Travel writing: how not to do it

We’ve had some interesting posts on travel writing lately, including Don George’s secret formula for writing a successful travel narrative and Pam Mandel’s report on Book Passage. While studying good writing is vital to learning how to write, it’s also important to study bad writing so you know what not to do.

Talented writer Steve Almond tackles this for us with his hilarious skewering of Toto’s 1982 pop hit Africa. I never liked this song, although it was the background theme to far too many high school memories. While this is a song and not a travel article, it includes many of the mistakes sloppy writers make when covering travel in general and Africa in particular. Watch, laugh, and learn.

Thanks to my friend Hannah for showing me this vid!

Win trip for two in Air New Zealand Like Totally 80’s contest

air new zealand like totally 80's contestAir New Zealand has never been afraid to show off its sense of humor. From matchmaking flights to cheeky commercials to risque in-flight safety videos, the Kiwi airline knows how to get attention. Now, however, we might actually benefit from their creativity with prizes that include a trip for two to New Zealand. They’re celebrating the decade of excess with their Like Totally 80’s contest on Facebook. To enter, you just need to upload a photo of yourself rocking some classic 80’s clothes. Too young to have owned your own acid-washed jeans? Well, hit up the vintage stores and take a picture of yourself just dressing the part. It’s a small price to pay for the chance to publicly humiliate yourself win a trip to one of the most beautiful places in the world.

The airline’s Facebook fans will vote for their favorite photos and the final 10 will be judged by a panel. The winner wins a trip for two to New Zealand. First runner-up will win an iPod compatible “boombox” while the second runner-up will score a case of Tab cola, the soda for beautiful people. Just last year I enjoyed some cold, “delicious” Tab with my Gadling buddy Scott Carmichael. My advice: Try not to come in third place in this contest.

Tomorrow is the deadline to enter Air New Zealand’s Like Totally 80’s contest, so act fast.

Weekending: Veliko Tarnovo


The best part of expat life for me are the travel opportunities, especially when living in Turkey, conveniently located where Europe meets Asia. Expat travel takes on a new twist as you seek out the new and unfamiliar as in any new destination, the newly familiar of your adopted home city, and the old and familiar of your original home city. You luxuriate in the things your expat home lacks, compare versions of similar foods and drink, and wonder where you’d hang out, what you’d cook, and where you’d buy groceries in this foreign place. I recently took a week-long trip to Bulgaria (read about Sofia here, and I’ll finish up with the Black Sea town Varna) and fell in love with the country’s old architecture, young creativity, and most of all, the prices.

The place: Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo (also called Veliko Turnovo, so I’ll simplify as VT) is smack dab in the middle of the country, dominated by a 12th-century fortress, hills aplenty, and the Yantra River (a Danube tributary). Once the Medieval capital of Bulgaria, VT boats a bevy of sights and lots of daytrip possibilities. After the country was liberated from the Ottoman Empire, Sofia became the capital, but VT remains a popular tourist destination and a point of pride for many Bulgarians. Other than the spectacularly Soviet Interhotel (don’t be fooled by glam interior photos, the exterior is an eyesore from another era – see above on right), VT escaped much of the communist architecture of Sofia and retains a historic small-town feel.

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  • While I found Sofia to have the best prices of any European capital thus far, VT is even more budget. I stayed in the boutique Studio Hotel for 45 Euros a night, and ordered local wine in restaurants for 2 leva a glass (and that’s for a 250 ml pour, a third of a bottle!). Two people can hit the town with 40 leva (under $30 USD) in their pockets and come home with change to spare. Real estate signs advertise houses in nearby towns for 10,000 Euros, making you contemplate a rural Bulgarian life.
  • Endless people-watching fun. For a hill town of 70,000 people, the ladies sure know how to dress. On any given weekday afternoon, you may see women in 5-inch stilettos, miniskirts, skin tight jeans, or revealing dresses. The girls may look like they are on their way to a Jersey Shore nightclub, but more likely destinations are a university class or their grandmother’s house. Additionally, ’80s fashion is alive and well in Bulgaria – I spotted mullets (for women), big hair (for men), neon colors, high-top sneakers, and vests everywhere. An entertaining afternoon can be spent at a sidewalk cafe marveling “Did you SEE what she was wearing?!” with your travel mates.

