The World According To… Tom Allen

I was recently given this list of questions to answer for Wanderlust magazine; a rare opportunity to bang on guiltlessly about my opinions and experiences.

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean — which are you?

Some of my favourite experiences have been in the desert. Life has to slow down in the heat and dryness, and that sense of calm is a welcome opposite from the busy lives we lead at home. I love the mountains, too – they breed a unique kind of culture and help remind us of our insignificance.

Cycling the Nubian desert

First travel experience?

I took a year out after school and went to the mountains of eastern Canada to train as a ski-instructor for three months. It wasn’t the most adventurous of trips, but at the age of eighteen it certainly felt like it!

http://flickr.com/photos/tom-allen/3129328188/

Favourite journey?

There are so many to choose from, but I keep coming back to my ride through northern Sudan. It was the year before the asphalt road was built through the region, so it was very tough going. But the remoteness ensured that the hospitality I received along the way was matchless, and the satisfaction of pulling it off was all the greater for it being such a challenge.

Nubian village on the Nile's west bank

Top 5 places worldwide?

It’s possible to have a cracking adventure almost anywhere in the world. But for landscapes, the ‘Lost Coast’ of Northern California takes a bit of beating. City-wise, I seem to keep finding myself back in Istanbul, and I absolutely loved Portland, Oregon. The most extravagant hospitality I’ve ever received was in Syria and Iran.

Flora on the Lost Coast shoreline

Special place to stay?

It’s difficult to recommend accommodation, as I usually sleep in my tent. So instead I’ll cite my personal favourite wild-camping spot, which was on the banks of a semi-frozen Lake Khovsgol in northern Mongolia.

Sunset over Khovsgol

3 items you always pack?

A 1-man tent, a Buff, and a diary.

Campground lightshow

Passport stamp you’re proudest of?

I went a step further in Armenia, and ended up with an entire Armenian passport. And I really like the colourful design of my Yemeni visa sticker.

Vegetable stall in Aden

Passport stamp most like to have?

Saudi Arabia. The Middle East is my favourite region of the world, but Saudi restrictions meant I had to take three boats and travel through four African countries to get between Jordan and Yemen.

Weird weather down by the Dead Sea

Guilty travel pleasure?

Pigging out on street food. As I travel mainly by bicycle, my body becomes a calorie-burning machine, so I can stuff myself, safe in the knowledge that it’s fuel for my legs.

A predictable scene in an all-you-can-eat Mongolia BBQ in Vancouver

Window or aisle?

Window in daytime (so I can see). Aisle at nighttime (so I can sleep).

Mirrored self portrait

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

I often travel alone. But my ideal companion would be a native of the country from whom I could learn the language and scratch a little deeper as a result.

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Best meal on the road? Worst?

I remember one particular Iskender kebab in Istanbul — spicy slabs of grilled meat, creamy yoghurt, rich tomato sauce, all on a bed of bread croutons, and then slathered with molten butter. The worst meal was something I was given in the Nubian desert. Think of the consistency of raw egg-white, but warm and salty. Then envisage lots of unidentifiable green bits floating in it. Then imagine eating it with your hands.

Taiwanese food 3, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

I was blown away by Taiwan’s warmth and modernity – I was told there that tourists came from the PRC to see ‘China as it could have been’. There honestly hasn’t been anywhere that disappointed me. I don’t do any research on the places I go, and I’d like to think that without preconceptions I’m better able to accept a place for what it is, rather than dwelling on what I expected to find but didn’t.

Cycle park 3, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

Where do you NOT want to go?

I really can’t think of anywhere that I would actively choose not to go to. Having said that, it’d take quite a bit of convincing to get me back to the French Riviera in the summer.

Wild camping in Italy

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

I was inspired to travel by the nagging feeling that school and university hadn’t really equipped me for life yet. My good mate Andy was the one who brought up the idea of cycling. I can’t say I have any travel heroes, but I’m constantly inspired by the current generation of self-made young explorers who are pushing the definition of adventure.

Masters of campcraft

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

I used to listen to a lot of drum & bass. (It’s awful. You’d hate it.) As time has gone by, the need to listen to music has diminished. Now, when I’m on the road, I prefer to keep my senses alert.

Turkish Road Tunnels

What do you read?

I almost never read ‘travel writing’. I read mostly non-fiction, particularly popular science. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because travel is a way of learning about Planet Earth, and reading astrophysics and cosmology is a way of learning about everything else.

Al Salam Camp, Luxor, Egypt

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

One of my earliest experiences was being invited to stay with a Slovakian guy who left a key in the door and a welcome-note on the table 365 days a year, whether or not he was actually there. You can go and stay a week or two at his place right now, if you want, as long as you water the garden. He’s never had anything stolen. Two weeks later, in Romania, I was invited in for the night and the following morning asked for one hundred euros to cover my stay. Luckily the former type of experiences have outweighed the latter a hundredfold.

