Category Archives: Travel

The Business of Building a Country’s Brand

AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Flipping through a magazine — if you’re like me and still do that — you’ll often encounter a colorful advertisement beckoning you to visit some place like Montenegro or Switzerland. “Belarus,” the slogan says. “Hospitality beyond borders.” But do you even know where Belarus is? What images does its name conjure? At The GuardianSamanth Subramanian tells the story of a whole sector of the marketing industry outside tourism, whose machinations remain invisible to consumers, but whose work shapes our opinions about place.

Many people associate Mexico with drugs, China with pollution, and Russia with spies and snow, but each country has so much more to offer than those social ills. A host of marketing firms now work with nations, regions and cities to sculpt their public image, crafting an identity that either polishes preexisting rough edges, or builds one from scratch from history, character and potential. To attract visitors, a place must be safe and full of activities, but tourism is not rebranding’s only objective. Some places want to reposition themselves on the map of public opinion. They want to increase their status and respect among their neighbors. Many want foreign investment, and to attract business, they must appear flourishing and stable.

Nation-building requires more than writing taglines and designing logos. It requires psychology, and firms can conduct years worth of research and interviews to identify how to fix image problems or make places like Primorsky Krai visible in the first place. As with all marketing, some part of the image is a lie, and branding’s inherent manipulations don’t always work. Example A: Gaddafi’s Libya. As Subramanian asks in his piece: What makes a nation a nation?

Of all their projects, the Grands are proudest of Tatarstan, which has bolstered their reputation among the people who run Russia’s regional governments. The government of Tatarstan, a republic of around 4 million people in south-western Russia, was convinced it wasn’t getting the recognition it deserved, either in Moscow or overseas. In 2013, they hatched a plan to promote the region’s heritage.

When Instid was hired, the government merely wanted a thick book, with glossy photos and text about the artefacts in Tatarstan’s museums. The Grands expanded this meagre vision. They reached into the period of the Bulgar kings, who ruled this region between the seventh and 13th centuries, and distilled a set of attitudes and values that had persisted into modern-day Tatarstan. The people were perfectionists, the Grands decided. They honed their skills and craftsmanship continuously, they were competitive, and valued pragmatism; they also bore a sense of loss about their past, and they prized the material over the spiritual or the intangible.

The products of such study – lessons from medieval history, or patter about “mastery,” “decisiveness” and “speed” – can seem amorphous, or even concocted. But they lent structure to some of Tatarstan’s initiatives, Alex Grand said. Schools and universities folded these cues into their syllabuses; architects based blueprints on them. In their annual reports, government officials took to naming sections after the values the campaign celebrated. The tourism sector, which was never encouraged as warmly as industry, received a dose of state enthusiasm: its own ministry, more funds, better training.

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Don’t Let the Camels Bite You, and Other Lessons from a Long Walk in the Outback

Coolgardie, Australia, Camel Team (photo in the public domain)

On The Monthly, Robert Skinner reluctantly agrees to join his parents on a camel trek in South Australia. While the participating humans walk, the camels pull carts that carry their gear for the trek.

My dad’s cousin Robyn had married a bushman called Don, and together they raced camels and went on wagon expeditions. This was the first time they were bringing other people along. There would be between 9 and 14 people on the trek. Being in such close quarters with strangers for ten days was not my dad’s idea of a good time. He would have preferred to be at home with a book or tinkering in his shed. But his own dad had a reputation for disappearing out the back door every time someone showed up at the front door, and my dad was forever trying not to be that guy.

The night before we left Adelaide he did that thing nervous parents do, where they start fussing over their kids instead. He looked at me gruffly and said, “Now listen, Bob. What are you going to do out there for entertainment?”

“I dunno. I brought a few books.”

“You understand that these are country folk we’ll be travelling with. They like different things to us.”

“Well, what about you? What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to look at the fire,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

Before traveling in Australia myself, I’d read two books by the Australian novelist Peter Carey — Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda.  I did not quite believe the characters. I have since crossed the Outback three times. It is populated by the kinds of people that choose to live in difficult and remote places; it’s weird in its own rough way.

On one of my trips through I saw a camel cart, piled high with a living room furniture set. The last time across I met three ancient women sitting in low rocking chairs, knitting in the heat while a blonde girl child ran around in the dust underneath the raised house. I’d stopped to ask about short-cutting through their cattle ranch on the private road traversing their land. They were not at all surprised by my appearance and asked merely that I be sure to close the gates. I remain convinced that they were the fates, spinning my destiny in this flat treeless place, hundreds of miles from anywhere.

