The Life of a Travel Writer: An Interview with Michael Kalec

When I started getting involved in travel writing in Los Angeles, one name came up in conversation often: Michael Kalec. over the years and through many encounters, Michael and I became very good friends.

His writing tips and advice have helped me immensely, and his impressive résumé and keen sense of story are why I partnered with him on this website’s travel writing course. Today, I thought I would interview David about the life of a travel writer!

John H. Steve: Tell everyone about yourself.
Michael Kalec: A few interesting facts about me: My weight at birth was 8 lbs., 6 oz. I grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs.

I was in a rock band in high school; we played late-night gigs at Hollywood clubs, and we weren’t very good.

I travel a lot, but I have no interest in counting the number of countries I’ve been to. I’ve lived in San Francisco, Paris, Prague, Rome, Los Angeles, and New York City, but I currently live in Berlin.

What is your greatest personal accomplishment?

I was deemed to have a “learning disability” when I was in grade school and had to spend some of my day in a special education class — which did wonders for my self-esteem!

My best friend in tenth grade told a friend (who told me) that I’d “never amount to anything in life.”

I ended up going to a community college and, much to my surprise (and everyone else’s), I did really well: I graduated with honors and transferred to a good four-year university, where I also graduated with honors.

A few years later, I got a master’s degree in history.

Based on the expectations of me when I was, say, 12, I was never supposed to go that far, intellectually. So I’d say getting a master’s degree might be my greatest accomplishment if you put it into the context of my history of learning.

If you could go back in time and tell young Michael one thing, what would it be?

Don’t eat that hot dog in Prague! Also, I’d tell myself to take more risks, to let the spirit literally move me around the world more and for a longer period of time.

If we let it, society and its norms really set our limit for us and keep us from taking chances, such as eschewing the ordinary office day job or life in the suburbs, etc.

It’s really hard to break out of that, to overcome the entropy that is weighing us all down from doing what we really want.

I lived in Los Angeles for 13 years, and for the final four or five I yearned to move away, to live abroad again and open myself up to new experiences.

But I became afraid, fearful of detaching myself from the life I’d established there.

I had to keep reminding myself of some aspects of Buddhist philosophy — about attachment and impermanence, especially — and that on my deathbed I’m not going to regret moving abroad for a while. I probably would, though, regret not doing it.

If you could go back in time and tell young Michael one thing about writing, what would it be?

I would have taken more classes to both keep learning — one should never stop learning about writing — and to force myself to write when perhaps I didn’t want to.

I think we can all learn from each other, and so putting yourself in that kind of instructive environment is helpful. I took one writing class — a nonfiction writing course at UC Berkeley — and it was super helpful.

What advice do you have for aspiring travel writers trying to break in?

It seems there are fewer paying publications these days and it’s harder to find work.

I realize this is a hard one, but living abroad is really helpful. You end up with so much material for personal essays, and you gain a knowledge of the region that allows you to become something of an authority on the area.

Then you have a personal connection to the place, and editors love it when you pitch a story and you’ve got that.

It gives you a leg up on other people who are pitching stories about that place.

That said, you don’t have to go far to write about travel. You can write about the place where you live.

After all, people travel there, right? Right. (I hope so.) You can write everything from magazine and newspaper travel section pieces to personal essays, all about where you’re currently residing.

What’s your favorite destination?

This is the number one question I’m asked, posed by people sitting next to me on airplanes, at cocktail parties, and my mother’s friends.

My standard answer is Vietnam.

It’s inexplicable.

I just like the place and keep wanting to go back again and again.

I also have a deep connection — and keep returning again and again — to Prague, Rome, and Dubrovnik.

Where do you find inspiration? What motivates you?

I get my motivation and inspiration from unlikely sources.

I think about the creative masters and wonder how I can tap into their genius. What did Austrian painter Egon Schiele see when he looked at a subject and then the canvas?

How did Prince put out an album a year from 1981 to 1989, each one a masterpiece and each one cutting-edge and like nothing anyone else at the time was doing?

