Look for the who behind the where

The who behind the where: El Albergue

Here’s a small hotel in Ollantaytanbo, Peru where the people were as nice as the rooms

Want to make planning a trip easier?

Sometimes I am most lost on a trip before I ever leave.

Whenever I start planning to visit a new place, particularly a new country, I go through a three-step progression.

  • First, I get excited by the possibilities of what I think might await me there.
  • Second, I get informed through guidebooks, friends and websites about what actually awaits me there.
  • Third, I get overwhelmed by the first two.

The result? I end up playing possum with the details. Sure, I’ll book my flight and make any other reservations that require advance notice. But after that, I sometimes do nothing until the looming departure date requires action.

But lately, I’ve rediscovered a new approach or rather, a more intentional utilization of an old approach: Let someone else take care of things for you.

No, I’m not talking about a travel agent, though good ones can be invaluable (which may explain why there’s a surprising growth in that field). Nor am I suggesting you pass on the planning responsibilities to another member of your traveling party, though sharing the task can be rewarding on a number of levels.

Instead, I’m recommending you find a local resource. Someone in-country who knows what’s hot, what’s not and what’s just off the beaten path but not so far off that you’ll never find your way back.

Sounds great, right? But how do you find such a person?

Find the who behind the where

Ironically, they out there just waiting for you. I’m referring to the friendly owner, manager or employee of a hotel, B&B or apartment where you plan to stay. Unlike tour companies or guides who may have vested interests in you booking other travel services, most small hotels or B&B’s are busy enough with managing their own properties. Their entire focus is on making their guests happy.

As a result, if you find the right who behind the where, the person behind the place, they can be a wealth of valuable information.

I uncover the helpful ones by emailing various places where I’m considering staying. I ask a few questions about their place. See how they respond, how friendly they are and how good their English is. I also look for how responsive they are: Do my questions seem like a hassle to them or do their responses indicate an enthusiasm and genuine desire to help?

The who behind the where can make all the difference

It’s been a revelation for us to find truly helpful owners of small hotels from Scotland to Peru to Belgium who go out of their way to answer questions not just about their hotel or B&B but to ensure we have a great overall experience in their country. Many have connections with other hotel owners across the country (like the secret concierge society in The Grand Budapest Hotel). Thus, they can recommend from firsthand experience other places to stay, which routes to take, the best time to visit certain places, as well as hidden sights to see and local restaurants to consider.

Sure, you risk not knowing if their place is any good since you haven’t yet been there, but usually you can determine enough from online reviews to figure that out. And even if it isn’t (which has never been our experience — the most helpful hosts tend to run the best properties) you still win by gaining all their insights before you even arrive.

So try it. Next time you’re planning a trip, pursue the who behind the where. Start with a search for a more personal accommodation in one city or area on your itinerary. Large chain hotels won’t work for this nor will locations where language is too much of a barrier (though never underestimate the power of using Google Translate in your emails!). But hunt around. Focus on finding not only a great place to stay but a great host. And then listen to what they have to tell you.

You may end up making a new friend and having not only one of the best vacations, but one of the easiest to plan.

 

Why originality doesn’t matter

Why originality doesn't matter: Gorilla

“You want to paint my face? Really?”

Why originality doesn’t matter

I used to worry about being original. I also used to worry about acne.

I’ve outgrown both concerns.

Age took care of the acne.

Reality took care of originality.

That reality led me to these conclusions:

First, on one level, there’s nothing new under the sun. So I find striving for newness itself about as successful as mentally willing my acne to disappear back in middle school.

Second, originality is the wrong goal. Instead of striving to be original, seek to say or do something that matters to you and will matter to someone else. Write or create to help others, to add value, to make a difference, even if for only one person on one day. Pursue helpfulness and saying what you need to say over originality. If you pursue the latter, you will likely end up doing something crazy like trying to face paint a gorilla while dressed as a gondolier, reciting Tang dynasty poetry and simultaneously trying to record your work with your iPhone. Upside down. Original? Yes. But good and useful and helpful? Ask the gorilla.

The best way to be original

Pursue originality and you may get, well, something you may not want to show your parents (or a prospective mate). Pursue doing something that matters, that is helpful and strives to say something in the best way possible and guess what? You may just end up being original.

To prove my point, here’s a quote from C.S. Lewis I found after writing all the above:

Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

See? Nothing new under the sun. But let me add a few other points.

