September 2, 2014

Is all writing travel writing?

New Zealand

Some writer once said; “There are only two stories: man goes on a journey; or stranger comes to town.”

Some other writer said; “Those are the same story.”

The quotes above have been attributed to writers as diverse as Dostoevsky and John Gardner. Despite their flippancy, there’s an undeniable verisimilitude there – a sense that yes, we are constantly stuck (or liberated) in the same tale, time after time: the same quest, the same novel.

True in a way, but every single perspective is unique and new and completely unknown to science. I’m lucky enough to teach writing at a small New England college, and every week I’m reminded of the newness of experience – when I read a student essay about the first time they traveled to Europe, or went abroad for a semester, I’m completely absorbed, even though I’ve read those types of essays before. But each view is unique, each experience individual.

But – taking into account the anonymous quotes at the beginning – there is this sense that all writing of a certain kind can be reduced to commonalities, to large scale, Way-Out-In-Space-Google-Earth perspective. In this sense, I would offer the following: all writing is travel writing.

Travel writing is fun to read, hard to write. Good travel writing does two things simultaneously; it takes the reader on a vertiginous journey through narrow mud-walled towns, or along alpine goat paths, or through bustling marketplaces; and it also marks the internal journey of the writer, the transformation that takes place. And while we love poling down some jungle river the color of tea, or palavering with herders in some felted yurt, if the author isn’t taking us on the interior journey, we are bored.

Leonard Michaels has this to say about stories in his essay ‘What’s a Story:’

The problem with storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of “and then”) and the latter belong to art.
Transitions versus transformations is a good way to look at it. Both words start with the prefix ‘trans’ which comes from the Latin and simply means ‘across,’ but have different meanings. ‘Transition’ comes from the Latin transire, which means to go across, hence over. It has cognates in trance, transient, and other words, which overall create an etymological pastiche that brings to mind rootlessness. Transform, on the other hand, while it shares the same prefix, is rooted firmly in the word ‘form,’ which means shape.

‘Transformation’ means to change the shape of; literally, to become another form.

Stories can provide us with both of these experiences. Good literature can take us on a journey, a quest, and we can be ‘transient’ for a bit while we read. But great books transform; remake us in some new shape. Books help us redefine our interior landscape; our moral and spiritual superstructures. Recently, I’ve been paging through two Paul Theroux classics; Riding the Iron Rooster and The Happy Isles of Oceania. And while Theroux can sometimes be criticized as a cranky old man, he is a master of balancing the personal with the external, giving the reader hearty glimpses into his own personal transformations and journeys and quests. It’s a balancing act to be sure – we want our sub-continental marigold merchants but also want to know our author and how he or she is like us.

Reading his old classics compelled me to pick up Theroux’s newest travel book. The Last Train to Zona Verde, which came out last year, is about Africa. Theroux has written about African journeys before – Dark Star Safari was a bestseller – but this book is so much better, for reasons I’ll explain briefly. Africa, in Dark Star, is the backdrop to Theroux’s usual thoughts on travel and people and himself, but it lacked – for me – that edge that good travel writing needs. I liked it fine, but Zona Verde seems to me to stand against the times in a way that’s edgier, angrier, more insistent and interesting. In Dark Star, we hear a lot about how Theroux is writing an “erotic novella” during the trip. But in Zona Verde, we are given a much different impression of why the septuagenarian novelist and travel writer is absconding to the land of lions and giraffes.

Theroux tells us early on that of the reasons for going to Africa, “The main one was physically to get away from people wasting my time with trivia.” He then goes on quote at length from that other great wanderer, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in ‘Life Without Principle;’ “I believe the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things…so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.” Right; hello, Facebook newsfeed.

This sense of separation Theroux is looking for – and is willing to travel the remote regions of Africa to find – is central to our understanding of self, particularly in the age of iPhones. “To travel unconnected, away from anyone’s gaze or reach, is bliss,” Theroux writes, and particular attention should be paid to his word-choice; ‘unconnected’ is perhaps a direct reference to the ‘connectedness’ that the internet provides.

Theroux gets right to the point as he relates his adventures with the !Kung in South Africa. “Travel in Africa was also my way of opposing the increasing speed of technology – resisting it and dropping back, learning patience and studying the world that way.” That patience, he believes, is exemplified by the !Kung. Theroux likes them, though, that much is clear: “And I was thinking, as I thought for years traveling the earth among humankind: the best of them are bare-assed.”

Part of getting out and about in the world – part of any real journey – is that vital separation from what we expect at home; annoying details, obligations, and trivial matters. Once we start traveling, the triviality is blasted to bits and we’re mercifully released from the impingement of pop culture and domestic concerns; we’re happily returned to a state of wonder and curiosity.

One of the things about travel – both in the world and within ourselves – is the opportunity to explore regions that we’ve never been to before. “But there is such a thing as curiosity, dignified as a spirit of inquiry,” writes Theroux. It is that spirit that allows us to wonder, to imagine, and to be the best bare-assed specimens we possibly can.

