by Jeff Greenwald 1/6/14)
Today marks the 20th anniversary of a milestone few people recall.
Like other anniversaries falling on this day — the Invasion of Cayenne during the Napoleonic Wars, for example, or the birthday of physician Percivall Pott in 1714 — it has been bulldozed beneath the heavy blade of history. A specific study of January 6th, 1994 reveals only one noteworthy event: Nancy Kerrigan being clubbed on the knee at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
But it was on that same day in 1994 that I walked into the Tourism Bureau in Oaxaca, Mexico, and attempted a maddening but ultimately successful feat: uploading the first travel blog post ever made on the Internet.
A bit of backstory here.
By early 1993, I’d been a travel journalist for about 10 years. My assignments had taken me far and wide — but despite the thousands of miles I’d covered, I didn’t feel like a real traveler. Flying in and out of international airports was bland and effortless. I didn’t deserve to be in the places I was arriving. It felt like I was somehow cheating.
So I dreamed up a way to raise the stakes. I would hoist on a backpack, lock the door of my Oakland flat, and circle the globe by land and sea — never setting foot on an airplane. Such a journey, I imagined, would rekindle the spark that inspired me to become a travel writer in the first place: a lifelong curiosity about the diversity, mystery and sheer immensity of my home planet.
My agent was able to sell the proposal, and I signed a contract to write a book about my trip. It would be called The Size of the World.
A few weeks before my departure in late December, 1993, I got an unexpected call from an editor at O’Reilly Media in Sebastopol, California. O’Reilly was (and is) a publisher of computer books. It also dipped into the world of travel writing; my work already had appeared in some of its Travelers’ Tales anthologies.
I expected a vague request that I “keep my eyes open” and write a few good stories. What the editor had in mind was far more ambitious. O’Reilly, he told me, had launched a pioneering site on Internet: a mushrooming electromagnetic labyrinth of online singles clubs, Grateful Dead forums and other hyper-specific peer-interest groups that were beginning to define, for better or worse, the polis of the future. The name of O’Reilly’s website was the Global Network Navigator (GNN). Its online “Travelers’ Center,” the editor assured me, would be the hottest thing since Lomotil.
A recently-released program called Mosaic was revolutionizing what might be possible on the World Wide Web. “What we hope you’ll do,” the editor said, “is write columns for us — from the road. We’ll publish them live, on the GNN, where people can read them as you travel.” The Travelers’ Center, he told me, would include a feature that sounded miraculous: A map would be displayed on their website, with dots showing the locations from where I’d sent back posts. People would simply click on those dots — and see the story I’d written from that location!
It would be lots of work, but they sold me on the idea. Still, there was something paradoxical about the gig. Here I was, setting off to discover in the most visceral way possible the enormity of the planet. But while my body was circling the Earth in real time, my brain would be telecommuting at light speed.
But how would I do it? Today, of course, there are hundreds of ultra-light devices to choose from. In 1993, finding a laptop that didn’t weigh as much as a watermelon was tricky. I used a Hewlett Packard OmniBook 300. Along with miraculous features like a pop-out mouse and a weight of 2.9 pounds, it had one virtue that, even now, seems cool. If the rechargeable cell died in the middle of the Sahara (which it would), the OmniBook could be powered by four AA batteries.
In mid-December, the GNN editor came by to see me off. As he was leaving my flat, he paused. “I almost forgot,” he said. “Have you got a name for this Internet series of yours?”
I did. “Let’s call it Big World.”
And so it was. We didn’t call it a “blog” at the time, because no one did. The word wouldn’t be invented for another five years.
Ten days after leaving Oakland, I arrived in Oaxaca. It’s a beautiful city. I took some time to relax, order a hot chocolate, and pull out the OmniBook. My 1,600-word dispatch was called “One Hundred Nanoseconds of Solitude.” Written in Oaxaca’s rustic zocalo, and uploaded for three hours on a glacially slow fax-modem, it was the beginning of an art form, or obligation, or plague.
During the next nine months, I slogged and blogged my way around the world. My overland voyage took me nearly 30,000 miles through 27 countries before I returned to Oakland, crossing the Pacific aboard the Hapag-Lloyd container ship Bremen Express.
Sending dispatches was never easy. I often spent days trying to figure out where and how to upload files. Local tech experts — or curious eggheads in funky telecom offices — would help me figure out how to finesse finicky modem lines and obsolete phone systems. Everyone was excited by the project… though many thought it made more sense to send postcards.
The main bottleneck, of course, was transmission speed. In June, 1994, I’d reached South Asia. Working with the brilliant Sanjib Bhandari (then known as “The Bill Gates of Nepal”), we scanned and uploaded the first image ever sent by Internet from Kathmandu: a postcard of elephant-headed Ganesha, the Hindu god of good beginnings. Sending the picture to WIRED took the technicians at Bhandari’s computer center nearly 14 hours.
During my overland trip I wrote 19 posts in all — reporting from Mali and Morocco, Turkey, and Tibet, even from a container ship on the North Atlantic. Thousands of readers (that was a lot in 1994!) logged on to the Travelers’ Center to follow my adventures. Three stories also appeared in WIRED. But few people imagined that my online travel diary anticipated what would become, a years later, a global obsession. Although there are many lists of the “100 Best Travel Bloggers,” there’s no credible estimate of how many travel bloggers exist worldwide — though I imagine, at this point, it’s a huge percentage of all recreational travelers.
I still blog from the road sometimes, as well— most recently while traveling in Cuba. But my fantasy at this point is to recreate the journey I took 20 years ago — without leaving home at all. I hope to follow my 1993/1994 route virtually, using the Internet and social networking tools to find some of the people I’d met 20 years ago and discover how their lives have changed. Like Senegalese journalist Babacar Fall, whom I profiled in WIRED 2.06; the three vivacious teenage women who gave me shelter in Ankara, Turkey; and precocious Luisa Limon, in Oaxaca, who was 8 years old in 1994.
The Size of the World was released in 1995. A review in Publishers Weekly called it “a travel book like no other,” and a lot of other nice things. But ironically, the process of my trip — going around the world without airplanes — overshadowed what turned out to be a far more significant achievement. Someday, maybe, that first travel blog will get the celebration it deserves. Until then I’ll just kick back each January 6th and raise a glass to New Mexico statehood (1/6/1912) with Nancy Kerrigan.
Jeff Greenwald, a longtime contributor to WIRED, is the author of six travel books. He lives in Oakland, California.
Follow @strangetravel on Twitter.