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2010 Travel Writing Scholarship - THE WINNER!!!

JAPAN | Friday, 8 January 2010 | Views [40134] | Comments [4]










Simon Richmond, from RoughGuides.com Announces the Winner




What a privilege it was being offered the chance to judge this competition! I salute all who made the shortlist for the 2010 World Nomad’s Travel Writing competition – I’ve been massively impressed by the standard of the essays – your carefully honed, evocative, globe-spanning stories provided entertaining, stimulating and occasionally humbling reading for my partner and I over the holiday period. I urge all the finalists to keep on travelling and writing about their experiences.

It was no easy task pairing the shortlist down to the top five and the eventual winner, with many worthy entries falling by the wayside.

The criteria we used were as follows:
1.    How well was the story structured? Did it draw you in from the first line and maintain interest throughout without flagging?
2.    Did the story contain clichés or tackle a clichéd theme?
3.    How well did the writers use detail to build and evoke atmosphere and a sense of place?
4.    Did the story create a desire to go to the place the writer was describing?
5.    How passionate were they about becoming a travel writer and who might benefit the most from the experience of winning the scholarship?

The interesting thing is that, independently, both my partner and I came up with the same top five stories. But before revealing the short-list, I would like to single out aspects I appreciated in some of the runners-up.

Sonja Kamphuis catching her “breath like a swimmer diving into a cold lake” encapsulated the experience of savouring spicy crab hot pot in Lhasa. Adrian Livingstone honestly yet sympathetically narrated the “harsh realities” of charity work in Kenya in his story about Caroline, a neglected polio victim living in a squalid mud hut. Yunki Yau plunged me right into the “frenetic bedlam” of Hong Kong’s Mong Kok night market in her search for stinky tofu. Heather Carreiro painted a perfect mini-portrait of a women “with dark, unruly hair forcing its escape from her tightly knotted kerchief” molding mud cakes in a Haitian slum.

Lucy Barbour introduced me to her kitchen nemesis – the pesky marron – and seafood chef Guiaume, “tall and middle aged with a plump belly, rosé shaded cheeks and eyebrows the colour of night.” I smiled at Angaly Thomas’ fearless attempts to snatch a “million-dollar picture” of a testy “Mama Komodo”.

Danielle Broome made me squirm as she tackled a sheep’s head sandwich in Fez, complete with “brown and grey slop”, “sticky black hair”, “a small sharp piece of skull”, and – of course – a “glutinous, cold” eyeball. Also in Morocco, Andy Summons took me right back to the “mealtime maelstrom” of Marrakech’s Djemaa el Fna Square as he savours his “first spoonful of sheep brain soup.” Which leads me to the first of my top five picks – another writer who fell under Marrakech’s exotic spell.

The Final 5 !


5 Sofia Levin – an adventure in an unknown culture

In “Arabian Days” Sofia Levin brilliantly essays the hypnotic effect of the Djemaa el Fna by night and day. She grabbed my attention by giving her story a title (it’s a brave person who does this in a competition where every word of the 500 counts, but it also shows an understanding of how to best pitch a feature) and with her opening line “Six THOUSAND camels!” – the price she’s offered by a ceramic bowl seller in the market to be his wife. Levin captures not only the expected details – “the puff adder… swaying hypnotically to the snake charmer’s whining song”, the “shards of light” piercing “the dusty market air”– but also the unexpected, such as the “youths wearing Bob Marley T-Shirts and sporting dreadlocks” – to build authenticity.

4 Lizza Lane – an adventure in an unknown culture

Still in Africa – this time Ethopia – Lizza Lane’s bus ride of discovery was not so much about what was going on outside the window as what was happening inside. She drew me in with precise details – the interior “overly decorated with tassles, flags of red, green, yellow and black, and pictures of Jesus Christ”, the “young, but sallow-skinned Ethopian man” she sits next to – and with her sensitivity to the nuances and mysteries of an alien culture – Ethiopians use orange peel up their noses to ward off nausea. Who’d have thought? All travelers have at one time been in this situation – not understanding what’s going on around them but wanting to connect nonetheless. 

