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Talking to Don George, editor of 'An Innocent Abroad' travel book

People visit the legendary Orient Express train at

People visit the legendary Orient Express train at the Gare de l'Est railway station in Paris on April 26, 2011, as France's state-owned rail company SNCF opens the train, the set of the famous Agatha Christie's novel, to the public for an unprecedented tour. Credit: Getty Images / Mehdi Fedouach

One of the more unusual travel books out now is "An Innocent Abroad: Life- Changing Trips From 35 Great Writers" (Lonely Planet, $15.99 paper). "Great" includes Tim Cahill (a founding editor of Outside magazine), Jan Morris (veteran of the 1953 ascent of Mt. Everest and author of many travel books, notably "Venice"), Jane Smiley (Pulitzer-winning novelist of "A Thousand Acres"), nonfiction bestseller Simon Winchester ("The Professor and the Madman") and thriller writer David Baldacci ("The Innocent" and dozens more).

But this anthology also features pieces by stellar storytellers you've never heard of.

The tales, all short, were assembled and edited by Don George, longtime travel writer and currently an editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler, and editor for the BBC's travel website. We talked to him recently about the book.

What do the 35 stories have in common?

Transformation. It's the innocence the writer brought to experience. It's an alchemical effect -- something that changed the writer's life.

In some stories, it's something small. Jane Smiley's is about taking a horse-riding trip through France. Her horse goes lame and she ends up traveling with her husband, who rents a car and keeps getting lost. But her experience leads to some beautiful, revelatory moments.

Then there are bigger stories, where a person's life is actually changed. One I love is by Anna Vodecka. It's an amazing story about a youth ministry trip to Europe.

What else do their tales share?

Ignorance at the start. . . . And they grab you from first few paragraphs and take you on incredible journeys.

What's the humor-tragedy mix?

I'd say maybe 80 percent have moments of mild or possible tragedy that end up being happy. The rest are sad but moving and meaningful.

One is about a guy traveling through Sri Lanka, just before the civil war began in the 1980s. He was in a charming village with charming kids. Later, he was reading news reports about revolutionaries who swept through that area and pretty much destroyed the village and killed the villagers. One night, back home, he looks up at the constellations -- as he had during his wonderful trip to South Asia -- and was thinking that the people he had such a good time with are probably no longer there.

Which story has the least travel?

There's one by a guy who lives in California and who spent his life traveling around the world. His story takes place in Nevada, at the annual Burning Man event. Of all his life-changing experiences, he chose this place just hours from his home to write about. Of course, Burning Man is like an alternative universe in other ways.

The story I chose to end the book was by an Australian who traveled around the world. She writes about coming home, and how home was so incredibly different than it had been. It's poignant in a way -- full circle -- that symbolically everything changed. I think that's what travel is all about: You have incredible experiences, come home, and because you're now different, the world you return to is different.

Your own story is the book's introduction.

It's about when I went to Europe after graduating from college. I went there thinking I'd take a year off, kind of live there, see what it was about, then go back to grad school. . . . That was the plan.

I went to Paris for three months and then had a fellowship to teach in Athens for a year. I took the Orient Express there and by the end of that year had fallen in love with the experience of being out in the world and how you learn so much every day when you're living abroad.

I realized that for me the classroom was the world, and vice versa. Rather than go for a musty, ivy-clad brick building, I'd much rather be out in bazaars, marketplaces and temples. This really changed my life. Later, I lucked out and became a travel writer.

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