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.

12 Steps to Obsessive Travel Planning: Part 1

Are you one of those spontaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travelers? The kind who books a flight, throws a few things into a carry-on bag, and takes off? If so, this is not the blog for you. I admit to being a careful—many would even say “obsessive”—travel planner. I have every night booked long before I leave home and I usually have a general idea of what I’ll be doing each day. Having plotted out many trips over the years, I find this works for me. I find decision-making one of the most stressful parts of travel, so I like to have the bulk of that out of the way so I can relax and enjoy the actual trip.

I have friends who like nothing better than to hop from one bed and breakfast to another, never knowing where they will lay their heads that evening. To me, that would be a nightmare; I would spend far too much of my precious vacation time worrying about finding a place to sleep.

Yes, there are disadvantages to my method: I can’t decide on the spur of the moment to stay another night somewhere or tear off across the country when I hear there’s a great festival happening “up north.” I try to mitigate those disadvantages with detailed research that allows me to make good choices in advance. Besides, I tell myself, I can always return in the future if a particular spot warrants a longer visit or I miss an event.

The process I use for planning is the same whether it’s a long or short trip, but I find that the longer the trip, the more difficult the logistics, so the itinerary becomes even more crucial.

1/ Get the biggest map of your destination that you can find. There are map stores or travel specialty stores in most large cities, or you can buy online.

2/ Research as much general information as you can about the destination. What is the climate like at different times of the year? Are there times you need to avoid e.g., hurricane season, hot season, local school holidays? When is high season, low season, shoulder season? Will you need to take health precautions? What are the different areas of the country? Which city(ies) are you likely to arrive in and depart from? How much will the major flights cost? What is the standard of accommodations in city and country? How far apart are the accommodations in the country? What are the roads like? How difficult will it be to travel if you don’t speak the local language? Will you need to fly between areas or will you drive? Are there trains, buses, ferries? Are there safety issues e.g., carjacking, kidnapping, conflict zones?

I’m still old-fashioned enough to do most of this research via travel guidebooks, but I also consult online trip reports, blogs, Tripadvisor, and forums like Thorn Tree (Lonely Planet’s site) for specific and timely information.

3/ In simple list form, note the dates of any specific events you would like to experience, such as festivals, holidays, natural events (e.g., animal or bird migrations, flowers blooming, trees in fall colors). Based on the time of year you can or want to visit, which events might you be able to attend?

Note the names, general locations, and points of interest of specific towns or areas. For example, you might write:

Mindo (1.5 hr west of Quito) – excellent birding, zipline, Sunday market, Milpe Lodge

4/ Start to build a calendar. I use a table in Microsoft Word with seven columns (one for each day of the week) and as many rows as I need for the weeks I’ll be travelling. I fill in tentative dates for each box. Here’s what it looks like (far left column is Sundays).

Sometimes, I’ll have two of these tables at first with alternative sets of dates. This lets me build a couple of itinerary options based around specific flight dates, for example (April 18 and May 16 vs May 3 and May 31) or travel season (high season vs shoulder season).

5/ Transfer over to your calendar those event dates and the points of interest from #3 above. If an event stretches over several days, include it on each calendar day that it runs. You may only want to attend one day, but at this stage, you don’t necessary know which day that will be. Also include where you’ll need to be for each item.

6/ Research flights for best routes and cheapest options. Now that you’ve got a general idea of when and where you want to be, you can start looking at flights. Unless you’re bound to a very strict timeline, always check several departure dates and return dates, as prices can vary quite significantly depending on which day of the week you fly. You can also research airport options. For example, most people fly in and out of Costa Rica through San Jose. We found that arriving at and departing from Liberia worked better for our itinerary and gave us better routing. As it turned out, the smaller airport was a real breeze and we were more than happy with our choice.

More next week on finalizing your plans.

Is this all waaaaay too fussy for you? Do you think spontaneity is the essence of travel pleasure? Tell me your opinion in a comment.

 

 

 

Spending Wisely

Not the moderate $80-per-night lodging I chose in Phuket.

