Saturday, 27 December 2008

Have Yourself a Foreign Little Xmas

The period between Christmas and New Year is not necessarily a quiet one for a freelance writer. As newspaper staffers go on leave while there's still a daily newspaper to produce, it can be a good time to pick up work.

In previous years I've written during this period for Melbourne's broadsheet daily, The Age. This year, however, I'm tackling a writing assignment for Lonely Planet.

One perennial of the holiday season is people complaining about the holiday season: its commercialism, its tacky muzak, the pressure to shop with crowds and be cheerful about it.

Which puts me in mind of past Xmases and New Year's Eves when we've been overseas, and how refreshing it was to step outside the usual hectic formula and celebrate year's end in a different way.

Some of the most memorable...

Xmas in Cairo, 1992 & 1993.
Christmas in Egypt is naturally low-key, as it's a predominantly Muslim country and the Coptic Christian minority celebrate the day in January. This naturally made it far more attractive, as Xmas commercialism was entirely absent. The only glimpse of the Western-style Santa was in the foyers of five-star hotels.

One year we had friends around for Christmas lunch, including Texan fellow English language teacher James (who we referred to as Mr James, after the style of our students) and Mohamed, a local student. One exotic item on the menu was a taste of the Australian yeast-based spread Vegemite, on a piece of toast. It was universally reviled; though as this is the usual reaction to Vegemite from those not raised on it, we weren't disappointed.

Vegemite was, incidentally, one of the items we required from the decadent West whenever someone came to Egypt to visit us. The others were Twinings Earl Grey Tea and Branston Pickle, proof of our Anglophile tendencies.

New Year's Eve in Cairo, 1993. This remains the most impressive New Year's Eve I've ever had. The party was held on a houseboat on the banks of the Nile, bobbing slowly as the music played loudly and guests clambered above and below deck. It belonged to a friend of a friend, and was also home to two fat cats who seemed oblivious of the commotion.

Xmas in Berlin, 1994. We were living in Poland by this time, still teaching English, and had hopped on the overnight train from Kraków to Berlin. It arrived at Lichtenberg station in the former East Berlin, where trains had pulled in from Poland in the communist era, so it was a less than flash entry.

We were staying with fellow members of the Hospitality Exchange, wherein members trade each other free sleeping space when they travel. Our two German hosts had kindly arranged for us to stay in an empty apartment belonging to a friend of theirs, so we slept on a mattress on the floor and placed a gigantic bottle of cheap French wine on the window ledge to be chilled by the snow outside.

As Germans have their main celebration on Xmas Eve, we shared a salmon with the guys that evening. Back in Kraków, we were startled by fireworks being let off prematurely in anticipation of Sylwester - which Poles call New Year's Eve, it being the feast day of Saint Silvester.

Xmas in Kraków, 1993 & 1994. Although Poland is a deeply Christian country, Christmas there was also surprisingly uncommercial (though this may have changed by now). And very authentic to our Australian eyes, with small wooden stalls selling mulled wine around the edge of the snow-covered market square. The snow itself was something we'd only seen briefly once before, in Vienna.

There were other subtle differences. Poles place more weight on St Nicholas' Day, 6 December, when St Nick appears in the garb of a bishop, distributing treats and rewarding good behaviour. Kraków even had a special Xmas tram running the rails, on which St Nick made appearances.

Another difference was its duration. Not much in the way of Xmas decoration appeared before the first week of December, but the celebratory mood carried on to the end of the Epiphany season in January. As a result, it was not unusual for the concert hall to schedule a performance of Christmas carols well into the New Year.

On reflection, what was most enjoyable about these Xmas and New Year celebrations was the removal of the societal pressure to enjoy them in a set way. It's another reminder of something I'm always banging on about - the power of travel to make you see the world through fresh eyes.

What about you? Any memorable festive events overseas?

Friday, 19 December 2008

Santiago Dreaming

As a travel writer, I'm a firm believer in keeping a detailed daily diary of my impressions while on the road. The result is often a lively piece of writing that evokes the feeling of actually being there that day.

As an example, here's a (suitably edited) extract that I wrote at the end of a warm November day in the Chilean capital, Santiago...

In the Barrio Bellavista district of Santiago, Chile, near the foot of the Cerro San Cristobal mountain, lies La Chascona.

This was once the home of Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, and is now a museum devoted to his memory. The street it’s on is a tiny cul-de-sac lined with colourful houses, a peaceful backwater under the midday sun.

As we wait within a small courtyard for the next English language tour, we overhear an elderly American lady saying to a Chilean: “Everything is growing here. In the States everything is closing down and I don’t like it. But here everything is growing. Maybe it’s the new frontier.”

And it’s true, there is a subtle but palpable energy to the city, and signs of prosperity are everywhere; it’s not that hard to imagine yourself in Europe.

Our guide to the house is Gonzalo, a small energetic man with a splendid moustache. La Chascona, we discover, is actually a collection of rooms of varied shape, set at different levels of the hillside and separated by areas of vegetation.

But the interior of the rooms is the most interesting facet of La Chascona. The poet collected many things, including bottles, ship’s figureheads, Toby mugs, paperweights, ashtrays, dolls, and representations of horses, watermelons and fertility gods. He also loved the sea, and a had a room built with a sloping floor to remind him of life under sail.

Sadly, much of his fascinating collection was smashed by right-wing thugs connected with the 1973 coup, venting their rage at Neruda’s hard-left politics. Slowly though, the foundation which manages the house has been able to either repair items, or repopulate it with those of Neruda’s belongings which escaped damage.

Neruda was a highly creative and intelligent man. He was also somewhat unconventional, walking through his home in the garb of a sea captain, and sometimes even a nun. I suggest the adjective eccentrico to Gonzalo, and he agrees with a smile: “Si... or maybe loco.”

Lunch is at El 125, a nearby bar. Here we discover the secret of a big cheap meal in Chile: ignore the printed menu and check out the lunch special, usually on a blackboard near the door. For a mere 3900 pesos (AUD 10) we have a pisco sour, a cold roast beef and capsicum entree, a choice of beef or fish, and a glass of wine. My steak comes a lo pobre (literally “poor man’s steak), with fried onions and two eggs.

I ask for it muy echo (well done), but it arrives rare. This is no problem; the waitress presents a side plate, I place the steak on it, and she takes it away for further immolation. I much prefer this to the Australian method of removing the entire plate while your companion eats on; at least I can continue with my eggs. I actually ended up with a completely new steak, and a better cut at that.

When the bill comes out, she makes a point of asking if we wanted to add the tip to the credit card or pay it in cash, which undermines our first waitress’ advice that tipping is not compulsory. But we’re happy to tip after the steak resolution.

A few minutes later in the street, slightly intoxicated, I realise I’ve left my camera bag at the restaurant, and dash back at high speed to retrieve it. It’s still under the table, thank god - smiles all round.

Later in the afternoon we suddenly notice the Andes as the smog dissipates, and go out to take photos. We end up at a table outside a pub on the corner of Dardignac and Pio Nono, where the evening’s festivities have started with a curtain raiser of socialising, drinking, and general good humour.

Latin people use their public spaces so well, and it’s extremely pleasant sitting among the good-natured after-work crowd.

A waiter appears and we order cervezas (beer), to which he responds “Chico?” (“Small?”) As I’m pondering this, he disappears, returning with two half-litre steins of the amber fluid. He obviously feels that these two large gringos had not got that way by consuming chico amounts of anything.

To dilute the alcohol, Narrelle orders a completos, the Chilean hot dog with its sausage, onions and mustardy mayonnaise. It costs just 500 pesos (AUD 1.25), but you get what you pay for: a cold sausage in a stale roll does not a gourmet treat make. Still, it’s washed down nicely by the beer.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Unpublished 2: Squaring the Canberra Circle

This is the second example of a travel article that I've never been able to place. This time the focus is Australia's national capital...