3 Daniel Douglas – a memorable travel experience involving food
One of the trickiest aspects of developing a distinctive style as a writer is to establish your personality in words – Daniel Douglas’ account of Buñol’s tomato-throwing fiesta nailed this. It’s a fun tale told by a guy with an obviously gregarious, adventurous personality – someone who revels being part of a “huge human pasta sauce”. I love festivals and I’ve always wanted to attend this one – Daniel’s piece took me right to the squishy, scarlet heart of it.  A little more detail in some places would have taken it to the next level – who was the character, for example, who narrates the wild tale of La Tomatina’s origins? – but otherwise this one was a winner.

2 Kate Fitzpatrick – a memorable travel experience involving food
Among the short list, stories involving food were the most popular – this was the most unusual in that writer uses the unremarkable rotisserie chicken she buys in Sarajevo as an inspired frame around her main theme – the city’s Tunnel Museum, a place that was also about bringing essential supplies to a hungry, besieged population. The spark of humour in “chicken a la Vidal Sassoon” helped make the rest of Fitzpatrick’s precise prose even more poignant. Here is a very talented writer who grasps exactly how to build atmosphere and use detail to humanize a conflict that many people still have little idea about. With or without winning this competition, I can see her going far as a travel writer.

And the winner is....

1/ Amy Palfreyman - an adventure in an unknown culture
And so to the winner…. As with Levin’s entry, Amy Palfreyman gave her story about Lhasa’s Jokhang temple a title: At Peace in Thin Air. Palfreyman’s highly evocative prose could have been ripped straight from the pages of a glossy travel magazine. She moves through the temple, soaking up the details – the “prostrating pilgrims with cracked, weathered faces”, the “sage-faced statues and gilded ornaments”, the contrast between “a young tranquil Buddha” and Yama, “the skull-toting God of death”, the floor “sticky with the overflow of yak butter candles,” and “the deliciously smoky rich scent of spicy Tibetan incense.” It’s a vivid description that appeals to all the reader’s senses. Leaving the temple, she remains acutely aware of the hubbub of the market, a mélange of “ambling tourists”, “Indian pop songs” and prostrating pilgrims. In this contest, it is an asset that Palfreyman has spent a few years living and travelling in Asia – yet despite her passing familiarity with the culture she essays, she still manages to create a sense of wonder in what she sees. By succeeding in her aim to “capture a piece of Tibet” Palfreyman also clinches the 2010 World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship.

Read Amy's winning and our other finalists stories below

For those interested not only in how Ms Palfreyman and I get on in Japan, but also in the nuts, bolts and various adventures involved in researching a guidebook, please drop by my Japan blog found via my website www.simonrichmond.com.



Congratulations and Good Luck Amy!!

Amy is preparing for the trip that will launch her into the exciting world of Travel Writing.  May it be the first of many exciting overseas travel writing assignments.

Make sure you read the winning stories below and read about Amy's adventures on her World Nomads Travel Journal.

On behalf of World Nomads and our partners I would like to thank everyone for sharing their travel stories and taking part in this scholarship opportunity.

If you haven't already, make sure you sign up to the SCHOLARSHIP MAILING LIST so you can stay in the know.

All the best.

Tara Parsons
Program Manager

Read the Top 5 Stories

The Winning Story, by Amy Palfreyman


The sound of my laboured breathing fills my head as I struggle up the last step.  Lhasa’s high altitude makes a marathon out of a simple flight of stairs.  Thankfully there are not too many in the, 1,300-year-old Jokhang temple.
Housed in this spectacular spiritual centre of Tibet, is a dark labyrinth of atmospheric devotion.  Prostrating pilgrims with cracked, weathered faces, hundreds of them, have patiently queued for hours to get inside. Everyone is gently thumbing prayer beads or rhythmically spinning prayer wheels coated in gold and silver. Some crawl on hands and knees, pressing their foreheads on the temple floor in prayer. Their austere faith is palpable, intensely spiritual, and completely foreign to me.  

Entering a large chamber, my eyes slowly adjust to the muted light. The scene before me is overwhelming.  A myriad of stunning silk thangkas, sage-faced statues and gilded ornaments fill the space with comforting clutter. A golden effigy of the young, tranquil Buddha sits at odds with a looming portrait of Yama, the skull-toting God of death, whose stare lays bare my soul. Impossibly detailed historic sutras and images of enlightenment adorn the walls in vibrant yellow, red, green and blue. Forever the colours of Tibet.

