Thursday, July 28, 2005

Hotel Chatter is a Hoot

Victoria's Secret China

I agree with you. Most, nearly all, travel websites having to do with airline reservations or hotel bookings are boring, boring, boring. Seems like the authors of these sites have had their brains removed and pickled in brine. Where is the humor guys? How can you possibly get serious about something as functional and mudane as hotel reservations or airline bookings?

But then a few weirdos sneak into the corporate pack and somehow both inform and entertain their readers. Hotel Chatter is one of them. A rather mundane title, but the somewhat deranged folks (Mark!) who pen this site have their priorities straight: entertain first, sell later. Anyone who quotes both Defamer and Page Six in the same story is OK with me. Good work. Look at their post today:

More from the Roosevelt Hotel Tropicana
Courtesy of Page Six via Defamer:

On Friday, Willis was at a cabana in the Tropicana at the Roosevelt Hotel in L.A. with 20 pals when the subject turned to pickup lines. Willis looked at a woman, a sophomore in college, and said, "What are your plans for sex tonight?" But Willis' lawyer, Marty Singer, said, "Bruce was joking around with some friends and talking about pickup lines. One remembered an old pickup line [Willis] used to use. The friend said the line and Bruce may have repeated it, but he was not trying to pick up the woman." Still, the woman was "grossed out" and left the cabana.

We love how Bruce can't even drop a lame-ass pick up line without his lawyer in tote to clear the air. Nice move old man.

Hotel Chatter is a Hoot

Do see today's post about a place in New Zealand where you can sleep in either an airplane or a cave. Brilliant.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

World Hum Updated Website

Trivandrum by Carl Parkes

WorldHum is one of the better travel websites on the net, due to the hard work of Jim Benning and his co-conspirator Mike who have been producing and publishing the best travelogues for almost 5 years -- ancient in contemporary internet terms. And after years of struggling under an outdated website model, they have dumped the old model and gone modern with a new look and added features. RSS! Wow! Search! Wow!

All this is good news, plus they have enticed major travel writers to their fold, such as Rolfie and others to pen special sidebars. The new format is way, way better than their old layout that left the monthly feature dead center and pretty much killed the energy. Now it's divided into three parts. On the left is a monthly update with stuff from all your old friends, including Rolf and other guys about responsible travel and the plight of elephants, not to mention book reviews.

The middle section on the revised blog will certainly be the most interesting and the most challenging for Jim and Crew, since they are going to try and maintain a daily blog with news about travel and the travel writing industry. Good luck, guys. This is a difficult endeavor and the pay is pretty low when calculated on a per-hour basis. I was going to say shit, but changed my mind. Nobody sticks to a volunteer program with no rewards. Doesn't happen. But then perhaps Jim and company can figure out a solution. I certainly can't.

Finally, the right column is the advertising page, where the hopes and dreams of Jim and Friends will ultimately lie. Will they make enough money to keep them inspired and keep them updating this website? God knows. They now have the enthusiasm and energy to crank out great stories and great links for perhaps the next 6 months, but after that, anyone's guess. In the meantime, it's a wonderful event and everyone should be checking World Hum for insight, humor, and revelations.

World Hum version 2.0 has launched, and if you haven't taken a look in a few days, we've just posted several new stories.

First, the new design: As many of you know, we started the site in May 2001 with four stories, no photos and no long-term plan beyond publishing travel narratives that we liked. In the last four years the site has grown tremendously, but its antiquated design and mechanics were hindering its growth -- we couldn't even manage our growing list of newsletter subscribers. World Hum needed a makeover.

With the redesign, we've combined the best of the old site with a host of new features. The dispatches, interviews and weblog that have long been the heart and soul of the site remain. To these, we've added five new sections: Ask Rolf, Books, Speaker's Corner, How To and Greetings From.

Some familiar names will pop up more often. We can't do this alone, so we've asked a few of our favorite writers to become contributing editors.

