Travel and the Law of Diminishing Returns

Propaganda exists everywhere, plugging away, and travel is no exception.

If you follow the magazines, you know what I’m talking about—article after article catering to a romantic perception of some incredible perfect idyllic place just on the other side of the hill, the other side of the mountain, the other side of the ocean. Some place you haven’t been to yet.

It’s designed to make you question yourself.

I’m as susceptible to this urge as anybody. That’s because I’m also as capital-r Romantic as anybody, except maybe Samuel Coleridge or Percy Bysshe Shelley. Still I’ve had to admit a hard fact: Wandering the earth like the Ancient Mariner is not necessarily the best way to go through life. Nobody reads that poem anymore, so let me remind you of the fact that all of the Mariner’s sailors died of thirst and the Mariner himself chewed into his arm to drink his own blood.

220px-Rime_of_the_Ancient_Mariner-Albatross-Dore

Gustave Dore’s famous etching of the mariners gazing in horror upon the Albatross.

Don’t get me wrong. Travelling the world is important to build wonderful qualities like empathy and equanimity and enthusiasm and a whole lot of other words that start with ‘e’. As you probably know, I’m writing an entire series based on the urge to pursue international adventure.

In fact, I even recently counted up the basic travel stats of my life:

Nations visited, total: 23

Time spent abroad, total: About 13 months

Foreign languages spoken: 1

That’s not too shabby by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t have as much time abroad as a Peace Corps volunteer or a trust-fund baby, but a lot more than the average member of the U.S. population. In fact, only forty percent of us even have a passport. If you find that startling, get ready for this—according to the linked page from the State Department, in 1989 less than 3% of the U.S. population had a passport. I’ve doublechecked those numbers, and it’s still incomprehensible. Didn’t Woodrow Wilson start knitting the United States into the fabric of the world back in 1914? Apparently it took more than a century for the idea that travel is beneficial to penetrate into our collective noggins.

Ainsley Walker stands as the exception, of course. She would rather not breathe than not travel.

The Dismal Science Helps Us Understand

I never studied economics (another ‘e’ word) in college, being too focused on literature and history. Ignoring it was my error. (Same with Elton John, whose music I didn’t discover until twenty years after everybody else. And another ‘e’ word.) It’s been the great discovery of my adult life that, more often than not, economics forces everything else into the backseat. As a result, it’s a revelation every time I discover a new economic idea, especially when it can be applied to other parts of life.

That includes the law of diminishing returns. Let me explain.

Prescribing antibiotics in your medical office? Fifty years later, those medicines won’t work as well, if at all. Applying chemical fertilizers to a field? Ten years later, your harvests lose their superpowers and return to baseline. Writing a term paper late into the night? The hour that starts at 11 pm will be much more productive than the hour that starts at 5 am. That’s guaranteed.

In layman’s terms, the law of diminishing returns describes the way that stuff grows less effective over time.

law-of-diminishing-returns-diagram

So too with travel. There is a finite point at which travel becomes Way Way Too Much Overload. Frequent travelers know very well that point I’m talking about. You’ve reaped all possible psychological rewards, and the benefits of being on the road begin to shrink. That moment is the highest data point on the curve—or, in economic terms, the point at which the marginal per unit output decreases. That is also the moment when, optimally, you pack up and go home. Of course, travelling doesn’t work that way.

This point of saturation is reached at various different times, depending on the individual. Let’s look at four of them.

The weekender. This person reaches that saturation point in a matter of just a few days. I once went to a tropical island paradise with a group of people that included a fiftyish woman, let’s call her Dolly, who had asked that our vacation be limited to six days. The group had ended up deciding, despite Dolly’s objections, on nine days. I watched Dolly, on day seven, suddenly and literally clam up at dinner. She just went mute. Her entire body shut down. After we paid the check, Dolly beelined directly to her rented condo and didn’t come out again until it was time to go to the airport two days later.

In retrospect, I see that she’d tried to warn us: I’m not designed to be away from home for a week. Some people call this a plantation mentality, but it’s better not to pass judgment. Lo que es, es, as the Spanish say. In English: It is what it is.

The modern HR vacation. Others reach that saturation point after a longer period of time. A two-week vacation, for example, seems to be the ideal length for most people, particularly office workers who’ve structured their own travel mentality around what’s allowed by the boss. And even then, the perfect moment may be reached midway through the vacation, on the seventh day. Then the second half of the trip serves as a total letdown, an emotional postscript. This is where the value of planning arises. To avoid peaking too soon, I like to save the most interesting activity for the end of the trip. Otherwise, it’s like getting a hangover while you’re still drinking.

