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.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

ROAD TRIP: Seattle

"To some extent, Seattle remains a frontier metropolis, a place where people can experiment with their lives, and change and grow and make things happen." - Tom Robbins

As I have noted elsewhere, Seattle is a city that moves by its own vibe. With a spectacular cultural center, the aptly-named Seattle Center, a well-established and vibrant nightlife, and a real sense of its own identity, Seattle is both a highly urban place but also one more in touch with its natural surroundings than most of the other big cities in this country. 

Perhaps it is because from even the most central parts of downtown you are no more than an hour away (barring traffic, of course) from some of the most stunning scenery in the world. North, up the eastern side of Puget Sound is a festival of destinations, including the passageway to the San Juan Islands (frequently described as one of the most beautiful island chains in North American). South and East is the vast Mount Rainier. And West, just across the sound, lies the majestic beauty of the Olympic National Park.

Seattle Center's Experience Music Project
The famous "Flying Fish" counter at Pike Place


Bill Speidel's excellent "Underground Tour"


Seattle Links
Bill Speidel's Underground Tour
Pike Place Market
Washington State Ferries

Downtown Seattle

The Emerald City from the observation platform of the Needle

Sunday, March 17, 2013

More than the Sum of One

“I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.” 
                                      ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Looking for Adventure
A few days ago one of the many travel-related groups on Facebook asked the question "What was the ONE trip that changed your life?", and it started me to thinking. 

Is a single trip, a single voyage, something you can look at as a complete work of art, or do you view it as simply as another page in a lifelong coloring book of adventures?

While I can readily see many situations in which ONE trip could, indeed, completely change your life -- winning a massive jackpot in Las Vegas; being told by your spouse that they want a divorce in Central Park; being proposed to while boating at the base of Niagara Falls, etc. -- my personal thoughts and approach to travel are much more aligned with the idea that each trip changes you in its own ways, some small, some large. Some in bits and pieces, others in major ways. But looking back at my 2/3 complete life (I hope) and designating any one voyage as the ONE which made a difference? Not so much. If it's an event that would change your life regardless of locale, then it's not the trip that changes you, it's the event. Each expedition is a page of my life, colored in by the textures of the places I've been and experiences I've had
Tourists see, Travelers watch

And that's the key, I think. Differentiating between things in your life which are a direct result of traveling or the destination, versus things which are simply impactful no matter where you happen to be. 

For a trip to change my life it has to be something about the trip itself that is the significant change, otherwise it's merely happenstance that I'm not home at the time it occurs. If my spouse asks for a divorce, does it really matter whether it's in Central Park or the kitchen table? No. 

Winning the lottery at home has just as much impact to my life as winning a massive jackpot in Vegas, though perhaps some of the romanticism is missing. But the long-term effect on your life is essentially the same. 

If, God forbid, you are hit by a car, the result is no less severe in Rome than it is crossing the street down by the neighborhood 7-Eleven or vice-versa. (Okay, insurance-wise it might, but that's an entirely different topic.) But you're still injured and in pain, and still facing a recovery period. WHERE is occurred is less important that the FACT it occurred.
It's a matter of small changes, not big ones

Fundamentally, the way a trip impacts your life -- the way it changes you -- is through the experience and understanding which you've accumulated before coming home. If a single ship voyage convinces you that cruising is the ultimate rewarding experience and you live for the cruise, then, yes, it changed your life. 

If a cup of coffee in a square in Mexico City convinces you to dedicate yourself to finding that next great cup of coffee, then, yes. 

If you've lived in the cute little Route 66 town of Shamrock, Texas your entire life and a drive over Amarillo gives you the blinding realization that you love to explore new places….yep, you're there. The ONE trip that changed your life.

But judging on the whole, looking back perhaps with a different perspective than I would have voiced two decades ago, my life is a tapestry, not a photograph. Photographs freeze a moment in time, while a tapestry tells a story.

My friend James living it up
I've expounded many times on the difference between being a tourist versus being a traveler. Indeed, MANY people have expounded upon this, not the least of whom is travel-maven Rick Steve's. We, and many people, share the philosophy that merely touring something is a passive approach. To really get the flavor of a place you have to dig in, metaphorically as well as literally. Though my wife and I have certainly participated in "tour groups" -- mainly defined as large busses of people arriving at a pre-set display of local furniture making skills or some sort of historic display or district -- we make the best of it and usually wander off on our won. Don't get me wrong: there are times when such trips are worth more than the price of admission, and that's when you know you've got a particularly good tour operator at the helm. (Two immediate examples come to mind: a large bus tour group to the Mayan ruins at Tulum in which we genuinely learned a bit about the culture and were able to see something which we could not, otherwise, have journeyed to in time to return to the ship; and a separate trip in the Sierra Madre to the town of Capala -- also a voyage we could not have done on our own.)

