The Wandering Writer: A Tour Through Brooklyn Heights, New York With Elisabeth Eaves

Elisabeth Eaves lives on Pineapple Street. Along with neighbors Cranberry and Orange, it’s one of only three fruit streets in Brooklyn. Eaves, a writer who has published on topics ranging from travel to politics to stripping, knows the accompanying local lore to explain its origin.

“Back when a lot of people were just moving to this neighborhood, it was dominated by old Dutch families,” she says. “The gentlemen of the neighborhood would affix their names to the streets. And there was a woman, a botanist and a horticulturalist, and she was annoyed that the men would just stick their names up on the street corners. She would take them down in the night and put up the names of plants. This went back and forth as kind of a cat and mouse battle for a while. And when the street names were finally grandfathered in by the city, she won, because she was the last person to stick up her names.”

This anonymous horticulturalist would no doubt be pleased that, more than a century later, Ms. Eaves and I are meeting for lunch at Iris Café. As if in deference to that earlier era, you’re not allowed to use computers or iPads at this restaurant that opened in 2009. Surrounded instead by folks engaged in the old-fashioned perusal of books and newspapers, we feast on delicious avocado sandwiches and talk about how Eaves, who was nomadic for years, finally settled in New York. She’s been here for four years and owns a small studio apartment. I ask if she’s found the geographic commitment difficult.

“It’s not as hard as I would have expected,” she says. “It’s partly because I love this city. As a traveler, I think many of us have a need for hyper-stimulation. I love big cities. Big, serious cities.” She doesn’t always find New York thrilling, the way she did when she first arrived. “But I still have days, and moments, where I’m like: wow.”

Eaves is, of course, one of many writers who’ve wound up in the area and she’s well aware of the borough’s literary legacy.

“As a writer, I am particularly conscious – not that I fetishize this stuff or think about it all the time – that there have been a lot of writers who lived in Brooklyn Heights,” she says. “It’s nice to know that things have been accomplished.”

Some of those things were accomplished at 142 Columbia Heights, Norman Mailer’s nautical-themed apartment. If we were lucky enough to get a glimpse of more than the exterior, a possibility when the place went on sale a few years ago, we’d see how the author installed crow’s nests, galley rooms and ladders, supposedly to overcome his fear of heights.

We do, however, spend some time taking in a foggy view of lower Manhattan by walking along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, a popular 1/3-mile stretch along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. On nicer days, Eaves joins a cavalcade of joggers here who exercise to a traffic-laden soundtrack while winding towards or away from the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, the first steel-wire suspension bridge in the United States.

Not too far away we pass by another famous writer’s former homestead. Truman Capote’s brownstone, constructed at 70 Willow Place in the late 1800s, recently sold for $12 million. Maybe the buyer was a fan of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which was written inside.

Thanks to long-gone reasonable real estate prices, Capote and Mailer no doubt had some version of the home offices that New York freelancers would kill for. But when you’re sharing a studio apartment, like Eaves and her husband do, it’s wise to find a laptop friendly café or two in the neighborhood. And Eaves has found just that in Vineapple Cafe on Pineapple Street, a joint run by a cadre of friendly, wrinkled-clothed college students.

The place has the laid-back feel of your college dormitory’s lounge, if that lounge served up Portland-based but New York favorite Stumptown coffee and Brooklyn’s Colson Patisserie baked goods, not to mention local wines and beers. When we enter, the roomy space is packed but quiet, some patrons happily sunk into plush couches, while a row of focused folks on laptops sit side by side at the bar like an unplanned ad for Apple products.

While we’re standing in line to order, a familiar face approaches. It’s Eaves’ husband, here to work for the afternoon. I ask Eaves if she likes having the flexibility of being a dual-freelancer couple or if she’d prefer a different arrangement.

“It would be easier financially if one of us had a steady gig but to me it’s normal now,” she says. “I’m kind of hooked on it. It would be really weird if either of us were suddenly like: no, I can’t go anywhere. Tomorrow we’re going to Vancouver for Christmas to see family. We can be very flexible. We can go as long as we want and bring work with us if we need to. And there have been a lot of work trips we’ve been able to put together and do together.”

Does she think she’s here for good?

“My fantasy is that I can keep the place we have now as a pied-à-terre,” she tells me. “If left totally to my own devices, there’s probably a good chance I’d just stay in New York.” But her husband is eager to move closer to family. The pair struck a bit of a deal when they first met: Eaves’ husband would move to Brooklyn for a stretch to be with her but he gets first dibs on the next city they relocate to.

