Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

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FIVE Strange Travel Experiences to Which No Writer Should Ever Be Exposed

So with travel writing on the brain lately, I’ve been reflecting on some of the weirder experiences I’ve had on FAM trips.  Not that I’ve been on a whole lot of them, but it seems weird comes with the territory.

To some degree, this is good.  I know the people who put these things together work hard to show travel writers, and travel agents (who are often on these tours as well), anything unusual they suspect might sell the destination.  But there’s weird, and then there’s just implausible, freaky, off-putting, or a little too scary for prime time.  I’m almost always up for a bit of weird.  I just don’t want to get killed doing it.

#1:  Orlando As A Cultural Destination

Upside of this trip:  wow, swag out the wazoo.  Not only is the hotel a five-star wonder, with those crazy 7000-thread-count sheets and a plethora of complimentary rubber ducks floating in your sink and your bathtub every night (I was very, very popular with all my friends who have kids after this trip), but upon my return to my room each night, there was a new giftie basket of some sort resting on my pillow.  I do not expect swag, other than lots of informative literature, on press trips, but being a starving freelancer I’ll sure as hell take it, whatever it is, if it’s being offered.  I know, call me shallow and unprincipled.

Downside of this trip:  No matter how hard they tried — and believe me, they DID try — it was pretty much impossible to wrap one’s head around the trip’s theme, “Orlando as a cultural destination”.  We toured a former artist’s colony/kibbutz sort of thing.  A huge art museum (fifteen minutes, no loitering, have a complimentary cracker and everyone back on the bus, please).  The home of  Zora Neale Hurston,  author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and other chronicles of black folklore.  The studio of a ballet company (did you know Orlando has TWO ballet companies?) where we bellied up to the barre and practised plies we hadn’t done since we were collectively 12.  (Soooo not pretty, folks. I have the unpublished pictures to prove it.)

Attended a production of La Boheme which I quite enjoyed.  (My parents would be so proud of their little opera rebel.)  And would you believe.  A holocaust museum.  Yes.  In Orlando.

But the thing about Orlando is, you cannot, cannot, cannot escape The Mouse.  No matter how hard you try to pretend the place is about something beyond that.  He’s there when you get off the plane and he’s in your face every second until you get back on another plane.  And that’s how every single editor I pitched felt about it too.  Not one of them believed I could sell Orlando as a cultural destination, which made it all an epic fail because I let down the kind folks who flew me down there and even hosted me (and the other journalists) an extra day at said five-star hotel avec ducks when the flights home didn’t work out.  To this day, I’m hoping someone will buy the story, but it’s just too big a stretch.

#2:  The Barns of Southern Kentucky

So here we all are in unexplored southern Kentucky.  Land of bbq and coal mines and billboards promising you that Jesus will strike you dead for your sins.  Land of former coal mines now, optimistically but spectacularly unsuccessfully, being turned into questionable tourist destinations.  (SEE … the, um, coal mining equipment, now on display in our Coal Mining Museum.  SEE … the entrance of the mine, but don’t go in because it isn’t safe.  SEE … the coal miner’s one-room cabin which we will now rent to you for $1500 a week if you have a hankering to be somewhere completely deserted and uninteresting so you can write that novel without fear of distraction.  SEE … oh, never mind.)

At one point we all emerged from the coal mine attraction and were taken on a tour of southern Kentucky’s charming rural barns.  Now, all the other writers on the tour likely rolled their eyes at this point (don’t remember for sure), but this was where my ears (figuratively) perked up.  Horsey girl like barns.  Horsey girl can sell story about barns.

