Monthly Archives: March 2013

Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way Out.

People will tell you South Africa will change your life and it will.   It’s something people told me the first time I visited.  It’s something I now tell first time visitors.  I’ve gone back twice since and each visit brings a new revelation.

As a museum and World Heritage site, Robben Island is one of those places on South Africa’s list of places to see.  I’d wanted to check it out on previous visits but for one reason or another hadn’t gotten around to it.  I’d be in Cape Town managing a conference and built in the opportunity to take a group there, so off we went.

You travel to Robben Island by ferry and you want to go when the sea is calm–which is hardly ever–so it’s best to get the first transfer of the day.  We arrived the waterfront early, boarded the boat and settled in for the thirty-minute sail across Table Bay.  A private group tour had been arranged and an eloquent and engaging gentleman from South Africa Tourism greeted us.

Robben Island tour bus. (Photo credit:  Claudia Santino)

Robben Island tour bus. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

He led us on to a small, white bus with the slogan “Driven By Freedom emblazoned across it.  We sat silent as our guide recounted the story behind this isolated island once used as a leper colony and hospital but whose main function, and what earned it notoriety, was as a prison camp.

You can see Cape Town from Robben Island but for the men imprisoned here it must have seemed a million miles away. The waters that surround it are rough and uninviting.  It was sunny, about 50 degrees but chilly, as the bus rolled slowly along the sandy roads through the rocky, bone-white limestone terrain.  Seagulls swooped and screeched overhead.  A clear blue sky contrasted against the brightness of the island rock and sand and there wasn’t much shade.  By all accounts it was a beautiful day for us but it wasn’t difficult to imagine the desolation felt here.  It must have been hell for the men confined to this unforgiving environment in bitter cold winds or in the high heat of the African sun.

Our guide spotted a group of jackass penguins and the bus stopped so we could snap photos of these little creatures with their donkey-like bray.  With their black-webbed feet, they waddled around the acacia shrubs like they were on their way to garden party.  For a moment it was easy to forget what this place was all about.   The protection of mammal and bird life on Robben Island contributes to its status as a World Heritage Site.  It would have been a plus to see the other wildlife but our time was limited and we were here for the cultural significance.  We were here to see the maximum, security prison that held Nelson Mandela.

About five square meters, we could only enter the cell two at a time for about a minute.  On the floor, a thin mat served as his bed.  A bucket served as the toilet.  A small, barred window offered a meager view.

Nelson Mandela's Cell

Nelson Mandela’s Cell (Photo credit: mr_mayer)

It felt strange to stand here and one by one the collective mood turned somber.  Being confined to this space had to change the way you looked at things but there was no way I could fathom what Nelson Mandela’s life was like here for one second, much less 18 years.  “My bathroom’s bigger than this,” observed one of our group members in disbelief.  Our guide recounted the dehumanization and degradation endured by Mandela and his fellow political prisoners.  We all had a general knowledge going in of what happened here, yet to learn the details while moving within these walls somehow made it different.  The bleakness of it was overwhelming.  Standing there, it was almost impossible to reconcile what happened on Robben Island with the man we’ve all come to know through the media.  With the graceful man who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.  With the man who would go on to become the president of South Africa in 1994.

“Take a look to your right, that’s Robben Island University,” instructed our guide.  We saw nothing, just a pile of rocks.  But what only appeared to be a lime quarry to us was the underground college Mandela developed through limited conversations with other high-level prisoners.

Lime Quarry and memorial stones

Lime Quarry and memorial stones (Photo credit: B.T. Indrelunas)

On top of all the other hurt and humiliation, they were deprived the most basic but essential human connection—communication. Those men worked that rock in severe heat, biting wind, driving rain, and at the same time found a way to secretly discuss and engage in a discourse on free will, apartheid, their constitution and all sorts of literature.  They learned self-respect, how to practice it and how to earn it.  That this could happen said so much about the human spirit and spoke to the understanding that the cultural rules and expectations of how to navigate life and opportunity only apply if you think they do.   I recalled the saying “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and realized the strength of that simple phrase.   It got me thinking about freedom, what is really means, what it really is and how Nelson Mandela experienced more freedom in his mind then most of us ever will.  It also got me thinking about education, the price we pay for it in the U.S., how it’s taken for granted, and how those men most likely got the true essence of its best information but at a very high cost.

