The world has always been filled with extraordinary travelers, explorers, wanderers, and vagabonds. In 2012, we introduced you to a new Extraordinary Vagabond every Saturday. We thought you might like to see them all listed in one place.
The world is filled with extraordinary vagabonds. While this feature has covered a lot of the great vagabonds of the past, this year – it will be our pleasure to introduce you to some of the extraordinary vagabonds of the present as well.
To start, it seems fitting to introduce you to one of our own featured travel writers. Melissa Ruttanai. Melissa’s great adventures and fun writing are not strangers to Vagobond readers, but we thought it might be fun for you to get to know her a little bit better.
Vagobond: What’s your personal travel philosophy?
MR: After 32 years of following the prescribed norm of accelerated high school courses, dual majors in university, and all the hoops required to earn a post-baccalaureate degree in Education, I was simply tired of doing what “I was supposed to do”. Get a house? Have some kids? Carry a mortgage for 30 years?
None of that interested me. So when I quit my job and sold off everything I owned, I made a promise to follow what I believed to be right, what felt good for my own spirit.
As a traveling nomad, I believe that travel is about going beyond the limits in which you were born: learn a new language, make friends across the planet, and especially to help others see the innate value of travel. Travel is a state of mind, a noun, and a verb. It’s what my husband and I have built our lives around. And when we have the house, kids, and mortgage; travel will still be in our lives.
Vagobond: How many countries have you visited?
MR: US, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, The Dominican Republic, Aruba, Ecuador, Peru, England, Greece, Austria, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Japan, S. Korea, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam (23)
Vagobond:What made you start to travel?
MR:My parents had a touch of the travel bug. When I was a kid, they’d pack our station wagon full of sleeping bags, coolers, and suitcases for crazy east coast and cross-country road trips. We went to Hershey Park, Disney, Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls—all on a budget. Then every 2-3 years, we’d have our big summer trips to Thailand where we’d spend a month visiting my grandparents and relatives in the old country.
My extensive backpacking trips began after university. Neil and I taught English in Japan which was a fantastic experience that introduced us to expatriate living. With our earnings in Japanese yen, we were able to travel for 4 months afterwards.
Vagobond:What’s your scariest travel moment?
MR: Before my final semester at Rutgers University where I was studying for my master degree in education, Neil and I went to Mexico. While on the Yucatan Peninsula we decided to snorkel in underwater cenotes or caves. The flooded tunnels are unlit with pointed stalactites and stalagmites jabbing into the murky waters. I’m not a good snorkeler and also suffer from a touch of claustrophobia. The walls seemed to squeeze in and then the strap of my camera caught on a rock skewer. Panicking, I slammed my head into the rock ceiling. My mask flooded and water streamed into my mouthpiece. As I yanked the strap harder and harder, our guide continued further and further into the tunnel. And his small torch began to recede in the darkness. Finally, I jerked my arm so hard that the tether snapped and my camera sank 15 feet below me.
I never swam so fast in my life to catch up.
Vagobond:What’s your funniest travel moment?
MR: 5am, Seoul, South Korea. Neil and I were waiting for a train to take us to the airport. The station was busy with commuters headed to work, backpackers looking for trains, and all-night partiers shuffling home with walking hangovers.
Standing at the entrance to a narrow hallway that led to the bathroom, we saw two young men stumble out, both obviously had been drinking all night. When they bumped into each other, they immediately started fighting with lazy, drunken fists. They slammed each other against the wall and blocked anyone who wanted to get down the hall.
Then, an older gentleman emerged from the bathroom. His silk tie lay flat against his pressed shirt and suit. When he spotted the two brawling drunks, the hallway turned into a crazed scene from a Kung-Fu movie. The businessman grabbed both youngsters by the back of their heads and bashed them together. Both slumped to the ground. Picking up one by the scruff of his neck, he started pounding his fists into the kid’s face, finishing him off with a slap that sent him back to the ground. At that second the other drunk managed to scramble to his feet. Turning with the smoothness of a Shaolin priest, the man backhanded him and followed with a fist to the gut. The drunk spluttered against the wall and the businessman chastised both with one wrinkled finger for making a scene in front of tourists.
Both youths on the floor and fight over, the champion calmly smoothed his suit, straightened his tie, and continued on his way to the trains with his suitcase held tight. It was the funniest fight ever.
Vagobond: What’s your greatest adventure?
MR:I was lucky enough to see the Galapagos Islands on the M/V Evolution’s 8-day cruise that zigzagged the equator. The wildlife is amazing there. I swam with hammerhead sharks, penguins, sea turtles, and sea lions. Once more I tried cave snorkeling but this time my guide held my hand and helped me.
Vagobond: What’s your dream destination/vacation/trip?
MR:The snarky, Sci-Fi kid inside me, says: The Moon.
But in all seriousness, I’d love to receive a writer’s grant to Alaska or California in the summertime where I can live in a cozy cottage with Neil, a rack of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, and my Mac Book.
Vagobond:Are you a traveler or a tourist? What’s the difference if there is one.
MR:Traveler, no doubt.
For me, travel is about learning and experience. I want to really get to know a city, have coffee in local cafes, dine with locals, converse in the indigenous language (or try to), visit little-known museums, and eat authentic meals made by someone’s nana. Traveling is about taking it slow and enjoying what’s around you, not rushing from one sight to the next as you work through a checklist of must-see things.
Travel is both simple and profound. It’s about micro-moments like when I looked up at fireworks over the Plaza de Armas at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and I thought: Dang, I’m in Cusco!
Vagobond:What’s a great travel tip most people don’t know?
MR:Neil and I have not paid for any international flights in over 3 years, in which time we have visited Japan, Thailand, Italy, Ecuador, and Peru. As of this week, we’ve already booked our next flights, a roundtrip ticket from Lima, Peru to New York with a lovely stopover in San Jose, California. We’ve saved over US$4000 each because we travel via Star Alliance and have credit cards that feed directly (one mile per dollar spent) into our United Mileage Plus Accounts.
The Tip: Always call the airline company and make your reservations directly even if there is a fee. Most people don’t know that airline tickets are structured for inclusive stopovers. So if you want to go from New York to Shanghai, you can weave in a nice 2 weeks in Hawaii along the way.
The Trick: Buy necessities with the cards and pay the balance in full at the end of each month. Even after our tickets to New York, we still have a combined 60,000 miles that are dog-earred for a trip to Europe in late July or August 2012.
Vagobond: What are your travel plans for 2012?
MR:More travel, more writing.
We met a great Brit in Lima who invited us to join him at the circus. At first, I thought he was using some sort of new slang. Then I realized that he was seriously inviting us to stay in a wagon and travel with the show across Great Britain. That would be a highlight of 2012!
Barbara Weibel is one of my favorite travel bloggers. Barbara puts the focus on writing incredible posts with sometimes startling insights into the world of travel and culture. On top of that, she is one of the most positive people out there. Read on to see why this is one of my favorites and Barbara will soon be one of your favorites as well.
Vagobond: Barbara – I love your blog. Everything from the symbolism of the name (full on the outside, empty in the middle in reference to your former careers – “solid on the outside, empty on the inside”) to your amazing photography and insights into the people and places you travel. All of this made me wonder – did you have a background in anthropology?
Barbara Weibel: Interesting that you should ask that. The short answer is no, however I’ve always thought that if I could do life over and choose another career, I’d go into a science field. I’ve been a rockhound ever since I was old enough to pick up stones and still comb through mine tailings whenever possible, so I consider myself an amateur geologist. I’m also fascinated by culture and could easily have been an anthropologist or archeologist. Frankly, I’ve got enough knowledge to be dangerous but I also have an insatiable curiosity; it’s a great combination for a writer.
Vagobond: You travel to a lot of off the beaten path places as a solo female traveler. What kind of challenges do you face in that regard?
Barbara Weibel: To date, I really haven’t faced any major challenges that specifically have to do with being female. I suspect that my age may be a factor in that regard, as these days I seem to garner more respect than I did as a young female traveler (when I was younger I had to fend off unwanted attention from men, but that’s not much of a problem any more). Of course, I haven’t traveled to any of the countries where women are severely oppressed, such as not being allowed to drive or go out in public alone. It’s probably a good thing I haven’t; I have little patience for that kind of thing and I’d probably push the boundaries and end up in trouble. I also think that being an experienced traveler makes a big difference. With years of perpetual travel under my belt, I have certain routines that serve me well and I’ve learned to never ignore my gut. If I feel like I’m in danger or need to leave a place, I do so; if I feel a certain person is not trustworthy, I extract myself from the situation immediately, even if it means being rude. But having said that, I also don’t travel in fear. Most people are good and will bend over backwards to help, and I’ve learned to trust my instincts.
Vagobond: You stay a minimum of a month in your chosen destinations. Can you explain why?
Barbara Weibel: When I originally fled corporate life to pursue my passions for travel, writing, and photography, I’d just recovered from a serious illness. I thought I might die without getting to do all the things I’d always dreamed about. I promised myself that, if I recovered, I’d walk away from corporate life and backpack around the world. I did eventually recover and set out on a six-month round-the-world trip, determined to see as many places on my travel wish list as possible; as a result, I crammed 16 countries into six months. Gradually, I realized that I was fascinated by culture and by the fact that, despite differences in dress, traditions, food and religion, people all over the world are all more similar than we are different. As my writing delved more deeply into cultural issues, I found myself staying longer in each place in order to immerse in the local scene. At the same time, I discovered that I enjoyed my travels much more when I formed a local connection.
Vagobond: I remember when you wrote about holding the Dalai Lama’s hand – are you a Buddhist? How did you become Buddist?
Barbara Weibel: I’ve been a “seeker” all my life and have read fairly extensively about most religious and spiritual traditions, but my first real contact with Buddhism came during a trip to Thailand in 2002. That trip confirmed that Buddhism was the spiritual philosophy that resonated most strongly with me. However, it took me a number of years and much more study to choose a particular Buddhist tradition. Theravadan Buddhism, which is practiced in Thailand and most other Southeast Asian countries, is considerably different from Chinese Buddhism, Zen Buddhism practiced in Japan, and Tibetan Buddhism. During my first trip to Nepal, about two years ago, I finally had the opportunity to study Tibetan Buddhism with the Tibetan refugee community and quickly realized it was what I’d been looking for all along. The day last summer when the Dalai Lama held my hand and looked directly into my eyes was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had and I will treasure it always.
Vagobond: Your travels are intimately connected with the people in the places you go – can you share how you go about making these connections?
