Eat Your World, pentaquery edition

Last week, I came across the website of Eat Your World, a relatively new concept that merges two of my favorite things: wanderlust and essenlust (that’s right Germans, I’m inventing new words in your language!). So I tossed them five questions by e-mail. (Also known as a pentaquery. Yes, I’m neologizing up the wazoo.)

1) How and when did EYW get started? Where are you based? What’s been the best thing you’ve eaten since you started this? Most surprising?

Scott: In late 2009 we were traveling through Colombia. We’ve always traveled a lot, selling stories as a freelance writer (Laura) and photographer (me). As we normally would do in our travels, we were searching for the most authentic local dishes. While in the beautiful city of Cartagena, we looked at each other and realized we should be doing this for a living. Nothing makes us happier than finding the dishes that define a city or even a culture—well…except eating them. Within an hour we came up with the name, and I ran to the nearest computer to buy the domain. It was literally $10 and a dream.

Laura: We’re based in a super diverse neighborhood of Queens, called Jackson Heights. It couldn’t be more suited to us—you often feel like you’re in another country here, for better or worse. And the food is wonderful: authentic, unpretentious, cheap, and delicious. It’s proven an awesome place to learn about other cultures’ foods in our own backyard.

Scott: New Orleans was one of the first cities we chose to highlight after starting the site. I think we made ourselves sick eating so much amazing food (which started a recurring theme for many of our trips). When Laura told me one of the dishes was BBQ shrimp, I thought of shrimp grilled on a barbecue. However, it instead was giant shrimps with probably a pound of butter and the most delicious, unique flavor. We ate it for breakfast because we had so many more dishes to try that day. It was surprisingly beautiful and hit all the senses. It was a shame we had no time to go back for a second serving.

Laura: “Best” is a really tough call—we seem to find something we love in every city we cover. Some all-time favorites include a perfect taco al pastor in Mexico City, Delhi’s chole bhature (a.k.a. best breakfast ever), this historic take on “meat fruit” by Heston Blumenthal in London. Surprising, well—as far as foods go, I was pretty surprised by how much I liked this chicken-fried steak in Austin, Texas. It’s one of those famous regional foods, but having grown up in New Jersey, I’d never had before. I didn’t get it—but now I get it.

In terms of cities, Detroit surprised me; it’s so diverse and has such great Middle Eastern, Polish, and Greek influences on its dining scene, but even its really old-school foods, like basic sliders and city chicken, were terrific. Same goes with Buffalo, NY—the wings are perfection, of course, but its sponge candy has become one of my favorite sweets—and even Amsterdam and Prague — always the cities whose food you hear dissed all the time. I don’t get it!

2) What do you make of the hipster/organic/upper-class/trendy aspect of food? Do you consider yourselves a counterweight to that?

Laura: I wouldn’t lump all those things together—I guess there’s the trendy fetish with food and Top Chef-dom, and then there’s the organic aspect, which might be seen as “upper class” but at heart is really a backlash against the industrialization of our agricultural system. Of course, it can go too far—I don’t understand the point of $4 organic bananas!—but it all means well, I suppose. Same goes with the trendy side: I think it’s mostly a good thing, if it means more people paying more attention to food, what they feed themselves and their families. A “locavore” menu that sources ingredients locally is now a very hip thing to offer, and though it’s admittedly easy to poke a little fun at how extreme the local-artisanal craze can be, I love the idea of supporting local farms and producers whenever possible. But even though Eat Your World’s definition of “local food” is not exclusively what’s actually produced in the area, we recognize that local soils, waters, and climates definitely influence what’s eaten in a place, especially when you’re looking at a region’s past. So along with food that’s indigenous or traditional, locavore is our third criteria for what gets covered on Eat Your World.

To answer your second question: I don’t think of us as counterweights to anything; we just take a unique approach. We examine food through a cultural prism, considering a locale’s history, past and present demographics, native ingredients. We were travelers long before we were professional eaters in any sense, and food has always been our favorite jumping-off point for exploring new places. To us, that’s just what makes sense. It’s not going to be everyone’s idea of what they should eat in a city, but there are plenty of other sites out there covering a city’s hottest restaurants. And hopefully everyone eats some of that city’s distinct foods while in that city. What’s the point of traveling if you’re only going to eat Italian food everywhere you go? (That is, when you’re not traveling in Italy!)