Robben Island has become a return trip my mind takes every now and then.  It’s the sort of place everyone should visit.  The time and lives lost by the men imprisoned there because of apartheid can never be made right.  It’s a sobering experience but it also shows the light and spirit man can discover within himself, and others, in the hardest of circumstances and that is a beautiful thing.   The words “driven by freedom”  echo many meanings to me now.

How will South Africa change you life?  That’s something you’ll discover when you get there.    Already been?  I’d love to hear your story.


Get Comfortable and Take Your Hat Off.

My mom’s always told me the one thing we can always be sure of in this world is that everything changes.  It’s like a mantra I’ve lived with over the years but moms are always right.  Think about how much the travel industry has changed because of online competition and how that’s affected your role.  Being a successful travel agent or counselor will always be about providing exceptional service and unforgettable experiences but it’s also about rolling with the tides.  It’s about embracing change.  Ultimately, it’s about changing up how you view your position and the value your travel experiences bring to the community table.  Where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, people you’ve met, hotels you slept in, and the food you’ve tasted.  This is knowledge that your customers and agency needs.  This is knowledge that needs to be shared.   When you capture this information to the written word it creates the opportunity for you to increase your value beyond transactions.  It’ll take you out of the fixed role of a travel agent and position you as a travel asset.

If you want to write and publish your travels, or have been asked to write about them by your agency, but just haven’t gotten around to it, I feel your pain. It’s not far-fetched that you might have nagging thoughts like, “who do I think I am, I’m not a writer,” or maybe something like, “who would ever read my stuff, I’m no expert.”  It’s scary to put yourself out there and go public.  I still cringe a bit when I’m ready to publish and hit the send button.  You’re not the first person to experience those freaky feelings and you certainly won’t be the last.  It’s natural to have those anxieties—I’d actually think it’d be a bit weird if you didn’t.  On the other hand, you are an expert and you walked into your position with something that most people don’t have when they start a job.  You had a passion—a passion for travel—or you developed one pretty quickly.

Inspired By Voices.

If you want to share your stories, the first step in your journey will be to find your voice.  You might have many travels behind you and ahead of you but without a unique writing voice, you might not get too far.  If you’ve been writing then you may already have discovered it, in which case the next step is to be brave, make the leap and share it.  But, on the other hand, if you haven’t spent any time journaling your travels or just haven’t written on a regular basis, then this will be the first port of call.  This will be the beginning of your inner exploration and one you can practice anywhere.  This isn’t business writing, it’s about writing that sings from your soul.  Are you ready to take off your agent hat?

Every writer has a voice and chances are if there’s a travel column you like to read, it’s probably because you connect to the style of the writer’s voice.  It’s how they share an experience or moment around a particular destination that sparks your curiosity.   It’s what keeps you reading and coming back to learn about the next best place to go.

Do you have any favorite travel magazines?  What about travel websites or blogs, do you follow any?  These are good places to help identify the type of writing you admire and to get a sense of how these writers dive into the details.  Identifying the type of writing you admire will help you find your writing voice.  I’m a loyal follower of National Geographic Traveler.  It features topics important to me—from environmental protection, animal conservation, and sustainable travel to supporting a destination’s local food or art scene.  But it’s the voices of the writers who weave the stories behind these travel columns, and the photography, that keeps my yearly subscription coming.  If you’ve never read it, check it out

College Degree Not Necessary.

Maybe you think being able to write is something you needed to study—in which case, you can put your fears aside.  There are loads of writers and bloggers out there who don’t have a writing background.  All they had was a desire to share an idea and let their voice be heard.  Some are popular and some are unknown but they’re still writing and putting their stuff out there.  Some use a notebook, while others you use a laptop to get their motor running.  You don’t have to go out of your way to buy anything special.  Use whatever you’re comfortable with to get your ideas down.  Every bag I own has a notepad of some kind in it, which makes it easy to jot down an idea or observation.  You might be more comfortable with a phone app, maybe Evernote, if you prefer digital note taking.  There’s no right or wrong way to do this, the only point is to write.  Identifying your writing voice isn’t meant to be a chore.  Play around and have fun with it.

