Want to be a travel writer?

So you want to be a travel writer, you want some tips?

Okay, first of all, after teaching travel writing over many years I can tell you most people never get published – sad but true. In fact, that’s why I stopped teaching – it didn’t feel right to be encouraging an almost impossible dream. Unfortunately, as a freelancer, you will find there are and fewer places for you to send your work to, and the competition is high.

You will also find that you will not be swanning around the world with free airline tickets accommodation in five-star hotels and meals at fancy restaurants – again, sad but true.

I’m sure your friends and family tell you that you write really well, that you should be a travel writer, that in fact, you should write a book. That may well be true, but and this is a big but, editors do not want articles sent to them that is really like a letter you sent your grandmother about your time in Rome; or the one to your girlfriend about the romantic date you had with a dishy Italian.

Something else that stops people fulfilling the dream to become a travel writer is a discipline and hard work it takes! It’s not just the writing, you will also need to be your own travel consultant, tax advisor, receipt keeper, bookkeeper, bookings maker, PR person, media and it is a chaser, and of course photographer. Oh, one more thing, you also don’t get paid until the editor actually prints your work – so make sure you have some cash hidden away.

However, if you love to travel, if you love to write, if you love to take photos, this is a great job: in fact, I think I have the best job in the world. I’m on the bottom of the food chain, but I have a great lifestyle. Sometimes I do get airline tickets and five-star accommodation too but that’s because people know my work and believe they get value for money from me. What’s even more confirming is that I have been invited more than once to the same place by the same tourism agencies.

I started travel writing after a year-long trip around the world, from Alaska to Zimbabwe. On my return to New Zealand, I took a small writing class where I was encouraged to send some of my travel stories to local newspapers and magazines. To my amazement, they were all accepted and cheques were sent to me – I immediately decided I would be a travel writer. It seemed it was that easy, but no over the following years, I received many ‘no thank you’ letters, or, as you will find out, silence from editors. Yes, that’s right, most don’t even answer.

Nevertheless, if you decide to become a travel writer here are just a few tips – I don’t do these all the time, but mix-and-match to suit the occasion, and more importantly, the style of the magazine or newspaper I’m pitching to. As I am not a journalist, I very rarely approach editors before my travels – this is because mostly I’m a traveller who writes, not a writer who travels. Sometimes I have an idea of stories before I go, but usually, I just go exploring and stories find me. Back to that list of tips.

And, there are more in my travel memoir “Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad

  • The basics: Learn about the place by talking to locals. Don’t interview the computer or guidebook your readers can do that for themselves
  • Don’t write about places you haven’t been to -unless of course, you are doing a story about your bucket list
  • Get lost – the best stories are not always in the main tourist destinations but in the back roads and streets of places
  • Take notes, ask questions, get quotes, and note colours smells and tastes
  • Avoid clichés like the plague – although I’ve just used one because occasionally they’re useful
  • Lose the ‘best-kept secrets’, ‘city of contrasts’ and ‘unspoilt gems’. Why do lodges always ‘nestle’ at the foothills or ‘perch’ vulture-like atop a mountain with ‘breath-taking views’ over a ‘rustic’ village?
  • Find a fresh angle to the story. Rarely will you find a place that has not been written about so find something original to grab a reader’s attention?
  • Be realistic and tell the truth – in other words, talk about the filth, the cruelty to horses, the stray dogs or what seems to be, starving camels eating cardboard from rubbish dumps.
  • This should have been my first tip: Read, read, read: Rinse and repeat, frequently. Good reading will make you a better writer. You will never develop your own voice and style without reading.
  • Along with reading you need to write, write, write, even when you don’t want to. Paint a picture with words for your reader
  • Add some historical or political context to add to the point. As Thomas Swick wrote in Roads Not TakenIt is the job of travel writers to have experiences that are beyond the realm of the average tourist, to go beneath the surface, and then to write interestingly of what they find … Good travel writers understand that times have changed, and in an age when everybody has been everywhere (and when there is a Travel Channel for those who haven’t), it is not enough simply to describe a landscape, you must now interpret it.’
  • Write about your local area, become a travel expert on your own city. [When my city, Christchurch, New Zealand had the quakes in 2010/11 I was inundated with requests for up-to-date information and I ended up writing travel webpages for prestigious travel companies and airlines
  • Don’t forget the old adage ‘Show, don’t tell’ and as Stephen King would tell you – lose the lazy ‘ly’ words, ditch the adverbs and flowery descriptions and find the perfect verb instead.
  • Sometimes, others would say always, end with a punch or at least captures the point of the story. Don’t dare say you ‘can’t wait to return’ – it’s been done to death.
  • When your piece is finished, read it out loud. Edit. Read again. Run the spellcheck- put your work aside for some hours or days, or even weeks, then read it out loud again then, and only then send it to an editor. But, make sure you have read their publication again and again so you know their style, and if they ask for 800 words that means 800 words. Not 802 not 850 but 800.
  • If they require photos send your best half a dozen and caption them.
  • And some final points, don’t tell people what you going to write as you can lose the essence of the story. Be like the Nike advert and just do it
  • Don’t write for free. Let me repeat that don’t write for free. If it’s worth publishing, it’s worth paying for. You don’t need a portfolio to start, the editor is only interested in the piece in front of them.
  • Start a blog, practice writing there, give it away free there: I have had many invitations to events and countries (and that’s not easy when you live at the bottom of the world) by people who have found me through my blog. And of course,
  • you need to be on all social media to encourage all those eyeballs over to your blog.

random photos

Adding more photos as I continue to test my laptop and WordPress.

I'm offered tea
‘Have tea with me’ an old man indicates – I do. Muscat fish market, Oman,
 sailing down the Nile
kung fu … Bruce Lee I believe
An NZ shag with beautiful eyes
Pelican in Florida
The kiwitravelwriter, arrives on Talang-Taland Island, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. photo by Gustino from Sarawak Tourism Board, who hosted me)
Peacock Fountain, Christchurch Botanic Gardens

A year in the life of a travel writer equals gratitude

While searching for a document I found this email summary of 1999  which I’d sent as a Christmas letter.  What a privileged life I’ve led, one I value and treasure it’s a sort of GRATITUDE LIST from just one year!

“I have swum in the Nile and Mekong rivers, in the South China and Aegean seas; and in swimming pools in Egypt and Thailand; Scuba dived and snorkelled off the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia;

I’ve studied Islam, Buddhism, Hindu and Chinese religions; was silent for ten days in a Buddhist temple and did a cooking course in Thailand.

food features large in my travels

Learnt to say ‘no problem’ in four languages, read junk novels, inspiring stories and travel tales as well as keeping copious notes for my own writing.

Been offered jobs in Thailand, Malaysia and Laos, and worked for 5 weeks in Athens, Greece. Had a proposal of marriage, a few propositions and some foxy flirtations.

Celebrated four new year’s: on the calendars for Christian, Islam, Buddhism religions and the Chinese one.

Stayed in little villages, large cities and islands.

Climbed: up into Buddhist temples, and down into tombs, up to sacred caves and over narrow planks to boats.

Travelled on planes, camel, horse, bus, songthaew, cars, trishaw, bicycle, dingy, fishing boat, felucca, truck, river taxi, train, and cargo boat.

Slept in beds, bunks, hammocks, fleapits and 4-star hotels, on a concrete slab; on a mattress on the felucca, and on the roof of a hostel in the old city of Jerusalem with 29 others!

I’ve danced. . . on beaches in Malaysia and Israel, in a Cairo hotel, on the banks of the Nile, as well as in Hindu and Buddhist parades.

Experienced monsoon rain and dessert dry; from 48 degrees centigrade in the Valley of the Kings, down to 12 degrees in the hills of Malaysia and needed a blanket for the first time for ages

Been blessed by monks and had water thrown over me by school children, ladyboys and farangs. I’ve played volleyball, frisbee, backgammon, scrabble, cards and petanque.

