The World Laughs With Travel Writers

laughing monksBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

In the Davidsonian, Katie Lovett gives an account of a recent lecture delivered by travel writer Doug Lansky. (This Lansky character, by the way, turned down the offer of a steady gig from The New Yorker, so you gotta know he has a sense of humor.) Lovett says of Lansky:

His big break as a travel writer came with the syndication of his humor-adventure column “Vagabond”… “Vagabond” chronicled the seemingly fearless Lansky’s global exploits which included braving hotels in third world countries, mastering white water kayaking in Chile and pony trekking in South Africa.

He also goes to tamer places, like the world’s biggest indoor beach, which happens to be located in Japan, within walking distance of a real beach. He also rode an Australian ostrich and tried a little sumo wrestling, if such an expression can be used of a sport so imbued with largeness.

As we’ve seen over and over again in literature, travel and humor seem to go together like popcorn and butter. Mark Twain was hip to their compatibility, as are several contemporary writers including F. Daniel Harbecke, who offers a fascinating look at the similarities between travel and improvisational theater at Brave New Traveler.

Many seasoned travelers warn against canned humor. Most jokes just don’t translate. What does translate is a nifty attitude of openness, and willingness to be the butt of other people’s jokes. So, did you see “Zang-e-Khatar” the other night? This is almost impossible to believe, but Afghanistan is now the source of TV shows that satirize the country’s own government and government wanna-bes. Of course, some of the TV stations are owned by medieval warlords – but if you’re the Kabul version of Larry the Cable Guy, you’ve got to work with what’s available, and Afghan humorists seem to be doing just that. This report from Christian Science Monitor correspondent Issam Ahmed is a real ray of sunshine. And while we’re recommending links, here’s a funny story.

But the best stories (no, we’re not the least bit biased) come from Kevin Dolgin in The Third Tower Up From the Road. Well, the darn book had better be good for something, being as how the author promises that it contains “pretty much no practical advice.” In fact, Kevin can be downright unhelpful, as the following paragraph will illustrate:

Midnight swims are nice anywhere, but nowhere more so than in Corsica. There are no big beaches on the island, only a succession of little coves, more or less difficult to access, most of which you really have to know about in order to reach. I know of several, and, of course, there’s no way I’m going to tell you how to get to them.

Thanks a lot, Dude! But we forgive him, because he does provide plenty of tips you’ll get nowhere else, like a bar bet you might be unfamiliar with — you’ve got to finance that trip somehow, right? And the directions to an interesting locale that “could serve as a kind of polar opposite to a Zen rock garden-a place to come and screw up your head.” Irresistible, no? Within these pages are sightings of unorthodox taxidermy, the secret recipe for giant bubble liquid, and much, much more.

But it’s not all fun and games, oh no. Do you appreciate integrity? Kevin’s got it. For instance, only if he has personally test-ridden a merry-go-round will he report back to us that it’s a great merry-go-round. You can’t ask for fairer than that! On the other hand, he does tend to be the teensiest bit of a complainer once in a while:

French mountain dwellers have an inconvenient habit of roofing their buildings with corrugated metal, for the unconvincing reason that the snow slides off it nicely. How dare they ruin my aesthetic experience for the sake of mundane practicality!

But then, we’re talking about a guy who gets his kicks from accosting total strangers in foreign climes and saying silly things about hedgehogs. So, consider the source.

photo courtesy of Swami Stream , used under this Creative Commons license

In Belgium: the Ever-alluring Town called Bruges

bruges
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Andrew Hickey, a.k.a The Brooklyn Nomad, is into “Movies That Make You Want To Travel,” and he finds that In Bruges is one such movie. Along with the Matador site, where we found this, Hickey’s travel writing has been published by USA Today and The New York Times, among many others. Here, he unleashes his inner Siskel&Ebert, with an appreciation of a number of movies, based on their alluring backdrops. He names the feature films that made him want to visit Barcelona, Las Vegas, Tuscany, Provence, London, Dublin, Tokyo, and more. So anyway, back to Bruges. Hickey says:

If you can not have a good time in Belgium then something is seriously wrong with you. A place that is known for some of the best chocolate and beer on the planet? Perfect!

