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Saturday, December 29, 2007

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...

Why is it that we always want the opposite of what we have? In winter we dream of basking on white sand beaches while in summer we want to escape the heat and head for cooler climates... I'm taking some time out from blogging to spend a warm summery Christmas with family in Australia (as I dream of Munich's Christmas markets, mulled wine by a fireplace in Switzerland somewhere, walks in the snow...), before returning to Dubai for a warm winter's New Year's Eve, where, as bizarre as it sounds, we could experience a snow-white winter wonderland at Ski Dubai (pictured) if we wanted. But that's a whole other blog and for now family beckons. I'll blog again in early 2008. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Travel inspirations and travel trends: movies, museums and sports move us

Exotically located movies and major sporting events get us moving, according to the Association of British Travel Agents which has announced its predictions as to where we'll be inspired to travel in 2008. The organization claims the Cartagena-set 'Love in the Time of Cholera' "promises to put Colombia back on the map of must see destinations", while 'Australia', starring Nicole Kidman, will see everyone heading down under; the British Museum's Terracotta Warriors' exhibition will whet our appetites for China, and the long-awaited summer Olympics will have us packing our bags; the world's first Formula One night race will lead us all to Singapore while Valencia's new Formula One street course will get us going to Spain. They add that early bookings for Turkey, Egypt, Portugal, the US, and France, indicate these countries will all be hot destinations for 2008. "Travelling is always an inspiring way of spending our free time," says ABTA head Justin Fleming. But are movies, museum exhibitions and sporting events alone enough to inspire us to move? And if travel in itself is inspiring, what does it inspire us to do?

Today's image? A typical summer's day in Tiananem Square, something to look forward to at next year's Summer Olympics.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Slow travel: train-dreaming

"Journeys are the mid-wives of thought", writes Alain de Botton in my favorite book, Art of Travel. But of all the modes of transport that are most conducive to "internal conversation", to thinking and to dreaming, the best, he believes, is the train. He writes "On a journey across flat country, I think with a rare lack of inhibition about the death of my father, about an essay I am writing on Stendahl and about a mistrust that has arisen between two friends. Every time my mind goes blank, having hit on a difficult idea, the flow of consciousness is assisted by the possibility of looking out the window, locking on to an object and following it for a few seconds, until a new coil of thought is ready to form and can unravel without pressure. At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves - that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas of importance to us. It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves." I also appreciate road trips for those reasons, but on road trips you have to worry about who or what else is on the road, about petrol, signs and navigation, whereas on a train someone else is at the wheel and your mind is more free to wander. While the car gives the body freedom to move across a country, the train allows the mind to travel anywhere.

If you want to travel slowly by train and are looking for inspiration, check out The Man in Seat 61, which is not only the best resource for train travel on the web, with links to railway all over the world, train schedules and ticket-sellers, it's also incredibly inspiring with descriptions and photos from train journeys, from the Venice Simplon Orient Express to the Swiss Glacier Express.

Shway shway, slowly slowly: slow travel

In the Middle East we tell erratic taxi drivers to "shway, shway", to go slow or slow down. It can also mean "take it easy", "relax", or "just wait", especially when used with a gesture where the fingers and thumb of an upright hand are brought together to say "be patient, just wait, please". One of the major travel trends of 2007 was slow travel. Some travellers have always taken the slow road, since the time of the great Arab traveler Ibn Battuta who travelled 117,000 kms over 30 years, to backpackers who spend six months to a year or more on the move. My husband and I have been on the road for two years on travel writing assignments. While not all of our travels have been slow, during that time we've rented apartments for a month or two in each of Amsterdam, Brussels and Buenos Aires, and have driven tens of thousands of kilometres in Greece, the United Arab Emirates, Western Australia, and Thailand. At other times we've bounced about the globe on long-haul and low-cost flights: one trip, intended to show that Scandinavia could be done on a budget took us to all Scandi cities on no-frills airlines in a couple of weeks. If we plotted our journeys with thumbtacks and string on a map, what a tangled web we'd be weaving. So as I think ahead to 2008 I'm telling myself to "shway, shway". Carbon footprints aside, the benefits of slow travel are myriad: you're immersing yourself for longer in the one city or country, learning more about its society and culture, living like a local, learning a little of the language, and you're contributing more to the local economy if you rent an apartment, shop daily in the local stores and markets, spend more at local sights, etc. You'll also return to work more refreshed and invigorated. Take time out to read about The Art of Slow Travel, the Slow Movement, the World Institute of Slowness and their idea of Slow Travel; check out Slow Travel,, Transitions Abroad, and the Slow Travel Blog; buy yourself a copy of In Praise of Slowness, Challenging the Cult of Speed; share tips with other slow travellers on the forum; or simply read about other trips such as this Slow Train to Bamako to get ideas for your own travels. So, my message for 2008: shway, shway.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Another Room With a View