The air is heavy with the murmured mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ and the deliciously smoky rich scent of spicy Tibetan incense.  The floor is sticky with the overflow of yak butter candles, carefully trodden into the surface by a thousand years of footprints. I try to make myself invisible as I move out of the temple in silence.  I do not want to disturb what is going on here.

Outside, the sky is filled with colourful, frayed prayer flags flapping gently in the breeze, each movement littering the oxygen-thin air with silent prayers.  Under this rainbow of faith, a procession of pilgrims moves past, drawing me into their addictive clockwise walk around the Barkhor.

Vendors, peddling their religious wares and souvenirs to ambling tourists, work the well-trodden streets as devoted gatherings weave paths towards the temple. A clash of market cries, Indian pop songs and the low rumblings of meditation music create the soundtrack of the bazaar - all set to the rhythmic slapping of timber against stone produced by pilgrims with wooden hand blocks prostrating themselves flat on the ground around the kora.

Rows of worn prayer wheels, kept in constant motion by the faithful caress of a million hands, glimmer in the mid-morning sunlight as they release their prayers into the world. Beggars line the side of the road - they have completed their pilgrimage of endurance and are collecting alms for the long journey home.
The fresh air awakens my senses to a silent breeze.  Shallow breath reminds me where I am. Lhasa’s placidity is tangible.  I close my eyes allowing its calmness to inhabit me, trying to etch it into my being, trying to capture a piece of Tibet.



Kate Fitzpatrick's story


A weathered man sits in a battered wheelchair at the side of the road, watching a line of semi-cooked chickens rotate on a deformed skewer. The crude rotisserie holds a thrifty sprinkling of coals, but the main source of heat is the hairdryer the man is wielding – as he alternates between blasting the coals and the revolving poultry, he explains that this speeds up the roasting process. I’m on the outskirts of Sarajevo, en route to the famous Tunnel Museum, and about to enjoy chicken a la Vidal Sassoon for lunch.  

The man appraises me with sad eyes and I’m surprised to see that despite his heavily lined face and defeated posture, he is fairly young – perhaps 35. I’ve only spent a couple of days here, but can confidently assume he lived through the Siege of Sarajevo, which lasted for more than 1000 days during the Bosnian War. From 1992 to 1995, this self-proclaimed ‘city of hope’ was entirely cut off by Serbian forces, and while I’ve met many locals who survived the siege and emerged tenacious to share their stories, there are countless people who are irreparably damaged both physically and psychologically by the indelible experience of living in a war zone. The man wraps my chicken and hands it to me with a curt nod – now is not the time for questions. 

It’s a different story at the Tunnel Museum – a monument to the devotion, strength and bravery shown by the people of Sarajevo during the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. The tunnel – 800 metres long and dug by hand – was the city’s lifeline during the conflict; more than 4000 people and 20 tonnes of food passed through each day.

The tunnel was constructed in the backyard of the Kolar family’s home – the location was chosen due to its proximity to Sarajevo Airport (a UN-designated ‘neutral zone’ during the conflict). Located on a suburban street, it’s difficult to fathom that this absolutely unremarkable house was once Sarajevo’s only link to the outside world. The Kolars have preserved the first 20 metres of the tunnel and converted the house into a museum; the names of the 11,000 people who died during the siege are listed on the walls.

Stepping into the tunnel, I imagine sharing the claustrophobic space (1.5 metres high and 1 metre wide) with hundreds of others jostling through knee-high water in both directions, carrying heavy packs of food, medical supplies and weapons, and often injured soldiers. The journey would often take up to two hours due to the poor conditions. Upstairs in the museum, a video shows stoic men and women entering the tunnel, knowing they would emerge into a war zone at the other end.

Rain buckets down on the drive back into town, which feels wholly appropriate given my sombre mood. The roadside chef has dispensed with the hairdryer and is fanning the coals with a flattened cardboard box, but this is his only concession to the lousy weather.   




