Photo: Flickr Creative Commons by Daquella Manera Is the world a more or less interesting place for traveller today? That was the question that the Guardian was asking at the weekend. It was an interesting debate â€“ featuring travel writers Jan Morris and Pico Iyer â€“ among others. I added my two-penneth too, as the […]
The World Travel Market has been on in London this week. It’s one of the biggest events in the industry, with almost every country in the world sending a delegation and erecting a stand or pavilion, depending on how much cash they are willing to splash.
I appreciate a lot of work goes into it, but the WTM and I have never really got along. It’s extremely corporate and there is something about the ExCel centre that makes me want to run headfirst into a brick wall.
So, I’m pleased to see fringe events that have grown up around it, including the Responsible Tourism Networking night, which is now in its eighth year, and is organised by Sally Broom of Tripbod and Raj Gyawali of Social Tours. Aside from being an excuse for a few drinks in good company, it’s a platform for entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas in front of an audience of potential partners and fellow travel enthusiasts.
The concept is simple: 60 seconds to take the mic and get across the premise of your company/plans/ideas. This year I had the honour of judging the ‘best pitch’.
In a room packed full of ideas, that was no easy task. ItÂ particularly refreshing to find a completely level playing field, where you could be well-established or just starting out. Pitches that stood out included Toursome (working on a plan to make audio guides to listen to on your phones on public London buses), Clear Oceans (trying to fight against the single-use plastic cluttering our seas), Much Better Adventures (a marketplace for independent tours) and Open Trips (who have I have written about before).
I found myself torn between two potential winners. Unseen Tours was mightily impressive, with its city tours guided by homeless people. The idea is to empower the homeless and let their voices by heard, instead of “leaving them to the indignity of begging”. Catherine’s pitch for them was spot on: clear, convincing, inspiring. Faultless.
But that left me with a dilemma. The one pitch that really roused people in the room was far less polished. Yasmin from Lovedesh, a new company of “third world scouts”, was as straight talking as they come. “I want to bring people to the so-called ‘shitholes’ of the world! People from Bangladesh don’t want to be known just for being flood victims!” Instead she wanted to celebrate positive aspects of the culture, including the prized wood-fire curry. She says she also aims to bring people to Rwanda, Palestine, Kasmir. How? Well, we weren’t entirely sure. Her ideas seemed to be in their early stages and the pitch a little abstract at times, but her impassioned, and pretty angry, speech certainly got the attention of the room and, as I found out later, it also got her a mentor, which she said was her main reason for coming â€“Â to meet people who could help and advise her. (And, incidentally, using the controversial term ‘third world’ is deliberate â€“ her way of drawing attention back to the inequalities and stigma.)
So who to pick? One fairly established company that really deserved recognition for a brilliant, well-executed idea? Or a fiery newcomer with potential?
Fortunately, event sponsor Citizen M very kindly came to the rescue, offering two prizes, instead of one. This means that Yasmin (pictured above) gets a night at one of their hotels, and has also been well and truly spurred on to put her ideas into practice. And, in a heartwarming twist, Unseen will be giving their prize night’s stay to one of their guides.
All in all, a very inspiring evening, and it even spurred me to resurrect my semi-retired blog.
When I moved back to north London last summer, I noticed a new sign had appeared by the exit of my nearest underground station.
Scrawled on a white board, tube station staff had written directions for those who wanted to find their way to the area’s new â€“ and only â€“ Bansky mural: a stencil of a child sewing together Union-flag bunting. It was seen as a statement on the Queen’s upcoming jubilee and child labour.
The tube-station sign implied there had been a lot of interest in the work, with people going out of their way to see it. “Finally, a tourist attraction in Wood Green!” I joked on Facebook at the time, and duly went to snap a picture, as many other residents had done and continued to do.
The fact that the mural was found here, on the side of a Poundland store, felt like a statement in itself.