Thanks to my own adventures, I found this description of one of the camel drivers — and all the other absurdities in Skinner’s story — completely plausible.

Brian or Nat usually drove the main wagon. Nat was a bosomy powerhouse who raised a family, kept a menagerie of pets and broke in camels for a living. She wore the same singlet, shorts and thongs the whole trip. Even on frosty nights. One evening she reached into her bra looking for a cigarette, and I saw her pull out a lighter, a tobacco pouch, a packet of tissues, a hunting knife, $20 (in change) and a bundle of keys before she looked up and said, “Oh, here it is. It’s in my fucking mouth.” On the fourth day she got kicked full in the face by a camel and just started kicking it back.

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Eating the Texas State Fair

People walking the midway past food stands at a State Fair
State Fair Food Stands by George C. Campbell via Wikimedia Commons

The food came in two categories: savory and sweet. He would try them all. He would eat them on sticks, with plastic utensils that would litter the grounds of the park long after he and his descendants had passed, he would pick them up and eat them with his hands.

From the Texas State Fair website, “Each year, State Fair concessionaires fry up tasty and unique foods for a chance to become a finalist in the Big Tex Choice Awards. Everything from Fried Beer to Fried Peaches and Cream have made the cut to become a part of an exclusive club.”

On Texas Monthly, Dan Solomon goes full Hemingway (or is it Faulkner?) describing the finalists.

He started with the Surfin’ Turfin’ Tator Boat. It was a potato. He looked at it, sniffed the air, and stared at the lobster claw sticking straight up from the split in the spud.

“That there sure is a potato,” said the man.

“It sure is. The finest potato you ever did see,” said the woman collecting money for the meal.

“I never seen a potato like that,” said the man.

“You never will again, neither,” she told him.

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Innocence Abroad

US passport pages with visa stamps
US Passport via Wikimedia (CC0 1.0)

Do Americans have a unified identity and if so, how is it defined? I remember a summer party in Seattle where, under a twilight sky, a friend insisted it was television that provided our common vernacular. I’d been without TV for a while. Mine had burst into flames (really!) and this was pre-internet everywhere — was my American cred at risk? Travel in the flyover states has shown me how different I am — a textbook “creative class” lefty — from the restrained Midwesterners I encountered. Such disparate characters, yet the same American passports.

At The Guardian, Suzy Hansen considers American identity, partly through the lens of race, partly from the perspective she gained living abroad.

For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.

Some years after I moved to Istanbul, I bought a notebook, and unlike that confident child, I wrote down not plans but a question: who do we become if we don’t become Americans? If we discover that our identity as we understood it had been a myth? I asked it because my years as an American abroad in the 21st century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance. Mine were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself.

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Lobster Shells in the Fountain and Other Hotel Mysteries

Hotel Imperial, Vienna
Hotel Imperial in Vienna via Wikimedia

I’ve experienced excessive hotel luxury exactly one time, at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, where I landed the lowest quality room at this self-described six-star hotel. The lowest quality room at the Imperial, with its heated marble floors, lush upholstery, and view down the Ringstrasse remains the nicest place I’ve ever stayed.

At breakfast the next day, the 70-something Viennese couple directly behind my husband began to speculate (in their Viennese German) how such sweater-and-jean-wearing riff-raff could afford to stay at the hotel. My Austrian husband smirked all through our meal, whispering “I’ll tell you later.” They’d decided we were Canadian oil money; we simply could not be Americans given our economy at the time. I still regret that he did not wish them a very good morning in his own distinctive Austrian accent upon their departure.

During our stay, the hotel staff were nothing but sunshine and discretion. As we prepared to leave the hotel, the lobby butler asked if we needed luggage retrieved from our room. We were carrying day packs only; our car was parked at a cousin’s house in a Vienna suburb. “No thanks,” I said, “this is all we’ve got.”

“That happens here too.” The butler shrugged and offered what appeared to be a genuine smile before wishing us safe journeys. Our status seemed of no concern to him, only our needs and that we felt welcome.

I could not do his job; I am too judge-y and can’t keep it to myself. I have more in common with those well-dressed Viennese seniors than they’d suspect. I am impressed by those who can pull off service work in a way that’s unobtrusive and helpful at the same time.

At Bloomberg, Brandon Presser joins the staff at another grand hotel, The Plaza New York, to see what it’s like to wear the white gloves. The requests are as silly and outlandish as you’d think. The discretion? Well, they don’t name names, until they do. (Spoiler alert: It’s Charlie Sheen.)