The best view of Canberra is from the back of a departing train. – Bureaucrat Percy Deane, 1928

Like Percy, I’m not a Canberra person. I’ve always thought of Australia’s capital city as dull and contrived, an artificial place without surprises. But I’m here for a week on a business trip.

So I’m going to experiment, taking a leaf out of the Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel, released in 2005. The book aims to liven up your travel by throwing in a random element or two. Following one of its experiments, I’ve taken a map of Canberra’s city centre, otherwise known as Civic, and drawn a square based on City Hill, cutting across the CBD’s hexagonal street patterns.

I’m going to follow the borders of that square as closely as possible, even if it leads me through buildings, to see what happens if you throw the guidebook away. Go on Canberra, surprise me!

West: From the midpoint of the northern border of my square, I cross Northbourne Avenue, the major thoroughfare leading north from the city. From here my line doesn’t run west along a street, but through buildings between two streets. But the Jolimont Tourist Centre offers a way through.

In the centre of the space sits a lady at a small tourist information desk. We discuss why the city centre is called Civic, when I haven’t seen a single sign with that name. On my map it’s called just “City”. I wonder if this is an attempt by the ACT Government to make the place sound bigger and more bustling.

I eat a sandwich on a weather-beaten bench in the adjoining bus station, with its pebble concrete surfaces. Its worn appearance makes me think more fondly of Canberra; I remember it being too clean and tidy, but now it’s a little tarnished and all the better for it.

As I cross Moore Street, on my left I can see the 1920s Melbourne Building, one of the oldest buildings in Civic. It’s a beautiful colonnaded square building with orange-brown tiles. There’s something vaguely Spanish about it today, and its graceful lines make it stand out among its neighbours.

Next is a fenced-off pre-school, quite empty. On the grass just outside it, I find surprise number one: a small plastic yellow helicopter with red rotors. I toss it back over the fence, like returning a fish out of water.

South: Turning at the north-west corner of my square, I pass the Street Theatre located on the edge of the Australian National University campus; it looks bit like a 1950s Railway Institute or an abandoned service station. A production called Wish You Were Her is showing, the poster featuring a photo of former Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone. Possibly not a complimentary biographical work.

I have to cut through ANU’s School of Music. A student leans thoughtfully against a wall, holding a cello in its case. Then two excited guys run past me, one of them saying “You did it!” They disappear into a lift as I leave through a far door, clueless.

After navigating a tricky intersection and its traffic islands, I find myself on Marcus Clarke Drive. For an Australian history graduate, Canberra is a freaky place to be. Place names aren’t just names: the suburbs and streets constantly evoke past prime ministers and other famous Australians.

Then I’m confronted by surprise number two: a flying saucer. It’s a concrete building which whose exterior is a single vast dome surrounded by a moat, reaching right to the ground, with curved gaps for windows. It turns out to be the Shine Dome of the Australian Academy of Science. A sign on the door regrets that the building’s not open to inspection. I regret not being able to inspect it.

I realise I’ve veered way off my path; I need a GPS device, or at least a compass. Making a correction through a patch of bushland, I get my first glimpse of Lake Burley Griffin. It’s quite an expanse, and I can see Parliament House in the distance, flag flying. Nice view.

East: I walk past Rydges Hotel, and I can see the ACT flag flying from City Hill ahead and to the left. Back on track.

Crossing parkland between traffic feeder roads, I’m suddenly dive-bombed by surprise number three: two magpies. I’m crossing a completely open space, but the whooshing sound is quite distinct. I break into a half-run from this pair of small creatures, no doubt looking quite ridiculous to the passing drivers.

Having escaped, I look for the Olympic swimming pool, the south-east corner of my square. I pass a young guy sitting eating a rice dish out of a plastic container with chopsticks, wearing a baseball cap, next to a sign advertising a free solarium visit and massages.

I stick my head into the massage business. A guy with an eyebrow piercing comes out to serve me, and I get the chance to have a closer look at the dome over the pool. I’m surprised to realise it’s not a solid structure, but a huge inflated cover. It gives the impression of a huge marshmallow.

North: I pass the Casino Canberra. This part of town feels more businesslike. The buildings have colonnades, but otherwise they’re modern and featureless. There’s also a slick café with suited business folk, and a hairdressing salon called Shine (no relation to the concrete dome).

I should pass through buildings here, but I don’t fancy wandering through federal government offices in the current state of security paranoia. So I try heading up external stairs to the second level of the building. Here I discover surprise number four: a strange courtyard featuring faded and cracked hexagonal concrete shapes, and a cool bar called Toast. It’s salsa night tonight! I’m sensing that the fun parts of Canberra are often hidden away from the streets.

Then it’s past discounted Harry Potter books in Myer within the sprawling Canberra Centre shopping mall, and through the food court. It strikes me how young the passers-by are, and how that’s the case across Canberra. There’s something youthful and innocent about the city, and it’s quite appealing.

I leave the Canberra Centre for the City Markets. I don’t know if it’s ever been open-air in its past, as it looks fairly modern now. But you can push around a cart, visit different stalls and buy fresh meat, seafood, poultry, and so on. There’s lots of interesting stuff: fusili, polpettini, free-range duck eggs.

West: On my last leg I have to find another path between buildings. A small shopping arcade helps me out, and I pick up a local free paper on the way. Inside it, I read about a celebration being held by the Uruguayan Embassy and the Uruguay-Australia Association. It’s a reminder of how international this city is, no matter how much it feels like a big country town sometimes.

At last, I reach Garema Place. This is a cool pedestrian area, with cafes and restaurants, and finally there are people around. It feels a little shabbier, more unplanned than the neighbouring parts of the city centre. There are Chinese, Japanese and Indian restaurants, a number of cafes and a surprisingly cool upstairs bar called Hippo.

I like the atmosphere here, with people clustered together in the eateries’ lively outdoor areas; and I’m even pleased to see skateboarders. This is great: more noisy and more animated. Finally I’ve found a place which feels like it’s part of a thriving people-sized city.

It’s only a hop, skip and jump to my starting point from here, so I sink gratefully into an outdoor seat and order a macchiato. Looks like Canberra saved the best for last. And surprised me after all.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Close Encounter of the Sculptural Kind

As any Australian travel editor knows, there's something enormously alluring about international travel.

Curiously, these editors receive far more unsolicited material about overseas journeys than domestic ones, even though domestic travel is much cheaper to research.

It seems that a trip to Europe is inherently sexier than a weekend interstate on a budget airline.

But addicted as I am to international adventures, there's no logical reason why a local trip should be any less enjoyable.

You can even travel very locally and have a good time. A case in point - last Sunday Narrelle and I visited the Yering Station winery in the Yarra Valley, just 40 kilometres east of the centre of Melbourne. We were interested in the seeing the works entered in the annual Yering Station Sculpture Exhibition & Awards.

What was novel (for most Melburnians) was our method of getting there - a train to the Lilydale terminus, then a bus from there. It was surprisingly easy to catch public transport into the Yarra Valley, but most people would assume it would only be practical by car.

The sculptures - a pretty flexible term, as most were not the traditional carved stone pieces - are scattered around the grounds and premises of the winery, making an attractive hide-and-seek game as you spot them among the greenery.

The one we had a particular interest in was Grosse Fische - Kleine Fische (Big Fish - Little Fish), a piece which had been foreshadowed some months ago in a post within John Richards' Outland Institute blog.

