Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Q&A Part 2: Travel journalist Vicky Baker

Buenos Aires.

Last Friday, I ran part 1 of my e-mail interview wi
th British travel journalist Vicky Baker, who now lives in Buenos Aires. The interview took place back in the fall; it's only due to my disorganization that it hasn't appeared here before now! Here's part 2 of our virtual chat.

I was fascinated by your story about the Laotian village in French Guiana. Who knew? What were some of the other unique surprises you've encountered in your travels?

Travelling in the Guianas was one big surprise. So little is known about that part of the world. Hanging out with the Haitian community in French Guiana was also an eye-opener for me. We partied and had fun, but I also got insight into the life of illegal immigrants and the restrictions that brings. Plus, from the stories they told and the pictures they painted of life back home, I felt like I was getting a side trip to Haiti and from this I understood why people who can't travel themselves like to be involved in hosting couchsurfers: it can be a way to experience new cultures even if you can't get to the place yourself. [Editor’s note: Vicky recently posted a piece about her time in French Guiana’s Haitian community.]

What was it that drew you to South America in general, and Argentina in particular?

I grew up knowing nothing about South America. We never touched on it at school or university; newspapers carried (and still carry) relatively little coverage. After my first trip in 2003, I fell in love with it and wanted to get to know it better: the history, the arts, the politics. It's a constant personal discovery. I also love the openness of the people here and the language. As for Argentina specifically, I don't think there is a country in the world as geographically diverse.

When did you first visit Buenos Aires?

I first came on a three-week holiday in 2003 when I was travelling down from Rio de Janeiro. I'd always had an obsession with visiting Rio and BA was tacked on as an after-thought. However, it was BA I fell in love with. It's a city with such an incredibly strong personality. Not that Rio isn't, but I felt immediately at home in Buenos Aires.

What advice would you give someone visiting BA to help them step outside the tourist circuit?

I wrote a blog post on this.

In a number of your articles, such as the Going Local articles about Ecuador and French Guiana, you make a particular point of seeking out music in your destinations. Are you a musician yourself? What are some of the most memorable musical experiences you've had on your travels (in South America or elsewhere)?

I'm a huge music fan, but I'm not a musician in any way. My friends here in Argentina often have spontaneous get-togethers where everyone gets out guitars and has a singalong over a few drinks. It seems everyone can play a song or two--and they can ALL sing. It's all rather frustrating for someone with zero musical talent, but I love to be a part of it anyway. It's something I wish was more prevalent in the UK. If I'd grown up regularly attending such gatherings maybe I *would* be able to strum a few chords.

What would be your top tips for people who want to meet locals while travelling?

Be open minded, make an effort, step out of your comfort zone. However, don't see it as a big deal either. Sign up to a travel-networking site, exchange a few mails and see how you feel.

Do you still keep in touch with any of the people you met while doing your Going Local series--or anyone else you've met on your travels?

Many, many people. Admittedly, Facebook makes it a lot easier. I've met up with two of my Going Local contacts again--one girl from Panama, one from Venezuela. I've spoken to couchsurfing friends in Guyana and Colombia this week. And hopefully my path will cross with many more down the line.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Q&A Part 1: Travel journalist Vicky Baker

As promised, here is Part 1 of my e-mail interview with Vicky Baker, a Buenos Aires-based freelancer who blogs at Going local travel (a blog inspired by the “Going Local” series she wrote for The Guardian). Note that Vicky answered these questions way back in October 2009; the delay in posting them is all mine, and I’m very grateful that she took the time to respond in such detail!

Vicky and I “met” via Twitter. I was immediately intrigued by the fact that she lived in Buenos Aires, a city I fell in love with at first sight when I visited in 2006. I’ve often dreamed of going back; it’s fun to live vicariously through a British ex-pat who has put down roots there.

How long have you been writing about travel?

Six years.

Have you always been a journalist? (Well, not as a child, of course!) Or did you come to the job via another career?

I've always been a journalist, although I took various random jobs while I was studying and in university holidays, including working as a cast member at Disneyland Paris, running a karaoke studio in Ohio and trying to sell people paper rolls for cash registers in a hideous telesales job in Canada. I really got into the idea of journalism when I worked for my university newspaper. After that, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue.

What gave you the idea for the "Going Local" series for The Guardian that inspired your blog?

I'd been backpacking on and off for almost ten years and I was feeling disillusioned. Backpacking had created such a developed infrastructure that you could spend months in a country enveloped in a cocoon and spending all your time hanging out with other travellers. Or you can fall into the expat trap. For example, I spent months living in Sydney before I realised I only had one Australian friend there. I decided on my next trip I wanted to make more of a connection with the places I visited and the people that lived there, rather than just ticking off sites. I was also really fascinated by how the Internet was, and is,

helping travellers do this. Backpacking needed a shake up and travel networking provided it.

Had you tried Couchsurfing.org and other "meet the locals" sites before starting the series?

Yes, I had limited experience. I tried a few sites to meet locals on trips to Berlin and Taiwan. The meetings really enhanced my trip. I always felt I was a little late to jump on the Couchsurfing wagon, but it's amazing how many people are still hearing about it for the first time, every single day.

I can see lots of advantages to travelling this way. But what are the drawbacks?

I don't see many drawbacks other than that you can become a little too reliant on the Internet. You need to be open to encounters the old-fashioned way too. It's amazing the affect of simply telling people that you are into learning more about their culture: many people are delighted to hear this and bend over backwards to help.

Did you have trouble selling editors, readers and/or nervous family members on the idea of planning a whole trip around meeting strangers? If so, what were their reservations?

A lot of other people seem to have a knee-jerk reaction to the word 'stranger' where they automatically expect the worst. Those that read more about hospitality tourism--or give it a try--realise it's not nearly so intimidating in reality. People do worry about the danger element (and they're right to be careful), yet they don't bat an eyelid when a backpacker goes out for a drink with someone they just met at a hostel. In fact, with extensive profiles and references, you often know more in advance about 'the strangers' you meet online than those you meet randomly when travelling.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Confessions of a disorganized blogger

OK, so it's a new year, and it's time for a wee confession: I have been a terribly disorganized and erratic blogger lately. Well, that's probably not much of a confession to anyone who has been following this blog for any length of time; my posts haven't been very frequent over the last few months.

I have as many excuses as a 10-year-old who didn't do her homework. Unlike the "dog ate my homework" brigade, however, it hasn't been due to lack of interest that I haven't been posting. The opposite is true, in fact. I enjoy blogging so much that it tempts me away from the work that actually pays the rent!

All of this is to say: I'm going to try to post more often from here on out. In fact, inspired by a post about blogging regularly on Darren Rowse's ProBlogger blog, I've even developed an ad hoc schedule for my next month or so of posts (yes, my ideas have been piling up that long).

First up will be a Q&A with Vicky Baker, a Buenos Aires-based freelancer who writes travel pieces for The Guardian as well as a great blog, Going local travel. A few months ago, she was kind enough to respond to a long set of questions I e-mailed her. However, what with one thing and another (a straight month of travelling, Christmas, insert other excuses here), I haven't gotten around to posting the Q&A. Watch for the interview (probably divided into two parts) by the end of this week.

Other topics in the queue include a post on oddball vending machines around the world; an excellent UK local shopping site; a review of "Frommer's 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference"; and a review of a "learning Spanish" podcast. Stay tuned...and thanks for your patience.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

VIDEO: "All You Need Is Love" in 156 countries

Sure, it's a promotional vehicle for Starbucks. But it's also a way to raise awareness and funding to fight AIDS in Africa. And it makes me smile like a fool. What more, really, do you need from a viral video?

The video in question is a four-minute compilation of people around the world singing "All You Need Is Love," recorded all at the same time on December 7, 2009.

What does it have to do with travel, you ask? Not much, aside from the fact that many of the musicians are performing in front of famous sites or in national garb. (The Canadians, naturally, are in a hockey rink.)

It's all part of a bigger initiative called the Starbucks Love Project. You can record your own version of the song and upload it to the site, if you feel so inclined; the giant coffee corp will donate 5 cents US (to a maximum total of US$50,000) to the fight against AIDS for every video it gets.

Yeah, cynics will say it's all promotion for Starbucks. But in my books, I'd rather see Starbucks send $50K to Africa than see them spend it on yet another freakin' bus shelter ad.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Dancers liven up Lisbon airport

Yeah, I know, Christmas is over and done. But if you can stomach one more cheery holiday video, check out this great YouTube clip of a surprise dance performance at the Lisbon airport by the staff of TAP Portugal and Aeroportos de Portugal. If check-in agents at my local airport came leaping over the desks to belt out Mariah Carey tunes and do a bit of Saturday Night Fever-style shimmying, it would certainly take a lot of the stress out of flying!

(Thanks to Shashank Nigam at Simpliflying.com for spreading the word on the video.)