Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: Susan Orlean's Extraordinary Travels

Host Lale Arikoglu sits down with the prolific writer to talk about her adventures, which have taken her to Iceland, Bhutan, and more.
Susan Orlean's Extraordinary Travels

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Whether its embedding herself with orchid hunters in Florida or chasing surfers in Maui, Susan Orlean is never afraid to throw herself into the story. A longtime writer for The New Yorker, and author of beloved titles like Saturday Night, The Library Book, and On Animals, she's traveled the world—and calls into the studio to share stories from Iceland, Bhutan, and more.

Lale Arikoglu: Hello. It's me, Lale Arikoglu, and welcome to a new episode of Women Who Travel. Today I'm talking to a journalist and author who is best known for her eclectic and eccentric subjects. She's Susan Orlean, who's written for Rolling Stone, Vogue, and The New Yorker.

Susan Orlean: And there are, you know, these fertility festivals, which were wonderful, and you get bonked on the head with a giant wooden phallus. Even in the airport, there are penises drawn everywhere. Penis sculptures everywhere. Well, it was hilarious because coming from a western culture where you think, oh my God, this is insane, but literally everywhere.

LA: She's passionately curious. Do you consider yourself a travel writer?

SO: I absolutely think I'm a travel writer, in a somewhat eccentric definition of the term. People often say to me, "What do you write about? What's your topic?" And I am always a little bit at a loss because I write about the things that interest me. To me, every story involves travel in, in the existential sense of the word. You are journeying into another world. I don't write about people who are very much like me. So even if I only go a mile away, I am journeying into a very different universe.

LA: Right. And I guess it's like, you know, how does one define travel in itself? You know, does, does travel writing have to be covering one particular type of moving around the world? And one particular type of story? I mean, there's so many different ways in which people travel and also reasons that they travel. And surely that extends to writing too.

SO: Uh, and often the travel is time travel. A lot of the stories that I've written involve, uh, a fair amount of investigation into the history of the place that I'm writing about, or the person, or the topic. And I, I feel that that's travel. In my first book Saturday Night, while it would on one very simple level be defined as travel, because I traveled from place to place to about 18 different communities in the United States. I felt like I was... it was conceptual travel. I had taken this idea, which was that Saturday night is a great universal connector. That we, regardless of who we are, what we are, tend to feel that Saturday night is a special night in the week.

LA: I mean, I'm sure you've heard this so many times now, but it's such a brilliant and simple conceit. How much do you like giving yourself a theme to report to and to write to? Did you find it freeing or did you find yourself, were you worried you were penning yourself in?

SO: I love having a, a kind of template established when I'm reporting. I feel like part of what we are always trying to do is see some pattern and order in the world.

LA: From polka dancing at a restaurant in Maryland that was home to the first Oktoberfest in America to a quinceañera in Phoenix, each chapter's destination is a wonderfully specific portrait of a community enjoying their Saturday.

SO: Part of what I was doing was answering the specific question of what is it that we have in common as a people, and how do we differently interpret something we have in common?

LA: The book came out in 1990. Looking back now, which are the ones that you have really endured for you, that you... the communities and the people that you still think about?

SO: I think often about the Park Avenue Dinner party. Um, it, it felt in a way that it captured New York and especially New York at that moment in time, but also something about the nature of a very privileged elite subculture in its kind of most full flower, uh, this closed universe that operated with its own rules and its own systems. And similarly, I think about another New York chapter, which is funny, and maybe this was because I lived in New York at the time, but I had decided I wanted to write about a Saturday night at the Bowery Mission, which used to be called The Soup Kitchen. It's sort of a support center for the homeless population. I just thought, look, if you're a person who doesn't have a home, how do you acknowledge Saturday night as being a different kind of night of the week? Does anything change for you when you have so little?

