This week we would like to introduce Christopher Allen of I Must Be Off. Christopher is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Although he’s an established author and has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice, Christopher still finds time to travel and writes about it on his blog.
1. What inspires you to travel, and how would you define the word ‘traveler’?
I want to experience everything. I want to smell everything, hear everything, taste everything (as long as it’s gluten-free) and feel everything. Travelers don’t want to stay put; they need to spread out, expand, learn, go down new roads. Even in the city where I live, I always try to go down new roads.
2. For those who don’t yet know you, can you explain your travel style?
I’m an accidental traveler. I never knew I’d do this. I’d always wanted to, but I never would have thought I’d see so much of the world. I’m a very fortunate adventurer.
I joke a lot on my blog about not doing any research before I travel. I want to feel those first moments in a place for myself, without other travelers’ impressions to influence mine. In our world of information overload, it’s almost impossible to experience a place for yourself. My strategy of deliberate ignorance works fairly well.
3. How do you afford your travels?
Well, I don’t spend very much when I travel. I book cheap flights, stay in cheap hotels. I rarely eat in expensive restaurants. If a church charges for entry, I never go in. I hate museums because they don’t allow running. I hike. I cross-country ski. I love botanic gardens and just exploring cities. Getting lost in Paris costs nothing. OK, I’m cheap.
4. Where was your first international trip and how old were you?
Great question—and a difficult one. I was born in Germany, so my first “international” trip was to the USA. I was nine months old. I’m fairly sure I cried the entire flight and kept everyone awake. As an adult, my first international trip was to London and then on to The Continent for The Grand Tour. I was thirty-one. Imagine that: my eyes opening that late.
5. Where has been your favorite destination? Where has been your least favorite?
Without a doubt, New Zealand is the love of my life. I could have camped there for, say, twenty years. Everything’s so easy. You can rent a motorhome, tour the islands and camp wherever you want. Waking up at a lake on a crisp morning with no worries. No worries, mate. I could live here. New Zealand, you are Heaven. You’re sweet.
Jerusalem was awful, just awful—in fact the opposite of Heavean. Hot and crowded, bursting with anger. I’ve never been in a place where I said “Get me outa here” more than in Jerusalem. A guy hit (he’ll say “pushed”) my mother. Need I say more? There was so much pushing. I had to bribe the Greek Orthodox priest who was herding people along at the foot of The Cross five euros to let me stand there for a second. This is the worst kind of tourist trap: the kind that exploits religion.
Our tour guide left us lost in the middle of the market that leads to the via Dolorosa—again quite the pushy place. I don’t need a tour guide, but I was with my parents and a group of elderly people who couldn’t walk very well. The tour guide just left us. His pace was simply too fast for the group. Really really crap tour guide. I gave him my “Worst Tour Guide” award on my blog.
6. If you had to settle down in one location forever, where would you choose and why?
I’ve been in Munich for almost 20 years, so I think this question has answered itself. I love Munich—it’s a homey place; it’s home to me—but I don’t have to settle down. I’ll be spending a lot of time in Dublin in the next few years, so maybe I’ll fall in love with Ireland. Who knows? I’d like to keep my options open. I’d like to think a city would choose me, fall in love with me. That would be cool. And maybe just a bit creepy.
7. Have you ever had high hopes for a destination, tour, etc., only to be disappointed in the end? Or any travel mishaps?
Oh definitely. I don’t mean to be negative here. This looks as if I’m often disappointed. To put this into perspective, I’ve had great experiences in New Zealand, Costa Rica, Nepal, Peru, Brazil, British Columbia, Wyoming, The Scottish Highlands, Chile, South Tyrol, Sweden, Alsace and many many other beautiful places.
I thought Marrakesh would be incredible and magical. It was an absolute crap hole: rich people in the palace and poor people everywhere else. It just stinks. Actually, the souk quite literally stinks of chicken shit because there’s a chicken house connected to it. I don’t like crowds. In Marrakesh, people grab at you, kids try to sell you something. Maybe I have a false impression of the city. Maybe a second trip there would change my mind, but that’s probably not going to happen.
Rome. The Apian Way. My father was so disappointed with the tour that I thought he was going to bite the tour guide’s head off. Yes, Rome is beautiful and crumblingly old, but it’s also a tourist trap with mediocre tourist food on every corner and budget hotels that will serve you instant coffee because you’re a stupid tourist and don’t know better (all you have to do is ask for an espresso or a cappuccino and they’ll make it for you, usually free of charge). Venice and Florence are no different. The “hospitality” industry here banks on the hope that you are on a once-in-a lifetime trip. You’ll never be back, so why do they need to deliver quality? That said, I’ve spoken to a lot of travelers about this, and have come to the conclusion that my opinions about Italy are really only valid for budget travelers.
