November 16, 2014

Veterans Day and Historic Military Sites

Veterans’ Day in the US and the UK is replete with ceremonies (concerts and parades in the US, red poppies in the UK) to commemorate those who served their country in uniform. Aside from a great opportunity to thank those that fought in foreign lands, it’s a great opportunity to remember some of the historic sites that can give testament to the events they witnessed.

While some sites are now little more than quiet fields that have been reclaimed by nature, many places can still pack an educational punch that leaves the visitor still give the visitor a sense of the enormity and ruthlessness of war.

Here are a couple of my recent favorites:

Duxford Airbase and Imperial War Museum, Duxford, England

Revered as a major Royal Air Force (RAF) base during the legendary “Battle of Britain”, RAF Duxford also boasts an Imperial War Museum. With more than 200 historic aircraft ranging from rickety World War I biplanes to the B-17 Flying Fortress to the SR-71 Blackbird, the collection is arguably the finest in Europe. Also on display is part of the Imperial War Museum’s vast trove of historic photographs, uniforms and documents.

RAF Duxford exhibits

RAF Duxford exhibits

RAF Duxford, situated in bucolic countryside outside Cambridge, was founded during World War I but earned its place in history during the darkest days of World War II. In preparation for his planned invasion of Britain, Hitler launched the full might of the Luftwaffe at England’s factories and cities in 1940.

The bombs killed indiscriminately. His aim was as psychological as it was practical; he sought to terrorize the population and break Britain’s will to fight. It fell to the undermanned RAF to defend the homeland.

As the sector station for Fighter Command’s No. 12 Group, Duxford Air Base was in the thick of the battle. Casualties were immense. The pilots who fought in the Battle were enshrined in lore as “The Few”.

Historic air show at RAF Duxford

Historic air show at RAF Duxford

In June 1944 the planes launched from the same runways would protect the Allied fleet as it steamed toward Normandy. It would also gain fame as one of the homes of the fighter escorts for the Allied bombers that pulverized Nazi Germany’s industrial might.

RAF Duxford continued as a fighter station after the war and was decommissioned in the 1970’s. With over thirty authentic buildings recognized by the British government for their historical significance, the base was granted to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in 1976 and has been a world-class center of exhibits and education ever since.

***

Mulberry Harbors and Museum, Arromanches, France

The tiny French coastal town of Arromanches, perched on the sands of Normandy, holds another of my favorite war sites. Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the beach village had its fate permanently altered when it was chosen to be the main port of the Allies.

One of the most vexing logistical challenges for D-Day planners was the issue of transferring the move millions of pounds of Allied soldiers, vehicles, weapons, and supplies from ship to shore once the troops had established a beachhead. At Churchill’s order, engineers were set to the monumental task of constructing giant ports nicknamed “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to accomplish the feat.

Remains of Mulberry Harbor, Arromanches, Normandy

Remains of Mulberry Harbor, Arromanches, Normandy

Before the blood had washed away from the Normandy sand, the ports were unloaded from ships and attached by brave engineers under enemy fire. While bullets still flew the ports were operational and offloading tons of materiel per hour for the final push against Hitler’s Riech.

Today, a very well done museum perches above the coast and describes the incredible engineering task undertaken to build the ports. It gives even a layman like me a good idea of how this was pulled off, and of the massive challenges (storms, waves, German gunfire) that the Mulberry builders had to contend with.

Remains of Mulberry Harbor, Arromanches, Normandy

Remains of Mulberry Harbor, Arromanches, Normandy

But this isn’t the most moving part of the area; the really evocative sights are sitting just off the coast and demand no entrance fee. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports themselves. The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a silent reminder of the world-changing event that came to Normandy’s shores. And they remind us of the ordinary people—most now passed away—who found themselves swept up in the gale force of history.