When you cease striving to be original, you take a lot of pressure off yourself. You back your way into quality and freshness rather than obsessing and freezing up. Thus, you end up doing better — maybe even more original — work.

You may be the one

Most important, however, is this. If you’re a writer, even if what you write isn’t original or new, it may be new to your reader. In advertising, they say it takes six or more impressions (exposures to say, an ad) before a person even consciously registers that she’s ever heard of the product. That means that a reader may have read about a subject multiple times before they come across your take on it. But you may be the one writer who cuts through the clutter and makes sense to that reader. Your voice, your unique take on the same subject that dozens of others have addressed, may be the one that resonates with that reader at exactly the right time.

So don’t worry so much about being original. That will come with time and discovering and writing in your own voice. Instead, figure out what you want to say, what you’re meant to say and then say it. Write it. Proclaim it in your own best words and then trust it will find the right readers when they most need it.

And watch out for gorillas with face paint.

 

How to make Brussels sprouts taste delicious

How to make Brussels Sprouts taste delicious

My now not-so-secret ingredients to make Brussels sprouts or other bitter vegetables quite tasty.

The mystery of memory, scent and taste

This morning, as I ascend the stairs, I encounter a scent at once delightful and curious. Delightful because of the wondrous aroma. Curious because none of the supposed ingredients are currently in play at our house. What wafts my way seems to be a delicious blend of Chanel Number 5 and bacon. To my male olfactory receptors, this is clearly what heaven will smell like. The combination evokes both hunger and romance, a savory/sweet blend that brings to mind Christmastime, dinner parties and awakening ravenous after arriving home from abroad. And yet, my wife has not applied the suspected perfume nor have we cooked any bacon lately.

The phantom scent, while welcome, reminds me that when smell and memory collide, the results frequently defy logic.

Scents are famous for triggering memories, even if we don’t understand why or can’t pin down the direct connection. The same applies, to a lesser degree, to tastes. But with tastes, I’ve found that not only can they evoke memories, they can also spark new ideas.

Take, for example, our food tour of Seattle’s International District. There I encountered a taste — the sweet, delicate and clean flavor of the salad dressing/dipping sauce used for our lunch. Later investigation revealed the contents to be fish sauce, scallions, ginger and sugar. Hmmm. Sugar.

In that one taste, I had the beginnings of a plan. A dream really. A nutritionist’s nirvana: Make palatable the very vegetables that so many people hate to eat.

Can you actually make Brussels sprouts taste delicious?

It started with broccoli. As a kid I always wondered how something could be good for you that, when cooked, smelled like the substance you clean off your shoe. And not just broccoli. All the cruciferous vegetables: cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts. Let’s face it. They stink. They are also an acquired taste (bitterness does not come naturally to the human palette).

So how do you get around the smell and the bitterness?

For the smell, simply don’t overcook them. Al dente means “no stinky” in my kitchen. The longer most cruciferous veggies cook, the more they smell like a frat house bathroom. Don’t overcook them.

But what about that bitter taste? That’s where my fish sauce and sugar moment kicked in.

Why try and simply overpower the bitter taste of broccoli by drenching it with a cheese sauce as so many parents do when there’s a more elegant approach: Offset bitter with sweet.

General Tsao's Sauce to make Brussels sprouts taste delicious

If you want a simple one step way to make Brussels sprouts taste better, here’s your solution in a bottle. And if you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby, you have my heartfelt condolences…

To do this, get a bottle of General Tso’s sauce (Orange Chicken sauce will do and even Hoisin sauce works in a pinch). Trader Joe’s has their “General Tsao’s Sauce” and many supermarkets and Asian food stores carry the other two. Add about a tablespoon per two person serving to Brussels sprouts as you stir fry them or mix in before serving if you steam, boil or roast them. Viola! No bitterness! And if you need pointers on various ways to cook Brussels sprouts, check out this helpful article.

The secret formula to make Brussels sprouts taste delicious

The success of this simple approach led me to experiment with other recipes. Here’s one that has become my favorite. Assuming you like spicy foods, even the most cruciferous hater out there may think differently about Brussels sprouts after trying this approach. It combines a subtle sweetness with more punch than the above options. The proportions are mere estimates:

  • 1 tablespoon Caribbean jerk sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

This is meant to be a light additive, not a heavy sauce. The amount listed is enough to cover (or rather, infuse) a serving for four. I cut the Brussels sprouts into slices or quarters (they cook faster this way, so remember, don’t overcook) and, for the final touch, I add the piece de resistance: some crunchy bacon bits.

