Posts Tagged ‘travel writing’

To steal from the blogger I am about to mention, a successful blog should (generally) either be useful or entertaining. Alexis Grant’s blog, The Travelling Writer, is both successul and very useful. If you are at all interested in becoming a writer, and especially if you are writing your travel memoirs, Alexis’ blog will be invaluable.

Alexis in Timbuktu

Alexis was a journalist until she quit her job to go travelling alone in Africa. Now she’s back home and writing a book about her experience. Oh, and a blog about writing a book about it.

A very hard-working blogger, Alexis’ posts are both useful and insightful. She offers advise on the process of getting published and has heaps of great ideas about making social media work for you.

Some recent posts that I found particularly interesting were:
Blogging 101: a three part series on the if, why, and how of blogging for writers
Losing the play-by-play in your memoirs
– The weekly Writers’ Roundups never fail to point you in the direction of some interesting and useful advice from around the blogosphere and www
– Ask yourself: are you being honest on the page and with yourself?
– And, just for fun, let’s have a laugh with Google

Thanks for all your advice, Alexis, and good luck with your book!


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After three epic days on the Inca Trail, my friends and I awoke on the fourth and final morning of our trek with anticipation gnawing at our bellies. Just the ten of us (or so it seemed) striding purposefully through the 4am darkness, hawing our jagged little path across the flanks of deep, quiet mountains. We each entertained visions of the magical, epic, ancient, forgotten, discovered city – Machu Picchu, the famous lost city of the Incas.

Machu Picchu: the never-really-lost city of the Incas

Guided initially by the glow of our torches, then by the first sparkle of light that hovered in the damp air, we made our way along the thin and twisting pathways of the mountain side. Two hours later, after hiking a final stairway toward heaven itself (or so it seemed), we finally mounted the famous Sun Gate, just in time to see the sun rise above the horizon and bask its eternal glow upon…

the impenetrable layer of perfectly white clouds which blanketed the valley below us. We couldn’t see a brick of Machu Picchu.

While truly handsome, this wasn’t quite the scene I had hiked for four days to lay my eyes upon. “I want to see Machu Picchu,” I whined, with a childish pout. Eternally optimistic by nature, my friends and I were loath to despair. We quietly agreed that if we waited it would clear. Wayra, our guide, thought us foolish and informed us that it was thus fogged almost every day (they don’t put that in the brochure now, do they!) We stubbornly ignored his advice and waited…

After almost an hour our patience was rewarded. The clouds split and faded just as the sun hit the ancient city. Triumph! But we were too awe-struck to be cocky. Stunned and humbled by the sight laid out before us, we sank into silence to milk the moment for all it was worth. Unable to extract all her glory, for she has an endless supply, we eventually gathered ourselves and begun a surreal decline into her waiting embrace.

Sacred mountains protect Machu Picchu

After the obligatory “Look Ma, I’m at Machu Picchu” photo ops, I broke away from the crowd and purposefully lost myself in the alleys and stairways of the proud mountain-side town. Sitting in a shaded corner, soaking in a bustling calm of the place, I found myself looking out over history, hidden in the enclave of a trilogy of mountains – Machu Picchu (old mountain), Waynu Picchu (young mountain) and Putucusi (happy mountain). A gentle breeze blew seductively on my neck, bringing with it the memory of cool waters trickling through the fountains and irrigation chutes. Ay, Machu Picchu, with her manicured grass banks and farming terraces, tropical plants growing in rocky crevices, stone temples and statutes made of the Earth’s treasures, flowing waters; a city with her head tipped elegantly to meet the sun’s rays.

A hum of chatter emanated from the hundreds of tourists below. They were happy. Machu Picchu is a happy place. It is old and pure and perfect and pays homage to the gods – to Pachamama (the earth mother), Inti (the sun), Killa (the moon), the air and the water. This was a culture of people, Quechuas ruled by Incas, who knew how to respect the planet, who understood the wondrousness of the gifts we have been given, the treats that money is not required to enjoy.

