EMMIE V. ABADILLA
(A lecture on Travel Writing which I delivered at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, College of Mass Comm.)
I love to travel. It just so happened that I’m a writer.
I’ve been all over the Philippines, from Batanes to Tawi-Tawi. I’ve visited over half a hundred countries in 5 continents. Actually, I already have enough material to write for the rest of my life.
As for the writing… It’s a lifetime habit.
I’ve been writing since I was a kid, about 8, starting with journaling, keeping diaries, recording my thoughts. By the time I was 11, I was publishing short stories and poetry.
I’ve always been good in descriptive writing. It’s easy for me. I’ve dabbled in many fields, from theatre and dance to painting. But my bread and butter has always been writing. Right now, I’m a business journalist for Manila Bulletin.
As part of my job, I travel a lot. I do offsite visits, cover product launches, conferences here and overseas. (And of course, we have junkets!) I accumulate flight miles, which I use for extra trips. Most of the times, I just extend my “official” trips to neighboring countries. But that’s at my own expense.
Travel on your own is not cheap and I’m not rich. So, I backpack. I avoid travel agents as much as possible. I plan my itinerary as an independent traveller. I stay in hostels and camping grounds. I bring what food I can, cook in the hostels if possible or buy my food from supermarkets. I avoid eating in restaurants. I don’t take taxis. I take buses and public transport. I don’t buy souvenirs.
But I go where I want to go. I do what I love to do and I enjoy myself immensely. Afterwards, I write about my experience and sell it. I dida lot of unsolicited travel stories for different publications before I had my regular Sunday Travel column at Manila Bulletin, “My World In a Flashpack”.
For me, travel IS a great pleasure and writing about it allows me to share what I love with a vast audience. It allows me to educate, to entertain and to inspire.
Now, what kind of travel experience can you sell? I had the most unforgettable trips. But if I tell you about all of them, I’ll be talking here forever.
Let me just say, I favor 3 types of travel:
I love wild adventure but I also write about “tame” city trips – visits to theme parks, historic places, museums, temples, palaces and churches. They’re the easiest to do because they’re either part or extensions of my official trips.
When I was assigned to cover Thailand, I extended my trip to see the temples of Bangkok and Ayutthaya. And because Cambodia is close by, I did the temple circuit of Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Phrom, to name a few. Then I sailed to Battambang to see more temples and returned by way of Phnom Penh, touring the museums and the Killing Fields.
When I was assigned to cover in Istanbul, Turkey, I extended my stay to see the Topkapi Palace, the harem, the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Then I took the local bus to reach the Underground Cities of Derinkuyu and the cave churches of Cappadocia. I went by bus all the way to Izmir, the birthplace of Homer, to Ephesus where I explored the temple of Artemis and the house of the Virgin Mary.
Also because I came from so far, I thought I might as well see a nearby country. Egypt was cheaper than Greece, so I went there. I booked a jump-on-jump off bus in Cairo. I went to Gizah to see the pyramids, then I visited the temples of Luxor, Kom Ombo, Karnak, Abu Simbel and the Valley of the Kings.
After a coverage in Berlin, I backpacked for 3 months all over Europe. Again I took the jump-on, jump-off bus to visit 12 countries and 50 destinations. The bus is cheaper than the train. Of course I took the ferry when I went to Athens and the islands of the Cyclades. Same thing when I did side trips to Capri from Amalfi in Italy and to Morocco from Portugal.
On assignment in Moscow, in the dead of winter, I visited the Cathedral Square at the Kremlin and the Armoury museum that holds the treasures of the Tsars.
The second type of travel I do is adventure travel. Here, I wrote about surfing in Siargao and Aurora, swimming with whalesharks in Donsol and hitching a ride on the fin of a 30-footer. I did caving in Callao and Bohol, trekked and snorkelled in Batanes, did scuba dives, ziplined and parasailed in Mindoro, Batangas, Palawan, Davao and Cebu.
Overseas, I swam with reef sharks and bull sharks, hand-fed giant rays in Singapore, wild dolphins in Australia. I went canyoneering in Arizona and Utah. I trekked in the Canadian Rockies, explored the national parks of British Columbia and Alberta. I also climbed a couple of mountains there and trekked over the glaciers of the Athabasca.
I solo-trekked in the jungles of Khao Yai in Thailand. There, I saw my first wild tiger, hunting deer. I had my second wild tiger sighting in the oldest rainforest in the world, in Taman Negara, Malaysia. In Monglia, I hunted foxes with golden eagles. I lived with Kazakh hunters at 10,000 feet, in minus 30 degrees temps in winter, in the Altai Mountains.
