Gringo Trails: Asking hard questions about travel

In 1981, I attended the fourth Vancouver Folk Music Festival. It was amazing. It was fun. It was (relatively) small and manageable. Everyone sat close enough to the main stage that we could all see the performers without a telescope. You could buy a snack without spending the entire evening concert standing in food booth lineups. You could actually get to use a PortaPotty before Daylight Savings Time ran out. It was a lovely festival.

Then it got Known. More and more people poured into Jericho Park each year. The daytime stage audiences got to be as big as the main concerts used to be. Finding space to park or sit down, getting food, going to the loo, moving between stages, all became huge efforts. The fences got higher. The crowds outside the fences got bigger. The lovely festival became a hassle. I stopped going.

This sense of being in “at the beginning” and then seeing something valuable and beautiful crushed under the weight of its own success is what fuels Gringo Trails, a 2012 documentary film.

I stumbled across it at the Vancouver Library (I love their documentary collection!) and found it riveting. It contrasts archival footage of popular tourist destinations from the 80s, 90s, etc. against recently shot footage of the same places, while discussing why and how these “hidden” gems became overrun with (mostly) young (mostly) low-budget travellers.

There’s the corner of the Amazon that became a backpacker’s Mecca after the publication of a popular book about a young man’s survival and rescue set in that area. And there’s the tragic tale of how a picture-perfect, pristine beach in Thailand evolved into a massive party site where tens of thousands of drunken, drug-sodden good-timers congregate regularly, leaving heaps of garbage on the shore and permanently displacing the original residents.

The solution to these destination disasters, the film argues, is locally based, “managed” tourism, where residents plan out how they want to control the onslaught of outsiders and receive the financial benefits. For some places, like Bhutan (profiled in the film) and Botswana (not mentioned), this leads to something called “high-value, low-impact” (read: “high-cost, low-volume”) tourism,” a strategy of deliberately keeping prices for travellers high.

In Bhutan, for example, visitors must spend a minimum of $250 per day, according to the film. High prices mean that fewer tourists can afford to come, but those few bring in the same amount of cash as a horde of backpacker types, who typically take pride in having the lowest-cost vacation possible. Smaller numbers of tourists are more easily controlled and their impact will be much less.

“We don’t really allow the backpacker here coming independent,” says the director of the National Museum of Bhutan during an interview for the film. “We get only multi-millionaires, retired professors, Hollywood, [which I take to mean “celebrities”], and those…who can afford to come.”

Keeping out the riff-raff, which is what this amounts to, may work, but raises its own set of moral issues. If only a certain number of people will be allowed to enjoy a beautiful place in order to prevent damage to it, why should it be only the rich who gain this privilege? The wealthy have no monopoly on respecting cultures or the environment; in fact, some would argue that they are more likely to feel “entitled” and act irresponsibly. Why not establish a test of cultural and environmental sensitivity to determine who gets in?

Well, because money is so much easier to weigh—and so much more fun to rake in.

Countries like Bhutan and Botswana want tourist dollars to preserve unique places, and to prop up the local economy. And that’s perfectly reasonable. But then don’t try to pretend you are on some moral high ground when you are really pandering to the world’s wealthy few.

Gringo Trails is a film for anyone who travels. It’s shocking, disturbing, and thought-provoking. In the course of my own years of being a tourist, I have seen deterioration in some of the places I’ve revisited, and I’ve known that my actions 30 years ago almost certainly contributed to that downslide. It’s a sobering realization.

Have you seen places or events that you loved go downhill as they became more popular? I’d love to read your story in a comment.

Atlas Shrugged

Dad in the 60s.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home where books were valued and cherished. My father had always been a voracious reader and he could read English, German, Danish, and French, and was working on Arabic and Uyghur. (Yes, Uyghur. I have no idea.)

When I was quite young, his library was not large and many of the books were technical volumes. I remember preparing a report for school when I was about 8, and using one of his books to read up about aluminum smelting, of all things. Another was called The Pugwash Monograph, a title that I found memorably hilarious. Only decades later did I learn that Pugwash is a place in Nova Scotia and the book related to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which, according to my friend Wiki, is “an international organization that brings together scholars and public figures to work toward reducing the danger of armed conflict and to seek solutions to global security threats.” Who knew?

One of the big atlases that mapped my childhood world.

Pride of place in this eclectic library was given to a very special set of atlases. They were the biggest books I’d ever seen, looming far above the lesser tomes: The Times Atlas of the World in five “royal folio”* volumes. When its individually cloth-bound pages were laid flat, you could pretty well land a small plane on the frozen lakes of northern Canada. It had gigantic fonts inside and enormous Roman numerals on the front pages, all of which delighted me.

