by Tony Wheeler, June 15, 2007 11:13 AM
Talking (and listening, watching, reading) travel non-stop for the last two weeks around the US, I've been surprised that the connecting word which seems to come up every time the word travel gets mentioned in the UK didn't get raised so often: Guilt.
Climate change, global warming and the problems that go with it are big topics almost everywhere in the western world (and not far behind in the developing world) and the finger is increasingly being pointed at travel, and air travel in particular, as a big contributor. In fact, air travel is not that serious right now, but its contribution to global carbon emissions is growing more rapidly than almost any other form of energy consumption and there's no sign of it slowing down. It's become a major factor in the UK because 'short break' vacations have had enormous growth over the past few years.
'Low Cost Carriers,' the budget priced airlines often modelled on Southwest, have popped up all over Europe, but it's the UK's EasyJet and Ireland's Ryanair which are the big players. As a result the British are increasingly zipping off to somewhere in Europe for weekend trips. Where to go for the weekend? What about Prague? Somewhere for a Bachelor Party* on Friday night ? how about Tallinn in Estonia, Europe's party night central.
Or look at second houses ? traditionally the British bought houses in Provence (Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence was an indicator of that passion) or Tuscany, but now those houses have become places for weekend breaks as much as summer vacations. And the British are moving further afield, buying houses on the Adriatic Coast in Croatia and even on the Black Sea Coast of Bulgaria. Cheap flights have made this possible.
Last year Mark Ellingham, the founder of Rough Guides, and I made a joint announcement that we were concerned about the huge growth of increasingly shorter term travel and perhaps we needed to travel less frequently, but travel longer when we do hit the road. The Italians have made 'slow food' a popular reaction to the fast food movement. Our Italian guidebooks even enjoy their expertise in finding really good restaurants around Italy. So perhaps Slow Travel could be an interesting alternative to our current tendency to rush off everywhere. I try to spend at least a week on a long walk every year and in the past 12 months I've already been walking for three weeks (two weeks walking the Wainwright Way across England, one week walking the Overland Track in Australia) and next month I'm going to spend another week climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.
'Travel Guilt' is not the only new phrase which may soon find its way into our vocabulary. How about 'Food Miles'? It comes from the concern that our food travels too far to get to our table. We expect strawberries for dessert year round and if that means flying them from half a world away, then big deal. Just a few weeks ago there were articles in the British press that enthusiasts for organic food were becomingly increasingly concerned that eating organically could also mean eating destructively, that organic food was often flown huge distances to arrive fresh at our local supermarket and as a result our passion for the freshest food was also becoming a major contributor to climate change. Google 'food miles,' it's a surprisingly big topic.
*Bachelor Party ? now there's a word with international English language variations. According to Wikipedia it's a stag party or stag night (UK, Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand), bulls party (South Africa) or bucks party, bucks night (Australia).
Maureen walking the Overland Track, Tasmania, Australia.
Tony & Maureen walking the 'Wainwright Way' the coast-to-coast track in England (and in wet English
by Tony Wheeler, June 14, 2007 10:55 AM
There are lots of ways airline travel has gone downhill post-9/11: all that extra bureaucracy, the constant demands for photo ID, the long queues at security, the orders to take your shoes off and stumble around in your socks and then, when you get off the flight, finding your checked bag has been rifled through. But for me the biggest disappointments about flying post-9/11 is that I no longer get to sample the best seat on the plane. No, I'm not talking about 1A up in first class, I'm talking about somewhere even closer to the sharp end of the plane. The jump seat on the flight deck.
Flying in America I don't think that seat was ever available to the fare payers on board, but in other countries or flying internationally if you asked politely you could often get an invitation to go up front and look over the pilot's shoulder. No, I never got up there because of who I was, I don't think anybody ever had a clue that I was involved in travel when I asked. And sometimes it was just for a brief look, but other times I've been lucky enough to enjoy much longer visits to the cockpit. Three I'll remember:
1993 ? a Concorde to New York ? it was the only time I ever flew Concorde and lots of us took the opportunity to go up to the very sharpest of any airliner's sharp ends. My first reaction when I squeezed into the flight deck was shock, it was more like a World War II four-engine bomber than a modern computer screened 'glass cockpit' of a 747-400. It was a reminder that by 1993 Concorde was already old engineering, a creation of the 1960s. The day Concorde made its last flight the British newspaper the Independent ran a collection of Concorde stories and I wrote that there was probably an incentive to getting passengers up to the flight deck: 'It left a little bit more room in that cramped cabin.'