In it, artist Gaby Jung asked readers to send her empty fish-shaped soy sauce containers. The resulting work used masses of these plastic vessels to form a giant fish, suspended above a pool in which more soy fish float.

It was an impressive piece, as were many others in the exhibition. The winery itself is no slouch, either, being composed of a mix of historic and modern buildings set within beautiful grounds denoted by circular patterns of plants and paths.

After viewing the artork, we tasted home-made jams in the nearby shop, then climbed the stairs to the deck of the bar. We sat outside in the sunshine, sipping rosé and eating excellent sandwiches made with quality ingredients, thinking that perhaps life wasn't so hard after all.

Then we walked the two kilometres or so to the nearest town, Yarra Glen (which I always think sounds like the name of a bushranger). It was an easy stroll along a flat road past fields, though cars whip by at a fast pace.

One woman stopped and asked if we'd like a lift - bless her - but we declined and kept strolling. I'm always amazed by how difficult people who don't walk, think walking is - as if it's a major hardship to walk a couple of kilometres through attractive countryside on a pleasant day.

And the important thing, it occcurs to me, is being immersed in the environment when you're travelling. A car is handy to get from A to B quickly; but I always feel annoyed when tearing through a new landscape I'd rather be in contact with, while confined behind glass and steel.

So that was our Sunday. A visit to a winery, some great art, and a walk into a new town. It might be close to home, but I call that a travel experience worth having.

Friday, 28 November 2008

The Plugged-in Traveller

This week I attended the Future of Journalism conference here in Melbourne.

It was an interesting event, with a series of panels exploring the murky future of journalism - murky, given the huge changes technology is forcing on the profession.

One of the speakers was Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet Publications, who talked about the future from a travel publishing perspective.

He commented that though the past - with its focus on guidebooks - was more predictable, the future offered lots of interesting possibilities for LP to sell its mountain of travel info via electronic means.

Which made me reflect on how I use electronic devices when I travel. Obviously I have a digital camera with me, and increasingly, a mobile phone with a local prepaid SIM card.

I couldn't do without my Palm PDA for several reasons: it carries useful notes and my diary, along with music and a number of novels for me to read without overloading the packing.

And, of course, I have my ultraportable Sony VAIO laptop computer with me. On my LP assignment in Poland this year, I was able to access free wireless Internet access at just about every hotel I stayed at, along with various public places.

As a result, I used it frequently - to keep in touch with friends and clients, to back up work, and to research the journey ahead (the Polish national train company PKP, for example, has its entire timetable online).

The next step seems obvious - having the relevant guidebook on a portable device, either a phone or PDA. Some years ago, LP had a pioneering version of this called CitySync, and I used both their Rome and Sydney guides on my Palm of the time. It was damn useful, particularly because it was searchable; I remember standing in a Roman square and searching for a list of nearby restaurants within a certain price range.

The other option would be in downloading specific info on demand, rather than storing an entire guidebook on the device. So that restaurant list could be compiled by a remote LP server and pulled down to your phone, for example.

This is all very interesting. I found the CitySync guides very usable, with the extra benefit of making me look less like a tourist clutching a printed guidebook. I'd be happy to download a modern version of that when I next travelled. LP's current Pick and Mix option of book chapters contained within a PDF file is a step in the right direction, but I'd prefer my data to be interactive.

No doubt it will come, especially now that smartphones like the iPhone are finally gaining larger screens. Would you like your guidebook to be an e-guide? Or do you prefer the classic dead tree version?

Friday, 21 November 2008

Pop Goes the Traveller

It was easy to get excited in London earlier this year, as I stood on the Bermondsey street known as Shad Thames.

It's an interesting piece of roadway in itself, running between old warehouses connected above street level by walkways. But I was fascinated by its link with Doctor Who.

Yes, way back in 1984 the cast and crew of the famous BBC science fiction TV series visited Shad Thames. The dockside street was one location in the story Resurrection of the Daleks.

It hosted some marvellously atmospheric scenes in its rain-dampened confines. They included a mass prisoner breakout at the start of the story, and a Dalek exploding upon its surface after being pushed from an upper window.

It was quite delightful seeing the street - now thoroughly gentrified - in person, though probably I was the only onlooker making the connection with a popular TV show from my younger days. And it reminded me how often I've enjoyed similar intersections between pop culture and real life when travelling.

Here are a few random pop culture travel memories:
  • Standing in the open space in front of the ancient Treasury building in Petra, Jordan, and recalling on the scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) which were filmed there. In fact, we'd rewatched the movie at a backpackers' hostel in nearby Wadi Musa just the night before.
  • Visiting Portmeirion, North Wales, where the amazing 1967 British TV series The Prisoner was shot. The series depicted a nameless spy, Number 6, who'd been imprisoned in a seemingly charming seaside village after resigning. In reality, it looks startlingly like it did in the series, because it's an 'artificial' village which was pieced together with architectural fragments from far and wide.
  • Experiencing flashbacks to every Cold War TV series and movie of my youth, when wandering around the cities of formerly communist Central Europe. Warsaw is particularly good for this, but I remember a mid-90s visit to a business hotel in Gdańsk which looked precisely the sort of place you'd meet your East German spymaster.
  • A literary favourite is Sherlock Holmes, and on my first London visit I got a buzz out of visiting Baker Street and imagining myself following in the footsteps of the master detective. Using a guide produced by the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, I was able to replicate journeys taken within the short stories.
  • A few years ago I had some fun writing a story on Sydney movie locations for Virgin Blue's inflight magazine. In the course of the research I visited locations major and minor, including places that had appeared in The Matrix, Muriel's Wedding, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Mission Impossible II, among others.
  • And of course, every day I walk past locations in Melbourne's city centre that feature in The Opposite of Life, a fantasy novel by my wife, Narrelle M Harris. Prominent landmarks referenced in the book include Chinatown, the 24-hour Greek restaurant Stalactites, the Forum Theatre, cool alleyway bars The Croft Institute and MOO, the grand State Library, and the shiny new apartments of Docklands.
What about you? Which of your travel experiences have taken on extra meaning because of their pop culture connections?

Friday, 14 November 2008

The Unpublished 1: Eritrean Art Deco

This is the first instalment of an occasional series, in which I self-publish travel articles that I've never been able to place. This week we turn our eyes to the far-off African nation of Eritrea, and discover a surprising architectural treasure trove...

When you think of the great art deco cities of the world, you might consider Miami, Florida. You might also think of Napier, New Zealand, which was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in the 1930s. New York also has some fine examples of the architectural style. But you’re unlikely to think of Asmara, in Africa.

Asmara is the capital of Eritrea, a tiny state on the southern shores of the Red Sea. Founded in 1993 after the defeat of Ethiopia in a war of independence, this African nation is slowly recovering from the conflict. There are several thousand Eritreans resident in Australia, with the majority living in Melbourne.

What few remember, however, is Eritrea’s colonial past. In 1890, the coastal province became an Italian colony. The Italians were playing catch-up with the Britain and France, creating an African empire of their own. Asmara became the jewel in the crown, with thousands of Italian settlers as the 20th century rolled in.

Modern architectural styles followed. As the Italian administration created its administrative centre, it worked from a blank slate. And what better way to express the confidence of this “new Roman Empire” than the soaring structures of art deco?

Art deco was characterised by bold, futuristic lines which streamlined the classical structures of the past. Onto this simple template were added designs from the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Latin America.

More distinctive was its inclusion of symbols of modern technology: wheels, cogs and cars. It suggested a confidence in progress and the future, memorably expressed in the lines of rocketships in the Flash Gordon comic strips. It’s ironic that this confident style began just before the onset of the Great Depression. By 1940, it had reached its end.