Two of the biggest names in street art picking Turnpike Lane, not some trendy part of Hackney?Â No one could have predicted that. Would others follow? Would this give an often-overlooked area new kudos?
So, what happens when you rip Bansky’s “sweatshop boy” out of context and display it in a flash Miami auction house?
This is where it finds itself today, having being clandestinely removed from the wall last weekend, much to local dismay. In a few hours time, it will be finding its way into the hands of a private collector that has ÂŁ450,000 to spare.
Like many locals, I was saddened on hearing this. Street art may not last forever (and Bansky himself has said it is not supposed to), but this seems like an unpleasant, money-grabbing approach. (Ironic given the apparently intended message regarding greed and inequality.)
We don’t know who the owner is and so can only speculate. Did they expect the backlash they have encountered? And, realistically, if someone knocked on your door and said they’d give you hundreds of thousands of pounds for a square of the wall you owned, would you be able to take the moral high ground and say ‘no’? I imagine whoever set up this deal put forward a very convincing case, insisting that its removal was necessary for preservation and historical record. Was the owner being greedy and touting it around? Or did someone hunt them down and insist they would be doing art a disservice if they *didn’t* sell?
There is yet more irony in the calls for the so-far-unnamed seller to step out of the shadows, when the artist himself has been working anonymously for years.
But a lot of people here in Wood Green are unhappy. The local councilor has stepped in to arrange protests. He’s contacted the gallery owner, the mayor of Miami, and the Art Council, and asked people to email their objections to the gallery. Yet the whole thing seems to have moved swiftly into farce when a stenciled rat appeared yesterday and people assumed it was a statement from the artist himself. The Daily Mail was among the first to hailed the rat as the work of Banksy; then it realised its mistake and swiftly changed the headline. The council, meanwhile, rushed out to cover it in protective perspex. I’m no expert, but even I could tell this was a really dodgy imitation, done with a very unsteady hand and looking suspiciously like it was created from a Banksy imitation stencil, as sold on ebay for ÂŁ4.99.
Perhaps the Miami art dealers are now scoffing over their exhibition catalogues. “Ha, these fools don’t deserve decent street art if they don’t know the difference!”
The debate over who owns street art isn’t new. The whole debacle here in Wood Green reminds me of something very similar that happened not long ago in Buenos Aires.
Here’s a small explainer, which I once wrote for a magazine:
Buenos Aires has long had a reputation for its exceptional wall murals, but earlier this year something very peculiar started happened. Someone started stealing parts of them. The culprit would creep up and, using carefully applied resin, peel away key segments, leaving behind painted walls with one glaringly empty patch.
The cityâ€™s muralists were baffled. It was only after art had disappeared all over town that the culprit was finally revealed. A conceptual artist came forward and said he was using the jigsaw-like pieces for an exhibition of his own. He said he was exploring the concept of â€śvandalizing the vandalsâ€ť.
This angered those who had seen their work ruined. Not because they opposed the idea â€“ many actually quite liked its subversive nature â€“ but more because they were never consulted. On the opening night of the contentious artistâ€™s exhibition, all the works were lined up with hefty price tags and collectors began mingling. Thatâ€™s when an unknown group decided to take revenge. They gatecrashed the party, set off a firealarm and, when everyone was outside, destroyed all exhibits. You could say they successfully vandalized the vandalizer of the vandals.
The commotion started off an interesting debate in the city about who owns the rights to graffiti. According to local specialists Graffiti Mundo, several Argentinian street artists have already successfully sued multi-national companies who incorporated their art in advertising campaigns without permission.Â Some of the sceneâ€™s key players were also quick to insist that they are not vandals at all and typically knock on doors first to ask if they can use the space.
Graffiti Mundo, who I mention here, run street-art tours and exhibitions, with respect for the artists and the community. On their website, you can also buy works through more legitimate means.
Below is a link to Paredes Robados (Stolen Walls), a fascinating documentary about the stolen graffiti in Buenos Aires.
