My Year In Adventure Travel: A Look Back And A Look Forward

adventure travel, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
We’re approaching the end of 2012, so it’s a good time to assess what we’ve done and where we’re headed. There’s a whole year of adventures and opportunities awaiting us in 2013, despite what the New Age crystal clutchers say. The world is not ending and that’s a good thing!

I’ve had some interesting adventure travel this year. My family and I spent a week on the rugged Orkney Islands north of Scotland. We visited Neolithic stone circles, a haunted island, and I had my first (bad) experience driving on the left.

I really clicked with Orkney. The people are wonderful and the scenery is breathtaking. I’m thinking of going back to do a writer’s retreat there sometime if I can afford it. It’s an interesting culture with its own distinct traditions and music and I bet it would provide lots of inspiration.

The big trip for this year was a 17-day tour of Iraq. This was the culmination of a lifelong dream for me and I loved almost every second of it. Nearly getting arrested wasn’t too cool, but I got to visit the world-class National Museum of Iraq, archaeological wonders such as Ur and Babylon, see an Iraqi amusement park, and take a solo stroll through Baghdad.

Of course I wasn’t the only Gadling blogger to have adventures. The ones that made me most jealous are Anna Brones’ trip to Afghanistan and Dave Seminara’s ongoing anecdotes about life in the foreign service.

So what’s coming up in 2013? I’ll be seeing that year in with my wife on a brief getaway in Tangier, but beyond that I have no set plans. I’m probably going to hike the Great Glen Way in Scotland this summer. There are some other possibilities too. Here are the three major contenders:

Sudan. I’ve always been intrigued by this desert nation. Sudan has its own pyramids, medieval Christian sites, and a beautiful desert landscape. An English teacher I know in Khartoum has nothing but good things to say about Sudan’s capital.

Iran. I went to Iran back in 1994 and I’m interested in returning to see how things have changed. One of the sites I didn’t get to see last time was Alamut, the fabled castle of the Assassins. My archaeology contacts have told me that Iran’s government is restoring the castle in the hopes of turning it into a tourist attraction. My wife is interested in coming along on this trip and so we’d get both a male and female view of life inside this strictly Muslim country.

Lebanon. This nation on the Mediterranean is doing better than it has in many years. Lebanon has a wealth of archaeological sties, great nightlife in Beirut, and from what I’ve been told the best cuisine in the Middle East. It’s also right next to Syria, allowing an insight into that country’s bitter civil war.

So which country would you like to read a series about? Take the quiz and tell me!

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[Photo courtesy Rob Hammond]

Travel Bloggers Unite: A Profile Of The Conference From Umbria, Italy

Assisi, a small town in Umbria, Italy, stands about a mile south of the city center on a quiet country road. I walked here this morning on the gravel shoulder, declining to take the shuttle service in lieu of some exposure to nature. Now I sit on the back patio of this small resort that plays host to the Travel Bloggers Unite conference, quietly jetlagged with a group of weary bloggers.

I’ve come to TBU for a couple of reasons this year, primarily to compare the conference to the American competitor that everyone knows as TBEX and, additionally, to tap into the current psyche of today’s travel blogger. Up next: a talk on how brands can work better with independent bloggers in the main lecture hall of the resort. Later this afternoon: the value of storytelling. There are pre- and post-conference tours scheduled for the attendees as well, but my time only permits a visit to the educational tracks.

It is a small conference this year, with maybe 200 attendees (exact numbers were not available at publication) eagerly scurrying between workshops and networking events. For the size, the resort is a great fit – small enough to house the bloggers and most of the workshops and yet large enough to find a quiet corner. And it’s remote. The bus ride from Fiumicino airport outside of Rome took just under three hours while the journey back will take even longer.

Most of the workshops and talks take place over the course of two days, with networking events and other activities sprinkled in between. Prior to my arrival, for example, there was a workshop on photography with mobile phones, while afterwards, bloggers broke out in groups to explore the rich surrounding area.

Since I arrived too late for the prologue, my first contact with the conference comes at the dinner planned for the group on opening night. It’s a dinner that’s hosted by the resort and the tourism board of Umbria, and like many of the activities this weekend there’s a strong component of local culture that is carefully being presented to the group. As TBU and other conferences grow, I expect more influencers to take larger roles in hosting bloggers, and though there’s an earnest engagement from the attendees, I wonder how many people will write about Assisi only because of this planted seed. Admittedly, however, one cannot expect a conference to run without sponsors, and the interaction between the organizers and the financiers seems to be well respected.

