Freelance Travel Writing and the Art of Being a Parent

I recently turned down a press trip to a place I’ve always wanted to go. The press trip was going to be an all-expenses paid trip to a destination near the Mediterranean Sea. I would go, see the sites, and write about the destination for a few publications. I didn’t have a firm assignment for any magazine, newspaper, or website, so this presser was going to be more a frivolous pursuit than a full-fledged moneymaker.

So, why did I turn this opportunity down? Ethics? No. I discussed that in an earlier post. I turned down a fabulous press trip opportunity because I couldn’t bear the thought of traveling without my children.

To those without kids (and some with), this probably sounds like a pathetic excuse. I think back to Eat, Pray, Love, in which Elizabeth Gilbert confessed

I have always felt, ever since I was sixteen years old and first went to Russia with my saved-up babysitting money, that to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice. I am loyal and constant in my love for travel, as I have not always been loyal and constant in my other loves. I feel about travel the way a happy new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless newborn baby – I just don’t care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it’s mine. Because it looks exactly like me. It can barf all over me if it wants to – I just don’t care.

Gilbert compared her love of travel to the love of a parent for a child. And, while I once had the very same feelings about travel – that it was what made me me – it was before I had children. It is not the same. (I am saying this at the end of a week being snowed-in with two bored children under four. So it must be love.)

A search for meaning...or just belly lint

A search for meaning...or just belly lint

The thought of traveling thousands of miles away while my children stay behind is a frightening proposition for me, not in the least because I have only spent one night away from either of them only once in the three and a half years since becoming a mother. While I know that the kids would be fine in the care of their father and/or grandparents, I can’t help but envision the sense of abandonment they would feel while I was away. No doubt, if I took the trip, the thought of my children missing me would put a pit in my stomach from the moment I walked through the airport security gates and would haunt me throughout the entire journey.

And then I start thinking about “what if something happened to me?” I’d never forgive myself. I imagine my husband explaining to my children, “You will never see your mother again because she had to go on an unnecessary press trip.”

Now, you must be thinking, “You’re a wuss!” There are plenty of mothers who must travel for work and they – and their children – do just fine. In fact, my husband is set to go on a two-week business trip next month and I don’t think the idea of leaving his family has even crossed his mind. Maybe it’s like that for fathers and some mothers – “It’s work. It must be done. I have no choice.”

But I wasn’t planning to go on a business trip to Cleveland to talk about business forecasts. I was going to be traveling in a foreign country, over-indulging in the local food, seeing gorgeous, historic sites, practically going on vacation. I was going to be working, yes. But I was also going to be having fun.

This, of course, presents an existential crisis for me. Can I call myself a travel writer if I don’t want to travel?

It’s not that I don’t travel anymore. In fact, my husband’s job as a diplomat guarantees that I will be traveling overseas again – with kids – in the near future. In our last post, Turkey, we traveled all over the place with our sons in car trips to the Mediterranean and Black Seas, on overnight train rides to Istanbul, on day trips to villages near Istanbul. Traveling with kids was trying, but we we couldn’t think of leaving them at home with the nanny like so many others did. I also did a few trips alone with my oldest son (before the youngest was born) back to the States which was a serious hassle, what with airport security, overweight carry-on baggage, and all the fatigue that goes along with keeping a toddler engaged on a plane and in airports. When we returned to the States for good last summer, I vowed that I wouldn’t get on a plane again until I absolutely had to. Friends and family could come to us for a change.

Almost all of the travel writing I’ve ever read, save for maybe Paul Theroux or V.S. Naipaul, mythologizes the way of life in foreign countries. People in countries outside of our own have their priorities straight. They have honest, unhurried meals. They take walks after dinner with their loved ones. They live with less but enjoy life more. They take time for family. All of those traits that we as travel writers admire about residents in foreign lands are not at all beyond our grasp. In other words, we can talk the talk but we rarely walk the walk.

So, call me a heretic for breaking the freelance travel writing creed. Call me crazy for not accepting a free trip to Mediterranean bliss. Call me an embarrassment to feminists everywhere. Call me whatever you want because you won’t be calling me a bad (or absent) parent. There will be more chances to travel later. And I am sure that I will eventually travel abroad without my kids. But right now, I’m going to enjoy to enjoy this time. Besides it’s time to put my youngest down for a nap.