Is there a way to apply this creativity to travel writing?

I’m not saying I’m on par with these geniuses — far from it — but if I could somehow even slightly be inspired by their creativity, I’d be better off for it.

What’s the most difficult part about being a travel writer?

The rejection.

You really have to get used to it and just accept that it’s part of your life. It’s really easy to take it seriously and let it get you down. I know — I have done this.

You just have to brush it off and move on, get back on that literary bike, and keep trying until someone finally says yes. Be tenacious.

Writing is a craft.

You don’t have to be born with a natural talent for it.

You just need a strong desire to become better at it.

And by taking writing classes, reading books about it, talking to people about it, etc. you will become a better writer.

A Journey from Home in Dubrovnik

In the late evening of August 17, I walked across a drawbridge into Dubrovnik’s Old Town with my girlfriend and four bags.

The sun shone brilliantly upon us.

A mime painted gold held an admiring crowd not a hundred feet ahead, while another mime across the cobblestone gestured to imply his superiority, or perhaps that he was stuck in a box. All around us were transfixed.

Sweating under the weight of luggage carried twenty hours, we had hoped for something less for our first encounter with one of the world’s finest cities. Of course, when the summer sun is shining, the Old Town is a busy place.

Inside its walls, a swallowing tide of tourists churns like the open ocean, crashing against white marble stair sets and they-don’t make-them-like-this-anymore churches with cameras out and kuna ready.

After sunset or so, most of these folks are flushed out the city gates and there is peace until morning, when the Old Town must sigh and welcome the crowds back. Nights, therefore, are special here.

I wish them well, those mimes. Within an hour of our arrival, bags safely deposited beside the bed we’d be sleeping in, we had forgotten these men.

We picked up the key to an apartment we booked through HomeAway and turned the outside noise down to zero. It was like this: Two floors up, nestled against the back wall of the Old Town, we were allowed nights in this magical place where the stars light up the marble.

For four days, we thought not of mimes, rival mimes and airy gelato, but of the open-ended adventures available just outside our door. Up and around St. Ignatius Church, and then a sharp right that felt like closing a door in a storm—this was our basecamp.

Through HomeAway, we came to possess a key that opened a twisting old door on a residence inside King’s Landing, and in the end all we could justify criticizing was the size of the space—that being in an old, fortified castle-town that to my mind should not still be standing.

For reasons of location alone, our experience in and around the city cannot be separated from the apartment we took nights in—the home that gave us a better chance there.

HomeAway is surely not the only means to such a location, but in our experience it deserves credit for delivering it. From an air-conditioned, Wi-Fi-powered 1BR of stone, we explored and returned home and admired the pomegranate tree out our window as we liked, and in particular as Dubrovnik began to breathe in the mornings and evenings.

When on August 21 we found our holiday expired, we closed our twisting old door with the feeling that we knew something of the place we’d just been. We would miss it, and we would be back.

From this experience, we have a few places to return to. Here are five spots in our Dubrovnik neighborhood that let us feel like locals for a few fleeting moments

1- Buza Bar – From Buza Bar, through a break in the back wall of Dubrovnik’s Old Town From Buza Bar, through a break in the back wall of Dubrovnik’s Old Town The no-longer-secret secret bar on the cliffs, marked only by the sign “Cold drinks with ‘the most beautiful view’” and an opening in the wall.

We passed it twice daily before turning into our apartment and again each time we walked out into the sun each morning. It’s open 24 hours.

Just amazing!

2- Gin fizz window –  Gin fizz window on the Historic Steps Gin fizz window on the Historic Steps Just below the Historic Steps, to the left if you’re for example walking down from our HomeAway spot, is a window with evergreen shutters.

When the shutters are open, you can exchange kuna for takeaway cocktails at the best price around.

We made sure to grab a gin fizz each chance we had after the first one.

In this city, your curiosity is generally rewarded.