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What’s the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

The most useful word in any language is ‘thank you’, cliched as it might be. For impressive phrases, ‘yes ko spitak ziov asbetn em’ is Armenian, roughly translates as ‘I am your knight in shining armour’, and works really well.

Sunrise over Yerevan and Mount Ararat

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Staying days (or weeks, or months) longer in a city than I planned.

Istanbul by night

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

Very little beats a good storytelling session. Stories aren’t just entertainment, they’re also how we share and find security in the common elements of being human.

Camping in the snow

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

I am at my happiest with a full stomach and a clear blue sky and a tailwind and a new border-crossing at my back.

Another epic valley

What smell most says ‘travel’ to you?

Freshly-baked bread. Or roadkill.

Bread-making in an Aden fish restaurant

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

In a romantic frame of mind I’d probably say the fourteenth century, when legendary Islamic travellers like Ibn Battutah were wandering the globe. But in any other mood I would say today, rather than pining for a golden age that probably never was.

Shobak Castle, Jordan

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

I go to cities mostly for the people, and so I’d quite like to combine the fiery pride of Tehran with the outlook and optimism of San Francisco, but in the geographical surrounds of Vancouver. That would be an interesting mix, and nature would never be far away.

Cafe in Tehran, Iran
Steepest grade in downtown San Francisco
An appropriate pavement carving in Victoria, Vancouver Island

* * *

Your turn! Copy-paste these questions into the comments and answer them:

  • Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean — which are you?
  • First travel experience?
  • Favourite journey?
  • Top 5 places worldwide?
  • Special place to stay?
  • 3 items you always pack?
  • Passport stamp you’re proudest of?
  • Passport stamp most like to have?
  • Guilty travel pleasure?
  • Window or aisle?
  • Who is your ideal travelling companion?
  • Where do you NOT want to go?
  • Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?
  • What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?
  • What do you read ?
  • Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?
  • What’s the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?
  • What is your worst habit as a traveller?
  • Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?
  • When and where in your travels have you been happiest?
  • What smell most says ‘travel’ to you?
  • Given a choice, which era would you travel in?
  • If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

4 Responses to “The World According To… Tom Allen”

  1. Mark Kalch

    Great interview mate!

    Reply
  2. andy welch

    Enjoyed that!

    Reply
  3. Amy Chiert

    Enjoyed reading about your journey

    Reply
  4. Rai

    You invited me to do this … just remember that. 🙂
    Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean — which are you? Mountain. I lived in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for 18 years, then moved to Salt Lake City for the mountains – climbing, snowboarding, trail running … now I’m moving to Yerevan, Armenia in August. That’s right, Tom. That’s how I got here.
    First travel experience? Aside from frequent trips to Ireland to see family (mother from Belfast, father from Dublin) my first solo adventure was Spanish language study abroad in Guatemala.
    Favourite journey? That’s tough as there have been many, but probably my bike tour through 13 countries in Europe – 40 days. Start: Czech Republic; End: Ireland … with some Eastward movement before heading West.
    Top 5 places worldwide? Tanzania, Italy, Spain, Nicaragua, Ireland
    Special place to stay? The secret little bed and breakfast along a long, hilly, windy road in Wales that finally gave me shelter from the rain on a very long riding day.
    3 items you always pack? Books, Journal, Photo of my dog, Seamus
    Passport stamp you’re proudest of? There have been many, but Tanzania has my heart these days.
    Passport stamp most like to have? Iran and Israel
    Guilty travel pleasure? Sleep and Internet Access
    Window or aisle? Window for long trips to sleep; Aisle for short trips to pee
    Who is your ideal travelling companion? I have to say I like to go it alone, although I may have had my most successful trip ever (in terms of gelling with a travel mate) with my bike tour partner, Cheyenne.
    Where do you NOT want to go? There is nowhere I don’t want to go, but I probably won’t seek to live longtime in a place where I have to cover up all the time – either due to religion or weather.
    Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes? I was traveling from 6 mos of age to see family in Ireland. It’s always been in me.
    What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place? Andrew Bird has given me wings recently.
    What do you read ? Fiction, mostly. Some nonfiction – biographical accounts. Most recently: Shantaram, Meditations from the Mat, Cutting for Stone, Little Bee.
    Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it? It is reaffirmed by the people of the country I meet often and likewise, shattered by the people of the country. I break in the space of inhumanity, inhumane treatment of animals, injustice. But I thrive through explorations of dance, music, food, culture. My NGO partner in Tanzania inspires me. He’s a good young man.
    What’s the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language? No tengo las ganas.
    What is your worst habit as a traveller? Seeking solitude.
    Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions? Tell dating and travel stories.
    When and where in your travels have you been happiest? Mexico, Italy, Spain, Canada, Sweden
    What smell most says ‘travel’ to you? Sea spray
    Given a choice, which era would you travel in? Right now. Ease of booking, remoteness with connection, access to language resources, social media to find me a friend wherever I go
    If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be? San Sebastian, Spain; Florence, Italy; Salt Lake City, UT (for the mountain range!)
    Cheers!

    Reply

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