In Asmara, however, this was the perfect style to express the assurance of the Italian state. With Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922, the two went hand in hand. The dictator never visited the far-flung colony, but there would be plenty of grand buildings to pose in front of if he had.

This is the miracle of art deco Asmara. Despite the passing of time and a 30 year war of independence, its architectural heritage has remained untouched. Highlights of the art deco era include a futuristic service station with sweeping wings, and the imposing Cinema Impero. Pink plaster and curving door frames dot the central city, in both residential and commercial buildings.

The building of a new nation is not easy, however, and the art deco heritage has been threatened by development and a lack of resources for conservation. To redress this, the Eritrean government has sought World Bank funding to catalogue and preserve the city’s modernist past.

The Eritrean embassy to Australia confirms its importance to the young nation: “Art deco buildings are highly preserved, and the government has established a special department for the purpose.”

Aside from its cultural and historic benefits, preserving early 20th century heritage may have a tourist spin-off. If a regional New Zealand city like Napier can market its art deco structures successfully, why not an African city within reach of the warm waters of the Red Sea?

Since a second conflict with Ethiopia in the late 1990s, Eritrea has become a more peaceful place. Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs advises travellers to avoid the borders with Ethiopia and Sudan, and to be mindful of terrorism in general.

But Asmara remains an inexpensive place to travel. Budget accommodation starts from a few dollars a night, and five star lodgings also exist. Car hire is needed to get to the more remote attractions, though food is cheap wherever you go.

It’s light years away from the high energy of New York, the sunbaked beaches of Miami or the greenery of New Zealand. But Asmara offers the chance to see the 20th century’s greatest architectural style amid the exotic charms of the Red Sea coast.

Note: As this article was written in 2004, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current security situation before travelling to Eritrea.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Monday, 10 November 2008

The Journey of a Thousand Words

On Saturday I taught my last travel writing course at Holmesglen TAFE in Melbourne's southeastern suburbs. It's been an interesting course to both devise and teach, and I've learned plenty from it myself.

Having to think about how travel writing works - and how to convey that to would-be travel writers - has reminded me how different travel writing is from other forms of journalism.

How so? For one thing, travel articles are often written in first person: "I" rather than "he, she, they". They're also frequently written in the present tense.

The advantage of both these approaches, especially when combined, is an immediacy to the text. The reader is placed in the writer's shoes, experiencing his/her viewpoint as if the events are happening how.

The first person approach also allows the writer to share specific events that befell him/her while travelling: the conversation with a local on the ferry, the taste of a fine meal, the unsteady first attempts at the local language.

Of course, all this counts for naught if the writer can't convey these experiences in an interesting, lively, engaging way. If, to quote a former travel editor I once knew, the article reads like a glossy travel brochure or an account of "What I did on my summer holiday", then it's just not right.

Ever wondered whether you could take a stab at the fine old art of travel writing? Here's a few short tips to start you on your way:
  1. Observe. You can't relay your experiences to an audience if you don't pay attention to them yourself. Look at the new people, places, buildings, landscapes that you encounter, and be curious about them all. Why is this food popular? Why do people wear those clothes? Why is that style of architecture so common?
  2. Note. Every day without fail, write a travel journal entry for the events of that day. Put in as much detail as possible, down to comments you overheard or quirky interactions that happened on the street. You'll be amazed how well these preserve your details of the trip, and how much life they can add to travel articles (or even postcards or blogs!).
  3. Photograph. A picture reputedly tells a thousand words. That may or my not be true, but it will certainly prompt a flood of memories for years to come. Images also improve the chances of selling a travel article, as presenting an editor with matching words and pictures makes his/her life easier. And the pix earn extra dollars.
  4. Write to a Structure. Whether you're attempting to create a travel article, a blog entry, a postcard scrawl or one of those annoying travelogue emails to bother your colleagues back home, give some thought to structuring the piece. Don't just witter on about every event from sunrise to sunset - write about what was most memorable, most emblematic, about the place. You don't even have to start at the beginning; maybe the most interesting thing happened halfway through your stay.
However you write about your travels, you'll find that it's a great way of fixing the memories of your trip in your mind, and bringing to the forefront what was most memorable about it. Remember, the journey of a thousand words begins with a single keystroke...

Friday, 31 October 2008

China: People of the Middle Kingdom

I've spent the past week in China with colleagues from the Australian Society of Travel Writers. After we held our Annual General Meeting in Shanghai, we flew out west to Chongqing to join a cruise down the Yangtze River to Yichang. We're now in Wuhan, waiting to fly home.

It's been an amazing week full of large, spectacular sights, from the massive modern architecture of Shanghai to the majestic gorges of the Yangtze. But travel stories - like all stories - are about people, and I've been struck by the friendliness and relaxed practicality of the Chinese we've met on the way.

A few snapshots:

  • The stallholder on Shanghai's Old Street, who cheerfully haggled with me over the price of a number of items I wished to buy. Her running commentary on her fairly absurd stock (waving Mao watches included) was high spirited and not too pushy. We left the best of friends after settling on a price by alternately typing our bids on a calculator.
  • The musician playing a string instrument at a teahouse above the markets. He and his partner played a number of traditional tunes in classic robes - then launched into an instrumental version of Click Go the Shears. I looked up sharply from my jasmine tea, and we shared a knowing glance.
  • Steven Xu, the bar manager on the Victoria Queen cruise boat, who talked to me about his experiences serving foreigners floating up and down the Yangtze. As his parents and grandparents are small-time farmers with a small income, he says they're proud of his work on the river. He keeps in touch with pen pals from among his former passengers, and hopes to travel to Australia one day, to visit one.
  • The boatmen who operate the sampans along a narrow side gorge we visited one day. Ceaselessly cheerful, they helped visitors in and out of the boats and piloted them through rainy weather through an impressive stretch of rocky cliffs. In straw hats and lifejackets, they looked like they were really enjoying their jobs. I asked Steven what they'd be doing if there were no tourism, and he said they'd probably have departed for industrial work in some distant city. Much more rewarding to be out on the water.
  • Our guide to the Three Gorges Dam, Kevin, who had a cheerful patter worked out about being "a good dam guide or a damn good guide". I told him our prime minister, Kevin Rudd, also spoke Mandarin, so there was more than one Mandarin-speaking Kevin. To which he said "But mine is better - you can't beat a native speaker".
  • The guys on the coal scow that nestled next to our boat on the journey through the multiple locks that bypass the Three Gorges Dam. I stepped out on my cabin's balcony and saw them below, standing on the front of the scow, helping direct the pilot's placement. They looked up, I waved, and they returned the wave while simultaneously shouting "Hello!".
It can't always be easy living in such an overpopulated country, but the Chinese do it with good humour and an unexpected grace.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Shanghai Municipal Tourism and Helen Wong’s Tours.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Familiarity Breeds Content

I was in a train station when the revelation hit me.

But before I get to that, let me backtrack to the previous evening. I’d been in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania for a few days, and was waiting outside the main train station for the overnight bus to Warsaw, Poland.

There were no benches nearby so I seated myself on a lower step. It was an interesting place to loiter.

It was an early Saturday evening so young people were on their way out of the station for a night on the town, others were returning home after a day out, and in front of me a steady stream of trolleybuses was picking up and dropping off passengers, including the occasional trademark Eastern European old lady with a scarf around her head.

After a while, a few more people started hanging around the bus stop sign. First up was a young slim guy with a long ratty ponytail, and what appeared to be his mother and younger sister, towing a lime green suitcase. I drifted into eavesdropping range and detected Polish being spoken, so dropped in a few words about going to Warsaw. We all nodded.

It is strange how little change of perspective is needed to make people into kindred spirits. In Poland I was the foreigner, trying to understand the place and its people; but in Vilnius the Poles and I were all outsiders, having to get by with English because we didn’t know the local language.