I’m not sure what went wrong with this part of the tour, but we got to the little town where we were supposed to pick up the local expert who was going to tell us the gripping history of these century barns and explain the architectural features which made them unique to the region.  I could barely contain myself.  Seriously.  The expert, however, was a no-show.  Instead the local tourism and convention board had sent along a woman who very obviously had only been informed she was being pressed into service about 10 minutes before we pulled up in the town square.  She was fumbling with a map where barns were clearly not circled.  Off we went onto the back concessions of Kentucky, while she gamely tried to remember where these barns were, and failed, for the most part.  I think there were 10 that were supposed to be on the tour and we found three of them in the end.  Did a lot of pointless driving up and down dirt roads, though.  And as for the three we did find … well, they were charming century barns with some rather unique sort of overhang things in the front that I would dearly have loved to know more about.  Function?  Origin?  But she didn’t know anything about them.  Nada.  Zip.  “I think this one is pretty old” was about the wisest thing she contributed in three hours.  Total fail.

#3:  Taxidermy and Torture:  How Restful

Still on the southern Kentucky tour.  I alluded to this hotel in my last post, and thanks to Wikipedia being my friend, I have finally come up with its name for you:  it’s the Cumberland Inn in Williamsburg, KY. A Must-See Destination.  If you are less easily creeped out than I am.

So we land at the Lexington airport and then drive about five hours straight south down I-75 (if I’m remembering correctly) and I am running on about 45 minutes’ sleep and I start to nod off in the mini-van.  Finally we pull into the parking lot for some huge white colonial thing which we are told is the bedrock of local employment round these parts, because it not only is the finest hotel in the region but it provides training for the local kids who are enrolled in the Hospitality Program of the adjacent University of the Cumberlands.  Okay, that’s admirable, thumbs up to that, especially when we are told that the region is otherwise pretty much devastated and jobless. (If I hadn’t been zoned out I probably would have picked up on that by the vast quantity of beaten-up mobile homes visible from the highway.)

This hotel also has Something Special, though, and although we are all fried and absolutely starving, we are all scheduled to take the tour before we are fed.  The Cumberland also fancies itself a museum.  And as we wander from room to room, we’re all pretty sure we ain’t in Kansas anymore and that Toto has met with a horrible end.  Mercifully, my brain has blotted out a lot of it, but in addition to the previously-referenced collection of  miniature Bibles, there is also a room full of crucifixes.  And by room, I mean the “Carl Williams Crucifix Collection”, with over 7000 individual depictions of a human being writhing blissfully on a cross with nails through his hands and feet.  Surrounding you.  On every surface from floor to ceiling.  Collected by an Air Force chaplain who thought they would be soothing or inspirational to future generations.

If you’ve been reading this blog at all (and I have no idea why you would, but thank you all the same) you probably have a sneaking suspicion by now that I am a godless heathen, and you’d be right on the money there.  But even if I did buy into the Christianity thing, I cannot imagine in a million years how this room could be inspirational to anyone.  It was, frankly, horrifying and beyond disturbing, and now I can say it.  At the time, I was trying to be a gracious guest tiptoeing semi-respectfully through the Bible Belt, and I kept my mouth shut (and booked it out of that room as soon as I could locate the door — only to find myself in an almost equally horrifying space full of stuffed dead things with glass eyes).

Hey, dead Jesus times 7000, followed by dead animals in grotesque poses.  Thanks for the great night’s sleep, Cumberland Inn.

#4:  Puddles O’ Fun

Same state, different tour.  I seem to have spent a lot of time in Kentucky.  Hmm.  Wasn’t deliberate.

Anyway.  This FAM tour was more central Kentucky-ish, and for the most part it was really good.  We had an extremely personable guide who was well-prepared, knew the region and had a sense of humour, thank Christ (see above).  If you haven’t seen the Mammoth Caves or any of the plethora of other caves down that way, I highly recommend them, kitschy though they might be … and I will more than likely expand on that experience in future.  But I’m going to tell you a little about the cuisine of Kentucky, which as far as I can determine is designed to kill you with surgical precision.

