Interview with Marie Javins, traveler extraordinaire

I first encountered Marie Javins (@mariejavins) online sometime back in December of 2005. I was totally impressed by her 2001 solo trip by land and sea around the globe. We met up for breakfast in New York once, and have traded messages as we’ve moved on to live in Europe (me) and the Middle East (her).

As she describes herself on her site:

Marie Javins is an award-winning writer, comic book creator, traveler, and blogger who alternates between roaming the planet by public bus, overseeing the output of a Kuwait-based superhero comic book company as editor in chief, and writing books entirely unrelated to her day job. In 2001, she circumnavigated the world by surface transport live on MariesWorldTour.com.

We’ve corresponded over the last 5.5 years — usually trading travel tips.

But since March 1, 2011, she’s been back on the road — this time doing the world tour AGAIN — IN REVERSE, starting off in Melilla, the Spanish exclave in Morocco.

In between braving Nigerian moneychangers and chatting with Scottish-Gambians, Marie found a few minutes (ok, probably the better part of an hour, if not more) to respond to some questions from me by e-mail.

1) So you’ve already done one world tour? Why a second one? What’s your plan/itinerary for this time around?

Marie Javins: My plan is to circumnavigate the globe in reverse of my original trip, seeing parts of the world I didn’t see the first time. It’s a big world — you can’t see it all at once! I have seen many parts of it since the first MariesWorldTour.com, most notably Australia and the Middle East, both of which I’ve resided in for short periods over the last decade. Of course, there are repeats in my plan. There are gateway cities and duplication is unavoidable, but as they are good spots to rest and plan (Bangkok springs to mind, which is a great place to do nothing except see dentists and doctors and eat sticky rice), I wouldn’t want to avoid them.

In 2001, I traveled from East to West, taking the train across the US first and then crossing the Pacific to Australia, then finding my way through Southeast Asia, up into Russia, over to the Baltics, then out of Germany to Cape Town by ship, where I started the long journey north via East Africa. I returned to Europe via Israel and Italy, and crossed the Atlantic from Southampton.

This time, I am traveling in the other direction, west to east. I flew from New York to Spain on March 1, where I caught a ferry to the African continent. I’ve been using trains, shared taxis, and buses to head south since then, running into a bump with the lack of roads in the Congos (at which point I gave up on land and flew rather than miss Brazzaville and Kinshasa by looping over the Atlantic tips of the Congos into Angola), and hope to be in Cape Town by the time anyone reads this.

My next flight leg is June 3 from Cape Town to Madagascar, then on to Bangkok from there. I’ll loop up into China then down via Tibet and Nepal to India—provided I can get the necessary permit—book a trip into Bhutan (a single land border is open), then use budget airlines to fly back to Bangkok from India, and also visit Borneo and Bali before moving onto Australia—this turned out to be a necessary stop to make my RTW ticket work, so I’ll go to Western Australia and Tasmania, both new to me—then Tahiti and the Marquesas before returning home just after Christmas.

This time — the biggest difference (besides higher cost — ouch, US dollar!) is the method of transportation. I used freighters (and the QE2) in 2001. This time, I had enough frequent flyer miles to get a free (or almost free, as there are still taxes that needed to be paid) round-the-world Star Alliance ticket. I originally tried to book ships — which are also less bad for the environment — but I ran into two hurdles.

a) There was a reason I went in the other direction last time, and that’s because it made sense with the season and the shipping lanes. For example, for my 2011 trip, there was only one way out of Cape Town heading east to Asia, and it was thousands of dollars. Having only one option on an extended trip where you live by your wits is never a good idea, though it is sometimes unavoidable. Had I been catching a ship from Cape Town to Europe via the west coast, there would have been multiple options.

b) When I booked the ships in 2001, they were pricey, but this was pre-euro. The Deutsch Mark was the currency of many ships, and the US dollar was quite strong against the Deutsch Mark in 2001. Now, the dollar has taken a beating against the euro. When I finally sat down and did the math, and realized I’d be spending about $10,000 for ships versus flying for nearly free, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I have mixed feelings about sacrificing the ships. On the one hand, I’ve spent a LOT of time on ships. I don’t feel like there’s a lot more I can say about them. You eat. You sleep. You read. You work on your laptop, maybe see some dolphins, and chat with the crew. This is not particularly riveting material to those who were not there–I remember being teased for my weeks of posts about hanging out with Russians on the Direct Kiwi freighter–but on the other hand, you’ve GOT to build in rest time on a marathon trip. Ship travel is enforced rest, which I need. You don’t have to constantly think ahead to where your next meal and next bed will be. I’m exhausted right now, and the result if that I don’t enjoy traveling in the way I would if I had just gotten off a ship after being taken care of for three weeks.