3) How can people incorporate EYW into their everyday lives, whether they live in Winnipeg or Wellington?
Scott: Unfortunately, we have not yet covered the two cities you mention, but locals (or travelers) in those areas can add their local foods to our site and help build our database. For example, someone from Winnipeg can upload some smoked goldeye; from Wellington a traditional pavlova. If you’re not into taking pictures of your food, you can write a Food Memory on virtually any topic that’s food-related (e.g., your favorite meal ever, a childhood memory of food). On the site, you can read our weekly updated blog, which features Q&As from local-food producers, recipes, news, and travel photos/stories, or you can just browse the content we have on the site and learn about 28-plus cities and the foods that define them. Maybe you’ll plan your next trip!

Laura: In the sense of applying the EYW philosophy to day-to-day living, we’ve had users tell us that thinking about our criteria—what foods might be considered native, traditional, or locavore—and applying them to their own hometowns is a fun, even challenging learning experience. We’re hoping that people take pride in whatever foods and drinks their area has contributed to the world, and that they want to show them off! And people anywhere can otherwise make the extra effort to eat locally sourced foods in their town. (Those foods can be shared on EYW, too.)

4) Do you guys make money off the site? What are your day jobs?

Laura: We do aim to monetize the site via advertisers, but it will be a while before we quit our day jobs. Since 2003, when we started traveling more seriously, I’ve worked as a freelance writer and editor. Currently I freelance regularly for two different magazines as a copy editor half the month and spend the rest of my time, about two weeks, working from home on the site and any other writing assignments that crop up.

Scott: I’m a freelance photographer, but have been working in educational publishing for about seven years. I’ve done everything from shooting the photos you see in books to licensing and researching images. Now I manage a staff and deal more with operations and budgets. I look forward to working full-time on the website one day soon!

Laura: The fact that we’re both freelancers has been key to being able to travel as much as we can afford, and think outside the traditional-career box.

5) What’s your culinary guilty pleasure?

Scott: The website gives me an escape from the rules and regulations I put on my relatively healthy New York lifestyle. When traveling, I’ll drink amazing new beers daily, as we did in Amsterdam. I don’t eat beef when I’m not working on the site, but in Prague I ate a raw-beef dish called tatarák (similar to steak tartare) twice, it was so delicious! I am also not a big dessert eater normally, but it seems that in every city we visit, I fall in love with another sweet, unhealthy piece of deliciousness, like sticky toffee pudding in London.

Laura: Oh, I have so many guilty pleasures. Late-night greasy pizza—or street meat—in New York City. Late-night eggs at a New Jersey diner. Salt-and-vinegar potato chips on the beach. Cold leftover Chinese food out of the fridge. Pigs in a blanket with spicy mustard. Swedish Fish [the candy] and Kit-Kats and chocolate-peanut-butter-crunch ice cream. I’d go on, but I’m getting really hungry.

Hidden Europe: five questions, five answers

I first discovered hidden europe in mid-2011, admiring the ethos, voice, and style of the magazine, which touts: “Welcome to hidden europe. We promise a fresh perspective on well trodden trails, and a cool look at undiscovered corners.”

I sent over a few questions by e-mail to the magazine’s founders and editors, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, the two Berlin-based women behind the organization.

CF: How did the magazine get started? How do you get the word out?

NG: Looking back a few years, I’d say Susanne and I were struck how the world of travel is all glitz and gloss, too wrapped up in the experience of the traveller. At least, that’s the impression you get from the travel industry and from the majority of travel publications. Our own experience of travel was so very different, much more rooted in communities. It was quieter, gentler. So we launched hidden europe as an antidote to modern mainstream travel writing. And it’s worked. We concentrate on the everyday and fleshes out the life of real people in real places. It is a sad truth that much of the travel pages in magazines are nowadays merely advertisements in disguise.

SK: Often a very feeble disguise, if I may say so. And that is one of the things you will not find in our magazine: advertising. For us it is important to write quietly about a place as opposed to taunting promo slogans. We are a niche publication, but one with an extremely loyal readership in about 30 countries. In our writing, we seek to recover the simplicity that underpinned some of best travel writing of yesteryear. And it is that style together with an eclectic mix of topics that our readers enjoy. I’d say our subscribers are the best PR we have, but we also reach out with our regular e-brief, called ‘Letter from Europe’, and have a modest presence on twitter (@hiddenEurope). And our work is widely quoted.

CF: Are you guys really self-sufficient? What are your day jobs? How much time are you able to devote to the magazine?

SK: We are a small editorial bureau. hidden europe magazine is one part of a portfolio of things we do, though certainly the one for which we are best known. Of course we do a fair amount of travelling both for the magazine and other projects. We rely on a mixed portfolio of work: writing, editing, consultancy. Travel is part of our jobs, but in truth being a successful travel writer is 90 percent writing and 10 percent travel.