Ever have something called a Hot Brown?  This is a diabolical open-faced sandwich.  Turkey, ham, bacon, a huge hunk of bread, and enough cheese sauce to throttle the arteries of a humpback whale poured over top.  It is absolutely fucking delicious for about six bites, and after that you want to hurl at the sheer, stratospheric trans-fat content of it.  If they could do a version on one quarter of an English muffin, it would be just about perfect, I figure.

Then there’s the local version of barbeque.  Now the whole barbeque thing is an American cult, or rather a series of cults because each region has its own special way of making it.  At Billy Bob’s Belly Bustin’ BBQ (I kid you not) the barbeque sandwiches themselves are yummy, but the sides that come with it are:  fried green tomatoes.  Fried potatoes.  Fried sweet potatoes.  Fried pickles. Fried zucchini.  Fried okra.  Fried mozzarella sticks.  Fried coleslaw.  You name it, it’s breaded and fried for your nibbling pleasure, and the folks serving it up have clearly been living on a steady diet of it since 1946.  Eek.  It’s rare that I hanker for a small green salad, but this place stirred up a hankerin’.

The piece de resistance was being treated to lunch at the original restaurant of Colonel Sanders hisself.  Well, actually, his wife, Claudia, who apparently was responsible for most of the actual cookin’.  At the Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville, one can partake of the ‘real’ recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, which tastes a whole lot like the franchise stuff, and I guess that’s oddly reassuring.  But at a franchise KFC, you can’t get the truly unique selection of vegetables and sides you get at Claudia’s.  As I recall, there are eight, and they all come in one texture:  liquid.  You can get a puddle of creamed corn, a puddle of creamed spinach, a puddle of something called “mock oysters”, which I gather is really eggplant (well, okay then …), a puddle of squash, a puddle of … something sort of gray … and I don’t remember the rest, but trust me, teeth were superfluous.

My digestive system did not handle it well, and that’s all I’m gonna say about that.

On the upside, the whole restaurant is adorned with photos and paintings of champion Thoroughbreds and Saddlebreds, which I grooved to.

Oh, and finally, there is Kentucky bourbon.  Which I’m sorry, call me a philistine, but it’s undrinkable.  Though the distillery tours are fairly interesting.

#5:  Lethal Weapons

Not so much about the FAM tour, which was brilliant, orgasmic even (again, figuratively, since I don’t recall getting laid there).  A riding and gastronomic tour of Tuscany.  Oh, it was loverly, except for the timing.

October, 2001.

Ruh-roh.  International air travel a bit of a bother at the time.

All okay on the way there; once again I thank all the imaginary deities, past and present, for my Canadian passport. But on the way back I nearly get cavity-searched at the Frankfurt airport because I have a pair of eyebrow tweezers — the scissory-y kind — in my carry-on bag, along with the blush I hope will keep me from looking like death warmed over by the time I get off the bloody plane 17 hours hence.

I am told I am packing a lethal weapon with malice aforethought.

Actually it had never occurred to me to try plucking someone to death, but I suppose it could be done, if you’re bored with waterboarding and you like detail work.

Narrowly escaped incarceration (and German incarceration, at that) as well as missing my flight, by surrendering my very best, uber-reliable eyebrow tweezers to the Authorities.

Okay, lame ending.  But I wanted to have five.

The Accidental Travel Writer

On anyone’s list of fantasy occupations, travel writer has to be right up there in the Top Ten.

I mean — jetting around the world, climbing mountains and scuba-diving among coral reefs and eating at five-star restaurants, and re-discovering the odd lost jungle culture, all expenses paid, and then getting paid again for the article you write about your exotic experiences — well, good golly, what’s not to like?

Oh, but here I am again, playing bubble-burster for all you good people.  Much as I heart Andrew Evans and his @WheresAndrew tweets, the truth is very few of us get to play in his sandbox.

