These highlights are from the Kindle version of Naughty Nomad: Not Your Typical Backpacker Story by Mark Zolo.
You’re floating in a bay near a gorgeous island in the South China Sea, and just when you think you’ve left the world behind, some old woman rows up to your boat and tries to sell you a pack of Oreos. That’s Vietnam in a nutshell.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from travelling, it’s that the greatest peace is often found at mankind’s furthest outposts.
Formerly the Kingdom of Abyssinia, Ethiopia was the only country not colonised in the scramble for Africa, leaving much of the rich cultural tapestry of the country intact. It remains the only African country to still use its indigenous alphabet. Coffee was first cultivated there. The Rift Valley in Ethiopia was the supposed origin of mankind itself, and the country was the home of Queen Sheba and Rastafari.
Old beliefs still permeated Ethiopian society. Just before embarking on a two-day bus journey to the capital Addis Ababa, I performed a magic trick for a small crowd, accomplishing “telepathy” by reading the minds of three volunteers. They each had to think of a different card and tell the others what it was. When I predicted them all, the crowd erupted, shouting “Devil!” Some spectators even fell to their knees to pray.
With Danny’s passport retrieved, we started to head towards Kenya, stopping off in Shashamene: Mecca for Rastafari. The word Ras comes from the Amharic word head or duke. The word Tarfari was the pre-regal name of Haile Selassie, the first emperor of Ethiopia, who was said to be the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The story goes that he was a direct descendant of a lost tribe of Israel, spawned from a love affair between Queen Sheba and King Solomon. (The lion of Judah was once used in the Ethiopian flag). The movement may have started in Jamaica in the 30s, but its spiritual heartland was in Ethiopia.
In that part of the world, the road was the least of our worries. Northern Kenya was lawless and armed bandits and raiders targeted the route. The only way to travel was by armed convoy, so we had an escort, gun in hand, keeping a wary eye on the road ahead.
No place in the world has quite the aura of the Congo jungle. It was so alluring to me. Mystery still surrounds the interior of the impenetrable forest, the second largest in the world. Water transport remains the dominant means of getting around, with thousands of kilometres of navigable waterways on the Congo River.
I never realized I had a thing for danger. Some guys get their kicks from gambling or extreme sports, but I discovered that I kind of like the idea of being shot at. Flirting with death gave me a hard-on. I’d rather be fast food for worms than play it safe and grow old thinking, “What if?”
The valley rumbles with the sound of the mighty Victoria Falls behind me: one of the seven wonders of the natural world.
“We’re fucking lucky, man,” I said, turning to Danny. “We’re lucky to be born in a country where we can afford to travel the world. We should do this until the day we die. On this trip we’ve seen the wonders of the world and experienced some of the most incredible places on Earth: deserts, jungles, and tropical islands. We’ve dived, rafted, bungeed, banged, bribed, swam with sharks, jumped out of a plane, snuck across deadly borders, entered warzones, been arrested, faced death, and constantly evaded imprisonment for trafficking a kilo of marijuana across half a continent. But somehow, nearly a dozen countries later, we made it—Cairo to Cape Town. It’s good to be alive.”
Moscow fit all the stereotypes. Its streets were overrun with beautiful women in high heels and thick-jawed men strutting around in crew cuts. However, everyone we met looked like they’d been just kicked in the shins and almost every face was dour and serious. “Only fools smile,” I was told by one local.
For more than a century, the Tran-Siberian Railway has provided the world’s most superlative train journey, making it a mandatory pilgrimage for any would-be globetrotter. With over 9,000 km of track, the longest railway in the world spans from.
In the middle of Lake Baikal sits Olkhon Island, and on the island is a small backpacking commune known as Nikita’s: a homely refuge set up by a former Russian ping-pong champion. That’s where we stayed, and to this day it remains the most unique getaway I’ve ever experienced.
Mongolia surprised all of us. Keen for the real Mongolian experience, we camped in some traditional yurts (Google it) in the quiet confines of Terej National Park. Our settlement was located on a grassy steppe, overlooking a vast mountainous valley far away from civilisation.