They don't have to be ocean views to be alluring. The view between those floor-to-ceiling (French?) doors, whether swung wide open or ever-so-slightly ajar (the latter is even more enticing, don't you think?) could be of a bucolic country scene, majestic snow-covered mountains, or an arid red-dirt desert for that matter. What's most important is the fact that your room has doors, a window, or, better yet, a balcony, patio or veranda. It's the ability to step out that's important. To step out into the world (another world - 'other' world - a world that's not yours) and take in surroundings that would otherwise not surround you. Not least on an ordinary day, when you open your window - to your front lawn, your neighbor's lawn, your own back yard, your neighbour's back yard, or simply to nothing at all. But they surround you on this day, your holiday. And they - those spectacular vistas - make you feel special. And you say to yourself, you, I, we, we deserve this. We deserve a holiday. We deserve to travel. And we deserve a room with a view. Don't we? Don't we all?

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Room with a View

There's something about a room with a view, isn't there? Being able to step out onto a balcony, patio or veranda, however tiny or grand, and gaze out at a bustling street scene, a pretty piazza, a shimmering ocean, sparkling bay, or a still glassy lake. Watery views are my most coveted. I'll select one hotel over another simply for its sea vistas. I've visited Positano a couple of times and while the much-written-about hotel is Le Sirenuse, both times I've chosen Covo dei Saraceni because it's just that much closer to the water. It's beside the beach, next to the port, and when you walk out onto your balcony you look right onto the sea and the action on the sand. Plus there are magical views back up to the pastel-painted town that sprawls across the mountain. The closer I am to the water, the happier I am. I want to wake up to sunrises over the sea, hear boats bobbing on the water, feel the warmth of the sun on my feet as I drink a cup of tea in the morning, have to close the curtains a little to shut out the searing light from the sun during siesta, watch that big ball of fire sink into the sea, enjoy balmy evening breezes on my cheeks, and be able to count the stars before I go to bed. The first time we visited Venice, we stayed at a pension with two tiny balconies that looked onto a canal. In the early evening my husband and I would each take one and with a glass of wine would watch the gondoliers go by, singing and waving up to us, and we'd wave across to each other. A few summers later we were hunting for an apartment to rent in Venice and my main criteria was two identical balconies with canal views. I found an elegant little antique-filled studio in an old palazzo and I was pleased to find my balconies. We continued our evening ritual there and it was equally as wonderful as it was the first time. When we were younger and we backpacked around Mexico and Europe, we would stay at budget places in old towns and the prerequisite was always a window or balcony that overlooked the main street or square so we could wake up to the sounds of locals chatting on their way to work in the morning and in the evenings we could sit with a glass of wine in hand watching the action down below. Which in small towns in Mexico, Spain, Portugal, and Italy was always the evening passeo or passagiatta on the piazza, the slow social walk around the square, and in bigger cities like Barcelona, Madrid and Rome, invariably involved drinking. I have stayed in so many hotel rooms in cities now that I finally realize that a room at the front that opens onto a street will inevitably mean a sleepless night, but if I'm by the sea it's unquestionably a room with a view for me.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

10 Places You Must Go in 2008: places I have been

These are the 10 places I think you should experience in 2008, based on places I have been myself, and here are some quick reasons why. I'll give you my own wish list of 'it' destinations for 2008, places I have never been but hope to visit, in the new year.
1. SYRIA: colossal history confronts you at every corner, the world's best archaeological sites, crusader castles, sublime Umayyad Mosque, bustling medieval souqs, the Mid East's tastiest food, beautiful Damascene houses, artisans at work, Euphrates River, Dead Cities, Palmyra, Bosra, and the friendliest people in the world.
2. BUENOS AIRES: because it is as buzzy as they say it is, atmospheric barrios, architectural mishmash of architecture, lively markets and parks, fabulous bars and restaurants, great meat and wine, all-night nightlife, traditional peñas, Feria de Mataderos, gritty backstreets.