Eaten pigeon, fresh fish, fruit shakes on the beach, coconut straight from the tree, and copious amounts of rice and noodles. Drank water from the tap everywhere including on the streets of Cairo and am still waiting for tummy problems! Had my hair cut in men’s and women’s hairdressing shops, by people who spoke no English, as well as under a palm tree in Malaysia and in a garden bar in Athens by an Aussie

Made music with bongo drums, spoons sang Pali chants and both Thai and Egyptian love songs as well as playing drums in a traditional Malay cultural band.

Moonlight. Perhentian Islands

Taught English and swimming; became a grandmother in Malaysia and a mother-in-law in Thailand. And I’ve been called mum, sister and auntie, renamed Hedda, Hezza, Fox, H, as well as Pouhi (which I think is chubby in Thai!)

Ate in night markets, street stalls and fancy restaurants, in people’s homes – including the Minister of Health’s’ home in Malaysia!

Prayed in mosques, temples and churches of many religions. Chatted with monks, children, tourist police, street people and shopkeepers.

Witnessed funerals in Malaysia, Thailand and Egypt.

Swam with turtles and tropical fish and the most poison-ness snake in the world! In clean water, clear water, and polluted water; warm and cold water, calm and rough, blue and green; fresh, salty and chlorinated water.

Been to the toilet: on a boat -watched by kids on the riverbank; on swaying trains, in smelly dirty rooms; off the back of boats and developed good thigh muscles on the Asian squat toilets (which I missed when I arrived in Egypt.) Learnt to forgo toilet paper for months and used my right hand for eating and greeting!

Heather (L) joins in the fun of Thai Buddhist new year festivities

Sold beer and bananas on the beach in Malaysia, served pancakes, nasi-goring and BBQ on the same island and cooked countless meals in an Athens hotel cafe.

Been offered hash, opium, and marijuana and changed money and brought cigarettes on the black market.

Met people from all over the world was proud to be a Kiwi, ashamed of many westerners’ attitudes and behaviour. Joined the inverted élite snobbery of being a traveller, not a tourist.

Given blood in Malaysia, broken a toe, had an allergic reaction [written in 1999 and I now can’t recall what it was!]  and apart from insect bites have been disgustingly healthy.

And have kept developing my courage and resilience despite fears!

National park India

 

 

Covid 19 lockdown failure

What can I say, there is no doubt I am a lockdown failure.  I’d originally planned to do heaps of things during this time of being alone in my apartment.  Here are just a few:

  • improve my level of te Reo Maori (the Maori language)
  • visit art galleries and museums around the world
  • write numerous blogs
  • complete a bio of my life – only halfway through it
  • eat well – succeeded but just ate too much
  • catch up on my reading pile – sort of completed (but bought more for my e-reader)

However, what I did do was travel.  Armchair travel via a few of my thousands and thousands of photos and I’ve set aside a few to show you.

So this is the first of my gratitude blogs.  I still cannot believe that someone who had only left New Zealand a couple of times before I was 50 years old (a couple of weeks in Australia, and a month in the USA -mostly the Pacific Northwest.

Looking at my photos I’m amazed at the amazing life I’ve led.  So in no particular order, and chosen for no particular reason, here are a few of my memories – memory lanes I’ve slipped down while I should have been exploring or studying all sorts of things.

 

 

 

Despite the Covid-19 lockdown, I refuse to stop travelling!

Despite coronavirus in cities and countries being locked down, I refuse to be locked in – just as all my ancestors did in the mid-1800s – fleeing Scottish clearances, Cornish tin mine closures and the Irish potato famine.

And despite my trip to China – a river cruise on the Yangtze River  -being cancelled, and the fabulous Rainforest World Music Festival  -in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, being postponed until further notice, I refuse to be locked in despite the virus and, despite being compromised by age, nothing will stop me, travelling.  I remember a song from my parent’s era “don’t fence me in.”

