The Places We’ve Been: An Interview with Editor Asha Veal Brisebois

imagesI was fortunate last year to have an essay, “Bunking With the Enemy,” included in The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, an anthology of travel writing. The book is a delightful trip around the world from the comfort of your armchair.

Here, Asha Veal Brisebois, the founder of The Places We’ve Been Books, elaborates on why travel writing is still relevant and why small presses matter now more than ever.

1)   You’ve said before that a trip to Cuba in 2003 was the inspiration for The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35. What was it about traveling at that time that made such a deep impression on you? What is it about being a traveler under the age of 35 that resonates with you?

2013-10-22 07.25.31I think that it goes back to what you’ve mentioned before—maintaining a sense of awe for every time you step out into the world. I think there’s something special about traveling when you’re younger, where you have that idea that the world is just there and ready to embrace you with open arms. Maybe everyone doesn’t feel that way, but I definitely did. Also at that time, it feels like there’s so much assertion of independence and new adult identity. Travel and the encounters that may come are valued in a way of proving that “I can do this.” There’s also a test of how one’s identity might be perceived as different from place to place. The possibility of existing as someone or something different than and beyond the limits of your home. At that age, I think you’re a bit more open to strangers. And often “looking forward to” that next thing, because you don’t have too long of a past yet to reflect and look back on.

When thinking about perception, I remember an afternoon on that Cuba trip specifically and being in a plaza in Old Havana with a friend. It was a small, leafy courtyard where a totally unexpected live band played “Where the Saints Go Marching In” and stilt walkers, all dressed in homemade clown costumes, worked the crowds. One of the stilt walkers, who appeared to be Afro-Cuban, passed by us and commented pretty aggressively on my friend’s skin-tone. We’re both black but he made some comment that we didn’t quite understand, preceded by an expletive, about her fairer skin. We ignored the guy, but it became obvious pretty quickly that people in the square kept yelling at us, really just yelling at my friend, to get her attention. The oddest interaction was with a male tourist who seemed to be from Europe who jumped in front of her and yelled “Mulatta! Mulatta! I want to take your photo!” I am not kidding. She pushed his camera out of her face and we kept walking. By then it was very clear that because of the way my friend looked, her physical traits and also style, she was regarded as being on display, by and for other travelers and locals alike, in a way that definitely didn’t always respect her space. It didn’t seem like anyone else in our group had quite this same experience, and it definitely crossed my mind that my friend would have such an odd life living there fulltime and being out and about as a single woman.

But really, that Cuba trip was the first time I really had the opportunity to travel to someplace that had been my “This is where I’d love to go…” ambition for a long time (growing up, I’d considered myself as a sort of delicate revolutionary; asthmatics can be passionate and powerful too). So it was likely extra special to me because of that.

I’ve mentioned this before, but having a camera battery die on you back in 2003 and in a place where it’s nearly impossible to find a replacement can actually be a lucky thing. It really does make you want to write to remember. And writing about Cuba is the seed that grew into me wanting to put together a whole book of lots of different people and travels. I wanted to hear from other folks having experiences and like mine, and I wanted to hear more about what my peers were doing and thinking. Initially, The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports was planned as an under-30 book, but things take a long time to create. Hence the under-35…

2)   You collected such a diverse set of voices for this book. How did you choose the writers included and why?

I’ve been using this line a lot, but I really like and appreciate how one review on Amazon described The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports… as “real-life travel stories from diverse corners of the globe—and an even more diverse and eclectic collection of writers.” For me, in putting the book together, that second part was very important and I still feel like I could have done even more. To bring the full collection together, I started out with a made-up table of contents as part of the early book proposal. It was a “shoot for” list of the types of stories and range to go after. In reviewing the submissions that came in, favorites were declared by me and the other reviewers. It was as simple as, “I love reading this,” whether because of depth, or humor, or a perspective or experience that seemed unique. There was one story, the Alberta piece by Carys Cragg, where I was almost literally on the edge of my seat at the last page when it ended. Everyone felt that way when it came in. Another story, by Lindsey Laveaux, took place in Cameroon and by the end the reviewers were saying, “How the heck did this really happen to this girl?” Of two of the other stories, one that takes place in Rwanda and is told by Derek Helwig, and one that takes place in Finland and is told by Justin Howard, I showed an early draft to my husband (who is by now lovingly sick of looking at drafts of things from me over the years since we were first dating). He read the two and said not at all joking, “I think stories like these could actually change the world.”

