The Truth About Being a Travel Writer


If you follow my News page, you’ll have heard that my latest feature article was just published in the current issue of Outpost magazine (July/August 2009). You can find it on newsstands for the next month and a half, or if you’re not in Canada or near an international magazine store you can read it right now on the Articles page of my website.

It’s always nice to see a piece I’ve worked so patiently on finally go into print and take on an independent existence of its own. For me it’s a letting go, a time to move on to something new. But for my friends and family, seeing me on the newsstand is always a reminder of what I do for a living.

I’m often asked what it’s like to work as a professional travel writer. Is “the world’s best job” all it’s cracked up to be? What’s it really like on those assignments? What happens behind the scenes, when the “camera” is off?

I reply quite honestly that all travel consists of endless waiting, long tedious flights, and days of monotony broken by that one fleeting experience when it all comes together and you glimpse something larger than yourself. But they never believe me. I’m sure you won’t either. So instead of boring you with lofty thoughts, I’ll share one of those experiences from the Ireland trip that didn’t make it into the article…

I was traveling with Toronto-based photojournalist Colin O’Connor. We were staying in the lovely seaside hamlet of Port Ballintrae, on the coast of Northern Ireland, five minutes from Bushmills and west of the Giant’s Causeway. We’d just enjoyed a quiet meal of steak and Guinness pie at a pub where we were the only patrons. We sipped a glass of whiskey by a peat fire and read from the books on the shelf above the mantel. And we walked by the seaside and talked in low voices while Colin photographed the magical Irish light. The soft silence of the town seeped into our bones, and we decided to call it an early night.

It doesn’t often happen that I’m treated to plush five star accommodations (okay, it sometimes happens — but most of the time I sleep in a tent). This time I’d been given the best room in the hotel. I was determined to enjoy it. My room had a sitting area with a big bay window overlooking the harbour. I drank a cup of strong Irish tea there and read from a volume of Yeats, brushed by the glow of that fading Irish sky. I thought deep thoughts and I scribbled them into my notebook. Later, I decided to enjoy the Jacuzzi that the hotel had so thoughtfully included in my room.

I sighed gratefully as I sunk deep into its soothing warmth, allowing the cares of the journey, all the miles we’d put in, the pressures of the assignment — even existential angst — to slip away. I dozed in contented stupor, my thoughts a void. It was only much later that I realized I’d gone blind.

I don’t know what caused me to open my eyes. At first I didn’t even know I had done so. It was as though a screen had descended, washing away my vision. Everything was white.

I went through all the stages of grief quite rapidly — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. I had already begun to wonder how long it would take to read a book in Braille when I saw something move.

I heard a grunt from somewhere deep within the water, like a large predatory animal clearing its throat. And something moved again.

I sat up quickly and started groping for the phone, but I no longer had any need for it. I could see.

The bathroom looked like an explosion in a cloud factory. A tower of foam had spilled over the side of the tub and begun to creep across the floor. It hung from the toilet paper dispenser. It reached up to touch the knobs of the cupboard. It had even begun to approach the door with the intention of invading the living room.

I knew that now would be a very good time to panic.

I did the only thing I could do. I stood up and bailed frantically, scooping up armfuls of foam and throwing them over the glass partition into the shower. After five minutes of frantic effort I’d managed to fill half the stall, but still it grew. Every four seconds, like clockwork, I would hear that angry grunt. And it would swell another foot.

“What the hell is wrong with this thing?” I said it aloud, gasping, short of breath from my efforts.

It was then that I noticed a small piece of paper laminated to the wall, right next to the two empty bottles of bath foam. I knelt down beside it and squinted until it came into focus. “We’ve tested this foam in these Jacuzzis,” it informed me. “A little bit goes a long way. Please use sparingly.

I’d emptied the entire contents of both bottles into the water, because everyone knows that foam stuff never works. The air from the jets had obviously combined with it, according to the same scientific principles which create a nice fluffy meringue. And they had kept on creating it.

I was horrified by the thought that this might harden exactly like meringue, trapping me there until morning, when I would be found by Housekeeping and they’d have to chip me free with a hammer and chisel. I quickly pulled the plug and got the hell out. There was nothing relaxing about this.

The next morning the shower stall was still half-filled with foam, and most of the bathroom was flecked with it.

I never said anything when I checked out.


About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • too funny Ryan. i will have to pick up the mag. i am saving my pennies to take my wife to Ireland and U.K. for our 20th anniversary. thanks for the chuckle.

  • Oh fantastic LOL Ninja leaving is the way when you live far away. Indiana Murdock and the Holy Foam 😛


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