Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Travel Book: A House Somewhere

One afternoon this past December, with time to kill in the town of Alice Springs in the heart of Australian outback, I entered a used bookstore. This book, with contributions from a number of travel-writing stars caught my eye. But I already had plenty to read and I managed to resist the temptation to buy it.

Back home in Chicago I got hold of the book and read the pieces at a slow pace, enjoying them one at a time. I finally finished the book yesterday.

The idea behind this travel anthology is a great one: We all dream of owning or renting a house in some exotic place. Travel writers who have actually done it, write about their experience of their ‘house somewhere.’ With writers like Theroux, Jan Morris, Simon Winchester, and Karl Taro Greenfeld included, you can’t go wrong.

A couple of related asides: 1. Compilations such as this often help me find interesting writers I’d otherwise have missed. If I enjoyed their article, I will try to get hold of their book. 2. Any compilation by Don George of is well worth reading.

There simply isn’t enough time for us to live in all these places. Our only choice is to experience things vicariously, through the eyes of these observant writers. You should consider checking out this book, even if you think you only have time to read a few of the stories.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Listening to Patricia Schultz - 1000 Places to See Before You Die

It turned out that I was very unfairly biased against Patricia Schultz, the author of ‘1000 Places to See Before You Die.’ There are a number of variations of these books on sale, and I’d assumed that these were hack jobs. After all, with the help of the internet, it won’t take long to put together a list.

Patricia Schultz was the top featured keynote speaker for Sunday at the Chicago Adventure Travel expo. I had low expectations going in. However, within 5 minutes of listening I realized that I had grossly underestimated her efforts and her ability to connect with the listeners. Patricia is no hack.

For an entire hour, she had the audience of around 200 listening to her spellbound (100+ were standing). She had the unenviable task of picking 25 places from her list of 1000. (Here are a few places that she chose that might not be that obvious: Burma, Berlin, Prague, the Masai Mara herd migration, the Namib Desert, Monument Valley, Belize, Petra and Patagonia.)

She had picked one photo per place and had a small quotation to go along with it. For every place on her slide, she had stories about the country, about her trip. And from her digressions it was clear that she would happily talk about all 1000 places, if only there was time.

So what was it about her presentation that made it likable? First, it was the overall grace with which she conveyed her passion for travel. She didn’t come across as a know-it-all and was grateful for the travel opportunities that have come her way.

Ultimately, I think she resonated because she tapped into the universal longing (at least in that audience) for more travel to more exotic places.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Top 5 Takeaways from attending the Adventure Travel Expo 2009 in Chicago

This past Saturday, in spite of excessive snow and unplowed roads Rupal and I drove to the Rosemont Convention Center. We didn’t want to miss the Adventure Travel Expo. It’s an annual event and whenever we’ve managed to go we've been inspired wandering the booths and listening to the presenters who are authors of travel books, personalities from The Travel Channel and the National Geographic Adventure magazine.

Here are my top takeaways from this year's visit:

1. It’s happening in Africa: Africa seems to be poised to enter mainstream tourism for 2009. For this crowd of travelers Bangkok’s Kao San Road has become very passe. We saw a number of talks and booths around the travel opportunities in Africa. For those looking for something beyond Morocco and South Africa, this might be the year that Gabon, Rwanda and Niger become real possibilities.

2. Experiential Travel: Fewer and fewer people seem to be opting for the "let’s sack-out-on-the-condo-by-the-beach” type of vacations. Increasingly, people want their travel to also be meaningful experiences, usually by adding a volunteering or a social benefit component to their vacations.

3. Visit just one place, but slowly: Given our limited travel time and the ever-increasing list of places still to be seen, it is natural to rush around checking off places. This crowd is advocating a slower pace of travel. (More depth versus breadth.)

4. Green is a given now: The adventure travel bunch was eco-friendly long before the rest of us even heard of the term. This is an interesting bunch of people, who live in tents for weeks, spend as little for food as they can and yet they have loads of cutting-edge electronic gadgets with solar-powered battery chargers.

5. You make it happen: A paid gig at National Geographic is the poster-child for dream jobs everywhere. Listening to a number of National Geographic writers and presenters, I see that these guys made it happen with the right combination of talent, ambition, gumption and unrelenting perseverance. (I read somewhere that Food Channel personality Rachel Ray, before she broke through, used to regularly make 25- and 50- mile trips in her local area for her cooking shows which barely 3 women attended.) These people are travel writers and photographers because they were working at it while the rest of us ventured no further than wishful thinking.

Related Post: About the expo

Friday, January 9, 2009

Adventures in Travel Expo 2009

A quick note about this travel convention. Especially relevant for travel enthusiasts in the Chicago area.

This coming weekend in Chicago (Jan 10th and Jan 11th, 2009) at the Rosemont Convention Center there will be several big name travel personalities presenting slides and talking about their trips. (In addition to Chicago, they have conventions in DC, NYC, Seattle and LA.)

In the main floor they will have lots of travel and tourism booths. I’ve attend this event a few times in the past (it used to be called IATOS then) and it is invariably inspiring to hear the stories of what people have been doing.

If you are in the right place, you should definitely consider attending.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

What I still remember from Angkor in Cambodia

I have forgotten many details of the trip to Angkor Wat since it’s been over two years. But there are a few memories that still linger of a few temple structures and in particular of one band of musicians.

Sooner or later Angkor Wat enters into every traveler’s wish list. Impressive though the grandeur of Angkor Wat was, I remember three other structures that impressed me even more.

In Bayon (Angkor Thom), I was amazed by the gargantuan face statues of the full-lipped King Jayavarman. His seemed like a very interesting choice – to make a statement in stone. In his quest to leave an everlasting mark, he opted to build dozens of statues of his own face, most of the faces taller than humans. They actually allow visitors to wander up and around the giant faces, and no one visiting the Angkor area should miss Bayon.

Since the guidebooks had recommended Tha Prohm, we went to that crumbling temple. It is one structure that is consciously not being restored. Consequently, the giant roots of silk cotton trees are engulfing the temple. The visual metaphors are almost too easy to reach for: the impermanence of stone, of the soft actually being the stronger force, of Nature slowly reclaiming what belongs to it. Even though this place is a little off the beaten path, I was glad we witnessed the awesome display of “immutable” stone structures being crushed by the vice grip of the mighty roots.

Ever since reading about Banteay Srei in Kira Salak’s Beheadings, where she goes searching for her estranged brother, I’ve wanted to go there. Among other things, I was curious to see if the poetry in stone that she writes about so well was really true. (Short answer, yes.) And so we went. Going there involves renting a vehicle since it is separated by several kilometers from the rest of the Angkor complex. Let me just say that I hadn't known that such delicate creations were possible in sandstone.

But more than the giant face statues of Bayon or the mighty roots of Tha Prohm or the fluidity of Banteay Srei, I remember the musicians. By the side of a path leading to the entrance to a temple, a group of 8 men had seated themselves on the ground. They were playing assorted Cambodian instruments for money. A sign in front of them identified them as victims of the landmines. All eight men had lost limbs, a part of a hand or a leg and they were playing music as a way to earn some money.

Their repertoire was a series of haunting melodies. I stood and observed for a while. While I watched, practically every passing visitor opened their wallets. US Dollars, the default currency that visitors in Cambodia use were dropped freely. Even after I had walked away some distance, the band’s poignant music trailed me.