Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Commercial flying: changes for the better - or worse? Your call...

Where's the flight crew? Where are my peanuts?
(Photo by
I remember the first time I flew in a plane.

I was 17 at the time, and it was not a large commercial jet liner I'd climbed into. It was a Turbo Beaver, a six-seat bush plane, often used for fighting forest fires, one that took from from water, not a runway Makes sense. I was in the bush, working as a junior forest ranger in Gogama, Ontario for the summer, and as a treat, they took us up for rides in a Turbo Beaver.

It was quite a ride - even after some of us were "water-bombed" during one of the takeoffs from Lake Minisinakwa (hey, it was used for fighting fires, remember?)

To quote from my (very first "travel") journal:
"In every direction we looked, nothing met our eyes but lakes and forests. It was far out!"
Actually, that was not the first time I'd flown; it was the first time I remember flying. Apparently in moving from Ottawa to Winnipeg when I was two years old, our family flew. But, of course, I don't remember that flight.

Fast forward two years from my junior forest ranger days, and I'm climbing onto an Air Canada jet in Fredericton, New Brunswick. I've just finished my first term at the University of New Brunswick, and I was flying home to Toronto for Christmas.

That became a familiar routine over the next several years, and the pattern continued, although not as often, when I graduated and moved out west.

But flying really became part of my life when I started working as a travel writer. There's no getting around. It's part of the job.

Since then, I've pretty much seen the "best of times, and the worst of times" with respect to the different airlines and the services they offer travellers.

Some of the best airlines I've flown on include Cathay Pacific (to Thailand via Hong Kong), Eva Air (to Malaysia via Taipei) and British Airways (to Africa via London). I won't get into a list of my worst flying experiences here (that's a story for another time, perhaps); but, suffice it to say, I have experienced my share of missing luggage, broken baggage, and connection SNAFUS (I remember running through the Orly Airport in Paris trying to make a connection once - I kept waiting for the Home Alone music to start playing).

When I began flying regularly in my university days, in-flight meals were almost guaranteed for any flight longer than two hours. We all know that's not the case, these days, when you're lucky to get free pretzels or cookies. But now we also have to pay for checking baggage, for not checking baggage, to get a blanket or pillow - the things we always used to take for granted.

Mind you, we do have state-of-the-art technology to get us from Point A to Point B these days; however, I sure would have liked to experience flying in the so-called Golden Age of Flying.

Or at least, I'd like to have experienced it the way it was portrayed in movies like Back from Eternity or Five Came Back and on TV shows like Pan Am.

Economy airlines are the norm, these days. (John Geary clip)

Having experienced major muscle cramps and knots after flying economy class halfway across the Western Hemisphere, I certainly like the idea of wider seats with more leg room. And the idea of large lounges or stand-up bars in plane also appeals to me. (India's Kingfisher Airlines did have stand-up bars in some of its planes - what would you expect from an airline owned by a brewery? - but that didn't save it from bankruptcy.)

As well, I think the idea of flying on a plane with curtained berths for sleeping at night would be cool.

And back then, there was virtually no security like we have to go through today to board a plane.

I think flying in a large flying boat (think, Indiana Jones) would be a great experience to enjoy, at least once, anyway.

However, flying back then may not have been all it was cracked up to be. There is a certain romance associated with flying in the 1940s, '50s and early '60s that all nostalgia tends to stimulate - and like most nostalgia, perhaps colours the situation a bit more favourably than how it really was.
Who wouldn't be enticed to fly south
by this poster?

