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Friday, September 28, 2007

Aspirational travel: wanderlust and wish lists

What is it about wish lists? Don't you love them? And no more so than when they're travel wish lists. Inspired by Decorno's What's Next for Travel blog which asked "What's on your list? Where does everyone want to go?", Franki Durban at LifeInAVentiCup wrote on Wanderlust: "I found myself unable to complete a list. I simply have too many places I hope to experience, and I won't stop until I've seen them all. Seriously, if it's on the list, I'm going, and I don't intend to leave this marble until I've completed my journey." I'm with Franki. And I enjoyed creating my own: Yemen, Iran, Libya, the Ukraine, Guatemala, Zanzibar, Madagascar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Malta, Serbia, and Montenegro. I could go on. Why is that? Why do we enjoy list-making so much? Lonely Planet do well from their Blue List book and its companion website where you create your own 'bluelist' to recommend a travel experience. The glossy travel magazines publish lists all the time: top ten destinations, world's best beaches, top 100 hotels, etc. National Geographic Traveler has just released its 'Places of a Lifetime' list and guides to those cities - you can read our Dubai guide there soon! What we're really doing when we create our travel wish list is defining our dream destinations and travel aspirations. Our lists - and those of others - inspire us to move.

Buenos Aires: tango and experiential travel

I'm not sure if Sally Potter and her beautiful film The Tango Lesson were responsible or whether it's more indicative of a larger tendency in travel - to travel to learn - but the trend of foreigners travelling to Buenos Aires to take tango lessons is so extraordinary it constitutes a phenomenon. The dance has also enjoyed a revival among locals. Walk down any of San Telmo's streets in the early evening and glance through a door and you're guaranteed to see a traveller, young or old, in jeans and t-shirts, taking lessons from a dapper old gentleman in jacket and tie or a distinguished woman, her black hair pulled back into a ballerina's bun. There are tango schools all over the city and private lessons posted on notice boards at hostels and supermarkets. Hotels such as the wonderful Mansion Dandi Royal offer tango packages including lessons in their own tango salon. The most popular place to learn is in the splendid Confiteria Ideal, a faded old café with an atmospheric dance hall upstairs which operates classes day and night, followed by a milonga, or social dance, where you get to practice with the locals. You can read more about experiencing tango in our new book Buenos Aires Encounter, but what most fascinates me is the flourishing trend of experiential travel. Travellers want to educate their minds and stimulate their senses. Cooking courses in Tuscany. Arabic lessons in Damascus. Elephant trekking in Thailand. Wine-making in Napa. Travel choices increasingly seem to be as much about what to do as where to go. As the slogan of adventure and experiential tour operator iExplore says, people want to "come back different", while i-to-i, a site that offers volunteering experiences, teaching opportunities and community projects abroad, is all about "meaningful travel". I'm not so sure you need to do an organized activity or tour to fully experience a place. You can sign up for a course in something when you arrive. The important thing is to just go. Figure out what to do when you get there.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

San Telmo #4: browsing bric-a-brac

I've probably reminisced enough about San Telmo. I've told you about the lively weekend Feria de San Telmo that takes over Plaza Dorrego and floods Defensa street with a sea of people, and the marvelous Mercado de San Telmo where you must go and eat. But I want to tell you two more things. Apart from the delicious fresh food and colourful eateries, the mercado is home to compelling stalls crammed with bric-a-brac and tango memorabilia and cluttered shops trading in antiques and collectibles, vintage clothes and accessories, and all sorts of other fascinating curios. A 1940s Argentine movie poster, an original Carlos Gardel record, or a cobalt blue seltzer bottle, perhaps? As engaging as the shopping is - and you can while away hours here - you mustn't forget to look up at the skylights and admire the wrought-iron detail. The wonderful building, dating back to 1897, was designed by Juan Antonio Buschiazzo, an Italian-born architect who also created the ornate Recoletta Cemetery. What is it about that combination of atmospheric shopping and old architecture that is so appealing when we we travel?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