Barbara Weibel: I don’t really know how they happen, they just do. Sometimes, it’s like an invisible force is making my travel plans. I cannot count the number of times I have arrived someplace on a whim, with no reservations and no idea what is happening, only to find that a major celebration of some sort is underway. Of course, my innate curiosity is partially responsible, as I will talk to absolutely anyone and am constantly asking questions. But I can’t explain, for instance, why the city fathers of Alausi, Ecuador, climbed out of the bed of a pickup truck that happened to stop in front of me and subsequently invited me to be their honored guest at an Independence Day celebration of the indigenous Quichua community. Things like that happen to me repeatedly, in every corner of the world. I really think the key is being open and following my instincts.
Vagobond: How do you feel that technology and the internet in particular have changed travel? Do you have any predictions for the future of travel?
Barbara Weibel: I believe that technology and the Internet have had the most significant effect on travel since the days of the early explorers. We can literally learn about any corner of the earth sitting in our living rooms. The drawback is that there are very few, if any, undiscovered places left on the face of the earth, which is one of the reasons I believe cultural travel is gaining in popularity. With no new places to discover, modern day explorers are turning to the peoples of the earth for new experiences. Frankly, I believe that only good can come from this. I am passionately committed to the idea that travel has a huge potential for effecting world peace. I have always believed that the better we know one another, the less likely we’ll want to kill one another.
Vagobond: Nepal has been on my list of future destinations for a long time. I sometimes worry that by the time I get there, it will have been eaten up by modernity…you’ve spent a lot of time there – is Nepal changing? Is that a good or bad thing?
Barbara Weibel: Nepal is changing, but very, very slowly. Unfortunately, the caste system is still a very real part of the social structure. Add to this the political instability that the country has experienced in recent years and the rampant corruption, and you begin to see why the wheels of change grind so slowly. My fervent hope is that Nepal can move toward modernity without abandoning their rich cultural heritage and strong family values, as these are two of the things that I most treasure about the country that I consider my adopted second home.
Vagobond: Can you share three travel tips that Vagobond readers may not have heard?
Barbara Weibel: 1) Forget about Travelers Checques; they are virtually useless as they are extremely hard to cash in many places. Instead, use your ATM card once you arrive in a country. Not only will you avoid having to carry large amounts of cash but you will also avoid currency exchange fees, and your bank will give you a better exchange fee than any money changer.
2) If you travel to a country where you don’t speak the language, be sure to pick up a few business cards from the hotel when you check in. Then, when you’ve been out sightseeing all day, you need only hand a card to a taxi driver, rather than try to find someone who speaks English. And in that same vein, use only legal taxis in foreign countries. The front desk clerk at your hotel should be able to tell you how to identify legal taxis and can call one for you; when returning to your hotel, if you are in doubt, use a taxi waiting in front of any large hotel, as they will undoubtedly be legal operators.
3) If you are on a budget, consider hostels as an option for accommodations. Most now offer private rooms in addition to dorms, and hostels are a wonderful way to connect with other travelers who are only too happy to share tips about the best local places.
Vagobond: We were both part of Lonely Planet’s ‘Around the World with 40 Bloggers’ – are there other books in your future? What about other places where readers can find more of your writing? Any compilations?
Barbara Weibel: I have been working on a memoir off and on for the past 5 years, but haven’t been able to complete it because I’ve been consumed with perpetual travel and building my blog. However, one of my goals this year is to finish the book and, hopefully, get a publishing contract. I’m headed back to Nepal in early April for two months, and I’ve carved out that time to focus on the memoir. I also have plans to publish an anthology in ebook form about my favorite travel experiences, but don’t have a time frame for that just yet.
Vagobond: Do you earn your living from Hole in the Donut? What has been the most challenging part of becoming a successful travel writer/blogger?
Barbara Weibel: Though I earn a bit from the occasional freelance article or photograph sold for publication, Hole In The Donut is my primary source of income. I earn enough from advertising to keep me on the road full time, although not in luxury digs by any means. Without a doubt, the most challenging part of becoming a successful travel blogger is the time versus money issue. In order to sell advertising, I have to be highly ranked by Google, which brings traffic to the site. Good Google ranking comes from producing high quality, original narrative writing, but also demands a concerted social media campaign, good search engine optimization techniques, and staying in touch with my peers in the travel blogging community, all of which takes time. And that doesn’t even begin to address the more than 100 emails I receive and answer each day and the hours it takes to download, categorize, label, and review the 200+ photos I take each day. By the time I dig through the business end of blogging, I sometimes find it difficult to flip into right-brain mode and write creatively.
Vagobond: Barbara – what is a question that I should have asked you? And more importantly – what is the answer?
Barbara Weibel: Having given up almost all material comforts in your life, after five and a half years of travel, do you have any regrets?
I absolutely love what I do and don’t have a single regret. Despite the constant need to be frugal, I still wake up every morning and can’t wait to talk to the next person, ferret out the next story, and snap the next incredible photo. I spent 35 years in corporate life, earning tons of money and hating every day of my life. Now I have very little in the way of material possessions but I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m living proof that it’s never too late to pursue your true passions.
“The what?” I asked. Yeah. I was apparently the last one to hear about Tim. While I wish I could have said “Yeah, I’m just like Tim Ferriss” – it isn’t even close to the truth. Check out his mini-bio from The Huffington Post:
Serial entrepreneur and ultra-vagabond Timothy Ferriss has been featured in The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Maxim, and other media. He is a guest lecturer at Princeton University in High-tech Entrepreneurship and The 4-Hour Workweek (Crown/Random House) is his debut book on ideal lifestyle design. He speaks five languages, runs a multinational firm from wireless locations worldwide, and has been a world-record holder in tango, a national champion in Chinese kickboxing, and an actor on a hit television series in Hong Kong. He is 32 years old.
Let’s see – world records, all those magazines, best sellers, five languages, owner of a multi-national firm, actor, kickboxing champ? Yeah…none of that is me. I wish. By the way, the Huffpo bio is out of date because Tim has now written two more best sellers – The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef (You can read my review of The 4-Hour Chef here). Also, his page at wikipedia says he speaks six languages now.
Holy shit! Yeah, I admit it. I wish I had the success record of Tim Ferriss. If you’ve never heard of Tim, a good place to start is by following him on Twitter. (@tferriss).
The truth is, so much has been written about Ferriss that it would be very difficult for me to add anything new. I’m going to provide another quote, this time from the New Yorker.
Every generation gets the self-help guru that it deserves. In 1937, at the height of the Depression, Napoleon Hill wrote “Think and Grow Rich,” which claimed to distill the principles that had made Andrew Carnegie so wealthy. “The Power of Positive Thinking,” by Norman Vincent Peale, which was published in 1952, advised readers that techniques such as “a mind-emptying at least twice a day” would lead to success. By the seventies, Werner Erhard and est promised material wealth through spiritual enlightenment. The eighties and nineties saw management-consultancy maxims married with New Age thinking, with books such as Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” In the past decade or so, there has been a rise in books such as “Who Moved My Cheese?,” by Spencer Johnson, which promise to help readers maximize their professional potential in an era of unpredictable workplaces.
Ferriss’s books appeal to those for whom cheese, per se, has ceased to have any allure. “This book is not about finding your ‘dream job,’ ” Ferriss writes in “The 4-Hour Workweek.” “I will take it as a given that, for most people, somewhere between six and seven billion of them, the perfect job is the one that takes the least time.” But Ferriss doesn’t recommend idleness. Rather, he prescribes a kind of hyperkinetic entrepreneurialism of the body and soul, with every man his own life coach, angel investor, Web master, personal trainer, and pharmaceutical test subject. One’s body can become one’s own laboratory: with “a few tweaks,” Ferriss suggests, its performance can be maximally enhanced—just as in the movie “Limitless,” but without the nasty withdrawal symptoms.
Where in the world did this guy come from?
Ferriss comes from the Hampton’s, that part of New York where the richest of the rich spend their leisure time. He wasn’t however, the son of a billionaire. His father sold real estate and his mother worked as a physical therapist – certainly he wasn’t a poor kid, but according to him, he wasn’t a rich one either. He attended the prestigious St. Paul’s boarding school and had a year of studying abroad in Japan. After that, he went on to study at Princeton before moving to Silicon Valley and starting his own vitamin supplement company.
Along the way, he hacked his way into winning kick boxing championships, world records in Tango, and learning all those languages. The secret? He looks for the loopholes. According to Ferriss, he has been doing that his whole life. It probably helped that he found a great mentor: Jack Canfield author of the Chicken Soup for …. books.
He’s not without controversy. Read his reviews on Amazon and you will come across the words huckster, liar, and con-man. He’s been compared to PT Barnum and is often referred to as the world’s #1 self promoter. There’s not doubt about the last one and as for the rest, there are always haters when a person finds incredible success as he has done. (Unless you are Chris Guillebeau). No one can argue that Ferris has been unsuccessful.
This last is from the bio page on his blog, which, I recommend you read:
Tim has amassed a diverse (and certainly odd) roster of experiences:
Princeton University guest lecturer in High-Tech Entrepreneurship and Electrical Engineering
Finance and Entrepreneurship advisor at Singularity University at NASA Ames, co-founded by Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil.
First American in history to hold a Guinness World Record in tango
Speaker of 5 languages
National Chinese kickboxing champion
Horseback archer (yabusame) in Nikko, Japan
2009 Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute
Political asylum researcher
MTV breakdancer in Taiwan
Hurling competitor in Ireland
Wired Magazine’s “Greatest Self-Promoter of 2008?
Tim received his BA from Princeton University in 2000, where he studied in the Neuroscience and East Asian Studies departments. He developed his nonfiction writing with Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee and formed his life philosophies under Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe.
I think back to Leo asking if I was like Tim Ferriss. Nope. Not at all. Tim Ferriss is like nobody else in this world, and that, is exactly what we do have in common.
If you haven’t heard of Lonely Planet, you’ve never taken a trip. Tony and Maureen Wheeler were the founders of this global travel empire which is now owned by the BBC. The story of Lonely Planet is the story a story which has inspired travel writers for a generation.
Tony Wheeler is an Amazing Vagabond.
Born in Britain but raised in Karachi, Pakistan, the West Indies (Bahamas) , and the United States. He studied to be a car designer but was sidetracked by a trip to India with his wife Maureen in the early 1972. The two of them were entranced by the ‘hippie trail’ and the next year founded Lonely Planet in Australia where they had traveled overland from Britain.
They drove from London to Afghanistan in a beat up minivan and eventually arrived in Sydney, Australia, with 27 cents between them.
The two wrote a book Across Asia on the Cheap. The book was an immediate success and even though there was no internet, they established themselves as the first budget travel bloggers (even with no blogs in the world). The next year, the couple wrote Southeast Asia on a Shoestring and they were off…The book is still in print and has sold more than a million copies. Enough to found an empire.
For many, that would have been enough, but the couple went on to publish the Lonely Planet India Guide in 1981. That book opened the door to even more.
