First published 2nd November, 2006
One of our favourite blogs is Popagandhi, a Singaporean blog authored by a really keen traveller. With a great eye for what makes a destination unique and a real flair with the pen (or keyboard), Popagandhi offers some revealing glimpses of travel and also an insiders view to living in Singapore. We sat down for a couple of virtual glasses of wine and chatted about what makes her blog.
How did you get into blogging?
I started blogging in 1999, when I was all of 15 years old. I was bored to tears at school, started to 'live' on the Internet, decided to learn HTML and FTP and all those stuff which seemed cryptic at the time. Nobody knew what a 'blog' was then. I remember encountering it about 2 years after keeping what we know today as a blog --- it seemed like a funny word. I had a little site I designed myself, and every time I wanted to update it, I had to manually code the index.html, then upload it via FTP. Wasn't as easy as it is now!
How long have you been blogging?
Six years, and counting.
Why do you blog
I started the website as I began to think of myself as a serious writer. Or rather, I knew I wanted to write, at some point in the future, and I was going to start keeping a portfolio, putting my writing online for feedback and criticism. Later on when I somehow stumbled into being almost daily blogging, as a means of daily expression, it still seemed to me a good avenue for feedback.
I occasionally posted bits of 'serious writing', drafts of projects I was working on, into the blog, to elicit comment and response. I suppose I keep blogging because of this, and also because of the sense of community that blogs create --- unlike regular writing, which sometimes feels like you're talking to yourself, putting it online --- whether they're simple posts or grandiose literary narratives, is a two-way street.
Why did you choose to use Wordpress?
It's the easiest platform to set up, incredibly extensible and powerful too. It's free and one of the best open source tools available for online publishers --- with an amazing number of plugins which make it even more wonderful.
How do you blog?
Usually from my laptop. When I'm on the road it's either with my laptop in the hotel or wifi hotspot, internet cafe, or just the PCs at the cyber cafes.
Popagandhi is an interesting mosaic of your personal life, Singapore, technology, travel and food and it reads like you're a blogger who travels a lot rather than a traveller who blogs a lot. Would you say that's an accurate description -- blogger first, traveller second?
You've got that right... I think because I got into the blogging scene so early, before it 'matured' and took on a mass market appeal, I completely 'lost the ball' when it came to specialised blogs, the sorts which are so popular these days. I just can't do a specialised travel blog, or food blog, or tech blog. Maybe I have a short attention span... or interests which are too many, and too diverse. So the 'mosaic' of everything, which is my blog, is sort of an approximation of my life, my head, my incredibly short bursts of attention and desire to do everything once. I began to travel independently only after I turned 18 --- by then my blog had already gained a substantial number of readers. So yes, I do see myself as blogger first, and traveller second. Or rather, a traveller who uses her blog as a platform for her plans for the total domination of travel literature.. in the near future. :)
The reason I ask that is, some travel blogs read like travelguides -- why do you concentrate on the travel experience rather than the mechanics?
That sort of explanatory content is what I would appreciate myself: I like to know what bus number it was, where it went, how long it took, and how much it cost. But I'd go to a guidebook for that. I'm not a travel guide, though I very well could be -- and there's no point in boring the 90% of my readers (who are not quite the bus or train geek that I am), with such content. Rather, as a writer I am first and foremost interested in textures.
The smell of the place, the people I met. It could very well be about bus 42 leaving at 18:24, but if there's a way to make bus 42 leaving at 18:24 matter, and be important, to someone else other than myself -- that's me trying to capture the essence of my travel experience. Making it matter to someone else, someone else who hasn't been there, possibly won't ever be, but might be moved, in some way, by my narrative to contemplate making a trip like that of his/her own at some point in the future, because he was moved by it.
Thinking of the bus brings me to images -- You're obviously very handy with a camera -- how important would you say images are to a good blog?
They're not everything, but can be handy as visual tools. Obviously imagery through photography and imagery through writing cater to very different audiences --- a blog with great visuals but mediocre content, might appear to one group of people but not another; a blog with great writing but no visuals to another. I'm just greedy, I want to conquer all the markets, so I try to be good at both. It's really up to the blogger. Some bloggers work just fine with great writing and no pictures/bad pictures.
While rich in images, you seem to boycott maps -- a common feature on many travel blogs -- why?
I don't have a habit of using maps myself. I have never gone anywhere with a map. I'm a wanderer, not a navigator. Maps do nothing for me --- it's the textures, people, smells, on the ground that do --- so if they do nothing for me, I don't know how to appropriate them into my blog! I'm just a map-idiot. They feel clunky and pointless to me. It's probably got something to do with my mother, who is the Queen of Wandering Around Foreign Places and Never Getting Lost (my family secretly believes she's got an ultra sophisticated GPRS system for a brain).
You're in India at the moment -- last time I was there there was no such thing as an internet cafe -- now you're blogging live from there on a Nokia N73 -- you really can blog from anywhere. Do you think that is good?
I'm in two minds about it. On the one hand I'm a huge technology advocate -- tech really does play a big part in my daily life, even when I travel. Blogging 'live'... it's great because I can upload pictures and videos I took on my handy little cellphone/multimedia device onto Flickr and YouTube in real time; my parents know exactly where I am, what train berth I'm in, if I've left in my train already. But sometimes I'm pleased to put the technology away -- including the phone, and the ability to blog in real time -- for a few days or weeks, just because they have the potential of stripping away what I'm there for: travel, and some modicum of meaning behind that travel. If you're unlucky you can forget your real intentions, just concentrating on updating in real time and sending emails home. You might as well just stay at home and read a travel blog.
You could argue that surfing the web and blogging are slowly replacing the traveller's cafes and guesthouse foyers as the forums for the latest gossip on what's hot and what's not and even as a way to socialise and find travel partners. How does this shift in focus strike you?
Nothing beats the experience of hanging out in travellers' cafes and guesthouse lounges, just watching DVDs, smoking a j****, trying to outdo each other on being the most adventurous, cheapest, haven't-showered-in-the-most-number-of-days traveller! Surfing the web and blogging.. these are great, they give you instant access to hotel/guesthouse reviews, hook you up to locals instantly, that sort of thing. But the real thing... is about camaraderie, being in the same place at the same time, sizing up a person and knowing instantly within 2 minutes if you'd hang out with him/her for more than a day, sometimes forming lifelong cross-continent friendships. You just don't get the same thing online. I think the defining difference of the travel cafe/guesthouse experience, when compared to the online experience, is that you're there, out there in Vang Vieng or Muang Sing or whatever, at the same place at the same time, capable of seeing the same things and going to all these new unchartered territories, trading tips and things to avoid. No matter how great the online experience is, it can't replicate this.
How important would you say blogging is to you when on the road? Would you decide not to go somewhere if you wouldn't be able to use the internet there?
If I'm not able to use the internet anywhere --- I'd go there and live there for 2 weeks!
Blogging's not essential. Updating on the road is not essential. It's just my tool for letting people and loved ones know I'm safe and well, and the customary 'these are the things I saw, this is where I ate, this is who I spoke to, and I am having diarrhea..'... BUT it is important for me when I have written something of 'some worth', some short piece of travel narrative that I'm excited to share. That's when blogging seems the most important.. but of course that only happens after I've written down the narrative on a piece of paper (I'm traditional, I still need to write on paper). So nope, blogging is not important at all.
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