28 October 2010

NY Times on travel apps vs. guidebooks: "trust books"

The New York Times reviews various guidebook iPhone/iPad apps and concludes that the dead-tree editions are still more useful:
I have often found myself ignoring the smartphone while sightseeing. It can be frustrating to repeatedly open an app and navigate an unknown amount of content, often in an unfamiliar format. A book with a dog-eared page, meanwhile, offers instant gratification and gets a traveler back to sightseeing much more quickly.

27 October 2010

Notes on Mexico on $5 a Day

The New York Times' Frugal Traveler has an interesting interview with John Wilcock, who wrote the first editions of Mexico on $5 a Day, Greece on $5 a Day and Japan on $5 a Day in the 1960s:
How did you approach a country like, say, Japan, when there were no prior budget guidebooks to serve as a baseline and no Internet to search on?
I was very lucky in Japan. My column in The Voice had been picked up all over the place, including the Mainichi Daily News in Tokyo, and my editor there introduced me to a couple of guys who were doing an underground paper in Tokyo. He also took me all kinds of places I wouldn’t otherwise have found, like a whale meat restaurant and a bear meat restaurant. But there were other people there – as there always are – who speak English or actually are American. After I wrote the Mexico guide, my contacts said, “How did you find all those things? I’ve lived there for years and I only know some of them,” and I said, “Yes, but I spoke to you and 20 other people.”
I find the comments especially interesting. In my edition of E5D, Arthur Frommer notes that some people have been complaining to him that he's not frugal enough--they've traveled the continent for $2 a day or less. (His response is that, sure, it's possible, but he's trying to show how you can do it while still having a modicum of comfort and not sleeping in ditches or fleabag hostels.) A few of those naysayers are still around--and commenting on this blog post.

24 October 2010

"Aloha Hawaii Brunch" in a Munich beer hall. Discuss.

I was just going through my photos from Munich and found this one:

I took this photo in the Ratskeller in Munich. Here's how Arthur describes the restaurant:
Most German cities publicize their food specialties by running a low-priced, municipally-owned restaurant in their City Hall. Munich has one of the best of these. Its Ratskeller, a restaurant in the cellar of its famous, old City Hall on Marienplatz, serves an authentic Bavarian meal in a setting of vaulted oak arches, large beer kegs and rough-hewn wooden tables that could have come from The Student Prince. 
In short this is a classic, stereotypical Bavarian restaurant.
But let me call your attention to the list of upcoming events on the board pictured above. Specifically, note the short column on the right side. This, to me, is a classic sign from the European tourist trail. It represents globalization and stereotypes and cultural confusion and strange uses of English. 
  • O-sole-mio Brunch. Cheesy Italian stereotypes to go with your kitschy German stereotypes! 
  • Ratskeller Happy Family Schnitzel Brunch (neu!). Advertised in English, except for the part about how it's new. This I find completely baffling. 
  • Aloha Hawaii Brunch. This makes about as much sense as . . . well having an Oktoberfest celebration on a beach in Hawaii. The two cultures are about as far apart as one can get, I think. I'm trying to figure out what this entails. Pineapple-spiked schnitzel? Or maybe "Bavarian luau" is the next big trend, the next theme restaurant to hit the big time. I can see it: servers in grass skirts and dirndls, dancers doing the hula to "Ein Prosit" . . .  

23 October 2010

This just in: A Moveable (and Barbecue-filled) Feast

If forced to choose between a platter of pastries and bucket of barbecue, I'm not sure what I'd say. I'd probably try to distract you and then take both and run away. I didn't eat any barbecue in Europe but shortly before that trip, I went to Kansas City, one of the world's great barbecue towns, for a long-anticipated feast of a roadtrip with my dad.

And now you can read all about it in (this calls for bold-faced text) my story in the new Lonely Planet travel writing anthology, A Moveable Feast.

(Also featured in the book: Jim Benning, Elisabeth Eaves, and--just pulling names randomly here--Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, Anthony Bourdain, Simon Winchester. Edited by Don George.)

Mine is a tale of two scrawny men bonding over inadvisably large quantities of food. If I were writing a movie poster about my story, it might be this: A father, a son, a city with a secret ... about smoked meat. Except that makes it sound too dark. It is anything but. This might work better: Humor! Pathos! Sauce stains! Heartburn! 

