The curator of the world's craziest signs and tackiest souvenirs reveals his cock-eyed view on travel
Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?
First travel experience?
The first cultural trip (more than just a family ski/beach holiday) was at age 14. We were visiting my cousins for a few weeks in Japan. My uncle was teaching at a university there for a year so we had a cramped but free place to stay. I think I was in the country about 10 minutes before I got my arm painfully caught in one of the taxi’s automatic closing doors.
Top 5 places worldwide?
I’m more a believer in the experience, rather than the place… so please indulge me a more specific reply:
Kitesurfing in Brazil
Biking in Denmark
Kayaking in Stockholm’s archipelago
Herding sheep on a station in Australia
Taking a pastry course at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris
Special place to stay?
I’ve stayed in some strange places, but for the cultural experience I think a nice traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) is tough to beat, especially if it involves a trip to the sento (hot bath) and a traditional dinner that includes about 20 small dishes with things you’ve likely never tasted before.
3 items you always pack?
Let’s stick to 3 of the more unusual items, and they’ll need a bit of explanation.
A plastic thumb tip. I’m a crap magician, but when there’s a language barrier or a bunch of kids gathered around a little slight of hand goes a long way.
A seatbelt. It’s a about a meter and a half of that same nylon cord you have on the waist strap of your rucksack and it even has the same plastic hex clip. On those sketchy overnight bus rides, I feel a bit more at ease after I’ve looped it over the back of my seat and clipped in. Most don’t notice, but after I was in a bus crash with one in Namibia, several asked me where I got it (any outdoorsy shop will have it). I keep it rolled up with a rubber band around it – about the size of a hockey puck.
Duct tape/superglue. Not sure I’ve been on a trip where both of these things haven’t come in handy multiple times. I don’t bring a whole roll of tape – I typically wrap a bunch around a permanent marker, which I also bring. (Whoops, guess we’re up to 5 things now.)
Passport stamp you're proudest of?
My Swedish permanent residency – needed that to collect my paternity leave so I could collect those funds while travelling.
Passport stamp most like to have?
Not so into stamps anymore. Not so into number of countries I’ve been to either. I think a much more interesting statistic is how many new friends you made along the way.
Guilty travel pleasure?
When I’m doing sports all day (skiing, biking, kitesurfing) or trying to have some quality time with my wife, I’ll pay extra for a room with a decently comfortable bed.
Window or aisle?
Short flight, aisle. Long flight, window.
Who is your ideal travelling companion?
Spent 2 years on the road with my Swedish wife before we got married. Not many people on the planet I could spend that sort of time with and still want to hang out some more.
Best meal on the road? Worst?
Most surprising best meal was the smoked fish from Lake Bikal I got when I stepped off the trans Siberian railway. Still had it’s eyes in it. Normally, I don’t like making eye contact with the food I’m eating, but the taste was undeniably fantastic.
Worst meal – not sure I ate enough of it to consider it a meal – was taking a few polite bites of a rotting monkey’s head while I was living in the Colombian rainforest with a tribe of Jaguar Indians.
Most surprising place? Most disappointing?
Often surprised, but rarely by the “place.” More the unique experience. Like when I was hitchhiking in Fiji and got picked up by a taxi. I said I was hitching and didn’t want to pay. The driver told me I didn’t have to since he was going that way anyway. Or when some kind Syrians sent over beers to my wife and me while we were eating in a restaurant in Allepo. When we thanked them they gave us more gifts. Or when we stopped a man in Damascus to ask directions to a museum. Turned out he was secret police. He waved his gun until a policeman arrived on a moped, then he commandeered it and had my wife and I get on behind him. He drove us to the museum and waved his gun at the museum staff until they let us in for free.
Where do You NOT want to go?
Don’t remember being all too fond of Maicao, a rough Dodge-City-like town on the Colombian/Venezuelan border. First, there were some hombres pointing their shotguns at me as I walked through town. Then border guards came up with some imaginary fines for me to pay. When I didn’t pay, they held me there all day until all the buses had left, then let me cross at dark into nothingness. Managed to catch a lift in the dark cargo hold of a lorry carrying flip-flops.
Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?
I have some writing heroes (Bill Bryson, Dave Barry, PJ O’Rourke) and I’m in admiration of the feats of many travellers, but I don’t know I’d consider them heroes. I’m inspired every time I run into a traveller who has deliberately taken a path of cultural immersion or pushed themselves out of their comfort zone.
What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?
These days I mostly listen to my kids arguing.
What do you read?
I’ve read some great travel books, but I tend not to pick up travel lit all that often. Guess because I’ve been living that lifestyle for so long, it doesn’t hold as much appeal. These days I’m reading a range of stuff, from Freakonomics to Shantaram to an Indian detective series.
Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?
Always nice when you come across someone with an overwhelmingly positive attitude – who just appreciates everything. Maybe it’s a first timer who is marvelling at the smallest details or just someone who has seemingly OD’d on Prozac. Sometimes you’re just a bit tired from the road and meeting someone with a fresh outlook is like a good cup of wanderlust coffee.
What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?
The first phrase I usually learn is “No problem” – amazing how it often puts a smile on peoples’ faces. This is followed by “excuse me,” “please”, “toilet” and “No, I don’t want any.”
What is your worst habit as a traveller?
It used to be over-the-top penny-pinching – trying to see how long I could stretch my money even if it mean sleeping on the floor of a café or bargaining for an extra hour over the equivalent of 20p or walking an extra two kilometres to find bread that cost a few pence less. Now I’d say it’s disconnecting from the web. Because my work doesn’t really come with holidays and is so internet based, it’s hard for me to unplug as much as I probably should.
Snowbound in a tent in Anarctica, how would you entertain your companions?
Bar tricks. I did a whole book of them about 15 years ago. I think I know over 100. Trouble is I I’d need a pretty well sorted bar in that tent.
When and where in your travels have you been happiest?
Smoking a post-coital joint on top of Mt Everest while watching the World Cup final.
What smell most says 'travel' to you?
India train squatter toilet.
Given a choice, which era would you travel in?
If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?
Rio, New York, Cape Town
Small town version:
Jericocoara (Brazil), Stryn (Norway), Telluride (USA)
Doug Lansky is an American travel writer and journalist and author of the phenomenally successful Signspotting books. His current endeavour, Cr*p Souvenirs, is an attempt to collate and catalogue the world's tackiest souvenirs for the benefit of future generations.