Recently I was asked by a magazine to look at possibilities for a travel article. Specifically about some Western European locale that featured prominently in World War II, but hadn’t been covered too widely. Turns out it was not an easy task. While scouring my map of Western Europe looking for places that hadn’t been done a thousand times already, the thought entered my mind, “has it all been done before?” Just as when I’m playing my guitar and writing a tune, I wonder if every possible permutation of chords has already been explored.
The more I stared at the map, my eyes raking over familiar place names, the more I began to despair at the thought of “it all having been done.” Later that day, while talking to a friend, she mentioned in an off-hand way how her grandpa, who’d recently died, and was given a deeply moving military burial. “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was really nice. Actually, I had no idea he’d been in the military.”
“Neither did I”, she said. “He only mentioned it a couple times that I recall, and I was a kid, so I didn’t really care.” Evidently she found out while talking to his friends and other relatives at the funeral. She proceeded to tell me the harrowing and sometimes grisly story about her granddad’s exploits in World War Two, where as a young man he fought bravely in France and Germany, and was awarded medals for valor.
“I didn’t know this stuff till recently,” she said, a tone of amazement in her voice. “And I never saw the medals or knew about them till they were taken out of a drawer and put in his coffin with him. He had lots of them. He was always so quiet; he kept all of that stuff inside.”
Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that, yes, there are still great stories to be told about amazing lives; stories that often go unknown until that life is extinguished. It’s just a matter of asking; of seeking. Every location holds its own stories too, just like people. I recall the many times I have found that a flower-blanketed field was the scene of an epic medieval battle that decided the fate of nations, or that a pile of stones in the countryside was once a soaring abbey that witnessed a coronation of a great king beneath its vaulted ceilings.
And that is our job as travel writers, and as people fortunate enough to be able to tell these stories: We need to seek, we need to ask. Because there are stories worth telling, and they hide in the most unlikely of places, like a quiet valley, a broken-down complex of haunted stones, and a kind old man’s heart.
A good traveler knows that it isn’t the number of places you’ve been that counts, it’s the number of meaningful experiences. Just like the saying, “it’s not the number of breaths you take that matters, it’s the number of moments that take your breath away.” Same with traveling. Miles mean little, so do stamps in your passport. That stuff is ancillary to the true story: the adventures themselves (be they emotional, fun, or just plain interesting) and the souls you were lucky enough to encounter along the way.
For example, a friend asked me today, “So how many places have you been to?” I get asked question a lot. My answer is always, “I don’t know. Never counted. But you know what? I’ve got a scar from Scotland, some friends from Florence and a parking bill from Budapest.”
All true, and all linked to great travel memories. All the best travelers use this sort of yardstick to measure their experiences abroad. The key is perspective: think qualitatively, not quantitatively.
Having said that, I think it’s safe to assume the Hungarian police have given up expecting me to pay that stupid fine they left on my windshield. To this day I’m not quite sure what it says on that thing, but it looks cool in a frame. As for the scar from Scotland, that’s another story altogether.
In the past few months, I have complained several times about the current status of travel writing and how it does not satisfy my needs.
In this sense, it would have been too easy to just sit there and complain without actually doing something about it. And that’s exactly what I did by joining forces with British travel writer Tom Coote.
We sat down and worked hard to create a new digital magazine: Wicked World.
You can access it by clicking here.
Wicked World exists to promote the kind of travel related writing that wouldn’t normally find an outlet in more mainstream publications. We’re not here to sell expensive guided tours, round the world tickets or travel insurance. On the contrary, we are here to provide a showcase for honest, alternative and irreverent writing, with a particular emphasis on internationally oriented underground culture. And we of course accept related, inspired submissions from like minded travel writers and adventurers.
If you want examples, the very first issue of Wicked World has articles on: the burgeoning black metal scene in Bangladesh; the rarely visited Meroe Pyramids in Sudan; mine clearance in Cambodia; a haunting return to Vicksburg, Mississippi; the resurrection of a mummified monk in Thailand; a bizarre encounter with the police in Kyrgyzstan; System of a Down’s self-financed film about the Armenian Genocide; and a festival for hungry ghosts in Malaysia and Singapore.
