There Are No Stupid Questions… Oh Wait

RATHER unfairly – at least in some cases – Americans have been saddled with a reputation for being less than familiar with the world outside their country. Or even their own state.

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography,” wrote Mark Twain.

Having spent a night in a bar in the border town of Niagara, chatting to two barmaids who had never left their home state, let alone country, despite living their whole lives a few miles from Canada and access to one of the world’s great natural wonders, he perhaps has a point.

NiagaraBut in other places, similar conversations – particularly in Boston, for some reason – have left me feeling inadequate as a local or two was far more informed about Europe, Britain and, weirdly, Tony Blair than my knowledge of their home.

It is also unfair to slap this criticism on Americans alone. Just watch a geography round on Pointless to see how little the average Britain knows about the world around them – even ones who reckon themselves intelligent enough to appear on a TV quiz show.

Whatever our national traits, one weakness so many of us seem to share is the ability to check in our brains along with our luggage (or even earlier in some cases), which can make airports both hilarious and frustrating places to spend any time.

Don’t believe me? Then check out these two links.

The first is entitled Why Americans Should Never Be Allowed To Travel – genuine questions asked to travel agents.

And, just to stop anyone on the other side of the pond getting too cocky, try this from 101holidays.co.uk – Are These The Most Stupid Trip Advisor Reviews?

 

 

photo by: Lima Pix
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Pictures On My Wall

The non-expert guide to managing travel photographs

A FRIEND heading out on their travels leaves conflicting emotions among those left behind – keen to follow the traveller’s progress and hear a few anecdotes (just a few mind), they know at some point the wanderer will suggest they sit down to see pictures from the trip.

Once upon a time it was prints or slides -my childhood was dotted with nights when my bedroom and its giant blank wall became the venue for a meander through the holiday or, even worse, childhood slides – but now digital cameras mean travellers are free to snap away without worrying how many shots they have left on a film.

Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls – One of a myriad of pictures from a day snapping away in the National Park

Not all of us (guilty as charged) have learned to edit our digital stockpile, meaning any session guiding friends and family through a trip contains the oft-repeated phase “yeah, that’s exactly the same thing, only from a slightly different angle. And so’s that…”

Don’t let any of that put you off snapping away freely. Pictures are a wonderful way of preserving the memories – any long afternoon or evening back home spent flicking through your pictures will instantly return you to those magical moments.

If it is ‘a trip of a lifetime’, you want the pictures and memories to last that long. (You won’t see that trip of a lifetime phrase often on this site – it suggests one trip has used up your allocated allowance of travelling, rather than merely being a link in a chain of adventures).

So snap away, preserve those memories, but just remember, just show off the pick of the bunch – nobody wants to see six different shots of the same mountain or fountain, no matter how creative and arty you have been.

And here’s a few tips to help you along the way…

  • Know your kit – No technical jargon, mainly because it is way over my head. Work out your budget and look around for what is available. You’ll be surprised what you can get your hands on, be it from under £100 to much more expensive. When you’ve got it, take it out and use it before you head off, play around with the settings and learn what it can do – better to find out then than after you’ve missed that great shot in the opening few days.
  • Denali Moose
    The disappearing moose – what somebody else managed to shoot

    ABC (Always Be Charged) – Apologies to the person who came up with the ABC line, but this is one learned the hard way. Make sure that battery is not going to give out on you, especially if you are heading somewhere power may be in short supply. Otherwise you may find yourself walking back to your camp one night in Denali NP, Alaska, when a moose strolls across your path, only for your camera to remain totally lifeless in your hand.

  • Keep the camera handy – “Not going to take my camera out today, don’t think there’s much point.” Don’t you believe it, keep it with you – it is safer than leaving it back in a hostel – and in some place you can pull it out quickly. You never know when that moose may appear or what lies round that corner.
  • Caption – How’s your memory? Good enough to remember the name of that building, that mountain, that beautiful beach you spent the afternoon on or that girl you met in that bar? Until you’ve got home? Weeks, months, even years later? Chances are it isn’t and you’ll spend ages trying to remember what that statue was commemorating or that fascinating fact the local guide told you about that town square. Keep notes and caption your pics, then you don’t just have your pictures to look back on, but also the tales behind them.
  • Ming Tombs Info
    The easy way to remember info – Ming Tombs, near Beijing

    Shoot info – You don’t have to remember everything. If something catches your eye to take a picture, look for a sign or plaque explaining what it’s all about and take a picture of it. You can always delete it when you’ve added the caption.

  • Swap shots – If you are travelling with friends or meet people on the way, swap some of your pictures. After all, they are likely to have more pictures of you than you’ve managed to take (and they are likely to be better than selfies).
  • Facebook – The modern equivalent of  showing off your holiday pics, with the added advantage you can share them while still out of the country. Don’t throw them all up, just drip feed them onto your status to make your friends jealous (nobody wants to see every meal you ate). It also saves on the postcards.
  • Look for something different – Chances are you’ll find yourself at an attraction which has people queuing up to take pictures from the same classic spot (think the Taj Mahal from the end of the reflecting pool). By all means join in – cliched it might be, but that spot is famous for a reason – but look for some fresh detail or angle that people haven’t seen before. It’s a challenge, but good things rarely come easy.