Daniel Douglas' story

Ah, the humble tomato: so tasty, so versatile, so aerodynamic. I pick one up, squeezing it in my hand until the skin splits and the juice dribbles through my fingers, and then I throw it. With a wonderful splat it hits the man next to me, oozes down his spine, weeping pulp and seeds, and flops acrobatically to the floor. The man spins around, an insuppressible grin spreading across his face, and pulls on a pair of swimming goggles. I hear a bang and a deafening cheer, as tonnes of tomatoes spill onto the streets and the world’s largest food fight surges into life. Within seconds I am drenched in tomatoes, and everything in sight is coated in a layer of bright, slimy, sugary red. Welcome to Buñol and “La Tomatina” – Spain’s famous tomato throwing fiesta.

Every year in late August Buñol erupts into riotous red colour. As my friends and I discovered the night before in a local bar, everyone has their own story on how it started, each more rich and ridiculous than the last, and each teller more drunk. Some tales involve lorry spillages, some public protests, some parades and vegetable stalls. My favourite one, translated in brief: “a young, talentless musician was serenading his lover, when the girl’s disapproving father rained down a barrage of tomatoes on him from the upstairs window”. We get nowhere trying to elicit the truth, but relish these wild fictional accounts.

La Tomatina is a week-long festival, but the actual tomato-throwing lasts just one explosive hour, by the end of which I have bits in my ears, up my nose, and in other more private places. The walls are spattered, and I’m shin-deep in pulp. I feel like I’m part of a huge human pasta sauce, as spaghetti-like hoses are slung over the railings and balconies of the local houses, and the clean-up begins.

Exhausted, elated and laughing uncontrollably, I wade through the mess, meandering around the people sitting, lying down and even swimming in the rich pureed aftermath. At moments it looks unnervingly like blood. I find myself thinking of the bloodshed and human conflict that happens daily across the world, and for a moment the whole day seems trivial, until I look around at a global community of nearly 50,000 people who are here today in the spirit of friendliness and fun, reaching a hand out and saying, “we all look the same doused in tomato”. Splashing my way through the street, I queue up for a hosing down from the locals and then squelch my way, soggy and smiling, back towards the train home - towards sanity and sanitation - drying quickly in the afternoon sun.  

For months afterwards, whenever I see a tomato, at a supermarket or on a plate, I find myself fighting the urge to throw it. Instead I suppress a grin, and promise myself I’ll return to Buñol some day.



Lizza Lane's story

The bus to Addis Ababa is almost retro inside, overly decorated with tassles, flags of red, green, yellow and black, and pictures of Jesus Christ, hanging behind the drivers’ seat. I jump into a ragged leather passenger seat to avoid the push and shove of the Ethiopian crowd behind, clambering onboard with bulky bags of food, clothes and babes in arms.

The heat is clammy and the musty air is constantly being recycled by forty or so breathing bodies. I needed to fill my lungs with the fresh, mountain air- I pull back my curtain and slide open the window. A slight gust enters the vehicle which tickles the hem of the curtain. I lean my head out and drink up new oxygen.

“Excuse me…”

I turn my head to face a young but sallow-skinned Ethiopian man. “Yes?” I reply.
“Please could you close the window”, he asked, but it wasn’t a question.
“But why? It’s so hot.”
“Because disease can come in.”
I scan the bus; I see the elderly covering their faces in their swathes of robes, and mothers protecting their children with any sort of cloth they could find. Respectfully, I close the window.

Minutes later, in the wet haze, I hear a woman vomiting into a plastic bag. Those next to her begin to fuss. The intense heat inside the bus heightens the smell of her vomit, causing a chain reaction, which enhances my frustration. Please just let me open the window! Staring out, the cragged mountainous landscape moving past slows, and the bus halts. Immediately a swarm of thin ill-dressed locals surround the doors, like bees to honey, chattering and offering up their produce to sell. The doors clang open and everybody huddles off.
Those who were sick return with their arms filled with fresh oranges. The bus roars, and we carry on.

