In Conversation with Andrew Evans
Ernest White II
Sunlight streams through the plate glass windows of The Dupont Circle Hotel’s elegant café on a Thursday during the quiet time between lunch and happy hour. A pair of besuited men laugh a little too loudly for so early in the afternoon, while the interminable television coverage of the current American president streams audibly in the background. Andrew Evans, travel writer and semi-reformed geography geek, sits across from me, coffees and chocolate chip cookies arranged tantalizingly between us. He dares me to try a cookie, and I end up having two. That’s just how persuasive Andrew is. After all, he persuaded National Geographic to help fund his 12,000-mile journey from Washington, D.C., to Antarctica by bus.
An adventurer, a lover of languages and cultures, a writer of guidebooks and memoirs, a television personality and ex-Mormon elder, a survivor of bullying and betrayal, a devoted husband, and a connoisseur of chocolate chip cookies, Andrew made his way to the underside of the earth squeezed onto chicken buses and the Greyhound. Through the American South and down the spine of South America, he befriended little old ladies, pushed buses out of ditches, roughed up a swindler, and nearly drowned in the Strait of Magellan. In the end, Andrew transformed his lifelong dream into reality—to reach one of the planet’s last true frontiers—and in doing so, he persuades hopeless wanderers and hopeful romantics like me to make my dreams real, too. And to eat the cookie.
We talk, writer-to-writer, about bus fires, sympathetic stalkers, and the making of Andrew’s enthralling travel memoir, The Black Penguin.
What inspired you to walk into the National Geographic offices to pitch the project that would become The Black Penguin?
It was a combination of things. I had already been writing for them for about a year and a half at that point. Part of it was that we had all this new technology for storytelling. Twitter was brand new. There were very few people on it, and I thought, “Wow, I can report live from the field. Wouldn’t it be cool to do an entire narrative live from the field on Twitter?”
Another was this urgency about getting to Antarctica, which I felt was kind of slipping through my fingers. Because I had been making so many attempts to get down there and it kept eluding me. And so, it was really this perfect storm of Twitter being invented, me wanting to get to Antarctica that season because I had been rejected by other projects, and also this vision of tying in a traditional magazine feature with live storytelling from the road, video, still image, all of it happening spontaneously over several months. So, a journey that people could actually follow day-by-day while it’s taking place.
So, you had the whole thing conceptualized before talking to the editor?
Yes, and just to put it into perspective: everyone’s doing this now, and I’m not saying I was the first to think of it, but I thought I was the first to think of it when it came to mind, because it kind of hit me in the middle of the night. And when I pitched it, it was a totally new concept. National Geographic is a very traditional magazine, where you went out on assignment, you came back, you delivered your story. I was like, I want to go on assignment where I don’t even know if it’s going to work or not. I don’t even know how far I’m going to get. I’m only going to buy a ticket to the next place. I’m not going to study beforehand or pre-buy any tickets, I’m just going to throw myself out there. So, I was asking National Geographic to kind of take away all the window dressing and insurance that’s a polished story and just like throw me out there and let me just share exactly what was happening. I think they were a little nervous about that. I didn’t care; I just wanted to try it. And most of the fun things I’ve done in life have been total experiments. But I went out on this assignment without any assurance that it was going to work. I almost expected it to fail and that I was going to have to come home a failure.
But you were ok with that.
I was fine with that.
If you failed, at least you tried.
I was fine with it, because every little thing was a success for me. Just crossing the state border was like, “Wow, I made it to Louisiana.” And when I made it to Mexico, I was like, “really moving now!” Then, I made it to Nicaragua and I was like, “This might actually work.” But I never allowed myself to get too comfortable or make any assumptions. And I felt like that was missing from so much travel writing because everything was a foregone conclusion. Everything was tied up with a bow. Real-life travel is not like that. You’re hitting obstacles all the time. Other people are making decisions for you; the weather is making a decision for you. And I wanted to bring that to the surface.
Talking about your risk-taking and your experimental travels, early in the book you talk about spending a week on this desert island in the Caribbean. What was your motivation for that experience?
I was a really bookish kid. I think a lot of us were. All these things I started doing as a young adult were things I dreamt of as a kid first. I grew up with Treasure Island like every other kid. Swiss Family Robinson, desert island fantasies, which I think everybody has. National Geographic definitely fed the flames. But really, it was one book in particular. It was the SAS, the British Special Forces, survival guide I got from a used bookstore in England. I wanted to apply the knowledge in real life. It’s like, is this just somebody writing this, or will it actually work in real life? It was an experiment, just like going on the bus. So, it’s like, I have to do this in real life. I have to abandon myself on an island for a week and see if this stuff I read in a book actually works. Can I survive? So that’s what inspired it.
