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?

Monday, 13 April 2009

Going local in Pennsylvania

I just received an email from this chap above. His name is Ken Hull, he's an artist from Pennsylvania, and he thought I might be interested in a book he's written called 'going LOCAL!' (He's so passionate about this that only caps and an exclamation mark will suffice.)

It turns out Ken has spent years riding, exploring and tasting his way across central PA, bypassing the US's numerous chains behind and finding the best locally owned places for food, beer and coffee. His book brings together some of his favourite spots.

If you're heading to Pennsylvania, order a copy from his site: In the meantime, here's a taste of one of his local experiences:

Elk Creek Café and Aleworks –
100 West Main Street, Millheim, PA. (814) 349-8850

A number of years ago Tim Bowser helped to open a little place called the Equinox Cafe in Millheim. Situated along Rt. 45, this is a one stoplight town and not really a place one would invest money and time in to create an eclectic coffee shop. But when Tim and associates opened the doors of the Equinox, it was like the whole consciousness of the valley opened and folks poured in…

The place was a Mecca for coffee, simple foods and the best BYOB music jams in the valley. But, in 2006, Tim presented his beloved community with the next chapter in his already awesome dream – a full-blown brew pub and restaurant. They responded with resounding support and financial backing, and the seeds of Elk Creek Café & Aleworks were planted. (And if you know anything about Penns Valley, you know it's a fertile land and anything planted here grows strong and hearty.)

Going local is something Tim is very passionate about. Elk Creek uses nearly 100 % local organic meat and dairy. Produce is “in season” and the beer is brewed and kegged in the back room.

The official cuisine at Elk Creek is called Nuevo Dutchie – a combination of gastro pub food and what rural Pennsylvania is known for – Dutch-style cooking. According to Tim, “Dutch cuisine is a cookery of the land, you used what was available and you used everything except the oink.” And this place is, as Tim put it so well, “an omnivore’s delight”. Meat lovers as well as vegans can enjoy a wonderful meal prepared fresh and at a fair price.

Tim set out to cultivate a gathering place for the community, brew great beer, serve great food, support and showcase local produce, meats, dairy, music and art – all in a sweet place and all with a great vibe. He told me his “community” is not just Millheim and Penns Valley (that's his home), but his reach goes well beyond his grasp and he considers any like minded folks no matter where they're from, a part of his community. He's a true indie spirit whose dream has been made reality and it’s waiting for you in Penns Valley at the Elk Creek Café and Ale Works. Enjoy!

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Going global

I've just watched Leonardo DiCaprio's eco documentary the 11th Hour for the second time. The below quote from one of Leo's talking heads stuck in my mind the first time round and it now seems more appropriate than ever.

From Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly:

We need to be slower; we need to be smarter. Slow means disengaging from consumerism as the main avenue of experience. It doesn’t reject any consumption, but it says we’re not going to live our lives mediated by stuff sold out there in the market. We’re not going to base our identities and our meaning on what we buy. Instead of the long commute, the bigger car, the bigger house, let’s enjoy the local produce and have time to ourselves. Let’s understand that things are thieves of time because the more things you have, the more time you have to spend working to pay for them, the more your life is chained to a rhythm of perpetual purchase.

Being smart means reintroducing a term from before the Industrial Revolution — frugality. Frugality does not mean poverty or deprivation. It means the wise use of resources.

I'm with Nathan on this. Are you?

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Blogs on Argentina: the number one resource

Looking for a blog on Argentina? Here's the place to head:

I'm impressed with this site. It's simple, understated, and does just what the title implies: lists all the travel blogs in Argentina. Or at least the vast majority of them.

These are then neatly divided into practical subheads: Expats in Buenos Aires, Expats outside Buenos Aires, Argentine blogs, Travellers' blogs. There are no frills here, no widgets, no distractions - it just tells you what you need to know: what blogs are out there, where they are based, and how often they are updated.
The list even inspired an article in Argentina's national newspaper, Clarin.

It was put together by a New Zealander called Matt, who lived in Argentina from
January 2005 until April 2007 and wrote a blog of his own, Suitcaseonwheels. Although this blog came to a natural end when he moved back home, he cleverly kept his bloggers' round-up ultra low maintenance, so that he can still keep on top of it. If you find a blog that's not on there, just leave a comment. Matt drops by every now and again to update the site - adding newcomers and moving inactive oldies into the archive section.

I wish every destination had something similar. And here's hoping Matt will continue to keep his list up to date for all those in, or coming to, Argentina and that it doesn't suffer the same dead-link end as sister site,, which once collected Argentina's Spanish-language blogs.

If anyone knows where to find other lists of Argentinean blogs in English and Spanish, post them here. In the meantime, Spanish speakers should make a beeline for Blog de Viajes, which just picked up Best Spanish Language Travel Blog in the Lonely Planet awards. And also, which was nominated for best microblog.

Any that Matt has missed? Let me, and him, know.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Tent surfing anyone?

If you’re still not convinced by the idea of sleeping in someone else’s home as a couchsurfer, there is one last alternative. Why not try their back garden instead? All you need is a tent and roughly 15 euros to find off-beaten-track camp spots on private land via Give it a try and the world - or, in the early stages, mainly Sweden – could be your oyster.

I've written more on this and other offshoots of in this week's TNT magazine

Tent picture: wiki commons

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Going local in Peru

From an article published in today's Guardian.

