Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Parrots, Paddling and Ponderings: Getting surreal in Ecuador with Batman and weird p...

Parrots, Paddling and Ponderings: Getting surreal in Ecuador with Batman and weird p...: There is one aspect of travel that is almost guaranteed, if you travel enough. You are going to have a few very surreal moments. We'...

Getting surreal in Ecuador with Batman and weird pizza

There is one aspect of travel that is almost guaranteed, if you travel enough.

You are going to have a few very surreal moments.

We've all had them, I think; and one corollary to that is the fact that what may be surreal to one traveller may be ordinary, run-of-the-mill stuff to another traveller.

The experience that immediately comes to mind when I think of this topic is one I had in Ecuador - Quito, to be precise - during my first trip to South America.

In a nutshell, it boils down to this:

I found myself eating unpalatable Pizza Hut pizza, watching Batman, in Spanish at 1 o'clock in the morning in the capital city of the South American country famous for its Galapagos Islands.

(By the way, we're not talking Michael Keaton or Christian Bale, here - we're talking Adam West. The cheesy 1966 TV series. Actually, come to think of it, I wish my pizza had been that cheesy...) 

"Buenos dias, Senor Batman. Como esta? Donde esta el Riddler??" and so on.

And I was doing this while eating a really bad Pizza Hut veggie pizza.

How did come to this undesirable state? Funny you should ask...

View of the cloud forest (Adventure Life photo).
It actually came about as the result of a near-fatal case of altitude sickness, suffered by my travelling companion, the Divine Ms. K. 

We had spent a week paddling in the jungles of Ecuador with a native tribe, then returned back to Quito before starting out on a second week of adventure in the cloud forests of the Andes, hoping to see wild parrots. 

Both trips were co-ordinated by a company called Adventure Life.

However, one of her lungs started to fill up with fluid because of the altitude, she couldn't breathe and we had to rush back to the city at 3 in the morning to get her fixed up. Luckily our guide knew the ins and outs of the medical system and took us to a private hospital where she was looked at almost immediately (apparently we might have waited as much as half a day to see someone at the public hospital, and that could have been tragic).

She was okay; but it left us without an itinerary.

I spent the next day setting up a trip for me, as she had to remain in hospital. (She did not want me sitting there bored out of my gourd for four days, so shooed me off).

That night, after spending some time with her at the hospital until visitor hours ended, I went back to our hotel, the Hotel Sierra Madre. The dining room was closed, though, due to some celebration or something.

Cue the Rod Serling music ... this is where I start to enter the Surrealism Zone.

The girl at the front desk told me she was going to order in a pizza from - Pizza Hut! That's right, even back in 2002, they had Pizza Hut established in Ecuador.

As I found out though, their versions of the recipes are a b-i-t different from what they dish up in North America.
Green vs. Black: no contest.

I ordered my regular veggie pizza with feta cheese, black olives, onions and peppers, then waited.

When it arrived I went down to pick it up and the minute I took it in hand, I must have gotten a weird look on my face, because the girl asked me what was wrong.

Something about the pizza just smelled .... well, different. Not quite off or bad. And when I opened the box I saw why.

They didn't use black olives on their pizzas in Quito. They used green olives.

I don't know if many people realize it, but the taste and scent of the two different kinds of olives are very much different - at least to my palate.

I HATE the smell and taste of green olives. I won't even have them in my Martinis.

And my pizza - my only meal since lunch, my only chance to eat before breakfast - reeked of them.

Disappointed, discouraged, disheartened, but still hungry, I tried to explain to the girl, but she didn't get it. So I took my pizza and slunk up to my room.

For the next hour, I tried to pick off the olives, in vain, so I could eat the pizza. It didn't help much.

I turned on the TV, hoping it might distract me enough to get some of the pizza down, but of course it was all in Spanish. My Spanish consists mainly of "Cervezas, por favors," and "Donde esta el bano?" so it was not really all that entertaining.

I tried watching the Three Stooges --- "You chica?? MI CHICA!" --- then Zorro (ironic to watch that old TV show in Spanish, since it is set in Spanish settlements), then finally, Batman. All the while, I was trying to pick off more olives and ignore the taste of the olive brine that had soaked into the pizza, trying to gag something down, with minimal success.

And not even a beer in sight to wash it down with, since the bar was closed.