Update: My children are now older, my motherly hormones are in check, and I am ready to begin accepting press trip offers once again on a case by case basis. Contact me.

Istanbul: 2010 European Capital of Culture

Tomorrow – January 16 – Istanbul will be introduced to the world as the 2010 European Capital of Culture. Istanbul, the Capital of European Culture, you say? But Turkey is not even part of the European Union. You’re right…not yet. But, most of Istanbul is in Europe, even if the majority of Turkey lies in Asia.

There will be celebrations across the entire city – including fireworks and a DJ show in Sultanahmet to a Tarkan show in Taksim Square – as Istanbul’s year begins. It’s really quite exciting and I know that the Sublime Porte is looking forward to putting its best face forward to Europe and the world.

Unfortunately, I won’t get back to Istanbul this year. But I do want to celebrate the city in my own way by displaying a photo or a link from time to time.

The photo I’m displaying today was taken inside Istanbul’s Kapal? Çar??, Istanbul’s Covered Market also known as the Grand Bazaar. The photo is of me and my son, who was mesmerized by the colorful, beautiful lanterns. This vendor booth is quite well-known within the bazaar – I’ve seen several photos taken with a similar background – but I’m not sure of the booth number. If anyone knows the specific location of this stand within the bazaar, please comment below!

Five Reasons Why I’m Returning My Kindle

Update

Attention Readers: This post is severely out of date! It refers to the original Kindle, which I did, indeed, return. Three years later, I have purchased an 8GB, 7″ Kindle Fire (primarily for my son). A review of that gadget is possibly forthcoming; I will not be returning it.

If you’d like to know why I returned my original Kindle, be my guest and read on…

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On Christmas morning, I was one of the thousands of people who awoke to find a Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reader and the company’s “most gifted” product ever, under the tree. As my family’s gadget geek, I was definitely excited to test out the holiday season’s most talked about toy, even though I hardly have time these days to read traditional paper books, much less digital ones.

But now that I’ve had a couple weeks to play, I can definitely make a case as to why I should return my Kindle.

1. No Backlight
I shudder to think of life before my iPhone. I can use the iPhone anytime, anywhere. Often, this means catching up on tweets or the latest headlines under the covers while my husband thinks I’m sleeping. My midnight rendez-vous with the iPhone would not be possible without its backlight. In fact, the phone’s incessant glow has become so ubiquitous as to inspire a New Yorker cover.

To my knowledge, the Kindle does not have a backlight (though I understand that the Sony Reader has an LED that you can switch on or off). Kindle uses EPD (electronic paper display) technology for its e-books. This technology is said to reduce the glare on the Kindle screen and “provide the contrast and resolution of traditional ink on paper.” (Computer World article) That’s great if you want to read your Kindle in the bright sunlight. But I want to read in bed and it sure would be nice not to have to turn on a separate light to do so.

2. “Experimental” Features
If you click on Kindle’s “menu” button – one of several buttons on the ergonomic, yet slightly cumbersome device – you’ll see a list item titled “experimental,” whose name already suggests to me that my Kindle 2 will soon be obsolete. The experimental features in question are a web browser, an MP3 player, and a text-to-speech component. In theory, these are excellent additions to the device. In practice, however, they leave much to be desired.

For starters, the web browser is a mess. If I go to a site that is not retro-fitted for text-only viewing, it feels like I’m surfing the web using Netscape circa 1993. The layout is disjointed and all the eye-catching graphics I’ve come to expect from my favorite sites are non-existent. What’s more, typing in a URL using the Kindle keyboard feels less like texting and more like using a scientific calculator.

Likewise, the MP3 player is a good concept, as it allows me to play Amazon MP3 purchases in the background while I’m reading. Unfortunately, I can’t add these items to Kindle using its wireless “WhisperSynch” technology. Rather, I must upload the MP3s by connecting my Kindle via USB to my computer. That seems so antiquated, especially in light of the fact that most smart phones – gadgets that the Amazon Kindle no doubt wants to emulate – allow wireless uploads via wifi or 3G networks.

I’ll admit that I haven’t tried the text-to-speech yet. But judging from the other two components, I am sure that I wouldn’t be impressed.

