Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Five reasons to travel solo: #4 Make up your own mind

Have you ever noticed that when you travel you tend to change your opinions of a place depending on who you’re with? For example, you finally set your eyes on the Pyramids in Egypt and are in total awe, when your travelling companion turns to you and says, “They’re not that impressive.” So you take another look and have to agree your friend’s right – surely they should be bigger? Alain de Botton, author of The Art of Travel, argues that how we see the world when we travel is greatly influenced by those we travel with. Not only do we change our views, but we also limit our curiosity to fit in with our companion’s expectations. Therefore, the only way to truly see and experience a place is to travel alone.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Five reasons to travel solo: #3 Local connections

As a solo traveller not only will you find it easier to meet other travellers, but you'll also be infinitely more approachable to the locals who can easily be intimidated by large groups of foreigners. If you're alone they'll be more inclined to invite you to eat with them, or even to put you up for the night than they ever would if you’re travelling with someone else. I've had some of my best local experiences when I've been by myself: I had dinner with a real Transylvanian Count in his castle in Romania, I celebrated the Orthodox Easter with a local family in the tiny Republic of Moldova, and, I was given a personal tour around Bardia, an isolated town in the far north of Libya, by two elderly men who expected nothing except a heart-felt thank-you in return. I would never have had these opportunities if I had not been alone.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Five reasons to travel solo: #2 New found friends

Most people assume that travelling solo means you travel like a hermit and spend all your time alone. Far from it - you only need to be alone if you want to be alone. In reality meeting other people tends to be much easier when you're on your own. For starters, you'll be forced to come out of your shell and initiate conversations with others. And moreover, as a solo traveller you're far more approachable than a couple or a group of friends.

A casual chat in a local cafe can easily turn into an invitation for dinner or even the opportunity to discover a region of a country you'd never dreamed of going to. For me, a chance meeting with two other travellers in L'viv in the Ukraine turned into a cross-country train journey into the heart of the Carpathian Mountains to trace the family roots of one of my new found friends. It was actually one of the most fascinating, fun and entertaining trips I've ever been on. Yet while most friends you make on the road will temporarily provide you with the benefits of having a travel partner without the commitment, there are those kindred spirits that you'll meet that will become friends for life. In fact, many of the friendships I have to this day have been made when I've been travelling solo - that includes my two travel buddies I met in the Ukraine!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Five reasons to travel solo: #1 Freedom & flexibility

Most people are surprised - some even shocked - when they find out I travel alone. Reactions to my revelation vary from long, sympathetic stares to appalled cries of: "Don't you get lonely?"

Sure it's great to share your travelling experiences with others: Having my friend Dan join me on my recent research trip through Tanzania for the first four weeks was fantastic, but I equally enjoyed the journey when I was on my own (with the exception of winding up in hospital of course!). The fact is travelling solo is one of the most self-satisfying experiences you're ever likely to have. So for anyone who's never contemplated taking-off alone, I thought I'd share five fabulous reasons why you should consider flying solo.

The biggest attraction of travelling solo is the sense of freedom and independence you'll feel. It's one of the few times in life when you get to call all the shots. You decide when to go where and you don't have to consult anyone. When travelling, you're often presented with opportunities to experience new places or sights that weren't in your original plan. If your travel companion doesn't want to go, you'll either end up comprising or, worse still, miss out altogether and then bemoan the decision for the rest of the trip. But if you don't have anyone to consider, you can spend all your time lazing on a beach if you want, or suddenly decide to explore that little-known temple which piqued your interest. What's more, if you don't like a place, you can simply move on. No debates; no arguments; no compromises. Bliss!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Top tips for taking better travel photographs: Part 2

Here are my next few tips on how to take better travel photographs continued on from part 1:

Shoot during the 'magic hour'
The best photographs are taken during the 'magic hour' - the hours immediately after sunrise and before sunset – when the light is golden. So try to take your pictures early in the morning or late in the day when the light is soft and warm, and the colours more intense. Shadows are also elongated during this time, so lookout for great for angles.