And it certainly was very different, but what I came across completely unexpectedly was some time earlier, a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania had decided to adopt the Bowery Mission as one of their s- s- sort of community outreach projects. They would ride a bus into Lower Manhattan and sing at the Saturday Night Church Service at the Bowery Mission and talk about subcultures colliding. Uh, Mennonite people live a very sheltered life, very much unto themselves. They live in rural communities. They're very separate from the urban world of, and most dramatically the urban world of the Bowery Mission, where you have a lot of men struggling with alcohol and drug problems, who are living in shelters. And this is a very family-based, the Mennonite community, you know, extremely tight-knit community. Something they wanted to do as a community was to provide music service, and it was transcendent. It was also amazing to see, particularly the Mennonite women who live a very cosseted life. In Lower Manhattan encountering men who were living on the streets more or less. I mean, there are times when I think, "Wow, did that really happen?

LA: [laugh].

SO: That was wild."

LA: Did you, you know, you kind of sa- said that sort of part of, you know, when you set out to report that book that there was a sort of, as... you were looking to see if there was a sort of commonality there for Saturday Night, did you find one in the Park Avenue apartment and in the Bowery Mission, or did they truly feel like they were such different worlds away, even though it's a matter of subway stops? Um, was there still something that knitted them together for you?

SO: Yes, absolutely. The sort of animating question of the book was, regardless of their status in life, their region, their age, their, you know, we, every possible way we define ourselves, does Saturday Night mean something? The answer is yes, it does. It... I believe it's a very human need to see time, not as a constantly extending line that has no rhythmic quality, but instead that it's a circle that keeps repeating. That there is some rhythm to time, you know, that we need that.

LA: Susan's 1998 book, The Orchid Thief, took her on a wild journey as she accompanied a horticulturalist on his quest to find a rare orchid in a swamp forest in the Florida Everglades. She enters his world of fanatical plant smugglers out to clone orchids, but who get caught. You definitely talk to some sort of larger than life characters from time to time. How do you tell when someone is being genuine with you? How can you see that they're being genuine with you and they're not just spinning some fabulous story because they think it's what you'd want to hear?

SO: Oh, that's a, well, that's a big challenge because people often feel they need to perform for a reporter. I've been very lucky because The New Yorker allows us to have enough time, and I really like observing somebody, not only interacting with me, but interacting with other people. That's where I think you often can get a sense of who someone really is. When I'm reporting a story, I am... it's like a superpower to be curious because you're willing and able to do things you couldn't do. So I knew the story mostly involved being in a swamp in South Florida, and I thought, "Well, I am not going in a swamp under any circumstances. I'm just not." And very quickly I was in the swamp because it was obvious-

LA: [laughs].

SO: ... that that was the only way to do the story. And every now and again when I would be in waist deep water and there are alligators and snakes and, and I would kind of look at myself as if I were in another body looking at this person in the swamp going, "If my mom could see me, she would die." You know, that's always been my measure.

LA: Yeah.
SO: Is like, if my mother-

LA: Oh [laughs].

SO: ... could see me doing this, she would absolutely die. So a few years after The Orchid Thief came out, and I ended up going into the swamp many times because I had to, and it, it's terrifying.

LA: Describe the swamp just a little bit more, kind of like what did it, because I hear swamp-

SO: Oh.

LA: ... and I have-

SO: Well-

LA: ... a picture of what I think it is, but I might be wrong.

SO: This is, uh, South Florida swamp, which is a marshy wet area, and in some cases it's only up to your ankles and water. In other cases it's up to your chest. It's very dense, shrubbery and trees. Um, the water is not moving. It's still. And it's the home to an enormous array of wildlife, much of which you would not wish to encounter. Um, like alligators. And a lot of poisonous snakes, uh, wild hogs, um, you know, everything under the spiders, ev-, you know, it's, it... I mean, and they are kind of the cradle of life. There's incredibly rich diversity of nature, but they're, you know, they're wet and muddy and gooey and, um, kind of [inaudible 00:12:51].

LA: And you can appreciate their value to the universe. And also be like, I do not want to encounter an alligator in this swamp.

SO: Oh, you would've had a hard time getting me to go back in as a, as a visitor. But while as a reporter it was, I, I felt like, well, of course, I have to go in.