Here's a rundown of the new features as well as the latest stories:


Just posted: Porter Shreve, whose novel "The Obituary Writer" was a New York Times Notable Book, evokes a harrowing bus journey in the Middle East. Previously, Jason Wilson, series editor of "The Best American Travel Writing" anthologies, whistled at the aurora borealis in Iceland.


The latest: An interview with Joel Henry, the dean of "Experimental Travel." Previously, Andrew Steves, son of travel writer Rick Steves, fielded questions before embarking on his first solo trip to Europe.

Ask Rolf

Vagabond travel writer Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel, doling out hard-won wisdom from more than a decade on the road in Asia and beyond. Potts is a former travel columnist who wrote, "Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel."


Travel books don't get enough press, so we've created the Books section to feature original reviews and other book-related features. Frank Bures, whose World Hum story, "Test Day," was featured in "The Best American Travel Writing 2004," will oversee the section. In the first installment, he reviews Emma Larkin's "Finding George Orwell in Burma." Coming soon: a look at Paul Theroux's new novel.

Speaker's Corner

Speaker's Corner gives writers a chance to rant or rave about a topic close to their hearts. Just posted: Michael Yessis celebrates the 25th anniversary of the classic travel film, "Airplane!" In the first installment, travel writer and Ethical Traveler Executive Director Jeff Greenwald lamented what has become of Burma, the Southeast Asian nation Western adventurers once dubbed the "Golden Land."

How To

Learn how to dive deep into another culture. Just posted: Contributing editor Terry Ward, whose travel stories have appeared in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times Magazine, explains just how to clean up at a Moroccan hammam. Last time, she parsed the subtleties of kissing hello in France -- not an easy feat.

Greetings From

Postcards and hand-written letters home have given way in the Internet Age to mass e-mails. The best of them convey powerful raw emotion and vivid impressions. In Greetings From, we'll feature some of the most compelling e-mails in their original uncensored form. Now up: a letter from London, pounded out shortly after the recent bombings.

In addition, we've brought World Hum's electronic guts into the 21st century. You'll find a search engine, a feature some of you have been requesting for years; RSS Feed; weblog categories for special interests; and the World Hum Store, where you can find books written and edited by World Hum contributors.

To those of you who helped make this possible with your financial contributions to the site, thank you once again for your support. It has meant a lot to us.

Finally, we're accepting advertisements for the first time. We want to build World Hum into a site that can survive for years to come. Please support the sponsors. They're helping to support us.

We hope you like the new site. Please drop us a note and let us know what you think.

The world is humming. Are you listening?

The Editors,
Jim and Mike


Saturday, July 23, 2005

Another Travel Writers Resource

Underemployed Travel Writer and Trained Cat

DMOZ is another one of those contributor-based websites sort of like Wikipedia, but really not in the same league. Their site on travel writing apparently hasn't been updated in ages, and many of the 19 listings are self serving promotions for writers who either write books for prospective travel writers or provide seminars for the same. Proceed with caution.

A few lines of the main page, then the link:

00AandEsTravelWriter - How to make a living as a travel writer. Writing discussions and tips. Finding markets that pay. Small email list.

Adventure Travel Writer - Editorial advice and how to break into travel writing. Learn about the travel writer's lifestyle.

Australian Society of Travel Writers - Information and member details of the Australian Society of Travel Writers

Freelance Travel Writing - Learn how to create compelling travel writing features. Free newsletter with tips and travel markets.

Media Kitty - Online information exchange uniting top working journalists and PR professionals in travel and tourism worldwide.

Offbeatrips - Online freelance travel writing course providing tuition in key aspects of freelance travel journalism, encompassing writing, photography, sponsorship and marketing. Australia.

Philip Greenspun's Travel Writing Career - "How I got started as a Travel Writer", article by Philip Greenspun.

Restless Me Forum - An online forum for travelers and travel writers.

Travel Info Exchange - All about travel information: how to get it, judge its quality, price it, write it, picture it, design it, update it, and communicate it to travelers. How to write a travel guide, resources and an email discussion.

