The World According to Marie Javins

Author, comic book artist and Wanderlust's very own Wander Woman gives us her fiercely independent view on the world of travel

3 mins

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

I'm unquestionably an urban person, but if I have to choose from the list it would have to be mountain… But too lazy to climb it.

First travel experience?

Besides domestic travel with my parents, I went to a Swedish part of Finland, aged 17, as an exchange student. I remember the sun being up nearly all night in summer, seeing a Swedish-language production of Annie, Get Your Gun and memorising the recipe for chocolate chip cookies from one of the other students, then cutting up dark chocolate bars to finish out the ingredients.

Favourite journey?

This has to be 2001. I'd sold my New York flat and left my Marvel Comics job after 13 years to go around the world for a calendar year, using freighter ships, trains, buses, and updating my blog daily. Eventually the Cape Town to Cairo part became my 2006 book, Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik, and also got me the later assignment of writing a 3D children's world tour atlas. Right now, I'm reprising that trip for 2011, but in the reverse direction.

Top five places worldwide?

Barcelona, Swakopmund (Namibia), Sydney, Livingstone (Zambia, for the sheer exhilarating fun of it), American south-west (in a tent, car-camping or else rafting).

Special place to stay?

There is a vacation flat in Barcelona that I go back to over and over. BCN Gotic is in El Born, on a main street, and it's inexpensive, renovated, and located perfectly, on the edge of the tourist district but not in the thick of it, and really close to all the things I adore about Barcelona – the small designer's shops, the thick hot chocolate, and the ancient alleys of the old city.

Three items you always pack?

A travel coffee press, fold-up scissors, and nowadays, my iPhone. It's good to take empty envelopes from hotel rooms too – you can use those to tip your local guides. Put something inside them first.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

"Proud" might not be the right word for this, but at $237 for my three days in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this was certainly my most mind-blowing stamp.

Passport stamp most like to have?

I want my Cuba stamp! Being an American citizen, I had to go without. There's a game I play with my travel-writing friends called "Strip Passport", where anyone who doesn't have a called-out stamp has to remove an article of clothing. I am at risk of literally losing my shirt without my stamps.

Guilty travel pleasure?

I've upgraded my hotel room standard, budget be damned. Just the other day I looked at a dozen $15/night rooms before realising that my days of grimy cheap rooms are now behind me. I doubled my budget and got something that didn't stink of sewage or come with pets. Also, I am guilty of getting too many pedicures on the road. Travel is tough on the feet!

Window or aisle?

Aisle, usually. I love taking photos from the window seat but I hate being boxed-in.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

I travel alone these days but my good friend Yancey Labat has kept me great company on a few trips. When a Mongolian grandma plopped down Russian vodka shot after vodka shot in front of us (I don't drink and it's rude to refuse), he drank his own, then surreptitiously swapped glasses with me and downed mine. He also put up with a ridiculous never-ending share-taxi journey in Jordan involving watermelons, goat tacos, cramped seats, Egyptian pop on a loop, and once gamely played along in my "who can eat the most fried bugs" contest in China. He also semi-rescued me once when we were scuba diving off San Diego, though he did vomit on me in the process (we were both pretty seasick).

Best meal on the road? Worst?

I had a phenomenal steak once in Buenos Aires, but I couldn't tell you the name of the restaurant. I also had an excellent Italian meal in Addis Ababa (go figure), though my most amazing Ethiopian meals have been in New York or Washington DC. 

Worst has to be anything that ended up with me having food poisoning (Uganda, China, Mexico, India), or the rice-mayonnaise-daubed-in-ketchup I had in a nomad's Mongolian ger. Also disappointing was the food in Cuba – I love Cuban food at home so my expectations were high but the reality reflected a different political situation where ropa vieja was hard to find given that cows aren't that common and are owned by the government.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

Cairo wins hands-down in both categories. The first time I went to Egypt, I had a great time with my friends but I became pretty tired of being hassled all the time by touts, taxi drivers, and souvenir sellers. The second time I went through, a taxi driver grabbed my leg within the first ten minutes I was in Cairo. And of course, there's the legendary crowds and commercialism of the pyramids of Giza. I had no desire to return, so when my Kuwait-based job sent me to work in the Cairo office in 2007, I wasn't really thrilled about it. Nevertheless, I learned to love this chaotic and thrilling city, and once I picked up a few words of Arabic and got out of the tourist districts, I found a warm, energetic, and adventure-filled city waiting to be excavated. The taxi drivers never gave up though…

Where do you NOT want to go?

