Stories from a backpack with The Barefoot Backpacker
Ian is the king of Twitter and also happens to be a really lovely bloke. Known to most of us as the Barefoot Backpacker. Famous for travelling the world with no shoes, Ian creates some fantastic destination guides and has a great travel podcast. But mostly, I love how Ian tells stories.
I’m always a little nervous when I reach out to people online to see if they are keen to talk about travel, but every time I do I am so glad I took the leap. Ian’s interview is one of my favourite of the series. I’m grateful for his honesty and openness, talking about some of the issues and fears we all so often face when we travel, yet rarely discuss.
Grab yourself a cup of tea and have a nice read.
As always, I start with the question no traveller ever wants to answer (because it’s so hard to choose).
Please share with us your favourite/ best/scariest or funniest travel story…
... I mean. There’s the tale of when I got stuck at a border crossing with no luggage or shoes, The time I was guided onto the wrong bus in Uzbekistan and the journey took nearly 24 hours rather than 8, Then there was another border crossing where I accidentally illegally entered a country mere weeks after a revolution, [It’s probably best if you don’t cross international borders with me!]
I’d say each journey I take is pretty memorable, so I’m not sure I can define a ‘best’ or ‘favourite’ story from my travels, and I’ve never really been anywhere where I’ve felt ‘scared’ …
… oh, wait.
There was that time in Hebron, Palestine. I’d taken a minibus from Bethlehem without really knowing what I was doing. Got taken under the wing of a 14-year-old Palestinian who spoke no English but we shared a common love of cracking our knuckles, who then took me around the town (including via a mobile phone shop!) until he left me almost at the building housing the tomb of Ishmael. Whereupon I then went the wrong way and ended up down a completely empty road and would have gone further had the (Dutch) UN solider not pointed his gun at me. I made my way down the correct road, through no-mans-land, to the Israeli settler part of town, got horrendously lost inside the synagogue with the tomb of Abraham, casually stepped back through the fence dividing the two parts of the city, before bumping into another Palestinian who took me on a short guided tour of his part of the city. Including the high street with a net mesh above it to stop people above throwing stones and bottles of urine onto it.
Interesting place, Hebron.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?
I’ve been staring at this question for two hours. I don’t think there is one specific piece of advice I’ve ever been given that has stayed with me; rather it’s been a series of smaller ‘concepts’, phrases on the same kind of theme.
The theme in question is death and the fact that, well, we all die. So the advice has always been along the lines of:
Given that you could die tomorrow, do you regret not having done anything? Given that you could die tomorrow, live as if it will happen.
Much of my angst over the last three years has been resolving that question – Future Me (who is alive) may object to Present Me not preparing for the future, not saving money, not pursuing a career, etc. But Present Me feels Future Me can sort that out when he gets there. Maybe.
If you could only go back to one place in the world, where would you go and why?
Ahh, “place” is such a vague word. Like, do you mean town? Country? Continent? Or somewhere narrower: specific pub or restaurant, maybe? Bed?
Let’s think of this question in another way: where have I been the most contented? Where has been the place that has been best for me, both in terms of activities and in terms of mental health? Somewhere I can head into the remoter countryside and satisfy my slightly hippyish love for being alone in the scenery, yet also somewhere with history, culture, a place to sit and write, and, let’s be honest, beer and Wi-Fi.
Vanuatu, Benin, Benelux … none quite fit all the criteria. So I’d say … much as I loathe to admit it, I quite like the British Isles. Somewhere within easy reach of the Outer Hebrides or the Pennines/Lowlands of Scotland. Maybe Scotland then. There we go. I’d go back to Scotland.
What has travel taught you?
That I can.
That is to say: People are quite surprised when I tell them this for the first time, though I’m perfectly open about it in a lot of what I write, but …
I have a number of issues, including self-confidence and self-esteem concerns, imposter syndrome, mild anxiety, depression, and similar attributes. I’m heavily introverted too, so all of this means that while in my head I love to travel around the world and explore new places and experience new things, when it comes to doing it in practice, well … I dread it sometimes. The last few minutes before the plane lands in a new place, my brain is awash with questions – will I be able to access my money? Can I easily get out of the airport? Will people be able to understand me; will I understand them; or will they laugh at me for being the obvious, stupid, ignorant foreigner – their plaything, their toy? Will I have the courage to go out into the streets or will I lock myself in my ho(s)tel room for three days and panic-book a flight back home?
This, by the way, has happened. At least twice.
But equally, it’s mostly my mind always looking at the worst-case scenario. Almost every time I travel, it’s been far easier than my brain has made it out to be. I mean, sure, there are moments where I feel low and wonder what I’m doing here and that I … can’t, but they usually pass quite quickly. And the more I travel … I won’t say the better I get or even the more used to it I get, but you learn how to cope, you learn what works, you learn what your limits are.
You learn that, yes, you can do this. And you will enjoy it as much as you imagined when you first thought of the idea two months ago on your sofa at home.
What is that one moment from a trip you will never ever forget?
Many years ago (2006), I was happily sat at work when I got an e-mail from my friend, who had been working for a year in Australia and was now making her way back to France, as much overland as possible.
“You know you’ve always wanted to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway?” she asked, “Well, I’m in Shanghai right now and I’m headed to Beijing to do it.”
A week later (!) I was in China ready to take the train. Now, one might think the prospect of taking one of the longest train journeys in the world (we had a stopover in Ulaanbaatar so our longest journey was 5 days/4 nights) would be a moment to never forget, but while the trip was enjoyable and comfortable, there isn’t much to do on a train for that length of time and the windows were pretty dirty. Rather, the moment I’ll never forget was when we were in Ulaanbaatar. It was a feeling, more than an event, a passing mood. I remember I was standing in Suhbaatar Square, the main focal point of the city. It was heading towards evening, there were scattered clouds above and the sky was tending towards mauve. Distant hills shrouded in mist, whilst the square itself was lined with communist-era and Chinese-style buildings. And I thought to myself: “Wow. I’m actually here. Me. Little me. Somewhere I never imagined I would be, or even ever could be.”
It was quite fundamental.
And finally… What’s your favourite line from the Stories from a Backpack manifesto and why?
There’s a couple that resonate, but I think my favourite is the simple: “We are the everyday storytellers”.
Everyone has a story to tell, from millionaire entrepreneurs to homeless teenagers. And everyone’s story is different from yours, to mine. While some people and their stories won’t necessarily spark international interest, everyone and everywhere is interesting and notable in some way, to some degree.
Much of what I write could be described as veering into ‘social history’ territory – the history of people’s lives, of who people are. And what we all do now, especially bloggers and doubly-especially Instagrammers, is provide a window on the world as it is now, that social historians like me will look back on in a hundred, two hundred, a thousand years time, and find absolutely fascinating – everyday lives, everyday stories, that we simply don’t have records of from previous generations.
Keep taking those selfies; future historians will love you for it.
Thank you so much, Ian! Laura xx
Please note – all these photos are from The Barefoot Backpacker.