Tunisia. Man taking a survey on the beach: “Is there anything we can do to improve your stay in our country?” Me: “Yes! I’m glad you asked. You could clean up this beach. The massive number of plastic bottles washing up on the beach is awful. Is that a syringe?”
Mackinac Island in the US. This should be pure old-timey carless Americana, but everything’s made in China, Nicaragua, Bangladesh, etc. The main drag consists of one fudge shop after another. When I asked if fudge had something to do with the history of the place, people laughed. “No,” they said. “People just like it.” So Mackinac Island is just another tourist trap. Just awful. Yes, The Grand Hotel where Somewhere in Time was filmed is on the island, but if you want to see the inside, you’ll need to pay.
The people who live on Mackinac Island year-round despise the tourists. As I was returning to my hotel from a long walk in the woods, I passed a woman and man talking at the door of one of the houses just a street away from the main drag. “Were you coming from my house?” the woman snapped at me. “Um,” I said, “Is your house in the woods back there?” “It’s OK,” the man said. “Really, it’s OK.” “I just thought you were coming from MY HOUSE,” the woman said again—but crazier. Apparently tourists think the whole island is a tourist attraction and they try to visit private homes as if they were museums—which has driven the inhabitants a bit crazy.
Mishap central: Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand, I got up in the middle of the night to tell the guy upstairs to shut the hell up. He was pounding and pounding and pounding and pounding on his? hotel door. As I stumbled outside, I ripped a toenail half off on an uneven step. There was blood everywhere. I’m not exaggerating. Everywhere. I spent the night trying to get the bleeding to stop and left the next morning, still bleeding, with my friends to Phi Phi Island, where my toenail was removed…painfully. I screamed so loudly that my friends went shopping.
The luckiest mishap: A long time ago, I’d planned a thorough tour of South America. We bought an air pass and were going to visit Chile, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. A few days before the trip, I came down with the flu. I was in no condition to take the flight. The travel agent cancelled the trip for me and charged me only a hundred euros though I hadn’t purchased any travel cancellation insurance. I was lucky.
Oh, and then there’s the story of my Visa Fiasco.
The sacrificing of a pig on Bali? It was a difficult sight. I don’t judge. I do take pictures, though.
9. What keepsake do you have to get at all your destinations?
I keep brochures. My partner hates this. I keep them for years just to remind me where I visited, to help me write blog posts. I also keep tickets and stubs and anything else that reminds me what I visited, and I’ll occasionally buy a souvenir. That’s why my desk looks like it does. Just looking around: a photo of a goat on Mykonos, two Venetian masks, a stuffed camel I won on a cultural night in Tunisia, a shell necklace (my Carnival costume from Rio), a cube of marble from the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a tile that says “Shalom Y’all” from Jerusalem, a little marble bowl of rocks, a haunting photo of Loch Ness, and piles and piles of receipts and brochures.
10. How about the one thing you cannot travel without?
Obviously my passport except when I travel within the EU. Excluding the other obvious suspects (toothbrush, underwear, moisturizer and iPhone), I cannot travel without my . . . wait for it . . . overwhelming need to learn more about my world. Yep, I went all abstract on you.
11. Why did you begin blogging? And how did you come up with your blog name?
I’m a writer. I was compelled to start a blog presence by a friend in a writers’ group. It was a challenge. Problem was, I didn’t want to start a typical self-promotion writer’s blog. I find most of them monotone. Me Me Me Me Me Me. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to provide something entertaining . . . and also give my readers Me Me Me Me Me.
Travel just seemed the natural theme to take up since it took up so much of my life, and since 2008 I Must Be Off! has circled the globe a few times.
I Must Be Off! is loosely based on the title of a book by a German comedian whose travelogue about the Jakobsweg (The Way of St. James) was a bestseller in Germany. It wasn’t a great travel book, but the Germans loved it because the author was famous. Sad.
12. What’s next for 2014?
I am in a transitional phase this year. I’ll be spending a lot of time in Ireland. Other than that, I have no plans. That said, adventures always seem to come when I least expect them.
Backpack or suitcase? Suitcase
Window or aisle? Dyed-in-the-wool Aisle
Solo or group? Solo
Tapas or sushi? As long as it’s fresh, no worries. Sushi is easier. I’m a Celiac.
Beach or mountains? Mountains. No Beach, no cry.
Be sure to follow Christopher as he’s off around the world: