Interview With Doug Lansky: Titanic Awards
Travel Interviews: Frank Bures asks the creator of a new website about the worst travel experiences in the world
05.20.09 | 10:29 AM ET
We’re fans of terrible trips at World Hum. They may not be very fun at the time, but they sure make better stories when you get home. Bus crashes, war zones and bad bathroom incidents all have the potential, if you live to tell the tale, to make great yarn-spinning fodder.
So we were happy to see Doug Lansky take this oft-neglected aspect of travel and run with it, as he’s done with this new website, Titanic Awards, where notable writers and travelers dish on their worst travel experiences, and where readers can vote on things like the most annoying tourists, the rudest waiters and the worst airports. Lansky is no stranger to bad travel, which he has chronicled in his books, The Last Trout in Venice and Up the Amazon Without a Paddle. I asked him a few questions via email.
World Hum: Where did the idea for Titanic Awards come from?
Lansky: There was no one specific event. I read a lot of travel sections, travel sites and travel magazines and I guess I was just getting punch drunk on how fantastic everything was. There’s just so much “Escape,” “Undiscovered,” “Quaint,” “Top 10 Most Amazing ...” “Secret Beaches,” “Incredible Islands,” “Savvy,” “Frugal,” “Best Ever”—imagine if you opened a book or theater review section of a major newspaper and that’s what passed for a “review.” I don’t expect the cover of Islands Magazine to say “Top 5 Islands that Totally Suck!” or the NYT to lead the travel section with “36 Hours Bored out of My F-ing Mind in Iowa.” But some critical reviews would certainly be refreshing. I understand why we don’t see more—with limited space, many editors are reasoning, “Why should I tell my readers about this not-so-great place/hotel/restaurant and risk sounding whiny when I can tell them about a great one instead and capture the fantasy of the travel experience?”
That’s reasonable thinking. Certainly more reasonable than the travel writers who are on the take—getting freebies and discounts in exchange for glowing reviews. The problem is that, at the end of the day, it feels like so much of the industry is addicted to Prozac. Perhaps the weirdest part of it is that when people return home after a trip, friends and family most want to hear a great story, which is usually what went wrong. And because things do go wrong on almost every trip, there’s this gap between expectation and reality that keeps widening. Titanic Awards aspires to fill that void—showcase the entertaining crappy bits of travel without being whiny about it.
What can we expect to see on the site?
The site is still in its infancy, but the plan is to present entertaining video clips and photos of “bad travel” in its various forms (everything from worst turbulence to worst toilet to worst intersection to worst airplane paint schemes). Then there are interviews with well-known travel writers about their most memorable worst experiences. And finally, the slightly more data-based “worsts,” with statistics coming from on-site surveys and official reports (e.g. the airline with most lost luggage).
Anything people should know before sending things your way?
There will always be voting up on the site, so that’s a quick and painless contribution. In terms of content, I’m not looking for written tales of bad travel experiences, but I am looking for a photo or short video clip that captures it, with a line or three of descriptive text. If you’ve slept in some flea-infested hotel bed with a nasty urine stain or you think you’ve found the worst toilet ever, take a photo or video.
What’s your own worst trip?
I don’t think I’ve ever had an entirely bad trip. The worst things happened in small pieces along the way (I was traveling about nine years full time in 120 countries). Here are a few: waiting on an Amazon cargo ship parked in Manaus for four very hot and boring days while the captain was deciding when to leave. Getting run over by a car in Bangkok, then having the combination of a broken leg and amoebic dysentery (constantly having to go, rarely able to get there in time). Having some so-called head hunters deep in the Colombian rain forest actually start cutting my head with a machete in the middle of the night. A non-stop 52-hour-long overland stretch from Goa to Calcutta by bus/train—they wouldn’t sell me a ticket for the train so I spent most of the painfully sleep-deprived time fleeing from the conductor. Embarrassingly locking myself into a public toilet stall in a Dutch library and having to yell for help—I left the handle in the door on the outside, no idea I needed to bring the handle with me to get out. Collapsing face down from altitude sickness on top of Mt. Cotopaxi in Ecuador and getting partially dragged down by the guide.
Any advice for travelers who are having a horrible travel experience?
Let a little voice in the back of your head tell you that it will likely be the most character-building experience of your trip. Or at least you’ll get a decent story out of it. And don’t forget to take pictures.