The slightly sweet, spicy and flavorful combination does something amazing to the Brussels sprouts: It makes them something you actually want to eat.

And of course, the bacon helps. Bacon always helps (unless you’re a vegetarian).

Wearing Chanel No. 5 while you cook, however, is optional.

 

Thoughtful Travel: A new way to go

Thoughtful Travel - Airport TravelerEver watch people at an airport? You can usually spot the first-timers who are looking everywhere all at once. Or the families going on vacation, hauling enough plush and treats to run a daycare center. But my favorite are the business travelers. You can detect them from their typical posture: head down, body leaning forward, efficiently packed bags towed briskly behind them.

They are purposeful, focused and almost always on their cell phones. Sometimes this is obvious: the rectangle pressed tightly to their faces as they risk a cheek bone or jowl inadvertently ending their call. Other times, you see them scurrying like well-dressed homeless people, mumbling — apparently to themselves — until you detect the Bluetooth device in their ears.

Their conversations are surprisingly similar: fragments of “Just go back in there” or “We need to get it higher” or “What were you thinking?” or “Did you bring this up with _________?” A foreign anthropologist listening in for the first time might conclude this was some kind of bizarre mating ritual. But no. It’s simply business people airing their private conversations so the rest of us can enjoy their angst about market share or meeting their numbers by month end.

I know this world well because I am one of them. On business trips, I have a lot going on in my mind usually related to logistics or my upcoming meetings. But rarely, I find, am I thoughtful.

I use this word, thoughtful, in two senses.

First, thoughtful as in reflective. I’m often as preoccupied as the next business traveler. But I’m not usually present. I’m more on autopilot. And rarely am I aware of what this particular trip means, how it might be more than what it appears, how I might find more meaning and life amidst the hectic schedules of meetings, meals and the evening deluge of emails crying out for a response.

Second, thoughtful also can imply being considerate as in, “That was so thoughtful of you.” And when I’m in autopilot mode, I’m rarely thinking of others as we all stand in the boarding line jockeying to get 200 carryon bags into half that many overhead slots.

But maybe it is time for a change.

Meaningful travel is thoughtful travel. Or it can be when we seek to make the experience meaningful for others as well. I once missed a dinner meeting near the Orlando airport because I stopped to help a wheelchaired Vietnam vet find the bus to Jacksonville. Funny thing is that he wasn’t particularly pleasant or appreciative, but that didn’t matter. At least for that one evening, I took a moment to pull outside of my own little world to be thoughtful and helpful to someone else.

Give it a try. Be more thoughtful — reflective and considerate — when you travel. It sounds good, but if you attempt it, you may find like I do that it is easier to talk about than to practice. But give it a shot and see what you think…

To give you a nudge, I’ve just added another resource to this site. It’s free if you’ve signed in. I call it A Guide to Thoughtful Business Travel. Take a look and see if you don’t find something there to help make your next trip — especially a business trip — just a bit more thoughtful.

 

Use your words: Why it helps to write things down

Use your words: Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia

I remember the place – Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain – but how I felt at the time or other details? All a blur. I should have used my words…

Use your words

When our sons were little, they’d reach a point of either frustration or excitement where they couldn’t convey their intent. Gestures, crying, repeating the same undecipherable jumble always resulted in our same, calming response: “Use your words.”

Now that I’m older, I have to remind myself of that advice. When traveling to a new place that makes me so giddy with excitement to see more, I can easily put the arm-waving, up-and-down jumping, glee squeaking gyrations of my children to shame. At least on the inside. I do try and retain some external decorum. Try.

But then, after the initial wave of enthusiasm passes and especially later when I attempt to recount the wonder of a place to others, I hit a snag. I can remember the emotions and some of the details, but I can’t always connect the two in ways that make sense to others.

Why? Because I didn’t use my words. I didn’t write down the details of both the place and my response to it right away. As a result, that moment is gone and the specifics that made it so special are, at least partially, lost.

Write it down right away

Earlier, we looked at how details can make your writing more interesting and the free guide, Come Closer: A Novelist’s Approach to Capturing Details. But how and even when you capture those details matters in your ability to use them well later.

