Picture Perfect: Why Bolivians Insist Upon Flawless US Dollars

moneyMy first encounter with the Bolivian mania for perfect U.S. dollars occurred at 3 a.m., as I blearily stood in line at Immigration, attempting to pay for my entry visa. I’d been in transit for over 30 hours, and was fumbling in my travel wallet for the stack of twenties I’d set aside specifically for this purpose (they want that $135 in USD, no exceptions).

The immigration agent examined each bill with an anal retentiveness surely rivaled by past appraisers of the Hope Diamond. He immediately tossed two perfectly-fine looking bills back at me.

“What’s wrong with these?” I asked. “They are damaged,” he snapped, and returned to closely inspecting my remaining twenties, running his fingers along each edge, and holding them up to the light. I looked at the offending bills, seeing nothing wrong. “Why can’t you take this one?” I queried, holding out the bill in question. My silly question would have made my fresh-off-the-boat status obvious, even if I weren’t standing in the immigration line.

“There is a crease in it,” the officer said impatiently, pointing to a miniscule dent. Fortunately, the rest of my money passed muster. The final insult? Having my visa photo taken (despite the fact I’d brought passport-size photos with me for this very purpose). I now have a very special souvenir of what I’ll look like in another 40 years. That cabin air is really dehydrating.

Over the next two weeks, I continued to observe the Bolivian obsession with flawless dolares de Estados Unitos. By then, I knew the reason. Counterfeit money is a big problem, but they’re not nearly as concerned about the state of their bolivianos as they are our currency. Admittedly, their paper money is fairly pristine. Every trip to an ATM was an anxiety-inducing event … what if the bills were wrinkled, or torn? What if, while in one of the godforsaken, far-flung outposts I was visiting, someone required U.S. dollars and I couldn’t obtain any perfect ones? In Bolivia, you can often pay in either currency, so some travelers prefer dollars because they find them easier to use than trying to convert bolivianos.

Fortunately, it seems most Bolivian cash machines dispense quality bills. I was even able to bail out a befuddled traveler attempting to purchase a bus ticket. His dollars were simply not up to snuff, so I traded him some of my crisp Jacksons to defuse the escalating shouting match.

After I traveled on to Paraguay, I discovered that they’re almost as strict about the appearance of U.S. dollars. It’s a national joke, however, that this attention to detail doesn’t extend to their guaranies. Never have I seen such woefully limp, bedraggled, filthy paper money. Which is ironic, given all the armed guards posted outside of banks and change houses. Then again, money is money, no matter how pretty. If only someone could tell the Bolivians that.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Unhindered by Talent]

The future of budget travel: Q&A with Benji Lanyado

Many budget travel topics are old hat. Everyone interested in traveling on a budget knows, for example, about the money-saving potential of hostels, supermarket dining, train passes, and low-cost airlines.

We can come up with tips, talk about new stylish hostels, pass on information about fare sales, and strategize about how best to exploit a particular train pass, but the truth is that there is little among these subjects that is genuinely new.

But what about newer developments in personal technologies? How will they change the way we travel on a budget?

For some time now, freelance journalist Benji Lanyado has been pursuing these questions, mostly in articles for the Guardian. Lanyado has been writing for the Guardian since his last year at university, when the newspaper asked him to be their Budget Travel columnist. Among the most suggestive of his pieces for the Guardian are his TwiTrips articles, through which Lanyado submits Twitter to the on-the-ground challenges of traveling. Most exciting about this series is the ease with which its principles can be adapted for use by readers.

Lanyado also engages larger questions about the future of travel. See this recent article pondering the future of guidebooks for one example.

Q: How did the TwiTrips come about? Have they changed the way you travel in general? That is, when you’re on different sorts of assignments or traveling for pleasure, do you instinctively turn to Twitter for information? On balance, how would you rate these TwiTrips against more conventional travel adventures in terms of obtaining local information and getting a sense of the destination?