Slow travelers. Still other travelers prefer long journeys, four to six weeks each, maybe even a couple of months. These people tend to stay in a single city or location, enough to establish routines, meet the locals, and feel as though they’ve become part of the fabric of daily life. This is what the term slow travel refers to, and these people usually pursue classes in language, cooking, and culture. I’d include myself in this category, ever since living in South America in 2014. That particular trip lasted four months, including two months parked in a single city—Medellín, Colombia. The entire experience, while exhilarating, lasted too long for my own tastes. It taught me that I don’t need more than six weeks abroad at any given time. That may sound indulgent, yes, but keep in mind that, prior to that, my fantasy included spending a solid year traipsing around the world.

The vagabonds. Those people, the ones who consistently disappear for months or even years at a time, are in a class by themselves. They’re the wanderers, the ones who basically keep little home base, if any. They’re professional photographers, musicians, writers, ambassadors, relief workers. They’re often young, sometimes idealistic, sometimes deeply wounded by family, and occasionally just plain crazier than a shithouse rat.

While touring Bolivia last year, I met a young German couple who were in the middle of an epic eighteen-month journey around the world. Days off? Nope—they were in constant motion. Personal discovery? Maybe. Body fat? None. Were they nuts? Definitely a little. Based on what they put up on Facebook after we parted ways, they kept their own little two-person party rolling into Bali and across Southeast Asia for the next nine months. Don’t ask me how it was funded, because I don’t have a clue. By the time it had ended, they’d spent 529 days in a row travelling.

Personally, I’ve got about two weeks of constant moving in me. Any longer, and I need to plant myself somewhere for a while. Also, I really enjoy coming home after an adventure. It’s a universal urge, and it means a lot to people to use their own bathrooms, wear their own clothes, root around in their own gardens. Wasn’t that Odysseus’ goal in The Odyssey? And Steve Martin’s goal in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles? I too wrote a novel about that feeling. We all want to arrive home, eventually.

Except for the ones who are being paid for travel.

Travel Bloggers

I don’t even know where to begin with this particular creature. It’s not that I dislike them. It’s more that I distrust them.

For those who don’t know, let’s define our terms first. A travel blogger is a person, or more often a couple, who travels the world mostly for free. All their hotel stays are reimbursed by hotels. All their restaurant meals are reimbursed by restaurants. All their fantastic diving trips are reimbursed by local travel boards.

What do they do in return? Travel bloggers write blogs (duh), tweets, and posts on social media about those same locations. They gush and fawn and adore with the same variety of adjectives as the current occupant of the White House—fantastic, beautiful, amazing. (They leave out words like disaster and loser, because that doesn’t get them free stuff.) It’s not as easy a gig to get as it sounds. Travel bloggers also must have an enormous number of social media followers to be offered such comps in the first place, and that’s no small task.

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The only thing that changes is the scenery on the other side of the laptop.

There’s another term for what they do.

Pay for play.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this. The travel bloggers always look absolutely ecstatic. After all, they’re having luxury vacations for free. I won’t mention any by name, but you’ve probably seen their enormous perfect smiles as they take selfies every day in front of a different cocktail, a different sunset, a different pool.

Nobody’s getting hurt, you’re probably thinking, so what’s the problem?

There’s a few problems. One, I originally started working in journalism, my first real job being at The Washington Post. There, pay-for-play is such a big no-no that even Christmas presents to Post staffers must be sent to charity—and the staffer must also send a thank-you card to the gifter informing him or her of the charity donation. I know that travel blogging isn’t journalism, but it’s deep in me to avoid compromising my own point-of-view.

Two, it must be damn near impossible to put on such a front, day in, day out. I can only imagine that travel bloggers don’t actually enjoy many of their activities, constantly fiddling with their camera phones to get the perfect shot of the seawall, finding the right filter for Instagram, worrying about replying to that concierge in Prague, etc. All their daily and hourly and minutely experience must be viewed through the lens (pun intended) of what will translate well to followers on social media. And then there’s the eventual emptiness that must consume them. A travel blogger essentially becomes a glorified PR flack for tourism boards, a role that must take its toll eventually. He or she has no job security, no medical benefits.

Three, my intuition says that only a narcissistic personality needs to promote his or her own superiority to the world. Lording it over others is what narcissists are born to do. Plus, amassing hundreds of thousands of followers is something else that narcissists tend to excel at as well. When it’s all about you, then nothing is about anybody else.