Sonia Guzman is the sort of storyteller who has you hanging on every word - even if you can't understand all of them. We're sitting around her dining room table and she's recounting Inca legends. She is speaking in Spanish, and there are lots of long Quechua names, yet somehow I manage to follow. With tales of ancient battles, thwarted love and lost gold, I feel like I've stepped into Inca Jackanory.

Sonia is my homestay host in Ollantaytambo, a historic town in southern Peru's Sacred Valley, known for its cobbled streets and mountainside ruins of 15th-century storehouses and agricultural terraces. Sonia's house is a traditional, stone-built Inca structure, with an open courtyard that looks straight up at some of the most dramatic ruins. It's been in her family for generations and is decorated with all manner of Peruvian artefacts, from mythological ceramic bulls to Quechua festival masks.

I've found Sonia through Leap Local (, a website that allows travellers to recommend local guides and services. It's not dissimilar to TripAdvisor, but the aim is to draw attention to smaller outfits and ensure money goes to communities. It's part of an emerging crop of online communities whose focus is specifically local. These sites range from blogs written by a network of local "spotters" around the world (see to virtual marketplaces where the tiniest of enterprises - even individual chefs or guides - are given an online presence.

I'm giving hotels, tour operators and even Machu Picchu a backseat and basing my entire trip around Leap Local. Read the rest at Guardian Travel....

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

NYC hotel with its own social network

There are lots of hotels that like to think they are offering not just a place to sleep but "a lifestyle" too. Generally speaking, you shouldn't believe them. These are normally the sort of places who also try to sell you their branded CD of forgettable chill-out tunes.

However, one place that could have a legitimate claim on the idea is the Pod Hotel in NYC. During your stay they won't just provide fresh towels and free wifi, they'll sort you out with a social life too. Just dial room service and...

Ok, not quite. No telephones involved. It's all on the net, of course. Yes, you've guessed it, the Pod Hotel has its very own social network.

It's a rather basic affair, more like a simple forum, but it's proving very popular. When guests make a reservation, they are given the option to join the forum. There they'll find a section for each month of the year, subdivided into four categories: Eat With Me; Drink With Me; Shop With Me; Go Out With Me. If you're going to be in town that month, you can start your own post - inviting others to meet up with you - or you can respond to an invite that's already there. Site statistics show that, so far, 1776 users have contributed 251 threads and 564 posts.

I like the idea. It's perfect for travellers who are past bunking up in huge hostel dorms and yet miss the social experience of shared accommodation. It's also perfect for a city like NYC, which can be a lonely place for a solo traveller.

That's not to say you have to be on your own to use it. Couples and groups of friends are getting in on the idea too, often making plans with other guests before they've even set foot on NY soil.

All good, although you could argue that people should be more willing to start an occasional spontaneous chat in a hallway, without feeling the need to exchange emails first.

The network has earned the Pod Hotel the nickname “The Facebook Hotel”, based on the generation they are targeting and how they are targeting them.

"Get a feel for Pod culture," announces the website. Easy now, Pod Hotel. I like your style, but watch yourself or you could be selling mood CDs before you know it.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Work your way around the world as a housesitter

Here's news to me: non-homeowners can house swap too. Well, kind of. Instead of offering a house in return, you offer your time and become a "housesitter". C - est. 1983 - brings the two parties together. Check out Caretaker Gazette, their subscription newsletter. I've yet to really explore it, but it's surely worth a look. Here's a very low-key vid (above) that offers tips for gaining trust.

And here's a sample ad:

"HOUSESITTER needed near Edinburgh. I need a housesitter for various time periods, but at least one week for my comfortable home located about 10 miles east of Edinburgh. I prefer two people, and don't mind if you are friends, a couple or married. We have two dogs, one horse and one pony, a large garden, and stables. You can have the use of a car if needed, since we are very accessible to Edinburgh and only 10 minutes from hills, the beach, and golf courses. Would love regular housesitters, if possible, to allow us to get away fairly regularly, but don't mind one off's. Our house is on the edge of a small town in a peaceful but not isolated location. The dogs run around the garden and don't need to be walked. Horses need to be mucked out daily, fed three times a day and stabled at night. Housesitter must have experience with horses and dogs."
Thanks to NaiveAbroad, who's post on Free Travel [Almost] alerted me to the site.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Going local in the 19th century

An 19th-century female traveller, Edith Tweedie, was discovering local travel before us all. Here's an excerpt from Wanderlust: a social history of travel, by Laura Byrne Paquet. Pictured: how the world looked in 1897. So-called "British possessions" are marked in red. Map from Cambridge University Library.

One of the most cheerful nineteenth-century adventurers was an Englishwoman named Edith Tweedie, who published her impressions in a series of books under the name Mrs Alec Tweedie.

During a trip through Finland in the 1890s with her sister and some friends, she gets it into her head that she would like to experience a traditional Finnish bath, and nothing will satisfy her until she gets one. Disappointed that she can’t arrange to have one with the local peasants — for reasons that are unclear, but probably have something to do with the fact that the locals aren’t keen on sharing their ablutions with a stranger — she eventually manages to arrange for a woman named Saima who understands the traditional rituals to come and give her and her friends a group bath.

