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Q and A with Jeff Greenwald of Ethical Traveler

Jeff Greenwald
Jeff Greenwald
Jeff is the Executive Director of Ethical Traveler and he is also a best selling travel and science writer. He has authored 5 books and hundreds of magazine, radio and Internet features.

Jeff, could you tell us something about yourself and the Ethical Traveler organization?
As you’ve mentioned, Norm, I’m a writer with eclectic interests — including adventure travel, science (and science fiction!), conservation, political action, and — most recently — acting. I love scuba diving and astronomy, and spend some clear nights combing the skies with a friend’s large telescope.

The non-profit I helped to create, Ethical Traveler is a global alliance of thousands of travelers from dozens of countries, started bymyself and other travel-loving activists in 2002. (Anyone can join, simply byvisiting our website.)

Our idea is to help the community of travelers realize that we are a powerful economic and political force, capable of inspiring positive change among the world’s decision makers — from governments to tourism bureaus.

Why do you consider travel as a positive force in the world?
Modern-day travel is a form of de facto ambassadorship; it is an activity motivated by curiosity about the world and its people.

It’s also one of the few arenas where ordinary people from all walks of life can engage with each other. It’s also a place where American citizens — those who truly believe in freedom, equality, and human rights — can show that their own values may not be the values expressed by this nation’s leaders, or by the national media. To help people become more ambassadorial in their travels, Ethical Traveler offers 13 Tips for the Accidental Ambassador.

If you had to chose 5 of the most rewarding travel experiences in your life, which ones would you chose and why?
It would take me many pages to describe five experiences, but I think that the anecdote that begins Scratching the Surface is one good example.

I was visiting Teheran, and had stopped in at a local eatery for lunch. The locals regarded me strangely, well aware that I was an American, and when I became panicked by their odd attentions they refused to let me leave.

I thought I was being kidnapped! In reality, my fellow diners had another motive for holding me captive: they’d instructed the staff to cook me a gourmet meal. I’ve also had marvelous experiences trekking in Nepal and Tibet, traveling through Israel and Jordan, and meeting brilliant people like Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka, the Dalai Lama in India, and traditional marabouts in Senegal. My books describe those adventures and encounters in far better detail than I can manage here!

As far as recent amazing experiences go, I invite your readers to read my dispatches from Sri Lanka. I was there from early January through February, working with Mercy Corps International and assisting with tsunami relief all over the island. A link to those stories can be found on Ethical Traveler’s home page.

I understand you have written about prison labor in China. Could you briefly tell us more about this and does it play a role in the importation of textiles and other commodities into the western countries?
That was quite a while ago, for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. I think that by now, ten years down the line, most Americans are aware that the people producing many of our imports are laboring under very adverse conditions; the Chinese lao gai, or labor camps, were an extreme example.

I’m not sure if China still uses slave labor by prisoners, or if they have ended (or more successfully concealed) the process, but I know the US Congress has been more vigilant in monitoring the situation. Ideally, all our goods would be made by well-paid workers in the USA, but dream on….

Could you briefly tell our readers something about the books you have authored?
They’re all very different; from the fast-and-loose prose of Mr. Raja to the more carefully choreographed Scratching the Surface.

Each has its unique charms — and problems! Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood, is a collection of letters, written to artist and writer friends during a yearlong journalism fellowship in Kathmandu, during 1983 and 1984 — the years when Nepal really was a world apart.

Shopping for Buddhas, also set in Kathmandu, follows my inane quest for the perfect Buddha statue; it’s my most popular book.

The Size of the World describes my attempt, in celebration of my 40th birthday, to travel around the world without ever getting on an airplane. The project was successful, but the voyage took nine agonizing, illuminating months.

Future Perfect, my most unusual book, is an irreverent look at how the popular
Star Trek series has infiltrated global culture, while Scratching the Surface: Impressions of Planet Earth from Hollywood to Shiraz is a handpicked collection of my very best short pieces.

Readers can look find all of my books — even the out-of-print ones — on

Is there anything we have not covered that you would like to add?
In 2003, I launched a one-man show based on my travels. It’s called Strange Travel Suggestions, based on Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s quote that “Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”

The show has been very successful, and tremendously inspiring — though walking onto a stage is one of the most terrifying journeys I’ve ever taken! The Marsh, a wonderful San Francisco theater that premiered the show, offers CDs of the performance. It’s well worth listening to, and can make a long road trip fly right by!

The above interview was conducted by: Norm Goldman, Editor of