perm_identity Bob Payne: A Traveling Man

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 165 ~ February, 2011

I’ve never been much of a traveler.  Perhaps it was circumstances, or inclination, or being overwhelmed with struggling to overcome immediate challenges, real or perceived, but my travel experience has generally  been limited to trips between New Jersey and a cottage two hours north of Toronto.

As a child, I noticed a book of cartoons by Jules Feiffer in the waiting room of my father’s office in our house.  My father was a psychiatrist and would see patients at his office in Manhattan Monday through Friday, and then also see patients on Saturday mornings at our home.  The cartoon I remember was of a shamefaced guy sitting on a beach with a woman who says something like.  “Tell me again, it’s just so unbelievable.”  “Okay,” the man’s caption reads, “I’ve never been to Europe.”

I have no idea why that particular cartoon stuck with me, whether I had a premonition based on inner feelings, or whether my lack of traveling became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  And yet, I’m the oldest of four kids, and I am the only one who has never been to Europe, at least yet.

My father traveled a great deal, he was always on the go.  Psychiatric conferences here, special seminars there, working on a special project with a Psychiatric colleague in Rome, what have you.  He explained to me once that he viewed the world as an extended living room.  He elaborated on this revelation up at the cottage in Ontario once, telling me that starting the day in his office in Manhattan was similar to being in one room and then when he arrived later that day in Canada, it was merely a matter of moving into another room.

It was a nice theory, and I’m glad it helped him, but for too long, due no doubt to feelings inside, I have viewed the world as a vast arena fraught with peril.  I suppose I could over identify with Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of OZ, “There’s no place like home.”  Home might be annoying at times, but at least it was safe.

That’s not to say I wasn’t curious.  In recent years, I’ve actually had the opportunity to visit some cities I never would have seen if it hadn’t been been for the annual AWP (Associated Writers and Writing Programs) conferences. And I never would have known about the AWP Conferences if the accomplished writer, Thomas E. Kennedy, hadn’t asked me to be on a panel five years ago at the conference in Vancouver.

In any case, going on about my lack of travel experience is leading me to a fascinating writer I chanced upon who specializes in travel writing.  And as such, of course, he has traveled extensively and has many an interesting tale to tell.

I was recently returning from visiting my sister and her kids in Ontario when I thought of Bob Payne, a travel writer whose articles have appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Islands, Outside, Men’s Journal, and Bon Appetit, as well as the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, and Dallas Morning News.  The guy gets around, as evidenced by being a five-time winner of a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition award for excellence in travel journalism from the Society of American Travel Writers.

I was simply astounded listening to Payne talking about travel, and travel writing, especially since he has visited so many countries, and inevitably when asked which is his favorite place, he always replies, “Any one I haven’t been to yet.”

As I boarded the plane from Toronto to New York City just after the Christmas holidays, Payne’s advice came to mind about always asking for a middle seat, which is the exact opposite of what I wanted.  His reasoning is sound, though, he correctly points out it doubles your chances of coming home with a good story to tell.

“In the course of visiting something like 140 countries, I have come to believe that a good reason to travel, perhaps the best, is to collect conversations with strangers,” Payne said.  “The only souvenir you should collect is conversations with strangers.”

“More than anything else you can bring back from a journey,” Payne continued, “is conversations that help answer the two questions you should ask about any place you go: How are the people here different from me? How are we the same?  When you know the answers, and when you have shared them, you have begun to help diminish the lack of understanding that is the source of much of the trouble in the world.”

Payne also advises one to always travel alone.  “If you travel with another person you learn half as much about your surroundings as you otherwise would.  Traveling with two people you learn a third, and any more than that you don’t learn anything except more than you probably want to about each other.”

Payne’s father, who passed the passion for travel on to his children, spent his youth in Toledo, Ohio, dreaming of his two loves, ships that could take him across the seas and airplanes that could take him soaring through the skies.  After a stint in the U.S. Merchant Marines, Payne’s father devoted his life to flying, landing a job as a flight engineer with Pan American Airways, for which he flew for the next 35 years.

Payne credits his father with inspiring the entire family to fly.  In an article in Worldhum, Payne states, “When my sisters and I were growing up, flying was part of our lives, too.  There were family vacations to places that Pan Am flew, like my favorite, Central America, from where I remember I had to smuggle my sister Pam, then a baby, back into the country because we were afraid the measles she had broken out with would get us all quarantined.”

When Payne was 16, no doubt due to his father’s influence, he ventured on his first solo trip outside the United States, flying alone to Mexico City, and then taking a bus another 2,000 miles to Panama City.  A memorable experience.  “That was also the first time a uniformed official unholstered a firearm on my account,” Payne said.  “My attempt, in my admittedly less than perfect Spanish, to explain my journey to a guard on the Guatemala-Honduras border so frustrated him that he pulled out his pistol and put the barrel to his head.”

Surviving his early jaunt south of the border, Payne took his first newspaper job at the Palm Beach Post at the age of 19, while living at a marina on a boat he’d built.  He was working on an as yet unpublished novel, when the Managing Editor of the Post, who also lived at the marina, stopped one day and told Payne if he actually wanted to make money writing, the Post had an opening for a newsroom clerk and a couple days later Payne was working there.

“I worked at the Post for awhile and then feeling I’d left a job undone, returned to college, at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, where I majored in Mass Communications,” Payne said. “And more valuably, I worked on the school’s daily newspaper, The Oracle.  Of all my professors at school, I remember one, Doyle Harville, who was the managing editor of the Tampa Times.”

On the first day of class, Harville taught everyone a valuable lesson, not soon forgotten.  “Harville walked in and said he’d just seen the oddest thing, a two car accident in which both drivers and the investigating officer were named Smith,” Payne recounted.  “He told us to ask him any questions we wanted about the accident, then write a news story about it, due before the end of class.

“We questioned him, wrote up our stories, and turned them in,” Payne said.  “Without looking at them, Harville said, ‘You all get an F.'”  Harville then went on to explain nobody had asked him how to spell Smith, which in this case, turned out to be Smith, Smithe, and Smyth.

After college, Payne went to work for the Tampa Times, which doesn’t exist anymore, and then moved on to a position as an editor at Sail magazine in Boston.  “It soon occurred to me, though, that the stories I liked to write best required me to travel,” Payne said.  “So I quit Sail and started freelancing, doing stories for magazines like Ford Times, Yankee, and one, which went out of business in 2001, I think, called Walking Magazine.  In a typical walking story, I walked from inn to inn along the Boston Post Road from Boston to New York, just as they wold have done in Colonial times, except I went from Holiday Inns to Days Inns, and almost always had a hard time explaining to the desk clerks why I couldn’t give them my license plate number.”

In terms of travel to more exotic locales, Payne explained, “For a typical Islands story, I would arrive somewhere, usually having gotten enough expense money to stay for a few weeks, and head for wherever locals who might be willing to talk seemed to congregate.  Usually, it was a bar, or some tables by the sea whose clientele was noticeably lacking in tourists, where I would sip, and wait, and trade a few words with someone, then a drink or two, and sooner or later, someone would not only have a story to tell, but be eager to introduce me to someone else who had a story to tell.”

While Payne loves travel, and writing about his various trips here, there, or wherever, he admits it does come at a price, but one he is willing to pay.

“The good fortune of being able to have a career as a full-time travel writer comes at a high cost,” Payne noted.  “It’s exciting, for example to spend Christmas in Antarctica at a research base manned by Russian scientists who because of the dispensing of far too much good cheer may forever think that We All Live in a Yellow Submarine is a traditional American Christmas carol.  But it means you are not at home with your family for Christmas.”

As for me, I’m happy Bob Payne lives in the New York metropolitan area because at least that way I can meet him for drinks or dinner when he’s home between trips throughout the world that I can’t imagine making myself at the moment.