Everyone’s got a story

Everyone Has a Story

For Jeff Greenwald’s 40th birthday, he treated himself to a 29,172-mile around-the-world overland voyage, and wrote a book called The Size of the World detailing his experiences. This year, for his 50th birthday, he traveled to a country he has never visited before: Israel. I was lucky to catch him in the five days between his return from Israel and his departure for a mushing trip in Alaska’s White Mountains.

In 1979 Jeff took a vacation to Thailand that coincided with the Cambodian Civil War. Not content to loll on the beach sipping daiquiris, he ended up volunteering in Khao-I-Dang, the largest of the Cambodian refugee camps. His experiences as a water engineer there led to an op-ed piece in the Santa Barbara News & Review, and his travel writing career was born.

“I’ve never been a ‘gee whiz’ travel writer,” he told me. “That first op-ed I wrote was equal parts travel writing and political outrage, and to this day, all my travel writing has some kind of political or environmentalist bent to it.”

In 1996, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi called for a travel boycott of Burma. Jeff wrote another op-ed piece, this time for The Washington Post, encouraging people to adopt the boycott because “every dime spent on visa fees and foreign exchange fattens the coffers of a murderous, exploitative regime.”

In that same 1996 op-ed piece, Jeff wrote: “Travel and tourism has become one of the world’s largest industries, able to make or break some national economies. What would happen, one wonders, if we travelers recognized—and used—this power? What might be possible if the vast community of globetrotters joined together, agreeing not to give our money to governments that torture and abuse their citizens?”

Several years later, working with a team of dedicated volunteers, Jeff began the project that is now Ethical Traveler.

The first step was to create a Web site, and overwhelming international response made it clear to Jeff that he needed to seek non-profit status. “Earth Island Institute, which is a tremendously ethical organization and does great work all over the world, was a natural place for me to turn,” Jeff said. “I have great admiration for almost everything Dave Brower has ever done, and it’s an honor to be working with this group that he helped start,” he added.

Ethical Traveler is now an international community with members from over 30 countries. Its Web site gets 40,000 hits a month; but Jeff predicts this number will increase once the live newsfeed is functioning. Actions Ethical Traveler has advocated range from tourism boycotts to letter-writing campaigns. Jeff admits that recent campaigns by Ethical Traveler avoid boycotts and promote a gentler approach, like lobbying for endangered sites to be protected by UNESCO. “We’ll see if it’s effective,” Jeff says, “but in any case, it’s certainly more realistic.”

A fascination with beat culture and alternative lifestyles inspired Jeff to abandon his East Coast roots and set out for San Francisco in 1975. After receiving a degree from UC Santa Cruz, he traveled to Nepal, a country he has been obsessed with ever since. “Over the next 25 years, I considered Katmandu my second home, and most of my writing is based in that part of the world,” Jeff told me.

In 1983 Jeff won a Journalism Fellowship from the Rotary Foundation, which allowed him to live in Katmandu, study Nepali, and travel to neighboring countries. GEO and Islands are two of the magazines that published his work from that time, and he continues to publish in Islands. He made another visit to Asia in 1987, which resulted in his most popular book, Shopping for Buddhas. The Buddha from that four-month shopping extravaganza graces the altar in his living room.

Films such as Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey gave Jeff the itch to travel as a youngster. He says his childhood hero, Arthur C. Clarke, with whom he has been friends for 35 years, has “informed and inspired much of my life and work.”

When Jeff isn’t traveling—he now takes four to six major trips a year—he lives in the sunny Oakland flat he has called home for 15 years. While in Oakland, he juggles freelance writing and photography assignments, the responsibilities of running a non-profit, and live performances of his one-man show Strange Travel Suggestions, which will run at San Francisco’s Marsh Theatre in April and May.

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