Travel Clichés: They Go With The Territory

ClichésI’ve recently been dipping into “The Cat’s Pyjamas: The Penguin Book of Cliches” by Julia Cresswell, which is a good summer read.

Cresswell really put her nose to the grindstone for this weighty tome, leaving no stone unturned in her quest for the real deal about cliches. We’re informed that “wend your way” dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, with “wend” meaning “to go.” It was on its way out as a word when Sir Walter Scott and other nineteenth century romantic authors breathed new life into it.

Other cliches come from the Bible, like “the four corners of the earth” and “the ends of the earth.” Cresswell writes, “the persistence of an expression once it has become fixed is evident in the way that no one is uncomfortable with these phrases, despite the fact that flat-earthers are few and far between.”

Some phrases are of more recent vintage. “The fast lane” can only be traced back to 1966.

Bad travel writing is filled to the brim with cliches. Terms like “unique” or “hidden” or “authentic” or “off the beaten path” are like nails on a blackboard to my ears. Yet none of these chills me to my marrow more than that most wretched of adjectives: “quaint.”

When I became a travel writer ten years ago I swore upon a stack of Bibles never to use “quaint” in an article. I have stuck to that vow like glue, except when a snake-in-the-grass copy editor stabbed me in the back. I had written an article about British thatched roof houses for a certain magazine that shall remain nameless and titled it simply, “Thatched Roof Houses.” The copy editor stole my thunder by adding the subtitle, “The Story Behind The Quaintness.” This led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Sometimes travel cliches can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, especially when they perpetuate stereotypes. Here’s some tongue-in-cheek advice on writing about Africa that will have you splitting your sides with laughter. So, fellow travel writers, I beg you on bended knee, when you put pen to paper and are stuck for the right word, don’t fall back on cliches. Avoid them like the plague.

[Photo courtesy shutterbug Jonas Bengtsson]

Asleep On The Track: The Lives Of Travel Writers

Asleep on the track: the lives of travel writers

Falling asleep on the New York City subway at 3 a.m. is usually not a good thing. I’ve lived in a few places in the world that have subway systems – San Francisco, Prague, Paris, Rome – and I’ve had the good fortune to have never conked out on the subway, waking up miles past your stop in a semi-drunken daze and wondering what strange land beyond your usual station you’ve drifted off to. That is until recently. I was temporarily staying with a friend in Brooklyn and one night, after an evening of drinks and dinner (and, um, more drinks) with friends, I got on the D train to head back home.

It seemed like one minute I was trying not to stare at the drunken couple making out across from me and the next I was blurry-eyed and slumped over – the magazine I had been reading still affixed to my now sweaty palm. I was deep into a Brooklyn I’d never encountered before. I glanced at my phone: it was 3:13 a.m. I got off at the next stop and began wandering. The streets were quiet enough to hear a bagel drop. I was hoping to find a car service but I had no idea where I was. A minute later, though, I turned a corner and, as if a chorus of angels were belting out a heavenly note from above and a divine light beam were cast down from the clouds, there was right in front of me a brightly lit sign: CAR SERVICE.

The first thing I noticed in the Spartan lobby was a man. A large, girthful man sprawled out on a bench – actually spilling over it – like some sort of plump over-sized octopus. My first reaction for some reason was to take his picture. I did, and then I turned to the man behind the plexi-glass and told him I needed a car.

“Andrei!” he yelled past me. And then again: “Andrei! You got a job.”

I looked around and saw there was no one else in the room. Except for the guy sleeping in the bench – Andrei.

Suddenly this rotund giant of a man, looking unusually comfortable in dreamland, was roused from a deep sleep.

Andrei, who was born in Russia, was a friendly man. As we navigated the sedate streets, he peppered me with questions. Where was I from? Did I like New York? What was my favorite vodka?

Then he asked what I did for a living. “I’m a food and travel writer,” I said.

“Tra-vel wrrrri-ter?” he said, sounding out each syllable like he was verbally stepping on terra firma after being lost at sea for a few months.

Somehow he didn’t understand. He’d latched on to the words “travel” and “writer,” acting as if they were as incongruent and incomprehensible together as the words “Yakov” and “Smirnoff.”

I explained it in simple terms: I travel to places where I eat and talk to people and then I write about it.

“Ah,” he said. “You write about where to find restaurant.”

“Yes.”

“Where to find nightclub.”

I gave him an affirmative “uh-huh.”

“Where to find prostitute.”

Um … not exactly.

“But, you know,” he added, “there are five different types of prostitute.”

And then he launched into an explanation of each plateau of prostitution. I tuned out, thinking Andrei had a Parkinson’s grip on my profession. As a lot of people might. It’s very romanticized and understandably so. Travel is something we all aspire to – it’s our ultimate expression of freedom – a dream job, or in Andrei’s case, one in which you can direct people to the nearest prostitute.