Travel Media Association of Canada - A professional, membership-based, non-profit organization of travel writers, broadcasters and industry personnel.

Travel Writing for Fun and Profit - Travel Writing for Fun and Profit, an article by Phil Philcox.

Travel Writing Tips - Freelance travel writer Flo Conner provides step-by-step tips and articles to turn your 'Treks into Checks'.

Travellady Magazine - "Everything you Ever Wanted to Know about Travel Writing" article by Madelyn Miller.

Travelwriter Marketletter - Monthly newsletter for those in the competitive field of travel writing

DMOZ Open Directory Project on Travel Writing

Friday, July 22, 2005

Transitions Abroad Travel Writing Site

Papua New Guinea by Carl Parkes

I've been searching out travel writing websites and blogs for over a decade, and have witnessed dozens of decent efforts to help out prospective travel writers possibly make a living in this perilous craft. I'm not just talking about general writing sites, but those specifically oriented to the craft of travel writing. The results have not been very pretty, to tell the truth. Too much of a scattershot approach or, quite often, an obvious conflict of interest where the author of the travel writing website or blog is also in the business of promoting their books or lectures about the profession. And the whole industry is surprisingly incestuous.

A few days ago, Tim Leffel launched a travel writers resource website for Transitions Abroad that finally puts together nearly every possible helpful angle any travel writer could hope for, and provides enough links to keep everyone busy for months and months. This website is a work of art, and all it needs now is an ongoing blog to keep everyone coming back on a daily basis.


P.S. And did I mention that Transitions Abroad is the world's most useful publication for world travelers, volunteers, and anyone who wishes to work overseas?

Transitions Abroad Travel Writers Website

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Eugene Fodor -- C.I.A. Spook?

Concorde Final Flight

There has long been a rumor that guidebook publisher Eugene Fodor worked for the C.I.A. as an undercover spook, and that his early series of guidebooks to Europe were actually used by other agents are covers for information collection. While the whole idea sounds absurd to me, Gridskipper recently picked up the thread with some new observations. I'll post the short article below, but you'll need to visit the website to click the active links, some of which are very intriguing.

The Fodor Supremacy

Everyone’s familiar with the legendary Fodor’s travel guides. Founder Eugene Fodor, who died in 1991, published his first guidebook (1936 … On the Continent) just in time for a healthy increase in war-related European travel. He was also dogged by a rather weird accusation: that he worked for the CIA. As indicated by this clipping from Fodor’s obituary in the New York Times, the dirt apparently originated with Watergate scoundrel E. Howard Hunt.

Though it seems unlikely that Fodor himself worked directly for the CIA, he was very well educated, spoke five languages, and had served five years in the U.S. Army’s intelligence branch. The undenied possibility that CIA agents abroad pretended to be guidebook researchers seems pretty plausible. Of course, how do you explain that none other than E. Howard Hunt wrote guidebooks to Cozumel and Guadalajara and other exotic destinations! Oh wait, those are spy novels. Or are they? Also consider this pivotal document signaling the souring of Fodor’s-CIA relations as late as 2004. Someone’s off the reservation, if you know what I mean.

About Us [Fodor’s]
E. Howard Hunt [Wikipedia]
CIA or State: Whose Advice Most Up to Date? [Fodor’s

Gridskipper on the Fodor Conspiracy

Ditch the Guidebook?

Some Cats Need Guidebooks

The Australian recently published a somewhat interesting and thought provoking article about the merits of taking a guidebook along with you on your next vacation. One author argues that your journey will be far more rewarding and adventurous without a guidebook, while publisher Tony Wheeler counters that guidebooks are, in most cases, an essential tool for all travelers.

I'd split this argument down the middle. Very few travelers would even consider a long journey across Indonesia or even a more accessible country such as Thailand without the aid of a guidebook. The countries are just too damn complicated for first-time travelers. However, if you've previously made an extended trip around Southeast Asia, and are in a more adventurous mood, then travel with a guidebook will almost certainly provide more adventure and unique experiences than yet again relying on the advice from guidebook writers.