3. MOROCCO: do a road trip for moonlike landscapes, sublime desert scenery, abandoned mountain palaces, Berber desert citadels set amid date palm oases, then stay with Maryam in Marrakesh.

4. WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Broome for Australia's best beach and sunsets, Monkey Mia for WA's most tranquil beach and best indigenous walk, spectacular Kimberley & Pilbara regions, Margaret River's wild coast and wonderful wineries.
5. ANTWERP & BRUSSELS: because Antwerp is Europe's most underrated, easygoing city and Brussels isn't boring at all, superb dining scenes, laidback bars, pubs and
atmospheric brown cafes, multicultural neighborhoods, lively jazz scenes, excellent museums, cutting-edge fashion, and those fantastic mussels!
6. THAILAND: road trip it off the beaten track, through lush green landscapes of limestone mountains and impenetrable jungle, eat tasty food in small town markets, meet the world's sweetest people, and well, okay, squeeze in a spa treatment at beach resort if you must.

7. ISTANBUL: after the umissable historical sights, the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia, Grand Bazaar, Topkaki Palace, and whirling dervishes, explore modern Istanbul, its lively backstreets, vibrant restaurants, bars and cafes, and get on the water for a cruise up the Bosphorus.
BALTIC CITIES: TALLINN: beautiful walled old city with perfectly preserved pastel-colored medieval architecture, kitsch experience of trying medieval food, sublime contemporary cuisine; RIGA: elegant art nouveau architecture, great walks, pretty parks and squares, lively pubs; and VILNIUS: laidback vibe, beautiful baroque churches, hearty food, and wild nightlife.
9. DUBAI: for reasons most travel writers won't tell you: Emirati and Bedouin culture and heritage, the courtyard wind-tower architecture in the Persian Bastakiya neighbourhood, gritty backstreets, Deira 'Creek' views from Bur Dubai, hospitable people, superb restaurants, and a lively contemporary art scene.

10. OMAN: majestic forts that make you feel like a kid again set in lush date palm oases, the Musandam peninsula, the Arabian Norway, the pretty waterfront at Muscat with its stunning harbour, and laidback Muttrah souq.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Or the smartest exercise in exacting (free) travel research ever?

So now I'm wondering if the New York Times was really so naive... perhaps they intended from the outset that their 2008 travel destination list should be as provocative as it has been? Could they really be that smart? Because in those 450+ comments (and rising) they have some high quality research there, stuff that airlines, tour companies and tourist organizations pay top dollars for. They now know - because they certainly didn't before - what kind of travel their readers actually do, which places they really want to go to, and what inspires them to travel. If I was the NYT travel editor and ad sales guys I'd be studying those reader comments, identifying the trends, and determining what destinations are really going to be hot in 2008. And I'd be making sure my editorial and advertising calendars included content on those places and topics, not the silly ones their journalist dreamed up while reviewing the year's luxury assignments over a bottle of bubbly. (It seems Jaunted must have been sharing the bottle because they unquestionably agree with the much-criticized list telling us to grab our pen and pad and - wait for it - not to miss San Diego's Hard Rock Hotel!) I only had to spend ten minutes reading the readers comments to detect some common themes - the rise in popularity of the road trip, slow travel, experiential travel, meaningful travel, authentic travel, volunteerism in travel, responsible travel, and the desire to live like a local - and identify some desirable destinations - Dubai, China, Chile, Sarajevo, Mostar, the Baltic countries, Iceland, Alaska, Quebec, anywhere in Africa it seems, Madagascar, Columbia, Peru, India, and Goa in particular were all mentioned often. Many of those are on my list too.

