About Me

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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Along the Way

"I have dedicated my life to travel and am a strong believer in its benefits, both for the traveller and the local community that they are visiting. Travel broadens the mind by sharing cultures, language and traditions."  - Tony Wheeler, founder of LONELY PLANET

Looking for Adventure
I am in the midst of reading Unlikely Destinations by Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the founders of the well-known and well-respected Lonely Planet travel company. It's an excellent book and is full of interesting stories and anecdotes detailing their own times on the road as well as the construction of their global empire. (You might say I want to be them when I grow up.)

But it occurred to me as I was reading one particular passage early in the book which went into some detail on their first trip around the world. In this section they were discussing the trek down from India, through Southeast Asia to a boat which would take them to Australia. It was a challenging trip because of both weather-related and economic factors. 

The "road" less traveled
As I have grown older, my sense of adventure hasn't decreased, but have to admit that my desire to "backpack across Europe" or hike the jungles of the Amazon has decreased to the point of disinterest. This doesn't mean that I'm above roughing it, it's that roughing it has become my second choice when visiting new places and things. There is, no question, an amazing attraction of sitting in a tent somewhere in the rainforest. listening to the sounds of the wild. On my N.O.W. list is a clear intention to go on a safari as well as a trip down to the coast of Antarctica. I don't need luxury accommodations as much as a degree of security in which events are not left purely to chance and risking the stranding of me in some exotic spot where my survival might itself be very well in question. (I love watching Dangerous Grounds with Todd Carmichael, but am certainly not looking for that kind of adventure in my life. At most, I'm more of a Michael Palin sort who has a plan and is along for an adventure.)
Lap of Luxury...

There are always challenges which are to be dealt with, and it's those challenges which determine your worth as a traveler, versus a tourist. A traveler tends to resolve things themselves, while a tourist waits for others to solve things for them. I've been, and will continue to be both a tourist and a traveler -- there are times I want to sit back and look at pretty things, or be part of a small group in a minibus going to look at a particular site (or sight). And other times I want to be off on my own trundling through a back alley looking for interesting things to amuse myself.

But, to be fair, my "off the beaten path" hasn't been really far off the trail, though I'd like it to be a bit more than it is. Far and away the best such trip was the visit to Churchill, Manitoba, six years or so ago. This is genuinely off the beaten path, and is a lesson in getting away from it all. But, again, we had "locals" there to watch over us and make sure we didn't wander into the path of an oncoming polar bear.

(Locals, by the way, are an excellent way of finding the good stuff. Ignore..or at least treat as suspect…the things the tour operators want to throw your way. They may be amazingly valuable, but are driven more by a sense of profit than a true sense of the local experience. Always ask a local for a recommendation, even if you're on a tour. It will help you understand a place a bit better, and also give you a chance to find out what is really, fundamentally good about a place.)

All grown up, and still on the road
The author in Japan
But what I find personally difficult to do is be 100% tourist, 100% of the time. I love cruising on Wind Star Cruises because of their itineraries. You can suffer yourself the illusion that you're not a tourist, you're a visitor. But years ago, when visiting Skagway, Alaska, I saw first hand the wave of tourists as they washed down into the town from four different ships docked in the bay. A virtual tsunami of people who were there for a day, only looking for low-cost shopping and some sort of day trip. I witnessed the same event in Monaco, and was personally part of such a wave in several ports in Mexico. And I found that I want to be in these places before and after the waves have come and receded.

Similarly, a true visit to a particular destination must include a selection of the local culinary scene. Give me beignet in New Orleans, sushi in Tokyo, steaks in Dallas, nicoise foods in the south of France, or seafood in Dubrovnik -- and yes, haggis will be a required food when I finally get myself up to Scotland. It's all part of the adventure, which is sorely lacking in the expansive floating hotel experiences of most cruise lines.

I keep, in my study, a map with push pins denoting where we have been, and whether it's been a day trip or an overnight -- overnight being a true checkmark of a stay, but we define a visit as more than two hours outside the airport as the minimum standard for logging a place as "been there". This is woefully inadequate, of course, but it prevents use of a mid-flight transfer as qualifying for a pin. (If this were allowed I would add three states and a dozen other locations to my world map.)
Not a good view of the country

So adventure comes only if you grant yourself some time to absorb. I am guilty of the counting coup method of touring, and I've found that hill it's a terrific way to see a place if you're on a limited schedule, it's not nearly as satisfying as a stay and play approach -- which is itself a misnomer, since part of these travels can be occupied by a constantly moving road trip from one spot to another. In a week or so we're headed to Santa Fe for a few days. While our friends elected to fly, my wife and I are hitting the road and re-traveling I-40 between LA and Santa Fe. It's a fascinating section of the country and certainly worthy of a few days' transit. Better still, on the way back we're detouring to Monument Valley, an area I have wanted to see -- almost to the point of N.O.W. inclusion -- for my entire lifetime. It's an almost mythic place in both our national consciousness as well as in our collective heritage. It's about time I looked it up. Obviously there will be a future column with shots.

But it's about getting out, and getting away. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a tourist, staying in a massive luxury liner and seeing the world from your stateroom balcony. But in the same way Todd Carmichael's rough and tumble risking it all approach, it just isn't for me. And since travel is keenly driven by a sense of engagement, of accomplishment, we must all find our own way of satisfying that need. That need may even change with our mood or particular need at any given time (though I can't picture Todd ever booking a stateroom on Carnival).

That's kind of the philosophy of The Thumbnail Traveler. Harking back to how I started this column, roughing it…backpacking through Southeast Asia, for example…is certainly the most fundamental method of travel. It's true, it's basic and, frankly, it's not for me. I prefer my roughing it to come in small portions, and knowing that no matter how rough it gets there's an exit. But we each must find our own most-rewarding approach. Mine is somewhere between Todd's scramble through the jungle and a night at the Ritz Carleton. Both have their appeal, it just depends on my spirit and the amount of money I can afford. But the most important aspect, as with any travel, is in what you gain along the way. 

Donald Trump has no doubt "been a lot of places", but I cannot say he is "well-traveled". Sir Richard Branson is well-traveled.

I would much rather be Sir Richard than The Donald any day. 

Get Up and Go!

Where are we going next?

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