Thursday, 11 June 2009

Change of blog address. Please visit

Hello. I'm experimenting in Wordpress. You can find my new blog here - Please bookmark this address. This is where I am adding my new posts.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Going local in... Deptford?

It seems the world at large isn't ready for trips to all corners of London's South East. Benji Lanyado caused quite a storm following his latest New York Times piece, which tipped visiting Deptford and New Cross.

The Mail
, The Mirror and The Telegraph were up in arms at the idea. "When the article says the area has 'an edge', the first thought of many was that it meant a knife edge," said the ever-one-sided Mail.

One thing I hate in travel is scaremongering. The papers made it sound like people don't walk the streets for fear of a drive-by shooting.

Whether or not it's worth a visit depends on your approach to travel. No, it's not an area for tick-box sights, but it is a good place to catch a gig, see another side of London, and maybe get an advanced preview of what, like it or not, has been tipped as "the next Shoreditch". The type of readers tempted to take up Benji's advice are not going to be the ones fitting it in between Madam Tussauds and Tiger, Tiger. "Those with well-cushioned sensibilities need not make the journey," read the first paragraph.

But, as ever, The Mail wasn't going to stop spouting nonsense while it was ahead: "What was it about Deptford that caught the eye of one of the world's most influential papers? Here's a clue. The author comes from South-East London." I'm not sure what their point is here. To me, that sounds like a local likely to be ahead of the game. Usually by the time an overseas reports get to a place, they're well behind the times. (See the Wall Street Journal - which recently discovered the "lesser-known" neighbourhood of San Telmo in Buenos Aires.)

It seems to me that the problem was less about the travel tips and more about the newspaper. "The New York Times! That's for Americans! Americans only like escorted tour-group holidays with all-you-can-eat buffets! They are bound to get mugged!"

The question is who should be more offended by this coverage: the dumb-ass Americans or the slum-dwelling south-east Londoners?

Photo: The Ben Pimlott building, Goldsmith's College, Flickr, Andy Roberts

Rosario restaurant recommendation: El Vomito

I’ve just returned from a place where, when asking the locals for restaurant recommendations, there was one thing on the tip of all their tongues: El Vomito.

It wasn’t looking good, was it?

I was in Rosario – a lovely riverside city in Argentina, best known for being the birthplace of Che Guevara - and, after some initial concern, El Vomito turned out to be a term of endearment for a well-loved haunt – Comedor Balcarce (Brown and Balcarce). A traditional, no-frills restaurant, it’s earnt its nickname for offering such hearty and affordable grub, you could eat it until you make yourself sick.

When you look at it that way, it’s quite charming. Kind of.

On the pavement outside, I got talking to an Argentine-Canadian couple. I told them I was looking for "somewhere called, er, El Vomito”. They pointed to it straight away: an unassuming corner building with the sun shades pulled down. “It’s great!” they gushed. “We live next door and when we didn’t have a kitchen when we first moved in, we ate all our meals there for over a month.”

Inside I found the sort of place that
serves soda siphons to dilute your red wine, fizzy drinks in family–sized glass bottles and, of course, big hunks of meat. There was a wide range of people tucking in and an aged waiter who insisted on calling me either muchachita or niña (both mean 'little girl').

I ordered the battered Merluza (hake) with a salad, which came to 15 pesos (around £3). I meant to take a photo for this blog, but I got overexcited and ate it all too fast.

The first person to mention El Vomito to me was Meag an American living the city with her Rosarino boyfriend, Guille. I got in touch with her through her blog, A Domestic Disturbance, and spent a lovely Saturday afternoon with her and Guille. They are both big fans of El Vomito and it is surely a local institution as I heard it mentioned many more times.

It’s the sort of down-to-earth place I love to find on my travels. “Recomienda!!” (Recommend us!), said the menu. And so I will.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

San Pedro prison closes to tourism

News from Bolivia
: San Pedro Prison has closed its doors to tourism. It was only a matter of time. As I reported in the Guardian in January, the prison was allowing up to 50 backpackers enter through its iron gates every day for a bizarre tour that allowed them to try some of cocaine that was manufactured in makeshift factories inside. (Yes, you read that right.)

The tours have been run on and off for years, but this time the (totally unofficial) organisers pushed it too far. There was an increasing lack of discretion. Travellers were being allowed to take cameras in and were uploading pics on to flickr
and videos on to YouTube (Were all prisoners asked permission about this?). Rumour had it that local tourist offices were offering tours under-the-table, while those that turned up at the door, like I did, found that money was exchanging hands in a sideroom on prison premises.

The prisoners leading the tours had become greedy. If they'd had any sense, they would have halted them on the six-month anniversary of the arrest of Leopoldo Fernández, a controversial ex-governor accused of genocide. That day inevitably brought protesting crowds and film crews. According James Brunker, a photographer based in La Paz, when one of the film crews got wind of a tour group inside, they decided this was "far more interesting!".

In the news report (above), the TV station presents the tourists as sneaky villains, hiding under jackets and running off while flipping the crew the bird. This isn't typical and I can only presume people were shouting accusations to get a reaction. None of backpackers I met there were sneaking out as if they'd done something wrong - it was all a big jolly for the most part. That was the disconcerting part.

The main concern for Bolivians, however was not the daytrippers, but the police and their evident involvement. "Who is watching the police?" asked an editorial in La Razon.

I emailed James to find out more. "As part of Evo's [the president] anti-corruption drive, the prison heads have been sacked and replaced. It's been common knowledge for years that a whole load of criminal activities have been run from inside the jail and there are some very rich prisoners in there as a result. A lot of this involves abuse of the local visitor system and even the families who live inside."

It wasn't looking good for Evo if the international media was becoming increasingly interested in the illegal goings on in San Pedro. And this was set to increase massively as Brad Pitt's San Pedro movie, Marching Powder, goes into production.

