Category Archives: WORLD

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

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

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

Everybody’s a Travel Writer: Quotations about Travel

quotesBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

One of the best parts of travel is all the wild or wise things you are then entitled to say about it later. We found some places where great quotations about journeys of various kinds have been brought together for our contemplation. One is called “80 Greatest Travel Quotes of All Time,” put together by Kevin Visser, a travel professional who books cruises and has personally been to nearly 40 countries. World Backpackers offers a nice bunch of quotes, and the rest of the site is pretty interesting too. Especially the “Stories from the Road” section, which is attractively various. Another great collection has been compiled by Susan Breslow Sardone, who used to be the marketing director at New York Magazine and is now the go-to gal when it comes to planning romantic honeymoon trips. A blogger known as Gramma Ann has gathered a small but quirky bunch of quotations. And here are some of our favorites from a number of sources:

“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”
Susan Sontag

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”
Dagobert D. Runes

“I love old globes. They’re really wrong.”
Kevin Dolgin

“Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except heaven and hell and I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.”
Mark Twain

“Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.”
Lawrence Block

“I quickly found that writing about traveling is much better than traveling on its own.”
Kevin Dolgin

“All very large cities are jungles, which is to say that they are dense and dark and full of surprises and strange growths; they are hard to read, hard to penetrate; strange people live in them; and they contain mazy areas of great danger.”
Paul Theroux

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”
G. K. Chesterton

“I deplore the presence of borders and cross them whenever possible, sometimes just to spite them.”
Kevin Dolgin

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
John Steinbeck

“When you travel for business you almost inevitably end up having some kind of local contact, often (although not always) these people are themselves interesting and are pleased when you show interest in their home and their background. As such, you can often become immersed in local history and culture more easily than if you are traveling as a tourist.”
Kevin Dolgin

“Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.”
René Descartes

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”
Martin Buber

“I must admit that bookstore density is one of the criteria by which I judge a city.”
Kevin Dolgin

“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”
Mark Twain

“It’s a drug, travel. It’s the drug of discovery, and it perches on your back banging on your head if you don’t feed it from time to time. Hold out to me the opportunity of discovering someplace new and it’s very difficult not to go.”
Kevin Dolgin

“I really have enjoyed my stay, but I must be movin’ on.”
Supertramp

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
Lao Tzu

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”
Clifton Fadiman

“Traveling can open windows to a wide world, because once you start swimming around in it, you realize that the world is both far more vast and far smaller than you thought.”
Kevin Dolgin

“We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.”
Robert Louis Stevenson

The astute reader will have noticed a certain preponderance of quotations from one particular travel writer here, namely the author of The Third Tower Up From the Road. This is no coincidence.

Send us your favorite travel quotations!

photo courtesy of joiseyshowaa , used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writing as Symptom

scarred buildingBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

There’s a very special kind of travel writing that involves risking your life, if you’re any good. To do it, you have to go put yourself in the middle of somebody else’s bloody conflict. Nobody, for instance, wrote about Greece like Orianna Fallaci.

One of the grittiest war correspondents is Anthony Loyd, who lately has been reporting from Sangin, Afghanistan, on the sad mess that’s still going on over there. In The Times (UK), he describes the low voter turnout in the recent election as a win for the wrong side. It’s actually pretty harrowing. As a matter of bureaucratic convenience, the fingers of voters are marked with ink, so the citizens can’t sneak back and vote again. Apparently, the Taleban promised to chop off any ink-stained fingers, and they probably wouldn’t stop there. Loyd says:

By the time polls closed and the final echoes of air strikes, artillery and gunfire died away, barely 500 Afghans had managed to vote in a district of 70,000 people, a number signifying victory for the Taleban’s power of fear and intimidation.

Loyd also tells us what the British soldiers write about their prime minister on the latrine walls, and many other details essential to creating a sense of place. Which he surely managed to do when describing Bosnia and other wars he ranges over the globe to experience. Loyd started as a photographer, but found that pictures couldn’t express what he wanted to say. He has written for all kinds of major publications, and his articles draw out serious, informed discussion. Unlike some war correspondents whose contributions range from ineffectual to ridiculous, Loyd is respected by the blokes who are actually fighting the war. And hated by the politicians, as Tory Rascal illustrates with an anecdote.

The thing about Loyd is that he wrote this hellaciously intense book called My War Gone By, I Miss It So, about his heroin habit, and how being in a war zone is the only thing that cures it. The scary part is that by the time you get done reading it, you see exactly what he means by “I feel sane as anything in war… It is peace I have got the problem with.”