Now available at your local indie bookstore (which you can find here!) or directly from Lonely Planet or at Powell's ... or (okay, fine) at that big online store that starts with an A.*

So buy a copy or twenty. They make great stocking-stuffers or trivets to put under your Thanksgiving side-dishes or get-well gifts for anyone who has just had major jaw surgery, and whom you secretly hate and want to taunt with a book about all the great meals they can't have with their jaws wired shut like that.

Digging into the good stuff at Arthur Bryant's.
* If you do the "search inside the book" thing, you'll find the story, but rabid tigers armed with lasers will leap from your computer and then your screen will explode in a massive ball of fire ... and you just don't want to deal with that. Seriously. Too much like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Be safe and just buy the book. It's paperback--cheap!

08 October 2010

Is social media the new guidebook?

So this writer for The Guardian is preaching what seems to be a common refrain among the social media lovers: smart phones killed the guidebook dead. Twitter is the only path to travel salvation.

A few choice quotes and rebuttals:

1. A quote about the joys of constant contact.
Four weeks ago I visited Manchester on a short break. I took a change of pants and socks, a spare T-shirt and my mobile phone. When I arrived in the city, I told Twitter that I was hungry, and within minutes I was gorging on corned-beef hash thanks to a recommendation from a fellow Tweeter. I held my phone up to Piccadilly Gardens, turned on an app, and itsWikipedia entry flashed across my screen, overlaid on to the grass in front of me through the camera in my phone. I opened another app, and dozens of local suggestions were hovering around me. There was a bar 288m from where I was standing where I'd get a free drink if I mentioned a secret word to a barman called Angus.
Okay, look, whatever works for you, go for it. I won't pretend that there's One True Way To Travel.

I'll grant you that social media can offer more and better options (in terms of restaurant recommendations and the like) than guidebooks. I mean, there's the potential problem of information overload--you'll probably get too many suggestions and some conflicting opinions--but, okay, if you can sort through it, there's undoubtedly some good stuff there. Guidebooks, in theory, cut to the chase and give you some curated picks (the best of this, the cheapest of that), but if you stick with a guidebook, your options will be limited, and I'm not sure that's necessarily preferable to info-overload. When I did my guided-by-the-masses experiment in Rome, I got some good recommendations and I got some clunkers. No matter what your source of information, your own experience will be hit or miss.

What I find more problematic with the better-living-through-Twitter argument is that it demands not just constant connection with the rest of the world but constant feedback. People joke that Twitter is just a bunch of people posting what they had for breakfast, but I'm more annoyed by all the people who ask, "Where should I have breakfast?"

How about that place right there in front of you, eh? How about asking someone on the street? How about not spending an hour a day seeking advice and validation from your friends back home? How about realizing that you can wander into a dumpy restaurant and have a horrible meal . . . and still get something out of it, a story, a friend, whatever?

Furthermore, when you're checking in with your friends, how much other time are you spending online? Are you also checking Google Maps? Your e-mail? Your RSS feed? Weather? Enough. I've said it before, but I truly think that willful ignorance (up to a point) leads to the most enjoyable travel experiences. Aren't surprise and discovery part of the joy of travel? Shouldn't travel involve getting beyond your existing networks and world views? Shouldn't it be about finding your own way, rather than continually asking your friends for help? All the world need not be a stage, and all your time need not be spent in pursuit of the best, the hippest, the friend-approved. Let loose, get lost, get in to trouble, make NEW friends.

I honestly think that the single most important travel app on a smart phone is the off button. Make it up as you go along.

2. A quote about how awesome it is to have so many friends and to be so popular.
And then, about 18 months ago, I started travelling with Twitter. I headed off on assignments without planning a thing. I began in Paris, where I arrived at the Gare du Nord and began slinging questions into the ether. For 48 hours the people of Twitter guided me around the city, from backstreet art galleries in obscure eastern suburbs to glorious belle époque eating halls in Montmartre. Every tip was tailored to my exact time and location.
In other words, you've got people. (As of this writing, the Guardian writer, Benji Lanyado, has 4,863 followers on Twitter.) And, as someone with a prominent platform, you presumably get a lot of re-Tweets and forwarded information. You're able to spread the word quickly, and get a wide range of responses precisely because of who you are and what you do; people want in on your experiment. That's all fine and good; I have no problems with that. But I have a big problem with suggesting that it'll be like this for everyone, that it's Just So Easy to do this, that everyone can do it: just ask the question and you'll get tips "tailored to [your] exact time and location." It doesn't work like that. Most people are still better off with a guidebook (or using Trip Advisor or online resources).