San Telmo #3: local experiences

As all good travellers know, there's nothing like a local fresh food market for picnic supplies, indigenous specialties, edible souvenirs (Dulce de Leche, anyone?), or simply a hearty meal. Wherever we travel, the local market is always one of our first stops; it's a window into the society, a microcosm of that city or country. The mercado de San Telmo is no exception and it's one of my favorite markets. Locals exchange gossip and laughter with the vendors as they select their purchases from the freshest of fruit, vegetables, cheeses, and meats, much better quality here than in the supermarket. Throughout the day porteños enjoy tasty Argentine favorites such as bife de lomo (tenderloin steak) or chinchulines (intestines!) from the colorful stalls inside or the simple parrillas (meat grill eateries) outside, while late at night they share beers and empanadas al fresco at the pavement tables with their friends. Experiences don't come more local than this.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

San Telmo #2: bohemian Buenos Aires

San Telmo is a gritty suburb of skinny cobblestone streets with a mishmash of colonial and belle epoque architecture. It often gets a bad wrap, accused of being 'touristy'. But San Telmo is actually one of Buenos Aires' most bohemian barrios, with a working class population, uni students sinking cheap beers each night in its myriad bars, and emerging young artists and designers hanging their stuff in the cooperative fashion and art spaces. Weekends are when the 'tourists' literally flood San Telmo's streets for the lively street market, coming from all over Buenos Aires and beyond for the antiques, bric-a-brac and hippy handicrafts. Orchestras and bands perform on the pavements. Merchants sell hot nuts, corn on the cob and empanadas. The tango is danced on the street and after the markets are packed away locals fill the square of Plaza Dorrego for a milonga, or social dance. While we like the barrio of a weeknight when the streets can be eerily empty and quiet, and most people wandering them are locals, weekends are when we like San Telmo best, when the barrio really buzzes, and everybody enjoys being a tourist. Even if it's just for a day.

San Telmo #1: bliss in Buenos Aires

Remembering my days of journal writing at cafés and bars such as El Hipopotamo started a string of reveries about the bewitching Buenos Aires barrio of San Telmo. We rented an apartment in Buenos Aires for a few months earlier this year, using it as a base to research the city for a book. San Telmo was our home for the first two months. We lived like locals, getting our groceries at the little almacen, or general store, downstairs. We trod the same streets every day on our way back and forth to the Microcentro, Retiro, Monserrat, Congreso and other areas we needed to explore for our book. Every night we frequented our neighbourhood restaurants, cafés and bars, eating late like Porteños, as Buenos Aires' residents are called. And when we had to stay in to write we'd buy a bottle of Malbec downstairs and piping hot empanadas from the nearby empanaderia, watching football on television with the locals while we waited for our order. Faces became familiar and hanging out in the 'hood was something to look forward to. Why is it that we fly half way around the world to try and live as we would at 'home'? And why is it that living as much like a local as we can is so much more enjoyable than experiencing the place as a tourist?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Travelling: journals

Are you a journal writer? Do you keep a journal when you travel or does your blog suffice? When I was younger, before I became a professional travel writer, I used to keep journals whenever I travelled. I'd write most days, usually with a drink in hand, from my hotel balcony, an al fresco café or the window table of an atmospheric bar somewhere. Like this one at El Hipopotamo in San Telmo, Buenos Aires. I'd document my journeys and reflect upon my experiences and the people I had met. And I'd muse about the nature of travel more generally. I'd paste in labels, tickets, postcards, and other paraphernalia. Don't we all? But now, I find it impossible. I make random notes for a book my partner and I are planning to write about our experience on the road as we travel the globe, living out of our suitcases for 21 months. But mostly I'm too busy keeping the practical notebooks on cities and countries that are the basis of our research for the guidebooks and stories we write. They're crammed with business cards, notes from hotel inspections, reviews of restaurants, cafés, bars, clubs, sights, museums, galleries and so on, along with scrawled bus times, internet café details, driving directions, opening hours and prices, occasional jottings from interviews, and descriptions of landscapes and citiescapes and the people who inhabit them. I'd like to be able to return to the days of leisurely journal writing. In the meantime I'll admire other people's imaginative efforts, such as those of the 1000 Journals which are currently travelling the globe; the delightful, a blog by a journal keeper (thank you, Prêt à Voyager); and the exquisite journals of Dan Eldon, a travel enthusiast and photojournalist who died a tragic death in Somalia at 22. His beautiful but short life is documented on a website and in a book 'The Journey is the Destination' by his mother and sister. Do let me know if there are any other great travel journal blogs or books out there.