Difficulties arise almost as soon as the Englishwomen enter the bastu, or bathhouse. Saima gleefully begins tossing water onto hot bricks, and the visitors are soon roasting. Gasping for breath, they plead with Saima in broken Finnish to stop. The problem is that Saima is Swedish and doesn’t understand a word they’re saying, so she continues to steam them like a bunch of pale, damp clams. Finally, through hand signals and a general aura of panic, they make their wishes known. Saima obligingly stops pouring cold water on the bricks and starts scrubbing the bathers with soft soap and a bundle of rags. Once she deems them clean, she sluices them with pails of hot water, then flails them with a birch switch for a while. “It was an awful experience!” Mrs Tweedie exclaims. Nonetheless, the Englishwomen persevere. Finally, Saima signals that the bathers should head for the cold bath. They take a quick, frosty dip before wrapping themselves in piping hot towels and scurrying back to the room where their clothing is stored.

In retrospect, far from the birch switch and icy bath, Mrs. Tweedie is exhilarated by her adventure:

Whether it was the heat, or exhaustion, or the loss of one skin or many, we know not; but after a glass of mjöd, that most delicious and refreshing of Finnish drinks, we slept splendidly, and felt fit next morning for any amount of hard work, even for a journey to Russia through Finland, though we did not speak or understand the language of either country.

It’s hard not to get into the spirit of the adventure as Mrs Tweedie recounts her Finnish journey; she’s a splendid raconteur and game for just about any adventure. Her quest to explore Finland from a watery perspective leads her to try an “ant-heap bath,” which she has heard is good for rheumatism. Traditionally, an entire anthill would have been tossed into the bathwater, but in deference to the visitor’s presumed delicate sensibilities, her Finnish bath attendant bundled the ants into a little linen bag before pouring boiling water on them. To Mrs Tweedie’s dismay, when she entered the bathhouse she saw the bathwater was brown. “Did I shiver at the thought?” she asks the reader. “Well, a little, perhaps; nevertheless, I tumbled into the warm water.”

She also attempts a “waterfall bath,” where she and her friends enter a small structure built around a waterfall and simply let the cascade wash over them. “[T]he water, simply thumping on our back and shoulders, came with such force, that we felt exactly as if we were being well pummelled with a pair of boxing-gloves, or being violently massaged, a delicious tingling sensation being the result,” she reports. One wonders how a genteel Victorian lady would know what it was like to be pummelled with boxing gloves, but Mrs Tweedie does seem to have led an adventurous life.

Even when she and her sister try the more usual amusement of swimming in the lake, hilarity ensues. Since no bathing suits are available in the local shops, they buy some fabric and sew their own. The locals, who swim in the nude, immediately assume the crazy Englishwomen have fallen into the lake.

For Mrs Tweedie, her adventures with waterfalls and birch switches were the essence of her trip. Simply observing historic buildings and sipping tea with friends would not have been nearly as illuminating. “[B]aths in Finland are an art, and Finland without its bath-houses would not be Finland at all,” she concludes.

My sister blog: Facing the street

I feel like Going Local has a sister blog. I hope that author of Facing the Street, Laura Byrne Paquet, doesn't mind me describing it that way.

I came across Laura's site about a month ago and instantly noted
we have very similar interests. From her base in Ontario, she writes about ways travellers can "live like locals" on the road. "Tired of anonymous hotels? Sick of chain restaurants? Want to broaden your understanding of the places you visit? Me, too," she says. Me too, Laura, me too.

Laura's also just published a book, Wanderlust: a social history of travel. In it, she looks at where passports came from; why 1930s stewardesses carried wrenches; and how teetotalers shaped the modern vacation. Intrigued? So am I. I hope to get my hands on a copy soon. The hurdle is that it's only available in Laura's native Canada ("A long, long story," says Laura). But, for the curious, Going Local has an extract about another woman who was always seeking local ways to travel. This one, however, was ahead of us all: going local in the 19th-century.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

TwitchHitching: can anyone do it?

TwitchHiker has caused a media storm beyond his wildest dreams. His perfect timing has made him a Twitter celebrity. Just as the site broke the mainstream, up he pops up with his quirky and ambitious demonstration of just what the site can do.

I'm very impressed with his go-getter spirit. Plus, he seems like a nice, down-to-earth guy you'd want to have a pint with.

However, I do wonder how representative this is, and how much of his experiment could be replicated by others. Without the media buzz would it have worked? He certainly wouldn't have got the support from Visa, AirNewZealand and the like. So, no, he probably wouldn't have got as far.

Yet Twitchhiker is doing this on a grand scale to make a point and, more importantly, to raise lots of money for charity. Who can knock that?

The average Twitter user may not be able to score a free nights in hostels or their own PR team, but they could certainly harness a lot of goodwill.

I've been really impressed by the Twitter community. People are constantly bigging each other up, helping with problems, passing on links, sharing successes and generally being nice to one another. Where are all the scathingly bitter trolls you usually find on the net?

Right now, Twitter is the easiest place in the world to make contacts and I can certainly see how this would transfer into the real world. I've already corresponded with a worldwide stream of people through the site, many of whom I'd happily take out for a drink if they came to town, or maybe even host in my house.

Note to non-Twitter users: that statement's really not as strange as it sounds. These aren't just randoms strangers offering no more than a user name - most of them have very public internet presence and are highly traceable. You find yourself reading their daily thoughts, through blogs and tweets. You could probably even browse their holiday snaps.

A vast majority of the people I follow on Twitter are travellers. And it's interesting to see how they've all meet up and hung out at big industry events SXSW and ITB in these past weeks.