3. Amazon as Gatekeeper to Your Reading Material
The whole reason Amazon invented the Kindle was to create a market where there was none. Indeed, when all those Kindle giftees opened up their new toys on Christmas morning, they began downloading e-books from Amazon, the only store that sells digital books in the Kindle (.AZW) format. To be fair, many of these books sell for a fraction of their hardback versions. For example, the hardcover edition of the Edward Kennedy memoir True Compass retails new for $21.00 on Amazon, but costs only $9.99 on the Kindle. Amazon also offers a lot of Classics, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Machiavelli’s The Prince for $0.99 or free, and also allows you to download short samples of any of its digital books.

Still, at a price of $259, you’d think that Amazon could throw in a few free books. Better yet, why not allow users to download the digital versions of books they’ve already purchased through Amazon? Having the option to download and read, say, five of the books I already own would be not only a generous gesture on the part of Amazon, but an incentive to get me to buy more books.

Another cool feature I should mention is that you can email personal documents in the txt or PDF formats to a specially assigned Kindle email address. So, if you need to catch up with reading a brief for work or are a writer who wishes to peruse the latest draft of your article while you’re on the go, you can send it to [email protected] I love this idea, but I don’t love the price. Yes, Amazon charges U.S. customers $.15 per megabyte to use Kindle’s Personal Document Service via Whispernet ($.99 internationally). Or, you can go the free but more complicated route by emailing your document to [email protected], where Amazon will convert your docs to its Kindle-compatible format.

I think I’ll just stick to reading documents on my iPhone, either by emailing myself or using one its apps, such as Evernote.

4. Kindle for iPhone
Speaking of apps, I downloaded the Kindle for iPhone long before I had any inkling I would receive the real deal. The app is free – surprise, surprise! – and allows you to shop in the Kindle store just as you would if you had a Kindle. You can even synch your app with your device. So, if you forget your Kindle but have your iPhone, you can pick up in your book where you left off. Sadly, this only works for books: “Periodicals such as newspapers, magazines, and blogs, and personal documents cannot be viewed on the Kindle for iPhone.”

The real Kindle has the iPhone app beat when it comes to the on-screen appearance of books. On the other hand, when I’m reading on my Kindle, I have to unlearn that swipe-scroll motion that I’ve become accustomed to while using an iPhone touch screen. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Amazon roll out the Kindle 3 with a touch screen and built-in, on-screen keyboard.

5. Magazine Subscriptions
Finally, I’m dissatisfied with the Kindle’s magazine subscription service. Amazon currently stocks only 43 magazine titles, including PC Magazine, The Economist, and Shape. While I do like the idea of saving trees and getting my periodicals wirelessly, I don’t like the fact that I can’t synch up with subscriptions I currently have. For example, as part of my New Yorker subscription, I can read that magazine online. But if I want to read that magazine on my Kindle, I must sign up for a completely separate subscription. What’s more, “The Kindle Edition of The New Yorker will usually include all articles, fiction, and poetry found in the print edition and a selection of cartoons, but will not include other images at this time.” A New Yorker without images and minus some of its articles?? What kind of BS if that? I think both Amazon and magazine publishers would be well-served to come up with a solution to this.

The Kindle does allow users to sign up for a 14-day free trial of any of its magazines. Though, if you want to cancel that subscription within those two weeks, Amazon does not make it easy to do so. One has to manage his magazine subscriptions through his Amazon account online, and you can’t even use Kindle’s “experimental” web browser to see or update your account information. That to me is an epic fail.

Magazines aren’t particular cheaper on the Kindle, either. As one subscriber to Shape commented, “I like the Kindle, but I also like my money. I got 2 years of Shape delivered to my home for only $10…why so much on the Kindle?” I have to ask the same thing about Slate, for which Amazon charges $2.49 per month for the privilege of reading “most of the articles from the online edition.” I’d rather get my Slate with ads and all of its articles rather than a lesser – but more expensive – Kindle-ized version.

And A Sixth Reason…
Don’t get me wrong, the Kindle is a fine toy, especially if you are an voracious bookworm. But I still think much work needs to be done before this e-reader becomes essential. Besides, the one thing that Kindle doesn’t do for this mother of two boys under 4 is find more time to read. When the Kindle figures out how to do THAT, then I may reconsider.