But let’s not jump to conclusions. Every spring I teach a travel writing class at New York University. Within the first five minutes of the first class, I tell my students the bubble-bursting secret: that being a travel writer is almost as over-romanticized as bacon, Brooklyn and Italy. Not that I’m necessarily complaining. Sometimes on the road, we can experience glimpses of a decadent life of Hemingwayan proportions, but when we get back home, the cash-strapped reality sinks in as quickly as it takes to boil a packet of Top Ramen. Travel we most certainly do; money we most certainly do not make.

I’m often asked if my job ruins the act of travel for me. I think back to the epic flights sitting behind guys who unforgivingly recline their seats into my lap, watching mediocre romantic comedies (which are always much better from 35,000 feet in the air, for some reason) and eating microwave-baked gruel all to chase a story somewhere on the planet. I actually hate the act of travel. The word travel, after all, comes from “travail,” which comes from “tripalium,” a Roman instrument of torture.

My answer, though, is no, it actually makes travel richer. I’m forced to go one step beyond the realm of the average tourist so I can attempt to get underneath the place. I end up in restaurant kitchens talking to Michelin-starred chefs, in the passenger seat of other people’s cars going God knows where, and sometimes trying not to fall asleep on the subway after a long night of drinking (and, by that I mean “working,” of course). When I finally do get home, it makes the quotidian pleasures of the familiar that much sweeter. Even falling asleep on the subway and getting a lesson from a Russian taxi driver on how to choose the best prostitute is an exciting endeavor when put in the context of a 15-hour flight.

When we pulled up to my place, I paid Andrei and then suggested that, given his seemingly vast knowledge about the ladies of the night, perhaps he should consider a career change and become a travel writer.

The rub, of course, is that he’d never be able to afford such ladies if he was a travel writer.

Upcoming travel blogger conferences for 2012

travel bloggers conferenceIf the word “conference” immediately conjures images of tipsy, poly-suit clad conventioneers, comic book geeks, or coma-inducing workshops, you obviously haven’t attended a travel blogger gathering.

‘Tis the season for some of the year’s biggest travel industry blowouts. Each has a different focus–some are for accredited travel writers, others hone in on the burgeoning travel blogging industry or events tailored for the public. What they all share is an emphasis on networking with industry professionals, travel trends, and continuing education in the form of field trips, workshops, seminars, panel discussions, and yes, a fair bit of partying.

Below, our picks for the best in travel industry camaraderie and information exchange:

Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX)

The year’s most anticipated travel scribe gathering will be held June 15-17 in Keystone, Colorado. Expect a mix of over 350 fledgling and veteran writers, PR and travel industry experts, guest speakers, and workshops. In your downtime, take advantage of Keystone resort and environs by hiking, mountain biking, paddling, fly-fishing, or riding. Psst. Europe TBEX will be held in Lausanne, Switzerland, October 11-13.

New York Times Travel Show (NYT)
Held March 2-4 at Manhattan’s Jacob C. Javits Convention Center, this is a great event if you’re an accredited writer with a specific niche (Industry Professional Sessions include topics like “Focus on Africa,” and “Focus on Travel Media”); there’s also a “trade-only” day. The public and and newbie writers can explore the Exhibition Hall, check out a variety of cultural events to be held on five stages, and let the kids run amok in the Family Fun Pavilion. Bonus: Accredited travel professionals can attend the Friday Exhibition Hall and travel industry welcome reception, and Saturday and Sunday seminars and Exhibition Hall free of charge.

Travel Bloggers Unite (TBU)
Feel like a tax write-off trip to Umbria, Italy (did I just say that)? From April 20-22, this UK-organized conference unites travel writers and bloggers with travel PR experts, tourism boards, and travel companies. Seminars include photo walks and workshops, and using social media. Best of all, delegates will be able take free post-conference tours of Umbria.

Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference

Lonely Planet guru/Gadling editor Don George co-founded this renown industry event with Book Passage owner Elaine Petrocelli in 1991. Held annually at Petrocelli’s Marin County bookstore (located 15 minutes north of San Franciso; the other Book Passage is a tiny shop in San Francisco’s Ferry Building). The event has attracted in the past luminaries such as Tim Cahill, Larry Habegger, and Gadling’s David Farley. This year, esteemed writer Susan Orlean will be in attendance, and the schedule includes four days of seminars, workshops, panel discussions, and optional evening field trips. If you’re serious about travel writing–and few places provide as much topical diversity as the Bay Area–sign up, stat.

Be sure to check out Don’s article on “Top tips for TBEX and other writers’ conferences” before you sign up or get on a plane (they say advice doesn’t come cheap, but this is free, baby).

[Photo credit: Flickr user Dia™]

Presenting Xtranormal’s “I want to be a travel writer


Books by Gadling bloggers

books,Gadling bloggers are a busy bunch. When we’re not posting the latest travel news or accounts of our adventures, we’re writing for newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Many of us have written books too.