3- Azur – “Croasian Style Seafood Laksa”  at Azur “Croasian Style Seafood Laksa” (not a typo) at Azur Mediterranean-Asian fusion tucked all the way in our neck of the woods near the Old Town’s back wall.

The prawns in coconut curry dish—”Croasian Style Seafood Laksa”—was so, so good.

Seafood is in general a good bet in coastal Croatia.

4- Rozario –  Rozario Rozario Just off Stradun in a sloping alley to the right is Rozario, where we feasted on a genuinely delicious meal in peace, for less than the more-center-stage restaurants were shilling for.

Gorgonzola-stuffed mushrooms, black cuttlefish risotto, mussels in white wine garlic, and Croatian wine: so good.

5 – Secret rocks/swimming spot – Secret beach rocks Secret beach rocks Walking out of the Old Town through Ploče Gate, we turned right toward some undefined beach destination to lay out, read and swim. Within a minute or two, an unmarked opening appeared in the city wall that had continued down the waterline alongside us.

In Dubrovnik, we found unmarked holes to be worth stepping through, and so in we went, down some steps, to find a rocky enclave.

Here, we laid out, read and swam using the ladders fastened to the rocks.

I suspect this area is truthfully not much of a secret, but what can you do. It felt good to speak of it that way.

On using HomeAway… This was my first experience using HomeAway to book accommodations, but I knew immediately how to use it.

In searching for the right place, I graded in HomeAway’s options the following three qualities: location, price and aesthetics (incl. Wi-Fi, which is hardly an aesthetic).

I filtered out homes that could not offer Wi-Fi and A/C—which may not have been many—and I used the sliding price tool to box out homes charging large sums of money per night.

I did not find much use in the reviews function due to my finding a total of 2-3 reviews over five days, but I imagine future bookers will find use in them once they have accrued.

Above all, I sought location. An inconvenient home base can spoil a trip, so I reviewed the results of my “Dubrovnik”/”August 17-21” search using HomeAway’s interactive map.

I considered only homes inside the walls of the Old Town.

I was after five days booked. In the interim, I saw two booking requests expire  and another returned with news that there was no vacancy.

Book ahead of time for best results, I guess.

Free Internet for All Inflight Passengers Eventually

In an era where everything seems to be unbundled (fee crazy) that seems like a strange thing for me to have said. However JetBlue did start offering free to the consumer internet. Sponsorship is one model to fund internet. And Delta is following Alaska’s lead in offering free inflight texting. T-mobile subscribers get an hour of free Gogo internet.

More importantly speeds are improving. Delta has been rolling out satellite internet and American is too. You need to price internet because on a plane there hasn’t been enough to go around and you need to limit its use to those who value it most, otherwise it would become as unusable as it is on an Emirates A380 where it’s mostly been given away free.

However once you have enough bandwidth the costs to provide access are mostly fixed, and the economics of airline fees reverses. Bundling — like your cable company does — becomes a profit-maximizing strategy.

Bundling makes sense where consumers demand various levels of service, will pay different amounts for each service, and the marginal cost to provide services is low. Once the investment is made to be able to to provide the service, the key is to extract as much total revenue from all of your customers as possible. You can make more by offering a premium product than a stripped down one.

My original prediction said it would happen in 10 years. There’s 5 years left, and that might be aggressive. My prediction could wind up right, but my timeframe wrong.

Los Angeles to Taipei

This trip report is going to be a bit different than my usual ones. I’ve been on an insane trip the past few weeks for something I’ve been working on, the full details of which I’ll eventually reveal. A lot of this involved flying airlines and staying at hotels I’ve already visited. As a result, I won’t be publishing the typical start-to-finish trip report this time around, but rather will be writing about select flights that I think will be most interesting to you guys.

So for the first installment I want to cover my flight from Los Angeles to Taipei on EVA Air, which I booked using Air Canada Aeroplan miles (Los Angeles to Taipei to Singapore cost 77,500 miles one-way in business class without fuel surcharges). I flew EVA Air back when they first joined the Star Alliance, though this was my first time flying with them in over three years. A couple of years ago EVA Air updated their business class soft product, so I was curious to see how the product compared.