While paying baggage fees and having to purchase mostly bad meals may be a pain-in-the-butt, and lining up for security checkpoints is tedious and tiring, there are many things we do not have to put up with these days:

  • Smoking. It used to be common, more people smoked, and not just cigarettes - cigars and pipes were not uncommon. Welcome to the Smoky Skies. 
  • Lack of entertainment. We have music, movies, and on some airlines, singing flight attendants. Back in the day, you could write postcards. By hand. Then post them when you landed.
  • Drunks. Back in the day, booze was mostly free. Knock yourself (and many did). But boozy seat-mates are not always the best of company. (To be fair, on the Asian-based airlines I've used, it's still free. "Erica, just give me two cokes and four of those mini-bottles of rum, please!" But of course, Yours Truly is a pleasant drunk...)
  • Really expensive flights. During the Golden Age, only the really well-off could fly. 
  • Danger. While several high-profile crashes have been in the news these days, it's still much safer to fly now than it was 50 years ago, when the chance of crashing was five times greater than it is today.
The list goes on; more details are provided in a 2013 Fast Company article.

The more I think about, the more I think I'll put up with some of the negatives we have on today's commercial flights. (Either that, or finally break down and fly first class - just once! - to see how the other half lives.)

In the meantime...

Pass the pretzels, please.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Brave New Worlds await traditional writers, bloggers alike

Getting ready for the editors' panel.
Even those who don't spend much time online or persuing the various forms of traditional or social media are probably aware of the revolution that's been taking place in the publishing industry for the last decade or two.

First came the internet, and with it, websites, e-zines or online zines and web-logs, a.k.a. "blogs."

Then came the era of social media: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest - the list is a l-o-n-g one.

It's an era we're still in, barely into, really - and it's still evolving. However, although social media has certainly grabbed a large portion of the media landscape, traditional media is not dead yet, despite rumours to the contrary.

In fact, to paraphrase the immortal words of Mark Twain, "Rumours of its demise are greatly exaggerated."

That became very apparent at the 2015 B.C. Assocation of Travel Writers symposium that took place in Vancouver's Century Plaza Hotel, on April 18, 2015.

The theme of the event was "Ecotourism: Tread Softly, Write with Impact."

It could just have easily been "Traditional Meets New Age Travel Media."

That's because the symposium organizers did a very good job of blending elements of the old with elements of the new in putting together the day's program.

Photographer David Smith provided great ideas
to help us improve our travel photography.
Nowhere was this more evident than on the editorial panel. The panel featured two editors from the more traditional elements of published travel writing - Allen Cox from Northwest Travel and Life and Kirsten Rodenhizer from Westworld Alberta magazines - and a third from the online travel website, Matador in the person of Jett Britnell.

The keynote speaker, Vancouver author Jack Christie, provided a very informative and entertaining address.

He also provided living proof that you can still write books about travel - and write them very successfully.

So as you can see, there are still many ways to be published in hard-copy, although online publishing does offer a nice alternative.

Now, before you start to think this is just an old-school guy, extolling the virtues of an older type of travel publishing...

The organizers also incorporated a Twitter contest into the day's events, so people were tweeting away furiously on smartphones and laptops about what they were hearing from the presenters. At the end of the day, the top three tweeters were presented with prizes.

(I'm not modest, so I have no trouble telling you I placed second, and won a great prize from Cycle City Tours - their Grand Tour - which I look forward to enjoying later this summer).

As always at these events, there was a 
simple but sumptuous luncheon prepared.

The organization is also holding a contest for bloggers who attended the event, one that involves writing a post about the event.

Of much greater note, however, is the fact that the BCATW recently made a huge move in terms of its membership criteria.

The event also offered a chance to connect
with friends met through social media...
It became the second Canadian-based travel media organization to open up membership to bloggers in the past year (the Travel Media Association of Canada, a national organization, also recently opened that up for membership).

While some bloggers may feel this is long overdue by such associations, and others may feel, "Meh? What's the big deal?" in the big picture, it is huge, and should not be dismissed lightly.

We really are at a crossroads in terms of media and how it is published and how it is used. Magazines that would never have thought of publishing online versions of articles already published in hard copy are now routine doing that. They are also finding new ways to include online articles into the mix that would perhaps not have made it into the hard-copy magazines.

For writers, while this is great news for those publications that do this, it can still be a bit of a Catch-22. Not many travel magazines offer this alternative of hard-copy vs. web. And while this atmosphere certainly provides more opportunities to be published, most of the straight online sites do not pay anywhere near as well as most of even the lower-paying hard-copy publications. well as a chance to make new connections.