There are some really interesting characters out there. People like @soultravelers3, a family of globetrotters who are currently nominated for the Lonely Planet microblogger of the year award. When they mentioned coming to Buenos Aires, I didn't hesitate to suggest a meet.

I did jump the gun a bit though. They replied to say they've got another two years of travelling before they arrive here. I guess I won't put the kettle on just yet...

Photo: Guaka on Wiki Commons

Saturday, 21 March 2009

39 British pubs close each week: time for local action

It's a story that's inspiring and upsetting in equal measures. How did we get to the point where so many of Britain's most beloved community assets - its pubs and its rural shops
- are being forced to close? According to the British Beer & Pub Association, the combination of high taxes and low supermarket prices is causing 39 pubs to close every week.

Today's Guardian carried a story on the dedicated groups of locals who are banding together to save these services. Pooling their time and money, they are forming
limited-liability community companies.

It's a fascinating story and well worth a read. It also made me think of the community cooperatives here in Argentina. When the economic crisis hit in 2001/02, redundant workers took over abandoned factories, where they once worked, and put them back in to operation, sharing the profits between them. Circumstances were very different - there were no loans or official channels, and they didn't have permission - but it's another demonstration of the strength of local communities.

Want to know more about what happened in Argentina? I highly recommend watching The Take, a documentary by No Logo author, Naomi Klein. The powerful trailer (above) should certainly wet appetites.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Where are Uruguay and Paraguay? Don't ask Brazil

Everybody needs good neighbours, right? Perhaps someone ought to mention this to Brazil; they seem to have forgotten theirs. On a map released to primary school children in Sao Paulo, they've committed the ultimate error: Uruguay and Paraguay appear the wrong way around.

And that's not the only clanger. Paraguay also makes a second appearance in the middle of Bolivia and poor Ecuador has been missed off altogether.

Come on Sao Paulo! You may be Latin America's biggest city and within its biggest country, but don't forget the little guys!

Argentinean newspaper Clarin has been having a field day with the slip-up (above right). They report that textbooks featuring the map won't be retracted, although an amendment will be printed on the internet. That's fine then, as all school kids are clearly in the habit of double-checking all their textbook content online.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Beat the crunch with a home swap on home turf

HE10019_1There's a new trend in home swapping, according to Home Base Holidays. The economic downturn has prompted many members - mainly in the UK - to look for exchanges in their own country.

"In the past, swaps closer to home had often been primarily for short breaks but now many more are exchanging for longer holiday periods," says the site's blog.

Could this perfect way to escape the mortgage shackles and get the break you need, without falling victim to guilt?

"It's easy to take for granted the many attractions close to your home," say Home Base Holidays, who are living up to their name in new ways. "With many people having to make savings on holiday costs, now is a perfect time to re-discover your own country."

If economic doom and gloom is getting you down and your job enables you to work remotely, why not try a temporary change of scene?

Sample properties include the above - Huntly, Highlands & Islands in Aberdeenshire, Scotland (HE10019): "Converted 19th-century mill house in heart of Scottish countryside on the Castle Trail in Aberdeenshire. Situated in a valley with lovely views of the surrounding hills, waterfall and stream, which runs through the garden. The garden extends to about an acre and is a mixture of lawn, flower beds and woods stepped into the valley."

Monday, 16 March 2009

Couchsurfing gets its millionth member - or does it? has just broken the millionth member barrier. Or has it?

If you count the people who register under one profile (couples, housemates etc), they got there a while ago. There are also those who also argue that there are far less than a million who participate actively.

Bah, whatever. The millionth
profile at least shows this many people have at one stage identified with the idea. It's a huge milestone and there have been plenty of celebratory events going on this week around the world.

The site has also got a new logo and a very subtle redesign (basically just a new navigation bar).

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Want to meet locals? Pack a cassette tape

Travel tips on meeting locals? I thought I'd heard them all. But here's a rare and interesting one, courtesy of TravelAnswerMan:

"Bringing your own music in an MP3 player or portable CD player is a great way to block out the screeching noise of foreign cities, smooth the ride on trying bus or jeep journeys, or pass the time during long transit periods. On the other hand, there is nothing more isolating than a pair of headphones.

"Instead, try traveling with one or two classic cassette mix-tapes. When you tire of the cab’s selection of “the coolest American music”, or a jeep driver’s library of Mongolian throat singing tapes, offer the driver one of your own.

You’re not the only one who may be interested in hearing something new."

Depends where you are and how you do it, of course. You can't go calling out: "Hey, driver! Call this music?! We do it much better where I'm from!" He could just as easily have the same opinion of your indie hits as you do of his throat singing.

However, from time to time, it can certainly be a good conversation starter and a form of cultural exchange.

I've done it myself in Australia on bus ride across the Great Ocean Road. The tour guide liked it, we became friends, and, when we arrived in his hometown of Melbourne, he took me out for a day, showing me all his favourite hotspots.

Nonetheless, we shouldn't be too keen to listen to our own soundtrack, or it's no different from keeping those headphones on the whole time. The music you don't consider "to your taste" almost always makes the best memories. I'm thinking of the pumping reggaeton on the Panamanian diablo rojo (red devil) buses and the 1990s power ballads in Cusco cabs. Anyone enjoying the pleasure of having forgotten Rod Steward, Bryan Adams and Sting's All for One? Sorry to ruin it for you, but, believe me, it's all the rage among Peruvian taxi drivers.

See TravelAnswerMan's blog for more tips on meeting locals when travelling.

