Ah! the life of a travel writer – lounging on the beach beside the azure sea in some exotic destination, a chilled glass of champagne always at hand provided by an ever-attentive (but never intrusive) waiter. “Would sir,” (or madam, after all the world of the itinerant writer is open to all), “care for lobster salad for lunch, or may I recommend the bouillabaisse, the chef’s specialty and absolutely divine?” Decisions, decisions!
Most people’s idea of a travel writer’s life is one long round of first class travel to exotic destinations, stays in luxury hotels, cruises on the fanciest of liners and sumptuous meals served with superb wines. This may be the case for the Bill Brysons of this world, but for the Derek Workmans, who are around 99.9% of working travel writers, the reality couldn’t be more different.
My travelling is usually based on the sale of one – or if I’m lucky, two – articles within reasonable proximity of each other. The fees almost inevitably have to cover all expenses, so unless I can sweet-talk a hotel into a room for the night, I lay my head in places you would walk by with a shudder, and eat elbow-to-elbow in workers’ cafes. And there is no such thing as a lounge by the swimming pool; when I’m not on my feet researching I’m sat on a chair in a café writing up my daily notes on my laptop and uploading photos while having a coffee and a sandwich. This is the real life of a travel writer, although with enough experience under your belt you might occasionally get the luxury trip that others drool over.
My first big free gig was a six-day press trip to the Canary Islands to cover five islands, plus Madeira, and one night on a cruise ship. Everything top-notch, business-class flight from my home in Valencia, Spain, four-star hotel and three-fork restaurants all the way. They even chartered a private airplane to shuttle us between three of the islands, which slightly lost its gilding when the co-pilot came around just after take-off and handed out a chocolate bar and plastic carton of orange juice each, our in-flight meal.
The dozen journalists were split into three smaller groups, four each of Italian, German, and British. The Italians swanned around all day showing no interest in anything except making sure their summer frocks and cream linen trousers didn’t get dirty, and ‘why can’t we get a decent cup of coffee’; the Germans acted as if they’d been there, done that, and would have bought the T-shirt if only they had one in gargantuan size; the Brits were badly dressed and the only ones to actually take notes. Each group had its own mini-bus and guide/interpreter, although everyone spoke English, often better than the English themselves.
The islands are stunning and visually the trip was glorious. But get a bad guide and you have a recipe for disaster. On Madeira the Brit’s guide was an opinionated jerk who delivered his talk like a tin-pot megalomaniac dictator, allowing no room for questions. ‘Now you really must remember,’ he told us on a visit to Fuchal’s glorious Botanical Gardens, ‘that you should always write the Latin name of a plant in italics,’ and waited while we did just that. (At the end of the tour he even tried to sell us some of his home-made organic pasta.) Apparently the Germans’ translator was so shy that he barely spoke the whole time, while the Italians simply ignored theirs and continued moaning about the coffee.
It might seem trite to say that you can get bored with four-star hotels and three-fork restaurants, but it’s true. Sometimes you could die for a slice of pizza, but the organizers, hotels, restaurants et al have to get every drop it’s possible to drain out of your time and it’s rare you get a moment to contemplate that beautiful sunrise before you are on the road again. By the last night we were all exhausted (except the Italians) and half-way through a sumptuous dinner in some castle somewhere-or-other (by then I’d given up trying to remember where I was) I had to ask one of our escorts to take me back to my hotel room because I was about to fall asleep face forward in my plate of the local specialty, whatever it was.
On the subject of hotels and restaurants, I was once commissioned by an online travel site to write reviews of forty hotels and forty restaurants in a specific area of Spain, as well as a lot of back-up info such as things to see, car hire etc. When a friend said I must have stayed in some wonderful hotels and eaten in some excellent restaurants she was surprised when I told her that I’d only stayed in two hotels (both owned by friends) and eaten in three restaurants (ditto). If I’d actually laid my head on the pillow in each establishment – everything from cozy two-room country houses to a four-star palace (where I did eventually spend a night) – or sampled the menu in every restaurant, my expenses would have been marginally more than twice the fee I was being paid. This is where years of experience comes in. An experienced hotel or restaurant critic can spot a duff place the moment they walk through the door – although I have had the happy occasion where I’ve been forced to eat my words.
One-man trips are as rare as hen’s teeth, and without doubt the best I’ve ever had was a two-week high-speed twirl around Morocco for a travel company; flight, private car and driver, beautiful hotels and riads, everything included. I was to re-write all their itineraries, design and produce an online brochure, a set number of articles, all of which were paid for, and I threw in an ebook of daily anecdotes, Morocco on the Run, for the pleasure of it because I’d had such a good time.
It sounds wonderful, and it was, but the daily routine went something like this.
On travelling days, up at 6.30 – 7.00 to get a good start on the first stop on the itinerary, usually at least two hours away. Spend a couple of hours rushing around the city/historical site/fill in the space. Meet the driver and move on to the next ditto. Keep this up until we reached the next overnight stay, which we timed to be there for around 6-7pm. Shower, upload all the photos onto the computer and begin writing up notes. (A word for would-be travel writers; never, ever, leave your notes until the next day. If you lose your notepad or digital device not only will you never remember everything you wrote down, but you will be failing the client when you eventually come to write the article, and that is unforgivable.) Have dinner around eight (drinking very little alcohol from the wonderful wine list because you will feel rough the next day) and back to making sure your notes are safe on your laptop. Only then do you put your head on the pillow.
I’m a prolific note taker – I use spiral-bound notepads for their flick-over speed – so I can spend a couple of hours each evening writing them up. Don’t think you can get away with a tape recorder because you lose all the nuance that note-taking brings (and they take hours to transcribe, so imagine five hours a day recording for two weeks!), or assuming that you can write from photos. They are an aide mèmoire because they can’t portray the sounds and smells of your experience. If you have a two-night stay because the city is large you can have a lie-in till eight, you may actually get time for a swim in the pool and a relaxed dinner that evening – after you’ve written up your notes. Otherwise, it’s up at 6.30 the next morning and repeat the process.
On this trip I ate something in Chefchaouen, the beautiful ‘Blue City’ in the Rif Mountains, that disagreed with my stomach had me stretched out sweating and feeling sorry for myself for the seven-hour drive in a huge loop through Tangier and down the coast to Rabat, with twenty minutes on my feet in the seaside resort of Asilah, where, purely by chance, I took one of my favourite photos of Morocco, which became the cover for my photobook Eye on Morocco. I left my upper-end camera in a taxi in Fez, never to see it again, and my professional-level audio recorder in a hotel in Chefchaouen, which eventually arrived back in my hands after an over-night delivery to Marrakech that took five weeks.
But as any travel writer will tell you, you don’t do the job for the money, and to be frank luxury wears thin after a while because you rarely experience anything of the place you are staying in other than what the organizer wants to force-feed you. Sometimes you need that meal shoulder-to-shoulder in a workers’ café to show you that there is a lot more to life and writing than a bed the size of an island and champagne cocktails.
But it’s damned nice once in a while!