Travel Writer



Great Expectations

One great pleasure in exploring new cultures is the discovery of the delightful differences among us, despite the globalization of media and creeping homogeneity. These differences can take countless forms, ranging from the mundane to the profound. Which carbohydrate is a staple of the national diet (tortilla, crusty bread, rice, etc.)? What do people’s clothing choices say about the national character (micro-mini bikinis in Rio, longyis in Burma, burqas in Saudi Arabia, relaxed-fit jeans in the US)?

Lately I’ve grown more curious about citizens’ expressions of their expectations – not only their optimism or pessimism about the future, but also their relationship with their government.

Take this excerpt from Esther Dyson’s recent blog post during her Cosmonaut training in Russia:

“The attitudes towards risk are surprising: You’d think that in a government-centric society the government would be expected to take care of people, but the attitude seems to be more that people should take care of themselves since the government has so much else to do. I see accidents waiting to happen everywhere, whereas in the US one can see avoidance-of-lawsuits and prohibitions against risk everywhere…”

I have to respectfully disagree with Esther on this point. Russians don’t take care of themselves because they think the government is too busy. They take care of themselves because they know that the government won’t.

It calls to mind the Burmese people’s reaction to Cyclone Nargis last May. The vicious and absurd generals who call themselves the Myanmar government provided no relief, and famously refused help from the international community. For their part, the Burmese people didn’t get angry (at least not publicly). They simply helped themselves, or went to the Buddhist monks (on whom they know they can rely) for help. Contrast that with Americans’ reaction to government failures after Hurricane Katrina: public outcry, demands for resignations, lawsuits (of course), journalistic and legal investigations, and so on. The difference is a matter of expectation: What will the government do for you?

How to tell a story

Lately I’ve become increasingly obsessed with two overlapping things: the genealogical history of my family, and how to put together a story in an interesting, multimedia way.

In short, I want to take all the resources at my disposal – photographs, audio and/or video recordings of people’s recollections and reminiscences, plus general online sources such as maps, Wikipedia, etc. – and put together a compelling, navigable story about my family history. And of course, it’s got to be viewable and editable by others in my family.

In parallel, I’ve been wishing for a tool that would allow me to do such a thing for any sort of story about a place or event (e.g. “my dives off Caye Caulker, Belize”, or “Dick and Jane’s wedding”).

None of this is particularly out of the ordinary. Societies and clans have always had oral histories (and legends), scrapbooks, photo albums, and dusty old chests in grandma’s attic to help individuals understand where we came from and where we might fit in the world. And given the recent virulent spread of capital-S Scrapbooking, not to mention the mainstream acceptance of blogging, podcasting, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, et al, you’d think that there would be a thousand tools out there to help the non-tech savvy human tell their stories. Nope. At least not that I’ve been able to find so far.

I’ve tried out two fairly popular storytelling software tools: and MemoryMiner.

I’m not sure if GroupSmarts, the developers of MemoryMiner, are still working on it. In theory, the software allows you to tag all your media files (photos, audio, video, etc.) with metadata – names, locations, text, and so on – attach files to each other (e.g. this video goes with this photo) and then upload a Flash-based multimedia compilationto a website.

The Windows version I downloaded and demo’d was slow and confusing, and the publishable output was…well, lame. For instance, I tried viewing the sample stories created by the MemoryMiner community, and none of the movie files worked. Honestly, I gave up after an hour – none of it seemed worth my time., on the other hand, seems worth the work. Since it’s targeted at a specific kind of story, media is structured in a meaningful way that makes sense: the family tree. I’m about to invite my less-techie family members to contribute. Stay tuned for results!


Whenever people insist that I will love something, that I can’t live without it, I stubbornly avoid it. I am instantly repulsed and refuse to budge. My reaction, I know, is some sort of leftover adolescent nonsense that I can’t shake – like the occasional chin zit.