Ah yes, the chocolate. It’s said that one of the best places to find it is in the city’s famous Christmas Markets. The staff of Travelbite gives us the locations of Belgium’s four chocolate museums — one in Bruges, of course — along with some fascinating history. Examiner Susan Fogwell delineates the attractions of Belgian confections in what amounts to a lyrical piece of choco-porn. (You must be over 18 to view the page.) The author is a flight attendant and, naturally, a farflung traveler.

In The Third Tower Up From the Road, Kevin Dolgin calls this one of the most beautiful little cities in northern Europe, and recommends taking a carriage ride. We hear that the canal boat rides aren’t bad, either. Legend says a German general who was ordered to destroy Bruges in WWII refused to. Now there’s a war hero. Anyway, it’s one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites and, some say, a little too well supplied with tourists. Well, how would they know, unless they were tourists, too? Hmmmm?

Kevin’s memoir of Bruges is titled “Les frites de la liberté,” which means Freedom Fries, and that’s what it’s mainly about. In this neck of the woods, the claim to fame made by frites is that they are served with more condiments than you’ve ever heard of.

But wait, there’s more, and no, we’re not talking about beer, although the brews of Belgium are well worth talking about. A traveler known as Velo Swiss says, “Bruges is also known for a soothing tonic called Leffe, which did take the edge off a long day.”

Bonus question: On your desert island, if you could have only one Belgian treat, would it be chocolate, beer, or fried potatoes?

photo courtesy of by Wolfgang Staudt, used under this Creative Commons license

Extreme Travel: Gypsies and Rubber Tramps

hippie vanBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

What does a scaler of Everest have in common with a guy sitting on a piece of driftwood on the Oregon shore who hasn’t climbed ten feet above sea level for years? They’re both extreme travelers.

For a lot of people, “extreme” doesn’t necessarily mean going to a remote place, or performing impressive physical deeds, or even seeking a particular kind of thrill. For some, travel is not an occasional luxury, or even a periodic obligation, but a way of life. The “extreme” part is the unending duration of it, and the danger that isn’t sought but that comes anyway.

America has its share of eternally restless wanderers who make their homes in old buses, vans, and even cars. Sooner or later, most of them pass through Venice, California. This piece looks at a few of them, who were featured in Rubber Tramps, a documentary directed by Max Koetter and produced by Kenny Rosen. The film crew started in Venice and worked its way up the California coastline to Oregon, interviewing and immortalizing a fascinating array of road folks such as these:

Ceramic artist Patty has run afoul of the rules governing sales on the boardwalk…During the filming of Rubber Tramps, Patty’s home on wheels was destroyed by fire, and the filmmakers gave her one of their buses. RomTom has spent plenty of time in Venice during his travels, and wrote a good portion of his book Comporting Roadwise in a local cafe.

For a fuller look at the “cast,” the film’s MySpace page shows the whole spectrum: the Vietnam veteran and his son; the Deadhead; the schizophrenic; the Greyhound employee; the aging black bluesman; the various troubadours and philosophers whose words and lives make this such an inspiring chronicle of alternative lifestyles. The film is stitched together with segments of a Ken Kesey interview, as the grand old man tromps around his Oregon farm. It was the last major film project of Kesey’s life. There’s even some antique footage of beat icon Neal Cassady driving the Merry Pranksters’ bus, Furthur.

The ability to be at home anywhere is, nowadays, an extreme life skill. But it used to be the only game in town, back when there was no town. Our roaming hunter-gatherer ancestors knew how to make the whole world their comfort zone. It’s genetic, mostly dormant, but still active in the true Gypsies. The Romany people have been persecuted for centuries, forced into urban ghettos to put an end to their roving, and then persecuted some more. In Europe and the United Kingdom they’re marginalized, and even tolerant Canada is undergoing a wave of Romophobia. In the Czech Republic alone, there have been at least 35 racially motivated murders of Gypsies in the past 20 years. In The Star, Rosie Dimanno, who writes prolifically about the world political scene, provides a summary of the current situation.