Since my flight was departing LAX I had access to the Star Alliance Lounge, which is excellent, and I’ve reviewed before. At around 9:45AM I headed to gate 155, given that boarding was scheduled for 10AM.

Sure, enough at 10AM boarding was announced. I was happy to see the EVA Air 777 with the updated livery, which I quite like.

I boarded through door L1, where I was greeted by the extremely friendly flight attendants. Upon verifying my boarding pass, one of them escorted me to my seat. That’s something you typically only get in first class, though EVA Air even does it in business class, which is impressive.

EVA Air’s 777 business class consists of two cabins. There’s the forward cabin, consisting of a total of 27 seats, spread across seven rows.

Wisconsin’s Cranberry Marshes

The most picturesque time of year on a cranberry farm is during fall harvest with the seemingly endless sea of red floating cranberries.

The rest of the year? Forget about it.

Many people think cranberries grow in water.

Berries form on perennial vines in thick mats on the ground and turn red only in the fall. That’s when farmers flood the marshes so they float to the surface.

During that short window of time, usually late September through mid-October, visitors head for central and northern Wisconsin to watch machines comb through vines and workers in hip waders corral the just-plucked crimson fruit onto conveyer belts.

Drive up to Wisconsin Rapids and take a DIY tour along the Cranberry Highway, winding almost 50 miles along country roads skirting cranberry farms, some in the same family for three or four generations.

You’ll see trucks being loaded with berries bound for your Thanksgiving table, or that cocktail you might sip before dinner.

Gawking from the roadside has limitations. For a closer look — and an education in Wisconsin’s state fruit — take a guided tour of a marsh.

There are plenty to choose from.

Wisconsin grows more than 60 percent of the U.S. cranberry crop and has enough cranberry farms to cover the entire city of Chicago and a few suburbs, too.

Only a few acres flood, though. The rest is support land: wetlands, woodlands and such.

Bartling’s Manitowish Cranberry Co. gives tours to groups and will join other growers in sponsoring chamber of commerce public marsh tours offered free on Friday mornings through Oct. 6.

In Eagle River, Lake Nokomis Cranberries offers free marsh tours Monday through Saturday during harvest.

It has a gift shop and winery offering tastings of cranberry wine.

You can don waders and step into a flooded marsh on Harvest Day, Oct. 7, at Wetherby Cranberry Company in Warrens.

Members of the farm’s family guide the morning tours costing $5 or $15 if you choose to wade.

Support students at Pittsville High School by taking its Splash of Red marsh tours.

Members of the cranberry science class and Future Farmers of America club lead the outings Wednesdays and Fridays in October.

The $20 tour lasts about 21/2 hours and includes a cranberry-centric lunch back at the school in Pittsville.

A free marsh tour comes with a stay in the one-bedroom Stone Cottage at Glacial Lake Cranberries about 15 miles west of Wisconsin Rapids.

Mary Brown, third-generation owner of the farm, is a walking cranberry encyclopedia.

If you want to know why cranberries are Wisconsin’s largest fruit crop she’ll tell you about the sandy, acidic soil — perfect for growing cranberries — left behind here when lakes formed by glaciers receded.

A high water table and wetlands help farmers direct water into ditches to flood the cranberry beds.

Brown recently launched a business producing dried cranberries with no added sugar.

Honestly Cranberry offers a natural alternative to the sweet snacks on many store shelves.

At four Wisconsin cranberry festivals marsh tours are part of the fun.

The Warrens Cranberry Festival in the self-proclaimed “Cranberry Capital of the World” includes a long parade of horses, automobiles, tractors and floats. Visitors browse more than 1,300 booths and see all sorts of contests: pie-eating, scarecrow, quilt and needlework.

The festival usually draws 120,000 people. Because of the size of the crowd, it’s scheduled Sept. 22-24, before the busy cranberry harvest often begins.