2012-07-02 14.22.21It’s interesting, in doing more editing projects over the years—at this point spending much more of my time as an editor than a writer, and really learning to see different types of projects—I’ve come to value story over everything else. When you’re younger and developing and learning to be a writer, it seems like voice is the thing that’s most emphasized. Like, What’s your writing voice? Writers hold on to their voice a lot. Looking at things as an editor (at least whenever that’s the cap I’ve got on) I really do approach it as what’s most important is bringing a meaningful story. Especially bringing a meaningful story that’s accessible to readers. It’s also what turns out to be rarer. A nonfiction story can be fleshed out, reworked, revised, whatever. But you can’t make up something that didn’t happen or just isn’t there.

3)   Who is your favorite travel writer and why?

There are a few books and writers that I come back to over the years and always feel drawn-in by. Some of them are more about place than travel, but there’s a definite good mix.

The meetings with the family began with the big meals in Cholon. When my mother and brothers come to Saigon I tell him he has to invite them to the expensive Chinese restaurants they don’t know, have never been to before. These evenings are all the same. My brothers gorge themselves without saying a word to him. They don’t look at him either. They’re incapable of it.

Marguerite Duras is my Virginia Wolf. She’s also my E.L. James. If you’ve never read this book (but how is that possible?) you should. It’s based on part of her life’s true story.

American real life is rowdier, more disturbing, more charming than anything dreamt of in your or my philosophy. This country was (and is) in a strange, even an unprecedented, condition. […] the economic prospects of most Americans have been dimming.

Finnegan is a smart writer and this is a smart project. I love it because it’s an “America” book that challenges assumptions and images of struggle and poverty, what it’s like to come of age in different regions across the country. There are rival factions in the Southern California punk scene, and a young drug dealer in New Haven. What really feels special though is the amount of time that Finnegan spent with the teenagers he wrote about and how he really got to know them, in a way, as friends. He seems like a writer who really cared and wasn’t just in it for the story.

I met Arjun DasGupta at the Star of India, a small restaurant not far from my flat. It was Saturday at lunchtime and the tiny restaurant was crowded. “Do you mind if I sit here?” he said. “There is nowhere else.”

I once went to a small reading of Ifeona Fulani’s work where we the audience literally yelled “No! You must continue!” once she tried to leave the podium at her break point. That story was “Elephant Dreams” which remains one of my favorites to this day. It’s included in this collection.

The children were silent, except for the five-year-old, Myeko, who kept asking questions: “Why is it night already? Why did our house fall down?”

This book as a whole is Creative Nonfiction—the master class. Read it. Read about it.

They called us trolls because we lived for nine months of the year below (that is, south of) the bridge…

This book won the 2003 Bakeless Prize in Creative Nonfiction from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, selected by Ted Conover. It takes place over the years and through personal memories, set in a summer retreat on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Benson writes beautifully, and this is probably my favorite travel book to read often and over again.

Sixteen years ago I spread a map before me and planned a journey that would begin from a point in North Africa and end in the capital of the old Soviet Empire. My journey was planned with the notion that I would be moving from warmth to cold, from democracy to dictatorship, from freedom to restriction. Should I spread a map before me today, a journey from west to east that was defined by such clear-cut binary oppositions would be impossible to plan.

My favorite section of The European Tribe is the introduction. This is so much so, that I want to run and grab the hand of every reader who hates and skips over reading introductions in general, leading them back to Phillips.’ I also love the last scene in this book, where (semi-spoiler) the writer pops in for a Parisian visit with James Baldwin. They get sloshed and tell jokes across a table. How envious is that?

People spoke glowingly of the seafaring activities of the men in their families and what these activities afforded them. Seafarers never returned to Liverpool empty-handed.

I’ve found that some really cool narrative nonfiction books also happen to be by anthropologists. Jacqueline Nassy Brown has done one of them. This was a really interesting and unexpected history and project to come across.

(Now, I am cheating a bit here. The rest of the list to follow is of travel films, not books.)

“Listen! I’m not a nun! I just don’t want to go out with…everyone! I don’t like clubs and… and I don’t like dancing. Maybe I’m not your idea of a typical trendy London girl, but techno music bores me, all right? And if I’m a nun because I don’t get out of this house enough for you guys, then that’s too bad!”

I love this film because it’s about a very eclectic group of students that comes together from different cultures all across Europe, and suddenly they’re contemplating how to be open to each other. They’re confronting stereotypes, having secret affairs, and the quarter-life crisis…right up The Places We’ve Been’s alley. In the film, picture an interpersonal consideration of E.U. politics at the time—staring sexy “before they were megastars” Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou.

“I think I belong here. If I go abroad, I may gain some freedom, but that freedom is not for me. It does not belong to me. I haven’t tried to get it. It is theirs… I prefer to stay here and change the situation here.”