The most outrageous travel essay in recent history, according to budget travel guru

"The most outrageous travel essay in recent history" is what budget travel guru Arthur Frommer called the New York Times' '53 Places to go in 2008' in a superb analysis of the list. I'd only seen the online version, so if it really took up the amount of space he claims, it must be one of the worst wastages of column inches ever. I wonder if they'll publish an apology. I can't recall the last time travel journalism caused such controversy. I love Arthur Frommer's blog; he makes some brilliant points. But so do the NYT readers. Check out their comments: "shallowest piece of travel writing I've ever read, but thanks for cluing me in on exactly the places to AVOID in 2008. Luxury hotels indeed - what about seeing the actual country as its residents do?"; "This list is a thoughtless mish-mash... but to be fair, this is just for 2008. I suppose traveler(s) could take in Detroit this year and put off seeing Petra (one of the most spectacular and mysterious sites in Jordan) and Paris (the one in France, not the one in Texas) until 2009."; "I would go anywhere that this doesn't list... this list is meaningless."; "Money, money, money... the recent article compiled by DENNY LEE on 53 destinations for EXTREMELY RICH travelers to go to in 2008 is sick!"; and from a New Yorker: "This is disgusting. Does the entire world need to become an extension of our capitalist excess? "Seeing" the world maybe, but you're certainly not going to "experience" other cultures from a luxury gated tourist community."; and - my favorite - "Since when have must see destinations become synonymous with luxury? In my experience the quickest way to isolate yourself from a cultural experience is to check into an exlusive resort. What about all the places where you evaluate the success of your trip by the accumulation of dirt and dust on your rental car?" I can relate to that. We wiped a lot of dust off our hire car at the end of a road trip through Morocco, pictured, and even more red pindan dust after our 17,500 km drive through Western Australia last year, two extraordinary destinations that also went unmentioned.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Why travel wish lists matter, or, why a lack of imagination is a dangerous thing

So why should we care so much if publications like the New York Times get their 'hot new destinations' lists so wrong? Because our leisure time is important to us. For those of you who don't travel for a living, those one or two trips a year should be special. They should be memorable. They should be life-changing. You don't need to be swayed into visiting places where the streets are more crowded with tourists than locals. What's most disappointing about the NYT list is that many of its choices have been based on whether the place has a new golf course or luxury hotel. Now, I love a luxe hotel as much as the next person, but unless that hotel is extraordinary, one new hotel doesn't make a place a great destination. So, shouldn't this logic tell us something about NYT readers? You'd think so, until you read the 450 readers comments. These are the precise things readers object to about the NYT's choices, which reveal more about the publication and its writers than they do about global travel trends and travellers' aspirations. And this is why travel wish lists matter. Because these lists are about inspiring us to travel. And our travel dreams shouldn't be driven by a publication's advertisers or business imperatives, or, perhaps, quite simply, one writer's lack of instinct and imagination.

What's wrong with the New York Times '53 places to go in 2008' list

So what's wrong with the New York Times list?
* LAOS, over Cambodia and Vietnam, because they are "so 2007", and yet Vietnam is included further down the list (?). Does the NYT not realise most travellers visit all three together, and all three are only going to get
* LISBON: NYT tells us it's "emerging" as a cultural destination. Where have these people been? My husband and I wrote a book on Lisbon a few years ago and it is appealing but for a whole lot more reasons I'll share on my 2008 wish list;

* TUNISIA: the NYT's argument is the same as they one we gave in Lonely Planet's Blue List book
last year;
* MAURITIUS, but Mauritius is "so 2005" to use NYT reasoning:
* DEATH VALLEY: who hasn't been here? My alternative: two hot destinations with easily as much dramatic appeal, Western Australia's Kimberly and Pilbara regions, for breathtaking gorges with tranquil natural swimming holes, ancient indigenous rock art, beautiful wildlife, dazzling native Australian wildlflowers, and for the movie buffs, Baz Luhrmann just completed filming his new epic '
Australia' here with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman;
* BUENOS AIRES: NYT tells us "the Argentine capital is becoming South America's next party capital". It has only been South America's party capital for the last ten years! I love the city (wrote a book on BA too) but in 2008, we'll be heading to MONTEVIDEO.
* KUWAIT CITY: p-lease! Even Kuwaitis acknowledge it's the most boring city in the world. The Gulf's next hot destination? ABU DHABI: new eco-resorts, fab new film festival, a Formula One coming to town, and a new museum precinct on Saadiyaat Island with a Guggenheim (set to be the largest), Louvre, and sleek museums designed by the world's greatest architects.
* MAZATLAN, ST LUCIA, ANGUILLA, TUSCANY, MALAGA... give me a break. These are all destinations that have become saturated with tourists.

