Travel Blog: News and Briefs

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.


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.


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.


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.


Drawing Every Building in New York City

Yep. All 900,000 of them. That’s what artist James Gulliver Hancock is trying to do, and a book containing 500 of his completed drawings has just been released, All the Buildings in New York: That I’ve Drawn So Far.

The Atlantic Cities interviewed Hancock about the project. Here he is on his artistic style:

I’ve always drawn with this mix of technicality and whimsy. I think it is a great extension of my personality; a little bit of technical obsession, combined with a little bit of artistic messiness. It’s a push and pull which I think you can see in my drawings and is somehow relevant to New York, which is after all a crazy organic mess organized on a grid.


36 Hours in Taipei: Realist’s Edition

Vanity Fair’s Juli Weiner has a bone to pick with the NYT’s latest “36 Hours in…” travel feature. “We are very aware of the fact that The New York Times is an internationally read newspaper,” she writes, “and that many subscribers probably do live a short drive from Taipei, but does The New York Times recognize that ... many subscribers would have to travel for 36 hours just to reach Taipei?”

Weiner offers up a revised version of the itinerary. It’s funny and, at times, too familiar:

Friday
Five a.m.

After a total of eight hours of flight delays, arrive at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport and ask your significant other whether he remembered to exchange currency before you left. He did not. As it is five a.m., there are no banks open. There is a currency converter at the airport. Wait 25 minutes behind a very large family who seem to be exchanging their country’s entire G.D.P.

Six a.m.
After collecting your luggage, argue bitterly with your significant other about whether to “just take a cab to the hotel” or “get acclimated with the mass-transit system.” Roll your eyes and snap that you will “have lots of time to wander aimlessly around the subway but after sitting on a plane for 20 f*cking hours is not the time to start, O.K.?” Your significant other will stomp off and get a cab. The ride will be circuitous, bumpy, and extremely expensive and you will feel miserable and responsible for everyone’s unhappiness.

(Via @skiftnews)


R.I.P. Chinua Achebe

The celebrated Nigerian writer has died at the age of 82.

He was best known for his novel “Things Fall Apart,” which is about the clash of traditional Nigerian culture with the arrival of bibles and British colonial rule. When the novel turned 50 in 2008, Frank Bures reflected on its impact and the world Achebe evoked.

The publication of “Things Fall Apart” is often cited as the birth of modern African literature, and since its publication the book has sold some 11 million copies in 50 countries.The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote that for Americans, is it “the quintessential novel about Africa.” In fact, it is the foundation of tens of thousands of college students’ introduction to the continent, and forms many of our ideas of the place even today.

That’s fine, and I realize that “Things Fall Apart” is required reading. But as important as it is, “Things Fall Apart” is a novel of the past. Since then Africa has changed so much and so fast that the amalgam of the world Achebe wrote about and the one we see today can be hard to recognize. These days, there are so many other great novels coming out that reflect the Africa of today: “Graceland,” “Waiting for an Angel,” “Purple Hibiscus,” and on and on. 


GQ Goes ‘Place Hacking’

In GQ, Matthew Power goes on an epic, multi-day, two-nation ride-along with a band of London-based “urban explorers”—a thriving subculture of folks who illicitly climb public buildings, plumb the depths of city sewer systems, and otherwise challenge our notions of public space. The unlikely leader of Power’s crew is Dr. Brad Garrett, who’s completed a PhD on the phenomenon:

His dissertation in human geography, which he had defended the previous year, was entitled “Place Hacking.” The title came from his argument that physical space is coded just like the operating system of a computer network, and it could be hacked—explored, infiltrated, re-coded—in precisely the same ways. He conducted a deep ethnographic study of a small crew of self-described “urban explorers” who over several years had infiltrated an astonishing array of off-limits sites above and below London and across Europe: abandoned Tube stations, uncompleted skyscrapers, World War II bomb shelters, derelict submarines, and half-built Olympic stadiums. They had commandeered (and accidentally derailed) an underground train of the now defunct Mail Rail, which once delivered the Royal Mail along a 23-mile circuit beneath London. They had pried open the blast doors of the Burlington bunker, a disused 35-acre subterranean Cold War-era complex that was to house the British government in the event of nuclear Armageddon. The London crew’s objective, as much as any of them could agree on one, was to rediscover, reappropriate, and reimagine the urban landscape in what is perhaps the most highly surveilled and tightly controlled city on earth.

