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TravelAge West recently spoke with our longtime freelance writer Norman Sklarewitz in celebration of his 90th birthday. Sklarewitz shares how he became a travel writer, his most memorable travel experiences and the charm of turning 90 in the age of Facebook.
Have you always been a travel journalist?
Well no, not always. You have to remember that I’ve been in the business for a long time and that the travel writing only came, and this sounds ancient, probably 25 to 30 years ago.
What other professions or jobs have you had?
Journalism is the only thing I’ve ever done. It’s also the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. Travel writing came along as a consequence of my other work writing and reporting.
How did you transition to travel writing?
I was in hard news initially. In addition to political and economic affairs, I would be given the occasional travel writing or destination feature. Eventually I began doing more of them as the opportunities presented themselves.
Remember that markets evolved and there was a period when there was a substantial interest in travel journalism. More publications became interested in such material — so as the markets expanded, the opportunities expanded.
What are some ways in which travel journalism has changed over the years?
One of the things that I see and am not necessarily in favor of is the advent of the highly personalized story — the ‘I’ story, as in ‘I did this and I saw that.’ I kind of cringe at that because I was taught in basic journalism that it was a crime against humanity to inject yourself into a story; even if you were involved, you would use the third person. These days, half of the stories you read begin with ‘I did this and I did that,’ which I still cringe at and don’t do.
Along with the story being highly personalized, you’re limiting the scope of what you can present to a reader. The goal of any of this reporting should be to inform the reader and it’s now become that you’re just sharing your personal observations and your ‘feelings,’ and I doubt if that serves the reader as well as a straightforward reporting story. Reporting may be a little less colorful, but I think it’s more useful.
What have been some of your favorite travel experiences?
There’s a paradox to that. They are usually in the least desirable places, but these less attractive destinations are typically more interesting in terms of the culture, the people and the experience. They make for better stories, which is the goal of this kind of writing. You want it to be interesting, you want it to be informative and the least attractive places often accommodate those criteria.
Which places stand out in your mind?
Some time ago I made a reporting trip to Yemen, before the place fell apart. There weren’t many people who had been there, or reporting on it, so it was fascinating. I went to Dubai early before it became the place to go in the Middle East. I also did a story in the Amazon which was not overly reported — whatever you saw and could impart would be of interest.
What was something memorable about your trip to the Amazon?
There was a hotel in the Upper Amazon built on stilts because it’s in a flood plain. All the structures are raised on piles, up for a couple stories high. There are also wooden plank walkways through the whole complex of the buildings.
In the area, monkeys get into your rooms and, I don’t know how, but they opened the doors. I went back to my room and found that the top of my toothpaste tube had been taken off and that stuff had been taken out of my shaving kit. There was this big monkey sitting there as though he was saying ‘What are you doing in my room?’ I’m not familiar with how you deal with wild monkeys, but I thought ‘Maybe he’s right. This is his room; I should go away until he leaves.’
What’s your favorite part of turning 90?
Turning 90 — that’s the accomplishment. I really hadn’t thought about it… I was signed up with Facebook to research a story and I don’t participate in it too often, but I do click on to see what’s going on.
Well, Facebook posts your birthday and so I got this wonderful series of greetings over the weekend from all sorts of people I know. One was an editor who said, “I haven’t seen you in 20 years.” He’s up the street from me somewhere, but that to me was a big kick. I was very touched by the posts.
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