Friday 28 November 2008

The Plugged-in Traveller

This week I attended the Future of Journalism conference here in Melbourne.

It was an interesting event, with a series of panels exploring the murky future of journalism - murky, given the huge changes technology is forcing on the profession.

One of the speakers was Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet Publications, who talked about the future from a travel publishing perspective.

He commented that though the past - with its focus on guidebooks - was more predictable, the future offered lots of interesting possibilities for LP to sell its mountain of travel info via electronic means.

Which made me reflect on how I use electronic devices when I travel. Obviously I have a digital camera with me, and increasingly, a mobile phone with a local prepaid SIM card.

I couldn't do without my Palm PDA for several reasons: it carries useful notes and my diary, along with music and a number of novels for me to read without overloading the packing.

And, of course, I have my ultraportable Sony VAIO laptop computer with me. On my LP assignment in Poland this year, I was able to access free wireless Internet access at just about every hotel I stayed at, along with various public places.

As a result, I used it frequently - to keep in touch with friends and clients, to back up work, and to research the journey ahead (the Polish national train company PKP, for example, has its entire timetable online).

The next step seems obvious - having the relevant guidebook on a portable device, either a phone or PDA. Some years ago, LP had a pioneering version of this called CitySync, and I used both their Rome and Sydney guides on my Palm of the time. It was damn useful, particularly because it was searchable; I remember standing in a Roman square and searching for a list of nearby restaurants within a certain price range.

The other option would be in downloading specific info on demand, rather than storing an entire guidebook on the device. So that restaurant list could be compiled by a remote LP server and pulled down to your phone, for example.

This is all very interesting. I found the CitySync guides very usable, with the extra benefit of making me look less like a tourist clutching a printed guidebook. I'd be happy to download a modern version of that when I next travelled. LP's current Pick and Mix option of book chapters contained within a PDF file is a step in the right direction, but I'd prefer my data to be interactive.

No doubt it will come, especially now that smartphones like the iPhone are finally gaining larger screens. Would you like your guidebook to be an e-guide? Or do you prefer the classic dead tree version?

Friday 21 November 2008

Pop Goes the Traveller

It was easy to get excited in London earlier this year, as I stood on the Bermondsey street known as Shad Thames.

It's an interesting piece of roadway in itself, running between old warehouses connected above street level by walkways. But I was fascinated by its link with Doctor Who.

Yes, way back in 1984 the cast and crew of the famous BBC science fiction TV series visited Shad Thames. The dockside street was one location in the story Resurrection of the Daleks.

It hosted some marvellously atmospheric scenes in its rain-dampened confines. They included a mass prisoner breakout at the start of the story, and a Dalek exploding upon its surface after being pushed from an upper window.

It was quite delightful seeing the street - now thoroughly gentrified - in person, though probably I was the only onlooker making the connection with a popular TV show from my younger days. And it reminded me how often I've enjoyed similar intersections between pop culture and real life when travelling.

Here are a few random pop culture travel memories:
  • Standing in the open space in front of the ancient Treasury building in Petra, Jordan, and recalling on the scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) which were filmed there. In fact, we'd rewatched the movie at a backpackers' hostel in nearby Wadi Musa just the night before.
  • Visiting Portmeirion, North Wales, where the amazing 1967 British TV series The Prisoner was shot. The series depicted a nameless spy, Number 6, who'd been imprisoned in a seemingly charming seaside village after resigning. In reality, it looks startlingly like it did in the series, because it's an 'artificial' village which was pieced together with architectural fragments from far and wide.
  • Experiencing flashbacks to every Cold War TV series and movie of my youth, when wandering around the cities of formerly communist Central Europe. Warsaw is particularly good for this, but I remember a mid-90s visit to a business hotel in GdaƄsk which looked precisely the sort of place you'd meet your East German spymaster.
  • A literary favourite is Sherlock Holmes, and on my first London visit I got a buzz out of visiting Baker Street and imagining myself following in the footsteps of the master detective. Using a guide produced by the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, I was able to replicate journeys taken within the short stories.
  • A few years ago I had some fun writing a story on Sydney movie locations for Virgin Blue's inflight magazine. In the course of the research I visited locations major and minor, including places that had appeared in The Matrix, Muriel's Wedding, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Mission Impossible II, among others.
  • And of course, every day I walk past locations in Melbourne's city centre that feature in The Opposite of Life, a fantasy novel by my wife, Narrelle M Harris. Prominent landmarks referenced in the book include Chinatown, the 24-hour Greek restaurant Stalactites, the Forum Theatre, cool alleyway bars The Croft Institute and MOO, the grand State Library, and the shiny new apartments of Docklands.
What about you? Which of your travel experiences have taken on extra meaning because of their pop culture connections?

Friday 14 November 2008

The Unpublished 1: Eritrean Art Deco

This is the first instalment of an occasional series, in which I self-publish travel articles that I've never been able to place. This week we turn our eyes to the far-off African nation of Eritrea, and discover a surprising architectural treasure trove...

When you think of the great art deco cities of the world, you might consider Miami, Florida. You might also think of Napier, New Zealand, which was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in the 1930s. New York also has some fine examples of the architectural style. But you’re unlikely to think of Asmara, in Africa.