At the end of July, 150 Romanian gypsies showed up in Prague because a 17-year-old said to be the “prince” was in the hospital and not expected to live. (It should be noted that one of the gypsy secrets, revealed by a trustworthy source, is that there’s no such thing as Gypsy royalty, it’s just public relations BS to fool the gajos.) They camped someplace, and there were no problems. Then, the public health officials got involved, because to cook out in the open is unsanitary. The Gypsies camped someplace else, but got kicked out of there because it’s a natural heritage site. Then they camped somewhere else…

Well, the young man died. The Gypsies didn’t have enough money to transport the body back to Romania. Not even a third of it. So they hit up the Prague city fathers and the Romanian embassy, which said it would let them know in a couple of weeks. At another campground, the city declined to provide the Gypsies with portable toilets or tanks of drinking water. They might like it too much and decide to stay. They are the archetypal NIMBY triggers. (Somewhat like halfway houses, recycling plants, and various other things that are recognized as good, but to which the average urban dweller is likely to object, saying “not in my back yard.”) Civilized people think the Rom should just get over themselves and settle down. But in some other back yard.

photo courtesy of Dennis Wong , used under this Creative Commons license

No Voyage, Great Lies: Take a Lie-cation

uluru
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Ever wondered how to survive in troubled economic times, and yet extract your share of fun from life, too? There’s an old Italian adage, “Long voyages, great lies.” Well, guess what? The world has changed, and things are different now. The new proverb goes, “No voyage, great lies.” Take that, old Italians! We want the best of both worlds: bragging rights to a ripsnortin’ experience that will make our friends faint with envy, and a budget demand that approaches zero. So, when the going gets tough, the tough go on a “lie-cation.”

The guru who turned us on to this concept is Scott Carmichael of Gadling. His very pragmatic and helpful article is rife with useful real-world hints on how convince everyone that you’re back from fascinating journey, and did not, for instance, spend your hard-earned two weeks holed up in your own basement rec room, screening a porno-thon. Carmichael’s technique brings finesse to every detail of how to create a fantasy vacation and make it credible to the most discerning ear. Here’s one of his tips for getting away with it:

Want people to think you are in France? Find yourself a French webmail service, sign up, and send emails to your friends. You’ll need to be able to read or translate the site in order to sign up, but before you know it, you’ll be emailing people from your bigfatliar@ French webmail account.

This guide covers picking the destination; photos and other physical evidence (both pre- and post-liecation); souvenirs; and necessary homework to avoid being tripped up by details. You will, of course, check the weather in the place where you’re supposed to have been. And Carmichael also recommends a last-resort escape hatch, if you’re uncomfortably close to being busted for your tall tales. It cannot be revealed here, but he also suggests other ploys.

For instance: go for the mystery. Concoct one enigmatic, “heavy,” all-purpose phrase to stymie every inquiry. Maybe your story is that you’ve been doing “disaster tourism.” One way to go about it is, name a trouble spot, and start describing. All crumbled buildings and roasted automobiles look pretty much the same, after all. But if that is too much of a strain on the imagination, this genre has an advantage over some others. If the questions become too specific, you can always threaten an emotional meltdown: “I’m sorry, I just can’t talk about it.”

If, on the other hand, verbal embroidery is meat and drink to you, then by all means choose a lie-cation that leaves plenty of space for improvisation — for instance, by planning an itinerary composed of Weird and Odd Hotels. At Budget Travel, John Rambow offers a splendid list of such establishments, including those where you can sleep in a wine cask or a coffin. Jason Cochran at the same site actually published one of these fabulous lists first. These places are supposed to be odd and weird, right? So you can make up just about anything. Maybe get a few postcards through eBay beforehand, and you’re all set.

As long as you didn’t go anyway, make it a good story. Make it really outrageous. So bizarre that you couldn’t possible be inventing it. Tell your astonished listeners that you were one of the chosen beta-testers in the brand new space tourism industry. (Examiner Jay Hammond tells more about this.) Speak knowingly of physiological effects of acclimation during space flight.