Photo: Wiki Images

Friday, 13 March 2009

AirBnB moves into apartment rentals

AirBed& has rebranded itself as AirBnB. Why? Because, despite only launching last August, they've already outgrown their original concept. Users aren't simply offering other travellers an airbed. Many of them are pulling out all the stops. Take a look on their homepage and you'll now see a gallery of bedrooms that wouldn't look place on a boutique hotel site. Ok, they've been specially selected by the powers that be, but there's definitely not an inflatable mattress in sight.

In another departure, the site has also found that members have been actively posting listings for holiday homes and slightly longer-term stays. There's certainly a gap in the market for this. Especially for a site that is going to move with the times. So far, AirBnB has shown itself to be a savvy worker by using Twitter and often linking in with current events, such as touting accommodation for this week's SXSW festival in Texas.

They'd better act fast though. Just yesterday, Tripadvisor announced at ITB (a huge international travel show in Berlin) that they were looking to do a similar thing and wanted to encourage more of their members to review holiday-home rentals. Last year, they bought FlipKey, a US-orientated site that carries thousands of rental-property reviews.

These sort of peer-to-peer sites could also be great for finding travellers' houseshares. When I found myself searching for a place in Argentina, I used Craigslist.
(It surprises me how many people still think this is a US-only site. Check out the worldwide coverage here.)

Craigslist is legendary as a simple, no-frills replication of newspaper classifieds, b
ut there's definitely room for a more sophisticated alternative. The first houseshare I found here had a basic listing with a couple of pic, but, helpfully, they'd added links to an MSN Spaces account and a Facebook group - which brought more pictures and references from past housemates. Now, wouldn't it be great if there was one site that did all that? Can AirBnB fill the gap?

Monday, 9 March 2009

Learn to swear like a local in Argentina

You're never truly down with the local lingo, unless you pick up the slang. This is probably never truer than in Argentina, where they speak Spanish like no other. I'm considering buying this Argentine phrase book, Che Boludo, just so I can try to fit in.

The title, "Che boludo", is the most Argentine of phrases. If you can say it naturally, and don't sound like a try-hard tourist, it's the ultimate linguistic success.

Literally, it's a hard one to translate. "Che" is used to mean "mate" or simply "oi!". Boludo, meanwhile, means "big balls". Together, I've heard the phrase translated as "oi, big balls", or "mate, you're a big-balled fool". But generally it's used as a very informal way of catching someone's attention and, although not one for polite company, it's not considered offensive.

As soon as you become aware of this phrase, you hear "boludo" everywhere you go.

It was while on my quest to learn more Argentine slang words that I came across an interesting podcast teaching Spanish swearwords. Sorry to lower the tone, but it did make me laugh aloud - less for the words themselves, more for the American guy's translations.
Even if you don't speak Spanish, it's worth a listen. Note how the Spanish speakers remain "tranquilo", while the American translator starts off calmly and then gets a little too into it. Is he a frustrated actor or just plain angry? You'll soon see what I mean.

To hear it, click on the audio player on this page of LearningSpanishBlog, under subheading of "Learning Spanish like crazy".

After that, if you want to practice what you've learned, there's no better place than an Argentinean football match. The above video contains no swearing, but the Argentine commentator will give you a taste of the local enthusiasm. It's an old YouTube classic, where Juan Manuel Pons of Fox Sports is so moved by a goal from Thierry Henry he sings a rather spectacular song.

Bambino Pons, as he's nicknamed, is famous for his singalong commentaries, which often include background music. Here's an internet "best of", where highlights include singing Dennis Bergkamp to the tune of We Will Rock You. Note the slang in the YouTube viewers' comments: "Es una boludez que me mata de risa!!" - "It's boludo (here meaning 'silliness') that makes me die laughing."

Friday, 6 March 2009

Local blogs for the weekend: part 2

Looking for some weekend reading? Try working your way through the shortlist for the Lonely Planet blog awards.

There are some great destination blogs among them and two mentions of SpottedByLocals. It's also good to see the categories are not entirely Anglophone.

As for microbloggers (ie members of Twitter), I'm now following all the LP nominees. I'll see what they have to say over the next week before I cast my vote. Interesting to see a Buenos Aires hostel is among them: Hostel Colonia. I've never visited, but perhaps I should check it out. It's amazing how prolific Twitter usage can thrust the little guys into the international spotlight.

For more tips on travel people to follow on Twitter, see the Telegraph's 50 best travel tweeters.
It'll be interesting to revisit this list - and Lonely Planet's - next year to see how things have changed.

But what about here and now? Any sites - blogs or microblogs - these lists have missed?

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Couchsurfing tips for flashpackers

"Is couchsurfing for flashpackers?" This was a question posed recently by TuxInBackpack, a site aimed at travellers who wants to see the world independently, but without using those two dreaded words: "roughing it".

The site's author - an Italian career-breaker called Andrea
- admits he's yet to try couchsurfing himself, but he has used a blog post to brainstorm a few ideas on why it may, or may not, be suited to flashpackers.

Personally, I believe this type of travel is less about people's budget and more about their mentality. It could certainly work for flashpakers, providing they are flexible, open-minded and easy-going.

Even those with sofa phobias will find that there are plenty of people offering up beds and spare rooms. You just have to keep searching through the profiles until you find something that suits.

Andrea presents a couple of hypothetical situations when looking at potential downsides. "What if you'd like to go to a place different from the one your host is suggesting? Wouldn't it be bad to be stuck for dinner with your potential messy-chef host when you're dying to visit that restaurant you read about?"