One problem I ran into with the round-the-world airplane ticket nearly derailed my plans at the start. It’s surprisingly difficult to build an itinerary within the parameters of the ticket. You can only go in one direction—in my case west to east—and you only get six stops with a single open-jaw, and there are a limited number of segments, so you have to plan strategically. But the one direction thing isn’t always correct, as there are destinations you cannot get out of on the airline alliance without backtracking (Madagascar and Tahiti are good examples of this). So sometimes they let you backtrack in order to then jump ahead of where you were. I was trying to get to the US from Tahiti. But Star Alliance’s partner in that part of the world is Air New Zealand, and they don’t fly east out of Tahiti. So I end up flying all the way back to Auckland, to then turn around and fly back across the Pacific to the US. And can’t stop overnight anywhere en route, because that would be backtracking. Which isn’t allowed, though I am technically backtracking.

It’s confusing, and there would be times when a brilliant ticketing agent would sort out how to get me to Yap, then on to Guam, but then couldn’t find a seat to get me from Guam to Australia, which I needed in order to get to the Air New Zealand options.

In the end, I added Australia as a stop when no one could find a way to get me to Yap or Vanuatu or Fiji. After working out that to get from Tahiti to South America, I’d have to fly to Auckland, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and then Peru, I didn’t even end up using all six stops. I gave up and settled for five. South and Central America aren’t on the agenda at all now. That’s fine—those are frequently in my holiday plans when I only have two weeks vacation and am based in New York.


2) How has the world changed since you last did this? What have you packed differently?

The digital possibilities are so exciting now . . . in 2001, I didn’t bother bringing so much as a phone. Remember the days of floppy disks? Yikes. No one would even let you put them in their computers at Internet cafes for fear of viruses.

The world was on cusp of something new and different in 2001, and it was frustrating. I had a digital camera, but I didn’t take it along on my trip since it was heavy, low-res, and there was no way to get the material off of the camera and online. Transferring files involved software and a cable. No internet cafe would let you install your own software onto their machines then. And forget using a floppy (if I had taken my own laptop). Floppy drives were taped up from Bali to Mongolia for fear of viruses. Hanging out in Starbucks while uploading from your own wi-fi didn’t exist yet (though I had some nice iced coffees at Starbucks in Bangkok and stole napkins from the China branches).

The closest thing we had to a global ISP in 2001 was AOL. International costs were frequently insane, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that traveling at ground-level means you seldom came across a hotel with in-room phones. So really, what was the point of carrying a laptop or a digital camera? I couldn’t get the info off the gadgets and into the wider world.

In 2001, I took a film camera with a big extra lens, got film developed as I went, and scanned in at cybercafes, using whatever (frequently awful) imaging software was on hand. I wrote in longhand and typed frantically, paying by the hour, in cybercafes. I wrote raw HTML in Notepad and uploaded it to my webmaster—now we have WordPress and Blogger.

Like I said, it was frustrating. We had all this amazing new technology but were hindered by it not quite being there yet.

Fast-forward a few years, and I wouldn’t even think of going abroad then without my snow iBook, which had the most amazing little Airport card in it. In 2005, I used to sit in coffee shops in Kampala for hours, uploading freelance comic book coloring files for Disney and Marvel. Speeds were slow, but the ability to work remotely made it possible for me to work first in Uganda, and then later to finish coloring a Fantastic Four Masterworks from an apartment I’d rented in Namibia. I wrote “Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik” when I worked and lived in Kuwait, the 3-D children’s atlas in Cairo, and finished writing a guidebook on camping in New Jersey while living in Barcelona.

The most amazing change in the last ten years has got to be the prevalence of wi-fi. I’ve had it in more than half the hotels in West Africa, though it’s frequently broken or excruciatingly slow. Seven years ago, I’d have said the amazing change was the USB stick, which enabled me to transfer things from my own laptop to one in a cybercafe. Now we have the cloud, though I still carry a USB stick.

