Is travel writing dead?

Is travel writing dead? Granta 137 has asked that question, and, before I read what international travel writers are saying about the topic, as travel writer, I thought I should answer it myself.

First of all, what is travel writing? Is it a guidebook? Yes. Can it be a blog? Yes. Can it be an article in a magazine? Yes. Can it be a setting in a novel? Yes. And, can it be pure fiction, or the embroidered truth? Unfortunately, yes.

So, the question, is travel writing dead, depends on which genre within the genre you are talking about. For me, and my style of travel writing, it’s about telling stories about what I’ve seen and done. It’s not PR work. It’s not interviewing my computer. And, it’s not embellishing my photos – what you see is what I saw.

Travel writing can include a destination overview or round-up, accommodation choices, personal experiences of fear & laughter, advice or ‘how to’ articles, food, a journey or transport, events and festivals, history, health advice, nature, animals and, of course, personality profiles. They can also be a memoir.

In the past, I told students to ‘encourage with description, tempt with flavour, resolve doubts with fact, take an unusual viewpoint, introduce fascinating people, reveal little known information, offer practical advice – of course they don’t all have to be in one story. And what doesn’t work?  Stating the obvious, squeezing everything in, clichéd descriptions, trite phrases or a passive observer view’. It’s not a letter home to your family unless that’s how you are going to structure your book, your column, or travel book.

So, given these parameters, of course travel not writing is not dead: all the time I’m reading works by people writing along these lines in new and old literature, on the web, between the covers of books, and on my e-reader or tablet.

What is dead is the number of outlets available to reproduce such travel writing. Magazines and newspapers – which used to devote many pages to travel writing weekly – have drastically reduced. Along with this reduction is the huge decrease in dollars paid to the writer. My income is a pittance to what I used to be paid only a few years ago, and it’s very difficult to negotiate a payment – it’s mostly, “this is what we pay” and a take-it or leave-it attitude.

Pages in magazines and newspapers of course have reduced as circulation numbers and travel advertisements have also plummeted. Glossy flyers, posters in travel agent’s windows, and the Internet have replaced those adverts. No adverts equals no money equals pages reduced equals travel writers not needed.

The other reason local travel writers are not used are that editors are given free PR material to reproduce and, or, they use stories from the publishing stable of their international colleagues. This means in New Zealand we read stories written by British, or American, journalists and not something in a Kiwi voice and with a kiwi attitude to travel – and they are different.

Hear ends the rant. And, now on a wet Sunday afternoon in Wellington, New Zealand I can now devour my new Granta book and see what some of my admired, or unknown, travel writers have said about the topic.

Do you think travel writing is dead? What’s your favourite type of travel writer?

The kiwi travel writer enjoys Fiji cruising

How-to tips for travel writing – you want to be a travel writer?

The kiwi travel writer enjoys Fiji cruising
The Kiwi Travel Writer enjoys cruising in Fiji

So you want to be a travel writer, you want some tips. Okay first, after teaching travel writing over many years I can tell you most people never get published – sad but true. In fact, that’s why I stopped teaching – it didn’t feel right to be encouraging an almost impossible dream. Unfortunately, as a freelancer, like me, with shrinking travel pages in magazines and newspapers, you will find fewer places for you to send your work to and, the competition is high.

You will also discover that you will not be swanning around the world with free airline tickets, accommodation in five-star hotels, and meals at fancy restaurants – again, sad but true.

I’m sure your friends and family tell you that you write really well, that ‘you should be a travel writer’, that in fact ‘you should write a book’. That may well be true but, and this is a big but, editors do not want articles sent to them that are really like an email or letter you sent your grandmother about your time in Rome; or the one to your girlfriend about the romantic date you had with that talk dark and handsome, very dishy, Greek. These absolutely could be the basis for a great story – just written differently.

