Travels and reflections of this year

My first year in review post on this blog was weaved of songs, the second one was written as an ABC, later two – as questionnaires, and this year I published it as a comic. Yet I could still spare some words about what the year was like beyond trying to ‘make it’ as a freelance journalist.

Freelancing is hard. I am a better journalist than a sales manager. Like many people, I often remarked sarcastically about how everyone in Lithuania is studying to be a manager, but here I was, learning how to sell. Last year was much more fruitful in terms of professional breakthroughs: I got published in the Guardian and New Internationalist, I landed an internship at Der Spiegel and went to Thailand. Also, the end of the year looked hopeful as I started working with the Lithuania Tribune. Yet the publication is still struggling and has no budget for my reporting, and something similar to one idea we were developing together is currently being implemented by another Lithuanian team.

Also, I was dreaming of working with Politico Europe ever since it launched in Brussels, and it finally happened this year. But I don’t like their policy of labeling freelancers’ work as “letter from…”, as if it’s a letter to the editor rather than professional reporting.

So this year the most exciting part of my job was working as a fixer for international journalists. Accordingly, many of my travels were in Lithuania and around. For example, I went to Grūtas Park twice.

This is a private theme park that collects all kinds of exhibits from the USSR. Many tourists like it, as they are curious about that period. The park is explicitly anti-nostalgic, as images and statues of various leaders of that period are arranged in such a way as to ridicule them and, one could say, humiliate their memory.

I also visited Kudirkos Naumiestis, a small town with a strong legacy of a local artist, Pranas Sederevičius.

This sculpture is real, I swear. The artist was mostly interested in experimenting with animal figures, but he also made a collection of prominent Lithuanians, which is unusual and somewhat brave for the 1970s.

I visited various places from border areas in the West, where Kaliningrad is visible, to the mushroom capital in the South East, from the detention center for undocumented migrants to a cute church shared by Catholics and Orthodox Christians. I also visited the border triangle of Vištytis, and I was so impressed that I picked it for the European tourism promotion campaign. It would be amazing if tourists from Lithuania and abroad could take advantage of exploring border areas, which are as gorgeous as they are culturally interesting.

Speaking of the campaign, this was another happy instance of being able to earn from travel writing. Ever since 2008, when the crisis started and I opted to take non-journalistic jobs, I stayed clear of writing PR articles. I understand colleagues who combine reporting with PR, since everyone needs to make a living. But to me this looks like a dangerous blend, especially in the world of social networks and false news. Many say that everything is storytelling today – brands tell stories, and journalists tell stories, too. Writing about cool start-ups and holiday destinations often sounds like PR, and a PR text may include more interviews and statistics than a journalistic article. The difference is that in a PR article, the subject is the same entity that commissions the article. In this sense the campaign was very well-designed: the bloggers were asked to review and promote a place, but the institution commissioning it was not a local entity in those places. Thus, I was not compelled to write about Vištytis specifically – rather, it was my choice after carefully considering several unusual locations.

Beyond Lithuania, I had a chance to visit our neighbors – partly ethnic Lithuanian towns in Poland in March, and then Warsaw and Riga in August. I knew that Warsaw is the closest real metropolis to us, but only this time it showed me its full diversity and urban bustle. Traveling with a vegan friend helped me see that one can really find everything – from Tibetan dumplings to craft beers, skillfully presented by knowledgeable bartenders. I dare say that Warsaw offers a richer culinary experience than Hamburg.

A bit further from the neighbors, I recently visited Erfurt – the town of Luther, which will become a tourism hub next year as the 500th anniversary of reformation approaches. This fall was the first time I went to Brussels after the terror attacks, and it looked like it was back to normal, apart from soldiers with huge guns standing around. I also visited Strasbourg and could see its other side – now I was there in winter, exploring its pretty canals and taking time to visit museums. Another re-visit was my first entry into the now-gentrified artist neighborhood of Christiania in Copenhagen after 2005, when I went there as a student. That time was horrible, and I left with only bad memories. This time there were no drug dealers, only lecture rooms and middle class tourists. I won’t shed a tear to what it once was.

My Mediterranean escape this year was to Spain – I visited Madrid, Segovia, Murcia, Cartagena, and Blanca. I decided to skip Barcelona to spend more time in other locations, but life unexpectedly took me there anyway, on another trip. Also, my old dream to visit Greece (I even took basic Greek classes in the 12th grade) came true this year, but many things (strikes, strange behavior of border officials, etc) looked as if they conspired to confirm various stereotypes I had heard and previously refused to believe. Nonetheless, for vacations it was not bad at all, as we had a lot of time and very nice Couchsurfers helping us discover places.

Further from my native continent, I still need to blog more about the trips to Turkey (Bodrum, Pamukkale and Izmir), Kenya (Nairobi, Eldoret, Maasai Mara, and Mombasa), and pre-Trump USA (New York and New Haven). Yet just as I was preparing to, my friend started a new magazine, where I have written two travel articles for the first issue and working on two more for the next.

As I was doing this, a friend introduced me to an experienced travel writer, who has been professionally sharing travel tips and travel-related information for decades. He told me that due to competition from bloggers, who are happy to work in exchange for some holiday freebies, revenues of travel professionals have dramatically declined. I understand that blogs may contribute to completely destroying the profession they aim to expand. For this reason, I am determined to continue writing my travel blog in the current style, meaning that it is mostly about things that happened to me during travels, or features of different locations with a personal touch. I hope that those who want professional, balanced and fact-checked articles will pay for it in one or another way – by buying or otherwise supporting printed and online press, or crowdfunding research.

In the meantime, the balance of my professional life is again shifting towards research. Still, I’m sure it will allow a few travel opportunities. Still on my bucket list are:

  • Bulgaria and Romania
  • Iceland
  • Ethiopia
  • Vietnam
  • Argentina

Have an eventful 2017!

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