Bloggers, for their part, seem eager to engage with the sponsors, and it’s apparent from the workshops that much of the conference focuses on how to build a marketable site. And that seems to be the difference between TBU and TBEX. Here, their focus lies in enriching one’s personal brand and leveraging the product to work with sponsors. There was plenty of that at TBEX last year as well, but there was also a heavier focus on narrative writing and development. Conversely, TBU only had one workshop on the art of travel writing.

In a way, however, it seemed that most travel bloggers at TBU were comfortable with that ratio. TBEX focused more on the writing side of the equation in 2011, “and that’s where they failed,” one blogger told me. Indeed, as TBEX 2012 starts to take shape, I’m told from several people that the focus will dramatically shift away from writing and over to the business of travel. Those looking to build their writing skills, I was told, should look elsewhere.

For many, however, the value doesn’t really come from the proper workshops or the talks but rather from the networking. In the volumes of criticism produced from last year’s TBEX, one prevailing theme was that it was good to see the broad spectrum of travel personalities in real life and sit down for a few drinks and brainstorming. It’s the reason that I go to TBEX and TBU and the reason that I’ll continue to attend.

Travelers And Bloggers Get Together With New Web App

travelersTravelers planning a trip often turn to a trusted travel information source, one they may have used before and had good results. That source might be a guide book, web site or travel blog like this one where intrepid travelers scour the planet for experiences and information. A new web application now hopes to connects travelers with travel bloggers in what could be a very viable and relevant source of travel information.

At Uencounter.me, travelers and bloggers create a personalized virtual pin map to mark locations of interest. Travelers might mark places they want to visit. Bloggers mark places they have already visited and produced content about.

“Tens of thousands of travel blogs exist on the web and the Uencounter.me Team is excited to provide a venue that offers the bloggers a resource for additional exposure,” said CEO Leslyn Kantner in a release. “We feel they are a perfect complement to our platform.”

The nature of the application encourages interactions between users about pins on the map. For example, I signed up and began by placing a pin in my hometown. Immediately, other pins pop up on the board from bloggers who had been there and written about it. The information and location of those pins came with a date and other background information to quickly scan before going further.

Bloggers are able to add a link to their blogs on the description of each pin they place on the map and Uencounter.me offers bloggers a badge to place on their webpage so that readers can link directly to the bloggers map.

Another use: Businesses and organizations can drop pins for where their customers or group members are located.

Sharing Your Google Map as Public



Flickr photo by Adams K.

Six things I’ve learned about travel writing after submitting 1000 posts for Gadling

SOmaliland, Sean McLachlan, travel writing
My blogger dashboard tells me, “you have written 465,451 words in 1,000 posts since you started publishing 1,048 days ago.” Wow! I’ve been working for this wonderful blog for that long? It’s been fun and I’ve learned some important things about travel writing.

The subjects are endless
I got into travel writing years before Gadling hired me, but working for a daily blog made me worried that I wouldn’t have enough material. Boy was I wrong! There’s always a new place to explore or a new exhibition opening or a new archaeological discovery. Instead of having too little to write about I’ve discovered that there’s too much to cover.

For some people, your work is a blank slate
A playwright I know complained to me that, “Some people will use your work as a blank slate on which to project whatever they see in the world.” While the vast majority a Gadling readers understand what they read, there’s a vocal minority who see whatever they want.
A couple of years ago I reported on a smoking ban in Egypt. The comments section erupted with dozens of tirades against the U.S. government restricting our right to smoke. Only a couple commenters acknowledged, “I know this article is about Egypt, but. . .”

It got so bad that one reader exploded:

“THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT EGYPT!!!!!!!! EGYPT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NOT THE USA!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ALL YOU SMOKERS STILL HAVE YOUR RIGHTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SO SHUT UP AND TALK ABOUT EGYPT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Nice try, buddy. Nobody listened to you.I also did an article about the Loch Ness Monster going extinct. With tongue firmly in cheek, I wrote, “In the United States, liberals are saying Nessie died of shame from being called a ‘monster’ instead of the more politically correct term ‘evidence-challenged endangered species.’ Conservatives claim Nessie was the first victim of the death panels set up by Obama’s America-hating, terrorist-loving national health care.” Everyone got the joke except for some Obama supporters who piled on me, assuming I was some Bush-era devil. I even got messages in my public email account screaming at me about that one.