The advice for avoiding these situations is simple:
never turn up on someone's doorstep with a backpack full of expectations.

Here are some other points flashpackers should note:

  • Most hosts are keen to help their guests have a good time, but they're not mind-readers. Establish some email contact with your host before you arrive. Tell them what you want to do while you're there. If you communicate properly in advance, you'll be able to predict potential personality clashes and still have time to make alternative arrangements.

  • If you really want to be in charge of your own schedule, consider staying in a hotel or hostel for some, or part, of your time. You'll still be free to socialise with couchsurifing contacts for coffee, lunch, or a night out.
  • Try using a site such as AirBnB or Crashpadder instead, where you pay a small fee to stay in people's houses. Hosts on these sites sometimes post more detailed pictures and info on what you're going to get. Plus, if you're going to be handing over money, you may feel more comfortable asking questions.

  • Find equally flash travellers by bypassing sites like and getting yourself into one of the more elite travel-networking sites, such as ASmallWorld or Qube.
  • And, as for worrying about not going for a meal at "that" restaurant. If you're really flash why not treat your host as a thank you?
So, what do you say, Andrea? Ready to give it a try? If you do, let us know how you get on.

Photo: Napoleon's bed in Château de Compiègne is not on Wiki Images/Andreas Praefcke.

Monday, 2 March 2009

The best secret bars

Travellers can't seem to get enough of speakeasies. Check out this top secret drinking dens piece from yesterday's Observer Escape.

As soon as I read the headline, I scanned the page for the mention of Buenos Aires. It was inevitable given t
his city's long-standing word-of-mouth culture. And, sure enough, there it was: a mention of good ol' Ocho7Ocho - which I've previously tipped in the Guardian.

Today's speakeasies can be divided in two genres. There are the rare, gritty ones that are hoping not to get caught. And the above-board, new ones who are playing marketing games, such as a New York bar calling itself PDT, standing for Please Don't Tell. As if.

So, what is it about a lack of sign that makes people go ga-ga?

First, it makes people feel in-the-know. (
Even though it may have been going for years and everyone in town knows about.)
Second, it conjures a boho spirit. (Even though the owners are probably making a fortune.)
Third, it feels rebellious. (Even though most are completely above board.).

Yes, it's one big, fat illusion and we're all falling for it. But let's enjoy it. I am. Here's another "bar escondido" (hidden bar) I've recently discovered in Buenos Aires: Puerta Uno in Belgrano.

Want to know where it is? See their ultra-flashy website, telling you, er, exactly where to find it. The website designer must have let that one slip accidentally. Don't tell, will you.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Going unplugged

Right, that's it. I'm burning all my social-networking passwords and logging off.

Ok, not really. (Plus, that "click if you forgot your password" button makes such drama impossible.) But this is how I felt after reading a great piece by Make Travel Fair's Stephen Chapman entitled Unplug, Enjoy The Journey & The Experience Of Travelling. As the name suggests, it encourages people to turn off their computers, forget the pressure of finding the "best" places in town, and rediscover the simple joy of unplanned wandering, or, as the Australian Aborigines say, "going walkabout".

The internet is, undoubtedly, an incredible tool for travellers - helping to enhance experiences on so many levels.
I'm continually advocating the use of travel networking to make contact with locals. Often, a quick search and an email exchange is all it takes to get a fast-track straight into a side of the country you may never otherwise see.

However, the net is not the only medium for achieving this. You can gain a lot just through simply keeping an open mind and putting your ear to the ground. Heavens, you can even go so old school as to ask people for tips in person. No online forums, no emails, no Tweeting.

Although I still love social networking, I do occasionally feel bogged down. The internet has become both my blessing and my curse. Last week I went to Uruguay and was shamefully concerned over whether my rural, beachside hostel had wifi. (It did. So many do these days). A second rush of guilt followed when I was sitting inside typing when the sun was shining and all the other backpackers were heading to the beach or on various excursions.

Yet it's this that enables me to do what I do and work remotely. I meet a lot of travellers doing the same thing - writers, the occasional professional poker player, and even the odd trader. It's something we'll all be seeing more and more.
But although this way of life has many good points it also makes it even harder to draw the line and switch off.

Any what about those who are travelling to take "time out" on a gap year or a career break? With more and more now packing their laptops, "getting away from it all" is not what it was.

I talked with a backpacker the other day about her pre-email travels in Asia. "I used to have to go to the poste restante every month or so. The feeling of getting a letter had so much more impact. It felt so special. I just never get the same buzz from Facebook."

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Danger! Language barrier!

There's a glitch in the website at the moment. (Well, it's one of many, if you listen to the discontented bunch on the site's "brainstorming" forum, who seem perennially on the verge of a mutiny.)

Before I go on, let me explain a little thing about Couchsurfing profiles for the uninitiated. Besides displaying general info about who you are and what you like, there is also room to list the languages you speak and the level: "mother tongue", "expert", "intermediate" or "beginner".

Usually, it's up to the individual to check out their host/guest's profile to see if communication will be a problem, however - owing to an apparent bug - the site is currently taking it upon itself to flag it up for you. So, if you aren't both "experts" in the same language, the person's profile is adorned with a warning in big, red letters: "language barrier exists".

Bit off putting, eh?