LA: There's no other option.

SO: I have to, there's no other option.

LA: Susan never does get to see a ghost orchid in bloom. In the final journey through a swamp, a guide gets lost. Coming up, Susan, on more of her intrepid and quirky encounters with animals as the central characters. In one of her stories, an orca whale named Keiko, the star of the movie, Free Willy becomes ill and has to be transported from Mexico to Oregon to Iceland. Susan describes the trip in her book, On Animals.

SO: I just love animals. I love what they look like. I love their behavior. It's interesting to write about them because you are never writing about them alone. You're always writing about them in the context of the people who are engaged with them, even wild animals. You know, writing about Keiko, while it was very much about this whale, it was overwhelmingly about all of the people and the money that had been spent over the decades to try to repatriate him from an aquarium back into the ocean. And, you know, there was this, um, kind of tragic story of the effort to release him. And, and the questions of captivity versus wildness. I mean, it's really about people, um-

LA: Mm-hmm.

SO: ... at the end of the day. But animals provide such a perfect kind of contrast because they aren't affected by all of the things that we're affected by. Um, but they are subjected to the humankind of influence in their worlds. I love the fact that we've established this kind of working relationship with this other species, like they could be martians and we, you know, we are so interested in meeting martians, but we have martians right here on Earth.

They're in all these different interesting shapes of baboons and cows and, you know, we... what could be more alien? And yet we manage somehow to make some connection with them. And I think that's incredible.

LA: I feel like we've been talking about some really spectacular places, you know, Keiko in Iceland and the swamps of Florida. Is there, is there a place that has really stayed with you from your reporting, whether it be, um, you know, obviously one of your most famous pieces is about the, um, surfers in Hawaii, which got immortalized into a, into the film Blue Crush. Is there any- anywhere that kind of, you left a little piece of your heart in?

SO: Uh, Bhutan. Certainly.

LA: Oh, tell me about Bhutan.

SO: Uh, well, I went on, um, first of all, it's just the most beautiful place I've ever been. It truly is. And it's also a place that at that time was almost without tourism and almost without the influence of the outside world. So it had a very, very precious quality of being this sort of preserved and amber place. And that has changed somewhat. I mean, at the time that I went, there was no television. There were very few movies, there was very little influence of western culture and consumerism, and that was kind of amazing.

But the raw physical beauty is, you know, just breathtaking. It, it... but I also had this amazing trip because, um, I had seen an ad that caught my attention, which was, uh, basically saying, if you would like to get pregnant, come on this trip to Bhutan because they have all of these fertility festivals and it's going to help you get pregnant. And I thought, "I have never heard of a trip [laughs] organized around the idea of getting pregnant and enhancing your fertility by going to these Buddhist, uh, fertility festivals."

What I didn't know was that the penis is a revered symbol in Bhutan, and there are penises drawn everywhere, penis sculptures everywhere. Even in the airport, there are penises painted on the wall, and it's not lewd in any way. It's like, this is the sort of fountain of fertility and we worship it. And well, it was hilarious because coming from a western culture where you think, oh my God, this is insane, but literally everywhere and, and there are, you know, these fertility festivals, which were wonderful, and you get bunked on the head with a giant wooden phallus and, um-

LA: [laughs].

SO: ... so there was a, a certain-

LA: It's that like wonderful thread of like complete sort of exposure to something new and the like humor that can come with travel, even if-

SO: Yes.

LA: ... even in a way that's not being judgmental. There's just, there's just, sometimes you can see the, the absurdity or the humor in something that to a completely other part of the world feels and is totally normal.

SO: Yeah, exactly. I mean, in a way we're laughing at ourselves because, you know, we were all westerners and feeling like, oh my God, this is so, you know, it, it brought out the fifth grader in you giggling at these penises.

LA: [laughs].

