IT'S QUITE OBVIOUS THAT TRAVELLING IS MORE THAN A SERIES OF TRIPS TO BE BLOGGED ABOUT OR INSTAGRAMMED FOR YOU. WHAT IS YOUR TRAVELLING PHILOSOPHY?
I'm all-parts philosophy, experience and fun and no parts job! I've never made my living from Instagram or lifestyle blogging or podcasting or any of the other modern technological methods, whereby travel can be sustained by sharing one's experience with a view to monetizing it. Rather, I'm an old fashioned traveller, taking paper and ink notes as a memoire and as an aide to storytelling, and I have never owned a camera. Travel interests me, not as a perpetual form of self-sustenance, but for the philosophical gains and pure joy of such a life.
YOU MENTION ALL THE WAYS IN WHICH SOCIAL MEDIA HAS BECOME A PART OF TRAVELLING—OFTEN THIS IS PERCEIVED ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY IN A POSITIVE LIGHT, BUT YOU DON'T AGREE.
Many people in the last decade got into travel and travel Instagramming as a form of novelty seeking, or thrill seeking. They end up travelling to please the audience and so tend to burn out after eight years or so, because after a while they find themselves in a bit of a rut. Novelty seeking alone will not compel anyone to travel for twenty five years and counting.
WHAT COMPELS YOU TO TRAVEL?
What is not forbidden is compulsory. For me, travel was compulsory, for intellectual reasons. Furthermore, in an important way, one of the more intriguing aspects of travel can be likened to a bicycle, a device that is only stable when in motion. With travel, you can leave the daily grind behind, balanced on two wheels that allow you to progress. And the idea is to leave dull people and ideas behind you.
SO TRAVELLING ALLOWS YOU TO AVOID DULLNESS, BUT CAN PERPETUAL MOTION BE ISOLATING?
Travel can be solitary, but it is not lonely. Locals well-met in distant lands are resident experts, rendering the traveller the relative dullard. While this might put you outside your comfort zone, it is also maximizing your chance to learn from every conversation and new sight. And secondly, in my experience, dull people from Western culture don't care for travel, especially outside of their comfort zone, and this is great, since it means you have successfully left them in your dust.
If you meet someone sitting at the bus stop in your home city, you are more likely to exchange pleasantries than deeper knowledge or compelling tales, but if you meet a fellow traveller who is also hacking his way through thick jungle while searching for the lost temple of the Bat God, Camazotz, you can count on a fantastic companionship around the camp fire that evening. That level of connection is far more satisfying and sustaining for me.
ARE YOU ABLE TO STAY CONNECTED WITH THESE COMPANIONS, ESPECIALLY IF YOU REJECT MOST FORMS OF SOCIAL MEDIA?
Travel teaches you to be very good at making fast friends, both in identifying who will make a great friend, and keeping close thereafter, in spirit, since the separation and distances are too onerous in the physical realm. And youget to be a master at catching up and starting where you both left off. This has got to be one the best reasons to travel, this fabulous skill that you get at making several lifetime's worth of friends, a collection of interesting people, to surpass any mere collection of passport stamps.
WAS THERE A SPECIFIC POINT WHERE YOU SAID TO YOURSELF 'I CAN REALLY ACCOMPLISH THIS'?
I used to wonder sometimes if I'd stop and settle, but it never happened. Feeling tired of travel was for me a medical symptom... over the years I discovered that if I started to feel like that, it meant I was about to come down with either malaria or giardia, so I'd start to attend to other symptoms to sort out which of the two it was... the feeling of looking at a map of unexplored regions and thinking "meh," was something requiring a pill like Flagyl.
MANY PEOPLE WILL WONDER HOW YOU FOUND THE FREEDOM AND FINANCES TO PURSUE NON-STOP TRAVEL FOR SUCH A SUSTAINED PERIOD.
Beyond the eye for unique local business opportunities in the early years, the main effort for me was not one of gaining finances so much as gaining freedom. I don't care about material things or comfort, and instead of a fancy hotel I would rather spend the night in a mud hut or a hostel, or couch surfing, before that was the name of any business. I've lived out of the same backpack for 24 years now, and I never had any camera or computer (until recently) or phone, just a mosquito net, old clothes and books. If it wasn't for all the photographers I keep meeting in remote areas, I wouldn't have such a nice collection of photos.
My advice is this: simply travel. If you should happen to visit every country, so be it.... Travel for knowledge and experience and for sheer joy.
WAS THERE EVER A TIME YOU FELT LIKE ABANDONING YOUR TRAVEL GOALS?
I've done Russia a few times, but one was a very long trip, from the Baltic to the Pacific, over 9000 km of travel, hopping on and off the Trans-Siberian and ending up in the Arctic to visit the Yakuti people. They taught me how to drive a reindeer sleigh, while drunk, as we were never without a bottle of vodka to stay warm. Hanging out with ethnic Russians was if anything harder on the liver. When I finally made a stop in London it took me weeks to recover my health and energy.
WHAT WAS ONE OF THE MOST ADVENTUROUS TRIPS YOU HAVE TAKEN?
For years I'd heard that the D.R.C. [Democratic Republic of Congo] Overland route was difficult—the word among backpackers was that after crossing near volcanic Lake Kivu, the police and bandits would rob you and send you limping back to the Rwandan border, practically naked and penniless. I got myself a deceptive U.N. card, and the right clothes in an attempt to blend with the heavy armoured U.N. presence.