The bus tore off through the night about 10pm, scheduled to stop only at Lithuania’s second city Kaunas and the eastern Polish city of Bialystok on its way to Warsaw. I was awake as we crossed the border, and was amazed to see the complex of customs houses, sidings and truck bays I’d dozed through a few days earlier.

What was more remarkable was the way in which we ignored these empty buildings and joined a convoy of trucks threading their way between them. As both nations are now part of the border-free Schengen zone, there are no border crossing formalities between them. Bypassing the redundant border checkpoints was an exhilarating experience – as borders are imaginary lines set by humans, so may they dissolve.

But that wasn’t the moment of revelation. About 5.30am we pulled into the bus bay behind Warszawa Centralna, Warsaw’s communist-era main train station. I walked into the lofty ticket hall, bought a ticket to Lublin, the next city on my Polish itinerary, then took the escalator into the labyrinth of corridors that run beneath the station.

Low-ceilinged, lined with dozens of shops, and linked to further pedestrian tunnels leading to tram and bus stops, these corridors are inherently disorientating. But I realised, as I walked through them, that I’d finally (after many years) worked out their basic configuration.

I strode unerringly to a particular cafe I was looking for, and stepped in just as they were opening. I ordered the same coffee I always ordered there, then sat in the same chair at the same table I always sit in when I’m killing time before a train journey from Warszawa Centralna.

That’s when I realised how completely at ease I felt there. I was so used to the place and how it worked, that I might as well have been a resident of Warsaw. And, it occurred to me, I visit Warsaw more often than a lot of places closer to home – I’ve visited the city on four occasions, for example, compared to the one time I’ve been to Brisbane.

So I seem to have lost the mild unease that usually accompanies travellers when they head into a foreign country – that frisson of irrational fear when surrounded by an alien culture.

I assumed, on reflection, that I’d now travelled widely and often enough that it had withered away, leaving behind a lively but assured interest. Also that I now felt experienced enough with new places to deal with their differences without any conscious effort.

It was an interesting moment. But one I rather liked.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

An Essential Luxury

According to eTurboNews this week, Indonesia’s tourism minister Jero Wacik has an unconventional opinion on the ongoing global economic crisis.

He thinks it will benefit his country’s tourism industry rather than harm it, saying “The crisis is stressing so many people out. They need to relax to relieve the stress.”

Is this a supreme example of spin doctoring, or the most optimistic statement since the commander of the Light Brigade said “We can take ’em”?

I say this not to impugn the forecasting skills of Mr Wacik – he may well be proven to be correct. But it’d be against the conventional wisdom, which suggests that in times of economic downturn, people give up travelling.

On the surface, this makes sense. If companies are feeling cautious with their money, they may well cancel all non-essential travel and use email and video conferencing more. Individuals might also see travel as a luxury they can do without, and hoard their pennies in the old oak chest.

And that’s what this theory revolves about, doesn’t it – the assumption that travel is a luxury, rather than an essential. Especially for individual travellers.

But is it? Obviously it comes down to the opinion of the individual. I’d argue that, at least in my life, travel is an essential item I’d give up a long way down the list from many material comforts.

On my Facebook page I say that I love the way travelling through somewhere totally unfamiliar, preferably using a foreign language, engages all your senses and makes you feel extraordinarily alive. I’m sure many others who’ve experienced the stimulating joy of travel agree.

On top of this, think how much good travel has done in dispelling racist stereotypes of foreigners among everyday people. Sure, narrow-minded people still travel overseas and return with unaltered prejudices, and even broad-minded travellers might meet only the sort of pushy touts that give their countries a bad name.

But never again will governments be able to get away with the propaganda posters used in the two world wars, depicting the enemy of the day as a race of slavering inhuman monsters with hideously distorted features who bayonet babies. The fear of the unmet “other” is always worse than the fear of a people you’ve actually encountered, however imperfectly.

Intolerance will, sadly, always be with us. But travel does its bit to dispel its evil, and long may it do so.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Queenstown: Larger Than Life

This week's guest blog is written by journalist and fantasy novelist
Narrelle M Harris.

It’s been said that life never feels more real than when it feels like you’re in a movie. On a recent business trip to Queenstown, New Zealand, it sometimes seemed like I could see how the special effects were done.

Several times a day I heard my fellow conference attendees comment on the mountains. Crisply outlined against a blue, blue sky, the mountains were sharply defined and dramatic. “They look painted on!” people said. “They look like a backdrop. They don’t look real.”

They had certainly looked real enough flying in through heavy turbulence on Saturday, when the more pessimistic (and possibly less experienced) travellers among us were white-knuckle-gripping the seats and praying that we wouldn’t inspect the snowy crags any more closely until we were on foot.

I had my own surreal experience walking back to the hotel after dinner one night. This was the dinner featuring the magnificent golden-sails-in-the-sunset dessert: a chocolate boat filled with ice cream and topped with pirate-ship masts and sails made of toffee. We were all so impressed we took photos.

Queenstown has a lot of hills in it. Actually, it’s easier to say there are very few flat bits in it. This night, walking up the steep hill, I was aware of a curving bank of lights hovering above the town, close enough to be teleporting up cows and hick farmers called Jed for probing.

I glanced up, startled, before realising that it was just the lights of the Skyline observatory. With no other lights on the pitch-dark hill on which it is perched, it just hung there. A UFO with a bar and a luge track that I could reach by cable car tomorrow, if I wanted to see what the aliens were up to. And possibly rescue the cow.

Another not-quite-real thing about Queenstown is its cast of thousands from other nations. The customer service staff in this town are a check-list of the United Nations. At my hotel I met staff from Argentina, Portugal, Italy (Venice – he was particular about naming his hometown) and a contingent of handsome young Dutch men who were studying hospitality and had come out for work experience.

In the town itself I was served decent coffee by a Yorkshireman, sated my need for the Internet at a cafe run by a guy from the Czech Republic and bought groceries from women who sounded like they came from somewhere in Eastern Europe. It was more like a casting call than a plausible local population.

I begin to suspect that Queenstown wasn’t a proper New Zealand town, but rather a sophisticated training camp designed to prepare Kiwis for life in Europe, where they have customs and cultures different from our own.

Even if it is a kind of multicultural movie set, you could do worse than visit Queenstown. If you are not inclined to fling yourself at speeds down snow covered slopes, or straight towards the craggy ground at the end of a big rubber band, there are more genteel pursuits in this lovely little Alpine town.

If you have engineer-geek tendencies, you can go on a cruise around the lake in a century-old steamship and sit on a viewing gantry watching the burly men shovel coal, and the gleaming pistons of the engine pumping up and down. And it’s warm down there, which is good, because it can be bloody cold out on deck.

Queenstown may well be too pretty and possibly even too contrived to be true, with its picturesque mountains and lookouts posing as flying saucers, but if you want an escape from your real, everyday life, this is surely the place to do it.

Find details of Narrelle's vampire novel The Opposite of Life at her website, along with details of her other books.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Tasmania, Mon Ami

It’s strange revisiting a place after 23 years.

I’ve been in Australia's island state Tasmania this week on a travel writing assignment, and I realised with some surprise that I was last here in 1985.

That was way back in the "Greed is Good" era, though recent economic shocks in the USA would suggest that sentiment is always with us.

In the last few days I’ve been to the cities of Launceston and Hobart, to the wilderness of Freycinet National Park, and to various wineries and breweries across the state.

What’s struck me is how much our travel experiences nowadays are connected to food and drink. Tasmania is famous for its beautiful landscapes and convict history, but it’s also producing some exceptional consumables.

