28 March 2011

Fodor: "The Spy Who Loved Travel"

I know a guidebook writer. He claims the gig isn't quite as glamorous as you'd think. I'm inclined to believe him since, hey, travel writing isn't all daiquiris on beaches and Mai Thais on mountaintops, either. But Eugene Fodor, it turns out, was every bit as dashing and bad-ass as the rest of us travel scribes only pretend to be. 

He was a spy. And he hired other spies to write for him. No joke. From the AP
According to Hunt, Fodor had worked as a spy in Austria when the Office of Strategic Services became the CIA and continued in intelligence for 12 to 15 years. Fodor tried to keep the lid on in late 1974 and early `75, fearing relatives of his Czech-born wife could be put in danger. But pressed by the paper's expose, he acknowledged his covert work _ and his hiring of many guidebook writers who were CIA spies during the Cold War.
"But I told them to make sure and send me real writers, not civil engineers. I wanted to get some writing out of them. And I did, too," Fodor told the Times in June 1975.
In unrelated guidebook-related news, I was kind of amused by this post on Esquire.com about "Great Moments in Italian Food History," specifically this line:
1960 — Arthur Frommer's book Europe on $5 a Day becomes a bestseller; tens of thousands of young Americans travel to Italy
Truth. And Chef Boyardee, among others, piggybacked on the new American fascination with this sauce-covered deliciousness. For more on that, step right this way, please.

21 March 2011

Outtakes: Pastries in Brussels

Alas, I had to cut this from the book. When we were in Brussels, Lee wrote a guest post about my pastry problem. I'm not sure if he was feeling guilty (not that he should have) or just being the all-around good guy he is, but here's what happened the next morning:

Most mornings, I was the first to arise, but I move so slowly before breakfast that by the time I showered and got dressed and got my satchel ready for the day's explorations, Lee had already done the same, plus completed his daily reps of push-ups and stretches, and written a page or two of his work-in-progress, a space pirate opera.

This time, he hadn't waited around. Probably a wise move, I realized, given that my brain was starting up more slowly than usual. There turned out to be a second light show a half-hour or so after the first one, and shortly after that was done, a jazz band somewhere down the street struck up “The Girl From Impanema,” the horn section trying its best to drown out the rhythmically-challenged drummer in an epic battle of beats and noise. The clear losers were our ears and desire for sleep. So I had called in reinforcements as soon as the second show began, downing a couple of Tylenol PM pills and shoving some earplugs in until they practically tickled my tonsils. This appeared to have done the trick, perhaps too well. I stumbled to the bathroom, shooed the pigeons from the open window and slammed it shut, then stepped into the shower, letting the initial blast of ice water hit me full in the face.

When I emerged from the bathroom, Lee was sitting on his bed, writing. There was a yellow bakery bag on the desk a few feet away; the smell of fresh croissant perfumed the air. “Mornin',” he grinned. “I got something for you.”

“Feeding my addiction?”

“Might as well. Fighting it is clearly a lost cause.”

I have to confess to finding this very touching, but also a bit worrisome: Did I trust him—anyone—to select a pastry for me? It's a serious question. I have standards. Breaking bread together may be one of the most deeply-rooted symbols of friendship, but what if the bread turns out to be crap? A kind gesture turns into a deal-breaker, and then what do you do?

Still, when someone offers me a croissant, I will not turn it down, even if I will immediately start thinking of potential diversions, should I need to spit it out.

I needn't have worried. I should have known, by this point, to trust Lee. The croissant was hot and flaky and gooey and delicious. We planned our day as we ate, spilling crumbs all over the map.

16 March 2011

Actual experts on technology's effects on travel

From The Guardian, via Mike Sowden (a.k.a. @Mikeachim): Jan Morris, Pico Iyer, Rolf Potts, and other travel writers weigh in on technology and travel. Specifically: "Has technology robbed travel of its riches?"

As usual, Pico Iyer nails it, with an observation I completely agree with but in words far better than my own:
My talisman as a traveller has always been that old chestnut from Proust, that "the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new sights, but in seeing with new eyes". A place is boring only if you bring uninterested eyes to it. Some people say that democratic travel has removed the magic of places, but to me that magic is just as strong as ever (in Petra, in La Paz, even in my hometown of Oxford) if it is real. Garbo never grows old, nor Dylan young. When we worry that a place we love has changed – "Bali isn't what it used to be," I sometimes hear myself saying, "It's usually because we have changed."
The whole thing is worth a read ...

15 March 2011

Tourists in denial

Proof positive that it's time to retire the term "traveler, not tourist" and all variations thereof: this ad from Delta's in-flight magazine, Sky. Click on the photo for a close-up of the full text. I've also seen Minneapolis light rail trains wrapped in a version of this ad, including that tag line.