So then, these types of grand adventures would make a trip to Antarctica sort of a foregone conclusion.
Yeah, but it’s one thing to spend a week on a tropical island where you know the weather’s going to be decent, you know that if worst comes to worst, somebody’s going to come get you. Going to Antarctica was a 12,000-mile overland journey, and I think there were a lot more variables. It was a lot bigger scale. And like I said, I longed to get there more than anything else, but it was still a shock to me when I did.
Well, we’re glad you did.
In the book, you include several anecdotes about your relationship with and eventual marriage to Brian, even though in the acknowledgements, you say he didn’t want to be in it at all. One of the sections that stood out to me was the chapter when you and Brian were participating in a scientific study in London; and while your family was trying to convert you to heterosexuality, Brian was planning a romantic getaway. How did you decide which stories from your lives together you wanted to include?
I think it’s hard to write about one’s personal relationship publicly, but as much as I intended originally to leave him out of the book, he is the most important person in my life. In the end, it was easier to include him in my story and just be honest about those moments where he was present. The point of the book was not a blow-by-blow account of my relationship, but there were key moments in my story where Brian was there. Those are the ones in the book.
How did he feel about your island experience?
When you’re in a relationship with someone, you know each other, and you know what makes that person happy. I know Brian likes to go off fishing and that makes him happy. So, I’m not going to stop him from doing that. I may not join him, but go ahead and do that. And he’s the same with me. He wasn’t going to go and spend a week living in a palm leaf hut, but he was very supportive. I think he was the voice of reason. He insisted that I bring water with me when I was like, “No, I’m not going to bring water.” I’ve got to be very much the purist. And he’s like, “I don’t want you to be dead.” He brought water for me just in case, which I ended up using. But he was fine with it.
Before that particular experience, had any of your family members met Brian?
Yes. One sister had met him very briefly, but she didn’t know who he was. She thought he was just one of my friends. My parents met him very briefly also, and they knew who he was.
I’m just asking to get an idea about your support system before doing these large trips. Had you and Brian traveled together before?
Yes. Travel is very important to me. I always say it’s not where you go but who you’re traveling with that matters. And there are all kinds of couples and best friends who’ve never traveled together, and when they do, they end up getting divorced or hating each other. So, early on in our relationship, I took him traveling, because I knew I was falling in love with him and I wanted to make sure we could travel together. So, six weeks in, I took him to Paris just to see. I’d made it clear to him that travel is very important to me, and I’ve been dragging him around the world ever since. So yes, we’d traveled before.
Were you guys already living together in DC at that time?
No, in England. We met in England and we lived in England. We were married in our own way; we were engaged. We couldn’t get married at the time, legally, but it wasn’t like, “let’s see if this works.” We were already together for life. We’d made that decision.
When did your family find out about your stay on the desert island?
I don’t think they ever did. Maybe when they read the book, if they ever read it.
You don’t know if they read it?
I only know that one sibling has read it.
Even though you’ve included no salacious, titillating tales from the road, do you see this book as a “gay travel memoir” as it is marketed?
Not at all, and I’m sorry to see the book categorized as such. I have never been a “gay travel writer,” and I’m not even sure what gay travel is. I’ve been a published travel writer for 16 years, and not once has my sexuality been the plot device for any of my stories. This book deals with the push back I got for being gay, but the travel story is bigger than that. I look forward to the day when we can stop labeling or qualifying our stories with our identity politics. I cringe when I hear “women’s travel writing” because why is it separate? It should just be travel writing.
How do you see “gay travel literature” in general and non-binary travel writing in the future?
I think you could write a book about that topic alone. Explorers and travelers have always been on the edge of society in one way or another. I think these women and men were also misfits when it came to sexuality and gender identity, like Bruce Chatwin, Gertrude Bell, Annie Smith Peck. I think, you know, when you don’t fit in at home, you go out searching in the world. You’re already comfortable feeling foreign, and often you find a place where your sexuality or gender are more fitting. There are all kinds of psychological reasons we set off into the world, but most of the gay men I know have gone on some far-flung adventure, and that is attached to their coming out.
That said, I still resent travel writing labeling us as a sub-genre, as if we’re some kind of phenomenon or alternative to white hetero male travel writing. Every traveler is valid; every story is valid. If we treat them equally and publish them equally, we can achieve that ideal much faster.
So, on New Year’s Day 2010, you boarded the bus for Antarctica. Now, in that early chapter, you had lots of great anecdotes about your grandmother. How was your relationship with your grandparents at that time, or even growing up?
It’s always been great. I was blessed with incredible grandparents.