In the future, we are planning to provide a syndication service for travel related articles, and to experiment with publishing the kind of eBooks that wouldn’t normally find an outlet through more mainstream publishers.
If you would like to get involved in Wicked World, or would simply like to know more, then send an email to either email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
My travels in northern France have always provided vivid reminders of the battle for Normandy, which raged from D-Day through the summer of 1944. Though partially healed by the decades, scars still remain in the rolling countryside, picturesque villages, and gentle beaches.
Sixty-nine years ago today, the Allies waded ashore on the beaches of Normandy, France, and began the liberation of Europe from Hitler. A US veteran of the Normandy campaign said recently, “Out of my squad of 13, only 3 survived.” His story was not unique. The fighting was ferocious, and casualties on both sides were severe.
On each of my visits to this beautiful area, I have been struck by the locals’ affection for Americans. The French are not normally known for their liking of the US tourist, but in Normandy, the appreciation for the US sacrifice is strong. Several coastal villages fly American flags and bear plaques in the town square commemorating the day of their liberation by US troops in June of 1944.
Some reminders are particularly evocative for me. For example, I find few sites as poignant as the rusted ports lurking in the waves just off the coast of Arromanches-les-Bains.
Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the tiny beach village of Arromanches-les-Bains was chosen to be the main port of the Allies. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports known as “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to move those millions of pounds of Allied men, vehicles, and supplies from ship to shore in the fight against Hitler.
The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a reminder of the world-changing event that came to Normandy’s shores. And they remind us of the ordinary people—most now passed away—who found themselves swept up in the gale force of history.
The years go on, but the echoes remain.
The first things you notice about Ellis Emmett are his piercing blue eyes, the source of his deep, rolling laugh. This is a guy who loves life, and lives large; that much is clear from the moment he shakes your hand. He’s a builder, a farmer, an expert white water rafter, a mountain climber, an avid traveler, a photographer, a writer, and co-host of the fantastic SCUBA & adventure documentary series: Descending, which has been nominated for awards in Canada. He’s also a husband, a father, a mentor and a guy who dedicates a great deal of his life and efforts to inspiring others to “get off their butts and live their dreams.”
We talked about a lot of things while feeding his alpacas and rolling my kids down his back hill in the big blue barrels that he uses on rafting trips to store gear when there aren’t little boys who want to use them as adventure vehicles. We talked through mouthfuls of red curry with chickpeas that my kids said tasted like Thailand but reminded them of their favourite restaurant in Guatemala. We laughed in front of his enormous stone fireplace and swapped travel stories. This is a guy who lives in our world and who “gets it” in ways few people do.
Ellis is positively dripping with pearls of wisdom. Here is a short excerpt from our discussions on what he sees as being the most important aspects of life:
The nine things that I believe are important in life:
Dream- have a dream. Dreams are so important. Without a dream you have nothing to strive for every day becomes the same.
Freedom- sometimes in order to have freedom you have to make a commitment not to have freedom for a certain time to achieve what you want to. Freedom has two parts: time and money. If you have enough time and enough money to do whatever you want, whenever you want to, then you have freedom. You don’t have to have a lot of money, to be free. You can always scale down so that you need less, instead of continually scaling up
Growth- It’s important to be in a constant state of growth, to be continually evolving and learning in some way. If you’re not growing, you’re stagnating. To avoid stagnation, travel, explore, learn.
Physical- A healthy body and healthy mind go hand in hand. If you are not proud of yourself then how can you expect anyone else to treat you with respect? Ellis has a gym in his basement. His wife is a personal trainer. The day we’re visiting, his legs are killing him from a massive workout the evening before. He laughs about that as we hike up the hill from the alpaca paddock
Contribution- It’s very very important to give back. Don’t’ try to hold on to everything for yourself. It’s all part of the wheel and the process itself. In giving you open the avenue for receiving. The more you help and give to others, the more others will do the same for you.