Or maybe the most amazing change is the mobile phone. Actually, it IS the mobile phone. Let’s rank wi-fi second and the “cloud” third. Because while computing gives me personally the economic freedom of making a living wherever I have my laptop and wi-fi, the mobile phone is giving everyone else independence and capabilities beyond anything they had before. I’m not trying to overstate this. I don’t think it can be overstated.

The mobile phone is to the masses of the unindustrialized world what the laptop and wi-fi are to me. People use it for communication, finance, for snapshots and amateur video, and for getting online. The phone platform has been incredibly useful to me too. I have a first generation cracked iPhone (on your recommendation, Cyrus), and I would not travel without it. I use the Notes feature to jot down info and expenditures as I go. I read my guidebook on Kindle for iPhone, and this is so much more subtle than dragging a book out on a street corner. I surreptitiously snap photos when people think I am texting. I can play a little music at night when I use it as an iPod, and of course there’s the currency app, the distance conversion app, Google maps, the alarm clock, and SMS-to-Twitter, which in conjunction with an international SIM called OneSimCard.com means I can tell everyone whenever my bus has a flat tire. I think of my Twitter stream and Facebook posts as notes for myself, reminding me later of what I thought important at the time, and also to try out stories on a limited audience before posting them on my blog.

All that said, I have read some interviews with other travel writers where they go on at length about the evils of instant communication, where they are happy to judge people using laptops and phones on the road as being somehow deficient as travelers, as if their contact with home is impure and damaging to their experience. It reminds me of the inane debate of travelers-versus-tourists, where someone in a hostel crows their superiority to granny on her dream trip on a guided tour. To this I say: Must be nice to not have to make a living while you travel. And to have the luxury of having people at home to take care of things, so that you don’t suddenly have to figure out why your tenant’s cable TV got cut off while you’re in Kinshasa. I can’t help but peg someone as semi-Luddite for making a statement about modern technology being detrimental to the travel experience, as if there is some neat definition of what one should enjoy while on the road. Fine, you wander the streets looking for a room. I’ll just stand here and make some calls.

Besides me needing to work for a living and these being the tools that bring in the money that pays for my trip, I’m not out here in the world with the notion that by stopping somewhere for a short time, I’m able to immerse myself in a culture. That’s fiction. You try to learn about a place, try to get past only meeting taxi drivers, waiters, and front desk clerks—and that is the primary reason I go by public transport—but it’s actually quite rare to get past a superficial understanding as you travel. I can’t say it doesn’t happen because it occasionally does. But I do believe it takes being resident to understand a culture, and even then, the process is long and unreliable.

One last comment on packing: I’ve gotten so slack about it. In 2001, I had a gadget for everything. This time, I barely brought any of that. I know now that if you can’t buy it abroad, you probably don’t need it anyway. That hasn’t lightened my bag though—the space that was made available by losing the SLR, the film, the gadgets, and the books is taken up by my laptop, my Lumix, my chargers, my mini-hard drive with all my video files and my comic book materials on it.

And my Kindle. That’s an astonishing invention for the traveler. Looking at maps on it blows, but I no longer have to lug around heavy guidebooks and then try to locate a book I want to read among the crap at the typical hostel book swap. I definitely prefer reading a paper book to a Kindle book, but for someone carrying everything on their back, the eReader is a godsend.

3) Has doing a massive road trip like this lost its luster at all? Seems like from your blog posts and tweets that you’re a bit more frustrated with the process and are just powering through for the sake of doing it. Am I missing something?

Oh, no, you’re not missing anything. I am tired. Exhausted, actually. But what you’re missing is that this is how it was last time too. It’s normal to be frustrated when you travel at ground level on public transportation.

Travel sounds so glamorous until you’re actually on your sixth day of 11-hour bus journeys over potholed roads, feeling the sweat of a stranger up against your forearm, and the breath of another on your cheek.

A massive road trip like this has in many ways lost its luster—although I do get a twisted enjoyment out of things the worse they are, but that’s more in retrospect, after I know the resolution — because unlike the first time, I knew exactly what I was in for. Frustration mixed with the dull boredom of staring out a window all day, followed by a frantic free-for-all as you try to navigate the unfamiliar in a strange city with several people jostling for your business.

