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Monday, February 16, 2009

What does it mean to be 'offbeat' in an age where everyone is so 'switched on'?

If something is 'offbeat', it's strange, quirky, eccentric, so travel to offbeat destinations means visiting weird places and seeing unusual things that the average tourist might not think (or want) to see. Right? Travel writer Kim Wildman wrote 'Offbeat South Africa: the travel guide to the whacky and wonderful' which the blurb describes as "a guide and tribute to the strange and surreal people, places and things that make this country great... an off-the-radar directory of idiosyncratic attractions for all those who have dreamt of... following the road less travelled..." which serves as a helpful definition here. I'm sure the book brilliantly directs travellers to the quirkiest and kitschiest attractions. Now these reflections aren't motivated by Kim's book (more on where I'm going with this in the next post), but what I'm wondering is... how 'offbeat' is anything in an age when travellers are so 'switched on', when they're not only researching trips through guidebooks, but also using websites, discussion forums, travel blogs and Twitter, as The Guardian's Benji Lanyado did in Paris last week. If everyone is so in touch, so up on the latest and strangest, so aware of the (once) hidden local gems, those secret and unusual places simply aren't secret or unusual anymore. The (no longer) off-the-beaten-track destinations, from the smoke-filled bo-ho cafes only those 'in the know' supposedly knew to that odd little secondhand clothes shop on a deserted backlane in some out of the way suburb that nobody ever visited but the people who live there, are no longer less-travelled or 'alternative'. They become mainstream, and therefore no longer 'offbeat'. Don't you think?

Pictured? One of the many Ettamogah Pubs (this one in Western Australia), inspired by cartoonist Ken Maynard's Ettamogah Pub that appeared in Australia's long-running (now-defunct) Australasian Post magazine. Is it kitsch? Is it offbeat? Or is it one of those examples of crass Australiana that we're no longer sure whether we should cringe over or embrace with pride? Or is it just a dumb tourist attraction? A fascinating case study I'll save for another time.

6 comments:

Kim Wildman said...

Hi Lara, thanks for the plug for my book! Personally I believe there is a difference between 'offbeat' attractions and anything that is considered a 'hidden gem' or claimed to be 'off the beaten track'. For me what makes an attraction 'offbeat' is more than just its location or the fact that it is considered 'strange', 'unusual', or 'weird' – it is the story behind them (How did they got there? Who created them and why?), that makes them so fascinating. For example, I'd never call The Ettamogah Pub 'offbeat' as it was designed specifically as a tourist attraction, whereas Ronnie's Sex Shop in the Klein Karoo in South Africa was a failing farm store on a lonely strip of highway until one night when Ronnie's friends decided to play a drunken prank on him and added the word 'sex' to its name – sure enough it soon stopped traffic. While Ronnie’s has certainly slipped into the mainstream (it's now a pub/restaurant) it is the story of how it suddenly became a destination on the tourist map that makes it 'offbeat'.

I think what your comments have highlighted though is that as travellers we need to dig deeper. To simply treat a place or an attraction, whether it is 'offbeat', a 'hidden gem' or 'on the tourist trail', like is an item to be ticked off your 'to do' list is to have missed the point of travel altogether. Dig deeper and find out what its story is. Also, I'm a big believer of looking around and discovering what else lies beyond the viewfinder. Just because all the travel brochures and postcards show Paris by picturing the Eiffel Tower, doesn't mean that this is the best view/picture of Paris. Turn around and take a picture of what is behind you or wander up a quiet side street and take a look around. You just might be pleasantly surprised with what you see!

Kim Wildman said...

Hi Lara, thanks for the plug for my book! Personally I believe there is a difference between 'offbeat' attractions and anything that is considered a 'hidden gem' or claimed to be 'off the beaten track'. For me what makes an attraction 'offbeat' is more than just its location or the fact that it is considered strange, unusual, or weird – it is the story behind them (How did they get there? Who created them and why?), that makes them so fascinating. For example, I'd never call The Ettamogah Pub 'offbeat' as it was designed specifically as a tourist attraction, whereas Ronnie's Sex Shop in the Klein Karoo in South Africa was a failing farm store on a lonely strip of highway until one night when Ronnie's friends decided to play a drunken prank on him and added the word 'sex' to its name – sure enough it soon stopped traffic. While Ronnie's has certainly slipped into the mainstream (it's now a pub/restaurant) it is the story of how it suddenly became a destination on the tourist map that makes it 'offbeat'.

I think what your comments have highlighted is that as travellers we need to dig deeper. To simply treat a place or an attraction, whether it is 'offbeat', a 'hidden gem' or 'on the tourist trail', like is an item to be ticked off your 'to do' list is to have missed the point of travel altogether. Dig deeper and find out what its story is. Also, I’m a big believer of looking around and discovering what else lies beyond the viewfinder. Just because all the travel brochures and postcards show Paris by picturing the Eiffel Tower, doesn’t mean that this is the best view/picture of Paris. Turn around and take a picture of what is behind you or wander up a quiet side street and take a look around. You just might be pleasantly surprised with what you see!

(P.S. Sorry if I've published this twice!)

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Kim

Good to hear from you - and to hear your theories on the offbeat.

I guess being offbeat isn't necessarily the same as being 'off-the-beaten-track' or being a hidden gem, but the offbeat attractions were often hidden, insider secrets, and off-the-beaten-track sights in the past. But now the offbeat (which was by its name unconventional) seems to be more mainstream.

