Travel writer pro tip: When you think you’re losing perspective on what it means to be a travel writer, pack your younger brother.
“Take a good hard look at the motherf*cking boat.”
My brother can’t stop singing the Lonely Island song. It’s a parody of rap excess, but for years I’ve interpreted it as an indictment of modern travel writing. And here we are, engaging in the same kind of “look at me” opulence I use “I’m on a Boat” to mock.
The host company, Avalon Waterways, had offered up the rare “comp plus one” for this preview river cruise on their newest ship. When I travel as press, it’s typcially in a group of media people, or alone. This time, I got to bring a date. The husband declined, he doesn’t like the schmoozing, he’s worse at it than I am. My brother, he’s a great talker, people like him, and he was going to be in Germany at the time of the Frankfurt sailing. I knew he’d enjoy it.
“I’ll pretend to be a travel writer,” he said.
“No need,” I said, “I’ve got pretending to be a travel writer covered. But I’ll expect you to go all in — the dinners, the tours, the activities… you’ll have to be game for whatever.”
He was game, all right. He danced with the PR girls and chatted up the bartender and told stories to the travel agents from Portland. “I’ve signed us up for the walking tour of Cologne,” he said, returning from the tour desk while I was holed up in the cabin taking a nap.
When you tell people who are not in the industry that you work as a travel writer, they do not picture you scrambling to pay your bills, or trying to get your stories written in-between projects that pay real money, or slumped in an uncomfortable airport chair on a three hour stopover when your lounge pass has been rejected by the airline partner.
They picture exactly what we are doing on this trip. Here we are in luxuriously appointed cabin with fancy products on the marble bathroom counter. There is complimentary champagne on ice and glasses on the coffee table. The floor to ceiling glass door gives us spectacular views to the banks of the Rhine. The tablecloths are immaculate, as are the jackets on the waiters. Almost every evening there are gifts on the bed with hand written notes thanking me for participating in this inaugural sailing. One night, there’s a press kit on a shiny new electronic device.
“You don’t get to keep that, do you? It’s just for use while you’re on board, right?” asks my brother.
“Nope. It’s mine now. This…this kind of thing happens.”
“REALLY? You’re keeping that?”
“I think it was on my bed,” he says. “Not yours.”
I’m terrified on the evening that there’s a turquoise Tiffany bag on the bed. “What if it’s jewelry?” I think, and I am greatly relieved when it turns out to be be a patent leather passport cover.
“Never thought I’d be on a boat, it’s a big blue watery road…” sings my brother.
We get cleaned up for dinner every night. I dry my hair and put on the one good skirt I packed, or the one nice dress, and my strappy sandals. We walk down the narrow hallway to the dining room on the lower deck and sit with the Canadian media, who are funny and warm, or the PR people or, because we’ve not traveled together in so many years, by ourselves. We can sit by ourselves because this is a media tour and the ship is only half full, on a regular tour we’d probably have company every night.
“I’m on a boat,” sings my brother, over his second dessert.
I go back to snapping photos of my beautifully plated selection of bite sized pastries. “Shut up, I’m working,” I say, making ironic air quotes with my fingers around the word “working.”
The trip is glorious. The American PR reps of the cruise line are completely charming, very nice young women who are witty and adorable and genuinely good company. I like them. I like the guy who’s the head of the company, and he only lets me be a little embarrassed when I’ve forgotten who he is, exactly. The other lead figure has presidential hair and is always on message. I keep picturing him in a blue blazer with gold buttons with anchors on them. My favorite character on board is the second captain, a tall Dutchman with a wry, sarcastic sense of humor. One evening, he pretends to let me drive when we are navigating a lock. When I ask him what he’d have done if I’d actually touched the controls, he says, “What, are you crazy? I disengaged the panel, of course.”
“Thank god,” I say.
“The boat engine makes noise,” sings my brother.
Back in our cabin, the tiny speakers on my brother’s phone blast the song over and over and over again. I say, “AGAIN? Jeezus!” Sometimes he turns it down. Other times, he turns it up.
Travel writers like to complain about the hard work we have to do. Since that time I met a marine welder at a party — the guy puts on a wet suit and takes a welding rig into the bitterly cold waters of Puget Sound — I try not to make that mistake. I try to choose my words very carefully and revise my phrasing to “Making a living as a travel writer is difficult.”
There is no denying that the long haul flights, the sometimes interminable dinners, the whirl of activities, the call to be charming for many long hours is tiring. I get worn away by jet lag, lack of salads, coach seats, making nice with strangers, airline bureaucracy, the follies of transit… by so many things. I try desperately to keep it all in perspective and admittedly, it is hard at times. But mostly, I try to sing along.
“I’m on a boat and it’s going fast and
I got a nautical themed, Pashmina Afghan
I’m the king of the world, on a boat like Leo
If you’re on the shore, then you’re sure not me, oh…”
“What do you think is in the bag?” my brother asks.
“Please let it be a nautical themed Pashmina Afghan,” I reply.
“Oh yeah,” says my brother. “This boat is real.”