Horizontal or vertical?
When it comes to travel photography most people seem to be stuck in a horizontal rut. Remember, your camera works vertically as well as horizontally. So next time turn your camera sideways and consider whether your subject would look better photographed vertically.

Look for leading lines
When framing your photograph, look out for lines that will give depth to your picture. By using the lines such as those made by a wall, a fence, a road or even a shadow you can draw the viewer's eyes through the picture towards the main area of interest. Diagonal lines are especially eye-catching.

Watch your background!
While it's important to concentrate on your subject, it's equally important to be aware of what is happening in the space around them. Make sure there are no distracting elements or that you’re not about to take a picture of someone with a pole or tree sticking out of their head!

Look behind you
I’ve mentioned this previously on this blog in my post on Tourists of reality, but sometimes the best photographs are of what has been left out of the frame. Just because you're in Paris doesn't mean the best shot is of the Eiffel Tower. Turn around and take a picture of what is behind you. You just might be pleasantly surprised with what you see.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Top tips for taking better travel photographs: Part 1

Following on from my recent posts offering advice on how to become a travel writer, I thought I'd also share some tips on how to take better travel photographs. With many editors today asking writers to provide a package of text and photographs, it pays to know how to take a better than average picture. So here are my top tips to help transform your travel photographs from mere holiday snaps into great pictures you’d not only happily hand over to any editor, but, better still, would be proud to hang on your wall.

Do your homework
Before you head off on your next trip spend some time researching your destination. Buy a guidebook or do a little surfing on the internet to find out what there is to see and do. Then make a list of possible shots including information on whether it's better to be there in the morning or in the afternoon. Pay particular attention to events and festivals or local markets which will provide you with the perfect opportunity to capture the colour and flavour of the destination.

Include personality
The best way to add more depth and atmosphere to your photographs is to include people within your frame. They not only provide local flavour to a region, but can also add a sense of scale to vast landscape features such as the Grand Canyon. Be sure to ask for permission first and respect people's wishes if they don't want to be photographed.

Move your subject off-centre
Whatever you do resist the temptation to place your subject dead in the centre of your picture. Instead, bring your photographs to life by framing them off-centre. Simply following the 'rule of thirds'. That is, place your main subject roughly one third of the way from the top or the bottom of the frame, or one third of the way from either side of the frame.

Get in close
There's nothing worse than looking through someone's pictures and seeing their subjects appearing as ants in the distance. To make your photographs bolder, fill the frame with your subject. By getting in close you'll not only leave no doubt as to what your subject is, but you'll also reveal more fascinating details such as the lines on a person's face or the texture of fabric.

Look for a unique angle
Just because you hold your camera at eye level or view a sight square on doesn't mean this is the best view. In fact, it's probably already been done to death, so why not find a view that is a little more unusual and make your picture stand out? Try moving a few steps to the left or right or turn your camera at an odd angle. Better still, get down low and shoot up or stand on a chair or step and shoot down.

Happy snapping!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

So you want to be a travel writer: Part 2

After the feedback I received from my recent post, So you want to be a travel writer?, I thought I'd share a few more of the insights I imparted on my class.

So, you've ticked all the boxes on my 'what it takes to be a travel writer list' and think you're ready to start pitching..... Er – not quite.

While today with the rise of the internet and the travel e-zine there are a lot more opportunities for writers wanting to break into travel writing, there's also a lot more competition. What's more, many of the writers you'll be pitching against will be so eager to see their name in print, they'll happily give their work away for free. So how do you make it as a professional travel writer without selling your soul for a byline? Here are a few tips:

Write what you know: As I mentioned previously, you don't need to travel overseas to be a travel writer. Take a closer look at the town where you live now; it's full of interesting stories just waiting to be told. Does your town have any unusual landmarks, remarkable museums or attractions? What about festivals? Is there a festival or event particular to your region? While you might not find the local history museum or flower festival terribly exciting, someone, somewhere in the world will. What's more, editors are always looking for an 'insider's perspective' to give a destination some local flavour. So who better to write about your hometown than you?