Or make it really boring. Tell people you hooked up with one of those genealogy travel specialists, and start tracing for them the roots of your family tree. We guarantee, they will soon lose interest and stop pestering you. You could say you went on a Famous Gardens tour, but were so captivated by Sissinghurst that you jettisoned the group and stayed on there, and then you could branch out into a gossip tangent about the love life of famous gardener Vita Sackville-West, and before you know it, you’re out of the woods.

elephantIn the realm of the mystical, there are plenty of ideas to choose from. Tell everyone you went walkabout, and then joined up with the last wild group of Aborigines in Australia. (Hey wait, hasn’t that already been done?) Tell them you went on a Vision Quest with Stalking Wolf. Tell them you traveled for altruistic reasons. Don’t name a group like Medecins Sans Frontiers — it’s too easy to check up on. But you can safely claim to have flown over to Bangkok — they keep terrible records over there — to join a volunteer task force and help get the begging elephants out of the city.

In the New York Times, James Estrin introduces and presents an amazing suite of photos , taken by Brent Lewin, of the Thai elephants. In July, it was reported that about 200 beasts are routinely turned loose by their mahouts, on the streets of Bangkok, to scrounge for food. The government decided that the best solution would be to buy the elephants. So far, an organization called “Smiling Elephants” has purchased a total of one elephant, using funds donated by the public. We’re thinking this lie-cation will probably remain viable for quite some time.

Tell us about your dream lie-cation!

Uluru photo courtesy of bobster855, used under this Creative Commons license,

Elephant photo courtesy of Joe Hastings, used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writing and China: The Giant Dragon of Henan and More

dragon 2By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Kevin Dolgin, the author upon whose book this column embroiders, is fond of both dragons and statues. So, in a veritable explosion of inspiration, we Googled up “statue + dragon”, and found a story from the Xinjua News Agency. It’s complete with pictures, including one that looks like an aerial photo, but must be an artist’s rendering.

In the middle of China, in Henan Province, there’s a mountain called Shizu, with a long backboney ridge and an expanse of national forest around it. The entrepreneurial Zulong Company set out to build a 13-mile-long dragon along the crest of the mountain, pretty much like the Great Wall, actually, only this structure would have a 100-foot-high dragon head at one end and additional tourist attractions like museums and shops inside its body. The symbolic purpose would be to celebrate the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic.

The article reads:

Some 5.6 million pieces of white marble and gilded bronze are to form the dragon’s scales as a move that is “symbolic of the country’s 56 ethnic groups.” Display rooms offering themes of filial piety and patriotism are to be set up in the dragon’s hollow body. For a fee, people will be able to have their names and messages inscribed on the scales, and companies can advertise on the dragon’s head.

What an audacious concept! The company got as far as constructing half a mile of the body, plus a large portion of the head, when the press and the public got wind of it and started to raise hell. Bitter controversy ensued, with the opposing sides saying the same things opposing parties everywhere always say. One faction claims it’s a waste of money and bad for the environment; the other says tourists will come, and local residents will be employed. The builder says the government promised to support the project. But the government apparently changed its mind. (“One thing to keep in mind in China: never become obsessive about finding the answer to seeming illogical behavior. There’s so much of it that you could go crazy.” – Kevin Dolgin)

Okay, now the plot thickens. From a very official-looking web page simply titled “Tour,” we learn that Shizu Mountain and its surroundings constitute on official beauty spot, with a recreational park for “tourism and sightseeing, holidaying, and patriotism education.” But not, apparently, a giant dragon. What has been done or will be done with the parts of the dragon already built is a mystery. There is, however and incidentally, another dragon project mentioned on the page, this one in Puyang City, called the “Restoration Project of the ruins of the First Dragon in China.” It concerns the construction of a dragon theme park to include a sage’s musum, a sage’s temple, an ancient school, and best of all, a mythical paradise.

But there’s more on the Shizu Dragon elsewhere: a report by Jeffrey Hays called “Facts and Details” says, “The project was halted in 2007 for lack of a permit.” Such a shame, after all that work and expense, and besides, the trees were already cut down.