NG: We also write for various print and online media. These past twelve months our material has been featured in publications from northern Norway to Ukraine. And we have a good relationship with Thomas Cook Publishing, for whose best-selling guidebook — Europe by Rail — we are responsible. We have also taken other projects on board, like last year’s Bus-Pass Britain title for Bradt Travel Guides. So, yes, we are self-sufficient. But make no mistake. We both work formidably hard. It’s not all fun.

CF: What’s been the most hidden-est place that you’ve been to in 2011?

NG: Well, Karelia was a highlight in 2011. While we were travelling on the trail of Orthodox spirituality on the Finnish side of the Russian-Finnish border we came to a place called Ilomantsi. It is a small town on a lakeshore and we stayed over night in the town’s sanatorium which is a bit like staying in a hospital. Given the preponderance of less healthy inmates, it made us feel virtuously healthy.

SK: But the real gem there was meeting Father Jannis, the Orthodox priest who serves that remote community in Ilomantsi. He is Greek, but had studied in Finland, marrying a local woman and adding Finnish to his impressive portfolio of languages. He was wonderfully welcoming, even to the extent that he spontaneously switched from Finnish to English during the Great Vespers on Saturday evening to make his English-speaking guests feel welcome. I remember that we went to Mendin’s Kebab and Pizzeria later that evening. I guess for Berliners a kebab imparts a feeling of home.

NG: And we had another memorable journey to Tetovo in Macedonia last year, where we met Abdulmuttalip Bekiri, the presiding Dervish in Tetovo. Wherever we go, we really take time to seek out lesser known communities. Tetovo was really a fine moment. It came as a happy antidote to some less memorable episodes as we travelled through Macedonia. I still shiver when I think of the horrendously cold monastery where we stayed on the shores of Lake Ohrid right by the Albanian border.

CF: How can people apply the “hidden” ethos to their own backyard, or wherever they are that’s not Europe?

SK: What a good question. ‘Hidden’ is a state of mind. When travelling, divert from the main road and check out the byways. When arriving at a small place, go to a café, sit down and let the world go by. In a nutshell, adapt what we might call the principles of slow travel. hidden europe magazine is very much about slow travel, about deceleration rather than speed. The key to slow travel is a state of mind — and that can be developed anywhere, even at home. We published our “Manifesto for Slow Travel” three years ago in hidden europe magazine. It has since been picked up more widely, online as well as in other print media. If you are interested, you can read that text online on our website.

CF: What place are you most excited about discovering in 2012?

NG: We are very much looking forward to visiting San Marino next month, a tiny country that strangely enough neither of us has ever been to. It’s a curious relic of Napoleon’s romp through central Italy, a little geopolitical oddity. Just the sort of quirky spot that’s calculated to appeal to hidden europe.

SK: But it is not just about discovering new places. Sometimes there’s real pleasure in revisiting routes and places that have featured on earlier itineraries. In the week before Easter, we are going to take the Bernina railway from Tirano (in Italy) over to St. Moritz in Switzerland. This is a fabulous route. Last time we rode the train from north to south, and that was captured in a feature for hidden europe. This time we shall take the Bernina from south to north: a different direction, and surely a very different experience. On a more adventurous note, we are looking forward to making tracks for Russia again.

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

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, 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 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.

The Economist: Who has the most freedom to travel?

The Economist:

DANES faced the fewest restrictions on travel in 2008: they were able to visit 157 countries or territories without a visa according to an annual report by Henley & Partners, a consultancy. The Irish, Finns and Portuguese were only marginally less welcome abroad, with visa-free travel available to 156 countries. Those with the least freedom were citizens of countries suffering from war, terrorism or repression. South Koreans could visit 144 countries, whereas North Koreans could visit just 29 countries—if only their government would let them out.

Rick Steves Goes to Iran

My cousin Amir, who I visited while on my Iran (I still need to upload the rest of the photos!) trip in March 2008, just sent me a link to Rick Steves’ hour-long documentary on Iran, which just aired on PBS stations around the country this week. (You can watch it on Google Video here.)

Steves and his film crew visited in May 2008 (just two months after I was there), and they hit Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz — taking me back to some of my favorite moments on the trip and also introducing me to places that I didn’t have the chance to go to.

Above all, the message that he stressed (which matched my experience too) is that Iranians are pleasantly surprised to meet Americans in Iran and welcome them with generosity and friendliness.

Man, I can’t wait to go back!

You can also hear Rick Steves talking about his trip on PRI’s The World and NPR’s Talk of the Nation in shows recorded this past July.

