Perceptive Travel Writers at Work #5: Darrin DuFord

Darrin DuFord started his traveling life when he co-founded the band Motor Betty. He’s since become a travel writer, and although his curiosities lead him in many different directions, he often finds a way to work music into his travels. That’s what happened in his latest Perceptive Travel story,  A Dialog of Echoes in Uruguay.

He’s the author of Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel Without a Car in Panama, and a contributor to Transitions Abroad, GoNOMAD, Perceptive Travel, Travel Channel’s World Hum, and McSweeney’s, among others. He lives in Queens.

Alison Stein Wellner: What made you decide to go to Uruguay?

Darrin DuFord: I planned to go to Uruguay to research their native meats — like nutria, which is a rodent.  When I was getting ready to go, I kept noticing references to candombe, a style of drumming in Uruguay. My old passion for drumming took over, and I thought, I’m first going to write about that. So I kept researching candombe, and put the nutria idea on hold.  I hooked up with a candombe teache there, and arranged a lesson.

ASW: What sort of research did you do?

DD: I ordered some music CDS from some artists from Uruguay,  and I read some of the liner notes — that helped out. I also went back and forth with my drum teacher on email.

ASW: How did you handle note-taking?  You’ve got such great details in this story, but you’re also holding a drum a lot of the time, which seem like it would make it hard to hold a notebook!

DD: It’s a process I keep on honing every time I travel.  I have small notepad with me, I don’t bring a laptop — I’m old school analogue, so I’ve got my pen and paper,  but it’s dark outside on the street, so I’m just getting lost in the sensory experience. Once I get back to the hotel, I write it all down.

“I followed the sounds of the drums ricocheting off the houses. The walls seemed alive, responding to the drums in perfect time. As a percussionist, I caught a naughty thrill hearing the irresistibly sweet—and often forbidden—marriage of drums and street acoustics. That was when I noticed Pocitos—this residential neighborhood—was noticeably well kept. I thought of David Byrne’s ruminations in his Bicycle Diaries  concerning the usual correlation between a neighborhood’s affordability and its tolerance for eccentricity. I wished he could have joined us, bike and all.” – From A Dialog of Echoes in Uruguay.

ASW: No laptop, wow.

DD: I often get criticized about not bringing a laptop with me — but I’ve never brought laptop with me, I’m afraid of getting it lost or stolen or some stupid thing. With a notepad, it’s just a stupid crappy notepad. I do prefer Moleskines. I also like hotel pens, although usually when I travel I stay at places not fancy enough to give you a pen in the room. So I “borrow” a pen from reception — a permanent loan. I also bring at least three or four pens from home, but I say it’s always nice to have a fresh pen waiting for you. At reception.

ASW [who would never criticize]: And you also take photos, do you consider that research too?

DD: Yes, in fact it’s faster to take a photo than it is to write something down. Some of my photos are not meant for Flickr, they’re ugly. I take them to save an image, so that when I look at them again, I jog my memory. I do that when it would take too long to whip out notebook.

ASW: So how did you decide on the shape of the story? I really liked how you drew a connection between the drumming and the street murals, the cars left to rust.

DD: That’s something that slowly grew as I was walking through the city. When I was there, I kept asking myself these questions — how can this city not only permit all this drumming in the streets, but why do they encourage it? Here in New York City, if you did that, the cops would come by and shut you up. So I wondered: why is this possible?  To get that answer, it took more than just watching the drummers, I thought, let’s see what’s going on in the culture of the city, what do they value? I took in the old cars, the murals — which say a lot about the artistic slant of the residents. It was a big picture way of explaining to me why they value street drumming.  Anyway, that was the only way that I could tell it —  to dig deep into the ethos of the city.

“Next morning: still coughing up essence of burning bourgeois chair leg. Someone was painting a mural on the façade of an art foundation across my hotel. I had already started a collection of mural photos from previous walks in Montevideo—Batman with a bare, protruding gut; Jesus in tighty–whities; fish with opposable thumbs. The streets were speaking. I kept listening.

I wondered what statement the rusty Studebakers and Morrises along the curb were making. Despite contributing to the city’s sooty air, the cars must have been tickling a particular aesthetic fancy. Some were junked, and were somehow entitled to parking spots as their final resting places, where they oxidized in peace: a charming respect for the elderly. It was as if removing them would be an act of vandalism.” – From A Dialog of Echoes in Uruguay.

ASW: How did you go about writing your story after you finished research?

DD: I only had a few notes in my trusty paper notepad, and once I came back,  I turned those notes into sentences on my computer. This was the first story I wrote after I typed up my notes from the whole trip.

ASW: You type up your notes as soon as you get home? That makes me feel really guilty. I know I should do that, but I never do.

DD: Yes, I type them up. I’m afraid I might lose the notebook.And when you have to type your notes, it does jog your memory  — it is a good exercise for recalling what happened.

[Pause while ASW realizes she quite agrees with this, and considers changing her ways — but then remembers she is Conducting an Interview; this is not about her, really — and gets back to it.]

ASW: Okay, so you type up your notes, and then what?

DD: I look at my notes and I look at my pictures, with a little help from space music which puts me in the mode.

ASW: Space music?

DD: Yeah, like Tangerine Dream, Steve Roach. It’s good for putting your mind into the thought mode.

ASW: And where do you write?

DD: Usually at my desk, although sometimes I sit on the floor, sometimes I kneel, and  sometimes I stand, so my body will stay happy with me. I’m always in front of a desk or a computer. I have a regular desktop PC, and I have a MacBook. Right now I’m sitting on the floor cross-legged sitting next to a coffee table.

ASW: I was wondering where you were on computers, since there is maybe a slight anti-technology theme? As you said, you don’t carry a laptop, and in the piece you do make a comment about iPhones: “Many Americans, for example, have become “accustomed” to their families and friends hunching over iPhones at the dinner table.”

DD: I wouldn’t call myself anti-technology, because it has a place. If I didn’t have a computer, it would have taken me a long time to type out my piece on an old fashioned typewriter. It’s a tool to get things done faster, it’s why I’m on Twitter and Facebook. But for some people, it just seems to take over their life. It was funny thing, I saw comedian doing an act when the iPad came out, and he said, people were given a choice — to get an iPad or a life. And they all chose an iPad. That’s kind of my philosophy on technology. It seems to be destroying the natural social environment for family and friends.

ASW: So I’ve got to know if you ever got back to the nutria story.

DD: Yes, I had time to research the meats as well. I’m getting to that story now, in fact.

ASW: Any advice for travel writers?

DD: As far as narrative travel writing goes, it’s a matter of honing one’s story telling skills. I would say, I usually get inspired when I read my favorite authors, whether its nonfiction or fiction.  David Byrne’s book the Bicycle Diaries — I mentioned that in the story, in fact, that was the book that I read right when I came back. That certainly cast a new light on travel writing, he’s a musician and he’s writing a travelogue book — that helped me see travel writing in a new way. Other travel writers that I like are  Rolf Potts, Bill Bryson, the Travelers’ Tales “Best of” books. For fiction, it’s anyone from Nabakov to Jonathan Lethem.

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