Stop, look, see
(This also pointedly excludes smaller travel groups. We've had several extremely useful small-group tours with between five and ten participants. This is a small enough group for individualized questions and attentions. Plus some flexibility on timing and interests. In one instance we were given a private tour of Vancouver at the end of the tourist season -- after a last-minute cancellation, we were the only people on the tour. The driver essentially looked over his shoulder, shrugged and asked what we wanted to do.)

One of our favorite tours, however, are the hop-on hop-off busses that now line the streets of nearly every large city. They are often the very best way to gather a reasonably quick overview, clicking off those destinations along the way you'd like to get back to and explore in more detail. Then, returning to do exactly that is what constitutes -- in my mind -- the difference between a tourist (who will get off the tour, look around, then take another guided trip) from a traveler (who will take a cab back to that neat little street corner she saw during the tour and stop in a local pub for a pint).

Indulge in the local cuisine
Moving back to the main topic (as my longer-term readers know, I tend to wander from topics, but will eventually get back to them given enough time), it's those quiet moments in the pub or the coffee house or the shop or the vegetable stand or wherever that can really make the most profound impact on the traveler. Those times we interact with the locals, when we make it clear we're here to learn something about them and their way of life, that are the most rewarding. I certainly don't mean from a condescending standpoint. Heaven forbid, that's exactly the OPPOSITE of what I'm saying. I really, honestly mean asking questions -- learning  something about how a dish is prepared; why a thing is done the way it's done; the thoughts that go into a particular work of art; of the attention given the design in a particular fabric and does it have a significance? These are things you learn from. And by sitting and watching the things around you. A cup of coffee or tea, or a glass of wine, while sitting at a little table on the sidewalk can feed you volumes of information as you saturate yourself with the local vibe. 

Burying your head in a laptop or iPad robs you of that input, reduces your visit to a "stop".  Kick back and watch the world go by and you learn a bit about how that world works.

And that's why I have trouble with the concept that a single trip can be the ONE that changes your life. If we view each time out as a source of a new adventure, the addition of a new set of experiences, then there are only rare occasions when a single, solitary trip can be the ONE which changes your life.

But for me, each time I head out the door is an opportunity to explore, to learn, to experience. Even if I'm heading to a familiar destination, I ask myself what I can do to enjoy it and get something out of it that I might not have gotten before. 

(Last time I went to Phoenix for business the two other guys I was with agreed we would look up "interesting" places to eat rather than the standard business-traveler default of hotel restaurant or the nearby Black Angus. After a little exploration over two nights we ended up at Chino Bandido and Haus Murphy's, two genre-bending eateries that in no way you would find on the regular beaten path. It was our way of making sure the trip was not a generic recreation of something readily available in our home cities.) (Though I was startled to discover that both had been visited by Guy Fieri, the Food Network host. Those kind of odds are, well, odd.)

So, really, when you get down to it no ONE trip has been the one that glaringly changed my life. It has been changed by a mosaic of different experiences over a lifetime of travel. Each one has fueled a thirst for more. I've been atop mountains, under the sea, in the midst of large cities and alone in the desert. I've slept in trailers on the Tundra, and luxury hotels in Las Vegas. Ridden high speed rail in France, and plodded along on a tour bus an Sinaloa, Mexico. Each time I've learned a bit and, as a result, grown as a person (I HOPE!). Each time it has filled in a section of a page of my life's coloring book.

And that's the adventure, at least as far as *I* can tell!

Yes, there are exceptions of a single trip changing the lives for many people, and you might be thinking of one this very instant -- and if so, good for you! How did the trip change you and why? I'd love to know. 

Part of the adventure, not the entirety

Thursday, March 14, 2013


The second set of Thumbnail Traveler posters -- now twelve in all.

Collect them, trade with friends!

These are quotes which I feel capture the message I'm working to get across, as well as framing my overall philosophy of both travel and our view towards the rest of the world.

Friday, March 8, 2013


If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” 
- James Goldsmith

Chances are good that you're not familiar with the name Nate Thayer. 

His is not a household name, but it's likely you've read something he wrote, or at least seen something that was, itself, influenced by Thayer's work.

He's a working journalist with a long career of investigative reporting on the international stage. His work on Asian politics and social conditions have earned him enough awards over the years to decorate an entire wing of a house, including a Peabody -- which he subsequently turned down in protest of the unethical nature of modern broadcast "journalism". (I put those words in quotes for a very good reason.) 

Readers pay for the privilege of reading...
He's an "old school" journalist in every sense of the word. The same sort of journalism and ethical behavior I was taught at the USC School of Journalism. In short, he's a talented, respected and credentialed writer with a good reputation.

In the last few days a pretty significant brouhaha has developed over a piece he posted in his blog on March 4th.

The Atlantic Monthly, itself a reputable publication with a respectable online presence, proactively approached Thayer about publishing an edited and condensed form of an article he'd written regarding Dennis Rodman's trip to North Korea.  Thayer was open to the idea, which apparently led to a phone call and further email exchanges. It was only after several discussions that the editor at the Atlantic mentioned she would not be able to compensate Thayer for the article nor the time involved in adapting it. 

