In 1971 Jeff Greenwald set off on his first international trip, only to come home shell-shocked. At that time, his travel experiences had been limited to car excursions in the Catskill Mountains or Atlantic City — places that lay just a stretch of highway from his childhood home in New York. So when he finally got a chance to go solo, Greenwald decided to do the whole nine yards. “I was the consummate tourist,” Greenwald recalled. “I spent three weeks traveling to every European capital I could go on a EuroRail pass, and I walked around taking pictures to prove I’d been there. When I got back realized how useless that trip had been.”
It was the first time Greenwald saw the less-pretty side of travel. It can be romantic, but it can also be dangerous, uncomfortable, and lonely. It can mean living without modern conveniences, as Greenwald discovered later, when he got the itch to leave again. It can mean putting yourself in dicey situations. But most of all, it means getting used to your own company, sometimes for long stretches of time. That part took Greenwald a while. He had to leave home a few more times before fully understanding the difference between alone-ness and solitude. Once it all sunk in, he caught the travel bug in earnest.
Greenwald can’t be tethered in one place for too long. In the past thirty years, he’s graced about ninety countries (which is easier than it sounds, he said, when you count all the little ones in Europe), published several travelogues, written for numerous periodicals, founded the humanitarian group Ethical Traveler, and penned a Spalding Gray-inspired monologue about his attempt to find the perfect Buddha statue in Nepal. He’s also lived in a Kathmandu village where the roads turned to sludge and manure during the monsoon rains, and writers had to work by candlelight, lest the electricity shut down. He’s even hitch-hiked with serial killers.
Any of those stories could become grist for Greenwald’s current show, Strange Travel Suggestions, which he first unveiled at The Marsh Theatre in 2003. Inspired by a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, the show is a mixed-bag of travel stories told off-the-cuff. Audience members will spin a wheel with thirty possible stops, each pointing to a theme (e.g., “meals of misfortune” or “Himalayan journeys”). Some stops will say “grab bag,” requiring the spinner to reach blindly into a bag full of objects, each of them tied to an expedition.
Greenwald balks at words like “footloose” or “wanderlust,” insisting that he always travels with a specific purpose. Sometimes it’s altruistic. Usually it involves a writing assignment. The tales he generates are always rich with detail, full of hairpin plot-turns and wrong decisions, and often insightful. He rounds them off with some incredibly shrewd statement about the world.
Through Jan. 22 at The Cabaret at The Berkeley Marsh (2120 Allston Way, Berkeley). $15-$35. TheMarsh.org