Tony and Maureen sold Lonely Planet to the BBC several years ago but they are both still traveling and active. You can follow Tony’s blog at here
Lonely Planet sells six million books each year, 90 per cent overseas. Lonely Planet has printed more than 54 million copies of its 600 guides in 17 languages and has $85 million annual turnover.
I was excited to get a chance to interview Tom Brosnahan. I was introduced to Tom’s work through his book Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea (if you haven’t read it, I recommend it – fun, informative and a great travel read) – his book led me to find his incredible website Turkey Travel Planner (which, by the way is the most important resource you will find if you plan on taking a trip to Turkey).
Tom is an old school travel writer, guide book author – the kind that went to the destination, walked all the streets, drew the map if there wasn’t one, learned the language, and checked all the prices – and what is incredibly cool, is that he is also a pioneer of the new school of travel writing and online guides.
Here are some excerpts from his bio at the site :
Tom Brosnahan is a veteran guidebook author, travel writer and photographer, and consultant on travel information to companies and government agencies. He has written over 40 guidebooks for Berlitz, Frommer’s and Lonely Planet covering Belize, Canada, Egypt, England, France, Guatemala, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, New England, Tunisia and Turkey, with nearly four million copies in print worldwide in more than 10 languages. He’s also written a memoir about Turkey, travel, and travel writing: Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea.
He has been a Contributing Editor to Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine, and has had many articles and photographs published in leading periodicals including Travel and Leisure, The New York Times, theDaily Telegraph (London), Chicago Tribune, New YorkDaily News, BBC World, Journeys, Odyssey, Travel Life, and TWA Ambassador.
He is the founder of the Travel Info Exchange andTurkey Travel Planner websites, and many more travel resource sites. Tom has appeared on Good Morning America, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Anthem, The Connection, and on the Travel Channel and has lectured at the Smithsonian Institution, the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design, the American Turkish Council, and other organizations.
He is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and a co-founder and faculty member emeritus of the SATW Institute for Travel Writing and Photography. He lives in Concord, Massachusetts, with his wife Jane A Fisher.
Vagobond: You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in travel, in your opinion, what are some of the major pitfalls that lurk waiting for a travel writer?
Tom Brosnahan: The biggest is not judging a project accurately. Too many travel writers end up losing money and subsidizing publishers because they aren’t careful estimating the time and work in a project, and determining if it will be profitable.
Vagobond: In Bright Sun, Strong Tea, I remember laughing out loud when the neighbor giril in Izmir tried to corner you for a smooch – what other dangers have you narrowly avoided in your travels?
Tom Brosnahan: I play it safe—I’m not a war correspondent! But I’ve been chased by suspected terrorists in eastern Turkey, had rocks thrown at my car in Palestine, heard bombs go off in Jerusalem, been shaken down by guerillas in Chiapas, been in traffic accidents in Istanbul and Bangkok. But really, most travel is safe. Scary headlines rarely portray the situation each traveler will encounter, so I go in slow, and decide how far I can go safely.
Vagobond: There’s no arguing that travel has changed dramatically since the dawn of the information age – what are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed, both for the positive and for the negative?
Tom Brosnahan: Guidebooks have been used—and useful—since Roman times, but it can take up to a year to publish and distribute a paper guidebook, and with the Internet I can publish my work immediately, to the entire world, for next to nothing, forever! It’s apotheosis for a travel writer. Travelers now have far more, and better information than ever before, and that’s good for everyone. If there’s a negative, it’s that there’s simply too much information. Finding what you want can be tedious.
Vagobond: You and I share a love of Turkey – at the moment there are some pretty big changes going on in Turkish society – where do you think those changes will lead?
Tom Brosnahan:Turkey’s modern history is amazing: a torpid medieval empire remade into a vibrant modern free-enterprise democracy in less than a century. Turkey is now the economic powerhouse of the eastern Mediterranean, and a living example of democracy for other countries in the region. Especially in the past 20 years the change has been bewildering for many Turks. A young woman whose grandmother may have been in a harem can now pilot a jetliner. Hardscrabble life on the farm has yielded to glitzy ultramodern shopping malls. Such rapid change is difficult for people to absorb, but greater education, information and prosperity are forces for peace.
Vagobond: Like you, Istanbul feels like my second home, but you’ve spent a lot more time there than I have – can you toss some hidden destinations/experiences my way that I may have missed?
Tom Brosnahan: Visit the imperial ‘kasr’s, tiny palaces built for the sultan’s excursions. Get yourself invited to the “sema” (religious observance) of a dervish order (and not just the Mevlevi, or whirling, dervishes). Seek out the Roman aqueducts in the forests west and north of Istanbul. Witness the opening of the Galata Bridge in the middle of the night. Climb to the top of a minaret for the view.
Vagobond: Some of my Turkish friends in Istanbul have this particular form of national profiling – when they look at an American – they tend to just see the carpet they expect them to buy. What are some other ‘profiles’ you’ve encountered of both Americans on one side and Turks on the other?
Tom Brosnahan:Some years ago, Turkish tourist guides were asked by a major newspaper to describe each national type. It was hilarious:
Americans: friendly, interested, big tippers
Arab: three good meals daily and nothing else matters
British: scorpions in their pockets—you’ll never get a tip
German: so well informed, they’ll have to show you they know more than you do. And if there’s no beer there, don’t even stop the bus.
Israeli: always drama, dispute, tempest in a teacup
Vagobond: You’ve traveled to a lot of other places than Turkey – could you share some highlights with our readers?
Tom Brosnahan: I wrote for decades on Mexico & Central America. I’d drive from Boston and put 11,000 miles on the car. Mexico alone has the topographic, ethnic and linguistic diversity of all of Europe. Egypt: I hadn’t planned to go there, then I was asked by Berlitz to write a guide, now I believe every traveler must see Egypt. Norway: beautiful, friendly, peaceful. Expensive but worth it. If the world ever needs a capital city, it had better be Paris. As for France, it’s actually a whole bunch of little countries sharing a common border. Finally, I love New England. Did you know we have dozens of wineries here?
Vagobond: What are three pieces of advice for travelers that are often overlooked?
Tom Brosnahan:1. Cheap or expensive? Whether it’s a hotel, a meal, a guided tour, or a souvenir, the devil is in the details. Be sure you’re comparing the same things. A $100 hotel room in Istanbul includes all taxes and service charges, and a big buffet breakfast. A $100 hotel room in New York includes none of these, and taxes can add 17% to your bill. A $35 meal in Boston will be subject to 5.5% tax and 15% to 20& tip. A $35 meal in Paris costs exactly that.
Safe or deangerous? Look more closely, and judge accordingly. The most horrendous terrorist attacks in recent times took place not in Kabul or Beirut or Cairo, but in New York City, London and Madrid.
Concentrate on transportation: it may not be what you’re used to. It may be better to take a bus than a flight or rental car. It may be much farther than you think. Transport could be one of your greatest costs, overall.
Vagobond: It seems that you’ve adopted the web as your primary ‘publisher’ – as a geek who primarily does the same – I just love that. What were some of the factors that led to this? Was it a positive move? Do you think there is a future in writing for print?
Tom Brosnahan: I did well with guidebooks for 35 years, but then the pay went down while the work and responsibility went up. It was clear those trends would continue. It was also clear the Web was the information medium of the future: immediate publication, worldwide, virtually for free.
It has worked far better than I imagined. Instead of 75,000 readers in dozen countries per year I have nearly 7 million readers in 235 countries. And I’m earning far more than I ever did with print.
The paper codex (“book”) has been a useful medium since Gutenberg and will continue to be useful in a smaller way. But writing for print has little future. The publishers think they need to keep all the money.
Vagobond: What’s the best way for a travel writer to figure out what their audience is looking for?
Tom Brosnahan: Be in contact with them. Ask for comments. Set up an online forum. Talk to them on the road. Explore the statistics from your Web presence. There will be surprisess.
I’m experimenting with building a community portal metaverse. You can say hi in the lobby or ask questions with the chat widget below but to access the entire thing, you will need to jump (for now). Here is the link to it:
Anil Polat, aka Fox Nomad, is one of the best known of a special breed of technomad Vagobond who travels perpetually with tech gear. His very popular blog FoxNomad.com is one of my favorites and tends to focus on not only getting more out of your travels, but also getting more out of your technology while you are on the road. If you have questions about technology (like how to bypass a YouTube ban or use proxy servers in heavily censored countries) Anil is the guy you should turn to.
Vagobond: Where are you from? What’s your family background?
Anil: I’m from Turkey but spent much of my childhood moving back and forth between the US and Turkey with my journalist parents.
Vagobond: What got you into travel? What got you into technology? How did you come to mix the two so well?
Anil: I guess the travel comes from my parents! Aside from the physical movement, we were always talking about world events, politics, and it gave me a global perspective. Travel indulges my curiosity about humanity and what makes us ultimately human. As for technology, I’ve always been a nerd and playing with computers, and programming is easy to do growing up when you don’t have too many friends to play with 🙂 I was also very fortunate to have an uncle who helped guide my natural curiosity toward technology.
And finally, I can’t discount my love of Star Trek as a kid and now. If I could have a dream job it would be as science officer on a star ship. Being a hacker and full-time traveler are the closest I can get for now…but I’m still holding out hope 😉
Vagobond: Do you make your living strictly from travel? The web?
Anil: Yes and yes. I make a living by selling advertising on my websites and my ebooks primarily but don’t limit myself.
Vagobond: What’s the gadget you won’t travel without? What’s a gadget you’d like to try out?
Anil: I travel with everything I own, which for me is a lot of gadgets 🙂 The next major gadget I’ll buy is likely the new iPad, whenever it comes out to replace the second backup laptop (Dell Mini 10v) I carry now.
Vagobond: What’s your personal travel philosophy?
Anil: Hmmm, I’m not sure I have one. I suppose keep an open mind and be adaptable would be my general guidelines.
Vagobond: How many countries have you visited? Any countries you have no desire to visit?
Anil: I’ve visited almost 50 countries now and do want to see them all. In the past some of the ones I’ve been least interested in have turned out to be the most memorable so I’ve learned not to make travel conclusions without testing my hypothesizes.
Vagobond: What are your top 3 cities in the world? Since you are in the US, which city strikes you as the best there?
Anil: My favorite 3 begins with Istanbul, which is where I’d like to end up when this phase of my travels is over. After that I’ve got many favorites, it’s hard to choose but some recent ones have been Granada, Spain and Cairo, Egypt. My favorite city in the US is Seattle.
Vagobond: What’s your scariest travel moment?
Anil: I’ve had tense moments but not scary that I can remember. (But my memory is terrible.)
Vagobond: What’s your funniest travel moment?
Anil: One that immediately comes to mind is from my trip to Iraq with Wandering Earl (http://www.wanderingearl.com/). While making our way through a heavily guarded check point we came across an American soldier who was bewildered that anyone would want to travel there. His exact words were in heavy Texas accent, “Holy sh*t man, what the hell are you doing here!?”