Let me offer a different view of what travel should be.

Travel as a Form of Suffering

You’ll never read this advice in any travel magazine, but here’s what I’ve learned. The best form of travelling involves discomfort, particularly for those of us like myself who are afflicted with too much modern comfort.

It’s the first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.

Life is suffering.

We shouldn’t run away from that. We should accept it.

This is the philosophy I’ve stuck by when writing the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series. It would’ve been too easy to write it as a series of mere fantasy fulfillment. You know, the kind of ridiculousness that certain authors indulge in, such as, oh, I don’t know, **coughCliveCusslercough**, especially when he brings in a character named Clive Cussler to save Dirk Pitt at a crucial part of the story.

It also would’ve been too easy to duplicate the brainless attitude of a glossy travel rag. You know the type—it’s the magazine that always highlights the best civet-oil spa treatment in the Namibian bush. It’s the magazine that uses the word indulge fourteen times in as many paragraphs. (And always, always the word funky to describe a handbag. Aren’t there other types of bags? Angular? Stiff? Classical?)

I’ve gone a different path with my writing.

My protagonist, Ainsley Walker, suffers during her adventures. In fact, as the series has gone on, I’ve gotten better at torturing her. Notice that at the end of each story, while she always recovers the gemstone, she also suffers some sort of personal change or even setback. The North Korea Onyx, for example, is nearly a tragedy, a down ending that I figured might alienate a couple of readers here and there but which accurately reflects the horrific nature of North Korea. These mixed endings—rather than endings that are all happy or all sad—seem to be the most real, the most human, and the most believable.

In the end, Ainsley Walker isn’t a static character, mired in her own blinkered perspective. She’s made of taffy—stretched, pushed, and pulled by circumstances into different shapes. Sometimes, a part of her keeps its new form, even after the rest of her self returns to normal.

That is a real traveler.

In another sense, however, Ainsley isn’t even a traveler at all. She’s just a human, living a full life, experiencing the same ups and downs and lefts and rights that we all do. The only difference is, for dramatic purposes, she experiences this stuff in a very compressed amount of time, and in a radically foreign setting.

In the end, I hope she’s real to you, because I’ve worked very hard to make her seem real to me—and she’s going to continue to get stretched and pushed and pulled for many more adventures in the future.

In the meantime, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

 

All Books Are Self-Help Books

Earlier in the year, the sociopathic North Korean regime released video footage of two citizens, a pair of brothers, being interviewed about their allegiance to their state, and especially their allegiance to their current chief sociopath, Kim Jong-un. Both men were citizens of North Korea, both spoke the language fluently, and both appeared content with the direction that their society was headed.

That’s weird enough. The really weird thing is that they are white.

Their names are Ted and James Dresnok. They’re the sons of an American defector to North Korea, James Dresnok, Sr. The Washington Post covered the story here, and the elder Dresnok has been the subject of an excellent documentary, Crossing the Line. I found his story so compelling, in fact, that I used him as the model for William Yaris, a supporting character in The North Korea Onyx.

Part of me, the irrational part, wants to find these two brothers and tell them it’s time to come back to the West. After all, it feels like they belong here—maybe in a garden apartment in Chelsea, in a house in Houston, in a suburb of Toronto. Another part of me refuses to believe the truth. Their lives must be fake. How could two Caucasian men exist in such a xenophobic society as North Korea? In a place that the late Christopher Hitchens memorably described as “a nation of racist dwarves”?

The answer is simple: Their lives aren’t fake. They never were in the West. Those are their true lives, the lives they were born into.

The same way that you and I were born into ours.

Continue reading

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

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Most people don’t pursue meaningful lives for two reasons.

1) They are afraid to change.
2) They don’t know what they would change into.

The first reason, the fear of change, is well known. All of us dig ourselves into little ruts for one reason or another. Some of us accept one promotion after another, imprisoned by an ever-increasing salary that we don’t need. (The opening scene of Idiocracy painted it well—a young couple is going to have a baby only if the stock market recovers. I call this the timidity of the overcivilized.) Some of us have lost jobs but can’t yet see the bigger picture—that globalization is slowly eroding certain parts of Western economies. There’s no point in trying to climb a ladder if it’s leaning against a crumbling wall.