This happened to me last weekend in Uruguay. I contacted a local girl called Florencia. She speaks expert Spanish and intermediate English; I speak expert English and intermediate Spanish. For me, there was no question that'd we'd be able to get by. I've managed with people with zero English before and it's all part of the experience. However, the
language barrier warning appeared on her page, as if our meeting would be like stepping into a danger zone.

It's a shame if some people are put off by this. (I wasn't, although, in the end, Florencia and I couldn't meet due to conflicting schedules). Some of the greatest travel-networking experiences I've ever had have been with people where I've had a so-called "language barrier" (such as with Toyo in Panama - pictured). In fact, I've just written a feature for the April issue of the The Linguist magazine about my experiences and singing Couchsurfing's praises as a way to attain valuable language emersion.

So, imagine my horror today when I came across a blog post aimed at travellers, entitled Don't learn a foreign language (via the Travel Rants newsletter).

Fortunately, my concerns were abated as I read on...
Learning how to communicate without words is a travel skill that you can use throughout your life, in all parts of it. It can help you navigate bad situations, deal with people’s emotions, understand people ...

It turned out that the piece wasn't anti-languages at all. Instead it was praising the wonders of non-verbal communication, and the joy of understanding universal gestures/expressions. It was encouraging people not to afraid of interaction, simply because they don't share the same mother tongue.

The post was written by a traveller known as Nomadic Matt. A speaker of English, Thai and Spanish, he is currently in Tawain preparing to start Chinese lessons. Although he speaks around three words of it so far, he isn't holing himself up in his hotel room for the first week six of his course, planing to resurface when able to ask about people's favourite food or how old their siblings are. No, he's getting out there, meeting people, making friends. Nice one, Matt.

As for the hitch, I think it's up to the people - not the site's inner coding mechanisms - to decide whether there will be a language problem. We can get a pretty clear indication by ourselves, after reading a person's profile, looking their language list, and exchanging a mail or two.

The sooner the hitch is fixed, the better. In the meantime, sensible Couchsurfers should continue to ignore it. Especially as it is, occasionally, going completely haywire and throwing up completely inappropriate warnings, such as between two experts in English: one from England and one from Canada. This happened to me last week.

Now, I know they call beanie hats toques and their coins are loonies, but we can get by. Eh?

Friday, 20 February 2009

Going local on the Great Barrier Reef

Does Tourism Queensland's marketing body really need any help? They seem to have got the publicity thing down rather well. Their "best job in the world" campaign has been a monstrously huge hit. I've lost count of how many times I've seen it in the travel press or on a blog. Do a Google search for "best job in the world" and - bonza! - Queensland's right up there.

As a quick recap: they are on a worldwide hunt for someone to work a six-month, A$150,000 contract in the spectacular Whitsundays islands. No formal qualifications necessary, but the candidate must be willing to swim, snorkel, dive, sail and work to publicise the region. For this, they'll be able to live rent-free in a three-bedroom villa, complete with plunge pool.

Yep, these specs sure beat your average nine-to-five.

It was a clever idea and, thus far, it seems very well executed. I've just been having a look at the ultra-slick website. Candidates have been posting their video applications in their thousands - more than 19,000 so far. There are certainly some good ones and watching them is oddly compelling.

I'm not quite sure how they'll be judging it. Does the number of video views bump up your chances? Or the star-rating the public have given it? Will they choose a PR or journalism professional? An Aussie or a non-Aussie? An ardent traveller or someone who's never left their homeland? An experienced blogger and social-media fanatic? (After all, blogging and networking are big parts of the role.)

So far, the field (or should that be white-sand beach?) is wide open. I'll be interested to see who makes the grade and gets to live on Hamilton island for six months. If you're interested, you have just two days left to apply.

Failing that the Danish tourist board are trying their hand at a similar scheme. Be their travel "guinea pig" and get a free trip. No tropical reefs, no fat paycheck, but not to be sniffed at. In return, you just have to write about it. Good one for budding travel writers.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Couchsurfing meets Twitter

Apologies for having gone slightly Twitter mad this past fortnight, but here’s another interesting find. Twitter also has search facility, which enables you to look for updates related specifically to your interests or hobbies. I decided to put "couchsurfing" in and give it a whirl. The results showed reams of mentions. I scanned a few pages and came up across some interesting links. Here are the best ones:

Are couchsurfers 21st-ce
ntury hobos?
Article from Dakota Today nicely touches on the idea that good Couchsurfers are more interested in making connections with people than sightseeing. The writer, living near Mount Rushmore, also discovers how hosting a couchsurfer can help him rediscover his own area.

Couchsurfing for cyclists

Tips from two intrepid travellers who are blogging their three-year trip cycling from Alaska to the “end of the world” in Argentina’s Ushuaia.
Featuring, and too. This is a blog to watch.

Let the world come to you

Time Out Chicago profiles a local twentysomething who couldn’t afford a plane fare, so decided to travel through others by becoming a couchsurfing host.

Couchsurfing for Obama
CNN on how couchsurfing helped ease the accommodation shortage in Washington during Obama’s inauguration. Features one couple who hosted 16 travellers in their three-bedroom home. "We read about the people who are renting their houses for $2,000 a night, and we thought, 'That's so in contradiction to what we believe’."

Couchsurfing with kids

A basic intro from HaveKidsWillTravel for those interested in couchsurfing as a family.

Also on Twitter:
Within people's tweets - aside from the predictable "OMG! Have you heard about" messages - I also noticed people discussing's new logo (sneak preview above) and came across this interesting character, @CouchsurfingOri.