Vagobond: What’s your most astounding adventure?
Anil: Again, it’s hard to pick just one although Iraq is certainly one of them.
Vagobond: What’s your dream destination/vacation/trip?
Anil: I’m so incredibly fortunate to have traveled as much as I have. I don’t feel like I deserve to answer this question honestly, I have really been incredibly lucky, I can’t ask for more.
Vagobond: Are you a traveler or a tourist or something else? What’s the difference if there is one.
Anil: I don’t see the difference. I’m just a guy who travels and writes about it for a living. Traveler sounds cooler but I’m not going to kid myself.
Vagobond: What’s a great travel tip most people don’t know?
Anil: Traveling isn’t that hard or expensive. Get specific on where you want to go and what you want to do – stir – then add in dash of planning, put in an oven of effort, wait a bit and you’ll have yourself a trip.
If you’ve done or thought about doing any long term travel in the age of the internet, chances are you’ve heard of Rolf Potts.
Rolf was blogging about travel for Salon at the dawn of the 2000’s, but he is best known for the publication of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to Long Term Travel in December of 2002. The book struck a chord with the internet generation and became a runaway hit amongst those who had missed the days of the hippie trail. The book is about taking serious time off from your normal life to discover and experience the world on your own terms. With sections on financing your travel time, determining your destination, adjusting to life on the road and handling travel adversity, the book addresses travel as inner development tool rather than travel as something that you simply do.
In the spirit of Ed Buryn‘s Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa, Potts book captured the imagination of a generation that was finding its way on the internet and wandering what the meaning of life truly was. Coming right after the dot com bust and on the eve of the financial crisis in the US and Europe, the book fit the bill for filling the gap between living to work and working to live and offered the opportunity to turn your life into your work through travel.
Since then Potts has piloted a fishing boat 900 miles down the Laotian Mekong, hitchhiked across Eastern Europe, traversed Israel on foot, bicycled across Burma, drove a Land Rover across South America, and travelled around the world for six weeks with no luggage or bags of any kind. He has also published a second book Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer and continues to travel around the world between rest stops at his farmhouse in Kansas. Rumor has it that Rolf has something new in the works for 2012 but he is keeping mum about it for now. I caught up with the vagabonding vagabond blogger via email and he kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions for Vagobond readers about life, travel, authenticity and himself.
Vagobond: What were you doing career wise before you started blogging for Salon (before the publication of Vagabonding)?
Rolf Potts: My last job before I transitioned into a full-time writing was teaching English in Korea. It was a key job for me, since in addition to earning me a decent amount of money for travel, it allowed me to live in and get to know an unfamiliar culture for a couple of years. My two years in Busan wasn’t always easy, but it was an essential experience that made me a better traveler down the line.
Before that teaching gig I hadn’t been following a single career path — I worked as a landscaper in Seattle for awhile, and I worked at an outdoor store, selling backpacks and fly-rods, in Kansas. This was all building up to what I really wanted to do — writing — and eventually that happened for me.
Vagobond: My first book was all about living in a van and enjoying time instead of money. I understand your first travels were in a van too. What were some lessons you picked up from living in a van?
Rolf Potts:I think traveling and living out of a van during my first vagabonding trip taught me some essential lessons about minimalism and keeping things simple. Since I was sleeping in the van most nights, I didn’t have a lot of room for extra “stuff”, so all I brought were some clothes and camping gear in a couple of laundry baskets. And even the gear I had in those laundry baskets wasn’t always necessary — I quickly learned that the American road provided me with most everything I needed experientially; my gear played a fairly minor role in my most interesting experiences. This was a lesson I applied while packing for my later backpacking trips across Asia, and even my no-baggage journey around the world in 2010.
Vagobond: In Vagabonding, you wrote about the philosophy of long-term travel – has that changed in the decade since then? How has technology changed your philosophy?
Rolf Potts:I don’t think my philosophy of vagabonding has changed — and in fact I wrote it in such a way that technological and other changes wouldn’t ever alter its core message, which is about keeping things simple and seeking one’s wealth in time and life-xperiences. Those are values that would apply in the 19th century as easily at the 21st. So regardless of what new tools and gadgets arrive to make travel easier, the core principles of vagabonding won’t change much.
One interesting thing about new technology — like social media and smart phones — is that it is making independent travel a lot easier.
More people are doing it now, I think, because it feels a lot safer and easier and more accessible than it used to. The flipside of this is that the conveniences of travel are more and more making travel and extension of home. In many ways we don’t have to psychically leave home” when we travel — we can keep in such close contact with our friends, family, and social networks — and this can diminish the experience of travel to an extent. So much of what is transformative about travel comes from confronting — and working through — being lonely and bored and lost. The less we’re forced to encounter those little challenges as travelers, the more travel tends to become a consumer experience.
Vagobond: Do you see any problems with the massive growth of independent and long-term travel? What about the huge growth of tourism?
Rolf Potts:There will invariably be problems with the growth of any industry, and travel is no exception. There will also be benefits. Indie travelers spend a lot of money in the “mom and pop” economies of faraway places — which is a good thing — but the presence of so many travelers can also strain the local culture and environment. Islands are particularly vulnerable to large influxes of tourists, since scarce resources like water get diverted to tourist needs instead of local ones. I don’t think this means travel should be curtailed to these places — its an important cultural and economic force — but it does mean that destinations should take care in planning tourist
facilities, and travelers should be cognizant of the impacts they bring. In a way I think indie travelers are better equipped than standard vacation tourists to wander in a mindful way, since a vagabonding-style traveler emphasizes going slow and keeping informed.
Vagobond: I realize I’m supposed to ask you about the best destination, your favorite country or something like that – but instead, what’s your favorite tourist area?
Rolf Potts:Tourist areas tend to disappoint some travelers — at least early on in their vagabonding careers — since the presence of so many tourists at these sites can be depressing and feel less authentic. But over time I’ve come to appreciate the dynamic of these places, each of which are unique to their own culture, even as they host a crush of visitors during high season. New Yorkers may complain about Times Square, but I think it has a great energy, even after having visited it dozens of times. The Champ de Mars area around the Eiffel Tower is always swarming with tourists and trinket vendors, but you’d have to be a pretty cynical soul not to enjoy a bottle of wine and a picnic there on a summer day with friends. Similarly, I found Machu Picchu in Peru to be utterly amazing, despite all the tourists there. So as much as I like getting off the beaten path when I travel, I still like to cultivate appreciation for these tourist areas.
Vagobond: What do you miss when you are on the road?
Rolf Potts:Ever since I got my home in Kansas, one thing I miss most frequently is the view of the prairie from my front deck. I know this might sound like a strange thing to miss, but over the years I’ve found that part of my enjoyment of faraway places extends from my affection for a single place that I know better than any others. When you find a way to attach yourself to a small part of the world, it can energize the way you see and appreciate other parts of the world. I have literally spent years away from my home in Kansas, but having that home gives me perspective and helps me appreciate all the other places I discover and experience in more far-flung parts of the world.
Vagobond: Do you think ‘staged authenticity’ is destroying the authentic travel experience? Is the world being Disneyfied?
Rolf Potts:Interestingly enough, I think there’s something weirdly authentic and satisfying in “staged authenticity,” when local cultures “perform” a more colorful version of their own identity for visiting tourists. Even though it’s this absurd fake charade, it says a lot about how Westerners long for a kind of authenticity they feel they have lost, while at the same time reminding host cultures about certain aspects of their own traditions. Staged authenticity will always exist, to some extent (I’d wager it existed in some form when the ancient Romans visited Egypt), but it transforms in different ways in different places. Some cultures, like the Embera in Panama, have managed to use staged authenticity in the face of tourists not just to empower themselves economically, but to redefine their own sense of identity and pride. It’s a dynamic process, like all aspects of global culture, and no sooner do you mock a thing like “staged authenticity” than you’ll begin to see it in surprising new ways.
Vagobond: Speaking of authentic, how would you recommend that today’s travelers find a more authentic experience in their travels?
Rolf Potts:The world is chock full of authenticity; it is literally everywhere, if one would just slow down and endeavor to experience it. It’s also a phenomenon that has a lot of nuance, and what at first might seem to be inauthentic — an Ethiopian Mursi tribesman wearing Nikes, for example — might end up being a very authentic part of how that culture is living today. So the best advice I can give to travelers is to simply be where you are. Turn off your smart phone, stop chattering with your companions, leave your digital camera in your pack: Stop, look, wait, breathe in; don’t overanalyze. It’s all authentic in its own way.
If there is a modern day heir to the great traveler/scholar Ibn Batutta – I would say that Francis Tapon is the guy. His latest book is a masterpiece of travel and will surely be quoted and referenced for the next decade- especially as the Eastern Europe that he has spent so much time coming to know, slowly goes away. The Hidden Europe:What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us is more than just a travelogue- it is a cultural and historical guidebook which is both intensely personal and incredibly helpful in coming to understand the places he has visited.
This is not a small book – it is a massive tome filled with economic, historical, and political data that somehow manages to come across as entertaining and at times even light reading – don’t expect to read even a single chapter in one session – in fact, I would say that this book is something that you will reference again and again – especially if you have an interest in Eastern Europe or if you are traveling in Eastern Europe.
Vagobond: I was introduced to you when I was doing research on the great vagabonds of the past. A librarian I met in Portland, Oregon told me – “Never mind the dead vagabonds – you should interview Francis Tapon.” Francis, when I looked at your site and started reading your adventures, I was simply blown away. At that time I think you were sleeping in a tent outside of Venice….Can you perhaps tell my readers how you started traveling? Was it always in this (pardon this) completely awesome style you travel in now?
Francis Tapon: I started traveling since I was born. Because I had a Chilean mom and a French father, my family would have to fly 10 hours to see a relative. My first independent trip was right after I graduated from college. It was a standard rite of passage: 75 days in Western Europe with my best high-school friend. Although we went to Prague and Budapest (which was somewhat unusual in 1992), most of the trip was pretty typical for college grads. We stayed in hostels or cheap hotels most of the way. My travel style didn’t change until after I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2001. Once I learned to camp in the wilderness for months, getting a bed/shower/roof seemed optional. And once couchsurfing.org took off, it added another dimension that helped me meet locals more easily than ever.
Vagobond: One of the things that always hits me about your writing, both on the web and in your books is the academic nature of it. I always feel like I’m there with you, but at the same time, I feel like I’m attending a lecture at the explorers club because of the history, culture, and texture that you bring to your travels. Do you have an academic background? Also, in terms of reading, what writers/authors influenced you the most?
