Thursday, March 26, 2015

Travel video is NOT new - it boasts a long & storied history

One of the earliest "travel video" producers.
In past blog posts, I've written about some of the classic books of travel literature. There are posts all over the Internet featuring lists of the best of this genre, which is really all subjective, of course.

Now hold on, Baba Louie - before you click to another page, this is NOT a list of my favourite travel books. In fact, I won't be going on about travel writing at all in this post - at least not about travel writing in its written form.

I go to a great many professional development symposiums, conferences, workshops, etc. during the course of a year. There's no doubt that the landscape of travel writing has changed dramatically in the last few decades, first with the entrance of the world wide web into the area traditionally dominated by print media, with a bit of television and radio programming thrown into the mix. Then came social media. So it's crucial travel media people stay on top of the game.

Now, social media is seen to be a very new aspect of travel media coverage. But there is one aspect of it that perhaps is not really new - it's just, well, different.

I'm talking about video.

At most of the pro-d sessions I've been to in the last few years, one of the common themes that seems to stand out, almost like a mantra, is "Video is king."

We truly are a video-oriented society.

Choose your weapon: video cam or DSLR?
That's one of the reasons I've started putting my energy into producing some travel videos for my own YouTube channel as well as for the site TripFilms (some of which have been picked up by USA Today and MSN for their sites).

However, although it seems to be the "latest-and-greatest" way to share travel adventures and experiences. video presentation of travel stories is not new - it's just much more accessible to the average person than it was when travel films first began, almost as early as movies themselves.

You don't need a huge camera crew, expensive equipment, and almost unlimited funds to make travel videos these days. There are inexpensive video cams, DSLR cameras with video capabilities, relatively inexpensive software editing programs with which to produce films/videos, and a greater ability to travel the world than ever before.

It's certainly come a long way since the days of Nanook of the North, a 1922 documentary made by Robert J. Flaherty, a professional prospector and amateur film-maker. (No, it was NOT Frank Zappa who first used Nanook.) Flaherty made this film during two years of living in an Inuit village on the shores of Hudson Bay in northern Quebec. He didn't have a lot of other films to pattern after, so he was a pioneer - and some of the techniques he developed are still in use today. It may have also been the very first video featuring someone paddling a kayak. You can watch the movie in its entirety on YouTube.

That was made and distributed while films were still in the silent era. (For a real treat, I've embedded the full-length version of this film at the bottom of this post. Enjoy!)

Once the "talkies" came into vogue, it didn't take long for filmmakers to introduce that into what was becoming a popular topic for the "shorts" shown in theatres between the cartoon and the feature attraction. One of the first to jump on the bandwagon was James Fitzpatrick,who produced a series of TravelTalks for MGM.  You can still see some of them online, or as fillers on TCM (that's where I stumbled across them).

Just like reading the old travel literature in books and magazines from previous decades, it is enjoyable as well as instructive to watch some of these old films, and get a sense of where we've come from.

Some of them were interesting, and - judging by today's standards - not all that great. But it was an evolving art, just as the videos produced today are also an evolving art.

So as you're watching - or perhaps, producing - another modern-day travel video, take time to think back to the past and realize that what was old is new again.

Nanook goes kayaking: the first-ever paddling video?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Sometimes, bad situations can be good ones in disguise

Like anything else in life, paddling can impart lessons.
Kayaking in sight of the Alaskan coast.

One of the toughest lessons many of us have to learn - certainly, I've found it to be - is that what may seem like a bad situation may actually turn out to be quite good.

Or at least do some good, where you wouldn't expect it to.

I've experienced many significant  examples of this in my life. But none probably more so than when I got hypothermia in Alaska.

It quite possibly saved my life; at the very least, it resulted in a series of actions and incidents that might not otherwise have played out the way they did.

It was August, 2004. I was in Wrangell, Alaska, preparing to start a week-long kayak tour down the coast with a brand new company. The tour consisted of a guide and several other travel writers invited to go on this first-run trip to sort of test it out for the company, and help promote it by writing about it for various publications.