Coffee in XIam, China

Travel writers have an affliction which, means they, I, we, are doomed to travel and as I said despite COVID-19 and the lockdowns all around the world  I am going to keep on travelling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday I was in Oman, today I’m in Dubai with my parasol and a few days ago I was back in my home city Christchurch,

Solitude, Wellington, NZ
Peacock Fountain, Christchurch Botanic Gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve also been down on the Wellington waterfront I’ve seen some birds that I saw in India yet again and I’ve even been upright on a paddleboard in Fiji.

So, take that coronavirus you’re not going to stop me – my memories are too well embedded for me to be isolated in my lockdown bubble, I can, and will travel the world with my wonderful memories.

What a privilege, it’s been to have travelled so extensively and I’m grateful for the example my parents set of not wasting money, saving, and living frugally as required.  they also left me a small inheritance which, after a lot of earlier travel, enabled me to do even more.

I recall being on a plane -in 1995 – petrified that at age 50 I still wasn’t old enough to travel the world by myself (with no bookings).

If I run out of memories, I could be jogged by just some of my clippings or books.

So where are you travelling to while in lockdown? I’ve been to Alaska in bwZimbabwe I’ve been to London, Wales, and Borneo. I’ve been to the USA, Mongolia, Zimbabwe and had a river cruise in Europe – to name but a few.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Drumming at the Rainforest World Festival

Last year I went to the Rain Forest World Music Festival in Kuching, Sarawak , Malaysian Borneo, for about the fourth time. My longtime friend, writer, and tour guide, Judy Shane, there for the first time, said ‘it was so amazing it is hard to put it in words.’

The next one is in three weeks – 13th – 15th July 2018 – so, for this years performers check out the official website

Mornings started with media briefings with a panel of artists and we were then left to explore the tribal villages, the musical workshops, and the schedule of performances. Add delicious local food and its a festival not to e missed. (Its a great stopover destination between the hemispheres too) But for me, Sarawak IS the destination.

The highlight for Judy was being part of this drum circle which I insisted she participated in – I had done so every other year and had a ball – so I just ignored her almost kicking and screaming, protesting she was ‘not musical’. She loved it! I believe it was her festival highlight .

As befitting a rainforest, two out of the three nights had a downpour and while some fans left, others danced and slipped in the mud. Next morning the international musicians commented on what a great sports the fans were and how they had never seen such enthusiastic dancing in the rain before.

We avoided the downpour by slipping into a van to go back to our room at Damai Beach Resort. While escaping into a van in the dark I had a young man sit on my knee – their drums and other instruments were taking up the rest of the van – He thought it was only fellow band members in the vehicle – I laughed, but the boy leapt out of the van with mortification – fancy sitting on an unknown Aunties knee.

This festival has thrived for two decades and is for all; young ,old, couples, families and people alone – it is the friendly festival.

Here are just a few photos from one of the drumming circles which is set in the grounds of the Sarawak Cultural Village

Are there negative impacts to tourism?

When you travel to less developed countries, you might think that just by being there you’re helping give a better quality of life for the locals. Seems you, we,  could be wrong.

Just $5 of every $100 you spend stays local and  after searching I found the United Nations Environment Programme reference to the negative impacts of tourism here.

NOTE Seems the above  UNEP link is broken or has been removed  see  this one instead about sustainable tourism

Tourism is one of the most powerful change agents on Earth and we consumers must vote with our wallets and support local people with local businesses.”

I blogged about this issue (first published in a newspaper column) some years ago and reprint it here. I’ve also written a small book on the same topic A Love Letter to Malaysian Borneo  – and if you have read it I’d really value a review on Amazon or Goodreads. 🙂

Here’s that column I wrote . . .

What is an eco-tourist? Ecotourism?

