For all my friends and fellow travelers who’ve asked over the years, here is a list of the podcasts I always turn to on noisy Vietnamese trains and 23-hour Argentinian bus rides. Give them a listen, and let me know what you think.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History – He makes people from history feel alive, from the Mongols to Martin Luther.
Highlights from Talking History – A brilliant Irish-led discussion of historical happenings with the scholars that study them.
Backstory – A really entertaining and eye-opening look at U.S. history.
Documentaries – The BBC’s long-form reports from every region of the world.
New Yorker Out Loud – Discussions with New Yorker writers about the world they cover.
Radiolab – Riveting sounds, science, and stories from NPR.
The World in Words – Reports about languages and words from around the world.
Coffee Break – The RadioLingua network has a plethora of great podcasts for learning languages; I’ve used CoffeeBreak French and German and am now completely fluent (or at least can order baguettes and currywurst).
A post about travel podcasts and there are no travel podcasts? The thing is, most travel-focused podcasts are dull. If I want to learn about Germany, I don’t want to listen to someone else talking about what they did and saw there — I want to do it myself while listening to something like Dan Carlin’s astonishing Thor’s Angels, which follows the Germanic people from when they were Ancient Rome’s brute garlic-eating tormentors. Travel is about society, culture, language, and history, so the above podcasts are just better than so-called ‘travel’ podcosts.
That said, Travel With Rick Steves has a few fantastic episodes (especially interviews with travel-writing greats like Pico Iyer and Paul Theroux), but tends to be geared towards middle-aged Americans oblivious to life outside of Kansas. I also listened to the Indie Travel Podcast for years, and will always have a place in my heart for Linda and Craig and their journeys, but it’s frankly hit or miss.
Off the Gringo Trail, Chapter 1.
“Hola.” The small boys in school uniforms had finally worked up the courage to approach me, a strange-looking man in a town of indigenous faces and colorfully-adorned women carrying the day’s haul on their arched backs. I was tucked away in a dark corner of the bus station, now surrounded by wide eyes.
“¿Usted es musico? You’re a musician?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I had been playing Sublime songs on my mini-guitar for the past hour, waiting for a delayed bus.
“Ok, great. Do you know Nirvana?”
“Uh, wait, Nirvana? Like the band?”
“Ha!” The shock bolted from my mouth. An hour before, a woman sitting next to me hadn’t understood me in Spanish, so a man had to translate into Quechua. Just hours before that, I was sitting on a lakeside bench surrounded by llamas, talking with a peasant teenager about her parents’ struggling potato farm on the side of a mountain. This mini-guitar tends to put people at ease and give them an excuse to approach foreign-looking me and just talk. She wanted to know what the United States was like — I failed to come up with an answer that fit into three sentences.
I was overjoyed with my new diminutive audience. “Yeah, of course I know Nirvana. Do YOU guys know Nirvana?
“Yes! We love them. Can you play ‘Come As You Are’?”
“Ha, I’m not sure I remember how. But do you know this one?” I played ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. They hadn’t reacted by the first chorus. I stopped.
“Just one second, sir. I will go get the lyrics.” Good lord, what is going on here?
The group leader returned with a printout of the lyrics to ‘Come As You Are’. Apparently, their English teacher had been using the song as an exercise in class. I held myself back from inquiring as to the value of being able to say “And I swear that I don’t have a gun” as a 10-year-old in rural Peru.
My fingers fleshed out one of most popular basslines of the last 20 years, and thus began what I’d like to think is the first and only grunge singalong session with the descendants of the Inca in Abancay, Peru.
We talked and laughed a bit, and the boys finally disappeared back up the stairs to catch their bus. A tiny girl who had been lurking behind them took this as a cue to make her approach. She was maybe seven, in shabby clothes, with a splash of dirt covering her beautiful pink cheeks.
She shuffled her tiny feet towards me, reached out a tiny arm, and tried to give me a coin.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a hat out, and I wasn’t ready for this.
“No, no, gracias! That’s very kind of you, but please, it’s not necessary.” Blushing, I escaped quickly into a rendition of ‘Badfish’.
She crumpled her forehead, stared for a moment, and disappeared.
Ten minutes passed, and she was back. Again she shuffled her tiny feet towards me, leaned on a concrete pillar, and waited for a break between songs. I stopped.
“Do you like this music?” I asked her.
“What kind of music do you listen to?”
“Umm, I don’t know.
“Pero, em… ¿Usted no tiene casa?
But, um, you don’t have a home?”
