Next Stop: Travel Videos 🎥
How travel media can still be valuable and what I plan to do about it.
Before food writing, I fancied myself exclusively as a travel writer. My sister-in-law got me a copy of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.” I devoured it. His mix of humor, travel, and cultural critique resonated with me.
That’s what I want to do, I decided.
When we moved to Costa Rica, one of my first thoughts was doing a Bill Bryson-y take on traveling in and around Central America. And thus, Talking Tico was born and (self)-published during our first months of living in Germany.
My first job in Germany was basically that of a travel editor for a digital magazine. We focused almost exclusively on highly searched, SEO-friendly topics. “Best Weekend Getaways in XYZ” and such. Although I’m grateful for my time in this position, I imagined (naively, in retrospect) that it would be a stepping stone into full-time travel writing, not just editing. (Though I did love working with those writers who were willing to work with me on at least giving those SEO articles an immersive, compelling introduction).
Book proposals were rejected left and right. “Travel memoir” doesn’t sell, was the general consensus. Then life moved into warp speed with my mother’s passing slipping into the COVID years. Travel writing became an afterthought, especially when it was basically illegal to travel.
That’s when my food writing took off. But as travel opened up again, I noticed my work slipping back into travel. My BBC piece on Lithuanian chefs reclaiming their culinary heritage, for example, was a result of travel. It was also one of my favorite pieces to work on in quite some time. Usually, my food writing is based on Zoom interviews and desk research. Although I’m cognizant of the increased carbon footprint, there’s a lot lost in the story when you can’t taste the food yourself or connect with people in their element.
It was also on that same trip that I decided to start filming my interviews, resulting in some admittedly low-quality fare. That’s what you get when you only pack a GoPro.
But filming interviews during my travels is something I’d been thinking about for some time. My discouragement was twofold:
My previous foray into travel videos was mostly unsuccessful. I attribute that to a variety of factors related to what YouTube wants. Some of those I can control, except…
The type of travel videos that do well are light years away from what I like doing. It’s either 4K drone footage running like a screensaver, or more often, 20-somethings running around with the camera pointing at themselves with little to no storytelling. (An exception to this that comes to mind is Malini Angelica.)
I have nothing against being on camera. In fact, I like dicking around on camera. But no matter where I’m traveling, the last thing I want to do is turn the camera on myself. What does my dumb face actually tell you about a place? I’d rather keep the camera on people who know what they’re talking about.
Although there’s plenty I dislike about the kind of content YouTube pushes and encourages in the travel space, it’s a better home for long-form videos than any other platform. So, I’ve decided since the relative success of that trip to Lithuania to embrace it. I followed up my Baltic travels with a trip to Sicily, the first one with my new camera. And most recently, I brought it along with me to Southeast Asia and did my best to highlight local voices.
It’s too early to tell whether or not any of this will resonate with people. A big reason YouTube pushes out what it does is because people watch it. My hope is that’s partly because few take the time to produce travel stories that actually highlight local voices. So you’re left with another 20/30-something couple hitting up the same spots as everyone else, rambling away to the camera about how breathtaking the views are and how nice the locals are.
Then again, it might also mean people don’t want what I’m making. But at the end of the day, I enjoy making this stuff and it allows me to connect with people in a different way when I’m traveling.
There’s been increasing talk about whether or not we actually need travel writing anymore as we’ve traditionally known it. That is, a foreigner drops in for a finite period of time to “discover” things and publish. There is a, perhaps unintentionally, a nefarious quality to this kind of travel writing. It feels like a kind of cultural mining, a literary version of when Europeans scoured parts of the Global South for artifacts to bring back to their museums.
But I still think there’s value to travel writing if we center the voices of people who live where we’re traveling. That doesn’t mean you can’t offer your two cents or impressions. I also think there’s value in the writer sharing their perspective because the foreigner will always see things differently––for better or worse. I know this quite well as someone who’s been “the foreigner” in Costa Rica and Germany. But in my mind, that voice should never overshadow those who call a place home.
This is all to say that I’ll be taking YouTube more seriously, which you may have already noticed. I’ll play the game (e.g. exaggerative titles that make you click), but only to an extent. The thumbnail and title might be manipulated to get people to click. But once they do, it’s me––and for the most part––the kind of storytelling that I think is still valuable yet sorely missing from travel media these days.
If that resonates at all with you, you can help encourage and move things along by subscribing, liking videos, and encouraging others to do the same.
If it doesn’t resonate with you, then… I don’t know. Ignore me and go get a cookie.
Ninh Binh, Vietnam 🇻🇳
The quiet. That’s the first thing you notice in Ninh Binh, Vietnam. Hanoi is wonderfully chaotic and the train south sways like a waltzing drunk on old rails. But in Ninh Binh, a heavenly silence settles in the thick air like a sloth nestling into a makeshift hammock. It embraces you and holds you like a lover. Everything will be okay.
Just subscribed but I don't spend much time on YouTube so....