Writer and adventurer Richard Grant on how being chased by Mexican Hillbillies, drunk and high on cocaine, informed his views on travel
A desert rat. I revel in open space, silence, long horizons.
First travel experience?
I was born in Malaysia and racked up 50,000 airmiles between there and London by the age of five.
A journey without engines. Long walks in wilderness or going down remote rivers in rafts and canoes. Huck Finn was right: “there’s something mighty free and easy about floating down a river.”
Top five places worldwide?
The American south-west outside the towns and cities. Ireland for the Irish. New York for me is the best city in the world. The Serengeti for wildlife. Madagascar, although the environmental destruction there is heartbreaking.
Special place to stay?
Manka’s in Point Reyes, California, on the rare occasions I can afford it, and mainly for the sublime local food and wine.
Three items you always pack?
Notebook, pen, whisky.
Passport stamp you're proudest of?
Madagascar, I suppose. I’d fantasized about it since childhood. Also Zanzibar and Burundi.
Passport stamp most like to have?
The breakaway Stalinist republic of Transnistria.
Guilty travel pleasure?
Window or aisle?
Who is your ideal travelling companion?
A local person with insight and kindness. I travel to learn and this is the fastest way to shed ignorance. Best of all is travelling in wild places with an expert tracker or hunter, for whom the ground itself is a book to be read.
Best meal on the road? Worst?
Carne asada tacos in Sonora, Mexico. Grilled marinaded steak diced up and served in a flour tortilla with lime juice, grilled chilli salsa, avocado sauce, radishes and cucumbers.
The worst food is a toss-up between chicken and vegetables that tasted of precisely nothing in Bluff, Utah, or a Tanzanian breakfast of beef-gristle soup and yesterday’s greasy chapatti. The grilled African mopane worm is also vastly overrated.
Most surprising place? Most disappointing?
Madagascar was full of surprises: strange and wonderful creatures, peculiar rituals like grandfathers eating the foreskins of their grandsons with bananas.
The most disappointing place? I have to say it’s travelling inside Britain.
Where do you NOT want to go?
Mogadishu in Somalia, for obvious reasons. I never want to see Phoenix, Arizona, again. It's an ugly soulless mean place, although I lived happily for many years in Tucson, Arizona.
Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?
I read Jack Kerouac at an impressionable age. Later Bruce Chatwin and the great Polish travel writer Ryszard Kapuscinski. Also my father, a very well-travelled man.
What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?
Mainly I listen to the music of the place I’m in, but old favourites include Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Mississippi John Hurt, Wu Tang Clan, Nick Drake. La Grange by ZZ Top takes me back to being 24 years old, heading out from Philadelphia to drive across America in a fast car for the first time.
What do you read?
I travel with foolish amounts of books. I seldom find the books I want available for e-readers and I tend to travel in places without electricity. So I carry them on my back, sometimes 12 books: history books, natural history, the odd novel, academic studies, journalists’ memoirs, travel books, all about the place I’m going.
Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?
Many people, but one that springs to mind was Sudi, a Burundian Muslim who I met on a horribly crowded bus. His kindness towards me and others, his beatific glow, his determination to work and hope for a better future in such a poor, corrupt, traumatised country.
The two Mexican hillbillies, drunk and high on cocaine, who hunted me through the woods at night in the Sierra Madre of Durango. They were a test of faith.
What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?
In Spanish, to be employed at Latin American roadblocks and police shakedowns: “In my country, there is a system of on-the-spot fines. Is there anything similar here?”
What is your worst habit as a traveller?
Bad planning and taking too many risks in dangerous places. This also produces interesting experiences but when it goes wrong, you learn more about terror than you ever wanted to know.
Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?
Storytelling and mimicry.
When and where in your travels have you been happiest?
Plunging into the dive bars and seedy nightclubs of Zanzibar with a degenerate golf pro I met there. Or paddling down the Zambezi river past elephants on the riverbank.
What smell most says 'travel' to you?
Given a choice, which era would you travel in?
Late 19th century. So much of the world was still unknown to restless Europeans like me, but some progress had been made against diseases.
If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?
New York, New Orleans, Naples: no danger of a bad meal or a dull night out.
Writer and adventurer Richard Grant travels in dangerous places for a living. In his latest book, Crazy River, he plunges into the troubled corners of east Africa in search of the Malagarasi River, known locally as the 'river of bad spirits.' It is published by LittleBrown and can be ordered on Amazon now.
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