Were these your paternal grandparents?
I would say on both sides, I had amazing grandparents, but the ones I’m writing about here are my paternal grandparents, who were based here in Washington, DC.
And who were also Mormon?
Yeah, we’ve been Mormon since the beginning, seven generations back, so we’re all the way. You couldn’t be Mormon before then, so all the way back to the beginning. But they came from a very different generation, they grew up during the Great Depression. So, they’ve been through some stuff, and I think they had an appreciation for getting through hardship. There was just a lot of love from them. I had lived with my grandfather a few times after college, I had lived in the basement here in DC in his house, did various internships. My grandmother passed when I was quite young, but I do remember her. She was always just so loving; I just remember her hugging us all the time. And feeding us donuts, which we couldn’t have at home. Hugs and donuts. She was awesome.
I know you did a lot of traveling in the US with your family as a kid and they supported you at things like the state geography bee, but you had a crappy high school experience with the other kids. Did your parents know about the torment that was happening at school?
No. They did not.
No administrators contacted them about any bullying they may have witnessed?
No. It was a different time back then. Nowadays, there’s such an awareness of bullying and people are watching out for it and schools are getting sued for it. Back then, it was like, “shut up and get on with it.” You didn’t complain about this. If you brought it up, it made you complicit, it made you weak. And the way I was being bullied, again, I was being raised in a Midwestern, very evangelical community, one where it’s ok to be homophobic. Like, that’s part of the value system of the society. I couldn’t say, “Oh, I’m getting physically abused and attacked with homophobic slurs all the time.”
The response would just be to man-up.
I couldn’t even say the words they were calling me to my parents because I would have gotten in trouble for it. So, the fact that we didn’t even have the language to discuss these things is part of the problem.
Have you since discussed this with your parents?
Um, no. I mean, I think I’ve discussed a lot of things with my parents, but I kept that part a secret, and I think that for the family members who have read the book, I think it was probably a shock to them to see that. But my younger brother was also bullied very badly. He had some disabilities; I think he had it worse than I did, frankly.
Why did your family keep going to Utah?
Utah is like the Mormon version of Israel for Jews. It’s like, that’s our Zion, that’s our homeland. And I’m related to half the state, because when you create a frontier theocracy in the 19th century that’s polygamous and they don’t intermarry, you’re related to half the state. And I really mean that. You pick any person in Utah, I promise you, I’m somehow related to them through generations of intermarriage. So, for us in the Mormon world it was like, “this is where we landed, and this is the right place to be.” The rest of the world they referred to as the mission field, as in yet to be baptized or converted. So, we were living in the mission field—Ohio—but occasionally we would go back to Zion to recharge. Also, my maternal grandparents were there, my cousins were there. We would go for the whole summer. It’s our cultural heartland. And it was taught to us that this is where, eventually, we’d all be going back to because we were all going to go to Brigham Young University, we were all going to marry other Mormons, that’s what was going to happen. Ohio was just sort of a temporary moment.
Did you enjoy going to Utah?
I loved it. It was so exotic for me because I lived in such a boring part of America. Utah had mountains, it had national parks. My grandfather was a cowboy out there, so you could go to a rodeo. I mean, it was super-exotic.
Do you go back now?
I don’t. I didn’t go back for a long time. I was back there last year and it’s weird because it still feels so familiar to me, but it also feels foreign. I feel like an outsider, based on the fact that I’m a gay man and we’re not loved in Utah. So, there’s some trauma there. But I think now that I’ve made more peace with it, I can love Utah again. I drink coffee now, so I can go to Utah and drink coffee. I can go skiing in Utah. There’s another side of Utah that’s not Mormon that’s fantastic.
Back to your book, when you thought about composing the narrative, did you write about everything that happened on the trip?
No, you can’t. But I felt like I made a worthy attempt because when you actually look at the pages of the book, the first 48 hours of that book comprise five or six chapters. It’s hard because it’s a bus trip. There are all kinds of things happening mentally, all kinds of things happening in front of you. You’re meeting all kinds of fascinating people. So, I did my best. A lot of it got cut. The final manuscript that was approved for publication was 120,000 words, and from that, I still cut 30,000 words.
How did you decide what to leave out?
It was really tough. It was really, really hard. But in the end, I wanted to be the one that made those decisions. They basically said, “you can do this, or we can come in and do it.” I was like, “I’ll do it.” It was hard because characters got cut, scenes got cut, but it was really about the flow. I read a lot of stuff out loud. If there was something we thought was a little non-sequitur, it got cut. But it was really hard. And even now, when I’m reading it in my mind, I’m putting all that stuff back in. I know where there’s a jump that should cover other things.