Bad pizza. Bad TV. No beer. I'd had enough. Time to turn out the lights, the party's over.

And I will never, EVER order a pizza from Pizza Hut in Ecuador, again. Unless I channel my inner Macaulay Culkin and make sure it's just a plain, cheese pizza.

And that would be even more surreal.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Murderous press trip full of tourism twists and turns

No, this is not a review of a recent press trip that turned out badly (I can hear some travel industry people going, “Whew!”). 

Mind you, I could write about those, as I have been on a few - but maybe after I retire...

Rather, this is about a book titled Murder Packs a Suitcase – the first book in a mystery series featuring a travel writer as a protagonist.

Author Cynthia Baxter stepped into a new genre with this book, after publishing several mystery novels about veterinarian-turned-sleuth Jessica Popper, a.k.a., the “Reigning Cats and Dogs” series.

Recently widowed Mallory Marlowe is looking to get back into living her life following the death of her husband, and while applying for a part-time job as a typesetter at the New York-based Good Life magazine, she ends up getting a gig as their regular travel writer, responsible for taking one all-expenses paid trip a month to produce a 2,000-word piece for the high-end glossy – and getting paid well, to boot. (You know this really is fiction - how many gigs like that really exist, and how many of us wouldn’t want something like that to fall in our lap? Drool-drool!)

Her first assignment takes her to Orlando, Florida where she’s part of a press trip consisting of several travel writers, each covering a different beat or publication genre. 

Many of the travel writer stereotypes are covered: Mallory, of course, covers the more expensive beat. There is also the budget travel magazine writer, the seniors’ travel writer, and the online website travel writer. 

Each writer has his or her own characteristics: the budget writer is always looking to cut corners, get everything as cheap as possible; the senior just “wants to have fun;” and the online writer is actually one of those types that sometimes appear on real press trips – he’s obnoxious, condescending, rude – and (unlike any press trips I’ve been on) he ends up getting killed four chapters into the book.

That last point is an important one for me: my rule is, there better be a murder in the first four chapters of any mystery, or it will most likely be a dud!

In this story, there is also a perky tourism board rep and a harried hotel manager.

Of course, Mallory ends up becoming one of the chief murder suspects, so in addition to trying to get to all the tourist attractions so she can meet her assignment requirements, she’s trying to solve the case.

There are the usual suspects (everybody!) and the twists, turns and red herrings that make the “cozy” mystery sub-genre so enjoyable.

The author does a pretty good job of capturing what it’s like to be on a press trip. However, one thing that struck me as a bit odd is the fact even though all these writers are on the same “trip” with the same flight schedules, hotel, etc., they all have completely individual itineraries that they plan themselves, with absolutely no input from the tourism board, other than to supply some free passes to local attractions. The tourism board is credited with organizing it, however. (Not much to organize, really – the writers even book their own flights.)

I’ve been on individual press trips as well as group trips, and while I have no doubt there may be some group trips organized where every writer is completely on their own 100 per cent of the time, it did seem a bit odd, since it’s outside my realm of experience. Usually with a group press trip, there are some group activities, but other than an opening and closing dinner, there are none organized on this one. Certainly, it did provide a different perspective.

One of the unique aspects of this book I liked is the actual “travel story” at the end. Apart from the actual narrative, the author has written a 2,000-word magazine piece, complete with contact info and website links to all the places the fictional writer Mallory visits in the novel. Yes, they are all real destinations, and that lends a nice “realistic” feel to the fiction. It reminded me of the recipes included at the back of so many of the “gourmet/cooking-sleuth” mysteries that are so popular these days.

I really enjoyed it, although admittedly, I am a big mystery buff; by combining two of my favourite topics - murder-mystery fiction, with travel non-fiction - there is a better than average chance I’ll like the end result (provided it’s written well.) In a future post, look for a review of the second book in this series, Too Rich and Too Dead, a story which sees Mallory head to a Colorado ski resort.

Murder Packs a Suitcase, paperback, 304 pp. ISBN: 978-0-553-59036-4 (0-553-59036-7). Cost: $8.99 (in Canada)

Visiting Florida? This video might help with the planning.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Kakapo 'adoption' a great gift option for Christmas

Close your eyes and try to imagine this:

There are only 150 people left in the world.