Readers of the pack

Franz Wisner says guidebooks are no longer necessary. Lonely Planet's Tony Wheeler begs to differ

The Australian
July 09, 2005

GO ahead. Do it. I know the thought has crossed your mind ... probably the last time you walked into a tourist trap packed with fellow travellers holding the same copy of Fodor's or Lonely Planet.

Throw the guidebooks away. Or burn them in protest. Either way, your trips will improve dramatically. Think about it. When tourists come to Orange County, California, the guidebooks point them in the direction of Disneyland or the Newport Peninsula. Is this the best they have to offer? Do those places truly reflect Orange County today?

On the other hand, if the tourists spent a couple of minutes talking to Orange County residents, they'd learn about, say, a desolate beach in Laguna, a wonderful Mexican restaurant in Santa Ana or a pristine wilderness trail.

Still not convinced? Here are some more reasons. The whole concept of an up-to-date guidebook is impossible. Look at the date on yours. If you're lucky, it is only a year or two old. Or is it? Find a 10-year-old copy and you'll probably conclude the book hasn't been rewritten, just edited, tweaked and spruced up with fancy new photos.

How many people work for a guidebook? One hundred? Two hundred? Even if the number were 100,000, it wouldn't be adequate to scour every neighbourhood for the latest and greatest information. For example, I went to Rio and heard about a nightclub jammed with dance-crazy Brazilians. I saw no tourists the entire night. On a return trip, I saw no people the entire night. The Rio revellers had moved to another venue after declaring that one passe.

Of course none of this information was in the guidebooks. The only restaurants, clubs and bars they promote are the ones that have been around for years, the same types of establishments we avoid at home.

How about basic information concerning an area's main sights? The books do better here, I'll admit. The best ones throw in a decent history lesson or two along with detailed maps.

Still, they often miss things such as holiday schedules, hours that have been adjusted, discount days or the best times to view the must-see spots. Besides, all this information can be easily obtained with a quick stop at an information centre or through a chat with a concierge.

Another reason to ditch the guidebooks is the practice of paying for print. Though the reputable publishers prohibit payola practices, hotel, tour and restaurant owners across the world brag about buying favourable mentions.

In Vietnam, a cafe owner told me he sent money every year to a writer so his establishment would remain in a guidebook. He was angry with his cheap neighbour for refusing the bribe yet tacking up a sign that trumpeted a recommendation.

Think about having to get all your news from books, everything from weather reports to stock prices to headlines to sports scores. Impossible, right? Yet this is precisely the rationale of travellers who cling to guidebooks as their sole source of information.

Are you wavering yet? Here's what will happen if you do leave the guidebooks at home.

You'll talk to more people, many of them offering rides, meals or personal escorts in addition to recommendations. You'll feel as if you're experiencing something authentic as opposed to being led through another tourist trap. You'll travel far more spontaneously, taking advantage of gifts and opportunities when they arise. You'll realise you don't need to see everything on a trip. The churches and museums will still be there the next time. You'll probably make more friends with whom you'll stay in contact long after the journey is over. You'll feel like you know a location far better than you did with guidebook-dominated travel.

There are whole industries that exist solely by convincing travellers they cannot leave their homes without certain essential services: travel clothes, travel insurance, even travel agents in the age of the internet. The truth is you don't need any of them.

"I ALWAYS use your books," the letter said. "I take your list of hotels and when I arrive in town those are the places where I definitely don't stay. I don't want to bed down in a place where the only people I meet are fellow travellers. I never eat in a restaurant you recommend either. I certainly don't want to eat in a place where there's not a local in sight."

Well, that's an imaginative use of our Lonely Planet guidebooks, I thought. I could approve of that.

The cold reality is that many guidebook users rely on them far too much. For a spell we even put a warning in the front of our books: "This is not an instruction manual. Your warranty will not be voided if you decide to find your own restaurant; this is a guidebook, not a blueprint."