My public email address is easy to find if you Google me. I’m always happy to hear from readers. I had an interesting conversation about the Kensington Runestone just last week. The reader disagreed with my debunking it, but he was civil and cited sources. If only all such emails were so polite. I’ve been called a patriarchal Christian, a godless atheist, a fascist, a communist, a stupid American and an America-hating foreigner. Send me a nice email and we’ll chat. If you email saying you want me to be eaten by cannibals then the next time I go to Africa I’ll mock you and block you.

Want to cause controversy? Challenge basic assumptions
Sometimes I like poking the public with a stick by challenging long-cherished beliefs that have never really been thought through. I’m ornery that way and I like watching my editor’s hair turn gray. Saying stuff like “God should be referred to as and ‘it’ and not a ‘he,‘” or “you don’t have to bring your camera when you travel” challenges so-called truths that most people have never questioned. The knee-jerk reactions are predictable and fill up the comments section and my inbox.

I’m doing this less and less, because it has the opposite effect from what I intended. Instead of getting people to question their assumptions, most simply react angrily and strengthen their preconceptions rather than think about them.
I still might do a post on “Top ten reasons not to travel.” :-)

The more obscure the destination, the more they pay attention
When I wrote my series on Ethiopia and Somaliland I received a wonderful surprise — the wave of positive feedback from those countries. I got lots of happy comments and emails from Ethiopians and Somalis, and several local websites and even a Somali newspaper picked up my posts. These two nations unjustly suffer from negative stereotypes and so the locals were glad to see someone writing about all of the good things they had to offer.

An even more amazing response came when I wrote about the Athens War Museum as part of a series of how the Greek tourism industry is dealing with the economic crisis. I mentioned how I was disappointed because I couldn’t buy a copy of “A Concise History of the Balkan Wars 1912-1913″ displayed at the counter. They didn’t have enough money to reprint it and so the last few copies were reserved for veterans. Only a few days later I got an email from a major in the Greek army offering me a copy! I have it on my desk now and it’s an excellent read.

Locals are your best coauthors
Before I go somewhere, I usually ask for tips from the Gadling team, other travel writers, and friends. Posting questions at the end of my articles always gets some great feedback from well-traveled Gadling readers. While this is all useful, the best help always comes from the strangers I meet while traveling. This works best when I stay put for a while, like when I lived in Harar, Ethiopia, for two months. Everyone was eager to tell me about their culture and show me the sights. People love it when you write about their hometown! They make my job easy.

Travel writing is important
Despite the many frustrations of travel writing and the (ahem) low pay, I think it’s more important than my history and fiction writing. This is such a divided world, filled with hatred, ignorance and fear. Chipping away at that negativity by showing people all the wonderful things other cultures have to offer is a noble profession, and I’m grateful to Gadling for giving me the chance to do it, and I’m grateful to all of you for the support I’ve received for my last 1,000 posts.

iPhone app review: ‘Spotted By Locals’ European city guides

spotted by localsOn a recent extended trip to Phnom Penh, I decided to bring along my trusty five-pound Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guide from Lonely Planet. Big mistake. In a city changing as quickly as Cambodia‘s capital, I found that nearly all of the information had become dated and irrelevant. Nearly half of the recommended restaurants had gone out of business, and the budget guesthouses, experiencing the “Lonely Planet effect“, were now half as nice, twice as expensive, and filled with people who, well, kinda sucked.

Spotted By Locals aims to be a different kind of travel guide by providing up-to-date travel advice from urban residents through blogs, PDF city guides, and a newly redesigned iPhone app. After road-testing the app, I’d say they’re well on their way.

The Spotted By Locals app is, to put it simply, awesome. Launched in December, the mobile application is 100 percent off-line, which means you don’t need to go bankrupt with data roaming or search endlessly for WiFi hotspots in order to access its wealth of information. And wealth it is. Since the app is currently only available for select European cities, I downloaded the Paris guide, clicked on the map, zoomed into my old street in the Marais, clicked on some of the map markers, and was able to access insider information written by residents about my two favorite vintage shops (Free ‘P’ Star and Vintage Desir, if you must know).


Spotted’s strength lies in its roster of local bloggers, who live in the cities they represent, speak the local language, and volunteer their services for free. The locals are hand-picked by owners Sanne and Bart van Poll, avid travelers based in Amsterdam. Plus, since the locals are active residents of their cities, they’re able to keep the guides’ information current and provide updates nearly in real-time, so you can stay ahead of the Lonely Planet pack.

[images via Spotted By Locals]