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Category: Europe, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing

November 11, 2014

Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India

Magic Bus

This book found me, not the other way around. Tucked between a hat from the Karen region in the north of Thailand, an Indian pashmina and a pile of silk and cotton shawls plucked from market stalls across Indonesia. I pulled a long, tie dyed piece from the depths of the cardboard box, draped it over my shoulder, and gently picked up the book: The Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India The treasures were selections made by my friend Chris on his last winter wander through Southeast Asia. We’d traded stories and laughs late into the night before and in the morning, he appeared with his trove of tangible memories and insisted I choose something as a souvenir of our friendship. I chose the scarf, and the book.

Rory MacLean is a magician. His story weaves past into present in a way that simultaneoulsy makes the reader long for the good ol’ days and celebrate the present journey. If the early days of hippie travel, overland between Istanbul and India sing to your soul, read this book. With an amazingly lucid eye he examines the often romanticized era and ties the strings between those first intrepid journeys into parts of the world that were relatively unexplored by western travelers and the resultant changes, for better or for worse. His stories made me long to camp in the caves near Cappadocia, and renewed my desire to walk, alone, across Iran. If you’re looking for a winter escape, may I suggest hopping on the Magic Bus and reliving a journey that defined a generation of travelers?

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Category: Travel Writing

October 25, 2014

On Baksheesh

Egyptian Train

Photo Credit: walidhassanein via Compfight cc
I’m riding a second-class train up the Nile valley when a boy in an official-looking blue jacket beckons me to the other side of the carriage.

“Look,” he whispers, pointing outside. “Beautiful!”

I look out the window to see a red sun streaking the sky with bands of pink and yellow. Beyond the train tracks, the mighty Nile glitters with orange spangles of light. It truly is beautiful.

As I soak in the colors, I wonder why the boy has taken the trouble to show me such a simple moment.

It’s not long before I get my answer.

“Please,” he says giving me a solemn look. “Baksheesh.”

For a moment, I’m not sure how to react. After all, baksheesh may be an accepted Eastern form of tipping — but this is the first time I’ve been asked to pay for a sunset.

When Mark Twain visited the Pyramids in 1866, he reportedly suffered “torture that no pen can describe” from the various Egyptian pleas for baksheesh. One hundred years before that, a French visitor complained bitterly about the amounts of baksheesh it took just to dig up and steal a decent mummy.

These days — while its no longer legal to climb the Pyramids or rifle through mummy pits — baksheesh is still a thriving racket wherever tourists are found.

Take my recent visit to Luxor. Whenever I took out my map, some enterprising soul would hustle over and offer me directions. Whenever I entered a tomb, children would fight over who got to fan me with a piece of cardboard. Had I been eating corn on the cob, I’m sure one of them would have produced some dental floss.

If there is any saving grace about baksheesh, it’s that Egyptians use it among themselves as well as on tourists. Most Egyptians earn low wages, so tips and payoffs are seen as a way to provide incentive and supplement an income. Nobody in Cairo, it is said, can get basic services such as mail or electricity without slipping a little baksheesh to the right people.

So, as with any local custom, the best way to get the hang of baksheesh is to watch how the natives do it. Thus, I no longer hesitate to plunk down a few piasters when I get fast and friendly service in a coffee shop, or when the baggage-handler climbs on top of the bus to fetch my bag.

In the end, the baksheesh ritual becomes a matter of trusting your instincts and acting like you know what you’re doing.

And this is why I reach into my pocket and give the boy in the blue jacket 50 piasters.

After all, 15 cents isn’t such a bad price to pay for a sunset — and I might have missed it otherwise.

 

To hear the audio version, read by Rolf, visit Savvy Traveler

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Category: Hospitality, Languages and Culture, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Styles

September 28, 2014

Book Review VANISHING TALES FROM ANCIENT TRAILS by James Dorsey

VANISHING TALES FROM ANCIENT TRAILS by James Dorsey, 2014, Vagabundo Magazine Publishing. Buy on Amazon.

