From the April 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Doug Lansky is one of those enviable souls who has managed to channel his wanderlust into a livelihood. While most of us may be footloose in our youth, only to be deskbound thereafter, Lansky has turned vagabonding into an ongoing lifestyle that has sustained him since college. He funds his travels—he has visited more than a hundred countries so far—largely by writing: a syndicated column, guidebooks, and books of humor with a travel theme. His most recent projects include a traveling exhibition of humorous signage, based on his Signspotting series of books, as well as a website that celebrates the woes of the road, giving travelers a place to vent their frustrations and share the low points of their journeys.
What is your philosophy of travel? At first, I fell into that old trap in which you think you're traveling off the tourist trail, hanging out with Bohemian-looking backpackers, comparing passport stamps, but you're actually on the trail. Whether it's the Banana Pancake Trail, the Gringo Trail, the Lonely Planet Trail, or whatever you want to call it, your goal is always the same: to tick sites off a list. Later I came to realize that getting your picture taken in front of this or that landmark is not what travel is about. That's like the dessert of travel. For me, the main meal is doing, not just seeing. It's about following your own interests on the road. So, for example, if you like bird watching, you go birding in Italy by contacting a local club and joining them. I try to use my interests as a skeleton key, to help unlock local cultures and make an organic connection with people there doing something I like to do. For me, meeting people with similar interests is what travel's about now.
Can you give another example? While doing the classic Eurail trip during my junior year abroad, I ventured down into Morocco with these Australian guys I met in Spain and then realized I hated traveling in a big group, so I left them and ended up living with two Moroccan guys and selling carpets for them in Marrakech. I was working on percentage as a sort of tout, going into tourist hangouts and pulling in customers. These Moroccan guys can push rug like nobody's business. They somehow turn the conversation from, "Did you have a nice time so far?" to "What is your credit card limit?" in the most natural way possible. And so people are spending $5,000 or $10,000, and I am pocketing $500 to $1,000 a day. I made a lot of money. That taught me that I could have a cool travel experience without having any other travelers around—and by doing something unique.
Tell me about your website, www.titanicawards.com. The site is all about the Titanic Awards, "celebrating the dubious achievements of travel." The idea is that every trip has some bad aspects. People are dying to tell the stories of what went wrong, to get them off their chest, whether it be something they hated about a particular airline or how a particular hotel was the worse place they ever stayed. It's both cathartic and entertaining.
What is the worst thing that has happened to you on the road? I'd gone up the Amazon on a cargo ship, lain in a hammock elbow to elbow for about nine days, and I was just bored out of my gourd. So I rented a dugout canoe, and two other travelers and I went out to find some headhunters and live with them for a week. At 3 one morning, some drunk guys woke me up by tapping me on the head with a machete. They were shouting at me, and I felt blood running down my face, and I was like, "Wait, wait, wait, take it easy. I got something for you." I fished a can of tuna out of my backpack and gave it to them, and that seemed to satisfy them for the time being. It was just really stupid on my behalf to think I could go and hang with headhunters, and so I guess I was paying the price. But I did get a book out of the experience, Up the Amazon Without a Paddle.
But I mean I did not really think—I thought that whole headhunter thing was silly and maybe it is but when they were already actually cutting your head, that starts to go through your head. I mean there is stuff like that kind of a thing and there is stuff that kind of just—I mean just like that Amazon trip, that was the worst wait I've ever had. I bought my ticket, got on a cargo ship and we sat there in the harbor at Manaus for four days and there were all sorts of shady characters coming on and off the boat and trying to—would walk around with knives and you got—and just sitting there in that heat for four days. It was like the worst airport waiting lounge, it was like an airport waiting lounge at a 105 degrees humid and no service and no toilets and that kind of thing. I remember just thinking "God, this is just such boring waste of time, awful travel and there is nothing to write about."
What travel experience haven't you had that would you really like to try? I'd love to do the via ferrata in Italy. These are climbing routes in the mountains with built-in, fixed anchors and cables. You wear a climbing harness and clip on with carabiners so that you're always protected. This allows you to walk in treacherous places where you have no business being and to do it safely. That just seems like a really cool way to hike. And, also, now that I've got kids, I want to take them to the Galápagos and do a canoe safari with them on the Zambezi River.
You've turned your book, Signspotting, into a traveling exhibit of hilarious signs. Tell us about that. It's like an absurd sculpture garden. I've assembled a hundred of the weirdest, funniest signs from around the world in one spot. Each sign [replicated, based on a photograph] has a metal pole with a 400-pound base labeled with a description. One of my favorites is the sign in Hawaii that says "Bottomless Pit" but also says "60 feet deep." There is another, also in the U.S., that advertises "Happy Fun Day" at a funeral parlor. There's a sign showing a stick figure bending down to get on a chairlift, but the chairlift is angled a little high so that it looks like a ski-in/ski-out proctology clinic. And there's a bear cage in a zoo labeled "This bear enclosure is sponsored by the Free the Bears Fund." The irony is just delightful.
With so many people traveling these days, do you think we are getting more of a faux travel experience? The faux and the real exist side by side. You can be, for example, at the Grand Palace in downtown Bangkok surrounded by thousands of camera-toting tourists but then step onto a city bus and be suddenly engulfed by locals with not a tourist in sight. And so the real experience is there for those willing to embrace it. When you get away from the chore of having to cross all those sites off your list, it's easy to have a much more authentic travel experience, wherever you go.
Odd Jobs: Doug Lansky has worked variously as a banana picker in Israel, snowmobile guide in the Alps, rug merchant in Morocco, and syndicated columnist. The Write Stuff: His books include First Time Around the World, Last Trout in Venice, Travel Survival, and There's No Toilet Paper on the Road Less Traveled.
Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.