In Praise Of Travel Lists

Travel lists get a lot of grief. I’ve overheard many fellow travel writers offer the opinion that lists of various sorts are deeply inferior to any and all narrative travel writing. Others have suggested that lists are slowly crowding out real travel writing entirely.

C’mon now.

Let’s agree for a few provisional minutes that the purpose of travel writing is, very generally, to inspire people to think about travel. (Why not? This is a good goal, all things considered.) Few genres of writing are better suited to achieving this goal than travel lists – lists of destinations, hotels, beaches, restaurants and so on. A list written by an expert can feel like an extended secret, like an invitation to experience the world differently.

Lists at their best are efficient. They cover key territory and reduce unnecessary noise. They reveal their writers’ passions directly. Are they the ticket to cross-cultural understanding? Not usually, but then very few traditional travel stories, no matter how drenched they may be in self-importance, ever accomplish this end.

Let’s take this past Saturday’s print edition of Guardian Travel as an example of the value of travel lists. The section was full of inspiring ideas in list form – summer holiday recommendations, adventures in south-west England, and cool accommodations on the Isle of Wight. There’s a more bullet-point-like list of upcoming holiday festivals in the UK as well.

The summer holiday recommendations kick off with some exciting suggestions about corners of France slightly off the beaten path, written by Jacqueline Mirtelli of Atout France, the France Tourism Development Agency. Mirtelli suggests Cap Corse, the little-visited peninsula on the northern coast of Corsica, and finishes off her tip list with the inland villages of the Var, a region in Provence. Elsewhere Michael Cullen of i-escape tips the Greek island of Kastellorizo, Simon Wrench of Inntravel suggests the Danish Riviera, and Lucy Kane of Rough Guides lists Tbilisi, Palma and Montenegro as her summer travel recommendations.

In this short round-up piece the excitement of summer travel is infectious and inspiring. There is information here, and more importantly there are multiple jumping-off points for research. Could this sort of generalized excitement be achieved by one longer piece on, say, the Amalfi Coast? I’m doubtful that it could.

Like many absolutist stands that we travel writers get sidetracked into on occasion, the resistance to lists is misplaced. The wholesale replacement of narrative by lists would be a terrible development for sure; shy of that, there’s no need to attack the humble list. There is, however, as always, a need across genres for high-quality versions of all types of writing.

[Image of Cap Corse: Flickr | cremona daniel]

Scammer Found Selling Fake Bomb Detectors To Airports

A British court has found a man guilty of selling fake bomb detectors to Iraq and Georgia, the BBC reports. James McCormick, 56, of Langport, Somerset, was found guilty of fraud after making a fortune from detectors he knew didn’t work.

He’s estimated to have made some $76 million from the worthless devices, which were modeled after a novelty golf ball finder. In his sales pitches he claimed they could be set to find anything from bombs to money to drugs. Researchers found no scientific basis for his claims.

Both nations that bought the devices have serious problems with terrorism, and adventure travelers that venture to these places were put in danger by McCormick’s greed. In Georgia last year, someone put a bomb under the car of an Israeli embassy staffer, and bombings in Iraq are a frequent occurrence.

The BBC says the devices are still at use at “some” checkpoints. When I was traveling in Iraq in October 2012, I saw them in use at every checkpoint I passed through, including the checkpoints to Baghdad airport. Many people already knew they didn’t work; yet they were still used to “scan” every vehicle. Senior Iraqi officials were bribed to use government funds (i.e. U.S. taxpayer dollars) to buy the devices. Three of these officials are now serving prison terms.

McCormick lulled the Iraqi police and army into a false sense of security and endangered the lives of everyone in Iraq, including myself. To say this makes me angry doesn’t even come close to what I feel towards this scumbag, and it makes me wonder about the other “security devices” we rely on. Last year the TSA removed backscatter x-ray body scanners from some airports for fear of cancer risks and replaced them with less harmful millimeter-wave scanners. The effectiveness of x-ray scanners has also been questioned.

I’m glad to see McCormick is finally facing justice, but I think he’s been found guilty of the wrong thing. He didn’t perpetrate fraud; he aided and abetted terrorism. He should spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement, kept company only by graphic photos of Iraq’s bombing victims.

[Photo courtesy Avon and Somerset Police]

Video Of The Day: Airplane Kindergarten

Get nervous when you see a kid on a plane? How about a whole classroom of kids on a plane? A clever kindergarten in Georgia (the country, not the state) has transformed an old airplane into a school, with an intact cockpit. Check out the video above from the UK Telegraph and get ready to be envious of a bunch of Georgian 5-year-olds who get to play with cool buttons and learn their Alpha Tango Bravos.

See a cool travel video? Leave us a link in the comments for another Video of the Day.

Stalin Back in Style In His Hometown of Gori

Two years ago, Georgian officials carried out a secret, dead of night operation to dismantle a statue of Joseph Stalin in his hometown of Gori. But on Thursday, a municipal assembly in Gori voted to restore the monument. According to press reports, some 6,000 people signed a petition in support of the move. The fact that officials in this impoverished corner of the world have pledged $15,000 toward venerating one of history’s greatest mass murderers is a scandal, but the news was given just a one-paragraph treatment under the New York Times’s World Briefing section on Friday.