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It's always bloody night time!

I have rejoined the world of walking zombies – 9to5ers who come home from work so brain-dead they can achieve little more than shovel some food down their gobs and huddle under a blanket on the sofa watching mindless tele all night. Ok ok, it’s not all that bad, but I am seriously shaken by (a) the return to full-time employment after almost two months of “down time”, (b) the commute (an hour and a half each way!), and (c) the cold, harsh realities of winter after a blissful year and a half in the tropics.

So, to balance up all the perfection that I’ve been rabbiting on about of late, here are a few “imperfect moments” from my last week:

#1 – Leaving in the dark, getting home in the dark
#2 – Being the new (read dumb) kid at work
#3 – Dry-retching in public due to a head-busting migraine
#5 – Missing the ferry home by two minutes last night and having to wait an hour and a half in the winter dark until the next sailing
#6 – My internet connection at home failing, failing, failing
#7 – Flat hunting in a city filled with loonies

Alright, that is enough imperfection… I much prefer the happy stuff. Thanks for letting me rant.

Anyone else had some imperfect moments of late?

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A strange medley of market stalls run along the outer wall of the famous jesuit ruins of San Ignacio Mini in Argentina. They are strung together by the cheap and cheerful wares they display and the desperate glint in the eyes of the vendors. Strolling by, each hawker greets you, entices you to touch their merchandise (as they know touch to be a forerunner to desire), desperate that you will pause with them before you realise that each table is lined with identical mass-produced tourist rubbish, the same colourful trash that tourists must inevitably carry home with them to gift to disappointed relatives or hide in forgotten drawers. If you fail to show sufficient interest they either glower at you (they may as well spit on your feet for the way it makes you feel) or apply the tireless nag-factor technique that children the world over have honed in the aisles of supermarkets and toy stores.

By the end of the consumer gauntlet you feel weary and spent, already dreading the return journey. You may consider walking off into the wild but are braced by the realisation that, no matter how far or in which direction you walk on this continent, you will surely have to run the gauntlet again before too long.

Plaza de Armas, San Ignacio Mini

I warily pay the 10 peso entrada and try not to notice the incredulous glares from the merchants at this definitive proof of wealth. It is here that the fence line, ashen and overgrown, leaps skyward before continuing its dance about the perimeter. Upon entering the grounds the sense of exit is overwhelming. The world of haggling and sweat, sustenance and toil, copulation and excretion stands glowering behind the wall, invisible from the inside; it seems possible that it never existed now that you have entered this eternal dream state. Time is an illusion. This is real. Even the smattering of tourists disappear into their own dimensions and I am left alone in mine. Here I am in a world of substance; there is a sense that nothing has really existed before, except this place. This is the only place that has ever existed and I am the only woman.

Walking across the grassy plazas my shoes melt away and the grass caresses my bare feet. I feel every blade. I am every blade. I am every brick. I am the breeze in the trees and the sun on my skin. I am the moss that slithers up the side of the fallen cathedral, the clouds floating across its gaping ceiling. I see the outline of the houses, only a handful of bricks high. They grow up from their skeletons and reach their former heights. Straw grows over them, forming rooves. I see people come and go, smiling at one another, working, embracing. I see an entire civilization laid before me. I smell the casserole bubbling away on the fire, the juicy steam curling out of a doorway and down the lane. My mouth is watering. I hear the cajoling crowd at a public meeting. I don’t know what they are saying but the trees are alive with cheers and jeers. Touching my fingers to the dank brickwork in a hidden corner, they come away bloody. I lick the salty juice of the ages and lay down on the grass to gaze into the eye of the Universe.

It’s all pretend, of course. I don’t see a thing. I only feel it, yearn for it, dream it into being. How can you know a thing about this place and these people if you haven’t lived with them, loved them, or paid for a tour? And who can afford to pay for a tour?