In terms of monetization, the blogging model for travel writers is completely different from that of the traditional freelance travel writing model. While writers don't have to wait for an editor to purchase a story, it can take a long time and require much patience - and often, more than a little luck - to earn much from a blog, whether you're writing about paddling in Ecuador, diving in Maui, parrot-watching in the Caribbean or just camping in B.C.

So the challenges are there, as they always have been for those of us who earn a living as self-employed writers, photographers, and more recently, videographers.

It really is a Brave New World of travel publishing. Foward-thinking organizations - like the BCATW - that want to grow and thrive realize this, and we saw this in action, Saturday.

Really, the only action for all of us travel writers who value what we do, is to recognize the obstacles, embrace the challenge, and plow on, furiously typing, snapping and posting to bring the world out there back to our readers.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Road food is one thing; but how do you eat if the "road" is a river?

Nothing beats cooking - and eating - in the outdoors.
The name of my blog pretty much gives away the fact I'm passionate about parrots and about paddling (if not, I've really goofed!).

But if not truly passionate, I'm certainly very close to being passionate about food, as well.

So...if you take a foodie who's also a canoehead, it can sometimes be a bit of a challenge to create an acceptable menu when I'm on a multi-day paddling trip.

I will say I've had some marvellous eating experiences while travelling by canoe and kayak. There've been a few disappointments, too.

While every trip has its highlights, and I've never really had a bad paddling trip, how and what you eat can often influence your impressions and memories of the trip.

Obviously, while you're on a canoe or kayak trip, you are "on the road". However, unlike driving on a highway, there's no place to pull over and order a burger and fries (although those always seem to be my first go-to meal after finishing any paddling trip.)

That means you have to plan and cook it yourself, if you're on a self-guided trip; if you're booked with an outfitter, they look after the meal planning and most of the prep for you.

I've done plenty of both; and in both instances, I've experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly (even when there's no spaghetti involved.)

I have created some incredible meals myself, as well as been a party to some bad ones (usually in the form of freeze-dried foods.)

Although it may not qualify as gourmet fare, I remember the very first dish I ate, cooked over a campfire in the outdoors.

A nice heaping plate of Richildaca Stew.
I was eight years old, and I was a camper at Richildaca Day Camp, near Kettleby, Ontario, in the rural area just west of the Newmarket-Aurora area in southern Ontario, about 40 km north of Toronto. It was "cookout day." I was excited when I saw them open the ground beef. Then I saw cans of mushroom and vegetable soup. I HATED mushrooms and anything to do with them! And I wasn't keen about veggie soup, either, back then. But, it was eat that or starve. So I ate. And I ate it. And I ate it.

Yeah, I loved it.

So much that I've always tried to feature it on all my camping menus. Of course, it has changed over the years, as I've tweaked it a bit. And it wasn't called "Richildaca Stew" back then. But it's still easy, hearty, and every bite still brings back memories.

If you want to see a real-life demonstration on how to make Richildaca Stew, you can watch the entire process on one of my YouTube videos.

Then there are the bacon and eggs and hashbrowns that always taste so good cooked outdoors over a camp stove or an open fire. They always taste better than the ones cooked at home.

Breakfast is a sizzlin'...

Of course, not all my paddling recipes turn out well. Although I once impressed a young lady with my "canned goods shiskabob" (canned potatoes and spam, cooked on a stick over a fire - another Richildaca innovation), there have been some unpleasant memories involved with camp food. The most unpleasant involved two people sleeping in a small dome tent after gorging on freeze-dried bean-tortilla dinner.

It was w-a-y worse than normal beans. Even the porcupines that hung around that campsite in numbers just up and disappeared.
Some go-to books for planning paddling meals.

Scratch that one off the list.