What’s something that stands out to you that you cut but in a perfect world would have been included?
I cut almost a whole chapter. It was a scene from a chapter, but it was long enough to be a whole chapter by itself. The whole reminiscence about one of my best friends in college who died when she was 23; I was 21. She died in a car crash. I was supposed to be in the car with her, but I chose not to go, and she and her sisters were killed. I wrote about that because it was important to me and she was a really important friend, a very affirming friend as I was coming out. And she kind of rescued me when I was in Utah. I wrote all about that and her passing, and my agent at the time told me that it just didn’t fit with the rest of the story. I felt like I was dishonoring her memory by taking it out, but I also felt like she kind of deserves a book of her own, so I’ve kept those pages and cut them from the book. That’ll come out in something else, be part of another story.
Yeah. But all gay guys have that woman in their life that saves them, and she was mine.
So, how did you end up paying for the bus tickets? Did you save up for the trip? What was that process?
When I started out, I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. And that was part of the excitement. A lot of these assignments have got a huge expense account, and my whole point was: How far can I make it? And I had a little cash saved aside, but it was kind of miraculous what happened, because I only really had enough money to buy tickets, I think, as far as Mexico. And when my editor said, “Yes, we’re gonna do this,” they had no budget for anything internet-related. The entire internet at National Geographic was placed under a category called Special Projects, and I was under this Special Projects. However, like a week before I left, he actually made it a formal assignment, meaning a feature assignment. I didn’t know what that meant, but when my editor-in-chief made that decision, my actual editor for the story came back and said, “Andrew, this means he can allocate money to you.” So, he asked me for a budget a week before I left. He said my budget was too much, but he gave me some money then. My entire bus ticket from beginning to end, I think, was $1,100, so there was enough money there to be able to do that much.
Bizarrely, it all worked out in the end, but it was a combination of things. They bought a lot of my pictures because I didn’t have a regular contract. Normally, had I been under a regular contract, National Geographic would have owned all those photos automatically. But they weren’t, so they had to buy them. The fact is, I earned more money off the pictures I took from that trip than the writing because they had to buy the rights to them. So yeah, that’s how I did it. But I would have done it anyway.
Even without the assignment, because it was a personal goal of yours.
Absolutely. And I’ve done a lot of trips like that. We all have, where growing up, I always thought: “Do I have enough money for the ticket? Ok, let’s go!” These other people are like, “Oh, what about hotel? What about taxi?” I’m like, “Nope!” If I can get there, we’ll pick it up from there.
I did that, too, for these first 40 years. Now, I want my hotel paid for. Sorted.
So, you talk about writing a letter to National Geographic as a youngster, and they wrote about the types of things you could study to get a job with them. What did you end up studying in college?
I started as an art major and I switched to geography. I was really interested in the political and human aspects. I focused on political culture geography, but I was glad that I did the cartography and the GIS and demography and population statistics because it was a good background for exploring the world. There are a lot of different ways to look at it. I was grateful that I did that. It was a very well-rounded education. And I minored in French and Russian. That’s where I got my humanities fix.
Do you still have the letter, or did you recreate it from memory?
I still have it. I don’t know where it is now, but I kept that letter. That’s a verbatim copy of the letter I got back when I was 14.
Did you write the book using notes from the road entirely, or from memory, or both?
I was very fortunate because some of the praise I’ve gotten from the book is, “How did you remember all these details?” Well, I had 5,000 tweets and I was tweeting incessantly, and I was writing all these things down. I didn’t download everything, but there was this school teacher in Texas who downloaded it because she was using it to teach her class geography, and she sent me the file. So, I had this 200-page print out of all my notes, which is good, because I’m not a very good note-taker. And on top of that, I had all my twit-pics. Each of these things allowed me to have a moment-by-moment, play-by-play, remembering names, people. I use mostly all real names in here.
You do use mostly all real names?
Yes. A couple names I changed because I wanted to protect those people, but for the most part, they’re real names.
I think you basically had your first draft written from tweets.
Yeah. Having said that, though, as a writer to a writer, the big mistake I made is that I tried to write a book from my Twitter feed. And even from my blog, because I had 65 blog posts that came out of this. So, I had a huge amount of material. And you can’t do that. I failed. The first few drafts were total failures because I tried to frame them and use that structure from social media, and you can’t do that. I could use my Twitter feed as my notes, and that was very helpful for remembering details and names and emotional reactions to things, but it’s not a good framework for writing a long-form narrative. I made the mistake of trying to write the blow-by-blow account as it was presented in Twitter, and that’s not how books work. I had to write fresh, on a blank page, with a different tempo and time frame. I had to rewrite the story from scratch and I referenced these things, but I wasn’t writing from that.