Francis Tapon:Although I went to Harvard Business School, I don’t have an academic background (I have no PhD). In fact, I dislike how academia writes, which is why my style of writing is extremely casual. Michael Krasny called it “idiosyncratic” and “unorthodox.” While I like to tackle intellectual subjects, I try to do it in an entertaining way. Academic writing is usually boring and long-winded. I prefer a punchy style that still remains informative and profound. Whether I achieve that is for the reader to judge.
Bill Bryson has influenced me the most. I love his books. The biggest difference between us is that I tend to get more dirty than he does and I take bigger risks when I travel. His style of writing is refined than mine too–I can be more crass and controversial than him.
Vagobond: Did you always know you wanted to be an explorer and adventurer? Did you ever get blown off track? How did you find your way back?
Francis Tapon:Until I hiked the Appalachian Trail (age 31), I lived a pretty standard life. That journey transformed me. I did get blown off track twice. First was after the AT, when I consulted for Hitachi for 2.5 years. Then again after my first trip to Eastern Europe (2004), when I consulted for Microsoft for 18 months. Those four years of work weren’t wasted though: I’ve been living off the money I earned in those two jobs ever since. I always knew those would be temporary gigs, but it still takes discipline to leave a job that pays well. Income is addictive.
Vagobond: In reading The Hidden Europe, I was particularly blown away by the sections on Serbia and Russia. Russia, I kind of expected to be incredible, but with Serbia, I learned more about the country from reading your book than from traveling there myself! I had terrible experiences in Serbia, but reading The Hidden Europe made me want to go back and re-experience it. Can you perhaps explain why the Serbs are so completely misunderstood by the world? I ask because after reading your book, I certainly feel like I misunderstood many things.
Francis Tapon:Whenever we fight a war, we nearly always demonize the people we are fighting. It makes it easier to justify attacking a nation when you tell yourself that rotten things are going on there. The Western media demonized Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars instead of trying to understand them or to explain their point of view. This doesn’t mean Serbia was flawless, but I sought to understand the Serbs.
At the same time, as travelers we have to be careful about drawing broad conclusions based on a few encounters (or many encounters in a small region of the country). Perhaps I was lucky and met a bunch of wonderful Serbs while you met a bunch of jerks. I lived 18 months in the ex-Yugoslav countries so I feel that my assessment is pretty accurate, but I could have been lucky.
Vagobond: As a writer and traveler, there are a few destinations I keep to myself. I don’t want the world to know about them. Sometimes, though, I let people know about a hidden gem here or there. In all your travels in Eastern Europe, did you come across any of these gems you might be able to tell us about?
Francis Tapon:I loved Kotor, Montenegro. It’s a magical place for me.
Vagobond: Narrow escapes. Anyone who has traveled a bit has had more than a few of these, or else, they probably wouldn’t be travelling any longer. What about you? In your travels, can you tell us about one narrow escape?
Francis Tapon:I went for a 16-mile day hike in Olympic National Park, but ended up getting lost for 3 days. I had no sleeping bag, no shelter, no light, no food. It snowed. I saved my partner’s life twice. We both got frostbite and infections.
Vagobond: The subtitle of The Hidden Europe is ‘What Eastern Europeans can teach us.” – First of all- when you say ‘us’ who are you talking about? Secondly – while I found the entire book to be thought provoking, can you perhaps point to three of the most important lessons of it?
Francis Tapon:“Us” is mainly “us Americans,” but Western Europeans don’t know much about Eastern Europe either. Even Eastern Europeans don’t know much about Eastern Europe! So ultimately “us” is “everyone.”
1. Communism doesn’t work. For over 40 years, many countries throughout the world experimented with various flavors of a tightly controlled state – none of them worked. Let’s not forget that when people declare that we need a revolution that delivers us a paternalistic government.
2. A simplified tax policy. Most Eastern Europeans have flat taxes. I never met an Estonian who took more than 10 minutes to do their taxes. This helped fuel their growth in the last 20 years.
3. Celebrate depopulation. Eastern Europe is depopulating faster than any other region on Earth. Although many countries are fighting it (by giving incentives to reproduce), a few are accepting it and seeing the benefits: more resources per capita.
Vagobond: I love that you created a section about ‘Eastern Germany’ – today it’s very easy to forget that it was just twenty years ago that Germany was two different countries. There were a few moments in this section where I actually guffawed (Evil Santa and the smell chair in the disco era) – can you tell me your funniest moment in the former East Germany?
Francis Tapon:When I asked a East German if I could interview him, he agreed to give me 5 minutes and was not pleasant at first. However, in the end, he talked with me an hour, toured me around his city, took me into a church, and dropped me off at a train station in Poland! It’s funny how much he changed.
Vagobond: Turkey – I love it. It probably comes from going to the police and being offered a cup of tea and baklava even though I was in the wrong office – but anyway, I’m curious about your thoughts on the idea that Turkey is forming a sort of ‘New Ottoman Empire’ and the perception that the Turks are becoming more Islamicized? Also, what’s your favorite Turkish destination?
Francis Tapon:Turkey is just doing what most countries have been doing after WWII: extending its influence through economics and diplomacy rather than brute military and political expansion. If someone wants to call such policies the “New Ottoman Empire,” that’s fine, but don’t expect Turkey to militarily invade other countries–certainly not Europe. However, just like Latinos have been “invading” the USA, Turks will continue to “invade” Europe through immigration. European xenophobes will continue to resist the Turks, most of whom are not Islam fundamentalists. Most Turks are continuing down the path of secularism–a journey that started nearly 100 years ago. I’ve only seen western Turkey, but my favorite destination is Istanbul–it’s the third biggest city in the world.
Vagobond: I had an incredible experience in Pernik, Bulgaria where I got to get drunk with a retired communist coal miner who regaled me with stories of the glory of the communist days. You’ve traveled much more in Bulgaria than I have, do you think there is a danger of nostalgia moving Bulgaria backwards? Also, just curious – what, in your opinion is the best thing in Bulgaria?
Francis Tapon:Yes, there’s a danger that Bulgaria (and Eastern Europe) will move backwards. However, I don’t think that will happen. Change must happen to Bulgaria, but few Bulgarians think the solution is to go back to communism or heavy government control. The best thing about Bulgaria is how they shake their head from side-to-side to say “yes” and nod to mean “no.”
Vagobond: What about family? How can you travel for three years? Vagobond readers want to know things like where do you get the funds? Do you suffer from travel fatigue? Do you get lonely?
Francis Tapon: I worked for four years at Microsoft and Hitachi, lived like a monk, and saved up enough money to travel for years. I describe my travel secrets more in my article about how to travel for years. I don’t get fatigued because I take breaks whenever I get tired of traveling. For example, I parked it for 4 months in Tallinn, Estonia and several months in Slovenia and Croatia.
Vagobond: Finally….how about three solid travel tips that people may not have heard before.
1. Always carry a tarp and a sleeping bag/pad. It weighs just 2 kg (4.4 pounds), and it liberates you from the pressure and worry of finding a hostel/hotel. It allows you to be spontaneous when you travel.
2. Consider discreet urban camping. Camp in a city park or in the city’s outskirts right at sunset and leave no trace by sunrise.
3. Always offer cash after you hitchhike. Most drivers won’t accept it, but it shows that you’re not a freeloader and that you appreciate their help. It’s better than a “thank you.” Also, when you’re a guest at someone’s house, shower them with gifts and generous actions. You’ll always be invited back.
Vagobond: Okay, one last question. If you disappear, what country should I come looking for you in so we can go drink a few bottles of wine together?
Francis Tapon:Montenegro. But here’s the catch: I’ve never drunk any alcohol in my life. So let’s get guzzle sparkling water instead. 🙂
Vagobond: Thanks Francis. Absolutely love the book – still have been jumping around with it, but it’s seriously awe-some. Hope it sells millions of copies.
William S. Burroughs – no other name rings so loudly in the annals of extraordinary literary vagabonds of the 20th century. While his friend, Jack Kerouac may have found greater acclaim among stoned poets and hitch-hikers, it is Burroughs who was the true vagabond, though one with a trust fund to help him fund his movement and addictions.
Born February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs lived to the age of 83 and died August 2nd, 1997 in Lawrence, Kansas. He was a founder of the ‘Beat’ movement and a giant in 20th century American popular culture. Even if you’ve never heard of Burroughs – you’ve seen him or been exposed to his work. If you don’t believe me – ask yourself if you’ve ever seen the cover of the Beatles album – Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band – Burroughs is on it.
Burroughs influence affected a range of popular culture as well as literature. His 18 novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays had nothing less than a profound effect on pop culture.. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films.
He was born to a wealthy family and left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University where he studied English and anthropology as a postgraduate, and later attended medical school in Vienna. It was being turned down by the US Navy during World War II that led him to begin experimenting with the drugs that became such a key part of his life. He dropped out and became an addict and later befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The three of them were the basis of the counter-cultural movement of the Beat Generation which in turn led to the age of the Hippies.
Much of Burroughs’s work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict, as he lived throughout Mexico City, London, Paris, Berlin, the South American Amazon and Tangier in Morocco. Finding success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), Burroughs is perhaps best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959), a work fraught with controversy that underwent a court case under the U.S. sodomy laws.
Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift,” because of his “lifelong subversion” of the moral, political and economic systems of modern American society, articulated in often darkly humorous sardonicism. J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be “the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War,” while Norman Mailer declared him “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius.”
Europe He traveled to Europe after Harvard, which proved a window into Austrian and Hungarian Weimar-era homosexuality; he picked up boys in steam baths in Vienna, and moved in a circle of exiles, homosexuals, and runaways. It was there, he met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the Nazi government.
Burroughs married her, in Croatia, against the wishes of his parents, to allow her to gain a visa to the United States. She made her way to New York City, and eventually divorced Burroughs.
He deliberately severed the last joint of his left little finger, right at the knuckle, to impress a man with whom he was infatuated. This event made its way into his early fiction as the short story “The Finger.” Yes, Burroughs was most definitely a queer.
Paris and the ‘Beat Hotel’
Burroughs moved into a rundown hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1959 when Naked Lunch was still looking for a publisher since Tangier, Morocco with its easy access to drugs, small groups of homosexuals, growing political unrest and odd collection of criminals became increasingly unhealthy for Burroughs.
In Paris, he met with Ginsberg and talked with Olympia Press. In so doing, he left a brewing legal problem, which eventually transferred itself to Paris. Paul Lund, a former British career criminal and cigarette smuggler whom Burroughs met in Tangier, was arrested on suspicion of importing narcotics into France. Lund gave up Burroughs and some evidence implicated Burroughs in the possible importation into France of narcotics. Once again, the man faced criminal charges, this time in Paris for conspiracy to import opiates, when the Moroccan authorities forwarded their investigation to French officials. Yet it was under this impending threat of criminal sanction that Maurice Girodias published Naked Lunch, and it was helpful in getting Burroughs a suspended sentence, as a literary career, according to Ted Morgan, is a respected profession in France.