If you want to plan your own trips and meals, there are several good books to help you. Two of my favourites are The Wanapitei Canoe Trippers Cookbook and The Paddling Chef

Outfitters have prepared some amazing meals on trips over the years. My first sea kayaking excursion in Belize, our guides prepared an amazing and simple rum punch, a delicious conch stew, and wonderful fresh-caught fish. Mind you, I wasn't crazy about the vegetarian chilli and vegetarian spaghetti sauce foisted upon us later in that EcoSummer trip by an overzealous "naturist" guide. But you take the good with the bad.

The best chow I've had on a paddling trip?

Two come to mind immediately: an Adventure-Life five-day kayak trip I took in the jungles of Ecuador and some great grub enjoyed with Okefenokee Adventures on a three-day canoe trip in the Georgia swamp.

In the Amazon, we had three-course meals, with everything prepared by the guides. Each meal featured soup, salad, entree, dessert and wine. All eaten at a table, sitting on chairs underneath a forest canopy filled with parrots, toucans, and the occasional harpy eagle.

In the Okefenokee, I remember eating some incredible jambalaya and equally good spaghetti with meat sauce.

Of course, everyone who knows me, knows how I love my coffee, in or out of camp. And without a good mug of brew (or two), you really cannot start the day properly - especially on a paddling trip.

Paddler and singer-songwriter Jerry Vandiver knows this better than anyone - which is why he wrote a great song about camp coffee. I'll leave it here, with you. Maybe it'll inspire you to plan your next paddling trip - or even a trip menu. Or if nothing else, to go get another cup of coffee to sip while you enjoy it.

Want to see more of Jerry's videos? Check out his YouTube page.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Things NOT experienced while travelling - and not sure I want to...

The only dolphin swim I'd consider:
snorkeling around  wild ones in the ocean.
It seems everybody has a "bucket list" of travel destinations or experiences these days.

Well, this is my "reverse" bucket list. It's a list of all the things I have NOT done while travelling - and I'm actually quite happy to keep it that way.

Whether for reasons of hygiene, fear, safety, ethics, or concern for the environment, these are experiences I'd not include on a bucket list of things to do, nor would I probably ever add them.

1. Fish foot massage in Thailand. I had the opportunity to experience this, had I really wanted to, when I visited Thailand. But the thought of sticking my feet into waters where countless others had done so, in order to have fish nibble at my feet, chewing any dead skin off, really does not appeal to me. I'll stick to reflexology, Thai, or aromatherapy massages, thank you.

2. Bungee jumping. Had the chance to do this on the bridge that spans the Zambezi River gorge between Zambia and Zimbabwe. I decided to take my chances whitewater rafting (I did almost drown, but that's another story). I hate heights. Terrified of them. Plus, with my history of lower back injuries and issues, bungee jumping anywhere would just not be safe.

3. Dolphin swims. I should clarify this. I have done snorkeling with dolphins - wild spinner dolphins in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. No contact is allowed, and respect is the watchword. This experience is similar to watching gorillas in central Africa. What I will not do is the dolphin swims sponsored by hotels in places like Mexico, Hawaii, etc. These dolphins are captive dolphins, kept safe from human infectious diseases through the use of anti-biotics. You get in a pool and can touch them, play with them, etc. Not for me, thanks.

4. Climbing. Anything. Again, I don't like heights. I don't intend to take up rock-climbing anytime soon. Or ice-climbing. I won't even consider a trip up Mount Kilimanjaro, which does not involve any technical climbing skills. However, it does require a fitness level that is probably beyond my reach at this point in my life. Besides, there are other experiences I'd rather in Africa that involve paddling as opposed to "ped-ling."

5. Zip Lining. See Numbers 2 and 4, above. Don't like heights. Back issues. Safety concerns. 'Nuff said. I have done the TreeTrek in Whistler offered by ZipTrek Ecotours. That was enough of a stretch for me, given my acrophobia.

Treetrek, yes; ziptrek, no thanks.
6. Whitewater kayaking. Whoa - I bet that brought you up, fast. You're probably thinking, "What the hey...?" After all, this blog post is partially about paddling, right?  But while I've done plenty of whitewater rafting (as a guide once said, "all thrill, no skill"), plenty of kayak touring, and lots of canoeing, I have ZERO experience with whitewater kayaking. Complicating the issue is the fact I've had shoulder issues the past several years; although I can paddle flatwater, some moving water and on the ocean, the strong, quick moves necessary to survive Class IV whitewater rapids in a kayak are beyond me. Still love watching it, though.