Something else that stops people fulfilling their dream to become a travel writer is the discipline and hard work it takes! It’s not just the writing, you will also need to be your own travel consultant, time manager, tax advisor, receipt keeper, bookkeeper, bookings maker, PR person, media and editor chaser, and of course, photographer. Oh, one more thing, you also don’t get paid until the editor actually prints your work – so make sure you have some cash hidden away. I live on a budget so I can travel to where I want to go … not just to the flavour of the month destination, or where I’m invited – in fact I turn down invitations if they don’t excite me!

However, if you love to travel, if you love to write, if you love to take photos, this is a great job: in fact, I think I have the best job in the world. I’m on the bottom of the food chain, but I have a great lifestyle. Sometimes I do get airline tickets and five-star accommodation too but that’s because people know my work and believe they get value for money from me. What’s even more confirming is that I’ve been invited more than once to the same country, or event, by the same tourism agencies.

I started travel writing after a year-long trip, alone with no bookings, around the world, from Alaska to Zimbabwe. On my return to New Zealand I took a short writing class and was encouraged to send some of my travel stories to local newspapers and magazines. To my amazement they were all accepted and cheques sent – I immediately decided I would be a travel writer; it seemed it was that easy. But no, over the following years I received many ‘no thank you’ letters, or, as you will find – if you continue your dream of travel writing – silence from editors. Yes, that’s right, most don’t even answer.

Nevertheless, if you decide to become a travel writer here are just a few tips – I don’t do these all the time, but mix-and-match to suit the occasion, and more importantly, the style of the magazine or newspaper I’m pitching to. As I am not a journalist, I very rarely approach editors before my travels – this is because mostly I’m a traveller who writes, not a writer who travels. Sometimes I have an idea of stories before I go, but usually I just go exploring and stories find me. However this too can be a cultural thing – each country expects different things from writers. For instance, when I have sent stories to the USA I need to use American spelling – seems editors there don’t think their readers can translate from Kiwi, or British, spelling.

Back to that list of tips, and of course other travel writers would add or subtract from this – so, please add your tips in the comments below:

  • Of course, first you have to be a writer – travel writing is just one genre. Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • The basics: Learn about the place by talking to locals. Don’t interview your computer or guidebook, your readers can do that for themselves; but they are a good source for the correct spellings of places
  • Don’t write about places you haven’t been to – unless of course, you are doing a story about your bucket list. That’s PR/editorial work, not travel-writing, and you want your readers to know you are reliable for telling the truth.
  • Get lost – the best stories are not always in the main tourist destinations but in the back roads and streets of places
  • Take notes, ask questions, get quotes, and note the colours, smells, and tastes. [I don’t journal when travelling but take copious photos and lists of ideas, and notes on speech, dress for example]
  • Avoid clichés, almost like the plague – although,  see I’ve just used one, because occasionally they’re useful
  • Lose the ‘best kept secrets’, ‘city of contrasts’ and ‘unspoilt gems’.  Why do lodges always ‘nestle’ at the foothills or ‘perch’ vulture-like atop a mountain with ‘breath-taking views’ over a ‘rustic’ village?
  • Find a fresh angle to the story. Rarely will you find a place that has not been written about so find something original to grab a reader’s attention
  • Be realistic and tell the truth – in other words, talk about the filth, the cruelty to horses, the stray dogs or what seems to be, starving camels eating cardboard from rubbish dumps. [Apart from the occasional cropping I don’t edit my pics either – you see what I saw i.e. I also tell the truth in my photos]
  • Read travel blogs, travel writers books and, of course, magazines and newspapers travel pages
  • This should have been my first tip: Read, read, read: Rinse and repeat, often. Good reading will make you a better writer. You will never develop your own voice and style without reading.
think about things
think about things
  • Along with reading you need to write, write, write, even when you don’t want to. Paint a picture with words for your reader
  • Add some historical or political context to add to the point.
  • Thomas Swick wrote in Roads Not TakenIt is the job of travel writers to have experiences that are beyond the realm of the average tourist, to go beneath the surface, and then to write interestingly of what they find … Good travel writers understand that times have changed, and in an age when everybody has been everywhere (and when there is a Travel Channel for those who haven’t), it is not enough simply to describe a landscape, you must now interpret it.’
  • Write about your local area, become a travel expert on your own city. After all, your city is somewhere travellers visit. [When my city, Christchurch, New Zealand had quakes in 2010/11 I was inundated with requests for up-to-date information and I ended up writing many travel webpages for prestigious travel companies and airlines]
  • Don’t forget the adage of ‘Show, don’t tell’ and as Stephen King will tell you, when you read ‘On Writing‘, lose the lazy ‘ly’ words, so ditch the adverbs and flowery descriptions and find the perfect verb instead.
  • Sometimes, others would say always, end with a punch or at least capture the point of the story. Don’t dare say you ‘can’t wait to return’ – it’s been done to death.
  • When your piece is complete, read it out loud. Edit. Read again. Run the spell-checker, and your eye, over the piece, (I print to read from) put your work aside for some hours or days, or even weeks, then read it out loud again then, and only then send it to an editor. But, make sure you have read their publication again and again so you know their style, and if they ask for 800 words that means 800 words. Not 802 not 850 but 800. However, 790 or 736 is usually fine
  • If they need photos, send your best half a dozen, and caption them. If they ask for one . . .  guess what, send one.
  • And, some last points, don’t tell people what you going to write or you can lose the essence of the story. Be like the Nike ad’ and just do it
  • Don’t write for free. Let me repeat that – don’t write for free. If it’s worth publishing, it’s worth paying for. You don’t need a portfolio to start, the editor is only interested in the piece in front of them: I know that from my travel editor days – for one year, for a now redundant Christchurch newspaper
  • A supportive group of hardcore travel writers I know are discussing, on-line right now, how they hate people asking for advice and tips then don’t say THANK YOU within 24 hours – just saying! I say thanks to places who host me: I also send links to all the work I publish that mentions them, and a PDF of a piece I’ve written about ‘how to make the most of having hosted’ me. Once again, win-win.
  • Start a blog, practice writing there, give it away there for free. I have had many invitations to events and countries (and that’s not easy when you live at the bottom of the world so fares are not cheap and time can be an issue) by people who have found me through my blog. And of course you need to be on all social media to urge those eyeballs to come over to read your blog. (See my links here)