    Great Wall of China
    Don’t ignore classic views – but look for fresh angles
  • Back-up/Upload frequently – If you are travelling, you normally have time to kill, be it on or waiting for a plane, bus or train. Use the time wisely – write blogs, catch up on sleep and upload your pictures. If you’ve got space, you don’t have to wipe them from your memory card, but if you load them onto your laptop, an external hard drive and a picture storage account such as Flickr or Picasa, you’ve got added security (Facebook is also useful for that). Little and often means you don’t spend hours waiting for a load of  pictures to upload via a slow internet connection when you could be out taking more shots of whichever stop you’ve reached.
  • Don’t leave camera unattended – Common sense really, if just for the security. But anyone leaving their camera alone on a night out may be surprised what they find when they next check it.
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Guidelines for Travel Writers

Originally written for a travel website in 2011

BEFORE the travel bug really bit, my natural habitat was a newspaper office (or the pub, the customary watering hole for the journalistic wildlife in the days when regional newspapers actually printed on the date which adorn the front).

Chunks of time were spent wrestling with copy from reporters, freelances and contributors to ensure it was grammatically correct, readable or shoehorned into house style (often all three).

Over the years, several pet peeves emerged that were guaranteed to spark prolonged grumbling if they ever appeared in copy.

Overuse of the words that and ever, without even mentioning the fact that apostrophes and commas don’t appear to be taught nowadays (leaving them all out or putting in so many some of them must be right are not the best way to please a sub-editor, a dying, much-neglected breed).

Sadly, many of those annoyances resurface reading travel blogs. If it is a personal blog, designed purely to capture your trip for posterity, there is very little wrong with that – it is your trip, your blog, your rules.

But if you want anybody else to read and enjoy your blog, it is worth following a few rules.

And you could do a lot worse than follow the Guidelines for Travel Writers article written by David Whitley on his site grumpytraveller.com

One tip amid his advice certainly rang true – the advice to avoid using the first person.

It is said the cricket writer and commentator John Arlott never used the word ‘I’ in his entire written works. Having tried very hard to write this piece working to the same rule, it is extremely difficult.

Certainly several former colleagues found it impossible to get through a couple of paragraphs without using it – some senior ones even inserting reference to themselves back into articles after I had taken a few of them out…

Damn, so nearly did it.

 

 

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The Genuine Article

SPEND any length of time on the road and you will, sadly, come across travel snobbishness.

The most pointless argument you will find anywhere is the endless “traveller v tourist” debate with a myriad of smaller topics those with ideas of “authenticity” use to run down those they feel have not done things the right way or have not paid your dues.

Yes, there is a big difference between short trips to one place or ticking off the must-sees on a rapid-fire journey to spending a lot of time on the road and getting away from the tourist trail.

But does one give anyone the right to sneer on people who have opted for the others? There’s a reason why places are on the tourist trail and not everyone can drop everything and travel for more than a few weeks each year, if that.

Essentially, you choose the best trip for you and it is nobody else’s trip but yours, whatever anyone else has to say about it.

And on group trips, don’t think you have to do what someone else is because it is the “right” thing to do in that destination. Do what you want, even if that is taking time out for yourself and charge the batteries for whatever comes next.

One of the worst cases of travel snobbishness came in a New Orleans hostel when a group of us gathered in the coolest room available on a sweltering afternoon and swapped tales from the road.

Whatever anyone came up with, a guy from somewhere in England – for some reason, he didn’t want to say – had to trump or run down.

Two of us had just finished three months on an overland group trip from London to New York and had met up again on her own individual road trips around the States, but that didn’t count to this guy.

Because somebody else had done some of the organising, our trip was not genuine travel. Hiring a car for my US road trip was not doing it the right way. And the Aussies – every hostel must have at least one – who had saved their money for a big trip had to play second fiddle to all the hours he had put in working in a supermarket before his trip.

His attitude amazed me. His way was the right way and nobody else was doing it properly. He had even avoided many of the supposed must-see attractions in the places he had been, places several of us were comparing notes on and agreed were well worth a trip.

He even turned his nose up at a night out in the French Quarter, opting to spend most of the weekend hanging round the hostel. Take my word, the Aussies had a much better time in New Orleans.

This whole subject was reawakened by an article on responsibletravel.com entitled 15 Bad Travel Habits To Give Up For Lent. Not sure they were trying to be snobs and it is hard to disagree entirely with all them, while we all have plenty of things which annoy us among travellers (especially at airports).