I wasn’t part of the world she knew. She likely had never seen, and definitely had never interacted with, a person as physically different as me, a person with no local blood or dress, but rather light skin, light hair, a large nose, bizarre clothes, and an accent that doesn’t come from any of the surrounding regions. She may have never seen anybody play music just to play music. And she had certainly never needed to grasp a concept as alien as leaving everything and everyone on one side of the planet to simply explore and see and spend money on another side of the planet.
I failed to come up with an answer that fit into three sentences.
2012: Six months in Colombia and five months backpacking through South America.
How does one sum a year abroad?
I threw it all into one big list when I got back from Asia. Here it goes with South America.
PLACES VISITED: 67
Los Angeles -> Bogotá -> Cali -> Tumaco -> Medellin -> Rionegro -> Florencia -> Caquetá countryside -> Tuluá -> Buenaventura -> Golfo Tortugas -> Cartagena -> Villa de Leyva -> Santa Marta -> Tayrona -> San Gil -> Bogotá -> Quito -> Canoa -> Montañita -> Guayaquil -> Máncora -> Zorritos -> Chiclayo -> Chachapoyas -> Kuelap -> Gocta/San Pablo -> Trujillo -> Huanchaco -> Lima -> Ica -> Huacachina -> Nazca -> Andahuaylas -> Pacucha -> Pampachiri -> Bosque de Piedras -> Abancay -> Cuzco -> Aguas Calientes -> Machu Picchu -> Puno -> Lake Titicaca -> Arequipa -> Arica -> Iquique -> San Pedro de Atacama -> La Serena -> Santiago -> Valparaiso -> Viña del Mar -> El Yeco -> Buenos Aires -> Bariloche -> El Bolsón -> Lago Puelo -> Mendoza -> Maipu -> Mina Clavere -> Nono -> Córdoba -> Puerto Iguazu -> Iguazu Falls -> Rosario -> Colonia -> Montevideo -> Punta del Este -> La Barra -> Piriapolis -> Montevideo -> Los Angeles.
NATIONALITIES MET: 39
Colombian Venezuelan Filipino German Austrian French Australian American Canadian Peruvian Ecuadorian Chilean Belgian Danish Dutch English Scottish Finnish Italian Spanish Croatian Bosnian Irish Icelandic Mexican Japanese Argentinian Brazilian [Basque] [Quebecois] Uruguayan Paraguayan Portuguese Swiss Ukrainian Israeli Malaysian Costa Rican Chinese
Mountains: 13 different parts of the Andes.
Beaches: 19 (20 if you include an Argentinian river beach)
Things lost/stolen/magically vanished:
Frisbee. Camera. Swim trunks. Towel.
Weight lost/stolen/magically vanished: 10 lbs.
Stomach issues: Lots.
Mosquitos killed with hotel bibles: 137.
Mumford and Sons – “Babel”
Noah and the Whale – “Last Night on Earth”
Jorge Drexler – Various
Kele Goodwin – “Hymns”
Passion Pit – “Gossamer”
Radical Face – “Family Tree”
Gustavo Santaolla – “Diarios de Motocicleta”
BEST JAM SESSIONS:
Irish singalongs with Irishmen in Huacachina
Teaching Peruvian kids in Chachapoyas
Playing with indigenous instruments in Argentina
Oktoberfest in a beer-hall in Lima
Halloween in hostels and streets and bars in Cuzco
Thanksgiving with a real turkey in Santiago
Christmas with vegetarian food and gifts and la novia in the cold Andes of Argentina
New Years with local wine and besos from the novia in Mendoza
WEIRDEST FOOD EATEN:
Fried large-butted ants (Colombia)
Fried guinea pig (Peru)
Fresh fish with coconut sauce (Pacific coast Colombia)
Fru-fru Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurants (Lima)
Fruit I’ve never heard of (Colombia)
I just hung out with an assassin. Two actually.
I’ve been living in Colombia the past 5 months, filming, you guessed it, drugs. This is where I should add, in order not to be slapped by the Colombian friends over drinks tonight, that Colombia is so much more than just cocaine and criminals, that it is an endlessly gorgeous, diverse, and fascinating place that I have fallen in love with, and has been moving beyond Pablo Escobar and daily bombings for twenty years.
That said, a frightening underworld does exist here beneath the shadows, sometimes even in the headlines, and American TV loves to explore it. So a production company sent me out here to produce a new series for National Geographic. I’m not supposed to divulge the details of the show. So let’s just talk about assassins.
The female assassin: Curvy. Dolled up. Method of choice — dropping poison in your cocktail at the bar.
The male assassin: Normal-looking. Really fucking normal-looking. Bland even. A bit stylish. Method of choice — pulling up and putting a bullet in your head (see photo above).