The prolific travel writer Tim Cahill addresses this in his story, “The Place I’ll Never Forget” found in the collection An Innocent Abroad edited by Don George. In trying to recount experiences later he notes:

“…it occurred to me that the stories I told would benefit from more detail. I couldn’t just experience something and expect to have it etched indelibly into my memory. I had to give names to the colors and odors and feel of things. I had to assess my own feelings, which gave emotion to the landscape. And I needed to do it on the spot because travel often doesn’t allow you to backtrack.”

That’s vital for writers and artists to remember: If we don’t capture the details and our emotional response to them while we’re right there, we’re rarely given a second chance. Time and memory quickly distort our recollections of the moment.

When it comes to using your words, Cahill notes:

“Some people are certain they can recall such physical and emotional experiences through their photographs. I can’t argue the point, though feeling through a lens is a rare talent and one I don’t possess. I need to put words to sensations and emotions to own them forever. Whenever I can’t figure something out and take a photograph rather than a note, I know I’m losing the scene forever.”

Use your words to capture what lies beneath the surface

I love photography. But I’m finding that like Cahill, sometimes a photograph can’t capture what he refers to as the “interior landscape,” our internal response to the external scene. Taking notes as soon as we can after the experience allows us to record both what we see and feel. We begin to find meaning in the experience right there because we’re processing it in real time.

I still tend to rush into and out of a scene, clicking away and hoping I can later reconstruct through images what occurred there. But increasingly, I’m trying to pause amidst the excitement of the place and at least scribble down or record verbally my reaction to it. Images matter and are a great resource for reviewing later for details. But if you want to capture those details and the meaning behind them, do what we told our kids.

Use your words.

 

How to make your writing more interesting and memorable

How to make your writing more interesting: Image of The Gatteaux Family by Ingres

The Gatteaux Family by Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres

Want to make your writing or your art more interesting? Want it to stand out and be remembered better? Want readers to be able to visualize with great clarity what you’re writing about?

Add details.

There it is. Details. That’s the big secret, or at least one of them for crafting more interesting fiction and non-fiction and adding layers to your art.

As Steven Pinker points out in his excellent book, The Sense of Style, which sentence can you mentally picture (and thus likely retain) better:

“The set fell on the floor” or “The ivory chess set fell on the floor”?

Only two words differentiate the two sentences, yet that detail makes the second sentence more concrete. You can picture the ivory chess set better.

The ways in which you present details are as diverse as the types of writing you might do. But here are two considerations.

First, for fiction, use details to add depth and clarity to your descriptions. “It was a dark and moonless night” doesn’t make you feel the night as well as, “The darkness oppressed her, like the blackness of a cave, complete and unyielding.”

For non-fiction, wherever possible, use examples (as I just did above). Examples offer details while also providing an analogy the reader can relate to.

Details are your friend. But how do you go about making their acquaintance? You can rely on your imagination. But your imagination will grow if you learn to collect details and stockpile them for later.

Travel helps us in this regard. When we go out into the world with our eyes open and our notebooks or cameras or sketchpads at hand, we can see and then capture details we’d otherwise miss. We then bring back these small treasures to our studios for use in our work. Anyone can do this, but it helps to know some shortcuts and techniques. And where might one find such helpful tips?

I just completed a new paper, just for you, my guide to capturing and collecting details. It’s a free resource here if you’ve signed up on the site. I call it Come Closer: The Novelist’s Approach to Collecting Details because the basic concept came from an interview with a novelist I read many years ago. He described traveling to a city, for example, where a scene for his next book would take place. But instead of writing all the details about the whole city, he would find one interesting street corner and then document that thoroughly. He’d then have some great details he could throw into his descriptions that provided authenticity and made the scene more compelling.

I liken it to an Ingres drawing. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the 19th century French painter, is considered one of history’s finest draftsman. His drawings, such as the one above, are exquisite, but what I appreciate is his isolated use of extreme detail. In the above image, the background is a mere suggestion. Even the clothing is rendered with the minimal lines needed to convey meaning. But look at the faces. They are meticulously drawn. Ingres used details where they mattered and didn’t waste the effort in areas where they don’t. And so should we.

If you want to make your writing more interesting, check out the guide to capturing details. The beauty of it is that you’ll learn tips and techniques that will not only make you a better writer or artist, they’ll improve how you travel as well.