Writer’s Dilemma: To Take Notes, Experience, Photograph or All of the Above?

Posted by on Jul 27, 2011 in Philosophy | 11 comments

Writer’s Dilemma: To Take Notes, Experience, Photograph or All of the Above?

Very often, I’m a klutz when I travel. I have everything neatly planned and packed on trips before I leave: my well-worn notebook (not always a Moleskin), the Nikon D-90 camera, Android (for videos and instant photographs). Before a trip, my soul often feels like an oasis. But, very much like an oasis, that feeling is short-lived, a mirage. 

Nothing really prepares me for the fast pace of travel. Very often, the pace of travel can be a blur that ebbs and flows like the Doppler Effect. From the time I wheel my suitcase out the front door and hear the click of the lock, to the time I board the plane, unplanned events transpire and throw a curveball at the most well-laid plans. Sometimes the travel experience is like playing roulette games. During my recent trip to Aruba, I was not prepared to take a taxi from the airport to the wrong hotel. Nor was I prepared to wait for the bus for an extraordinarily long 20 minutes (normally, 20 minutes would not have been long at all; but after a 5 hour long plane journey and a taxi to the wrong hotel, you’re eager to soak in a tub full of Epsom salts). 

Santa Fe Ghost Ranch

A shot from Ghost Ranch, the expansive wilderness where Georgia O’Keefe lived and painted. I’m glad I paused to take this shot

It occurs to me that during these times of experiencing the “curveballs,” I must be taking diligent notes or recording my chronicles in some fashion. After all, how am I to remember them when the time comes to put pen to paper? 

I’ll be honest, my memory is getting better, but it still isn’t the greatest. When I’m rushing around trying to get my travel feet wet, I’m always trying to experience and understand a place. Here are some of the questions I ask myself: why is this destination popular? What exactly is the history behind the culture? How can I understand the local customs better so I can respect the citizens? Amidst the tourists doing the point and shoot dance and shouting “amazing” and “gorgeous” at every picture, how is the travel writer supposed to respond? 

A relevant quote from a Matador University article by springs to  mind: “I’ve always felt this total disconnection between the way things seem while you’re traveling — the way people talk, act, the behaviors they engage in — and the way most people write about it.” Miller elucidates the feeling that many travelers have when they try to spin travel straw into gold. How do you capture a great story, a candid laugh, a child’s smile or a stray dog unless your media is always ON? How do you capture a joyful moment and convey it authentically as though you’ve won a jackpot at the best online casino? But if you’re that prepared, aren’t you losing the “pure experience” part of traveling?   

What has worked for me is to first experience the destination with a relaxed mind. Often, I get stressed when I travel only because I’m asking way too many questions and trying to get everything “right” the whole time. My best experiences have occurred when I’ve just let the wind take me where I’m supposed to go, without too much planning.

But even during those moments, I’ve had to decide whether I’ll use my Android device, my notepad, or my “proper” DSLR camera. Over the years, I’ve learned to let go of these questions a bit, and just let my imagination and travel hunger (call it inner GPS if you will) triumph over pure reason.

In the end, travel is an art of compromise. There’s the “slow component” to travel that I love, that makes you want to take in every bird cry and wildflower. But then there’s the journalistic task to also photograph every aspect and record every precious moment too. Those small, precious moments are what I call the “holy water” of a travel experience — otherwise each journey would be way too generic.   What are your thoughts on travel and capturing the moment?

On Travel, Press Trips and the Dangers of FOMO

The recent piece in The New York Times on the ‘Fear of Missing Out” feelings induced by social media channels has led me thinking about the travel blogging community and the travel world in general. I’ve interrupted my scheduled posts on Carmel to discuss and give some thought to this matter.

FOMO is especially prevalent in travel because social media channels are filled with tweets and blog posts about a traveler’s sexy location. While it can be liberating to live vicariously through another’s posts, it can also be detrimental to one’s well being to experience the feelings of envy and at times, inadequacy.

