Travel Regrets: One Lost Conversation

It’s impossible to know what a lost conversation might have yielded. A lost conversation occupies a place in memory, a reservoir of sadness or relief. It’s the shape of the reservoir that remains forever unknown. This uncertainty often renders the very recognition of a lost conversational opportunity difficult.

The decision to welcome a stranger into conversation while on the road isn’t always easy. Nobody wants to be an easy mark. In places with pervasive tourism infrastructures, it’s often the better part of wisdom to ignore touts and attempts at conversation altogether. There are, after all, many scams to avoid, many tourist traps to escape.

But often a self-imposed barrier to conversation on the part of a tourist or traveler precludes what would have been interesting, useful, personally significant, or simply an opportunity to share a laugh or two.

A year and a half ago I was in Mauritius, having a conversation with my partner on a beach. What was it about? No idea. A very tall man with dreadlocks came up to us and hovered maybe 15 feet away. Very quietly he asked us if we might be interested in buying some jewelry made out of sea urchins.

I couldn’t hear him. “Sorry?” I asked. He repeated his pitch. “No thank you,” I responded, somewhat curtly. We were not interested in his jewelry. He also wasn’t really bothering us. Had our completely forgettable conversation not felt urgent, I would no doubt have been more polite. Hawkers are few and far between in this part of Mauritius, at least off-season, and his entreaty had been tame and gentle. But we weren’t interested, and we were in the middle of a conversation in any case.

“Where are you from?” he persisted. Every time we got this question in Mauritius we had to make a decision. Either we enjoyed the unfolding game and entertained a dozen or so guesses before we revealed our nationality, or we nipped it in the bud by responding “American.” This time, eager to get back to our conversation, we chose the latter option.

“I know America,” he said with sudden clarity. He pointed at his chest with a single finger. “I am from Chagos.” Suddenly, everything changed. He was no longer an unobtrusive if vaguely annoying hawker. “You are from Chagos?” I asked, suddenly alert. “Yes,” he answered. And then he turned away abruptly. The lines of communication were closed. He was done.The Chagos Islands are a string of Indian Ocean islands, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The islanders’ modern history is pretty terrible, all things considered. Beginning in the late 1960s, native Chagossians were evicted from the territory by the British government, who proceeded in 1971 to lease Diego Garcia to the United States for use as a military base.

Chagossians won several court battles in the UK for the right to return to the islands before seeing that right overturned in 2008. The islanders subsequently appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and currently await a ruling. In 2010, the British government declared the territory a marine reserve, something that may place the islands off limits to Chagossians if the European Court of Human Rights rules in their favor.

Today, Chagossians are well and truly dispossessed. They live mostly in Mauritius, Seychelles, and the UK. I’d known prior to visiting Mauritius that there was a sizable Chagossian community in the country. I’d wanted to glimpse Chagossian culture, get a sense of their situation in Mauritius, and maybe have dinner at a Chagossian restaurant, should one exist.

I asked around about the Chagossians. One taxi driver told us that they were responsible for many social problems. He went on and on. His diatribe sounded almost verbatim like the kind of blanketing anti-Roma sentiment I’ve heard from many Europeans. It didn’t just lodge a complaint against a people; it assigned a thoroughgoing failure to possess positive values to an entire culture. The picture that emerged in conversation on Mauritius and in my own research is of a community dispossessed doubly – both from their territory and within Mauritian society.

In the context of such intense cultural dispossession, maybe a conversation on a beach in Mauritius between an American tourist and a displaced Chagossian can’t simply be a conversation. It’s hard to know. Most people are, after all, able to distinguish between individuals and the behavior of governments.

In any case, I regret strongly that this conversation never happened. It might have been annoying. It might have simply been a continual sales pitch for an object I didn’t want. It also might have been an opportunity to learn. Less loftily, it might simply have been an enjoyable exchange. I’ll never know.

[Image: Flickr | Drew Avery]

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.

10 best places to live for avoiding world conflict asked the question, “Where would you be the safest if World War III broke out tomorrow?” The answers arrived in a post titled “10 Best Places to Live for Avoiding World Conflict.” Irrelevant as it may seem to you, the claws of conflict affect a revolving roster of nations. The knowledge of where not to go because of conflict, or better yet, where to go to avoid it, can be useful if you’re planning to live, or even just spend some time, abroad. According to this article, countries that make the safety cut are: Switzerland, Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea, Canada, Seychelles, Finland, Tuvalu, Iceland, Bhutan, and New Zealand. Most of these choices make sense to me, based on what I know, but the undeniably gorgeous Seychelles seems like a somewhat uncertain choice. News stories covering the Somali pirates swarming the Seychelles area are prevalent. To be fair, I’m not convinced Somali pirates are a current threat for World War III. What are your thoughts? Where would you move in order to be as far removed from world conflict as possible?

Explore More Options with These Art Maps for the Home


Seychelles two ways: Desroches and Calou

To start, I should say that there’s no comparison between Desroches and Calou. They’re two different beasts altogether, luxury apples and budget-friendly oranges, respectively. Yet taken together they present two distinctive experiences of the country: Seychelles two ways.

Desroches is one of Seychelles‘ top resorts, a private island resort that underwent a major design upgrade following its leasing in 2008 to South African investors. At €1200 ($1590) per couple per night – not including the €400 ($530) or so it costs per person to fly the 250 kilometers to the island from Mahé, the country’s main island – it’s very pricey. That €1200 gets guests an oceanfront suite (see above) the size of a nice country cottage. For villas or even splashier “retreats,” the nightly outlay is much higher.