At “Eat, Run, Read,” Mollie shares her impressions of a book called Lost on Planet China: On Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation by J. Maarten Troost, with some interesting excerpts from Troost, and a yummy noodle recipe thrown in. In “Rumbles on the Rim of China’s Empire,” Edward Wong, who has written extensively on Asia for The New York Times, talks about the Xinjiang autonomous region and its troubles, some of which stem from the immigration of many former Henan residents (who might have been able to stay home, if the 13-mile dragon project had survived bureaucratic entanglements). There’s a marvelous-sounding book called Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China, that includes centuries worth of travel writing by Chinese authors, and can apparently be downloaded online for free.

Kevin has been to China, specifically to Grand Epoch City, which is the subject of one of his most entertaining dispatches in The Third Tower Up From the Road. The titular tower is part of the Great Wall, and what it’s up the road from is Huanghuacheng, in a section of the Wall that was only recently opened for public consumption, and it’s not the part that tourists usually visit. This tale is also dragon-related — not the long slinky fiery type of dragon, but the lady Kevin and his friend had to pay, so they could climb her ladder.

Do you have an example of the mystery and illogic of China? Send it in!

photo courtesy of gwydionwilliams , used under this Creative Commons license

Taxis of the World: Survive Them!

New York TaxisBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

For Today’s Zaman, Kathy Hamilton collected stories about Istanbul taxi drivers, meticulously detailed anecdotes such as we might hear if we sat down with the author over a few beers. She wants us to understand that the horror stories are not typical, but still…. Actually, most of what Hamilton says is probably applicable in any large city on the globe. Here’s a sample of her hard-headed Turkish Taxis 101 advice :

For the day rate, the meter will display the word gündüz. The night rate is in effect from midnight until 6 a.m., and the meter will then display the word gece. If the wrong fare base is displayed, do not hesitate to tell the driver. If he argues, says the meter is broken or offers to drive to your destination for a flat rate, do not take that cab.

Torsa Ghosal, who writes on style and popular culture for the Kolkata Mirror, discusses the difficulty encountered by a journalist when trying to conduct tourist-in-the-street interviews in India. Because they are so incessantly importuned by beggars, visitors soon develop a reflex to repulse anybody. They become kind of unapproachable in general. Interviewees who do stop to talk, tend to feel that the city formerly known as Calcutta is the least westernized Indian metropolis, and the one where you’re most likely to find a truly cosmopolitan population mix.

In The Korea Herald, Yoo Jeong-jin offers an extensive course in how to recover any items you might have lost in a taxi. First, the author notes that the subway has a great tracking system for lost articles, and tells exactly how to activate it, and we do mean exactly. Same with the buses, as well as the taxis. This may be the most thorough advice ever offered on how to retrieve lost belongings, in any city anywhere, ever.

The drivers of taxis in many countries are routinely accused of overcharging, for instance in Kolkata, where a tourist might be hit up for two or three times the standard rate. In some places they are notorious for refusing short trips they deem unworthy of their attention. Anyone who thinks affiliate marketing originated with the Internet has another think coming: a taxi driver might have forged such links with local businesses, that he’ll only take you where you want to go if you stop off, en route, at some of his friends’ establishments. And of course there’s the old take-the-long-way-around trick.

One traveler recommends learning enough of the local language to give the impression that you know what you’re doing. What do you say? When paying the driver, you say “Here is a twenty-dollar bill. I should be getting eight dollars back,” or whatever the local currency is. This person feels that there is power in explictness. And in keeping your eyes peeled, because these scoundrels will try to switch denominations on you. Another good reason to speak the lingo is, as Sian Powell put it, “Asking what the hell is going on in sign language is very difficult from the back of a cab.”

Matters of taxi adequacy are voted on by travelers who compare notes online. Athens, it appears, has the filthiest vehicles, New York the worst drivers, and Paris the rudest. As for survival, it’s always a good idea to look for taxi stands, and only take cabs that wear the regulation colors and accouterments. They should be proudly displaying their phone number on every available surface. Ask the hotel staff beforehand how much it should cost to get someplace, and confirm that with the driver before you get in.

Make sure the inside of the door has a handle. Keep your stuff with you, not in the trunk, in case you feel the need to evacuate the vehicle suddenly. And feel free to bail out, as long as you first drop (or fling, as the case may be) onto the driver’s seat enough cash to cover the distance you’ve gone. Do your homework, have a general idea what direction you’re supposed to be going in – towards or away from the mountains, for instance. Keep an eye on street signs. Pray.