SO: And, and yet it's absolutely logical and, you know, maybe a bit one-sided in terms of gender, but still there's this great worship of fertility in general. And so this was my favorite kind of trip, which is that it was a thematic instead of just going to Bhutan, which any, uh, I promise you is worth going in the most unthematic way, just go and see it. It's a- absolutely gorgeous and the people are lovely, the traditions are amazing, but it also had this through line of the quest for fertility, which was fascinating. And the people on the trip were all trying to get pregnant, and were really looking forward to these fertility festivals and blessings in hopes that that was going to influence their ability to get pregnant.

So it was just an incredible trip. And I've thought about it. I actually went back to Bhutan one other time after, just on my own, because I became close friends with someone there. And it, it was just a magical, magical place. E- especially that moment in time. I mean, it, it's become a little bit more open to the world, a little more, um, kind of buffed up for, for tourism. But, um, it was just an amazing experience.

LA: After the break, how time zones make communication so hard between people who desperately want to connect. When I spoke to Susan Orlean, I was in London en route to Greece and Turkey. She was at home in the Hollywood Hills. No matter how much I travel, it's still oddly disorientating to be talking to someone who's framed by an afternoon sky when, where I am, it's pitch black outside. How do you handle time zones and time differences?

SO: Oh, I, I hate them. In fact, every now and again, I've thought, "Why don't we just have everybody in the same time zone?" And, you know, for you, seven o'clock might be the very middle of the day, for me it's the morning. It... but I am... [laughs] I find them very disconcerting. And it's very funny when someone I'm close to is in a different time zone, I feel disconnected, more disconnected from them. Because I think there's this feeling that if someone's far away, but you're, you know, that you're having lunch and they're probably having lunch as well.

LA: I live in New York, all my family is in the UK, and then I have some family in Turkey, and I have the different time zones on my phone. And then I also have all the different weather forecasts that I can flip through.

SO: I just, I do too.

LA: [laughs].

SO: I do too. And I think that this is our way of trying to span these distances. And you know, it was funny for a very long time, I lived on the West Coast and my parents, I grew up in Ohio, which is on the Eastern Time Zone. So I was three hours different from my parents, and it felt like I was really, really far away. Then I moved to New York and we were suddenly in the same time zone. And even though I saw them just about as often, which was not all that often, I felt so much closer. And really I was, I was physically closer, but I was still far away. But the fact that I knew where they were in their day made me feel that we weren't so far apart.

LA: I was about to go off on assignment to Mykonos and Istanbul. Reporting trips are a different beast from personal travel and sometimes more heightened. So how does Susan find time to travel for herself? You know, we've kind of focused so much on your travel as a reporter, but I'm interested to know, you know, are there any destinations you never tire of visiting or I, I guess somewhere that you have your sight set on?

SO: I do. I have a wishlist that I keep. [laughs]. I, I really do keep a literal wishlist. I wanna go to Mongolia, um, particularly on a pony trek in Mongolia. I spent one day in India because I got stuck there on a flight that was going from Bangkok to Bhutan. So I like to say to people, I've been to India, I spent a day in India, and I realize now it wasn't enough. Um, [laughs] which of course is, is ludicrous, but I would love to spend some time there for sure. And I'd love to go to Patagonia.

LA: I went to Patagonia last year and it was just, I think, one of the most spectacular places I've ever been. I've never felt, I've got some, like, pretty far away places. I've never felt quite so far away from home as when I was in Patagonia. So I highly recommend you go. You have to do it.

SO: Yeah. Well, I read, um, In Patagonia, by one of my very favorite writers, Bruce Chatwin, who is a travel writer in the most, in, in a traditional sense, but in his own way, just a very unconventional travel writer. And hi- his book In Patagonia, made me feel like I simply have to go.

LA: This has been such a delight. I had a thousand other questions that I didn't have time to get to.

SO: I know. It's such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you.

LA: Next week, I tap Vogue's Chloe Malle, host of the Run Through, for her ultimate packing tips. It's sheer joy, see you then. I'm Lale Arikoglu, and you can find me on Instagram @lalehannah. Our engineers are Jake Lummus and Gabe Quiroga. This week's show was mixed by Catherine Anderson. Judith Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer. See you next week.