The day before the tour began, we went down to a quiet bay in front of the town to practise in-water re-entry to a kayak so we would be prepared in the event we capsized one in the water during our trip.

Now this can be a tricky manoeuvre if you have no previous experience attempting it. Although I had exited and entered a kayak while in the ocean before, that did not involve tipping it, first. It was also in the warm waters of the Caribbean as opposed to the fairly frigid waters in the Gulf of Alaska, a section of the North Pacific Ocean off the coast of Alaska.

Because we weren't going anywhere and we thought it would be a routine kind of operation, we didn't wear wet suits as we would be on the trip.

Bad move.

I was having a devil of a time trying to climb back into the kayak after righting it following my "capsize."

The guide came over to steady it and encourage me. That's when he realized things were starting to go south.

I think I heard him say, "Grab my boat and hang on."

I ended up back on shore, shivering uncontrollably. I couldn't get warm, everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.

Back at the B'n'B we were staying at, I was having a hard time talking, moving, focusing, and I was still cold while eating lunch.

I remember the guide saying, "When I saw your eyes roll back into your head, I knew you were in trouble, I knew we had to get you out of the water."

Someone said my lips looked blue.

So off they trundled me to the local hospital.

Turns out, I was hypothermic. They ran a series of tests, said I'd be okay, but the doctor said there was no way he could let me go on a five-day kayak tour given my condition.

So my trip ended before it began.

Immature bald eagle on the Pacific coast.
However, the doctor said something else.

He said there were some odd readings with respect to my heart, something he could not definitely determine the nature of, with the equipment available at the small town facility.

He advised strongly to go to my family doctor back in Vancouver and get a better diagnosis done.

I did that, and was a bit floored by the result.

After performing all the proper scans at  St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, my doctor told me I had a bicuspid aortic valve in my heart. It was a genetic condition I'd been born with, and eventually I would need surgery to correct it, probably within 10 years. In the meantime, I had to be sure to take antibiotics for any dental procedure to prevent the very-dangerous potential infection from getting onto the valve.

Armed with that knowledge, when I started experiencing odd symptoms continually in 2012, they performed an electro-cardiogram and based on the results, told me I needed to have open-heart surgery as quickly as possible.

That happened almost eight years to the day I got the news about my heart condition.

By November, I'd had surgery. By the following June, I was well enough to have re-scheduled shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. With some good rehab, I was back paddling by mid-August.

What brought this to mind recently was a video I saw on the Facebook feed, dealing with the topic of hypothermia and paddling. You can see the video below.

So - I am NOT for a second suggesting hypothermia is a good thing, it's a serious issue and one all wilderness travellers should be prepared to recognize and deal with. Do NOT take this as a suggestion to go out and get hypothermic to see what health issues you might have. (I feel I have to state this here, on the off-chance someone who's a Darwin Award candidate reads this and misinterprets the message.)

I began this post with the thought that bad things can produce good results, that from something bad, there can always spring some good. However, while we're experiencing the bad, it can often be a real challenge to keep that in mind; let's face it, it's tough to see the sunshine if you're stuck at the bottom of a deep mud-bog, trying to claw your way out.

But eventually you will, and you'll once again see the sunshine, you'll find the good from out of the bad.

So if you start to feel a sense of despair, or depression, or you're discouraged, try to find something that's happened in your life like my hypothermia, then remember how, even though it was a really crappy experience at the time, it morphed into something that brought some real good into your life.

Some tips about hypothermia.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Where in the world is YOUR favourite cuppa joe?

"Where is your favourite place to travel?"
Cups up! Campfire cappuccino.

As a travel writer, that's one of the questions constantly asked of me when I meet someone for the first time.

That's not what I'm writing about, though.

If you've ever wandered onto my Facebook personal page, you probably know how much I love coffee. And coffee culture. And trivia about coffee. Friends are constantly posting stuff about coffee onto my Timeline.

And, of course, people always like to know what my favourite coffee is, where is my favourite place to drink or purchase coffee, and - since I'm a travel writer - where is the best cup of coffee I've ever had.

That's easy.

The best cup of coffee I ever had was during my very first international trip (outside of Canada and the U.S.) in 1991.


