Travel Blog

Alain de Botton on Plane Crashes and the Meaning of Life*

Wikimedia Commons

*Note: This post was written and published before reports that a Malaysia Airlines jet carrying 239 people had disappeared Friday.

Last night at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, philosopher Alain de Botton deconstructed the news: how we consume it, how it informs us, and how, ultimately, it fails us—all topics addressed in his new book, The News: A User’s Manual.

Among the highlights of his talk, he touched on the popularity of news reports of plane crashes. An image of last year’s Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco appeared behind him as he spoke:

The other thing we love, most of all, is plane crashes. Absolutely amazing. Especially when it’s a wide-bodied airliner, many dead, sudden conflagration and a first-world airline. Again, are we crazy? No, we’re looking for the meaning of life.

De Botton noted that many people in the early modern era kept a human skull—a memento mori—on a table at home to remind them of their own mortality. Why?

There is something about the thought of death that clarifies what is most meaningful in life. We’re constantly, as creatures, losing our sense of priorities. To focus on the fact that we’re constantly at risk of accident [reminds us] therefore we need to focus on what our priorities are. This is something that happens with the memento mori of the skull. And in a way, it’s trying to poke through our interest in these sorts of scenes. These are, in many ways, the memento mori of the age. The problem, again, as is so often the case, is the news takes us to something very interesting and then doesn’t tie it up properly, doesn’t do the final thing, which is why it leaves us, very often, with a background sense of unresolved dread and anxiety. These are the emotions that have been unleashed and not closed properly, as art does.

In other words, all too often, the news media fail to provide meaning or a provoke any kind of catharsis.

RELATED ON WORLD HUM: Interview with Alain de Botton: ‘A Week at the Airport’

You can watch this at 21:30 in the video of his talk below.

Tags: Media Addict

Go! Girl Guides and the First-Annual Women’s Travel Fest

Kelly Lewis didn’t expect tampons to be so hard to find in Argentina, and she didn’t realize bra-shopping might be a challenge in Thailand. But then again, an average guidebook wouldn’t tell her that. So in 2011, she did what any hard-working, adventure-loving girl would do: She wrote one that did. In fact, she wound up launching an entire series, Go! Girl Guides.

The mission was simple: to write guidebooks that would answer the question, “What would I want to tell a girlfriend going to the same place?” The company has produced books on Thailand, Mexico, Argentina and London, and guides to Costa Rica and New York City are forthcoming. (Full disclosure: I was the lucky one who got to chill with sloths and explore the jungle for the Costa Rica book.)

But books, it seems, were just the beginning. On Saturday, March 8, Go! Girl Guides is running the first annual Women’s Travel Fest in New York City. Lewis and Fest co-founders Masha Vapnitchnaia and Mickela Mallozzi are hosting a sold-out daylong event dedicated to inspiring women to travel. Speakers include TV host Samantha Brown and writer Christine Maxfield.

“We’ll discuss everything from traveling solo in the Middle East and raising children abroad, to helping women feel excited to take on the world and reaffirm that there’s nothing they can’t do,” Lewis says.

While Saturday’s event is sold out, tickets are still available for a related workshop, “How to Work Digitally & Travel The World,” on Sunday, March 9.


Incredible Video Puts Viewer on the Beak of a Pelican

Pelican YouTube

I love pelicans. I love watching them swoop low over the Pacific, gliding along the top of a wave. I love watching them waddle around the beach.

But I’ve never seen a view quite like this. In Tanzania, someone attached a GoPro to a pelican’s beak. The results are stunning. Incredibly, the pelican doesn’t appear to be too bothered by the camera.


David Grann Talks Writing on Reddit

I’m a big fan of David Grann, so I was happy to see the New Yorker staff writer and “The Lost City of Z” author answering questions on Reddit yesterday.

A number of questions focused on “Z.” Among the other highlights:

Hi David, I’ve always wondered - how do you know when a story is a story worth pursuing? Thanks

Alas that’s the problem. I don’t always know in the beginning and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out whether a story has compelling characters and storylines, whether there are intriguing subcultures or worlds to explore, and whether the story is about something with larger import. Which is perhaps why I’m always missing my deadlines.


Related on World Hum:
Interview with David Grann - ‘The Lost City of Z’.


They Captured ‘El Chapo,’ but They Can’t Take Away His Songs

The billionaire drug kingpin captured in Mexico over the weekend was, of course, the subject of numerous narcocorridos. How could he not be? After all, the guy once escaped from a Mexican prison in a laundry cart.

In this song, recorded after that 2001 getaway, Los Tucanes de Tijuana predicted he’d never be seen again. They were almost right.


World Hum Writers Honored in ‘The Best American Travel Writing 2013’

It’s that time of year again. The 2013 edition of the annual Best American Travel Writing anthology hit bookstores last week, and we’re thrilled to learn that three World Hum stories were listed in the notable selections: Jessica Colley’s Catching the Gist, Translating Respect by Lenore Greiner, and Bali Belly and the Zombie Apocalypse, by Linda Watanabe McFerrin. Longtime World Hum contributor David Farley also had an AFAR magazine story included in the collection.

This year’s book was guest-edited by travel writing titan Elizabeth Gilbert. Check it out.


2013 Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference

Travel publishing has undergone a transformation in recent years. Countless newspaper travel sections have shut down. Venerable guidebook publishers such as Lonely Planet have wound up in the most unlikely hands. Magazines have come and gone, and the travel blogosphere continues to evolve.

Happily, through it all, the Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference endures. Now in its 22nd year, the four-day conference kicks off Thursday, Aug. 8 in Corte Madera, California, emphasizing the craft of storytelling—on blogs and in essays, in books and through photography.

I’ll be teaching travel writing for the web with blogger extraordinaire Pam Mandel in morning sessions. As always, I’m looking forward to it. The conference is one of the highlights of my year. Conference chair Don George infuses the four days with a lot of heart. After the seminars and panels each day, students and faculty mix over meals and drinks well into the night. At some point, you realize you really don’t want the weekend to end. Everyone leaves feeling inspired.

There’s still time to reserve a spot at the conference. You can check out the faculty and conference schedule here.


The Atlantic: ‘How Learning a Foreign Language Reignited My Imagination’

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a lovely short essay about traveling to Switzerland to study French, and the wonder of being immersed in the foreign:

I started studying French in the summer of 2011, in the throes of a mid-30s crisis. I wanted to be young again. Once, imagination was crucial to me. The books filled with trains, the toy tracks and trestles—they were among my few escapes from a world bounded by my parents’ will. In those days, I could look at a map of some foreign place and tell you a story about how the people there looked, how they lived, what they ate for dinner, and the exotic beauty of the neighborhood girls.

When you have your own money, your own wheels, and the full ownership of your legs, your need for such imagination, or maybe your opportunity to exercise it, is reduced.

And then I came to a foreign language, where so much can’t be immediately known, and to a small town where English feels like the fourth language. The signs were a mystery to me. The words I overheard were only the music of the human voice. A kind of silence came over me. I would hear snatches of conversation, or witness some strange way of behaving—the bartender’s reply, in French, of “Service” after you thank him for a drink—and wonder would take over.

I studied four hours every day at the school. Class began promptly at 8:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. back in New York). I nursed a nasty bit of jet lag, but wonder drove me. Hearing a foreign language is like seeing a postcard from some other land, even when you are actually in that other land. I experienced my ignorance of words and grammar as a physical distance, as a longing for something that was mere inches away. In that gap, there was all the magic of childhood.


Mapped: Bob Dylan’s Entire Repertoire

To celebrate Bob Dylan’s 72nd birthday, Slate has mapped every place the man ever mentioned in his music. Why, you ask?

Once the amateur Dylanologist tries to think of some, they flood the brain. “I’ll look for you in old Honolulu/ San Francisco, Ashtabula.” “Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn/ In the year of who knows when.” “Oxford town, Oxford town/ Everybody’s got their head bowed down.” From the personal—“that little Minnesota town”—to the political—“Ever since the British burned the White House down/ There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town”—Dylan uses place-names to maintain rhythm or rhyme, to reference other works of art, or to evoke certain thoughts and emotions. (We never do learn what it’s like “to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again,” though we feel like we do.) It’s only natural, after all, that a man who left tiny Hibbing, Minn. for New York City at age 19, quickly became world-famous, and has spent the last 25 years on a “never-ending” worldwide tour, might have a curious perspective on the concept of place.

Enjoy.


Grantland Goes to the Iditarod

This past March, Grantland sent writer Brian Phillips to follow the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Alaska’s famous 1000-mile feat of endurance, by bush plane. The resulting story, Out in the Great Alone, comes with all sorts of online design bells and whistles—embedded audio and video, and a map that updates itself as you scroll through the narrative. But what I liked best about it was its emphasis on place, not so much on the ins and outs of the race itself but on the landscapes and communities it passes through. Here’s Phillips:

I took a walk through the village. Couple of roads twisting down a couple of hills, some pretty rough-looking houses. Moose antlers over the doorways. Things happen to the color blue during an Alaska twilight that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Imagine that the regular, daytime blue sky spends all its time floating on the night sky, the way you’d float on the surface of a pool. Now it’s submerging itself. You could see it vanishing upward. The cars looked derelict, half-buried in snow. Snowdrifts rammed up doorknob-high against the houses. Every now and again a snow machine would go screaming by; the drivers always waved. Snow 3 and 4 feet high on the roofs.

But it was such a warm place. I mean, fine, we’re all cynics here, go ahead and click over to your next open tab or whatever, but you could feel it: this fragile human warmth surrounded by almost unmanageable sadness. Outside the checkpoint building the Takotnans had set up a row of burled tree stumps beside the flagpoles, and now two guys with chain saws were carving long crosscuts in the stumps. Each night during the Iditarod they’d pour diesel into one stump’s cuts and then light it, making a torch as wide as two people embracing that’d burn for hours and hours. Mushers coming down the river toward the checkpoint would see the torches from—I don’t know about miles, but a long way away. Eight or nine villagers, along with a few volunteers, gathered around the fire. Jay was there, talking about airplanes with Bernard—you could tell from the way he’d sort of bank his hand at the wrist and slide it through the air. Christophe went around taking pictures. A little gang of kids played king of the hill on a snowdrift. The night just dwarfed all this.