DorseyVanishingTrailsWhen I first found his writing on celebrated travel webzine Perceptive Travel, there was one thing that made me an instant James Dorsey’s fan. It was the amount of literary adrenaline he was able to inject straight into readers’ eyes with the opening three lines of each and every story. Indeed, James would pull out his wordy meathook, and catch you right under the chin, pulling you into the action. You would feel the smells, sounds and fear he was trying to tell you all about. I don’t know why, but one of his simplest descriptions, “Akira tells me to follow him closely and I am practically in his back pocket” stayed with me until today: now, whenever I tell people to stay very close to my back, I tell them to “stick to my back pocket”, and I think of Dorsey’s time in Cambodia.

This is the best quality I admire in Dorsey’s writing: his simple, dry, straight forward and damn catchy list of words that one after another “dance on the page”, as Bukowsky put it. But in this case, they dance at the sound of tribal drums during a secret and ancient ritual consumed under a moonlit forest thicket. (more…)

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Category: Africa, Asia, South America, Travel Writing

September 14, 2014

Finding new perspectives on familiar places

It can be difficult to find new angles through which to view places you already know well. Human nature being what is, it takes a conscious effort to see anything through new eyes. We tend to see only what we’re familiar with, and what strikes our vision on the most surface levels: the old buildings, the people, the streets, the here-and-now bustle that is so easy to get caught up in. But shifting our approach is sometimes needed if we are to really appreciate all the layers and the richness any place has to offer.

As a travel writer I’m always forced to do this, and though it’s challenging, it always rewards me with a much deeper perspective of a city’s beating heart and long-hidden scars.

For example, trying to find a topic in which to write about can suddenly have me thinking thematically. In the case of Amsterdam, I was recently casting about for a theme. The picturesque canals and predictable clichés are worn out. I wanted to go deeper.

Clichés are lame.

Clichés are lame.

Of course, a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance in previously intolerant times is a strong undercurrent in the city’s history, shaping its character. But everyone knows about the city’s lenient attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. The pot-selling “coffeshops” and the brightly painted brothels of the Red Light District are hard to miss, and at any rate weed and sex are not exactly major taboos anymore. So, in doing this “personality profile”, as I like to view travel writing, I decided to focus on the less well-known, more hidden-in-plain-sight landmarks that quietly but effectively tell the story of Amsterdam’s legacy of tolerance in intolerant times.

The point is, looking around the city for these things forced me to look through fresh eyes. I began to notice things I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Statues and plaques commemorating Amsterdam’s history—normally easy to pass over in the bustling, thoroughly modern city—began to emerge from the background, as if reaching out through the centuries to educate me with a silent power.

Paying attention to these small reminders eventually told a story, a long and rich narrative, of how the city’s philosophy of tolerance became a beacon for many persecuted people seeking a safe refuge from their own country’s intolerance in a way that the pot bars and sex shops could not. Small churches emerged from the urban crush and hordes of camera-toting tourists, inviting me into their quiet, solemn interior just as they’d invited minority sects whose beliefs had marked them out for discrimination. Small Catholic churches in times of Protestant intolerance (and vice versa) thrived here, as did humble little synagogues that operated without interference or malice from the city’s fathers.

Around a corner from a busy street, a small brick building in a quiet courtyard bears a faded plaque indicating that English pilgrims came here to worship before heading to the New World. They prayed here, and then boarded the Mayflower to escape persecution in their home country.  They were made to feel comfortable here.

The remnants of more recent times came to the fore as well. I begin to notice the many houses bearing historical plaques indicating that the occupants courageously sheltered Jewish families during the Second Word War.

Not far away a statue of a portly, none-too-attractive dockworker seems at first glance to be a forgettable, bland post-war tribute to laborers. Look closer and you’ll find an inscription indicating that it memorializes the brave stand of the Amsterdam’s dockworkers, who staged the first strike undertaken in Occupied Europe to protest the mistreatment of the city’s Jews by the Nazis.

Statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

Statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

The strike, held a few days after 400 Jewish men were herded together on the spot where the statue now stands, was brutally put down by the SS within hours, and is remembered by few today. The statue’s rotund subject was a real-life non-Jewish dockworker who participated in the strike because he felt it was the right thing to do.

A small room in the city’s historic Dutch Theatre, once a point of assembly for Jews about to be shipped off to concentration camps, holds a humble memorial of three little stones. The memorial seems unimportant. Search for the true story, however, and you’ll find that the three stones represent a local man named Walter Suskind, his wife and small daughter. Suskind smuggled 1,200 Jewish children to safety during the war. In 1945 his work was discovered by the Nazis and he and his family were themselves sent to Auschwitz, never to return.

Hollandsche Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre)

Hollandsche Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre)

Soon I begin to understand how many centuries’ worth of brave Amsterdammers have risked it all to welcome and aid minorities in dark times, and that courage was common place in the face of tyranny. It underscores the strength of Amsterdam’s heritage of tolerance more than any fashionable pot bar or cheesy sex shop ever could.

My point is, the “what” that you look for isn’t nearly as important as the act of searching for new ways to connect to a city’s unique DNA. The important thing is looking from a thematic perspective, searching for that thread of history that informs its culture. This can provide the prism through which you can see through the here-and-now veneer and access the richness of a city’s historical character, forged in the crucible of time and trial.

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Category: Europe, Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Writing

September 12, 2014

10 Sizzling Hot Travel Tips from Sir Francis Bacon

Bacon

1) Make travel a part of your life’s education

Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience. He that travelleth into a country, before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school, and not to travel.

2) Keep a travel journal, at sea or on land

It is a strange thing, that in sea voyages, where there is nothing to be seen but sky and sea, men should make diaries; but in land travel, wherein so much is to be observed, for the most part they omit it; as if chance were fitter to be registered than observation: let diaries, therefore, be brought in use.

3) Seek interesting sights, such as:

* The courts of princes (especially when they give audience to ambassadors)
* The courts of justice (while they sit and hear causes)
* The churches and monasteries (with the monuments which are therein extant)
* The walls and fortifications of cities and towns
* The havens and harbors, antiquities and ruins
* Treasuries of jewels and robes, cabinets and rarities
* Shipping and navies
* Houses and gardens of state and pleasure, near great cities
* Armories, arsenals, magazines, exchanges, burses, warehouses

4) Seek interesting activities, such as:

* Exercises of horsemanship, fencing, training of soldiers, and the like
* Comedies, such whereunto the better sort of persons do resort
* Libraries, colleges, disputations, and lectures
* Triumphs, masks, feasts, weddings, funerals, capital executions, and such shows

5) Make use of guidebooks and local resources

Let him carry with him also some card, or book, describing the country where he travelleth, which will be a good key to his inquiry. Let him, upon his removes from one place to another, procure recommendation to some person of quality residing in the place whither he removeth, that he may use his favour in those things he desireth to see or know.

6) Seek varieties of experience, even within a single location

Let him not stay long in one city or town, more or less as the place deserveth, but not long. When he stayeth in one city or town, let him change his lodging from one end and part of the town to another, which is a great adamant of acquaintance.

7) Seek out travel companions that will challenge you

Let him sequester himself from the company of his countrymen, and diet in such places where there is good company of the nation where he travelleth. Thus he may abridge his travel with much profit. As for the acquaintance which is to be sought in travel, that which is most of all profitable is acquaintance with the secretaries and employed men of ambassadors; for so in travelling in one country he shall suck the experience of many: See and visit eminent persons in all kinds, which are of great name abroad, that he may be able to tell how the life agreeth with the fame.