That was a mistake it took me two years to figure out.
What about a section where it worked?
I tried to include a few of my direct tweets, or, at least, the more poetic ones as I saw them. I thought about including the entire Twitter feed as an appendix in the back, but when I realized it was longer than the book itself, I was like: better not.
When you were on the road, do you feel the chance meetings you had with people were actually by chance?
Yes and no. I don’t ever want to read too much into something, but that’s because I respect the chance that it could be meaningful on its own. I accept everything that happens as something that carries meaning. So, if somebody randomly sits next to me on the bus…
…it’s not by chance.
I don’t ignore it because I think it’s the curiosity that comes from travel. I need to talk to this person. What can I learn from them? What does their experience bring to me? Even if it seems selfish, I want other people to rub off on me. On the bus, at the airport, in train stations, everybody is rubbing off on each other. Sometimes literally, like when you get the flu. We’re all intersecting each other’s lives, and I don’t see that as random.
And is that selfish, or is it just human?
I think it’s human, but there are humans that go to great lengths to avoid that from happening. They want to be cooped up; they want to be protected. When you look at a First Class lounge, that’s all about people trying to avoid each other.
Because of some kind of insecurity or pain or trauma.
Or a superiority complex, which is connected to all that. [Laughs]
Exactly, which to me doesn’t seem natural. To me, our natural inclination is to gravitate towards others.
Well, when you think about travel, the way most people do it now is to try and control the experience, and I like the opposite. That was the whole point of this, to throw myself into whatever and be open to whatever. And sometimes that’s painful. Sometimes that means sleeping in a ditch overnight, or sitting next to a crazy felon, or whatever. But when you’re open to that, for me, that’s when the magic happens. That’s one of the points of my story, that sometimes, I was the crazy person that other people were looking at like, “Who is this ridiculous man doing this ridiculous thing?”
It’s funny that you mention that because there is this character, Corey, when you’re in the Deep South and you talk about this scene when he gets up and moves to another seat, and that was painful for you. Here’s someone who appears to be judging you. But I wanted to ask because, since he had his own fantastical stories, could it not possibly have been him feeling that you were mocking him by saying you were going to Antarctica by bus?
Yeah…I’ve never heard that interpretation of that scene, and that’s why I love listening to readers tell me their thoughts, because that could have been one of the reasons why. I was looking at it through a racial lens because that was just so evident when I was traveling through the South. That was a dynamic that was just so obvious on the bus, and I may have been projecting, but I figured that’s why he sat next to me. I was the only white guy on the bus and he was the only other white guy. There were a million spare seats and he came and sat next to me, which is what I witnessed from Georgia to Texas. That was the dynamic. But I think what you’re describing could have been…I listened to him and I believed him, but I also kind of thought, “Why does he want me to be impressed? What is he trying to prove?”
And I guess that’s why I’m asking if he was just thinking, “Oh, this dude’s taking the piss” and it was his own projecting, based on his big talk about all these cars and the alleged hot chicks, yet he’s riding the bus.
Right. But we all do that. Every single meeting, every cocktail party, we’re all presenting a version of ourselves that we want people to believe and invest in. And we may not believe in it. But the more other people believe in it, the more it becomes true. I think that’s an astute observation and I never thought of it that way.
Also, I think looking at people and their presentation, how many people do you think have taken the bus and won’t admit to it? It’s often seen as lower-class, something only down-and-out crazy people do.
It’s very stigmatized. The bus, especially in America, is very stigmatized.
It’s a humbling experience to be on the bus. What draws you to the bus?
I feel like I belong to the bus. This wasn’t me as a middle-class white man slumming it. The fact is, most of my travels up until I was older were on the bus because that was all I could afford, so that’s where I come from. When I was going to Europe and everyone else was backpacking on Eurail, Eurail was too fancy for me. Like, I was taking the bus around Europe. I was taking the bus in Asia. I mean, the bus is the cheapest of the cheap, and for the first decade of my travels, I was cheap of the cheap.
And you’re a big dude and those buses are not comfortable.
Yeah, but I put up with the discomfort. To me, the destination was worth whatever it took to get there, so I didn’t think it was me making a concerted effort to explore Down-and-Out America because I come from that place. I had taken Greyhound on my own out of choice, and I crossed Texas on Greyhound because it was cheaper than flying, and I wanted to spend that extra $200 on something else other than a plane ticket. I’ve taken the Chinatown bus between DC and New York—that was another section cut from the book; I wrote a whole chapter about the Chinatown bus and how much time we spent on it. Now, they’re fancy. Before the internet, the Chinatown bus would catch on fire every week and that was my reality. I remember riding the bus in Honduras and it caught on fire and I had to jump off and yell “¡Fuego!” and get everybody off the bus. So, it wasn’t that foreign for me. I actually felt comfortable in that sense.