The three unexpected female friends of an international pro basketball player steal this film for me. Hilda, Laleh, and Elaheh. I adored them from the first time that they snuck into his house to visit and talk politics and drink beer. Kevin Sheppard, the focus of the documentary, is pretty awesome too. He’s left the U.S. Virgin Islands to attempt to lead the A.S. Shiraz team in Iran. The film synopsis and official reviews like to call him “charasthmatic.” I’d say it’s definitely true.

“Whoever is responsible, I hope that they can sleep at night.”

Spike Lee doesn’t want anyone to forget what happened to New Orleans residents on the day of Hurricane Katrina—or the storm’s aftermath. I am captivated by how this film tells the story from a chorus of voices. It is long, but never boring.

“What do you do all day?”

“Watch other people live… Wonder who they are. Where they go. They become heroes in my little stories.”

Watch Paris for the beauty as well as the stories.

4)   The world of travel has obviously changed a lot in recent decades—even since your trip to Cuba in 2003. What are the current challenges you see for meaningful travel experiences and how can modern travelers retain a sense of awe in an increasingly small world? 

I guess that this can relate to one of those greater life considerations, where we’re told to “stay excited.” Not to walk through any experience or setting taking it for granted. I totally agree this is harder today, because we’re exposed to so much in so many ways and there are so many options. When I feel like I need to reconnect with that sense of awe and motivation, I’m able to get there when I go back to the things that caused it first. Like before in talking about books, when I start to feel in writer or editor churn mode and I’m not feeling that thing that made it all matter in the first place, I’ll take time out alone to reread one or a few of my most favorite books. It’s a way to connect again. I think that can be the same for travel. When you go back to something that made you feel, like even old journal entries or photos from a trip. Or letters or emails from someone you met there, if you still have them.

2013-11-17 07.04.27When I travel now, I do like trains because the time passes and the scenery changes and you are in the act of going somewhere. The world is a bit less small and a bit less connected again, and you don’t pop out instantaneously. I’m not sure that I have one favorite trip (no North Korean boys soccer team yet!), but my most recent train trip was through the Adirondack Mountains on the east coast of the U.S. It was in the middle of a winter snow and rain storm, and terrifying as we rode right up on the edge of grand lakes and cliffs. I think that most of the passengers aboard were nervous at points actually, because once we rode out of the storm and past the cliffs people went from silence to chatting and walking around. The ice and snow were gorgeous though, and the highlight of the day was looking out and briefly seeing a pair of soaring bald eagles.

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Redefining Travel

Here’s another post from our time in Nicaragua. What is geotourism and is it possible? Read more here.

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Not So Far, Yet Worlds Away

The long-awaited time is finally here—we have embarked on our “world’s best internship” experience at the Cayuga Collection’s Nicaraguan and Costa Rican properties, an announcement I first made here.

Our first blog is available on the Cayuga site — here’s a sampling:

the view from Jicaro

the view from Jicaro

Maximillian, our cheery, confident driver, drops us at the Lake Nicaragua docks with a handshake and a smile. From here, Jorge Luis will steer us by boat and the light of a full moon across the flat, black lake. Behind us, Granada’s discotheques feebly pulse their music and laughter; soon enough, the sound and energy of the mainland is forgotten. We arrive at Jicaro Island Ecolodge just before midnight and even the egrets are asleep, lulled by a sense that here is a place where everything can be forgotten, where we can rest beyond the noise of an over-connected, over-stressed world.  What it is about islands, especially islands in the middle of a lake surrounded by volcanoes, that are so uniquely appealing?

Read the rest here.

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The Armchair Traveler

imagesTraveling isn’t always the easiest, most financially-feasible option for most of us. That’s where great travel writing fills a necessary gap. For armchair travelers, these two new anthologies are a fantastic way to explore the world from the comfort of home—and I’m happy to report I have an essay featured in each. In Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, Editor and Photographer Tom Carter has brought together an eclectic selection of expat writing about China—everything from the drunken experiences of erguotou tasting, to family trips to the countryside, to teacher-student romances—displaying the true expanse of the expat experience abroad. The Global Times said of Unsavory Elements: “These essays have heart. From Urumqi to Shanghai, these foreign devils just can’t help but smile at what China has taught them.” The South China Morning Post called the book’s essays “Concise and truthful.” Several reviews kindly mention the moving prose of my essay, “Water, For Li-Ming,” including this China Daily article.

