Roger Ebert, Travel Writer

Roger Ebert travel writerLast week, the world lost one of the all-time great film critics, when Roger Ebert passed away at age 70. He was mostly known for his love of movies and long career reviewing them at the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as his witty and wide-reaching Twitter feed. Roger was first and foremost a journalist, and he applied his curiosity and ease of language to many things, including travel.

If you can’t imagine how a film reviewer can effortlessly evoke a place, start with a piece he wrote in 2010 on a changing London and a particularly Dickensian hotel at 22 Jermyn Street, later published in a shortened form for the Guardian‘s travel section. He writes of his 25 years of being a guest at the small hotel, many encounters are positively cinematic, such as meeting the hotel’s owner, who appears in his guest room proffering a drink and colorful anecdotes about the neighborhood’s characters. He worries about what the loss of businesses like the former Eyrie Mansion (established in 1685) will mean for the neighborhood: “Piece by piece, this is how a city dies,” and paints a rich study of a place and time.Ebert delved deeper into London with another essay on walking around the city with his grandson in search of the perfect hot chocolate (“You always need a serious objective when you’re walking.”), the essay itself a later version of a book he collaborated on in the 1980s, called the “Perfect London Walk.” In the essay, he parallels walking, writing and travel. “When I set out I have a general destination in mind, but as I poke around this way and that, I find places I didn’t know about and things that hadn’t occurred to me, maybe glimpse something intriguing at the end of a street…”

Ebert’s life and career took him many places from a Chicago movie theater, including South Africa and France. He published a book on the latter about his film festival experiences in “Two Weeks in the Midday Sun, A Cannes Notebook.” You can read excerpts from the book online, which provide some fun details on the glitzy, star-studded event, as well insights about culture clashes and what such an event does to a place.

Ebert’s other passion came through in a plea for more Americans to travel abroad, where he also reveals his long-time friendship with Paul Theroux, the famed travel writer. They debate the idea that travel broadens your mind and Ebert settles on the idea that “the way you broaden your mind through travel is to stop traveling and stay somewhere,” a good argument for slow travel. While it might be nothing new to the readers of a travel blog, imagine how it might have changed the thoughts of someone just looking for a review of the latest Bond film? Every traveler (and moviegoer, to some extent) can relate to “The bittersweet pleasure of being somewhere where nobody knows you, and nobody can find you.”

Ebert’s last movie review was, appropriately enough, for the film “To the Wonder,” which spans several continents, but he finds it to be covering a landscape between the characters rather than places. A few days before his death, he announced that he’d be scaling back on his regular reviews, taking what he called “a leave of presence.” This is a concept I’d like to keep in mind for my next trip: slow down, focus on what’s truly inspiring, reflect on the great moments of the past, and come back refreshed and recharged. Or at the very least, I’ll take time out to see a movie.

[Photo credit: Associated Press]

Books by Gadling bloggers

books,Gadling bloggers are a busy bunch. When we’re not posting the latest travel news or accounts of our adventures, we’re writing for newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Many of us have written books too.

David Farley takes the prize for weirdest subject matter with An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town. So what’s Catholicism’s strangest relic? Nothing less than the foreskin of Jesus!

Some of us have jobs other than writing and this is reflected in our work. Talented photographer Karen Walrond has published the only photo book so far by a Gadlinger, The Beauty of Different: Observations of a Confident Misfit. Flight attendant Heather Poole is coming out with Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet in March 2012. Foodie Laurel Miller is coauthoring Cheese for Dummies, coming in 2012.

Sean McLachlan will become Gadling’s first novelist when his historical novel set in Civil War Missouri, A Fine Likeness, comes out in October. When he isn’t traveling he’s writing history. His military history books for Osprey Publishing include American Civil War Guerrilla Tactics, Ride Around Missouri: Shelby’s Great Raid 1863, Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896: the Italian Disaster in Ethiopia, and Medieval Handgonnes: The First Black Powder Infantry Weapons. He’s done three books on Missouri: Outlaw Tales of Missouri, Missouri: An Illustrated History, and It Happened in Missouri. He dipped into medieval history with Byzantium: An Illustrated History.