The ‘Beat Hotel’ was a typical European-style rooming house hotel, with common toilets on every floor, and a small place for personal cooking in the room. Life there was documented by the photographer Harold Chapman, who lived in the attic room. This shabby, inexpensive hotel was populated by Gregory Corso, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky for several months after Naked Lunch first appeared. Burroughs used the $3,000 advance from Grove Press to buy drugs.
The London years
Burroughs left Paris for London in 1966 to take the cure again with Dr. Dent, a well-known English medical doctor who spearheaded a painless heroin withdrawal treatment using an electronic box affixed to the patient’s temple. Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg would take this same cure over a decade later from Dr. Dent’s nurse, Smitty.
Burroughs ended up working out of London for six years, traveling back to the United States on several occasions, including one time escorting his son to Lexington Narcotics Farm and Prison after the younger Burroughs had been convicted of prescription fraud in Florida.
Burroughs took a large advance from Playboy to write an article about his trip back to St. Louis that was eventually published in The Paris Review, after Burroughs refused to alter the style for Playboy’s publishers.
In 1968 Burroughs joined Jean Genet, John Sack, and Terry Southern in covering the 1968 Democratic National Convention for Esquire magazine. Southern and Burroughs, who had first become acquainted in London, would remain lifelong friends and collaborators. In 1972, Burroughs and Southern unsuccessfully attempted to adapt Naked Lunch for the screen in conjunction with legendary insane American game show producer Chuck Barris.
In the 1960s Burroughs joined and left the Church of Scientology. In talking about the experience, he claimed that the techniques and philosophy of Scientology helped him and that he felt that further study into Scientology would produce great results. He was skeptical of the organization itself, and felt that it fostered an environment that did not accept critical discussion.
Mexico and South America
Burroughs fled to Mexico to escape possible detention in Louisiana’s Angola state prison. Vollmer and their children followed him. Burroughs planned to stay in Mexico for at least five years, the length of his charge’s statute of limitations. Burroughs also attended classes at the Mexico City College in 1950 studying Spanish as well as “Mexican picture writing” (codices) and the Mayan language with R. H. Barlow.
In 1951, Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer in a drunken game of “William Tell” at a party above the American-owned Bounty Bar in Mexico City. He spent 13 days in jail before his brother came to Mexico City and bribed Mexican lawyers and officials to release him.
Burroughs began to write what would eventually become the short novel Queer while awaiting his trial.
After leaving Mexico, Burroughs drifted through South America for several months, looking for a drug called yagé, which promised the user telepathy. A book, composed of letters between Burroughs and Ginsberg, The Yage Letters, was published in 1963 by City Lights Books.
In music, film and television
Burroughs not only appears on the cover of The Beatles’ eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but has many more musical connections. Burroughs participated on numerous album releases by Giorno Poetry Systems, including The Nova Convention (featuring Frank Zappa, John Cage, and Philip Glass) and You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With (with John Giorno and Laurie Anderson). He is featured in a spoken word piece entitled “Sharkey’s Night” on Laurie Anderson’s album Mister Heartbreak. In addition, Burroughs provided vocal samples for the soundtrack of Anderson’s 1986 concert film, Home of the Brave, and made a cameo appearance in it. He also recites the lyrics of R.E.M.’s “Star Me Kitten” for a special version of the song on the Songs in the Key of X: Music from and Inspired by the X-Files soundtrack.
In 1990, Island Records released Dead City Radio, a collection of readings set to a broad range of musical compositions. It was produced by Hal Willner and Nelson Lyon, with musical accompaniment from John Cale, Donald Fagen, Lenny Pickett, Chris Stein, Sonic Youth, and others. The remastered edition of Sonic Youth’s album Goo includes a longer version of “Dr. Benway’s House,” which had appeared, in shorter form, on Dead City Radio.
In 1992 he recorded “Quick Fix” with Ministry, which appeared on their single for “Just One Fix.” The single featured cover art by Burroughs and a remix of the song dubbed the “W.S.B. mix.” Burroughs also made an appearance in the video for “Just One Fix.” The same year he also recorded the EP The “Priest” They Called Him; Burroughs reads the short story of the same name, while Kurt Cobain creates layers of guitar feedback and distortion. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is featured on the cover as the titular “Priest.” In 1992 Burroughs worked with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy on Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, with the duo providing musical background and accompaniment to Burroughs’s spoken readings from several of his books.
Burroughs appears near the end of U2’s music video “Last Night on Earth”, pushing a shopping cart with a large spotlight positioned inside it. The video ends with a close up of his eyes.
In 2000, Spring Heel Jack released the album Oddities, on which appears the band’s remix of Material’s Road to the Western Lands, featuring Burroughs, which had originally appeared on the remix album Seven Souls.
Numerous bands have found their names in Burroughs’s work. The most widely known of these is Steely Dan, a group named after a dildo in Naked Lunch.Also from Naked Lunch came the names The Mugwumps and The Insect Trust. The novel Nova Express inspired the names of Grant Hart’s post-Hüsker Dü band Nova Mob, as well as Australian 1960s R&B band Nova Express. British band Soft Machine took its moniker from the Burroughs novel of the same name, as did protopunk band Dead Fingers Talk, from Hull, England; their only album was titled Storm the Reality Studios, after a quote from Nova Express. Alt-country band Clem Snide is named for a Burroughs character. Thin White Rope took their name from Burroughs’s euphemism for ejaculation.The American extreme metal band Success Will Write Apocalypse Across the Sky took their name from the 1989 text “Apocalypse”, in which Burroughs describes “art and creative expression taking a literal and physical form.”
Burroughs played Opium Jones in the 1966 Conrad Rooks cult film Chappaqua, which also featured cameo roles by Allen Ginsberg, Moondog, and others. In 1968, an abbreviated—77 minutes as opposed to the original’s 104 minutes—version of Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan was released, subtitled Witchcraft Through The Ages. This version, produced by Anthony Balch, featured an eclectic jazz score by Daniel Humair and narration by Burroughs. He also appeared alongside Brion Gysin in a number of short films in the 1960s directed by Balch. Jack Sargeant’s book Naked Lens: Beat Cinema details Burroughs film work at length, covering his collaborations with Balch and Burroughs’ theories of film.
Burroughs narrated part of the 1980 documentary Shamans of the Blind Country by anthropologist and filmmaker Michael Oppitz. He gave a reading on Saturday Night Live on November 7, 1981, in an episode hosted by Lauren Hutton.
Burroughs subsequently made cameo appearances in a number of other films and videos, such as David Blair’s Wax: or the Discovery of Television among the Bees, in which he plays a beekeeper, in an elliptic story about the first Gulf War, and Decoder by Klaus Maeck. He played an aging junkie priest in Gus Van Sant’s 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy. He also appears briefly at the beginning of Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (based on the Tom Robbins novel), in which he is seen crossing a city street; as the noise of the city rises around him he pauses in the middle of the intersection and speaks the single word “ominous”. Van Sant’s short film “Thanksgiving Prayer” features Burroughs reading the poem “Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1986,” from Tornado Alley, intercut with a collage of black and white images.
A documentary titled Burroughs, directed by Howard Brookner, was released in 1984. It included footage of Burroughs and many of his friends and colleagues. Near the end of his life, recordings of Burroughs reading his short stories “A Junky’s Christmas” and “Ah Pook is Here” were used on the soundtracks of two highly acclaimed animated films.
Filmmakers Lars Movin and Steen Moller Rasmussen used footage of Burroughs taken during a 1983 tour of Scandinavia in the documentary Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs on the Road. A 2010 documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, was made for Independent Lens on PBS.
As a fictional character
Burroughs was fictionalized in Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel On the Road as “Old Bull Lee.” He also makes an appearance in J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical 1991 novel The Kindness of Women. In the 2004 novel Move Under Ground, Burroughs, Kerouac, and Neal Cassady team up to defeat Cthulhu.
Burroughs appears in the first part of The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson during the 1968 Democratic Convention riots and is described as a person devoid of anger, passion, indignation, hope, or any other recognizable human emotion. He is presented as a polar opposite of Allen Ginsberg, as Ginsberg believed in everything and Burroughs believed in nothing. Wilson would recount in his Cosmic Trigger II: Down to Earth having interviewed both Burroughs and Ginsberg for Playboy the day the riots began as well as his experiences with Shea during the riots, providing some detail on the creation of the fictional sequence.
Can there be a more iconic vagabond of the 20th century than William Seward Burroughs?
Louis L’amour was more than just a prolific writer of Western novels. He was a boxer, a hobo, a round the world traveler, a merchant seaman, a soldier and a vagabond.
Louis Dearborn LaMoore, better known as Louis L’amour was born in Jamestown, North Dakota, in 1908. He was the seventh child of Dr. Louis Charles LaMoore and Emily Dearborn LaMoore. He was of French and Irish ancestry and the son of a large-animal veterinarian, local politician and farm-equipment broker who had arrived in Dakota Territory in 1882.
The area around Jamestown was mostly farm land but cowboys and livestock often traveled through Jamestown on their way to or from ranches in Montana and the markets to the east. Like most future writers, L’amour spent plenty of his boyhood free time at the local library reading, particularly G. A. Henty, a British author of historical boys’ novels during the late nineteenth century. L’Amour once said, “[Henty’s works] enabled me to go into school with a great deal of knowledge that even my teachers didn’t have about wars and politics.” In addition to history and the natural sciences, the young Louis was captivated by the fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs and others … letting them carry him away to the south seas, the gold fields of the Yukon, the Spanish Main, the center of the earth and the dying red planet of Mars.
In 1923 the family fell on hard times and over the next seven or eight years, they skinned cattle in west Texas, baled hay in the Pecos Valley of New Mexico, worked in the mines of Arizona, California and Nevada, and in the saw mills and lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest. It was in colorful places like these that Louis met a wide variety of people, upon whom he later modeled the characters in his novels, many of them actual Old West personalities who had survived into the nineteen-twenties and -thirties.In Oklahoma he met Bill Tilghman, once the marshal of Dodge City; Chris Madsen who had been a Deputy U.S. Marshall and a Sargent with the 5th cavalry; and Emmett Dalton of the notorious Dalton Gang. In New Mexico he met George Coe and Deluvina Maxwell who had both known Billy the Kid; Tom Pickett who’d had a thumb shot off in the Lincoln County War; Tom Threepersons who had been both a Northwest Mounted Policeman and a Texas Ranger; and Elfagio Baca, a famous New Mexico lawyer who had once engaged over eighty of Tom Slaughter’s cowboys for 33 hours in one of the west’s most famous gunfights. During his years in Arizona Louis met Jeff Milton, a Texas Ranger and Border Patrolman and Jim Roberts, the last survivor of the Tonto Basin War and later Marshall of Jerome. But perhaps most importantly, during the years he was traveling around the country, young Louis met hundreds of men and women who, though unknown historically, were equally important as examples of what the people of the nineteenth century were like.
