The Australian adventure lifestyle magazine Bare Essentials ran an 8-page interview with me back in November/December 2010. Their questions were fun and original, and I thought you might enjoy reading the full spread.
Here’s the text in it’s entirety. Click the banner at the bottom of the page to grab yourself a copy. They did an excellent job on the layout, and it featured photos by my friend Jason George. Hope ya like it!
INTERVIEW: RYAN MURDOCK FOR BARE ESSENTIALS MAGAZINE
As intriguing characters go, none quite come close to the authentic and adventurous ‘Ryan Murdock’. A veteran travel scribe with a talent for discovering remote jewels of rich cultural context and engaging readers with captivating tales of far removed customs, unimagined lands, unforgettable personalities and of course fantastic adventures. Like a real life Indiana Jones he consumes challenges in the name of his craft carrying old school staples like a note pad and leather satchel the kind of stuff that wears well in the wild. As he pursues arduous assignments no other dare, this off the cuff Outpost reporter often finds himself in dubious destinations uncharted and untamed for it is his forte to travel vagabond style tasting the dust along the way. To follow his lead is to embrace the world strange customs, curious cultures, mixed nations and marginal places in all. Just read his Manifesto….
Where do you draw inspiration for your from?
Landscapes – some landscapes in particular resonate with you in deep way. The desert is like that for me – probably because it’s tied so closely to notions of Time. – The stony olive-clad hills of the Mediterranean is my other personal landscape. Certain writers also inspire me. Guys like Lawrence Durrell, Paul Theroux, Rimbaud. Music and song lyrics are important – The Church and Steve Kilbey have probably been the single biggest influence on my writing.
Which countries hold the greatest allure for you?
I guess I like somewhat desolate landscapes. Desert places. Empty places like Mongolia. Places I don’t know very much about. But also places with resonance. One of the trips I enjoyed most was to the south of France, looking for places the writer Lawrence Durrell wrote about or lived among. I loved walking the same streets he had, talking to old men who remembered him, climbing the wall of his old house in the middle of the night, with the ghost of Durrell always hovering just around the edges. (I’m not at all interested in all-inclusive places or “vacation destinations”)
What dictates your assignment destination?
Usually I do. I get curious about something, or start researching a country, or come up with an angle, and I call my publisher to see if he’s interested in setting something up. Occasionally they call me if they have a trip coming up that I might be interested in.
Is there anywhere you wouldn’t go?
Disneyworld. I hate everything it stands for.
How do you deal with isolation in remote locations?
I never really thought much about it. I guess you just have to like being alone. It’s necessary for a writer, for one thing. You couldn’t do the job if you didn’t enjoy sitting in a room alone for days and days, with only your thoughts to turn to. I guess on the road you just get used to it. I don’t need much to be happy. A good book, music, a notebook to write things down.
You speak of the spirit of a place, if you were a land and its people what country would you be?
Good question. I guess I’d have to be an amalgam of some sort. The independent spirit and vast open space of Mongolia – a place where the only answer to “where are you going?” is “over there…” And the cafe culture and wine soaked intellectual stimulation of Mediterranean Europe, with it’s hint of past empires and layers of civilization ghosted over everything.
How do you prepare and what do you pack for a dangerous or desolate region?
I guess it depends on the place and what I’m expecting. Am I packing my own camping gear or getting supplied in country? If I’m going on my own to desolate or remote places, a water filter helps. It’s small and light, and you can drink pretty much anything with it – just being able to filter tap water can save you a pile of cash and a lot of hassle. In future I’d probably take a better first aid kit too, including injectable antibiotics. As for dangerous places, that’s usually a matter of perspective and preparation. I do take a small flip knife (and know how to use it), but you’re much better off relying on your wits and on the kindness of strangers.
How elemental has your martial arts training been to traversing treacherous terrains?
The mental toughness training of martial art certainly helps – you know that you’ve been in tough situations before and have gotten through, so there’s every reason to believe you’ll get through again. And you come to realize that pain is just pain (within reason, of course!) – you gain the ability to distinguish pain (discomfort) from injury. It helps with the physical discomforts of travel – the aches and pains, the endless monotony of waiting, the illnesses. I think my early martial arts training also really helped because it was so brutal. The beatings we took and that we gave each other as a part of the day to day training were worse than anything I would encounter out there. It was a toughening process that served me well later on in unexpected ways.
It depends on the type of trip. If it’s an expedition type thing, then that would be my “on season” – so I’d only do some joint mobility each day, and maybe a bit of yoga/stretching for active recovery if it’s especially strenuous. But the demands of the trip are what I was training for so that’s the actual work. If it’s a press trip or business trip and I’m staying in a hotel, I use bodyweight training to exercise right in my room.