See my three books here (two are travel, one about suicide grief)

Heather, the KiwiTravelWriter at work in Wurzburg
Heather, the KiwiTravelWriter at work in Wurzburg


Travel writing for free?

This is a chain of posts and comments from my Facebook page and thought it was worth sharing with a  wider audience. Thanks to all the writers / journalists/ bloggers who commented … I have removed names and links to their FB page to stop spam etc

Here also is a rant from Harlan Ellison (I love ranters who I agree with :):) )

Heather Hapeta has shared a video with you on YouTube
Harlan Ellison — Pay the Writer
A memorable (and timely) rant from the upcoming feature documentary on Harlan
Ellison, “DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH”. Go to for
more excerpts!!
See the full trailer here:

From  Heather Hapeta‘s Facebook page earlier this year.

“Recently I was asked to write a monthly travel column for a NZ online fashion mag. For no reward  – they seem to think it’s worth $1500 a month in promotion for me!

As I tell my travel-writing students ‘you will find it hard if not impossible to get published’ … and, ‘don’t give your work away’! I’m wondering what others think of this “it’s worth blah blah blah

replies ……

LW  Promotion? So another mag can see that you write well and offer you are job for no money? I never work for free; that is called a hobby. Just my thoughts.

SET Agree – what is it that you would be promoting via the column?

Heather Hapeta yes that’s my gut feeling LW .. would be writing on travel topics .. so only promoting wherever I write about I guess .. plus the links to my pages. Its not like I’m a tourism company and promoting that.

NA Knowing how many visitors the site receives and from where would be interesting. How are they calculating that magical $1500?

HB Once you do stuff for free, you establish your market value. You’ll always be doing stuff for free after that.

DM I was once offered cash to write about a company’s new car but knew it would kybosh any future career. ‘What if it’s no good?’ I asked. ‘Oh you can’t criticise it and we’d have to have editorial sign-off.’ they said. I said they must be joking and never heard from that particular PR bloke again, though I’ve driven and written about several good, bad and indifferent cars from the company since. A hundred quid was a lot money in those days, too.

