From Travel Blog Wander-off.com, Sam writes about his adventures, giving honest and entertaining stories, from falling in love with puppies to eating snake.
1. What’s your best travel experience?
In 2011 I was travelling solo through South America. Whilst on the Inca Trail I got chatting to a Kiwi guy (there’s always a Kiwi) who started telling me about a wildlife sanctuary he’d just come from in Bolivia, where he spent several month walking actual real-life pumas. The idea fascinated me. I’d already been through Bolivia and was working my way up through Peru with a group of friends I’d made, but after a few days of this notion running round my head I told them I was going to have to turn around and check this place out.
There was no phone or internet at the sanctuary. So all I could do was take the 28 hours worth of buses to this remote jungle park, near a remote hamlet, which was somewhat near a remote dustbowl of a town, on the other side of Bolivia, and keep my fingers tightly crossed in the hope that they’d need volunteers when I got there. All with the increasing fear that even if they did, the experience would end vey swiftly with me being mauled to death by a big cat. As it turned out, they did need people. The work was hard, the mornings early, the humidity exhausting, the drinking water tap worryingly temperamental, and the food basic and mostly vegetarian. Every day I spent a good 20 minutes stood naked in my room plucking ticks off myself, and the first time I came face to face with the jaguar I would be caring for I was paralysed with utter fear.
I have never regretted anything less.
2. What’s your worst travel experience?
Other than leaving the aforementioned wildlife sanctuary, it would probably be having my bag slashed open and all the contents stolen from between my legs while I was sleeping on a bus to Colombia. I hate being robbed. I take it unnecessarily personally and feel genuinely violated. But this burned more than the other times because my laptop with my photos and writings on was amongst the victims; which I like to think goes some way towards explaining the choice language I was embarrassingly barking at all the other passengers I’d chased into Cali bus station.
3. What’s the most unusual food you have tasted?
At the time it all seemed very unusual and exotic. I’m originally from quite a sheltered part of England, so before I first went travelling I’d never had sushi, or a Thai curry, or papaya. I’d never even had a Starbucks coffee. But now I live in London where that’s the spread at your average Monday afternoon catch up meeting, so it doesn’t seem so exotic anymore.
However, one thing you can’t find easily on Tottenham Court Road is the still beating heart of a snake, to be swallowed whole in a shot glass of rice vodka. We ordered the snake in a backwater restaurant in North Vietnam, not quite realising they’d bring it to the table live then cut it open in front of our pale gawping faces before pulling out its still beating heart, Indiana Jones style. The ‘waiter’ then popped it in a glass of rice vodka and shoved it in my hand, gesturing at me with the bloody knife to knock it back. Seeing what he’d just done to that poor reptile I took one last look at the small red heart, now pumping the rice vodka around the glass, and necked it. They then cooked up the rest of the snake, which admittedly was delicious. But it took a lot more rice wine to get over that heart stopping hors d'oeuvre.
4. Where should we visit next?
Samoa, particularly the ‘Big Island’ of Savaii. Stay with a family in a beachside fale and you’ll be treated like a long lost cousin and fed like a king. A fat king...with a thyroid problem. The people are so intoxicatingly friendly in this tropical paradise it can at times feel like a Pacific Island remake of The Truman Show. It doesn’t take long to feel part of the community here. By day 5 you’ll probably be getting the village rugby team badge tattooed on your chest.
5. Where is the best place you’ve visited?
God, it’s like choosing between your children. I’m not sure I’m able to make that decision.
6. Where do you want to visit next?
Central America is very high on my list. I was heading up that way with a couple of guys I met in Bolivia but decided to come home from Costa Rica to surprise my parents for Christmas. This was lovely obviously, but the novelty of surprising people I’d not seen for 2 years wore off after about 6 and a half days, and I immediately wished that I’d carried on up to Mexico with them. The surprise-fest would’ve worked just as well in February. At least I had all the photos of their fun times in Belize and Nicaragua popping up Facebook to keep me company in freezing Stoke.
7. How did you start to travel?
My first taste of travel for which I didn’t pack an inflatable crocodile was when I hitchhiked to Latvia one Easter with two university friends. I was 18, totally naive, had never even been to a foreign city before, my hair was too long, and my ‘preparation’ consisted of carrying a pair of D batteries in a sock for protection. I slept rough, went hungry, and at times felt genuinely scared for my life, but I was hooked.
8. What’s your favourite beach?
This is an excruciating question, but I’m going to throw out a curveball and say Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. This isn’t themost secluded beach, or the most pristine, and it would never be used for an Original Source shampoo advert, but I have wonderful memories here.
9. What’s you most embarrassing travel story?
This isn’t necessarily the most embarrassing, but it’s one of the more printable ones.