Kevin Dolgin is the nicest fella you’d ever want to meet, not the type to carelessly stereotype or slander his fellow human beings. So, when even he casts a jaundiced eye upon a class of people, it kind of makes you sit up and take notice. “Don’t believe the taxi drivers” is what Kevin says, and plenty else about taxis, in The Third Tower Up From the Road – including his personal survival strategy, which cannot be divulged here.

But we’d like to hear yours.

New York Taxis photo courtesy of shedboy, used under this Creative Commons license

Literary Travel in the United Kingdom

gordale scarBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Who should know literary tourism better than the author of 17 novels, plus a slew of biographies and screenplays and critiques, and now, a memoir called The Pattern in the Carpet? Margaret Drabble recently put together a splendid list of literary tourism destinations for the Guardian, introducing it with a remark about best-selling author Dan Brown that could be interpreted as dismissive or worse. And some sincere words about writers of yore, and their favored surroundings:

I am one of many who read the landscape through those who wrote about it and the words of our great landscape writers – Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Hardy, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath – sound in my ears as I walk and wander.

Some of Drabble’s picks are predictable, but that’s not to imply they are banal. There is, after all, a reason why the classics are the classics, and that goes for places, as well as books. The lighthouse in Cornwall that meant so much to Virginia Woolf, for instance. Stonehenge — not only for its own sake, but because it inspired Thomas Hardy and William Wordsworth, both highly esteemed literary figures whose reputations are unlikely to fade. Tintern Abbey and Tintagel; the Lake District; and Haworth, home of the Brontes, whose environs she describes as “numinous.”

The list also encompasses many low-profile locales, like Burslem, which figured in the novels of Arnold Bennett. In Burslem, one can still find “picturesque pot banks,” whatever those might be. Drabble names Goredale Scar, pictured on this page, and Malham, an important place in one of her own novels. Poet Thomas Gray is also associated with this lovely section of the world. Remember “An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard”? Not the catchiest title, but a number of his phrases became immortal, especially “far from the madding crowd” which Hardy borrowed as title for one of his novels. And Gray knew from graveyards: among the twelve children his mother bore, he was the only one who made it past infancy.

Then there’s Aldeburgh, which has associations with George Crabbe and Benjamin Britten. Nowadays, it’s the site of a renowned literature and music festival. And do not neglect the Quantocks, a place of transcendent value to Coleridge and Wordsworth, and others who knew transcendence when they saw it.

Andrew Lycett highlights some features of the Wales of Dylan Thomas in The Times. This is a pretty fascinating look at the “curious love-hate relationship with the Welsh countryside” experienced by the poet. He talks about visiting the boathouse in Laugharne where the Thomas once lived, and defines the different significance that three different parts of Wales had for him, and reveals what happened at Worm’s Head. The Times also sponsors other literary walks, such as “Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall,” “Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh,” and “William Blake’s London.” But here’s a question. How many writers are not somehow associated with London? Even Karl Marx wrote some pretty famous stuff there.

If you go up to Scotland, you can hang out in places previously frequented by Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Jimmy Lowe shared in the Glasgow Daily Times an account of doing just that, and much more besides, when he and his wife toured the United Kingdom with literature on their minds. And should you ever consider buying a house in Britain, you can hire a certified house historian to ferret out any literary associations if might have. At Mail Online, Gwenda Brophy — another of those writers enamored of London — tells marvelous stories about historic homes, quoting specialist Melanie Backe-Hansen, who says:

Certain places are a magnet for writers. Carlyle Mansions, on Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, is referred to as the writers’ block as it’s been home to well-known figures such as Ian Fleming and T. S. Eliot.

Wander around England long enough, and you’ll see places that bear the stamp of Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, George Eliot, Vita Sackville-West, John Bunyan, Bram Stoker, J. K. Rowling, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, A.A. Milne, etc., etc., etc. And that’s just novelists and poets. We haven’t even started on the painters yet.

photo courtesy of gaspa, used under this Creative Commons license