Like Asians need rice, Italians love pasta, British their curry, and us Kiwi’s love fish and chips, I need to travel and being a traveller who writes means I get to visit where I want to go to rather than have to go the destination flavour of the month.

This means I’m often in places that are not on the tourist trail. As a slow traveller I can stay longer and get to know people, to absorb the local culture and flavour. This also means that although I don’t always sign up for an eco-tour, I practise many of the principles of ecotourism. But what is ecotourism – a word that’s often thrown around and frequently means nothing.

My understanding of the word and the concepts behind it are that’s it an activity that has minimum impact while providing maximum benefits to the locals.

I believe independent travellers are most likely to be the closest to being real eco travellers. They leave much of their travel money in the country while those who travel on tours often have paid for their whole trip before they leave home – giving very little to the country they are travelling in but adding huge costs – in water, sewerage, rubbish, roads.

Worldwide many places say they are providing an ecotourism experience but is that really so? It seems that as long as it has a nature component many claim it to be eco-friendly. That has not always been my experience.

Life on an Asian marine reserve sounds wonderful right? A great eco experience? Yes the natural sites and walks are fantastic; money spent on food and accommodation does stay with the locals providing it. Unfortunately, the big money is creamed the off the islands in diving lessons given by Europeans who come in for the tourist season then  leave, taking the money with them. Because of the lack of a robust infrastructure, the rubbish – that travellers complain about – is bought to the island by them: water bottles are not refilled, plastic bags and straws are left on the beach.

Have travel agents sold us too narrow views of places to visit? Given us a list of sights we ‘must see’ or activities to take part in? This produces problems all over the world with buses arriving in droves, disgorging visitors and fumes to see wonderful pristine or historic sights.

It reminds me of Lake Louise in Banff, Canada, where I too was a body disgorged from a bus to see the great views. I have proof that I was there – a photo of me sitting alone with the lake and mountains as the backdrop – it looks idyllic. However I know that beside me, waiting for their turn to have the moment recorded, is another busload of chattering travellers.

The problems of being poured into these tourist funnels will continue if we rely on unimaginative travel agents (and of course not all are) and the forceful marketing of those who have invested in areas. While it is more economical for planes and hotels to have us arrive together and stay in the same places it also creates problems for them – not the least is the strong chance of killing the goose that lays the golden egg such as the warning in the child’s story.

This is not a new problem. Read books written years ago and the same complaints are made. Tell others you are going to Bali (or Timbuktu) and immediately you will be told “you should have gone there ten (2, 5, 50 years ago,) before it was discovered.”

So, what can we travellers do?  I don’t know what you will do – what I do is travel slow, travel cheaply, and use local products when I can.

So, by combining the universal codes of pack it in pack it out and take only photos, leave only footprints, along with getting off the well-worn tourist trails means I’m able to enjoy my travels with a clearer conscience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hilton Kota Kinabalu ticks all the boxes for me

Flying into KK or Kota Kinabalu as its officially called, we, my friend Judy and I were picked up by Ben who was to be our guide – many thanks to Sabah Tourism Board for helping host us for 3 days and organising my itinerary. Ben was an ideal, and professional guide, and of course our driver, Wilfred (who incidentally, we find out, grows vanilla) was a safe and considerate driver.

First stop the was the Sabah State Museum, where we walked through the heritage village, in and out of many traditional houses and watched women making jewellery and arts and crafts. Inside the museum we enjoyed, in particular, costumes of years gone by and a photographic exhibition. We also made a note to ourselves to read more by Agnes Keith whose first book about ‘North Borneo’ as it was then, has become a tagline for Sabah – Land Below the Wind while another of her books, Three Came Home inspired a film of the same name.

Checking into the Hilton Kota Kinabalu, that evening we had early dinner with Jeremy, the marketing manager from the Hilton: he didn’t need to do any ‘marketing’ as the hotel and the Rooftop Poolside Bar and Grill spoke for itself. I had an Angus beef steak which was thick, tender and cooked perfectly, exactly as I’d requested – rare. Judy had salmon and said it too was faultless.