Are there some fundamental rules of the road when it comes to travel writing?  There are and the first and most important one to focus on is “show, don’t tell.”  This is the main directive for creative writing and if you think about it, it makes sense.  So let’s keep it simple and just focus on that one for now.   It’s about details and description—it’s about visuals.  It’s the difference between “the sun set in the ocean” and “a tangerine sun dipped into the indigo sea.”  It’s about staying away from words or phrases that don’t provide a description.  Don’t forget, beauty is the eye of the beholder so instead of saying “the Danube Valley is beautiful,” you’ll want to show the reader how it’s beautiful.  If your first impression of a town is “quaint” then show the reader what makes it so.   Chances are how it’s beautiful or quaint will be different for me then it is for you so just go for it and don’t be afraid to unleash your observational skills.  Break the habit of using overused and common words that really aren’t descriptive and focus on visuals, imagery….details.

What are some of the cities, beaches, towns, meals, or cruises you’ve enjoyed?  Get comfortable with your knowledge and share those observations and experiences. The more you write the easier descriptions will flow.  If you specialize in a destination or a type of travel then you might find it easier to capitalize on the details of that knowledge.  Ultimately, your travel writing will open up greater opportunities to engage your customers and create value for yourself.

So for now, concentrate on getting into a daily groove of writing stuff down.   Eventually it’ll become a habit—and a good one.   There doesn’t have to be any rhyme or reason to what you jot down, the point is to just get those recollections and details out of your head and to get you writing.  Take a reading safari and investigate all the great travel writing out there.  Bop around the web and check out some travel blogs or visit your local bookstore to browse or buy some travel mags and see what writers appeal to you.  Focus on how they tell their story.  If you find yourself lost in any of them then it’s because you connect to the writer’s voice and style.

But here’s the bottom line to all this…you don’t have to read anyone’s writing.   All you need to do is write.  You have a voice.  It’s in there.  It just takes one step to make a change and let it out.

I know you can do it.

Travel Agents Leave Valuable Gem Behind.

The idea for this blog came from travel journals I’ve kept over the years.  As a kid I kept journals and as a traveler I keep them.  One day I figured, why not do something with them?  Which got me thinking that I wish I’d had this idea earlier.   Creating and managing conferences and incentive programs for the largest travel agency on the planet took me to some incredible and inspirational places.  But as the saying goes—hindsight is twenty-twenty, and I can see clearly now that I left the best opportunity behind when I come home and didn’t write about my travels. If you’re in this business, it’s because you’ve got a thing for travel so why not share it?

When did the travel bug bite you?  Were you 6, 16 or 60?  It doesn’t matter, there’s no cure and if even if there were, you wouldn’t want it.   What does matter is that you’ve got stories to tell.  Whatever type of travel you specialize in, you hold a post that gives you the opportunity to do more than whatever your job description says you do.  Sure, your job is to sell travel. It’s to keep customers who are happy with the service you give them coming back and it’s to attract new ones.   But the reach of your talents isn’t limited to that narrow scope.  Are you following me?

Ever heard this saying? “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”  If not, think about it for a moment and give it a chance to settle in, get comfortable with it. In fact, maybe cut and paste that quote into bigger font and then print it and put it some place prominent where you’ll see it every day.  This is about changing the way you view your role. It’s about discovering that the biggest perk of your job isn’t the free or discounted travel you get—although that’s a great bonus– it’s about the knowledge and experiences you gain. You’re a travel ambassador and if you’re not capturing your trip experiences–through writing or photography or video–then you’re cheating yourself, your customers and your organization.  If you don’t take advantage of the travel you could be doing, then get yourself out there and start connecting to the places that’ll inspire you and make you an expert and an advocate.

If right about now you’re thinking—I’m not a writer”–I’m going to challenge you.  It’s not about creating something along the lines of The Sun Also Rises (although you might have that in you), just a suggestion that you get comfortable with the idea that this is something you can do.   If you already like to write but you’re afraid of putting yourself out there, then I hope this gives you the push you need.  In either case it may take some time but that’s okay.   The more you pack along this idea when you travel, the more you’ll see how much sense it makes.

Capturing your travel in writing will help your professional and personal development.  It will make you a better communicator because it’ll enhance your ability to share what a destination feels like, smells like and tastes like and that will inspire your customers to want to experience it.

Writing is an exploration that’ll take you places you didn’t know existed.  It’s a lifetime journey–if you want it to be– that’ll make you a better observer of every place you visit.  Whether you’re at home or abroad.

This blog is my own journey into communicating my travel experiences.  Am I skittish to put myself out there in unchartered territory?  Sure, but it’s an expedition I’m eager to take.

I know you have stories too.  Let’s find your voice and share it.