Category Archives: TRAVEL WRITING

Travel Writers’ Most Memorable Bummers

outhouseBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Tim Cahill is an adventure travel writer who has visited about 100 countries and won a National Magazine Award, among other tributes. One of the founders of Outside magazine, he’s also seen his work appear in National Geographic, the New York Times Book Review, and many other places. One of those other places is The Titanic Awards, a humor-laden online complaint department where Cahill and others with stories to tell gather ’round and reveal their all-time least delightful travel experiences. We quote his unfond memories of the world’s worst outhouse:

The Throne of Terror, built at an archeological dig near Lake Paytexbatun, Guatemala. Archeologists are not biologists and constructed the two holer over an existing vertical cave populated by bats. Visitors are obliged to deal the common travelers’ ailment while angry bats swoop and dive about in a maelstrom of rage.

By strange coincidence, a bat-infested privy is also described by Paul Theroux, only his brush with the phenomenon took place in a leper colony in Malawi. It’s in his book Fresh Air Fiend.

Grant Thatcher, publisher of the LUXE city guides, mentions the toilet in a certain train in India. He says, “The image charred into my retina will forever be the benchmark against which I judge all conveniences.” But we mustn’t get the idea that American travel writers find fault with what Voltaire called “the smallest room in the house” only if that room is located in another principality. For instance, Mike Richard, editor at, recalls a public restroom in Portland, Maine, as the worst of the worst. “It was like someone let a pack of methed-up children loose on a poo pinata,” is his vivid description.

Now, here’s a fellow who should know something about bad. He’s the author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places. We’re talking about Robert Young Pelton, who reminisces about his worst toilet, which was none, in Mali. He says you just “wander out into the sand and find a spot,” observed, more likely than not, by indigenous people, who are curious to know if a white guy does it different somehow. Well, fair’s fair. Isn’t that what white guys go over there to find out? The question, “Do the natives do it different somehow?” is the very essence of the entire field of anthropology and several others.

But potties infested by airborne mammals, or latrines in general, or even the absence of amenities entirely — these are not the only focus of the Titanic Awards. For instance, there’s the Worst Buskers category. And the Worst Tourism Slogans, Worst Theme Park Attraction, and many, many more. And by the way, visit WorldHum and check out Eva Holland’s contribution, “Adventures in Unfortunate Place Names.”

There’s another whole category of bummer, the kind made up of war zones and other apocalyptic locales typically explored by P.J. O’Rourke, as in his books All the Trouble in the World and Holidays in Hell. In Parliament of Whores, he gives examples:

I’ve been to Beirut, where people were living in holes scooped out of rubble. I’ve been to the Manila city dump, where people were living in holes scooped out of garbage.

Yet, somehow, it always comes back to the jakes. As O’Rourke told interviewer Chris Mitchell, “I am a little tired of the Third World travel, part of it’s just age, it’s tough on the system, tough on the gastro-intestinal tract…”

photo courtesy of WKHarmon, used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writing Highlight: George Borrow

wandsworthBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Here’s a pithy note on a guy who’s maybe not as well known as he should be: George Borrow, born in 1803. (The Gutenberg Project offers a picture of his birth home.) These words are from Thomas Swick, whose blog observed Borrow’s birthday not long ago:

Wild Wales is the account of a trip he took in the summer of 1854 with his wife and stepdaughter. He of course had learned Welsh, and read the national poets in the original, and rambling around the place…he talked to everybody, an antecedent of Paul Theroux who once used the verb “buttonhole” to describe the travel writer’s modus operandi.

Thomas Swick, by the way, is former travel editor of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and A Way to See the World. He’s lived in Washington, D.C., France, Alsace, London, Poland, and Greece, and he’s a very funny guy. We know this because of his list of “Seventy Ways Travel Magazines Address the Economic Crisis” at WorldHum. In a depleted publishing arena, Swick imagines such articles as “The 12 Best City Parks to Sleep In” and “Forget Exotic Places – Visit Exotic Dancers” and “Two Places to See Before You Die.”

But we were talking about George Borrow who, as a young Englishman, began his travel career by walking around in France and Germany. Later, via other means of transportation, he went to Portugal, Russia, Morocco and Spain. He was an incomparable linguist, speaking many tongues and translating, for instance, the works of Alexander Pushkin from the Russian.