Ancient worlds spring up from the ruins of San Ignacio Mini in Argentina

I content myself with imagining their world and delight at the thought that one day, four hundred years ago, a young Jesuit priest had sat in this very spot and imagined our own world. Had he seen the tread marks of our rubber-soled shoes trampled through his village paths? Had he smelled the artificial orange fizz that I guzzled with my lunch? Had he hid his eyes from the mass-produced vendors selling “handicrafts” made by faceless strangers in a distant factory? Had he felt my breath on his neck, my hair on his chest, and fancied himself in love? At this thought I lose all interest in his world. Steeling myself to face my jurors, I pass once more through the festival of fabric and retire to my rooms.

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Machu Picchu here I come!

Let me begin at the end: I did it, I survived the Inca trail! This may not sound like much of a feat to you seasoned trekkers or if you haven’t done it yourself, but it was one of the most grueling experiences of my life and therefore finishing it was one of the most satisfying. I’m not a very active person, I don’t generally climb mountains or kayak down raging rivers (don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of it, but I am just too damn lazy to see it through). Walking for four days through some of the most epic landscapes on the continent was not easy for me, but I loved every muddy, lung-stinging minute of it (in retrospect of course, at the time I was half dead).

My friends and I had booked the trip months ago when we were all safely seated behind computers inside the glass cage of our corporate lives. I was soon to be heading off towards the horizon on an endless journey that would begin in Chile and my friends wanted to get in one the action. One joined me (after her own adventures in India) for three months and the other was on a two week vacation from work. Anyway, it was unspoken but always a given that we could walk in to Machu Picchu rather than take the four hour tourist train for cheaters from Cusco. The thing is, knowing that the Inca trail was popular and that it would just be just plain wrong to catch the train, I didn’t actually research what to expect. It was probably better that I didn’t as I may not have signed up for it if I had. (If you, like me, are a bit of a woose that gets put off by too much hard physical labour and are thinking about walking the Inca trail one day my advice is to stop reading now and just book it. If I can do it you can too but, like childbirth, knowing too much about what’s coming is just unnecessarily scary, methinks). Just remember one thing – it’s a walk in the mountains, not a walk in the park.

In light of my complete ignorance I was pretty shocked (and more than a little scared) on the first day when our guide explained what to expect on each of the four days to come and told us that the people we kept passing going the other way were people who had turned back, unable to complete the second day’s arduous five hour uphill climb. Oh shit, I thought to myself, I don’t think I can do this, but how on earth can I back out now when we’re already walking?

Well, it turned out that, by just putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again, I could do it. It went a little something like this:

Day 1: Finding My Feet

Just The Beginning: Day one of the Inca Trail starts off gently

Our guide, Wayra was sweet enough to gently ease us into this mad-capped undertaking of ours. The first day was a simple four hour walk over undulating ground with a few heavy-breathing uphill climbs but entirely do-able. We walked along a gushing clear-water, rock-strewn river; through the outstretched fingers of ancient mountains; past grand Quechuan (“The people were Quechua, the rulers Incas,” Wayra stated with bruised pride) ruins that radiated with happy energy; and lunched in a tent during a rainfall on the peak of a wind-swept mountain. It was a delightful day and I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about.

Day 2: Dead Woman Walking

I was about to find out what all the fuss was about. After rising at 5:30am, and breakfasting in the early morning light, we began. Fifteen minutes into the walk (i.e. after fifteen minutes of walking straight up a steep mountain incline) I was breathing heavy, stinging breaths and my head was aching from the altitude and the cold air. By now I was really wondering what I had got myself into, and tried to imagine how on earth I was going to make it through the next five hours of uphill climb, given that we were still in the “easy” part. But, you know, the body is an amazing machine, and my legs (no matter how tired they got) just kept on putting one foot in front of the other. In spite of my physical suffering, I couldn’t help being floored by the world I was walking through – emerald flora still adrip with the morning rain, moldy thigh-high steps into an ancient natural world (I wondered aloud at how these stones had been brought here, from where, and by who?), stopping on a frozen ledge to snack amid the villagers (people actually still live along the trail) where a gentle old man asked me to take a photograph of his grandson; breaking out from the tree line and into the open air as we continued along the pencil-thin walking track scribbled up the mountain-side centuries before I was even born.