8) Avoid traveling with quarrelsome people

For quarrels, they are with care and discretion to be avoided; they are commonly for mistresses, healths, place, and words; and let a man beware how he keepeth company with choleric and quarrelsome persons; for they will engage him into their own quarrels.

9) When coming home, keep your travels alive with intellectual exercise

When a traveller returneth home, let him not leave the countries where he hath travelled altogether behind him, but maintain a correspondence by letters with those of his acquaintance which are of most worth; and let his travel appear rather in his discourse than in his apparel or gesture.

10) Don’t flaunt your travel experiences to the folk back home

In his discourse let him be rather advised in his answers, than forward to tell stories: and let it appear that he doth not change his country manners for those of foreign parts; but only prick in some flowers of that he hath learned abroad into the customs of his own country.

 

Originally published by World Hum in 2008

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Category: Travel Writing

September 7, 2014

Wild Life by Lisa Alpine: a book review and interview on the importance of spontanous travel

2014-08-30 20.09.04

Have you ever wanted to leave civilization behind and embark on a multitude of journeys where you simply live and explore?

That’s exactly what Lisa Alpine did.

At 18 years old, she left sunny California for the rainy streets of Vienna and beyond, Europe. In Wild Life: Travel Adventures of a Worldly Woman, she recounts 14 stories gathered from her next 28 years of traveling.

Each chapter of the book encapsulates a complete story, set in a different year, spanning the arch of her life from 18 years old to mid-fifties. You would expect changes in her traveling viewpoint. But, other than a new love of B&B’s and 1000 thread count sheets, her love of adventure and finding herself in quirky situations never vanishes.

Deeply personal stories, they read more like imaginative fiction than non-fiction. The writing occasionally glosses over parts where I’d like more detail, but once you become accustomed to her newspaper-like style, the stories flow easier.

As a single girl in her 20′s, she travels the world, game for any new adventure. She spends a week with a Amazonian native and her three young children deep off the Amazon river. In her thirties, her young child gets passed around a remote tribe, held high above their heads. She licks a Monet to sample what art tastes like. She gets charged by an amorous dolphin who loves her polka dot bikini, his attention infuriating his harem.

Winner of many awards, including Best Travel Story of the Year 2014 Solas Silver for Fish Trader Ray, Lisa has an undeniable gift of seeing the good in people. And she has an enviable talent for making friends in unlikely situations. Add to the mix, her unshakable curiosity about the world and need to travel.

She sounds like a perfect traveling companion: unflappable, up for anything with an innate ability to attract a ride to her next destination. She’s the person who laughs instead of cries when things don’t go according to plan.

Her stories made me want to revisit New Orleans and taste the food she sampled that I somehow missed out on. Her persistently optimistic view on people makes me fight my impulse to tuck my bag closer into my body and eye my surrounding humans with distrust. She inspired me to embrace spontaneity and saying “yes,” instead of my knee-jerk “no.”

Luckily for me, I had a chance to ask her about her unique views on travel.

wild life

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from traveling?

That the world is an inherently good place filled with kind and generous people who open their hearts, minds, and lives to wandering strangers. (Despite what you read in the newspapers!)

I also trust my intuition and in the rare circumstances where I didn’t or don’t feel safe, I leave without excuses or guilt.

What inspired you to start traveling?

Hearing adventure stories from older women in my life when I was a teenager. I dedicated Wild Life to several of these adventuresses including my Grandma Lucy who lived in a mining camp in the Atacamas Desert in Chile in the 1920s. Of course, many years later I went there—the highest and driest desert on the planet— and stared at the full moon. It is a very mysterious place.

Also, I was an explorer from birth—always curious about what was around the next bend. Even as a baby I would crawl off to find bugs or wander down the street eating sour grass as I scooted along. The old lady’s koi pond a block away was a big draw. My mom called the police several times when you couldn’t find her baby girl.

Books also lured me to dream of exotic places and fed my craving for foreign-ness—the unknown—the colorful: Arabian Nights, Green Mansions, Bitter Lemons, Nobody’s Girl.

