I travel to meet people more than seeing landmarks, and find some of my biggest joys come with participating in the unexpected. I have helped herd sheep in Tibet, moved explosives in mines in Bolivia, washed giant pots in Kerala, helped with a religious ritual in Borneo, and even tried to run across Fez (the most difficult city in the world to navigate)… a massive failure. One gent even stopped me to say “I have seen you twice already, what are you doing?
What’s your favourite destination? And why?
I really loved Tibet. The Tibetans are great people. Burma (or Myanmar) was incredibly friendly as well. I went in the 90’s and on my first day in Rangoon I took a cab to a hotel that was not as central as I thought so I had to walk quite a long way to locate the YMCA that was more central. I ended up having about 14 different escorts to show me the way – all whom asked for nothing but that I “enjoy their country.” As each “escort” needed to turn off to go on with their day, they would call another random citizen over to request that person take me further.
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Why/How did you start travelling?
My first BIG overseas adventure was six and a half months throughout Asia, I was fresh out of photography college, wide eyed and eager (but nervous). The big revelation came when I got to India. I had earlier decided that I might try to learn some Hindi, and I could not believe how the country opened up to me while I clumsily learned to communicate. Mistakes made for laughs and new friends.
I embarrass myself in 9 to 11 languages thus far. Learning languages has become one of my favourite joys of travelling.
What’s your best travel story?
I have 23 instances in my life so far about “impossible coincidences” and love freaking people out with those stories.
One outrageous story is from when I was back home well after my first big overseas trip. I was working at a photo lab to keep my eye on colour correcting. Sometimes customer’s film would come through from places I had visited – which was always a fun surprise during a shift.
One time a roll came through that included photos from “Songkran” which is Thai New Years that involves sprinkling water on people (where teens almost turn it into a zany water fight). I attended that a year earlier in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. Oddly on a particular roll, the prints got wrinkled in the printer… this never happens… so, I had to take these wrinkled prints, look at the corrections on the back and reprint them.
While doing that I found THREE photos taken of ME a full year earlier! I was totally unaware the photo was taken from across the street as this fellow’s friend splashed me with water. It was so crazy to think this could have gone to any lab in the world, but it came to mine. Plus, if it went to any of my coworkers, I would not have seen it… AND, had the prints not been wrinkled I would have missed it too!
What type of accommodations do you look for?
I stay cheap! I have slept on a pool table in Malaysia, a hammock in Nagasaki (since no other room), on super thin cardboard on a remote section of the Great Wall, in capsule hotels in Tokyo (tiny stacked “rooms” that feel no bigger than a bathtub), in my tiny tent at 6,100 meters on the North Face of Everest, in a bunker in the Sahara Desert, in an arcade in an abandoned amusement park in Japan (amusingly I could have chosen sleeping in a pirate ship, a tea cup or the monorail car too!), outside of an airport in Bali (with dogs barking so close they kept me awake all night), and I have also slept on many many floors from Amristar to Beijing to Rio.
Biggest surprise you’ve had with a destination?
In 2007 I was fortunate enough to meet and stay with a Maasai family on the Maasai Steppe in Tanzania, East Africa. This was a shockingly spartan area with nothing modern around. Just tiny little huts in the bush surrounded by a carefully woven acacia tree branches to keep hyenas out at night.
The husband Ole Ngatti, had 6 wives. He has “about” 52 children… he does not know the accurate number since it is considered unlucky to count them or you could lose one. The same superstition applies to his livestock. He does not know exactly how many goats and cows he has, however if one goes missing he can accurately describe the missing animal to help locate it.
When it came time to sleep, I was provided with an animal hide to sleep on outside of one of the 6 bomas. There is one “boma” (or home) required for each wife. I was the only one sleeping outside, but I may have been luckier than those sleeping inside of the tiny hut since the rudimentary stove meant sleeping in haze and smoke.
I thought I would sleep pretty well, but must confess the only worry I had was the risk of hyenas being only 10 feet away outside of a bramble fence at night. Luckily, no hyenas got me in the night (though I could sure hear them), but at one point I was awoken with hot breath over my face, I was in a total and instant panic. It was just a cow huffing on my face, but I almost exploded.
Tell us about a side trip you found that was worth taking?
So many! Huayna Picchu, that famous steep bump beside Machu Picchu. Hua Shan near Xian, China, considered to be in the “top 5” most dangerous hikes in the world. The high-altitude mines in Potosi, Bolivia.
Whenever possible, I will choose the “long way” as I am a firm believer that the harder it is to get to any place, the more impressed you will be. Walking 4 days to Machu Picchu makes the “reveal” so much more impressive than a few hour uphill drive. The same for walking to Tibet’s Everest base camp (4 day walk over a 4 hour drive) but arriving seemed so much more rewarding after the hard work.
What’s your advice, tips or recommendations for our readers?
If you are a photo buff, try spending a spot of time chatting, or kicking around a ball, or even just smiling and interacting before bringing out a camera. By then you may have made a friend and your photos will show it. Plus it allows you to not be “that person” who clambers off the bus, sticks a camera at people then runs away.
Anything our readers should know before trying to follow in your travel footsteps?
Learn languages! It makes everything more fun, and you will create lasting friendships. I have a great memory of a Burmese man asking if he could practice English. “Sure” I said. He apologized saying sorry he was not very good at it. I said “I think you speak English very well” and he said, “Oh, I think you are just trying to fondle me.”