His Grandfather asked me to take this picture

After five hours of listening to my thighs scream, and with plenty of stops to let my breath catch up with me, I made Dead Woman’s Pass and surveyed the world from her 4,200 metre (13,650 feet) heights. It felt amazing! We rested there and took photos before beginning the equally steep descent on the other side – two more hours to the night’s camp.

Downhill felt great at first but the steps were high and relentless and my jelly-legs struggled to carry me down the mountain side. I thought it better to run so that gravity would do most of the work and my already exhausted thighs wouldn’t have to work as brakes and shock absorbers with each step down. I can tell you that I slept like a baby that night.

Day 3: Endurance

While less physically demanding than the previous, the third day was equally difficult because of its sheer length (we walked almost non-stop from 7am to 5pm with bodies still exhausted from the previous day’s hike). Within moments of departing our terraced campsite, where the view from our door-flap was across the valley still sleeping under a blanket of clouds, we were met by the rather unpleasant reality of the second pass – a steep high-stepped climb of “only” two hours duration.

The sun was shining, the tourists smiling. I could hear the powerful gush of the valley’s river rising up the mountainside as I marched on, high above it. I was tired but elated by the sheer wondrousness of the beauty surrounding me. I felt tiny and grand at the same time, a very similar sensation to what I had experienced staring into the Devil’s Throat at Iguazu Falls in Argentina.

Can you see the trail?

Three-quarters of the way up the climb I created the “porter challenge”. We had hired a porter to carry our sleeping gear and such. These guys are utter legends, they do this amazing trek about 60 times per year, and each time carrying upwards of 20 kilos (it used to be 50-60kg each before a law was introduced to regulate it) on their backs and, usually, in little more than open-toed sandals. They sweat and smile and race past you, speeding uphill and running downhill, making your own personal battle with fatigue akin to a child’s drawing hung next to a Monet. There are about three hundred porters for just two hundred tourists on the trail each day, because they carry tents, food, cooking equipment (i.e. full gas bottles) and such. Our porters were very kind and playful. The porter that my friends and I hired was named Aurelio and he was just 20 years old. I saw him resting and sweating on the mountain-side and offered to carry his (well, actually our) bag for him. He laughed as I saddled-up with the giant load – I was carrying gear for all 3 of us, plus his own bag – and set off. It was frickin’ hard; those guys are total legends. I lasted about 10 minutes on the endless climb before I handed the bag back to a grinning Aurelio who laughed and raced on up the mountain at break-neck speed.

I was against the idea of getting a porter at first but I honestly couldn’t have done it without one. Unless you are a seasoned hiker I suggest you hire one too. Take some extra cash for a good tip and maybe some choccie biccies or something else to share with them. Those guys are totally amazing, they seem to genuinely love what they do and do it with a smile on their faces, but it is very hard work and they deserve to be recognised for it.

Ancient ruins abound on the Inca Trail

After cresting the second pass, the undulating path took us through cloud-valleys and dripping, moss-covered woods, over mountains and through ancient archeological sites. The highlight of the day was when we stopped at an archeological site and Wayra baptised me in the Quechuan way as a pre-curser to arriving in Machu Picchu the following day. Under the flowing cool waters of the fountain I was given the name Kusi Qoyllor, which means smiling star. I know it was just something he does for the tourists, but it was charming all the same.

Day 4: The Arrival

On the fourth day we arose at 4am and set off in the dark with the view of reaching Machu Picchu’s famous Sun Gate for sunrise. After a beautiful and heart-racing start to the day we arrived just in time to see… absolutely nothing. The entire valley below was covered in an impenetrable layer of pristine white clouds. It was beautiful but, you know, I wanted to see Machu Picchu (you’ll have to imagine my whining tone and childish pout). Ever the optimists, my friends and I quietly agreed that it would clear if we waited (despite Wayra informing us that it was like this most days – they don’t put that in the brochures now, do they?). So we waited… and, after almost an hour, it cleared. The clouds split and faded away just as the sun hit the ancient city.