Travelling: inspirational travel blogs

For those of you inspired to travel by well-crafted words and alluring images, there are some truly inspirational travel blogs on the web worth checking out: The Lost Girls is a sassy blog by three New York gals who gave up their desirable jobs to see the world (read 20 Reasons We Took Off and you'll soon be writing a resignation letter! Unfortunately two of the girls recently stopped traveling but one is still on the road. And besides, there's still lots of great back-reading for you to do!); on Girl Solo in Arabia Carolyn McIntyre ruminates on the fascinating destinations she visits as she traces the footsteps of the great Arab traveller Ibn Battuta; part 'what's on' guide to Baltimore and part musings on travel and design, Prêt à Voyager will have you tossing a coin, heads=Baltimore or tails=the world; the fabulous Franki Durbin posts on style, design and travel on Life in a Venti Cup (her motto says it all: "Life is too short to think small. So live large. Live with style. Live with adventure. Live venti." Franki recently interviewed me on her blog.); Beijing Notebook collects the everyday observations of a German-born expat artist as she adjusts to life in the smoggy city (expect anything from a rundown on the all-knowing Beijing drivers to insider suggestions on how to spend your time); and the same blogger has a wonderful blog called Palazzo Pizzo about the charming Calabrian town of Pizzo where she and her Italian husband have bought a grand house they're renovating; you'll find everything from musings on Mediterranean ceramic titles to things to do in Pizzo - eating icecream and swordfish (not together) tops the list! Are there any great travel blogs out there that I've missed? And who can guess where I took this photo?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Travelling: inspirational reads

Nothing inspires me to travel more than a wonderful work of travel literature. Don't you love sitting in the sun, ideally by the sea somewhere, and getting lost in a great piece of travel lit? Then putting the book down for a bit and dreaming about your destination? To make our lives easier, Condé Nast Traveler has compiled a list of 86 greatest travel books of all time. Check it and choose away. Is there something they've missed? And don't forget to let me know what inspires you to travel by doing my latest travel poll.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Travelling: inspirations #2

So what really inspires you to travel? For me, it's any number of things. Take this picture. It's a favorite of mine. To me, it says 'paradise'. As clichéd as it may be - tranquil fishing cove, creamy sand beach, crystal clear aquamarine sea, and tropical palm trees - it makes me yearn to return to Thailand.

Just what inspires you to travel is something I think about every day, every time my fingers hit the keys and I start to type, whether it's a new guidebook or magazine article or one of my little blogs. When I write, I not only want to share information, insider secrets and hidden gems so that you have the best time you're ever going to have. I also want to be the one to inspire you to buy that plane ticket and pack your bags. So what really inspires you to travel? I've added a new poll on the topic, so do let me know.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Travelling: inspirations #1

Octopus hanging out to dry. There aren't many images that scream summer more than this for me. While I'm most reminded of Greece, I took my picture in southern Thailand late one steamy midsummer afternoon before it rained. I was admiring some summer images taken in my favorite Moroccan seaside town when I stumbled across a blog I've now become smitten with, an especially inspiring journal about a young woman's journey as she builds a magical guesthouse in Marrakesh that is as much about 'place' as it is about 'travel'. The author is Maryam who seems lovely but her blog is irresistible. She's a kindred spirit who loves Essaouira as much as I do and I adore her enchanting writing about everyday moments and her poetry about places. Read her 'rickshaw reveries' in Dhaka:

Give me the open air!
Give me the wind in my hair!
Give me the color, give me the kitsch,
give me the one-of-a-kind!

But what I most love are her musings about her dying summer holiday in Essaouira.