Over the last ten years, I’ve grown much fonder of a different style of travel than the one I’m currently undertaking. I prefer to live in a destination for months, getting a feel for a place’s daily rhythms, slowly learning about a culture. What I learned while living in Cairo, for example, is how little I’d taken away during the times I’d visited as a tourist. And in spite of spending seven months in Cairo in 2007, I had to admit that by the end, my eyes had been opened to how little I genuinely knew and understood about the culture not-my-own. What this means on a trip where you race through cities spending only a few days, or a week here and there, is that you get only a general feel for a place, and maybe you have a few interactions that make a nice story. But you don’t know a place. My story, when I race around the world, isn’t about the places I visit. It’s absurd to think I’m some sort of expert based on a short stay in a country. The story is more about the process of travel set against each region, and about my adventures — both internal and external — against this backdrop.

Even knowing how tired I would be and how little I’d take away from each region on a trip like the one I’m on, I still wanted to do it. Before I left home, I made a deal with myself. This is the last time, I thought. Do this kind of trip one last time. Tolerate the long bus journeys, the chaos of the ports and the gare routieres, because the benefits of seeing so many places from local transport outweigh the risk of vehicle accidents and pickpocketing, the inconveniences, the numb feet, and piercingly pained knees. I told myself: Get through this one last one, Marie, and you can go back to renting a flat in Barcelona for three months instead, to a short two week holiday in Colombia here, ten days in Cuba there, residences or holidays instead of expeditions. Just this one . . . last . . . time . . .

I would like to write a book about the West Africa leg, of course, a sequel to “Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik” (Seal Press, 2006), where I went from Cape Town to Cairo in 2001. But we’ll see. So far, I don’t have a story, just a series of vignettes playing out in shared taxis and on buses.

4) What are you most looking forward to on the trip this time around?

I knew West Africa would be exhausting, but I was also looking forward to it since it’s relatively undocumented in comparison with the eastern Cape-to-Cairo route. Now that that’s over, I am looking forward to the Asian loop. This is going to take a lot of research, but I have my month in Bangkok to study up on how to get a permit to get into Tibet and how to not spend a fortune going into Bhutan. There is a $200/day minimum expenditure to go to Bhutan, but when I looked at the operators that run groups, the fee was a great deal more. I will have to sit down with the Bhutan Tourism website and chase links to find a local operator that suits me.

I’m also excited about the Marquesas trip. I’ve booked a dorm bed on the Aranui, the freighter that makes monthly circuits around these remote Pacific islands out of Tahiti. I looked into doing this trip independently, but the flight costs mixed with the accommodation were so high that the dorm bed made a lot of sense. Plus, the islanders hold a festival once every four years, where they all display their crafts, and this year’s theme is “the apprentice.” I’m not sure exactly what to expect, but the Marquesas are remote enough that this isn’t going to be geared to tourism.


5) Some people say that people who are perpetually on the road, or on these long-term trips like you are “running away from something.” Do you buy that? How do you react to other people’s reactions of what you do?

If someone actually says outright “What are you running from,” I will tell them they’re just silly. What a cliché. “Running from people like you,” might be the right response to that comment. You can’t run away. You carry everything with you, way over you luggage limit in invisible baggage. I don’t believe that travel inherently changes anyone aside from giving them more confidence and less prejudice, though from the various platitudes I spot on travel operator’s sites, in magazines, and in personal blogs, I seem to be alone in thinking this.

That said, I find being on the road constantly bad for my state-of-mind. I spend a lot of time at home too, because when I traveled too long, I found myself rootless. Everywhere was home, and nowhere was home. Friends were abstractions, and I was completely emotionally independent. In my late thirties, I realized that being alone in the universe wasn’t something I wanted, though it took me a few more years of working in Kuwait and Cairo before I was able to settle down and stay home for three years.

Not everyone has this problem, and many people choose to stay abroad. I do love the challenge of improvising a solution in a foreign culture, where you have to think on your feet and try to solve a problem you had no idea existed a few minutes ago. But I have learned over the years that I prefer to visit that life, and that while I am a good expatriate due to my natural inclination to be alienated, I choose “home.” I’m abroad for ten months this time, seeing parts of the world that are new to me and working on my stories about the trip. But I have not given up my apartment this trip, I’m still working in comics, and I haven’t even turned off my phone. This is the choice I’ve made and it’s good for me to have roots, but it’s not the right answer for everyone. Some people are able to put down roots in other places, while others stay rootless and wander the world, enjoying the adrenalin that comes along with never knowing what comes next. But me, I need a home base and I need long-term friends. That’s what I’ve learned about myself and my wanderings over the last decade.