As you begin to plan a trip, one of your first considerations may be budget. Unless you’re a part of the lucky elite who live and travel without a thought for money, you’ll likely have to work within some kind of limit. Does this mean you can’t have fun and enjoy travel? Not at all. One of the keys is choosing where to spend your money—and where not to spend it.

On a recent trip, I had a two-night layover on the resort island of Phuket in Thailand. I had to find accommodations, not a small task, as Phuket has upwards of 5,000 hotels/guesthouses/rentals. I was dreaming of an ultra-luxury resort, the kind you see in ads, with poolside teak bungalows, uniformed waiters delivering drinks to cabanas on a private beach, Thai massage in sublime surrounding, and lotus blossoms floating in the toilet. Thailand is—relatively speaking—cheap, so I could afford the kind of place I could never visit otherwise. Besides, I was only there for two nights, so why not splurge?

But on further thought, I realized this was not a good use of money. I would be arriving late on the first day, so wouldn’t have a chance to really enjoy the place. Maybe the lotus blossoms in the toilet, but not much else. I would be leaving early on the last day, so, again, not much time to play. That left me with one full day. Whatever luxury I enjoyed on that one day, would it be worth the hundreds of dollars it would cost me to book two nights?

Would I really have a massage? Would I want a cabana on the beach? Would I order drinks? Would it be significantly less pleasurable to walk a few metres to the pool instead of jumping in from the bedroom door?

Other factors came into play: were there other, comfortable and clean, if not luxurious, places to stay that offered facilities I really would use? Yup. These were the final two nights of a long trip through Thailand. I knew I would be tired and want to be away from crowds and noise. For convenience, I wanted to be fairly close to the airport.

In the end, I chose a small, locally-owned guesthouse for under $80 that had good reviews and everything I needed for a pleasant two-night stay. I figured I could buy a lotus blossom and throw it in the toilet if the mood hit me.

I can better justify spending big bucks on accommodations that offer something I can’t get anywhere else, or are situated in remote locales. The year we visited Namibia’s Etosha National Park—one of my bucket-list destinations—the park opened up a vast new area previously closed to tourists. The only way to visit this area was to book at their exclusive camp, Dolomite. The camp offers accommodations in permanent safari tents and has a small pool and restaurant. Comfy but not nearly worth the high price tag. I booked because I really wanted to experience that part of the park. As they say: location, location, location.

I feel the same about food and drink when I travel. Generally, I don’t seek out expensive or gourmet food because I just don’t appreciate it enough.* I’m happy to eat simpler fare in humble surroundings. I know this about myself. But when circumstances demand it—like I’m stuck in a lodge with only one, overpriced, restaurant, or I’m thirsty and the only drinks available are selling for three or four times the retail value—I don’t deny myself to economize.

My point is that sometimes you do have to make hard choices about money when you travel. Maybe you just can’t swing the cost of both the deluxe hotel and front-row tickets to that hot Broadway show, and you have to choose. Many times, though, if you examine the options closely, you might find that what you think you want is based more on glossy advertising and other people’s fantasies than your own preferences. Know yourself and understand what truly makes you travel-happy and you’ll be able to dole out your hard-earned cash when and where it counts most.

*Chocolate excepted, of course.

Where do you choose to spend your travel dollar? Luxury resorts with 5-star service? Remote locations? Unusual activities? All-inclusives? First-class airline tickets? Expensive souvenirs? Stupendous food? I’d love to hear about it, so leave a comment.

Morning Has Broken

Image source: easybackpacker.com

From my sixth-floor picture window in the Sheraton Royal Orchid, I am watching dawn come to the Chao Phraya river.

Late into the night, it was filled with brightly lit party cruises, neon pink, electric blue, sunlit wat gold, decks given over to the ultimate hedonism of dancing “The YMCA” upon a waterway both ancient and venerable. Some things are just universal in time and space.

The dockside was crammed with tourists and locals seeking food, fun, or friends–usually all three.

Then, for a few hours, it was dark and quiet, except for the occasional tug and barges on a stealth run.