Note: I will write a post about the ancient city of Machu Picchu soon, so subscribe for alerts if you want to know when it’s posted.

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I travel a lot and, while travel is a favoured pastime, you only have to read a few of the blogs on wordpress to realise that we all have our own unique travel style.

My own travel style has changed over the years. When I started travelling in South America back in 2006 it was as a typical backpacker – bussing from attraction to attraction, staying in backpacker dorm rooms, reading my Footprint guide each night over dinner, and seeing the must see sights.

Valle de la Luna in Argentina was one of the most amazing places I ever visited; and almost tourist-free.

But as the months wore on it felt like something was missing from the experience. I got tired of only talking to other travellers and always in English. It seemed ridiculous to be so far from home and meeting the same people that were staying at the backpackers down the road from my house back home. It was also depressing how many longer-term travellers (myself included) were failing to master the local language. I wanted to meet real Argentineans, Peruvians, Brazilians, what have you; to get to know the latin cities from an insiders’ perspective. Then one day a friend emailed me the link for Couchsurfing and, after overcoming my initial doubts and giving it a try, I was hooked.

Soon, after months on the road, many box-checking sights (cathedrals, museums, ruins, and such) started to blur together. For a while I kept visiting these places out of a sense of duty and a fear of missing out but eventually my tourist budget was reserved for the must sees and my favoured activities became meandering through back streets and talking to strangers in plazas.

I met Ibrihim on the banks of the Seine, where he was living rough. He gave me a full-day tour of Paris

Once I started staying with locals and chatting with people in public places (bus stops, plazas, cafes) my notebook began filling up with inside tips about the best places to eat, the most beautiful spots, and where to find the dustiest, back-alley bookshops. Most of these tips were not in the guidebook, so I stopped referring to it except for emergencies. Eventually it became surplus to requirements and took up too much space and weight in my backpack so it was abandoned in a hostel.

Over the years my travel style has evolved, become more fluid. I try not to plan too much, look for out-of-the-way spots, and while I have still visited a lot of big sights – Iguazu Falls, the Bolivian Saltflats, Lake Titicaca, Machu Picchu, the Alhambra, the TATE Modern, Antigua, etc. – I have come to realise that there is a lot more to see than you realise and that if you stick to the big stuff you may miss all the tiny details that give a place its personality.

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Do you ever find yourself reading a book that makes the nomadic existence seem so adventurous or that paints such a rich picture of life in some far-flung corner of the globe that it is all you can do just to hold yourself back from quitting your job, throwing a few things in a rucksack, and jumping onto the next flight into the sunset? I find myself in that situation relatively often (I am, however, a self-diagnosed travel addict).

So, for the good of travel addicts everywhere, I present the following list of 11 books that got me itching for adventure. You may use this list to (a) heighten the anticipation before an impending adventure, (b) satisfy the travel urge by living vicariously through the characters, or (c) so you know which books to avoid if you feel you wouldn’t be able to control yourself. The choice is yours.

Disclaimer: the following books are listed in no particular order and do not by any means represent a definitive list of books for travel junkies. They are just a few great stories I have read. Please feel free to use comments to add to and/or debate my list.

And so, without further kerfuffle, I present you with 11 books that will make your knees knock with desire for the road.

1. Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman (Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Israel, Galapagos Island, Indonesia, New Zealand, USA, Thailand)

Gelman spent 8 years living in Indonesia

This woman is my hero. I think this was one of the first travel books I ever read and I have been hooked ever since. After a painful divorce Rita picks herself up, dusts herself off, and high-tails it to Mexico where she is promptly mugged. Undeterred, she keeps on travelling. What follows is a sincere and sweet account of her new life as a female nomad. This story spans 15 years and 5 continents and is filled with some pretty memorable adventures. Gelman may not be a fabulous writer per se but her story is a delight.