Given that we’re all travel writers, it’s no big shocker that we have a slew of travel guides between us. Andrew Evans wrote the Brandt guides to Iceland and Ukraine. Pam Mandel wrote the Thomas Cook guide HotSpots Hawaii. Matthew Firestone is a Lonely Planet regular. His titles include Costa Rica, and Botswana & Namibia. He’s contributed to several other titles. McLean Robbins contributed to the Forbes (formerly Mobil) Travel Guide (Mid Atlantic). Melanie Renzulli shares her love of Italy with The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy: Florence, Rome, Tuscany & Umbria and Frommer’s The Irreverent Guide to Rome. Libby Zay has coauthored three VIVA Travel Guides: Quito, Ecuador; Macchu Picchu & Cusco; and Guatemala.

Don George takes the cake for travel writing. Not only has he given us all some good tips in Lonely planet’s book on Travel Writing, but he’s edited a long list of travel anthologies such as Lonely Planet’s Lights, Camera, Travel!, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, By the Seat of My Pants, Tales from Nowhere, and A House Somewhere. Besides his LP titles, he’s edited Salon.com’s Wanderlust and Travelers’ Tales Japan.

So if you in the mood to read something offscreen, pick up a title from one of these talented authors!

[Image courtesy Yorck Project]

Blogger Libby Zay

Introducing a new blogger at Gadling, Libby Zay

Where was your photo taken: Drinking a beer beside the Mediterranean coast in Salobreña, Spain.

Where do you live now: Baltimore, Maryland.

Type of traveler: I tend to be a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl, who (for better or worse) rarely does research and prefers to get on the ground and ask questions. I often snag last-minute deals and am a notoriously light packer.

Worst hotel experience: In Chişinău, the capital of Moldova, I stayed at a hotel that appeared to be no worse than most backpacker hostels – save for the fact that the shared bathrooms were nothing more than troughs that seemingly hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. The light switch was located in the hallway, and some little brat decided to flip the switch on me and ran away giggling. As you can imagine, I was left pretty helpless.

Favorite place: This is a toughie, because am a firm believer that every place has its own redeeming qualities and have never been somewhere I absolutely hated. That being said, once city that recently charmed me is the port town of Manaus in the Brazilian rainforest.

Where do you hide your emergency cash? My stash spot is usually in my bra. But if there’s a lot of cash, like when I had to bring home a month’s paycheck in Ecuador, I go for the shoes.

Scariest airline flown: Luckily I haven’t had any near death experiences so far, even in so-called puddle jumpers. My preferred mode of travel is by bus or van, mostly because I like to take in the scenery at a slow pace. This does, however, result in some harrowing experiences. In South America, a bus driver once came to a complete halt and – literally – jumped out of the window because of engine trouble. I have also been at the wheel while nearly running out of gas in the middle-of-nowhere North Dakota and when the driver’s-side door opened around a dangerous curve in Staten Island.

Most remote corner of the globe visited: This would probably be Puerto Bolivar, which is deceivingly not actually a port but instead a village in the Ecuadorian rainforest. It took a seat-gripping overnight bus ride and a butt-aching, four-hour canoe ride to get their from the capital. As always, it was totally worth it.

Favorite guidebook series: I’m not much of a guidebook person, but I like leafing through Lonely Planet and Moon for tips. I also dig the concept behind Viva Travel Guides, a series that anyone can submit to and attempts to be the “most up to date” guidebook.

When I’m not writing for Gadling, I’m… probably writing another website, mainly AOL Travel or City’s Best. In the off chance I’m not glued to my computer screen, you’ll likely find me doing one of the following: walking my dog, watching a band, or drinking a beer. The possibility that I’m on the road is also pretty high.

[Photo courtesy of Libby Zay]

It’s time travel writers stopped stereotyping Africa

Africa, africaPop quiz: where was this photo taken?

