Monday, March 21, 2016

The Strange World of Travel Blogging

What the hell happened in the world of travel blogging?

I remember reading some pretty good travel blogs 10 years ago or so. Well-written, fairly regularly updated blogs by people who lived as expats or otherwise managed to spend a good chunk of time travelling every year. They weren't always the slickest-looking sites. But the bloggers were usually thoughtful, well-read, intelligent individuals who made an effort to present their own unique take on various destinations.

Travel Blogs

I was so impressed with all those blogs I apparently read, that I can't remember the name of a single one. I'm probably engaging in some revisionist history when I talk about those long-lost travel blogs. But I believe that I enjoyed reading much of the early travel writing that appeared online. For example, I remember a long-term traveller who posted numerous essays on his blog and after a while started putting them together and offering them as ebooks. I believe he even gave many of them away free of charge. They were simply written, interesting thought pieces set in various locations.

I recall that many travellers at the time had a certain anti-establishment attitude and were always exploring various philosophical questions as they spent time in some of the most impoverished countries on the planet. Sure, we're all hypocrites to some degree and are inexorably tied into a world of corporations and profit. But at least those phantom travel writers made an effort to temporarily leave some of the worst excesses behind instead of seeing their journey as an opportunity to hook into the system more completely than ever before.

It was travel writing with a gonzo journalism sensibility and was reminiscent of independent publications produced by people who, not too long ago, would get together a few times a year and print a couple hundred magazines on the cheapest paper possible in whatever third-world hellhole they were temporarily calling home. Some of the earliest travel blogs had the same nose for the quirky angle, the out-of-the-way destination, and the interesting locals you would never encounter if you were on a two-week whirlwind tour.

Today there's a certain sameness to many of the most popular travel blogs. They're all professional-looking, multi-media sites with plenty of stunning photos and breathless headlines. A nice-looking website certainly isn't a bad thing. But aside from the banner, not a lot distinguishes the design of most of these top-end travel blogs. In fact, the cookie-cutter look emphasizes exactly what most of them have become: one big advertisement. Most are in the business of peddling all manner of travel-related products: hotels, adventure-tour companies, clothes, sunglasses, food, their own advice on how to become just like them. The self-congratulatory, smug, listy-ness of some of the writing can be very off-putting. Most of the time, the writing simply isn't engaging.

And what about those stunning photos that appear on every last one of the most popular travel blogs? When did the world start looking like that? Of course, the world doesn't look like that. Many of the photos I see on those blogs are lifelessly impressive. I find that very few of those photos demand an extended viewing or multiple viewings the way good photos, drawings or other artwork does.They remind me of young women who flaunt their sexuality in a crass, this-must-be-what-being-provocative-and-alluring-is-all-about way. You can almost hear their thoughts: "How can I not dress like this when it brings me so much attention?" How can you not post those breath-taking, panorama shots with the crisp delineation of every last molecule that appears in the frame? What are you going to do, tweak the settings on the camera that was gifted to you on the condition that you mention its make and model every week in the captions of those very same stunning photos? Tweak it so the photos don't look quite as good? So that when you just keep mashing the "take the fucking picture" button with your thick, peasant fingers, the results are not as impressive as they otherwise could be? No, of course not. The thing is, you can overdose rather quickly on those amazing pictures that span the width of the webpage. I find them oddly distracting especially when I am reading. I want my online reading space a bit cozier and more word-focused than those hotshot, faux-world photos allow.

What else do most of the high-flying, top travel bloggers of today have in common? They all devote a certain amount of their content to advising their readers how they can also "quit your job, sell everything and get paid to travel the world." Of course, anyone who operates a blog can easily track their most popular posts, and doubtless those how-to articles are their top draws. Fair enough. But sweet mother of f***, wading through the carnival huckster, revivalist tone of those pieces has no doubt turned off more that a few potential readers.