1997 ? a 747 to Bangkok ? it was a beautifully clear late afternoon when I asked to go up to the flight deck and when I told the flight crew who I was I had a long chat with them and scored an even better invitation. To come up to the front for the last half-hour of the flight and join them for the approach and landing at night into Bangkok.
2001 ? a 747 across Afghanistan ? just a few months before 9/11. I was flying from Singapore to London and I'd recently read that air traffic control over the still Taliban-controlled country was now good enough for airliners to fly directly across Afghanistan and shorten the route to London. I explained to the crew my interest in the country and that I'd driven through Afghanistan nearly 30 years earlier. As a result I got to sit up there right the way across the country, with the co-pilot pointing out approaching aircraft, on their way from London which they'd left the previous night.
The jpgs are all 'from the aircraft window' in 2006 or 2007.
Central Australia from a Qantas 737 ? just a few weeks ago, coming in to land in Alice Springs.
Kabul-Herat from an elderly Kam Air 737 ? crossing Afghanistan when I was researching Bad Lands.
Kurdistan region from an Emirates 777 ? flying just north of the Turkey-Iraq border.
Swiss Alps from a private Cessna Citation ? flying out of Turin towards
by Tony Wheeler, June 13, 2007 10:49 AM
One of the delights of travel is that things work differently, like:
Who Stole the Steering Wheel?
I'm in Denver, we're running late for a radio interview, we rush down to the basement car park, race over to our Thrifty rent-a-car, I leap in, ignition key in hand ? and not only is there no place to put that damn key, somebody has stolen the steering wheel! Where is it? Well, it's on the other side of the car, of course ? I'm reverting to the Australian (and British, Irish, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Malaysian, Singapore, you name it) view that the steering wheel should be on the right hand side of the car, not the left.
They go under different names ? in France they're the 'sans abris' ? but you'll find them from New York to London, Rome to Boston, Sydney to San Francisco, Milan to Chicago ? where a woman rattles a cup in front of me for loose change, while taking a call on her cell phone. Please support my phone habit? On the other hand, in London you're not really homeless unless you've got a dog to be homeless with you.
Gimme a SIM card
GSM cell phones, the norm through most of Europe, Africa, and Asia (Japan and South Korea are the exceptions) and now available for much of the USA, work almost anywhere. But boy, you can pay for it. If Maureen calls me to come up to floor 5 of Saks to check this new dress that looks good, the call goes via Australia even though I'm directly below her on floor 4. She pays to call my Australian number. I pay to have her call forwarded back to New York. No wonder phone companies make money.
The solution: get a local SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card. It's the little half-inch by quarter-inch card which stores all the info on your phone. I bought a T-Mobile SIM card in New York for $10, instantly my Australian phone becomes an American one. When I bought one in Portugal my phone started to talk to me in Portuguese. I bought one in Afghanistan and was amazed to find how good the Afghan cell phone coverage was.
'I've got 15 SIM cards in my wallet and I'm not even a drug dealer,' one of our writers commented.
They tell you something about a country. Ten years ago you could not find one in Italy. Who needed one? If you had dirty clothes you took them home to mama. In Ireland, at the opposite extreme, why do it yourself? There's always some little old lady at the laundromat who will take your washing (and an extra couple of euros) and hand it back to you a couple of hours later not only washed and dried, but all neatly sorted and folded. So I was a little surprised how difficult it was to find a laundromat in Denver. Where are they?
Oh please, never tell me that anything is 'smothered' in anything!
My current SIM card
by Tony Wheeler, June 12, 2007 12:52 PM
Ten years ago, walking through Paris one evening, I passed a street with a surprising amount of security in evidence.
"Who lives down there?" I asked my French friend.
"Oh that's the official residence of the President's mistress," she replied.
Not only is an incoming president handed the keys to the Elysée Palace, the French equivalent of the White House, it appeared he also got the keys to the official residence for his mistress. Now wouldn't that have made things simpler for Bill and Monica?
There's worldwide interest in the departures and arrivals of our leaders at the moment. In Paris a couple of weeks ago our taxi driver pointed out the Elysée Palace as we drove by and gave us a quick run down on how he felt Sarkozy was doing after a couple of weeks in power. "Très bien" was probably the two word summary. On the other hand in London nobody had a good word to say for poor Tony Blair. From City business gentlemen to cockney taxi drivers, Blair was last week's news.