If ‘stranger comes to town,’ and ‘man goes on a journey’ are in fact the same story, then the common theme is that of movement, of adventure, or getting out there in a new place, or meeting new people. The common theme is simply walking out the door.

Books that change us – books that transform – are in essence travel literature. As I get older, I’m less and less interested in the distinction between external and internal travel, as I think real travel, or adventure, never exists in singularity – real travel, real writing, and really great books take the reader on both the external and internal journey, and when I come back to the real world after reading such a book I’m not quite the same as I was before. I’m a bit dusty and road-worn.

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Category: Travel Writing

August 30, 2014

Why We Buy Dumb Souvenirs

souvenirmasksHere’s a curious trivia tidbit from U.S. history: In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams took leave from their Europe-based diplomatic duties and traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the home of William Shakespeare. Not much was recorded of the occasion, but one fact of their pilgrimage to the Bard’s birthplace stands out: At some point during the tour, the two American statesmen brandished pocketknives, carved a few slivers from a wooden chair alleged to have been Shakespeare’s, and spirited them home as souvenirs.

In retrospect, it’s easy to look back on this incident and conclude that — in terms of travel protocol, at least — Jefferson and Adams were complete knuckleheads. The thing is, I haven’t seen any evidence to prove that, as world-wandering travelers, our quest for souvenirs has become any more logical or dignified in the ensuing 220 years.

I mention this because I recently traveled to Key West, where a popular section of Duval Street is crowded with souvenir boutiques. In a certain sense, this stretch of Duval felt a tad anachronistic, since — in the age of eBay and similar online shopping venues — you don’t have to travel to a place like Key West to load up on painted seashells and exotic cigars. What struck me more, however, was not the items typically associated with Florida, but the bizarre overabundance of souvenir t-shirts, which said things like “Tell your boobs to stop staring at my eyes,” or “Farting is my way of saying I (heart) you.”

In one sense, it seems ridiculous that anyone would travel to Key West and buy a t-shirt that has nothing whatsoever to do with south Florida (“I’m not a bitch, I’m ‘Miss Bitch’ to you”). Still, bringing home a tacky keepsake from Key West can serve as a sort of travel credential — an existential referent that proves you went to south Florida and got drunk enough to exercise bad judgment. Similarly, for Jefferson and Adams, those Stratfordian wood-shavings were tangible proof that they had journeyed across England and touched a chair that had, presumably, once cradled Shakespeare’s butt.

Indeed, in most cases it would appear that souvenir hunting is not a meaningful examination of place so much as it is a litmus test of our own whims and preconceptions as travelers. In Egypt, for example, generations of tourists have obsessively sought relics that remind them of the Pharaonic landscape they’ve seen in books and movies. Hence, all the major Egyptian tourist sites do a steady trade in fake papyrus, Great Pyramid paperweights, and alabaster Nefertiti statues — none of which would be found in the home of any self-respecting Egyptian. Similarly, in Calcutta’s New Market, an unspoken caste system exists between Indian shoppers and souvenir-seeking tourists. The travelers instinctively gravitate into boutiques that sell carved elephant figurines and decorative jars of saffron, while the Indians shop for rubber bathmats, stainless steel pans, and digital calculators. The implication here, of course, is that buying an electric blender might be more representative of day-to-day Calcutta life than buying Kashmiri silk (though, admittedly, a blender would not look as good in your living room).

Although it may be tempting to blame this discrepancy on modern misconceptions, the tourist quest for souvenirs has always been somewhat skewed. In ancient Anatolia, locals hawked supposed Trojan War relics to credulous Greek travelers, and excavations in Italy have suggested that ancient Romans had a penchant for cheap glass vials painted with pictures of contemporary tourist attractions (none of these have been proven to be snow-globes, to my knowledge, but it’s easy to draw a parallel). In medieval times, Christian pilgrims wandering the Holy Land proved to be among the most gullible relic-hunters in human history, as they carted home enough crowns of thorns, Holy Grails, and apostle-femurs to stock a macabre, New Testament-themed WalMart.

If any world culture deserves mention for its souvenir idiosyncrasies, however, it is the Japanese, who have long considered the giving of gifts to be an essential social ritual. Since taking a leisured journey carries a cultural sense of shame at leaving one’s home duties, Japanese travelers reflexively seek out omiyage — small gifts that will be presented as an act of respect to the family members and coworkers they left behind. So common is this practice that some Japanese airports stock souvenirs from around the world in an effort to save travelers the hassle of finding them in their actual destinations. Hence, a given Japanese girl’s bedroom might feature a Mickey Mouse clock, a miniature Eiffel Tower, and a carved Balinese frog mask — each of which represent her father’s past trips to Florida, Paris, and Indonesia, and all which were purchased at Narita Airport.