Before we part ways, she takes me to one of the spots she might miss if she leaves New York. The sun has set by the time we enter Jack the Horse Tavern on Hicks and Cranberry Street. Eaves calls the big-windowed, brick-lined restaurant the best in Brooklyn Heights. If the happy hour cocktails are any indication, she’s onto something. We could continue our literary themed afternoon by ordering Hemingway daiquiris, but instead we both settle on gin infusions.

As we sip them, I ask Eaves about her varied career.

“My career path makes no logical sense,” she says. “You would never sit down at age 20 and say: I’m going to study international relations and then work as a stripper and then go backpacking and then have an office job.”

Despite her varied early years, Eaves knew she wanted to write but she didn’t know how to convert that desire into a career. It took a while to find her way into journalism, and along the way, she wrote about everything from moss sculptures to business. Now she’s tackling her first novel, like so many Brooklyn writers who preceded her – and like those who will, no doubt, flock here for future generations to come.

About the Wandering Writer:
Elisabeth Eaves is a writer and editor, born in Vancouver and living in New York City. Her first book, “Bare,” was about stripping, and her second book, “Wanderlust,” came out of a lifelong love of travel and trying to figure out why she felt so compelled to keep moving on. Her travel writing has also appeared in “Best American Travel Writing 2009,” “Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010,” and Lonely Planet’s “A Moveable Feast.” To read her stories, visit www.elisabetheaves.com.

[Photo Credits: Rachel Friedman]

Student Travel Writing Contest Offers $500 For Best Essay Of Student Life Abroad

Travel Writing ContestAre you a student who is aspiring to be a travel writer? Now’s your chance to strut your stuff and perhaps win $500.

Transitions Abroad has announced their 2013 Travel Writing Contest. It’s billed as “the only student travel writing contest to cover studying, working, interning, volunteering and living abroad.”

The contest is open to all “currently enrolled undergraduate and graduate students, students who have graduated within the past year, and students currently on leave from school.” The judges want to see essays of 1,000-2,000 words that offer solid advice for adjusting to student life overseas. Check out their guidelines carefully before putting pen to paper.

First prize is $500; second prize is $150; third prize is $100; and runners-up get $50. All get published in “Transitions Abroad” print and webzine. Deadline is April 15.

It’s always a good idea to check out what won in the past. Last year’s winner was “A Foreigner in the Middle Kingdom: Living, Working, and Studying in China.” My personal favorite was the practical and insightful “A High School Summer in Egypt Studying Arabic: Practical Advice and Tips.”

Thanks to the excellent online writing newsletter Writing World for bringing this to my attention. Check out their site for tons of free advice of value to aspiring and experienced writers.

[Photo courtesy Sarah Rose]

Travel Contest Offers The Chance To Check Off Your Bucket List In One Fell Swoop

Everyone has a travel bucket list. Mine includes going on safari in Kenya, scuba diving in the Maldives and watching the championship game at the World Cup.

Now imagine if you had the chance to check off your bucket list in one fell swoop. That’s what global travel resource My Destination is promising with its new Biggest, Baddest Bucket List contest.

In partnership with Viator, Travelex and Hotels.com, My Destination will send one winner on a round-the-world journey to six continents in six months, with expenses paid up to $50,000. The winner will also receive $50,000 cash upon his or her return.

However, it won’t just be hostels and Heinekens. The winner will also have to write blog posts, take photos and film short videos on their journey, for publication on the My Destination website.

To enter, prospective journeymen must tackle two challenges:

  • Write a 200- to 500-word blog post about your best travel experience, with three accompanying photographs.
  • Produce an original three-minute video showing the sights and sounds of a destination that you love. Points for creativity.

Once your submission is in, you’ll have to rally your friends and family to vote on your entry. The five entries with the most public support, along with five selected by My Destination, will make a “Top 10” shortlist. Those 10 entries will then be put to a public vote, and the top three will be interviewed and evaluated by the My Destination co-founders, travel blogger Norman the Nomad and Ben Southall, winner of Tourism Queensland’s “Best Job In The World” contest.

If it sounds like a ploy to generate social media buzz for a new travel company … well, it is. But it’s also an opportunity to dip your toes into the wonderful world of travel writing, as well as a chance to go on what sounds like the trip of a lifetime. Deadline for entries is March 31.

[Photo Credit: My Destination]

ReviewerCard: Scam Or Social Clout Indicator?

reviewercardThe Los Angeles Times published a rather scathing column yesterday about a new product called ReviewerCard that lets “select” bloggers and frequent reviewers on sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp flash what appears to be a business or credit card to demonstrate their clout to hotels, restaurants and travel purveyors.