Another new and exciting anthology, The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, includes my essay “Bunking with the Enemy,” a story about sharing a train bunk with the North Korean Youth National Soccer Team. The anthology is beautiful compiled by Editor Asha Veal Brisebois and includes a raucous group of travel stories in such diverse locales as South Sudan and Finland.

Both of these books are published by small, independent publishers; in an era when publishers are increasingly marginalized, purchasing books like these help to support the health of such an important and vibrant industry.

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Beauty in Loss: Remembering Those Who Taught Us How


“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”
― Rachel Carson

Today I learned of the untimely loss of a valuable, irreplaceable friend and mentor—the first creative writing teacher who ever told me I could do this thing, that I could brave this strange world of art and creativity despite the odds. He was the kind of teacher who makes you feel as if you’re the most important student he’s ever had, pushing you to new levels and challenging your conception of narrative and self. It is strange at moments like these to look out at a beautiful world and sense a loss, to see that life and the universe just keep on going while one spirit among us is gone. Or maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe the narrative point, as this amazing Teacher-Spirit would likely teach it, is the beautiful disjointedness of life and death, of continuation, endings, and the messy joyous disastrousness of how we make sense of everything in between.

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What Does Sustainable Luxury Travel Look Like?

Joseph-Smolen-and-Kaitlin-Solimine-300x199I’m thrilled to announce my husband Joseph and I will be serving as this year’s coveted Cayuga Collection interns in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Forbes called the position “The Best Job Ever” —as interns, we will experience the best the collection has to offer on a “working vacation” that involves help with recycling, composting, beach cleanups, tree planting, wild cat tracking, and local schools and charities.

An aerial view of Lapa Rios, one of the Cayuga Collection's properties

An aerial view of Lapa Rios, one of the Cayuga Collection’s properties

The Cayuga Collection rightfully prides itself on a commitment to sustainable tourism combining eco-friendly principles and socially responsible programs. We cannot wait to explore the intersection of travel and sustainability with the Cayuga Collection as our guide.

Expect lots of updates from the field when we start the internship this autumn.

Here’s more about the Cayuga Collection‘s sustainable hospitality (from their website):

The Cayuga Collection consists of nine eco lodges, eco resorts, and sustainable hotels and resorts in different regions of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. All Cayuga Hotels specialize in creating the symbiosis of sustainability and luxury always providing a sense of place taking into account local culture and customs.

Every location offers unique active lifestyle experiences, such as surfing and paddling lessons or hiking in the rainforest. All properties offer back of the house sustainability tours where you can witness everything from farm to table gastronomy, to eco-friendly laundry practice and biogas produced by pigs. Sustainability at Cayuga goes beyond simply hanging up your towel or placing a card on your bed.

Cayuga’s mission is thoroughly practiced on all levels of their organization including but not limited to; reducing water usage and monitoring wastewater to ensure the protection of nearby ecosystems or sewer systems, implementing extensive recycling and composting systems, consistently improving energy sources and efficiency, utilizing natural local resources in the building and maintenance of the infrastructure, and educating all employees on the importance and practices of sustainable tourism.

Cayuga is also socially active within the communities that they occupy. They support various programs for environmental and social improvement; act as an interface that connects responsible travelers to improvement projects, and support local businesses, distributors, educational programs and artists.

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Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: Words of Advice from a 9th c. Poet

Go ahead stockpile rhino horns
Wear tiger eyes if you want
Use a peach branch to drive away evil
Use garlic cloves as beads
Warm your belly with dogwood wine
Lighten your heart with wolfberry soup
Still you can’t escape your end
Trying to live forever is vain.
—Han Shan


Han Shan, the hermit poet and namesake of this site, wrote this poem in the 9th century yet its message rings true today:

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Earth Day: In Celebration of the Little Things?

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” – John Muir

Yesterday, in a household effort of spring cleaning, I cleaned out my closets. In doing so, I found a skirt I’ve been holding on to for 17 years. I remember buying it clearly — I was 16 and went to the Ralph Lauren factory outlet in Kittery, Maine, near my hometown in New Hampshire. The skirt fit me perfectly then (incidentally it’s a ‘Size 8’ which is clearly a 4 or 6 by today’s standards — how quickly sizes have changed!) and I liked the color (white) for the summer.

IMG_1951I wore it a lot then, but kept it all these years because it was such good quality. That’s right. It was made WELL, unlike most products created for mass consumption (and disposability) in the American market these days. Not only that, but there’s a tag proudly displayed along the inner seam (see photo at right). Not just made in the USA, but UNION made. My, my, how things have changed—remember at the Olympics last year when Ralph Lauren got in trouble for dressing US Olympians in clothes made in China? I guess the company decided it was better to go cheap and non-sustainable than to keep things costlier, better produced, and close to home.