Over the last few days I’ve sampled great beer, wine, whisky, salmon, oysters and other goodies. On reflection, I suppose it makes sense that a desire for natural beauty should mesh with a desire for fine natural produce.

But what was really enjoyable was catching up with two Tasmanian friends in Hobart, at a mellow bar called The Quarry on sandstone Salamanca Place.

There’s nothing quite like catching up with friends when you’re away from home – you get the benefits of a stimulating new environment combined with stimulating conversation all at once.

Which reminded me of the first Lonely Planet job I did back in 2006. In the last week I arrived back in Kraków, to meet up with two Australian friends who were flying in from two different locations: Claire from London, Ben from Paris.

For some reason, it's immensely cool to rendezvous with friends in a country where none of you are resident; it feels like you’re all sophisticated jetsetters.

Which just goes to prove, I suppose, travel’s inherent ability to make you see everyday relationships in a new light, to refresh old friendships and add a dash of the theatrical to your daily existence.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Disco'er Yer Inner Buccaneer

As ye may or may nay know, 19 Septembree each voyage be International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

On this one tide each voyage, swabbies all o'er th' world pepper the'r speech wi' phrases like them ye're readin' here.

O' course, we're nay thinkin' o' real swashbucklers; if ye encounter them on th' high seas in th' 21st century, ye're unlikely t' be amused.

Nay, ITLP Day be based on swashbuckler talk as revealed by pop literature an' cinema o'er th' voyages.

I be a wee early, but I'd like t' join th' spirit o' silliness an' talk about pirate attractions ye can visit around th' world:

Pirate Soul. This museum in Key West, Florida displays a huge collection o' swashbuckler artifacts, includin' Blackbeard's blunderbuss an' Captain Tew's booty treasure chest. An' a real Jolly Roger from th' good old days.

Th' Pirates Museum. In Nassau, Th' Bahamas. Recreation o' life below decks, actors in swashbuckler costumes, an' a gift shop called Plunder! Arrrrrrrrrr.

New England Pirate Museum. Located in Salem, Massachusetts. Aye, witches weren't th' only popular inhabitants o' Salem in th' olden days. Celebrity swashbucklers like Kidd an' Blackbeard summered here when 't got too toasty in th' tropics. Includes a 25 metre long cave filled wi' booty.

Piracy Museum. This institution in Santiago de Cuba, unsurprisingly in Cuba, takes th' viewpoint o' one o' sweet trade's main victims: th' Spanish Empire. Fer many voyages Santiago be set upon by corsairs, semi-official swashbucklers gi'en licence by the'r homeport govenments. Th' museum be set in th' Morro Castle.

Murakami Suigun Museum. Found in Imbari, Japan. Nay, swashbucklers didna jus' hang around th' Caribbean. This museum details th' life an' exploits o' a local warlord whose swashbucklers ruled th' seas in th' 16th century.

Oudaya Kasbah. Rabat, th' capital o' Morocco, be often attacked by th' Andalusian swashbucklers o' Spain, who made lives hell fer locals in th' 12th century. Th' most prominent remnant o' the'r reign be this impressive fortress on a bluff above th' ocean. Ironically, 't later became th' base o' a pirate state.

So thar ye go. Thar's nothin' more stimulatin' than travellin' in pursuit o' a theme. Jus' reckon t' talk Pirate if ye're travellin' on 19 Septembree. Aye, e'en in th' passport queue when enterin' a new country!

(An' thanks t' Pirate Speak fer th' above translation – try 't on yer favourite site!)

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Secure the Hatches

I've become an unwitting radio star in the last month or so. A interview on light packing on behalf of Lonely Planet led to me reprising the topic to several local ABC radio stations.

And today, I did an interview on ABC North West Queensland, which broadcasts out of the desert mining town of Mount Isa. The topic? How travel has changed since the events of 11 September 2001.

As you can imagine, I spent the majority of the time complaining about excessive air travel security measures.

Like anyone, I've no problem with security measures that are clearly making flying safer. What I do object to are security measures that appear to be designed to make it seem that authorities are Doing Something.

What's particularly annoying is the arbitrary ways these policies are implemented. Here are a few personal experiences:

Liquid Ban. I did the right thing the first time I travelled under the rule banning carry-on liquids over 100 millilitres. I made sure every item was less than that amount, put them in a clear plastic bag, even cadged a couple of 60ml sample packs of contact lens fluid from my optometrist.

However, my brand new tube of toothpaste was labelled by weight: 110 grams. Now clearly 110g of a thick, semi-solid paste is going to occupy less than 110ml in volume, so I put it in the bag. And it was pulled out and thrown away at airport security, because they'd belatedly decided to equate 100g with 100ml. And for good measure they also confiscated my 6ml shoe shine, because it somehow didn't qualify as OK to take aboard in cabin luggage. Yes, that's six millilitres of liquid.

Geographically Selective Procedures. The liquid ban applies to international flights from Australia, but not domestic flights within Australia. Surely if the liquid explosives threat is for real, it should apply to every flight. Or do liquid explosives only activate on crossing international borders?

Laptop Opening. In recent years, security has usually asked travellers to take out laptop computers for separate screening, and often to turn them on. But when I passed through London Heathrow outbound in June, there was a sign up saying that this was no longer required. A miraculous new development in screening technology? Or just a decision that it was slowing the queues too much?

Security Overkill. As I've mentioned once before, on my last two Melbourne-London flights transiting in Singapore, we were required to take all cabin luggage off the aircraft and have it re-screened before reboarding, even though it had all been screened in Melbourne and we weren't changing planes. Very unnecessary, and tough on the Changi Airport shops - with eight kilos of cabin luggage to lug around, most passengers just walked straight from the aircraft into the departure lounge to wait for reboarding.

Crazy Sequencing. On a recent flight from the regional city of Wollongong to Melbourne, we went through the metal detector after the plane had landed in Melbourne. By which point a suicide bomber could have already blown up the aircraft. Cheap and convenient for an airline operating infrequent flights from a small airport, but surely security is either applied properly, or not at all?

Part of the problem is the difficulty of getting rid of excessive security measures at a later date, as no one wants to make such a decision and them be proven wrong. What I'd like to see is a clear sunset clause to new security measures, having them last a set number of years, at which point they lapse unless their necessity is reexamined and proven.

Have any inconsistent security stories of your own? Do share...

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Passage to Sunshine

It has to be admitted - international travel gets all the sexy press. When it comes to leaving home, it seems, 'more distant' = 'more exotic'.

It's not strictly true, of course; there are many highly exotic and sensually vibrant countries located between myself and the English-speaking nations of the northern hemisphere. Some of them, like Indonesia, are on Australia's relative doorstep. But there is a tendency toward assuming that domestic is duller.

But on the weekend just past, I was reminded how you don't always have to travel far to encounter the exotic.

We'd agreed to meet our Sudanese-Australian friends Anas and Inas at a new Sudanese restaurant in Footscray, an inner-city district to the west. For some reason people always think Footscray is further away from the city centre than it actually is, but it only takes a few minutes to get there by train.

As we walked through the streets in the commercial centre there, I was struck by what an stimulating place Footscray is. Traditionally a working class area giving access to industrial jobs, for decades it's also been a thriving hub for refugees and other migrants, a place for newcomers to get their bearings and start out with a bit of support from earlier arrivals.

The result has been a startling diverse area; we walked past a dazzling array of shops selling goods from other countries. A street of Vietnamese restaurants and other businesses gave way to a street of African cafes and shops, a magnet for the many African migrants Australia has accepted since the 1990s.

The restaurant, El Khartoum Centre (145 Nicholson St) looked just like any eatery we'd been to when we lived in the Middle East, with fairly basic decor featuring simple furniture with the tables covered in plastic sheeting.

