Cynthia Barnes has sampled sambal in Borneo for Endless Vacation, been chased by a bull in Mali for Slate, and joined an archaeological dig for National Geographic. Cynthia’s work also appears in Voyaging, Global Traveler, Humanities, and other national magazines. Her essay “Blame It On Rio” was published in the Travelers’ Tales anthology Whose Panties Are These?, and her Timbuktu series for Slate was a “notable mention” selection in The Best American Travel Writing 2006. She’s currently at work on her first book, “Blue: Wanders from Arkansas to Timbuktu.” A graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, she has recently moved to Bangkok, where she freelances and is editor-in-chief of Agoda.com.
How did you get started traveling?
My mom took us on a lot of car trips to visit relatives, and with her on some business trips. (She was a union organizer: I’ve seen every budget hotel in the rural South.) It doesn’t sound like much, but we were living in Arkansas and I grew up with kids who’d never been to Memphis, let alone to Chicago or Miami. I remember that can’t-sleep-butterfly-excitement on the nights before we’d leave for a trip. It’s still with me today. Our house had a much-fondled globe, stacks of National Geographics and an unlimited supply of books. I read Kon-Tiki and every adventure story I could get my hands on.
However, I didn’t leave the U.S. until I was 35. In my early thirties, I had a post-traumatic stress disorder that rendered me very nearly agoraphobic. There was a time when I couldn’t get in a car and go to St. Louis, which is two hours away, because I just couldn’t face the fear. Then I had repeated bouts of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia. I was in the hospital, quite ill, and thought, “All you’ve ever wanted to do is see the world. Now you’re going to die without a passport.”
I didn’t die. I got the passport. I haven’t looked back.
How did you get started writing?
I won a Daughters of the American Revolution poetry contest in fifth grade, and they gave me a fifty dollar savings bond. It was a stinky little poem that began “Our nation it was founded by brave people long ago….”
After high school, I got a job working at a Dairy Queen-type restaurant called ‘Park’s’ in Blytheville, Arkansas. The owner’s son came in on the second night and started throwing (plastic) soda glasses at the counter help. “Duck,” whispered the waitress next to me, “Stanley likes to see us duck.”
I stood up. “Are you kidding? Let him hit me. I’ll own this place.” The next day Stanley’s mother fired me, explaining that I “wasn’t Park’s material.” I’d like that on my tombstone. “Not Park’s material.”
All of my (white-collar) jobs eventually wound up with me producing newsletters, correcting ad copy, rewriting bad brochures. It’s in my blood. I’ve always kept journals, written letters, played around with personal essays. When I moved to Columbia I fell in with a group of writers. At least half my career has been the result of drinking with the right people. When I’m with journalists and photogs I feel, ‘These are my people. This is my tribe.’
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
Danita Allen, the publisher of Missouri Life magazine, needed a last-minute story on spas. Friends who freelanced for her recommended me. So my first real piece involved having massages, facials and salt scrubs all over Missouri. It’s nice work if you can get it. Steve Weinberg, a Mizzou prof who literally wrote the book on investigative journalism, has been a great mentor and always encouraged me to aim high.
Getting an assignment from National Geographic three years after my first feature was a huge break. I was in the right place with the right story, but I had to send my clips in three times before they were finally looked at.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
I like meeting new people, hearing their stories, tasting their food. But writers need time alone to process, too. Balancing solitary exploration with my need to be with (and learn from) other people is always a challenge. When you’re traveling with others, you’re distracted and you often don’t meet locals. When you’re by yourself, you have only your own impressions and observations.
I wish I picked up new languages more easily. I don’t like limiting myself to people who speak English or French, but it’s a necessity.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Not planning the next trip before I’ve written all I can about the last. Also, I try to avoid excesses of both cynicism and sentimentality. They’re both deadly enemies of truth.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Pitching, definitely. It’s like mind-reading, only harder. There are editors who “love my work,” but it’s hard to have the right idea on the right day. I want to scream, “You know what you want. You know I can write it. Just assign it to me.”
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I had a proofreading and editing business when I first began writing, but quickly transitioned to just journalism.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
William Least-Heat Moon wrote the second draft of Blue Highways across the street from my house in Columbia… I could see his old apartment from my desk. That book and Juanita Harrison’s My Great, Wide, Beautiful World changed my life. Geoff Dyer (Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It) gives me jealous fits. Tiziano Terzano’s A Fortune-Teller Told Me is another favorite. My friend Letha Albright writes mysteries instead of travel, but her skill at setting scenes that give a sense of place is nothing less than brilliant, and a constant inspiration.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
I think of myself as a writer who travels, and I think it’s important to keep the emphasis on the writing. It’s great work … but it’s work. It’s also a huge responsibility … what you write may be the place you’re writing about, to a reader who will never go there. Don’t sell yourself or your observations short. And never, ever trade “trips for clips.”
Telling stories about travel is an honorable profession, dating back to Pausanias, who wrote Description of Greece in the 2nd century BC. Mark Twain was a travel writer. So was Hemingway. Act with pride in your profession … even when PR flacks are feeding you tequila shots at their new luxury resort.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Being fed tequila shots at luxury resorts. Kidding! I’ve watched the sun rise at Angkor Wat and sipped champagne on a yacht as Stromboli spewed lava under a full moon. But more humbling is the incredible generosity and the spirit of the people I’ve met … Aeolian fishermen, Bambara griots, children in Cambodia. It’s a blessing and a privilege to have a glimpse into their lives.