Category Archives: Travel

The magic trick hidden in full sight on travel blogs

“Are you watching closely? Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called “the pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary. A deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see that it is indeed real,unaltered, normal. But, of course, it probably isn’t.”

The opening lines to Christopher Nolan’s magical movie The Prestige are deliciously clever on a number of levels. They describe to you exactly what they’re doing as they’re setting you up for what’s to come.

Whenever I see a disclaimer on a travel blog it often reminds me of The Prestige. But then, like Michael Caine’s character, I know the business. I know the pledge (the disclaimer) exists for readers to examine to see that all is normal. This is someone you can trust.

But unlike with a magician, where members of the audience are there to be deliberately mislead, to be tricked, in some cases the writer doesn’t want the reader to know they’re victims of an illusion.

“Disclaimer – I visited Barundella as a guest of the tourist board but, as always dear reader, the words, thoughts and opinions are mine.”

A classic pledge. All is above board.

To be honest, for a while I fell into this apparently transparency-loving trend; although, it was a trend I didn’t like as I couldn’t see the difference, when invited somewhere by a tourist board, between writing for my blog (disclaimer recommended) or being commissioned to write for print (no disclaimer). But, hey, everyone was doing it (in some countries there’s no choice, it’s the law). So like a good little grass muncher, I followed suit whenever appropriate… until the world of travel blogging changed and bloggers started being paid to ‘visit’ places.

That was a game changer which transferred bloggers from being on the same bus as travel writers onto one which had huge ‘visit Barundella, it’s blooming brilliant’ slogans written in big, bright letters on its side. At that point they became marketers, promoting destinations for money; no different from ad agencies. I have absolutely no problem with that, it’s a shrewd and, hopefully, lucrative move on the part of those who do it. But it’s a very different game from travel writing.

Advertising agencies don’t criticise the product they’ve been paid to promote. This factor takes a sledgehammer to that ‘disclaimer’ which, whilst it might not lie, doesn’t reveal the whole picture. The complete truth is being concealed by dexterous sleight of hand designed for your inspection, to let you see the contents of the blog are indeed real, unaltered, normal.

This is the pledge. You, the reader, are being distracted.

If it really was meant to be sincere and completely transparent, the disclaimer should say “I was paid by the Barundella tourist board to visit the country and then promote it. But as always dear reader, the words, thoughts and opinions are mine.”

But who’s going to believe that?

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The Evolution of a Travel Blogger

2012 :– “Guidebooks are bad, they’re useless… out of date as soon as they’re published. Don’t bother with them. Travel blogs are immediate, dynamic, with real up to date information. Guidebooks are doomed. They’ll soon be obsolete.”

2014:- “I’m an innovator in the world of travel blogging, I’ve just published an ebook full of essential information on what to do, where to eat, where to stay called ‘How to Live Like a Local in Rangoon’.”

2016: – “Don’t bother writing top 10 lists or mini guides to destinations on your travel blog, the Bluff Guide does it so much better so there’s no point. By the way, did I mention I’m now a contributor to the Bluff Guide series of travel guidebooks – YAY for me.”

And at some dusty crossroads in the middle of nowhere a man whose face is obscured by shadow but whose gleaming white smile is dazzling puts another soul into a little muslin bag hanging from his belt.

Just leave the dog alone

“My mother would have phoned the police by now.”

“What?”

“She would have phoned the police or, at least, have rescued that dog.”

“Why?” I looked at the forlorn face of the mutt peering past us and into the restaurant. It had a hang-dog expression for sure as, and this was an assumption on my part based on years of amateur dog psychiatry, it was missing its owner who was clearly scoffing food somewhere in the depths of the same restaurant. But it was absolutely fine, its leash wrapped around a fire hydrant on the opposite side of the narrow, cobbled street.

“Because it’s in distress.” replied my concerned friend.

I looked at the dog again. “No it isn’t, it’s just feeling sorry for itself… as dogs are prone to do when they’re excluded from the social scene.”

“I think it’s been abandoned.”