Sometimes, it’s the feeling that “everyone else” is visiting cool destinations except you. This feeling is completely human, but it can’t let you take the focus of being a writer. I don’t want to sound like a philosopher, but if we can take the emphasis away from the emotion and learn from others’ social media experiences, the outcome can be a lot healthier.


Image Copyright: Butterflydiary.com

I’ll tell you right off the bat that yes, I’ve dreamed of visiting places and traveling around the world without a care in the world, but I also know myself well enough to know that if I do anything just “to be cool” or what “everyone else is doing,” I end up being very unhappy. I like my trips to really be well though out, planned and documented. I’m rarely a “spur of the moment” type of person although I’m learning to let go a little.

I think what FOMO does is to take away from the main objective of being a writer: writing. I often turn to Rilke when I’m looking at some of my “meaningless” activities: if you’re a writer, your job is to find richness in everything; you have only yourself to blame if you can’t.

Trips to rich and distant lands don’t necessarily produce the best stories. If we’ve embarked upon the blogging journey, shouldn’t our job be to enjoy and document travel stories anywhere? Does it have to be on a glorious press trip to Alaska to see the Aurora Borealis (I’m not disputing this would be cool) or at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve gone on more than my fair share of trips and I’ve loved every minute of it. The traveler in me comes alive when I learn a new fact, a bit about history, and meet new people. All these aspects give me that inexplicable feeling that belongs in the territory of joy. And if you don’t go out there and carpe the world, how else can you document the latest and greatest?

I maintain that while social media is the best thing that has happened to travel, it can take the focus away from the reason we signed up to be writers in the first place, and put the focus on the cool factor, and trying to be the cool traveler on the block. I see it on Twitter all the time. Who’s been to more than 50 countries? Who’s stayed at the best hotels? Who’s had an elephant bring them bagels for breakfast?

(For the record, I would love an elephant to bring me bagels for breakfast).

If you have a day job, or don’t have the dollars to travel, reading is an excellent way to relax and journey with your mind. I’m in the middle of reading Eat, Pray, Love and love the narrative. After traveling non stop for three weeks, it was relaxing to come home and unwind by reading rather than writing. 

Of late, I’ve tried to incorporate daily reading into my schedule so I can enjoy and learn the writing techniques. If the major part of 2010 was spent surfing Twitter and traveling, the major part of 2011 will be spent reading and traveling. I’ve found that this combination really works well for me, because I’ve missed reading the classics and the new book releases. In fact, reading significantly reduces FOMO (while surfing social media channels can increase it). Part of the fact may be that with reading, you don’t always know the writer personally, so you can simply “enjoy” the journey.

If life becomes a FOMO experience, you’re not really living. I think the easiest way to get sidetracked from a goal or vision is to see what everyone else is doing and beat yourself up that you’re not part of the cool crowd. It can be disastrous to productivity and to your energy. Perspective then, is everything.

I’m still waiting for the day when I can write sentences a la Hemingway, like these:

“They sailed well and the old man soaked his hands in the salt water and tried to keep his head clear. There were high cumulus clouds and enough cirrus above them so that the old man knew the breeze would last all night. The old man looked at the fish constantly to make sure it was true. It was an hour before the first shark hit him.”

This excerpt is from one of my favorite books, The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway has been a big influence in my writing life and my goal for 2011 is to make my prose tougher, terser, more vivid. True, he was an avid traveler, but his ability to make the even the smallest action come alive by describing every minute detail makes me realize that one does not have to journey to Jerusalem to write impeccable prose.

I’ve received emails and queries in the past from some of my friends about the trips I’ve been on; naturally, inquiring minds want to know where I am and what I’m doing. I LOVE sharing this information with my readers. I want to go above and beyond the call of duty by tweeting pictures, posting tidbits of information and blog posts. But since media trips are often themed and small, not everyone can be invited. It’s important to document, and not elicit FOMO when tweeting and blogging.

Good travel writing also needs to have depth. I can show you some jaw-dropping travel stories about the simplest subjects (e.g. John McPhee’s essay on Oranges) that have convinced me that one can construct a travel masterpiece on any subject, not necessarily on a topic along the lines of “The World’s Most Expensive Hotel Room.” One of the engaging essays I’ve read was on a very simple topic by Unbravegirl, on the magic of spinach-artichoke dip. That post had me in splits!