Over my short tenure, I delivered laundry to Middle Eastern princesses and fetched lobsters out of wishing wells—and listened to colleagues delight in the oddities of their jobs, from fielding requests for Viagra or comforting a weeping woman over spilled blueberries. Serving the world’s rich and famous, it turns out, plumbs the depths of an alternative universe that readily embraces the absurd without even batting an eye. And that was only the beginning of what I learned.

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Home is a Cup of Tea

All illustrations by Candace Rose Rardon

Candace Rose Rardon | Longreads | July 2017 | 10 minutes (2,882 words)

Let’s play a game. It’s called, “Being You, Right Now.” Perhaps you’re reading this on your way to work, defending your corner of the train with a well-placed elbow. Or are you at home? If so, please, put the kettle on. Yes, right now. I’ll wait. Read more…

In Guatemala on the Wrong Bus

People standing in a shop to get out of the rain at a Guatemala bus station
Rainy Day at Coban, Guatemala Bus Station via Wikimedia

Yes, yes, I like a good vacation as much as the next person. If you try to engage me in some dusty conversation about traveler v. tourist, I will roll my eyes and walk away muttering — an improvement over my previous vehement defense of tourists. Plus, we’re all tourists to the locals, insert swearing here.

But I hold a special place in my heart for disorganized, gritty, adventures, the sleep-deprived, culture-shocked displacement Pico Iyer’s career is built on describing, the mystery of simple things in places you don’t quite understand.

We ended up in a depressing but totally acceptable cave of a room with pea-green dishtowely things for curtains in the tiny windows that looked out on walls and a showerhead sprouting weird white cords that I hoped were not electrical although are there even other kinds of cords. It was probably $20 less than the Conquistador where, in an alternate universe, I was already chugging a beer in the shower. But it was clean and the door locked. I bought a beer. The lady overcharged me. I didn’t care at all but M. talked about it for days. I took a shower. It was cold. I didn’t care. We slept.

That’s why I’m enjoying this series by Sarah Miller on The Awl. In the first installment Miller explains how she’s off to Guatemala on a whim; the second (excerpted above) is about how she ends up traveling in exactly the way she does not want to.

Even while it’s not a trip I want to be on, I’m tagging along for the ride.

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Walk It Off

Big Hole Valley, Montana
Big Hole Valley, Montana via Wikimedia

If a short walk helps you clear your head  what happens when you take a very long one?  At Backpacker, Elisabeth Kwak-Heffe ran 170 miles on the Sacred Door Trail to find out.

Officially opened in 2012, the Montana trail is an “interfaith pilgrimage trail in southwestern Montana that celebrates and is dedicated to spiritual unity and the interdependent relationship between self, Earth, and Community.”

Kwak-Heffernan looks at what defines pilgrimage, and what happens to the ideas you carry with you when you undertake one.

The Sacred Door Trail, like many pilgrimage sites, is intended as a place for spiritual reflection. It’s for “grieving, healing, and honoring life’s major transitions,” Weston told me over lunch a month ago. Inspired by a hike on Spain’s Camino de Santiago, in 2009 Weston started piecing together existing trails (including part of the CDT) into a loop route with the help of a coalition of local faith-based and indigenous groups. The trail officially “opened” in 2012 with a multi-faith ceremony, as well as a guidebook and website. But unlike many of the most famous pilgrimage sites—such as the Camino or the Hajj to Mecca—this trail is explicitly nondenominational. And it gets its sacredness not from the grave of an apostle or footprints of a prophet, but basically because Weston declared it so.

Spiritually, it’s a bit squishy. But so am I. I mostly grew up nonreligious, and these days, I suppose I’m an agnostic, and a shallow one at that. It was hard not to roll my eyes as Weston went on about “the evolving universal life force that connects all things” or how the trail “deepens our connections to our original church, Mother Earth.”

“What makes this a pilgrimage and not just a hike?” I asked. “Wouldn’t being in the mountains for three weeks anywhere make you feel better?”

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Can You Return To a Place That Was Never Your Home?

Postcard from Vienna, 1906 (Public Domain)
Postcard from Vienna, 1906 (Public Domain)

Through marriage, I hold Austrian permanent residency. I’m in the coveted position of having a place to go should I decide my home country has become too apocalyptic. I can land in that Alpine nation with a clunky yet functional grasp of Austrian German, a string of in-laws to help me navigate, and full work credentials. Getting my residency status was, from a bureaucratic perspective, painless. I had been married for several years, my husband had a government job, and we went through our hearings — including updating an expired “green card” — in a small-town office with no lines.