In the book, it seems like you’re always up for an adventure — how do you maintain that upbeat attitude?

I have known since childhood that life is a gift. Freedom is a gift not available to everyone, sadly.

One of the greatest insights traveling has offered me is the opportunity to befriend people who have suffered due to loss and wars. My story “Rada’s Bloom” in Wild Life is an ode to a woman who lost every family member in Auschwitz and yet survived with a loving, generous, non-judgmental nature. If Rada can smile and embrace humanity after that hell realm—I can be fully appreciative of this wonderful life I have been given.

“Smile and the whole world smiles with you” is my motto.

In the book, you enjoy venturing off the beaten path. How do you pick your next destination? Do certain countries speak to you?

Many times my travels are inspired by a book. I had to go to the Amazon after I read Green Mansions. Ditto for Israel after I read Exodus. Or I hear about a remarkable place from another traveler and it awakens an urge to see this place with my own eyes.

Most of my trips have just happened out of the blue—I met Lloyd Cottingam at a nightclub in San Francisco while dancing to Zydeco music. He invited me to work for him at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

I said “Yes”. I usually say “Yes” without thinking about it first.

Spontaneity led me to discover my love of New Orleans and all things Southern. And that leads me to my stories. “Two-Steppin’ and Pussy-Poppin” is about my nine-year annual trek to volunteer at the Jazz Fest and all the crazy people and events that happened to me there.

Recently, I wanted go to a country I’d never been before; was inexpensive (not on the Euro); and had an undeveloped tourist infrastructure: Albania!

I spent a month wandering there. What a delightful people and the countryside is gorgeous. The food is delicious and organic. There is outstanding hiking in the Albanian Alps; pristine white sand beaches on the Adriatic & Ionian Seas; intriguing Ottoman, Greek and Roman ruins; and nary a tourist in sight. A first rate travel destination, and it is safe!

Maybe I shouldn’t be sharing this information…

Many people are used to shorter trips, but struggle with the mentality of longer trips. From your years of traveling, do you have any tricks/tips on having a successful longer trip?

Instead of landing in a new country and hitting the road, I like to settle down a bit and meet people.

A good way to do that is to volunteer for a short period at a bookstore, or an orphanage, a school, an archeological dig, etc… Of course, there are organizations that can set this up but they usually come with a high price tag. Instead, put a shout-out through your social media connections.

I did this before I went to Albania. One of my writing students had a church group member who had moved there 20 years ago and become a missionary. She connected us via email. The missionary visited my website and noted I also teach dance. She invited me to teach her youth group a salsa class.

What a hoot! Not only did I hear eye-popping stories from the missionaries of their tumultuous times in Albania— but I really like Korca—the town where they live.

My son, Galen, has also traveled on many one-to-two year trips and always ends up helping people. He worked at an orphanage in Cambodia and volunteered at the Christchurch Earthquake Relief Center in New Zealand. None of this was planned but he just said “Yes” when the motorcyclist in Cambodia gave him a lift while hitchhiking and invited him to his orphanage.

Galen went to New Zealand, planning to go tramping, but landed in Christchurch just two days after a big quake destroyed much of the city. He decided on the split second he would find a place that needed his help, so instead of hitching to the mountains, he went into town and asked around. The three months he spent volunteering led to life-long friends, many invites to visit remote regions of NZ, and real job offers.

Which leads us back to being spontaneous and saying “yes” and not over-planning your trip so that when the opportunity knocks—you invite it into your life.

And it will change you and make you a fuller, richer person who can give back even more than you have received.

Read Lisa’s book

You can buy Wild Life at Indie bookstores in your area. Or hop online to get an Amazon print or get a Kindle digital editions.

Laura blogs at Waiting To Be Read where she writes about why book reading is a dying and valuable skill, next to traveling.

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Category: Travel Writing

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 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
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