* MUNICH, LIBYA, IRAN, QUITO, ALEXANDRIA, RIMINI, ESSAOUIRA... now NYT gets it right. Although these are places we'd prefer remain a secret.

There are so many amazing destinations the NYT has missed that you must to go to in 2008. I'm going to start making you a list now. The image here is of one of those magical must-do destinations that tops my list.

The season of listmaking: the New York Times '53 places to go in 2008'

It's that time of year when we all go crazy creating lists: gifts we plan to give, goodies we're going to buy to eat, the Christmas Day menu, New Year's Eve resolutions we're going to make, and places we're going to go in 2008. It seems just like yesterday that we shared some of our own wanderlustful wish lists, and now the New York Times has published its '53 places to go in 2008'. The idea of these 'what's hot next' travel lists is for the travel writer or team of editors to predict the places we are all going to go in the year ahead. The writers should base this on a combination of their own travel experience i.e. they know which destinations have reached tourist saturation point, and which hidden gems are still waiting to be discovered and deserving of some attention; their knowledge of the industry and what's in store for the year ahead; their understanding of global travel trends; and their gut instinct. In this case, the New York Times gets it so very wrong. Not only is their list just plain bizarre, but even its readers are, at best, confused, and at worst, incensed at the choices and reasoning. Go take a look and tell me what you think.

This image, by the way, is a pic of a destination they do get right: Alexandria, Egypt. We were there a couple of years ago and took this from our hotel balcony. Anyone know which hotel it is?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The travelling mind-set: mundane journeys and the banality of travel, part 2

There are people out there who enjoy the banalities of travel other than myself. Anne at Prêt à Voyager writes about the joy she gets out of the mundane wherever she goes. She recently discovered a wonderful book called Mundane Journeys which exalts the little things that people pass everyday in their neighbourhoods that they ordinarily fail to notice. Sub-titled 'A field guide to colour', Kate Pocrass, the author of this gorgeous illustrated guide, hones in on the nuances of colour in her everyday environment. Xander, over at Primitive Culture, does that too in his series of blogs on colour: check out Bangkok Colors: Blue-Green. I find it refreshing that so many people find the everyday inspiring. We rented an apartment for a month in a city last year and this is a little nondescript business we passed every day as we walked to the downtown area. It's nothing special, right? But I love the use of colour. Can you guess where it is?

The travelling mind-set: mundane journeys and the banality of travel, part 1

Do you take pleasure in the prosaic aspects of everyday life? Do you get just as much of a kick out of the commonplace and the ordinariness of your surroundings as you do the exotic and atmospheric? Alain de Botton writes in The Art of Travel about the travelling mind-set and its main characteristic: receptivity. He says what really defines us as travellers is our receptiveness, how we approach new places: "We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall. We find a supermarket or a hairdresser's shop unusually fascinating. We dwell at length on the layout of a menu or the clothes of the presenters on the evening news. We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs." Is that you? That's me all over. This, for instance, is a pic I took in Brussels of some abandoned furniture and trash with this amazing mural as a backdrop. I love it and all that it tells me. I remember my husband and I spending ages taking our snaps and the locals looking at us curiously as they passed by. Why is that?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tackling the tediousness of travel

For those of you who don't like hanging around airports, who don't take some weird pleasure in the tediousness of travel, and who can't simply enjoy those moments of travel anticipation over a glass of bubbly in an airport lounge - we know who are you: you just want to get there - Daily Candy has some advice. Check out Bored Until Boarding for tips on how to occupy your time, from meditating and downloading podcasts to listen to in the taxi on the way to the airport, to tackling to-do lists and playing travel scrabble to escape terminal boredom. And what about: deleting messages on your cell phone (or even calling friends?); deleting emails in your in-box (or just sending a few?); writing a to-do list for when you arrive (mine always begins with: buy a local SIM card); doing some duty-free shopping (something for the hotel fridge?); reading about your destination if you're travelling for pleasure (or even for work); or simply talking to your travelling companion (or - crazy as it sounds - the person you're sitting next to!) Any other ideas?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Travelling Inspirations: air travel blogs

