From sfweekly.com
Originally published by SF Weekly May 19, 2004
©2004 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Setting Off

Around the world with Jeff Greenwald

By Karen Macklin

Published on May 19, 2004

A veteran traveler and best-selling author, Jeff Greenwald has explored five continents in his 50 years; written for dozens of magazines and received a journalism fellowship from the Rotary Foundation; made pilgrimages to Tibet's holy Mount Kailash; designed playgrounds for the Nepal Children's Organization; founded a nonprofit organization called Ethical Traveler; and won the Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book, twice, for his tomes Shopping for Buddhas and The Size of the World. This man has successfully navigated parts of the planet most of us have never dreamed of. He appears to be anything but a fool.

Yet Greenwald's first solo show, Strange Travel Suggestions, proves the opposite: He may well be one of the world's biggest fools. And it's something he's quite proud of.

Though Greenwald seems like a practical type, a rather earthbound dreamer, he begins each performance the same way, by producing a bright yellow tarot card. It's number zero in the deck -- The Fool -- displaying an androgynous jester toting a bag on a stick over his shoulder, prancing happily toward what looks like a giant cliff with his small white mutt trotting loyally beside him. The image is a badge of pride, because Greenwald contends that all travelers are fools: Maybe we pack a bag, study a map, or breeze through a Let's Go, but in the end it's about stepping off that cliff and seeing what happens.

Standing about 6 feet tall, wearing green khakis, a button-down shirt, and groomed but longish curls (the graying hair -- and limitless tales -- are the only features that betray his age), Greenwald looks like a grown-up kid from the Long Island suburbs (which, in part, he is). When he speaks he feels familiar, like that slightly eccentric uncle who shows up every few years at family gatherings with stories of distant lands, or that laid-back poetry professor who forgoes dissecting sonnets on summer days in order to take his class on nature walks. He's an extremely likable character -- which is fortunate, because the only role Greenwald plays here is himself.

Travel features maybe two or three props, and its stark set consists of a nondescript table, a wooden stool, a bottle of water, and a colorful spinning Wheel-of-Fortune (built by Jim Kelly and painted by Mark Wagner) that displays a brightly painted serpent wrapped around its circumference and 30 small hieroglyphiclike symbols just within its border. The idea is for an audience member to spin the wheel, prompting Greenwald to tell a tale inspired by the symbol on which the needle lands. (A guide in the program explains what each icon means: "Tales From the Crypt," "Be Careful What You Wish For," "Bodhisattvas," "Meals of Misfortune," etc.) Thus, the stories are different each evening.

Greenwald may not be a trained actor, but he's a born storyteller. Though he limits his physical gestures to an almost comedic, pensive stroking of his clean-shaven chin and a few unexpected giant leaps across the stage, his simple but charismatic personality easily fills the space. His stories take us all over the globe (predominantly to the East), and are invariably entertaining, if not downright fascinating. Among other characters, he introduces us to a freedom fighter-turned-guru in India, whom he's certain he shared a past life with; Buddhist monks riding the first escalator in Nepal; a man known as the "Penis Saddhu," who pays homage to Shiva by performing feats of great strength and masochism with his genitals; the Dalai Lama, whom he interviewed about Star Trekand space travel; and an odd fellow at Burning Man with whom he experiences a bizarre homosexual encounter that climaxes in the ejaculation of horchata. One minute we're with Greenwald as he dog-sleds with an old college buddy in Alaska; the next we're listening to a recap of his colonoscopy in Thailand. The list goes on and on.

Many, if not all, of Greenwald's stories have appeared in one publication or another, but to hear him tell them live adds a new dimension. Greenwald has not only a gift for language, but also a great sense of rhythm and comic timing. At the close of each worldly account, he often lands on notes of introspection that invoke a strong involuntary reaction from the audience -- a hearty laugh or wistful sigh, or sometimes a silent wince from a misplaced touch of camp or sappiness, quickly forgiven for the meaningful intent behind it.

Greenwald admits at the start of the show that his just-over-an-hour act is more of a journey than a play, and it's an apt statement. You won't get any elaborate costume changes or lighting cues in Strange Travel Suggestions (which takes its title from a line in a Kurt Vonnegut novel: "Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God"), but it can be said that Greenwald's life itself is highly theatrical, and placing snippets of it onstage provides plenty of entertainment. The show, like the author's articles and essays, speaks more to those who are somewhat familiar with Nepalese customs, religions of the East, and the random life experiences accumulated via immense jet lag, bizarre climate changes, and an inability to drink the local water. Still, the performance is accessible to all audiences, and it sparks a traveling bug of the worst (or best) kind.

At the evening's close, when Greenwald has spun the last of his intercontinental tales, his attention returns to the here and now -- this San Francisco crowd in this little theater on Valencia Street. He leaves us with this statement: "May all your journeys make fools out of you." It turns out to be a funny yet pointed blessing.