Travelogue - writercize #36 (A to Z 20)

Travelogues (writings about travel) are a great way to reflect on a traveler's attitude towards his or her own culture as well as the one visited.  They can expose a writer's view of the world, and open the reader's eyes to new experiences, as well as serve as a great memory and accompaniment to photos.

When I sit down to read a travelogue, I look for something that will take me off the beaten path a little bit - something that will challenge my perceptions or make me want to jump out of my seat straight over to the geographic location and try whatever it is that the author is describing.  I am not so interested in frequently described locations such as the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum or Tower Bridge.  I can visit those in many a book or photo, let alone board a plane and see them.  Not to say they're not marvelous and interesting places on their own, just to say that it's hard to make it new.  So, unless you can share an interesting bit of historical data that I probably haven't ever heard, or you notice something unique in the way people interact with the location or something extraordinary happens, I probably won't read too far into the story.

Now, here's the beauty of a travelogue.  Only you see the world in your particular fashion, and only you can help the reader view your world.  

If you see the world in a different way, or know what will turn a reader on, you don't even need to travel outside of your city to write a travelogue.  You could pick a hidden walk or a special park or a spectacular view right outside your front door, and write about it.  

If you are a person who likes to find commonalities among nations, you could travel to the most exotic corner of the world and write about something that binds us all together, such as sharing a morning cup of coffee.  

If you are a person who sees art in everything, you could point out something unique such as the shadow one monument casts on another.  Whether your world is music or food or hiking or fashion, there's a place you can discover and something new you can share with your audience.  It's totally up to you.  Just throw in a location and let loose.

writing exercise:  Think about a trip you've taken or a location you'd like to share with an audience, and write about it.  Be sure to explain where you are geographically, but beyond that you may choose the content.  (ideas:  food, music, airline travel, customs, dress, short anecdote, holiday abroad, miscommunication, art, recommended tourist site, etc.)

(Click "read more" to view writercizer sample response about a trip to the jungles of Ecuador.)
writercizer response:

It is spring 2003 and I am visiting a friend in Ecuador for a couple of weeks in between jobs.  It is my first time in South America, and though I do not speak Spanish, I can fake it pretty well so I'm not worried.  The first night, I arrive in Quito, wait a couple of hours for my bag which had accidentally been left in the belly of the aircraft to make its way over to me, exit the airport and meet my friend.  We make our way downtown to the favorite hotel of Peace Corps volunteers where we will stay the night.  Out for dinner, drinks and some starlit sight-seeing, then back to the hotel to crash.  

The next morning, we awake early, grab some breakfast and jump on a bus to Tena, in the heart of the jungle.  It is on this bus ride that I leave the city vibe that exists in all major metropolitan areas around the world, and get my first glimpse of Ecuador.

We board the bus, amid travelers and natives, vendors hawking their foods up and down the aisles (chicken feet, fried guinea pig, plantains), and the occasional live chicken on its way back out of the city.  We're late, but that's nothing unusual.  There is no number on the bus or sign to confirm we are indeed headed to Tena, and we've boarded one bus among perhaps 50, each surrounded by these food vendors and little shops, but my friend looks pretty calm that we're headed in the right direction, and I never plan a vacation beyond the airline tickets anyhow, so I'm not worried.  

The bus ride will take several hours, although as the crow flies we are only about 70 miles away.  Windy dirt roads and a lack of infrastructure makes this a scheduled six hour bus ride, but it will take us ten.

Along the way, we make a pit stop and I notice several people climbing outside the window.  I ask my friend what they are doing, and he tells me they are climbing up on top of the bus to ride along the next portion in the fresh air.  I ask if we can do the same, so we scale the outside of the bus and sit on top.  Mind you, this is no double decker.  There are no seats, no seat belts, no helmets no rails along the outside.  Picture a school bus or a city bus, then put a bunch of people up on top, some sitting, some laying down.  Now picture that bus has paint chipping off and looks aged, and you're where I am.  Completely, utterly insane.  We ride along, holding our backpacks in our arms so that no one will go through our belongings inside the bus below, ducking under huge branches and holding a hat up when it begins to rain.  I feel exhilarated, free and, simultaneously, insane.  I am somewhat comforted by the fact that so many others are up on top with me (yeah, because the lemming theory works so well, right?) and primarily by the fact that we are rarely driving any faster than 15 mph.  

Eventually, the rain gets harder, so the bus driver pulls over and makes us all jump back inside.  I can't lie - I'm a little disappointed, but understand.  He says that it is now a safety concern since the roof will be too slippery, and you can't really argue with that logic.

A short while later, we pull over to allow another person on the bus.  There aren't necessarily stops along the way, insofar as I can tell.  People just sort of stand along the route and signal that they want to jump on.  Again, I have no idea how they know that it's going in the direction they'd like to go, but somehow they do.  There's no internet or smart phone to tell them the time; they just know to go out and wait, and the bus will come.  When people are ready to get off the bus, they walk up to the driver and ask him to stop and that's the end of their journey, no matter where we are on the road.  