Others don’t have it so easy. One winter I attended German classes with Bosnian war refugees and a few mail-order brides — one from Brazil, one from the Philippines, one from Cambodia. “My sister came first,” one of my classmates told me, “and her life was so much better here with her mailbox husband than it was doing laundry back in the Philippines, so I did the same.” (Not her exact words, we stumbled through with a mix of our classroom German and English.)

My refugee classmates were former engineers and social workers relegated to factory jobs because Austria didn’t recognize their education. I was a textbook picture of American exceptionalism. My education — an art degree — was irrelevant to employers because I was an American who’d worked for Microsoft. I got a job on a software team at Sony in Salzburg while my more qualified classmates stuck labels on yogurt containers at the dairy factory across the river. My classmates thought I was nuts. “Why are you even here,” they’d ask, incredulous, “when you can be in America?”

I did not like living in small-town Austria; I was ill-suited for its xenophobic (yet also very intrusive) society, and I pined for Vietnamese food and my weird friends. I wanted to want to live in Vienna, but the more visits I made to that city the more I could see how it would have worn me down — even while I knew I’d have lasted there longer than out in the little snow-globe where we lived. I went home. My travel credentials include “failed expat.”

All this is a long setup to say I have feelings about this piece at Catapult in which Grace Linden navigates the process of reclaiming her Austrian citizenship — something she has the right to do as the member of a family that was destroyed by the Nazis.

I don’t know if Leo ever found out what happened to his family; it took me weeks of online research. In the Yad Vashem database, I entered the information for Chaim (Karl) Izak Linadauer Zigellaub, my great-grandfather. He was deported on February 15, 1941 to Lublin, Poland, presumably to the Lublin Ghetto. If he didn’t die in the Ghetto, he would have most likely been transported to the Bełżec Concentration Camp where almost 500,000 Jews were murdered. There was just a single mention of his name on a deportation list; the space between the specifics and the unknowns is enormous. Brieche, his wife, and Ruth’s fates are unknown but almost certainly they were taken to Auschwitz. Improbably, Joseph made it to China where he died in the Shanghai Ghetto. It’s no wonder my grandfather forced time to carry him towards the future.

The compensation Linden seeks — the right to live in Austria — was one I did not work for and did not want. But part of me understand the desire for refuge, for options. And the irony of today’s Jewish Americans casting their eyes back on a nation that attempted to eliminate them — us — is not wasted on me.

Vienna is desperately longing for something it once was. As Alice Gregory wrote recently in T Magazine, “The Austro-Hungarian Empire fell a century ago next year, but the physical remains of its influence are perfectly preserved.” The pull of its history is inescapable. In my own family, I keep looking back for what was lost, only there is nothing left to grab a hold of.

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America’s Great Lake, or the Greatest Lake?

Winter Sea Caves, Lake Superior by Sweet Alize via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake. In the winter, it’s so cold you’ll only have a minute to recover from the shock, should you take a tumble into its freezing waters. At Outside, Stephanie Pearson explores the lake’s extreme history, expanse, diversity, and dangers. It’s the first time Pearson, a world traveler, has taken the time to get to know the natural wonder that is literally in her backyard.

Pukaskwa is the only wilderness-designated park in Ontario, an impressive distinction in a province that has about 1,000 polar bears, more than 250,000 lakes, and one person per square mile in its entire northwest region. With a single road in, surrounded by backcountry so dense that few people other than its original Anishinabek inhabitants have seen it, the park is a favorite of expert kayakers who paddle Pukaskwa’s raw coastline and backpackers who know they need at least ten days to hike the out-and-back 37-mile coastal trail.

That kind of toughness sums up the steely character of most folks who have lived along Lake Superior over the centuries—from the Ojibwe to the French voyageurs to Nordic immigrant fishermen.

Everyone except, perhaps, me. I can count on two hands the number of times I ventured off Lake Superior’s shoreline growing up in Duluth. In the winter, when the air temperature dropped below zero, steam would rise from the lake, shrouding the city in magical puffs of white. But on the dreariest days, the lake would reflect the lightless, bruised sky, so dark and heavy that I felt like it was crushing my spirit. My family didn’t have a boat big enough to safely navigate such a dangerous body of water. Its inaccessibility made Superior that much more mysterious—like a giant mood ring reflecting the temper of the universe. Even on the most benign summer days, its power was omni­present. Once, while landing my sister’s kayak on a rocky beach in five-foot waves, I capsized and hit my head. It made me wonder if the lake was a living entity, actively trying to kill me.

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