In Part I there was a brief outline of what had prompted me to sign up for TBEX, the biggest conference for travel bloggers in the world, and a blog post describing the pre-conference jaunt in Europe I arranged for myself to give myself a “taster” of travel again before the main event, as it were.
A brief introduction – Travel Blog Exchange is an online community of travel bloggers and sponsors which has been on the go since 2005 and holding a few conferences a year, in various locations around the world, since 2009. It aims to assist travel bloggers, at various stages in their career, to network and mingle whilst exploring the host location. As a total newcomer, with an embarrassingly low number of followers on social media compared to everyone else, I had initial reservations about whether it was the right place for me. But when I saw the array of experiences on offer as a participant – free cultural tours and parties immersing one in the local life – I knew that it was at least worth investigating. If nothing else, I could always claim to have gone to a foreign conference, which always sounds cool when telling other people…
I’ll start this section of my TBEX blog post when I touched down at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. I was slightly nervous when arriving in such a volatile corner of the world but when looking down as the plane passed over the coast into the country, it looked like any other city by the Mediterranean. Also originally I thought I’d need to write a separate blog about my experience at the airport, as security is the tightest in the world there allegedly, but perhaps due to my status as an attendee at an international conference, and later as a volunteer (more on that soon), my time at the airport was mercifully brief (edited to add – maybe the outbound journey wil need its own blog post after all… (04/05)) and before I knew it I was on the “sherut” to Jerusalem. After checking in and an early night I rose the next day ready for a day of tours of the city. However due to my struggles grasping a language with an entirely different alphabet system I ended up getting lost several times on the way to the conference venue, getting rather stressed out due to my poor start to the trip and missing my first tour, which didn’t leave me in the best frame of mind for the events to come. Luckily though I was able to sign up for the same one the following day and that afternoon I took part in the Jerusalem Jubilee Scavenger Hunt, run by Israel Scaventures. As one of the more reserved members of the group (as I usually tend to be) I settled for the role of “scribe” despite my terrible handwriting and we carried out a series of tasks including counting all the lions in monuments and signs we passed, hugging a bride for a photo, seeking out a hidden Moroccan courtyard and… composing a rap. Really.
It was an amusing way to see part of Jerusalem and later that evening I joined the pre TBEX party being held by Abraham Hostel Jerusalem, where I was staying. I got talking to a few people who, as it turned out, were not members of the conference but who expressed interest in the local vegan scene (which was enough for me) and invited me for a drink at the Machane Yehuda market, which turned into another drink at a bar which I don’t even remember now but which I supposedly used Google maps to navigate to. Perhaps it is the strength of the drinks in this region, as I didn’t have many, but I was feeling a bit “delicate” the next day…
This was the day I had signed up for two tours, both of which I was briefly regretting due to my “condition” but which actually proved to be both very enlightening and quite the thing to take my mind off my state. The first tour was called “Inspiring Hope” which was a glimpse into the more positive side of relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the city, led as a collaboration by a representative of The Jerusalem Foundation and a local Palestinian woman doing a PhD in the subject area. First we wandered throught the Old City, particularly the Muslim/Palestinian area, while the guides briefed us on the current attempts to bring Jews and Arabs together in peace. We made our way to the Abna Al-Quds Community Center, a haven for the local population amidst all the overcrowding and funded by The Jerusalem Foundation, where upon entering we saw elderly men playing football, a herb garden (with a cat!) planted in the name of peace, a meeting with local women and then a talk with the director of the organisation. It was explained that the place serves as an all purpose service for the local Palestinian community, many of whom are disadvantaged and lack access to education and work opportunities, and it seemed to make a real difference simply having such a place within easy reach of this part of the population. Next we went to a local Palestinian boys’ school which it took a lot of negotiation to even get into (for their safety) but where they all seemed to think it was a huge novelty just to see us, with one even running up to give us the peace sign! Finally we visited the Paley Arts Center which is also funded by the Jerusalem Foundation. Here anyone is welcome to come and make use of the facilities no matter their race or religion, and we saw that it offered access to painting, drawing, photography, music and film making and we saw yet more children fully immersed in the programme and who seemed excited to practise their English! The unconditional availability of the centre, to anyone at any time, I found to be very impressive, and I was left feeling very glad to have chosen that particular tour to participate in. It prompted me to learn more about the relations between the Jewish and Arab populations, we saw how the Arab/Muslim population was helped within the community however it was possible to still sense a divide and a lack of integration. It is most likely a massive project which will only come to full fruition some time in the future.
Joining some fellow bloggers for a vegan lunch – my first authentic hummus! – at a local cafe, we joined another tour, this time a general tour of the Old City. Here we learned, first off, that Jerusalem is best thought of as being like a layered cake: having been repeatedly claimed and built upon and contested over millenia, and being the “home” of three major religions, there are so many facets to the city that one can never say that there is only one story or one side. We saw the outside of the Tower of David and the Church of the Holy Sepulchure (along with the Immovable Ladder of the Status Quo which has an interesting story, as pretty much all things in this city do), as well as a rooftop location which serves as the intersection between the four quarters of the city, with a view of the Dome of the Rock – the iconic building of Jerusalem – and also a full view of the Western Wall. In addition we saw more obscure areas such as the ancient market Cardo and, off the schedule, evidence of recent snowfall at the foot of a tree.