Their offer: that age-old cop-out "publicity".

Photography takes effort and skill
Which is really a for-profit publication's way of saying "we get paid, however you must be happy we deign to publish your work".

Purely greedy move on their part, and yet some of the people posting comments to Thayer's site actually accused him of being greedy by seeking payment. This would be laughable if that opinion was not so widely held among people in this country.

So why, you may be asking yourself, is this all in a blog called The Thumbnail Traveler, which is ostensibly about travel and photography? 

"But Steve," I can hear you ask, "where is all the upbeat stuff and where are all the pretty pictures?"

Fair question, but it's like this: Like Thayer, I write a blog free of charge to anyone who would like to peek in and enjoy a few moments away from the rest of the web.  I like to think that what you get when you come here is a view of the world which, for good or bad, is at least interesting to read -- or maybe just for the pretty pictures. Travel is a passion of mine, as is photography -- but there's a huge difference between what I elect to post and what I expect to be paid for.

Like Thayer, there are times when I write/photograph for free. It's my choice. But the majority of the time I need to be concerned with putting food on the table and funding those same trips I bring back and share. Part of the equation is being reimbursed, somehow, some way, for my efforts. If push comes to shove, my passions must give way to cold hard economic requirements. This, here on the blog, and on my Facebook page, is what I give away for free. And yes, it's for publicity. To drive the value of the overall brand. But if the brand is already established, the free stuff needs to give way to the Return on Investment, which is payment for a professional's work.

Making money with art is not greed
Thayer was exactly right to expect compensation. After all,  The Atlantic would be deriving profit as a result of having his work posted on the site. In addition, he was expected to spend additional time adapting the article to a format they wanted -- again, free of charge. The error was in the initial approach of The Atlantic to an author -- any author -- expecting to get something for nothing.

Publicity is a good thing under certain circumstances, and can be in and of itself a good thing for someone seeking a wider audience -- which is the logic the editor at The Atlantic used. But her error was in making that an automatic assumption and not mentioning that the work would be pro-bono at the outset. The offense didn't occur until she was well down the road of discussions with Thayer, and that was wrong. Ethically, it's the same as sitting down with a caterer to discuss an event and only after several meetings mentioning that you expect the catering to be free so that the caterer can hand their cards out at the event. But some how, some way, we've grown into a culture which so devalues journalism and other forms of creative endeavors that the expectation is that Thayer would adapt his article for free. 

So why post this here, on The Thumbnail Traveler? Because it's an important topic for bloggers and professionals all over the internet. What we provide for free here, doesn't mean we are giving things away in the rest of our profession. I expect to be paid for my photographs. And I am. My wife expects to be paid for her singing. And she is. This blog is posted to share with you the things I enjoy -- in the hope you enjoy them as well and, in fact, share them with others. So far it seems to be working. Slowly, but working. THAT is the value of "publicity". But getting a photograph on your website isn't going to drive traffic my way. History and social behavior show that's simply not the case.

Thayer rightly expects to be paid for his work. He's got all the credentials he needs to be the writer he wants to be. The editor at The Atlantic should have known better, and should never have approached a known journalist without some eye towards compensation. Does she work pro-bono for the magazine? Does the magazine post their work without any consideration for profit? Advertising? Doubtful.

So: Shame on The Atlantic Monthly for trying to "get stuff for free". Shame on anyone who insults the creators by asking them to do their work for free. 

Harlan Ellison, a highly respected writer and cherished friend, has a now (in)famous video on Youtube that explains things far more succinctly -- it's all about "Paying the Writer". Or the photographer, or the painter or the…well, you fill in the blank.

Rant over. Next week, back to the pretty pictures.

Thayer's original post and others....

Pay the Writer

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

ROAD TRIP: St Barth's 2009!

"When you look at me, when you think of me, I am in Paradise." - William Makepeace Thackeray

Every once in a while I like to post a random set of archive photos from various parts of the world we've visted. This week, the beautiful and exclusive island of St Barthelemy, aka "St Barth", in the Caribbean. Often called a playground for the rich and famous, it's also a wonderful little destination for people just looking to get away. Not inexpensive, but certainly a good spot to lay back in your lounge chair and feel the cooling tropical breeze as it comes up across the bay.

For more information, go to St. Barth Online

Relaxing on the beach at Baie St. Jean

The Hepi Bar at Emeraude Plage
Burgers at Le Select
The beautiful strand on St Jean, facing Eden Rock
Petrified trees on the road to Saline Beach
North Shore

Downtown Gustavia
Tanning on St Jean

High end options for shopping in Gustavia

The marina in Gustavia
THe spectacular view overlooking Governeur Beach
The island off Grand Saline 

Approaching the World Famous Landing, looking down at Gustavia