While still only a teenager, he set out on a journey which took him around the world (you can find out more about it and see plenty of photos at www.louislamourgreatadventure.com/. It was a ten month vagabond adventure that was to shape the rest of his life. He hoped to create a series of stories that would document these times because, even as he experienced them, they were fading. The free, wandering, days of the hobo disappeared with the financial pressure of the depression and, as the world responded to the growing tensions that led to World War Two, customs and immigration officers began cracking down on all travelers. The sense that the world was full of unknown possibilities was vanishing as telegraph and telephone, radio, fast steam ships, and aircraft shrank people’s sense of the world and brought the most remote corners under the supervision of control mad governments. He circled the globe as a merchant seaman, visiting England, Japan, China, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, Arabia, Egypt, and Panama with the rough and ready crews of various steamships on which he served.
Ultimately, Louis wrote about a world in transition, not a place where anything was possible but a place where the last things were possible, a world that was becoming the world we know now. Like the old west that he would eventually write about, Louis was around at a time when he could experience the last vestiges of a vanishing age and meet the people who had been a part of that age in its prime.
Back in the USA, he hoboed across the country, hopping freight trains with men who had been riding the rails for half a century. He wrapped newspaper under his clothes to keep warm while sleeping in hobo jungles, grain bins and the gaps in piles of lumber. He spent three months “on the beach,” in San Pedro, California
Many of these stories are now published in the collection “Yondering” and there are more in “Off the Mangrove Coast, “”West from Singapore,” “Night over the Solomons,” “Beyond the Great Snow Mountains”.
He changed his name to Louis L’Amour and settled down to try to make something of himself as a writer in the 1930’s. His stories about boxing got him a bit of notice but most of his other stories were ignored and rejected until finally, L’Amour placed a story, “Death Westbound,” in a magazine that was very much the Playboy of its day.
“10 Story Book” featured quality writing alongside scantily attired, or completely naked young women but aside from that, it was hard going until 1938 when his stories began appearing in pulp magazines fairly regularly.
Surprisingly, given his later career, L’Amour wrote only one story in the western genre prior to World War Two, 1940’s “The Town No Guns Could Tame. During World War II, he served in the United States Army as a transport officer with the 3622 Transport Company. After World War II, L’Amour continued to write stories for magazines; his first after being discharged in 1946 was Law of the Desert Born in Dime Western Magazine (April, 1946). L’Amour’s contact with Leo Margulies led to L’Amour agreeing to write many stories for the Western pulp magazines published by Standard Magazines, a substantial portion of which appeared under the name “Jim Mayo”. The suggestion of L’Amour writing Hopalong Cassidy novels also was made by Margulies who planned on launching Hopalong Cassidy’s Western Magazine at a time when the William Boyd films and new television series were becoming popular with a new generation. L’Amour read the original Hopalong Cassidy novels, written by Clarence E. Mulford, and wrote his novels based on the original character under the name “Tex Burns”. Only two issues of the Hopalong Cassidy Western Magazine were published, and the novels as written by L’Amour were extensively edited to meet Doubleday’s thoughts of how the character should be portrayed in print.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that L’Amour began to sell novels. His first novel, published under his own name, was Westward The Tide, published in 1951. The short story, “The Gift of Cochise” was printed in Colliers (July 5, 1952) and seen by John Wayne and Robert Fellows, who purchased the screen rights from L’Amour for $4,000. James Edward Grant was hired to write a screenplay based on this story changing the main character’s name from Ches Lane to Hondo Lane. L’Amour retained the right to novelize the screenplay and did so, even though the screenplay differed substantially from the original story. This was published as Hondo in 1953 and released on the same day the film opened with a blurb from John Wayne stating that “Hondo was the finest Western Wayne had ever read”. During the remainder of the decade L’Amour produced a great number of novels, both under his own name as well as others (e. g. Jim Mayo).
L’Amour’s career flourished throughout the 1960s and he began work on a series of novels about the fictional Sackett family. Initially he wrote five books about William Tell Sackett and his close relatives, however, in later years the series spread to include other families and four centuries of North American history. It was an ambitious project and several stories intended to close the gaps in the family’s time line were left untold at the time of L’Amour’s death.
L’Amour also branched out into historical fiction with The Walking Drum, set in the 11th century, a contemporary thriller, Last of the Breed, and science fiction with The Haunted Mesa.
L’Amour eventually wrote 89 novels, over 250 short stories, and sold more than 320 million copies of his work. By the 1970s his writings were translated into over 20 languages. Every one of his works is still in print.
L’Amour died from lung cancer on June 10, 1988, at his home in Los Angeles, and was buried in Glendale, California. His autobiography, Education of a Wandering Man, was published posthumously in 1989.
An insatiable curiosity coupled with a passion for people, places, culture, and history has compelled me to visit the far-flung corners of the globe in search of answers. Or kept me planted in my desk chair for weeks delving into the far from obvious insecurities a protagonist must overcome to reach his or her dreams. Seeking clarity in a calamitous world is the job of the writer. Thanks for checking in.
The words are fitting for the man. Understated, interesting and filled with the promise of adventure. Steve was a stock broker until the mid-1990’s when he realized it was a dead end job (literally as he saw a man fall past his high rise window to his death) and then embarked upon a new career as a travel journalist. Since then he has written hundreds of articles, visited more than 60 countries, authored guidebooks, key noted tourism conventions and lectured at universities. My interview with Steve Jermanok made me feel both humbled and refueled with a lust for new adventures. I hope you enjoy it too.
Vagobond: I love the story of how you became a travel writer. As another guy who was once a stock broker and gave it up to be a penniless writer in Hawaii – your story of sudden realization about the life sucking nature of the corporate world and then your decision to leave it strike me as nothing short of awesome. Can you tell Vagobond readers about it? Was it the best decision of your life?
Steve Jermanok: The late 80s was a time of excess in New York. I’d often go down to Wall Street for business lunches and we wouldn’t leave the restaurant until 8 or 9 pm in the evening. When my boss started getting into coke, coming back from the bathroom with a white line on his lip, I knew that I had to get out of there or I’d probably be dead before I was 30. I booked a flight on Air New Zealand, stopping at 12 different stops on the way to Sydney and never looked back. I was fortunate to get my midlife crisis over at 25. I think they actually call it a quarter-life crisis these days.
Vagobond: You’ve written a huge number of travel articles for a wide variety of publications – which articles stand out the clearest in your memory?
Steve Jermanok: Ask me to remember the pearly white sands of a Hawaiian beach, a sunset in Santorini, or a hot-air balloon ride over the Masai Mara and I would have a hard time. It’s the mishaps that you remember vividly. In the late 90s, I was asked by Men’s Journal magazine to hike a portion of the Desert Trail, a trail that snakes from Mexico in the south to Oregon in the north, with one of its founders. I chose a five-day trek through the Mojave Desert on the California/Nevada border. I had to backpack in with over 40 pounds of water, food, tent, and sleeping bag. It didn’t help that I borrowed a former WWII army pack from my buddy’s father that was digging into my shoulders. I had blisters on my feet by the end of day two. Day three was sweltering, well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I took out my trusty microcassette recorder to dictate some notes and the tape had melted. That was the last time I used a cassette recorder on a trip. By the end of the trip, I was cramping and couldn’t wait to get back to Vegas, soak in a hot tub, and get on my flight back home. Unfortunately, there was a blizzard back in Boston. I was forced to watch Siegfried and Roy types of shows in Vegas the next four nights.
Vagobond: Are there any articles that you wish you would have written, but haven’t yet? Any that you wish you hadn’t of written?
Steve Jermanok: The articles I love most have a central character, like cocktail writer Wayne Curtis leading me around the bars of New Orleans in search of pre-Prohibition era drinks. When I speak to students studying writing at the universities in Boston, I always note that travel writing has far more in common with fiction than other forms of journalism. You need great characters, sharp dialogue, colorful description of the scenery, and hopefully some humor. That said, there are a lot of great characters around the world I’d like to meet.
The one article I wish I didn’t write was a travel story for The Boston Globe on my favorite swimming holes on Cape Cod. These are coveted ponds that locals didn’t appreciate me divulging. Sure, there are over 300 kettle ponds on the Cape and I was only discussing ten of those beauties, but it was disrespectful of the locals on the Cape who call it home.
Vagobond: How has the world of the travel writer changed since you began? Can you suggest a couple of positive and a couple of negative?
Steve Jermanok: When I started in travel writing, I would type up a pitch letter and send it with a self-addressed stamp envelope to a publisher. Then I would head to the mailbox and pick up my stack of rejection letters each day. For some masochistic reason, I still have a thick file of rejection letters and pass them around to journalism students who think they want to give freelance writing a shot. You need to develop a tough hide and not be so sensitive about rejection.
These days, I pitch my editors via email and wait for a response. What I love about travel writing currently is the ability to write about anything I want via a blog or tweet. I find it incredibly liberating, not having to wait for an editor to say yea or nay to write about a subject that interests me. I also just jumped into travel consulting with my wife, an accredited travel agent. That way, if people in this new world of A.D.D. don’t have the time to read my stories, I can still point them in the right direction. This stems from a trip to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. I had just returned from a freighter cruise trip on the Aranui, spending two glorious weeks looking in awe at these verdant and jagged islands that rise precipitously from the ocean waters. So incredibly picturesque are these islands that Herman Melville jumped ship here and wrote his first novel and Paul Gauguin would live out his final days in Eden. Just before I left French Polynesia, I met this honeymoon couple in the citified island of Tahiti who had just spent their past week at an overpriced hotel. I felt like smacking them. Instead, I’m now helping people avoid that mistake.
Vagobond: More than 60 countries since you left that Manhattan office – do you have any favorites? What about least favorite destinations?
Steve Jermanok: Just like my favorite stories revolve around intriguing characters, my favorite places in the world contain locals that are incredibly welcoming (so why, you ask, do I live in Boston where people refer to the local drivers as Massholes). In Fiji, where in the days of yore they dined on my ancestors, I’ve had a Fijian chief cook me a feast at his hut and serve the numbing kava drink. I’ve returned to Kenya often, first wanting to see the animals on safari, now wanting to visit friends I’ve made in Nairobi. New Zealanders not only picked me up when I was hitchhiking, but then took me to their homes for dinner and a night’s sleep. In Israel, I loved having hummus and fool with taxi drivers in the old Jaffa section of Tel Aviv. In Bali, I was fortunate to be invited to a funeral and really understand the powerful spirituality that resonates on this island. In Mae Hong San, I smoked opium with a leper, who mentioned that he wasn’t contagious. Those are the memories I cherish.
Vagobond: Tourists and travellers – are they the same thing with different packaging?