In pointing out the global-historical foibles of souvenir-seekers, I don’t mean to position myself above the madness. Like so many tourists before me, I, too, have been known to display weakness in the face of Peruvian weavings, Latvian amber, and Korean lacquer-ware.

I’ve found, however, that bringing these items home and putting them on display has taught me an interesting lesson. Whenever I stroll into my office and gaze at my Mongolian masks and Syrian worry-beads, I find that they don’t evoke my Asian travel memories quite so effectively as the beat-up, navy-blue “Bruin Track & Field” t-shirt I wore in both countries.

Strange as this may seem, it makes perfect sense: When I bought the masks and the worry-beads, I was shopping — but when I wore the t-shirt I was hiking across the steppes beyond Ulan Bator, or exploring the mountaintop monasteries outside of Damascus.

Indeed, as novelist Anatole France once noted, I’d wager that “it is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.”

In Stratford-upon-Avon, at least, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams might have done well to heed this advice.

Tip sheet: Souvenir strategies that can reduce the knucklehead factor
1) Don’t confine the notion of what a souvenir is.

Souvenir boutiques will be found in abundance in any major tourist area, but that doesn’t mean you must confine your souvenir-hunt to specialty shops. Any token of your trip — from restaurant placemats, to pressed leaves, to local candy — can serve as a personal keepsake. If seeking gifts for loved ones at home, check department stores and supermarkets before you hit the souvenir shop — odds are you’ll find something cheaper (and just as authentic) in these types of places.

2) Save souvenir shopping until the end of the journey.

Let a souvenir be a souvenir — a keepsake of experience — and don’t go off shopping for knickknacks before you’ve had some real travel adventures. Not only will this give you a social context for your destination before you start commemorating it with collectables, but it will also save you the hassle of dragging this newfound loot around with you as your journey progresses. An added bonus is that, as a shopper, you will have a better sense for the price and quality of your souvenirs once you’ve traveled and made some comparisons.

3) The experience is more important than the keepsake.

In the end, shopping anywhere is still just shopping. Don’t let the hunt for souvenirs get in the way of amazing travel experiences.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on May 9, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Money Management, Travel Bargains, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

August 26, 2014

Are you afraid to travel?

graffiti

Aren’t you afraid?

In a word: No.

It’s a question people ask us in lots of quiet ways.

Aren’t you afraid of the political climates in less than first world places?

No, but we’re aware of them. Of course they colour our travels. We make choices to go some places, and not others, based on political climates, but that doesn’t mean we’re afraid of them. We’ve been in Mexico, Guatemala, Indonesia and Australia during various elections. It’s an educational time to be in a place, there are discussions taking place that don’t otherwise. We’ve stayed with members of politically subversive groups, we’ve attended political rallies in some countries to learn, we’ve intentionally spent time in dictatorships, and in Muslim countries, and in communist countries, as well as monarchies and countries in various stages of development specifically so that our kids will have a bit of perspective on the concept of democracy, but we are not afraid.

Aren’t you afraid of terrorists in “Muslim” places?

We are not. I’ve met thousands of Muslims, become friends with a very few, and lived in some of the most volatile Muslim regions of the world. We’ve been discriminated against, our website has been hacked and plastered with pictures of dead Palestinian children, our kid was once slapped hard for no reason that we could see. We’ve been watched by the secret police and our activity logged because of our nationality. It gives a person a bit of perspective on the American treatment of Muslims within the USA. It’s good for us, and for our kids, to get a grip on the beauty of Muslim culture, the open-handed generosity of the vast majority of the people who call themselves Muslim, and even the hard experiences have been good for us. There are folks who behave badly and occasionally blow stuff up within the Muslim world, but then, there are dudes who roll up into schools in Connecticut and military installments in DC and blow stuff up too. I’m not afraid to enter a school, or visit DC as a result; likewise, we are not afraid of Muslim terrorists.

Aren’t you afraid of the drug war “raging” around us in Central America?

The drug war of the American making, you mean? No. Families are not the targets of those behaving badly. Reasonable precautions are, well, reasonable. Take a quick look at the statistics, and you’ll quickly see that even with the “drug war” Mexico is a safer place than the USA. We’re not glibly blowing off the “danger;” we’ve had guys on a raid with locked and loaded AK-47‘s between us and our kids in northern Mexico. That’s a moment that gives a traveling parent pause, and makes a person happy to have reasonable Spanish in her aresenal. Honduras has it’s moments; we had one of our scariest travel moments there, but in the end, it was fine. Our community in Guatemala had a group of local men who took it upon themselves to patrol the road in and out of the valley after dark to keep a lid on the nefarious business. In every single case, even the scary ones, the reaction to our presence has been one of protection and care for our persons. We are not afraid. In fact, we are so “not afraid” that we let our daughter take off on her own with her friends when she was 14, and we are drawn back to that corner of the world as one of our homes.

