The Soul of a Traveller

Mom’s motorcycle driver’s license, 1951.

My mom was an adventurer.

Growing up, I never thought of her that way. She was just my steady, reliable mother, always taking caring of me and the rest of the family. Standing over the stove, hanging laundry on the clothesline, washing floors and walls (does anyone actually do that anymore???), ironing my father’s hankies (really), pinching pennies, making sure the household ran smoothly. I’m sure she saw that as her role in life and she took it very seriously. She almost never played with us kids, even when Dad sat down with us to play a board game once in a while, she invariably steered clear. I now suspect she was happy to have an hour or two of time when we were all otherwise engaged and she could do something else. On the other hand, we never went hungry, ran out of underwear, or missed a dentist appointment. She saw to that.

In her essay “The Household Zen,” (published in High Tide in Tucson—highly recommended, by the way), Barbara Kingsolver wrote:

“A generation of…women served their nation by being the Army of Moms, and they spent their creative force like the ancient Furies, whipping up cakes and handmade Christmas gifts and afterschool snacks, for a brief time in human history raising the art of homemaking high above the realm of dirt….(T)hey left a lot of us lucky baby boomers with strong teeth and bones and a warm taste of childhood in our mouths.”

As a stay-at-home mom, she was around the house pretty well all day, every day, and between chores, she listened religiously to CKNW’s radio quiz “Are You Listening?” Her favourite topic was geography. She wrote down the answers and kept lists of them taped to the inside of her cupboards for quick access. I’m reminded of Kingsolver’s insightful observation: “If you work in the kitchen and have the mind of a rocket scientist, you’re going to organize your cupboards like Mission Control.”

But aside from being a four-star general in the Army of Moms, my mother also had a daring and intrepid side that I’ve only come to recognize as I grow older.

As a teenager and new wife in the early 1950s, she earned her motorcycle license so that she could share the driving with Dad as they roared around Germany on a shared bike. When the two of them decided there was no future in post-war Europe, she held her two tiny children (my eldest brother and sister) by the hand and watched Dad sail off to the wilds of western Canada. For six months, she held the family together while he found work and then wrote for them to join him. She packed up what she could take, gave away what she couldn’t, and hugged her mother and everyone else she knew goodbye.

On the voyage across the Atlantic, high waves made almost everyone aboard the ship seasick. Mom looked after my brother and sister and a couple of other children whose mother was incapacitated.

She spent her birthday on the ship, and the official ship’s photographer snapped pictures of her and my siblings at the party. Later, he suggested he would give her free prints as a keepsake—if she would welcome him to her cabin when no one else was around. She told him to hand over the prints or she would tell the captain what he was up to. Long before #MeToo, Mom was fighting back against sexual predators.

One of the photos taken at my mother’s birthday party on board the ship to Canada. Mom, my brother, and my sister, sitting at the table.

The ship was blown off course by a storm and instead of docking in Halifax as planned, it put in at a U.S. port. Without U.S. transit papers, the passengers were treated like illegal aliens, kept under guard without food, and finally loaded aboard a train to Canada.

My parents were ultimately reunited in Vancouver, whereupon the family was whisked away to a series of remote camps in the wilderness of British Columbia. Dad worked a variety of jobs, including as a surveyor for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, and the money was better in places far from city life. In Porteau, the only access was by small boat and Mom would order her groceries and other necessities with a list sent with the boatman. They lived in rough shacks with no conveniences and few other families. There were bears in the backyard and “Indians” around the corner, neither of which my mother had ever seen before coming to Canada. She spoke very little English when she arrived, but made it her lifelong goal to learn the new language and use it correctly. She never spoke German to us kids; we were Canadians and would speak English.

After a few years, and now with four children, my parents moved to a nice neighbourhood in Port Moody where my mother could finally fulfill her destiny as SuperMom. She was the perfect suburban housewife—yet her taste for adventurous experiences didn’t leave her.

Our summer holidays were always spent camping. Mom could have dug in her heels and just refused all the extra work that involved, but she loved the outdoors. She braved rain, bugs, pit toilets, snakes (she was terrified of snakes), and more bears as we wandered campsites across BC. We travelled to Barkerville, Terrace, and the Pacific Rim when this entailed long journeys on pot-holed gravel tracks. Perhaps this is just my childish misremembering, but it seemed that we were always driving along some narrow logging road that hung on the edge of a precipitous cliff dropping far below to a distant river valley.

One summer, we moved to Quebec for a couple of months for Dad’s job. Once again, Mom accepted the challenge of moving us all to a completely unfamiliar place with a foreign language.

When Mom was 41, my father was offered a job overseas in—of all places—Yemen. Yemen? No one had even heard of it and we had little idea what to expect there. His contract would be for a minimum of a year. Mom could stay home, or she could once again travel across the world. She chose to give up comfort and familiarity and expose two of her children (myself and my youngest brother) to The Unknown. She also left her two older children behind in Canada, which I believe was much harder for her, although they were both independent young adults by then.