While up there we met the chef as well as the cooks and wait staff. Breakfast was in the Urban Kitchen on the ground floor and, as always, although I loved the wide variety of global food, I particularly enjoy being able to have Asian dishes for breakfast. The Urban Kitchen has an international buffet every night as well as having a special menu – for instance, Monday Malaysian, and Saturday Local Seafood Market. The Rooftop also specialises in the local seafood.

The Hilton Kota Kinabalu – really central, and which accommodated us for three nights in luxury – has been open since mid-March 2017 and, going by our experience, it’s living up to the names international reputation. Its spacious, luxurious rooms are all you could wish for – including in my room, a large rain or ‘deluge’ shower and big TV. It also had many power points and USB plugs, essential for travellers, and the bedside lights were fantastic – often one of the worst features in hotel rooms!

I also loved the welcoming lobby with its huge chandelier and especially the variety of little seating areas and magazines. Off the lobby was a quiet and well stocked library which impressed me.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Hilton staff were impeccable. I asked one of the wait staff ‘why are the Hilton staff so friendly?’ He responded. ‘I don’t know, maybe it’s just typical Malay, ma’am’. It’s true the Malay are friendly and helpful, but the staff here seem to really enjoy their various roles. Of course, Sabah, with the highest number of tourists in Malaysia, is not called ‘friendly state’ by accident.

This is about the third Hilton I’ve stayed at – it certainly was the best, by a long shot – and this, as followers of my blogs will know, is truthful and is exactly how I’d have written this had I not been hosted.

Kinabalu National Park, Sabah, Malaysia

“No, I’m not climbing to the peak” I tell our excellent guide

While in Kinabalu National Park, (Sabah, Malaysian Borneo) I’m not sure if our guide said “look up there” or I just noticed and photographed the pretty canopy outline then later heard about ‘canopy shyness’. I just know the narrow yet clear gaps between the tree crowns is attractive.

Canopy, or crown, shyness is, I now know after research, is a phenomenon in which some tree species make sure they do not touch each other: forming canopies with channel-like gaps. It’s most common among the same species.

This growth has been discussed in scientific literature since the 1920s and many hypotheses have been put forward as to crown shyness being an adaptive behaviour. Research suggests that it maybe stops the spread of leaf-eating insect larvae, and, or, also possible physical explanations such as light shading sensing by adjacent plants.

A Malaysian scholar, Francis S.P. Ng, studied (1977) the Malay camphor tree and suggested that the growing tips were sensitive to light levels so stopped growing when near other foliage due to the induced shade.

Mt Kinabalu

However, apparently, the most likely theory is that the trees simply do not want to hurt themselves in windy areas!

I wonder – I just know the gaps between the trees provided me with a couple of striking photos.

Is this a Malay Camphor?

Greening the Rainforest World Music Festival

My RWMF cloth bags are often commented on at my veg market

When in Malaysia (Kuching, Sarawak) I have planted trees as part of their ‘greening the festival’ programme: and helping cut my carbon footprint too. This tree-planting ceremony – at all local festivals -“helps make Kuching a livable city” I’d been told.

Once again at the Rainforest World Music Festival (20th) #RWMF I find they have found another way to green the festivals by making great bags out of the previous year’s banners! Excellent recycling.

reusing old banners to produce bags help reduce rubbish

Malaysia often receives bad press for destruction of native forests and planting oil palm plantations, so it cannot be easy to convince the often cynical foreigners they want to “take care of our environment”. It’s heartening to note that the Sarawak Tourism Board has taken the government’s eco campaigns seriously. After all Sarawak is proud of having the world’s’ oldest rainforest so they need to care for it on behalf of the world.

Here’s another story I wrote about me planting mangroves at another RWMF festival.

I got to the 20th music festival a day too late to plant trees this time – if I get to the 21st RWMF I will make sure to be there in plenty of time to dig a hole or two for a tree 🙂 🙂