A: At the beginning of last year, Twitter was approaching its “moment” in the UK. Jonathan Ross and Stephen Fry were scheduled to talk about it on the former’s Friday night chat show. I’d been thinking about using it for some kind of live travel piece for a while, and had experimented with it while in Berlin to find some suggestions for what to do in between researching for assignments. I was walking down Oranienstrasse and asked my Twitter followers if they had any tips. Within a few minutes someone had guided me into a fantastic little cafe 100 yards away.

I ran the idea past the Guardian Travel editor, Andy Pietrasik, who was very keen for me to try a live Twitter Trip. We ran the first TwiTrip in February, to Paris, streaming it live on the Guardian website a few days after the Fry/Ross interview had aired, and the response was incredible. Over a period of 36 hours I received hundreds of tips, and various news outlets and TV programmes ran stories on it. Since then we’ve done TwiTrips to a dozen destinations across the UK. The last one was Liverpool this November.

I certainly now instinctively turn to Twitter for travel advice when I’m on the road. Compared to traditional media (guidebooks, etc.) I find that the information you can glean from Twitter is more specific, more current, and more personal. It’s an incredible real-time link to the local public. That said, I don’t think it’s the only way to travel. Whatever works for you is great. And few things beat stopping a local, in the real world, and asking him or her what you should do.

I also have a considerable head-start on Twitter newbies, as I’m lucky to have over 5000 followers to help me on my way. As a journalist, I can amplify things to a bigger audience during the TwiTrips. But I still don’t think you need lots of followers to get travel benefits from Twitter. Every major city across the world has scores of people tweeting about what to do when you’re in town, and up-to-the-minute info on events.

The beauty of Twitter is that you can find time-specific ideas (i.e. there’s a great band playing at this great bar TONIGHT) and be connected to the lifeblood of any destination.Q: A few months on from your article on Foursquare in the Guardian, what are your thoughts about the potential of Foursquare as a travel technology? Is it useful essentially as a crowdsourcing device, or are you discovering other uses?

A: Foursquare, primarily, is a lot of fun to use at home. Knowing where your friends have been and where they are is a very nice new frontier for social media. But on the road, the “tips” function really comes into its own. The idea of location-specific recommendations hovering in the air around you is one of the most important new standards in travel technology in years, and it is one of the strongest arguments for apps over traditional guidebooks. When you can have access to information about places within 100 feet of where you are standing, the notion of flicking through 500 pages to find a vaguely suitable tip written a year ago seems a little ridiculous. Foursquare aren’t the first to harness the power of location, but their implementation with the game element is a very neat way to do it.

Q: One pitfall in relying on user-generated content is that it is often difficult to evaluate anonymous evaluators. (Do they share your values, your interests, your standards?) Do you see Twitter as providing a way around this problem? That is, by choosing your followers are you essentially curating information in advance? Or, alternately do you not see this user-generated content pitfall as a problem?

A: Increasingly, I find UGC a little too noisy. Tripadvisor is a good example of this. The service has gone so far beyond a critical mass that there’s now JUST TOO MUCH INFORMATION on it. And yes, you’re right, it’s very difficult to ascertain the validity of UGC, as you usually have no idea whether or not the person reviewing is anything like you or shares your tastes. I don’t really see Twitter as a form of UGC, as there is a lot more face involved. You can usually read about the people who are Tweeting at you, see the type of people they follow, read their tweets etc. You get to know certain people who share your tastes.

Q: Where, if anywhere, do you see social media failing against more traditional media in generating especially useful information for budget travelers?

A: The main problem is the noise. While guidebooks are inherently limited, they are also beautifully confined. For a lot of people, a couple of hundred pages of information is more than enough. The Internet, meanwhile, is seemingly infinite. It’s difficult to know how far you should research into the provincial nooks of the web before you’ve gone too far and have too much information. There is also an issue over trust capital. Guidebooks might be old-fashioned but they are also a relatively safe bet, as they come with a reputation to uphold. That said, I think you are more likely to get crappy advice from a guidebook than from an individual through social media, as there is a lot less accountability with guidebooks.