MH Myllylahti There is not such a thing as free labour. That is just pure exploitation.

Heather Hapeta They sent me all their site stats .. although they have more Facebook ‘followers’ I have 3 or 4X the #s on twitter/WordPress etc . but I’m 99% sure no is my answer. .. thanks everyone

DH  Good decision

DM  Tell them you’ll accept that $1500 each month on a cheque?

LH  Heey Hugh….YOU’RE SO RIGHT! Embarrassingly….I’ve only just come to work that out now?? Classy! HA HA HA HA! Working for Pro bono is definitely a habit I have to break!

Heather Hapeta LH why do you do pro bono work?

LH  Hmmm…Hi Heather…I have a neurological condition….and therefore a patchy work record ie Employers were anxious about employing me because they were worried that they would have to deal with my bad memory and organisational skills ( hmm they are…BAD…) so I did pro bono work to try and say to the journalism, communications, PR and Marketing industries that I am capable of writing articles….BUT Capital Community Newspapers have stopped taking work from me now anyway ( there new editor says they wont take freelance work now!) so doing pro bono work might be over anyway!

Heather Hapeta LH  do articles etc on your own blog for them to see your skills :):)

LH  Hi Heather! Yes….Thank you…..I wasn’t whinging about life as a journalist ( though reading my last post may give this impression!) I will do something like this….I’ve just been made redundant from NZUSA as their communications person ( they ran out of money for the role) so I will have to do something like this, I think to get into another comms role! This is the first week of unemployment after 7 months….and its all a bit….Daunting ( is that the word??)

Heather Hapeta very daunting!

PHW  Cash is king. Tell them to read Adam Smith. (

BK I did pro bono work in radio copywriting as a sort of foot in the door training thing. I got paid work out of it, from the radio station – they’d get me in when people were sick. So it can work. But that was quite a lot of years ago now.

AG It’s awful, isn’t it. I was recently asked by a website to write one 300 word lifestyle article per week. The writer of the ‘most shared’ article on the site per month would receive $25 while the writer who had the most shared articles overall per month got $50. Depressing.

BK  And that model of course encourages people to write lowest common denominator, clickbait, trollbaiting stuff.

Heather Hapeta You have all convinced me to go with what I knew was right. Will write a blog re the issue and send it to the company

JB  Tell them if it’s only worth $1,500 promotion then it’s not really worth your time?

DBK I wouldn’t do it for nothing just like they wouldn’t sell advertising for nothing. Tell them to get stuffed – you can SELL your work; how can they qualify their statement regarding value? Is the by-line likely to attract more work? I doubt it. But keep trying elsewhere and if you need advice email me off this page….I’ve had a lot published over the years and been paid well for it. Incidentally do you belong to Travcom?

BK And if Vinny Eastwood can self-promote his “journalism” and get such high numbers, so can you. You don’t need them to raise your profile.

Heather Hapeta David Burke-Kennedy yes I’m with Travcom … also sell my work in many international places …airline mags newspapers etc but it’s getting harder and harder!

DBK y yes it is…but don’t devalue your work by giving it away unless there’s a really good reason. Hope that’s not like telling an experienced writer how to suck eggs…

Heather Hapeta I was querying it as Travcom now allows articles that have not been paid for to enter the comps .. in trade for free trips. So think giving work away is more common than we think. Was testing the waters really … glad lots of staunch people out there!

JT  NEVER give your work away…unless it is for charity. My brother, photographer Rob Tucker, used to charge peanuts for his work, until his wife took over the books and quadrupled his charges. He never looked back.

AC Go with your gut, Heather. It’s not worth anything at all to you if no one pays.

AL Absolutely, Heather – they’re trying to make it seem like they’re doing you a favour by publishing your work. Of course, the truth is the other way round – where would their magazine be without content?

JB  Going back to what Brigid said about a foot in the door … what say ye KJAs to a request from a place you’d really like to work for? Still yeah but nah?