Make the most of your knowledge and skills: Do you have a favourite hobby? Do you have a degree in art history or environmental science? Or are you interested in food and wine or yoga and tai chi? If so, then why not combine your passion with travel writing? By using your knowledge and experience on a particular subject, no matter whether it is horse riding or basket weaving, you'll bring more depth and interest to your travel articles.

Research, research, research: Before you even think of contacting an editor, you need to do your homework. Editors are very busy people, and if you contact them with a half baked idea that doesn't suit their target market you might ruin your chances forever. Read some back issues of the publication to get a feel for what their style is. How long are the articles? Are they dry or humorous? Are they written in first person? What destinations have they already covered? Who are their readers? Are they hip young 20 somethings, middle-aged professionals, couples with children or retirees over the age of 60?

Look for an interesting or unusual angle: It's important to think outside of the square when trying to come up with an idea for a travel article. Most editors are not interested in bland, run-of-the-mill articles such as 'Sydney's Beaches' or 'Discover the Red Centre' that just give you the details of what's there and what to do – Yawn! But if you were to pitch an article about a first-time surfer learning how to hang ten at the ripe old age of 37 on a Sydney beach, or a prima donna princess tackling the Australian Outback stilettos and all, you’ll be more likely to grab an editor's attention.

Find your voice: I know I mentioned this previously, but it is a point well worth reiterating – the best way to make your articles shine is to find your voice. Don't try to intimidate another writer's style, an editor will see right through you immediately. A great way to find your voice is to write about your own personal experiences. By nurturing and developing your voice, the articles that you write will soon begin to stand out.

For more information on how to get started as a freelance travel writer check out David Whitley's new blog 1001 Travel Writer Tips. He's only just started it up, but by the time he makes it to 1001 you'll be well on your way.

Happy writing!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Top 10 things to do in Havana

I should be writing up Tanzania, but instead I find myself reminiscing about my time in Cuba. So since I'm in the mood for procrastinating, here are my top 10 things to do in Cuba's sultry capital, Havana (these are in no particular order).

1. Indulge in the legend of Hemingway while sipping a daiquiri at El Floridita, where 'Papa's' former seat is preserved as a shrine.

2. Embrace American heavy metal with a rumbling ride down the streets of Havana in a classic Chevy.

3. Smoke a fresh cigar straight from the factory at Fábrica El Laguito, makers of Montecristos and Cohibas, the finest Havana cigar.

4. Catch the spectacular Las Vegas-style cabaret at the Tropicana, the famous pre-revolution open-air nightclub where Carmen Miranda once performed.

5. Stay at one of the city's hundreds of casa particulares and experience a little of what life is like for everyday habaneros. (I can thoroughly recommend Casa de Jorge Colla Potts in Vedado.)

6. Take a walk around Plaza Vieja, Havana's old commercial square. Once the site of executions, processions and bullfights, today the square is more renowned for its smart boutiques, unusual museums and as the site of the city's only micro-brewery.

7. Soak up the history at Hotel Habana Libre (the 'Free Havana Hotel') in Vedado. Built in 1958 as a Hilton Hotel, it was the prerevolutionary haunt of American mobsters and even served briefly as Castro's headquarters.

8. Hit the beaches of Playas del Este, just east of the city along the coastal highway, which offer an uninterrupted six kilometre stretch of palm-shaded sands, deliciously warm turquoise seas and picture postcard vistas no matter which way you look.

9. Learn the grisly details of the Cuban Revolution at the Museo de la Revolución. Then to lighten the mood check out the museum's Rincón de los Cretinos (the 'Corner of Cretins') display which makes fun of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

10. Join the habaneros for their evening ritual as they watch the sunset from 'Havana's sofa', otherwise known as The Malecón (the 'seawall'), on Avenida Antonio Maceo.