And while we're speaking of all the thinly-veiled advertising that is necessary to allow someone to travel full-time, let's drill down a bit deeper. Very few, if any, of the elite travel bloggers address the issue of how they can write honestly about products and destinations when the companies which sell those products and benefit financially from having those destinations hyped are also paying those people who are writing about them. It seems a handful of travel bloggers who survive on the tainted benevolence of free trips are content to stick with the flippant, hipster approach to any questions of their ethics. It's kind of the "Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, we all know this is the way the world works and you would do it too if you were in my position. Besides, I'm never influenced one way or the other when I take free accommodation, flights or products from companies who expect, nay, spell it out plainly when they make their offers, that this is a quid-pro-quo and they want something in return."

Many industries are built on the premise of handing out billions of dollars in trinkets, free dinners and all manner of other tangible benefits every year in exchange for less-than transparent shilling by those who slurp up all the goodies. People who operate businesses give things to people because they expect something in return. There is no other reason for it. Regardless, writing about something which you have been paid to cast in a positive light cannot be done in an objective way. That's not to suggest that many of the hotels or locations highlighted by travel bloggers are not fantastic, exciting places worthy of paid visits. But situations could arise that bloggers might describe differently or not at all if they have previously benefited financially from various owners or operators. Just maybe those owners or operators wouldn't always appreciate a truthful account of everything related to their product or service. The point is, if your interests are the same as those who are paying you, your interests aren't always the same as your readers, regardless of how many times you claim that you "always tell it like it is."

Why not be up front and tell people when travel freebies are offered in exchange for publicity? And also, tell us exactly what happens—a real-time, unfiltered, behind-the-scenes look at the (likely) shamelessness of  it all. It would be refreshing and would add some real authenticity to many blogs whose writing has taken on a tired, brittle, advertorial sound. I'm not suggesting that most travel bloggers are constantly showered with all expenses paid trips, nor that any of them don't simply work traditional jobs in various locations to finance their travels. But I have no doubt that many bloggers aim for and achieve a situation in which they are basically being paid to advertise under the guise of writing about their adventures on the road.

On the other hand, provide me the names of some travel blogs that don't all look the same, sound the same, or have the same collection of "you can do it too" articles and I'll quit complaining. Please point me to some well-written, non-professional blogs that are updated more than a few times a month. I can't seem to find many of those. Every time I type some likely search terms into Google, I get countless results that point to other blogs and websites which have Top 10 or Top 25 or Top 50 lists full of the top travel blogs. And all those blogs being ranked in the lists are inevitably the type that I have described above. If the most popular slick, hip, travel bloggers are the big leagues, then the legions of other bloggers who make the lists are desperate wannabes on farm teams hoping that their sycophantic praise will get them some attention from their heroes. I mean, you've really got to go pages' deep into the results of an online search before you start finding travel blogs that don't include numerous mentions of "affiliate marketing," or "travel hacks."

Of course, travel books are still an option.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Wandering Goy: A Travel Memoir

This past November marked the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv. I clearly remember the night he was killed because I was living and working in Tel Aviv at the time. I had nearly attended the rally where Rabin was murdered, but because I hadn't been able to find any fellow travellers to accompany me, I spent most of the evening pouring beer down my neck instead. When I stumbled back to the hostel where I was staying later that night, a group of friends and I heard the news from a radio at the front desk.

The Wandering Goy
It was interesting to watch Israelis react to the news in the coming days and weeks. About a month later, I left Israel, but I had already made plans to return after I finished working for the winter at a ski resort in Switzerland. I returned on schedule, albeit on crutches, and stayed in Israel for another year.

Israel fascinated me more than any of the other countries I had visited in the previous year of backpacking around Europe. The weather, the history and the beautiful women were aspects that made it a popular destination for backpackers. But part of the appeal was also the fact that backpackers could stay for relatively long stretches and could easily find work.

I kept a fairly regular travel journal at the time, and I intended to write a book about my experiences in Israel as soon as I had the time. Twenty years later, I've finally put in the necessary hours. The result is The Wandering Goy: A Travel Memoir.

Combining the observations I wrote down 20 years ago with the two-decade-old memories that are still knocking around in my head and a much different way of looking at the world resulted in some interesting writing sessions. Just how accurate are my memories after 20 years? Hard to say. But after scanning the notes, mini-essays and page-long rants from all those years ago, I found that many of the tales that I had remembered and re-told numerous times matched up fairly accurately with what I had written down.