Best, of course, were the coloured and detailed, large-scale maps inside. Other atlases showed Australia as a paltry thing, maybe 2 inches across. These devoted a full two-page spread to northeast Australia alone. I vividly recall poring over the Gulf of Carpentaria, wondering what was there. Could one paddle across it in a canoe? How long would it take to walk the shore line all the way around?

My favourites were the maps of the natural world showing climate, ocean currents, and topography. It was fascinating to see the Earth without political boundaries and more questions buzzed around my child’s brain: Why were there so many little nations in Europe when Australia was just one big country? And why were some borders straight lines imposed without regard for the natural terrain, while others clearly followed rivers and mountain ranges? One thing was very clear: all those manmade boundaries were completely arbitrary, so why were countries perpetually fighting over them?

When my father began travelling for his job, he would show us in the maps of the Middle East where he would be going: Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia.

Back in Germany, Dad had been a math teacher, but when he immigrated to Canada, he no longer had the credentials to teach, so he started working his way up from the bottom of the work ladder. His first jobs were in logging camps, doing hard physical labour on the “green chain.” Later, he worked as a surveyor on the Pacific Great Eastern railway near Porteau and Squamish, British Columbia. Eventually, he began to study for a degree in engineering, working full-time days and taking classes at night. Although I was too young at the time to know it, he must have felt like Atlas sometimes, carrying the weight of all that on his shoulders.

Dad with his model of the bulk-loading facility at Roberts Bank that he helped design.

When he finally graduated, he bought the Times atlases as a rare gift to himself, a quiet celebration of his new status and better salary. He now qualified to have his own official professional engineer stamp—the one that he would use to certify drawings and documents—and, in a proud yet whimsical gesture, used it to stamp the blank back of every page in the books.

Today, I can flip through these atlases and catch a glimpse of 50 years ago when a middle-aged family man enjoyed a hard-won victory over life and circumstances. He and his atlases set me to dreaming of far-away lands and I wish I could share with him stories of the places I’ve now travelled.

Thanks, Dad.

*Royal folio = 20” x 12 1/2”

Calidris celebrates a milestone: one year of weekly publication! Thanks to all my readers and to those who take the time to comment.

Calidris Controversy: Carrying On

Is helping someone else with their carry-on showing common courtesy or merely enabling people who feel entitled?

A travel Facebook group I follow recently showed a post from a woman who said that if you can’t lift your own carry-on bag into the overhead bin on the airplane, you have no business bringing it on and you should check it. I’ve never seen such a flurry of vehement comments; dozens upon dozens within a couple of hours. Obviously something that a lot of people feel strongly about.

It wasn’t just the original rant that was interesting, but the associated tangents that popped up.

One person wrote that if you can’t lift your own bag, you should check it, and if you can’t afford to check it, you shouldn’t be traveling. That’s pretty harsh.

Then there was the woman who vented about people who use the space above her seat for their bag. How dare they? She stated smugly that if she finds the compartment above her seat full, and discovers that the bags don’t belong to people in that row, she will remove the bags to make room for her own.

Many years ago, I read an informative and amusing book titled something like Guerilla Flying. The first and crucial point that the book made was this: Your interests and those of the airlines are fundamentally at odds. You want to travel economically and comfortably. They want to make money, which means cramming as many bodies as they are allowed into the smallest space possible. In addition, they basically don’t care about your comfort; they know you often have no choice in whether or not to fly their airline, which is why they can get away with outrageous behaviour like physically assaulting customers while forcing them off the plane to accommodate “bumping” due to overbooking.

The issue of luggage is a case in point. In the good old days, checked bags were free. People were sensible and put heavy items in their checked bags. They put valuables and things they needed for their flight in their carry-on.

Then airlines began charging large fees for checked bags. Now people had strong motivation to try and “get by” with just carry-on. They began stuffing everything into their little bag. They began trying to sneak over-size and over-weight bags through as carry-on. The more carry-on there is, the more passengers must “compete” for bin space. I have been on more than one flight where I was one of the last passengers to board and, as a result, the bins were full. That was annoying and inconvenient to me, but I accepted it without complaint. When it comes to space on a plane, it’s a dog-eat-dog world and I had come out unlucky on those occasions.

If I had been the woman I mentioned earlier, I would have hauled someone else’s case out of the bin over my seat. But what would then prevent that person (or someone else) from hauling my bag out? There’s no law that says the bin above your seat belongs to you. Sure, it’s nice when you can have your bag near you, but if not, you take what you can get.

What I find ironic is how often these days the flight attendants end up begging for volunteers who will give up their carry-on and allow it to be loaded below. I can’t help but reflect that if the airlines didn’t charge for checked bags, more people would check their bags in the first place, and there wouldn’t be as much carry-on, avoiding the whole problem. Duh.

