Roger Ebert, Travel Writer

Last week, the world lost one of the all-time great film critics, when Roger Ebert passed away at age 70. He was mostly known for his love of movies and long career reviewing them at the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as his witty and wide-reaching Twitter feed. Roger was first and foremost a journalist, and he applied his curiosity and ease of language to many things, including travel.

If you can’t imagine how a film reviewer can effortlessly evoke a place, start with a piece he wrote in 2010 on a changing London and a particularly Dickensian hotel at 22 Jermyn Street, later published in a shortened form for the Guardian‘s travel section. He writes of his 25 years of being a guest at the small hotel, many encounters are positively cinematic, such as meeting the hotel’s owner, who appears in his guest room proffering a drink and colorful anecdotes about the neighborhood’s characters. He worries about what the loss of businesses like the former Eyrie Mansion (established in 1685) will mean for the neighborhood: “Piece by piece, this is how a city dies,” and paints a rich study of a place and time.Ebert delved deeper into London with another essay on walking around the city with his grandson in search of the perfect hot chocolate (“You always need a serious objective when you’re walking.”), the essay itself a later version of a book he collaborated on in the 1980s, called the “Perfect London Walk.” In the essay, he parallels walking, writing and travel. “When I set out I have a general destination in mind, but as I poke around this way and that, I find places I didn’t know about and things that hadn’t occurred to me, maybe glimpse something intriguing at the end of a street…”

Ebert’s life and career took him many places from a Chicago movie theater, including South Africa and France. He published a book on the latter about his film festival experiences in “Two Weeks in the Midday Sun, A Cannes Notebook.” You can read excerpts from the book online, which provide some fun details on the glitzy, star-studded event, as well insights about culture clashes and what such an event does to a place.

Ebert’s other passion came through in a plea for more Americans to travel abroad, where he also reveals his long-time friendship with Paul Theroux, the famed travel writer. They debate the idea that travel broadens your mind and Ebert settles on the idea that “the way you broaden your mind through travel is to stop traveling and stay somewhere,” a good argument for slow travel. While it might be nothing new to the readers of a travel blog, imagine how it might have changed the thoughts of someone just looking for a review of the latest Bond film? Every traveler (and moviegoer, to some extent) can relate to “The bittersweet pleasure of being somewhere where nobody knows you, and nobody can find you.”

Ebert’s last movie review was, appropriately enough, for the film “To the Wonder,” which spans several continents, but he finds it to be covering a landscape between the characters rather than places. A few days before his death, he announced that he’d be scaling back on his regular reviews, taking what he called “a leave of presence.” This is a concept I’d like to keep in mind for my next trip: slow down, focus on what’s truly inspiring, reflect on the great moments of the past, and come back refreshed and recharged. Or at the very least, I’ll take time out to see a movie.

[Photo credit: Associated Press]

Hungry? Have some Indonesian mud snacks!

I’ve eaten some odd foods in my day. Haggis. Hot Vit Lon. But for all the odd travel cuisine I’ve tried, I’ve yet to find anyone that has willingly eaten dirt. I take that back. Check out the video above on the making and consumption of “Indonesian Mud Snacks,” a local delicacy on the Indonesian province of East Java. Indonesian Mud Snacks aren’t just made from any dirt. According to other articles on the practice, mud snack fans will harvest dirt only from local paddy fields and it must be free from gravel. The chosen mud is then baked, smoked and sliced into tiny roll-like canapes for consumption. Locals believe eating the mud snacks have health benefits, claiming these dirt-bites work as pain-killers. We have film critic Roger Ebert to thank for this gem of a video, which was posted to his Twitter feed yesterday.

[Thanks, Roger!]

Chris McCandless and a juicy apple

My husband and I saw Into the Wild [read review by Roger Ebert] this weekend, the both uplifting and devastating story of Christopher McCandless, the young man who lived in the back country of Alaska near Denali National Park for 113 days or so before he died due to a couple of serious missteps. Both Catherine and Martha wrote about how the bus where Chris died is now a tourist destination.

Although I’ve felt the thrill of being off on my own, my drive to be so self-sufficient, so purist and off the grid has never been particularly strong. Still, I could relate to the movie on a thematic level of striving for authenticity–without so much force. On a small level, I understood one of Chris’s emotions exactly. It was the scene where he was eating an apple.

As he crunched bites of what might have been a Red Delicious or a Rome in bliss, he commented about how good the apple was–his voice making almost in an orgasmic groan. I’ve known such apples. Mine was yellow–not red. It was not so big either, but eating it was divine.

You see, apples don’t grow in The Gambia. And oh, how wonderful an apple tasted whenever I went to Banjul the capital stopping in a grocery store to buy the one apple, at the most, that I bought each month. Apples, imported from France, cost a fortune. I was in my cheap phase with my sights set on a vacation to Mali, so I saved money and coveted apples–holding out for a special occasion. The apple was it. My entertainment for the day.

At times, I’d buy two, taking one back to my village to uplift a difficult day. I would settle into my chair vowing to notice every bite–every bit of juice. I ate slowly and deliberately to make the experience last. Eating an apple became a gift to myself not to be squandered. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I made great vows to not become jaded by apple abundance once back in the U.S. My noble intentions have faded over the years. We currently have a whole bag of apples in our refrigerator in the fruit drawer, and there’s more where they came from–pounds, pounds and more pounds less than a mile away at the grocery store. Apples grow in Ohio. You can’t avoid them.

I do miss those moments when they tasted ever so sweet–like heaven. If I close my eyes and chew slowly, I almost remember.