7. Parasailing. If you'd read the list above, you probably have no trouble figuring this one out.

8. Sky diving. Do I really need to explain?

9. Eating stuff that's TOO weird. I have eaten some weird stuff. But even I draw the line at what I consider to be really gross stuff like balut, sheep's brains, raw seal blubber - and any kind of botanicals (see, ayahuasca) that are going to mess with my brain's synapses. Anything weirder than the stuff described in a previous blog post, I'll leave for Andrew Zimmern.

10. Downhill skiing. Bad knees. Bad back. No experience at all in this activity. Probably not something I want to try to add to my list of travel experiences at this point in my life. I'll go cross-country skiing or hang back at the apres-ski in the hot tub, thank you.

Riding down Thailand's Chao Phraya River on a rice barge: 
one of the items scratched off my travel bucket list.

Now, even though I won't be doing anything list above, I'm still left with lots of things on my to-do bucket list.

So - what's on your anti-bucket list?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Missed holidays: just part of doing business

Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, they often express their envy.
It's not ALL fun and games. Especially when deadlines loom.

But that's because they're not really aware of what being a travel writer can involve.

The image at the right gives you an idea of just a few of the misconceptions people have about travel writing.

I won't go into a song-and-dance about the woes of what I do, because I do choose to do it, after all. If I didn't like it, I'd do something else.

However, one aspect many people may overlook is the missed holidays due to travel.

I realize many other jobs crucial to our well-being, involve working holidays. Doctors, nurses, EMT's, firefighters, cops, et al work on holidays. We all owe them our gratitude.

For a travel writer though, it's a bit of a different situation. You're often in a foreign country, days away from your loved ones. And while it's certainly not like being in the armed forces, it can still be a wistful time. Even soldiers, sailors, and pilots have their comrades-in-arms; unless they're in a group press trip, travel writers are more often then not, going solo.

With Good Friday right around the corner, I started to ponder the times I've missed Easter due to being away.

One year, I had to leave the day after Good Friday to fly south, by myself to do a two-week trip in the southern U.S.

Lucky for me, alligators don't take holidays.

Another year, I just got back from a two-week trip padding in the Florida everglades and Fishing in the Keys on Good Friday. At least that one was a shared trip.

Yet another time, I was just returning - alone - from Thailand the day after Good Friday. I guess if you combine this one and the other one to the southern U.S., it counts as one weekend.

And while it's not really a holiday, I have missed several Valentine's Days due to travel... one I was in Calgary for a trip; another time, I was on a train going to Toronto. Yet another time, I was sick as a result of travel, and couldn't celebrate it.

One of the more memorable absences - from a humorous standpoint - occurred because while I was on a trip, I had an opportunity to visit with a friend who used to be a serious girlfriend years ago. We're now friends, of course. (I like to kid about that one, saying, "Well, I spent my Valentine's Day having breakfast with an ex!" Luckily, the Divine Ms. K has a sense of humour about these things!)

I missed both our birthdays at times, once in Wales, another time in Borneo.

Luckily, I've never been away during Christmas or New Year's. I don't think I'd like that much. But if an opportunity comes up that's impossible to turn down, I'll be there.

So what's the point of all this?

A trip to Alberta's southern Rockies took me away
from home one Valentine's Day.
Well, in pondering this, I realize how lucky I am to be in a relationship in which my partner understands and accepts all this (even if my parrots don't!)

Although she has accompanied me on some of my trips to places like Belize, Africa, Ecuador, the Everglades, there are far more trips I take where she stays home and looks after our birds and patiently waits for my return.

So this Easter is more like a spring Thanksgiving for me.

Because while I wouldn't change what I do, when I think back to all the amazing travel experiences I've enjoyed, I'm grateful for that - and for having a partner who supports the kind of vagabond life I sometimes lead.