I have hankered to get into travel writing for years.  Even though I know the fantasy’s a little rosier than the reality.  With family half-way around the world in South Africa, I was dragged through a number of the world’s airports before I could even walk or register that screaming at the top of your lungs was bad form on a trans-Atlantic flight.  (I’m told they drugged me with whiskey and honey.  Disgraceful.)  Maybe that’s why I seem to be the only person in the world who actually likes the (teetering-on-the-brink-of-cancelled) series, Pan Am.  I still have one of those Pan Am flight-deck pins the flight attendants used to give kids in the hopes of shutting them the hell up.  I have one from Swissair and a few from South African Airways, too, and even a BOAC pin which I suspect is not really worth as much as I’d like to think.

So maybe it’s in my blood to some degree.  It’s certainly a compulsion of mine to sniff out interesting stuff and write it down whenever I’m somewhere new; I’ve never been good at just lying like a lump on the beach, devoid of curiosity about what goes on beyond the gated resort.  Gotta hit the museums, pick up the brochures, learn the history … and more than likely, if I bring home any souvenirs, it’ll be books about the region and its special peculiarities, because my budget never allows me to linger long enough to learn it all.  This usually means my luggage is significantly over-weight on the return flight.  (Ka-ching.)

Severe, crippling poverty has curtailed my globetrekking activities in recent years.  That’s when it all starts to sound so simple:  why, just parlay your scriberly talents into free trips to everywhere!  Write a few hundred words for Islands magazine, and Bob is your proverbial uncle.

Back in the day, maybe.  (When exactly was that?)

Yes, there are lots of places and companies and tourism boards who would like you to publicize their lovely Museum of Bacon And Cured And Brined Pork Products, or World’s Largest Tapir sculpture, or gentrified slums, or Third Annual Furby Festival.  To this end, they organize what are called FAM trips (for familiarization, I believe, though I never really questioned what FAM stood for, come to think of it).

A FAM trip is generally a whirlwind tour of all the local sights and attractions, some legit, some dubious …  crammed into unbelievably long and exhausting, but often really interesting and story-generating, days.

Rule #1 of the FAM trip:  Do NOT, under any circumstances, be late for the bus.

(Rule #2:  politely ask your tour coordinator to mail you all the collected promotional materials you will be handed throughout the trip, or your luggage will absolutely, without a doubt, be over-weight on the way home.)

In order to qualify for a FAM trip, you generally have to demonstrate that you are in fact, a Real Journalist, and not just some wanker looking for a free tour of America’s third-best Christian Fundamentalist theme park, Jesusland (or whatever).  This you do by sending clips of your previously published travel articles, and/or securing assignments with Known Travel Publications before the trip.  The preferred publications, of course, are those with circulations of 100,000 or better — think Conde NastNat Geo Traveler, some of the in-flight mags, that sort of thing.

Well I’d certainly prefer those too, since they pay upwards of $1 a word (there’s that Holy Grail again).  But securing an assignment from the hallowed likes of them isn’t exactly shooting fish in a barrel, especially since it’s notoriously difficult to make a great pitch when you haven’t even seen the place yet, and it might be a colossal dud.

(Not fun calling your editor after the fact and saying, “Um, well, it was all a bit run-down, only three of the 12 apostles showed up, and the owner of the place just got arrested for diddling little boys, so the Pearly Gates are now locked and it doesn’t look like it will be re-opening anytime soon.”)

And besides, they don’t know you from a rabid llama, they don’t care if you can write 2000 words about the neurological form of equine herpes virus and actually make it sound fascinating, and they already have an established stable of Real Travel Writers way ahead of you in the line.

Oh, and they did Jesusland two issues ago.

So you try to get as complete a description as you can, of the exotic delights awaiting you from the tour coordinator, in order to aid your pitches to publications you hope are sufficient to actually qualify you for the trip.  Because it’s all rather embarrassing if you get an editor to take a chance on you, only to have to e-mail back and say, um, sorry, the whole thing’s off, because they gave my spot to some knob from Luxury Travel, but I do have a really spine-tingling story about the adult bookstores of central Kentucky if you’d like that instead …?