Aren’t you afraid of not knowing where you’re going or where you’ll sleep tonight?

Nope. We’re just not. One thing you learn after traveling a while is that things just work out. We’ve never had to sleep under a bridge. We’ve never been so lost that we were unable to find “home” by nightfall. These things just work out. Keeping a sense of humor is the tricky part! :)

Aren’t you afraid of being taken advantage of?

No, we aren’t, because we fully expect to be. Next issue.

Aren’t you afraid of having stuff stolen?

No, we aren’t because we know stuff will be stolen, at home or abroad, makes no difference. We had both mirrors very carefully stolen off of the van in New Orleans over Mardi Gras a few years ago. We had ipods lifted in Vietnam. It happens.

Aren’t you afraid of getting sick in some godforsaken place?

We have been, and we will be again. It’s not something we’re afraid of, it’s something we prepare for to the fullest extent possible. Including insurance, immunizations, a hefty first aid kit, and a habit of taking note of where the nearest hospitals are.

Aren’t you afraid of getting lost?

Nope. We made friends with the concept.

Aren’t you afraid of strangers?

Statistically, we should be afraid of the people we know. They’re the ones most likely to kidnap us or harm us in some way. Strangers have no reason to wish us harm, and consequentially are a safe and delightful bunch. “Stranger Danger” is a pernicious idea. I can’t imagine a worse thing to teach a kid than that the world is out to get him, when the exact opposite is the reality. Discretion is worth developing, the ability to “read” people is important to study and discuss with emerging adults, but to seed fear and distrust? How awful. Are we afraid of strangers? No, certainly not.

Aren’t you afraid of picking up hitchhikers?

We pick up loads of hitchhikers, the legit looking ones. I’ve never been afraid to pull over and pick up a traveling brother or sister, even when I’m alone. You can argue the hypothetical dangers until you are blue in the face and I will ask you one question: What is your PERSONAL experience? If you’ve never hitchhiked, or never picked up a hitchhiker, then frankly, I don’t think you get to weigh in. Statistically, there is less danger to picking up hitchers than there is driving your car to Walmart. Here are the facts from our personal experience: We’ve met dozens and dozens of fantastic people. We’ve made life long friends of a few. We had dinner with a real live knight because we picked up a hitchhiker. And here’s the icing on the cake: Are you ready?

This very day we are surfing east around Melbourne, Australia, on our way to spend a few days with dear family friends. How did we meet them? They picked up my mom and dad when they were hitching their way across North Africa forty years ago.

Now tell me again, how dangerous it is… and not in hypotheticals; back it up with personal experience or real data, then we’ll talk.

Aren’t you afraid of taking rides from strangers?

Nope. Not ever. We’re also not stupid about it, but we’ve never had a bad experience, nor do we know anyone who has (and we know hundreds and hundreds of pretty hard core travelers.)

Aren’t you afraid of running out of money and being stranded somewhere?

Ha! Always, and never. Money is a constant worry for everyone, isn’t it? This is one of those “7 P’s” moments, as my Uncle Dick would say: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. We’ve run out of money (the 2008 market crash found us in Italy and swept away our entire trip savings) We had back up plans. We applied strategy to the situation. We’ve gotten stranded, but not for long. You figure it out, you know? Just like at home. I’m very glad not to find myself out of money and stranded somewhere in suburbia which is the antithesis of living my dreams. So yes, we’re afraid of running out of money and being stranded, just like you are, but we work through that, just like you do.

Here’s the thing about fear: You’re either paralyzed by it, or you’re actively overcoming it.

There are things to legitimately fear and there are precautions every traveler should be taking to minimize the risks. However, most of the fears that keep people from taking their dream trip are minor things, or things that can be planned for and risks reduced if not eliminated.

Read the full article, including why I’m not afraid of traveling with my children 

 

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Category: On The Road, Travel Safety

August 24, 2014

An interview with Freelance Writer Joe Henley

As part of some tips for successful travel and freelance writing, I decided to interview Joe Henley. He is a Canadian freelance writer and death metal singer for Taiwanese band Revilement who has spent the past few years living in Taiwan, and will released his debut novel, “Sons of the Republic”, on American imprint Library Tales Publishing on September 12th 2014.

He’s an example of someone who set out to live in a foreign country and worked hard to realize the “writer’s dream”. I asked him a few questions to bring his experience as a useful example for other budding wannabe Vagabonding writers. read on… and as Joe says, keep writing.

How did you become a writer in Taiwan? Is being a white English native speaker an asset to break into a foreign country’s journalistic and media scene?

I started off working in academic publishing. I worked a somewhat dreadful desk job for years, actually, churning out articles and test materials for ESL publications. For that particular job, being a native English speaker was definitely part of what got me hired. There are labor laws here preventing companies from hiring anyone for jobs related to the ESL field who don’t come from certain countries wherein English is the official language. Then I started off getting freelance gigs on the side, and gradually built up my stable of regular jobs to the point where I was able to quit that job almost two years ago. It was fucking glorious.