I'm in complete agreement with Franz Wisner that talking to the locals, putting an ear to the ground and wetting a finger to feel the breeze will all improve your trip. The best experiences on any visit are always the unexpected ones, the surprises that underline what travel is all about.

Many of those experiences are strictly ephemeral. Today's hot club is precisely that: hot today, gone tomorrow, and there's no way we're going to pretend that our guidebook can predict what will be the placewith the longest line-up at midnight this weekend.

But would I leave my guidebook behind when I'm travelling? Absolutely not. This week's cutting-edge nightclub may be worth chasing but there's usually a good reason a particular restaurant or bar has been around for years. It has become a long-term survivor because it does the job, it keeps the customers satisfied, it's reliable and honest. If we really avoided those places at home, they wouldn't stay in business. When we're in the mood for familiarity we'll go to the solid, time-worn place in our home town just as readily as on our travels.

Ditto for 10-year-old (or 1000-year-old) tourist attractions. We don't need to rewrite the history of the Taj Mahal with every edition of our India guidebook; we may worry a bit more about what pollution is doing to the marble, but essentially it's the same marvel it's always been and I'll still go back there every time I'm in Agra.

I'm happy to make repeat pilgrimages to the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower and a hundred other famous landmarks as well. I certainly don't want to miss the local tourist draw just because it's such a familiar part of the scenery that the locals don't even notice it any more.

As for places paying to get into our books, if we find a writer has been bribed, you can immediately add "ex" before the words "Lonely Planet writer". On the other hand, I'm not at all surprised that it was in Vietnam where Wisner encountered a cafe owner who had paid for a favourable mention. A few years ago in Vietnam, we discovered a cunning local had been following our writer around and dropping off an invoice at every establishment our researcher visited.

I don't like to point fingers but such sneaky deals are par for the course in the Vietnam tourist business.

Even the Government can't be trusted. A couple of editions earlier the Vietnamese Government had deported our writer, then set the presses rolling to print a pirated version of our guidebook, so this new variety of local enterprise is hardly surprising.

So experiment, go beyond your guidebook's limitations, but remember you can get bum advice from almost anywhere. The next time you arrive at a strange airport and that friendly taxi driver says, "Oh, I'm a local. Nobody uses the meter here. That's what everybody pays to get into town," don't complain to me if you've left your guidebook behind.

Franz Wisner's essay is an edited extract from his new book, Honeymoon with my Brother (Random House Australia, $32.95;

The Australian

Monday, July 11, 2005

Travel Writers and Subsidized Press Trips

Kalimantan by Carl Parkes

Here we go again, folks. Yet another self righteous and santimoneus article about the evils of travel writers accepting free or subsidized press trips. The author just can't seem to make up his mind about this common practice. Yes, large and wealthy publications such as The New York Times and Conde Nast Traveler can afford to pick up the costs of these trips, but very few small to medium newspapers or magazines can possible afford this luxury.

And freelance travel writers can rarely, rarely afford to actually pay full fare for press trips. The industry is dying (freelance travel writing) and if freelancers were required to pay for all expenses, that would be the death call. Anyway, do music reviewers pay for all their CDs? What about movie reviewers? Don't they have press previews for these people, or do they need to dig down into their pockets for $10? I doubt it. And they guy who does car reviews? And travel writers at big publishing houses? Has anyone heard about "press rates?"

Writers, Like Public Officials, Love Those Free Junkets
Public relations operatives for some vacation spots know that budget-crunched editors sometimes wink at the legal corruption. Editors hope their readers aren't angry after visiting so-so resorts praised by the travel writer.

Editor and Publisher
By Allan Wolper
July 07, 2005

This is a trip through what some cynics call the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" travel sections of newspapers, in which writers regale readers with tales paid for by the resorts they are covering. When politicians go on junkets to a tropical isle as guests of the corporations they're supposed to be monitoring, newspapers hound them with headlines charging them with selling out to special interests.