We ordered Sudanese-style coffee from the waiter, talked with him a bit about Cairo, where it turned out we'd both lived, and waited for our friends. The food, ordered from a wall menu of ten or so dishes, proved tasty and intriguing. It had much in common with the Mediterranean cuisine we were familiar with, but also many differences, including a greater use of both chili and peanuts.

After lunch, we checked out the shops, including an jewellery place where the owner sells attractive African-inspired pieces made on the premises. Then I found some of my favourite ajvar (a spicy Croatian vegetable spread) in the Footscray Markets. That's always a good day - it can be hard to locate.

Just standing for a moment in the pedestrian mall, watching people from across the world bustling between the diverse shops, reminded me that you don't always have to cover long distances to feel like you're travelling.

And in honour of that sentiment, here's a video my brother John Richards and I created a few months ago, as a try-out for a TV travel show. Melbourne's most famous suburbs may be Melbourne City (museums, bars, shopping), St Kilda (beaches, live music, dining) and Fitzroy (coffee, retro decor, funky fashion) - but today I'd like to welcome you to Sunshine!

Monday, 1 September 2008

Intrepid is My Middle Name

Last Thursday I delivered another of my travel writing talks. This one was at the public library in Sunbury, a commuter town just outside Melbourne, Australia.

In my address, I talked about how the things that go wrong when travelling often make great travel writing material, finding their way into my published work.

There were over 40 people at the event, with lots of questions afterward, which gave me the chance to digress into other areas involving travel (just don't get me started on light packing, we'll be there all night!).

Some questions were related to writing, others to practical travel matters. Then one woman asked if I felt safe when travelling alone.

I didn't really know what to say. I nearly always feel safe; which is to say, I don't find myself thinking consciously about personal security very often.

My first instinct was to quote The Doctor's line: "Just walk about like you own the place. Works for me." And this led to a good discussion with another audience member about how showing confidence and purpose when walking through a foreign location is a sensible approach.

I also commented that I do have a 'train station protocol' when travelling overseas, in that I put my wallet in an inside pocket and make sure bags are all zipped and locked when I'm going to be hanging around a train or bus station. Just makes sense to not tempt thieves.

But as far as my personal security, I don't feel threatened very often. That's partly, I suppose, because I'm a big bearded male, and partly because of the 'own the place' approach. But frankly, I don't consider it much, and my sense of curiosity is too strong to stop me wandering wherever I feel like.

Does that make me intrepid or reckless? I have a feeling that these are mutually exclusive concepts, the correct one being identified by subsequent events. If you come back from the seedy part of town with nothing bad having happened, you've been intrepid. If you come back having been mugged and beaten, you were reckless.

So I went to laugh off the questioner's concern for my safety as a lone traveller, when I remembered a scary bus trip in Poland in March 2006. This was an occasion when I did feel a tad worried and the adrenaline was flowing.

I'd departed the city of Przemyśl in the country's southeast, on a bus across the mountains to the town of Sanok. Winter had been long and cold and showed no sign of concluding early, so the slopes and peaks on the way were covered with snow. It was a beautiful sight - what glimpses I had of it - though I was more focused on two of my fellow passengers.

It was the beer-drinking tough guy who spoke to me first, and it didn't take long for him to realise I didn't speak much Polish. Then his friend, calmer and sober, chipped in with a bit of English. It turned out he was accompanying his friend home to Sanok, as he'd just been released from prison. While we chatted about music, the ex-con kept drinking beer and occasionally wandered up the front to be obnoxious to the driver.

Then at one point the ex-con decided I should buy him beer (piwo in Polish).I wasn't sure when this was supposed to happen - presumably at one of the small villages we were stopping at along the way - but it sounded like a bad idea. So he kept demanding beer, and I kept saying "Dlaczego?" (Why?). Then he casually threatened violence, but his friend said not to worry about it, as he wasn't serious.

Nonetheless. When the bus pulled into Sanok bus station, just on sunset, I zipped through the terminal building, then crossed a pedestrian bridge to the train station while my new friends were probably still assembling their luggage.

Probably not the brightest move, in retrospect, as there are very few trains from Sanok, and the train station was dark and deserted. But at least I could walk into town from there, without being seen from the bus station. I never did see the duo again.

So I don't know what I learned from that incident. Catching a bus couldn't be seen as reckless; and not buying him beer might have been reckless, but not as much as actually buying him beer, in my judgement.

If you worried about everything that might go wrong when travelling, you'd never leave home. Your personal security, to be honest, depends on a mix of commonsense precautions and just plain chance. But that applies to life in general, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Coffee, Tea or Fee, Sir?

The hills are alive this week to the sound of airlines charging fees for things that were previously part of the fare.

The New York Times outlined the breathtaking range of fees charged by US carriers in an article entitled At Least the Airsickness Bags Are Free, including charges for coffee, blankets and pillows.

Not that Australian airlines have been slow to charge their own fees for an increasing number of services. Just this week, Virgin Blue announced that checking a bag into the hold would cost an extra $8 when arranged online, rising to $20 at the airport.

It reminds me that there are two types of fees that organisations charge: straightforward fees intended to make a profit, and punitive fees which are intended to dissuade customers from taking a certain course of action. The first type the company wants many people to choose, the second seeks to save the company from spending money on something it'd rather not offer.

And this is where it gets confusing. It seems obvious that a profit-making fee should
roughly reflect the cost of the service provided, with a reasonable profit margin. On the other hand, a "dissuading fee" should obviously be prohibitively high.

But when does one type become the other? Banks in Australia have recently come under fire for their high fees for dishonoured cheques, overdrawn accounts, etc. You can imagine that these fees started out as a deliberate deterrent, but have since morphed into a tidy little profit-maker.

But back to the airlines. The NY Times notes with some surprise how accepting passengers have been of the new charges; there have been no consumer revolts in the air. They attribute it in part to people having little alternative. But I think it's something different: that most of these fees (so far) are for optional services.

After all, on a short-haul flight there's no need for food and drink (and it's airline food, people!), and there's the possibility of taking your own. You can live without a pillow or blanket, can read a book instead of paying for a film, and survive with unreserved seating rather than paying for the use of a particular seat. You can even stick to cabin luggage, if you master my mystical "rule of three"!

As long as you can theoretically avoid the fee, you don't mind it so much. You might even happily pay it, knowing that you had the choice to decline it. And with aviation fuel being so expensive, it seems fair that people stowing more luggage on the plane should pay more than those who don't.

So that's all good... so far. But how far will the airlines go? What remaining services will they decide to slap a charge on? Glance over the upcoming fee schedule of Air Profiteer...
  1. Advantageous Gate Fee. This adds a bit of breathless anticipation to the flying experience, much like that of a blind date. Customers pay this fee in the hope of getting a closer departure gate than 29D (maybe even the mythical Gate 1). At midnight the evening before the flight, the planes are allocated gates from 1 onwards, depending on what proportion of passengers paid the fee.
  2. Oxygen Mask Fee. For this fee, the customer receives a stainless steel face mask with a velvet rim in the event of an emergency, and a higher percentage of oxygen (other passengers receive more complimentary nitrogen).
  3. Special Edition Safety Video Fee. The customer views a special version of the safety video, featuring Brad Pitt as the man in the suit, Angelina Jolie as the woman clutching a baby and Sarah Michelle Gellar as the woefully-miscast Japanese horror film extra. With a special guest appearance by Angela Lansbury as the seatbelt fastener.
  4. Premium Peanut Fee. Passengers paying this surcharge receive a bag of peanuts which can be opened without the contents showering over the remainder of the cabin. Specially designed by NASA.
  5. Tedious Commentary Avoidance Fee. This charge exempts the passenger from having to listen to the captain's inane commentary about flight direction, flight duration, and the time at the destination. Instead, soothing Vivaldi is played through the headphones.
  6. Call Button Answer Fee. For this fee, a flight attendant will actually respond to the customer's call button when operated.
  7. Express Loo Fee. Passengers paying this fee will be given access to a special toilet which dumps fellow passengers into the stratosphere if they take longer than 10 minutes.
  8. Meaningful Security Fee. The passenger gets to bypass the most meaningless security measures enacted after 2001 by governments that wanted to show they were Doing Something. Toothpaste tubes and nail scissors are back on the menu!
  9. Rigid Seat Back Fee. For this fee, the seat back of the passenger in front of the paying customer is locked into the upright position for the duration of the flight.
  10. Edible Meal Fee. The passenger is served an edible meal. No, really.
Now why am I suddenly worried that the airlines will take this list seriously?