So, you can’t swim at Darwin’s beaches, in Australia’s Northern Territory. The waters are infested with crocodiles most of the year and jellyfish for the rest. So instead, as it’s bloody hot, they have what they call ‘lagoons’. These are manmade pools that slope up towards a bathing area like a natural beach, and even have a wave machine to aid the illusion. I was in Darwin’s main lagoon, splashing around and enjoying the synthetic waves with a friend. It was the last few weeks of the dry season so it seemed everyone was making the most of the lagoon while the weather lasted. I was having a whale of a time, jumping into the waves and letting them drag me slowly up the fake shore towards the fake beach when a particularly large one knocked me for six. I was swept right under and in the process took out a small boy who was stood next to me. I emerged spluttering, caught my breath, and not wanting to be knocked down again stood fully up in what was now only thigh height water. Stable once again I exhaled dramatically and smiled at my friend, then patted the young boy on the arm to make sure he was ok. My friend didn’t smile back. She looked horrified and gestured at my body. “Shit” I thought “Have a cut myself?” I looked at me arms and chest but I seemed fine. I glanced back and saw another woman looking even more horrified. Then another. Did I smash my face on the floor? I felt fine. I smiled back reassuringly but all I got was an increasing row of disgusted looking faces and then a woman letting out a shriek that I’ve not really experienced outside of cheap horror movies. I looked down at the young boy to make sure I hadn’t given him a bloody nose or anything, and immediately spotted what was wrong. He was fine. What wasn’t fine was the cheap Velcro fly on my fake Vietnamese Billabongs had burst fully open and I was stood in a public pool, smiling, with my penis hanging out just 18 inches from a 7 year old boy. I’d then, with my penis out, patted this 7 year old boy on the arm, and smiled at his mother. We left quickly.
10. Which place took you by surprise?
I visited Tallin in December last year expecting just another Eastern European capital. What I found was the most endearing, most Christmassy, most heart warming little city. Yes the old town is super quaint, it even has novelty medieval restaurants but somehow, and I’ve no idea how they accomplish this, it doesn’t feel cheesy or Disney-fied in the slightest. It’s also really genuinely cool. It’s like the love child of hipster Scandinavia and the Soviet Union. There is a bar in Tallin that only plays Depeche Mode. Nothing else. Ever. That’s really all you need to know.
11. Where wouldn’t you return?
I’m not sure I could handle another visit to Buenos Aires. They go to bed far too late there. They don’t even eat dinner until the time I would usually be pulling on my PJs and cracking open the latest Danielle Steel paperback. I stayed there for 2 weeks and could not tell you what the weather was like because the only daylight I saw was dawn and dusk, and neither were sober.
12. Do you have any travel regrets?
I try not to have any travel regrets, but they’re inevitable really. I’m lucky to not have any major regrets, just a few “I wish I’d stayed for a few extra days” here, a “Why didn’t I get her number?” there, and of course a big old “Why didn’t I sleep with my bag on my lap instead of under my Colombian bus seat?!”
13. Have you made a travel lifelong friend?
I’ve been to weddings of people I’ve met playing controversial drinking games in grimy hostels and I currently live with someone I met singing karaoke in Bali 6 years ago. So definitely, yes.
14. Have you fallen in love on your travels?
I’ve fallen in love with the odd stray puppy, and once with a really comfortable pair of trousers in Sri Lanka. Not with any humans though. Lust definitely, adoration certainly, but not love I don’t think.
15. What is your favourite travel photograph
Myself and Katie the jaguar before our afternoon walk. It took a long time to get to this level of trust, on both out parts. Insert your own licking pussy joke.
16. What was your longest flight?
Manchester to Bangkok was probably my longest, which I think took about 17 hours. My rucksack took a far longer route however; as Air Emirates had the bizarre thought that I might want it to go via China. I didn’t.
17. Where do you think you will settle?
Settle? That’s a scary thought. Somewhere by a beach, and somewhere hot hopefully. I would move back to Australia or New Zealand in a heartbeat if it wasn’t so far away from my family. Equally I’d love to just sack off the rat race and Mutiny on the Bounty it up on a remote island for the rest of my days, which sounds wonderful obviously, but not super practical. I’ll probably end up in fucking Croydon.
18. Do you think you will ever stop travelling?
I’m hoping the all terrain hover-wheelchair will be invented and on offer at Argos by the time I need it.
19. What is your favourite travel quote?
“The cool thing about being famous is travelling. I have always wanted to travel across seas, like to Canada and stuff.” – Britney Spears
20. What piece of advice would you give to a new traveller?
Some of the best meals you’ll eat will be in the worst looking restaurants. You don’t always have to book ahead, if you don’t hotels will be cheaper, you’ll get better recommendations from other travellers, and you can embrace spontaneity. Travelling alone is nothing to be feared, and rarely means you’ll ever actually be alone. And strangers are always more helpful than you think.
Name: Sam Grocott
Blog or Occupation: Wander-off.com