The two of them are for hire. You pay the right price — which believe me, is not a lot — and they will ask no questions, concoct a little plan, and kill the guy. Rival gang members, businessmen, politicians, the guy who’s screwing your wife, it’s all fair game for the right pesos.
I had been arranging the meeting through some contacts for weeks, and it was finally happening. My crew and I were setting up lights for the interview, when the two silhouettes came through the door. Why, sir, your murderer friends have arrived.
The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. I mean, the guy wore my personal sunglasses during the interview to hide his eyes. I must have shook his hand and man-hugged him six times during a few days of filming.
I was nervous about everything I said, I even tried to put him at ease with warm eyes and a warm smile just so he’d have no reason to come after me and whack me during the rest of my stay in Colombia.
But even worse than my unease was what happened next — it all started to feel normal. I was asking him questions about his life, and he was answering very honestly. And the creepiness began to wear off, and he was another guy that I was sitting in a room with and chatting up for my job.
Except, yuck. Those two bastards represent everything I hate in the world — violence, viciousness, lack of empathy, humanity destroying humanity. Yet there I sat, quietly, burying my true thoughts, to get the job done and share this story.
Sure, such is journalism.
But it destroyed me inside.
Before I got here, Colombians were Colombians. All of these latino people within these borders hundreds of miles from my home must be just like the others that look like them in the next valley or 200 miles east or down the Andes range. It’s the same country, after all. Sure I could grasp that there would naturally be somewhat of a difference between poor Afro-Caribbean Colombians and mestizo highlander Bogotá metropolitan types. But really, they’re all the same culture, right?
To Colombians, the differences between them are huge, and they remind you daily. Take the paisas, from the region around Medellin, in a pretty central part of the country. In Colombia, a Paisa is a Paisa, this fact is not to be mistaken. He’s a distinct entity, different from the rest, and remarkable for perceived differences in his character. The male Paisa is, according to these conversations, a good businessman, manipulative, even a con-artist, and the female Paisa perpetually dolled up, flirty, and possibly with plastic boobs and butt. To the rest of the world, she’s a Colombian; here she’s just a stereotypical Paisa.
And it doesn’t stop there. To live here is to hear constantly of the Costeños, those that live along the Caribbean coast, with their musicality and their loudness and their laziness (I can’t say if it’s true, but I myself certainly get lazy in their swampy weather). All people from Cali have been dancing salsa since birth. Santandereanos are feisty and eat large-butted ants like popcorn. Life is simpler and just more cowboy in the llanos, or plains. Chocó is the second wettest place on earth and gorgeous but extremely poor. And on and on.
Most Colombians, according to stats I am making up, may never leave Colombia in their lifetimes. Colombia is all they know, they speak only Spanish and live a fairly parochial life in a country separated by rough geography, poor transportation, and sporadic violence. So they see nations within a nation. I see a cooked banana where they see 19 different ways of cooking a platano. These differences obviously exist, I’m just too foreign to tell.
To be fair, my travels through the rest of the world have always been full of these same conversations. The Vietnamese talk about the cultural differences as you climb their latitudes, almost as if the country is a cultural gradient between Southeast Asian culture and Chinese culture. Half of the people we think of as Spanish think of themselves as anything but (Basques, Catalans, Galicians). You hear (bigoted) northern Italians describe southerners as uncivilized and somewhere closer to North Africa, while southerners describe their northern cousins as colder and businesslike, or essentially German. I’ve heard Germans from the south likewise decry the cold Germans from the north and Germans from the west decry the post-Communist Germans from the east, Lake District English folk badmouth cold and busy Londoners and Londoners badmouth the valley-girl Essex girls.
This regionalism, this us-vs-them-ism, these internal perceptions of differences where the rest of the world sees a single monolithic entity called Country X, is simply a part of human life everywhere.
[“I’m Afraid of Americans”] is not as truly hostile about Americans as say “Born in the U.S.A.”: it’s merely sardonic. I was traveling in Java when [its] first McDonald’s went up: it was like, “for fuck’s sake.” The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life.
I love that last sentence.
At a corner store in southern Thailand…
Austrian Dude: Wow, these stores called “7-11” I am all the time seeing in streets of Asia.
Me: Yeah, they’re everywhere in the US too, it’s an American chain.
AD: No, it cannot be so.
Me: Yeah it seriously is, they’ve been around forever, but it looks like some guy had the genius idea of bringing 7-11’s to Asia and is making billions of dollars.
AD: Wow, Scheiße.
Two days later, in a different town in Thailand, passing another 7-11…
Austrian Dude: What is the name of the guy who brought 7-11 to Asia?
Me: I don’t know, why?
AD: I fucking hate him.