OK, the title of this post kind of gives it away, but if I hadn’t written Africa, would you have guessed? It was taken in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. This isn’t the view of Africa you generally get from the news or travel publications–a modern city with high rises and new cars. A city that could be pretty much anywhere. That image doesn’t sell.

And that’s the problem.

An editorial by Munir Daya for the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen recently criticized Western media coverage of Africa, saying it only concentrated on wars, AIDS, corruption, and poverty. Daya forgot to mention white people getting their land stolen. If black people get their land stolen, you won’t hear a peep from the New York Times or the Guardian. If rich white ranchers get their land stolen, well, that’s international news. And look how many more articles there are about the war in Somalia than the peace in Somaliland.

Daya was objecting to an in-flight magazine article about Dar es Salaam that gave only superficial coverage of what the city has to offer and was peppered with statements such as, “Dar es Salaam’s busy streets are bustling with goats, chickens, dust-shrouded safari cars, suit-clad office workers and traders in colourful traditional dress.”

Daya actually lives in the city and says you won’t find many goats and chickens on the streets. But that wouldn’t make good copy, would it?

Travel writing has an inherent bias in favor of the unfamiliar, the dangerous. Some travel writers emphasize the hazards of their journey in order to make themselves look cool, or focus on the traditional and leave out the modern. Lonely Planet Magazine last year did a feature on Mali and talked about the city of Bamako, saying, “Though it is the fastest-growing city in Africa, Bamako seems a sleepy sort of place, lost in a time warp.” On the opposite page was a photo of a street clogged with motorcycle traffic. If Bamako is in a sleepy time warp, where did the motorcycles come from?

I’m not just picking on Lonely Planet; this is a persistant and widespread problem in travel writing and journalism. Writers, and readers, are more interested in guns than concerts, slums rather than classrooms, and huts rather than skyscrapers. In most travel writing, the coverage is simply incomplete. In its worst extremes, it’s a form of racism. Africa’s problems need to be covered, but not to the exclusion of its successes.

As Daya says, “there is more to Africa than famine and genocide.” There are universities, scientific institutes, music, fine cuisine, economic development, and, yes, skyscrapers.

And if you think Dar es Salaam is the exception rather than the rule, check out Skyscrapercity.com’s gallery of African skyscrapers.

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Blogger Elizabeth Seward

Introducing another new blogger at Gadling, Elizabeth Seward.

Where was your photo taken: Puntarenas, Costa Rica. I was lounging at the Los Suenos Resort there (on the Pacific side of the country) for a few days. This photo captured me mid-thought, writing alongside the ocean. It should be noted, however, that I might have just been gazing off at a Scarlet Macaw.

Where do you live now: I’m a newbie to Austin, TX. I recently relocated from New York City. Fed up with the things in NYC that one easily becomes fed up with after nearly a decade of residence, I decided to learn a thing or two firsthand about this much lauded southern city. People told me Austin was great for music, the outdoors, nightlife, food, and weather, and those people were right. While I’m still navigating my way around, say, having a house and a yard (with a pecan tree out back), the transition into Austin has been smooth… and warm.

Scariest airline flown: I don’t routinely get jittery on planes. I prefer to anxiously deprive myself of sleep the night before, powerlessly succumb to deep sleep mid-air, and let the landing jar me awake. But a recent viewing of a “World’s Most Extreme Airports (!!!)” kind of show clued me in on the fact that I’d flown into, apparently, two of the most EXTREME airports out there: Saint Martin/Sint Maarten and Vail, Colorado. And yeah, when I think back to those flights, I’m pretty sure I was wide awake well before landing.