When a writer takes a free trip, his patron often gets the kind of positive coverage that's hard to buy even in a full-page ad. Hotels and cruise ships use this flattering copy in ads that run after the sub-sidized story is published.

This is hardly the way to win credibility. With travel costs rising almost as fast as real estate prices, newspapers owe their readers an independent appraisal of vacation spots. Some newspapers, sensitive to ethics violations in recent years, have instituted policies that forbid travel writers from accepting press or sponsored trips.

While editors can control the behavior of the full-time staff writers, it is difficult to catch the junketeering freelancers who dominate the newspaper travel sections at small and mid-sized dailies. Public relations operatives for some vacation spots know that budget-crunched travel editors wink at this legal corruption. Then they hope their readers aren't abused in some way while visiting the resorts praised by the travel writer.

"Our relationship with travel writers is like dealing with sausage," says Andrea Zani, travel editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. "We don't know how the trips are put together. We know they go on press tours. We just hope we get a good story [out of] it."

That sausage process is exacerbated by the paltry fees newspapers pay their freelance travel writers — checks that sometimes don't even cover their airfare.

"The basic economics of travel writing where a writer takes a $5,000 trip and gets just $500 for it is ridiculous," says Catharine Hamm, travel editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Hamm's fees don't fit the bill, either. She pays $500 for a piece, $800 if it is a cover story. "Unless that person sells that story 10 or 15 times, he can't break even," said Hamm, noting that she allows her writers to resell their pieces. The L.A. Times freelance contract forbids writers from accepting any partial or full freebies, but the newspaper has a list of some three dozen people they caught doing just that.

When Hamm became travel editor in November 2003, she shut down a column that had run for 15 years called "Cruise Views" by the late Shirley Slater and her husband, Harry Basch. "It was about ethics," Hamm said.

No wonder: All the expenses for the traveling duo were covered by the ships on which they sailed. The paper disclosed the arrangement at the bottom of each column, but sticking a tag at the end of a story is nothing more than a plea bargain. It's saying, "we're on the take, but we're being up front about it."

It also skirts one of the most important rules of honest travel writing: going to a resort anonymously to experience the same conditions as an ordinary vacationer. Some papers don't understand that. New York's Daily News, claiming it was reforming its travel section, recently announced it will now let its readers know when the paper accepts a free trip. Until last month, it simply took them and didn't tell anyone.

Read the Rest

Friday, July 8, 2005

Modern Travel Writing

Surfing Dolphins

In Search of Wonders: the elusive art of the modern day travel writer

Take a deep breath, I tell myself. Be calm. Don't fret, just 'let the phenomena occur'. For a month now I've been pacing the floor, lying under my desk, trying to decide what book to write next. I'm juggling countries and ideas; Peru or Portugal, healing or hedonism, love story or road romp. My editor says that Latin America doesn't sell. A friend at the BBC predicts that Armenia will be in the news next year. 'You MUST go to Newfoundland,' insists a retired fishing net salesman I meet on a train. I lose sleep. Drink too much. Go on the wagon. California replaces Peru. I drop Portugal. I toy with notions of fantasy and ideal societies. I try to keep as many balls as possible in the air. I try to listen to myself.

This will be my seventh book. The first three were written from the heart; Stalin's Nose for my uncle, The Oatmeal Ark to understand my father and Under the Dragon for Burma. It may sound romantic, but it's the only way that I can motivate myself through two or three years' scribbling. Likewise my fifth book which I wrote to come to terms with the death of my mother. Falling for Icarus is at once a meditation on love and a portrait of a small Greek village. All my books interweave fact and fiction to reach – in a personal and individual way – for greater honesty.

So relax, I tell myself. This is how to begin. Be calm and juggle. All I need to do is pair emotion and curiosity, seize the skeleton of a plot, then settle on the country and let the journey propel me. Story first. Or character. Destination next. In that order. I travel in search of the story that I want to tell.