That probably doesn't reflect anything to do with the originality or quirkiness of the thing, but more an increasing number of travellers' quests for unusual and unique experiences.

I'm totally with you on looking for the story in a sight, attraction, place... it only adds to the complexity of the experience, making our travel more meaningful... and of finding new ways of seeing (as John Berger said), to see something old with fresh eyes... I think I feel a post coming on! Thanks for the inspiration!

Sandy O'Sullivan said...

I have to say that when I hear the term 'offbeat', I do imagine that it's aimed at people who are incredibly conventional and want to have an 'experience'. Just that offbeat stuff, particularly in travel writing, is so often aimed at people with little imagination... okay that is a bit mean. But what I think is that the word, just like travel writing itself, has to assume that everyone is the same... unless of course it really identifies its market. So for instance if Frommers had an offbeat guide, I might expect something quite different to the Lonely Planet offbeat guide... and different again to the even more obscure or clearly defined target groups. I think of it a bit like I think of the gay and lesbian travel guides that are out there, which frankly I always find really strange. I've tried to love them or at least use them, but they assume that you are 22, probably a bloke, and certainly only interested in hooking up. And while there are always a few alternative bits of useful stuff... does anyone really buy a guidebook for two bits of info, usually related to good coffee (for which I would much prefer to buy, say, a book on coffee). And part of the problem is that my experience of being an old lesbian is a bit different to some young boy's response to being fabulous and gay.

Having said all of that... nowadays a printed travel guide is so much less likely to be up to date and accurate in terms of the sort of immediate currency stuff (costs, locations, events, places still in operation, any changes etc) compared to the web that I tend to want my travel writing to be more about the experience that the writer has had, and for this reason those guides that have multiple contributors, with quite different backgrounds, really work best for me. And so, offbeat, in that context might be a part of that.

I think the other thing that you mentioned Lara, was the idea that we are all so switched on now... that's it, but also we do travel so much more than ever before, and internationally too, that the usual 'see the Eiffel Tower, see London Bridge' etc don't quite work in the same way. I think that guides that fail to be off-beat (from that stuff anyway) are going to become irrelevant.

Sandy O'Sullivan said...

I have to say that when I hear the term 'offbeat', I do imagine that it's aimed at people who are incredibly conventional and want to have an 'experience'. Just that offbeat stuff, particularly in travel writing, is so often aimed at people with little imagination... okay that is a bit mean. But what I think is that the word, just like travel writing itself, has to assume that everyone is the same... unless of course it really identifies its market. So for instance if Frommers had an offbeat guide, I might expect something quite different to the Lonely Planet offbeat guide... and different again to the even more obscure or clearly defined target groups. I think of it a bit like I think of the gay and lesbian travel guides that are out there, which frankly I always find really strange. I've tried to love them or at least use them, but they assume that you are 22, probably a bloke, and certainly only interested in hooking up. And while there are always a few alternative bits of useful stuff... does anyone really buy a guidebook for two bits of info, usually related to good coffee (for which I would much prefer to buy, say, a book on coffee). And part of the problem is that my experience of being an old lesbian is a bit different to some young boy's response to being fabulous and gay.

Having said all of that... nowadays a printed travel guide is so much less likely to be up to date and accurate in terms of the sort of immediate currency stuff (costs, locations, events, places still in operation, any changes etc) compared to the web that I tend to want my travel writing to be more about the experience that the writer has had, and for this reason those guides that have multiple contributors, with quite different backgrounds, really work best for me. And so, offbeat, in that context might be a part of that.

I think the other thing that you mentioned Lara, was the idea that we are all so switched on now... that's it, but also we do travel so much more than ever before, and internationally too, that the usual 'see the Eiffel Tower, see London Bridge' etc don't quite work in the same way. I think that guides that fail to be off-beat (from that stuff anyway) are going to become irrelevant.

Sandy O'Sullivan said...

I have to say that when I hear the term 'offbeat', I do imagine that it's aimed at people who are incredibly conventional and want to have an 'experience'. Just that offbeat stuff, particularly in travel writing, is so often aimed at people with little imagination... okay that is a bit mean. But what I think is that the word, just like travel writing itself, has to assume that everyone is the same... unless of course it really identifies its market. So for instance if Frommers had an offbeat guide, I might expect something quite different to the Lonely Planet offbeat guide... and different again to the even more obscure or clearly defined target groups. I think of it a bit like I think of the gay and lesbian travel guides that are out there, which frankly I always find really strange. I've tried to love them or at least use them, but they assume that you are 22, probably a bloke, and certainly only interested in hooking up. And while there are always a few alternative bits of useful stuff... does anyone really buy a guidebook for two bits of info, usually related to good coffee (for which I would much prefer to buy, say, a book on coffee). And part of the problem is that my experience of being an old lesbian is a bit different to some young boy's response to being fabulous and gay.

Having said all of that... nowadays a printed travel guide is so much less likely to be up to date and accurate in terms of the sort of immediate currency stuff (costs, locations, events, places still in operation, any changes etc) compared to the web that I tend to want my travel writing to be more about the experience that the writer has had, and for this reason those guides that have multiple contributors, with quite different backgrounds, really work best for me. And so, offbeat, in that context might be a part of that.

I think the other thing that you mentioned Lara, was the idea that we are all so switched on now... that's it, but also we do travel so much more than ever before, and internationally too, that the usual 'see the Eiffel Tower, see London Bridge' etc don't quite work in the same way. I think that guides that fail to be off-beat (from that stuff anyway) are going to become irrelevant.