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Let the Post-Games Slump Begin

According to a story in eTurboNews this week, a new report has revealed that hosting the Olympics is not a surefire way to increase your tourist inflow. Rather the opposite.

Counter-intuitively, it appears that holding the Games actually acts as a negative, depressing the number of tourist arrivals from up to two years before the event, to two years after. Apparently the effect has been observed for every Games back to Barcelona in 1992.

The theory is that regular travellers stay well away from the host city for the entire run-up and the event itself, assuming (perhaps rightly) that the city will be in construction chaos and overpriced. It seems, too, that the aversion effect lingers for some time before the tourist masses feel it's safe to go there again.

This news made me curious about the Olympics before 1992; did the tourist interruptus effect happen then as well? Did the Nazi tourism minister curse the economic drop-off at Berlin in 1936? Did the tour operators of Antwerp in 1932, or St Louis in 1904, complain about the lack of punters?

And what about even further back? For the answer, let's cross to our commentators in Olympia, Greece, circa AD 393...

Sofia: "... so that's one embarrassed Senator who'll be careful not to worship both Dionysus and Aphrodite at the same time in future! Over to you, Yianni."

Yianni: "Thanks Sofia. In local news, there's been a big reaction to the Emperor Theodosius' decision to abolish the Olympic Games as of this year. The Emperor's spokesmen are claiming the decision was made for religious reasons, but some are saying there was another agenda at work."

Sofia: "That's right, Yianni. Apparently a recent report commissioned by the Olympia agora discovered that the Games have an adverse impact on the local economy, driving up prices and keeping visitors away for the rest of the year. Unidentified senior Senators say that local donors to the Emperor's military campaign funds applied pressure at the top."

Yianni: "And they now feel the way is clear for the development of Olympia as a tourist destination with a broader appeal. Outspoken businessman Dimitri Stathopoulos has, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, announced the development of a major theme park, Olympus World, which will feature rides and other amusements based on the mythology of the now-banished pantheon of gods. Detractors have pointed to his majority ownership of accommodation in the area, and his prominent role on the local council."

Sofia: "Mmmm. When we caught up with Mr Stathoploulos today, he had this to say: 'It's time for Olympia to catch up with the rest of the known world, and I'll bet my bottom denarius the place will be a thriving success long after the Olympics are forgotten. May God lay Olympia low with an earthquake if it isn't so.'"

Yianni: "Well, time will tell, Sofia. In other news, the annual fashion show in Mediolanum opened last night, and the fashionistas are saying that this year, barbarian chic is in..."

Back to the 21st century studio...

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Happy Coconut Day!

I've been celebrating Coconut Day today. In the midst of cold, dark mid-winter Melbourne, you might think there were few coconuts to be spotted. And you'd be right.

But there are plenty of them hanging off palm trees in the Solomon Islands, and a delegation from that Pacific nation was keen to draw the attention of Australia's travel writers to them today.

Once a month the Melbourne members of the Australian Society of Travel Writers meet over lunch to hear the latest developments in the world of travel, and to network just a little.

This month's shebang was amid the grandeur of the Victorian Parliament, in the sinisterly named 'Room K' (is that like 'Room 101'?).

I realised I only knew a few random things about the Melanesian nation: the capital was Honiara, they'd had some civil conflict in recent years, and there was a big battle there in World War II. So I, like many in the room, was a fairly empty vessel into which info about the islands could be poured.

Turns out the Solomons are an interesting place, with some fascinating remnants of war history (including all manner of abandoned military vessels to be snorkelled through or marvelled at in museum compounds, according to the writer next to me). It also, of course, has the scenic beauty you associate with Pacific islands.

In conversation, some were quick to mention that the tourism infrastructure was still in development, and the resorts etc were small and simple - not big and flash like those in Fiji. But as we all immediately realised, that could be a huge plus for many travellers.

Sometimes it's good to have the "tourism infrastructure" just high enough for comfort, but low enough to ensure a genuine experience of the place and its people. And if the Solomon Islanders were anything like their Fijian cousins, they'd be pretty relaxed and friendly.

The slideshow certainly made it look attractive. And I liked their slogan, "Discover Somewhere Different". Straightforward, unpretentious, honest. I'll have to get there sometime. If you'd like a peek at what's on offer, here's a link to the Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau's official website.

Coconut Day, by the way, was created to honour that versatile fruit, every part of which is customarily used by the islanders for some useful purpose.

And there's a great story we were told involving the Solomon Islands, a coconut and JFK; but I'll leave it to you to Google that one...

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Fly the Low-Cost Skies (While You Can)

Some interesting rumbles emanating from the UK this week, as budget airline Ryanair faces its first loss in quite a while, according to this report in The Guardian.

For those who aren't familiar with the dizzy world of el cheapo flights across Europe, Ryanair is in the vanguard of a slew of low-cost carriers who grab headlines by advertising flights for as little as one shiny British penny (yes, you read that correctly). The devil, of course, is in the detail: to get those fares, you have to book way ahead.

The carriers then load you up with as many extra charges as they can: a fee for priority boarding, a fee to check a bag into the hold, charges for all food and drink on board.

Sky Europe, a Slovak-owned carrier I travelled on from Poprad to London (Luton) this year, even charges you to select a specific seat, with the amount depending on how desirable it is. And of course, government taxes and charges have to go on top of all that.

I'm not complaining about any of this, mind you; it's easy enough to avoid most of these extras if you plan ahead and travel light. And I can confirm that the absurdly cheap fares do exist. Last year I flew from London (Stansted) to Szczecin, Poland for a 50 pence base fare; and I topped that this year by scoring a £0.01 fare from London (Stansted) to Kraków, Poland. To put things into perspective, by the time the various fees were added, the latter trip cost around $50 Australian. Still very cheap for a 2.5 hour flight.

But the unreality of all this makes you wonder if it isn't just a fevered dream that's finally coming to an end. In a 1960s Batman-esque series of blows, the likes of Ryanair are being hammered by high fuel prices (BAM!); inflation (POW!); falling consumer confidence (WHACK!); and environmental concerns (KAZOW!).

Add the fact that those exotic Eastern European countries aren't as cheap as they once were (I can testify to this re Poland), and the future might look bleak for airlines that rely on leisure travellers making casual, discretionary decisions to spend a weekend in somewhere like Bratislava.

And the "discretionary" part of that has me thinking. Many people might see, say, a late-model car as an essential item, and travel as a luxury. I think the opposite. I like my material comforts, sure, but I'd rather have less stuff and more travel any day.

So even if the days of the super-cheapie fare are numbered, I hope people keep travelling. If nothing else, it's good for our mental health to realise that it is possible to exist for a while without all the consumer goods we seem to "need" in the 21st century.

(And yes, I know there are environmental factors to consider; I'll talk more about these another day.)