Wednesday, December 28, 2011

51 Lessons Learned from Travel in 2011

Sometimes I hear from people I have a 'dream job.' I do get to travel a lot, talk about travel, think about travel -- so, yes, it can be pretty good. For 2011 I spent a lot of my time in Canada -- five separate trips! -- and with heavy metal singers. Here's my 51:

1. Quebec City's better in winter, but the Ice Hotel is nuts. It's so cold after a couple hours you can still shiver in a hot tub (literally).
2. Sandwiches will always be funny. Like this London street:
3. And talking about sandwiches can not only get you a mention in the New Yorker, but you'll learn things like Massachusetts courts had to settle a dispute between Panera Bread and Qdoba Mexican Grill over what a sandwich really is. And that when Elvis picked a cover for his first gospel album, he went to Sandwich, Massachusetts.
4. Seeing a 'black rodeo' in Boley, Oklahoma was great, but nothing compared to its 'potato on the stick.'

5. Osama Bin Laden's place of death -- Abbottabad, Pakistan - inspired the worst poem in history.
6. From the air at night, Regina, Saskatchewan looks like a tidy, obedient square of city light.
7. If you run smack forehead-to-chin into Ann Curry at NBC's Today Show studio, she will immediately apologize.
8. Curling in Quebec comes with tassled hats, beer, chocolate and a free failed lesson.
9. There is a name for my long love/dislike relationship with Russia, per Ian Frazier, a qualified 'Russia-love.'
10. It's not fun being hog-tied, even if it's at 'Mountie school.'

11. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is named for a whining fort-maker who took his fort-making materials and went home in a huff when he wasn’t allowed to run his own fort in the War of 1812.
12. Iceland is a shorter flight from New York than New York to San Francisco. And it is absolutely unreal. Even on my mental two-day trip to Arukeyri to see volcanic craters.

13. Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden –- pilot, fencer, author, metal legend -- is a really nice guy.

14. It's important to be very very careful where and when you wear GREEN SHORTS, or you might end up in a travel brochure like I did.
15. The cheapest way to stay in a Frank Lloyd Wright building is in his only skyscraper, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
16. There’s an old sign for the long-demolished Knickerbocker Hotel on the subway platform on the Shuttle line at 42 St/Times Square.
17. Nice seeing Haiti considering travel as means for rebuilding, per its booth at Berlin's ITB.
18. Cleveland’s Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame -- which I've banned -- says yes to Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, Donovan (!?), the Small Faces (!?) and someone named Tom Dowd (!?) but still won’t consider adding Rush – the third-biggest selling band of all time.
19. By the way, there's at least one female Rush fan.
20. Playing hockey with 12-year-olds in an Edmonton mall is exactly as much fun as it sounds.

21. It's apparently best to save Kate Winslett and your mom from a fire while naked. Per the world's most famous goatee.
22. Yes, the Montreal bagel is better than the New York City bagel.
23. Getting a look inside Montreal's bizarre Habitat '67 housing complex feels like being in a concrete toy-block castle.

24. Lord Stanley -- of Stanley Cup fame -- thought a lot of himself. So much when he created a Vancouver park for all 'colours, creeds and customs' to enjoy 'for all time,' he named it, naturally, after himself.
25. Amelia Earhart twice failed to reach the tiny Howland Island, which the US claimed in the 1800s because of all its bird poo. You still can’t go.
26. Ever wondered what happened to Scooby Doo's van? Yep, just as I expected, it's outside Joni Mitchell's old house in Saskatoon.

27. Sir Humphrey Gilbert is the father of British colonialism. And a very clumsy one. He ignored Queen Elizabeth, wrecked his boat in St John's, Newfoundland, spouted off its new colonial status to small gathering of indifferent Spanish and French settlers, said he was staying for good, then left a week later, cut his foot, got sick, sailed off back to Europe on a leaky boat, which promptly sank, drowning Sir Humphrey Gilbert. We need a movie.
28. Professional writers who blog aren't bloggers, they're 'jourblists.'
29. The curator of Iceland's Phallological Museum, who retired a couple months after my interview below, knows exactly how NOT to preserve a penis specimen.

30. Travel costs are up 46% more than inflation in the last 61 years.
31. You can build and destroy an igloo in Queens.
32. Maybe the next big thing in travel isn't street food or 'local travel' but closing your eyes.
33. One of the reasons B&Bs scare me -- things like this beside your bed:

34. Hockey fans are a lot happier when they win. (Than when they lose.)

35. Before Dudley Do-Right, there were 'singing Mountie' films.

36. The real name for a gopher is the Richardson's Ground Squirrel.
37. After I returned from a (short) morning jog, a Saskatchewan B&B house-cleaner who longs to move to New York told me, in a feverish sing-song rat-a-tat, 'You ran around the lake? They just found a body over there. Couldn't tell who because he was so rotted, just the sex. So that's kinda cool.'
38. Elvis had Graceland, the Red Elvis had this (in East Berlin):

39. London has hills!
40. Speaking of which, the pub on the cover of the Kinks' iconic 'Muswell Hillbillies' album is really really lame now ('Dusk till Dawn' by the Archway tube station).
41. The 'rat alley' -- where Robert Sullivan spied on rats in his superb New York City book, 'Rats' -- is rat-free during the day. (This video shows where it is.)