I did desert trekking in Dubai in the middle of summer and sailed along the Nile in a felucca. I trekked over a glacier, 12,000 feet up Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps in Lauterbrunnen. These are just a few of my adventure travels.
The last type of travel I favour is volunteer travel.
I’m a licensed scuba diver and a member of Ecorescue. So, I did three-day live aboard dives at Apo Reef, Mindoro and Batangas. I volunteered to conduct reef checks, measuring the effect of global warming as well as dynamite and cyanide fishing on the corals. I also built artificial reefs where fish could find refuge and where corals can grow again. This involved carrying and piling concrete blocks in the bottom of the sea in cold waters and in strong currents.
But so far, the most exciting and the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done and written about, is volunteering in wildlife sanctuaries abroad.
Less than a year ago, I volunteered in South Africa, taking care of white lions and tigers, cheetahs and caracals and diving with great white sharks.
Before that, I volunteered in Chiangmai, Thailand, taking care of 30 abused Asian elephants. A good number of them have killed their mahouts or handlers. Next, I volunteered for one month in Sai Yok, in Southern Thailand. There I took care of 23 tigers, 2 lions, a leopard, a Himalayan bear and 2 serpent eagles. My last volunteer travel was in Fallon, Nevada, where I took care of 2 lions, 2 tigers, 4 lynxes and a cougar.
This called for direct physical contact with big cats and elephants. The elephants are actually more dangerous than the tigers. Elephants kill an average of 100 people per year in India alone. I walked them all – those big cats and those elephants. I bathed them, fed them and cleaned their cages. I played with them, talked to them, slept with them and gave them as much love as I could.
I was never formally trained to care for big wild animals. But I was raised in a household with a dozen cats and a dozen dogs. I love cats most of all. Of course, the cats I cared for as a volunteer are 500 pound creatures with the bite force of a thousand pounds per square inch and claws that can eviscerate me with a single swipe.
But these huge powerful animals are also capable of showing great affection. The elephants would untie my shoe laces and rummage through my pockets with their trunks, they would nuzzle me and give me hot air kisses. The tigers and other big cats would run to greet me, purr as loud as truck motors, roll over like giant house cats, begging to be petted and would cry when I try to leave. They made me feel so privileged, so loved. My time spent with them was the happiest in my life.
Still, there’s a price. You can’t avoid getting injured or even killed when working with wild animals. It’s part of the risk. My big cats in Thailand were orphaned by poachers. They never hurt me. But the abused ones I cared for in Nevada were more unpredictable and I was bitten by my cougar.
Kickstart, my 250 pound cougar, was only playing. She grabbed my hand and pulled me. I got 17 stitches in my left hand. The bones of my left wrist are still separated up to now. I had 6 months of painful physical rehab to regain the use of my left hand.
If my cougar wanted to, she could have killed me. But she never meant to hurt me. I was the only human being she bonded with in all the 16 years of her abused life. When I left the sanctuary, she was heartbroken. She refused to eat, got sick and shortly after, she died.
I still miss her up to now. In fact, I wish to volunteer again. I wish to take care of jaguars at the Inti Warayassi sanctuary in Bolivia. I’ve never been to Latin America. So, perhaps, I’ll do that next.
After all these experiences, the final question is, how to write about it?
For me, travel writing is feature writing. The basic rules for form and content are the same. Only the subject is different.
For the training you’re already in my alma mater, the best university in this country. However, not even the best university in the world can teach you how to write. Writing is a craft. The only way you learn to write is by writing.
Establish a writing habit. I have established mine since I was a kid. I write daily, an hour a day at least. The style, the depth, these are things you develop over the years.
It helps if you read. Reading stimulates your mind. It feeds your personal databank.
Know your subject well. Find what others do not normally see. Make your story interesting from the first paragraph. Usually, editors and readers just look at the first paragraph. If it doesn’t hook them, they move on.
Strive for a clean copy. Learn how to edit yourself. Editors will love you for it.
Study your market. You don’t submit a backpacking story to a magazine that caters to luxury travellers, for example. You don’t submit a 3,000 word story when the publication specified they just want 1,000 words.
Know how to sell yourself. This is a very competitive field. Everyone has a story to tell, from that globe-trotting teen adventurer younger than you are to that gray nomad who’s older than your grandmother.
