Perceptive Travel Writers at Work #2: Michele Bigley

Talk about a big week: back in 2008, in one seven day stretch, travel writer Michele Bigley was assigned to write a guidebook to Kauai, Hawaii.  She also learned that she was pregnant.

Stories were sure to result from that combination of circumstances, and Michele’s definitely adept at finding and telling them. In addition to Great Destinations: Kauai (Countryman Press 2008), she’s the author of Northern California: An Explorer’s Guide (Countryman Press, 2009). She’s written for the San Francisco Chronicle and Islands magazine, among others.

In the June 2010 issue of Perceptive Travel is Michele Bigley contributed Kauai Footprints: the Dark Side of “Hidden Hawaii”

Alison Stein Wellner: In Kauai Footprints, you describe the process of researching your  guidebook — and some of the resistance you encountered from locals along the way, including resistance about sharing some of the island’s more remote attractions. When did you decide that this, too, was a story?

Michele Bigley: After I wrote the book,  I felt I need to say more about Kauai. I am in a competitive market in the guidebook market in Hawaii,  there are just hundreds of them, and readers are going to pick up the most glossiest beautiful ones that show “the secret hidden places”.  But then there were a string of really bad injuries and deaths — as there are on Kauai because tourists do stupid things in “hidden and secret places”.  And they were often following the advice of guidebooks. A friend of a friend died on the trail — she was walking on a trail recommended to her by a guidebook, and clearly not ready for the intensity. She fell and she died, and her son didn’t have a mom anymore. I had another friend who went to Kauai and walked along a rugged trail with a baby in a backpack, in the rain. I have another friend who knew someone else who died there.

It was one thing after another, and it was like — wait a second. I need to let people know, Kauai is maybe not the place to take your most extravagant risks when you’re traveling.  You have to respect the water, the hiking trails, the weather.

Also, there are places in the world in which you, as a visitor, can immerse yourself in the culture as deeply as you can.  Some cultures are accepting of that, and some cultures want to hold something back. Kauai is like that.  At the same time, they are Americans, and when you’re traveling there, it’s insulting to say something about “back in the United States” or “back in America”.

I addressed this in the intro to my guidebook, and after it was published I received all these emails for readers. Many said, thanks so much for saying what you said, your intro should be required reading for everyone visiting the island.  But then I was getting letters, saying, I wish you put more directions to secret beaches.  I was trying to honor the people of the island, trying to help visitors tread lightly on it. I felt I needed to do more for the people of the island than write a guidebook.

So for this story, it wasn’t so much an aha! moment. The ideas were constantly marinating.

ASW: That’s interesting —  often, travel writers talk about having complete loyalty to our readers. Here it sounds like you were placing emphasis on the interests of locals…

MB: I feel like I have a responsibility to the places that I’m writing about, and I owe readers an honest view of what’s going on. Kauai needs people to travel there, but they also need people who are respectful of the land. I want [travelers] to understand that they’re needed there. If people stopped going, the economy would collapse. But there’s a difference between the traveler who goes to Easter Island and appreciates it, or goes to party it up and leaves their bottles and stuff all over. If you go to a fragile place, treat it gently.

Also, after my guidebook was finished and I started writing articles about Kauai, I realized that the stories that people wanted were all about the beautiful  beaches and the top 5 luaus  — no one really wanted to talk about the rest of the reality.

“Kipu Falls, for example, happens to be one of those Kauai gems that guidebooks don’t have to twist your arm to visit. Hordes of tourists hike the short (and privately owned) trail to get to this waterfall that locals have been using as a diving board for years. Unfortunately, visitors do not understand the water levels or mood of the water flow and have (on more than one occasion) plummeted into some serious doctor bills. Because of this, locals are very territorial of the falls—which you can tell by the graffiti scrawled on the rocks. Who wants to clean up some drunken Iowans bloodied body on your day off?” – From Kauai Footsteps.

ASW: I’ve gotta say, I’m not terribly surprised to hear that!

MB: Yeah, the editors I spoke to about [the idea that became Kauai Footprints] are so swamped, they barely had time to say why it didn’t work for them. I heard: this is negative. It doesn’t want to make people want to go to Hawaii. But knowing this reality should make people want to go Hawaii!   You know, people when they’re traveling, they don’t experience “The Best of Everything”. They should be prepared for that. And also to have a deeper glimpse of the culture — that’s why we travel. Read about some of Michele’s “less than best”/life threatening moments while traveling here.

ASW: Since you wrote this story after you were finished with your guidebook, how did you keep track of the experiences that you recounted in Kauai Footprints?

MB: I keep a number of journals when I’m traveling: a travel writer’s journal, with  sensory details, images, of everything I visited. I also keep a journal where I note down facts and such.  I had a blog for the  guidebook, and  I also would journal there. But this story really stuck with me, the feelings behind the story weren’t something I needed to write down. I’d been having them every since I first visited Hawaii as a kid.

ASW: And where did you write this piece?

MB: I wrote it at home. I’d had my son Kai by then, so I’d sit on the couch, plop him down on My Brest Friend, nurse him to sleep and write while he was sleeping.  I wrote for as long as my son would sleep. It worked!

ASW: Any advice for travel writers?

MB: If you want to write and travel, you just have to do it. You just have to make it happen.  Someone will always find your experience of a culture interesting — even if it’s you! There’s always something to say about a culture and a place.

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