Meanwhile, over in Miami, Banksy is about to go under the hammer …
How is this for a Christmas message? This is one of those heartwarming moments that shows the importance of small gestures that put smiles on faces.
The video shows a man taking a little time out to celebrate a homeless woman’s birthday in Colombia.
Her reaction â€“ squealing with delight and amazement â€“ is surely enough to bring tears to your eyes. Then, when he asks her to make a wish, she is at a loss of what she could ask for. In the end she says simply, “Let us all be happy.”
It was filmed by a 24-year-old photographer from Bogota, Emilio Aparicio Rodriguez, who appears to have used her as the subject in one of his works and has returned to give her a copy.
An interview on Colombia.com shows Rodriguez has done a series of street photographs, and says he always pays his subjects and gives them a copy of the photo. “They felt valued,” he said. “No one has given them anything before.”
Andrea’s reaction in this video says it all, but because the dialogue is in Spanish I’ve also done a hasty translation.
“Share this video so that others make nice gestures too,” says the tagline. So here it is…
Emilio: Happy birthday!
Andrea: Aaaaaahhh! Emilio! Aaaaah!
Emilio: How are you? How have you been?
Andrea: Good. Aaaah!
Emilio: I have brought you a few little things. How have you been? Good? Sensible?
Andrea: [squeals with excitement]
Emilio: First, we have to put on the birthday hat.
Andrea: No, look… [reveals short hair under her cap]
Emilio: It doesn’t matter. [Puts it over her cap and gives her a garland too]
Andrea: [Laughs] Does it look good?
Emilio: Of course. Look, I bought you the photo too. Remember?
Andrea: The same one?
Emilio: Yes, of course. Here it is, seĂ±ora, the one from before. So you can keep it.
Andrea: Aahhh, the one where I am by myself
Emilio: I bought it so you can keep it. Now, wait a moment. We are going to sing happy birthday to you.
Emilio: [shouting to public] Will anyone help sing happy birthday to her? Does anyone want to help me today? No one?
Andrea: No one
Emilio: Nevermind. Nevermind. Passerby agrees to sing
Andrea: [cheers] Passerby says Andrea deserves it
Andrea: [clasps hand to mouth in disbelief]
Emilio: Of course! Of course! Her name is Andrea. The assembled group sings happy birthday
Andrea: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, it’s so kind. Thank you everyone! Emilio gives her the balloon and tells her to make a wish
Andrea: But I don’t know what to wish for
Emilio: Whatever you want. It’s your birthday so you can make the wish.
Andrea: But I don’t know what to wish for!
Emilio: It doesn’t matter. If you can’t think of a wish, just let it go quietly.
Andrea: I wish that we can all be happy.
Over the last couple of months, I turned detective.
I long had the idea to re-visit Jim Haynes’s fantastic People-to-People series from the early 1990s and, finally, this summer I was in Europe with time to take on a new project.
“Why do you have a little book about Poland in your hand?” my editor asked as I hovered by his desk ready to launch into my spiel.
“This,” I explained, “is the a pre-internet version of Couchsurfing.com. In it are contact details for 1,ooo people across the country, who 20 years ago all offered to help any travellers visiting their homeland. I’m going to see if I can find them. And the old-fashioned way, by writing letters.”
And that was it. I was off on my mission.
Admittedly, my romaticised vision of communicating only by post didn’t last long. I was too impatient. And stamps, I soon remembered, were extortionately expensive.
I resorted to Google. I searched through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. I took clues from the very short profiles in the book, some of which were just a sentence long. I sent out heaps of emails that never got replies. I emailed galleries asking if they had heard of a particular artist (Success! I met Ewa a few weeks later and she took me on an incredible tour of Krakow’s underground arts scene, quite literally). I emailed offices asking if they had a member of staff with a certain name (Success! I found Krystyna, who had such inspiring stories from the Gdansk shipyard strikes that she reduced my Anglo-Polish friend to tears).
