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Behind the scenes at Plus Ultra

Snorkelling off Menjangan Island, Bali

You may have heard of a ‘Blog Hop’ that is currently making the rounds in our community. I was kindly nominated by one of my favourite bloggers, Madhu from The Urge To Wander, to take up the challenge and pass it on to one or two others. Thank you, Madhu, for thinking of me and the (overly) polite step of asking for permission beforehand!

For me it has been fascinating to take a look behind the scenes with other travel bloggers. Sometimes we forget how much work goes into each post and this is a timely reminder to appreciate and encourage those around us (admittedly I have not been very good at doing that the past few months).

What am I working on/writing?

I have recently come back from Bali, making it my eighth trip to Indonesia and the tenth with my long-time travel buddy Bama. Those who have been following my blog for some time will know that I have a great fondness for Indonesia – in fact I have plans of moving there permanently in the next few years! At the moment I am midway through sorting and choosing photos (always a long process) so they can go live on the blog in February. I have also been drafting a longer piece on the history of Singapore, looking at the origin myths and the city’s early days as a British colony, and will soon be publishing a photo essay from a weekend hike here in Hong Kong.

Bama and James, Orchid Island

Bama and I on Orchid Island, Taiwan

How does my work and writing differ from others of its genre?

Each travel blog, being infused with the personal touch of its writers and photographers, brings something different to the table­­­­­­. As a starting rule, I eschew generic, practical information for more immersive storytelling. This blog was never about bite-size ‘Top 10’ lists, travel tips or hotel reviews; at its heart Plus Ultra is a record of experiences – a sort of digital scrapbook – distilled into stories of places and people I meet on the road.

I have written about Tinus, a gifted swordsman from Sumba, Indonesia; a hard-hitting history lesson in East Timor, taught by the son of a former resistance commander; the joys and trials of climbing a shattered 3,700-metre volcano; and a forgotten island off the southeast coast of Taiwan, beautiful and raw yet tainted by nuclear waste.

Although photos are an important part of any travel blog, I’ve always felt that the writing should be able to stand up on its own. If we allow ourselves, we can strive to be as descriptive and entertaining as Paul Theroux, and as insightful and transporting as Pico Iyer. I must also credit Iain and Claire at Old World Wandering for being a major inspiration; they are the minds behind some of the best travel writing I’ve read on the Internet.

Why do I write what I do?

I think we all do it out of passion – which travel blogger doesn’t love telling the world about their trips? Personally, the blog is both a creative outlet for my writing and a valuable ‘memory bank’. 10, 20 years from now I will have forgotten many things, but I can still access them all with the click of a mouse. On another level, it’s partially driven by the idea of writing to inspire and inform, although I see that as less of a goal and more a natural byproduct of good storytelling.

Kowloon Walled City Park

Chinese New Year at Kowloon Walled City Park, Hong Kong

How does my writing process work?

To be very honest, it happens in fits and starts. There are days when I struggle to write a single paragraph, and others when the flood of inspiration is so great I end up with 1,000 words. I don’t have a habit of blogging from the road – my worry is that it will take precious time away from the actual travel experience – although that may have to change when I embark on longer journeys.

I usually jot down extensive notes on trips (Bama can vouch for that) but they are often haphazard and look very different to blog posts in their final form. Some writers are excellent at journalling and their entries need only minimal editing before they press ‘Publish’. Evidently I am not one of those people!

Once back home, I also refer to photos and cues from the mind. Memory is a powerful tool and it is easy to recall the early morning light filtering into the undercroft of a local market, the fragrant smell of clove cigarettes, and the musical rain of Balinese gamelan.

One thing I try to do is write in a way that covers a wide range of sensory experiences. Photography is ideal for capturing light and mood, but being a purely visual medium, it has certain limitations. This is where the written word can compensate. How about describing the sensation of stepping on a beach where the grains of sand are rough like dried peppercorns? Or the intense sweetness in a glass of Indonesian teh manis at a roadside stall? These details can bring the story to life and put the reader firmly in your shoes.

*     *     *

Gate at Kerta Gosa

Gate detail at Kerta Gosa, Bali, Indonesia

To take part in this ‘Behind The Scenes’ Blog Hop, I now nominate the following bloggers:

Alison and Don from Adventures in Wonderland

Jeff from Planet Bell

Wherever they go, Alison and Don have a knack for beautiful portraiture and getting up close and personal to the local people (and wildlife). They are an inspirational pair and proof that age need not be a barrier to long-term travel. I particularly enjoy the spiritual aspect they bring to their blog, and the recognition that travel is not just an outward journey but an inner one as well.

Apart from being a fabulous photographer, Jeff is one of the funniest travel bloggers I know. You have to check out his tongue-in-cheek cartoons drawn in MS Paint – they depict stories involving bear spray (Alaska) and scams (everywhere else). Last month I had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife Kristi when they stopped over in Hong Kong for a few days. Forgetting that both were wearing sandals, I took them on a speed walking tour for dim sum and two museums whose buildings were far more interesting than their contents. In a recent post on Planet Bell’s Facebook page, Jeff wrote that their feet still hurt (sorry guys).