Time was that travel books were all about travelling. Travel writers embarked on valiant quests full of derring-do, paddling to the source of the Limpopo in search of original knowledge. Then the world shrunk. Day-trippers trampled the wilderness, pausing to picnic in Newby's Hindu Kush. In once-distant China the Great Leap Forward no longer describes Mao's economic programme, but rather the surge of tourists rushing to touch the Great Wall. Bruce Chatwin's isolated Patagonia is now a holiday home for George Soros and the Benettons. According to the Financial Times, 20% of 'wilderness' holidaymakers check their e-mail during a week away. Bhutan is on-line and TV travel programmes make the foreign familiar. So how does the modern travel writer return home with anything more original than an unusual intestinal parasite?

'Old travellers grumpily complain that travel is now dead,' writes Jonathan Raban, 'that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong. Lulled by familiar resemblances between all the unimportant things, they miss the brute differences in everything of importance.'

Today it is no longer enough to travel across a country, rather one must travel into it. Into its society. The travel writer becomes less a geographer of place, more of the human heart. The 'original knowledge' that he or she brings home is a collection of subjective impressions.

'Travel writing,' says Colin Thubron, 'is one culture reporting on another. Its history, more than most, betrays that objectivity is a chimera.' He adds that uniquely in literature, outside autobiography, the travel writer acknowledges his subjectivity. I revel in that partiality. It gives me the freedom to imagine. Once I manage to stop worrying.

So here I lie under my desk, juggling fancies, awaiting inspiration. Any time now the balls will fall into line and the sweeping arc of a rainbow will appear above Knighton Hill. Or it'll be lunch time. Some time soon story and destination will merge, I'll hop on a plane and go. I'll travel lightly, so as to be able to recognize things of value in the arbitrary. I'll not have many contacts, only one or two. Nor an itinerary which would disrupt the natural flow of the journey. A fixed itinerary, with a meeting in Bogota on Monday, and a second in Papayán on Thursday, hinders the evolution of a journey. It's not theory that drives me forward, but events, curiosity, intuition. My books come together when things don't go as I'd planned, or, at least, when I let accidents happen.

Which means, as I meet people, my story will change. I'll trust strangers, watch the sky, follow my nose and make a lot of notes. In eastern Europe I acquired a reputation for having a weak bladder. In the midst of heated conversations, my memory saturated, I'd charge off to the loo to scribble down their dialogue.

My journey will last about three months. Any longer and wide-eyed enthusiasm pales. Familiarity blunts attentiveness. Then, back home, I distil. I combine. I invent. The journey - and the people whose lives I've shared - anchors me. I lie on the floor again. I eat too many chocolate Hobnob cookies then swear off white sugar. 'The truth is not the facts,' according to Robert Altman. I try to create an honest composite of the actual encounters. The result is subjective, less documentary, but - I hope - more true.

Travel writers seek out wonders. That's our job. Always has been. Always will be. For me that wonder is in ordinary men and women who are separated by borders, politics, emigration, even time and death. Through my books I try to draw together their - and our - divided worlds. My objective is to enable a reader to understand a society and to empathise with its people through stories. To make a country and its history accessible.

Before the invention of photography, painters sought to make images that imitated the appearance of the world. Similarly before the globe was mapped, it was the responsibility of explorers and travellers to document facts. With the introduction of the camera, painting as a realistic form of expression fell from favour. In the same manner mass travel and television documentaries are now freeing the travel writer from the need to detail external realities. The duty of today's travel writer is to provide a new way of seeing and understanding the world. At least, that's how it seems to me from under my desk, still tossing around ideas and destinations. Fret. Juggle. Go


Advice for Prospective Travel Writers

Travel Writer with Machine Gun

Here's the basics for anyone who wishes to be a succesful travel writer.