It also helps if you love what you do. It’s not just pulling a camera and taking pictures of everything. It’s not just recommending where to stay, how to get there, what to eat, comparing prices, what attractions to see and what to do, the tourist traps and scams to avoid. You absorb the spirit of each place, you go out of your way to meet the people. It’s the ultimate love affair.
For this reason, I believe that in order to be a good travel writer, you need to have an exciting life. An extraordinary life. One that is lived well, to the hilt, every moment. Your life, your experience. These are the only materials you have. It’s all the content that you’ll ever need.
If life excites you, if travel makes you come alive, you can infect others with your passion. You don’t need to try so hard to sell it.
However, I should warn you. Travel writing is not all glam and fun. It takes certain survival skills, a certain mindset to find a sense of fun in all the visa red tapes, the waiting, the jet lags, the inconveniences and the cultural barriers you deal with.
You must have the patience of a saint. You spend lots of time queuing, from the airport and the hotel, to the museums and the attractions. Sometimes it would seem most of your days are consumed packing and unpacking, or just finding out how to get from one place to another. It could be very stressful.
If you go for remote places like me, you learn to live without running water and electricity, among other things. In Mongolia, in order to have water to drink, I have to hack ice from a frozen spring. Then I have to melt that on a stove fuelled by camel dung. I have to sleep in a ger – a tent made of animal hides, with jet stream winds screaming nonstop outside.
In the tropical rainforest, I had to deal with flash floods, falling trees, mudslides, leeches, poisonous snakes.
And no matter what you do, you’ll get lost. Soon enough, you’ll find that maps are not always accurate. The little streets are not there. Even Global Positioning Systems can give you false readings, like when you’re in the bottom of a canyon. Street signs and metro signs will be in a foreign language. You’ll be lucky to find people who speak English.
I’ve been lost all over the planet. But I found more interesting things and met so many kind strangers in that manner. In Turkey, when I missed my bus, a local guy phoned the owner of the bus line himself. In Russia, a kind babushka called her Filipina maid to give me the right directions. In the Cyclades, a whole troupe of local dancers drove me to the very doorstep of my hostel. In Milan, people insisted I join them for dinner before sending me on my way.
But definitely, safety is an issue. Before I left for Moscow, a terrorist bombed the airport where I’m scheduled to land. A lot of tourists were killed. There was bombing in Istanbul after I left the city and rioting in Bangkok when I was there. Two people slipped and died in the same trail I took in the Grand Canyon. In Mongolia, one of my companions nearly died of mountain sickness.
I had my own close calls. Aside from the bite of a playful 250 pound cat, I had near disasters from defective borrowed equipment while scuba diving. I could have drowned. In Thailand, on my 2nd day as a volunteer, some handlers took out a 500-pound tiger who was not supposed to be taken out of his cage. I had my back to them, out in the field, unaware of the danger. The tiger got loose and went after me. If I have not kept my head, I’ll be dead.
Of course, staying at home doesn’t mean you won’t get killed. We all die. That’s a fact. But it’s good to be prepared. So, a travel insurance is a must. And very early on, I had this habit of updating my living will before flying out.
It’s not being morbid. I’m a solo woman traveller, an only child and the sole breadwinner. I live a very exciting life but travelling the way I do, you learn to expect the worst though you always hope for the best.
In addition to the insurance and the living will, I provide two of my trusted friends with my detailed itinerary each time before I leave. That’s a good precaution in case I go missing. At least, two people will know where I’m supposed to be and notify authorities where to look for me.
If you’ve seen the film 127 Hours, that’s the true story of Aron Ralston. His hand was trapped in a boulder for 5 days in a canyon in Utah. No one knew he needed to be rescued because he told no one of his whereabouts. To free himself, he had to amputate his own arm with a dull knife.
At that time, I was also in Canyonlands, in a different part of the same national park where he was trapped. Canyonlands is the second largest and one of the wildest national parks in the U.S. I was trekking near the Devil’s Kitchen, in another district of the park. I got lost, but not trapped, fortunately.
So, you have to be prepared. You’ll find that preparing for every journey is just as exciting as getting there.
I still dream of far away places everyday. There’s so much more I want to see and experience. I feel my whole lifetime won’t ever be enough. I intend to travel for as long as my body will permit me. And I intend to write to the very last.
For me, each journey is a great pilgrimage, not just into the world but into myself.
That’s why I love to travel. In fact, I live to travel. The writing just happens.