When Travel Helps You Appreciate Home

“Maybe that’s the best part of going away for a vacationcoming home again.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle, “Meet the Austins”

I had been dreaming peacefully – well, as peacefully as one can when riding a sweltering overnight bus along winding roads of Ecuador with a TV blasting low-budget murder movies – when I suddenly woke in a panic. My backpack – it was gone.

¿Dónde está mi mochila? I asked the man in the seat behind me, who happened to be awake at 2 a.m. Suspicious.

He shrugged, shaking his head. When I had gone to sleep I had looped it around my ankle so if anyone took it I would wake up. Obviously, my plan had not worked.

The driver must have seen me searching under the seats for it, when he came over and pointed to the rack above my head. Apparently, he had been trying to do me a favor, not knowing how I usually slept with one eye open on these buses guarding my things.

I gave him a wry smile, taking my bag down from the shelf and hugging it. I was exhausted, not just from lack of sleep, but from traveling in general. From having to sleep on uncomfortable buses while hugging my purse, having to make new friends and say goodbye to them three days later, constantly being lost, craving pork chops and meatloaf and not being able to take a hot bubble bath and read a trashy novel. I loved culture shock more than anything, but after awhile it could really make you appreciate home.I stared out the window, envisioning the mountains and lakes transforming into flat highways and fast-food restaurants. I’m usually not the type to get homesick. I’ve never felt particularly lonely or scared, and even when I miss home I never let it ruin my trip. At this moment, however, my mind was wandering to a place where comfort was the norm. It was a place I hadn’t been in three months.

What’s funny was, the things that were exhausting me were also the things I usually craved when traveling. Heading out on a trip without any plans, getting lost in new cities, sampling foods I’d never heard of, trying to communicate with locals and “roughing it” with just a barely-filled backpack – this was the point of traveling. To get away from the comforts of home, pack light and learn about the local way of life.

And, it still was; however, that didn’t mean I wasn’t really starting to appreciate the life I lived at home. Deciding on a late-night snack, I pulled out a small bag of fresh cheese and biscuits. As I attempted to slice the mushy cheese using a pen, my mind flashed to La Roma, a pizza place in walking distance from my house on Long Island. Crispy crust topped with bubbling cheese, chunks of meat and plump vegetables. What I wouldn’t give for a slice.

I tried to will the thought away, feeling guilty. It was as if travel was my boyfriend and I was mentally cheating on him with my lover, home. With home, there was no trying to find undiscovered cafes or underground bars. I was the local, so I already knew them. While I had been traveling through South America trying to find unusual landscapes and historical sites, there was so much of that on Long Island that I took for granted. With home, I had my routine, my Sunday hip hop classes and Friday happy hours with friends. I could walk three blocks to get my favorite Snickers Italian ice, and was always fully stocked with almonds, pretzels and peanut butter, three staples of my diet. With home, it was always comfortable.

Maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty for appreciating home. It doesn’t mean I love travel any less. However, home came first, and has been there all along. No matter how far away I go, or how much I change as a person, it will always there waiting for me as if I never left. And for that, I am grateful.

[Images via Shutterstock, Jessie on a Journey]

In Praise Of Service Journalism

My career in the travel world started out by pure luck. I was assigned to work a temp office gig in the PR department of Condé Nast Traveler for two weeks, which turned into two years at the magazine, four more at a PR agency for hotels and travel providers and two more here at Gadling. Before and throughout my career, I’ve always been a major consumer of travel media, whether I’ve used it to inspire and help plan my personal travels, as a resource for how and where to pitch my clients, or for story ideas and to keep up with industry news. Some of my favorite stories to read or write have been service pieces, the much-maligned but reader-popular side of journalism.