42. Maryland's bizarre uniform choice -- football's first color-clashing bi-helmet -- is underrated.
43. The sweet 80-something Berlin lady who fell in a subway station, and I helped get up, tenderly rubbed my hand with her red knit-gloved hand as we went down the stairs together. We didn't share a word of common language -- other than 'danke' -- but I'll remember that.
44. I was shocked to see how easy it is to sneak behind Lincoln at Ford's Theater. Memo to 1865 presidential advisers in a city bordering an enemy state: put a guard outside the door.
45. DC's metro stations are underrated.

46. So are Montreal's.

47. I got to go to Newfoundland in 2011, and Newfoundland is simply a GIFT to travel.
48. If you don't get the 'Paris in the 20s' thing -- and I didn't for years -- Ernest Hemingway's 'A Moveable Feast' will change that.
49. The honorary ReidOnTravel Certificate of Merit for Best Film goes to 'The Artist.' A silent film in 2011 -- yes, thank you.
50. My favorite place to fly over? Nevada. Its marbled mountains look like decapitated Shar Peis huddled together -- I want to get out there and drive it every time I see it.
51. Lips from Anvil told me in Toronto that since this wonderful, heart-breaking documentary he's finally been able to quit his day job and focus just on music for the first time, well, ever. 'I'm living the dream.'

Thursday, December 22, 2011

How to have a Robust Christmas (Part III)

Two years ago, the 76-Second Travel Show noted how the use of 'robust' had risen steeply on both sides of the Atlantic, while creating a new Christmas carol for the ages, 'Robust Christmas (Let's Make It Robust).' Here's the video:

And the trend continued last year too in the US, with a steep rise from 900 usages to over 1400 in the New York Times (slightly above this year's mark of 1371, as of Dec 22).

But to celebrate Robust Christmas III, we thought -- here at 76-Second Travel Show headquarters -- to take an alternate take at gauging the rise of robust. By use in headlines.

This graph shows that the New York Times show rises of use of 'robust' in a headline has doubled in the past two years:

Yes, you find robust everywhere: most robust balance sheet in history, robust menu, robust specimens, robust African-American woman, the robustness of the findings, a robust start (to baseball angst), and so on.

And travel is not exempt. Paulie Theroux dropped the R-bomb on Dutch lit of all things.

If robust is here to stay, and grow, what better way to celebrate than having a robust Christmas?

So please do.

Friday, December 9, 2011

What is 'travel writing'?

A couple days ago I noted, on Twitter, that some of the entries in the new Best American Travel Writing: 2011 aren't really travel stories.

One is a New Yorker piece on the Shinnecock reservation at the Hampton of Hamptons, Southhampton. Writer Ariel Levy talks with officials on efforts to create/block a casino that will likely further clog the Long Island Expressway.

Another (Tom Ireland's 'Famous') follows a coincidentally timed trip just after the terrorist attacks to Bombay. It dwells almost exclusively, with much evident research back home, as a profile of the lone surviving gunman.

I liked both. But just going to places that travelers go to, and asking questions and writing things down, shouldn't always qualify a piece as a 'travel story,' I'd think.

Pondering this, I tracked down this self-congratulatory essay by Paul Theroux called 'Travel Writing: The Point of It.' In it, he claims travel writing is worthy only if it predicts subsequent events (most guidebooks, by the way, are 'bloodless' to him). In that case, it can perform a 'unique function... to express a country's heart, as long as it stays away from vacations, holidays, sightseeing, and the half-truths in official handouts.' Which is kinda funny.

He's talking about his book Riding the Iron Rooster, researched in 1987, which sort of predicts the 1989 events at Beijing's Tiananmen Square. (I guess; I've not read it.) Reviewers had called it 'grumpy,' and it apparently bothered him -- enough so, he felt compelled to note, like a winning quarterback, that it sold half a million books. (Really? Pulling the whole sales:value card, huh?)

It's a good goal, I'm sure, but I hope it's not the only way travel writing works. In fact, Pico Iyer's Yangon chapter in the classic Video Nights in Kathmandu, researched just before the 1988 (failed) revolution in Burma, dwelled on students' moonwalking skills. No hint of brewing discontent.

But does that make it bad travel writing?

I think Theroux and Iyer are right to focus their writing on people -- not just officials -- but regular ol' people. Doing so can stand for a bigger picture of how a place lives and feels. And their writing tends to be 'open' to the destinations, using travel as a means of discovery. That seems key too.

But I'd like to think that technique works in places without impending revolutions too? That is, as long as you stay clear of 'sightseeing.'

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Journal: Omaha Man, 2001

I'm in the long process of digitizing a couple dozen journals put together on Lonely Planet, and other, research trips over the past decade or so. I really liked this guy, met in Omaha on my first LP assignment: updating the Great Plains chapter of the USA guidebook in the spring of 2001:
William Reeves volunteers at Omaha's Great Plains Black History Museum. He's 74, originally from Kansas City. Says he played alto and tenor sax in the late '40s down there. Another musician he knew -- a 'bully' - once hit a heckler 'with his horn,' he said. 'Then someone beat him up so bad he died.' Asked if he liked jazz today. 'Oh, sure. You just have to be where it's at, y'know? Preston Love at the Omaha Star [a 'black paper' nearby], he played horn with Basie. He'd know.' Williams says he regularly goes back to Kansas City -- 'for barbecue runs, and for funerals.'