I know - it's difficult. But try to picture it. Got it? Now hold it...

Now imagine those people live spread out in a wild environment, without any way to travel other than by walking. And imagine they have great difficulty in "hooking up" in order to mate and eventually produce offspring.

It really challenges the mind to think of humans in those terms, since there are 7 billion of us on the planet.

But that may help you empathize with the plight of the kakapo parrot of New Zealand. There are less than 150 of these parrots remaining on the planet. They are on the brink of extinction.

Kakapo parrot (Photo by Kakapo recovery)
They are flightless. They are the heaviest parrot in the world. They are possibly the oldest living bird still on the planet. But the clock is ticking for this bird.

I first learned about the dire situation this bird is in during a Parrot Lover's Cruise. This is a program put together by the World Parrot Trust and Carol Cipriano, a U.S.-based travel agent, that essentially builds a program around existing cruise ship schedules to allow travellers who opt into the tour to see parrots in the wild and attend seminars about parrot conservation and education on board the ship between ports of call.

Being a parrot lover, I was aware of this bird long before I took the cruise - I just had no idea how close it was to extinction before watching "The Unnatural History of the Kakapo" video about it as part of the tour. 

Now our cruise - which was through the Caribbean - did not take us to New Zealand. However, it did take us to several islands where other parrots also face extinction: Puerto Rico, Dominica and Bonaire. All three of those islands currently have ongoing conservation projects to help save the endemic parrot species from extinction. (Not every island stop on our route featured parrots; but on the islands that did not include a parrot element, we used our time to go paddling or hiking, instead).

Any parrot population found on an island - particularly if it is only on one island - is very susceptible to extinction. One bad hurricane, an epidemic of disease, a sudden loss of species-specific habitat, introduction of a predator not native to the area - or a combination of all of them - can decimate a population concentrated in only one spot.

The reasons for its decline to a mere 18 birds in the 1970s is a result of several pressures on the population. The Kakapo Recovery Project consists of a team of dedicated conservationists working to restore the population to a level where it can thrive and exist without coming so close to extinction.

Kakapo plushies. (Photo by Kakapo Recovery)
Like all conservation projects, they require funds. Since it is the season of giving, if you are looking for a different kind of Christmas gift, one that also helps a good cause, you could "adopt" a kakapo

Now obviously, you don't physically adopt a bird - but your donation goes toward helping the project continue. 

There are different donation levels, and with each one, part of your "gift" includes a plush stuffed kakapo parrot.

Because it is close to Christmas, they will email donors a certificate of adoption so you can present that to a recipient, since at this point, a plushie may not arrive on time for Dec. 25, depending on where you are, in the world.

If you visit the project's website, you can find other ways to help make it a Merry Christmas for kakapos.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dining for Tanzanians: a different kind of 'safari'

Africa ... the word conjures up images of exotic wildlife, vast plains and jungles, deserts and mountains, adventures beyond what we can experience at home.

It can also create images of the continent's various cultures...the music, art and food of the people who live there, who call Africa "home."

While travelling around Africa, one of the things that struck me - in almost every one of the eight countries I've visited - is how happy the people seem to be, there.
The Serengeti plains, Tanzania, Africa

Keep in mind, these are people that have no TVs, iPhones, cars, desktop computers, fancy flush toilets (in fact, running water is a real luxury), electric ovens - none of the things we take for granted, things we count as given commodities in our western lifestyles.

Yet they seem to be happier than many North Americans.

That may make you think of the old adage, ignorance is bliss; yet, these people - many of them smart, young adults - are aware of the world. They have some education, so they are not really ignorant.

And despite not having these material items, despite their awareness, they are not envious - they are, for the most part, very friendly toward foreigners.

Example: while touring in southern Tanzania not far from the Malawi border, our tour group wanted to go back down the road to another set of outdoor shops; myself and Ann were embroiled in a major bartering transaction that Africans love so much. The guide made sure we felt comfortable being left alone in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road (we were, of course) and they took off.

When we'd concluded our deal (both sides feeling they had gotten the "best" of the transaction), a couple of young men asked us if they could buy us a soda pop in the cafe across the street.

That's right - they wanted to treat us. The well-off foreign visitors. They wanted to buy us a drink.

We took them up on it, and they insisted on paying for the colas we drank.