Service journalism has been called the “fast food” of journalism, providing the reader with “5 of the World’s Sexiest Beaches!” or a suggested itinerary for exploring the city as in the New York Times‘ regular “36 Hours in..” series. While a narrative feature might probe into a culture’s essence, or try to evoke the feeling of a certain place in time, a service piece gives you quick tips, highlights the “best” of a place and may include lists, bullets and infographics. I like the definition of service journalism as “informational“: it tells you not just about a place, but how to get there, where to stay, what to eat, etc.At Condé Nast Traveler we promoted many different magazine articles from investigative stories on airline security to roundups of romantic getaways for Valentine’s Day, and it was generally the articles on how to save money booking your next cruise, or hotel packages involving chocolate-dipped strawberries that got an editor booked on the Today Show or a mention on the Associated Press. At Traveler, I worked with Consumer News Editor Wendy Perrin, whom I might call the Meryl Streep of service journalism: well-known and beloved in the industry, frequently honored but not as much as she deserves. Wendy publishes annual guides to the best travel agents, vacation rentals, cruise ships and dream trips. She was also a pioneer in social media, as one of the first “old media” editors to start blogging, and an early advocate of social networking platforms like Twitter as an essential tool for travelers. While a guide to the best credit cards for racking up frequent flyer miles may not sound poetic, Wendy’s writing regularly affects readers in a very real way, and she maintains an open dialogue to make sure readers are taking the best trip possible.

While I might read a travel narrative or even a novel to be transported somewhere else, a service piece helps me actually get going somewhere else. It was a L.A. Times article on the Corn Islands that got me to go to Nicaragua in 2007; of the few other Americans I met there, most of them were there because of the piece as well. A recent post from Legal Nomads might look like a standard list of travel tips, but it’s peppered with anecdotes, insights and links to other travel stories, and I was transported around the world with Jodi (and craving oranges) while I read it. A Nile Guide roundup of decaying castles has me plotting a trip to Belgium. Some of my favorite and most heart-felt articles I’ve written for Gadling have included finding the expat community and tips on travel with a baby. The Society for American Travel Writers’ annual awards have a category for service-oriented stories, but a few service pieces have snuck their way into other categories, such as the deceptively simple-sounding “Ten Reasons to Visit New Orleans.”

Looking through several of the major travel magazines, most stories are now accompanied by some kind of service information: a sidebar on farmers markets to accompany an essay on eating locally, or a back-of-book addendum of hotels and practical tips for a feature on a changing city’s political landscape. Perhaps all travel media should strive for this mix of inspirational, educational and doable. Our own Features Editor Don George explains that a successful travel narrative should describe a “quest that illuminates a place and culture.” A top ten list of summer vacation may not provide such a point, but a feature on visiting the Seychelles on a budget just might. Not all service pieces have to be fluffy, or recycled from press releases, or lacking insight. They can contain mini-narratives and discoveries, and at best, give readers the tools to create their own.

The End of Traveling the American Road

It takes a long time to drive 9698.8 miles, no matter how fast you’re going. This summer, it took me more than 246 hours behind the wheel to log the distance, for a pace of just under 40 miles per hour. At times, I crawled along much more slowly, inching my way through Chicago traffic jams or creeping back to Orlando in stop-and-go bottlenecks after the launch of STS-135. On the empty highways of West Texas, I drove much faster, doing 80 or 85 or 90 and watching for speed traps as if seeing them would absolve my moving violations. Once, I borrowed a car and drove more than 122 miles an hour.

Traveling the American Road – Venice Beach: End of the Road

But by a different measure, my trip across America was gruelingly slow: It took me 10 weeks to touch 30 states, stopping in small towns and big cities and backwaters and enclaves and barrier islands and riverside hamlets. I was moving so slowly I could barely intuit the subtle changes in the barbecue as I inched down the Eastern Seaboard and along the Gulf Coast, only to realize, suddenly, in Abilene, Texas, that I was eating brisket and not pork and my God every one of the pit masters whose handicraft I’ve sampled this summer has done this differently.

It’s often said that driving across America helps you realize we’re really all the same. That Americans share a common vision and a common culture, with regional specialties but an overarching dedication to the same grand ideas. That no matter our conflicts, deep down we all want the same thing and are willing to work toward the goal. That we all like baseball and open spaces and the right to self-determination.

Maybe that’s true, but my trip showed me that we’re all incredibly different. Moving at less than 40 miles per hour, I had the chance to suss out the stories of the dozens of places I spent the night. Not the whole story, of course, but a piece of it. An example: I found Boston in a frenzy for its beloved hockey team, victorious over a team from Vancouver whose fans proved this summer to be more stereotypically Bostonian in their athletic bloodlust than those who celebrated in newly crowned Title Town. The hometown pride would find an analog in Marfa, but from what I saw there, it’s unlikely a shirtless drunken fan would stumble alongside a victory parade if one were ever held in a gentlemanly Texas town of 2,000.