But again, it’s your trip. Respect the people and cultures you come across and choose the way you want to enjoy it.

 responsibletravel.com’s 15 Bad Travel Habits To Give Up For Lent

  • 1 Eating in international chain restaurants and cafes
  • 2 Avoiding street food
  • 3 Rushing around from one sight to the next
  • 4 Saying you’ve ‘done’ a country
  • 5 Not attempting a few words of the local language
  • 6 Getting annoyed because people don’t speak your language
  • 7 Staying plugged into your iPod, keeping your nose in your book
  • 8 Taking so many photos that you forget to look where you are
  • 9 Souvenir shopping at the airport rather than at local shops
  • 10 Wearing a bikini to the supermarket. Or anywhere that isn’t the beach
  • 11 The ‘traveller uniform’ of zip-off trousers, all terrain sandals and a fleece
  • 12 The early morning sun-lounger dash
  • 13 Visiting the local orphanage for the day
  • 14 Never leaving your holiday resort
  • 15 Thinking your way is right and local ways are wrong
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The Lure of the Golden Arches

“The Russian rain was falling on the golden arch… All the way from Moscow to New York”

All The Way From Moscow – Jesse Malin

ONE of the great delights about travelling is the constant chance to push yourself out of your comfort zone and savour new experiences, be that meeting people from a different background, staying in alien surroundings or sampling the local cuisine.

But, seemingly wherever you go in the world, as soon as you hit any built-up area there is an option to feast on the familiar.

No longer does grabbing a quick bite to eat in Beijing have to mean nipping down one of the hutongs and wolfing down a delicious, stupidly cheap and ridiculously fast snack from a vendor who has never heard of health and safety (although it is to be heartily recommended).

Now there’s the option of tucking into something familiar. You can actually give directions around Tiananmen Square using McDonald’s and KFC as landmarks.

To eat in one of these homogenised outlets is sniffed at by the travel snob and responsibletravel.com listed it as one of the 15 bad habits travellers should give up for Lent.

Is turning your back on the native food and retreating to the familiar flavours on offer in your favourite fast food joint really travelling? Is it merely a long-distance version of the stereotypical Brit abroad demanding a breakfast fry-up, chips with everything and HP sauce as he soaks up lager and sun for two weeks in the Med?

Or is it perfectly acceptable, at least in small doses? After all, if the idea is to eat where the locals do, who do you think that is queuing up for a Big Mac? This is, when they can’t be bothered to cook, where the locals eat, just as we do back home. Otherwise the global chains would not be here.

And sometimes it is good to take a break from travelling when it is all you are doing 24 hours a day for weeks or months on end.

After an initial reluctance to retreat so completely into the familiar, my view is pretty much relaxed – as long as it is not overdone, but merely an occasional break from more complex meals.

Not that my attitude was always so relaxed and fair-minded.

The first time the ‘To Maccy D or Not Maccy D?’ dilemma came up was on a brief backpacking trip around France.

A week of sleeping on trains, in hostels and on platforms, cycling around the beautiful Lake Annecy, finding out my travelling companion could not swim at the precise moment a ferry looked set to plough into our pedalo and dealing with his sunstroke was highlighted by one of the worst fouls seen on a football field (which broke the post, squashed my duty-free cigarettes and left the young German on the receiving end being helped away, sobbing).

We ended up in the northern coastal town of Caen (having swapped our initial, wrongly-purchased train tickets to the southern coastal resort of Cannes) with little money left and time to kill before our ferry.

My desire to eat native (and save dwindling resources) produced the idea of some cheese, maybe a bit of ham, and a baguette before a stroll around the old town. My friend opted for the stroll, but only until he found a McDonald’s and piled all his remaining cash into the biggest collection of meat and special sauce in buns he could afford.

The difference of gastronomic opinion ended in conflict when his request to share my remaining bread and cheese on the ferry was refused – a division which grew on a long, cold, hungry night on a Portsmouth platform after we missed the last train home.

Good intentions have meant most trips have started with a desire to steer clear of the Golden Arches of the American Embassy, but they have never lasted too long, particularly after a few beers.

On the road from London to New York, that meant post beer Big Macs in Warsaw (where the staff spoke better English than the ones you find back home), just off Red Square in Moscow (strangely satisfying after visiting Lenin’s Mausoleum and with four days of dried food lying in wait on the Trans-Siberian) and on the final day in China. There’s only so many Chinese feasts you can take before craving normality.

And I’ve been kicked out of two McDonald’s.

Neither were entirely my fault. After all, if they were closed, why were the doors still open?

The one in Nashville was an attempt to quash a post-drink hunger (something the Americans don’t really cater for, Dunkin Donuts just doesn’t cut it). For some reason, the staff lined up behind the counter and actually took my order three times before a security guard appeared and escorted me out, leaving me to the vagaries of a motel vending machine for that evening’s meal.

Times Square, New York was a bit different, mainly as it wasn’t part of a search for food. The lights were on, doors were open and staff were inside. It looked open. Even at 5am.

The search for an open toilet ended in the back room of a neighbourhood deli still open and housing a meeting of figures from central casting who watched (and probably listened through the narrow door) my progress in silence. Thought it best to buy a pizza slice on the way out.

Maybe there are times when the familiar fast-food joints are a welcome destination…

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