They were incredibly curious, hungry for real knowledge about us, our country, what we did for a living. (When I told the one fellow I was a sports writer, he told me what that was in Swahili: "michezo mwandishi.")
African cart, ready to load up.

A desire for that kind of knowledge really deserves to be fed.

However, even though by our standards, education there is not that expensive, many of them cannot afford to go to school. Many of them do not even have homes, and live on the streets.

Dan Budgell, a UBC biology grad discovered that same fact when he travelled in Tanzania a few years ago. Rather than just give money to street kids, he bought them meals. But he wanted to do more.

He found out how little (in western terms) it costs to send kids to school, there. So with some other friends, he set up a foundation called the Global Peace Network. Among its humanitarian projects: raising money to help street kids get access to information.

They raise money in various ways. One of those ways is through an event that takes place this Wednesday, Dec. 11 at Simba's Grill on Denman Street in Vancouver. From 7 to 9 p.m. that night, GPN is hosting an African dinner at the restaurant that specializes in East African fusion cuisine. I have eaten Simba's food before, and I'm looking forward to eating it once again.

But it's about much more than just eating...at this time of the year, when we celebrate and feast and give presents, it's nice to feel that by participating in this type event, we do more than just enjoy a nice meal - we help some youngster in Tanzania get an education, and quite possibly, a better life.

I can't think of any better way to celebrate this festive season than doing something like that.

Africa gave me a whole lot when I was there. It's only right I should give something back.

Kurshid Khan cooking up some African cuisine at Simba's in Vancouver.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Eating well does not exclude eating sustainably

"If we can make the world sick, we can also heal it."

That was the message of hope that Chef Barton Seaver brought to a room full of travel media and industry professionals, Saturday.

Seaver, author, National Geographic Fellow, TED speaker and chef extraordinaire, is passionate about cooking and conservation - and he believes eating well and living sustainably are not mutually exclusive activities.
Smoked trout with greens.
During his presentation of  "Little Fish, Big Flavour," at the joint TMAC-SATW professional development weekend, he admitted humans have done a poor job of working with our planet's resources to feed ourselves. But, if we can be the problem, we can also be the solution.
Barton explained one of the ways we can do that is by eating lower down the food chain. When it comes to eating fish, for example, if we eat that way, we not only impact the environment less, we also eat healthier (toxins accumulate and multiply the higher up the chain we go) - and we also help create an economic system that is more sustainable.

Or as he put it, " If we put our demand in the right place, we create sustainable economic systems."

He pointed out that while the effect might not be felt immediately, it would pay dividends down the road.

In other words, while we can eat fish that are apex predators - tuna, shark, etc. - we should be choosing to eat fish lower down in the food chain - mackerel, sardines, and other species like that - more often, to create both economically and environmentally sustainable systems.

Barton does not just deliver the message - he lives it.

One time, a supplier delivered what was essentially bait - boxes full of flying fish - to his restaurant. Rather than throw it out, Barton created a dish from it that became the talk of the town.

He continues to try to source food that is more sustainable, and creates ways to cook and present that food for discerning consumers.

Smoked mackerel and cream cheese spread.
Barton did more than just talk, at the presentation, too. Working with Fairmont Whistler Chef Richard Samaniego, he created several dishes for the audience that included of anchovy pizza, smoked trout and greens salad and a delicious cream cheese dip made with cheese, spices and herbs and smoked mackerel.

The afternoon was both inspiring and entertaining.

As someone who grew up in a Washington, D.C. neighbourhood that was extremely diverse in terms of its cultural mix, and hence, its food, Barton learned that, "Food is how we understand culture."

After listening to him - and sampling some of his food - I understand a little more about our place on the planet.

And I feel a bit more "cultured," too.

Some words of wisdom from Chef Barton Seaver.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why join a writers' association?

I recently read a blog post written by another travel writer focused on the benefits of membership in a professional travel writing association, the International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance.

The writer stressed that through this association,  she obtained much easier access to fam tours, a.k.a. press trips.

Press trips are an important aspect of travel-writing, particularly if you happen to be a freelance writer, and no one is paying you a salary with benefits.

But there are many other benefits of belonging to writing associations - and not just for travel writers.