Q: Do you have you eye on any newish apps or sites for their potential as budget travel tools?

A: I really like the look of the new batch of Time Out city guides, especially considering that they are built to be used offline, using only a GPS signal rather than relying on data roaming. Much cheaper that way. Yelp, Urbanspoon, and some of the augmented reality apps (Wikitude, Layar, etc.) are pretty fun too, although the power of AR is yet to be fully utilised. I’m very excited about developments in 4G (superfast mobile internet) and the apps that will be built around it, but this is a little way off yet.

Visit Lanyado’s blog for musings on technology, soccer, travel, and other topics as well as links to published articles.

Check out Gadling’s budget travel section for more budget travel tips, strategies, and information.

[Image: Elliott Smith | Guardian.co.uk]

Grantourismo blogger on guidebooks and travel writing

Grantourismo on guidebooks and travel writingLast week I posted a Q & A with blogger Lara Dunston and her husband and partner Terence Carter about their travel project and blog Grantourismo. In addition to good advice about renting a vacation apartment and getting “under the skin” of a place when traveling, they had a lot of interesting things to say about guidebooks, both from their experiences writing them and how they see travelers using them wrong.

Read on for more on the guidebook writing process, how you can use them best on vacation, the changing media landscape, and which bloggers and publications offer the best content for travelers.How did this project stem from your experiences as travel writers?
Grantourismo began as a personal travel project that developed from our frustrations, firstly, with our own work as travel writers, and secondly, with how many travelers rely so much on guidebooks. Terence and I wrote, updated or contributed to around 50 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Footprints, Rough Guides, DK, and others, and what we loved most about guidebook writing was when we worked on a city guide and rented an apartment for a month or two and really got beneath the skin of the place.

So many writers who aren’t residents of a place ‘parachute in’ to a destination for a few weeks and do crazy 18-hour days ticking off sights/bars/restaurants etc in a frenzy and leave. We didn’t start travel writing to live like that. However, what we disliked was the tedious stuff – ensuring the post office was in the right spot on the map, checking bus timetables, etc. We’d also been doing lots of feature writing, especially profiles, for magazines and newspapers, and what we loved about that was experiencing places through their people.

What’s the difference between guidebook and feature writing?

Grantourism guidebooks travel writingWith guidebooks, unless Terence had a photography commission for the same book we were writing, we mostly traveled anonymously. As feature writers we could contact people, doors would open, and we’d have incredible experiences, and come away feeling like we’d really learnt something. For instance, for a story on Michelin-star chef Pierre Gagnaire’s Dubai restaurant, we spent a night in the kitchen, Terence cooking and me observing and notetaking and – Terence ended up cooking a dish for Pierre! Grantourismo was an attempt to develop a project that would give us the opportunity to have more of those kinds of experiences and have the best of both worlds, of guidebook and feature writing. We also wanted to inspire travelers to travel in the same way, to engage more with locals and explore their own interests when they travel. This desire grew out of a frustration with seeing how obsessed people were with their guidebooks and witnessing travellers miss out on amazing opportunities because they would only go to places their guidebooks recommended.

I’ll never forget going to a great little stand-up seafood tapas place in Barcelona and seeing a young American couple sitting on the doorstop next door frantically trying to figure out if it was in the guidebook. The place was heaving and it was full of locals! Just go in! There’s also another famous tapas bar in Barcelona which once had a great reputation but it fairly mediocre now but because it’s in every guidebook, people line up for it an hour before it opens. Yet there are 20 other better tapas bars in the surrounding streets! We’d rather see people leave their guidebooks closed occasionally, talk to locals more and pursue their interests. If you’re passionate about food and cooking, why not go to a place and do a cooking course, stay in a vacation rental and shop at the markets and cook? If you love a restaurant get tips on where to eat from the waiter, and if the restaurant is quiet, why not ask to see the kitchen and chat to the chef?