Here are some of the tweets I liked:

@wanderblah: Mum still cant quite get the couchsurfing thing...

@stefidi: Being active on CouchSurfing again makes me happy. :)

@houshuang: Found a CouchSurfing host for Houston Open Education conference. Great!

@arsie: At a local Couchsurfing party in Wellington. AWESOME!!!

@godfoca: Just switched "couch available" from "Yes" to "Maybe" on CouchSurfing. I really need some time to get some shit done =/ =(

And, on that note, like @godfoca, I’m off to get some shit done.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Where to network with millionaires

If you've never managed to get a sought-after* invite to the elite travel network A Small World, here's a solution. Newly launched network doesn't require a recommendation from another well-established member. Instead you can sign up yourself with zero prior connections. And it's free.

There's only one small hurdle: you must have a
demonstrable minimum household net worth of US$3 million, or an annual household income of at least $300,000. Or, if you come in a little shy of the required millions, you can also gain entry by getting invites from five others that qualify.

But, before you start calling all your millionaire friends, is it really worth it? The site lists the benefits as follows:
  • Interact with other affluent people from around the world
  • Receive free access to a dedicated Affluence Concierge
  • Attend the most exclusive parties and events in the world
  • Receive priority access to the world's most exclusive nightclubs, hotels, and restaurants
  • Find other millionaires, billionaires, and socially elite people to network with.
Choosing your friends based on their bank balance? Nice. I wonder if Affluence members can "poke" each other, Facebook style, or if this has been replaced by the virtual airkiss?

Perhaps the site will appeal to ASmallWorld members that complain the network had lost exclusivity since becoming overrun with estate agents, WAG wannabes and

* As for A Small World membership still being "sought after", I'm not so sure. The name seems to be being banded around almost as much as Facebook in expat circles. It's now dropped into conversation as if it no longer needs explanation. "Yeah, I'm looking for apartments in the usual places, you know, Craigslist and ASmallWorld," a backpacker told me the other day.

** Photo from WikiImages/David Shakebone

Friday, 13 February 2009

The world goes mad for Twestival

I didn't make it to Twestival last night. My internet connection went down so I didn't have means of contacting other attendees or, crucially, knowing where it was. (It looks like there are some drawbacks of internet-based festivals.)

For those who missed the build-up, Twestival was a multinational event taking place for users of social-networking site, Twitter. It seems it was quite a success, with 175 events worldwide.

Some of the most extensive coverage of the event came from the Twitter-obsessed Guardian. The point they made repeatedly was that - aside from raising money for Charity: water - the events were all about getting people away from their screens and interacting in person.

In San Francisco, co-founder Biz Stone said he was pleased that users were coming together to do something positive, rather than simply socialise with each other over the net.

Meanwhile, London co-organiser Tom Malcolm said he was amazed by the turnout. "On Facebook people tend to know someone else before adding them as a friend," he said. "On Twitter you meet people you wouldn't necessarily meet in real life."

However, these events were limited in only being able to allow attendees to meet users in their own city, thus giving a very narrow indication of the network's global reach on a personal level.

Predictably, the positive coverage (written by active Twitter users Jemima Kiss and Bobbie Johnson) was shortly followed by plenty of mockery from the naysayers. Unfortunately for these critics, most of their arguments fell flat because they simply didn't know what they were talking about.

Example one:
"I know who my mates are – I see them down the pub on a Friday night, I dont need to be kept informed of what the fat f****** are up to all week as well. Oh Richies up a ladder? Great. Daves stuck in traffic? Cosmic. Kevs having steak for dinner? Whoppee!"

Wrong. It's not just about leaving status updates. It's about interaction. For every status update, there are many more conversations going on and a mountain of information being shared. It's also not just about chatting with your mates - it's about expanding connections and "meeting" new people. If you only interact with people you know in the real world, you'll have a very limited experience.

Example two:

"Twitter is a load of people talking about themselves. It's the cult of the individual. Me! Me! Me!"

Wrong. Well, partially wrong. This does go on and some people do use it just as a platform to broadcast news about themselves. However, there's a lot of people helping each other out too. If you join, you'll soon learn to RT ("retweet" - ie pass on other people's news as well as your own).

Example three

"Is coming onto a website and having a conversation so Web 1.0? On Twitter, noone can ever point out you're an idiot."

Wrong. This person thinks Twitter is just for signing in, leaving a note and signing out. D'oh.

Example four:

"Argh! Twitter. Twestival. And I hate the world a little bit more"

Not wrong, not right: This person doesn't claim to know what they are talking about and they doesn't want to know. This is just pure, unadulterated cynicism - which, admittedly, made me laugh.

This may sound like I'm a huge Twitter fan, defending it vehemently, but I only recently signed up myself. I'm still finding my feet and making up my mind on it. I agree that spending too much time online is not a good thing, and agree that one of the pictures on the Guardian site could be a still from Nathan Barley. However, I'm also discovering that dipping in and out can actually increase productivity and forge lots of real-life contacts. Ask a question there and get it answered instantly: no phone calls, no waiting for email responses. It's certainly a good professional tool and it can come in handy for travel too, as Benji Lanyado found out on his TwiTrip in Paris.

If you still don't get it, read this great introductory guide to Twitter from a New York Times tech writer who gradually came round to the idea.

However, there's only one way you'll really be able to "get it" and make up your mind. And that's by trying it.