Of course, Loyd isn’t the only writer whose dedication is tinged with what might be seen, in some circles, as pathology. There’s always Sebastian Junger. There’s a great publisher called Travelers’ Tales, and one of their books is Testosterone Planet, an anthology of essays by people who go to great lengths and travel great distances to do extreme feats. Junger also put in his Sarajevo time, which is described in “The Lure of Danger.”

Ultimately, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that here is a person who simply thrives on crisis. He is unnaturally good at it — good at finding it, surviving it, swallowing it whole. He interviews others who feel the same way, like a guy named Brown who says, “I’ve always reacted well under intense insane circumstances.” He quotes a friend who places the thrill of battle on a chemical basis, a drug in fact, that gets you “completely amped.” Junger says the high comes from dopamine, a chemical the brain is swimming in after a terrifying encounter with mortality.

Junger issues a disclaimer, warning potential imitators that “the most dangerous circumstances don’t always produce the greatest epiphanies.” This is something you don’t usually find adventure-crazed men admitting. But he too missed his war, saying:

All I wanted was to go back to that strange city where everything I did seemed big and important and was, potentially, the last act of my life.

Scarred building photo courtesy of MuntyPix , used under this Creative Commons license

The Other Most Beautiful Place On The Planet

kashmir

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

A lot of people have called Kashmir the most beautiful place in the world, and nowadays it has other names, too. Here’s a sobering tale. Film director/producer Rahul Dholakia arrives in the capital, Srinagar, with a sizeable production team and a lot of equipment, expecting to spend a month and a half on location shooting his newest work, Lamhaa. Three different varieties of government agencies tell him the country is in turmoil, and martial law could snap its jaws at any moment, with the population at the mercy of a strict curfew and a fire-at-will policy. For crowd control, he’s given some government protection, and hires some security, too.

So, he’s got 60 actors and crew at the vegetable market outside the city, and at first, some of the locals are hospitable. The film company goes to work. Word spreads, and about a thousand local men come out to watch. (In these parts, women don’t gawk at public spectacles, especially if foreigners are involved.) The crowd multiplies tenfold, and the director is taken hostage and brought before the local council, which tells the police, who are supposedly protecting the visitors, to get lost. Here’s part of Dholakia’s later account:

We had survived this almost six-hour ordeal, brushing death and mentally screwed. If this was day one, I dread to imagine how the rest of the shoot was going to be. A line in my film best summarizes our first day – “Welcome to Kashmir, the most dangerous place in the world”.

And that’s all we’re gonna say, except that it has something to do with local political squabbles, and also with international problems such as hating India, where Rahul Dholakia was born. He gained extensive production experience in his home country, then moved to the U.S. to earn a Masters degree from the New York Institute of Technology, and now lives in California, India, and wherever he happens to be making a movie. In India’s 2006 National Film Awards, his Parzania won in two categories.

This “most beautiful place” thing is, of course, strictly a matter of taste. But that doesn’t stop anybody from nominating their favorites. There are people who swear Patagonia is the most beautiful, and they make a good case. Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux both liked it so much they wrote books about it separately and together. Francis Ford Coppola recent filmed part of Tetro there. It’s a region, not a country, being part of two countries, Argentina and Chile. It’s the home of the Andean condor, the biggest bird there is, and has two very noteworthy mountains, Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, and a glacier called Upsala.

In the Argentine portion of Patagonia, we learn from Physorg.com, there’s an area called Bajada del Diablo or Devil’s Slope, which at some time in the past was pockmarked by a rain of meteorites that left at least 100 craters. Some of those little hummers are 50 meters deep and 500 meters across. Bajada del Diablo is in fact the second biggest crater field in the world. The biggest is in Siberia, and it kind of makes you wonder why meteor showers would go out of their way to fall on two such bare, unpopulated places.

Ever notice how many of the very most interesting travel writers are the folks who are primarily in a place for some other reason? Example: Paul Theroux started writing about Africa because he was there with the Peace Corps. Kevin Dolgin travels for business, and writes because he has something to say. One kind of travel narrative is what comes out when you’re somewhere for another reason, and writing en passant, as it were. Another kind results from going somewhere just for the purpose of writing about it. Possibly, writers of science fiction (or speculative fiction, which many of its practitioners prefer to say) should be considered travel writers. If the ability to convey a sense of place is the criterion, maybe it shouldn’t matter if the place is imaginary. What do you think?

photo courtesy of madpai, used under this Creative Commons license