It’s a long one, but worth your time. The New Yorker also sent a writer to follow the Iditarod this year; subscribers can read Ben McGrath’s story here.


New Travel Book: ‘The Turk Who Loved Apples’

Veteran travel writer Matt Gross has just released his first book: The Turk Who Loved Apples, a collection of never-before-published stories about his life as a traveler. Gross is a former Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Times—he’s also an occasional contributor to World Hum. The Portland Book Review calls his book “part memoir, part travel odyssey and part growing-up story,” and National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel blog has named it one of the best travel books to land in stores this spring.

You can read an excerpt over at the New York Times.


Chaos in Airworld? The 1981 PATCO Strike

In the wake of last week’s sequester-driven air travel delays, Jalopnik looks back at a short-lived 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, better known as PATCO. It’s a fascinating case study. Here’s writer Michael Ballaban:

As soon as the strike began, airlines reported losing $30 million a day. PATCO predicted insanity, with planes crashing into each other, hundreds, perhaps thousands (millions? billions?) of flights cancelled, and women and children crying and men gnashing their teeth.

The FAA began immediately to implement its contingency plan, which included asking airlines to voluntarily delay or cancel some flights, asking pilots to be a bit more vigilant, and calling in perhaps the best air traffic controllers in the world, the United States Air Force.

And after all that… nothing. Planes kept flying. Nobody crashed. Nobody died. Everybody still got to where they needed to go.

It spelled the end for PATCO.

Tags: Air Travel

AFAR Goes to Coffeeland

In the latest AFAR, longtime World Hum contributor David Farley goes to the world’s caffeine heartland: Ethiopia. Here’s Farley:

Coffee is to Ethiopia what hops are to Bohemia or grapes to Bordeaux. That is, coffee is almost everything, from the cornerstone of the community’s economic fortunes to the lifeblood of its social relations. Java drinking is so deeply rooted here that Azeb was dumbstruck that I could have lived 40 years on the planet never having seen what coffee looks like before it’s plucked, peeled, dried, roasted, and ground.

Which is exactly why I was in Ethiopia. I wanted to travel around this East African country’s primary coffee-growing regions and immerse myself in its coffee culture. I can sit around at coffeehouses in New York and San Francisco drinking all the Ethiopian coffee my brain can take before spinning out of control. But I was curious about the time and toil it takes to produce these beans, everything that goes into slaking the States’ obsessive thirst for small-batch artisan roasts.

Headed to Coffeeland yourself? Check out our primer on how to take part in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.


Consider the Hotel Breakfast Waffle

In the Washington Post, veteran travel writer Tom Haines ponders the rise of the free hotel breakfast—specifically, the dominance of the DIY waffle maker—and what it means for travelers. “This is comfort without community,” he writes, “as the mood in these hotel breakfast rooms feels neither home nor away. There’s an isolation-among-the-crowd sense in the breakfast area that resembles that of an airline terminal: Everyone alone together while waiting to move on.” He goes on:

It is worth considering the costs of this world of waffles all cooked from the same mold. If the lure is to sleep, eat and move on, we Americans taste less and less of the diverse character of the country we call home. And as individuals, we miss the discovery that can come with the unexpected.

(Via @myessis)


Rocketing Through the Grand Canyon

The May issue of Outside includes a gripping story, Rocketing Into the Great Unknown, about a 1983 speed run through the Grand Canyon. The river was in full flood—there was so much water, the Glen Canyon dam was at risk—when three experienced river guides decided to attempt the run in a wooden dory. The resulting story, an excerpt from Kevin Fedarko’s forthcoming book “The Emerald Mile,” is a page turner. Here’s a taste:

And now he waited for it. At the top of every rapid, a moment comes when the topography of the whitewater reveals itself. This happens in an instant; there is no preamble. One second you’re approaching a flat horizon line, the next, what lies beyond is visible in all its fury. That final flash comes like a slap in the face, the sting amplified by the knowledge that the choices you’ve made—your angle, your timing, your speed—are now irrevocably set.

As Grua approached this point of no return, he processed a few last-second details. A slice of calmer water was sluicing past the right-hand shoreline—he could see that now. But that water was too shallow for a wooden boat, studded with half-submerged boulders and laced with broken tree limbs that stuck out like punji sticks.

“Do you think I should cut right?” Grua shouted over his shoulder, looking for confirmation from Petschek.

“You don’t have a chance of doing it,” Petschek called back. “Keep her straight!”

The men braced as the current seized the hull and slung them toward the biggest mess of whitewater that any Grand Canyon boatman had ever seen.

The issue is packed with adventure narratives. Aside from Fedarko’s Grand Canyon story, there are also dispatches from South Sudan and a long-distance Mongolian horse race, and a look back at the first American ascent of Everest. It’s worth checking out. Meanwhile, we published a story about a mellower journey through the Grand Canyon, Michael Shapiro’s River a Mile Deep, last year.