In the end, FOMO does not contribute to self discovery and self knowledge, which I really think is one of the most important aspects of travel. If I don’t believe in something, I’m apt to write passages with the strength of weak tea (the “third dunk of the teabag” effect). Not very sexy, is it?

Charu Suri


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Travel Philosophy: New York City and the Science of Socialization

I’m definitely lucky in the fact that I get invited to some of the best events around town. There’s never really a dull moment in my schedule, but the down side is that I’m “always” working in some shape or form…whether it’s live tweeting from an event, or scheduling Tweets on Hootsuite in the evenings. Some days, I actually dream in 140 characters. I kid you not. 

A long time ago, I wrote an article for a publication about the death of the Drive-in Theater. It seems like a bizarre subject matter, but I really love Drive-in Theaters. Call me a romantic, but that era of drive-in theaters was pretty darn social. The entire family would visit a theater — including the house pet — enjoy an evening of fun-filled beer, pretzels and ice cream while catching a flick. Today, the stark reality is that teenagers are so used to TV dinners and watching Gossip Girl, adults are so used to running around feeling all stressed, and there’s no Honey, I’m Home feeling in many households. 

Nichelle Pace at StyleMom event and Charu Suri

Myself and Nichelle Pace, founder of StyleMom.com. Nichelle is someone who I look up to for style inspiration 

Upscale blogger events and socialization are key to a well-rounded lifestyle– at least, in my life. For many years, I was a complete recluse. I refused to go out, because I was scared and shy. I would get invited to events but felt they were out of my comfort zone, or that they really didn’t matter. But today, after being in the beauty and travel journalism business for over five years, I would definitely say that socialization and events have played a pivotal role in my own personal development. 

Recently, I went to an event hosted by Nichelle Pace, the founder of StyleMom.com. Although I’m not a mom (yet), I wanted to go and support her efforts and to catch up with my gal pals. In New York City, when people are always on the run and no one seems to have time for you, events are organized social oases. At Nichelle’s down-to-earth cocktail party held at Acqua Beauty Bar in Union Square, I saw faces I had not seen in ages, including my beloved friend Issa Mas. All the ladies who attended sipped Belvedere Vodka cocktails, received makeovers from BeautyAddicts and got manis on the house. Well-heeled ladies from every part of the blogosphere showed up with excited, happy faces. One of the event sponsors, Iced Orchid diamonds, had beautiful displays of their affordable jewelry everywhere.

It was a truly elegant, calm and luxurious experience in every sense.

Felicia Walker Benson at Jones Magazine Party

The always lovely and elegant Felicia Walker Benson of ThisThatBeauty.com, Beauty Editor of Jones Magazine

You might say, “oh, what an era of product placement,” but who doesn’t want the finer things in life, really? While you can pretend to be a recluse who refuses to step out from the Left Bank to sunny (okay, well, material) side of life, isn’t there a little part in all of us who wants to go to beautifully-curated parties and live La Vida Loca? I certainly do, but I realize that also means never taking such events for granted. A lot of hard work and thought goes in behind the scenes and I am so grateful to be a part of them.

So, socialization as a purely scientific travel experiment then, works in marvelous ways. You leave an event or Tweetup feeling energized, loved, and radiating positive vibes all around. While we may live in an age of Twitter and various social media channels, there’s nothing better than a face to face encounter. You get a live Q&A experience and leave with profound memories. How many memories do you recall from your Twitter experience? I always remember the “in person” experiences the most.

Metro Guest Launch with Dana Humphrey and Charu Suri

Dana Humphrey and myself at the launch of MetroGuest.com, an online community of hosts and travelers looking for an easy way to manage properties (you can host guests through this site or find a place to live).

While I’ve toyed with the idea of relocating from New York City to a warmer climate several times, but there’s no better city in the world in which to live and socialize than the Big Apple. I’ve formed friendships, visited every sleek and swank building imaginable and delighted in lazy evenings spent sipping wine and listening to stories.