The smell of tangy citrus awakens me. I sit up and turn my head. I see the robed passengers peeling orange skin, only to then roll a small scrap in their fingers and place it strategically in each of their nostrils. I stifle a giggle. This was entirely alien to me.
“Excuse me, but why are they putting orange peel up their nose?”, I asked the sallow-skinned man.
“The peel stops them from being sick”.
I didn’t want to ask anymore, this was something I was never going to fully understand.

It was then, I realized the stark contrast between me and them. The extent of belief these people hold. Belief is a powerful force evident all over Ethiopia; Haile Selassie, Holy Grail, disease waiting by the roadside for an open bus window and stuffing peel up your nose to prevent sickness. Travelling is not about seeing all the wonders of the world, or taking photos as proof.  To me, riding a bus in Ethiopia is culture in all its rawness.

And from escaping the working world in a western country, this was exactly what I wanted to experience.



Sofia Levin's Story

Arabian Days

"Six THOUSAND camels!"

I turned around and eyeballed the young man who had just tried to buy me as his wife. All in white with burnt orange Berber slippers, he waved at me enthusiastically. Behind him the sun reflected blindingly off hundreds of ceramic bowls. From aqua greens to ochre reds, they hung from the walls and were piled up to where the roof should have been. I paused to consider the offer before continuing toward the medina: I could have bought the entire souk with six thousand camels, let alone a single stall.

Since the eleventh century, Djemaa el Fna in Marrakesh has been the doorway to the most alluring and colourful market in Africa. Upon entering the square there is an overwhelming sense of having been transported to Agrabah's marketplace in Disney's 'Aladdin.' Before a second has passed, a chained monkey has been thrust onto your shoulder. It is only when you are forking out what seems to be an inordinate amount of money for a photograph that you notice the puff adder three meters away, swaying hypnotically to the snake charmer's whining song.

The souks are a maze of stalls roofed with thin sticks that cause shards of light to pierce the dusty market air. The aroma of freshly cut leather wafts from bags and slippers hanging claustrophobically around you, whilst silver teapots, lamps and mountains of jewellery sparkle seductively. Outside the carpet stalls youths wearing Bob Marley T-Shirts and sporting dreadlocks perch opposite old men with deep, crevassed wrinkles reminiscent of the nearby Atlas Mountains. Both generations ask only one thing of you: "Just a look – looking is free!"

Deep in the souk the spice market materialises. Impossibly balanced cones of red cumin and yellow mustard powder tickle and tease your nostrils. Shouts of "Hey Skinny! Hey Fish and Chips!" are projected in the hope of luring tourists into stalls because, obviously, that is what Western females long to hear. Scented bars and olive extract scrub used in traditional Hammams leak perfume into the Arabian air, camouflaging the smell of days-old meat hanging grotesquely from hooks nearby.

As dusk gathers the square pulses under glowing lanterns, spotlighting the open-air food market. Each stall has a number that rhymes with an enticement to try their wares; how can you refuse "117, takes you to heaven?" Generously portioned couscous dishes are served with lemon chicken or melt-in-the-mouth lamb, simmered in aromatic spices and luscious figs, apricots and dates. If you are feeling adventurous you can sample snail soup, so long as the goat’s heads being touted nearby do not deter you.

As you lay down in bed, stomach full and eyes heavy, sleep evades you. You picture the market, stained saffron with sand from the Sahara Desert, as its smell of smoke and spice flows like a tidal wave through the open window. Unlike any other city Marrakesh imprints itself, unforgettably, on every one of your five senses.

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Wow, wonderful stories--all of them!
Congrats to Amy, her writing was amazing. Good luck and have fun in Japan!
But my personal favorite was Daniel's story. What a colorful experience! Made me google La Tomatina and start planning a trip there immediately :) Great work!

  Olga Jan 10, 2010 12:16 AM


How to join with this competition in 2010?

  rahma yanda Jan 13, 2010 6:47 PM


Hi guys,

1/ Olga, great to hear that you were inspired to travel by Daniel's essay. That is exactly why he made it to the top 5.

2/Rahma, if you sign up to our newsletter we will let you know when the next Writing Scholarship is open for applications. Just click on the link below and fill in the form with your contact details:




  scholarships Jan 15, 2010 9:56 AM


Just wondering how to have a chance of entering this competition

  Alissa Jul 12, 2010 9:12 PM

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