I've spent years not wanting to go to Burma out of respect to the wishes of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, who called for a tourism boycott, but they've recently revised their policy and now welcome mindful tourism that contributes to the welfare of local people and not to the military junta. So I may be altering this view shortly.

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

Today, my writer friends inspire me – Edward Readicker-Henderson and Amanda Castleman – both for different reasons. When I become complacent, Edward challenges me, though usually with less-goofy ways than his Strip Passport method. Amanda suggests room for improvement and looks for angles I haven't thought of.

In the bigger world, I was initially inspired by great explorers who lived quite dangerously – Shackleton, Livingstone, Stanley, Stark, Samuel Baker and his wife Florence, Gertrude Bell – but in truth, I travel because I love improvising and responding to a challenge without any context or information. I enjoy thinking on my feet.

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

I no longer take music along unless I'm going somewhere for an extended stay. But listening to Lucinda Williams reminds me of owning one CD – hers – in a Berlin-sublet in 2001. Hilariously, Hotel California will forever take me back to Khao San Road in Bangkok, where it seems to be played on a live, ongoing loop, and Dancing Queen by ABBA takes me right back to a bus in Uzbekistan, where it played non-stop on the driver's cassette deck.

What do you read?

I have a Kindle now so I'm no longer stuck with whatever bad pop-book was left on the hostel's trade-in shelf. I seem to read a lot of Lonely Planets! But I also download the New Yorker magazine every week, and I try to read both fiction and non-fiction set in wherever I am at the moment, or about to go. I also love stories about the great explorers and will pick up any non-fiction about a doomed or crazy quest, either past or current.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

There have been many over the years but most recently, two individuals reaffirmed my faith in humanity. One was an American woman who, along with her husband, had uprooted her family to move to Gabon, where they operate a guesthouse and run a flying service for a bush hospital. This is hard on her family but they are all committed to helping the hospital. The other is a Congolese truck driver named Mike, who after a night of sleeping in his truck in the mud with 20 passengers, emerged with a cheery laugh and a smile. He drives this ancient Mercedes back and forth several times a week along a mud pit that isn't really a road at all, repairing the truck as he goes, AND HE STILL HAS A SENSE OF HUMOR ABOUT IT. Amazing.

Anyone who made me lose it? I lose it all the time, to my shame. I have many arguments with taxi drivers, hotel touts and wannabe guides. This is pointless, of course, and I frequently remind myself that these people are just trying to find a way to make a living.

What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

I used to know how to say "invisible pig" in Russian, but these days I forget words as soon as I learn them. I do occasionally learn a few Arabic words in my secret identity day-job as a comic book editor for Kuwait, but they have very little to do with travelling and a lot more to do with flying or protecting things.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

I'm bad about asking people's names. I'll travel alongside a new acquaintance for a whole day without finding out their name.

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

I'd propose a game of Strip Passport, but it might get kind of cold.

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

I'm happiest at my most miserable, which is paradoxical, but what I mean is that when I'm in the middle of a completely unreal, uncomfortable, challenging situation that seems impossible – it becomes worse and worse until it just makes me laugh. And then all is well. I also enjoy staying in a country a great deal, renting a flat and existing as close as I can to a local on a day-to-day basis.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

Burning charcoal mixed with overwhelmingly rich green vegetation… That says 'travel' to me. It's really just the smell of the Ugandan countryside, but it takes me right back to living in Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park in the summer of 2005, working there on my book about travelling in Africa while commuting back and forth to Kampala where I could upload the files for the old Fantastic Four hardcover that I was re-coloring for Marvel at the time.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

I'm tempted to want to travel when Freya Stark travelled, or when Beryl Markham flew her plane over Africa, or when one could be a great explorer and actually report back and have people pay attention, but of course I am afraid of getting malaria and hate when porters try to carry my bag, much less a giant team of porters, so maybe I'd better stick with the modern age.

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

New York, Barcelona, and Bangkok – you've got excitement, culture, and all the mango-and-sticky-rice you can dream of. Cape Town and Sydney narrowly missed being in this list.

Marie Javins is the author of Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik: One Woman's Solo Misadventures Across Africa and editor-in-chief of Kuwati superhero comic books. She is currently undertaking massive around the world adventure called You can follow her exploits here on Wanderlust on her Wander Woman blog.

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