But the second reason is more insidious. Not knowing what you want to do is really a crisis of the soul. And it’s hard, really hard, to help someone find her own passion. Modern psychotherapists view everything as a problem that can be solved, including personality disorders, but if you’ve been around this blue marble for a while, you know that’s not always possible. I prefer the way that religion takes a darker view of things. Religions teach us that some of us simply won’t ever know ourselves, not unless we experience some real suffering—and even then, there’s no guarantee of change. (Related: If you’re interested in a psychotherapist’s view of evil, I’d recommend the book People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck. It’s fascinating.) As a storyteller, I’ve learned this same lesson. Purposelessness is deadly in fiction—the main character must always want something. It’s okay to be confused, but not to be purposeless.

Speaking realistically, the only serious obstacle to the pursuit of change is dependents. Maybe you have a sick parent. Maybe you have a young child. (The immune system reaches full flower at age five, so it may not be feasible to take your tyke on any expeditions deep into the Amazon until then. And this also explains the seven-year itch, if you think about it.) Maybe you have a troubled brother who needs you psychologically. Maybe a pet. It may not be feasible to just up and leave for a month.

That’s Ainsley Walker’s role. She travels for you when you can’t do it yourself. She inspires you to live for the day when you can explore, even in little snatches. Ironically, the segment of the public least likely to join Ainsley Walker on her adventures—young males, who generally read very little—are the ones who probably act the most like her. They’re the risk-takers, the ones who die for stupid reasons. Ainsley tends to take foolish risks as well, and she’s got deep reasons for that, which will be explored in future titles.

Meanwhile, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

The North Korea Onyx: Preorder Now

North Korea OnyxThe North Korea Onyx, the eighth and latest Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery, will be published on Monday,  April 25.

Click on link to preorder at Amazon  and Apple.

THE STORY…

In America, a Korean immigrant church teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.

The minister has discovered the location of an onyx teacup, an historical treasure that had belonged to his grandfather before the division of the Korean peninsula. Recovering it will save their church. The only catch—

It’s in North Korea. And they need someone willing to retrieve it.

Enter AINSLEY WALKER.

In her most thrilling travel mystery yet, Ainsley arrives in Pyongyang under the pretext of running a marathon—

—only to end up running for her life.

Racing across the peninsula, she sees the hidden truth about the North Korean people, their deep suffering, and their resistance. Fighting hunger and exhaustion, Ainsley summons every last drop of her resourcefulness, endurance, and inner strength to stay ahead of the regime—

—and to stay alive.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post—

—comes a travel mystery that will change the way you see the world.

 

Fundamentalism Vs. Art

The great pop group Tears For Fears has been dormant for a decade now, but one of their best songs is called “Sketches of Pain”. It was never a hit, or even a single, and it was released over twenty years ago on the Raoul and the Kings of Spain album.

It’s a remarkable song for many reasons, but especially for the way that the lyrics describe how fundamentalists fail to understand art.

Some cry shame

Some cry shame

We tore them apart

We failed to imagine

 

God might claim

God might claim

The works of art

We failed to imagine

 

Great wide stretches of canvas

Signed by a godless name

Strange bright colors of madness

Only a fool would frame

 

Sketches of pain

Sketches of pain

I’ve never seen pop music touch on fundamentalism so precisely.

Let’s define a fundamentalist: He is an individual who’s feels that he’s been denied some sort of path to the future. He comes in all shapes and sizes, from Christian to Muslim to Jewish to white to black to Asian to rich to poor. He sees himself as a victim of modernity. He is above all desperate.

To cope with his lack of personal progress, the fundamentalist seizes upon the idea of glory days. He comes to believe in a mythical time when everything was somehow better, a time when lollipops grew on trees and unicorns pranced through fields and people who got married stayed married and going to religious service was deeply satisfying and not at all obligatory. A time when everybody lived hip-deep in disposable income and all the children were above average. The fundamentalist feeds himself these lies by losing himself in old texts, often interpreting them literally and verbatim.

The fundamentalist is a blunted soul. He is a flattened nailhead driven deeply into the aged wood of a mythical past. He can’t be pulled out of that imaginary world.

Most importantly, he can’t understand the act of artistic creation, because it doesn’t share this same worldview.

As Steven Pressfield wrote in The War of Art, “Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive.”

That said, there are some things that tradition gives us that we shouldn’t lose sight of. Two-parent homes, for instance, are undeniably the best way to build strong people and therefore maintain a strong civilization. The data (in the United States, at least) supports this. Likewise, recipes, created through centuries of experimentation, shouldn’t be abandoned. The Czechs were forced to do exactly this under Soviet rule, as Anthony Bourdain explained in a long-ago episode. And don’t get a writer like me started on the value of old books.

