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Travel Chat: Interview with travel blogger Earl Baron

Earl is one of the more inspiring travellers out there, with one of the most popular travel blogs on the web.  If you love travel, you should check out his blog, Wandering Earl, where he writes about his many adventures including trips through India and even an excursion into Iraq.  You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Tell us a bit about yourself Earl.  Where are you from? Where are you at the moment? What's your drink of choice?

I'm originally from Boston but have been living, working, travelling and volunteering outside of the US for the past 12 years. At the moment I'm spending a few months living in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, getting my fill of the beach while catching up on work. I'm hoping to make it to Central Asia or Africa by the end of the year. I don't drink much but when I do, it's gin and tonic. You'll find me wearing sandals almost every day, eating a lot of fresh fruit and listening to an (admittedly) odd mix of bluegrass and traditional Indian music to keep me motivated while working on my laptop.

What's the one place in the world that you think everyone should visit?

India. Regardless of whether or not a traveller enjoys their visit to the sub-continent, it is basically impossible to leave this country without one's life being changed. Every minute in India presents a challenge, a lesson, an eye-opening experience, a shocking moment, confusion or joy. Whether in Delhi or Mumbai, a Tibetan village in the Himalayas or an ancient village in the jungle, in the middle of the desert or on the beach, a traveller in India has no choice but to re-evaluate everything they had previously learned about life and to reshape their views while being bombarded by sights, sounds, tastes and smells that they have never experiences before.

You are basically permanently on the road. Share some of your secrets for staying sane.

The idea is to try to inject some normality into my nomadic lifestyle. Simple things such as eating healthy, exercising (almost every night I'll go for a long wander no matter where I am), ducking into a cinema to catch a movie every once in a while and not being afraid to spend an entire day relaxing, can go a long way in maintaining sanity. Another key is travelling slowly. Gone are the days when I would buzz through a country in less than a week or try to visit a handful of countries in a short period of time. These days I prefer to spend at least a month in every country I visit as this style of travel removes many of the challenges that backpackers face, such as the constant transportation, searching for hotels/hostels and always having to adjust to new places. Slow travel allows for an infinitely more relaxed, intimate and rewarding travel experience, at least for me!

I'm also a big fan of non-planning. Open itineraries allow for the flexibility necessary for me to make the most out of my adventures. Set plans, with specific dates and flights booked months in advance, do not allow for such freedom. If I wake up one morning in Iraq and suddenly decide I want to spend some time on a Thai island, knowing that I can book a flight and fly out the next day helps keep me feeling fresh and sane most of the time.

 You are one of the few people I know that went to Iraq as a tourist.  What was that experience like?

First, I will definitely state that travelling to Iraq, or more specifically, the Kurdistan region of Iraq which is where I spent my time, is not for everyone. A combination of zero tourism infrastructure and a delicate atmosphere that is still technically considered a war zone, presents challenges that travellers normally don't have to face in other parts of the world.

However, with that said, my time in Kurdistan was nothing short of unreal. Few would believe they were actually in Iraq when standing on a street corner in places such as Erbil, Dohuk or Sulamainiyah. Life in these parts is peaceful and relaxed, with streets full of locals happily going about their daily business. The landscape was often wild and stunning, the cities well organised and calm and the people rarely anything but warm and friendly. Not once did I have to dodge any bullets or escape any bomb attacks!

Locals welcomed me everywhere I went and I never feared for my safety, even when walking around dark streets late at night. Instead, I often found myself shaking my head while repeating, “This is Iraq?”, over and over again in disbelief.

I ate dinner at a seemingly out of place German beer garden, toured the impressive Erbil Citadel (supposedly home to the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world), visited the mountaintop village of Amediyah and smoked shisha while blogging from a sleek shisa cafe with free wi-fi in Sulamainiyah. Every day was filled with unexpectedly positive and rewarding moments and I honestly didn't want to leave when my 10-day visa was up. I even tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain a visa extension.

Again, travelling to Kurdistan is not for everyone, and despite my positive experience, it is still important to note that I also passed through 91 checkpoints while travelling around, was questioned twice by US soldiers about my presence, had to pass through the outskirts of Mosul and Kirkuk (two of the most dangerous cities on the planet) and consistently ran into communication issues given the strong language barrier. But despite all of that, I will definitely be heading back to Iraq at some point soon.

