Travel Blog

War-Torn Syria Courts Tourists. Really!

Destruction in the Bab Dreeb area of Homs, Syria (2012). via Wikipedia

Six sites in Syria are listed as World Heritage sites and 12 more have been nominated. The World Heritage Foundation lists Damascus as “the oldest capital of the world” and “the cradle of historical civilizations.” Descriptions of Syria’s other cultural wonders are equally lofty—Palmyra has been settled since prehistory, the minarets in Bosra are the oldest in the world. Little wonder travelers want to visit Syria. It’s a cultural crossroads rich in history, home to a spectacular array of archeological wonders. But there’s one minor issue with visiting the country: For about three years now, Syria has been in the grip of a devastating civil war.

This is no deterrent to the Syrian Ministry of Tourism (sorry, no link, their site sets off a virus warning). It launched a new campaign designed to convince travelers that Syria is a safe destination. The New Republic points out how Syria’s tourist sites have been affected by the conflict. For example:

In Homs, site of that fabled “prosperous tourist season,” Jabhat al-Nusra continues to carry out bombings that have left dozens dead. In Hama, the regime is encouraging tourism while it is allegedly using chemical weapons, especially chlorine gas

Homs was under siege by Bashar al-Assad’s government for nearly three years, The New Republic posits that a tourism campaign to the region is more about showing who’s in control than about improving the country’s devastated economy.

And this story on Fox describes the issues one might encounter when making a hotel reservation:

No one denies that logistics are difficult for holiday-makers. Hotel reservations, for example, can be iffy. The other day a band of foreign jihadists blew up Aleppo’s Carleton Citadel Hotel, drastically reducing the supply of five star accommodations in Syria’s fabled second city.

Difficult logistics indeed. The campaign overlooks the tragedy of nearly 10 million displaced Syrians. The cost of war on Syria’s precious historical sites is heartbreaking, but the toll on human lives is incalculable.

More than a decade ago, I was invited to tag along on a friend’s visit to Syria and I hesitated, nervous about my nationality, my gender, my religious upbringing. “Propaganda,” insisted my friend, “you’ll be fine.” The pro-tourism campaign is propaganda, too, of a very different kind. I prefer the other flavor. I might have needed a head scarf to show respect, but a flak jacket? Not so much so.

I deeply regret not going while I had the chance.

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Watch: Louis CK Puts All of Your Air Travel Complaints Into Perspective

This Louis CK rant isn’t new, but it never gets old, either. As one person commented: “They should play this looped in the terminals and on the aircraft all day 24/7.”

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R.I.P. Peter Matthiessen

Prolific writer and three-time National Book Award winner Peter Matthiessen died Saturday at age 86. Matthiessen was a former CIA agent, one of the founders of The Paris Review, and the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books.

He’s best known in travel writing circles for his 1978 travelogue, “The Snow Leopard.” In 2010 we listed it as one of our 100 most celebrated travel books of all time.

Rolf Potts celebrated The Snow Leopard on World Hum in 2006, writing that the book offers “a gentle reminder that life consists of what each moment brings us; that it’s futile to obsess on the workings of the past and future if you’re missing out on experience of the present moment.”

The New York Times notes that Matthiessen was “one of the last survivors of a generation of American writers who came of age after World War II and who all seemed to know one another, socializing in New York and on Long Island’s East End as a kind of movable literary salon peopled by the likes of William Styron, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and E. L. Doctorow.”

His final novel, “In Paradise,” is due out tomorrow.

Tags: R.I.P.

Why is This Man Walking Around the World?

Aspiring travel writers can choose any number of paths. They can start a blog, or intern at a magazine, or simply start pitching stories to editors.

But 24-year-old Ryan Newburn is taking a different approach. He plans to spend four or five years walking around the world—almost literally. He’ll hoof it across Japan, then New Zealand, then Australia, and then he’ll work his way up Southeast Asia, and that’s only the beginning.


Among other things, the Nebraska native told Newsweek: “I thought about what I wanted to do with my life, and I’ve always wanted to be a travel writer. I want to meet extraordinary people from all walks of life, all over the world, and write about them.”

Well, if he pulls off the epic trek, he’ll have one incredible story to tell.

R.I.P. Matthew Power, Writer

Matthew Power Facebook

Journalist and travel writer Matthew Power died this week in Uganda while on assignment for Men’s Journal. He was believed to have collapsed from heatstroke while following an explorer who was attempting to hike the length of the Nile. Matt was 39.

I’ve been writing these brief, occasional obituary posts for World Hum for more than six years now, but this is the first time I’ve written about someone I’ve known personally. I first met Matt at a New York City launch party for “The Best American Travel Writing 2009”—he read his wonderful Harper’s story, Mississippi Drift. The way I remember it, I was too shy and intimidated to introduce myself. But when we reconnected a couple of years later he remembered meeting me, so I must have worked up the nerve. I went home that night and looked up his website, and decided that his career and his writing were my ideal—something to aspire to.

More recently, Matt became one of the most important people I turned to as a freelance writer for advice or help. He connected me with his editors, offered suggestions on pitching, even turned over some of his notes once when I was working on a story similar to something he’d covered years ago. More generally, he helped me believe that I was capable of doing the type of ambitious feature writing I wanted to do. He was always kind, generous and supportive beyond all my expectations, and I do not exaggerate when I say that I don’t think I would be where I am as a writer without him. Incredibly, over the last two days I’ve watched my experience echoed by dozens of other young writers across the internet—the word “generous” might be the most common descriptor. It’s hard to understand how he got his own work done, considering how much time he must have spent helping the rest of us.

Tributes are pouring in from his colleagues at Men’s Journal, Outside, GQ and the Virginia Quarterly Review. Harper’s has made his archive of stories freely accessible.

Compared to his family and close friends, I didn’t know Matt well. But it’s rare to have someone come into your life and then go out of his way to help make it better, and Matt was that someone for me. It’s clear from the response to his death that he had that same outsized impact on so many of the lives he touched. He’ll be missed.

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.


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.