So the fundamentalists do have a point. Once in a while.

But in the field of art, they’re struck dumb. While the humanist artist sees the world as a constant churn, maybe even as a gently inclined slope of progress, the fundamentalist has a very different shape in mind. The fundamentalist sees a downward arrow. He is willing to go to the grave with his single inflexible belief that we humans have fallen from a higher state to a lower state.

This is, to be plain, total crap. The Christian story of The Fall has been long debunked by modern science. We humans are made of carbon chains, the same stuff as dirt. Our cerebral cortices show that abstract thought has been a relatively recent development.

As a species, we’re not plunging away from a deity because of poor decisions. We humans—at least, some of us—are building our way up to that deity for the very first time.

In her adventures, Ainsley Walker represents this impulse in all of us. The desire to grow, change, transform, and remake the world into something new and better.  The desire for Something Else. Not clinging to the past out of fear, but carrying the past with us as we build into the future.

It’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

The Oxford Diaries: A Travelogue

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For fans of Downton Abbey, Harry Potter, J.R.R. Tolkien, and everything traditionally British…

Eccentric dons. Black dinner gowns. Medieval libraries.

At age nineteen, J.A. Jernay touched down in England, an innocent travelling abroad. The destination—

Oxford University.

Plunging into a thousand years of English literary and cultural history, J.A. Jernay leads the reader through daily life at the world’s third-oldest university. From drinking at famous pubs to punting on the Cherwell, from formal dining halls to formal debates, from ruined castles to magical wardrobes—

The Oxford Diaries is a romantic snapshot of undergraduate life at an ancient institution.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post…

… who was a finalist in a prestigious short story contest sponsored by the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald…

… comes a travelogue that will carry you into a world of literature, history, fantasy, and tradition.

Approximately 23,000 words.

Now available wherever ebooks are sold.

World Cup 2014 Final Sale: The Argentina Rhodochrosite, only $.99

Starting today and running through Monday, July 14, The Argentina Rhodochrosite (An Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery) is on sale for only $.99.  

The reason: This Sunday, Argentina plays Germany in the 2014 World Cup Final.

U.S. Amazon customers can buy the book here, and wherever ebooks are sold.

A famously temperamental soccer star has just suffered a terrible loss: Someone has stolen his favorite necklace. 

No ordinary piece of jewelry, this rhodochrosite had belonged to his birth mother, a woman he has never met. She had ‘disappeared’ during the famous Argentine dirty war of the nineteen-seventies. 

This superstar really wants it back. And he refuses to play soccer again until someone finds it. 

It’s shaping up to be a national tragedy, until the arrival of… 

AINSLEY WALKER 

Fresh off her amethyst adventure, Ainsley immediately embarks on a journey into the brash heart of Argentinian futból culture. 

Running from nightclubs in historic mansions to seedy tango parlors… 

…from impoverished shantytowns to the grand landscape of Patagonia … 

…Ainsley discovers glamour, danger, excitement, and the dark secrets of a country’s hidden past. 

It’s a big world.  Let’s go see it all.  

 

New Release: Girl Seeking Farm (A Finding Home Novel)

Journeys take many forms.  Some of us, such as Ainsley Walker, embark on explorations of the exotic, the dangerous, the unfamiliar.  

For others, however, a journey is a return to something they’d loved, a place once known well but long forgotten.

GIRL SEEKING FARM, my newest book, is one of those other kinds of travel stories.  It’s the first title in the Finding Home series. 

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For fans of Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin, and Blake Shelton…

After losing both her financier boyfriend and her internship at a fashion magazine, Jessica feels her chick-lit life in the big city is beginning to fall apart.  Then…

A SINGLE PHONE CALL

… changes everything.  Her grandmother has suffered a stroke, and the family farm needs Jessica’s help to survive. 

Ditching the fancy heels, Jessica soon finds that life in the country isn’t quite the cakewalk that she’d remembered—not with new responsibilities to meet, new technologies to learn, and new battles for respect.

And her most difficult task of all … will be facing the painful secrets of her own troubled past.

NOW

Roll up your sleeves … and begin a journey into the story of one woman who longed for a different, more traditional way of life. 

It’s down-to-earth.  It’s real.

It’s GIRL SEEKING FARM

A contemporary women’s novel by J.A. JERNAY, the author of the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series.  Approximately 51,000 words.

It’s available from Amazon, Nook, iTunes, and Kobo.  Buy it now.

It’s a big world.  Let’s go see it all.