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  • While VT is a charming place, it feels like a one-horse town after a few days of wandering the same streets up and down. The historical sights are lovely to see but small and a tad overpriced (6 leva for a quick tour of a church feels a bit extortionate when you realize it could buy you a meal or get you nice and tipsy). One upside to the tiny museums is few crowds, even in the height of the tourist season. Visiting the weirdly wonderful State Art Museum as the only patron while little old ladies followed me around, turning on and off lights, was a highlight of the trip. The (almost) nightly Tsarevets fortress sound and lights show is fun to see at least once, though I thought it could be improved with more lasers and the Beverly Hills Cop theme song; visiting the fortress by day is a little disappointing and best enjoyed as a scenic view.
  • Another downside to the small-town feel of VT is limited food options. More cosmopolitan Sofia offers sushi, Indian food, and modern Bulgarian; coastal Bulgaria boats seafood galore; VT has traditional and not-terribly-exciting Bulgarian food (which can be a good or bad thing) and pizza. This means a LOT of meat and after a few days, I was literally dreaming of salad. Also: be careful with drinking tap water. Although, opinions are divided on whether or not it is safe to drink, I was sick every day I drank tap water in VT until I discovered the CDC advises against it, and was much improved after switching to bottled water. One favorite place to eat and drink: the Malkiya Inter cafe is eclectically decorated with antiques and musical instruments, buzzing with locals celebrating birthdays or watching football, and serves tasty and cheap drinks and, of course, meat.

Getting there

Centrally located, travelers can fly into Sofia or Varna and bus or drive from there, about 3.5 to 4.5 hours. Bulgarian buses are cheap, comfortable, and clean, and have the added feature (not sure if its a good one) of playing raunchy Canadian comedies with Bulgarian subtitles; I saw the dreadful National Lampoon’s Going the Distance and the “Dan Ackroyd needs a paycheck” White Coats. Trains are available as well but slower and less reliable, though they can connect you to Istanbul and Bucharest.

Make it a week

After a few days in VT proper, rent a car and explore the central Balkans, stopping at Arbanassi for architecture (you can even hike from VT) and multiple monasteries. VT can easily be combined with trips to other major Bulgarian towns, small villages, or even neighboring countries like Romania. If the weather is good, head out to the beach for my next Bulgarian stop, Varna on the Black Sea.

Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.

Top 10 travel-themed 80’s songs

Something happened to songwriters during the 80’s. Synthesizers became required instruments, hair got bigger and most importantly, songwriters were increasingly interested in the theme of travel. Why was travel suddenly such an important subject? Though there’s no one right answer, the reasons for the glut of travel-themed 80’s songs are many, including the influence of globalization, the rise of international pop stars and, of course, because the bands just wanted to seem cool and more worldly. Isn’t that always the best reason?

With so many great travel-themed 80’s pop songs out there, it was only natural for Gadling to compile a list of our top ten favorites. After hours of intensive polling, debating and arguing, we’re happy to present you with the following gems. How many do you remember? Think you know the best? Take a look below:

80’s Travel Song #10: The Bangles – Walk Like an Egyptian

How does one “walk like an Egyptian” you might ask? Well, if you were The Bangles, it involved some awkward imitations of ancient hieroglyphics. Though they never do the dance in their video, the song kicked off a wave of hieroglyphics imitators, all turned sideways in tribute. So did the band ever visit Egypt? Were they avid archaeology buffs? I’m afraid the answer is probably no. But hey, the dance makes you look pretty cool. Make sure to show it off the next time you find yourself on the streets of Cairo!


80’s Travel Song #9: Murray Head – One Night in Bangkok

So what exactly is going on here? 80’s one-hit wonders Murray Head sing this ode to Bangkok, originally composed by the former members of ABBA, as part of the soundtrack for the hit musical Chess, and the music video doesn’t stray too far from the theme. A guy plays chess, people are dancing with Asian masks in a dark scary room and there’s lots of smoke. I haven’t yet been to Bangkok, but based on this video, I think I have a pretty good sense of what to expect. If nothing else, it’s got quite a hummable chorus, no?

80’s Travel Song #8: U2 – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

In 1986, U2 began work on a new album called The Joshua Tree. The record was meant to describe all that they loved about American musical traditions, including Blues, Gospel and Folk. The result of their efforts was their most popular album to date, including hit singles like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The song’s themes of wandering, discovery and open road remain just as resonant today as when the song was first released back in 1987. Make sure to watch the official video (we couldn’t embed it, sorry) to see the band as they wander around Las Vegas.

80’s Travel Song #7: Go-Go’s – Vacation

Not only is “Vacation” the name of a hit song by 80’s all-girl group The Go-Go’s, it’s also the name of their 1982 album. Propelled by bouncy melodies and catchy guitar hooks, “Vacation” might seem to be the perfect carefree soundtrack to that next trip down to the Bahamas. But if you listen closely, you’ll notice the lyrics to “Vacation” really have nothing to do with travel, beaches or road trips: it’s actually about a relationship. That said, don’t let the lyrical content spoil the fun – “Vacation” remains an 80’s travel song favorite.