However, the most concerning part of this denouement is that during the "clean up" ordinary prisoners had their visitors' rights revoked for a day. A riot followed. According to reports, tear gas was used, at least 15 people were injured, and 80 children were evacuated.

Meanwhile, the backpackers have their pictures and exciting stories. Some of their money may have been put to good use helping those inside, but we'll never know for sure.

"I don't think tourist visits have restarted," James tells me. "Though there's always a few backpackers in the square and vicinity, probably curious just to see the prison as much as to try and get in."

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Going local with Buenos Aires taxi drivers

"Right," says the taxi driver, as the cab door slams shut. "Where do you want to go?"

"Well, the thing is," begins Layne Mosler, as she slides into the back seat, "we want you to tell us. You see I have an unusual request …"

And Layne begins to explain her quest – to find the most interesting restaurants in Buenos Aires without the help of guidebooks, online tip-sharing sites, and travel-networking websites. Instead, she goes straight to those who know the city's ins and outs better than anyone: the taxi drivers.

The 34-year-old Californian has been living in Buenos Aires for four years, and for the past two years she has been taking weekly taxi excursions to eat at the places recommended by the drivers and posting the details on her blog,

Enamoured with the idea, I make Layne a proposition: one Saturday in the city, one taxi-gourmet marathon, with lunch, afternoon tea and dinner all dictated to us by our drivers. After more than 60 taxi adventures, Layne is unfazed by the challenge, and so we find ourselves jumping in our first cab from the cobbled streets of the Palermo district...

  • Read the rest of the feature and watch the video on Guardian Travel today.

WAYN: the relaunch

WAYN is one travel networking site I've never really got on with. It was a combination of the Twee cartoon mascot, the spam, and those one-line emails from guys trying to pick up a date. There also seemed to be a lot of users that weren't even particularly interested in travel, instead spending most of their free time at home chatting online.

But just because it wasn't for me I wouldn't sneeze at its success. With 15 million members, WAYN is one of the biggest travel-networking sites out there and it boasts many happy, dedicated users.

Nonetheless, the WAYN guys have realised that to keep profiles active they can't rest on their laurels. Not in this field. And so the site has undergone an extensive overhaul, relaunching this week having tackled past criticism head on. (Including bidding adieu to their little cartoon friend.)

You can clearly see the influences of Twitter and Facebook in the new design, but the biggest change of all is that "Where are you now?" seems to have morphed into "What are you doing now?" Users are being encouraged to share intentions through the site - similar to Dopplr - for trips abroad or even something as simple as a local cinema trip.

"One of the main things to admire about WAYN," wrote Travolution this week, "is that they have never been afraid to re-engineer the business, and talk about it so publicly." The article continues with praise for the founders' brute honest, quoting cofounder Jerome Touze as saying, "We have done some things right, but have done many things very wrong. I look at some things now and say: 'what the f**k were we thinking."

Sometimes this is just what we want a social-network founder to say. It translates as "we're human; we make mistakes; we're learning and adapting". That's all any of us can do in this ever-changing field.

Dedicated social-network users often come to feel like that they "own" the sites as much as the founders. They need to feel that their voices are being listened to and they're not being dictated to. Site founders have to be careful not to become bigger than their sites. This is how nearly came a cropper. A massive technical hitch in 2006 led founder Casey Fenton to send an email to all members announcing the site was unsalvageable and did "not exist anymore". This provoked outrage ("how can he give up now?", "how can he take our networks of friends away from us?"). There was even talk of legal action. However, it ended happily when volunteers banded together to save it, Casey came back on board, and the project went on to become the version-two site that we have today.

When tipped its millionth member earlier this year, this figure seemed huge and an incredible sign of success. Remind yourself that WAYN has 15 times that many and suddenly Jerome's claim to have "done some things right" seem like quite the understatement. As the social-networking market gets increasingly crowded, let's see where it goes from here.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Are you a social netsetter?

Are you a social netsetter? Travellers spending time social networking while away: it's a subject that's been hotly debated in recent weeks.

First came a survey from TNT magazine that used the buzzword "netsetter" in reference to travellers who upload pictures of their trip while they are on holiday, as "bragging rights".
(The Daily Mail then took this one step further and declared that "social netsetters are holidaymakers who travel abroad so they can get images on to websites to show off to their friends". As if that's the sole reason to travel. A slight exaggeration, I think.)

Since then travel writer Rolf Potts has caused a stir by telling travellers to steer clear of Twitter.

Rolf highlighted his criticism with an anecdote about an old university friend who, in the 1990s, got a bit too enthusiastic about his new answerphone.

Whenever he left his dorm room, Doug would change his outgoing machine message to fit his current status. “Hey, I’m off in accounting class right now,” he’d say, “but leave a message and I’ll call you back.” “I’m going out to see a movie and maybe go to a bar, but leave a message and I’ll call you back.” Whatever Doug was going to do next — eat lunch in the cafeteria, travel to Portland, study in the library — invariably made it into a freshly updated answering machine message.

An amusing story, however Rolf doesn't seem to grasp Twitter. He thinks - just as I once did - that all people do is post about what they are doing right now. (It's funny how avid users leap up to Twitter's defence at this point, but the site itself - with a slogan "What are you doing?" - does little to dispel the myths.)

There was a good retort to Rolf yesterday on BootsNAll, explaining why he shouldn't be so quick to judge.

The key is not to overuse these sites. The best social media users can see the pros and the cons, and occasionally laugh at the whole damn thing. (See this excellent parody above. If the link doesn't work, find it here)

Would you class yourself as a netsetter? Do you Tweet when away? And when you upload your holiday pictures, is it to brag or to share?