As for the issue of people not being able to lift their own bags, I’ve never seen anyone blatantly abusing the good will of others by demanding that they assist. Although I’m a woman neither particularly strong nor tall, I am still taller, stronger, and abler than some people. If I see someone struggling with their bag, I try to help. And I have been, on occasion, the beneficiary of similar assistance. I think it’s common courtesy, like holding the door for someone who is carrying packages. I have never seen anyone thus aided who did not show genuine gratitude.

One surprising thing that I picked up from the Facebook posting was that flight attendants are not supposed to help passengers lift their bags into the overhead bins. I had no idea—I always assumed this was part of their job. But apparently, it’s a worksafe issue. I’d be curious to know whether this is true, and if so, is it true across all airlines?

Do you have a pet peeve about carry-on? Are you a “try-to-get-by-with-only-carry-on” person or do you check a bag and take minimal baggage into the cabin? Let me know in a comment.

 

Calidris Compares: A Tale of Two Cities

London’s Tower Bridge. Photo by Marian Buechert.

I’m not really a city girl. I prefer natural spaces, quiet, and fresh air over crowds of people, noise, and bustle. But given that cities are hubs of transport, culture, and history, passing through them is nearly inevitable. Two cities that are always worth a stopover are The Big Apple and The Big Smoke. So how do they compare? Let’s take a look.

London New York
Shopping London wins on quaint, curious, and antique. Prices are prohibitively high on most things. New York wins on sheer quantity, diversity, and affordability.
Song Streets of London, Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner New York, New York, On the Town

 

Transit The Underground: Even well-dressed, apparently well-to-do Londoners take The Tube. The subway: Not so much.
Longest-running show The Mousetrap The Phantom of the Opera
Cabbies World famous for rigorous training & vast knowledge of the city. World famous for attitude and language.
Monarch’s residence Buckingham Palace Trump Tower
Live theatre Wow. Helen Mirren live on stage; what more do I need to say? Wow. Dustin Hoffman live on stage; what more do I need to say?
Local lingo #1 Rubbing: Something you experience in an ancient churchyard and which involves a granite headstone, a sheet of paper, and a stick of charcoal. Rubbing: Something you experience in an aging massage parlour and which involves a pillow, a sheet over the table, and a scantily clad person.
Policing Bobbies: Authority without guns. NYPD: Not so much.
Street signs Not so much. Clear & logical.
Local colour Pearly kings & queens dressed in button-encrusted duds. Times Square guy dressed in a diaper and cowboy hat.
Attitude Tourist opens a map and looks around. Local stops to ask if he can help. Tourist approaches information desk in giant department store and asks: “Excuse me, is there a restroom?” Local responds: “Why?”
Urban wildlife Pigeons & rats Pigeons & rats
Local lingo #2 Rubber: Something you use to erase mistakes. Rubber: Something you use to prevent mistakes.
Woman with a crown Queen Bess II Lady Liberty
Museums London all the way since three of the top museums in London—V&A, National Gallery, Museum of Natural History, all world-class—are all free. The Met suggested admission donation is $25, MoMa and the Guggenheim are a flat $25 each. Come on, NY, get with the program: museums need to be accessible and FREE.
Fine dining Forget it; you can’t afford it. Forget it; you can’t get in.

New York, from atop the Empire State Building. Photo by Marian Buechert.

NY or London: Do you have a favourite? Why? Let me know in a comment.

7 Tips for Reading Online Reviews

“Worst experience ever! I’ll never stay here again.”

“Cheerful staff, good pub-style food.”

“Slept like a baby. A real find!”

“Terrible. We waited an hour for our food and then they got the order wrong.”

Oh, those online reviews. TripAdvisor, Yelp, Urban Spoon, Google Reviews, Expedia, Airbnb, VRBO, blogs, and travel sites; there are more every day.

Every time I read an online review, I wonder what it’s worth. How can I allow anonymous opinions to influence decisions that may involve thousands of my precious dollars? But I do. It’s hard not to. In pre-Internet days, I relied heavily on recommendations in travel guides. I still read those guides, but the sheer volume of online reviews and the specifics of those opinions make them irresistible.

Is there any way to be sure that reviews are fair and accurate? The simple answer is no. You can never be sure. However, with a willingness to invest some time and basic common sense, I think those reviews can work for you. Here I’ve listed some ideas for sifting through online reviews.