80’s Travel Song #6: B-52’s – Roam

They might not have known it at the time, but this quintessential ode to wandering by 80’s super-group The B-52’s was destined to be included on every travel-themed iPod playlist. It has all the right ingredients – the references to dusty trails, a sugary melody and plenty of killer choruses. Anytime you stuck at home or at the office and dreaming of that next big trip, throw on “Roam” and you’re guaranteed to be transported back out on the open road, if only in your mind.

80’s Travel Song #5: Billy Ocean – Caribbean Queen

Remember the first time you heard Billy Ocean’s Caribbean Queen? Was it in a dentist office waiting room? Streaming from the “Lite Rock” station at a coworker’s cubicle? It’s likely you don’t have fond memories of it, and frankly, that’s a shame. The ultimate “King of Smooth,” Mr. Billy Ocean, brings us this easy listening staple, a must-have on any self-respecting 80’s travel song list. The easygoing rhythms paired with the luxurious string section give this song a carefree, island vibe that’s hard to describe. You either want to break out in spontaneous dance or go cry in the corner – it’s hard to decide which feels more appropriate.

80’s Travel Song #4: Men at Work – Land Down Under

This one is just too easy. Men at Work’s Land Down Under music video has just about every 80’s and Australian cliche known to mankind. That includes the unnecessary man sitting in a tree playing a flute solo, a stuffed koala, band members wearing leather pants in the desert, and plenty of gratuitous Foster’s product shots. If you want to (mis)understand what the 80’s were all about, just watch this video. It’s amazing.

80’s Travel Song #3: Duran Duran – Rio

Like so many other epic pop singles, Duran Duran’s Rio is a tribute to that “special someone.” In this case though, the place and the person are used interchangeably. They call it “Rio,” an earthly paradise of beaches, twinkling stars and sensuous “curves.” Are they talking about Rio de Janeiro? Some other “river” of fantasies? A fair-skinned beauty? The answer is up to the listener to decide. Make sure to watch the sailboat-themed video (which we weren’t able to embed in this post).

80’s Travel Song #2: Toto – Africa

Africa has long been a source of mystery and intrigue for travelers, a fact one-hit wonders Toto play off in this tribute to the famously “exotic” continent. The action in the video inexplicably kicks off in a library (in Africa, I guess?) where the band is searching for answers. Sadly, despite pulling a number of dusty tomes off the shelf, including one appropriately titled “Africa,” they don’t seem to find anything of use. Soon an errant spear is thrown into the bookcase and chaos ensues. If you’re looking to find every possible stereotype about Africa embodied in a catchy pop song, Toto’s Africa is it.

80’s Travel Song #1: Big Country – In a Big Country

Big Country might not have achieved the same degree of 80’s-hit stardom as Duran Duran or Men at Work, but their grand opus, “In a Big Country,” is among the most epic travel songs of all time. Much like Rio, “In a Big Country” mixes subjects between special places and people, singing of the inspiring places around us and the people that inhabit them. The soaring lyrics and catchy chorus never fail to get your body moving and your mind dreaming off distant lands. Plus, in the music video, the band seems to be having plenty of fun along the way, tooling around on 3-wheelers in search of adventure.

A Canadian In Beijing: Two-Wheeled Matrimony

I’ve been here for three weeks and I’m pretty sure that yesterday was my first “bad day.” Okay, perhaps “bad” is the wrong word for it. I’d have to say that what started as a good day became a low day, a sad day, a frustrating and annoying day. . . a day when I wished I were home and not here. . . for just an hour, perhaps. I could have even found solace in twenty minutes. (They need to invent that transporter device from Star Trek already!)

The air was thick with a mixture of pollution and desert dust and there was a cool wind. Beijing was crying for rain but the tears wouldn’t come from the sky. Wind cut through my clothes as I went to fetch my new bike (second-hand – thanks Sarah! – but new to me) so that I could take it out on our honeymoon ride.
I am very happy to have a bike. It gives me a chance to explore the far reaches of my neighbourhood and have more freedom time-wise than walking gives. Yesterday, I decided to seek out the “Lotus in Moonlight Vegetarian Restaurant” that I was told about by one of my Chinese friends. He even drew me a map and it seemed easy enough to understand. I got on my bike and pedalled in the direction of food. My bike and I were getting along beautifully.

