Interview with a Travel Writer

Travelling tales

From the Guardian Series, first published Wednesday 11th Jun 2003.
Click here for the original

Ian Middleton has travelled through Australia, Mexico, North America, Spain, Ireland and South America in the last six years, and written a series of travel books charting his journeys through these countries.

In May / June this year he will be setting off on a new journey from Wexford to Donegal to raise money for asthma research.

Here, Ian talks to Jenni Carroll about his travels and what set him off writing about his travels.

JC: What made you start writing travel books?

IM: It was after a four-month journey around Mexico that I began to write. The journey was such an eye-opener and full of comical and profound moments that I had to write them down in order to digest them all. The other reason was that I have such a bad memory that I figured at least if I wrote down these adventures then when I'm old and grey, sitting in my rocking chair with my pipe, slippers and incontinence pants, I'll be able to read my stories and say, 'Blimey, did I do that?

The intention was originally just to put them down on paper. But once I began writing I was like a man possessed. The story just seemed to pour out of me. I got so into it that the CD would finish and I wouldn't even notice. My dad would pop his head into the room every now and then to see if I was still alive.

After writing the Mexico story I went off to Spain for a couple of months. It was while stuck in Marbella during a rainy weekend that I discovered Bill Bryson. Someone gave me one of his books to read. Up until then I had always thought that you needed to be famous, like Michael Palin, to write a book about travelling. But I had never heard of Bill Bryson. Yet I soon learned that he is the most popular travel writer out, and is only famous for his writing. Before that he was a journalist.

Learning that someone who wasn't famous could become a successful travel writer, gave me the inspiration I needed to turn my stories into a series of books. As the years progressed I continued to travel and write. I now have a series of five books, two of which have been published.

JC: How do you choose which country to travel to next?

IM: I have an idea of the places I want to visit, but choosing which one to do next is usually spontaneous. My first ever journey was in Australia. My cousin was already out there, and so I figured it would be a good place to break me into the world of backpacking. Also, Australia is a relatively safe and easy country in which to travel. It's possibly one of the most popular destinations for backpackers. While on the plane back home I had already decided that I wanted to go to Mexico next. I'd had a fascination with Mexico for years, after having read about it in books and seen it in the movies. I think my head is just full of destinations that I have read about or seen on the television, or since travelling have heard other travellers talk about.

When I went to Ireland for the first time, it was simply because I hadn't been planning to go travelling and just suddenly woke up one morning with the burning desire to get back on the road. Because I didn't have much money I realised I would have to go somewhere nearby. The next day I bumped into an Irish girl I knew through a friend of mine, and this put the idea in my head to go to Ireland. I thought back to all the Irish people I had met over the years (I'd even worked for a month with one in Australia) and they had been great, easygoing and fun loving people. So I decided there and then to go to Ireland. I told my boss at the time that I was leaving in six weeks, scraped together a month's wages, got on a boat to Cork and just drifted my way around the country from there. I was soon to learn here that you don't always need to go half around the world to experience something new and adventurous.

JC: What is the most exciting country you have visited so far?

IM: That's the most common question asked of me, and the one I simply don't have the answer for. Every country I have been to I've loved for different reasons. Each country has its own appeal and I would go back to any one of them at the drop of a hat. I have favourite places within countries, but not countries themselves.

JC: Is there a country you would go back to and why?

IM: If someone gave me £5000 to go back to any country I'd been to, I wouldn't be able to choose. I'd probably take the money and go somewhere new, or go back to each one in turn.

JC: Is there somewhere you never want to go back to and why?

IM: No, I don't think so. There are places I have been to where I had a horrible time and in some cases even hated. But with the places I've been back to so far I've found that each time you go back it is a different experience. For example, when I went to Killarney on the western side of Ireland I absolutely hated it. I found it to be a tacky tourist trap and couldn't understand why so many people wanted to go there. Well, I returned there last year and found out why, the Killarney National Park. It really is the most stunningly beautiful place with a landscape of sparkling lakes, forest, green hills and rocky ledges. I think that every time you go back to a place you view it differently, and often see more of it too.

JC: Travelling around, you must have been served up some interesting food - is there any food you'd travel distances to avoid eating again?

IM: I'll be perfectly honest with you and say that I'm not at all adventurous when it comes to eating. I'm the sort of person who will stick to what he knows; ironic when you think that I'll happily head off alone to a place I know nothing about, but put a plate of food in front of me that I don't recognise and I'll run a mile. Having said that though, there have been a couple of places in Mexico where the food sent me running to the toilet. One place I would never eat again is in a restaurant in Palenque. I'm always wary of eating in a place where the locals aren't, and even more wary of eating in a place where nobody is. But in this instance I was dragged in there by the people I was travelling with. The next morning I awoke to a strange bodily feeling. It was almost as if someone was banging on the rim of my stomach and shouting: 'Everything out, two exits and no waiting please!!' I spent the majority of that day running back and forth to the toilet.