The problem? This company, run by Brad Newman, an individual with no real connection to the travel industry, gives out this “ReviewerCard” to anyone they deem fit, and encourages these so-called reviewers to use the card to obtain travel discounts, freebies and other incentives. Of course, if they don’t … the implicit threat is that they will write a bad review.

Newman defended himself to the Times, stating. “I’m going to review them anyway… so why not let them know in advance? It’s not hurting anyone.”

As a journalist legitimately trained in the art of inspecting and reviewing restaurants and hotels (complete with detailed, 100+ page checklists and inspection metrics), this appalling card is an indicator to us of everything that is wrong with “bloggers” and “reviewers” today.

But before we impose our own judgement on you, readers, we’d like to open this up for comments and questions. Do you think ReviewerCard is a good idea? Does it make businesses more aware of influential people who are apt to write a review about their service, or does it encourage an entitlement mentality and more biased reviews than already exist in the marketplace.

We’d love to hear your thoughts – leave a comment, below.

Ibn Battuta: The Greatest Adventure Traveler Of All Time

Ibn Battuta, adventure traveler, Tangier
This humble little building in a back alley of Tangier is the final resting place of the greatest traveler in history.

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in 1304. In 1325 he left to go on the Hajj and ended up visiting not only Mecca, but crisscrossing much of the Middle East and sailing far down the east coast of Africa. Then he headed east, passing through central and Southern Asia and making it as far as Beijing before coming back and taking a jaunt through much of western Africa.

While I’m not too keen on citing Wikipedia as a source, it does have some detailed maps of Ibn Battuta’s journeys. In all, he traveled an estimated 75,000 miles, three times as much as Marco Polo, but is far less known in the West because Marco Polo was European and Ibn Battuta was Arab. So it goes.

Reading his accounts shows you that travel hasn’t really changed all that much: loneliness, illness, hospitality and fascinating sights were the hallmarks of adventure travel then as they are now. He had only made it as far as Tunis when he first became aware of the crushing loneliness travel can bring. He was with a group of fellow pilgrims who all had friends in the city. When they arrived everyone was greeted except poor Ibn Battuta. He started to cry and one of his fellow pilgrims took pity on him and talked with him to cheer him up. Again and again in his accounts, he talks about the hospitality and kindness he found on the road.

Later he visited Alexandria and was perhaps the last writer to describe the famous lighthouse, one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was already in bad shape when he first saw it, and when he saw it again in 1349 it had crumbled into total ruin.

Of course he had some troubles along the way. He mentions getting sick numerous times and was lucky not to catch the Black Death that was raging through the Middle East at the time. In Egypt he had a run-in with some hyenas that rummaged through his bags and stole his supply of dates! In Niger he had a more serious incident. He went down to the river to relieve himself and a local had to save him from a crocodile.Like any good traveler, Ibn Battuta was intensely curious and loved to see the sights. His description of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is especially moving for me, because it was that building that first turned me on to Islamic architecture. He also describes the Ummayed Mosque in Damascus as the “most magnificent mosque in the world.” I’d have to agree.

In the Maldives he learned to love coconuts (which he said “resembles a man’s head”) and lived on them during his year-and-a-half stay. Ibn Battuta understood some important things about travel: go slow and try the local food.

Ibn Battuta’s enthusiasm for travel is apparent even 700 years later. He talks of his amazement at seeing a meteorite, has the balls to ask the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos III to assign him a tour guide to show him Constantinople, and is shocked to see the Muslim women of Mali walking around naked.

There was no way I was going to visit Tangier and not pay my respects at the grave of one of my heroes, so one afternoon we headed out into the labyrinthine alleyways of the Old City. We finally found the tomb at the intersection of three lanes. There was a little historic marker on the outside, but otherwise nothing to mark the burial place of Tangier’s most famous native son.

This is typical in Muslim cultures. Most graves don’t even have an epitaph, and it takes someone pretty famous to have an identifiable tomb. Inside a caretaker was chanting in Arabic. He greeted us cordially and then went back to chanting.

As you can see from the photo below, there’s not much inside except the tomb draped with a carpet and some nice tiles on the interior. If my expression looks a little pained it’s because as we were taking photos, the caretaker let out a loud and quite toxic fart. It ruined the atmosphere of the place – literally.

Considering the dangers and hardships Ibn Battuta went through on his journeys, it was a small price to pay to see the tomb of the greatest traveler who ever lived.

Don’t miss our other articles about Tangier!

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo by Almudena Alonso-Herrero]
Ibn Battuta, adventure traveler, Tangier