Our trip to Yemen took us through Denmark, Germany, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas (aka French Somaliland or Djibouti), and Eritrea (then part of Ethiopia). As a child of 12, I was wide-eyed at the world that unfolded before me. Yemen itself provided a huge cultural shock. Donkeys and camels pulled watercarts through the desert, hideously deformed beggar children swarmed the streets, and women were swathed in black burkhas with only their eyes and fingers showing.

We moved into a whitewashed concrete block house in a small village four hours’ drive by Landrover through sand dunes from the closest town. My mother and I were the only “white” women in the village and the only women who went unveiled. (Although only 12, I was considered of marriageable age and should have been wearing a burkha.) There were cockroaches the size of Smart Cars on the floors, geckos of corresponding size on the walls (they eat the roaches), and no potable water. One room of our house was filled floor to ceiling with cases of Sohat bottled water.

In Yemen, 1972. Back row, from left: our driver and friend, Ali, Dad, Ron. Front row: me, Mom.

Suffice to say that my mother could easily have run screaming back home to Port Moody. But she didn’t give up, even after she suffered through a bout of kidney stones and contracted malaria at the same time. This was one tough, determined woman.

Through her life, she was fascinated with the sea and ships, and while others talked about luxury cruises, she always dreamed of hopping a cargo ship. At the age of 50, when her friends were spending vacations in all-inclusive resorts, she and my dad bought backpacks and headed off to Europe.

I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of travelling in my life, but I’m not sure I have the courage and spirit of adventure my mother had when she immigrated or when she packed us off to live in the Middle East. She always said all she ever wanted to be was a mother and she continually downplayed her intelligence, pointing out that she never went to high school and referring to herself as “pea brain,” yet, somehow, she managed to be the perfect captain of our family spaceship while still boldly going where few dared to go.

I think that takes a form of genius.

Happy birthday, Mom.

The Long and Winding Road

So you like long walks in the countryside, right? How about a really long walk in the countryside? Like, say, 800 km across two countries?

If that sounds like a walk in the park, how about trying it with a stroller and a toddler? Or maybe you’d like to do it with chronic pain in your feet and knees? And don’t forget your heavy backpack.

Walking the Camino: Six ways to Santiago is a documentary about six characters who each find their own reason for a journey along the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. And as the subtitle suggests, old or young, woman or man, of whatever nationality, each finds his or her own “way” of surviving the trek.

Whether they are Christian believers, wanderers who are searching for some meaning in their lives, or dilettantes who take up the pilgrim’s staff (or in this modern day, walking poles) on a whim, they all walk under the same rain storms, sleep in the same crowded hostels, suffer with similar blisters, and share the same basic needs at the end of each day: food, rest, shelter, companionship. Reducing life to this simple level for the space of 30 or so days makes them comrades in arms, each of them reluctant to see the pilgrimage come to its close.

One theme that emerges is how all of the walkers end up “shedding” something. Some drop physical belongings that begin to seem extraneous (and weighty). Some leave behind anger or sadness or their own expectations of themselves and others. Some find important things like the generosity of strangers or romantic love. But all seem to end up feeling “lighter.”

I don’t want to give away too much of the stories, because, as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, but you can add into the mix some beautiful footage of the landscapes along the way, enticing enough to make even a creaky body such as myself contemplate the pleasures of such an epic walk.

For a different view of the Camino, check out “10 Reasons Why El Camino Sucks.”

Calidris Reads: Worldwide

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Reading on Location

Great books set in top travel destinations

Luisa Moncada & Scala Quin

4 knots: Recommended

First sentence: “At some point in our lives, we have all been armchair travellers, whether it be sitting by a log fire in the depths of winter and dreaming of exotic, steamy locales, or sweating away in the maddening heat of a tropical forest and imagining a much cooler place.”

I came across this title when I was Googling something completely different, but which the search engine obviously thought was related. Sometimes those scary algorithms actually connect to a useful strand on the Web. A book about books set in travel destinations; this one was tailor-made for me!

The book is arranged into major divisions by sort-of continent, some of which are a bit odd. Africa stands alone, logically. North and South America are lumped together but the Middle East gets its own tiny section. Russia is part of the Europe section, but not in the accompanying map. Obviously some kind of communication glitch between the image editor and the text editor.

Within the major divisions, countries are listed alphabetically. Larger countries (or perhaps those with a broader literary culture in English) are given more space, with books categorized by region or city. For example, nine pages are devoted to India, with subgroupings of North and Indian Plains, the South, Mumbai, etc. I like this, because it allows you to find stories that are set right in the area you’re visiting.

