. The rest of the journey is spent plotting career strategies and ideal trips and polishing my initial Trans-Siberian story. It later becomes my first big published piece, appearing in Britain’s Observer newspaper.

I’ve been on the travel writing train ever since. Despite my British-bred reserve, I might even admit to having done fairly well.

A committed freelancer (nine-to-five routines appeal about as much as a bucketful of dead frogs), I’ve written for 125 different publications—including National Geographic Traveler, the Los Angeles Times and even Russian Life Today (yes, that Trans-Siberian story again). I’ve also won a few awards and I’ve elbowed my way into becoming a Lonely Planet author.

Naturally, it’s not nearly as glamorous as everyone thinks—no, I’m not always on vacation—and there are certainly downsides. Relationships take a bit of a hammering, the former pleasures of travel have been obscured by a curmudgeonly hatred of airports (take a bow Heathrow) and I have to force myself to stay in museums for more than 20 minutes, since that’s how long my brain processes them for guidebook entries.

I understand the absence of sympathy for my “plight,” though. In fact, I often remind myself when I’m getting lost in Cairo’s labyrinthine Khan al-Khalili market, sampling local stouts in peat-warmed Irish pubs or clambering around cathedral-like ice caves in New Zealand that I’m lucky to have stumbled on a challenging vocation that I truly love.

A decade later, a quite different train is in the picture. Researching a magazine story on pub-crawling by rail, I’m clattering along a countryside branch line in the sheep-strewn hills of southwestern England. Winding through several village pubs—I’m required, on behalf of my readers of course, to drink in each one—I’m inching towards a seaside town of cobbled streets and ancient smugglers’ inns.

After four pubs, my notes are increasingly vague and my brain has switched from observational alertness to a dozy, languorous fuzz. By the time I arrive at waterfront Falmouth, I’ve made the executive decision to slack off for the rest of the day.

Ordering a dark ale at the Quayside Inn’s chatty bar, I slip outside to the patio to bask in some unexpectedly warm sunshine. Crowded with wooden tables and buzzing with early evening conversation, I sit back and enjoy the harbourside’s beady-eyed seagulls and bobbling, bright-painted fishing boats. This really isn’t such a bad job, I think, as I count my money for another pint.






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