After 15 years as a travel writer, with more than three dozen travel guides to her name, Alex Leviton says she realized it wasn't travel she loved at all. It was "the radically new experiences I've had because of travel," she says.
With that awareness, the creativity consultant, former standup comic, and well-known LGBTQ+ ally set out to write the "untravel" book, Explore Every Day: 365 Daily Prompts to Refresh Your Life.
Today, Leviton also writes, manages, and teaches about slow travel, community health, creative expression, and the human experience (where trauma and creativity meet resilience). She recently spoke with Out Traveler about travel writing, challenging yourself every day, and changing your perspective even when you can't go anywhere.
It feels like your book, Explore Every Day, came out perfectly timed for 2020's quarantine lockdown. Do you agree?
Absolutely! I'm thrilled I wrote it before the pandemic, because I've so needed it. Every week, my partner and I point to a random prompt and do it, no matter what (even if we have to adjust slightly for the pandemic). We've discovered a labyrinth near our house, found the highest spot in our city, got dressed up and watched an opera online, and said hi to the closest body of water. We call it "untravel." Oh, and, walking a neighbor's dog once turned into a six-month love affair with a border collie puppy before we had to move. In what's been a relentlessly difficult year, having these prompts has been a life saver.
What made you write it when you did?
After 15 years as a travel writer, I've realized I don't really love travel itself, I love the radically new experiences I've had because of travel. Guidebook authors don't travel like normal people. We spend hours in bus stations, grocery stores, and mapping every square inch of a town, and I started getting a new perspective on what travel really gave me. At the same time, I was coming to terms just how crap travel was for the environment. I never want to give up travel entirely, but I started to realize I could stretch out those experiences closer to home. For me, travel's more about the why than the what. Granted, nothing beats waking up in a different country where 95 percent of your surroundings are new language, culture, food, how people interact, the landscape. But that's also counterintuitively a bit of a cheat; you can't help but feel adventurous when you're in this (ahem) novel environment. But, like, okay, one prompt in the book is something I do in my Untravel workshops: what are your five travel words? In other words, what's your "why?" That's what Explore Every Day is all about; how can you do your "why" within an hour of your house? If you can push yourself out of your comfort zone there, then that's fucking badass.
Explore Every Day really offers people the opportunity to travel and explore the world without leaving home. What are your personal favorite ways to do that?
I'm kind of experientially slutty, which is a huge help for untravel. When I can move my brain into that untravel perspective, even one square foot of dirt could be fascinating for hours. What kind of soil is it? What bugs are endemic to that region? This is a prompt in the book: Where is that ant taking that leaf? Is it making a guest room for a visiting ant? Like Einstein says, you can't solve a problem with the same thinking that got you into the problem, so untravel and the creativity methodology I teach is never about tackling the problem, it's always about changing perspective. Whenever my partner and I have an idea, we write it on a slip of paper, and add it to this designated vase. When we have free time, we pick out one slip. Or, I look at my five travel words: challenge, knowledge, perspective, activity, community. So, haha. Umm, you know those electric scooter rentals that are lying around, literally, all over towns? I saw one two days ago, and, ... well, now I'm currently nursing a new perspective and a well-earned skinned knee.
There's also a lot of prompts that help people explore their own neighborhoods and cities with the eyes of a newcomer. Why is that important?
Our brains were built for a very different world. Familiarity didn't kill us, newness did: Purple vs red berries, bushes hiding saber-tooth tigers, meeting a stranger. So to counter-balance our brain's natural tendencies, we need to create prompts to pull our comfort-seeking lizard brains out of our pre-historic caves. Again, travel is a bit of a cheat for doing this, but any creative thinking will do. Of course you have these amazing experiences when you're in Thailand/Suriname/the Caribbean/New Mexico. Everything is new, different, exciting, and there's no way to retreat into your comfort zone. You really want to challenge yourself? Get out of your comfort zone in your living room. Like the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton said, The world is a huge place. How will you know where you fit in if you don't explore beyond your comfort zone? He didn't say you had to go to the North Pole. I know professional adventurers who are deathly terrified of public speaking. My life's goal right now is to teach people that challenge is personal, and to not ever compare themselves to anyone else.
You have taught travel writing around the world. What is the most important tip you give while doing so? Is teaching travel writing different in different parts of the world?
Pay attention. I'm putting that on my tombstone: Pay f***ing attention. Be where you are, fully. Don't listen to your favorite music on headphones, listen to the people and land and history and interactions around you. For humans to beat computers in the future of work, you'll need this deep listening skill, so you might as well try it out in a more fun way. When I'm teaching in situ, I make my students sit in one place and write for one hour straight without stopping. You can write the fives senses at the top of the first page. If you get stuck, go back, grab the next sense, and write about that. I also consult companies on this type of creative thinking, and I ask them to go back to being their creatively confident five-year-old selves, but tempered with their rational adult minds. In a nonprofessional setting, I might tell you to pretend you're on ecstasy or mushrooms, and the world is absolutely f***ing fascinating. Travel — and untravel — can be like a meditation. The more you disappear when you're in travel/untravel mode, the more the world appears. But even I need prompts to remember to put me in this mode.
You're a stand-up comedian. Tell us a joke about travel.
Like Mel Brooks would say, I'd rather be a stand-up philosopher than stand-up comedian. I'm crap at telling jokes. But I just posted my stand-up routine on YouTube with a story about the ASL word for gynecologist, so if you need a new experience, look up my name on YouTube.
Do you have a #TravelFail story you can share — and how you overcame the problem?
So, so many. One of my favorite Lonely Planet author week memories is when a half-dozen of us got horrifically lost on our way to the restaurant. I once got to a town in Croatia, couldn't find the hostel, couldn't figure out how to use the phone, couldn't find any other travelers to ask or people who spoke English. So I persevered until nightfall and ... hell, no. I got back on the bus and went straight back to my previous hostel. I'm — tops — three inches tall. As the famed travel writer Don George would say, "To my mind, the dangers of not traveling are worse than the dangers of traveling." But sometimes they're not. And the secret of my long life is knowing the difference.