As the faintest of light arrives, the first commuter ferry departs from the dock below. I hear piercing marmot-like whistles that I take for the calls of magpies, but which I later discover are the code the aft boatmen use to call instructions to the steersmen.

Sounding a bit like a white-crowned sparrow, the earliest bird commences its song.

Boats of diverse types begin to ply the water. The infamous longtails, narrow, painted in vivid colours, dart here and there like cormorants. The local ferries, plump ovoids of yellow or red-orange, bob their way back and forth. The fast ferries, larger, sleeker, and assertively pointed, cut through the water purposefully. Their destinations are indicated with coloured flags, an ingenious solution for a system where many of the users can neither read nor understand Thai. “Does this boat go to …?” The conductor meets all inquiries from confused foreigners the same way: “Go inside! Go inside!” she shrieks impatiently. Clearly, if the boat doesn’t go where you’re going, it’s no concern of hers.

Working ships of indeterminate industry chug by. Tiny bright orange speedboats–Safety vessels? River police?–buzz among the busyness.

In one boat, a woman wearing a broad-brimmed bamboo hat wields a net. Ah, a picturesque Thai fisher, no doubt following centuries of family tradition. No: look again. She’s scooping up garbage from the never-ending supply that rides the brown water. Is she paid by the city to do this, or does she do it to sell what she can: bottles, plastics, who knows what else she finds? The river travels a long way and encounters many things before it arrives here in Bangkok.

Above, a flock of cattle egrets, their white bodies reflecting the strengthening sun, fly by on their way to feed. Over the city buildings, a few wat spires and one church tower compete with electronic aerials for extreme verticality.

As the morning warms, swifts dodge and twist in pursuit of insects.

I reflect on how many people, both today and for centuries past, live or have lived most of their days on and around this river. Locals still fish off hidden piers and between the giant luxury hotels, tumbledown shacks cling to their piece of the shore, drying laundry sharing space with family shrines on the soggy, rotted porches. Well-used canals branch off to other residential areas, to painted wats with steps washed by the water, to still spaces filled with mats of floating lilies.

But none of that can I see from my exalted tower; I am a newcomer here and until I climb down, my view is limited.

My first day in Bangkok beckons.

Do you have a favorite first impression of a place? Let me know in a comment.

We’ve Only Just Begun

My travel companions learning about First-Night Syndrome, courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.

The first 24 hours of a trip are often the most stressful. After the excitement and anticipation of planning and the bustle of packing, actually traveling to and arriving in a new place can make me want to turn around and run straight back home. I don’t know if it’s that more things can go wrong or if my capacity to deal with misadventures is particularly low as I disengage from easy routines and well-known surroundings.
I’ve had too many first nights of a trip where I lie awake listening to the unfamiliar noises, toss and turn in a bed that is too soft or too hard, inhale odd smells from a hotel pillow, and wonder why I ever left my comfortable home.

I call this “First-Night Syndrome.”

Of course, I’m always jet-lagged and have eaten little or no real food for many hours while feeling over-stimulated and exhausted at the same time, so it’s no wonder that I don’t sleep like a baby.

Sometimes, however, I have good reason for wanting to shred my passport.

Like the flight to Hawaii’s Big Island with extended family on one of my least-favourite carriers, Hawaiian Airlines. I’ve had enough bad experiences with Hawaiian that I’ve begun to suspect that the staff are all members of some underground organization dedicated to the goal of eradicating tourism in their state. On this trip, we had the cross-Pacific leg from Vancouver to Oahu and then the short hop across to Kona on Hawaii. We had an hour between flights, which was plenty of time to make the connection. All seemed to be going well until we approached Honolulu, when the pilot announced that due to the U.S. vice-president boarding a jet in the airport, all flights in and out were on hold. We circled Oahu for half an hour.

I told the flight attendant we had a connection to make and asked if there would be a problem; she reassured me. I didn’t see her fingers crossed behind her back.

