Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Travellers' Curse

This was not meant to be a miserable post, and I hope that it isn’t, but I was minded to ponder my wanderings after rereading an aphorism in a blog that I follow. It is wildly known as the Travellers' Curse, and appears in many variants, and this is but one.

“The more places you see, the more things you see that appeal to you, but no one place has them all. In fact, each place has a smaller and smaller percentage of the things you love; it drives you, even subconsciously, to keep looking, for a place not that’s perfect (we all know there’s no Shangri-La), but just for a place that’s “just right for you.” But the curse is that the more you experience, the odds of finding “just right” get smaller, not larger. So you keep looking even more, but the more that you see, the harder it gets”. 

This is Part A

I love to travel, and have noticed that as an addiction, travel follows the traditional paths of most compulsions, requiring ever more adventure, ever more frequency and ever more “interesting” places to be.


It is the yellow one 

The case in point is the rather tranquil, if not traditionally beautiful, village of Esperaza in the Languedoc region of the south of France. It is not the most glamorous place that I have visited, but it is a destination that captivates me.

Now, the dining room 


In 2007, I bought an old butcher’s shop in the main street of this unprepossessing town on a complete and utter whim. In fact, it was seen at 11.00am, purchased by 1.00pm and by 4.00pm that afternoon we were flying back to Canada; why we did this most reckless thing I have absolutely no idea, but I am delighted that we did.

For some reason, Esperaza ticks more of my boxes than most places; it is lovely, quiet (apart from the periodic concerts in the main square), and nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees ninety minutes from the sea. It is in an area steeped in mythology, Rennes le Chateau is visible from my “office” as I type this, and the belief system of the Cathars still holds many adherents, as do a multitude of unorthodox spiritual beliefs.

It is an area of spectacular walks, remote castles, a river that is ideal for rafting and kayaking, opportunities for horseback riding, medieval markets and beyond all, some quite delightful and fascinating people.

And, because people and relationships are the most important facet of any destination and any journey they form Part B of the Travellers' Curse.

The more you travel, the more numerous and profoundly varied the relationships you will have. However, the more people you meet, the more diffused your time is with any of them, and as you cannot travel with them all all of the time, it becomes harder to develop deep relationships. Yet as one keeps traveling and meeting amazing people, it feels fulfilling; eventually, of course, you miss them all, although many have all but forgotten who you are!
Then you make up for it by staying put somewhere long enough to develop roots and cultivate stronger relationships, but these people will never know what you know or see what you’ve seen, and you will always feel a tinge of separation, and you will want to tell your stories just a little bit more often than they will want to hear them.
Another road trip seems to be the only answer”

Now, I don’t want this to sound melancholy, and I am not sitting here wringing my hands, but it is an interesting phenomenon, and one that frequent travellers know well. It has to be said, however, that few get to the point of permanent vagabonding, and most of us have real roots to which to return.


 


 But I digress; the spectrum of people in Esperaza is astonishing, and offers a warm and varied posse to join. Part of the reason is the simple variety; as we make friends at home there is more often a common denominator of education, work or children. None of these criteria come to play as you meet other wanderers in later life, and the spectrum of friends can be quite delightful.

And, as one can see from the images of folks trying to seek solace in passing companionship, travelling can be a lonely affair.

Above all, this curious confluence of people, beauty, access (Barcelona is only three hours away, and the redoubtable Ryanair can whisk one to London from the airport forty-five minutes away on a daily basis), activity and the important fact that they make a very nice drop of wine in these parts, combine to have made us stop and buy a toe-hold without a second thought.

I do look forward to returning to Winnipeg, but am grateful for the friends that I have in Esperaza, London, Tbilisi and so many others scattered around this fascinating world of ours.


Xinalic, Azerbaijan - hospitality and friendship are everywhere


And certainly, without Facebook, keeping in touch would be very difficult indeed!

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Great British Coast

The Great British coastline is a most unusual and interesting place.

It is long; 11,073 miles, with a “wiggliness” factor, more properly known as the Hausdorff Dimension of 1.25. This is wiggly indeed, and by comparison, the Australian coast measures 1.17, and the South African coastline a baby-smooth 1.02.