As a Protestant, a proselytizer, and a demonizer of the Pope, Borrow was thought by some to be a fanatic. It’s true he did most of his wider traveling under the aegis of the British and Foreign Bible Society. But he also knew how to have a good time. He liked his Burgundy wine, saying, “It puts fire into your veins,” and he was known to be a practical joker, though the example we unearthed is too complicated to go into here. Borrow was a gentleman and a scholar, but not as well socialized as some. He tended to be blunt and tactless in the name of resisting baloney, but he never cussed. There may not have been a Polar Bear Club back then, but when Borrow was 70, he’d still plunge into an iced-over pond.

In Borrow’s day, his powers of description were recognized as second to none. He not only loved Wales and the Welsh, which was a lowbrow taste, like admitting that you loved hillbillies, but specialized in the despised nomads of Europe and the British Isles, the Gypsies. Indeed a contemporary detractor said Gypsies were “nine-tenths of his stock in trade.”

It was all very well for a British subject to learn Greek or translate Russian, but this oddball took things too far, for heaven’s sake. Oh yes, he was looked down on for hanging out with the riff-raff. Four of his published books are about Gypsies, starting with The Zincali: The Gypsies of Spain. Then a pair of volumes called Lavengro and Romany Rye were published in the mid-1800s, about Borrow’s travels with the Gypsies. Even today, scholars are unable to agree on their fact/fiction ratio. But there’s no doubt he knew the language; Romano Lavo-Lil is a dictionary of Romany terms. The photo on this page was taken in Wandsworth, near London, one of the places where Borrow visited the Gypsies long ago.

As a tourist on foreign soil, Borrow was most impressed by St. Petersburg, writing:

Notwithstanding I have previously heard and read much of the beauty and magnificence of the Russian capital……There can be no doubt that it is the finest City in Europe, being pre-eminent for the grandeur of its public edifices and the length and regularity of its streets.

A page at Peter Greenberg’s comprehensive travel website gives you a pretty good idea of why visitors are so impressed with the city. It was put together by Karen Elowitt, who collected tips from savvy locals who recommended the best places to visit. Greenberg is a multi-media personality who has served as travel correspondent for Good Morning America and travel editor for Today.

And what of The Third Tower Up From the Road? You’ll find St. Petersburg in Kevin’s book, for sure. He checked out the Hermitage and Dvortsovaya Place and the Nevsky Prospekt, and enjoyed the city very much. But we’re waiting for his report on traveling with the Gypsies.

photo courtesy of Ewan-M, used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writer Finds Treats for Anglophone Brainiacs

News Editor

At BBC News Online, Zoe Kleinman introduces John Graham-Cumming, author of a wonderful resource for a certain kind of traveler: the unabashed geek. While visiting Munich, Germany, casting about for something to absorb an afternoon’s worth of time, Graham-Cumming learned of the Deutches Museum, and the rest is history. (We’re going for the prize offered for the 30-millionth iteration of that particular overused phrase.) It became the first entry in his nascent Geek Atlas, which has now gone from being a gleam in its creator’s eye to an actual book. Kleinman says:

The main criteria for inclusion in the resulting atlas were that each attraction had to be open, interesting and accessible to English speakers… He admits the ones he chose are more a reflection of his own travels than a comprehensive global guide.

Graham-Cumming had thought that perhaps the Lonely Planet series might have a guidebook for the science-oriented traveler, but on learning that no such guide existed, he began composing his own. He ended up with a compendium of 46 institutions in the US, 45 in the United Kingdom, and 12 in France. He provides the addresses couched as geographical coordinates, so a global positioning device is an indispensable aid to the book.

A bonus on the page is a video clip where Kleinman chats with the author at the Hunterian Museum. Located in London, this is the repository of the Royal College of Surgeons’ collection of body parts preserved in jars, and its vast array of surgical instruments from past eras. A nice virtual tour of the Hunterian is available online. It also houses half of the brain of Charles Babbage, widely regarded as the father of the computer. (The other half is in a different institution, the Science Museum.) Babbage is a true hero to Graham-Cumming, who experienced an emotional moment when viewing the inventor’s Difference Engine No 2 at a museum.

Graham-Cumming is a big fan of Munich’s Deutsches Museum, which may or may not be the world’s largest museum of technology and science, but it does draw more than a million visitors a year. He is also very fond of the National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland, maintained by the U.S. National Security Agency. It is the American intelligence community’s first and only public museum.

Is there a science museum in The Third Tower Up From the Road? Sort of. It’s not hard-core, it’s fun, with 600 interactive experiences to be had , and it’s in Södertälje, Sweden. Kevin says:

Tom Tit’s Experiment is named after a fictional character, the alter ego of a French scientist who wrote books and articles very popular in Sweden… the kind of place your nice and somewhat ditzy aunt would put together if she had the money and the inclination.

