This week’s NileGuide 5 interview features Jim Benning, the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of the Travel Channel’s online travel magazine, World Hum. The site publishes some of the best travel stories on the internet. Essays from World Hum have won Lowell Thomas awards and frequently appear in travel anthologies, including “The Best American Travel Writing.” In addition to editing the site, Jim co-teaches World Hum’s Travel Writing in the Digital Age workshops through Travel Channel Academy. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Outside, Men’s Journal and National Geographic Traveler, among other publications. Learn more about him at jimbenning.net and follow him on Twitter at @jimbenning.
1. What’s the most underrated destination you’ve been to?
The interior of Mexico, from Guanajuato and Guadalajara to Mexico City, Oaxaca and Chiapas. Mexico’s beach resorts get all the attention, but Mexico’s interior is so rich and diverse. Yet I often encounter more German travelers than Americans there. I know so many adventurous Americans who have backpacked around China, India and Indonesia in search of the most culturally mind-blowing experiences but have skipped over Mexico entirely. Not only do I think we should get to know our neighbors, but I’ve always agreed with Carlos Fuentes, who remarked that Mexico is “a country far more intricate and challenging to the North American mind than anything in Europe; a country at times more foreign than anything in Asia.”
2. How do you kill time when you’re stuck on a bus or plane?
If I have an agreeable seatmate, I love to talk. On a flight from Buenos Aires to Dallas recently, I had a long chat with an Uruguayan oncologist whose favorite band is Coldplay and who loved Paul Auster novels in translation. It was probably the best conversation I had during my entire trip to Argentina. I’ve had countless memorable conversations on Mexican buses. I’ll never forget the young woman in rural Jalisco who revealed to me how desperate she was to go to college, only she couldn’t because her father insisted she stay home and work on the family farm. Conversations like that aren’t killing time – they’re the stuff eye-opening travel is made of.
3. What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen or experienced traveling?
I was going to say the Hindu-animist funeral-cremation ceremony I attended on a tiny island off Bali, which culminated in the corpses of several locals going up in flames on funeral pyres. But back to my point about Mexico, topping my list would probably be the former Catholic church I visited in Chiapas where locals practice their own faith, which includes burning incense on the floor and guzzling Coca Cola because they believe burping rids their bodies of evil spirits.
4. What’s the first thing you do when you arrive at a new destination?
Go for a walk. I love the first impression I get when I walk the streets of a new place, listening to people, smelling whatever is wafting out of stores and restaurants, hearing music. How crowded are the sidewalks? How hard is it to cross a busy intersection? Do people smile or nod when you pass them? All those little details give me a quick sense of the place and, especially if I’ve flown there, make me feel grounded and connected to the earth again. I’ll never forget my first stroll through Istanbul after flying in from Los Angeles, for example, and hearing the call to prayer for the first time. That hour-long walk, when my senses were so heightened, is one of my all-time favorite travel memories.
5. If you could give one tip or piece of advice to travelers, what would it be?
Pack trail mix. I’m telling you, it really isn’t just for trails anymore.
[Photo: Jim Benning]