Steve Jermanok: I tell travelers that even with a limited amount of time, you can still have an authentic experience. Just leave the shyness and the cool machismo vibe back home. Jump into each culture with a vengeance, tasting the foods, learning their indigenous culture, and yes, meeting the people. Don’t be afraid to travel alone. You’ll meet people from around the world that will be your friends throughout life. After entering a mud hut to meet the many wives of a Maasai warrior on the Tanzania/Kenya border, he asked if I’m on Facebook. Yeah, I said I’m on Facebook. Now he’s a Facebook friend making comments about my mundane life, and I love it. The world’s a far smaller place than you think.
Today is the day we celebrate this wonderful world. I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot of this big blue marble and to see some wonderful things, places, cultures and natural wonders. Today, rather than celebrating another traveler – I would prefer to celebrate the place we all travel on and the greatest traveler we all know. The planet Earth – Terra – Mother.
In a year- Earth travels about 940 million kilometers around the Sun, however, this does not include the distance the Solar System has moved around the Galactic Centre during that time. Nor does it include the distance you have traveled as the earth rotates every 24 hours. Since we are all on this wonderful spaceship – each of us is actually traveling further than anyone (and the same distance) every second of every day. We are all great space explorers. When it comes to cheap flights – planet Earth gives us some of the cheapest. Tenerife is just one of her many places that fly through space on her surface.
Whether you want to travel closer to Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, or Mars – she allows it. Whether you want to go to the far side of the sun or take a vacation to the close side. And then there is the moon…but that’s another story.
The symbol of the Earth consists of a cross over a circle and here is a funny thing, humans always thought that the other planets moved, but they actually thought that Earth was standing still! It wasn’t until the 1700’s that some radicals started to really dig how the Earth travels.
It’s not uncommon to think of Earth as a person or a diety – called Gaia by her friends and Mother by her children, she is most often thought of as a woman – and who can imagine a man with such incredible fertility? Right? Of course, a lot of the ‘big’ religions think this is a terrible thing but then they say to ‘honor thy mother’ and continue to deface and devalue the biggest mother of them all. Our mother planet where (as far as we know) all life was born.
A very funny thought today is that for most of human history – people thought of Earth as being a flat, one dimensional place. Of course, you can’t flatten a good woman and Earth demonstrated a lovely spherical shape as humans began to circumnavigate and even visit outer space!
And that brings us to today, it really wasn’t until seeing that big blue marble photo above that anyone thought about the fact that this planet is all connected. That things you do in China (or anywhere) actually affect what happens everywhere else. It’s no coincidence that spaceflight and the modern ecological movement began at about the same time.
Earth agreed to a very short interview with me when I caught up with her this week.
Vagobond: Where is your favorite destination?
Earth: Well, all of my regions have their charm, but to be honest it is the oceans that I love the best. The constant movement, sound and beauty – the diversity of life. The oceans are really like my womb and what woman doesn’t love being able to create life?
Vagobond: Are you upset at the way humans have treated you?
Earth: What mother wouldn’t be? But you know, the dinosaurs shit all over me too and look what happened to them. Like ‘the Dude’ I endure – by the way, I’m a big fan of The Big Lebowski. I feel like if more people were to watch that film, the planet would be better off. I hope that in a few centuries Dudism is a major force on my surface.
Vagobond: What’s your most dangerous travel travel moment?
Earth: Actually, it’s hard to say but I think when the planet between Mars and Me got smashed by a comet, that was a close call. You have to be careful of those who travel with no plan – sometimes it can be beautiful, but often it can be cataclysmic. In this case, I was given a beautiful moon after the break up but the impact was large, I have huge craters to show for it. And, you know, we were pretty deeply involved. At the time, there was an advanced civilization that moved between both our surfaces – no traces remain of course – at least not obvious enough traces for my arrogant human children to find -yet.
Vagobond: Fascinating. I thought I knew something of astronomy but I’d never heard that before. Can you share any other secrets with our readers? Maybe you have some travel tips?
Earth: Actually, I’m filled with secrets but now isn’t the time to reveal them, but I”m happy to share a few travel tips that will make your life easier. They’re pretty common sense but it’s surprising how many people ignore them.
1) Don’t shit where you eat. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about feces – I’m saying that you need to take care of your home or else it becomes incredibly unpleasant. In this case, just look at my atmosphere and oceans, all the garbage and you should get what I mean.
2) Time heals all wounds. No matter how much destruction or devastation is caused, eventually things return to a balance. Chaos is a myth. The universe is orderly and that includes the lives of humans and planets.
3) Time is the only true wealth. Whie I’m very old by human standards, my clock is ticking down. Eventually I will transform and become something else. It’s for that reason, that I treasure each moment. Sure, it hurts to feel my resources pulled out and sent into space, but in fact – as long as I have time, I am the wealthiest planet around.
Vagobond: I thought there would be more ‘green’ tips – aren’t you going to suggest that we take better care of you, use less water, develop clean energy and things like that?
Earth: Why would I do that? I don’t tell a deer not to make a path in the woods. I don’t tell termites not to eat trees. Humans are just another animal species and you will do what you do. You think that you are deviating from nature, but in fact – there are lessons you have to learn and as your mother, I would love to save you from the pain those lessons might cause but I know that the pain is what will actually make you learn. Okay…well, just one thing. Enough with the plastic – it’s everywhere and it doesn’t go away.
Vagobond: Thank you for the wonderful interview and the wonderful world Mother.
Earth: You’re welcome – it’s nice to actually be noticed!
Emma Goldman was a very well known female radical, especially for her role in developing the anarchist philosophy in North America and parts of Europe in early twentieth century. She was born on June 27, 1869 in Kaunas, Lithuania (then Kovno, Russia), Emma shifted to the USA in 1885, where she began her political career. She was always a caring and helping person (though notoriously rowdy), and she soon began to attract attention through her articles, editorials and other writings. She also began to speak on issues, and managed to gather large crowds wherever she went. She was especially active on women issues like birth control, ill treatment of women, etc.
Emma showed rebellion early in life, right from standing up for her when her father used to beat her. That made her father only angrier, but Emma was not one to back down. Her life was filled with constant movement from city to city and town to town. While she was still young, her family moved to Papile, a small village in the then Russian Federation, where her father ran an inn. There she witnessed her first sight of a peasant being whipped, and that began her dislike of violence that authority puts in people. Then, when she was seven, the family moved to Konigsberg, then part of Germany, where Emma had her first taste of education. The teachers there, however, were either very religious or harsh, and she could not stand either.
Her school career came to an end after a year when the family again moved to Saint Petersburg, Russia, where her father opened a store. The venture proved to be unsuccessful, which led to another store, and another. He could not succeed. That forced the kids to work, and Emma herself had to work many jobs, most of them menial. Emma’s interest in education was sparked, and she began to educate herself in her free time, starting with the revolution that was going on in Russia at the time. She was a quick learner, and she soon managed to know how things worked.
In 1885, at 16 years of age, Emma moved to Rochester, New York, this time not along with her father, but with her mother, and joined her elder sister in New York. She started working as a seamstress there. They were soon joined by her father and elder brother who were unable to survive the harsh conditions in Saint Petersburg. Emma started to actively take part in revolutions around her, and was allegedly involved in many high-profile incidents that occurred at the time. She started a journal, Mother Earth that was home to radicalists from all over the country. Her involvement became so severe that she was deported from the US to Russia, where she stayed till 1921. She wrote a book named “My Disillusionment in Russia” where she recounts her experiences during her stay there.
Emma left Russia in 1921 for Germany, where she found the conditions too harsh. She then moved to England, where she stayed till 1927. In 1927, she again moved to Canada, where she tried to settle but could not because of the political unrest. In 1936, she returned to the USA, having become quite a well-known figure by then. She finally moved to France in 1938, where she underwent a couple of prostate gland operations. Then she moved back to Canada, where on May 14, 1940, she took her last breath. She was buried honorably in German Waldheim Cemetery (now named Forest Home Cemetery) in Forest Park, Illinois, where her burial was attended by all her colleagues and well-wishers.
While I was in Marseille, France last week, I passed upon what looked like a Greek statue – I was surprised to see it was a Greek man name Pytheas – now, this goes to show you that we all have our ingnorant spots – my first thought was to mistakenly wonder why the inventor of the Pythagorean Theorem was famous in Marseille – and then my mental stabilizer kicked in and I realized it wasn’t a statue of Pythagoras, but Pytheas and that I knew nothing about him.
How fitting that I should discover his statue just prior to going to Britain. Many people don’t realize that Marseille was the ancient Greek colony of Massalia – and Pytheas was a native of that town. So, that statue of a Greek – was actually a voyage of a Frenchman before there was ever a France. And here’s the real interesting part – Pytheas was the first sailor to record a trip to Britain, where I am now. We could say that he ‘discovered’ Britain, though like saying Columbus discovered America, that is pretty much ignoring the fact that the people living there, discovered the respective countries long before Pytheas or Columbus ever lived and breathed.
Pytheas was one of the great geographers and explorers of the ancient Earth. He left Marseille in 325 B.C. and set off to explore the great unknown seas and lands of Northern Europe. Along the way, he became the first documented source to describe the phenomenon of the Midnight Sun – that is where the day does not get dark in the Northern lands. As if that wasn’t enough – Pytheas was the first person to discern that the moon was responsible for the tides of the Ocean and the first to encounter and write about the Germanic tribes.
Sadly, the complete work of Pytheas is lost to history and his writings only survive as excerpts in the writings of later explorers. I find it astounding that work of such importance can be lost to history, but there it is. History does not discriminate in the fading of memory.
Even the title is gone though some different authors later said it was similar to “My Trip Around the Earth” or “Of the Ocean” – but really, we just don’t know. With no reason to it, I like the title “Of the Ocean and My Trip Around the Earth”
Scholars suggest that another mariner from Marseille reached Britain first, but his name is completely lost to history.
In fact, it was Pytheas who named Britain and the British. Britanniae meaning all the islands easily became Britain and British. Many scholars however, are quite certain that the word began with a P until the time of Julius Ceasar when it changed to the present ” form.
Pytheas described his Britains as a people who baked bread, stored grain, and lived in thatched huts. Like hobbits. He reported “they are of simple manners and happy with plain fare..” – like hobbits. After leaving Middle Earth, Pytheas went North seeking Elves and Thunder Gods – okay, wait, let me get back to history.
From Britain, Pytheas sailed North to the land of Thule where he encountered ice sheets and the midnight sun. The explorer, Richard Francis Burton wrote a detailed study of Thule much later. We can reasonably know that Pytheas went through Scotland and the Orkneys and straight on until Morning when the sun stopped setting.
All of this was done with hat modern sailors and navigators would consider very primitive equipment. An astounding accomplishment which ceratinly has more than earned him a simple statue in his hometown of Marseille – which I’m certainly happy to have come across.