David Farley takes the prize for weirdest subject matter with An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town. So what’s Catholicism’s strangest relic? Nothing less than the foreskin of Jesus!

Some of us have jobs other than writing and this is reflected in our work. Talented photographer Karen Walrond has published the only photo book so far by a Gadlinger, The Beauty of Different: Observations of a Confident Misfit. Flight attendant Heather Poole is coming out with Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet in March 2012. Foodie Laurel Miller is coauthoring Cheese for Dummies, coming in 2012.

Sean McLachlan will become Gadling’s first novelist when his historical novel set in Civil War Missouri, A Fine Likeness, comes out in October. When he isn’t traveling he’s writing history. His military history books for Osprey Publishing include American Civil War Guerrilla Tactics, Ride Around Missouri: Shelby’s Great Raid 1863, Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896: the Italian Disaster in Ethiopia, and Medieval Handgonnes: The First Black Powder Infantry Weapons. He’s done three books on Missouri: Outlaw Tales of Missouri, Missouri: An Illustrated History, and It Happened in Missouri. He dipped into medieval history with Byzantium: An Illustrated History.

Given that we’re all travel writers, it’s no big shocker that we have a slew of travel guides between us. Andrew Evans wrote the Brandt guides to Iceland and Ukraine. Pam Mandel wrote the Thomas Cook guide HotSpots Hawaii. Matthew Firestone is a Lonely Planet regular. His titles include Costa Rica, and Botswana & Namibia. He’s contributed to several other titles. McLean Robbins contributed to the Forbes (formerly Mobil) Travel Guide (Mid Atlantic). Melanie Renzulli shares her love of Italy with The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy: Florence, Rome, Tuscany & Umbria and Frommer’s The Irreverent Guide to Rome. Libby Zay has coauthored three VIVA Travel Guides: Quito, Ecuador; Macchu Picchu & Cusco; and Guatemala.

Don George takes the cake for travel writing. Not only has he given us all some good tips in Lonely planet’s book on Travel Writing, but he’s edited a long list of travel anthologies such as Lonely Planet’s Lights, Camera, Travel!, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, By the Seat of My Pants, Tales from Nowhere, and A House Somewhere. Besides his LP titles, he’s edited Salon.com’s Wanderlust and Travelers’ Tales Japan.

So if you in the mood to read something offscreen, pick up a title from one of these talented authors!

[Image courtesy Yorck Project]

It’s time travel writers stopped stereotyping Africa

Africa, africaPop quiz: where was this photo taken?

OK, the title of this post kind of gives it away, but if I hadn’t written Africa, would you have guessed? It was taken in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. This isn’t the view of Africa you generally get from the news or travel publications–a modern city with high rises and new cars. A city that could be pretty much anywhere. That image doesn’t sell.

And that’s the problem.

An editorial by Munir Daya for the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen recently criticized Western media coverage of Africa, saying it only concentrated on wars, AIDS, corruption, and poverty. Daya forgot to mention white people getting their land stolen. If black people get their land stolen, you won’t hear a peep from the New York Times or the Guardian. If rich white ranchers get their land stolen, well, that’s international news. And look how many more articles there are about the war in Somalia than the peace in Somaliland.

Daya was objecting to an in-flight magazine article about Dar es Salaam that gave only superficial coverage of what the city has to offer and was peppered with statements such as, “Dar es Salaam’s busy streets are bustling with goats, chickens, dust-shrouded safari cars, suit-clad office workers and traders in colourful traditional dress.”

Daya actually lives in the city and says you won’t find many goats and chickens on the streets. But that wouldn’t make good copy, would it?

Travel writing has an inherent bias in favor of the unfamiliar, the dangerous. Some travel writers emphasize the hazards of their journey in order to make themselves look cool, or focus on the traditional and leave out the modern. Lonely Planet Magazine last year did a feature on Mali and talked about the city of Bamako, saying, “Though it is the fastest-growing city in Africa, Bamako seems a sleepy sort of place, lost in a time warp.” On the opposite page was a photo of a street clogged with motorcycle traffic. If Bamako is in a sleepy time warp, where did the motorcycles come from?

I’m not just picking on Lonely Planet; this is a persistant and widespread problem in travel writing and journalism. Writers, and readers, are more interested in guns than concerts, slums rather than classrooms, and huts rather than skyscrapers. In most travel writing, the coverage is simply incomplete. In its worst extremes, it’s a form of racism. Africa’s problems need to be covered, but not to the exclusion of its successes.

As Daya says, “there is more to Africa than famine and genocide.” There are universities, scientific institutes, music, fine cuisine, economic development, and, yes, skyscrapers.

And if you think Dar es Salaam is the exception rather than the rule, check out Skyscrapercity.com’s gallery of African skyscrapers.

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