  1. Don’t believe everything you read, bad or good. This is the crucial point. Read every review with a critical eye. Stilted, “bumpfed-up” language that sounds suspiciously like promo copy is a red flag that the review may be a fake posted by the business owner or her mother. On the other side, a review that runs down a business in vague terms and suggests you patronize a specific competitor instead may come from the rival (or his mother).
  2. Read between the lines. Is the reviewer complaining about a situation beyond the business’s control? Could it have been a one-time problem? Is the reviewer so angry about something that he or she is completely unfair? Sometimes a negative review is clearly based on a situation where any reasonable person would side with the business; e.g., I’ve read a review where the writer complained that the manager shut down their fun late-night party “just because” other guests were disturbed by the noise. This is not a legitimate basis for a negative review.
  3. Match your own expectations and standards against those of the reviewer. What you want from a hotel, restaurant, or tour may not be the same as what the writer wants. He might complain that meal portions are small, but if you’re a light eater, you might prefer small portions. She may be thrilled that an establishment allows smoking; you may not.
  4. Watch the numbers. The more reviews, the better. It’s unlikely that the manager will fake 50 reviews. Also, if there are 100 reviews and 97 say it’s great and 3 say it sucks, that’s significant. Read the ones that buck the trend: sometimes it will be clear that the dissenting reviews are unreasonable. Sometimes they will make a valid point.
  5. Notice the specifics. A long review with many details is more believable than a one-liner. In addition, the details can be very interesting. A review based on a visit during a specific time period could yield valuable information about what it’s like to be there during that time. If you’re planning to visit the Amazon during January, try to find reviews from people who went in that month. They may mention how bad the mosquitos were, what the weather was like, or how the humidity affected their electronic devices, great things to know in advance.
  6. Check the room tips, if they are included. Again, your preferences for noise/quiet, front street/back courtyard, clawfoot tub/walk-in shower may not align with the writer’s, but you can still use those room details to make a better choice.
  7. Flip through the photos. Photos can be faked, but for most people, it’s too much bother. Looking at photos can give you an idea how far the official business description veers away from reality. The classic case is references to “views.” Many properties will tout their “ocean view” or “mountain view,” but when you look at the photos posted by guests, you may notice that the “view” is a tiny sliver of distant horizon visible only when you stand in one corner of the balcony and lean way over the railing. This is the kind of truth-stretching that disappointed guests love to jump all over with photos revealing the actual picture.

Booking anything sight unseen is a risk, but it’s hard to avoid doing that when you travel. Reading reviews is just one way of reducing that risk. While reviews must be approached with a healthy degree of caution, ignoring the collective experience and knowledge of the online community would be foolish.

PS: Don’t forget to post your own reviews. It can be fun and certainly helps other people—some of my reviews on TripAdvisor have been read over a thousand times! It can even help the business in question if you provide a great review or point out a problem that they can fix. If you’ve used review sites yourself, it’s only fair to contribute to them.

Do you read or post reviews? Have you had a bad or good experience with an online review? Let me know in a comment.

Calidris Controversy: People Safaris

Tourists visiting a San community.

Imagine, for a moment, if every morning at 11:00, your doorbell rang and 20 strangers stood on your doorstep. As you welcomed them, they would troop through your home, peering at everything from photos to furniture, asking questions about your family and living, what you eat for breakfast, your clothes, your hairstyle, your bathroom habits. They might poke around in your possessions or want to hold your baby. They might express incredulity or disgust at your cultural practices. Later, you would be expected to demonstrate how you do your laundry or apply make-up. Most of all, they would want to photograph you in every imaginable setting, including with them draping an arm over your shoulders. You smile through all this because you don’t have a lot of money and you know these strangers do, and you hope that at the end of all this, you can sell them one of the paper airplanes you fold in the evenings.

On a trip to Thailand earlier this year, we sailed off on a three-day small-ship cruise in the Andaman Sea. The first morning, the captain informed us that we’d be using the Zodiac to head ashore and visit a village of the Moken, sometimes called the “sea gypsies.” My companion and I discussed it and decided we did not want to participate, and I told the captain we’d be staying aboard. He seemed offended and demanded to know why. In the moment, all I could come up with was “We prefer not to.” As paying customers, I don’t think we really owed him any further explanation, but later, as we watched the others pile into the dinghy for the transfer to the island, I mused over my resistance to the excursion.

Wildlife and birding safaris are a thrilling blend of excitement—you never know exactly what you’ll see—stalking, waiting, patience, and photography. But “people safaris,” trips to “authentic” spaces where people really live their lives and are willing to sell their privacy for the entertainment of tourists, are a different kettle of fish.

The Web abounds with awkward snappies of grinning tourists posing next to locals who look anything but happy about the situation. While I’m interested in how other cultures live, I respect indigenous people too much to want to invade their homes, gawk at their families and customs, and buy cheap facsimiles of traditional crafts.