The steps to a pleasant trip are NOT simply:
  1. Buy an iPhone.
  2. Set up Twitter account.
  3. Broadcast that you're going somewhere and need tips.
  4. Get tailored tips; meet locals; eat well; find enlightenment; live happily ever after. 
3. A quote showing some ignorance about the purpose of guidebooks
When I got home, I was a guidebook refusenik. They offered me nothing beyond the decently concise history section.
Uh-huh. And how about the section on the culture in general? On tipping? Or safety? Packing for the climate? Etiquette and taboos? Appropriate attire? Politics? Transportation? Visas? The curatorial role of the guidebook writer goes beyond stay-here-eat-there, and there are plenty of times when you can't rely on your Twitter followers to bail you out, even if you have access to them ("Tweeps: Got 10 cops shakin me down. :(  Need tips plz ASAP. How much 2 bribe?") These are areas where I specifically don't advise willful ignorance and where a guidebook--or internet research or a chat with a local--can be invaluable.

The best travel guides serendipity and common sense. Twitter and Facebook and their online peers are fine as supplements to these, but not as substitutes.

Oh, and when you're in a forest or remote area or even the Metro in Paris, good luck with getting a signal. Don't panic if you don't. Enjoy it instead.

What do you think? Are guidebooks doomed? Is Twitter better? 

If you're interested in more takes on the future of travel guides in the internet era, World Hum has a nice round-up of articles here

04 October 2010

Remoteness as tourist attraction

The beaten path can lead to some unexpected places. Sometimes, the very remoteness or other-ness of a place is precisely what draws the masses. Like all the people who tailgated Elizabeth Gilbert's bliss-quest all the way to Bali, in search of peace and quiet and enlightenment, only to find . . . lots of other people in search of same. Or there's the most remote mainland* pub in Britain, where a fair amount of people go precisely because it's . . . the most remote pub in Scotland. "Getting there is half the fun," says the pub, The Old Forge, on its web site. Seventeen miles by foot or seven by boat.  

And now it's for sale. You, too, can own this oft-visited symbol of the road less traveled. From The Guardian (via World Hum):

From hikers to yachties to locals, anyone who has ever been to the Old Forge will tell you it's a special place. It's not just the food, from its Skye crab to its haggis lasagne, that's fantastic; it's not just the fact that its local ales, such as Red Cuillin, go down a treat after a day out on some of west coast's finest peaks; nor is it just the ravishing view out across the bay at dusk, to those giant knuckles of rock encircling the still waters. No: it's the whole party spirit that seems to affect the place as the sun goes down.
... It's on sale for offers over £790,000 but cash alone won't guarantee a sale. "We won't be selling to anyone who won't keep its spirit alive," says Jackie. "All the interested parties have been customers. They understand the culture of the place: good food, good music, good people."

* Note the qualifier here: most remote mainland pub. My quick Googling doesn't turn up details of the most remote British pub, period--nor, surprisingly, can I find (again, quickly) many details about the world's most remote bars, aside from this one in Australia. (I did, however, find this round-up of remote hotels.)  There's also the Restaurant at the End of the Universe (RIP, Douglas Adams), but that is another matter entirely. Anyway, I'd bet that most of these bars (a) attract some odd, interesting people, both patrons and proprietors, (b) have some interesting reasons for existing, e.g. they used to be on some common route or part of a now-abandoned town. Given the the lack of details readily available, I think someone should write a book. Ahem. Hey, Lee . . . 

03 October 2010

Keeping a low profile in Europe: deja vu all over again

Sigh. This is one thing I'd really rather not be timely about.

A few days ago, I mentioned some travel advice from 1954 that felt all too current:
Girson's advice to travelers should also feel familiar, every bit as timely and spot-on for today's world. Don't be held back by your fears and the headlines. Go anyway. But be smart about it. A traveler can go pretty much anywhere, "providing she uses her head and doesn't try to be a smart aleck."
And now, today, there's this (via NPR):
U.S. Alerts American Travelers In Europe
The Obama administration on Sunday warned Americans of potential terrorist threats in Europe and urged them to be vigilant in public places, including tourist spots and transportation hubs.
A State Department travel alert advises U.S. citizens living or traveling in Europe to take more precautions about their personal security. The alert is one step below a formal travel warning advising Americans not to visit Europe.