As soon as we disembarked, we raced for the departure gate, arriving while the plane was still boarding. However, as the check-in agent coolly informed us, we would not be permitted to board—despite having valid tickets and being right there at the gate—because our luggage still needed to be transferred. I was stunned at this level of ineptitude. Although the entire airport had been on lock-down while the VP wended his merry way through, and every incoming flight had been delayed by half an hour, no one in Hawaiian Airlines had considered that this would mean passengers and luggage would naturally be arriving late for connecting flights, and perhaps some provision should be made for this.

The clincher in this situation was that ours was the last Honolulu-Kona flight of the day, so we were not being delayed, we were being stranded in the airport until the next morning.

After I suggested that, as the late flight was not our fault, and as the airline was well aware of the issue before we showed up, it was probably their responsibility to solve the problem, I was told that if I continued to argue, they would call security. Well done, Hawaiian: I commend you on your customer service training. This agent had aced How to Frustrate and Threaten Clients 101.

In the end, five tired people spent the night in moderate discomfort. The seating in Honolulu Airport is deliberately designed to preclude the possibility of an exhausted traveler lying prone, so I stretched out on the only non-floor area I could find, the cold and very hard narrow concrete shelf surrounding the plants. As I dozed there in some awkward and bruising position, the automatic sprinkler system switched itself on and I was duly watered.

It was a miserable “first night” of travel, just one of many I’ve chalked up. I try to remember that first nights are soon past and the rest of the trip can still be wonderful, if I don’t allow a bad beginning to ruin it. First mornings in a new place can be glorious, as when I woke up in Cairns, Australia, at sunrise to the sound and sight of hundreds of white cockatoos flying into the trees around the hotel. Or the first morning of a long-ago vacation in Hilo, when my companion and I opened our eyes to a huge picture window looking over the tropical ocean with early-morning surfers riding the waves, tinged pink from the rising sun.

Challenging circumstances can also create bonding: when you endure a bad first night along with travel buddies, if you’re lucky, the shared wretchedness creates a unity you might not achieve through many easy, fun days spent together. You gain new respect (or not) for someone based on how they come through the situation. On that not-soon-to-be-forgotten night in Honolulu, I learned that both my sister and my niece are cheerful and intrepid souls in the face of adversity. Good to know.

With the wisdom of age, I’m now able to step back and recognize the symptoms. Whether a disastrous beginning is just a case of nerves or the result of travel gone awry, I remind myself that I’m in the clutches of First-Night Syndrome, that I can get through it, and that the dawn will almost certainly usher in a fresh start to another—happier—adventure.

Thank you, National Geographic

My photo on the cover of National Geographic! (Okay, I admit, I PhotoShopped it–but it IS a photo from my first trip to Africa.)

I grew up with National Geographic. My father subscribed to the magazine for many years—the only magazine we did subscribe to, BTW. Dad even compiled his own index to the issues, cross-referenced by subject, date, and what else, I don’t know. As a very young child, I saw him at his beat-up wooden desk, meticulously entering the information in a duotang with his precise engineer’s printing, using a pencil, no less. That was, perhaps, the first lesson I learned from Dad’s relationship with NG: that the information was precious and worth organizing so that you could return to it again and again.

Return to those magazines I did; when I was ill and stayed home from elementary school, I would creep to the bookshelf and take down a half-dozen copies to have in bed with me. Peppermint tea, Vicks VapoRub, and NG.

I didn’t read every article, although I did read many. But I did pour over every photo in those thick, glossy pages. Maybe I’m looking back through the rose-coloured glasses of childhood now, but I remember the photos as spectacular, marvellous, intriguing, thought-provoking, sometimes even stunning. To me, they set the bar for photography for the rest of my life. Fifty years later, when I see a photo with that wow factor, my first thought is still, “That’s a National Geographic shot!”

As I grew older, I read more of the text and I’m sure that NG’s clean, well-edited, journalistic style started me on the path to being a non-fiction editor and writer. The photos caught your eye and engaged your emotions; the words gave you the background and story. I met Goodall and Heyerdahl, Tutankhamun and the Leakey clan.

I dreamed of being a NG photographer or writer: that was the pinnacle.

