Sunday, 6 September 2009

How "Afar" do travellers want to go?

I’ve been reading the premiere issue of Afar Magazine magazine, whose launch I mentioned in a recent article, and thinking about the on-the-air argument about it that broke out between Arthur Frommer and his daughter and co-host Pauline Frommer on their radio show on WOR in New York. (Direct links: podcast or streaming audio archives; it’s the first 12-minute segment of the episode.)

Arthur Frommer predicts that Afar may fail as a business, and in that he may be right. But I think he misses the mark in his criticism of the articles in the premiere issue: “It should be subtitled ‘impossible adventures’ because it writes about travel that’s not available to any normal human being.” Speaking of an article about an amateur baker from the USA who, on a trip to Paris, arranged to apprentice himself to a master of the baguette, Arthur says, “How many Americans are going to be able to emulate that experience?”

A non-zero number, I can attest, having had a client while I was working at who travelled around the world visiting and baking with professional bread-makers in every country they visited, learning about their styles, tricks, and techniques. But more importantly, the goal of the best travel writing isn’t, and shouldn’t be, to enable readers to “emulate” exactly the trip taken by the writer. I list few specific destinations, hotels, or restaurants in my books, and those few mostly as examples of general “how to” concepts. The point is to give readers ideas of possibilities that will enhance their ability to take their own trips, in their own ways, to the destinations of their own choice or chance.

It’s the concept that counts, not the exact example: Visiting a person in a different place who shares your passion, whether it’s a vocation or an avocation, bread-making or basket-weaving, is an excellent way to get an entrée to a different culture. How is their life, and what they do, the same as yours, and how is it different?

In one of my previous careers, when I was working in print production, I had a fascinating time touring an Indian print-shop. College exam questions were being printed by letterpress with hand-set type, in contrast to the computerized phototypesetting, paste-up page composition, and offset printing I was working with. But there was a palpable commonality of feeling about the handicraft of turning words and ideas into ink on paper. My most recent trip around the world benefited immeasurably from encounters with local teachers and students, from Argentina to Ethiopia, that my travelling companion was able to arrange as a high school teacher on sabbatical. We’re not all going to visit bakers, typesetters, or teachers, but each of us could find some interest, activity, or organization — our professional, hobby, labor union, or fraternal order’s international affiliates, for example — through which to make an insider connection with people in places where we’d otherwise be purely outsiders.

There are similarly useful suggestions — not to be exactly imitated, but of types and techniques of travellers and trips — in some of the other articles Arthur Frommer scoffs at in the inaugural issue of Afar. There’s an interview (apparently the first of a series of profiles of exemplars of the “Global Citizen”) with a Web programmer who’s been telecommuting to jobs in the USA from from Buenos Aires, Argentina (currently home to one of the largest contingents of expatriate U.S. high-tech freelance telecommuters, on account of the combination of safe, attractive, affordable city living; good communications infrastructure; and minimal time difference from clients in the USA) and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The key development making this possible, as this issue’s Global Citizen notes, is the voice-over-internet phone. (I had one in my apartment when I was working with U.S. colleagues from Buenos Aires.)

Not everyone has the same job options for international telecommuting, but I know other people who’ve done marketing and public relations for U.S. clients — for U.S. wages, which go a lot further in most of the world than in the USA — from Buenos Aires and Rio de Janiero, programming and technical support from Australia, and after-hours customer service from New Zealand. Even part-time work for U.S. wages can pay more in many fields than full-time work at local wages. And it’s infinitely easier to arrange, given adequate connectivity: You already know how to find clients and deal with the business culture in the USA, and you don’t need a local work permit or residency in the country where you are located, since legally you are only employed or earning income in the USA. For most travellers with professional skills, part-time or contract telecommuting back to the USA is a more realistic way to augment your savings and extend your travel than finding local employment — but not one many people would think about without reading about a real-life example like the one in Afar.

Turn the page, and there’s the first of what promises to be another regular feature, “Spin the Globe”, in which Afar sends a reporter to a “randomly” chosen destination (no, they don’t say what that means), in this case Caracas, Venezuela. No, most readers are unlikely to visit either Caracas or any destination chosen purely at random. But most places you might go in the world — even most cities and many national capitals — aren’t on any tourist track. And we often have opportunities — whether for business, to visit friends, by accident, or because the collapse of the currency has created a window of opportunity for travel bargain hunters — to go someplace we know little about, and had never thought of visiting. Hearing about other people’s trips like this, getting over your fear of the unknown, and learning how to deal with travel to a place with few tourists and/or about which you know little — and how fun and/or interesting it can be — can greatly expand the travel possibilities that you are open to considering.

I have no stake in “Afar”, and haven’t yet been asked to contribute to their magazine (although it looks like a perfect place for a “Practical Nomad” column). But I’m with Pauline Frommer, and I think Arthur Frommer misunderstood Afar’s editors’ and writers’ purpose. Travellers have a lot to learn from these stories, not as recipes to replicate but as case studies to learn from. I hope future issues of the magazine fulfill the promise of the first.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 6 September 2009, 22:56 (10:56 PM)

Maybe A. Frommer misses the point: If one person can do it, someone else can do the same. Sometimes we need to see an example before we believe it is possible for ourselves. The fact is that most won't want to duplicate what these people have done. But it is great for people have considered it but don't know where to start.

Posted by: brian, 7 September 2009, 11:20 (11:20 AM)

Hi Edward,

As someone who was inspired by your book to travel the world and as an editor at Afar, I just wanted to say thanks for your eloquent rebuttal to Mr. Frommer. You get what we're going for here at Afar. We're not saying our readers should imitate our writers. We want to show them the possibilities. It was also nice to hear your tales of real people traveling in an "Afarish" way. We know they're out there! Thanks again.

Posted by: Jeremy Saum, 15 September 2009, 12:40 (12:40 PM)

Travel is quite a personal thing, and everyone has their own needs and interest. It is great to inpire people to go and experience the destination themselves. You can't copying a trip, as the people you talk and communicate with locally are different. It is a lot fun to travel with someone local, and really get to understand different culture, customs, and life.

Posted by: Sightseeing Tours, 19 September 2009, 01:38 ( 1:38 AM)
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