Although I wrote the beginnings of what would become The Wandering Goy while I was in Israel and kept the notes for years (I transferred them to digital form about ten years ago), I don't have a single photograph from that time. That was just before inexpensive digital cameras became ubiquitous. I bought a handful of disposable cameras while I was there, but I have no idea if the photos I took survived, or if they did, where they are. Of course, the fact that I never got it together to photograph some of the amazing sights in Israel really had nothing to do with the availability of cameras. It's a testament to my feckless, come-what-may lifestyle at the time. So it's kind of appropriate that the only lasting memories of those wild, out-of-control days I spent in Israel are contained between the covers of The Wandering Goy.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Most Unique Quit-Smoking Book Ever Written

A few years ago, I wrote and self-published a book entitled Tough Love for Smokers. While it wasn't the most successful quit-smoking book ever written, I can confidently state that it is probably the most unique attempt ever made at trying to help people kick the habit.

Tough Love for Smokers
When I was writing the book, I really did believe that my one-of-a-kind approach might strike a chord with people who had tried other more traditional methods of quitting smoking. However, I can't honestly say that the completed book was exactly what I had in mind when I started writing. Most writers will tell you that a book rarely turns out exactly the way they had envisioned when they first started writing it. That fact is exaggerated in the world of self-publishing where anything goes and there's no editor or publisher to veto extreme language and experimental ideas.

So when I started spewing vitriol in an attempt to demonstrate to smokers just how much they are loathed by so many people, it really did feel good. And it just kept coming. I remembered my own personal history and the interactions I've had with smokers over the years. For example, the sneering punks who took up smoking when growing up. While they weren't all low-bred, white trash, many of them were. Was an association planted early in my childhood in which I connected aggressive, nasty sons-of-bitches to the smoking habit? Maybe. Of course, I've had numerous friends over the years who were smokers, and many of them were intelligent, well-educated, successful individuals. But there were other memories.

The attractive girlfriend who was a heavy smoker, and who, at the age of 29, was already starting to show signs of premature aging—the haggard face, the tiny little lines forming around the mouth and eyes. But the nasty, reeking stench was the worst part.

Then there was the fat, slovenly oaf who vacated an apartment just prior to my moving in. Whenever I think of the cigarette-smoke filth he left behind, I truly hope he suffers a nasty end. Of course, the owners of the apartment should have cleaned the place for me after he left. But they didn't, and the piece of garbage who moved out certainly didn't consider cleaning up his wretched, vomit-inducing mess. If I could have scraped off the yellow, stinking cigarette scum that had been caked onto all the walls and ceilings, fashioned it into a ball and driven it down his fat neck and watched him choke to death, I believe it would have been a just ending.

The shamelessness and the filth. That sums up so many of the feelings I have had towards smokers over the years. The countless tons of cigarette butts that scar every last public space in the world. The smoke blown in faces. The dozen or so minor burns suffered over the years from careless pieces of shit who have brushed up against me in public places. In fact, it was a specific incident that took place in Ottawa, Canada, which motivated me to write Tough Love for Smokers.

I was walking home from work one day when a still-burning cigarette landed at my feet. I looked up and saw a sneering little puke exhaling smoke while turning to walk into a building. The security door closed behind him, but he surely heard the verbal abuse I directed at him. That night, I wrote out an email detailing what had happened, and was all set to send it to the head office of the organization I was sure the smoker worked for (the information gleaned from the sign on the glass door of the building he had entered). But I decided against it and instead turned the email into a rant against smokers. A few years later, that rant was the beginning of Tough Love for Smokers. So while the book is ostensibly about helping people quit smoking, it also ensures that I will never stomp a smoker to death. Now whenever I experience a flash of rage against a shameless smoker, I just tell myself "It's not worth it. After all, I've already written a book about it."