Its marsh tours may be too early for viewing flooded cranberry beds, but visitors see other work on the farms.

Northern Wisconsin

In northern Wisconsin, two festivals on Oct. 7 include marsh tours. At the Stone Lake Cranberry Festival in Stone Lake, you can start the day with a pancake cranberry breakfast. Cran-A-Rama in Manitowish Waters throws in pontoon boat cruises.

Marsh tours begin two days before the official opening of the Eagle River Cranberry Fest and continue through the weekend event, Oct. 7 and 8.

Check out the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s world’s largest cranberry cheesecake. Runners burn off calories in the Berry Bog 5K Jog.

Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center

At the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center, open daily spring through fall in Warrens, you’ll find out why cranberries float and how they got their name. Along with exhibits loaded with cranberry facts, the center has a taste test kitchen and ice cream parlor.

Pick up or download some recipes for the coming cranberry onslaught. About 20 percent of Wisconsin’s harvest is consumed during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Travel Quotes

I am sharing some of my favorite Travel quotes from rest of the web. If you have any complaints Please contact Michael Kalec

“Not all those who wander are lost.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

“I address you all tonight for who you truly are: wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, and magicians. You are the true dreamers.”
― Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
― Marcel Proust

“I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.”
― Simone de Beauvoir

“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”
― Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad

“Augustus,” I said. “Really. You don’t have to do this.”
“Sure I do,” he said. “I found my Wish.”
“God, you’re the best,” I told him.
“I bet you say that to all the boys who finance your international travel,” he answered.”
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

“The most beautiful in the world is, of course, the world itself.” -Wallace Stevens

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends.
You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
― Cesare Pavese

“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.”
― Robert Penn Warren

“The paradox of love is that to have it is to want to preserve it because it’s perfect in the moment but that preservation is impossible because the perfection is only ever an instant passed through. Love like travel is a series of moments that we immediately leave behind. Still we try to hold on and embalm against all evidence and common sense proclaiming our promises and plans. The more I loved him the more I felt hope. But hope acknowledges uncertainty and so I also felt my first premonitions of loss.”
― Elisabeth Eaves, Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents

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Secure and Enrich Your Travel by Following These Tips

Michael Kalec - Traveling Tips

Traveling can be enriching yet worrying prospect for some people. Should you travel alone? Or with a group of people? It depends on your own comfort, and of course a way of living.

But you should not worry much. People with lots of travel experience sometimes struggle to find a spot they thought they could easily find.

traveling tips
Here are some tips that I gathered through my own experiences:

  1. Bring a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer to prevent picking up germs often prevalent on planes.
  2. Bring your own filtered water bottle.
  3. A few high-quality protein bars and packets of trail mix are much healthier than in-flight snacks.
  4. For longer flights, pack a pair of slippers or flip-flops in your carry-on to aid circulation and comfort.
  5. If you are in a country where it is unsafe to drink the water, keep your mouth shut in the shower.
  6. A sleep mask may help you rest on longer flights.
  7. Airline travelers are 20% more likely to catch a common cold.
  8. A few days before flying take extra vitamin C and B-complex vitamins to boost your immune system.
  9. When booking a flight or hotels, make sure to use trust worthy websites.
  10. Tell your bank where and when you will be traveling. It will ensure that your card isn’t flagged or blocked for unusual activity.
  11. When sightseeing or going to the pool or beach, don’t carry all your valuables with you. Also, never leave cards unattended.
  12. Use the hotel safe or security box.
  13. Don’t be afraid to use a map. Looking like a tourist isn’t as bad as getting really lost and ending up in the wrong neighborhood.
  14. Make photocopies of important documents.
  15. Roll your clothes when packing. No creases and more clothes fit into your suitcase.
  16. Pack a spare pair of underwear and clothes in your carry-on just in case your luggage goes missing, that way you won’t be completely stuck without your belongings for a couple of days.

     

I hope these tips will make your travel a more fun. Let us know what other tips you think come handy in travel.