Neil McAllister is one of our most prolific writers, travelling all around the UK, Ireland and the rest of the world for us. I caught up with him for a quick chat about life as a roving features writer.
Q As a travel writer, are you ever on the move so much that you forget where you are?
A It is sometimes difficult keeping track of where you are, especially when covering a lot of locations, where we spend only two or three nights in a place before moving on. After one hectic six week trip, Hazel woke me asking, “Where’s the loo in this place?” I answered that it was in the usual place as we were at home.
As we slow down, spending longer in a place becomes more tempting, so we have time to get our bearings and develop a sense of place, but after a few days one of us inevitably says “I’m ready to move on now.”
Q What have been your favourite places to visit?
A There are many favourite places: Bhutan is one. We have been three times, as the culture and remote Himalayan landscapes and architecture draw us back. Whilst it is expensive to visit we will undoubtedly return for a fourth time.
We are drawn by places where people’s lives are very different from our own. Torajaland in the north of Sulawesi is one such place, where the architecture is unique. Houses are boat-shaped, reflecting stories of how their ancestors arrived by boat. They also have very curious death rituals, where bodies are kept in the house, often for a year or more, until money is saved up for lavish funerals – one of which we attended. Only when they leave the house are they considered to have passed on.
There is a similar ritual in Madgascar called Famadihana, where every 7 years the bones of the ancestors are re-wrapped. It sounds morbid, but is a community event celebrating the life of the person. Often finding out about and getting to such events is difficult, but it certainly broadens the mind – as the saying suggests. Sadly there is a lot of narrow-minded intolerance in the world, which a bit more experience of other ideas, beliefs and cultures could help alleviate!
Q What’s been your least favourite expedition?
A Oddly, Costa Rica was quite a grind until we got to the more remote Osa Peninsula. Despite it’s reputation as an environmental delight, during our trip we found much of the country being used as a cheap playground by US students on their college break. Their boorish behaviour and lack of respect for local people was something from which we tried to escape.
West Africa is a difficult place to work, we faced surprising hostility and unpleasantness in The Gambia, but that has to be balanced by the delight in seeing singer Youssou n’Dour perform in his Dakar nightclub in neighbouring Senegal at three in the morning.
Q Do you always travel with your wife, Hazel?
A We always travel together as we work as a team. This allows me to get on with photographing and interviewing, whilst Hazel looks after the equipment and takes care of the practicalities of travelling. We have spent most of 34 years of marriage together all day every day and have survived without strangling each other so far. With luck we will celebrate our 35th anniversary in the air en-route to Cambodia later in the year. One highlight of this trip will be a visit to an elephant rehabilitation project, which we may be able to report back to “Friend” readers.
Q What photography tips would you give to either aspiring travel writers or the rest of us hoping just to get good holiday photos?
A Everyone wants to take good snaps on holiday. We have a rule, if you see it, take it, as it won’t ever be the same again. These days, you can delete images if they aren’t any good, but when something happens, or the scene looks good, get a couple of quick pictures, then take a bit more time to see if you can improve on the scene – remember to delete the bad shots and only leave one or two good ones. Editing is the key.
The one thing that will improve everyone’s photography is to use your legs. Getting into the right position, is more important than having the world’s best equipment. Especially when people are involved, I will often take pictures when people aren’t aware of our presence, but if they are, I spend time with them so they get used to us and the camera, then only take pictures if they are happy. It isn’t worth upsetting someone just to get a good souvenir. We had spent quite a while with an incense stick maker in Vietnam and had take a couple of pictures of her working, when a car draw up and a loudly dressed tourist opened the door, leaned out, took a picture so the worker then drove off without even thanking her, or asking permission.