Good travel writing is done by good writers who travel. It is not enough to have swum through piranha-infested waters to the source of the Amazon. You must be able to write well to convey that experience. When you have learned the craft of writing, you can make a stroll through your own suburban neighborhood seem interesting, even exciting. Good travel writing needs much the same ingredients as any good story -- narrative, drive, characters, dialogue, atmosphere, revelation. Make it personal. Let the reader know how the place and the experience are affecting you.

"Good travel writing is just good writing. It must have literary merit. The most important journey you will make as a travel writer is the journey of a good sentence. Without that, you close encounter with the piranhas is wasted.

"Bad travel writing is done by travelers, often good travelers, who mistakenly believe they can write. There seems to be an awful lot of them about. Their prose is littered with clichés, their sense of narrative timing is inept and their characters, whether themselves or people they encounter, are clumsily portrayed. Too many travel writers seem to believe that the journey 'makes' the story. It doesn't. In the end, anyone can travel to Timbuktu, but only a few people will write about the journey well."

--Stanley Stewart, in Don George's Travel Writing (2005)

Rolf Potts, Stanley Stewart, Don George

Thursday, July 7, 2005

The Demise of Rand McNally Bookstores

Thailand Handbook

Get Lost bookstore newsletter
July, 2005
A Tale of Two Closings

Rand McNally closed its San Francisco store last
week. The word is that they are closing all their
stores, and that the San Francisco location was
one of the last. On its website, Rand McNally
lists only one store, in Houston. Due to a number
of acquisitions, including Thomas Brothers maps,
Rand McNally controls a sizeable percentage of
the US cartography market. However, Rand McNally
filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 in February
2003. A private equity firm took a controlling
interest in the company. Stores began closing,
and the pickings in the remaining locations grew
slim. I’m guessing they will now concentrate on
cartography, especially considering how newer
companies like Mapquest are licensing their own
products to other map companies. (Check out the
United States road atlases of National
Geographic, Michelin and American Map and thank
Mapquest for the cartography.)

I must admit I didn’t feel all that disappointed
when Rand McNally closed. I did feel a sense of
loss, however, when Easy Going, a Berkeley travel
shop, closed earlier this year. Easy Going was a
real mom-and-pop store that will be sorely
missed. Even as its shelves began to thin, they
still continued to host excellent in-store
events. Members of the community briefly rallied
to raise money (or purchase shares, I am not
certain which) to prevent the closure. But, in
the end, it did close. Easy Going, like other
locally owned independent bookstores, took
chances on quirky titles. Like Get Lost, they
carried small or self-published presses,
sometimes on consignment.

On the subject of locally owned, Dan Houston, a
partner in Civic Economics, has done studies
showing that local merchants contribute more than
three times as much economic value back to the
community than do chain stores. (Read an
interview at:­k/relay.php?r=849243958&msgid=­708610&ac­094.html

or, read one of the reports at­k/relay.php?r=849243958&msgid=­708610&ac­Andersonville/AndersonvilleStu­dy.pdf

This contribution may well be augmented in the
case of locally owned bookstores, which are more
likely to support local or micro presses. Rand
McNally is headquartered in Skokie, Illinois. It
is hard to create a sense of community when
headquarters does your book buying. As I
understand it, the San Francisco store did manage
to carry the Rough Guides, an exception allowed
no other branch store.

When corporate headquarters doesn’t deem it necessary,
(that is,
profitable enough) to stock a quality series of
travel books like the Rough Guides, it probably
won’t carry wonderful, small presses like Garrett
County Press (out of New Orleans), Stone Bridge
Press (out of Berkeley), art-Sites Press (out of
San Francisco) Bored Feet Press (out of
Mendocino) or the self-published Time Off! The
Unemployed Guide to San Francisco, by two San
Francisco authors. I hope this hasn’t sounded
like a lesson in civics. I will miss Easy Going.
I will miss Rand McNally less.

While I am on the subject of local and
independent, get ready for Books by the Bay,
sponsored by the Northern California Independent
Booksellers Association (NCIBA), of which Get
Lost is a proud member. Read our events section
below for details.

Lee Azus
Get Lost Travel Books