I think I freaked out a few people, too. Possibly the girl on Facebook with a cat photo as her profile picture, to whom I wrote something along the lines of â€śHi! I found a book from 20 years ago where someone with your name also liked cats! Can I meet you please?â€ť Funnily enough, she never got back to me.
Finally, I got more than enough replies and filled a split-destination week away in Krakow and Gdansk.
The short story was published in the Observer last week and can be read here (The alternative travel guide to Poland). The long story is, hopefully, coming soon in documentary form. Watch this space.
A few months ago, I stood behind a group of 15 or more tourists waiting for the cable car to the top of one of Rio de Janeiro’s most popular attractions, Sugar Loaf mountain. The group was mostly from the US and UK, with the average age probably around 19. An American girl was leading them, dressed in a bright neon T-shirt with a large slogan on the front: “Don’t be a tourist! Be a local!” When she turned around, there was a checklist of experiences on her back.
I rolled my eyes. The checklist, the large group, the switched-off tourists being led around blindly, the bandwagon slogan. It was everything you’d expect “local travel” to avoid.
But what is “local travel”? As I have written before, it is almost impossible to define. It can also be undeniably pretentious. “Oh, you went to see Sugar Loaf? Well, I, amigo, was watching TV at my homestay. That is what real locals do. That is a far more authentic way to spend your Gap Yah.”
(Incidentally, the use of the word “authentic” in travel is another personal bugbear.)
The reason this blog has gone quiet lately could perhaps because be linked to the overuse of the word “local” across the industry. I’ve seen guidebooks trading on the word “local” that are no way dissimilar to any other guidebook. Magazine articles offer “local’s tips” just for the sake of it, with no real added value for anyone. Tour companies promise you can “be a local” by hanging out with poor people for a couple of days.
Also, many things in travel prove to be different when you dig a little deeper.
That travel company in Rio I rolled my eyes at? They are not the bad guys in this story. I have since found their webpage and when you look beyond the slogan, they are actually a well-established small operator that seems to do a fair bit of fundraising for favelas. They are also clever with their marketing: let’s face it, “local” sells right now.
It’s also worth noting that although “local travel” may suddenly be very popular, it is nothing new. If you check out the Observer magazine this Sunday, I’ll be revisiting a local travel project from the 1980s,Â and that certainly restored my faith.
“Untold thanks to our incredible community. Itâ€™s been emotional. @airbnb, itâ€™s over to you..”
So read the last tweet of the UK’s biggest peer-to-peer accommodation site, Crashpadder.
And that’s it. Over and out. They’ve sold up to ever-hungry AirBnB for an undisclosed sum.
â€śAs part of the transition, we will automatically move your Crashpadder account to AirBnB,” says Crashpadder.
That’s is the odd thing about with these community sites. As a user you are led to believe you are part of unique, special community, then suddenly you’re thrown to the competitor.
At least, Crashpadder and AirBnB worked to very similar models. Crashpadder users will be in good hands, and able to take advantage of AirBnB’s host guarantee and 24/7 support.
The major advantage for AirBnB, meanwhile, is that they have now scored whole pile of new rooms in the UK ahead of the London Olympics. AirBnB was first propelled to success by its ability to offer accommodation alternatives when one-off event created a sudden surge in demand. Of course, it wants to retain the gold medal in the field come July/August.
Crashpadder founder Stephen Rapopor left a further comment on the end of that piece. It seems apt to end on it.
“Yesterday a friend of mine used a great analogy to describe what crashpadder.com offers. Choosing us over a budget hotel is like choosing to cook from scratch rather than buy a microwave meal. Sure, it requires a little more time and thought. But the results are better, you save money and the experience is always unique!”
Elle Magazine has named GoingLocalTravel.com as number three on its ‘hot list’ of ten websites that explore new trends in tourism, namely looking at ways travellers can stay in the homes of locals and bypass the traditional hotel.