I was going to pass myself off as a security inspector who was checking road conditions pursuant to sending supplies. The head of U.S. Aid in Kigali was of the opinion that I wouldn't last a day, as the Rwenzori Mountains are full of genocidal hut rebels. I had to sneak around the U.N. as they were trying to force me to take a flight all the way to Kinshasa thus missing all the most "exciting" bits, but I managed to get out on the road and hitched a ride in an old truck. We passed through the mountains, and my card worked like a charm. Sometimes the truck was bristling with weapons and rockets, as bands of soldiers hopped on for a ride to the next village. But often we were alone, or passing mud huts and villagers with wooden bicycles, who were willing to sell me hot potatoes and handfuls of swamp minnows for a few coins.
Across the mountains was the primordial rainforest of the Congo basin; a Chinese-built dirt road for extracting minerals led west. I travelled a thousand kilometers by motorcycle deep into the forest and went to live with the Bambuti (Mbuti) Pygmy tribe, living in a leaf hut and hunting antelope with spear and net.
WHAT COUNTRY MADE YOU FEEL MOST OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE?
Generally speaking, I feel least comfortable when I arrive in a country to find myself arrested and detained, and under angry interrogation. In Nagorno-Karabakh, I was forced off the road by three black S.U.V.s, and taken to a military prison, where a guy was shouting in Russian that I would suffer worse than I'd ever suffered before. I pretended I could understand nothing, not even Nyet and Da. They had to bring in a translator, and as luck would have it, it was a guy I'd had a friendly visit with the day before—he was the only one who could speak English in the area. The interrogator tries again, saying I would suffer blah, blah, blah. The translation came: they are angry that you have seen the ruined city of Agdan, where ethnic Armenians massacred Azeris; just sit tight, they'll run out of steam eventually and just deport you. With my translator, I could relay to them amusing stories about trying to pick up girls in bars, and eventually I had 6 out of 8 smiling and friendly, with the remaining two still scowling —eventually they drove me to the border and kicked me out with the 6 friendly guys waving goodbye.
In Puntland, Somalia, I had a harsher reception than in Mogadishu. Local Somalis had told me that the government themselves were one and the same with the pirates that Puntland is infamous for, but I was relieved to find that this was not the case. When I arrived on a small propeller plane I was surrounded by shouting armed men, and put into detention, guarded by two guys with 9 mm machine pistols. The minister of the interior came by to shout at me that things would go very badly for me if I was not a journalist. Okay, if you put it that way, I'm a journalist. Convinced that I was not a security threat, they decided that I should attend the Puntland poetry festival as a guest of the government and meet the president. I rode around in an armed convoy in the company of the Minister for Good Governance and the Minister of Education. The best way to make the most of being detained or imprisoned is to try to connect on a human level, and try to entertain and joke around. Don't try to contact embassies or make threats or demands because if that's when your relationship with your captors deteriorates too, heaven help you.
WHERE IN THE WORLD FEELS THE MOST AUTHENTIC AND UNTOUCHED BY TOURISM FOR YOU?Pakistan. It used to be one of the highlights of the overland Asia trail, and now practically no one goes there. But it's a fabulous country with friendly people, and so much to see. If you tire of the humidity and heat and yellow mangoes of Lahore, you can go up into the hills, or enjoy the walnuts, apricot orchards and ancient forts, and hikes through meadows and glaciers in the Karakorum Range, making your way to the High Pamirs on one of the world's top overland experiences.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ANYONE ELSE CONTEMPLATING TRAVELLING TO EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD?
My advice is this: simply travel. If you should happen to visit every country, so be it. Whatever you do, don't try to travel to every country. This is a gimmick and epic fail as a traveller. I've met thousands of backpackers, and if I were to make a graph of who has visited the most countries alongside who has the most interesting tales of adventure, the slope of that graph would be up until a peak around 65 countries, and then all the way back down.
Try only to travel and have fun. If you think you will have sixteen solid years to devote to travel, because that's how long it takes to get a feel for every country, then try to see all the countries in whatever zone you find yourself in, to cut down on expensive flights. But otherwise, travel for knowledge and experience and for sheer joy. Travel is not transportation, it is much more, and those who diminish their experience of cultures and continents chasing some record are making a gimmick of what could have been a noble pursuit. The use of the metric of number of countries visited only works when all else is equal, and breaks down if some people game the system by making short visits or sticking their feet over borders as if they were stamp collecting.
SPENDING 25 YEARS TRAVELLING THE WORLD COULD BE CONSIDERED EXTREME NOMADISM—DO YOU FEEL AT HOME ANYWHERE?
"Where are you local?" is what one of my friends asks, in lieu of asking where someone is from. There is a distinction and a difference. I was once local to mountain meadows in Alberta, where I spent many summers with little human contact, deep in solitary thought, living off the land. And now, after these twenty five years of exploration that immersed me in the ecosystems and human life-ways of every country, I am local to the world – inside and out.
It was never, for me, a matter of accumulating passport stamps, a ritual that, like all rituals, leaves me cold, but a search for my own place on our home planet, and for the warmth of fascinating companions well-met on the trail.
The World's Most Travelled Man:
A Twenty-Three-Year Odyssey to and through Every Country on the Planet
will be available in October 2017 from Douglas & McIntyre.