If waiting for your luggage to come off the carousel excites you - you can't wait to get outside the terminal and see what's out there, right? - or one of your favorite film scenes is the one in Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express where the couple fool around with the model airplane in bed, then you're probably an air travel junkie like me. There are some inspirational blogs out there about air travel, airports, airlines, and the aviation industry: Airline Confidential by Richard Havers and Christopher Tiffney, authors of the book of the same name, is an engaging read about the fun of flying, the glamour of air travel, "the crazy wacky world of airlines", and people behaving badly and bizarrely; Another Passport Stamp is a blog about a London-based, American flight attendant's travels, layovers and quests for yet another passport stamp, sprinkled with some delicious eavesdropping and gossip; while Yu Hu Stewardess is the cheeky blog of a 'fly girl' who claims her stories are true but the details have been changed because "nobody wants to get fired or sued" - she hasn't written in a while so let's hope she wasn't fired, but there's some scintillating stuff in her archives! The Wings Stayed On is a commercial pilot's behind-the-scenes blog with some revealing 'day in the life' descriptions while Flight Blogger, sub-titled "if you fly fast enough, the sun never sets", covers the nuts and bolts of the aviation industry - literally - as he takes a look at where production is at on new aircraft (this one's only for the obsessives perhaps). The Airline Blog covers news and rumors in the industry; Thirty Thousand Feet is a blog about all things aviation with a portal with links to more blogs and sites about airlines, airports, and airplanes; while Aircrew Buzz is an aviation news blog with commentary on current events and issues. On a more practical note, In Flight HQ has a tech bent, offering up "tools, tips and techniques for being productive at 30,000 feet"; while One Bag blogs about "the art and science of travelling light", something as a travel writer I find impossible to master with a bag full of technology, books, press kits, and research materials to cart around.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Up up and away: junior jetsetters and the formation of air travel fascination

"Up up and away, with TAA, the friendly, friendly waaaaaay". That was the jingle for long gone Australian airline TAA. My precocious little sister Felicia, aged three, upon seeing the airline logo on the side of the plane, once sang the song at the top of her lungs from the top of the stairs as we boarded a TAA flight in Sydney. We were flying alone and the name cards the air ‘hostess’ had pinned to our chests identified us as junior jetsetters. While the adult passengers and airline staff around us giggled at my cute sister's capricious song, I, taking my jetsetter status a little too seriously for an eleven year old, was terribly embarrassed at the time. Now that moment is one of my fondest childhood travelling memories. My love of air travel, airlines, airplanes and airports was also cemented on that trip.

Although I love everything and anything to do with flying, as I declared in yesterday's blog, I’m not a fan of take-off or landing. I agree with Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel that "few seconds in life are more releasing than those in which a plane ascends to the sky" and I appreciate the "psychological pleasure" of flying he writes so eloquently about, but I think I equally enjoy hanging out at airports and the sense of anticipation that builds as we wait for a flight. I like to read while I wait to board, and naturally I love reading anything to do with airports, airplanes and airlines. A few favorites: Airports: A Century of Architecture, Hugh Pearman's historical and pictorial celebration of the "most exciting places on earth"; Marc Auge’s wonderfully intelligent meditation on airports (and shopping malls, motorways, etc) in Non Places: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Supermodernity; and Alastair Gordon’s compelling Naked Airport: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure.

The sleek airport interior architecture pictured is Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi International Airport. I wonder what the young couple pictured are reading.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Celebration of Air Travel and the Democratization of Travel

I actually enjoy air travel, especially long haul. I'm not a fan of take off and landing, but when I'm up there I still love looking out the window at the incredible cloud formations. Especially at sunset or sunrise. I like to savor that first glass of wine and salty crackers, to discuss the menu with my husband and decide what to eat, and when I'm flying Emirates, I enjoy flicking through their impressive entertainment program and deciding on the films, tv programs and radio shows we're going to kick back to. Which is why I relate to travel writer Pico Iyer who celebrates air travel in 'The Golden Age of Travel' over on Jetlagged: Navigating the Unfriendly Skies, the New York Times' new travel blog. Iyer argues that air travel has never been as comfortable, easy or as affordable as it is now. My husband and I get on and off planes like most commuters do buses and trains - you don't want to know how many flights we took last year - so, aside from the increasingly bad airline food we've experienced of late, I have to agree with Iyer. Criticizing those who complain about airport security and lost luggage, Iyer wonders whether it isn't "the democracy of travel that many of us are objecting to these days when we speak of more crowded planes and long lines at the airport". And I think he has a point. I like the fact that in the UAE, for instance, most of the passengers using the excellent low-cost airline Air Arabia are labourers, construction workers and truck drivers travelling between Dubai and their homes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, and so on. Their check-in luggage includes, alongside gifts for their families (boxes of dates, toys for the kids), rolled-up foam mattresses, blankets, and enormous containers of clean water - the necessities most of us take for granted. The cheap flights mean that rather than flying home once every year or two, these guys can now fly home more frequently. And take back with them goods their families might otherwise miss out on. We rarely see any white well-off travellers on these Air Arabia's flights, and that's a shame. Or is it?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tourism and 'hospitality': the little extras