I am not sure who spends their life calculating the relative wiggliness of coastlines, but some do, and we are grateful for their efforts.

It is a coast that offers power stations, towering cliffs, retirement homes, smuggler’s inns, jagged rocks, smooth sand and genteel hotels; it offer walkers a variety of paths for everyone from the fittest to those in self-propelled chairs, and above all, offers a glimpse into the very soul of British Life.

Islands are different, and although it is easy to forget that the United Kingdom is an island (or collection of islands), when stuck in London, or on the Motorway driving to The North, it is a fact that nowhere in the kingdom is more than 70 miles from the sea, and most places are considerably closer than that; sea air is in the lungs of the country, and a day-at-the-seaside an inalienable right.

The towns that dot the south coast, which is pretty well one conurbation from Dover to Southampton, are of  varying character and charm; one have no charm, but it does vary. Towns vary in prosperity, upkeep, beach quality, accommodation and access to London. They vary wildly in the amenities offered to passing travellers, and the crowds in the various cafes and bars along the coast well exemplify the very precise market from which they draw their admirers.

And it is a timeless land; one in which bathing huts (or Chalets) are rented for generations, and within their twenty square feet have seen hundreds of family gatherings, events and picnics; they are decorated, some spectacularly, some diligently; some have a split level door at the front in the manner of a stable, with often their two senior residents sitting, warmly dressed, gazing out over the sea for hours at a time.

British people really do play on the beach in fouls weather; their patch slightly protected by a wind -break, their heads protected by knotted handkerchiefs, and a determination to enjoy their day-at-the-seaside despite all that the elements can throw at them. In sunny weather crowds flock to the coastal towns and wander, swim, gaze, fall in love and eat Fresh Fish; they visit strange museums, collections of lifeboats, shops of the 1950s, fishermen, shipwrecks and flower makers abound along the length of the coast as each small town tries to find its defining key, and one that will unlock the wondrous wealth of the Tourist Trade.

Accommodation, ranging from small bed & breakfasts, (“Well young Julie left for university, so we bought a new wardrobe for her room, and you can get a lovely view of the sea if you hang out of the window, just at the right angle….. no, not like that, dear …”) to a myriad of Guesthouses, principally bed & breakfasts in much larger homes, and hotels of every star and stripe.

The fine hotels of Bournemouth, Brighton and other such upmarket towns jostle with the small one-star properties, those of wire coat-hangers, tea stains, and electrically charged nylon bed covers, for space in the accommodation guides, and while there is always an element of “Buyer Beware” at any level of the accommodation spectrum, there will be somewhere to suit every taste.

The British coast is quite lovely, and my recent glimpse of it at Gravesend and Hastings has made me want to explore more.

I will head to visit the starkly beautiful north-east with their hard fishing towns and deeply rooted communities who face the North Sea in all of its moods; I will visit the Cornish and Devon coastline, and find a lovely snug hotel for a base to take some walks along the unique westerly cliffs and beaches; I shall head to the west of Wales, and explore some of the remote villages of the remote LlynPeninsular, and of course, the wild and dramatic Scottish coastlines of the west north and east.

I can’t wait to get started!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Irregular Operations: UA 972 / September 17

We have all been on flights where things go wrong; in fact, given the complexity of aircraft and their scheduling issues and the millions of passengers that travel each day, it is a wonder that things go wrong on a more regular basis.

But last night they did, and boy did the Air Traveller Gods send their thunderbolts down upon us.

I was flying on a United Airlines run from Chicago to Brussels with an onward connection to Toulouse; I was flying in First Class on an Aeroplan reward ticket. I had one meeting in Toulouse, and was then booked to fly to London on the 18th at 0850 on a separate British Airways ticket
.
Two hours after departing Chicago, a child was taken ill on the plane, and we diverted to Bangor, Maine to get the poor little tyke to hospital; this was unscheduled, but happens from time to time. We then departed from Bangor to fly the remaining six hours to the Belgian capital, and all was well. I fell asleep and dreamed of constructing tourist accommodation units in Georgia, a project that seemed to take on the most peculiar for as dream-projects are apt to do.