Corsica ’08: Arriving in Bastia

Written: November 3 2008

Bastia, October 25 2008

Once we got off the boat in Bastia, we were supposed to meet “Felipe” — “In front of the port across the road there is a tourist office, very well known place.” Um, ok. Our ferry was late, and with the rain, it took us that much longer to get out of the port and find the tourist office (obviously closed on a Saturday night). Once we got there, I called Felipe, and within seconds, I turned around to face a man wearing a dark leather hat, a long trenchcoat, gripping a cellphone while a grin slowly moved across his face and turned into a welcoming smile.


I introduced Rebecca and he introduced Jean-Mathieu. A short walk away to their parked car, we were on the road to the village. My journalistic instincts kicked in and I started firing away with questions. Jean-Mathieu is Corsican, Felipe is from Colombia (somewhere outside Medellin) but has been living in Corsica for the last seven years, as he was married to a woman whose family was originally from Corsica. They moved back to the island together, got divorced, and Felipe stuck around. “We’re still friends,” he says. He’s been a WWOOFer before, having lived and worked for many years in Australia, where he met his wife. Felipe met Jean-Mathieu through another Corsican, Paul, who lives in the same village as Felipe. Jean-Mathieu and Paul work together and specialize in trimming and cutting trees in the region — they know how to identify and treat some of the local varieties that are succeptible (or have already succombed to) disease.

Jean-Mathieu is a third-generation charcutier, who was actually discouraged from continuing in the family practice by his father — he implied that his father thought that the work was too hard, too difficult and wasn’t worth it. He used to work in IT for Xerox in Marseille for four years — and got to the point where he could have been promoted and sent to Valence (between Marseille and Lyon) — but, as he explained “if I had done that, I never would have come back to Corsica.” So, he traded in his keyboard for a butcher’s knife and never looked back. “Maybe I didn’t make the right choice, I don’t know.” Felipe and I reassured him that he had. (I found out later that Jean-Mathieu makes the bulk of his money from trimming trees, although he’s trying to start making money selling artisanal cured ham and chestnut flour — hence the WWOOFers.)

Jean-Mathieu speaks French and Corsican, while Felipe speaks Spanish, English and French, and understands some Corsican — which sounds a lot like Italian. Ok, maybe like 75 percent Italian with some Portuguese-esque sounds mixed in. I asked how many people in Corsica actually speak Corsican, and Jean-Mathieu said that, obviously, the older generation spoke it more and that whenever he meets new Corsicans, he tries to speak to them first in Corsican and if that doesn’t work, then French. Still though, his kids attend a bilingual school.

So how many people live in the village?

“10. Maybe 50 in the summertime, but otherwise 10.”

And how many pigs do you have?

“About 50.”

At some point, we turned off the highway and headed up into the hills, with their twisty roads. What Jean-Mathieu lacked in speaking volume, he made up for in driving speed. He took turns on essentially pitch-black roads with the ease and confidence of someone who has spent a lifetime driving up and down the same sets of roads. After about an hour of driving, I started feeling a little nauseous. As a kid I used to get car sick on roads like this fairly frequently, but haven’t in some time. Of course, it didn’t help matters that I hadn’t eaten much that day, nor the fact that I had thrown up three times the night before at our couchsurfer’s place — a well libated party accompanied by not much more than crêpes had taken place. I figured that if I’d made it an hour, that we were almost there, but nonetheless, my stomach really wasn’t taking too well to the rise and fall of the roller coastering of these mountain roads.

“Hey, Felipe, how much longer until the village?”

“Oh, about two kilometers.”

Ok, I could handle two more kilometers. Jean-Mathieu upshifted, and slid down into a little village, accelerating as we descended around a corner.

“Hey, Jean-Mathieu, would you mind driving a little slower?”

He slowed down without saying a word.

Felipe looked at me.

“Are you ok?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be fine.”

He glanced up excitedly — “Hey, they’re here.”

Jean-Mathieu drove past a little roadside bar and pulled over.

“Becks, I really need to get out of the car,” feeling my voice grow more urgent with each word.
“Ok, ok, I’m trying,” she said, slightly exasperated, trying to get the front seat where she had been sitting, to swing forward so that I could climb out.

“I’m really not feeling well,” I said, hoping I could hold my upset stomach together until at least I got out of the car.

She finally got the seat pulled forward, and I hopped out, taking about two steps to the right side of the road and promptly vomited — ok, a few times — into the weeds. After trying to spit the taste out of my mouth, Jean-Mathieu had come back from the bar with a paper towel for me.

“Sorry about that,” I said, sheepishly.

“Forget about it man,” Felipe chimed in, ushering me towards the bar.

Jean-Mathieu smiled and we all headed in.

I’m back

After basically 24 hours of traveling from Breda –> Schiphol (Amsterdam) –> CDG (Paris) –> SFO, I’m finally, and thankfully, home.

More coming soon.