Favorite city/country/place: Anything not overrun by kitschy tourist attractions probably appeals to me. I don’t have any sort of rain forest vs. mountains vs. desert vs. city preference, but I did go somewhere this past summer that was remote and took my breath away: The Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan. This sliver of land farther north than the city of Quebec juts deep into Lake Superior. In the summertime, daylight sticks around until 10pm (or after), the weather is warm but not too hot, and the lake is, I kid you not, glistening.Most remote corner of the globe visited: I once took a plane to San Jose, Costa Rica and from there I caught another little plane (only 6 of us, including the pilot, fit on board) to Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica (about 4-5 hours by car south of San Jose). I then took a boat across Golfo Dulce, a body of water teeming with dolphins and brightly-colored wildlife, to an eco-resort called Playa Nicuesa. Playa Nicuesa can’t be reached by car because it’s in the middle of a more or less untouched and protected rain forest–no roads even go there. The open-aired resort serves delicious local and seasonal food. And the best part? There’s no TV, Internet, or cell phone use this deep into the rain forest, so you’re alone with nature, whether you like it or not.

Favorite guidebook series: The only travel guidebooks I own are the ones I find in thrift stores (or the ones my mother finds for me in thrift stores) and among those, it’s not easy to pick a favorite. The photos are usually as inspiring as the information is outdated. I enjoy meandering through places using my own kind of guide: some combination of tips gathered from cutting edge travel sites, friends’ Facebook feeds, and recommendations made by locals.

How did you get started in travel writing: I got into travel writing by way of an industry that encourages travel: music. While on tour, I found myself with a lot of free time between arriving at a city and performing in the evening. Reflexively, I began documenting my travels (venues, restaurants, vintage stores, good trails, off-the-beaten-path stuff, etc.)in my journal. My fascination with exploring became more public when I started a website, TheAntiTourist.com, to help me keep an organized database of my favorite places (and eventually the favorite places of other writers, many of them also touring). The launch of the website simultaneously acted as the launch of my travel writing career and now I often find myself in a reversed situation from where I started–trying to squeeze shows into my free time when I’m traveling.

The ideal vacation is: A vacation that gives me freedom from the stresses back home. I travel all of the time for work, be it writing or music, and people will get mushy about my travels (“Oh my gosh! I wish I could just take off work and travel all of the time!”) without considering the fact that I’m actually still working when I’m traveling. I’m almost always still plugged in, still dealing with email, and still seeing news headlines in my peripheral vision. My ideal vacation is one that allows me to actually check out, detach, and detox while my inbox overflows.

Type of traveler–vagabond, luxury, camper, package, adventurer, etc.: I’ve had my favorite travel experiences while living in a van and driving across the USA on tour, washing my hair in McDonald’s bathrooms no less. Inevitably, vagabond and adventurer has to be my reply… but I openly embrace what every style of travel has to offer. READ: You won’t find me snubbing my nose at a pampering massage treatment, freshly caught lobster, or plush hotel beds.

On your next trip, you are forced to schedule a 24-hour layover. You have $200 to spend. Where do you spend the layover and why:

Less than 24 hours to have some fun? Bring it.

$20 cab into town from airport, it’s evening.
$30 bed reserved at likely awesome spot with probably good people, courtesy of Air B&B.
$19 round of drinks for me and my hosts at their favorite dive bar in town.
$1 two songs on the juke box.
$20 admission into the circusy loft party the guy at the dive bar tells me about, the one where people are fire dancing and hula-hooping and the live band is inviting me, and everyone else, to come on stage figure out a way to be percussive.
$15 late night/early morning breakfast at the best 24-hour diner in town with new friends from the loft party. Maybe my Air B&B hosts are with me, too.
$3 coffee I grab at the first coffee shop I see that looks good, and by good, I mean a coffee shop that looks like it’s been around the block a few times.
$7 earrings I talk myself into buying from the nice girl outside of the coffee shop.
$2 tip for the talented musicians playing on the sidewalk.
$3 local newspaper to read while basking in the park’s sunshine.
$15 ticket to borderline-pretentious-but-maybe-still-cool early afternoon cultural event.
$5 post-event obligatory purchase (roasted peanuts? bookmark drawn by a child in need?).
$20 lunch at some tasty spot, a place with a low tourists-locals ratio.
$20 thrift store purchases.
$20 cab back to airport.

Done. Why? Because 24-hour layovers suck. Getting an authentic feel for a town is way better than getting an authentic feel for an airport.

Photo Credit: Ben Britz