From the October 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
El Dictamen, a popular newspaper in Veracruz, Mexico, leaves smudges of ink on my hands as I thumb through it over a breakfast in the zocalo, or town square. It cost me four pesos (about 50 cents), but the headlines—in Spanish—are priceless: "There was something for everyone at the Candelarìa Festival!" reads an exuberant article about a running of the bulls in a nearby town. "Music! Happiness and fun! Wounded bulls!" I chuckle at this list of the festival's highlights and dig into my plate of huevos and tostadas.
The musicians I've come to see here, who will play marimba music on large wheeled wooden xylophones and the renowned Veracruzan son jarocho (think "La Bamba") on guitars and harps, haven't yet set up in the zocalo. But gracias to El Dictamen, I'm getting a taste of Veracruz while I wait. A flip of the page to the section labeled "Sociales" offers a glimpse of lovely high-society Veracruzana teens in fabulously puffy white gowns celebrating their traditional coming-of-age 15th birthday—the Quince—in typical Mexican fashion: with a party. Another page flip, and I find the address of two travel agents who will sell me a same-day bus ticket to Oaxaca ("Servicio Rápido y Agradable!"), along with an announcement about a local band playing live in concert tonight.
Here's the thing: When I'm at home I hardly read newspapers—the paper version of them, that is. Like most everyone I know, I've been logging onto them online for years now. But traveling is another story. No matter where my forays take me—even if it's just to the next state—I revert to old-school habits: wake up, look for coffee, read the local paper. Breakfast? It's expendable. Newsprint is not.
For a long time I thought it was just coincidence that so many of the places I gravitated to as a traveler—Colombia, India, the West Indies, London, Hong Kong—also happen to be places with a lively, even raucous, newspaper scene. (In this "post-print" era, Hong Kong's citizens defy the pundits by continuing to support 15 to 16 daily newspapers.) But as I travel to more cities and countries and read more local newspapers, I realize they're in the same category as public squares, street markets, and local coffee shops. They're the heartbeat of any great place. When I visit regions that, because of political repression or economics, don't have a good daily paper, I feel like something is missing, as though there's a lack of oxygen in the air. Havana was wonderful, but it would have been even better if I'd awakened, as I did that time in Veracruz, to the "Music! Happiness! Wounded bulls!" headline.
If the papers are in a language I can read, great. But like a true addict, I'll take whatever I can get. I've spent hours wandering lanes in small Asian towns looking for anything to read in English, only to settle for photo-filled broadsheets covered with the unfamiliar squiggles of Thai or Tamil.
Even when roaming the United States, where language isn't an issue, finding my morning fix can sometimes prove frustrating. Many hotels, alas, have cut costs by eliminating the free paper slipped under guests' doors at sunrise. And unless you're the early bird at coffee shops, you're probably going to be stuck with nothing to read but the classified section. When that happens, I scrounge for alternatives. The free local weekly. A real-estate newsletter and guide. Once, in a print-deprived coffee shop in Ojai, California, I entertained myself by reading the list of garage sales in the PennySaver.
What is it about travel that awakens the print junkie in me? Nowadays, newspapers are said to be dying or dead, and the savvy traveler is supposed to turn to the Web for everything. Lost? Just a sec, let me whip out my Google Maps. Every week brings news of clever smartphone and iPad apps available for download that will tell us where to stay, where to eat, what to order, and how to say "Check, please" in everything from Finnish to Urdu. The world of travel is at our fingertips; all we have to do is log on and search.
And that's the problem. Tapping into the online travel world is unbeatable when you have a hotel or flight to book or a specific need. But the actual traveling mode, for me, is about letting go of all that. I crave distractions, detours, unexpected encounters—anything that diverts me from the straight road between A and B. Reading the local paper is like roaming backstreets without a plan and watching residents go about their daily doings. It's a wonderful way to get lost in the place. Browsing headlines, department-store ads, and even tag-sale announcements, I slow down and find the rhythm of a particular place in the present moment.
I also learn—and this is crucial for any traveler—the answers to questions that I wouldn't think to ask. For instance, the last thing I would have thought to research online before my recent trip to Kerala, India, was whether there had been any recent prison breaks in the area. Thanks to the Indian Express, however, I learned on my fourth morning that "Ripper Jayanandan is nabbed from Ooty." I also find out such crucial information as the day's gold price by gram (important if you're going jewelry shopping) and the latest news on the approaching monsoon. And I pick up some of India's acronym-happy political lingo: "Cong pins hopes on GoM," and "Will government succeed in shielding Rajiv's PMO?" You can know intellectually that India is the world's largest democracy, but in the pages of the Express the nation's vibrant political life is evident in every colorful headline. Like music, you can hear it.
The musicians in Veracruz haul their heavy marimba into the town square and start to tune up their ornate guitars. Then, without further ado, they race into "La Bamba," their signature tune. I push my newspaper, folded, to the side of my plate and listen up.
It's their first tune of the day, so their fingers are stiff, and they haven't quite caught the rhythm yet. But here in Veracruz, my fingertips stained with local newspaper ink, I already have. Nothing beats reading the local newspaper in the distant lands you're visiting. And it is distant lands, from Hong Kong to India, that seem to be the last redoubts of the inky, morning paper.
Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in distant lands on her blog, www.therealtravelblog.com .