Desroches offers an international crew who are always smiling and open to making conversation. It’s impossible not to feel pampered at Desroches, a resort that manages to make its guests feel looked after but also left to their own devices. That’s a balance that many luxury resorts get wrong.

Suites are wonderfully outfitted in light tones, a nice mishmash of earthy and modern. Lounge spaces are capacious, with few walls. There’s a spa, appropriately hushed and meditation inducing, clinging to the beach as well. The resort blends beautifully into the island’s tropical greenery. Also noteworthy is the island’s very good conservation office, funded by a resort foundation, whose director allows guests to join him on morning wildlife inventory walks around the island.

Calou, located in a garden in the middle of La Digue, is a much less lavish proposition. Staff are few, somewhat overworked though genuinely friendly. Cottages run €124 ($164) per night including breakfast and dinner for two. Cottage with breakfast is only €100 ($132) with dinner for an additional €15 ($20) per person. The evening meal is enjoyed around large communal tables. Calou’s cottages are simple with barely adorned white walls, a fan as well as air conditioning, and a corner refrigerator.

Desroches is the fantasy, the space apart from workaday life; Calou, though not hostel-cheap, is within reach of many. Desroches is inarguably more comfortable; its padded gorgeousness removed just a hair from the unreal. It is a dream space. Calou, pleasant and welcoming, is one hotel among many.

Yet the meals at Calou (just above) are better than those on offer at Desroches. This isn’t the fault of the kitchen at Desroches, which produces some very good dishes, particularly Southeast Asian fare. But Desroches strives to replicate a kind of international fare that requires various items – salmon and apples, for example – to be flown unfathomable distances. Salmon is not the freshest proposition on an equatorial island in the Indian Ocean.

Calou’s kitchen relies on fresh local bounty. The fish is consistently very good and local salads and vegetables are delicious and well prepared. One night during my visit, there was an outstanding starfruit salad. Another dinner highlight was a very sharp chili sauce. Desserts were exceptional: puddings, custards, carmelized coconut crumbled over ice cream. Breakfast is simple and delicious as well with homemade jams and fresh fruit.

Both hotels have a lot going for them – vastly different things, it must be repeated. The attractiveness of each hinges on budget, traveler personality type, and vacation philosophy.

How to visit Seychelles on a budget

How to visit Seychelles on a budget? It’s simple. Stay in a friendly little guesthouse on the island of La Digue, eat dinner at said guesthouse, rent a bicycle, spend time on the beach and chill out.

For tourists, the Indian Ocean country of Seychelles is luxury territory. This is a fact. It’s expensive to fly there and it’s expensive to stay there. The country is dotted with unfathomably pricey digs, places like Maia and North Island (the latter, the site of Will and Kate’s honeymoon last year) where guests pay €3000 ($3940) per night for extreme luxury, butlers and all.

But on the small Seychellois island of La Digue, there are plenty of guesthouse options, some quite reasonable. La Digue is one island that travelers of modest means can actually afford to visit. My guesthouse, Calou, was a friendly and satisfactory option at €100 ($131) per night for a cottage, including breakfast. I’ll write more on Calou in a subsequent post.

Budget-friendly means different things in different places. On La Digue, a couple can have a perfectly blissful time for €170 ($223) a day, €150 ($197) on a slight austerity plan. Is this Central America cheap? No. Is it Balkans cheap? Again, no. But in Seychelles it is bargain territory.

La Digue is a green speck of paradise fringed with enormous boulders. It’s like something out of the Flintstones — only, of course, its boulders are real granite objects and not the work of animation. Roosters do duty as alarm clocks. There are enormous tortoises, both in a reserve and sometimes lumbering down the road. The land is lush, the roads narrow, and the town very social. Bicycle is the main mode of transportation on La Digue and cars are rare. People wave and say hello on the street. For anyone who has spent time in the Caribbean, there are unavoidable social parallels. There is a Rasta subculture here as well, with reggae spilling out of supermarkets and houses.But in February, when beaches in the Caribbean are heaving, La Digue is remarkably quiet. It’s not difficult to find a solitary spot on one of the island’s top beaches. This is the wet season in Seychelles. Though, even during the wet season the rains tend to be spaced out. A torrential few hours of rain will usually be followed by hours of clear skies.

In the southeast of the island, Grande Anse, Petite Anse, and Anse Cocos beaches are very, very close to perfection. (And if shade were not at such a premium, they would be completely perfect.) Beach bums cluster under the few trees and in the shadow of the boulders along the periphery of the beach. There are one or two makeshift shelters constructed from logs, driftwood, and palm fronds. These go quickly in a more rustic version of the early-morning-towel-on-beach-chair phenomenon seen at countless resort poolsides around the world. On the weekend, tourists are joined by Seychellois teenagers surfing the waves.

You want a perfect day? Here it is. Eat fresh fruit and eggs for breakfast at Calou. Bike to the island’s strip of shops for a stronger cup of coffee before heading on to Grande Anse, where you laze without purpose for six hours. Break for a grilled fish lunch at the beach’s restaurant. In the afternoon, when the burn is undeniable, embark on an intense bike ride up the hill from the beach. Stop at Simon’s juice shack just past the crest of the hill. (You can’t miss it. Simon’s is a small bright yellow hut.) Simon will prepare you a glass of tropical freshness that will change your life. From here, bike downhill, shower off the salt and the sunblock, nap, enjoy a beer as sunlight falls, and then eat creole chicken for dinner. Fall asleep by 9 p.m.

If you can beat that, drop me a note.