I got to the area where the restaurant was supposed to be and this is when my day started to twist and turn. Sometimes I think that people here get a kick out of misdirecting the foreigner. I’ve been cynical enough to wonder this because it’s not the first time that I’ve been pointed the wrong way by a local and have had to re-trace my steps. My language skills can’t be that bad!

This happened three times. It took me a half an hour of navigating several office building parking lots and busy side streets before I was confident that I had the right building. Why was I confident? Because I had asked three different people. I was tired of trusting solitary answers. I started to approach asking directions with skepticism rather than trust. That was probably the place where my day descended: my attitude.

I locked up my bike and I headed inside. (I have since learned that all the bikes are locked here, but often only with this back lock, which is so subtle that I hadn’t noticed it before. I also use a second front lock, as per Sarah’s suggestion.)

This was both a shopping mall and an office building and it was hard to identify where the shopping began and where the offices ended. Escalators brought me up to the third floor where I was greeted by gaudy wrapped pillars and sparsely designed shopping counters selling a variety of specialty items.

The restaurant was one of the corner suites on this floor. It was beautiful and spacious with wide-open windows that overlooked more courtyards to yet more buildings. The chairs were plush and throne-like and the menu was a hardcover book that looked more like a coffee table book of photography than it did a restaurant menu.

The prices reflected the décor.

Unfortunately, the service did not.

It seems to me that I was disturbing the waitress by being there, even though I was one of only two customers. She spoke so quickly that I couldn’t understand her. When I asked her kindly if she would please repeat what she had said more slowly, she actually sped up her speech instead.

Despite this mean-spirited move, I was still able to gather that no food was available as it was between lunch and dinner (about 3:00pm). I then tried to order just a cup of tea, but then certain beverages were also not available and I couldn’t ascertain why they weren’t and why they were. All in all, everything the waitress said seemed to be unclear and slurred. She rolled her eyes with annoyance when I said I didn’t understand. Even her body language conveyed annoyance. After “dealing” with me, she went across the room and complained to her friends and fellow workers who then all turned and stared at me at the same moment.

What was bothering her so much? Was it my presence during an ‘off’ time’? My lack of proficient Chinese language skills? My affluence in being able to walk into that restaurant at all? (And c’mon, I’m a musician and I had already gathered that I’d only be able to afford some tea and some soup there). Or was it my ragged appearance?

Or maybe she was having a terrible day too and she decided that this “laowai” was an easy target for her bad mood. Really, there’s no telling what the reasons were, there’s just the response to manage; and mine was one of dejection and frustration.

I ordered an overpriced juice – 20 kuai – and I drank it, looked out the window for about five minutes, and then I left. I felt mistreated and ripped off at the same time, not to mention still hungry and therefore more irritable.

I was undoing the locks on my bike outside when a man approached me and asked me for money. He gestured to the row of bikes and I quickly remembered that sometimes you have to pay to park your bike in this city. Seeing as this was more of a business district, it made sense that someone was responsible for the bikes outside. It’s safer that way, especially considering the fact that bike theft is rampant in Beijing.

I asked him how much and he said “wu” or “five” and I was aghast. “Five kuai!” I said in Chinese, “that’s way too expensive!” This was the wrong time to overcharge me for something, considering the trouble I’d just had with bad directions coupled with that terrible restaurant experience! My tone was defensive and sharp and I narrowed my eyes at him expecting a fight in my third language.

He looked at me blankly, paused, and then slowly held up a five mao note.

My stony defenses crumbled like a sand castle. I felt so sheepish. Five mao and Five kuai are very different – it’s the difference between $0.07 and $0.73 Canadian. I apologized immediately and handed him my five mao. He thanked me and I said “bu keqi” which is the respectful way of saying you’re welcome and it means, literally, “don’t be so polite” or “no politeness [needed].” I mean, after all, I wasn’t polite to him and so why should he be polite to me? I hoped he heard both the literal and the conventional meanings.

So, I had yet another big lesson about carrying forward negative energy. I took on the waitress’s negative energy and then passed it on to the parking attendant. I can only hope that it stopped there.

Just before hopping on my bike and heading home to some groceries in my fridge, I heard some music that was being pumped out of a nearby outdoor stage. It was Air Supply: All out of Love. I have a big love-on for Air Supply. They’re cheesy and wonderful – lush harmonies and reverb on the drums that goes for days. I know all the words. Total 80’s nostalgia.

I got on my bike and rode the whole way back to my dorm room (about fifteen minutes) singing this song at full volume, not caring who heard and who didn’t.

And I felt better.

“I’m all out of love / What am I without you? / I can’t be too late to say that I was so wrong.”

I sang it to my bike.

We’re gonna stay married.