These tours, and the satisfying lunch, all helped to get me back to normal again, as well as gaining a significant grounding in the ways of the city. That evening there was an opening party but I only made it in time for the talk with two actors, one from Israel and one from Hollywood, which was an interesting event to bear witness to. Talking about the local and international film scene, as well as encouraging mass tweets by everyone in the audience, I returned to my hostel shortly after with a decent introduction to the host city, ready for the conference.
All the above probably seems like the longest interlude ever between the lead up to and the start of the conference but I feel that context is essential to describing the full experience. But today was the first of the two day conference, which began with a keynote speech by Gary Arndt (who I happened to meet at the hostel bar on the first evening), a prolific traveller and photographer who has won major awards and is recognised internationally. He gave some good advice on being humble and not complacent in one’s blogging work, as in not expecting people to be automatically interested in what you have to say. I could often do with reminding myself of that from time to time. Then after another introductory speech by the Mayor of Jerusalem, the conference had officially begun.
After some difficulty in choosing which talks to attend, I opted for one aimed at making travel for people with disabilities more accessible, which is an often overlooked issue but one which has a massive impact on the lives of many, determining how and often where they can go. Next was a talk by renowned photographer Ajay Sood on how to graduate from taking photos to making them unique during post-production. This is something I often struggle with, I always try to take the best photo possible from the beginning, by seeking out a vantage point, angle and subject which I feel will best convey my “story”, but when it comes to the various types of editing software I often feel overwhelmed by the variety. Years of underuse of the digital editing skills I acquired once upon a time have set me back to the point where I’ve gone back to being very much a beginner so this talk I felt would give me a decent starting point again.
After a generous lunch of hummus, pitta and many types of salad (it was a mixed omni/veggie/vegan buffet and I had to stick with what I could tell was obviously vegan but it was all awesome) there was one more talk on something which was entirely novel to me: hyperlapse video. Led by Scott and Megan from BoboandChiChi, the idea is to download a simple app and apply the few steps for a hyperlapse video. It’s essentially timelapse but while the camera is moving, and although I feel that it’s probably a lot more difficult than they made it look (effortlessly easy) it’s a novel way to convey a story and most likely worth giving a try soon. Thus concluded the first day.
The evening involved a Tower of David evening tour, during which they projected a light show onto the ancient walls which was pretty impressive. The almost disjointed frames of each chapter in the story of Jerusalem, each with its own beauty but understandable, out of context, to think of them as being entirely unrelated, brought home the idea that Jerusalem, both in its history and in its present day situation, really is like a cake.
On the second day the schedule followed a similar format but with different talks of course. The first was how to get ahead on content writing, which hit something of a nerve with me as I all too often lag behind and talk myself out of writing posts because I often don’t know if what I blog about is interesting enough or otherwise worth the effort. At least 99% of my ideas stay exclusively in my mind as I often have too many ideas to choose just one. But choosing ideas based around a theme, a subject or even a season, means that the blog post has something to hinge on. A bit like this blog post being all about TBEX… #meta
The next talk was on how to expand your freelance market, namely by cornering an area of the market not yet covered, finding a “niche” and then tailoring the post to the needs of the publication. Even if writing fully independently I guess it goes without saying that you need to think about what people want to read about, otherwise why blog, amirite? Finally there was a talk by blogger Claudia Tavani on the importance of being honest in travel writing. Because many writers are employed by sponsors who have a vested interest in the content, many are understandably wary of writing anything critical relating to either the sponsor or an associate, even if that criticism is fully justified. Yet it is explained that readers often respond better to honest but negative posts if they can relate to the experience, than overly sanitised accounts of places where they may end up going in order to face extreme disappointment that they were not warned before they got there. This is something I certainly agree with, as I far prefer to read something which gives a real account of something or somewhere than read yet another “everything was perfect and it was paradise” blog post which are all too common. Thus concluded the conference – at least for me. There were closing keynote speeches which I was interested in hearing but in order to attend the closing party briefly AND be up on time for a sunrise tour in the morning I really had to get some sleep in…
A note on networking: there were dedicated sessions at the end of each conference day, where bloggers could meet with potential sponsors in order to make contacts for the future. Having never attended a conference before, let alone an international one, this was all entirely new to me and I had no idea whether I was doing it all the right or the wrong way. I simply tried to identify some sponsors whose work I’d potentially be interested in and offer to write articles for them, which I aim to do in the very near future, but overall the conference was something of a learning experience.
It gave me both an excuse to visit Israel (and the very edge of Palestine) and a chance to meet others who manage to blog far more successfully than I. Wanting my venture to last a bit longer, however, I signed up to do volunteer work shortly after, about which I will write a dedicated blog, and in the few days between the conference and the volunteering I undertook a couple of tours run by my hostel: the Masada Dead Sea sunrise tour and a tour of Jordan.
Thse however require a separate post, which will be coming soon!