But even sticking to what I know can be dangerous. While in the town of Pachuca, near Mexico City, I learned that the tradition of the Cornish Pasty had been left behind by Cornish Miners in the last century. I'd tried some the night before and they had been delicious. So the next morning as we headed off to the ruins of Teotihuacán we stopped off and bought a bag full for the day. I specifically asked for Traditional Pasties because I was English. The lady smiled and scooped up a pile of traditional pasties and handed me the bag. As we left town and drove off towards Teotihuacán I took one out and, licking my lips in anticipation, took a healthy bite out of it. My mouth suddenly turned into a red-hot furnace and I croaked desperately for some water. There certainly wasn't anything traditional about this. I never recalled Cornish pasties containing mouth-burning chillies.

JC: Would you ever consider giving up work to become a full time travel writer?

IM: I would love to. But it really isn't easy to make a living in travel writing, unless you are fortunate enough to be Bill Bryson. I personally believe that you cannot survive in life if you stick to doing just one thing. I've been made redundant twice. However, with all the things I've done in life writing has been the most fulfilling. My hope is to expand into writing articles as well as books. But like any industry, it's unpredictable. My plans for the future also include starting and running my own backpackers hostel. I just have to decide where.

JC: Where do you think you might go next on your travels?

IM: My next travels will be walking 300-miles across Ireland for charity. After that I'd like to take my van and go to Italy and Croatia. Last year I travelled around Ireland in this van promoting and selling my books. It was a fun way to do this, and also helped fund the trip. So, time permitting. I will go off there for a couple of months at the end of the summer. Next year I will go further away, but will decide where when the time comes.

JC: Do you try to set yourself distances to travel within a day, or along the whole journey?

IM: No, never. I never really plan anything when travelling. My philosophy has always been to just go with the flow. I find that when you set off on a journey events just seem to lead you places. My trips rarely have time restrictions on them, so I've always been able to just drift my way along. Often I meet up with people along the way who are going somewhere and just simply join them for a while. Someone might mention a place they've just come from and I'll think, that sounds nice I'll go there. I might have a few places in particular I want to visit, but for the most I simply just wait and see where the adventure will take me.

JC: When you tell people you are raising money for charity do you get more support along the route?

IM: This is actually the first time I have done a trip for charity. I'd always thought about doing a journey for charity, but have been so busy trying to launch myself as a travel writer that I simply didn't have the time to look into it.

I hit upon the idea for this walk while travelling around to promote my Ireland book. In the book I describe how I bussed, hitched and walked my way around the country. One particular chapter describes how I attempt to be a real backpacker for a day and actually walk from one town to another with the full weight of my backpack. The idea was to walk from hostel to hostel without taking any other form of transport. When I described all this to a journalist at the Irish Examiner he seemed to have misheard me because when he wrote the article he said that I walked the entire journey around Ireland, from south to north and back again.

This sparked an idea in which I would actually do this as a follow up book. This could also be a great way to combine my work with helping out a charity. After all, it's no good dedicating yourself to helping the poor and unfortunate, if you end up making yourself poor and unfortunate in the process. So I devised a plan whereupon both parties would benefit. I chose asthma because I have been an asthmatic since I was two years old, and considering the rise in asthma lately felt it would be a good way to raise awareness.

JC: How much money have you raised so far from your travels?

IM: Currently I am donating £1 from the sale of each book to the charities involved and have raised £82. I plan to start looking for sponsorship and also host some fundraising events over the next few months.

JC: Do you have a maximum total to reach, or do you just aim to raise as much as possible?

IM: I just aim to raise as much as possible.

JC: Have you ever felt like giving up when travelling around?

IM: There has been the odd occasion when I get fed up, or lonely. It's difficult travelling and living out of a bag for long periods. What I usually do then is find a place I like and settle there for a while, maybe find work in a hostel. I think that mostly when I get fed up it's because I'm tired of being on the move all the time.

The majority of the time I travel with people I meet along the way, but sometimes I am on my own. For a while this is fine. It's nice to wander around and see a place on your own without having someone there to distract you. But after a while I feel that I have to start looking for some company before I go mad and start scaring people in the street by following them around in a vain attempt to befriend them.

JC: Have you had inspiration on your travels from an interesting or unusual source?

IM: It's hard to say really. My inspiration seems to come from all sorts of places. While travelling Ireland I was reading Tony Hawks' book Round Ireland with a Fridge. In this he described how he went to Tory Island and met a King. After reading that there was a character who lived on a remote island off Ireland's north coast who calls himself the King, I just had to go there. Other ideas come from people I meet along the way, or from overhearing conversations. One such example was talking to a woman working in a hostel in Carlow. She asked if I had been to the road where things go backwards, and I thought she was joking. Next thing I knew she got her father on the phone who proceeded to tell all about this section of road up near Dundalk where if you park at the bottom of the hill and release the brake, your vehicle will roll backwards up the hill of its own accord. I got the directions from him and set out in search of this phenomenon, and wrote an article on it that was published by a magazine in Dublin.