Giant soap bubbles big enough to hold a person inside. Scale models of human fetuses that you can take out, unfold, refold, and put back in again. A rat circus in the Periodic Table Theatre (he tells where the best seats are). And best of all, a thing you can stick your head in and scream as loud as you want. Compared to that, what is Babbage’s brain?

photo courtesy of lorentey, used under this Creative Commons license

You May Already Be a Literary Travel Writer!

News Editor

If you’ve ever visited a place with literary associations and written about it — and, of course, taken pictures — this fabulous online resource wants you as one of its fabulous resources. Literary Locales is a directory that has already compiled more than 1,350 links to places associated with the lives and/or work of well-known authors. Here’s the invitation:

If you think that a deserving writer has been overlooked or treated inadequately, fetch your camera and set matters to right. We are constantly open to new additions. This site abounds with examples upon which you can model your own page. Or you can submit gifs or jpegs to us and we will construct a page for you.

You can’t ask for fairer than that! Literary Locales is sponsored by San Jose State University; specifically, by the Department of English & Comparative Literature. Its participatory nature guarantees a wide range of interests. Want to see Danielle Steel’s mansion in San Francisco? Or the village of Umuofia from Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart? Present and accounted for. Dante’s birthplace in Florence, Italy? Check. The Greenwich Village apartment of John Dos Passos? It’s here. The birthplace of Gustave Flaubert or Helen Keller? No problem. Louveciennes, where Anais Nin hung out; Trieste, as experienced by Rilke; the Corfu of Gerald Durrell; Edgar Allen Poe’s cottage; Robinson Crusoe’s island. The world is just one big theme park of places inhabited or depicted by writers.

“Ah love, let us be true to one another…” Yes, that’s Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, and here’s a nice website all about Dover Beach. Remember The Prophet? Here’s Bsharri, the part of Lebanon where Kahlil Gibran lived. It’s official: when it comes to plotting serious literary travel adventures, this site is the go-to guy.

Of course, Durham Cathedral (see picture) is represented. Travel writer Bill Bryson, being the Chancellor of nearby Durham University and President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, has a particular fondness for the old pile. Its most salient literary feature is the tomb of the historian known as the Venerable Bede. He died in 735 and no, there isn’t a numeral missing from that year. One of the folks interred there is Cyril Argentine Alington, headmaster of Eton College and author of more than 50 books. Sir Walter Scott said of the edifice, “This view is unsurpassed in England”

Grand old Durham Cathedral has made the news, we learn from Mark Tallentire, staff writer for The Northern Echo, by quickly acquiring more Facebook fans than any other cathedral in England. The people who made it so are justifiably proud, but there is one little thing… This piece doesn’t mention that cathedral’s current vogue just might be due to its presence in the Harry Potter movies, in the guise of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

A bit of bad news in the literary tourism realm is the threat to the Muromtsev Dacha, part of the Tsaritsyno park complex in Moscow. This big old house was taken over by the national government when Russia had a revolution, but four years ago ownership was transferred to the city, and what’s been happening since then is not pretty. Ksenia Galouchko reveals what and why in The Moscow Times.

The building is threatened with demolition, which is no good for the six families in residence, some of whom have been there for decades. That’s bad enough, but there are literary associations with Ivan Bunin, a Nobel Prize winning writer, and with the poet Venedikt Yerofeyev who hung out there a lot in the ’70s and ’80s. Some of his notes are available for viewing. A cultural heritage organization has installed a memorial plaque honoring Yerofeyev and suggested turning the place into a museum, but that hasn’t seemed to help.

Here’s what we hope: that the Muromtsev Dacha will be preserved, and show up in the pages of Literary Locales, along with all the other places frequented by the literary greats.

Durham, aka Hogwarts photo courtesy of Glen Bowman , used under this Creative Commons license

The Travel Writer as Life Coach: Kids, Seniors, Pets

Oaxaca kidBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

At the travel website Venere, a very good point is made by Amanda Xploradora, a.k.a. Amanda Balneg, who notes that seniors are often the folks with the most time and resources for travel, but they need some extra consideration. Her suggestions on “How to Travel with Seniors” are aimed at the senior citizen’s travel companion, the one who is doing the organizing, who wants to plan ahead with the object of making the journey as smooth and pleasant as possible. For instance:

When planning your trip, consider what time they wake up and how much time they need to prepare. They need to rest every now and then and they also walk slowly so give ample time… At first you might think traveling with seniors can be a hassle but come to think of it, we were all once kids and our parents were the ones who had to look after us during trips.

