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, February 25, 2014

Dispatches from the Road: SAN DIEGO

Dispatches from the Road #1

With all of my traveling of late I am being given an opportunity to expand the nature and frequency of posts here on the Thumbnail Traveler blog. I'm introducing a new, more frequent type of entry to be entitled "Dispatches from the Road".

As I have smaller, more specific adventures -- whether it's driving from point A to point B uncovering something I'd like to share, or just walking up the street in a particular destination -- this will give me the opportunity to share those smaller moments without working to include it in one of the more detailed ROAD TRIP: entries. The Road Trips will continue to be primarily photographic in nature, while the Dispatches will be largely text. Both will be labeled as to their category, while the other blog entries will only have a title describing the topic.

As I'm writing this I'm sitting in the lobby restaurant of the Indigo Hotel in San Diego. It's a short hop from the waterfront, convention center and Petco Field (home of the Padres). The Indigo is a small chain owned by the same company as Holiday Inn, but the character of the hotels are completely different. The Indigo is a boutique and trendy hotel, catering to a younger crowd, with a solid nod towards business travelers. Upbeat dance music is played in the lobby areas, and the primary color for the decor is orange. (Better than it sounds.)

San Diego boasts a wonderful downtown district, which includes the Gaslamp Quarter, which I have featured in a previous ON THE ROAD post. The Indigo rests on the southern boundary of the Gaslamp.

The weather here is spectacular, particularly compared with the news from the eastern half of the country which is facing a monster of a snowstorm that promises to bury most of the major cities in a half foot or more of the white stuff. (A few years ago I was in Philadelphia when just such a storm blew through, stranding me there for an additional four days -- the first of which was spent in a hotel without a restaurant. Had it not been for finding a local pizzeria with a 4wd SUV there would have been a whole lot of hungry travelers that day.

So San Diego is a welcome respite. I'm heading home in a day, and at this point it looks like next week's trip to Arizona is on the chopping block, so I may actually have the chance to spend a week at home. After a month on the road that will be a welcome break.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The People Who Love What They Do

"Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work."

Simply put, the very best experiences -- of any kind -- come when you're dealing with people who love their job.

Think about it. Think back on every wonderful travel experience you can recall. What made it special? What made it great?

Chances are, it included someone who loved what they were doing. A tour. A flight. A hotel. A cruise ship experience. What made it a cut above? Someone who was enthusiastic and excited by what was going on. Not you -- it's a given you were an enthusiastic participant. But what about everyone else?

We've all been in those situations in which the people around us...other travelers, service people, locals...were going through the motions. Yeah, we can still have a good time, and for the most part build ourselves an experience which we can look back on and fondly remember,

But what takes it to the next level?

I have flown literally hundreds of times. I have sat back, watched out the window as the aircraft rose above a dense, dark grey sky into a wondrous heaven-like expense of soft fluffy clouds silhouetted against a rising sun. It's a truly momentous experience.


But what about the overall experience? If, for example, I turned from this stunning vista outside my window to encounter a flight attendant...tired and bored and wishing they were still tucked tightly into a hotel bed...lackadaisically asking for our beverage order, wouldn't that kind of kill the mood?

If I were digging into the very best bowl of chili this side of the Pecos River and had a waitress slap down the tab with a distinctly unenthusiastic "that it?", wouldn't that pretty much dull the tastes working their way around your palate? Yeah, still tastes great, but the ambience is gone.

So what is it? What is that special something that takes an everyday experience and makes it something special?

Sometimes it's simply a smile and happy-to-see-you greeting. We see it all the time on those TV shows dedicated to Turing around a failing bar, hotel or restaurant, right? That often it's the customer experience...not just dirty linen, but discourteous or uncaring staff.

Sometimes it comes down to an enthusiasm for solving problems. You can tell, for instance, when
employees are simply, going through the proverbial motions. How do they interact with each other, how do the communicate? Do they simply hand things off, or is there a genuine warmth to their interaction?

On a flight tonight I saw two terrific employees encounter each other. Connie is a gate attendant at Long Beach Airport. Connie distinguishes herself by an enthusiasm that is impossible to teach. She genuinely loves people. You can see it in her eyes, her expressions, her smile. Everyone who approaches the gate to hand off their boarding pass for entry onto the plane benefits from her approach, and has a better-than-average experience in the process. They leave Long Beach with a smile and a positive experience.

Irini, a flight attendant for Mesa Airlines, dba US Airways (now American), is a force of nature. She will bowl you over and MAKE you have a good time. She kept a group of very seasoned First Class passengers in stitches on a flight from Long Beach to Phoenix. Not easy to do with a group of people who have seen and done it all and just want to be left alone. She won them over with her sheer force of will.

On this particular trip, Connie was the gate agent, and Irini was the flight attendant...and they instantly hit it off. They recognized a kindred soul in each other and made it clear to the passengers we were in the best of hands.

It made a difference.

Three weeks ago, as I write this, I was in Las Vegas. A town built of cynicism and artifice. I sat in the bar, Rojo at Palms Place, and dug myself into my iPad. A few other people were around, and gradually I noticed that the bartender was talking to them as people, not as tourists and transitory visitors, but as people. I realized she was touching them personally. Not by digging too deeply into their lives, but listening to them as they talked, as the spoke. Again, the moment transcended the "usual", and you could tell that this was a person who loved what she did. She wanted to be there, and she wanted to talk to her customers and learn something about them.