What's one food you discovered while travelling that you now can't live without?

Indian food. No matter where I am in the world, if I find an Indian restaurant, I will stop whatever I'm doing and sit down for an Indian meal. Put a bowl of Navratan korma, Chicken Vindaloo or Shahi Paneer in front of me, along with some naan bread and a samosa, and I'm about as happy as I can be. Even here in Mexico, I make the one hour trip to Cancun at least twice a month so that I can eat at the one Indian restaurant in the region. It's a full-blown addiction at this point.

What made you pick up your things and head off to explore the world?

After graduating university, I was actually quite prepared to enter the real world. However, I was a little curious about South East Asia. So back in 1999, I decided to treat myself to a three-month backpacking trip before getting a job back home. On the sixth night of that trip, I sat on an ancient stone wall at the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia while celebrating the millennium, and realised that three months was not going to be sufficient. What I had seen, what I had learned in just that first week in Asia alone seemed infinitely more fascinating and fulfilling than anything I had ever learned at university. At that point, I understood that this adventure was not going to be my last hoorah before getting a normal job, but the first step of a life of travel instead. I've never looked back since that day and my desire to learn about the world through first-hand experiences continues to grow with every country I visit.

What one thing do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started travelling?

The power of talking to other people. When I began travelling, I was a quiet and shy guy and always hesitant to speak with others, whether it be travellers I met or even locals. I now understand that I never know who I'm going to meet or where a single interaction may lead and so these days, I am eager to speak with as many people as possible. I've built long-term friendships, received job offers and learned about opportunities that I never knew existed, all from random conversations with random people while on the road.

You have travelled to over 70 countries.  Can you name your favourite three and least favourite three?

India, Iraq and Mexico are probably my favorite three. And while I've never visited a country that I haven't enjoyed, Guatemala, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates didn't exactly provide me with as rewarding of an experience as the other countries I've been to. I'd happily return to all three but the first time around (or the first 3 times in the case of the UAE), I found myself looking forward to my departure more than I had been looking forward to my arrival.

Is there a food, drink, or food product that you miss from home while you're on the road?

Every Saturday when I was a kid, my father would take me to a sandwich shop called D'Angelos (it's a small but very popular chain in the Boston area). We would each order a large chicken salad submarine sandwich with lettuce, extra pickles and black pepper. And to this day, it is the one food item that I miss from home and is always the first meal I eat upon arrival back in the US during my yearly visits.

In the end, the funny thing is that I've now spent more time outside of the US than inside the US since graduating from high school. So usually I miss certain foods from specific countries instead of foods from home. Cravings for authentic Mexican, Thai street food, Syrian falafel and of course, Indian meals from my favorite restaurants in India, occur daily in my life!

We've all been ripped off while travelling - or is it just me? What is the biggest rip off you've fallen victim to?

In all honestly, I can't think of a single time that I have been seriously ripped off and I've been trying to think of an example for the past two days! So, I'll provide a quick story about a time I was ripped off in Los Angeles instead. Many years ago, I spent two months living in LA trying to save money for my next trip overseas. It was actually the only time I've lived in the US in the past 12 years. When I decided to leave LA, I sold my car to an Indian friend of mine whom I had met while living in Venice Beach. This 'friend' paid me a few hundred dollars up front and then promised to pay me the remaining balance (US$2500) within the following month. I never heard from Vikram again.

About five weeks later, and by this time completely frustrated, I decided to track down Vikram's family in India based on some information he had shared with me about his hometown of Shillong. To sum up the story, I embarked on an absurd adventure that included me being kidnapped for a couple of days in Bangladesh, incredibly tracking down Vikram's friends and family in remote northeast India and then, just before I mentioned Vikram's debt to his mother, learning that Vikram was part of a militant group that he had joined while spending time in a Calcutta prison for smuggling weapons. He eventually was released and fled to the US.

Upon learning this I took off and never discussed the money he owed me with his family. So of course, I never got my money back in the end, which I believe makes this the biggest rip off that I've fallen victim to.

Have you experienced any similar stories to Earl? Perhaps you've been to some of the same places. Why not leave a comment for him in the section below.

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