Joe Henley (11 of 33) copyIs writing your main source of income, or is it still some sort of a part time job?

Now it’s my main source of income, though I do still supplement with other work. I’ve got a bit of a radio voice so I can get gigs doing voice overs for various things here and there. But mainly it’s writing and editing now.

Is travel writing a viable market in Taiwan, or do you have to write across different topics/platforms to make ends meet?

I think you definitely have to write across different topics and platforms to make a living. I do some travel writing for various publications, but it’s such a niche thing when you’re only dealing with one country, and a relatively small one at that. One of my regular jobs besides travel writing is covering the local music scene, but I also write about politics, sports, the arts—anything, really. You have to hustle to make ends meet, and that means being as diverse as possible. (more…)

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Category: Asia, Expat Life, Lifestyle Design, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Life

August 22, 2014

When adversity strikes, two things are under your control…

Working on Trinity

(Working on Trinity)

As you may have guessed from the photo above, the situation with Trinity went further downhill from my last post. Here’s the video I shot at the end of a very long day – when it was clear that Trinity just wasn’t going to make it home.

When Adversity Strikes - Video

(Click image to watch video)

(Note: excuse the hokey way I linked the video in – I couldn’t figure out how to embed it into the blog!)

From there, I continued limping in to Grand Junction, CO and arranged to pick up Uma the U-Haul. The last few hundred miles were going to be a different type of journey — one where I had to remember how to drive a big(ish) truck! I’ve been on the motorcycle for a few months, so there *was* a learning curve!

Meet Uma the Uhaul

(Meet Uma the U-Haul)

He’s a shot while crossing the Rockies. I really wish I’d been on bike for this, but that just means I’ll have to make another ride down – once Trinity is back on her wheels!

Uma and the Rockies

(Uma and the Rockies)

Until next time – travel safe and enjoy the ride!

Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.

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Category: On The Road, Vagabonding Advice

August 19, 2014

Considering a career break? The time is now: Meet. Plan. Go.

Location Independent

Too many of us are stuck on the merry-go-round of dreaming about a long term travel adventure and a break from the 9-5 of our careers. It seems like something that other people get to do, the lucky ones, not us. So, we stalk their blogs, we wish we knew where to start, we keep dreaming, but we remain stuck where we are.

Sound familiar?

If that’s you, if you’ve been longing to take the plunge, have an adventure and recreate your life and career on your own terms then you don’t want to miss Meet. Plan. Go. It’s a one day event, limited to only 150 participants, in NYC on September 20th. Designed by Sherry Ott and friends to give you the inspiration, encouragement and tools you need to get serious about planning, and more importantly actually taking, that career break you’ve been thinking about.

Rolf is going to be there, along with a whole team of career break veterans who will speak from personal experience about the benefits and challenges of taking the leap. Whether you’re planning a solo trip, or a year of travel with your whole family, there will be experts on hand to help move you forward.

Space is limited. Time is limited. The possibilities are endless.

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Category: Travel News

August 16, 2014

The Worst Tourists in the World

Paris20_6164I read with interest a recent study by the Trans-Global Association for Travel and Tourism Commerce, which rated the behavior of tourists from all the world’s industrialized countries. Consistently ranking last in the study — bottoming out in categories ranging from airline etiquette to podiatric hygiene — were travelers from Great Britain. “This settles it,” a TATTC spokesperson was quoted as saying. “The British are the worst tourists in the world.”

Actually, I’m just kidding. There is no such thing as the Trans-Global Association for Travel and Tourism Commerce. I made it up just now, because I know that people like to obsess over international rankings, and I’ve been looking for a chance to poke fun at the British.

Mind you, I don’t really think the British are bad tourists. To the contrary, I’ve usually found travelers from the U.K. to be friendly, well read, and quite prolific in their wanderings. You can find Brits in all corners of the world, from Valparaiso to Vladivostok, and they most always make good travel companions.

The problem I have with the British, however, is that — to a bigger extent than other travelers I’ve met — they seem to be obsessed with stereotypes of national character.

I used to think that British travelers were just disproportionately gung-ho about bashing Americans (apparently, we’re noisy, over-religious, and we’re supposed to use a “u” when we spell “color”). Over time, however, I’ve discovered that Brits also hold strong preconceptions about nearly every nationality in the travel milieu, from the Swiss (officious and dull), to the Japanese (unimaginative and over-polite), to the Argentines (narcissistic and sex-obsessed).

In fact, were I to base my perceptions entirely on the basis of Britannic generalizations, I could very well conclude that the world’s worst tourists are roughly categorized as follows:

  1. Americans: Ignorant. Loud. Oblivious to surroundings. Insincere.
  2. French: Rude. Bigoted. A trifle out of touch with reality.
  3. Germans: Humorless. Rule-obsessed. Unfriendly. Stubborn.
  4. Israelis: Rude. Cheap. Arrogant. Cliquish.
  5. Canadians: Exactly like Americans, but more polite, less ignorant, and twenty times more boring.