Spirituality- This can be in any form you want it to be. Spirituality is, I believe, a sense of self and acceptance of self. As human beings we have this inherent need to have a belief, who are we, what are we why are we here, where are we going (god I feel like a school teacher now!) Maybe to put it into one word, have a grounding. If you believe in Christianity that is equally as fine as Buddhism. it doesn’t matter what it is, you just have to believe in it. For myself personally, I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in any higher power. I believe we are the higher power. I believe each person has this massive energy and power within us. I’m not saying we are all gods, no, no. but we can do more than we know we can; we can do astounding things. If you set your mind to something you can do; it doesn’t matter what it is.
Love- “Just a small one,” he jokes with sarcasm in his voice… we as human beings need love in our lives, it comes in many forms: Romantic, family and self love. But self love is probably the most important form. And this is where people make a mistake; people think, “No one loves me,” and love for themselves is overlooked. I’m not talking about self love in an egotistical sense, but it comes back to respect. if you don’t love/respect the person you are, then you can’t expect others to. It comes back to the old cliche, “You get back what you give out.” If there are particular reasons you don’t love yourself, get out there and change those things.
Passion- Passion is a lot like love, it’s one of those things that, if you don’t have it in your heart you’re half dead already. You have to have passion to get out there and live life. You have to have interests, things that drive you. If you don’t have passion, then keep trying things until you find the thing you love to do. It doesn’t matter if no one else sees it, if you feel it, go with it… you don’t have to explain it, just like love
Environment- Be very aware of your environment and its affect on you and your life. Many times it’s our environment that is holding us back, not the home you are living in. There are many things you don’t have a choice over, the family you are born into and the home you are in, but most people have more choices than they believe they do.
There are two aspects of your environment to consider:
The physical aspect: your surroundings. And the social aspect: This is even more important. Who do you hang out with? We hang out with the people we want to become. The people we hang with don’t want us to change, so they try to keep us the same. If you want to be better at something, go find the people who are doing what you want to do, find something in common and learn from them, grow from that lesson that they can teach you subliminally. If you don’t like the person you are, then look at the people in your life, the place you are living, who you are hanging out with. Maybe the first thing you should do is move, reinvent yourself in a new place, rebuild from the ground up.
A couple weeks ago I have witnessed something quite interesting: I won’t name the company, as this is not the place to make some free advertising, BUT I was quite entertained and shocked to learn that in Malaysia, someone has decided to teach people how to travel on a budget. Obviously, for a price.
I have attended the press conference of a Malaysian company that is offering “backpacking tours” to interesting Asian destinations such as Mongolia, India and Tibet, offering a full vagabonding adventure under the tutorial of a guide. They won’t pay for your meals, they will make you sleep in gers and tents, and they will teach you how to take great travel photography. Still, you will pay to get out of your comfort zone, and have fun learning the backpacking style under expert supervision. Cool, isn’t it?
I liked the idea: as many Asians I met complain about safety issues and high costs of travel, and seem to be alien to the concept of backpacking and traveling independently without buying a full package tour, this seems to be a welcome educational improvement coming from Malaysia.
I reflected that, in Asia, what we take for granted may not be the same: a stronger money and family ethic, and the fear of the unknown are common among the young. Plus, they struggle to create their own critical thinking identities. For sure, there are quite a number of Asian backpackers on the road already, including Japanese, Taiwanese, Malaysians, Chinese, South Koreans and some Indians. But I think that, as the majority prefers organized tours, by offering a modest package to understand adventure travel and backpacking ethics, this company has made a right choice in its market.
How do you consider such an idea in the West? Do you know of any Western companies offering this sort of educational backpacking travel? Please comment below.
MARCO FERRARESE explored 50 countries and lives in Penang, Malaysia since 2009. He is currently a PhD candidate at Monash University’s Sunway Campus, Kuala Lumpur, researching the anthropology of punk rock and heavy metal in Southeast Asia. Besides his academic endeavors, he blogs about overland Asian travel and extreme music in Asia at www.monkeyrockworld.com
Lonely Planet guidebooks have inevitably become the kind of extra weight I rarely want to put in my backpack anymore. Why? Because they lead a traveler to the same ol’ tired paths everybody else is going to: a kind of one way ticket for jaded travel entertainment made up of bars, guesthouses and a bunch of other Western –albeit of course interesting! – travelers..