In recent years, I’ve become overly-anxious about the environmental impact of my actions and choices. Just the other day, I spent five minutes holding up the line at a coffee shop because I really wanted an iced latte but the shop didn’t have glasses for in cafe consumption (I know, first world concerns, right?). Favoring an eco option, I chose a hot latte only because they had porcelain cups in which to serve it (not disposable plastic). I’m one of only a few L.A. friends who takes the bus in the city (this fact not only astonishes me, but also embarrasses me for several reasons).

But I know: these are little things. I’m not out there doing great conservation work like that highlighted in this HIPPO Reads curation. I’m not making films like this one exposing the horrific practices of some rich Cantonese dude who collects (and pays big bucks for) critically endangered (or extinct in the case of the Western black rhino) animals.

Last week I complained to a friend that I’m so anxious I’m not doing enough to live an environmentally-conscious life. Perhaps, I lamented, I’d be better off moving to the woods and consuming everything entirely locally.  And let’s not get started about procreation. I’ve regularly worried about the environmental impact a child creates in this world — it’s part of the reason I’ve waited so long and always favored adoption.

“But you actually practice what you preach!” my friend said when I told her I feel I don’t do enough for sustainability at large.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah, you really do!”


Beijing’s pollution earlier this year (note: when I first lived in the city in 1996 the streets were flooded with bicycles, not cars)

I didn’t believe her. I still felt like a sham. Still do. I’m envious of those in the world who can simply go through their lives without questioning every decision, without worrying about taking a shower today or buying non-organic groceries at Trader Joe’s or driving a car on a daily basis. Can they please teach me how to forget the environmental destruction I’ve seen as close as the beaches of Malibu (plastic Starbucks straws littering the shore) and as far as the skies of Beijing (where pollution levels have reached dangerous highs)?

But then I wonder — what if we were all more conscious of the ramifications of our actions? What if a billion tiny choices actually resulted in big, sustainable changes? I recognize I’m privileged enough to be asking such questions—of course, those impoverished kids I witnessed in Indonesia tossing their garbage into the sea didn’t have the money or time to care about conservation. But many of us in America and the rest of the Western world do (and increasingly in BRIC too!). And that’s why I still feel like I’m not doing enough. Why, perhaps, I never will.

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How We End Up Where We Are

A lovely conversation about the twists and turns in the plot of life — and how we often end up not where we expected, but where we were meant to be. Special thanks to fellow bloggers Tracy Slater and Susan Blumberg-Kason for this post. I look forward to reading their memoirs!


This week, I passed the 50,000-word mark on The Good Shufu, meaning (phew!) I’m still on track to get it to my editor at Putnam by my deadline in Jan. One of my main themes in the book, and I think a central theme in so many people’s lives, is how the world can lead us to two opposite places at once: the place we never thought we’d be, and the place that was somehow our destination anyway, even though that destination looks completely different from how we thought it would. (More about this here.)

So recently, I was really excited to learn about a new memoir coming out from Sourcebooks, Good Chinese Wife, by the incomparable Susan Blumberg-Kason, who writes about her own unexpected journey. Here’s what Susan says about the ways her story describes ending up where we least expect to be and where…

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HIPPO Reads on the Go

DSC_1006As Cold Mountain Collective readers are likely aware, I’ve been busy lately with a new venture and sadly neglecting my duties as a blogger here on CMC. But all this work at HIPPO Reads has me realizing that there’s a great opportunity for Cold Mountain readers to enhance further their travel experiences through HIPPO. Here’s how:

  • HIPPO Reads allows readers to survey a wide breadth of in-depth curations, expanding one’s mind and doing lots of productive and inspiring ‘armchair’ travel from the comfort of one’s home. Peruse our list of existing and archived curations to start your journey!
  • Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 5.56.05 PMTaking HIPPO Reads on the road is easy! You can access us from your smart phone, tablet, or computer—anywhere there’s internet access! And you can always save our curations to Instapaper or your own site.
  • HIPPO Reads curations are bite-sized but thoughtful introductions to topics. Any of the articles, essays, or stories we feature are also easily downloadable or savable via Instapaper.
  • Our site provides options for continued conversation about wide-ranging and interesting topics—a virtual version of those late-night roadside conversations you’ve had while traveling in the back alleys of Shanghai, the jungles of Costa Rica, or the canals of Venice!
  • As a subscriber to our newsletter (sign up here), you will receive our curations straight to your email inbox—no need to open a web browser or your laptop—and can begin reading immediately!

We welcome you to join us at HIPPO Reads and look forward to continuing the conversation!

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