This particular person is boarding the bus with a goat.  There is a bit of a debate between the bus driver and the passenger about where to put the goat.  Generally, he'd be sent straight to the top of the bus, no questions asked, but with the heavy rain, the passenger is understandably a little concerned.  Finally, he agrees to put the goat up top and a few men get out to help the passenger struggling to get his helpless goat to climb up the bus.  He's slipping and sliding and making angry goat meh-ing sounds, but he's finally up on top.  If I remember correctly, part of the deal is that the passenger put a rope around him that he was then allowed to hold through the window of his seat, but I couldn't say for sure.

Goat situation solved, we continue along our journey.  The ride continues smoothly for some time, with very few stops to pick up or drop off people as there are hardly any homes nearby, when we come to a clearing and hear a loud pop.  We have run over a large, pointy rock.  Back home, with thicker tires, the bus probably could have made it, but this bus has weak, thinning tires worn down from several trips along dirt roads and the tire is flat.  

The rain is gone, so everyone is asked to get off the bus and wait while the driver changes the wheel.  I stand there and watch, not knowing whether to watch the goat on top of the bus become increasingly nervous and hungry, the poor bus driver covered in mud and sweat changing the tire, or my fellow travelers make the best of this unexpected stop, so my eyes bounce from one to the next while I perk my ears and try to pick out bits and pieces of conversation, train my ear to the Spanish language and its Ecuadorian accent.  I've traveled in Spain but the slang is different here, so I listen.  Many of the passengers are not even speaking in Spanish; they are speaking in their native tongue of Quechua.  

Since I am in no hurry, I'm prepared to sit back and enjoy the show, and as I look around, though I am positive some of these people actually have places to be, they have not only accepted the situation, but it almost seems expected it to a point.  The world is slower here than that of downtown Boston where I've been living for several months by this time, and as long as I don't have anything that I need to get done, I welcome the opportunity to go with the flow.

Finally, the bus is fixed and we're on our way.  We arrive in Tena without any further incidents, where I learn that the several hours of rain has made the river rise several feet.  Without dams and ways to control water, the city is at the mercy of nature, but again, it is both accepted and expected.  We head straight to the hotel to freshen up and walk over to a restaurant for dinner.  Along the way, I notice rebar sticking out of most of the roofs, and learn that as long as there is rebar sticking up, a construction project is considered incomplete and can not be taxed.  In this way, most of the hotels and residents avoid property taxes for as long as they can, generally until they are caught.  It is the second day of this trip, and the day after tomorrow we will travel even further into the jungle, to the town of Ahuano, where I will distance myself completely from my familiar western world to a world of no phones, no internet, dependent on fish and bananas to survive, weekly beverage deliveries by barge only (when possible), pet monkeys and an average income of less than $1 / day.  This is one face of Ecuador that not many foreigners get to see, and I am anxious to see what tomorrow will bring.


  1. What a thrilling adventure! Before I left Guadalajara back in the 80's, I don't recall there being bus stop signs, and as you have noted, people just seemed to know where to gather for the next bus. I was just there a few years back, and all those unmarked "bus-stops" have now an official sign and a listing of bus routes; a great help to travelers because locals didn't really need them...

  2. What a great cliffhanger! What happened next?! Did you bring back a monkey? :)

  3. I went over the character limit, so I'm posting my response in two (or more) posts.

    Part I:
    I could tell you about my travels to Mexico and elaborate on the diversity and richness of Mexico's gastronomy, I could tell you about the magnificent and historical archiology of Boston, or perhaps, the cultural diversity of San Francisco and its Spanish, Chinese, Mexican, English, and African-American influences. But, instead, I'd like to take you to a place less known and less populated. It sits adjacent to the 605 freeway, between Carson Street and Spring Street and just 3 miles from my home.
    El Dorado Regional Park's "Nature Center" is an absolutely beautiful oasis of nature in the middle of an over-developped city. To most people like me, the Nature Center is just a relaxing place to go for a walk, and be with nature away from the hustle and bustle of city life. It wasn't until one day I took a close friend of mine on a walk there that I began to see this place through the eyes of an artistic, earthy, gentle soul and what an amazing trip that was.