Asmara is the capital of Eritrea, a tiny state on the southern shores of the Red Sea. Founded in 1993 after the defeat of Ethiopia in a war of independence, this African nation is slowly recovering from the conflict. There are several thousand Eritreans resident in Australia, with the majority living in Melbourne.

What few remember, however, is Eritrea’s colonial past. In 1890, the coastal province became an Italian colony. The Italians were playing catch-up with the Britain and France, creating an African empire of their own. Asmara became the jewel in the crown, with thousands of Italian settlers as the 20th century rolled in.

Modern architectural styles followed. As the Italian administration created its administrative centre, it worked from a blank slate. And what better way to express the confidence of this “new Roman Empire” than the soaring structures of art deco?

Art deco was characterised by bold, futuristic lines which streamlined the classical structures of the past. Onto this simple template were added designs from the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Latin America.

More distinctive was its inclusion of symbols of modern technology: wheels, cogs and cars. It suggested a confidence in progress and the future, memorably expressed in the lines of rocketships in the Flash Gordon comic strips. It’s ironic that this confident style began just before the onset of the Great Depression. By 1940, it had reached its end.

In Asmara, however, this was the perfect style to express the assurance of the Italian state. With Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922, the two went hand in hand. The dictator never visited the far-flung colony, but there would be plenty of grand buildings to pose in front of if he had.

This is the miracle of art deco Asmara. Despite the passing of time and a 30 year war of independence, its architectural heritage has remained untouched. Highlights of the art deco era include a futuristic service station with sweeping wings, and the imposing Cinema Impero. Pink plaster and curving door frames dot the central city, in both residential and commercial buildings.

The building of a new nation is not easy, however, and the art deco heritage has been threatened by development and a lack of resources for conservation. To redress this, the Eritrean government has sought World Bank funding to catalogue and preserve the city’s modernist past.

The Eritrean embassy to Australia confirms its importance to the young nation: “Art deco buildings are highly preserved, and the government has established a special department for the purpose.”

Aside from its cultural and historic benefits, preserving early 20th century heritage may have a tourist spin-off. If a regional New Zealand city like Napier can market its art deco structures successfully, why not an African city within reach of the warm waters of the Red Sea?

Since a second conflict with Ethiopia in the late 1990s, Eritrea has become a more peaceful place. Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs advises travellers to avoid the borders with Ethiopia and Sudan, and to be mindful of terrorism in general.

But Asmara remains an inexpensive place to travel. Budget accommodation starts from a few dollars a night, and five star lodgings also exist. Car hire is needed to get to the more remote attractions, though food is cheap wherever you go.

It’s light years away from the high energy of New York, the sunbaked beaches of Miami or the greenery of New Zealand. But Asmara offers the chance to see the 20th century’s greatest architectural style amid the exotic charms of the Red Sea coast.

Note: As this article was written in 2004, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current security situation before travelling to Eritrea.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Monday 10 November 2008

The Journey of a Thousand Words

On Saturday I taught my last travel writing course at Holmesglen TAFE in Melbourne's southeastern suburbs. It's been an interesting course to both devise and teach, and I've learned plenty from it myself.

Having to think about how travel writing works - and how to convey that to would-be travel writers - has reminded me how different travel writing is from other forms of journalism.

How so? For one thing, travel articles are often written in first person: "I" rather than "he, she, they". They're also frequently written in the present tense.

The advantage of both these approaches, especially when combined, is an immediacy to the text. The reader is placed in the writer's shoes, experiencing his/her viewpoint as if the events are happening how.

The first person approach also allows the writer to share specific events that befell him/her while travelling: the conversation with a local on the ferry, the taste of a fine meal, the unsteady first attempts at the local language.

Of course, all this counts for naught if the writer can't convey these experiences in an interesting, lively, engaging way. If, to quote a former travel editor I once knew, the article reads like a glossy travel brochure or an account of "What I did on my summer holiday", then it's just not right.

Ever wondered whether you could take a stab at the fine old art of travel writing? Here's a few short tips to start you on your way:
  1. Observe. You can't relay your experiences to an audience if you don't pay attention to them yourself. Look at the new people, places, buildings, landscapes that you encounter, and be curious about them all. Why is this food popular? Why do people wear those clothes? Why is that style of architecture so common?
  2. Note. Every day without fail, write a travel journal entry for the events of that day. Put in as much detail as possible, down to comments you overheard or quirky interactions that happened on the street. You'll be amazed how well these preserve your details of the trip, and how much life they can add to travel articles (or even postcards or blogs!).
  3. Photograph. A picture reputedly tells a thousand words. That may or my not be true, but it will certainly prompt a flood of memories for years to come. Images also improve the chances of selling a travel article, as presenting an editor with matching words and pictures makes his/her life easier. And the pix earn extra dollars.
  4. Write to a Structure. Whether you're attempting to create a travel article, a blog entry, a postcard scrawl or one of those annoying travelogue emails to bother your colleagues back home, give some thought to structuring the piece. Don't just witter on about every event from sunrise to sunset - write about what was most memorable, most emblematic, about the place. You don't even have to start at the beginning; maybe the most interesting thing happened halfway through your stay.
However you write about your travels, you'll find that it's a great way of fixing the memories of your trip in your mind, and bringing to the forefront what was most memorable about it. Remember, the journey of a thousand words begins with a single keystroke...