It’s fair to say that being a travel writer is a pretty good gig – travelling the world mostly on someone else’s dime. But every once in awhile karma deals up a dud, presumably to balance the scales a little bit and keep things honest.
Take a press FAM to Spain I participated in some years ago: from squabbling writers to dead birds on display, the entire affair couldn’t have been more farcical if hilarious Spanish waiter Manuel from Fawlty Towers had led it himself.
The trip promised to be epic: Spain is one of my all-time favourite places and I couldn’t accept the invitation to do the amazing Madrid-Granada-Seville triangle fast enough. However, when the final itinerary arrived, Madrid was a mere overnight upon arrival, Granada a stopover to get a whiff of the Alhambra, and sensational Seville nowhere to be seen. Instead, we would spend most of our time in a region of the country that served the Spanish domestic market – mainly because it paled in comparison to the abundant riches elsewhere that attracted international visitors to Spain with little effort or promotion.
In tourism terms, it’s understandable that a particular city or region would want to expand its horizons and open new markets (and underwrite the opportunity to do so); however, for years I likened our bait-and-switch itinerary to a group of Spanish writers being invited to Canada to visit – no disrespect intended – Timmins and North Bay, Ont. and Hull, Que., with a quick drive through Ottawa only because it was en route. Which is to say, it wouldn’t have happened.
To be fair, our group did get a taste of the wonderful white villages route and stayed in an interesting cave hotel one night, but it was all too brief and only served to accentuate the underlying issue: until that point – about four days in – we were somewhere our Canadian readers would never go, and, as such, there was absolutely nothing to write about.
Understand that journalists without stories are like alcoholics without a drink: twitchy and miserable; moreover, staff writers need to collect material to justify being out of the office, while freelancers need to earn a living by collecting and selling multiple stories. So, when the first glimmer of an actual story appeared, the wolves began circling, compounded by the discovery that a few of the writers intended to submit their words to the same publication – an occurrence typically avoided by hosts vetting writers ahead of time to ensure there are no conflicts.
But if the dynamic of the group was getting ugly – never fun when sharing meals and a small coach for an extended period of time – circumstances were about to get positively bizarre.
One day, our typical four-hour lunch break – please, limit them to an hour so we can see what we’re supposed to see, we begged! – brought us face to face, so to speak, with a delegation of small-town officials who sat at one end of a long table ignoring us and chatting amongst themselves, presumably because they didn’t speak English, nor us Spanish. Eventually, the mayor invited us to tour the town, including its pride and joy: a beautiful aviary in the central square.
So far so good. But imagine our surprise when we discovered that all the birds were dead!
The mayor explained through an interpreter that it was his last day in office thanks to vindictive political rivals who had conspired to oust him from office. In retaliation, he had suspended all town services, he boasted, including the feeding of the birds. While something in this shocking story may have been lost in translation (we hoped), the mayor’s mischievous smile suggested otherwise.
(I suppose my colleagues on that trip will be surprised to learn that the bizarre incident has indeed turned into a story, albeit many years later!)
The short remainder of the trip, as I recall, concluded without further incident – good or bad – beyond our frustrating breeze-through tour of the amazing Alhambra, a former Moorish palace, fortress and gardens that deserves two days, not two hours, to visit.
In the end, one of the trip’s co-hosts made the unprecedented gesture of sending not one, but two, letters of apology to group members over the FAM’s mind-boggling events.
Sure, some other trips have had their hiccups – once in Greece, our flight reservations home were cancelled in a huff because one tourism exec was ticked off at another (we didn’t find out until check-in); another time, my group was bumped from a flight to make way, apparently, for circus animals, leading to a years-long feud between the offending national airline and the country’s tourist board… But when it comes to abject adventures as a travel writer, there’s little doubt that my biggest pain was clearly in Spain!
Alas, a visit to sensational Seville was not to be.