What skills have you acquired from nomad tribes and other cultures?
I picked up some pretty good camel skills from the Bedouin in Jordan, and from some Uyghur guys in Xinjiang. And I learned a bit about plants and their uses from the Embera in the Darien region of Panama. But really, the greatest thing nomadic peoples have taught me is how little you need to be happy. And how to relate to others from a position of simplicity and kindness. Our society is much more manipulative and self-obsessed by comparison.
What is the best catalyst for bridging relations between cultures?
Probably a bottle of the local drink! Apart from that, a smile, non-judgement, and a willingness to learn opens most doors. Curiosity does the rest. People love to teach you about how they live if you simply express a bit of curiosity. “What’s that thing?” is one of the most useful questions in your toolbox, funny enough.
When you don’t speak the language what have you found to be the best way to communicate?
I normally try to pick up a little phrasebook or dictionary that I can flip through to point out words or common phrases. But really, it’s possible to communicate an enormous amount through gestures, a sketchpad, and a bit of creative acting.
Do you keep souvenirs from your travels?
I used to try to pick up one small thing from each country I visited. Back then I was usually covering a lot of ground and had to carry everything on my back for several months. I would look for something that represented that country to me, something that was meaningful or that they used in the day to day. I wanted something to remind me of my time there, the people I met and the experiences we shared. So from Vietnam I brought back one of those little coffee things they use on top of the glass. In Tibet I picked up a knife carried by the folks I was traveling among – not a jeweled up one, but the same utilitarian version they use every day. When I’ve gone on assignment to places heavily influenced by tourism, it was much harder to find something original. In those places you should go in the opposite direction – I couldn’t find anything in Egypt that wasn’t total tourist kitsch, so I brought back a Tutankhamum bottle opener. To me that thing sums up traveling in Egypt better than anything else I saw.
Preferring a book to the box what would we find on your shelf?
I’ve got a lot of bookshelves LOL. Lots of travel lit – everything by Paul Theroux, every book written by Lawrence Durrell, and most of the important classics of the genre. Lots of Greek classics, Homer’s Odyssey and all that. Poetry – Rimbaud, Baudelaire, William Blake, Steve Kilbey. The Magus by John Fowles. Lots of Henry Miller. History and anthropology. A biography of the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton. Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Carl Jung. Yeah. Lots of stuff.
Classic cocktails. But I see that as a strength rather than a vice.
Which assignment so far has proved to be your most perilous?
In terms of getting banged up, I guess it was an expedition in Canada’s Northwest Territories. A photographer and I were air dropped near the Yukon border (with 3 more food drops 5 or 6 days walk apart), with the goal of following what’s left of the Canol pipeline (abandoned in WWII). Some of the gear we were given by the magazine was meant for review in that year’s Gear Guide, and the boots I had didn’t stand up to the conditions. They ended up eating big holes in the backs of both feet, which got pretty infected. I ended up getting helicoptered out at the halfway point, when the swelling and stink got bad enough. But it did make a pretty good feature.
What has been the hardest conditions to endure?
I guess probably that northern trip, walking on torn up and infected feet with a 60-lb pack day after day. The pain of working out the kinks first thing each morning, of feeling those scabs tear open, and walking on bruised bone. Feeling the skin rip in new places as we hiked up a mountain pass. And the infection slowly draining strength, a little more each day. Physically that was a bit of a grind.
Any unusual encounters animal or otherwise?
Yeah, I guess I’ve been menaced by a few wild animals. We met a grizzly up close on that northern trip. Got charged by buffalo a couple times in South Dakota (mostly because of my photographer: “Back up just a bit…. Okay a little bit more…”). I fought off giant cockroaches in Burma. Wild dogs in the Pamir Mountains in China. An enormous spider in Costa Rica. I’m probably forgetting a bunch.
Favorite mode of transport?
Camel. If that’s not available, my Benz.
What is the best way to immerse yourself in an experience?
Go alone. And don’t have too many preconceptions about the place, the people, or what you’re getting into. Try to let it unfold on its own, and in its own time.
What is the most curious custom you have come across?
Hmm. I’m not sure how much of it you’d call “customs” or traditions, but I saw some pretty strange things in Japan. One was a local Shinto shrine festival called Kanamara Matsuri. It had something to do with fertility. Each year they take out some of the shrine objects and parade them through the street – in this case the shrine object is a massive pink penis, carried by 6 cross dressers in kimono. That’s gotta rank up there with one of the strangest. There are a few photos on my blog – you have to see it to believe it!
