From the left: John Bechtel, freelance travel and culture writer; Joshua Kelsey, scholar, linguist, backpacker; William Morgan, medical science researcher. They are waiting for Rick Powell, the chef of Puerto Limón Hostel, to make his appearance after preparing Lenguado Ceviche.

Puerto Limón Hostel, Buenos Aires

I have often been asked why I continue to live in Puerto Limón Hostel here in the San Telmo barrio of Buenos Aires. There are many travelers here who have far more experience than I do with hostel life in many countries. There are 50 beds in this hostel, and other than Rick Powell, an American from Indiana who has been here for eight years, I now have the most seniority. I have become a long-term guest and I have remained here because it serves my purposes for coming to Argentina in the first place.

In the last five months I have met people from 39 countries from right here in the Community Room of Puerto Limón Hostel. This hostel has a cozy feeling to it, a touch of Tuscany, let’s say. It’s air conditioned, very clean, and well organized. But I could get all of that and more in a hotel, albeit at a higher price. What I could not get in an apartment, a home, or even a popular bar, is the opportunity to meet and engage with all these people. I find this very soul-satisfying. Relatively speaking, there are few Americans who come through here. But just last week I met the exception, the very exceptional William Morgan, a retired medical science researcher at the university level, whose specialty was malaria.

I was mesmerized by his erudite tour of the malarial battlefield, a war of attrition that we can’t stop fighting but we can’t win either.  300-500 million people get the disease each year, and of them, 800,000 die. About 2,000 persons are infected in the U.S. each year, and there is even an “airport malaria” where a mosquito can travel and bite someone in a new region that is climatically not hospitable to the parasite.

Chef Rick Powell of Puerto Limón Hostel preparing his specialty of the day, Lenguado Ceviche (a member of the sole family, prepared with lemon and lime juice instead of applying heat)

When William asked what I did, I told him I was a travel and culture writer. He inquired further, and I told him I’m not a typical beach, sunset,  and umbrella-cocktail travel writer. I like to write stories that don’t describe, but that take you somewhere, and that always involve people who are accomplishing some purpose, and in the process, often overcoming adversity. I thought, and still do, that much of what passes for travel writing is boring and perhaps wasn’t even intended to be read, on the assumption the typical “reader” was only going to peruse the photos. I thought sunsets were boring. William amiably disagreed. Then he proceeded to tell me about an unforgettable sunset he experienced, and he did so as only a scientist would: with attention to so much detail that he created a mental image as vivid as any photo. He said the problem was not with the sunsets, but the challenge of finding the words to convey the experience. Hackneyed, exhausted adjectives such as stunning, picturesque, magnificent, iconic and other superlatives fail to inform, excite, or arouse us. We have hundreds of thousands, even millions of words to choose from, but we still seem to draw from the same list of 200 Thesaurus Favorites.

Buzzwords and Catch Phrases

With all fairness to travel writing, all writing shares this burden of finding words to renew and inspire. The business world is notorious for discovering new phrases for old ideas, and then beating them into meaninglessness before discarding them and moving on to new buzzwords and fashionable phrases. Who could forget “search for excellence”, “get the right people on the bus”, or “who stole my cheese”? All of these expressions were born of some best-selling book or other, and then were repeated ad nauseum in countless articles, conferences, power point presentations until everyone yearned for a new phrase to relieve the boredom.

As technology expands our data bases, capital is following the data. Money is being spent on tourism where verifiable ROI (return on investment) exists. Destinations want not merely more tourists, but tourists who are going to spend the maximum amount of money during the travel experience. Sometimes the different categories of providers are in competition with each other. For example, cruise ships want you to spend the maximum amount on ship, which is why they offer so many extras that tantalize you into staying on the ship when in port. The port cities on the other hand, want to get you off the cruise ship so you will spend more of your money on shore. So destinations may spend more of their advertising dollars targeting tourists who arrive by air or land, or on seducing you to leave ship when at port.

Destinations also seek to attract big spenders, the affluent, well-educated, those with the most disposable income. So we are hearing a new vocabulary in the travel business: “the enhanced guest experience” “immersion travel”, “heritage travel”, “adventure travel”, a more “authentic experience”. What does this mean for the travel writer? Maybe a lot; maybe nothing. There is still a robust budget traveler segment, which is like the wholesale end of the business: high volume, low margins, sunsets and umbrella cocktails. But we are also witnessing the advent of the high-dollar travelers who take pride in their economic status, and who want something unique, with concomitant bragging rights at their cocktail parties when they return home.

Less fluff, more depth

They want and expect more in their travel writing too.  Less fluff, more depth; they want to learn something; they want to close the gap between the tourist experience and the local, lived experience.  Many of these travelers have a high level of social awareness, and they want accurate, real world assessment of what they are looking at. And they don’t want to be embarrassed that something they were told by a service provider is not accurate or untrue. They want their travel writer to do more research, work harder to find something new, or an innovative perception of the traditional. Dare I say it, maybe less sunsets, or at least only those sunsets so rare they are profoundly difficult to describe, and then they expect you, the travel writer, to find the words to match the challenge. And since the words “immersion” and “immersive” have already reached their half-life, soon they too will be in the “Use with caution” file.  Hmnn, anyone have a thesaurus handy?


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Don’t forget to subscribe. So please go to the top or the bottom of this blog page (depending on your reader) and fill in the blank space that says email address, and then click on Subscribe. You will get a confirmation link in your Inbox to click. Thanks again. John Bechtel, international freelance travel and culture writer. from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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