Interview with Jen Percy

This week’s Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 contributor spent her childhood listening to Garth Brooks and eating T-bone steaks and much of her adulthood writing Jen Percyabout war and aphorisms: Jen Percy. A MFA Candidate at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, she has written for the New York Times, The Atlantic, Brevity, and the Literary Review.

What is “home” for you? Is it a particular place or person or thing?

I moved around a lot as a kid—every few years—mostly around Oregon and Hawaii. I spent a good chunk of my childhood, however, in a town called Tumalo in rural Oregon. It had 500 people, a blinking street light and a restaurant called Hamburger Patties that was painted all white on the inside and full of old farmers. My friends were into country music and rodeo and I had a view of seven mountains out my bedroom window. I spent most of my time outside, wearing hiking boots, smelling like pine sap, and walking for miles without seeing another person—and when I did—they would wave as if it were an important event. The city for me is exotic. You’d never know about my childhood from looking at me. I used to wear those shirts with wolves or eagles or some other wild animal on them with a giant Indian head rising out of the sunset. I took my first public bus when I was fifteen and I was horrified. Going into the woods for days with some peanut butter and a backpack and a compass still seems like home for me.

When did you first hit the road? How did it go?

My mom was obsessed with hiking and my dad was obsessed with rocks. The combination was interesting. Basically, they’d pack our pickup truck and hitch the trailer and we’d go out into the desert or the mountains for days, hiking and collecting rocks. In the desert I would spend hours by myself wandering dry lake beds, mostly looking for arrowheads and agates. In the mountains we would forge rivers and hike 17 miles a day. I thought it was normal until I found at that all the other kids went to Disney Land for break.

So we did travel a lot, but rarely outside of Oregon. I was never very interested in America though and wanted to go abroad at a very young age. I never had the opportunity until college. To make up for this, I kept a notebook in my room where I drew maps and imagined the places between the country lines.

How did you break into the travel writing scene?

Actually, my piece in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 is probably the first piece I have written that has been categorized as travel writing. I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a travel writer but place is very important in all of my work, so perhaps it is natural for my writing to fall into this category.

What travel story will you still be telling your pals in the nursing home?

I was in the Canary Islands for two days. My friend Allie and I were at a club underground and we got tear gassed. I was in the back of the room, and I didn’t know what was going on. I thought the building was on fire. All of a sudden everyone went crazy and started screaming and ripping at each others’ clothes and scratching each other to get out. I saw one guy grab a girl’s pony tail and jerk her off the stairs with it. When I finally got out I passed out on the cement and started crying. It felt like someone had poured acid in my eyes. A local man came up to me and told me to smoke his cigarette and so I smoked it. “That wasn’t a cigarette,” he said laughing, walking away. “That was hashish laced with cocaine.”

The next day we were watching a soccer game and the coach invited us to a bar for a drink. He said he owned the bar and it was creepy because no one else was inside but we didn’t know any better. The coach made us some drinks and after we drank them we realized they were drugged. So we were just sitting there paralyzed and they were talking and talking for what seemed like hours. Nothing really happened, we just sat there and our arms wouldn’t work.

I’m not too fond of the Canary Islands.

Let’s say you could take a free trip with anyone of your choosing (a historical figure, an ancestor, a super hero, etc). Who would it be, where would you go, and why?

Probably Captain Kirk from Star Trek because then I could travel through space.

Name one place that should top everyone’s travel dream list ­ be it a nation or a landmark or a village.

I don’t know if this should be part of a dream list, but it should be part of some travel list. Last summer, I visited Bosnia and Serbia to write about a group of aphorists who use satire to deal with the aftermath of war. I write about war and war-related issues frequently, but this was my first time traveling to an area still suffering from the aftermath of conflict and war. The disjunction that occurred between reading about the war and then seeing its aftermath was unnerving—in a wonderful, horrible way. I found myself in tears after seeing some buildings splattered in bullet holes—a position I didn’t expect to find myself in. I wasn’t even going into a conflict or disaster area but just being there in the ruins helped dissolved that protective layer that comes with reading books or watching the news. I think that it is important to break through that layer occasionally because it can harness a more authentic empathy.

What specific travel resources (websites, guidebooks, blogs, etc) do you always consult when planning a journey?

This might sound strange but I am really bad at planning trips and I usually don’t do very much research. In fact, I prefer to read nothing before I go on a trip. No guidebooks, no blogs, no travel sites, just get off the plane and, wow, I’m in Serbia. If I travel someplace and I know too much about it, I have a difficult time shedding expectations. Guidebooks, at least the ones I’ve read, will also lead you to where all the tourists are, which isn’t really that exciting. Although, guidebooks will sometimes tell you where not to go and this can be a fulfilling experience. I highly recommend Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. I carry that book like the Bible. It teaches you how to figure things out in difficult situations, which is much more interesting than having everything planned hour by hour. But it depends on what kind of traveler you are.

What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned on the road?

It’s always been hard for me to figure out what constitutes politeness in other countries. I once ate three giant slices of butter cake at an apartment in Bosnia in an effort to be polite. I almost died. The fourth slice was offered and I had to say no. I think it’s rude to refuse food in general but you have to know when to stop. I think they think it’s rude not to continue asking.

I got arrested in Russia for speaking English. I was about a mile outside my hostel talking to an American friend and the police asked for our passports and then for money. We didn’t have our passports and we didn’t know where we were staying because I had only seen the hostel’s name written in Cyrillic and didn’t know how to pronounce the letters. So we were thrown in the metro jail but I managed to escape. They let the other guy out eventually. Basically, if the police want money, you can get in trouble for doing absolutely nothing.

I also discovered, with some embarrassment, that I can have conversations with people that don’t speak English. People like to talk to foreigners and you can communicate pretty well by simply speaking English back at them or using elaborate hand gestures. Who knows what is really going on at these moments but it can create a sense of bonding.

Jen Percy