These events may be the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing that “Drive-in Theater” moment of days gone by, but in the most upscale and purely New York way possible.

Charu Suri

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Travel & Perspective: Sometimes, There is No Place Like Home

I didn’t choose to live in Weehawken, NJ; it chose me.

There is an advantage to living a river away from the city crowds. You get your own backyard, and can keep a dog comfortably. The commute from Weehawken into the city is shorter than most subway rides I know (it’s 15 minutes on a good day, and a scene from “Office Space” on the worst days). What I love about the one square mile town is that it feels impressively large, with a Cinderella castle-like library, Victorian homes dotting the cliff, a dog park, and a few restaurants. I’ve come to see how the town has slowly but surely adapted to modernization, and how its citizens too have changed.

Weehawken loves its salt and pepper haired citizens. In the church that I am Music Director of (this is a block away from my house), most of the frequent visitors are over 50 years of age. They’ve lived in this town all their lives, and have attended the same church since they were kids. There’s something heartwarming in that story– knowing that even though they may have traveled all over the world, they keep coming back to their familiar surroundings. 

I’ve traveled to so many places with my “base” as the home we purchased nearly four years ago. It is the hub in my life. Whenever I get back from a long trip, be it a visit to India or a short jaunt to Texas, I’m reminded of the saying “a man’s home is his castle” whenever I open the front door. Everywhere I look, there is work that needs to be done, be it replacing the well-worn linoleum, buffing the hardwood floors or dusting off the debris from the window sill. When I travel, I don’t need to think of these things, but I cannot deny the aspect of calm that a sense of familiarity brings. 

Traveling is a highly sensory experience: I see so many people, places, coffee shops, restaurants and each one is so different from the other. Sometimes it’s great to come back to the place you know best. You know where your mail is, where you can find your checkbook, and your computer. You feel happy when you pour fresh coffee from your own Black & Decker compared to the  one in the hotel that has likely been handled by thousands of visitors. 

I truly believe that your traveling experiences can only be richer if you know where you’re coming from. The strength and depth of my “hub” dictates the richness of my travel experiences. I measure so many of my travel experiences against the comfort scale that my current home brings. Over the years, you also start to feel you are a part of the town’s cultural fabric. For the past seven years, I’ve waved to the passionate Italian family next door as they sit on the porch soaking up every sunny day. I’ve taken Butterscotch (my Golden Retriever) for several walks and chatted with other owners of furry friends and developed valuable relationships just because I own a pet. These are suburban whimsies, small pleasures, but they all add up to a rich sense of place. 

My wish list for the summer is to hold a garage sale and become completely minimalist. This is also the way I love to travel: take only the basics, look stylish but be comfortable. These are also the qualities I avidly look for in a hotel. Since I’m trying to become a better gardner this summer (let’s put it this way, I have more weeds than grass in my backyard), I look for places that have the gorgeous bouquet in their front or back yard, from the iconic crocus to the crazy colored tulip. These simple details immediately put me at ease in my travels and I’ll always know when I find my second “home.” 


A view from the cliff in Weehawken: the ferry taking passengers for a ride across the Hudson is a popular commute


The view of New York City during a slightly foggy day



A sunset, a million dollar view

Weehawken during a sunset


Weehawken during a sunset

Weehawken and dogs

The Hamilton Park is a popular place for brides to get their picture taken

Weehawken and dogs


After having lived here for more than seven years, I’ve realized how fortunate I am to live in a small, unobtrusive and uncluttered town that truly has a million dollar view. Each day, I try to make my home a bit more beautiful, whether it’s adding more pictures to the wall, paring down the non essentials. A walk to the library, when everything is in full bloom and people wave and say “hello” is in itself a journey. I am grateful when I plunk down my suitcase after a long trip, right in the middle of my living room and just sit back and relax with a cup of fresh Cinnamon Apple Spice tea and give Butterscotch a big hug. A travel yardstick? Sure. It’s called relativity.