BK  I think the circumstances of the job market have changed quite a lot and you would need very clear boundaries about how little free stuff they would get for their non-buck. Because more and more outlets are looking for content they don’t have to pay for, in order to cut costs.

JB  Sorry my own experience: was unemployed, started doing a column for free for the editor of a paper that I admired, just to keep my profile up, the publisher then read the columns, remembered me from years of conferences, had an empty slot, said thanks and hired me. So, fa’afetai Samoa Observer! It’s not the NYTimes but I never wanted that anyway, small island papers is where I started and what I still love to bits – plus SaOb is feisty-as for a *small* paper (huge by island standards) ….. point being, if it’s for an outlet you love, take a punt, they may just have an empty slot. Or one may come up? 2 senes worth from Samoa.

AL I think the situation for Heather is a bit different (feel free to correct me, Heather!) in that she is an already established writer and the magazine wants to publish work in an area in which she is already known. If they were saying ‘let’s give it a whirl for a couple of months and then we’ll pay you’ that would be a bit different I suppose, but this looks more like ‘let’s give it a whirl and you can keep working for us for nothing’. Having said that, Jason, I started a 30-year-plus career in radio by working for nothing every weekend… and like you, when a paid position came up, I got it!

JB Ah, sorry Heather, was talking in general terms, rather than being Hapeta-specific, but should have said so .. thanks Allen, exactly what you said.

JW  I don’t think you should do it for free. Unfortunately it lowers the bar for everyone trying to make a living. I have a parallel experience as a musician. I got asked to play for free twice in the last fortnight with the benefit to me of ‘getting my name out there’. I explained politely that I have been performing professionally for 20 years now. If people want something for free then they could at least acknowledge that you would be doing them a service and not pretend they’re doing you a favor.

KM  Sounds like bollocks. Ask for $500 a month or get stuffed.

FL  I left a job recently and a former journalism student of mine was interviewed for the position. She was asked to write an article for the paper – I wonder if she was paid for it? She’ll find out this week if she’s got the job. I was asked to write an a…See More

PHW If you want exposure, file for Salient. And do it well. There. I said it.

MS I am finding more and more that the less you get paid for your skills, the more people seem to want from you and often the more troublesome the client. As hard as it is, I’ve said No to a couple of things lately. Interestingly, jobs paying properly came along to fill that space…

PHB It goes without saying I hope that as professionals we refuse to be commission stories without offering payment.


Christchurch celebrates an upturn in visitor numbers

Christchurch and the Canterbury region are celebrating a year of tourism wins, along with an upturn in visitor numbers.

In recent months the region has been singled out by influential travel book publisher Lonely Planet as a top destination and several of the region’s tourism attractions and tourist operators have won industry accolades: in Christchurch earlier this month I can see why.

Every time I return to my home city I have a combination of sadness and hope: sad to see my history being erased from the streets along with hope as I see the new city rise phoenix  like.

Staying at the five star Classic Villa in the city centre  it was easy to walk around and see both – I also took the Red Bus tour of the red-z0ne area which is very small now – which got a me a little closer to places I could not always reach on foot.

“It’s been another challenging year for our tourism industry but despite that we’ve had some big successes,” says Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter.

“The proof of recovery is that all the major Asian markets, plus the United States are back in growth compared with 2011, and the Australian holiday market looks like it has turned the corner too,” Mr Hunter says.

As well as Lonely Planet’s inclusion of Christchurch in its list of Top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2013, Canterbury also has nine spots in the AA (Automobile Assn,) Travel’s 101 Must-Do list. with the popular alpine thermal resort of Hanmer Springs, (90 minutes from Christchurch) ranked No 1 on the list while a cruise around picturesque Akaroa Harbour with Black Cat Cruises was ranked at number 3. The popular TranzAlpine scenic rail trip from Christchurch to the West Coast came in at number 6.