The staging of stale tourist-focused demonstrations of artisanal techniques that once might have defined an entire family’s identity and standing in the community disturbs me. A craftsperson is meant to create, to challenge her skills by practicing her craft, not mindlessly repeat the same dumbed-down routine over and over each time a boatload or busload of foreigners shows up.

Almost invariably in these “cultural tours,” the visitors are “given the opportunity to buy” locally made products, racks of poor-quality carvings, beaded keychains, baskets, or painted clay knickknacks that are churned out somewhere and designed to fit a price-point attractive to tourist wallets. While the sellers may not be allowed to apply real sales pressure, there is an unspoken expectation: the items are cheap for a “wealthy foreigner” like yourself, the sellers are indisputably poor, you’ve presumed upon their community and their hospitality, the least you can do is buy some souvenirs, right?

Except that I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid buying useless stuff. Gone are the days when I filled my suitcase with doo-dads and cheap gifts for family and friends. I walk through the Salvation Army thrift store aisles lined with crude Somalian carvings of giraffes, crappy toy musical instruments from Guatemala, and shabby embroidered placemats from Thailand, and I know I’m not the only one who is rejecting this flotsam.

I also don’t see this kind of relationship with the displaced as sustainable in the long term. Will the grandchildren of these people still be selling tourist junk and staging demos of traditional medicinal practices in order to scrape by financially? I sincerely hope not.

Maybe I’m wrong and maybe these human zoos are a good way to bring much-needed cash into subsistence-level communities. If people choose to do this because they can earn money at it, I certainly cannot say they shouldn’t do it, but I don’t feel comfortable being on the receiving end. Since we, the tourists, come and go as we please, and we have all the money, there’s a power imbalance and a whiff of colonialism that makes me very uneasy.

How do you feel about “people safaris”? Have you experienced one? Did you enjoy it?

Calidris Compares: National Birds

Quetzal.

The recent debate in Canada about designating a national bird got me thinking about a couple of other “national birds” I’ve encountered.

Country: Guatemala

National bird: Resplendent quetzal

Without doubt, one of the most spectacular birds on Earth. With a metre-long tail cascading behind him, the male sports iridescent plumage on his head, back, and wings that shimmers from green to blue to gold, depending on the light, while his breast and belly are scarlet red.

The quetzal’s tail feathers were prized by the Aztecs and Maya, who viewed the bird as the god of the air and as an embodiment of goodness and light. Because it was long believed that the quetzal could not live in captivity, it was also seen as a symbol of liberty.

The quetzal is a celebrity who values its privacy; I once spent an entire day with a specialist guide in the mountains of Costa Rica, seeking the elusive bird. When we finally heard and then saw one magnificent male high in a tree, it was truly breathtaking. We enjoyed its company for a couple of minutes, then off it flew, trailing those fantastic tail feathers.

The quetzal must be the only bird on Earth to have a currency named after it: the Guatemalan quetzal (currently worth about 18 Canadian cents).

Reason for being named national bird: If being the flashiest feathered fellow in the forest wasn’t enough, there’s that historic association with freedom, always a popular theme in nationalism.

Clay-coloured robin.

Country: Costa Rica

National bird: Clay-coloured robin

The name gives you everything you need to know about the appearance of this bird: it looks very like our American robin, but with feathers the colour of dried mud. The Latin name is no better: Turdus grayi. Where the quetzal is resplendent, this robin is clay-coloured, with no markings. And where the Guatemalan symbol is scarce and hard to find, the Costa Rican bird—known as yigüirro to localsis ubiquitous, hopping around human habitation everywhere from city lawns and gardens to rural fields.

On a nature tour near the Arenal Volcano, I asked the guide why, with so many gorgeous birds to choose from, Costa Rica settled on the humble robin. I must admit, I half expected him to say, well, the quetzal was already taken. But his response, while slightly defensive in tone, as though he was weary of having to champion the drab and commonplace bird, was enlightening.

Firstly, the yigüirro has a lovely song (actually quite similar to the American robin’s, to my ear), which Ticos value more than brilliant plumage. That song is most typically heard at the start of the green season, which has led farmers to associate hearing it with the arrival of much-needed rains.

In addition, the clay-coloured robin is found everywhere in Costa Rica, is seen often by everyone, and is thus a better representative of the country as a whole than a bird with a limited range. Because it lives in close association with humans, the yigüirro has become a feature in Tico culture, appearing in folk songs, poems, and stories.

Two countries, two very different national birds. The quetzal is the Cher of the bird world, undeniably exotic, inimitable, and eye-catching, an obvious candidate for glorification. The clay-coloured robin is more like the guy at the hardware store who helps you find the right size of screw: affable, down to earth, getting the job done. Although I initially questioned the Costa Rican choice, I now feel that the clay-coloured robin is an apt symbol for the Ticos I observed: not flamboyant, but going about the business of day-to-day living with an unpretentious determination and a song in the heart.

