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So what has been keeping me sidetracked from finishing that YA novel you ask? The siren call of travel. As much reading as I do for my own love of books and to learn more about the craft of writing, I also have a penchant for reading travel guides. Ok, it’s more than a penchant; it’s a drive that some in my life say borders on obsession. I love reading travel guides. The more maps and pictures the better. Historical facts make the book my new favorite read.

travel guide books

Why do I do this? I love to read about other places and other cultures, to imagine myself immersed in another place and trying out the cuisine or attending some cultural event. But if I am to be completely honest, it truly all comes down to my deep desire to not appear like the tourist that I really am when I am traveling.

Once I have decided on a place to travel (and it doesn’t matter if it’s within the U.S. or another country), I immediately head to my city’s library and begin the systematic process of checking out all of the guide books ever made on that particular location. And by all of the books I really do mean ALL.  If you happen to be traveling to the same place at the same time that I am and you want to do a little research on the place, well, I’m sorry but you’ll be out of luck for as long as I can renew those puppies at the library. You might as well resign yourself to the fact that you’ll be doing all of your research for your trip to Guam on your computer because I will have all 63 copies of the guide books checked out for as long as I can get ’em.

Once I have these gems in my little hands, I pour over them like it’s the handwritten word of God on parchment.  Each section is scoured for any information that will not only make me knowledgable of the place I am visiting, but will also keep me from looking like a tourist.  You know the kind of tourist I’m talking about – it goes way beyond the camera around the neck and Bermuda shorts.  I’m talking about the uninformed, out-of-place person who never took the time to check out the 17 versions of their library’s foreign language CD’s on Swahili to study while driving back and forth to work. (I may not have the best pronunciation, but no one can accuse me of not trying.)  I want to know what makes a place tick, where the locals go for good food, and how to strike a deal, respectfully so, in a marketplace.  I want to be respectful of the culture I am setting myself down in because I am a guest and a guest should be courteous and kind and above all, interested in what is going on around them, not judgmental or surly because it’s “not done like this at home”.

Once I’ve cracked the first guide book, I then get out the Notebook. The Notebook is not a bittersweet tale of how two lovers met; rather, it is my handwritten, very detailed notes on all the information from each of the guide books that I think I will need while traveling. I also like to include my own commentary in the margins and, in the case of foreign travel, the exchange rate (which is also bookmarked on my computer) and time difference from my own city. I even have tiny post it tabs to mark the different cities or parts of a city that I will be visiting (color coded, of course).

Also in the Notebook are the many maps that I’ve copied from the guide books because, as I’ve said before, I don’t want to LOOK like a tourist by whipping out a giant map of Rome while standing in the middle of the crowded sidewalk trying to find the gelateria that was recommended by Rick Steves.  So what do I do? I copy the smaller, more manageable maps in the guide books and write directly on there where the gelateria is. If I do need to get the map out, I can discreetly open it from where it’s hiding inside the novel I carry with me everywhere.  I can do this while I am sitting at the cafe drinking my morning cappuccino and no one is the wiser. The Notebook also contains information from the travel movies that I check out from the library. And yes, I do watch all of the movies that my library has, even the really, really, really bad ones by obnoxious twenty-somethings paid to travel the world and offer not-so-witty commentary on what they are seeing. Oh why did I decide to major in psychology?  I should have become a travel writer!

Previous Notebooks are filled with the thoroughly fascinating and helpful information on Italy, Morocco, Germany, London, Paris, Madrid, and NYC.  Copious notes about all of the sights are laid out in a daily schedule that isn’t too rigid – it’s more like a general guide so I don’t try to go to a museum on a day it’s closed.  Because that would make me look like a tourist.

I haven’t decided where my next adventure will be – Prague? Costa Rica? Hawaii? Tanzania? – but I’ll be sure to crack open a shiny, new notebook and head back to the library to check out more books and dvd’s.  I am nothing if not thorough in my travel planning. You might be tempted to think that I am too well planned, that my travels lack spontaneity. But for me, it’s quite the opposite: the better planned I am and the more informed I am, the more I can relax and roll with things as they come. And, it doesn’t hurt to know where you can get a good glass of wine with the most amazing view.

View from Vernazza

What are your travel preparations like? Are you a meticulous planner? Or are you a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of person? I’d love to hear!