I guess I should stop here and clarify when I say, "writers associations" I'm talking about professional writers - journalists, copywriters, speech creators, movie script writers - anyone who actually makes a living as a writer. While some novelists are fortunate enough to be able to live off their writing income, most are not.

So I am not including in this group writers' groups that get together over coffee and cake to critique each other's prose and poetry. Anyone can sit in on those; for professional associations, you need to meet some kind of minimal qualification standards to join, just like any profession such as law, medicine, accounting, etc.

If you're a professional writer, it may benefit you to belong to more than one writers association - particularly if it has a different emphasis. They all have different benefits.

I began my professional freelance career by joining the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) in 2000. That followed by membership in the North American Travel Journalists Association, the B.C. Association of Travel Writers and the Travel Media Association of Canada. They have all turned out to be beneficial for me in many different ways.

1. Industry contacts. As previously mentioned, contacts with travel industry people is, of course, a huge benefit of being a travel writer in an association, since without those contacts, it is difficult to obtain hosted trips. But networking can provide much more than knowing who to contact for subsidized travel. These professionals can also help you with story research; with sourcing images for a website or magazine/newspaper; they can put you in touch with others who may be able to help you complete your story. If you develop a good relationship with them, some of them may even be able to help you connect with editors for a story you're working on or interested in telling.

2. Professional development. Every profession requires this, but while many employers provide this for their staff, freelancers, by nature, do not have this option. Pro D sessions at conferences and monthly meetings can really help you stay on top of your game, both from a standpoint of being educated and up-to-date with respect to trends and practices in the writing profession - as well as from a motivational standpoint, encouraging you to continue writing. It can also help you develop different but related means to add income to your career.

Yours Truly (middle), John Masters (left) and John Lee
socialize at a 2013 TMAC event.
3. Writer advocacy. Not every association does this. Most travel writing associations do not; however, many other writing associations do.

Example: Several years ago, I submitted a story with about 60 colour slides (it was pre-digital) to a magazine and was paid on acceptance for the material. More than a year later, the story was still not published and I wanted the slides back to use for other stories/resales. The editor would not return them. 

After much back-and-forth with no success, I finally asked PWAC to contact him and he finally relented and returned my slides. The story never was published, but at least I was paid.

Conversely, PWAC will also advocate on your behalf for work that has been published but not paid for.

4. Increased exposure. PWAC members are included in an online writers database, accessible to anyone in the world. So if an editor in Hong Kong needs a travel story about Vancouver, the editor can search the database by keywords to find a writer to fill the need. This has happened to me on several occasions, netting me good assignments each time.

5. Collateral benefits. These are almost always unforeseen, unexpected bonuses. During a Pro D session at a travel writers conference, a presenter mentioned about a non-travel martial arts publication looking for writers. That same presentation, she also mentioned about some of the trade mags (again, non-travel) she had worked for. That spurred me to contact the martial arts publication, and for the next five years, I wrote for them regularly. Ditto, trade mags: I contacted a company that publishes several trade magazines and again, wrote for them regularly for about three years. (Both gigs ended when the editors left those mags). But I got a lot of work for several years by going to that travel writers conference.
Christine Potter leads discussion during a 2010
BCATW professional development event.

6. Benefits packages. While freelancing for various publications means you will not get the same benefits from a publication that a staff writer does, many professional writing associations offer benefits packages in the form of health insurance, and in some cases, travel insurance plans. It varies from group to group, but it is certainly worth looking into.

7. Professional feedback. Since we work alone so much, it's nice to compare notes. Maybe we don't realize one particular editor is really hard to work with; another likes to see "this" in a story; another is a very good editor to work for. Tips about the best way to pitch certain editors. These are the kinds of things you only find out by word of mouth.

8. Social benefits. Kind of an extension of #5. We work alone; we often never get out of the house. It's nice to get out once a month or so, have a few drinks with your peers, let your hair down and enjoy the camaraderie among people who completely get where you're coming from. You may even develop life-long friendships with some of them.

In summation, I have to point out that an association is only as good as the effort you put into being an active part of it. I do not mean you have to volunteer in some capacity - they are almost all non-profit organizations - although that helps. As with anything else, you need to take an active hand and participate in events, discussions and conferences. Just joining and sitting back will net you next to nothing, other than a line in your email signature. The more you put into it, the more you will get out of it.


Keep on writing!