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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Does being a travel writer affect the way you travel?

On my writing blog I recently posted about celebrating a year working for Gadling, the most popular travel blog on the Internet. This got me thinking about how being a travel writer affects the way I travel. I also asked some of my fellow Gadlingers.

Like any pro, Tom Johansmeyer is always on the lookout for story ideas. He recalls a recent trip to Norwich, VT, to visit family.

"We stopped at a rest station along the way, and I saw a flier for “The Strolling of the Heifers,” which is some local event. My first thought: I can use that! Even when I’m on the road and not looking for anything, I can’t help noticing opportunities, and recreation becomes work, which itself is recreation."

I do this too. Even walking in my barrio in Madrid I end up with a handful of fliers about cultural events and interesting shops, and any trip gives me far more leads than I can possibly follow. The constant search for story ideas becomes a compulsion for both of us.

"When I ride the bus from New York to Pennsylvania to see my son, I’ll get ideas (“Five Ways to Cope with Winter Bus Travel”) or run into situations worth covering (e.g., poor service). I even did a video review on a Port Authority hot dog," Johansmeyer says.

Annie Scott says being on the job makes her more active and aware, "I go out and see things even when jet lagged. I get up and try the breakfast at the hotel instead of sleeping. I try new foods that look scary. I'm less afraid to ask silly questions and explore inappropriate places because I know that my curiosity is validated; it's a professional tool."

Willy Volk agrees.

"I think I look around a lot more, and notice what might be interesting to OTHER people, as well as what is interesting just to me," he says.

Like them, when I'm on assignment I keep my reader in mind. Who that reader is depends on the market I'm writing for. The demographic for British Heritage is very different than Gadling. I'm always asking myself, "What are my readers interested in? What do they think is important?"

"It's our duty to go one step beyond the realm of the average tourist," says David Farley. "It's our job to gain insights about the place that can sometimes only come from a more immersed experience. Part of our job--or, at least, my job--is as reporter and fact-gatherer, which isn't always something the average traveler does. For that reason, when I'm on assignment (which is about 99 percent of the time I'm traveling), I always arrive in a place with a small cadre of friends of friends waiting for me. I also schedule interviews with people who will help inform my story, which is something I wouldn't do if I were just a tourist. Travel writing is a job, not a vacation, so when I'm on the road, it's a lot of fun but at times it's also a bit exhausting."

"I notice nitpicky things," says Laurel K. Miller, "like when hotel rooms are lacking enough electrical outlets/if they're in lame locations, if the bathroom doors open into the toilet, etc."

I get this way too, but only when I'm writing reviews of the actual place. Then I can get really nitpicky. The more expensive the place, the less forgiving I am.

Friends sometimes ask me if working on the road kills my enjoyment of travel. It never has, and it doesn't seem to bother David Farley either.

"Because I'm forced to interview people and cross a certain threshold that I wouldn't normally do as a 'tourist,' I end up having a more enriching travel experience. Then I try to shift that enthusiasm into my writing about the experience," Farley says.

"I actually think travel would be rather boring for me if I weren’t a blogger," Johansmeyer agrees.

But Miller says it's made her "jaded."

"While I'm grateful every day for this career, I no longer feel the need to take photos of every beautiful beach or sunset, and it's harder for me to be impressed by locations/service/food/accommodations," she says.

Miller also finds hopping back and forth between travel and regular life a bit strange.

"While I actually enjoy mixing up high end assignments with "real" travel, as I'm a broke-ass dirtbag journalist, I struggle with the schizoid existence of living large one day, and dealing with drunken idiots in bunkbeds the next. Even more bizarre, I wait tables and do other random jobs when I'm at home, to supplement my writing. I've actually had moments where I've worked at a restaurant one night, hopped a plane on assignment the following day, and later that night found myself dining at an extremely high end restaurant. I'll actually have to suppress the urge to bus a table out of habit," she says.

Having ridden across a desert on a crowded African bus one day, then had a picnic in an English park with my kid and his friends less than a week later, I can sympathize with the "schizoid existence" comment!

While it seems the consensus is that being travel writers affects how we travel, there are times when it doesn't affect me at all. These tend to be on my more adventurous trips, such as traveling in Ethiopia or Somaliland, or hiking Hadrian's Wall. I'm doing those trips for me, and even though I write them up for Gadling they are from a personal perspective. When you read my newsy bits for Gadling you're just getting facts. When you read my features, especially my series, you're getting me. So I guess I have a certain protectiveness with my dream trips. When I finally get to The Gambia to do my long-planned river journey, I will of course write it up for Gadling and maybe some other markets, but the trip will be all mine.

Photo courtesy Leo Stolpe. It shows me taking notes in the painted caves of Laas Geel in Somaliland. Yes, that's a Gadling shirt I'm wearing.

1 comment:

jeremyhead said...

I have to say... It has got to me. I find it really hard to just 'have a holiday'. That wasn't much of an issue until I got married. For the sake of your other half you need to switch off sometimes - competely - but I find that hard to do. And it's a source of friction.