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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.

Monday, February 22, 2016


"To thine own self be true"
                        -- Hamlet, act 1, scene 3

As I write this, I've just completed reading Michael Palin's excellent account of his circum-Pacific trek in 1996 entitled FULL CIRCLE. Coincidentally over the last couple of nights I've caught episodes of British adventurist Bear Grylls' Man vs Wild TV series. At the moment I am high over the Midwest somewhere on a transcontinental flight from Baltimore to Phoenix, sitting in coach directly abutting the First Class bulkhead.

Palin, familiar to you as one of the original six Monty Python comedy troop members -- he was, and will forever be, "The Lumberjack" and "Parrot Salesman" -- has had a second life as a well-known Traveler and travel documentarian. His road-trip exploits began with a recreation of Jules Verne's AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, and continued over a multitude of years and other paths and pathways. (You can find more information and copies of his books at Palin's travel sites here and here.)

Grylls is an adventurer in the strictest of senses. I get the impression that the more physically uncomfortable and rugged the terrain, the more at home he is as a human being. He genuinely thrives under conditions which would make the common person wilt...or cringe with disgust. From eating bugs for protein to sleeping in a makeshift (sheep's wool) sleeping bag made from the just-skinned flesh of a dead sheep, Grylls immerses himself into a full-sensory, no-frills exploration of the world around him.

And then there are some explorers who would prefer to revel in the pristine isolation of a high-end resort hotel, completely removed from even a whiff of hardship or, frankly, their surrounding environment. They don't want to explore. They don't want to be challenged. They simply want to relax and "escape" from the world by hiding behind insulated walls. I won't mention any particular explorers who match this description, but their ilk can be found on several Travel Channel programs and perhaps the pages of a luxury magazine or two.

This is not to say you cannot have a luxuriously immersive cultural experience, but it's up to the seeker to make that count. The South African travel program Top Travel (also seen on the AWE American television network) does this sort of thing well, with the two hosts -- Jeannie D and Janez Vermeiren -- each of whom experiences any particular destination in their own way. She is thrilled by ultra-luxury, while he wants the down and dirty physical challenges. And both find joint experiences which give them a flavor for a place, which is what I like about this particular program. Opulence doesn't always translate to experience, and this program works to ensure that "lux" doesn't trump "life" but enhances it.

Likewise, without a little hardship you miss those things which can be the most self-satisfying. You can't, for example, trek across a glacier with first enduring some cold (and probably a strenuous hike to get to the top). A visit to a reef would be spectacularly sad if all you did was remain high and dry aboard the boat -- you have to get a little wet and likely choke down some seawater in order to see the really good stuff. And unless you're a famous celebrity or person with excellent connections, it's a really long line to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Myself, I fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes...as I believe Michael Palin must. There is room at times for pure relaxation and enjoyment, but as Palin comments in FULL CIRCLE, the people in luxury class don't always get that true experience of a place. Only by getting your hands and face a little bit dirty -- getting uncomfortable in an invigorating way -- can you emerge from a destination with a whiff, a soupçon, of local color and flavor. 

(For purists seeking references, he discusses this in the section marked Day 189 - Cuzco to Machu Picchu. His comments regarding the difference in passenger experiences on the northbound train from Cuzco, Peru is telling. The people in First Class see the world from behind sterile smoked glass windows in air conditioned comfort, while the people in coach get the true, full-on and memorable experience of the Peruvian culture. And if you're on an Italian train, even the First Class customers can sometimes experience the Coach class experience.)

Some of my most memorable travel experiences came from moments of discomfort. Of challenge. Or simply of exploration -- getting away from the hotel, away from the cruise ship, away from the spa -- hunting/doing things on my own. I dislike feeling rushed, feeling obligated to move on simply because an itinerary demands it...or worse, my group is moving on and growing impatient at my delays. (Or, conversely, a dallying group when I'm already on to the next point of interest.)

My wife and I are well suited to each other in this regard. She usually wants to delve more deeply into the experiences I do, and is equally willing to keep it moving when the surroundings need to be updated. We're attracted (mostly) to the same sorts of shops and experiences. It's only when we get others than the usual pushme-pullyou group dynamic takes hold. Which is only fair, given that there are times I might delay a group who wants to keep moving while I want to explore something in a bit more detail.

It's a compromise of style and objective when you're traveling with more than one person. Each of us comes with our own agenda and interests and the balance must be struck somewhere between Bear Grylls' mud-and-blood-soaked Scottish Highlands endurance test and Jeannie D's palm-oil slathered bikram yoga retreat. Both are culturally valid experiences, and it's up to the participant to find which best suits their wants and needs -- while giving them something of a destination.

We've become, it is said, much more of a culturally homogenized, cookie-cutter world. The McDonald's in Rio de Janeiro differs from the one in Chicago pretty much only when it comes to the menu. A few local items may be thrown in the mix, but the Big Mac is the Big Mac pretty much universally. The Sheraton in New Orleans and the Sheraton in New Delhi (is there one?) may have slightly different decor, but they're Sheratons nonetheless. Some people like that sameness, that reliability. That's fine for them, but it doesn't mean they've really been somewhere. Just "been" there.

But even if the hotels are the same, the true difference in a destination is what you find outside the revolving door and taxi queue: it's on the street or in the great outdoors, not behind the walls of your hotel room or the luxury restaurant in the lobby even if they ARE the best in town.

And whether you're Bear Grylls, Michael Palin, Janez Vermeiren -- or Todd Carmichael, Andrew Zimmern, Anthony Bourdain, Phil Keoghan or dozens of other "travel personalities" -- the point of travel is to experience something new, different and personally enriching.

Something you can tell friends about and share with strangers.

A flavor, an experience, a vista, a serenity or a sense-numbing chaos, the important thing is to Travel with a capital T.

Otherwise, honestly, why are you even leaving home?

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