International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
Irreverent responses from our favourite travel ninjas.
1. Where would you rather be right now?
Howland Island in the South Pacific. It’s where Amelia Earhart was supposed to land in 1937 before she disappeared. It’s tiny, bean-shaped and flat. It’s been infested with rats, cats – and now nothing. No one lives there and you can’t really go. It’s US property because of all the bird droppings (that prompted the Guano Islands Act – too good to make this stuff up). And it’s where the Japanese followed up their Pearl Harbor attacks with three bombings because four scientists were living on it at the time. Now it is only visited once every other year, by two scientists, who pitch a tent, count birds, look at shrubs and write down what they find on notepads. I’d go as long as I was assured all the rats are gone.
2. Famous person (dead or alive, real or fictional) you'd most like to go on a trip with:
All historical figures smell bad, so it’s easy. I would go with Urban Meyer – the new Ohio State football coach – to Nuremberg, Germany, to take clarinet lessons. The clarinet was invented there. Side by side, Urban and I would toil over our clarinets for three or four hours a day of private instruction, then go see old buildings and drink beer and talk about football. I’ve watched football all my life, and I’m not short of opinions on what teams need to do on third and fourth on their own 38-yard line with 4:51 to go in the third quarter. But I really know nothing about all those cute terms of formations and philosophies coaches talk about. And no one knows more than Urban. Plus, I bet I’m better than him at the clarinet.
3. Tourist must-see you think is actually a "must skip":
Italy in August. Definitely skip that. So many people go then, some for the only time in their life, and it’s just awful: crowded with tourists, absent of locals. Go in autumn.
4. You'd be mortified if people knew you did what when you travelled?
Once I actually listened to Don Henley on a bus trip. By choice. (Is it too late to edit that out?)
5. Your most stranded, "oh-my-[deity]" travel moment:
I still find it hard to speak about what happened on a road trip in my senior year in high school. I went to see ZZ Top in Oklahoma City and l lost my concert shirt before I could even get home. The shirt was awesome. It had The ZZ TOP car on it, was a short-sleeve tee in modest matte grey. It apparently fell out of the car at a rest stop halfway back to Tulsa. I never even got to wear it once. When my parents saw my face when I got home they thought someone had been arrested. Since that day, I’ve been robbed on the road and I’ve lost a passport, but I doubt anything will feel more stranded or bleak as that.
6. Strangest meal abroad:
I studied Russian in Russia in 1992, when there was still trouble finding anything to eat. An enterprising lad opened a burger push-cart outside the Hermitage in St Petersburg. A takeaway burger was about 10 cents. Great deal -- except that the burger patty had glass in it. I remember eating the half without glass, while noting how easy it would be to toss a Van Gogh out of the open windows of the Hermitage.
7. If someone was visiting your town, what's the one thing you'd show them?
I live in New York City now, which isn’t really fair, so I’ll take you to Tulsa where I grew up. First, you’d need to see the greatest statue of all time – the Golden Driller -- which isn’t gold, and stands outside the fairgrounds. It’s a bloke in tight pants resting his hand on an oil derrick. Then go up the slight incline on 71st Street east of Sheridan. This is the Tulsa Hill. It’s lined with some dated apartments and duplexes that looked appealing when Sting was still kinda cool -- but the views! You can see the whole city under a tidy patchwork of oak trees and strip malls from up there. A cousin from Texas once said, ‘wow, I’ve never seen anything like this – where I’m from looks like a fat guy sat on it.’ Welcome to Oklahoma, cuz.
8. Most unusual thing you’ve travelled with:
I had a very lumpy bag – about four feet high, made of the cheapest black canvas – with sad tiny wheels that I scoot-dragged across Eastern Europe. In it, irrationally, was a large green accordion I had traded a stained MTV jacket for in Moscow. Accordions make bad travel companions, particularly if you never play. And I never did. Sometimes when I get angry I imagine doing dark things to that bag. And I feel a little better.
9. Travel-related film or book that inspires you to pack your bags:
Recently it’s Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which I only read for the first time a couple of months ago. It’s essentially a Who’s Who travelogue of Paris in the 1920s. I used to make fun of the mystique of that era. I don’t anymore. I was just spellbound with Hemingway’s craft, which is easier to follow in non-fiction I think: noting what he does, what he observes, what he chooses to write about. Little things like inviting the guy who bends spoons with his mouth for a drink. It just makes me want to write more, pay attention more.
10. The travel story you'll never stop bragging about:
Yes, the greatest fringe benefit of travel: showing off. I parachuted out of a Soviet bomber from WWII for $20 once; a woman with purple hair interviewed me on TV in Dobrich, Bulgaria. I got to play a five-string bass in Saskatoon; I got cockpit access with Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson on a flight to Iceland; and I got to train with the Mounties in Canada! Apparently I’m only one of five civilians who has had had that opportunity. And the only one to grow the regulation Mountie moustache.
11. Lay on us a priceless bit of travel advice or wisdom:
“Eyeball and footfall”. Nothing beats just going and looking around to see what you find. Except maybe comfortable pants.