But did the words in my book have their intended effect? Did they really help people to stop smoking? Here's a sample from the book:
When comparing the smell of cigarette smoke to other things in our world, excrement—human and otherwise—naturally comes up. Shit and cigarette smoke. Shit is the only thing that comes close to equalling the unappealing and visceral smell of the emissions from a toxic cigarette. Of course, shit isn’t nearly as bad. Because the reek from shit can’t kill you. (OK, after a night of Guinness and Mexican food, it could probably come close.) So shit in all its forms doesn’t stink as much as cigarette smoke. What else doesn’t equal the nasal contamination of cigarettes?
  • Rotting vegetables 
  • Rotting corpses 
  • Animal and human farts 
  • The belch from the mouth of an 80 year-old man who hasn’t brushed his teeth since the second World War, and who survives on a diet of diseased rats marinated in the pus extracted from the weeping anal sores of a Sing-Sing cellblock queen originally locked up in 1956 and still there to this day—all boiled in sewage run-off from a leper camp.
And this excerpt, from a passage on "addictions":
Still, let’s swat the jackass assertion out of the way. Here it is. Read carefully smokers. You see, cancer patients cannot just decide that they have had enough of the disease that is eating away at their body and dragging them into nothingness. On the other hand, you have a choice, you fucking mules. There, we’ve dealt with the “smoking is a disease” canard in about 30 words. But that doesn’t matter. Believing in the lie is still so easy for many that they will continue consuming the steaming shitpiles of pseudo-science telling them that as their thick peasant fingers reach for another cigarette and cram it into their hole for a good suck, it is not their fault. It is the mystical disease known as addiction.
I knew when I was writing the book that people rarely change their minds about something they feel passionately about. At least, they rarely change their minds on the spot. And the likelihood that they will change their minds is often reduced if they feel insulted or condescended to. But remember, I wanted to use black humour and appeals to emotions. And that very same notion about a supposedly harsh tone decreasing the chances of reaching someone also states that an idea or image may insinuate itself and then later gain traction after weeks or months of percolating. And some people were certainly enraged by what I wrote. Whether or not those ideas ever did take hold after the first shock, at least they proved that my writing accomplished the one thing most writers hope for: it had an effect on people.

Some of the wackos who read my book felt such intense rage that they wrote blog posts about me and made all sorts of wild claims. I won't give these unhinged individuals any direct publicity, though you could easily find their libelous attacks online. Maybe even some of those freaks—the kind who genuinely insist there is no link between smoking and lung cancer—later had second thoughts about their habit after reading my book. Likely not, but without a doubt I crawled up inside their heads and settled in for the long haul.

Another theme that I consciously thought about before writing the book and which became more pronounced as I neared its completion was self-delusion. People will make a virtue out of anything. To the hard-core smokers who will never quit and who have no intention of every trying, the danger of smoking makes them feel like hard cases. This aspect of smoking will always appeal to smokers, and especially youngsters who take up the habit. This thrill at engaging in risky behaviour that is despised by many in society has become more nuanced and multi-layered over the decades, but it will always be an invincibly reassuring way for smokers to make themselves feel better as they march towards their early deaths.

Finally, by writing a quit-smoking book that is completely different than anything else that has ever been written, I hoped to appeal to the demographic that could benefit most: young people. Is a 15 year-old going to read one of the more popular quit-smoking books that have been published? A book that is written in the new-age, psycho-babble, desperate-to-coddle style that is so popular in most of these books? Possibly. But maybe the content and tone of Tough Love for Smokers is so different that it might make that 15 year-old see the stupidity of his smoking habit for what it is.

This final excerpt is from one of a handful of short stories that appear in Tough Love for Smokers:
The wretch experienced a jolt of fear at the sudden turn of the conversation. He felt he had to stand up to face the man to prove that he wasn’t as scared as he felt. He moved from his sitting position and started rising up from his haunches when the man lifted a solid kick into the wretch’s gut.

“Ooomph! What the hell was that for?” The wretch curled into a fetal position and held his hands to his stomach. He looked up at the man. “I thought you were an angel. When I took a swing at you before, I couldn’t connect. What the hell?”

“That’s not the way it works, boy,” said the man. The wretch struggled back into a sitting position with his back against the wall.

“This whole thing makes no fucking sense at all! You telling me you’re an angel, but you want me to keep smoking, and you want as many new people to start smoking as possible? That just makes no sense at all,” the wretch said as he held his guts.

“Ah, but you assume that angels only come from one place,” the man said as he started to laugh.