The catch-all term for these space-invading activities is “Urbex,” and in recent years it has grown as a global movement, from Melbourne to Minneapolis to Minsk. The Urbex ethos was, in theory, low-impact: no vandalism, no theft, take only photographs; as one practitioner put it, “a victimless crime.”

Read the whole thing. And don’t miss the slideshow that shares the unusual views urban explorers are privy to.


Armchair Traveling at Tax Time

It’s tax time again. For me, as a freelance writer, that means hours spent wading through all the work-related receipts I’ve collected in the past year.  The process is a pain, but it comes with a silver lining: I get to revisit 12 months’ worth of travel.

A handful of restaurant receipts takes me back to my unofficial Halibut Taco Tour of Southeast Alaska last winter; a stack of gas station slips sends me retracing my summer road-trip routes. Every year I promise myself that I’ll start sorting and filing my receipts as I go, instead of filling a shoebox with them and leaving it until tax time. But even if I managed to up my organizational game, I’d still be tempted to delay and do it all in one shot anyhow—the trip down the memory-lane paper trail is just about worth it.

Anyone else do this sort of armchair traveling come tax time?


47 Hours on the Sunset Limited

For its Voyages issue, the New York Times Magazine includes a long, lingering story about a long-haul Amtrak ride. Writer Nathaniel Rich rode the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to L.A., and he captured the spirit of long-distance train travel along the way:

Traveling coach on Amtrak is not exactly luxurious, but amenities are superior to business class on many American airlines. A person seated in coach on a Superliner—the double-decker train used on the Sunset Limited route—has access to a dining room with white tablecloths and waiter service and to seats with 15 inches or so more legroom than those in some first-class airplane cabins, as well as access to electrical outlets. But playing video games or watching movies on a phone or computer tends only to distract for several hours, and there is no Wi-Fi, so most passengers turn to a more traditional form of entertainment: conversation.

The cliché, familiar to air travel, of the nosy passenger who makes pestering conversation with his seat partners does not exist on the long-distance train. On the Sunset Limited, everybody is nosy, and no one seems to mind.

Elsewhere, Slate’s Matt Yglesias notes that routes like the Sunset Limited are not exactly moneymakers. I think Rich’s story can be taken as an argument for why they matter nonetheless.


R.I.P. The International Herald Tribune

The venerable newspaper isn’t going away, but it will be getting a name change. The New York Times Company, which owns it, announced Monday that it will change the name of the publication this fall to The International New York Times.

From the New York Times’ story, which quotes IHT publisher Stephen Dunbar-Johnson:

The renamed paper will remain based in Paris, where it was founded 125 years ago as the European edition of The New York Herald, Mr. Dunbar-Johnson said. It will also keep its sizable office in Hong Kong where the Asian edition is edited. Mr. Dunbar-Johnson said there also would be investments in other locations. Until the fall it will continue to be published as The International Herald Tribune.

Some of my best travel memories—especially pre-internet—involve sitting down at a cafe with the International Herald Tribune, catching up on the news and watching the world go by. So the coming name change feels a bit like the end of an era.

Though of course that era—when papers like the IHT were the only source of news from home—came to an end with the rise of smart phone and digital media.


An Atlantic Crossing on the Queen Mary 2

In the New York Times, Dwight Garner has a lighthearted dispatch from a January cruise on Cunard’s enormous QM2. He starts by outlining the ground rules:

The first rule about traveling between America and England aboard the Queen Mary 2, the flagship of the Cunard Line and the world’s largest ocean liner, is to never refer to your adventure as a cruise. You are, it is understood, making a crossing. The second rule is to refrain, when speaking to those who travel frequently on Cunard’s ships, from calling them regulars. The term of art—it is best pronounced while approximating Maggie Smith’s cut-glass accent on “Downton Abbey”—is Cunardists.

The third rule, unspoken, is to not fling your Champagne flutes into the roiling North Atlantic. My wife, Cree, broke this one. It was our second night aboard the ship. We were crossing, in January, from New York to Southampton. I was in black tie. She was in an extraordinary little black dress. We’d been flailing about, in the ship’s ballroom, to an adroit orchestra. We were happy, and tipsy.

We pushed open a door to the promenade deck. The icy wind heartlessly X-rayed us, but it was impossible to pull away from the railing. The North Atlantic in January is no joke; its heaving beauty is mesmerizing. It’s a volcano of sorts, one that seems to demand an offering. Better a Champagne flute than to leap over the railing yourself.

The piece meanders a bit, but it’s laced with funny and thoughtful observations about the cruise—er, crossing. (Via The Best of Journalism)