06 March 2011

100 ways social media will make your travel experience, like, SO much more authentic and enlightening and off the beaten path and, you know, all that awesome stuff. Also, Justin Bieber (is not mentioned anywhere in this post).

Trying out a new SEO tactic here. You know, like the cool kids. You'll see why. Also, this post really isn't as grouchy as that headline might lead you to believe. 

Stop me if you've heard this one before. From today's Washington Post:

Crowdsourcing a Panama trip

Less than 24 hours after I announced on Facebook that I was heading to Panama, the tips started rolling in.

... Never mind that I hadn't seen these people in years. They were my Facebook friends, and I was willing to take their advice. I am, after all, a Facebook junkie.

Which is why I was thrilled to discover several new Web sites that merge my two favorite things: social media and travel. TripAdvisor recently integrated its site with Facebook so that you can see where your "friends" have visited and read any reviews they've posted. Other Web sites - Gogobot, IgoUgo,Travellerspoint and Tripping, among others - are creating communities of travelers Facebook-style.

So I wondered: Could I toss aside my guidebooks and plan an entire trip based on tips from virtual friends? Could I, in social media lingo, crowdsource a vacation?

Now, if you just read the first page (of three) and the last couple of paragraphs of the article, you could easily get the distinct impression that the conclusion is this:
guidebooks are dead--social media is the only way to go! All hail social media! Now, I've already ranted about offered oh-so-insightful comments on some of this before, but it's worth revisiting it, especially because I think this Post article offers a more complete picture, even if you have to sort of read between the lines to see it.

I'm guessing various bloggers and Facebookers are going to latch onto those themes without a second thought, never mind that the writer, Nancy Trejos, encounters some serious setbacks, namely: (a) she gets too many tips and ends up trying to do too many things, and (b) a bunch of the tips are total duds.

In short, the experience is hit-or-miss--like most travel methods. But here's a kind of maybe REALLY IMPORTANT observation that passes by without any real comment: the things that save the trip are:
  • Serendipity.
  • A local expert. 

After a series of frustrations, Ms. Trejos comes to prefer the advice of that local expert, a friend-of-a-friend who works for the UN.

In other words, the true lesson to draw from the article is that you're ultimately best-served by relying on the exact same thing that travelers have been relying on for, well ...
forever. The person on the ground. The local expert. Also, it helps if that person works for the UN or is otherwise someone with an outsider's perspective but an insider's knowledge.

And, yes, social media can help you work your network to find that expert. Granted. But, let's face it, there are many other ways, aside from Facebook and the like, to make those contacts. Online crowdsourcing is just one more means to that end. And sometimes it just gets in the way.

Of course, that conclusion won't get you a lot of Diggs and "likes" and retweets. It's not great SEO. A few months back, the
Post's inimitable Gene Weingarten had a column about the "new media"-oriented newsroom.
Every few days at The Washington Post, staffers get a notice like this: "Please welcome Dylan Feldman-Suarez, who will be joining the fact-integration team as a multiplatform idea triage specialist, reporting to the deputy director of word-flow management and video branding strategy. Dylan comes to us from the social media utilization division of Sikorsky Helicopters."
I can't help but wonder if that social media emphasis becomes self-perpetuating: social media loves social media, so social media types get all excited when someone talks about social media. (Still with me?)

And I strongly suspect that's the ultimate reason that this travel article doesn't play up what seem to be its most important points: not much has changed, actually. At the top of page one of that article, there's a slide show sidebar (say that five times fast). The caption reads:
Panama: Off the beaten path
Nancy Trejos discovered Panama's hidden gems thanks to recommendations from her online social network.

Wait. No, she
didn't. At least, not really, since her online friends led her astray just as often, and her best guide was--say it with me now--THE LOCAL EXPERT.

I guess honesty isn't very SEO-friendly.

(You know what
is SEO-friendly, though? Cliches. Can we please please have a moratorium on "off the beaten path," at least in headlines?)

04 March 2011

Quote of the day: the tourist as "noxious animal"

The term "tourist" dates to 1776, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It didn't take long for it to become an insult. Here's the English diarist Francis Kilvert, writing c. 1870:
What was our horror on entering the enclosure to see two tourists with staves and shoulder belts all complete postured among the ruins in an attitude of admiration, one of them of course discoursing learnedly to his gaping companion and pointing out objects of interest with his stick. If there is one thing more hateful than another it is being told what to admire and having objects pointed out to one with a stick. Of all noxious animals, too, the most noxious is a tourist. And of all tourists the most vulgar, illbred, offensive and loathsome is the British tourist.