Thursday, May 13, 2010

Do Travel Writers Have 9 Lives? I've Used Mine

On the Coconut Radio blog from Tahiti, I was reading another Lonely Planet author's stories about bad, bad border crossings and getting kidnapped (or not) in Costa Rica. It made me think about the close brushes with death that all travel writers and photographers I know have had, including myself. There's something about searching out the next off-the-beaten path destination, or going to that way-out place that maybe no other travelers ever visit just to update a guidebook, that always seems to lead to trouble.

I've been writing travel guides on and off for 10 years. So far, I've had a few close calls with the afterlife:
  • Missing the bus when I got off the ferry in Indonesia. Doesn't sound fatal, does it? Well, I dallied too long getting my backpack off the boat, the next onward bus filled up and I couldn't push my way onto it -- you know how it goes in Southeast Asia. So, I sat down and waited an hour for the next bus. Funny thing is, as we trundled our way across the island, I saw the bus I'd tried to catch earlier overturned and smashed up on the side of the road, with dozens of people hurt. One of those dead bodies could have easily have been me. I resolved right there to get more medical training.
  • (Almost not) landing at Lukla airport in Nepal. The Gear Junkie recently did a great write-up of why this airport really isn't one of the world's most dangerous, although it certainly feels like it when you find out your pilot has never really logged any serious hours in a STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft before. Did I mention we were attempting to land in the middle of a snowstorm, too? It took us 3 fly-bys before wheels touched down on tarmac. I resolved to get back to Kathmandu overland, the old-fashioned hippie way, even if I had to walk all the way from Everest Base Camp.
  • Somewhere on the China-Vietnam border. It's a gimme that this might be a dicey place to be, but I didn't expect to get woken up in the middle of the night and marched off the bus at gunpoint by Chinese soldiers. It did not help being the only obvious foreigner on the bus. But once I agreed to let my backpack, passport and money go, everything was copacetic. (And this in no way compares as a hair-raising experience with a documentary filmmaker friend who was held at gunpoint by Burmese border guards, and saved her own life by flashing a medal of a Buddhist monk.)
And this doesn't begin to cover the taxi drivers worldwide who have tried to trick me into going to out-of-the-way places, hoping that American girls really were that easy. Or getting groped by drunk businessmen on trains in Japan (I always shoved back, ill-mannered gaijin that I am). Or that Malaysian scooter driver who somehow copped a feel while I was riding a bicycle (I drove him off by pelting him with stones.)

Travel is risky, and sometimes the Venn diagram intersection of being a woman and a travel writer makes that risk triple. But I don't regret most of the travel misadventures I've had, because I couldn't have foreseen the majority of them. And at the end of the day, they're the price you sometimes have to pay for the privilege of epic travel experiences, like trekking high into the Himalayas or visiting ancient ruins in Sicily.

There's only one travel accident that I wish I had a do-over for. Patagonia, you and I have a major score to settle. But that's a travel noir story for another day.

Had your own near-miss travel escapade? Tell us all about it by commenting below.

Photo credit: Lukla Airport, Nepal

Friday, May 7, 2010

Do You Still Love Riding the Rails? Then All Aboard Amtrak's National Train Day

About 2 weeks ago, the Washington Post came out with a scathing in-depth look at Amtrak. The article asserted that although ridership is up, "the romance went out of it a long time ago" and that our national rail system is "freighted with problems," most notoriously delays. While the Post's staff writers make some valid points, I have to disagree that our nation's love affair with trains is over, at least not for me and not in California.

Maybe the negativity resulted from the Post's focus on the Eastern seaboard, while on the West Coast trains are less about commuting than a scenic vacation. Sure, the Coast Starlight train can run late (although last month, its on-time record was an impressive 96.7%). In fact, it once took me 16+ hours to get from Oakland to LA, a 12-hour scheduled trip! But the gorgeous coastal scenery, some of it inaccessible by road and only visible when riding the rails, made it worth it.

My partner and I still ride Amtrak whenever we can. We live near the northern terminus of the Pacific Surfliner route, which connects us to Santa Barbara, LA, Orange County and San Diego. Not only is it a greener way to travel than driving ourselves, we love not getting stuck on the I-405 for hours as we head down south. Instead, we can kick it with Wi-Fi in business-class seats, or just lazily stare out the window for hours and dream.

Which brings me to Amtrak's National Train Day tomorrow, May 8. Get out there and show your support for this eco-friendly and yes, romantic way to travel. Celebrations at LA's historic Union Station include exhibits on railroad braceros (Mexican laborers) and Amtrak's 'Trails & Rails' national parks initiative (and new online trip planner,, model trains and more fun stuff for kids. There are festivities happening at Amtrak stations all around California, and across the country, too. Check the website for details, then go have fun!

Are you a fan of railway travel? What's your favorite train trip that you've ever taken, either in the USA or abroad? Tell us by leaving a comment below.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Arizona Travel Boycott? Let's Not Blame the Grand Canyon, for Starters

In the wake of Arizona's legislative crackdown on illegal immigration last week, Mexico has issued a travel alert for its citizens, while some US cities, businesses and organizations are calling for an Arizona travel boycott. Meanwhile, the US Travel Association and others in the tourism industry are asking travelers not to boycott Arizona, especially since the state's tourism economy is already suffering high unemployment.

Whether you're politically for or against traveling to Arizona right now, can we agree not to take it out on US federal recreational lands, such as the Grand Canyon, or the Navajo Nation, whose sovereign tribal council has not come out in support of Arizona's recent legislation?

May is an especially great month for visiting the Grand Canyon, before massive summer vacation crowds arrive. The park's South Rim is always open, and this year you've got a more eco-friendly way to tour it. Look for brand-new Bright Angel Bicycle Rentals, open for business at Canyon Visitor Information Plaza, near Mather Point. A half-day bicycle rental costs $25/15 per adult/child.

The Grand Canyon's more remote North Rim will be opening for the 2010 season on May 15. Get there early on opening day, and you may have some of the famous viewpoints all to yourself. (If you'd rather minimize your Arizona travel, you can access the North Rim via southern Utah, passing through Zion National Park.)

How do you feel about the proposed Arizona travel boycotts? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Related links:
Arizona Travel & Adventure
Digging Up History at the Grand Canyon
American Wilderness: Too Noisy for You?

Photo credit: Grand Canyon NP, North Rim (Michael Connolly, Jr.)