How is this for an appetizing image? This delectable little morsel of spicy deep fried chicken, served with sweet Thai chilli sauce, was delivered to the door of our room (more like an apartment) at the sublime Aleenta by three of the resort's restaurant chefs. In full chef's kit, they brandished big trays of tiny shot glasses holding these tasty teasers. And with enormous smiles they handed me a couple of the aromatic tidbits with some crisp white napkins and silver cutlery. "A taster of our food in restaurant tonight," one chef smiled. What a an idea! Not only was this another display of that terrific hospitality the Thais are so famous for, but it whetted our appetite and give us a hint of what was to come that night. It also came at a perfect time - sunset - and made me immediately want to crack open a bottle of white.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Welcome Drink

What's so special about the welcome drink? What does it really mean? I recently wrote about welcome drinks on Grantourismo: "Immediately after your arrival at a hotel in Thailand – after you’ve been greeted with a “sawadee-kaa” from all the hotel staff accompanied by the traditional ‘wai’ gesture (hands shaped as if ready for prayer) – you’re ushered to a comfy seat and offered an icy cold face towel, usually scented with aromatic lemongrass, along with a welcome drink. While the icy face towels are particularly welcomed in Thailand’s sultry heat, it’s the welcome drinks we really enjoyed. We love the variety, from the Four Season Koh Samui’s frothy pink cocktail of guava, mango juice and sparkling ginger ale, to the Muang Kulaypan’s whole coconut filled with fresh sweet coconut juice (pictured)..." So what is it really about welcome drinks that we love? Apart from how refreshing they might be? Do we really place that much importance on them? Would we really care if we weren't offered one? And what do they mean? They're a gesture of hospitality, it goes without saying. And hotels are in the business of 'tourism and hospitality' so it's a gesture we should expect. Then why are we so delighted to be handed a glass of water and damp face cloth? Is it because someone has shown us that they care? Some cultures place more emphasis on these gestures of goodwill than others. We've lived in the Middle East for ten years and everything that's said about Arab hospitality is true. You can't enter a carpet shop in Dubai, Cairo, Damascus, or Marrakesh without being offered tea. Water is brought automatically without asking. It goes without saying you can expect the same in most shops and businesses, in banks even, and, naturally, in people's (even stranger's) homes. Is it that in 'the West' we appreciate the hotel welcome drink so much more because these gestures of hospitality are missing from our everyday life?

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Liquid Travels: coffee, tea or chai?

While I love lingering over some exotic local liquor at a rickety table on a sunny square somewhere, and taking 'home' those liquid travel memories to recollect later (note: they can especially come in handy on a wintery day in a dreary office when you're feeling a little down - so store them up!), I equally enjoy trying tea and coffee in other countries. Tea, generally being called chai or chay everywhere in the world except where I come from, is a favourite. While coffee can be terribly disappointing - especially when the 'premium' coffee on offer is Nescafe, as it is many simple coffee shops in South American and Middle Eastern countries - tea, at its worst, is at least interesting. This tea we tried at a small market in a tiny village near Phrao in Thailand's north was subtle in its sweetness and strength, and while it wasn't unique or unusual, it was, to me, just right - it was pretty close to being the perfect glass of tea. That's a flavour that I won't easily forget. And with that memory comes (like a series of email attachments) images of the table we sat at, the people we were with, the woman who served the tea who was lovely (albeit tired - she'd been up all night serving tea to late workers and early risers), the market stalls and their produce, the surrounding countryside (rice paddies), and the weather on that day (fortunately the rain held off until we were nearly 'home'. But the wonderful thing about liquid (and culinary) memories is the additional rememberance of 'taste'. Don't you think?