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Confessions of a Travel Writer

by Roberta Sandler

In 720 B. C., athletes at the first Olympic competition shed their loincloths to compete in the nude. Among the spectators, not one female blushed - because, under penalty of death, women were forbidden to attend the games.

Here I was, standing in Ancient Olympia amid a landscape of ruins and antiquities once buried under a millennium of river silt and now excavated. Before me lay the columns of the Olympic stadium, the remnants of the mighty Temples of Zeus and Hera, the arena where 45,000 onlookers once cheered, and the altar where the Olympic flame was first ignited. To know the history of this place enhances the wonderment.

I have seen and learned much because I am a travel writer. For years, my income derived from writing freelance stories for “confession” magazines and articles for newspapers and consumer magazines. Then I moved from New York to Florida and through my one-tank trips and weekend getaways, I discovered what most tourists don’t know about that state.

Off the beaten track, there is an Old Florida dotted with cabbage palms shading pioneer cottages; Civil War forts and battlefields; historic mansions and Victorian, Tudor, Queen Anne, Jacobean, and Classical Revival-style homes; dusty towns where cattlemen wear ten-gallon hats, and forests, lazy springs and rivers where Seminole Indians hunted and fished long before the white man encroached.

I had to let people know about this other side of Florida. Thus began my switch to travel writing.

Two Florida guidebooks and scores of Florida-focused articles later, I graduated to writing about other states, other islands and other countries I visited.

I have sat inside the Deadwood stagecoach, seen the heather on the hill in the Scottish Highlands, straddled Greenwich’s Prime Meridian, faced the Barbary apes, climbed into the cupola of George Washington's Mount Vernon (it’s off limits to visitors now), cheered as the mechanical figures on Munich's Glockenspiel jousted with each other, ingested the noises and smells of the Casbah, cried at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and notorious Andersonville.

Being a travel writer has brought me to these destinations. Exploration and discovery are my vitamins. It’s been so exhilarating to have the opportunity to visit sites I had only seen in magazines. The visual highlights still thrill my memory.

Australia. It was on my bucket list. When I was invited to Sidney and the Outback on a media trip, I was so excited I nearly kicked the bucket. How many times had I seen pictures of the Sidney Opera House, that unique shell-shaped structure? Pinch me so that I’ll know I am really here.

In the Outback, I took a taxi to my hotel. The tall, ruddy-complexioned driver was friendly and chatty, but his Australian accent was so thick, I had no idea what he said. Huh? I kept nodding so that he’d think I was agreeing with him.

I traveled overnight by train (The Ghan) across the desert toward Alice Springs. I slept in a small private compartment, complete with stall shower. Let’s see. Lift the sink to use the toilet beneath. Or was it the other way around? Be careful not to let the water slosh. The compartment had upper and lower berths. I was Eva Maria Saint. All I needed was Cary Grant.

In the Club Car, my fellow writers and I enjoyed after-dinner drinks. An elderly man with a reserved British accent was regaling his companions with a few war stories. “Bloody Hell,” he said.

Bloody this and bloody that.  Had I been spliced into a vintage World War II movie produced by J. Arthur Rank?

I walked around Ayers Rock, the world’s largest monolith, sacred to the Aborigines. The air is so arid there that flies, desperate for moisture, flock to the noses and mouths of tourists. Here I was, fighting the flies, when a tourist passed by. She wisely wore white netting around her face and as she conversed with her friend, her accent seemed distinct to me.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“New Jersey.”

Sometimes, the world is indeed small.

I took a pre-sunrise hot air balloon ride above the Australian desert. Suddenly, the black sky lightened as it painted itself into a pastel beauty such as I have never seen. It became striated with pink, lavender, blue, pale orange. I thought, somewhere, there must be a God, because nature alone cannot achieve this. Far below, a kangaroo hopped away.

In Naples, Italy, my husband and I asked a policeman to direct us to anyplace where we could have a pizza. He pointed to a restaurant down the street and in careful English, he said, “It has the best pizza you will find.”

My husband replied, “You never ate pizza made in Brooklyn.”

“No, Naples makes the best,” he insisted.

As my husband said: pure Brooklyn.

For all the world’s wonders, for all of its dazzling architecture and glorious history and scenic beauty, sometimes there is nothing as memorable as the people one meets during sojourns.

Above all else, one person touched my core - the gray-haired woman in the black dress and white apron who saw me wandering along her steep street in the Greek fishing village of Kithera. She waved to invite me into her garden and there, she laughed as she took handfuls of the nuts she had been shelling and deposited them into my pockets and into my palms.

She could not understand a word of English, but I was her visitor and she offered a gesture of friendship that transcended language and culture.

This is why some people must travel and some writers must write about their experiences from their travels. For me, travel writing is a window to the world. I become so enthused and intrigued by people and places foreign to me that I feel an insidious need to plead, “You must go here. You must experience this. You must be an explorer. Let my words show you, entice you, lead you beyond your narrow horizon.”

This is how I help my readers to understand the past, because without that understanding, they cannot appreciate the way it has shaped the present. I won’t get rich by being a travel writer. Often, the pay is lousy, and the expenses jarring. But my journeys have led me to a treasure of wonderful moments and unforgettable discoveries. Sharing these with readers – sprinkling readers with wanderlust - completes the joy.

Roberta Sandler’s articles have appeared in hundreds of publications. Her latest book is  A Brief Guide to Florida’s Monuments and Memorials  (UNIVERSITY PRESS OF FLORIDA).

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