So can travelers still rely on guidebooks for basic info?
Guidebooks are great for background information on a wide variety of topics on a place. What’s the alternative? Lugging around half a dozen books on the history, politics, geography, culture etc of the destination? Or load those books onto a Kindle or iPad, although of course not all travelers can afford hi-tech gadgets or even want to take them to some destinations. The ‘front/back matter’ in guidebooks can usually be relied upon – sometimes the stuff is written by subject experts, or it’s written by authors who do a great deal of research, it’s fact-checked, and it doesn’t date quickly.

Where guidebooks can be unreliable on the other hand is in the perishable information – reviews of hotels, restaurants, shops, cafés, bars, their addresses, phone numbers, prices, opening times etc. It’s not necessarily the author’s fault. Businesses move or close down, things change. It’s the fault of the publisher and their long production schedules – sometimes a year or 18 months can pass from the time the author has done the research to the time the books hit the shops. Some places never change or change little, like small country towns, but cities like Shanghai or Dubai change constantly.

We once worked on a first edition guidebook that took two years from the time I submitted the manuscript and Terence submitted the photos to reaching the bookshops. I wrote the first edition of one guidebook and updated the second edition, but I know that book has since been reprinted twice without further updates. How can travelers rely on those books? In some cases, I think the publishers have a lot to answer for, particularly when new museums or significant sights would make a ‘Top 10’ list but haven’t been added.

Any guidebook series you do like for local recommendations?
We like niche guidebooks, such as Hedonist’s Guides, which uses authors that really know their stuff when it comes to restaurants, bars, and hotels.Hedonists also come in a cool hardcover book as well, so they don’t fall apart, and as iPhone apps that are updated much more frequently than the book.

This year, on our Grantourismo trip, we’ve been on a mission to find locally produced guidebooks in each place we’ve visited, and when we’ve tested out a book and loved it we’ve interviewed the publishers/editors and showcased the book on our site, such as the arty and rather philosophical ‘My Local Guide to Venice‘ and the straight-talking ‘Not for Tourists
in New York. We want to encourage travelers to look for these books because they bring a uniquely local flavor and multiple perspectives on their destinations, unlike the big mainstream global guidebook publishers where the authors’ personalities are never allowed to shine.

Grantourismo guidebooks travel writing
What can user-generated content like TripAdvisor offer travelers compared to traditional media?
I think user-generated content supplements books and travel features in newspapers/magazines but can never replace quality guidebook authorship or travel journalism. While user-generated content wins out in terms of currency (the reviews have dates), guidebook authors and travel journalists are professionals with expertise. It’s our job to assess hotels, restaurants, bars, sights, and so on. Having slept in thousands of hotels across all budget categories, eaten tens of thousands of meals at all kinds of restaurants, visited thousands of museums, etc, gives you a degree of experience and expertise that the average traveler who has 2 weeks (in the USA) or at most 4-8 weeks (in the UK/Australia/Europe) holiday can never hope to match. If a guidebook author tells me the XXX hotel is the best in Milan and a reviewer on Trip Advisor tells me the YYY hotel is the best, I know whose opinion I’m going to trust.

If the traveler writing on Trip Advisor focuses on describing in detail their very specific experience of a hotel or restaurant, that kind of information can be helpful when weighed up against other reviews by travelers and experts. Where it can be detrimental is when the Trip Advisor reviewer starts making claims about a certain hotel being the best in the city or the cheapest or friendliest or whatever. What I want to know is how many hotels have they stayed at or inspected to be able to compare their hotel to? A guidebook writer specializing on a destination might have stayed at a dozen hotels in that city over a number of years, and inspected 50 others. So when it comes to user-generated content, my main issue is with the authority of authorship. There are also plenty of games being played out behind the scenes with
manipulation of reviews (both positive and negative) of properties. In a recent destination we visited a local foodie who told us to simply ignore the top 10 places listed on Trip Advisor as they’re rubbish. And she was right. We’ve personally seen scathing reviews of hotels and restaurants that we know are some of our favourites in the world – so who are you going to trust? The user ‘britney_1537’ or a professional travel writer?