Before I go any further here, I will admit three things. First, I realize the circular logic inherent in making generalizations about the generalizations of British travelers (and I apologize if you happen to be one of those Brits who isn’t a nationalistic busybody). Second, I realize that half the readers who’ve stumbled across my column this week have skipped straight from the headline to the above list, and are now typing angry things in the comments section below (especially if they happen to be American, French, German, Israeli, or Canadian). And, third, I’ll concede that the British fixation with national character reveals an impressive knack for world geography (in contrast to us Americans, who associate “Vienna” less with a European city than with canned snack sausages).

Were I a more meticulous analyst, I might posit that this British tendency is the cultural residue of Victorian-era self-superiority (vivid examples of which can be found in most any 19th century British travel guidebook, one of which described Valencian Spaniards as “perfidious, vindictive, sullen, mistrustful, fickle, treacherous, smooth, empty of all good, snarling and biting like hyenas, and smiling as they murder”). Since I’m no scholar, however, I’ll just point out that the British affinity for stereotyping their fellow wanderers is a mostly harmless amplification of what all travelers do from time to time.

The problem here is that assessing your travel companions by nationality is rarely an earnest inquiry so much as it is a dull parlor game — an empty exercise in rhetorical one-upmanship. The worst travelers in the world are, after all, the rude, small-minded ones — and rude, small-minded travelers can hail from any nation.

Moreover, most hostel-lounge arguments about which countries export good or bad travelers fail to take in the local perspective. A few years ago, a survey conducted by international tourist offices found that the oft-disparaged Germans and Americans were rated most favorably by host communities around the world. This rating didn’t hinge on cultural or aesthetic opinions, but the simple fact that Germans and Americans spend money more generously than their tourist counterparts. Economic benefit, it would appear, was more important to local hosts than the common traveler obsessions with fashion, geopolitics, and collective behaviors in tacky backpacker nightclubs.

My point, then, is a simple one: The next time you find yourself in a heated argument over which nation produces the best or worst tourists, this is probably an indicator that you’ve been spending too much time yapping in hostel lounges and not enough time outside having engaged adventures.

And that, in its own way, means you’re a bad tourist.

Tip sheet: How to avoid being an ugly American (or wherever it is you’re from)
1) Study up on the local culture.

Get to know something about a place before you go there. Read novels and travel books about the region, and study guidebooks to learn about customs, manners, and cultural norms. Learn a few phrases of the language (such as greetings, thank yous, numbers, and food terms). Keep in mind that culture expresses itself at an instinctive level — not an intellectual level — and that different standards of time, courtesy, and personal service may apply in far-off lands.

2) Listen, and ask questions.

On the road, make it a habit to talk less and listen more. Travel is hardly the time to extol the virtues (or shortcomings) your home country; instead be curious about how people think in the place you’re visiting. Ask follow-up questions. Seek to maintain open-mindedness, which is a process of listening and considering — of muting your compulsion to judge what is right and wrong, good and bad, proper and improper, and having the tolerance and patience to try and see things for what they are.

3) Avoid arguing politics.

Avoid political proselytizing, regardless of which end of the political spectrum you think you represent. At home, political convictions are a tool for getting things done within your community; on the road, political convictions are a clumsy set of experiential blinders, compelling you to seek evidence for conclusions you’ve already drawn. If you really are liberal and enlightened (or conservative and informed) you will stop yammering about politics and learn something about the culture you’re visiting.

4) Avoid traveling in large groups.

If your sorority or church group or wiccan pilates club decides to travel to Paris or Quito or Bangkok as an eight-some, do everyone a favor and split into groups of two. This will make you less noisy, less self-enclosed, more approachable, and more open to what’s going on around you. If nobody wants to split off from the group with you, tackle the day solo. I guarantee that you will have more memorable adventures on your own than with a big group of travelers.

5) Give respect and you get respect.

Having rigid stereotypes about individuals you haven’t taken the time to know is silly in all contexts. As a representative of your own country, the best way to win respect is to show respect to everyone you meet. Odds are, your hosts will return the favor.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Oct. 9, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Hospitality, Hostels/Hotels, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

August 14, 2014

7 paradises for 7 loves

I have recently decided that wander-lusters come in many varieties- many more than I had thought. You know, we like to find our commonalities so it is comfortable to believe that a traveler is a traveler is a traveler is a traveler. But one man’s treasure is another one’s trash. That is true for the non-material treasures we find out on the road just as it is in “real life” back home with material things.

For instance when my husband and I were conversing about the reasons why we travel, one man said that our travel style would not be his idea of a good time at all, even though he considers himself a traveler too. For him, travel is about photography and natural beauty. And if he can’t take his camera lenses somewhere, then it won’t be as joyful to be there.