For every town where innovation and entrepreneurship seemed to lead the way forward out of recession, there was another, depressed place that may be broken beyond repair. More likely, the truth is somewhere in between, like it was in Mobile, where a working port, a bustling nightlife scene and huge tourism incomes were tempered by a mayoral press conference I stumbled upon, addressing the scourge of violent crime downtown with small broken windows-inspired fixes whose efficacy is yet to be seen.

Ten weeks is a long time to be away from home. As I moved across the map, I was moving through my own clock but also the nation’s. The baseball season was underway, providing a cultural touchstone no matter where I found myself. The Space Shuttle era came to an end. I left home on Memorial Day; by the time I returned, it was almost Labor Day. My summer was both interminable and ephemeral, a dream trip I began to forget as soon as I spent the first night back in my own bed.

It was a lost summer and a wonderful one.

The secret formula for writing a successful travel narrative

For years people have been asking me for the secret formula for writing a successful travel story. I did my best to conjure this formula into my book Travel Writing, but as you know, there really isn’t any secret formula. Or is there? This year, in preparing for a spate of appearances where I was talking about travel writing – notably TBEX, a talk with Julia Cosgrove of Afar magazine, and a one-day in-the-field writing workshop that was part of the Book Passage travel writing and photography conference — I realized that I could distill what I’ve learned in three decades on both sides of the writer-editor relationship into a few pithy points.

So here’s my version of the secret formula.First of all, what is a travel story? There are many different kinds of travel stories, of course, but the kind I’m focusing on here is the travel narrative. Here’s my definition: A travel narrative is the crafted evocation of a journey, usually written in the first person, that is structured as a sequence of anecdotes/scenes, and that presents a quest that illuminates a place and culture.

Which brings us to a very important point: The narrative should have a theme – lesson, message, point, illumination – that you as the writer are trying to convey to the reader. If you don’t know what you’re writing about, then there’s no way the reader — or editor — is going to know, so don’t write your story until you know what you’re trying to say. Well, let me rephrase this: It’s fine to start writing before you know what you want to say, but at some point in the writing process, you have to figure out what you want to say – and then you need to go back and rewrite/reshape your story so that it conveys most evocatively and effectively whatever theme/lesson/point you want to make.

How should the travel narrative be organized? It goes back to the cave-and-campfire scene where one of our adventurous ancestors was describing the hunt for a Gnarly Mastodon. Like that Stone Age storyteller, you should give your narrative a beginning, a middle and an end.

To my mind, these break down like this:

The beginning introduces the place where the story is set and suggests the writer’s quest or reason for being there. (To test this notion, I recently looked through the feature stories in the current issues of three prominent travel magazines. In every one, by the end of the fifth or sixth paragraph, the writer had given one sentence that clearly articulated the reason why he/she had come to that place: the quest.)

The middle reveals the writer’s experience through a series of scenes that are ordered chronologically or thematically. (Usually, it’s easier to arrange these chronologically, but sometimes for dramatic purposes, it makes more sense to organize them thematically. You want to make sure that your anecdotes ascend in power as the story progresses, so if your best anecdotes are from the beginning of the trip, you’ll probably not want to tell your tale chronologically.) These anecdotes/incidents/encounters are the critical stepping stones that led you – and so will lead your reader – to the illumination/point/resolution that inspired your story.

The end presents the resolution of the quest and ties the story back to the situation introduced at the beginning. In the best narratives, this creates a kind of closure that gracefully sends the reader back into the world, but enhanced now with the experience and lesson your story imparted.

So, here’s what you have to do:

  1. Figure out what the lesson of your travel experience/story is.
  2. Figure out what steps led you to learn that lesson.
  3. Recreate those steps in your mind.
  4. Recreate those steps in words so the reader can live them with you.
  5. Craft your tale with a beginning, middle and end that shape and convey your lesson.

Voila! Instant travel narrative. Just add wonder.

Of course, the truth is that success in travel writing is ultimately in the execution, not in the design. But at least having the right design can get you off to a great start. The rest is up to you: First of all, to travel deeply and secondly, to choose and evoke your travel experiences in a way that transports the reader with you.

In this way, every travel narrative is the process of at least two journeys – the journey in the world and the journey in the words.

Bon voyage!

[flickr images via merrah’s and woodleywonderworks]