However, waking up some hours later I saw that the flight map had become corrupted or we were heading back to Chicago, which we were. A fault with the rudder, sufficiently serious to prevent a trans-oceanic flight, but not serious enough to prevent us turning around, was blamed, and that was that until we landed at O’Hare airport exactly twelve hours after we had departed.

And this is where it all started to tumble.

United Customer Service was absolutely and utterly dreadful; they sent a team of unqualified people to handle the rerouting requirements of 280 feisty and not unanimously jolly passengers. I was fortunate and reached the front of the line immediately and was presented with new boarding passes and curiously, a hotel voucher for a cheap hotel that lies $50 by taxi away from the airport.
   
I told the service agent that because of the delay, I no longer needed to travel to Toulouse, and could they simply put me on one of their three non-stops to London that day.

They could not because:
  •   I had a ticket to Toulouse and not London
  •    It was “free”
  •    It was Air Canada and they couldn't touch it
  •    The agent hadn't done any ticketing for over a year
  •    She was actually a gate agent in charge of an 0630 departure, and would be “written up” if her   dawdling in the customer service centre caused her to delay that flight.


I reminded them that:

  •  Although I had a ticket to Toulouse, they had failed to deliver me there and some give and      take would be appropriate.
  •    It would cost them less to only send me to London
  •  The ticket was not “free”; it was paid for in a currency to which they subscribe, and earned    by doing a substantial amount of business with their “partners”
  •    Air Canada and they were all part of a happy family called Star Alliance and she could, by a  magical process called “fimming” reissue these coupons
  •    Not much had changed in the world of ticketing in the past year, and if she had to get a flight     out at 0630, why was she behind this counter at all?


She then left, giving the file to a delightful but terribly soft spoken agent, and as the volume audibly increased as the remaining passengers were beginning to get a bit peaky.
  • She now pointed out that:
  •  There was no First Class space, and
  •  Even if there was, I could not get it because award tickets had to be booked in a particular “bucket” of seats of which there were none.
  •  Would $7 worth of meal vouchers suffice, and she could get a closer hotel.
  •   And finally, how did I know what a FIM was?

I retorted that:
  • I could see on my handy United Airlines App that there was a seat in First Class at 1825 if she looked closely and that
  • I fully realised that award tickets were booked in a particular “bucket”, but so was everybody else’s, and these were not available either. So I would be most agreeable if she would simply rebook me in First and I would be on my way.
  • $7 would hardly quench my thirst, but if that was it, I would be prepared to overlook this slight.
  • and finally, FIMs are my trump card.
http://flightaware.com/live/flight/N204UA/history/20140917/0225Z/KBGR/KORD
Her defence was now tumbling and she pointed out that
  •  It would be impossible to reroute my bags which were already tagged to London

I pointed out that
  • A month or so previously my bags had been tagged to London, but that they went to Hong Kong instead, so I really didn't have much faith in their systems anyhow; and in any case, I would go downstairs once that issued my new boarding pass and talk to the baggage folks myself.
  • I was still holding the seat to London that I had slyly booked as a precaution.


She now reissued my ticket, in First Class to London as requested, I went downstairs and arranged with a delightful baggage agent for mine to be “intercepted” and “redirected” to London. I am not holding my breath, but will report its whereabouts tomorrow.

However, I spent over half an hour at the counter, and getting what I had first requested after thirty wasted minutes of some corporate defence strategy. I have no idea how the remaining passengers got on, but I was told that the line-up was still in place five hours later.

Why oh why, United Airlines, do you send out such incompetent folks; they are all delightful, but only one that I could see, a gentleman reissuing tickets and dispatching passengers with a smile and click of his keyboard onto other carriers with no issue.

We are entitled to decent treatment from competent staff; we are not, after spending twelve hours encapsulated in a faulty Boeing 777 ready to be nickel and dimed to death on straight forward reroutes. Reissuing agents need to know the tools that that they have, and your corporate structure should not rely on the savings made by incorrectly applying guidelines (not rules) to already deeply inconvenienced passengers. 

What possible savings do you make sending passengers to a $66 room in Glenvale (wherever that is) by spending $100 on taxis?