The fact is, there are as many types of travelers as there are types of people. There are people who love history and that’s why they travel. And people who love people and that’s why they travel. Or people who love animals and that’s why they travel. It goes on and on.

Of course, most of us who love travel probably have many passions sourcing that love. We love people and adventure and culture and artwork and nature…and that is why we travel.

For that reason, it can be hard to answer that question…”Where was your favorite place to travel to?” One place fuels one passion while another place fuels another.

Thus, I give you my 15 paradises for my 15 different passions.

1.) Zakynthos- paradise for the lover of simplicity.

Zakynthos

 

Zakynthos is just the place to go to feel like the rest of the world’s hustle is out of reach. The towns are small and everything is on “island time.” The day’s itinerary often included “jumping into blue water” and “riding a scooter along the cliffs.”

2.) Amritsar- paradise for the lover of culture.

golden temple

Amritsar is essentially the birthplace of the Sikhs and is home of their most important temple, the Golden Temple. Unlike some religious sights, the Golden Temple is both accommodating to tourists and apathetic of them. I love that. They are purely going about their own religious duties here and while tourists are welcome (as long as they cover their heads and remove their shoes,) there are no disgenuine displays for them.

It’s a place to soak up a genuinely fascinating series of religious practices. Men and women bathe in the waters, there is a kitchen dedicated to serving literally thousands of poor people and visitors, and many of the men have enormous turbans and long swords at their sides, important pieces of the Sikh disciplines.

3.) Vienna, Austria- paradise for the lover of architectural beauty.

rathaus

Anyone who’s been to Prague disagrees with me on this but I have yet to see Prague (hopefully this fall). So until I see Prague, Vienna wins out as my favorite city for architectural beauty. Every building has that gorgeous stature of something built in a time when things were beautiful instead of efficient. The effect is quite romantic. Unfortunately the Rathaus, one of the most impressive buildings in Vienna, is frequently hosting private festivals, parties, events, etc. So you cannot always get very close to it if a special event is going on.

Not to worry though. Every other building is beautiful too.

4.) Queenstown, New Zealand- paradise for the lover of adventure sports.

sheep in new zealand

Queenstown is not only gorgeous but also has at least three different area mountains for skiing, snowboarding, etc. etc, including The Remarkables which are…remarkable! But you aren’t out of luck if you dislike skiing or snowboarding. You can go sky-diving or hang-gliding or hiking. There’s something for everyone.

5.) Switzerland- paradise for the lover of natural beauty.

switzerland

 

Switzerland is full of incredible views at every turn. Just driving to your destination is an activity in and of itself simply for the scenery throughout the Swiss Alps. Unfortunately, it’s heinously expensive.

6.) Bangkok, Thailand- paradise for the lover of delicious, affordable food!

soup with scallops

I love Thai food. Everything from the fried noodle dishes of Pad Thai and Pad See Ew to the soups like Tom Ka Gai and Tom Yum. Thai food is full of the delicious flavors of kefir lime, lemongrass, ginger, coconut milk and other novel things. If you like spicy food go for the Pad Kra Pow (minced chicken in peppers and basil) or if you like the sweeter dishes, go for the Tom Ka Gai, (a coconut based soup with straw mushrooms, pea eggplants and other quintessentially Thai ingredients.)

Bangkok in particular is a good spot for Thai food because you will be able to find Northern Thai dishes as well as Southern Thai dishes. Also Bangkok has lots of street vendors with quality dishes for sometimes even less than a dollar.

7.) Fiji- paradise for the lover of exotic snorkeling.

what was this thing?

Fiji is not only home to some pretty amazing tropical fish, but to some impressive soft corals as well, which contributes greatly to its popularity as a spot for diving and snorkeling. Snorkeling is a beautiful adventure in the Yesawas where there’s no telling what you’ll see in the clear waters. (…anyone know what that thing in the picture is? We could never figure it out!)

 

Next time someone asks you where your “favorite place to travel” is, what will you say? Do you have a favorite place for each of your interests?

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Category: Asia, Europe, Images from the road, Oceania

August 10, 2014

The Value of Time

It’s an increasingly accepted as fact that, as a nation, we have allowed a work culture to develop where taking time off is seen a sign of disloyalty or lack of care, and where extended time off is more of a concept than a reality. It’s also a given that more and more data suggest that the costs of this approach in stress and lack of free time for rest, recreation and family is having a profoundly detrimental effect on our society.

Traveling in Europe always brings the difference between the US and European cultures with regard to work/life balance was illustrated in sharp relief for me. It’s one thing to hear how the Europeans put priority on the “life” side of the balance, and it is another to see it in action. As many know, the Europeans enjoy social benefits such as maternity as well as paternity leave, and up to six weeks of vacation time per year.

Enjoying life.

Enjoying life.