And I was in fact quite pleased when I discovered this article , as it appears that Tony Wheeler, Lonely Planet founder, and I, share a similar vision. We get excited by the marginal travel zones, and we like to travel down and low, keeping a clear philosophy: talk to the local people you meet on the way.
Citing the article, “When it comes to deciding where to go there’s just one qualifier — it’s got to be edgy. The sort of place that isn’t just a challenge to get into, its even risky to be in. Political instability, corrupt police and active volcanoes all add to the thrill.” In 2010 Wheeler already published “Bad Lands”, a book about his travels in countries such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Lybia.
I recently completed an overland Jaunt from Singapore to Milan, having my own fair share of great, untamed adventures: getting local with Central Asian families, hitching most of the Silk Road’s main route, camping outside of trafficked border zones, and also getting maybe too close to a real street mobbing on the Iranian-Turkish border – an experience I recalled on Vagabonding just here -.
And I have to say that, without being a fool, I share Wheeler’s excitement for those places where “you read the press and it seems like a disaster and then you get there and things aren’t so bad,” he said in the article, concluding with “Touch wood.”
For me, approaching a destination that will invariably offer me an almost authentic experience of the place because of the relatively tourist-infrastructure free society is a godsend gift. It may be because I have already visited quite a number of countries – including many that never make the bad , shocking headlines – and I am continuously looking for the best authentic, almost anthropologic experience I can get. What do you think? Are you a Ferrarese/Wheelerian or not? Please comment below.
Cost: $20 a day
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen recently?
In and around Huaraz it’s common to see elderly Quechua woman ambling along paths, bent backed, hauling heavy loads in carrying cloths called K’eperina. Garbed in colourful attire, bowler hats perched upon their heads, they doggedly trek along steep, high altitude slopes that would have fit twenty-somethings huffing and puffing. One of these woman I remember particularly well, because she looked positively ancient. She hopped into a colectivo van I was taking into Huaraz, plopped her K’eperina down and took a seat. She was a tiny desiccated figure, with dark leathery skin and an expressive face full of crevices like the surrounding glacier ridden landscape. When she croaked in the local Quechua dialect she revealed a few crooked, yellowed and lonely teeth. Despite the heat she was heavily bundled in traditional attire and I couldn’t help but make the ghastly comparison with one of the wrapped Incan mummies I had seen recently in a museum in Lima. But alive she was, and after she got out of the the van she hoisted her goods over her shoulders and started shuffling determinedly onward to her destination.
Cost: $20 a day
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen recently?
Volcano boarding down the slopes of Cerro Negro, outside of León, Nicaragua has become a popular activity with travelers, especially since making number two on CNN Go’s Thrill Seeker’s Bucket List. Ignorant as to what was involved in this new sport I had visions of cutting sharp turns in powdery volcanic ash, much as as snowboarder would in fresh powder. In actuality volcano boarding is far from graceful. Instead of standing on the board you sit down as one would on a sled. There’s a loop of rope you hold onto like reigns, which gives you some semblance of control as you hurtle over jagged bits of volcanic rubble. Orange jumpsuits and protective goggles are worn to prevent bits of volcano from piercing skin and eyeball. Participants look a bit like extras for Walter White during a meth cook. After a short ¨How to Volcano Board¨ introduction the group I was with started down the slope one by one. It quickly became apparent that the protective attire was rather important. Over half of our group fell off their boards showering themselves in bits of basalt as they spun and rolled like a gran prix cars crashing off circuit. I managed to keep my butt plastered to the plank of wood but only reached a measly 57km an hour. A feather weight girl in our crew reached 83km an hour before her head met the slope in an unwanted embrace. Fortunately she was fine and won bragging rights for the day.