Read a review of Tales of a Female Nomad here on the Outside of a Dog blog.

2. On The Road by Jack Kerouac (USA, Mexico)

This autobiographical account of Kerouac and his buddies criss-crossing the States in an endless driving scene of music and philosophising and tea smoking is just too cool not to love. I don’t even drive but reading this had me yearning for a good old-fashioned road trip where it’s all about the journey and who the hell cares where you end up (can anyone even remember why we were going there in the first place?)

Read a review of On The Road here on ReviewSien.

3. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (Spain, Morocco, Egypt)

The story of one man searching for his personal treasure all the way from the fields of southern Spain and across the deserts of northern Africa to Egypt. There’s a great message in there for all us lost souls, but the adventure will thrill you in and of itself. It’s a popular read for a reason.

Read a review of The Alchemist here on Neha Kapoor’s blog.

4. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson (Pakistan)

K-2, Northern Pakistan

Love to travel to distant, pristine lands? Want to make a positive difference in the world? Greg does both and willingly takes you along for the ride. Mortensen is not a writer but he is an inspired and inspiring individual. I defy you not to fall in love with northern Pakistan after reading this book.

Read a review of Three Cups of Tea here on an unfinished person’s blog.

5. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Democratic Republic of the Congo)

Kingsolver’s fictional account of a family of American missionaries who take a post in the dark heart of the Belgian Congo (told from the point of view of each family member in turn) is captivating. I wanted to move into the African jungle right away and get married to the local schoolteacher!

Read a review of The Poisonwood Bible here on Pirate Books.

6. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh (Holland, France)

This may seem like a strange choice to some, but imagine seeing the world through the eyes of one of the most brilliant artists that has ever lived. If you have a pulse it will be racing at van Gogh’s raw and poignant descriptions of the countryside of southern France and the bleak life of toil in the fields of Holland.

Read a review of The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh from The Guardian.

7. A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins (USA)

In 1973 Peter Jenkins and his dog, Cooper, set out from New York to walk across America. That’s pretty neat, isn’t it?

Read an article about Peter Jenkins and A Walk Across America from way back in 1979 here from People magazine’s archives.

8. The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux (Honduras)

The Mosquito Coast, Honduras

Man, I wish I had had an eccentric inventor for a father, who forced us all to move to the Mosquito Coast of Honduras when we were kids. Also fiction, but I am a sucker for a story set in the jungle. It had me wanting to go back to Central America and get seriously lost!

Read a review of The Mosquito Coast here on Sohel’s blog.


9. The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield (Peru)

I read this famous spiritual work years ago, long before I ever stepped foot on the South American continent, but I remember falling in love with the lush jungles of Peru. I wanted to pursue the prophecy along ill-beaten jungle paths, to meditate on the auras of plants, and leave my itinerary to chance and the whim of my heart. Okay, it’s a little cheesey but it is also a lot of fun.

Read a review of The Celestine Prophecy here on Spirit and Me.

10. Eight Feet in the Andes by Dervla Murphy (Peru)

This is serious travel writing territory. Murphy is a seasoned professional; she’s written a ton of books. The woman is my hero. Get this – she buys a mule and wanders off into the Andes (with her nine year old daughter in tow no less!) for a 1,300 mile journey along the length of Peru, at extreme altitude. What a legend.

Read a review of Eight Feet in the Andes here on Out Of My Mind.

11. Walden by Henry David Thoreau (USA)

Walden Pond in Massachusetts, USA

Okay, Walden may not make you want to travel per se, but I bet you will want to, at least, get out for a brisk walk in nature after reading it; or maybe sell all your possessions and hike out into the wilderness to build a hut with your own bare hands? I know I did (I mean I wanted to, I’m too lazy to actually do it, plus I’m scared of spiders).

Read a review of Walden here on Kate’s blog.

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