Most professions, with the possible exception of selling aluminum siding, have their glamour niche. If you’re a doctor, it could be alternative medicine. If you’re a computer programmer, it’s games. And if you’re a writer, it’s a travel assignment.
But not every writer can master the travel genre. You have to have an eye for it. A good travel writer, like a professional photographer, finds stories in the details, in the shadows, in the mundane. Marcel Proust said it best: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” In this article, I will show you 10 ways to zoom in all of your senses so you’ll return from every trip brimming with travel-story ideas.
1. Foreigners say the darndest things.
Every journey will bring you in contact with a blizzard of waiters, taxi drivers, hotel clerks, shopkeepers, etc. Most of us ignore these individuals because they’re commonplace. Big mistake. Often, such people are the story.
While on a boat trip into the Mekong Delta in Vietnam a few years ago, our tour guide approached me during a quiet moment. I already knew what he was going to ask me (“Are you married?”) because my guidebook said that the very family-oriented Vietnamese always this question first.
Unfortunately, I was divorced, which to the Vietnamese is scandalous. “You’d be better off claiming your former spouse died,” the manual advised. So, rather than offend the man, I killed off my ex-wife. I was asked this question everywhere I went. By the end of the trip, I couldn’t wait return and tell my ex all the things I’d done to her.
But instead of dismissing these conversations, I wrote an amusing story about them, which became my most successful travel article ever. It appeared in the Sunday travel sections of The Washington Post, Newsday, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (with the first two waging a bidding contest for the rights to run it first) and was chosen as the lead piece in Not So Funny When It Happened: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure (Travelers’ Tales, 2000).
2. Trouble happens.
If you ever get into trouble while traveling (and who doesn’t?), don’t grumble about it. You just made a sale.
I was strolling down a tree-lined promenade in Havana a few years ago when I struck up a conversation with four kids playing soccer. A Cuban policeman, thinking we were talking politics, asked for my passport and visa. “They’re at my hotel,” I said. This was not the correct answer.
Within minutes, two squad cars arrived with a half-dozen more patrolmen. The kids and I were taken downtown to the infamous police headquarters where former dictator Fulgencio Batista used to greet visitors like us with fingernail clamps and testicle squeezers.
Although the thought crossed my mind that it wouldn’t take much for some prison guard having a really bad day to suddenly have a Batista flashback, I wasn’t scared. In fact, I was ecstatic. I was in trouble and had a story. The kids and I were released an hour later, and the instant I returned home, I asked the travel editor of The Washington Post if she’d be interested in my tale. Was she ever! She’d just put her annual Caribbean issue to bed, but because the story was so timely, she tore up the entire section to make room for it. So, you got troubles? Don’t get even; get a byline instead.
3. Custom-made stories.
Knowing local history can be priceless to a travel writer. The more regional color you can weave into your stories, the more editors will want them.
I once won a free trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. I planned to just relax, not write a travel story — until a golf partner made an offhand remark that changed my mind. The main hazards on the course were rocklike lava formations, which he said were the domain of Madam Pele, the island’s volcano goddess. “If Pele likes you, she’ll kick your ball back onto the fairway,” he said. “If she doesn’t, she’ll keep it.”
What bunk, I thought. But just to be safe, I bought an extra half-dozen golf balls. On the first tee, I joked that I hoped the goddess’s brother, the Brazilian soccer star, was doing well in retirement. Hey, she either had a sense of humor or she didn’t.
By the time I finally staggered off the first green, my partner had birdied, I had sextuple-bogeyed, and I had only one golf ball left in my bag. Madam Pele does not have a sense of humor.
The good news was, I had a story. “Golfing with Madam Pele” was sold to a sports and fitness website. Thank goodness its editor had a sense of humor.
4. Accidental discoveries.
Never underestimate the importance of happenstance. Taking the wrong fork in the road will always reward an alert travel writer.
On a trip to Bangkok, my travel partner and I signed up for the famous floating market tour. When we showed up for the popular tourist attraction, the dock was deserted except for a lone boatman. “You want to go on river…today?” he said, aghast. “This is first day of Songkran — Thai New Year!”
We looked at each other and shrugged. “Cool, no problem.” The boatman pleaded with us to reconsider, but we told him it was our only free day. Within minutes after shoving off, we discovered why the man had been so reluctant. During Songkran, the entire country turns into a perpetual water fight. So far the next two hours, a joyous mob of sadists bombarded our boat from the riverbanks with water balloons, fire hoses, and buckets. It was the most exciting calamity I have ever experienced — and a unique travel yarn that was sold to the Los Angeles Times for its annual special section devoted to travel disasters.
5. Journeys to the heart.
Editors and readers love stories that tug at their emotions. Life happens all around us, and it’s our job as journalists to find emotional moments and turn them into unforgettable stories.
The first time I visited Hong Kong, I took a ferry to nearby Lantau, a tranquil island of monasteries and walking trails. I had read somewhere that the sunsets from the hilltops facing the South China Sea were so spectacular that many people buried their loved ones there so their souls would face the view for all eternity.
As the ferry unloaded, everyone stepped around a seriously injured dog on the pier that appeared to be dying. I couldn’t get the poor thing out of my mind the rest of the day as I trekked across the island toward the fabled hills. I approached one summit just as the sun was setting and noticed something lying across the trail.
It was the dog.