Afterward, when the other patrons had cleared out and it was solely the bartender and I in a quiet room, I asked her about this. At first she wasn't sure she wanted to share, but within a few minutes she let me know that it all came from a very personal place. She'd had a very rough life herself. One she wouldn't share with others, and which I only got a glimpse. And being there, being able to interact and care and share her evening with people she could "bring up", "make happy" was important to her. Despite her own challenges, it made her life better to be able to make other people happy.

In my travels I could cite hundreds of examples of people to whom it is important to make a journey worth making, to whom it is important that the people they deal with leave with a positive, an upbeat.

And to those folk, I raise a glass and say "thank you". Noted and appreciated.

Waitresses who smile and greet you affectionately. The guy at the car rental agency who is happy to see you and gives you the keys to the best car. The hotel desk clerk who spends that extra minute to make sure you get the top floor, nonsmoking, with a view of...whatever. The bartender who listens intently. The tour driver who tells great stories and has a lot of fun --  for the third time today -- with the paying riders. The cruise ship yeoman who learns your name on day 1 and remembers to pop a little extra soap in your cabin.

These are the people who matter. Who make a difference and bring you back, happily, the next time you're in town.

Because, ultimately, the People Who Love Their Jobs are the people who count. The people to whom travelers need to look to for support and enthusiasm and fun. Without the folks who enjoy what WE do, and make it special, WE would never know it was special. Fun. Rewarding.

And for that, they all deserve a round of applause.

Just sayin'.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Along the Scenic Route(s)

"George felt the Piranha surge forward, the big reliable stirling engine recycling the hot air for more and more efficient thrust."

          - Harlan Ellison, Along the Scenic Route

In 1969, writer Harlan Ellison -- a man I am privileged to call a friend -- wrote a short story entitled ALONG THE SCENIC ROUTE. The core setup of the piece was that driving had become, under the right circumstances, a blood sport. In the story, set in the near future, the main character, a middle aged man, is drawn into a challenge with a snot-nosed youth in a hopped up power car not too dissimilar to the then popular Muscle Cars such as the Mustang, Camaro or Firebird.

In many ways, this 1970s fantasy has solidified itself into part of our collective culture, with Road Rage and other forms of insanity peppering our daily commute as well as impacting, usually negatively, plans we have for travel time. (Recently a trip to San Diego was canceled because my wife and I got thirty miles down a hundred mile drive, hitting excessive holiday traffic enhanced by a distant car accident, turning our expected hour and a half total drive into a three hour marathon just to get from where we were, to where we wanted to be. After a quick discussion, we pulled off, called the friends we'd expected to join -- letting them know not to expect us -- and found ourselves a much quieter (and closer) pocket of Southern California to explore.)

Harlan's story has a resonance for any of us who spend a good deal of time on the road. Roughly half my regular trips involve a road element of some kind that transcends the usual commute between airport, hotel and destination. In many cases, I deliberately book an Open Jaw flight to enable me to drive between sites, particularly when those areas are close enough that the inconvenience of the airport far outweighs some time spent on the road.

So it stands to reason that anyone who spends quite a bit of time behind the wheel would look to find ways to enliven the drive without resorting to violence. I, personally and to borrow Harlan's title, prefer The Scenic Route.

When I'm faced with getting from Point A, let's say Portland, and Point B, Seattle, the obvious choice would be to drive directly up along Interstate 5. It's a two and a half hour drive if the weather and other drivers don't get in your way, and is through some lovely country. No doubt. And certainly at the time span it's preferable to checking in a Portland Airport well before a flight, then waiting in line and fetching your luggage at the far end (whether it's from the overhead bin or baggage claim, you still have to go through TSA checkpoints and drag the stuff along with you).

So I opt for the road. Recent trips have taken me down highway 180 between El Paso and Carlsbad, New Mexico. From Reno to San Francisco along Interstate 80. Ambling through the Tonto National Forest on the aptly-named Apache Trail Road. Through the North Dakota and Minnesota countrysides. And the aforementioned Portland to Seattle trek.

And whenever the option offers itself -- and provided it doesn't add extensively to my time on the road -- I will look for something other than an interstate, preferring instead the more intimate and carefree time on a highway or or more local drive.

Sometimes there simply are not other options. Essentially the ONLY route between Reno and San. Francisco is the Interstate, unless you side-trip through Lake Tahoe, which adds more than an hour to the already five hour drive. Not that it isn't gorgeous, because it is. But again you must weigh the impact it will have on the overall trip.

The fun of a road trip is to see the world from ground level. The problem with doing that on an Interstate is that the flies by at 60-70 miles per hour, is largely populated with chains and shopping malls, and can suddenly descend into a commuters' Hell if a single semi pirouettes itself into the guard rail.

Given that most people bypass the highway and go straight to the Interstate, driving by highway or local road can often be a relaxing and fascinating experience, and certainly allows the driver to participate in the areas they pass through. Stop at a local diner for lunch. Drive through beautiful countryside and actually pay attention to the scenery around you. Bypass the insanity of the other drivers and rediscover in many cases a more leisurely and rewarding environment, not dedicated to simply getting to Point B, but enjoying the journey along the way.

Yeah. It might take a little longer. But if it's not too much more you may arrive at Point B in a better frame of mind, refreshed and relaxed, and certainly the better for having seen a world the Interstate commuter might have simply passed without a thought beyond getting to the next mile marker.

As for me, you'll often find me


(All quotes from Harlan Ellison used with the permission and copyright of the author.)