From Amsterdam

Counterintuitive Travel Tip #1: The Bad Part of Town

Guidebook writing has been my bread and butter for a decade, but a lot of what I’ve learned about how to travel–how to ensure a good trip, or salvage a seemingly bad one–has no place in a guide.

This is my collected wisdom (or at least the contrarian part of it). It’s looking like I’ve got about eight of these bad boys for you. Enjoy–and travel well!

Go to the bad part of town.

Right, you don’t want to get pistol-whipped in some ghetto in Caracas. But in most parts of the world, the neighborhood your guidebook warns you against is actually not terribly crime-ridden, and it’s the most interesting part.

Rich parts of cities all look the same—Gucci and Vuitton and ladies-who-lunch. Hipsterized areas, with their Edison bulbs and wood paneling and handmade this-and-that, are a little better, but still suffer a bit of sameness.

Bad parts are where the variations really come in. Who are the immigrants to this city? Do people drink in the middle of the day? What’s that song blaring from all the corner stores? Are the nice things a culture says about itself still true?

The mean streets of the Bijlmer, southern fringes of Amsterdam.

“Bad” is relative, of course. Amsterdam’s “bad” part—the Bijlmer—is absurdly nice, a ghastly Le Corbusier-inspired mini-city that’s been rehabbed. Its history reveals some inconsistencies with the Dutch regard for tolerance, but it also shows the practical, problem-solving side of the culture.

Cairo’s “bad” neighborhood of Shubra is just very shabby—but not terribly dangerous. The threatening-sounding City of the Dead is really a surprisingly mellow place, with un-dead stuff like a post office and power lines.

If you’re worried about crime, take the relative view. If you’re an American reading this, you probably already deal with crime rates the rest of the world thinks are intolerable. And you’re less likely to be a victim of touristy crime (pickpocketing, scams, etc) if you go where the tourists aren’t.

“Not to get into salt-of-the-earth cliches,” Peter chimes in, “but you meet nicer people in middle-class and poor areas.” And the point of travel is to meet people, right?

Top 10 Reasons Not to Complain about 2010

A lot of people say, “Wow, Zora—you have so much going on! Food! Travel! Your job is so fabulous!”

It’s true–there’s a little fabulousness. But what’s really going on is the plight of all freelancers: Every week, I try 80 different things. If I’m lucky, one of them sticks maybe once a month. Because the success rate is so low, it’s hard to feel I accomplished anything. So please allow me a moment to consolidate the high points of this year—I found it surprisingly satisfying when I did it last winter.

1. I took a little time to enjoy the beach in Mexico. Tacking on just four more days than usual to my last research trip, in November, gave me a surprising amount of breathing room. Near the end, I actually spent the better part of a couple of days hanging out at the beach in Cozumel and snorkeling with my dad. Too bad those days were overcast and drizzly. But that in itself was educational—I’d forgotten what it was like to have a trip depend on weather, because I have to work no matter what. But sun is what 90 percent of the people who visit the Mexican Caribbean are counting on.

Topless Pictures: Only Ladies

(1b. BTW, lowlight of the year: Totally failing to learn to scuba dive. My plan was to take my course in NYC, then do certification dives in Cozumel. But I got so panicked and agitated in NYC that I never even got my paperwork to move on. I spent two weeks gnashing my teeth at my impatient instructor, and I have a million reasons for thinking this sport is not for me: expensive, tons of gear, requires a buddy, other divers, why would I go down deep where all the color goes away, etc. But it’s entirely possible I’m just rationalizing.)

2. I really got to like Twitter. Not much of an accomplishment, but it has been fun to go from feeling baffled and overwhelmed by something to seeing it as a tool and really connecting with a few excellent people through it.

3. I finally wrote down why I like Cancun. Everyone thinks I’m nuts when I say I love Cancun. I finally wrote my defense of the place. I’m not necessarily saying that you, with your only-two-weeks-of-vacation per year, should choose it above all other options. But you shouldn’t slag it off either. And it’s cool to see other travel writers encouraging the “love the one you’re with” approach I took to Cancun. Matt Gross’s “Getting Lost” column in The New York Times (great article on Chongqing), and Afar’s “Spin the Globe” stories are especially inspiring.

4. I finally wrote down all the specific things I like in Cancun, in an iPhone app. After eight years of writing guidebooks according to extremely precise instructions, for as broad an audience as possible, I can’t tell you how fun it was to write Cool Cancun & Isla Mujeres. I got to choose the subject, I wrote in my exact style, for exactly the people I imagine will use it, and I didn’t have to worry about word count or other directives. And when something changes, I can update it immediately, instead of three years later. Totally gratifying. I’m not predicting the death of the printed guidebook anytime soon. But I’m pleased to see how well smartphone apps can share info, and I’m proud to have a little hand in it.