Other notable achievements:
Otahuna Lodge has again been named by Tatler Magazine as one of its 101 Best Hotels in the World.
The George hotel in Christchurch was voted New Zealand’s Leading Boutique Hotel in the World Travel Awards.
Melton Estate, boutique winery in West Melton was judged Best Wine Tourism Restaurant in Christchurch / South Island for the Great Wine Capitals of the World 2012 Wine Tourism Awards.
Mark Gilbert, who together with wife Nikki runs Hassle-free Tours, won the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Young Tourism Entrepreneur Award.
 Pegasus Bay received the Cuisine Award for Best Winery Restaurant for the fifth year in a row.
Earth & Sky, star gazing tours in Tekapo won a South Canterbury Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award.
Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa won Best Natural Bathing Spa in the Australasian Spa Association’s (ASPA) annual awards

“These awards are testimony to the talent of the people who work in our tourism industry and to the quality of the products we offer in Canterbury,’’ Mr Hunter says.

“The delivery of outstanding service to visitors has been a key influencer in driving our tourism recovery.

“The visitor decline that was triggered by the earthquakes of 2011 has now been arrested with stronger arrivals from most of our key markets already evident this summer.

travels with a passionate nomad …

Naked in Budapest: travels with passionate nomad, (AKA Heather Hapeta) will be broadcast from Monday, 16 May – Tuesday, 24 May, 2011 at 10.45 a.m. on Radio New Zealand National.

It has been adapted into 7 episodes and is read by the author.

It will be available to hear online at – as an MP3 file – and you can buy a hard copy at

Travel Writing: from World Hum

This is a long piece about travel writing:

… so long it has sat in my ‘to read’ pile for a couple of months. It’s too late  for me to post a  comment so have decided to do it here as IT’S GREAT – and so evocative of my experiences as a travel writer it really resonated with me, that I will read it again, for sure.

If you think travel writing (not guidebook or blogs of the where-to-stay-variety) is just swanning around the world on a credit card (someone elses’ ) have a read of this – it’s Tom Swick writing (and on UTube) about the evolving role of the travel writer in the age of mass tourism Travel Writing – Not a Tourist – Features – World Hum Thanks Tom, you said it for many of us.

India: meditating at sunrise beside a holy river

meditation on the banks of the holy Narmada River, Maheshwar.

The Narmada

forms the traditional boundary between north and south India. Considered extremely holy by Hindu people it has been said that just the sight of the river is enough to wash away all sins. There are 7 holy rivers in India: Ganga, Yamuna Indus and the mythical Sarasvati in the north. While in peninsula India is the Narmada, Godavari, and the Kaveri. The Narmada divides north and peninsula India

Devotees tell me that where the holy Narmada flows only Shiva is worshiped – for he is the only god who has the tranquilly to calm her.


is a thousand-mile circumambulation of the Narmada, takes 3 years, 3 months, and three days to walk. It is a spiritual quest, self realisation, a thanksgiving for favour asked for or received, or just an act of love: there are just as many reasons to do the walk, which starts and finishes at the mouth of the river, as there are people who do it and the Narmada is the only river where a parikama of the entire course is performed.

In ‘Sacred Virgin Travels along the Narmada’ by Royina Grewal (whose own journey began in 1993) says “depending on where you meet her and how, the Narmada can mean different things to different people. For the many turbulent stretches, she is called Rewa, derived from the Sanskrit ‘rev’, to leap. Of her many names, this is my favourite. But she is also called Manananda, who brings eternal bliss, Rajani, the spirited one, and Kamada who fulfils desire; Vibhatsathe the terrifying one and Manasuardhini who craves the lifeblood that she has nurtured. Ferocious, insouciant, benevolent.”

Gondwanaland, as it moved north collided with the Central Asian landmass – this gradual convergence thrust up a range of mountains from the sea and caused volcanoes to eject layer upon layer that built another range of mountains. Between the two, a rift valley was created – narrow and deep – through which the Narmada flows over some of the oldest rocks in the world..

Shrines line the river.

From a piece of sculpture daubed with orange propped up against a tree or wall through to big temples. People revere their river yet wash, spit and void bodily wastes into her.The ghats below the palace are place for daily rituals for locals and have memorials to the widows who died on their husbands’ funeral pyres?