But after years of being brow-beaten, harassed, cajoled, put-upon, proselytized¬† to,¬† and arm-twisted, I finally accepted a (free) copy of Eat Pray Love. And, despite all my instincts, I’m reading it.

I realize now that the reason that I abhor most modern books written by women – some strange self-hating weirdness, I always thought – is their inevitably breezy, cheerful and forced “irony.” Read Eat Pray Love if you want to see what I mean. It’s irritating and even unbearable, though (as in this case) sometimes, no matter how unreadable the prose, the story keeps you going. So, as if I was faced with a tablespoon of Castor oil, I’m going to squeeze my eyes shut and choke it down.

Why can’t everyone write like Mary Gaitskill? Hell, why can’t I?

My poor, depleting savings

No, it’s not the stock market. Well…it’s not *only* the stock market. I’ve just discovered a beautiful little bookstore that will quickly and efficiently empty my bank account.

Idlewild Books, conveniently located on 19th Street just west of 5th Ave (and a quick 15-minute walk from my apartment) opened six months ago. Its theme? Travel books – guides, histories and novels, organized by region. Five minutes after I read about it I bundled into my winter coat and set a brisk pace across town. I managed to practice some self-control and buy only four books ($63.89), but I’ll be back there in two days for an evening of spicy Hungarian wine and inevitably fried Hungarian food to promote “Food Wine Budapest“. I’m sure that after a few glasses of Gere Barrique I’ll whip out my credit card and go crazy. I’m screwed.

So what did I buy? I’m planning a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, with my dad next year, so I feel like I need to bone up on my Russian lit and history. After St. Pete I hope to take the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok, so of course I need to learn more about Siberia. And finally, I am still obsessed/intrigued by Burma after my trip there earlier this year. (I just finished The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh so I’m eager to return.) My edited haul:

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Solzhenitsyn

Silverland, by Dervla Murphy (I wanted to buy Through Siberia By Accident, but it was out of stock)

The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly

Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson (just because I have to read it)

Let me tell you: I could have bought twice as many. Travel and books. This is what I spend my money on.

Seeking inspiration

It doesn’t take much to inspire me to visit most any place – strolling down the travel aisle at the local Barnes & Noble usually does the trick. But what if I have a specific activity in mind (scuba diving)? Despite spending hours and hours looking, I haven’t found a great online source among the many that claim to offer such inspiration.

TripAdvisor, possibly the best-known, is a confusing mess. Sure, there’s some great advice buried in there, but only if you have the patience to parse the sponsored links from the ads from the user-generated content. Use sparingly and only as a way to do deeper research after you’ve decided on a destination.

TravelMuse, a relative newcomer, has a pretty interesting approach. In early September at the DEMOfall08 conference it announced Social Trip Planning. The social aspects are cool – it makes it easy to plan a trip with your friends/family. But what I really love is the fact that you can gather all your research – from the TravelMuse website or any other place on the Web – into one place. You can drag and drop your research into custom itineraries (if you’re a plan-every-second-beforehand kind of person, which I am not). But the killer is this: you can search the site for and use other travelers’ previous research.

Here’s why this is important, other than the obvious time-saving benefit. On any travel site I’ve seen, once it comes time to book your hotel or a tour or whatever, your only choices are the relatively sophisticated, more expensive service providers – ones with a website and “bookable” rooms. What’s a shoestringer to do? In the past, my solution has been to go out and buy the Lonely Planet. TravelMuse lets you create a hyper-customized version of your own Lonely Planet for free….at least it will if/when it really takes off.

Planning is great and all…but don’t you really need to take it with you? Sure, you could print out your itinerary, and all the content from all the links. But that seems wasteful and it’s not really in an easy-to-use, travel-ready format. Stay tuned for Offbeat Guides, which helps to solve this problem.

Where should I go, and when?

Google’s great and all, but the perfect trip is more about discovery than search.

This is where I’ll document my travel wish list…and how I found out about the places I want to go.