What national birds do you know? Do you think they are good representatives of their countries? Let me know in a comment.

Resplendent Cher.

Clay-coloured hardware guy.

Does anyone still know what philately is?

My beloved stamp album.

Sorting through some boxes in the basement the other day, I came across my old stamp collection from when I was a youngster. As I flipped through the pages and opened up bags and folders of envelopes, I was reminded of how much those little bits of paper taught me:

1/ There’s a great big world out there, full of places I had never heard of. Gabon. Sharjah. Surinam.

2/ Countries aren’t permanent. They can change. Bits of the world get taken over by other countries and disappear as countries. Sometimes they reemerge eventually. Monarchies that proudly displayed the king on their stamps experience revolutions and suddenly their postage shows images of presidents. Egypt. King Farouk. Nasser.

3/ A plebiscite is a thing where two countries both want the same piece of land, so they allow the people who live there to vote on which country they want to be part of. Schleswig-Holstein. 1920.

4/ The people in other countries don’t necessarily call their countries by the same names we do. Magyar. Deutschland. Norge.

5/ Other countries don’t use dollars. There are riyals, pounds, dinars, rupees, quetzals, pesos, and many other currencies.

Ethiopian stamps and postmarks from the first UN Security Council Meeting in Africa, 1972. Bought on a visit there in 1973.

6/ Other countries don’t necessarily write with the same alphabet as us. Greece. Ethiopia. Russia.

7/ Even in wartime—or maybe especially then—people send. Letters. Postcards.

8/ Mass-produced items are not necessarily all the same. You could have thousands of identical stamps and one that has a unique characteristic. A spot where the dye didn’t apply properly. The queen’s head upside down. The perforator failed to perforate.

9/ Hyperinflation is a thing where the value of money goes lower and lower, so people have to use more and more money to buy something. Bread. Milk. Stamps. One million marks. Lira.

10/ “Archival” storage is something that you use for things that you want to keep for a long, long time. Photos. Letters. Stamps.

I don’t remember how I first became interested in stamps; I think maybe an older relative gave me a small album with a few stamps. Stamp collecting was a common hobby, although I didn’t know any other children who collected.

My parents kept up ties to relatives in West Germany, DDR, and Denmark, so those were the countries I collected first. Of course, we also received mail from within Canada—in those days, pretty well everything that went through the mail had a stamp rather than the boring postal machine stickers and preprinted postage that eventually became common on commercial mail. There were occasionally stamps from Great Britain and the United States, often nabbed by my father from office mail. In my later childhood, he started to travel for his work as a supervising engineer, and I added Kuwait and Yemen to my collection.

Looking at stamps opened the way to discussions with my parents: my father spoke about seeing his father bringing home his weekly pay piled in a wheelbarrow during the time of German hyperinflation. My mother was drawn into talking about how the plebiscite held in Schleswig-Holstein affected her family, who lived right along the German-Danish border. We discussed the history of Danzig and how it existed as an autonomous state for a few years between the wars.

When I visited my uncle in Germany at the age of 12, I was overawed by his drawers full of albums with perfectly filed stamps. He had done a lot of traveling and always collected stamps from the places he toured. His gift of a packet of “doubles” inspired me to want to make my collection better. More comprehensive. Better organized. Better preserved.

A collection of Lebanese stamps, from a visit to that country in 1973.

I learned the proper word for stamp collecting early on. To paraphrase Wikipedia: The word philately is the English version of the French word philatélie, coined by Georges Herpin in 1864. He took the Greek root word phil(o), meaning “an attraction or affinity for something,” and ateleia, meaning “exempt from duties and taxes” to form philatelie” (with the introduction of postage stamps, receiving a letter was now free of charge, whereas before it was normal for postal charges to be paid by the letter’s recipient). I wonder, however, how many adults—let alone children—recognize the word today. Letters and postcards are becoming rare, and with them, those colorful, inspirational stamps. One of the big appeals of stamps was that they were everyday and exotic at the same time: the 10-pfennig stamp was ubiquitous in Germany, but a curiosity in Canada.

It’s sad that stamps are dying out as a common, practical, item. When you got a letter, you could tell just by looking at the stamp and postmark which country it came from. You knew that the paper you held in your hand actually traveled all the way from some distant place. We have replaced “snail mail” with emails, which all look the same, whether they come from Terrace or Timbuktu.

What has philately got to do with travel, the subject of this blog? Well, to this day, when I think of certain countries, the stamps that I pored over are the first things that spring to mind. When I think of Poland, I see the triangular stamps featuring beautiful horses that I loved so much. When Bhutan is mentioned, I remember the leopard stamp that I proudly pasted in my album.