On the ghats – facing east and often waist deep in the water –  Hindus recite sacred verses, often from the Gayatri Mantra, the oldest of Hindu hymns – mother the Vedas – often at the end of each chant they offer the water, in cupped hands or in a container/ brass urn, to the sun – pouring the water out.

India is vivid and varied a melting pot of religions and peoples coming from central Asia, Mediterranean and the middle east, and where public rituals are expressed with a fervour often not seen in the mostly secular ‘west’. Hinduism is numerically the strongest  and oldest religion. Taxis, buses and trucks all display images of the one of the pantheon of  Hindu divinities, including the amorous Krishna, bloodthirsty Kali, or  the elephant-headed Ganesh

The wandering dependant or beggar, is considered to be one of the 4 stages of life during which a person learns life goals and the means of achieving them. Clad in saffron or sacking, they seek gifts of food and money to support themselves in this last stage of life, although many young men do the same and most have given up all material possessions.

Mt Denali, Alaska

Alaska is a great place to visit

I get a great view of this shy mountain

In Denali National Park I climb aboard the park bus and get taken further into the park. Mt. Denali is a shy mountain and shows her head rarely. Over the past month, she has hidden herself for 25 out of the 31 days but today she exposes her lofty top.

Books I’ve read about Alaska tell of bears eating willow and I wonder where the trees are. The tundra is covered with short scrubby bush and plants and I’m amazed when I’m told that these 6-inch high shrubs are willows: stunted by the weather, the trees I was expecting did not exist.

I don’t walk far before I see a bear. I freeze. She has two cubs with her. I’m petrified, excited and amazed all at the same time and I sink to my knees to watch. Mum is large; her cubs are like bundles of lard, roly-poly and cuddly looking. She looks towards me, almost nonchalantly and I remain very still, hardly daring to breathe, while the cubs seem to have no worries. I discard my plans for hiking – I can walk any day and prefer to sit and watch. A herd of caribou runs over the hill, a perfect silhouette for a photo and the tiny plants and berries fascinate me. Mostly I just watch the bears.

Too soon it’s time to return to the main camp and, silently, I gloat over the people on the bus who didn’t see any wildlife: as I recount my tale over dinner, I realise I hadn’t rung my bell. The next day Denali is hidden, so content myself with crunching over yellow leaves and admiring the cottonwood trees with their straight white trunks, closer to park headquarters. see more photos here

Written after a month-long trip in Alaska some years ago!

cockroaches in the kitchen

”Staff Wanted’’ a sign says and on the spur of the moment I enquire – after all, it’s written in English.

I’ve been in Athens for two hours, a city I’d vowed never to return to because of the heat, dirt and noise.  However, after three days on a ferry from Israel, expecting to join a Greek yacht in Athens and that no longer needs staff, I need a new plan. I’ve been travelling for so long that even at fifty-something, young lovers, navel piercing and tattoos seem normal. Before I succumb to the piercing and tattoos, I require a reality check and a touch of ordinary life – well as ordinary as new places can be.

‘Can you cook?’ I’m asked the next morning.  I think of three kids who never starved, a brief cooking course in Thailand, and my kiwi ‘can do’ attitude, and tell him. ‘Yes, I can cook’.

Five minutes later, with six long loaves under my arm, I’m in the café-bar of the hotel: I have a job – I am the manager, cook, cleaner, waiter, bar-staff and dishwasher of the cafe in a budget hotel – two minutes walk from Symtagma Square: in the centre of an Athens that’s preparing for ‘the games’.

I’m shown the breakfast menu – the evening menu will be up to me – the refrigerator is unlocked and the doors are opened for the first time in six weeks. It’s my first day of five weeks working 11-hour days for a Greek rival to the TV show ‘Fawlty Towers’.

“Write down anything you need for the kitchen and I’ll get it,” I’m told. In the beginning I get most of what I need, but slowly my shopping list is ignored and never does it leave the kitchen for reference when the sporadic shopping is done. This means I often have a double supply of lettuces but no rice, olives for the Greek salad but no feta cheese, pasta but no tomatoes.  Daily I juggle as I conjure up satisfying meals for the staff as well as creating a menu of at least three or four choices for the guests.