  4. Part II:

    I had been to the Nature Center on several occations with a group of moms and with my husband and child and on all those times I walked the trails admiring the scenery but not giving it much thought other than "Wow, beautiful". When I took my friend Jenny there, I thought we would walk the trails and be done within an hour, just as the other times I had been there. Upon entering the trail all Jenny could say in her thunderstruck state was "wow...", I thought to myself "Yes, beautiful, now c'mon let's walk". She first took the time to study the turtles in the pond at the head of the trail and, if I'm not mistaken, she actually counted them. At that instant I knew this wasn't going to be a brisk walk through the park and began to feel my impatieness slowly awaken. As we walked down the winding trail we came to another pond where a couple of egrets stood in the shallow water, as predicted, she pointed it out and marveled at it. I did not see more than a scrawny little bird with its two sticks for legs and a funny looking beak. After feigning equal interest in the bird as my friend out of compassion for her interest in nature, we entered the heavily shaded part of the trail. It must had been ten degress cooler there, I felt the soreness in my throat worsen and my cough resurfaced. At the same time, Jenny slowed down even more and contemplated the trees that hovered above us, noticing how the light filtered through the leaves, giving the space around us a greenish glow. To either side of the trail, there was nothing but trees, giving us a true "Woods" experience. I was cold, sick, and just wanted to move on. After we left "the Woods" we took a path I had never been on and came to yet another pond. But, this pond was magnificent. I couldn't put my finger on it, but there was something about the pond that I found absolutely glorious. We sat down on a log ten feet away from the pond and just gazed at its magnificence. Jenny started putting in words what I found so beautiful about the pond. She pointed out the gentle ripples in the water, the different kinds of grasses and plants in the water, the puffy clouds above, the colors of the vegetation in the background and how all these things reflected in the gentle rippling water.
    I felt so much peace come over me. From that moment on, my throat didn't seem to bother me any more, feelings of impatieness drifted away just as the ripples in the water did, and joined my friend in her slow delectation in nature. We took in all that nature through sight, touch, and smell--the trees, the several types of eucalyputs leaves (we even took some leaves home to rub and sniff to our heats content), the flowers, the small cotton-like fuzz growing on some trees like flowers, the patterns on the pieces of bark that had fallen off some trees (she took some pieces which she said she would turn into a bracelet). We noticed how some trees seemed as though had two eyes and were watching us, some even had three eyes! The minutes turned into hours and before we knew it, we had spent close to two and a half hours at the park.

    With the right perspective a seemingly ordinary site can be quite extraordinary!

  5. Your words above, about a person who sees art in everything, encapsulate what being a writer - or any kind of artist - is all about. Lovely writing about Ecuador too.

  6. How dare you leave me hanging! What happens next? I'm fascinated by your descriptions!

    I'm cheating on this exercise and just pointing you in the direction of a previous post I did about Block Island off Rhode Island.
    Running Block Island

  7. Just wrote this as part of a post a few days ago:
    We swam with Manta Rays off the Kona coast last night. With no previous experience snorkeling for my daughters or for me, we slid off a Snorkel and Dive boat, The Manta, last night with my husband, two professional divers, and 16 other newbies. The sun had just dipped below the horizon before we put on our snorkel gear, and were handed flashlights that strapped to our wrists. My oldest daughter was nervous about getting off the boat. My youngest had trouble with her snorkel mask a few times on the swim over to the dive and snorkel site from the boat. I’ve had panic attacks in open water before, and felt myself shivering, but I stayed brave for my daughters.

    Sound totally crazy? It probably was. However, I knew that we could do it, with the help of these experienced professional divers and snorkelers, in the trusty hands of a professional outfit, while holding onto a floating ring the whole time. The water was dark, except for the bobbing lights in our hands, and the lights of the divers below us.

    When we reached the site, we floated, keeping our legs and bodies straight out around the circle of floats, and our lights pointed down into the center of the ring. Divers below us had lights set up on the shallow (at least 40 feet) shelf beneath us. We saw a ray swooping in circles over by another group. We could hear their shouts of excitement. We waited, and waited, just seeing the edges of the rays outside our circle. Then one swam up to eat the krill attracted by our lights.

    The rays do this swooping circle to feed, with their bellies flashing white just below the surface. We were floating right above them. At least 6 different rays visited our circle, coming up right underneath us. One came less than a foot away from me, belly to belly, and I just tried to stay as still as I possibly could. I was scared, but elated, amazed, awed, shivering from excitement and a little cold. I made everyone laugh by shouting into my snorkel, “Holy Cow! That’s close enough. That’s good. Close enough. Holy Cow!” as the ray circled again and again, getting closer every time. Afterwards I was a little embarrassed by my corny expression, but most of the snorkelers got out only, “whooh, and whoah!”

    The smallest rays that was saw last night were 6ft across, and the largest was 14ft. Thankfully, "Chloe" stayed down with the divers. I wasn't sure I wanted a 14 ft ray next to me. Maybe if I did it again, I would be braver.

    The Kona Manta Rays are the only rays that are safe to swim with in the wild. They have no stingers. They have no teeth. They are very shy, and will swim away if people try to approach them or touch them. However, if they come to feed next to you, and you stay still, you can swim “with” them close.

    My youngest daughter, aged nine, said it was the best night of her life. My oldest said it was awesome, definitely one of the coolest things she has ever done.

  8. Alma - sounds like another fabulous Saturday morning. Vivid imagery. Thanks!
    Deborah - thank you!
    Brianna - heading over to read it momentarily. :)
    Tyrean - what a great memory for a family vacation!!

  9. This looks like a brilliant exercise for me to try. I am will soon be travelling to Portugal so I will try it there.


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