Then there were the National Geographic television specials, broadcast during my childhood maybe four times a year. When we saw the ads announcing an upcoming NG special, the excitement would start to build in our household. On the night, the whole family would gather around the TV. I can still feel the old thrill every time I hear the iconic NG music with its pounding percussion and triumphant horns. The World of Jacque-Yves Cousteau, 1966. Amazon, 1968. Search for the Great Apes, 1976. Etosha: Place of Dry Water, 1981.

I imagined the African sun on my back as I patiently stalked lions, or the boredom of waiting in a hide for days to get a unique shot. I excavated tombs and dove the oceans for shipwreck treasure. I met cannibals and climbed castle walls.

It has only been recently that I really began to reflect on how much all of this has influenced my life. Why do certain destinations and experiences call to me? Why do I love to photograph animals and birds? Are all my travels merely attempts to live out childhood fantasies?

There is no question in my mind now that National Geographic has shaped my world view. If so, I can think of far worse mentors. Opening my eyes to the color, complexity, mysteries, and magic of places outside my small community was a priceless gift from all the scientists, writers, photographers, and filmmakers who poured their passion and talent into NG. I thank them, and I thank you, National Geographic. Long may you inspire.

Did you grow up with NG magazines or documentaries? What was your favourite article, photo, or show? Let me know in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

Talk May Be Cheap, But Travel Talk is Beyond Price

I love it when people share their travel experiences with me.

I have read that the Internet is replacing one-on-one discussions with those you actually know in favour of anonymous opinions online. Probably it’s true that when Jill wants to get more information about a movie or a restaurant, instead of phoning James to hear what he has to say, she likely turns to Google. It’s fast, it’s free, and hey, 1,257 reviews by total strangers can’t be wrong, right?

I admit that I read those 1,257 reviews, too (okay, maybe not all of them). But I value the reports from my friends and even from casual acquaintances much higher and I take the trouble to seek them out.

On a recent trip, I spent 20 minutes with a taxi driver as he conveyed me to the airport. As often happens, he was an immigrant and quite happy to talk about his homeland, Croatia. As he described the blue of the Adriatic Sea, the historic streets of Dubrovnic, and the beauty of the islands, I was captivated. I had never thought about visiting that area before, but now, I was eager to learn more.

By coincidence, I soon had two more chances to share the experiences of people who were familiar with Croatia. At a dinner party, I met another immigrant who, with a little encouragement, was equally eager to rhapsodize about his native country. Following that, I met up with some friends who, I remembered, had travelled through eastern Europe recently. Had they visited Croatia? Yes, indeed, they had, and the conversation revolved around their impressions (also favourable).

By asking a simple question or two, I can open up a world of first-hand knowledge and experience.

So have you travelled anywhere recently?

What’s your favourite place that you’ve travelled to?

Were you born here? Tell me about the place where you grew up.

From the ensuing discussion, I learn much more than I can from online reviews.

First of all, people that you speak to face-to-face will almost certainly be honest. Anonymous online reports, not so much. They should always be taken with a grain of salt, because you never know whether a review has been posted by someone who was paid to say good things, or, on the other hand, by someone who holds a grudge. When you talk to someone, their genuine enthusiasm or disappointment comes through clearly.

Secondly, if it is a friend, I know that person and her or his tastes, so I can judge the information in that context. If, for example, I know Jill is a budget traveller who always seeks the least-expensive option, I’m likely to pay attention if she describes something as “value for money.” If James is the kind who likes pampering and feeling everything is taken care of for him, I might not expect him to enjoy a “roughing-it” adventure weekend in the desert that his girlfriend talked him into.

On the flip side, by listening, I learn more about my friends. How people react to travel—especially challenging situations—is very revealing. When James tells me about that adventure weekend and chuckles when describing the giant creepy-crawly in his tent, I may have to reassess my opinion of him and his travel tastes!

Finally, their experiences open my eyes to travel ideas that may never occur to me. When I go online, I have a specific destination in mind. When I talk to people, I’m open to any travel idea they care to share with me.

So talk to your friends, and even strangers, about their travels. What they have to say is—as MasterCard would put it—priceless.

Have you received a priceless piece of travel information from talking with friends or strangers? I’d love to hear about it.