Jeff, Alison and Don, there is no obligation to take part – I have really enjoyed your blogs and you can take this as a small gesture of my appreciation. To everyone else, thank you for reading! ◊

29 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is very inspiring post indeed. I have a new perspective on how the travel blogging should be, how seasoned travel blogger writes. Thank you

    January 20, 2015
    • Thanks in turn for the kind comment. I wouldn’t say I’m a seasoned travel blogger – I’ve been doing this less than four years and it’s a continuous learning process. There is always room for improvement in our craft.

      January 21, 2015
      • In comparison to your 4 years and my 4 months of experience, you are much experienced than I am 😀 Indeed, there is always a room for improvement. Will read more of your stories soon 🙂

        January 21, 2015
  2. I love the photo of you and Bama in front of that wonderfully bright painted … shed? Whatever it is, it’s a great backdrop! The inside look at your beautiful blog was enjoyable also!

    January 20, 2015
    • Ha, I suppose it was a glorified shed! From what I remember, that was a community hall and cultural centre for the local islanders.

      January 21, 2015
  3. So fun to read this James! I did this blog hop awhile ago and it was actually interesting for me to take a step back and think about my process. I love your blog!

    January 20, 2015
    • Thank you, Nicole! I wouldn’t be surprised if you were one of the first to be nominated. And I felt the same way – the blogging process is not something we consciously think about on a regular basis!

      January 21, 2015
  4. Great post, James. The “Blog Hop” sounds fun, I hadn’t heard of it before. I love the photo of Bama and you and the one of you snorkeling. Like you I also don’t blog from the road because I am not travelling for months or even years but only for a few weeks and I want to use my whole time in a country to explore it with all my senses, immerse into the culture and just enjoy what I experience.

    January 21, 2015
    • Danke schön for the compliments, Vanessa. I don’t know how so many people manage to peel themselves away from their explorations to sit down and blog while travelling – that would be very hard for me. Maybe it comes more naturally when you begin to spend longer periods in each place.

      January 21, 2015
  5. Thank you so much James. We are delighted to be nominated, and to hop along with the blog hop. (Actually I could just copy some of what you’ve written :))

    January 21, 2015
    • You’re more than welcome, Alison and Don. To be honest I felt the same way about Madhu’s entry! 🙂

      January 21, 2015
  6. It’s been great following your blog and having you as my perennial travel buddy, James. Just one thing: whatever happens, never ever stop blogging! Your blog has been an inspiration not only for me, but also many other bloggers out there.

    January 21, 2015
    • Makasih banyak for the encouragement, Bama. I am so glad we met each other through the blogosphere – otherwise we’d both be missing out on some amazing trips!

      January 21, 2015
  7. Blog hop? I nver heard before. Congrats james :).

    January 21, 2015
    • Thanks Nandito. It was a new thing for me too. 🙂

      January 21, 2015
  8. James, this is a very interesting piece and thank you for nominating me. I would be happy to participate and keep this going. This project gives some interesting insights into what other bloggers are thinking and a look at why we do it.

    I appreciate that you write interesting, detailed stories about your adventures and the places you visit. The internet has enough top 10 lists!!!

    January 21, 2015
    • It’s my pleasure, Jeff. Looking forward to your take on this – I’m super intrigued about the process behind your travel cartoons!

      January 21, 2015
      • The cartoons are usually a form of art therapy. I drew a sketch of the guy on the train while he was in front of me so that I could find humor in the tragedy.

        January 22, 2015
  9. James, that was an enjoyable read, and re- iterates how similar our blogging processes are. Your attention to detail explains why your narratives are always top notch. I look forward to more virtual explorations with you this year. Who knows, I might even join you on a couple in my neighbourhood!! 🙂

    January 21, 2015
    • Thank you, Madhu! Oh, I could say much of the same about your own stories and narratives. I am really looking forward to exploring Chennai with you as our guide – that is going to be one of the highlights of India for us! 🙂

      January 21, 2015
  10. Thumbs up, all right! Nice pic! 😀

    February 3, 2015
  11. Great posts and great site . You certainly get about old chap!

    February 5, 2015
    • Much appreciated – thanks for that!

      February 11, 2015
  12. I loved reading this post! I am new to your blog and oh so glad I found it. You obviously pay a lot of attention to detail and I look forward to following along in your adventures. 🙂

    February 7, 2015
    • That’s a lovely thing to say, Jessi. Thank you for finding me and following along – it looks like you’re quite the specialist on tropical islands! 🙂

      February 11, 2015
      • I aspire to be something of an island expert. 😀

        February 11, 2015
  13. My best wishes for more travels of learning and good writing.

    Got any plans for a book or similar?

    February 9, 2015
    • I wish you the same, Jean – and also a quick recovery from that accident on New Year’s Day. Fingers crossed you will get to travel later this year.

      Actually I am thinking of writing a travel book… though the entire process could take another year or two!

      February 11, 2015

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