Balneg writes extensively on travel-related matters, being concerned with such details as finding the right kinds of food to satisfy different dietary needs, and making a plane trip as comfortable as possible, and getting a good night’s sleep in a strange bedroom. Here’s an important one: Before leaving, make sure all your older companion’s meds are supplied for the duration of the trip, because you can’t fill a prescription from your own doctor in another country. When booking an air passage, Balneg advises arranging ahead of time for a wheelchair for your senior citizen. And once on the plane, an elderly person will have an easier time maneuvering from an aisle seat.

There’s a whole subgenre of travel writing that involves good, solid practical advice for the mundane details of moving from place to place. There’s no poetry in it, but plenty of down-home wisdom. Many of us have lofty goals such as good stress management — but how? That’s what we want to know. So thank heaven for the folk who create lists of 10 to 17 tips designed to pump up our skill set and help us to get out of our own way.

The founders of Lonely Planet, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, have just published the 5th edition of their useful book Travel with Children: Your Complete Resource. They concentrate on international travel, but there’s plenty of helpful advice for getting around within the US too. In case you have a specific sort of vacation in mind, such as a holiday at the beach, there are handy sorted lists of, for instance, the top ten child-friendly beach towns .

This rundown from Reuters goes into a little more detail about Lonely Planet’s destination picks. The emphasis seems to be on places with a lot of color and activity, to constantly engage the interest of little people with short attention spans — Oaxaca, Istanbul, Lisbon, Copenhagen, and Singapore are good examples. They also recommend Vancouver, Canada, which apparently has a reputation for being the world’s most liveable city, and that includes living with children.

At SmartMoney, Kelli B. Grant, who often writes about how to stretch a dollar, gives hardcore practical advice on how to fly a pet from place to place, either with you, in a different part of the plane, or even on a plane all by itself, via Pet Airways, a new service that specializes in pets who travel solo. Grant makes the excellent point that “bringing your cat or dog along on a trip can be just as expensive as leaving them home,” and tells how to get the most bang for your buck in either situation. Do not forget, she cautions, to take the animal companion to the vet within ten days of the scheduled flight, and secure that all-important health certificate, as well as proof of all the needed vaccinations.

Suppose you decide to leave the kids, grandparents, and pets at home, and set out on your own? The New York Times reminds us of an oft-neglected alternative: book a cruise on a cargo ship. A working freighter can provide most of the amenities of a dedicated recreational cruise ship, without the frills that some travelers find more of an annoyance, like shuffleboard tournaments. With only a few passengers on board, the shipboard adventurer can have more authentic experiences, like eating meals with the crew and hanging around the actual working parts of the vessel, learning something.

We’d very much like to hear from anyone who has made a trip like this on a ship not specifically designed to pamper passengers. How was it?

photo courtesy of gripso banana prune , used under this Creative Commons license

And What About Travel Photography?

photographerBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Okay, we’ve talked about plenty of cool travel writing, but let’s take a look at travel photography. Or rather, let’s look over the shoulder of Karen Walrond, who has compiled a pantheon and titled it “Through the Gadling Lens: 5 of the best travel photographers of all time.” It’s nice how she shares some of her own experience:

I’ve been diving in some of the clearest, stillest water possible, but still — the water never seems still enough to get a sharp image, it’s difficult to hold the camera steady while you’re floating, and the diffused light through the ocean totally distorts colours.

Walrond chooses Ansel Adams, who, in addition to being a photographer, was also a dedicated environmentalist. She is most impressed by the way he processed images, and by the way he shared his knowledge in a series of ten tech manuals. He was a big believer in having a picture come out looking the way he wanted it to look, rather than the way it might have really looked. He wasn’t into making documentaries. The surprising thing is that Adams didn’t take up painting instead, a form in which it’s relatively easy to make the picture come out looking like you want it to. Using the scientifically based methodology of the classical photograph as an expressive medium requires a kind of brute-force approach to art that not every creative person is comfortable with.

Remember the National Geographic cover with the Afghan girl? The one with the eyes? Steve McCurry made that picture in Pakistan, in a refugee camp. And then, many years later, he went back to find the girl with the eyes, Sharbat Gula, who was by then living in Afghanistan with her husband and their young children. In Walrond’s opinion, light and color are McCurry’s strong points.

Her next pick is Jim Brandenburg, another National Geographic photographer who specials in animals and landscapes. Julius Shulman was a very original photographer of architecture, with the ability to make buildings look their best in the same way that Hollywood studio photographers in the old days were able to make movie stars look their best. He could bring the magic. Walrond’s fifth choice is underwater photographer Chris Newbert, yet another National Geographic veteran.

