I was asked tonight over dinner what the condition in the Dominican Republic is like subsequent to the earthquake in Haiti.
“I don’t know,” I replied, “it is difficult to trust the news to give a real impression of a place.
Bangor, Maine, USA January 29, 2009
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I arrive in the Dominican Republic in less than one week. I have been reading news reports but they mean little to me. I know that news reporters ingest their impressions while floating in a bubble — they may be in a location, but I fail to believe that they are “on the ground.”
Being chauffeured from press conference to hotel to press conference to random sound byte proliferator — in my opinion — does not constitute being somewhere. At least not enough to report on it.
The news cameras go to where the action is and shows it as being the whole. It makes sense, for who wants to watch a bunch of people sitting around saying, “nothing happened here.” Journalism is a practice of documenting extremes.
Good, who the hell wants to see un-extremes? — we see that all day. News is good if the reports can be isolated down to their direct area of actual impact. I cannot believe that what the news shows of a place can be taken as a pan-inclusive take on an entire country, or even a region. To do so would be to see a world on fire.
So the news reports on the Dominican Republic are full of stories about Haitian earthquake victims being brought over for medical care, the influx of refugees, the broken utility lines, and the ant trail of aid workers using the Dominican Republic as an access point to earthquake ravaged Haiti.
How to find travel information
To know what a situation is like in a country — what it is really like to be there — I need to consult the people who are there (the people who are really there, the people on the ground, the people living there, the people traveling there). I look for the independent chroniclers — bloggers, perhaps, the fellow ticking words out to ether winds not knowing where they will land. I gauge urgency in a matter on the premise that if a place was truly in turmoil the people living there would write about it — or they would not write at all.
The internet has given us a way to receive these impressions en-masse. I suppose before this we had to rely on a series of “by word of mouth” transactions. The world wide upsurge of public access to publishing online media is a good way to tell what things are really like on the ground in just about any location in the world.
The magazine and news media contacts me regularly — they usually want photos, they need information from people who have actually been to the places they are writing about.
When I want to know what is going on somewhere, I, too, do an internet search for “place name” blog or “travel blog” and then I write the date. I am planning on going to the Dominican Republic and then on to El Salvador and Colombia, so I set my Google alerts or do searches for “Dominican Republic blog January 2010” and likewise for the other countries. I then sift out the news blogs — which are just as surface scrapping as print and tv news reports — and I form a loose impression based on my findings.
This usually tells me what I wanted to know — or at least gives me someone to contact to receive more information. The travel oriented weblogs from the Dominican Republic mention the Haiti earthquake, but give the impression that the residual events are pretty far away from the common traveler in the eastern half of Hispaniola.
When I read the travel blogs from the Dominican Republic, I can not say that there is much for a traveler to worry about.
Travelers are in my shoes. What threatens another traveler may threaten me. I have some friends in Xinjiang, China. Recently, a short uprising rocked the region. My friends went on vacation. This made me listen — if I was planning on traveling to Xinjiang, I would have halted in my steps and looked a little closer at the road ahead, asked a few more questions, really thought hard about what I was getting into. These same friends have sat through other upsurges before, but this one made them leave the region — I listened to these signs: maybe then was not the best time to go to Xinjiang.
A good travel blog is one that is written like a conversation between travelers over a beer. A good travelogue will show other travelers the road ahead: this is the second priority of the traveler. Online writing is good because, in its common form, it is not regulated by govenments, corporations, private interest groups, or by a fear of libel. An independent travel blogger ticking out endless posts on Blogger is more at liberty to publish honest words than even the most seasoned journalist.
What affects a local person may not neccessarily affect a traveler. When looking at a potentially adverse situation — when looking at a place in the world in flux — it is often best not to blow the epicenters out of proportion. I know that the news is going to show the worst of the worst. It gives me a perspective on the worst of a situation — this is good to know. But when I want to gague what a situation will be for me, a traveler, I cannot rely on the news for much more than showing a splattering of choosen extremes.
I read the travel journal of my friend, Andy Hobotraveler.com. We talked on the phone. He is in the Dominican Republic, he was in Haiti 5 days before the earthquake. When I question the road ahead, I look for another travel who has been there,”Hey, Andy, how is everything in the Domincan Republic?” From what he says and from what he is publishing, I know that the country is open for business.
This is not a new thing for travelers to share information in this way — we just have a new medium. But it is a medium that mimics the ones of old. When walking down a road and passing another traveler going the opposite way you ask, “How are things over there?”
And the traveler will probably ask you the same.
I am sure that the travelers of old had ways of sharing notes of the road with each other. There was a complex liturgy of hobo symbols in the USA to let other hobos know of current situations. I am sure that sign boards in taverns and inns once took the place of forums and blogging.
The internet and the world of blogging allows me to ask many more travelers on opposing paths how things are “over there.” And they ask me the same.
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