Both fiction and nonfiction works are included, but only books available in English.

Each listing includes a short summary of the plot/theme as well as some supplementary information via icons that indicate whether the book has been made into a movie or TV series and if there are websites, tours, museums, author houses, etc. associated with it.

Whether your destination is Albania or Zanzibar, It’s a fun reference that could generate some intriguing choices for travel reads.

The only reason it didn’t rate 5 knots is because it’s now seven years old and there has been no second edition to list really recent books that might be pertinent. Sometimes it’s interesting to read something that reflects on the current situation in a region rather than its history.

 

 

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 Reads: World Heritage Sites

In my house, there’s a book that never gathers dust on the shelf.

It’s in almost constant circulation: sometimes in residence on the back of the toilet,* sometimes resting on my bedside table, ready to furnish a quick read before I nod off, sometimes shared out loud in the living room as we discuss our destinations.

Currently, I count six Post-It notes protruding from its pages, marking sites of probable or possible future destinations. If you flipped through its pages, you would notice the handwritten checkmarks sprinkled sparsely throughout; my way of keeping track of which sites I’ve visited, from Dinosaur Provincial Park in Canada to the Fossil Hominid Site Sterkfontein in South Africa.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) catalogues, names, and conserves sites around the world that have outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. Each year, they add to their list, and every few years, they publish a guide to all the sites on the list: World Heritage Sites: A complete guide to 878** UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Sample entry from World Heritage Sites.

In the guide, entries are given in chronological order by the year in which UNESCO recognized the site. Indices allow you to search for sites by country or site name. Each entry provides info on the year the site was recognized, in which country the site is located, a small map showing the site’s general locale, the criteria under which the site qualifies as a World Heritage Site, and a short description. Many, but not all, entries include a photo.

A typical opening sentence for an entry might be: “The karst formation of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park has evolved since the Palaeozoic era, some 400 million years ago, and is the oldest karst area in Asia.” Not exactly scintillating prose, but it does provide a very brief summary of why you might want to visit that site.

I use the book in two ways. When I begin to research a country that I might visit, I use the country index to discover which sites lie within that country. Some I already know—like the Galapagos in Ecuador. Others are an intriguing surprise, such as the works of Antoni Gaudi in Spain. (I knew of Gaudi, but didn’t realize his architecture had been recognized as a World Heritage Site.)

But for me, the real pleasure of this book is in the browsing, just opening it at random to any page and reading. Who knew, for example, that “[t]he Solovetsky archipelago comprises six islands in the western part of the White Sea….They have been inhabited since the fifth century BC and important traces of a human presence from as far back as the fifth millennium BC can be found there”?

Yes, I realize it’s a completely subjective list that is almost certainly culturally biased and I don’t care. It simply provides me with one more focus for my travel. I figure, hey, if a place has internationally recognized importance to the heritage of all humanity, it might be worth an hour’s detour. Besides, I’m just childish enough to get a kick out of ticking off the ones I’ve visited.

Rating: 5 knots Highly recommended

*You don’t want to know.

**The number changes with each edition. 878 was the number on the first North American edition in 2009, the edition I own. There are now 1073 sites on the World Heritage Site List and six editions of the guide.

World Heritage Sites is published by UNESCO Publishing (Firefly Books in North America).

Which books inspire your travel? Let me know in a comment.

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.

 

 

A is for Apsaras

The following is a whimsical summary of my recent trip to Thailand and Cambodia, in the form of rhyming couplets and photos. Any groans elicited at improbable rhymes or tortured scansion are purely intentional.

A is for apsaras carved in the rock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B for buffet where we ate lots of choc

 

 

 

 

 

 

C is for clown fish we saw in the sea

 

 

 

 

 

 

D is for dog, her name is Mutley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

E is for eagle with imperial eye

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

F is for food we loved, especially Pad Thai!

 

 

 

 

 

 

G is for guards (we saw quite a few)

 

 

 

 

 

 

H is hotel rooms with fabulous views

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I is for idols in black and white stripes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

J is for journeys on boats of all types

 

 

 

 

 

 

K is for kohn dancers covered with jewels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

L is for lounge chairs close by the pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

M is the mist on Cambodian fields

 

 

 

 

 

 

N is for nightfall with sunset revealed

 

 

 

 

 

 

O is for owls with gazes serene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

P is for pitta—the first one we’ve seen!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q is for quiet walks down on the beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

R is for tree roots that ancient walls breach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

S is for stupas, gleaming and gold

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

T is for temples with faces so old

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U is for up, where we see hornbills pass

 

 

 

 

 

 

V is for village with walls made of grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

W for waters with colour sublime

 

 

 

 

 

 

X is xpensive but worth every dime

 

 

 

 

 

 

Y is for yawning in elephant style

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zzzz is for sleeping while earning air miles

 

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.