You also seem to enjoy the physicality of the bus. You had to push the bus out of mud and help people on and off the bus. There is just a lot of physical activity that goes along with that mode of travel.
Yes, for sure. And I think for me, as a traveler and as a geographer, so much of the way we travel these days is cheating. Taking a fast train or flying, you’re skipping all the in-between places. And I love the very easy transition, the slow changes between places, and the miles of the road on a bus; yes, you feel them. You feel them in your butt because it’s vibrating beneath you. You feel it when the bus breaks down because it happened more and more the farther I went. So yeah, it is a physical experience, but it’s also about that pace of travel. You catch so much more, you feel so much more. When you feel the air in the South change from the kind of mountain air of the Appalachians into the salt sea air of Biloxi, Mississippi, to the humidity of the Texas Gulf Coast, it’s a much more intimate travel experience. And the people on the bus—the accents, the smells—that’s all part of the travel experience.
Just your descriptions of it have me wanting to hop on a bus, particularly through the deserts of Peru. I was thinking, I’d love to take a bus from Guayaquil to Titicaca, just because of your descriptions. I didn’t say I actually would, but it sounds breathtaking.
[Laughs] It’s a long bus. It’s a 24-hour bus.
When you describe some of the people you encounter on your journey, some of the most impactful descriptions are of women you barely interacted with, if at all. I’m thinking of Lester’s mom in Guatemala, who “picked, peeled, sliced, and bagged” fruit for her son to sell, or of the grandmothers on the side of the road in Mexico cooking tortillas. Those women stayed with me. Why do you think you were so drawn to imagine their lives?
That’s an insightful critique; I hadn’t given much thought to that. I do feel like you see things differently as a travel writer, and for me, every scene that presents itself is only a surface snapshot of everything that has gone into that moment. I distinctly remember eating that pupusa in El Salvador and imagining the woman that made it for me. Even though I never met her, I can imagine her, because this object of food connects us. I think women are often behind the scenes, and relegated to staying behind the scenes, and, maybe subconsciously, I wanted to bring them out of the shadows and make them part of the story.
You talk about intimacy, and you’re meeting strangers all the time and people who you wouldn’t otherwise meet again in life before technology. How do you think technology and social media have changed the once-in-a-lifetime character of rendezvousing with people?
Well, it’s in your face every hour, every day. A million people across the globe can connect with you. And it happens so quickly. One day, I opened my Instagram account and I had 5,000 new followers and they were all Saudi housewives, and that’s how I found out that my show [National Geographic Channel’s Smart Cities television series] was airing in Saudi Arabia. They feel this very intimate connection because you’re in their living room talking to them, and these are women who are sequestered from male life. Suddenly, you’re this male who’s real, but on their screen, and they can talk to you on this Instagram account. So, it’s this artificial intimacy through technology that’s very immediate, which is exciting. But it can also be uncomfortable. There’s less choice about who has access to you and who you have access to.
Well, you were open to the public your entire time on the road and you had Luís, the stalker.
My first stalker, and the last.
So no more on that trip?
Not on that trip. I had some uncomfortable internet followers that I had to block. I had this crazy teenage girl in Alabama who was hugely inappropriate that I had to block, but for the most part, people were cool.
I think you did a good job of having us sympathize with Luís, with your description of him with the backpack. Yes, you had to get away from him, but at the same time, we could tell that he wanted a change in his life. He wanted your life. The fact that you could see the humanity in that says a lot.
I related to him in that he had a dream and I had a dream. But I also realized that you’re not supposed to jump in the water to save a drowning victim because they’ll drown you. You hand them something. I felt like I was on this experiment, and if he had his way, he would destroy it. Not intentionally, but he would ruin everything I’d worked for, so I was just like, “I gotta get away from him.” But I don’t think my dream is more valid than his.
No, I don’t think it came across that way.
I value his interest and his expertise, and a lot of things he said about me, even though they hurt, were true. My Spanish sucks. There were a lot of things I was missing, traveling so quickly through these countries. But I had a different goal and I was not there to do an expository on Ecuador. I was there to get to Antarctica and Ecuador just happened to be along the way. And my Spanish got better along the way because that’s what happens when you travel on the bus for a month through Latin America.