I remember it like it was yesterday.

It was our last day, we had an afternoon flight out of Belize City to LAX, then on to Vancouver.

For our last meal in the country, we decided to go for brunch at the Fort George Hotel.

From the first sip, we knew we'd stumbled on something exquisite. We were having coffee-gasms. Right there in the hotel dining room.

Several cups later, we finally came up for air, and asked our server what kind of coffee it was.

He smiled, and said, "Guatemalan chocolate coffee."

Even Nikki, our African grey parrot, loved Second Cup.
We never feed our birds caffeine, though.
Now it was not "flavoured" coffee; I'm not a fan of that type of coffee (yeah, I'm a purist). The "chocolate" was simply what it was called. It was rich, sweet, fragrant, smooth - and that was just the aroma. It almost didn't need cream or sugar.

After I returned home, I was on a mission to find a coffee as close to that coffee as I could. None of the Guatemalan coffees I tried came close, though. Then, eight months later, at a mall in Edmonton, I decided to grab a coffee at a Second Cup.

Now I'd never tried their coffees, since, at the time, I lived in Fort St. John, B.C. and there were no Second Cups, not even a Tim Horton's there, at the time. I looked at the menu, saw "Guatemalan" beside something called "Huehuetenango." So, I tried it.


While it wasn't exactly what I'd had in Belize, it was the closest I'd ever come. Or ever would come: Sweet, rich, mellow, just about perfect. I liked it so much, I gave them my address and credit card info, and set up monthly shipments of a few pounds to Fort St. John so I could enjoy it all the time.

Slurping coffee aboard a Chilean ship docked in North Van.
Sadly, Second Cup - the only company licensed to sell it in Canada, then - stopped carrying the brand in 2008. I found a place in Ontario that now sells it, and will ship it, but it didn't taste as good as it had in the past, so I've resigned myself to life at Tim's. Cheaper, less hassle, but not as good.

Since that trip to Belize, I've sampled coffee all over the world. Ironically, because we import coffee from places like African and South America for consumption in North America, that often leaves lesser-quality coffee in those countries.

Travelling around Africa for six weeks, I gave up trying to enjoy a good cup of coffee, and opted for tea instead.

Ditto, in Ecuador. Although I didn't give up coffee for tea, it was not as good as the coffee I drank at home.

When I returned to South America six years later, Starbucks had infiltrated the consumer coffee market, so forget about enjoying an authentic native coffee.

Starbucks in Lima tastes the same as Starbucks in Taipei, which tastes the same as Starbucks in Vancouver, which tastes the same... you get the picture. And yeah, I'm not a Starbucks fan. If I want burnt coffee, I'll take a cup of Tim's and re-heat it in the microwave.

I have enjoyed good cups of coffee elsewhere.

The best iced cappuccino I've enjoyed was a Terri's Cappuccino Bar in Fort St. John. It was a regular daily indulgence there, winter and summer, for two years.

Don't forget to add the Bailey's!

And nothing beats a cup of "campfire cappuccino, brewed on a camp stove, served up with a healthy portion of Bailey's, during a camping or paddling trip.

I tried to obtain some samples of Kopi Luwak during a trip to Malaysian Borneo, as that renowned "civet-poop coffee" is produced in Indonesia. No luck, though - although I did enjoy some wonderful "pulled tea." (As it turns out, the way this coffee is harvested may not be in keeping with good practices with respect to treatment of wildlife, so I may postpone the hunt indefinitely.)
Enjoying a coffee on the road in Haida Gwaii.

As for other coffees...

Kona coffee from Hawaii is VASTLY overrated, in my opinion. I've sampled several cups on both Maui and the Big Island, including some at a coffee plantation.

Quite frankly, I couldn't figure out what the fuss was all about.

And while I've never sampled Jamaican Blue, I suspect my reaction would be much the same as it was to Kona.

That's not to say I'll never enjoy a cup of coffee on the road. But I feel like I've already found the Holy Grail of Coffee, so I'm resigned to the fact that even if I'm at Avalon, the coffee they serve there probably will not match the cup I enjoyed back on that April morning in Central America.