Wheezing in tiny yelps of pain, it was gazing at the brilliant sunset. I was dumbstruck. How had it gotten there? How had it beaten me there? And most important, had it gone there because it wanted that inspiring view to be the last thing it saw, too? I’ve been noodling with this tale for years and haven’t gotten it right yet. But I know when I finally do, it’s gonna make people weep.
6. When in Wales.
After you’ve made a few sales, tourist boards may call you with enticing offers. But before you grab that free trip and run, make sure the story idea is right for you or you may find it difficult to sell when you get back.
Several years ago, the Wales Tourist Board invited me to attend a literary festival. I politely declined. “I’m a travel humor writer, not a reporter,” I told them. “But if you come up with something that might elicit some laughs, I’d be glad to go.”
They called back a week later. “OK, how’d you like to be a Welshman for a week — sing in a male-voice choir, spend a day in a coal mine, take a Welsh lesson, go bog snorkeling, herd sheep with a sheepdog, that sort of thing?”
The idea was so brilliant, I could not only see the article, I could see the book. The three-week adventure garnered my biggest sales to date: a $4,000 check from National Geographic Traveler (which changed format shortly afterward and never ran it) and after that a $3,000 check from Islands (whose editor left shortly afterward and never ran it either). I’m currently shopping for a third publication — and check.
7. Ordinary people.
Need I say it? Observing people when you travel is Rule No. 1. Watch how the locals cross the street, smoke a cigarette, order food, sell their wares. You never know when a gem will fall into your lap.
While taking a ferry across the Mekong River in Vietnam, I witnessed the most effective begging technique I have ever seen in my life — from a 7-year-old girl. With the tenacity of a pit bull, she withstood all attempts — physical and otherwise — from the tourists on the boat to get her to cease her incessant, monotoned, broken-record “You give me money” demand.
That was enough for a story right there. But what made the incident especially noteworthy was that she met her match that day from an elderly Swiss woman who resisted with such herculean resolve that their 30-minute duel became a classic.
It’s too bad that no one else saw it. Everyone was minding their own business. I, on the other hand, was taking notes. Guess who’ll get the story?
8. Trading places.
Most travel writing is about places: cities, hotels, restaurants, clubs, etc. Publications constantly need new info on the hottest tapas bar in Hamburg, the sexiest spa in Cabo, the hippest shop in Buenos Aires. The best way is to ask locals and expats about their secret hideaways. The operative word is secret. You’re looking for places that aren’t touristy yet — but will be.
Years ago, when I was stationed in Tokyo in the Army, I was taken to an underground club called Dracula that only a few people knew about. It was like no other place I have ever seen. It was a combination restaurant/haunted house/fraternity party where literally every object in the place — walls, ceilings, tables, chairs, drinks, food, waiters — was a jack-in-the-box trap.
You didn’t go there to eat; you went there to lose your cookies. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a writer then, and the club no longer exists. So I lost out on that opportunity. But that’s the kind of place travel publications will pay dearly to discover for their readers — with your help, of course.
9. Beyond the predictable.
What do you do if nothing out of the ordinary happens? You try and try to find a story but just come up empty? Sometimes, despite using all the tips above, a trip will stymie you.
That happened to me on an African safari. Everything I saw was a cliche: lions sleeping, elephants walking, Masai warriors jumping. No editor wants a standard safari experience. Then I remembered something I’d told a fellow traveler on our first day. I’d said, “I hope something semi-dangerous happens to us.” She and the others in our van had replied politely, no offense, but we do not want something semi-dangerous to happen to us.
The phrase became the running joke for the rest of the trip because semi-dangerous things began happening to us at a fairly rapid clip after that. Elephants and a cape buffalo charged us, hyenas peered into our tents at night, a leopard attacked a baboon in the middle of our camp.
What ultimately sold my piece was our running joke, which I made the spine of my story. The resulting $1,000 sale to The Washington Post was entitled “Game Plan: He wanted a different kind of safari. He got it.”
10. The wrong place at the write time.
The joy of travel writing is that you get to work in exotic locales. And if you’re lucky, the setting and circumstances can turn a fabulous story into the stuff of legend.
The year: 1969. The place: the lobby of the Manila Hotel. A Filipino man introduces himself and asks if I’m a GI. Yes. I have a job for you. What kind of job? Meet me tomorrow night at Malacanang Palace (the official residence of President Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos).
The next night I show up at the mansion, am escorted to a dressing room, and am told to change into one of the mock blood-stained World War II uniforms hanging on a rack. I’m given a plastic rifle and led to a stage set up to look like the Battle of Bataan, complete with barbed wire, machine gun nests, sand, and coconut trees. Other GIs and Filipinos mill around, similarly dressed. A curtain separates us from a ballroom filled with hundreds of dignitaries.
The Filipino man reappears and carefully positions each of us (I’m instructed to stand and point my rifle toward the audience). We will be the backdrop during the playing of the national anthems of both countries. We are not to move. Moments before the program begins, a Secret Service agent comes backstage and checks each of our weapons to ensure we haven’t switched our plastic guns for the real thing.
As the opening notes of The Star-Spangled Banner are heard and the curtain opens, my knees buckle. It’s not because of the anthem but because my rifle is aimed at the forehead of the person being feted that evening: President Richard M. Nixon.
Now that’s a story. And no one’s ever going to have it but me. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken a shot at an adventure. So what happened to the story? I’m saving that for my memoir.
The Writer (June 2003)