“What? It has not. It’s just been tied up outside whilst its owner has dinner. I’ve seen similar plenty of times.”

“Well I have never seen a dog left outside a restaurant. In London the RSPCA would have rescued it by now.”

“Well, I have seen plenty of dogs waiting for owners outside bars, shops and restaurants, and if anyone took that dog now it would be a really shitty thing to do.”

At this juncture I have to point out my friend is from London whereas I grew up on a Scottish island where if a dog was left outside a bar nobody would think twice about it. I have seen it in many other small places… which were not London. This time was in an area of Lisbon where there’s still a strong feeling of community. I had no doubt the dog was ‘waiting’ rather than having been abandoned. But London is apparently the centre of the universe and whatever happens in England’s capital city is what dictates… even if you happen to be in a different country.

“Why did that guy duck out of the way?” Inquired an American man of his family on the table next to us. There was a World Cup penalty shoot out taking place on the TV on the other side of our table and the Americans had been giving a running, and quite surreall uninformed commentary throughout the football match. The ‘ducking’ man was a goalkeeper who had just dived the wrong way. Combined with my friend’s insistent and misplaced concern for the dog, I was not having the most enjoyable of dining experiences. Maybe this was also partly to do with the fado musicians, the singer’s soulful voice filling the place with an infectious melancholic saudade. I felt as depressed as the dog looked.

“I’m really worried about that dog.” She wasn’t going to let it lie even though at this point a pair of pugs entered the scene and the dog brightened considerably. His tail perked up and he forgot his owner as he bopped about trying to attract the pugs’ attention. “I think I’ll call the police.”

By this point I was exasperated. I didn’t want to, and it was embarrassing, but there was only one way to knock this nonsense on its head. I stood up and walked over to the barman.

“My friend…” I was making it crystal clear who was responsible for my question. “… is worried that dog has been abandoned.”

The barman looked at me like I was an idiot tourist sticking my nose in… which of course I was.

“It’s a local dog, everyone knows it around here,” he nodded toward a room where the fado musicians were. “The owner is in there. In Portuguese law the dog isn’t allowed in the restaurant. But the dog is fine.”

“Yeah, I know that,” I responded like a particularly sheepish sheep, my travel cred in shreds thanks to my friend. “But my friend’s from London.” I added, as though that explained it.

I fed back the barman’s response which, finally put paid to most of the worries about the dog’s welfare (she still didn’t approve of it being left on its own).

The irony of this little exchange is this is someone who is vehemently and vociferously opposed to the idea of Brits attempting to impose their culture on different nationalities. Apparently there’s an exception when it comes to how other nationalities treat their dogs.

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The authentic travellers

Two savvy British travellers who both refused to eat in restaurants where there were British tourists turned up at an off the beaten track restaurant supposedly only known to locals in Novara, Italy at exactly the same time. One held the door open for the other who smiled and said “Thank you,” to which the door-holder replied “You’re welcome.”

Both, on hearing the other speak with an obvious English accent, stopped in their tracks and stared briefly at one another with barely concealed distaste before turning and storming out of the restaurant.

Sometimes labels only exist in the minds of those who like to apply them.

Departure

It’s a ferry which feels like a cruise ship. A DJ plays loud Latino music; a troupe of dancers twirl, swirl and wave at passengers from their stage, a swimming pool barely bigger than the average bath tub. People stock up on plastic cups of amber lager. Beyond the stern, Tenerife’s hooded Auditorium recedes into the distance under typically blue skies.

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Departure.

It feels surreal. The party atmosphere makes it feel like a celebration of our time, more than a decade, on the island.

The cabin we’ve booked for the next 36 hours is cosy enough, the sea is calm and the sunset spectacular. All feels good with the world. Tomorrow a new and exciting day dawns.

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Dinner on the Naviera Armas ferry pops the party balloon. The buffet meal is cheap and the selection is… is what exactly? Not depressing at best. But it’s not even lukewarm. It’s cold.