Over at The Society of American Travel Writers, Bea Broda and Rich Grant have compiled a handy list of “Top 10 tips for better vacation photos from travel writers & photographers.” They advise shooting outdoors in early morning and late afternoon. Patiently wait for the right moment. Shoot in the highest resolution you can. Be creative with points of view other than eye level. Let the subject fill the frame. Remember to take vertical pictures as well as horizontal. Attend to such details as whether a human subject will appear to have a tree growing out of his head, and don’t let it happen.

There are plenty more great ideas, too. One of them is, take a lot of pictures and then later discard the losers. There are folks who go someplace and take literally thousands of pictures, and then feel compelled to load each and every one of them into Flickr. People, please, let’s use a little discrimination here!

On the other hand… maybe not. Maybe it’s good that someone should upload a dozen practically identical photos, and none of them inspired. Maybe there exists a fan for each and every one of those repetitious images.

In The Third Tower Up From the Road, Kevin Dolgin says, “I don’t take pictures. Ever.” (He can’t stand looking like a tourist.) But he likes to write about people who take pictures, for instance of each other in front of the door to hell, at the Rodin Museum in France. He says:

You have to wonder about this. It’s quite possible that they don’t actually know what the sculpture represents; there are no devils or pitchforks or anything. Or perhaps they like tempting fate, or are proud of the fact that they are on this side of the door (for now). Who knows?

Going back to Karen Walrond, her column ends with the words, “Greater minds may differ, though, so I hope you’ll challenge me in the comments.” And we feel the same way. It would be splendid to hear some opinions on the top travel photographers.

photo courtesy of cstrom , used under this Creative Commons license

Literary Travel and Spiritual Journeys in Japan

News Editor

Wendy Nelson Tokunaga has earned well-deserved awards for her work, which mainly explores the theme of why some people feel compelled to leave their native culture and find a new one. At The Red Room, she interviews Todd Shimoda, author of the novel Oh!: A Mystery of Mono No Aware, which Tokunaga calls:

…a fascinating and compelling book that weaves themes of both traditional and modern Japanese culture. You’ll be drawn in by Shimoda’s spare but elegant prose, which reminds me of the writing style of Haruki Murakami.

It’s about Zack Hara, a young man in Los Angeles whose life is stalled in a void of apathy and depression. In search of his roots and himself, he goes to Japan, and things get worse before they get better. (Reviewer Jeff Snodgrass calls the novel “metaphysics in the guise of a pulp mystery.”) In real life, Shimoda has done incredibly abstruse work in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and so on. In this interview, he explains the concept of mono no aware, a mindfulness that incorporates intense emotional reaction to things.

Apparently, one of the less desirable avenues through which confused souls try to approach this state is the suicide club. Another avenue, a very wide and broad one, is art, which brings up the incredible, impeccable artwork by Linda Shimoda that illustrates Oh!: A Mystery of Mono No Aware.

Some people travel because of inner needs. To connect with one’s own ancestors is a frequent reason to go from one place to another. And then there are people who simply feel they were born in the wrong place. And the ones who are on some kind of vision quest. And those who just want to see a big robot, or a big Buddha. When Japan is the destination, a seeker might contemplate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and war and peace.

In this strange story called “The World Tour Compatibility Test,” by Elizabeth Koch, two young lovers, Westerners in Japan, are in search of their own relationship. Along the way, they visit the Todai-Ji Temple, on the recommendation of none other than Kevin Dolgin. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Nostril: The Daibutsu, Nara, Japan,” is the name of the essay where they they got this idea. What people do is try to slide their bodies through the nostril of the Buddha. As Kevin notes, “the intricacies of Japanese religious practice are impenetrable.”

Daibutsu means “Big Buddha,” and Joshua Williams tells us everything a civilized person needs to know about giant Buddha statues. That’s the spiritual side. On the literary side, a writer might want to mingle with her colleagues, as Karen Kay describes in “Tokyo, Japan and the wonderland world of the Thumb Tribe.” Kay analyzes not only the literary scene but the many-faceted culture:

Japan’s new literary elite gather to sip espressos or cocktails and work on their latest bestselling novels…. sophisticated, designer-clad authors who tap out their blockbusters on their mobile phone handsets

Artists go on their own kinds of quests. They might want to track down the ancient art of Bunraku rather than depend on the imported version. Robed puppeteers in teams of three manipulate large puppets, while a narrator tells the story. Associated Press writer Alan Scher Zagier provides an in-depth explanation of this art form at Yahoo! Canada, among other places. Artists like to go see things like the giant robots or mecha that are sprouting up all over Japan. At Cartoon Leap, there’s a wonderful photo sequence of how to build one of these things.

photo courtesy of digika , used under this Creative Commons license