01 October 2010

Finding the new on the beaten path (it's easier than you think)

“The traveler, then, was working at something; the tourist was a pleasure-seeker.The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes 'sight-seeing.' ” -- Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image

I know, I know. I've already said I'm done with the whole "traveler" vs. "tourist" thing. But as I went back through my notes from The Tourist, I rediscovered the Boorstin quote at the top of this post, and I was struck that this is a common sentiment: proper travel is active, while shallow/inferior/cliched travel is passive.

I'll put aside for the moment the fact that passive travel has its place, that cruises and Disney World and time-shares provide a much-needed, all-inclusive escape for so many over-worked people who want to use their hard-earned two weeks of vacation time on some rejuvenation. Another post.

What interests me most, at the moment, is that if you go by the active/passive definition, then the destination is irrelevant. If mindset is all that matters, you can go to Disney World as a traveler and to the most remote parts of the globe as a tourist.

In Berlin, Lee and I took a walking tour of the city. It started at a Starbucks by the Brandenburg Gate. As we waited for the tour to begin, we watched street performers and trinket-hawkers do their thing, as you'll see anywhere on the tourist trail. Our tour group was mostly backpackers in their twenties (like us), and I'll confess to expecting, almost hoping for, some stereotypical stoner-hippie-"I'm not a tourist" types. It would have made hilarious fodder for the book.

I came up empty. Everyone was inquisitive and engaged, peppering our guide with questions and genuinely interested in the landmarks and history.

In the most fundamental sense, we were sightseers, surveying the landmarks of the city in whirlwind fashion and taking absurd amounts of photos. I even did the tourist thing and got my passport stamped at Checkpoint Charlie. ... But I did that because I wanted to talk to the guy selling the stamps. He was wearing an American military uniform from World War II, but I had a pretty good hunch he wasn't American or, for that matter, originally from Germany. I figured he had some interesting stories, maybe even some insights into tourists or tourism or the Berlin's split personality of both commemoration and commercialization. ("I'm from here, of course," he said, taking offense when I asked where he was from. "Right, sorry!" I replied. A few minutes later, he added, proudly, "I've been here six years!")

I can't help but think--and perhaps this is a bit of smugness creeping in, but I hope not--that we were, in fact, more actively aware of where we were (geographically, culturally, historically, and otherwise) than people who go on a package tour of Antarctica or see Thailand as a never-ending party fueled by mystery booze and banana pancakes

In every city, Lee and I wandered until we got lost and then we wandered some more. We asked locals for directions. We chatted with souvenir vendors and bartenders and others who saw the tourist experience from the other side. We stopped to read the historical markers. Granted, we weren't settling down for a year or even weeks. Ours was a whirlwind tour. We didn't meet a lot of the Authentic, Eccentric Locals (TM) who populate so many travel memoirs. But we did our best to get a sense of the culture and the city in the short time we were there. We were tourists, no doubt, but we were active, always searching for what was beneath the surface. Does that make us "travelers"? Are the pursuits of pleasure and adventure mutually exclusive? To the latter question, at least, I'd say no.

Lee and I weren't outliers. As we saw on that walking tour of Berlin, plenty of "tourists" are active. Plenty of them are there precisely because the beaten path is full of stories. (I've said it before: avoiding somewhere just because there are lots of people there is just as absurd as going somewhere because other people are.) Many tourists--not all, but a whole lot of 'em--are pretty damn interesting. Case in point: Jian from Malaysia, who was also on our Berlin tour. He was taking the long way  home after getting his degree in England, and for him the Grand Tour was the fulfillment of a dream. He'd put in extra hours at his job as a waiter in London to save up for it. Or there was Sally, an American law school student also on that tour, who told me about all the books I should read about Berlin's history. Shall I go on? Point made?

There are plenty of stories to tell on the beaten path. You might need to put in some extra effort to find them, but they're there, if you're willing to ask around and talk to people. People have stories; places have stories. To take a walking tour of Berlin--and then to keep exploring the city on your own--is to see living history. To take in the sights of Rome--assuming you do your reading and ask your questions--is to learn why this stuff is important and cool, to understand the very good reasons why this path is so beaten. It may not be more active in the physical sense than, say, meditating in a hermit hut or climbing a mountain, but I bet it tells you more about history and (a specific) culture.

The point is this: if travel is all about the journey, not the destination, as the aphorism has it, then we have to concede that the beaten path can be every bit as interesting as the road less traveled, that in the midst of the ostensibly tacky environs of so-called tourist traps, we can find the new, the foreign, the surprising, the delightful.

Another aphorism: life is what you make it. The joy of travel is sometimes hiding in plain sight. Find it.