The interesting thing is, even when you have done backflips to prove you are a Real Journalist and have secured multiple assignments for the trip so that the tour coordinator will get his or her mileage out of you … there still always end up being a couple of wankers on the tour who are NOT, in fact, Real Journalists and are just freeloading.  Generally, you can spot them — they’re the ones not taking notes (though they usually take lots of pictures, always featuring them standing in front of the waterfall or herd of wildebeest or commemorative plaque denoting the Battle of Grand Rapids).

They are generally met with considerable hostility by those who are on the trip to work, and it doesn’t faze them in the slightest.

FAM trips are also rather tricky because you tend to find out about them on rather short notice.  Now, I’m a fairly spontaneous type, and less tied down than those with husbands and kids, but I do have these horses in my backyard and it’s not always that easy to locate a reliable critter-sitter 48 hours before you are scheduled to get on a Greyhound.

But the most challenging thing about FAM trips is that, increasingly, they don’t include the cost of transportation.  They are generally happy to provide accommodations (in whatever weird theme hotel or trailer park they are trying to promote — I have stayed in uber-elegant B&Bs, on houseboats, in medieval castles, and also in the world’s most bizarre hotel/taxidermy museum, featuring as an added bonus an extensive collection of miniature Bibles) and they will bring the minivan around to take you from the Thai/Polish fusion restaurant to your next destination … but getting to the site of all these wonders is frequently on your own dime.

Now, given that the vast majority of travel publications and websites do not pay $1 a word, this is a bit of a stumbling block.  At least for me.

Take newspaper travel sections, for example.  In my limited experience with these, I am given to understand that markets like the Toronto Star and the New York Times pay only a couple of hundred dollars per travel feature.  And worse, many of them refuse to accept any material that is generated as the result of a FAM trip — the thinking being, the writer will be swayed to say biased or dishonest things because he or she was generously hosted, which I guess is somehow akin to blackmail.

So if the travel articles you peruse, increasingly seem to read as if they were penned by a retired doctor or lawyer who spent six months exploring the waterways of Vietnam in a sampan (complete with a captain, a navigator, and two personal chefs), now you know why.  They’re the only people who can afford to crank out travel articles.

The rest of the travel writing world has adopted something of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy regarding FAM trips.  Since most of us can’t really justify shelling out $6,000 to seek inner peace in Nepal only to earn $250 writing about it, it’s a necessary evil.  But in my case — lacking, as I am, a spouse who is racking up Air Miles  — if the FAM trip doesn’t include at least a train ticket, if not passage on a cut-rate red-eye flight, then I regretfully have to turn it down.  Not that the FAM trip organizers are exactly beating a path to my door.  The fact that I can’t afford to go on most of these trips means that I don’t have all that many travel clips to show, and so I don’t impress the FAM trip organizers, and so on.  Bit of a vicious circle.

Mercifully, every now and then an organizer does take a chance on me.  In recent years it’s been less Tuscany and more Trenton … or in other words, mostly within the bounds of North America, where the transportation costs tend to be a little less outrageous.  That’s okay; there’s plenty of weird and wonderful stuff to write about here.  In a couple of weeks (if all the plans don’t disintegrate) I’m due to travel a couple of hours beyond Quebec City, courtesy of the Charlevoix Regional Tourism Board, and freeze my little Anglo tush off trying all sorts of winter sports I have either never tried, or already know I am bad at — and it sounds like a lot of fun.

Not least because, for once, it has absolutely nothing to do with horses (which for the purposes of my resume and clip collection, is a good thing — I am continually attempting to prove to editors that I can, in fact, string 1500 words together without mentioning a hooved quadruped).

It’s been something like 20 years, and I’m still trying to break in as a travel writer.  Conde Nast, you really don’t know what you’re missing.

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