Now, aside from the stalker Luis, and the teenager you had to block, you did receive a good bit of help and advice from strangers. I’m remembering a particularly gregarious and sweet family in Guayaquil who, ironically, told you not to talk to any strangers after they got you sorted with a safe hotel for the night and a bus ticket out of town. What do you think compelled people to be so helpful to you?
I think it’s human nature to be kind. The mistrust and violence and all that, those stem from the insecurity that goes with unfettered capitalism and our dog-eat-dog world. We tend to focus on the negative stories of people being mean to each other, or travelers as victims, but actually, none of us would be here as travelers without genuine strangers being genuinely kind and generous with us. I think when you make yourself totally vulnerable to a place and its inhabitants, then they embrace you more. If you go in guarded, prejudiced, entitled, then you’re not open to what the place can offer you.
And you meet great people like Zoraïda.
Yes, who’s like, “Your Spanish sucks. Let me help you!” That’s how you learn. But Luís was creepy, and you know when you just have an off feeling about someone. We all have those experiences and I think I had a sixth-sense about him that this was not going to be helpful.
You mention lamenting the fleeting interactions you had with people while traveling. Do you still feel that way, or do you feel like it just goes with the territory?
I think it goes with the territory. I feel like there’s a wistfulness and a sadness to travel that the whole world is there in front of you, but you will never be able to have the level of intimate connection with everything. Just mathematically, it’s impossible. So, the way we know our own backyard that we grew up in, we may pass through the Bois de Boulogne in Paris or the Great Pine Forest between Moscow and Saint Petersburg and they may inspire us, and we may find them beautiful, but I will never know that forest as intimately as I know my own backyard. The same with people. We see this amazing person or a striking person that we remember forever, even if, for only a couple seconds, we were passing, and we’ll never be able to have the chance to really get to know them. Travel is collecting mystery. So, I resist travel advertising that’s all so focused on the cheery, sunny, Stepford Wives resort because we’re collecting a lot of sadness, we’re collecting complexity from other people. It killed me to go through some of these places, seeing the indigenous people of Bolivia right outside the bus and me wanting to immerse myself in their world and knowing that I couldn’t. Because if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to do anything else. And I envy people who are truly free to just stop and get lost in this world. So, that’s why I think traveling with a too hard-set goal is a mistake.
But isn’t it a big assumption that people can get lost in a world where they may be very different physically, and certainly culturally? You mention, for example, “innocent American me.” How often do you think travelers, in general, and journalists, bloggers, “influencers” in particular, use Americanness as proxy for innocence? Or even an automatic “I can dive into a culture and connect” or “get lost” in a culture? Is that even possible?
When I say “get lost in a culture,” I mean stop, reject all your goals and motives and everything else, and make yourself 100% vulnerable to that time and place.
Is that possible for anyone to do anywhere?
For me, it’s the ideal. And I would say that none of us ever achieve it, but I could think back on travels I’ve made in my life and places where I feel exceptionally vulnerable. Japan. I love Japan because when I’m there, I feel like a three-year-old. I’m so dependent on strangers. I’m so lost in that world. I can’t read the signs. Everything I do is a social faux-pas. I’m a bumbling child; I’m a toddler there. And yet, part of the beauty of Japan is that, in a lot of ways, it’s such a compassionate culture that it embraces you, it assists you, it takes care of you and you become less and less of a bumbling idiot as you move along. I think that’s what I mean by that, but I also recognize the artificial nature of many Americans traveling abroad, just like you said. I think I highlighted that in one of my stories, where I’m on an air-conditioned bus with an American passport, drinking bottled water. I’m in a cocoon. I’m protecting myself. I’m picking and choosing how much of this place I’m absorbing. Because I don’t want to absorb the heat and the insects and the diseases and the wrong people. So already, I’m a flawed traveler just by doing this.
At the end of the book, when you reach Antarctica, you kind of posit yourself almost as a fraud in the sense that, “I didn’t do anything other than sit my ass on a series of buses.” But surely you’ve interacted with people who see what you’ve done as more than that.
Right! But it’s not my job to create a monument for myself. I feel like the golden age of exploration that I look up to, the people who were taking risks—and I don’t just mean the 18th- or 19th-century European traveler. When you read the old traveler accounts like Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, these were people who any day could have gotten killed. Any new place they went into, they had no framework, they had no embassy they could go to. They were really putting themselves out there, and that’s not even possible today. It’s just not. And I respect people who do great things. I love what I did; it was great for me. But I wasn’t saving the world. For me, travel brings a very different thing. And I feel like so many adventurers and travelers, the people you’re talking about, they want a merit badge. They want to say, “I climbed Mount Everest.” It’s a very testosterone thing, it’s a very male thing: the achievement. For me, the achievement was getting to a place that I really needed to go to. And yes, the way I got there was very public. It was the trade-off I made to get there, but I tried to convey that in the book that, once I landed in Antarctica, once I had done that and it was being publicized, I immediately retreated into this very private space and I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be left behind. Because, for me, it was such a private goal.