Our Summer in Essaouira. It came and then it was a-snap-of-the-fingers over.
Did we spend it as we should have? Did we rest enough? Did we play enough?
The picnics - should there have been more?
Did we skip enough stones?
Did we collect enough shells?
Did we jump enough waves?

Don't we ask ourselves if we did enough at the end of every summer vacation? Did we dry enough octopus? Does she inspire you to go to Dhaka or Essaouira? Don't you just want to pack your bags right now?

Summer holidays: Beijing

Beijing. My picture of the Pekingese pup perched on a shelf (as if for sale) outside a hole in the wall store in a backstreet of a Beijing hutong reminds me of our last summer there. A monsoon of memories, provoked by potent images, comes to mind - don't you love the way our memories sort, collate and retrieve images at will? Albeit somewhat imperfectly, but I'm thankful all the same. The first image is that of two little girls and their mother whom we met in the Forbidden City. I'd been looking forward to seeing the City but the weather was awful (sweltering, steamy, smoggy) and the air quality dreadful (it was difficult to breathe) so my memories are as hazy as the City was on that day. My strongest memory, however, is of this charming affable (even playful) mother and her adorable children who chatted to us for a short time. The little girls wore these kitsch souvenir headdresses that I became smitten with (yes, I ended up buying one) and after speaking to them for just a little while, I didn't want to leave. They were on their summer holidays and they were generous, even lazy, with their time, casual and carefree, and in no hurry to go anywhere. That's something about summer that I love. That easygoing temperament that overcomes us with the warm weather come July and August. Where does our patience go the rest of the year? Regardless, thank god it returns. And there was something about them that I envied. They were having fun. It was their summer holiday after all. I think I've forgotten what it's like to have a holiday... and a summer one at that.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Travelling: potent images

What is it about those memorable travel moments, like mine with the Moroccan cat, that are so enduring? Is it because it's a moment that could never have been anticipated? No amount of information in the guidebook, on travelocity or in the glossy travel magazines could have prepared me for that unexpected stop at a coffee shop on a cold day in a remote Moroccan town. And yet these chance encounters and those elements of surprise are exactly what we hope for and expect from the experience of travel. We covet serendipitous moments, intoxicating experiences and potent images that we can take home and cherish and unconsciously compress into a compelling narrative. We want travel stories we can tell. Don't we? Did I ever tell you about the time we came across a cute Pekingese on a walk through Beijing? Now, there should have been nothing unexpected about that.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Morocco: the cute cats you meet on the road

I've said before I'm only going to show you a picture and I've invariably ended up sharing the story behind the image. This time I promise I'm only going to show you this snap I took on our last road trip in Morocco. I won't bore you with the story behind this magical meeting unless you want to know. I want you to enjoy the moment. You must agree this cat is cute. I love this wise world weary guy, don't you? But naturally I'm fond of the story behind the moment.

Essaouira: backstreet barbershop

I've said enough about enchanting Essaouira. I wonder, have I really? For now, I just want to show you this picture of a backstreet barbershop in the medina. I'm not sure what appeals to me most, the old-fashioned charm of the interior - take a look at those curtains! - the groovy Arabic type on the glass, the peeling blue paint on the window rim, the intensity of the barber cutting hair inside, or the bouffant on the handsome bloke in the black and white picture. Do you think there's ever been a man who has sat down in that chair and pointed to that picture and said "I'll have one of those"?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Essaouira, the beautifully designed

Now that I've started, I can't stop dreaming about the medina of old Mogador now known as Essaouira, 'the beautifully designed'. It's one of those enchanting towns where everything about it is bewitching. Close your eyes. Now, imagine a whitewashed walled town trimmed with sky blue. Its stone buildings are entered through arches that lead to tranquil courtyards with trickling fountains, balconies above, and stairs that take you to a secret terrace from where you can gaze at the eternally blue sky. Picture a bustling main pedestrian 'street' with stalls selling aromatic herbs and spices alongside lingerie stores displaying mannequins clad in bras and headscarves. In the back streets are labyrinthine narrow alleys and charming squares lined with Aladdin cave-like shops strewn with colorful striped kilims, Oriental lamps, prettily painted tables, silver Moroccan tea pots, delicate coloured glasses, and beautiful trays and boxes handcrafted from Essaouira's famous polished thuya wood. On one side of the town waves crash against its walls and you can walk along the ramparts to see the sea and Mogador island. On the other side of the town's terracotta walls are the shadows of swaying palm trees and art galleries selling the vibrant naive art of Essaouira's many talented artists. There's a busy little harbour of blue boats, fishermen repairing their nets, scrawny cats scrutinizing their catch of the day, and stalls serving up fried sardines. Nearby is Essaouira's beautiful creamy sand beach, windsurfers taking advantage of the wild trade winds, kids playing soccer on the sand, and camels offering up their humps for rides. Ah, Essaouira.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Travelling: scents and sentimentality

Thinking about our Moroccan road trip, I'm reminded of Essaouira. Ah, Essaouira. One of my favourite places to be in this world. Enchanting blue and white walled town on the sea it may be, but it's the smells of the place that most remind me of Essaouira. Obviously the scent of the sea (and the sting of the wind on my cheeks, and the taste of salt on my tongue). But mostly the smell of fish. Fresh fish untangled from nets on the decks of the blue and white boats. Fried fish cooked at the makeshift wooden kitchen-stalls by the harbour. The putrid smell of raw sewage in the ramshackle old Jewish quarter (picture blue and whitewashed buildings once again). The aromas of fresh herbs and heady spices at the bustling souq in town. Ah, the scent of fresh mint is the scent I remember most. You know how it is when you squeeze a bunch between your hands? When you sniff the damp scent on your hands afterwards? Ah, for me, that's the smell I most associate with Essaouira. The scent that most drives my nostalgia. Ah, Essaouira.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Morocco: the people you meet, part 4

I've shared with you my love of the road trip and the people you meet along the way. Nowhere is a road trip more satisfying than in Morocco. Syria comes a close second and Western Australia follows not far behind. But our road trips in Morocco have brought us the most pleasure. Like the time we drove from Marrakesh to Essaouira. We must have stopped a dozen times. The first was to snap some pics of goats standing in an Argan tree eating its leaves. (Have you ever tasted the nutty Argan oil? Dip some bread in it - it's delicious.) Our second stop is still the most vivid of the trip for me. We pulled over to admire the artful loading of blue and yellow sacks of golden hay on the back of a couple of unhappy beasts of burden, a rather handsome long-lashed camel and his less attractive donkey friend. Their young master seemed to take much amusement from their groans. And even more amusement from our interest. That's what I love about travel, that the pleasure of people meeting on the road is often two way.

Travelling: the road trip, part 1

What I love about the road trip is that wonderful sense of freedom you get from being in control of your own journey. Unlike travel by buses, trains, boats, and planes where you're at the mercy of misguided timetables, manic drivers and antiquated machinery, when you're at the wheel of your own vehicle you can choose to be as hurried or as lazy as you desire. If you need to get from A to B quickly you can put your foot down. If you want to take it slowly and explore the back roads you can be as spontaneous and as adventurous as you like. Most of all, I love being able to give a little wave to locals we pass - whether it's a shepherd on a donkey or farmers working their fields. And if they generously return the gesture, I like that we can turn the car around and go back to say hello. Road signs, murals and graffiti are also worth slowing down for - like my Marrakesh Mona Lisa and this enchanting palm tree in the palm of a hand in Morocco - they say so much about a place, don't you think?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Travelling: the journey, part 2

I asked you what happened to 'the journey'? The destination seemed to me to now dominate our travels. My friend Mike Ross emailed me: "My impression is that the origins of a 'sense of adventure' come from a historic disatisfaction with our present surroundings: the adventurers of old weren't looking for anywhere in particular to go to, rather they just wanted to get the fuck out of whatever hole they were currently living in. To this end, it should be the journey that is most important, not necessarily the destination. Indeed, while we clamber to get out of our offices for even the shortest vacation, it's not the adventure of travel that excites us, simply the prospect of being somewhere far away from where we are... sure there are still a few of us itching to sample a 2-day train ride down India's east coast, riding on top of a 1950s school bus as it winds through the Andes or taking a hot-air balloon across the Saudi Arabian empty quarter, but for the majority - who can't afford Business Class - they'd rather not travel at all; they'd like to be there already. Therein lies the inherent dilemma of modern travel; should we even be calling it 'travelling' or should it be called 'being somewhere else'?" And there's an idea for the next poll.