5. Blog posts here have gotten less frequent. Wait, there’s a positive spin! I’ve had a ton of real, paid writing work this year, so too busy to blog. But also, I go back and look at those old posts, and they’re freakin’ epic. I don’t know if I’d read them today. Shorter posts, more photos–I kinda like it. I hope you do too. (This coming month, I will have been blogging for six years. I feel ancient.)

6. Rick Bayless said he liked my cookbook! I met him in January in Bangkok. Thanks to the aforementioned Twitter, I was able to introduce myself as the person who’d commented on his tweet on why Americans aren’t willing to pay big bucks for Mexican food. And then Peter (thank god for Peter!) mentioned I’d co-written Forking Fantastic!, and El Rey de Manteca said, “Oh! I know your book! I loved it. I gave it to my publishers to show them that entertaining books don’t have to be all slick and glossy and have pictures of the chef everywhere.”

I can’t help but notice that Fiesta at Rick’s is pretty glossy after all (and happens to have a killer recipe for this stuff called salsa negra–check it!), while FF! is probably teetering at the edge of the remainder bin. I am proud not only that Bayless liked the book, but so did Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver—and, more important, scores of people who’ve told me it has inspired them to cook. Which is what I hoped all along.

7. I have a place to hang a hammock. Not a personal accomplishment at all, but the process went so smoothly, it was actually life-affirming. We hired two men named Rocco, and they carried out our architect’s plan, and now we have a roof deck, a place to lounge and watch the train go by. There are some nice plants up there, and a fig tree that one Rocco gave to us. And the colors are “very Miami,” according to the green-roof dude. But hey, a little Miami in Queens almost makes sense, just like all the other aesthetic choices here.

Overall, though, I’d say we’re going for a retro junkyard vibe, against the better wishes of our architect. Yeah, that’s an ice chest on the right.

roof deck

8. I got stuck in Amsterdam. Dude, hasn’t everyone? But really—this was the volcano talking. That thing blew near the end of my research trip, and I got held over for another week. (See how I’ve avoided mentioning the name of the volcano, just so I won’t have to go look up how to spell it?)

I seem to have a knack (so far, don’t jinx me, knock on wood, alhamdulillah, etc) for apparent travel disasters turning into non-events. In this case, “disaster” was even a godsend. I had extra time to research and write. And I met some nice guys who were also stuck there, and who were visiting Amsterdam for the first time, which reminded me of what that was like. Oh, and travel insurance paid for everything, including nights in some really nice hotels. A thousand thanks to whatever arranged all that.

From Amsterdam…the second installment

9. I bought a new camera. Overcame decision paralysis and bought myself a DSLR. Now I just have to figure out how to use it.

10. I made it to Asia. Now I just have to go back. Tickets are booked for January 5. In coach (no magical biz-class “mistake fare” this time). I’ll just focus on how happy I was at this food court in Bangkok. For 21 hours of limited recline.

Food Court

Cheers to 2011, and best of luck with all your travels and new projects in the coming year! What were your greatest hits of 2010?

Amsterdam #6: Surprise and Delight, with Bonus Soundscape

I had one solid day of fantastic sonic stimulation, documented below, but there were many other days full of surprises. Amsterdam is great for this kind of thing–everywhere you turn, it seems, someone is pulling some odd stunt or staging an experimental something or showing off his/her lifelong obsession.

It’s the kind of vibe that makes this such a friendly city to pot-smokers. (I mean, in addition to the very fact that you can buy the stuff with ease.) You know that feeling when you’re high, and you feel like whatever you’re looking at/listening to/eating must surely have been designed just for stoned people? Well, even if you don’t–Amsterdam is like that all the time, even if you’re sober. Everything seems to have been put there to surprise and delight. (Unlike some cities, where you feel like everything has been put there to make you feel put-upon, stressed-out and unwelcome.)

I write a guidebook to Amsterdam, but honestly, it’s not the best way to see the city. Yes, there are a few things where it helps to have a guide to check the opening hours and how to get there on the tram. But Amsterdam shows its best parts only when you wander along aimlessly and poke your head around interesting corners, into odd museums, into appealing bars. You never know what you’ll see. Or hear.

The first bit is totally missing the beauty of Yoko Seyama’s work In Soil, at the Nederlands Institut voor Mediakunst. I am a sucker for any art installation that involves walking into a dark room and losing your sense of space. The visuals for this don’t show up on the camera, but click the link to see one image.

The second clip is from the Pianola Museum, a “museum” that’s open maybe one day a week. (I think they call themselves a museum so they can get nonprofit status.) But it was Museum Weekend, which meant free entry.

Finally, I went out to see this random band, Bob Billy, with some friends. Immediately transported back to 1993 or so. I wish they lived in NYC.

Earlier:
Amsterdam #1: Photos
Amsterdam #2: Two Examples of Dutch Literalism
Amsterdam #3: Adventures in Croquettes
Amsterdam #4: The Good Food
Amsterdam #5: You’ll Eat What I’m Cooking