Confessions of a travel writer: Taking notes and meeting locals

People can make or break a travel article – here's how to meet the most useful interviewees and get the juiciest quotes for your story

7 mins
People make a place. They also make a piece. For travel writers it’s the holy shaman, tea picker or goat herder that can really bring a feature to life but finding such individuals does not happen by chance. They are not waiting in the arrivals hall ready to tell their life stories. It’s a travel writers’ job to seek them out.

I was whale watching on the very wet and very wild Pacific Coast of Colombia for a Wanderlust article, when I heard of chap whose life had taken the most extraordinary of U-turns. For decades, Jose Mendoza had scoured Termales beach for freshly laid turtle eggs that he gathered and later served for breakfast which was shared with his villagers. He would often take hundreds in a single night. Then, in a moment of clarity, he devoted his life to protecting the eggs instead of poaching them.

Quietly and with the utmost secrecy, he collected the eggs and relocated them to a hidden spot where they could safely hatch away from the village’s peckish population. What a story. I was desperate to meet Jose. Sadly, he was less than keen. Calls were made but the ‘Turtle Man of Termales’ remained reluctant. I pressed the matter and, eventually, he agreed to meet – in the middle of the night.

And, so, at 4am we met under moonlight on a strip of beach sandwiched between dense jungle and the foaming Pacific. Joining him on his nightly mission, Jose and I walked for almost an hour scanning the shore for new eggs while he told me all about his past and present.

People react in very different ways when in the company of journalists. Some are at ease and rather enjoy the attention, opening up and speaking candidly, but others seize up and eye you with intense suspicion. I’ve experienced people refusing to tell me their names, even when I explained I had no intention of featuring them. A restaurateur once ordered me to leave his eatery for simply wandering in and asking about the cuisine and opening times.

Others are even more paranoid. On one trip in which I joined a group of paying holidaymakers, one lady – a stand-up comedian whom nobody had ever heard of – was so disgruntled to have a journalist in her midst that she concocted a fake occupation. “I’m here to have a relaxing holiday. I don’t want the press hanging around,” she complained to the tour guide, as though I were going to tip off the paparazzi. She barely spoke to me from fear of being quoted in my story. ‘If only you were that interesting’, I thought to myself.

I tend to take all my notes the old fashioned way – using a pen and paper, favouring small Moleskin notebooks that live in a Chinese chest I chanced upon in a dusty market in Shanghai.

Other writers favour more modern means, like recording on dictaphones and typing on smartphones, but I find people clam up the moment you hit the ‘Record’ button or get distracted by the incessant tapping.

Whatever the preferred method, it always amazes me when I travel with writers who don’t scribble a single note (or take a single recording). It happens more than you’d think – and is nearly always reflected in the (poor) quality of their features.

You also need to know when to put the notepad down and simply engage with those around you. It means later frantically writing up as much as your memory will allow and you may lose the odd detail but it’s often a sacrifice worth making.

It’s an approach I once posed to my travel writing hero. “I used to take notes obsessively,” Bill Bryson told me. “But not so much now. If something is important enough it will stand out in your memory.” Wise words from a man who really knows.

More travel writing tips:

The 5 biggest mistakes made by novice travel writers | Don't make them too!

Travel writing Q&A with Wanderlust editor Phoebe | Is your question answered?

Wanderlust writer guidelines | If you want to write for us, please read this first!

10 tips for writing travel articles | Make sure you follow every one...

Main image: Guide and group in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador (Shutterstock)

Related Articles