7 Habits of a Truly Observant Traveler (or, What Frequently Published Travel Writers Know That Copywriters Might Not)

[Copywriter and travel writing pro Jen Stevens has spent the balance of the last seven years gallivanting through Latin America and the Caribbean – to Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize and beyond reporting on and writing about the best locales for overseas travel, retirement, and investment.]

One important trait the most accomplished travel writers share has nothing to do with their writing abilities.

The best travel writers are, simply put, observant travelers. They've trained themselves to notice things.

You can, too.

In fact, it's a critical habit to foster. Because the more you notice – the more specific, interesting details you pick up, that is – the more rich material you have to include in your writing. And it's those rich details, remember, that hook your reader.

How do you do it?

7 Ways to Notice More

  1. Rely on more than just your eyes.

    Certainly, pay attention to what you see. But also take note of what you hear, what you smell, how things taste, how they feel. If there's a low, stone wall surrounding a village cemetery, don't just scribble in your notebook "low, stone wall."

    Go up to it and check to see if the top is dusty. Exactly how low is it? What sounds do you hear as you lean on it? Is there cheerful chatter from kids sent to leave flowers there? Or is it utterly silent, save for the occasional bird call and the scratching of squirrels?

  2. Count.

    How many steps must you climb to reach the top of that lighthouse? How many steeples do you see jutting up above the rooftops? How many tables does the cafe hold? How many tourists are standing in line? How many types of bread does the bakery sell? Specific numbers often provide the kind of astonishing detail useful in an article.

  3. Pick up papers – maps, brochures, local newspapers and magazines, brochures, postcards, menus, business cards.

    I keep a one-gallon Ziploc bag in my suitcase when I travel, and at the end of each day, I toss into it whatever papers I've gathered. If I got a business card from somebody I spoke with, I make a note on the back, reminding myself who that person is. If I got a menu from a place where I enjoyed lunch, I scribble on it what I had and what I thought of it. I'll flip through a local paper, scanning for oddball items and ideas about what I might do the next day, making note of local politics, finding out what controversies are raging. You won't likely use all this material in your article, but it's all useful as you piece together a context for this place you're visiting.

  4. Talk with locals.

    No matter where you are – in a bar, a cafe, a shop, a taxi – strike up a conversation with a local. Ask directions. Ask for suggestions about what you might do or where you might eat. Inquire as to how things have changed in the past decade or more. Ask this person where he or she takes family and friends who visit. My colleague – fellow copywriter and travel writer – John Forde always suggests talking with anybody over 70. Smart guy, that John.

    Doing a load of laundry in a Laundromat offers you the perfect excuse to start talking with somebody who lives in the neighborhood you're visiting. Have your hair done. I rarely take the time to have my hair cut at home, so I'll often do it on the road. One of the best haircuts I ever got was in a woman's front room in Zanzibar; one of the worst was at a salon in London. But both gave me ample time – and an ideal excuse – to ask questions and learn things.

  5. Shop with locals.

    Poke your head into as many "tourist" shops as you like, but make sure you also spend some time where the locals shop. Go to a grocery store and pay attention to what's on offer. How many types of cheese are in that case – and how many is the average shopper buying? Is that an entire wall of lentils? Is that man perched on a stool at the back filling up people's empty glass jugs with wine from a vat? Investigate an outdoor market or a hardware store. My point is: By paying attention to how the locals shop, what they buy, and how much things cost, you'll uncover all sorts of interesting quirks you'd never find out if all you shopped for were T-shirts, snow globes, and fridge magnets.

  6. Get into a local's home.

    I'm not suggesting you climb in a window. Get yourself invited for tea or lunch or dinner … or just a quick tour. It's amazing what you'll learn once you step over a threshold into the private world tourists never see. You'll instantly know more about people's priorities, about how they order their lives … indeed, maybe a good bit about how that society is ordered. Here, again, notice how things look, feel, taste, and smell.

    How do you get invited in? You ask. I promise: Strike up conversations, and you'll be surprised at how hospitable people become.

  7. Travel more.

    The more often you travel, the more places you see, the better able you'll be to distinguish something that's really unusual. You'll develop a more well-rounded perspective. And you'll gain something else that there's no other way to come by: judgment.

    I asked Kathleen Peddicord, the editor and publisher of International Living, what she thought distinguished a truly inspired travel article from a run-of-the-mill one, and that's the key word she came up with:

    "Judgment. Being able to decipher what's special, unique, new, important, valuable in a place. Putting the place in context, historically and otherwise. Understanding what you're seeing and seeing beyond the tourist layer of a place."

    How to Get Started Right Now

    You don't have to board an airplane and head across an ocean before you start sharpening your observation skills. Start this weekend. Take a half-hour walk and methodically go through your five senses. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? How do things feel? How do they taste? (Buy a cup of coffee while you're out – or, if the weather is warm, grab an ice cream.)

    Count a few things. How many homes are on a block? How many trees? How many people are on the sidewalk? How many kids are in the park? How many shattered car windows do you notice?

    Then, when you get back home, take five minutes and jot down the things that most stand out in your mind.

    Being Nosy Helps

    The truth is, gathering the kind of specific, stand-out details that editors like to see in articles requires a certain amount of, well, nosiness.

    Sure, even if you're shy, you can still use your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth to discover what's around you. You needn't be outgoing to count steps or steeples. But if you never learn to peer through garden fences to check if the beds are weeded … if you never get up the gumption to ask that shop owner how business has been … if you never order the daily special in a restaurant, even when you have no idea what it is … you're certain to miss out on some of the best opportunities there are for uncovering details a myopic traveler never even knows he's missing.

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Published: March 15, 2004

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