Tellingly there is a microwave in the dining room. It’s a classy ship where you have to heat up your own food. A rough looking extended Spanish family are wise to the ferry’s culinary flaws, they’ve brought their own food stash and hog the microwave. We muscle our way in and one of them, illustrating how we shouldn’t make judgements based on appearances, helpfully shows us how to use it (we’re microwave virgins). It makes the food edible… just.

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Overnight we sail into rough seas and it sounds as though Poseidon himself is tearing at the hull with a can opener. The metal screams in pain. It’s unnerving. Our cabin is near the prow, right at the highest point of the arc where the ship pauses briefly after rising into the air before crashing back into the sea.

It’s not the best night’s sleep I’ve ever enjoyed.

The stormy weather doesn’t let up the next day. Getting from our cabin to the less violent rear of the ship involves a bruise-inducing journey of silly walks.

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There are far fewer voyagers in the lounge than the previous day. Many passengers are ill and stay in their cabins. Maybe many passengers are ill because they stay in their cabins.

It’s a long day. Only the ever-enthusiastic entertainment team provide relief from the irritated sea and limited selection of mediocre food. Still we will be on terra firma later, with food in proper restaurants to fuel deflated spirits.

However, an hour from docking and there’s no land at all in sight. There have been no announcements about any delays, but something clearly isn’t right. We should be halfway along an estuary by my reckoning.

I stagger to the information desk.

“Rough weather has delayed us four hours,” I’m told when I ask why there’s no dry land outside the portholes.

I’m not sure when they planned on sharing this quite important piece of information.

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I’m gutted. The sea has calmed but the delay means instead of dining in a restaurant in Huelva we have another meal on board to not look forward to.

We agree the food was so poor we can’t go through another dinner. Instead, I head outside to the the pool bar, the domain of serious drinkers and heavy smokers, to check what snacks they might have.

They have more than snacks, they have burgers and pizza. They have food which looks far, far, far more appetising than the tired offerings in the main dining room. The person in front of me is served with a generous sized, good looking beefy burger. If only I’d ventured outside before we may have ate if not like kings at least not like paupers. I order two burgers and try to avoid drooling.

“Sorry, that was the last one,” the barman informs me.

My misery is complete.

The hitchhiker with a gun

Carretera Austral, Chile

With a wave of his hand a policeman in khakis at the side of the road indicates we should stop.

One minute we’re happily rolling along in our shiny Mitsubishi pick-up, relaxing into the pleasure of driving Chile’s Carretera Austral, which is beautiful, narrow and not always paved but at least it’s empty. With that wave of the hand our mood changes and we both nervously shift in our seats as though we’re guilty of transporting a huge stash of mari-ju-ana.

“Where have you come from?” The policeman asks in thick Chilean Spanish. We can just about manage to translate his words, but with a two second delay to unscramble them.

“Quelat,” we both answer sheepishly, wondering why we’ve been stopped.

“Where are you going?”

“Chile Chico.” Another duet of sheepishness.

“Hmm, on holiday?”

“Oh yes, we’re tourists.” None of that backpacking or savvy traveller nonsense. We want him to know we’re temporary guests just here to enjoy his lovely country.

He says something we can’t translate and points to a man standing to one side wearing mirror shades and a leather jacket.

“Lo siento, no entiendo… sorry, I don’t understand.” Maybe because of the nerves.

He repeats himself and the penny drops.

Mirror sunglasses man is an off duty policeman who needs a lift to the next town.

“Sure,” we’re not keen on the idea of sharing a car with a policeman on a road where we’ve not been sure whether we’ve been sticking to the speed limit or not. But it probably isn’t a good idea to refuse. We point to our luggage and supplies which fill the back seat of the pick-up. “But he’ll have to sit in the rear of the truck.”

The policeman shouts to his amigo who looks at the pick-up’s open-to-the-elements rear bed for a couple of seconds. He shakes his head. He fancies more comfortable transport.

We’ve dodged the bullet.

A lift-seeking policemen. That’s a first for us.