This week’s NileGuide 5 interview features Robert Reid, the US Travel Editor for Lonely Planet. In addition to writing 25 LP guidebooks to places like Siberia, Colombia and New York City, he’s written for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and ESPN. His weekly program ‘The 76-Second Travel Show’ appears on Tuesdays at Lonely Planet’s site and at ReidOnTravel.com.
1. What’s the most underrated destination you’ve been to?
Home, particularly after a trip. Often we think the fun of exploration and doing new things and meeting people is only something that happens when you leave. I understand. I fight myself to keep my Curiosity Radar on at home too. It’s easiest when you return from a long trip — you see things you hadn’t noticed, architectural details of your building, the ratio of dog feces on public sidewalks, how newspapers are sold, ads in subways, the fonts in street signs, the quality of the bagels. You can really see where you’re from until you leave it. And you can’t really know it until you choose to explore it. I think I read that on a bumper sticker somewhere.
2. How do you kill time when you’re stuck on a bus or plane?
Sometimes I draw the facial hair patterns of the bus driver. No matter where you go, the bus driver — if male, and possibly female — will have a moustache or beard. Always. So DRAW THEM. Buses bounce, so it’s hard to at times. But in some destinations, where buses troll for passengers every two miles, there are plenty of chances to enhance that curving swoop shooting out from under a nostril. When the drawing’s done, I stare. Out the window. And at people on the bus. I am not subtle. I look at their books, hairstyles, hats, pant color. Or those plastic bags they fill with all sorts of things. School books, cellphones,lunches, live wild animals. One time in Bulgaria, a guy had a baby goat in a plastic bag. He fed it water like a baby, then softly whispered it to sleep. If I had my way, I’d travel with a badger in a plastic bag someday. We all have our dreams.
3. What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen or experienced traveling?
I attended a Yakut festival in Yakutsk, Russia — the coldest city in the world, with buildings set on stilts because of the permafrost below — where local Yakut people dressed in Central Asian traditional clothing. There were thousands and thousands in an open field, interlocked hand-in-hand in a huge spiralling chain, chanting loudly and dancing back and forth. I may have been of three non-Yakut people there. Afterwards, people rushed over to offer skewers of horse meat, or a goblet of horse milk. Then the communists at the communist tent — where a Lenin flag flapped in the breeze — ushered me to join them for a banquet of more horse meat. A grandma showed off an ornately embroidered pillow of Stalin she made. Another with a USSR-flag tie hugged me when I left. Sometimes when you’re in the moment you don’t even know what’s happening, you just eat the horse meat and say ‘thank you.’
4. What’s the first thing you do when you arrive at a new destination?
I’m antsy to hit the streets. Typically I will drop off bags at a hotel or guesthouse and walk — see what’s around. No real agenda, just getting oriented to the layout of a place. Perhaps I’ll bee-line to a central square or monument and see what happens. I keep an eye out for activity — a popular restaurant or bar, a side lane that looks like it has interesting shops. Just try to orient myself. If I’m working — eg updating a guidebook — I start with some simple things I know I’ll have to see — a secondary museum, a visitors center, even a bus station. But, to be honest, sometimes the first thing I do is potty.
5. If you could give one tip or piece of advice to travelers, what would it be?
Travel knows no borders. It’s something, like art, that can be found beyond the usual places like a museum or national park. For example, I could fill a book with what I learned and enjoyed about Kansas — the scapegoat of American bumpkinization (‘where are you from KANSAS?’), the essence of drive-through or fly-over state, and probably where the phrase ‘are we there yet?’ was first uttered. I once noticed the horizon off the interstate stretched 10 miles flat, then to the other side only a mile. Kansas sits on a prehistoric seafloor. And if you detour to short horizons on any side road, often, you’ll find the landscape will bottom out in a sweeping giant vista. Almost like a mountain top view without the altitude sickness. This is true of any place. There’s a there everywhere.
Except maybe Allentown, PA. I don’t care what Billy Joel says, or how good the dance choreography is in his video ‘Allentown,’ that place just depressed me.
[Photos: Robert Reid; NYC by Cornell University Library]