The fact that you did what you did told everyone on the bus sitting next to you that they could do it, too. You don’t have to build a monument to yourself, but all Rosa Parks did, too, was sit down on a bus. And I’m under no illusions regarding her place in history, but I also know the importance of the single drop of water in the ocean.
You know, I thought a lot about Rosa Parks on the trip and other followers brought her up because I traveled through Montgomery. I even had followers say, “You’re just like Rosa Parks,” and I was like: cringe.
I cringed, but at the same time, aside from the obvious narrative about Rosa Parks, the bigger metaphysical idea that to move, to travel through space and time, is a human right. And the fact that one of the forms of racial oppression in this country was to prevent the movement of people, saying, “You can travel, and you cannot,” even within a city. Or this is a place you’re allowed to be and this is a place you’re not allowed to be…as a geographer, as someone thinking spatially, I’m like, no. We should all move freely to all places. All places should be open to all. And the fact that, even on the bus in the South, the space was being divided up racially, even now in the 21st century. That was astounding. What was Rosa Parks fighting for? What were the Freedom Riders or the Bus Boycott all about? We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet.
And we get there one bus at a time.
You know, for me, one of the responsibilities of privilege—whether it’s white privilege, or male privilege, or cisgender privilege, or passport privilege, there’s this safety net that it affords—the responsibility is to do what that privilege affords us and to use it for the good of everyone. We have to do the traveling that others can’t. It must be done for us to connect across these backgrounds and boundaries. Even in a world of discount tickets, travel is still monumental. So, let me say that it’s monumental if you won’t say it.
I mean, thank you.
You’re telling me that I can go to Antarctica. Though, I won’t go on the bus.
[Laughs] For me, just like what I said about the civil right of movement in America, I felt the same about Antarctica. Because, my whole life, it had been off-limits. Not because it was remote, but because I wasn’t rich enough. Because it was a rich people’s destination. I wasn’t smart enough because I didn’t have a PhD, because I wasn’t a scientist. All these things, all these man-made barriers were preventing me from going. I was like, fuck that! It’s on the globe. I can get there. I can get 99% of the way there taking public transportation. So, fuck you, world! I’m getting on the bus and going there!
And there it is. There is where it’s monumental.
But anybody can do that.
Yeah, but you did it.
And I hope other people realize the world is not off-limits. I mean, my visa just got rejected for Iran and I’m like, “No, I should be able to go to Iran!”
Why are you such a big risk-taker?
I don’t know if it’s risk, but I’m legitimately intrigued by Iran. I’m fascinated by it. I’m fascinated by the culture. I love the poetry, the art, the architecture, the history, the food, and yet, my government is telling me it’s off-limits.
I don’t mean to say that Iran is risky, but you were told, “No!” And then you’re saying, “I’m gonna go anyway.”
You were told you can’t get to the Costa Rican border by sundown, yet you convinced a mad cabbie to take you to the border from Managua, and then you hitchhiked and then you walked!
I think, at some point in life, you’ve got to figure out that most people don’t have your best interest at heart, and we’re hearing negative voices our whole lives. Some of it’s probably good advice; it’s probably not a good idea to smoke crystal meth when you’re 15. Or ever. But also, I remember being prohibited from going on a trip to Tunisia when I was an exchange student in France because my host parents were just racist, plain and simple. They were afraid of Arabs. They were afraid of Muslims. And I was just dying to go to this place, and they canceled the whole thing behind my back. I’d been planning on going. I’ve been told “no” my whole life, and it’s not just about travel; it’s about the clothes you wear, about who you love, about how you act, and at some point, you have to transcend that and say that other people are wrong.
What did the black penguin teach you?
That all of us exist regardless. That there can be norms and conventions and whole worlds that function a certain way, it doesn’t mean that we have to. And that our very existence liberates us. The fact that we exist means that the norms are wrong. The conventions are wrong. And I didn’t want to use it as this kind of sledgehammer metaphor. When my aunt read the book, she was like, “Oh, you’re the black penguin.” I said, “No… no.”
But it was striking to see half a million penguins; it’s the most uniform vision ever. And they’re all kind of marching at the same pace and they all look the same, and to see this one animal that was one of them, but not—totally chill, totally living his life, but so different and so beautiful in his difference—was staggering because nature creates outliers. And that should be the testament for all of us not to get hung up on whatever the norm is.
Ernest White II is a Nonfiction Editor of Panorama.
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