The April issue (UK) has rather lovely double-page spread about the rise of the ‘unhotel’ – as pioneered by OneFineStay.com – along with a look at Couchsurfing, AirBnB, Crashpadder and other sites readers of this blog will know very well.
I particularly like this opening paragraph (written by freelance travel journalist Rhiannon Batten), which sums up how the hotel industry has taken a turn in recent years.
“Creating a situation where guests feel they are enjoying a home-away-from home is the holy grail of the hotel world. So eager are they to set themselves apart form the competition that hotels are offering increasingly personalised services to pander to guests yearning for home comforts, whether that is a mini-bar stocked with a list of pre-arranged goodies, a hot water bottle tucked between the sheets or a butler running you a bath.”
It goes on to explain that all of this can seem rather try-hard when an in-home experience is actually much easier to achieve via the websites and travel companies that are devoted to the idea.
There are lots of tips in the article, from advice on how to be a good host to a reminder that home insurance policies may become void if you accept paying guests.
I also gave some tips on staying in the home of someone you have contacted online. This is all pure common sense really, but it’s amazing how often such things get overlooked by time-poor internet users. “If you are staying with a host note that some may expect you to socialise with them, while others would rather you did your own thing. Be sure to read the person’s profile so you know what to expect.”
Thanks Elle magazine. This blog has taken a bit of a hiatus recently as a result of a series of trips I have taken, but the area of local travel certainly hasn’t stopped gathering momentum.
It’s a question worth asking. People using the phenomenally popular site to rent out their own self-contained house, that’s one thing. But giving a stream of people the keys to an apartment block with shared facilities? That could lead to problems and disputes, especially if it is a constant activity.
Someone I know was threatened with legal action/eviction by their landlord this week, because they were alleged to be “running a hostel”. She is now wondering if it was the neighbours who gave the owner a tip-off. (She is not, as it happens, using AirBnB, but she does rent a room on a more long-term basis via Craigslist.)
AirBnB has always been an innovative player in this emerging market, always adapting and often spinning off in whole new directions.
Originally, it focused on offering quick-fix accommodation. It helped you find a place to throw up an airbed, when all the hotels were full because of a conference or special event. Then it moved into offering alternatives to hotels (featuring some quite stunning properties that moved beyond far beyond backpacker territory). Recently it has decided it wants service people staying in places for extended periods and its new subletting division allows users to book their stays by the month. This mid-term market is a hugely growing, especially as many people are now able to work anywhere that has an internet connection. The existence of sites like this is great news for this new breed of traveller.
I see they have chosen to adopt the word ‘subletting’, which is bold. In the past AirBnB has said its users are typically owners of the properties, rather than renters, as subletting is usually prohibited by most rental contracts.
Yet owners or renters can both get on the wrong side of their neighbours. So, should you speak to your neighbours first? Would it bother you if your neighbours rented out their place to travellers?
What is certain is that 2011 was an eventful year for these networks.
AirBnB came back from a PR disaster (as one user had her home trashed) by offering a guarantee to users, which gave them a lot more credibility. They also secured a massive new amount of funding, with their valuation rising to a supposed $1 billion.
Meanwhile, AirBnB’s growth doesn’t seem to be slowing. They recently launched a huge recruitment campaign worldwide. It’s interesting to learn that they recruit photographers, too. This may explain why it looks better than the usual sites that function on member-generated images.
It will be interesting to see what 2012 holds for this new type of travel.
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, WallyG
All across Bolivia you see backpackers wearing their “I survived the Death Road” T-shirts. It refers to a mountain biking trip you can take down the terrifying Yungas Road, nicknamed El Camino de la Muerte. It’s a ‘must-do’ for many on the stereotypical circuit around the country.
The trouble is lots of people â€“ mainly Bolivians – haven’t survived. At one point, it was said that 200 to 300 were falling to their deaths here every year.
This week the road made headlines across the world again (including in The Telegraph and The Sun), because of this horrifying video of a fatal bus crash.
The driver died. I dread to think what he was getting paid to take such a risk.
There is much less traffic on this route these days and it is known to be exceeding high risk to take it on during rainy season (as this bus driver did). The figures quoted in the press this week appear to be outdated. Numbers from 2011 suggest 114 accidents and 42 deaths. But that’s still a lot.
And, by the way, you are seeing that correctly. The uploader of the You Tube video has used the opportunity to show appreciation for someone called Joe Rogan (a U.S. comedian who appears to have direct viewers/listeners/fans to the incident). And, over the screams of the bystanders, the Rogan fan has decided to advertise ‘a famous magic sock video’, complete with smiley face.
A weird things happens sometimes when you are out for a walk in Buenos Aires. All of a sudden, rain drops start to land on you from nowhere. Is it the start of a passing shower, or one of the city’s full-on, drench-your-bones storms? You look up to check out the clouds. Nada. Not a single wisp.
You carry on walking, and the drizzle continues. “Ah, an air conditioning unit!” You look up again. Again, nothing. There are no buildings whatsoever overhead.
I have found myself in this situation more than ever this spring, to the point where I was questioning my own sanity.
Today, to put my mind at rest, I asked around.
Apparently, the rain is coming from the trees. In this video below, you can see them in action. It’s quite surreal.
The tree is a tipuana tipu, or tipa, a rosewood native to South America.
Being Argentina – a country that brought us the melancholy tango – this phenomenon is know as the “llanto de las tipas” (the tears of the tipas).
Sadly, however poetically Argentina tries to dress it up, you’re actually being excreted on by a parasite.
And to make it worse, that parasite is called Cephisus siccifolius. It just sounds nasty, doesn’t it?
The tree cannot, however, pass the buck for the helicopter-like spores it releases, causing hayfever and allergies of the highest order.
It is not a very nice tree.
As far a “raining” trees go, I prefer those of the jacaranda, which, at this time of year, sends wafts of violet petals drifting to the ground. They form such a striking carpet that you almost feel guilty treading on them.
There are some incredible photos on this blog, Los Arboles de Buenos Aires, which is entirely dedicated to the city’s trees. I agree with the writer/photographer that November is the best time of year in Buenos Aires. (Photo by Vtveen on Flickr)
Other trees to look out in the city are the superbly named, twisting ‘palo borachos’ (drunk sticks), which clearly make rather aggressive drunks as their trunks are covered in spikes. Over time, just like us, they also acquire bellies from their drinking … (Photo by Blmurch on Flickr)
And then there’s the tree that provides the national flower, the ceibo. Seen here in Salta, but also visible in Plaza del Congreso, among other places. (Photo by Loco85 on Flickr)
The other unusual Buenos Aires phenomenon to look out for is when it rains from ground upwards. Those are the days when, again, there is not a cloud in the sky, but you make the mistake of stepping on a cracked pavement that has been secretly collecting rain water in its gaps. All of a sudden, surprise! Your shoes are filled.
I’m pleased to see fringe events that have grown up around the World Travel Market, including the Responsible Tourism Networking night, which is now in its eighth year. It’s organised by Sally Broom of Tripbod and Raj of Social Tours. Aside from being an excuse for a few drinks in good company, it’s a platform for entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas in front of an audience of potential partners and fellow travel enthusiasts.
When I moved back to north London last summer, I noticed a new sign had appeared by the exit of my nearest underground station. Scrawled on a white board, tube station staff had written directions for those who wanted to find their way to the area’s new â€“ and only â€“ Bansky mural: a […]
Over the last couple of months, I turned detective. I long had the idea to re-visit Jim Haynes’s fantastic People-to-People series from the early 1990s and, finally, this summer I was in Europe with time to take on a new project. “Why do you have a little book about Poland in your hand?” my editor […]
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