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A decade in travel: Robert Reid’s review

By Tom Hall   22 December 2009 9:20pm Europe/London

As the noughties draw to a close we’re talking a decade in travel with some of Lonely Planet’s writers. Here Lonely Planet’s US Travel Editor and author Robert Reid talks us through ten years on the road.

Eating the 7 Line

Eating the 7 Line

Best place visited in the past ten years?

You don’t have to cross the world to find great travel experiences. And I’ve had as much fun walking past the sari shops, taquerias, and Amazon witch doctor shops under New  York‘s 7-line tracks in Queens as trolling antique stalls outside the Angel stop in London, dunking cheese in my hot chocolate in Bogota or climbing up waist-deep-in-snow volcanoes in Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula. But if pressed, and you’re pressing me aren’t you?, I’ll go with Kansas. The sunflower state of the American Great Plains is the epitome of America’s fly-over zone, where ‘are we there yet?’ was first uttered, and the usual scapegoat for US coastal dwellers when bumpkinizing a place or person. But there’s lessons to learn out there. If you pause to look. In Dodge City while updating the USA guide, I stopped at a grain elevator, asked for a tour, and a giant man in a jumpsuit and Terminator glasses squeezed me in one-man elevator and showed me around. Far more interesting than a pioneer museum, and it changed how I saw those ‘skyscrapers of the plains,’ and more importantly how I try to access a place when I travel anywhere.

Biggest let-down?

I never warmed to Turkish food much and didn’t take to the 21st-century Moscow, with its garish glitz and high price tag, but the biggest let down was more personal: Nha Trang, Vietnam. I lived in Ho Chi Minh City in the mid ’90s, escaping to the country’s principal beach destination Nha Trang whenever possible. The beaches never exactly rivaled Thailand’s, but it still had a fishing-town vibe where touts were gentle and cooked you fresh shrimp on the beach. Now it’s a stream of tacky guesthouses and backpacker restaurants, its shoreline shot up like a city. The charm is gone. These days I prefer Phu Quoc’s (sometimes isolated) white-sand beaches to the south, or flying out to Con Dao Island, once home to French and American prisons, and now a rising diving destination.

Biggest surprise?

I put Bulgaria atop my LP author wishlist on a whim — just because it’s so off the radar and no one else knew Bulgarian — and found, after four research trips there now, I’ve grown to find a bond beyond any incidental irony. I love the locals’ head-shake ‘yes’ and ketchupped pizzas, and more importantly the superb wine, Roman and Thracian ruins everywhere. It’s ultimately less about destinations than exploring — and driving the cheap rental cars is a breeze here. One friend from Sofia and I took a drive to search out Bulgaria’s most northern point, just for fun.

Bulgaria: underrated

Bulgaria: underrated

On the Danube, overlooking the Romanian shore, a former border post had been transformed into a psychiatric ward. We heard screams. Afterwards, in nearby Vrav, a drunk guy told us about some newly found ‘Roman ruins’ so we took him to find them. We drove on dirt roads until he pointed 150m to a small hill. It took 45-minutes to reach through marbled earth filled with out-of-sight ditches and thorns. Never saw as much as a column, and returned with bloody scratches on our arms and faces. ‘They’re definitely out there,’ he repeated, his Adidas track pants ripped open from the thorns. It’s not always necessary to find what you’re looking for to enjoy Bulgaria.

Best/Funniest single moment on the road?

I counted moustaches across Russia while updating the Russia guidebook in 2005 — just looking for an excuse to tabulate comparative graphs and pie charts with crayons — and see if I could, scientifically, contribute anything to advance the knowledge of facial hair tendencies regarding population, time zone or likelihood of mosquito bites. At the tail end of the trip, in Vladivostok, I needed someone to confirm my final tally — for proof regarding what had become a nail-biter decision for Russia’s most moustached region — and met Ivan Ostrovsky, a bearded hipster, who seriously took on the task without question. ‘Oh,’ he stopped me once, ‘There’s a guy over by the shashlik stand, did you get him yet?’ I hadn’t. On behalf of travel-science, thank you Ivan Ostrovsky.

Name one way travel has changed in the past decade

It’s really not my family’s fault, but Richard Reid: the shoe bomber. Now in all US airports, people carrying babies and briefcases stoop to reveal their sock holes and walk through the radar detector. I love the travelers in shorts and sandals going through barefoot. Whether this monumental mass effort is at all productive is one question, but another is the etiquette of where to place your shoes. By far most people plop them, dirty sole down, in the same trays we lovingly fold and place our $500 coats and personal effects. That needs to change, people: just put your shoes on the belt directly. Not in the trays. Meanwhile, on behalf of all Reids, I am sorry.

Thing you most wanted to do, but missed?

I’ve never seen the Amazon. I’ve wanted to access it from some point — Peru, Colombia, Brazil — and see as much as I can, while it’s still there! In general, I prefer river travel. It’s a great tragedy that the US don’t have any long-distance river ferries to gently ride on the original highways. That sort of experience — which I’ve had in Southeast Asia and Russia — can be even better than train travel, allowing time and walk-around space to contemplate the world passing, and how travelers like yourself once saw the miles click by.

First thing you’re going to do in 2010?

The family now travels as three, as my daughter turns one next month. Little ones bring a new aspect to travel — meaning time, space and packing constraints. Suddenly we need suites for after-hours TV time. And we prefer going to places where you don’t miss out too much if you stay in at night (national park more ideal than, say, Paris). My daughter’s already been introduced to country life ‘upstate’ from New York around Woodstock, plus a couple US cities (San Francisco, Philadelphia, Fort Worth) and even a Civil War re-enactment. For 2010, we’re talking a lazy late winter, early spring trip to a house on the Maine coast. They still have lobster in winter don’t they?