As an avid scholar of Chinese history and culture, I was saddened as my palms were soiled by the yuan, the Chinese currency adorned with a porky portrait of Chairman Mao. It was the equivalent of Germany putting Hitler on their euros.
‘The Great Hero’ of the Chinese Communist state was, apparently, responsible for the death of some 80 million of his own people. In one two-year period of his rule (a period known as ‘the great leap forward’), so much food was forcefully exported to Russia that 36 million Chinese perished from famine—for the honour of acquiring Soviet nuclear technology.
There were other things that also bugged me about China. As one expat explained, “People here don’t think for themselves. Independent thinking is actively discouraged.”
In the West, we’re the farthest removed from our basic nature. Many of us get our food from the frozen section of some multinational supermarket, prepared for us in plastic packages ready to be shoved in the microwave. It’s normal—like marriage, office jobs, the law, and all the constructs we deem to be the fruits of divine civilisation. But normal wasn’t natural. After that incident, I thought a lot about my biases, my conditioning, and my cultural indoctrination. I needed to burst my bubble, take the red pill, and follow the white rabbit, so to speak. I made a conscious choice to reconnect with my primal masculine nature.
“Well, I’m seeing a few girls from Luzon and two of them tell me they’re pregnant! I think it’s bull, but we’ll see. I’m just going with the flow.” His relaxed approach to life at the age of thirty-seven was refreshing.
The country had changed our reality. We had become so used to female attention that it had turned us into sex fiends. We took to the streets like a pack of wild dogs, ready to tear the place apart.
Although small, Kuching was quite cosmopolitan—and vastly more absorbing than the capital, KL. The drink was cheaper, the girls looser, and the nights wilder.
“Drug trafficking carries a mandatory death sentence” read the sign over Indonesian immigration. Danny had weed in his pocket, so I decided it was best not to inform him. Two hours later we were smoking in our hotel room on Jalan Jaksa, the main backpacker street in sprawling Jakarta.
Determined to find the real heart of Bali, the first thing we did was rent bikes to tour the island. As a result, the Bali we experienced was very different from the average tourist. The quiet paddy fields in the interior were worlds away from the beach resorts of Kuta, the main tourist town. I quickly fell in love with the island. In some parts, the landscape reminded me of Palawan in the Philippines.
“Why are you crying?” I asked. “It’s just…I’m going to miss you,” she wept. Then—just like that—the mushrooms turned on me and my first bad trip began. Her words were like daggers ripping through my chest and her pain-filled tears were like poison entering my bloodstream. I hallucinated that my dick was an evil serpent that had used his cunning to worm his way up her sacred orifice—only to vomit inside her and then leave. I was disgusted with myself. There was a beautiful girl who had completely opened herself up to me, only to be used and abandoned. I experienced heart-wrenching guilt on a primal level and my emotions were so intense that I had to escape to the bathroom to compose myself. Looking into the mirror, I saw a monster (literally, an actual monster). His ugly demonic face peered back at me with eyes that filled me with debilitating remorse for all the broken hearts he had left in his wake. “I’m such an asshole,” I thought, and I wept for my sins, crying like a little bitch.
Then her husband appeared and approached our tuk-tuk. He was small in stature, almost boyish. It was hard to picture him as being domineering and violent—except that Lia was so petite. With tears in his eyes, he looked at me and said, “Take care of them.” And with that, he left. As he trudged down the lane, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the guy. His world had just fallen apart—and it was my fault. Lia silently put her hand in mine and gazed at me with hopeful eyes. I looked back at her, then down at her son, whose family I’d just torn apart, and thought, what have I done?
My return to Cambodia had been marked by the destruction of a family and a lifelong friendship. Bridges had been burned and people had gotten hurt. It was a sad, sad time.
Burmese tourism was a well-oiled machine and with strict travel restrictions enforced, every tourist’s visit was pretty much pre-defined by the military government. Visiting traditional floating villages on a lake may sound enticing for your average cultural vulture—but not when you’re forced to spend the whole day being ferried around from tourist shop to tourist shop.
The truth is I didn’t learn much of anything from my first years of travel. Instead, I’ve only unlearned what I’ve been taught. My views of right and wrong, purpose, morality, and values have all been left open to question.