Which culture have you found to have preserved their traditions the best?
I haven’t encountered any culture that was completely unaffected by the West. I traveled up a small river in Panama’s Darien Gap one time, to a village where the kids had never seen white people. But they still had faded old t-shirts and western goods that had made their way to the village by trade. In terms of culture as a way of life, Burma was still very traditional when I was traveling there, probably because the government has closed it off for so long. People in the countryside of Mongolia also still lived quite a traditional life. They seemed to have as little regard for the outside world as the outside world had for them.
How important is it to incorporate the historical roots of a people and their land into each piece?
I pretty much always include some history or mythology in each piece. It’s important because the individuals I’m traveling among are a part of that historical narrative – it has shaped their perspective on the world, and their sense of their place within it.
Which fabled mysteries have you enjoyed following the footsteps of the most?
I really enjoyed traveling in Southern France, searching for places associated with the writer Lawrence Durrell. Seeing the places he lived, and also the locations he used in his novels. It gave me a deeper understanding of his work and how he saw the world (and translated his vision to the page). Durrell’s work influenced me a great deal, so that was a very personal trip through a personal landscape.
Can you tell us about your next assignments? At the Grand Sumo tournament in Japan is the plan to participate in training or try your hand at a take down?
No chance of doing that, unfortunately. It’s a pro sports event. I’ll just be sitting in the stands cheering on my favourite fighters. I did have a chance to check out morning practice once, when I was living in Tokyo. You can just show up at the sumo stables where the professional guys live and train, and slip in quietly to watch them train. You have to get up at an ungodly hour to see it, but it’s really worthwhile. And it doesn’t cost a dime.
What obstacles will you face in tracking down the ruined fortresses of legendary assassins in Syria?
The obstacles were mostly organizational. My trip plan had been approved by the tourism folks, but I guess no one remembered to tell the intelligence services. They were uncomfortable with anything that mentioned drugs, murder or “terrorism” – though the events I wanted to write about happened in the Middle Ages!, and I was only interested in the assassins myth as it was passed down through literature. My efforts got roadblocked at every turn, and we didn’t get a story on that trip. But things have changed a bit since then and I’ve been invited back. We’ll see if it works out on the next one.
What is the Alo Cultural Foundation and how can people help support their humanitarian efforts?
The ACF is an international charitable organization which seeks to empower disadvantaged individuals, take a leading role in humanitarian relief efforts, and strengthen cross cultural understanding between the Middle East and the nations of the West. As with any charitable organization, the greatest challenge is raising funds. Donations are always welcome – monetary donations, or donations of your time or expertise. Check out their website for more info www.alofoundation.org I’m honoured to be a member of the Board of Directors, and I work closely with the “Forever Wish” program. Incredible people doing incredible things. I’ve seen first-hand the lives they have changed.
ROUGUE ROUTES Intrepid Instincts
How would you finish these sentences……
When I want to know more about a place I read everything – history, old explorer’s journals, travel writing, literature, poetry, etc – and then go there and see it for yourself.
The worst thing that ever happened to me was watching my dad die of cancer.
If I get caught in wild weather I hope I came prepared with two Swedish girls and a tent.
When all else fails sit down and wait. Keep your eyes open, something will happen or someone will show up – the Road will tell you your next move if you’re patient and open enough to listen – and if you can set aside your own preconceived agenda.
To avoid getting lost – but why would you want to avoid getting lost???
When in doubt do it anyway. Stepping into the unknown is never comfortable, but it’ll change you in ways you could never have imagined.
Make the most of time. We’re not given very much of it.
Never leave home without a sturdy corkscrew. You never know when you’ll need one on a long train trip. You wouldn’t believe the trouble I had trying to find a corkscrew in Venice!
It’s best not to mess with a Mongolian’s hat. They’ll seriously beat the shit out of you if you touch it.
Avoid eating natto. Disgusting, slimy stuff!
If you get the chance, go. You won’t regret it. But if you don’t go, you’ll wonder about that missed opportunity for the rest of your life.
Never get caught with a gun at a border crossing. Or another man’s wife. Or food in your room in a place that has rats.
The funniest moment in hindsight is always the worst moment of your trip. Those times when it all goes catastrophically wrong make the best stories. Learn to enjoy them in the moment, looking down on the scene from above.
Always remember the Alamo! No, wait… Always remember that, no matter what the State Dept / Foreign Service travel warnings say, they aren’t all out to get you.
Never trust a fat fat man in a poor poor country.
INTERVIEW: RYAN MURDOCK FOR BARE ESSENTIALS MAGAZINE
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