I don’t know whether my passion for travel stems partly from the pleasure I found in collecting stamps from around the world, or whether I was born a wanderer and that drew me to the acquisition of stamps. Either way, those unassuming squares of gummed paper were travelers, just like me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I stashed my postal treasures in something called the Traveler Stamp Album.

The Traveler album inside. Note the pre-printed pictures of specific stamps. It was always a thrill to find the stamp that matched the picture and carefully mount it in place.

Does anyone you know collect stamps? Were you/are you a philatelist yourself? I’d be particularly interested to hear if you know a young person who collects stamps.

 

The Joy of Junk Mail

When I was a strange, reading-obsessed child, I would comb magazines from the library, looking for those tiny ads that promised to mail me something for free. “Ten Tips for Training Your Advanced Reining Horse.” “The Colorful Stamps of Gabon.” “Hinterland Who’s Who: The Beaver.”

All this information available for just the cost of a stamp! Who could resist? What did it matter if I hardly knew what a reining horse was, much less owned or trained a horse of any description? The material would arrive in the mail addressed to ME—very exciting for a seven-year-old. I would devour every word and carefully file the item away in my drawer.

As an adult, the appeal paled. After all, I got so much junk mail every day. Why in the world would I ask for more? For a while, you had to write away to be taken off mailing lists. (I suspect that such requests were actually received as carte blanche to treble the amount of junk sent. “Here’s a live one, Joe. Mark that address for extra deliveries.”)

Nowadays, everything is on the Web. The most obscure information available at the click of a mouse. It’s great for instant facts. But it can be too easy to go directly to the info you want. Sometimes you do require straight-up cold, hard data. But sometimes you want to drift, to sample. You want to dream.

After my father died suddenly, my mother was left a widow at 51. She was lost. My father had been the centre of her life, her children were grown. She was financially comfortable but did not know what to do with herself. One day, on impulse, she walked into a travel agency and picked up a pile of brochures. She and I pored over those brochures together. We talked about the places she could go. I remember she became quite enamoured with the idea of taking a round-the-world cruise. We talked about it for a while. And then she let the notion drop. I think it was the idea that she could do this if she wanted that helped her move forward. Instead of feeling that her life was over, she started to see that she had choices, and some of them might even be fun choices.

I recently found myself clicking on a Facebook ad for a region I have never visited. It was the promise of “Birdwatcher’s Paradise” that pulled me in. Once I was on the website—a nicely constructed one, I may add—I browsed a bit, mildly interested. Beyond the birds, it was the usual “we’ve got wineries, we’ve got charming accommodations, we’ve got golf, etc.” But what drew my attention like a magnet was that little button: “For maps, tour suggestions, and a 64-page vacation guide, click here.” Filling in my name and address took me straight back to the excitement of my reining horse days.

Yes, I know that somewhere in cyberspace, personal information collection software is gleefully adding me to its database. But I don’t care. When that thick envelope arrives in my community mailbox slot, I will hurry home, snuggle into a comfy chair, tear the envelope open, and browse the old-fashioned way. I will unfold the maps, flip through the glossy-paged booklet, and peruse the “special offers.” I will read through the suggested itineraries and trace their routes on the maps. I may turn down corners of pages that interest me or circle text that I want to remember.

The experience of being taken on a carefully planned journey through information, as you hold a booklet in your hands, cannot be replicated by a website. The travel booklet presents information in a crafted sequence. I understand that the sequence is all focused on getting me to commit emotionally before thinking about practicalities like cost. But knowing that, I can still sit back and enjoy the ride. Do your best, I think happily. Sell me, if you can. This could be my next vacation, so go ahead and tell me why it should be.

Because I’m a travel junkie, even when I’m on a trip, I scan the horizon for free travel literature. Staying in a birding lodge, for example, often yields thick, slick, bird tour promos filled with stunning photos. On our meanderings around Cape Breton last year, I happened across a 66-page book advertising the upcoming Celtic Colours Festival. Although we were too early to visit the festival that year, I carried the book home and found it a treasure trove of information and inspiration for a potential future visit. (I’m hoping to visit that festival next year.)

Just so you know, downloadable brochures don’t cut the same mustard. They can be useful, but are just second-class citizens in the travel world. Clicking through an e-book is not the same as turning tangible pages. You may be saving trees by reading an electronic version, but just think of all the viruses and malware that a download could be carrying. At least when I open my paper copy, I don’t suddenly get the sniffles or find that my hands are off-line until I pay a ransom to some hacker.

No, as long as there’s snail mail, I’ll keep looking forward to my free travel literature. Anyone for a cup of tea and a copy of The Visitor’s Guide to Amish Country?

Am I dating myself terribly by clinging to my hard-copy travel brochures? Given a choice, do you prefer downloadable info and websites, or something you can hold in your hands? Let me know your opinion in a comment.

 

 

12 Steps to Obsessive Travel Planning: Part 2

In steps 1 through 6, I talked about buying a map, doing research, and creating a travel calendar.

7/ Start to personalize your Great Big Map. At different times, I’ve used these three methods:

  • Take your GBM and put sticky dots on places and events which interest you. If you want to be really obsessive (I’ve done this once), use one specific color sticky dot for events, another color for natural attractions, and another for historical sites; OR
  • Mount your GBM on a corkboard and stick pins into places of interest; OR
  • Photocopy your GBM and draw directly on the photocopy with dots marking your events.

It’s fun to post your GBM in a prominent place at home where you can stare at it often and imagine yourself journeying in the places you’ve marked.

8/ At this point, I’m going back and forth between my research materials (websites and travel books), my calendar, and my GBM. This phase could last for weeks or months. From my Internet research, I bookmark sites for hotels, events, and stores and put them all into a special favourites folder.

Each box on your calendar might initially have multiple items: a couple of hotels, some activities available on that day, a store that looks interesting. Eventually, however, you will need to eliminate some options. This can be tough, but think of yourself as a kid in a candy store: choosing just one treat is hard, but whatever you pick, it will likely be sweet.

Don’t forget to note any driving (or other transport) times. For example, if I’m driving from Quito to Mindo, I would write on that date: Dr 1.5 hr to Mindo. That way, I can quickly see how much time I have to build into the day’s schedule for transit between locations and I can plan the rest of the day’s activities around that. Nowadays, it’s easy to get driving times instantly: just Google “driving distance Point A to Point B.”

9/ As you fill in your GBM, with luck you will start to see some clusters of dots. These are the areas you should focus on in your itinerary planning. Ideally, you can stay in one place for several days and do day trips in the vicinity.

If there are dots all alone and far from any others, you are going to have to decide whether that one thing is worth travelling to. If not, you’ll have to shelve that item for this trip.

Also, you need to start considering how far apart your clusters are. Can you drive between or will you need to fly? How much is that going to cost you, in time or money? Should you narrow down the geographical scope of your trip? E.g., You might start by thinking you would like to visit “Spain,” quickly realize that seeing the whole country is far too ambitious for a two-week trip, and eventually settle on a more realistic focus of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia.

As you develop your itinerary, keep in mind that you can fly out of a city other than your arrival point if this works better for you. I learned recently that flights aren’t necessarily more expensive if you do this (although you will almost certainly pay a bit more for your rental car), so be sure to investigate options.

10/ Okay, you have a map, a calendar, and a tentative itinerary—and you’ve had quite enough of all this research. Time to start booking.

Whether to book accommodations first or flights first is a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation. Most flights are non-refundable, so you don’t want to have to cancel them because the lodge you’ve set your heart on has no availability for the week you’ve chosen, but they do have an opening the following week. On the other hand, there’s not much point in getting your accommodations lined up only to discover that the flight you need is sold out. I usually try to check availability for the important accommodations just before I book flights.

Although you might be tempted to book your accommodations in order, starting with day 1 etc., it’s probably wiser to first reserve the ones that are most important to you or most likely to be full up. That way, if Pepe’s Perfect Jungle Lodge is unavailable on your first choice of dates, you can be a bit flexible with your itinerary. If you’ve already booked a bunch of other lodgings, you might find it impossible to fit Pepe in. You don’t want to miss out on Pepe’s!

If you’re having trouble booking parts of the itinerary, don’t be afraid to try shuffling the pieces around or even running the schedule backwards, if that might help.

This is how a typical itinerary looks before I start booking.

Aus calendar

11/ As you book each item on your calendar, mark it green. That way you can see at a glance which items still need to be booked and which are fixed.

Some of the information I like to note on my calendar once something is booked:

  • Name of hotel or event
  • City
  • Reservation #
  • Name on booking (yours or your companion’s)

As you get closer to your departure date, you might want to flag unbooked items on your calendar with red to remind yourself that action is still needed.

12/ In addition to the calendar (because not everything will fit in those little boxes), keep notes on each destination: activities, museums, theatres, markets, restaurants, tours, and shops that you may or may not have time for.

Once your entire calendar is glowing with green, you can relax and look forward to enjoying the fruits of all your labor.

Oh, yeah, there’s still the packing to do…but that’s another list.

Am I crazy for doing all this? How do you plan your trips? Or do you plan at all? Let me know in a comment.