Mechanical issues are inevitable; how you rise to the occasion is an entirely different matter, and on the morning of September 17th, you failed dismally. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

New Orleans, LA

Why on earth I was surprised to have liked New Orleans so much I really don't know. Perhaps it comes from becoming jaded by the homogenisation of North American cities, a phenomenon that is both rapid and sad, or the fact that I have travelled so much in the past year, nothing was ready to surprise me.

But surprise me it did, and I just loved it. It is the sort of place that I would like to rent an apartment for a couple of months one time and see how much of the goodwill, music, love and strength of the Crescent City that I can.

And strength is probably the most vital component. Behind every fa├žade of every local working with tourists, driving, cleaning, serving or simply being there is a story of rebirth, and a struggle with building new lives after the devastating hurricane Katrina. Hurricane damage is now a tourist attraction, at least in wards that have not politely told the government to advise gawking sightseers to "Go Away"; probably in some fruitier vernacular.

It is a tale of broken promises, profiteering banks and builders, of a nine-year struggle between those who had and those who needed; nearly a decade of living in difficult, hot and struggling neighbourhoods by day and looking perky by night for the conventioneers and tourists whose money has been so important in the commercial regeneration of New Orleans.

And I take my hat off to all of the people who make New Orleans the hospitable, imaginative, creative, delightful, loose, friendly, musical delight that the city is.

If you haven't been there yet, go, and double what you would normally tip!

New Orleans is far more French than I had thought; while I was aware of the history (I thought) of the region, I was completely overwhelmed by the Cabildo State Museum; it was worth several hours of exploration to come to a grip with the intricacies of Louisiana's history. Suffice it to say that this history involved a great deal of perseverance, eating, singing, fortune, deception and much pillage; it is a history of peoples working together to create some sort of life in the inhospitable south lands before either penicillin or air-conditioning. And what a culture they formed; one of celebration of many different ancestries, evident in the food, the art, the buildings and of course, the music.

Today the French influence is obvious in the look and feel of the city, the decor and the patois, and the feel of this distinct culture is New Orleans' trump card. To travel here is to feel that one has actually visited a new and exciting destination, and one that is worthy of exploration.

Music seeps through every paving stone in the city, and it is fine! Classical, traditional jazz, contemporary jazz and virtually every genre one might want is in the air, and everyone is welcomed with open arms (and a hint that tipping is not an alien habit).

The massive and delightful New Orleans City Park houses, among other terrific features the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden exhibiting a wonderful collection of contemporary pieces; adjacent to the Museum of Art, the collection is a must for any visitor to the city.

There are terrific local tours of every possible interest! From Plantation Tours to exploration of the local Voodoo scene, there is always somebody with a smile ready to explain yet another local eccentricity. And it is worth taking them all, I think, but to do so, I will need a couple of months, and that will be next year, I hope.

New Orleans is a city that lets you know in no uncertain terms that she is unique, fascinating and to be respected and enjoyed; not a city whose affections should be toyed with lightly.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Away from the blog!

I apologise to all who have written to me and asked why my page has been silent - I am, however, delighted that so many seem to want to read more!

The answer is simple. Since returning from St. Helena, I have been preoccupied with the sale of my company and the transition that these changes involve.

After thirty-five years, I have decided that it is time to have new blood take over the reins of The Great Canadian Travel Company, and let me devote my time to developing new programs, finding new destinations and creating more travel opportunities. So August has been filled with paperwork, briefings, strategic planning and other such cutting-edge pursuits.

And now the initial stage is over, I am coming up seeking air and will start to write again.

I have also started a new consultancy with two very good and quite brilliant friends, Ia Tabagari from Tbilisi, Georgia and Cameron Taylor who lives in Forres, Scotland. We have worked together in the past, and are now looking to develop and work on tourism development projects that will best use the skills that we offer. There are new destinations seeking to grow and develop their tourism profiles, and by working with these destinations and companies we are sure that we will be able to assist them to maintain long-term sustainability and the product integrity that is so vital to community-based tourism.

I will also be looking at the conversion potential of shipping containers to tourism accommodation, and will likely start on some property that I have in Sighnaghi, Eastern Georgia.

No time to be idle! There are many interesting programs out there to be developed and I will have a long association with The Great Canadian Travel Company, a business that has become an integral part of my life and my personality.

So thanks for the emails (max@ttjtourism.com is the new one) and watch this space!