Forward planning does not seem to be part of the Greek psyche, well, not with the locals I worked with. Despite ordering, often days in advance, drinks or food, it was not until the fridge was empty that another carton of water, beer, or block of feta cheese is delivered.

Cockroaches drive me crazy in the kitchen. From ant-size to giant-size they can quickly disappear down cracks nearly invisible to the human eye.  Two favourite hiding places are the potato bag and the onion basket. Morning and night, before the guests arrive and after they leave I spray the beasties. Lift the basket, bang it down and as the zillions of them scurry for cover I do the cockroach stomp and spray maniacally. The stomp, a dance I’ve invented to stop them running over my feet and up my legs, is the second line of defence and slowly, day by day the population is reduced. Another step in the dance is the basket bang; this dislodges those hiding in the cane breadbaskets so I don’t deliver creepy-crawlies along with the fresh bread. The two steps, the bang and the stomp, are often performed in combination with a shudder of disgust. I push Buddhist precepts of not killing to the back of my mind as I attend to the battle of the cockroaches. Books, knife-blades, salt shaker and a bottle of soy sauce are all used successfully to dispatch cockroaches to wherever dead roaches go. My sandals, the tip jar, fry pan, coke and beer bottles; whatever is at hand is used to deal to the fast moving critters.

It’s August and the heat is amazing; the two gas rings from which I create the culinary delights add a few more degrees. Finally a fan is installed, four metres from the floor, with a 10-centimetre pull-cord: I need to climb a stepladder to turn it on.

During quiet times I stand on the balcony and watch Athens in action: on the balcony a deep fryer has sat for months, half-full of rancid oil. For the past three afternoons we have had unseasonably heavy rain. The vat fills rapidly and the floating oil trickles over the top and runs towards the balcony edge and unsuspecting pedestrians below. I notice it at the last minute and stop the flow with a blue cotton tablecloth then remove three large jugs of the water and oil mixture.  despite this the fryer is left sitting in the sun, growing even more rank; waiting for the next rain and another bid to escape over the edge.

Soon it’s time to move on so I empty the tip jar for the final time and go shopping with my squirreled away tips. I buy a silver necklace and bracelet along with a pure white suit that is totally unsuitable for backpacking and hop on a plane to London, ready for the next adventure.

This is a portion from the book Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad by Heather Campbell Hapeta, and which can be bought HERE.  ( See reviews  here)

most bombed country in the world

Most Bombed Country in the World

Pausing for a photo, we then walk under an archway that tells us ‘Welcome to Indo China.’

Polly and I met on a beach in Malaysia two months ago. Hearing travellers extolling the beauty, the friendliness and non-tourist-like qualities of Laos, we succumb to the temptation to visit ‘the most bombed country in the world’ and two days ago we met as arranged in northern Thailand. We’re about to cross into a country that neither of us knows about except those good reports.

A borrowed guidebook has given me a few facts: during the late sixties and early seventies, American B-52s dropped some 6000 tonnes of bombs on this narrow country in an attempt to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Special guerrilla units, trained by the CIA, caused such havoc that locals planted and harvested their rice at night and 300,000 people fled to refuge camps in Thailand: it’s the heaviest bombing any country has ever encountered. Although one of the poorest nations in the world and with a life expectancy of only 52 years, these five million, mainly Buddhist people, remain resilient.

‘Can I take my gun?’ I ask the guard. Crossing borders can be fraught with problems but I smile and hope all will be well as she holds out her hands and I hand it over. Solemnly taking it, she looks at her fellow officer, lines the barrel with his chest and fires!

web laos polly and iWe laugh; his uniform is covered with water. For the first time I witness humour from customs officials but in spite of our shared laughter I’m not allowed to take a photo of them having fun. Nevertheless I can take my new, bright-green, double-barrelled, pump action water pistol with me: Polly takes her red and yellow one.

Read more in Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad by Heather Hapeta

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