I've been keeping an eye on Australian news while I've been in the USA and the good news continues to be that John Howard (our Prime Minister, whom we call "Bonsai", because he's a "little Bush") is probably going to get kicked out by November. Like Britain there's no fixed date for an election, but the next one has to take place by November at the latest. Fingers crossed Howard is going to get booted out and our new Prime Minister will be Kevin Rudd. Remarkably he has a very useful skill for a 21st century world leader: he speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese!
Perhaps surprisingly one of the many nails in John Howard's soon-to-be-needed coffin was Guantánamo Bay. Until recently there was an Australian "unlawful enemy combatant" in the Cuban gulag, the misguided young David Hicks. For five years our prime minister did his best to wash his hands of the case; "if it was good enough for George W. Bush then it was certainly good enough for John Howard and his cronies" seemed to be the message. Or at least it was until the opinion polls confirmed that it was overwhelmingly not good enough for the Australian public and our Bonsai suddenly changed tack and the unfortunate Mr. Hicks was quickly flown back to Australia with a prison sentence that will expire in a few months, so long as he promised not to say a word until the election was over!
So I've really enjoyed my couple of weeks in the US, observing the long lead up to your forthcoming election. And there was no political campaigning news I've enjoyed more than the Ron Paul reading list. In fact I'd never even heard of Ron Paul (he was not on any international radar as far as I know) until the reading list he sent of to Rudy Giuliani hit the headlines. Mr. Giuliani, it appears, is suffering from a serious case of denial when it comes to taking any sort of new look at the question of why terrorism happens, so Mr. Paul's reading list could be a real help. Except Rudy G. feels that he was a hero post-9/11 and, as a result, he knows all there is to know about terrorism. Books won't help him.
Wouldn't elections be simpler if we followed the North Koreans and elected a president not just for a four year term, but for life and then beyond life. Yes, Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader" is still the president of North Korea even though he died 13 years ago. I took this photograph of a Great Leader billboard when I was in North Korea researching my Evil Axis book Bad
by Tony Wheeler, June 11, 2007 10:22 AM
Don't wish too hard, your wishes just might come true, someone once warned. As a travel publisher, we're used to being blamed for all sorts of things ? 'that little fishing village was quiet and beautiful until you put it in your book, look at it now, it's become an over-run resort.' Well yes, but there was a new airport built right beside it and there's now a string of hotels down the beach. I don't think it all happened because we gave it a paragraph in our guidebook.
So I don't think the chaos in US passport offices, which I've been reading about every day for the last week, is because last year Lonely Planet published a book subtitled 52 Reasons to Have a Passport, our attempt to persuade more Americans to get one. One of the fundamental 'good things' about travel (I'll touch on the big bad thing about travel in a future blog) is that it's a huge motivator for understanding. When somebody visits a country, they almost always discover it's a better place than they thought it would be. Which is one reason it's a big disappointment that visitor numbers to the US are only increasingly slowly, when so much of the world is enjoying a tourist boom. The world could do with more people having more positive feelings about the USA today.
In fact there are some very good explanations for why so few Americans, comparatively speaking, have been passport holders. Australians are about three times more likely to hold a passport than Americans and the percentage of people holding a passport rises even higher for some nationalities. More than 70% of the Dutch have passports, for example. But you can't travel 50 miles from Amsterdam without going 'overseas,' while there's an awful lot of America for Americans to explore without a passport, not to mention, until recently, Canada, Mexico, and many places in the Caribbean. Which is, of course, where the current problem started.
Once the law was passed, it was plainly obvious that far more Americans were going to apply for passports. So how did the State Department screw up so badly? Their own website announces that 'between 15 and 16 million US citizens visit Mexico each year,' so it should have been easy to calculate how many of those didn't have a passport last year and would need one this year. Repeat the exercise for Canada and those Caribbean islands and you'd quickly come up with a pretty good 'extra passports' figure. It's not rocket science.
Still, I've often said that governments and tourism are mutually incompatible. Lots of American tourism operators, state and local tourist offices, airlines, hotels and so on are trying to persuade more foreign visitors to come to the USA while overseas lots of potential visitors are hearing horror stories about the Department of Homeland Security and thinking, 'No, I'll go somewhere else this year.'
1. The Lonely Planet book Don't Let the World Pass You By: 52 Reasons to Have a Passport.
2. My passport lives in a plastic sleeve produced by a South Korean student travel agency and bookshop known as 'Shoestring Travel' ? yes, they got the name from our Southeast Asia guidebook
. If you look closely at the cover there's a little cartoon of me, lounging back, looking at a guidebook and proclaiming, in fluent Korean, my connection with Lonely