Travelling: the journey, part 1

So what happened to 'the journey' then? We used to get as excited about how we travelled - whether it was a flight, road trip or train ride - as we did about the destination. In my recent poll, I asked you whether that had changed, and - carbon footprints aside - if you still enjoyed the journey itself: 57% of you said you love train rides, 42% preferred ferry/boat journeys, 36% road trips, a surprising 26% still liked flying, 21% just want to get there, and only 10% of you enjoy bus rides. Me, I prefer road trips. And I don't even drive. I love to plan the journey, plot our path out on a map, find fascinating side-trips and diversions, calculate the mileage, and navigate our route. Somewhat guiltily, I admit I also enjoy gazing out the window, snapping pics in the rear vision mirror, and getting lost in my surroundings, reflections and reveries. Until I need to figure out how far it is to the next gas station. How about you?

Friday, September 7, 2007

Travelling: peoplewatching #4

My memories of travel are invariably related to people, whether it's the people we meet on the road or people we watch as we sit on a main square some place. I often wonder why that is. One of my most vivid memories of our drive to the Great Wall of China is that of the bored attendants kicking back at a gas station on the way. How is it that people and their everyday moments fascinate me as much as one of the world's greatest monuments?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Travelling: peoplewatching #3

Sometimes when you're travelling it's just as compelling to watch people who are bored as it is to watch people who are engaged. Why do you think that is?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Travelling: peoplewatching #2

Each weekend the lively Feria de Mataderos, Market of Slaughter- houses, is held in Buenos Aires' outer working class suburb of Mataderos. It's a vibrant celebration of meat, gaucho culture and rural life, with barbecues, food and craft stalls, folk music and dancing, and the highlight of the day, the sortija. Skillful horsemen in traditional gaucho dress gallop down the street at top-speed. Standing in their saddles, they hold a tiny spear which they aim at a small ring dangling from a ribbon. The winners are those who succeed in spearing the ring and when they do the crowd erupts in cheers. The competition is exhilarating but just as exciting as seeing this spectacle is watching the people watch the event. Their faces reflect the intensity, focus, fear, anticipation, disappointment, and joy of the gauchos. It's about much more than enjoying a sport or tradition, it's about appreciating raw emotion and human spirit.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Travelling: peoplewatching #1

Outside one of Bangkok's big malls, a local pop star appeared and prepared to perform. The crowd of kids who'd been waiting patiently in front of the stage went wild. Mobile phones and cameras were raised in the air to snap pics of the pretty pop princess. From the pedestrian bridge above, however, we were much more interested in watching the kids watching her than we were in heading down there to see who she was and how it was that she inspired such admiration. We got just as much a kick out of watching the kids' excited faces as they did from seeing their idol. Their energy was palpable. Infectious. Peoplewatching is part of travelling. We all do it. I most enjoy it with a drink in hand at a cafe on a central square somewhere, but watching people watching other people is something else.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Travelling: connections #1

As much as I love the incongruities we come across on our movements around the globe, I love making connections between cultures and finding similarities in everyday encounters. It's all about joining the dots. The Beijing Turkish kebap boys reminded me of two affable cooks we'd met two weeks earlier at Hong Kong Noodle on Sampeng Lane, Bangkok. Fantastic noodles, authentic, tasty, cheap. And friendly staff. That visit wasn't memorable because of the incongruity of that experience - after all, the Chinese have a connection to Bangkok. Ankara and Beijing may be boosting ties now but I don't know of any historical Chinese-Turkish connections. Regardless, this is more about making connections between experiences in different parts of the world, in our minds, in our memories. An image, a moment, an event, one reminds us of another. It's all about connecting the dots, don't you think?