To see the very obvious benefits of that strategic choice for a shorter work year play out in the lives of everyday Europeans illustrates the point. Watching families strolling in the parks, laughing and chatting happily, on a weekday afternoon or visiting with friends over a drink in a café—enjoying the free time their generous benefits affords them—is to reinforce any stressed-out American’s suspicion that we are on the wrong side of the equation.

Of course, there are economic trade-offs along with such benefits. With less time focused on work and more time focused on free time, GDP is affected and taxes are high to support these benefits. Countries with a historically take-it-easy approach to life such as Italy and Spain had no trouble swapping time at work for time with friends, but how do these policies fare in the more traditionally industrious nations of the north? Does this bother many of them?

Not very much, it seems. “Everyone hates taxes of course,” a German told me, “but we willingly make the trade-off because it’s a good bargain. The time is more valuable.” Another said, “We made the conscious choice to arrange the society this way, with the emphasis on maternal and paternal leave and more vacation time. It has many positive benefits. We just do with a little less material things.”

In a surprising finding that bolsters the arguments of proponents for more European-syle work arrangements, a recent analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (link to the study is here) found that workplace productivity doesn’t necessarily increase with hours worked. Workers in Greece clock 2,034 hours a year versus 1,397 in Germany, for example, but the latter’s productivity is 70 percent higher. In other words, there’s not necessarily the direct correlation that our system is predicated on.

“You Americans kill yourselves with antiquated work policies,” says a French acquaintance. “You have two weeks of vacation, if you are very lucky. We are a very prosperous, industrialized economy with a national healthcare service too. We make it all work.”

I knew it begged an inevitable question, and my friend asked it. “So why can’t you?”

That statement and its inevitable question was put to me many times, in many places. It is a question I brought back to the US with me. It stayed in my mind as my flight arced across the Atlantic and over the North American continent, remaining as an important souvenir. The issue was never about lingering in cafés or visiting the Alps, but rather the stuff of a good life: choices, time and freedom to make of it what we will. Would you be happier and more productive if you had more of these? What will it take for us as a society to finally demand it?

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Category: Destinations, Europe, Images from the road, Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Case Studies, Vagabonding Life

August 8, 2014

Remaining flexible and happy travel accidents

Overheated near Barstow

(Overheated near Barstow.)

Well folks – a small change in plans! I was going to do a different type of post this week and upload a video of some gorgeous canyons that I rode through in Arizona. Alas it isn’t to be. First, I’m can’t find an Internet connection with a decent upload rate. More importantly, I’m fixing poor Trinity (my beautiful companion — i.e. the Triumph above). That photo was taken near Barstow (or Baker – I don’t remember) and was the first time she’s ever overheated. It also wasn’t the last. Then, last night, I must have pissed off the biker gods, because this happened:

My poor tire

(My poor tire. Must have run over a hardware store.)

So – you can imagine that I’m pretty upset and pissed, right? Nope. If there’s one thing that travel has taught me, it’s to remain flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. I see travel and adventure as an inoculation against petty anxieties and fears. It just puts things into perspective. Sure, I have a troublesome bike and a flat tire – but I’m also traveling through some gorgeous roads in Utah. The scenery is amazing, the weather isn’t bad and there are lots of people and supplies around. Hell, I’ve broken down in Siberia with temperatures dipping below -35 degrees. I’ve broken down in the Gobi Desert after a flash rainstorm which turned everything to impassable mud. In comparison, this breakdown is pretty tame.

Then I was reminded about all the happy accidents which happen when things go awry. I was gathering supplies to tune-up Trinity and (hopefully) fix the overheating problem when I discovered the flat tire. I went back into the store for more supplies. When I came out, I noticed that a van had pulled up next to my bike. The driver introduced himself as Steve and wanted to check if I was okay. Caring people just make me feel good.

We began to swap stories and I learned that he was a retired school teacher and when he was younger had lived in the Ukraine and Latvia. What are the odds of running into someone who also enjoys the people of Eastern Europe and Russia? He also let me use his compressor and made sure I got to a nearby motel. Now I have another story to tell and a great experience.

This seems to happen over and over again. Things go off plan, we begin to improvise and happy accidents happen. I remember running getting lost, running late and thus meeting an incredible Polish family outside of Auschwitz. They gave us a a private tour of the surrounding town and invited us have dinner with them. The time we made a wrong turn in Siberia and had to turn back after half a day of battling impassible roads, only to run into a man and his son. Their snowmobile had broken down, so we gave them a lift back to the nearby village where they invited us in. That turned into one of my favorite nights on the Siberian trek. The time I crashed an ambulance into a huge drainage pipe in Mongolia. We met a wonderful man who invited us into his yurt for a traditional Mongolian meal and set us up for the night.

Some of my best memories began when things went wrong. 

How about you? What are some of your stories? When was your last “happy accident”?

Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.

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Category: On The Road, Vagabonding Advice
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