I visited the Stalin sites in Gori’s main square 12 years ago and can’t help but wonder if this recent move is an ill-conceived scheme to attract tourists, an effort to embarrass President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose party was defeated by a coalition that, according to the Times, “promised to restore monuments to Stalin in Gori and other cities,” or simply a move to honor Stalin.

Gori is a place that looks just like it sounds: pretty gruesome. When I told the woman whom I was staying with in Tbilisi that I was taking a day trip to Gori, she practically pleaded with me not to go.

“There is nothing in Gori, nothing!” she said.

But I wanted to see the Stalin birthplace and museum, so off I went, early one morning in a battered minivan with a shattered windshield and about three or four too many passengers. Walking around the forlorn town, I felt like I’d stepped back in time about 100 years. Peasants in heavy, homemade-looking woolen outfits lined the streets, selling produce and household items, like Barf brand detergent, made in Iran and other developing world backwaters, on top of cardboard boxes and from the trunks of dilapidated old cars.

The sidewalks were so deeply cracked that one could easily break a leg if they weren’t paying close attention. The stench of poverty and despair filled the dark streets and I couldn’t help but conclude that Stalin, born Joseph Vissarionovich, the son of a cobbler, couldn’t be blamed for abandoning the place as a young revolutionary.

All I had to do was say “Stalin?” and people knew to direct me toward his humble boyhood home, which was venerated with a huge, columned building around it to make it look more grand after his death. There were five women huddled in the cold around an inadequate little space heater at the adjacent Stalin museum. One of them walked me around the pitch-dark place, turning on and off the lights above each exhibit as we strolled through. There was little of interest, save for an old pair of Stalin’s boots and other memorabilia, especially for an English speaker.

After the impromptu tour, one of her colleagues offered me a selection of souvenirs – a book of Stalin’s awful poetry, a Stalin keychain and some postcards.

“Now you will visit Stalin’s private train car,” said my guide, who spoke some English.

As we walked out to check out his elaborate train car, I asked her what she thought of Stalin and an unpleasant expression, half-disgusted, half-exhausted came over her face.

“I don’t have to tell you that,” she said.

“Yes, of course you don’t,” I said. “I was just curious.”

“My opinion about Stalin is private,” she said, cutting me off.

I couldn’t decide if she hated Stalin but felt that she shouldn’t admit it because of her duties as Stalin Museum and birthplace tour guide or if she respected him but didn’t want to admit it to an American, knowing that I’d have a rather low opinion of Stalin. Who knows, perhaps she’s one of the 6,000 people who signed a petition to bring back the statue?

[Photo credit: Dave Seminara, Giladr and Rapidtravelchai on Flickr]

The Caucasus, Central Asia And British Airways

I traveled to Beirut earlier this year with bmi (British Midland International), the East Midlands-based airline partially absorbed into British Airways in the spring. My Beirut trip was meant to be the third installment in an ongoing series called “Far Europe and Beyond,” which reached a premature end in the lead-up to the airline’s sale to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent of British Airways and Iberia.

“Far Europe and Beyond” was, as its title suggests, focused on several cities along on Europe’s margins and just beyond. I visited Tbilisi and Yerevan last year, Beirut earlier this year, and had hoped to carry on to three additional cities, one (Baku) within Europe and Almaty and Bishkek (see above), both indisputably outside of Europe.

BA has absorbed many bmi routes and withdrawn others. I did a little cursory research and discovered that two of the cities I originally proposed for the series (Bishkek and Yerevan) have been dropped – as has Tehran, where the Yerevan-London bmi flight I took last October originated.

Last week, in response to an email query, a helpful British Airways spokesperson confirmed that the above destinations have indeed not been included in BA’s winter schedule. When I asked whether or not BA had any intention to initiate new routes to the Caucasus and Central Asia, she told me that there were no immediate plans to do so, and added that she suspected that future route development would focus on destinations further east. She also pointed out that the airline has just begun to fly nonstop between London and Seoul, an exciting development in light of the ascendance of Korean popular culture and the recent debut of a Seoul-based correspondent at Gadling.

Here’s a little plea to British Airways: please bring these cities back, perhaps looped into other routes on a once-a-week basis. What about a stop in Bishkek coming back from Almaty or a stop in Yerevan en route to Tbilisi?If these routes can’t be returned to service, perhaps they could be replaced with similarly enthralling new destinations in the general neighborhood, all direct from London. What about a flight to Uralsk, gateway to the gas reserves of West Kazakhstan’s Karachaganak Field? How about seasonal flights to Georgia’s Black Sea holiday town of Batumi? What about making a big pre-Olympic fuss over Sochi? (The 2014 Winter Olympics are just 15 months away.) Why not resume a previously abandoned route to Ekaterinburg?

Pleasing me would form a terrible basis for route development decisions, granted, but there have to be profitable routes in this general region that are not served by other oneworld alliance airlines.

Do it for the love of commerce and industry in the post-Soviet space, BA.

[Image: Flickr | Thomas Depenbusch]