Where do you see travel journalism going?
I can’t see travel journalism in magazines or newspapers changing significantly because it hasn’t changed in its genre, form or structure a great deal at all. What has changed is that there are far more journalists working for broadsheets and travel magazine these days that are doing trips ‘courtesy of’ a tourism body or travel operator – and it’s apparent from the first paragraph, even if it’s not declared. There has definitely been a trend toward publications redefining and narrowing their focus and we’ve seen wonderful new niche travel publications born in the last year or so such as Wend and AFAR – a magazine after our own hearts and minds!

I can see traditional travel publications embracing more user-generated content in the way that some of the UK newspapers have been doing by incorporating reader’s travel writing and tips and linking to those on their main travel pages. I love how The Guardian in the UK engages its readers on Twitter and I dig the Twi-Trips that Benji Lanyado does, which are kind of mini-versions of that fantastic journey the Twitchhiker did that had us all engrossed in his journey halfway round the world relying totally on the hospitality of strangers.

I also think we’ll start to see more travel writers like Terence and I who have worked across traditional media platforms entering into direct relationships with companies as we have with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals and producing content on their own websites and blogs or on the company’s blog, as say, David Whitley has done for Round the World Flights in the UK. But it will only work if the writer can negotiate editorial control as we did with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals. As long as writers maintain their integrity and apply the same ethics they would to a story for a newspaper or magazine, it’s a good thing. But how many travel companies are willing to give writers this freedom? If you look at our last few posts on Cape Town and our first posts on Kenya – which are both reflective and critical – you have to ask yourself how many travel-related companies are willing to let writers produce this kind of content that doesn’t gloss over the situation on the ground?

How can travelers benefit from the changing media landscape?
Travellers can benefit by content that is more creative and less restricted by a publications editorial style or writing guidelines, by content that is more freewheeling in spirit. A perfect example is Pam Mandel who blogs at Nerd’s Eye View, who has a unique, intimate, chatty style of writing that wouldn’t work for a lot of newspapers for instance – but she’s heading off to Antarctica soon on a sponsored trip and I can’t wait to see how she brings her own singular brand of writing to that adventure. What’s important with these gigs, like Grantourismo, is that travel writers continue to be upfront, honest, critical and opinionated in their writing. They need to maintain their integrity and ethics. Travelers in turn need to expect that of the writers they’re reading – if they’re seeing ‘sponsored story’ or company widgets/logos on their blogs (both travel writers and bloggers), they need to look for an editorial policy. It’s only by writing critically that writers will win readers’ trust in the long term and projects like Grantourismo will succeed.

Check out more on Grantourismo on their blog and Twitter page.

All photos courtesy of Terence Carter.

One night in Beijing

Asian cities like Beijing come alive at night. Neon hums from high above local buildings; meat sticks sizzle on charcoal; the whizzing hum of passing traffic toys with your ear. Guardian photographer Dan Chung recently found himself in Beijing and attempted to capture this lively nocturnal feeling using his camera. Not content to use standard video camera, Chung’s work is made entirely using a still image Canon EOS5DmkII and a couple special lenses.

The photography medium makes perfect sense when you see it: the scenes practically shimmer with bright colors and cinema-perfect lighting and shadow. Take a break for the next four minutes and bask in the movements and colors of nighttime in urban China.

[Thanks, Mike!]

50 (+1) Essential Travel Websites

computersThe Guardian’s travel site is pretty spot on most of the time, despite covering things like the best place to find black pudding. Ick. We’ll forgive them for their cultural idiosyncrasies, however, as the site bursts with information. This week, they revealed what they consider to be the 50 essential travel websites. Organized by theme, the list covers:

  • Ideas and Inspirations
  • Personal Recommendations
  • The inside Track
  • Flights
  • Packages
  • Accommodation
  • Special Requirements
  • Cars, trains, and taxis
  • Staying Safe
  • Making friends

The list is fairly complete, though they did overlook one of my favorite travel websites. Weird. Must’ve just been an oversight. Because as I said, the Guardian’s travel site is pretty spot on…most of the time.

[Photo: Sacha QS]