The Barefoot Backpacker (real name Ian) is a travel writer and blogger hailing from Nottinghamshire, UK. He specialises in solo travel, focusing predominantly on routes that are off the beaten track. His posts cover both UK and worldwide locations, his niche being that he only ever carries hand luggage. His writing appeals widely to those who carry his same deep appreciation for the history and has previously been published by Bradt Guides.
With a vast experience of travel under his belt, The Barefoot Backpacker is a host for the popular weekly Twitter chat The Road Less Travelled. Ian is currently working on a book documenting his adventures in West Africa, which will run alongside him making his second trip around the world.
1. You say that your Barefoot title comes quite literally from feeling more comfortable without shoes, but you find it harder to put into practice in the UK. Do you find the British a bit stuffy in their approach to travel?
It’s probably true with most nationalities, but there’s certainly two sides to the British when they go abroad.
On the one hand of course you’ve got the ‘two weeks in Benidorm was good enough for my parents in the 1980s and it’s good enough for me now’ type of holidaymaker, who spends their time by the pool, drinking lager, eating British food, and surrounding themselves with their own kind and barely meeting a local except to abuse them from the other side of a bar. See also stag parties to places like Budapest, Prague, and Riga.
On the other hand, you have Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Chris Bonington, David Attenborough, even to an extent more accessible travellers like Michael Palin and Simon Reeve. We’ve had a long history of explorer types, of breaking the mould of travel, of getting far beyond our comfort zone and challenging the stereotype that Brits are deliberately monolingual and not interested in seeing the world.
That said, while such exploration documentaries and travel literature are popular, I do feel that it’s more as a ‘the world is a lovely place, but this isn’t for me, it’s well outside my comfort zone; I’m happy with Benidorm, and I’m just happy to travel vicariously through these people’.
Certainly my travels, not just my destinations but also my methods, are ‘unusual’ in terms of average British society (my mother, a woman who has travelled the world herself, used to worry about me travelling to ‘dangerous’ places, and half-expected me to be seen on international news leading a revolution; these days she’s kind of given up and resigned herself to my destinations – her main concern now is whether I’m wearing shoes or not), but I do think there’s a history of people like me in British culture. It’s not a mainstream vibe; I think it’s much more that they’re happy someone (and someone else, rather than them) is doing it. I did nearly tagline my blog “I Go To These Places So You Don’t Have To” rather than “Travel Tales From Beyond The Brochure” for this very reason; I don’t consider myself a role-model or trend-setter, but more of a ‘teacher’ – explaining things about places the Brits are curious about, but are happy never to visit.
2. Your blog discusses places that have changed the world rather than focusing on the physical attributes. Which location that you’ve visited deserves more publicity than it gets, and why?
Benin. Without question. This is a country with a vast amount of history and culture. It formed the core of two important and notable African Kingdoms, most notably the famous Dahomey Kingdom, and the old palaces still stand scattered around the city of Abomey. It had a central role in the Slave Trade, and poignant monuments line the coast. In the North, traditional tribal culture still thrives, along with an (albeit small) national park where wild animals are protected. The south-west is lined with vast, empty, beaches just crying out for a day to chill on and do nothing but chill under the palm trees. It’s also the original home of the Voodoo religion, and a large proportion of the population still practice it, alongside the two main religions of the country (Christianity and Islam). It also leads into the point that all these religions coexist generally peacefully, and we see none of the civil strife present in some neighbouring countries like Niger and Mali, and which is unfortunately creeping in to previously calm countries like Burkina Faso. Benin is a multi-party democracy and generally quite a stable nation too; not prone to civil disorder or strife.
3. Your writing encourages travellers to go to locations “beyond the brochure.” With backpacking becoming more and more popular due to cheap flight deals, how would you encourage first time travellers to do this?
Surprisingly, cheap flight deals are an absolute godsend for travelling “beyond the brochure”, since it opens up many more cities and regions that were previously less easy to access.
Let’s take an example: in the UK, the combination of large numbers of works arriving from abroad, and the explosion of budget airlines, has meant it’s incredibly easy and cheap to fly to cities in Poland that maybe 5-10 years ago, no-one had ever heard of. Wroclaw, Lvov, Bydgoszcz, etc; places that aren’t on people’s traditional itineraries (which seem to start and end with Krakow!) but which are now incredibly accessible. Very often, the only ‘touristy’ information out there on these places are those posts written by travel bloggers who themselves travelled ‘beyond the brochure’ in this same way. And using a combination of cheap flights and local buses, a backpacker can find themselves in a remote countryside village in less time and cost than it might take to get to the airport from home in the first place.
Another way is to take a well-visited city, but explore the lesser-known suburbs of it. London is very easy to get to, and understandably one of the most touristy places on the planet, but it doesn’t take much effort to get off the tourist trail and into some places very much “beyond the brochure”; you’ve probably already got the Oyster Card so get out of Zone 1 and seek out the outlying boroughs – Chislehurst Caves in Zone 5, Walthamstow Market and Neasden Temple in Zone 3, Wimbledon Common around Zone 4 ish.
Remember too that most people don’t live in touristy places, and everywhere exists for a reason; everywhere is ‘interesting’ if you look hard enough. If you are very new to travel, and don’t feel comfortable backpacking abroad, it’s amazing how much you can find that’s ‘close to home’ – take a train to a nearby town, have an explore, stay the night; treat your home region as if it were a foreign country. You may be pleasantly surprised what you discover.
4. You haven’t checked in baggage on an aeroplane since 2012. What packing tips would you give to people to help them do the same?
The biggest tip -> accept you’re going to have to wash clothes. Once you’ve resigned yourself to this, the next big question is ‘how often’. I tend to think of every 4-5 days; this means I have the clothes I’m wearing, plus 3-4 days’ worth in the backpack. That’s a clean shirt, underpants, socks (where necessary). I tend to accept I’ll wear the same pair of trousers several days in a row, so I generally only take one extra pair, plus a pair of over-the-knee shorts for warmer climates. The original logical behind this thought process was – if I’m going away for a 2 week holiday I figure I’d have to wash clothes anyway, given I physically don’t own 16 pairs of underpants …
In a sense, packing with only hand luggage is a series of compromises; of how easy the bag is to carry against how convenient I need everything to be. In my everyday life, I’m not much
for fashion or ‘dressing-to-impress’ anyway, so I think the leap from that to backpacking is much simpler for me than it may be for a lot of people. That’s not to say I’m a typical scruffy backpacker type – I always wear a buttoned-shirt for instance – but certainly I’m naturally less inclined to spend half an hour after a shower wading through hair-care products, even in my everyday working life.
This alleviates the main problem with hand luggage of meeting the 100ml liquid limit. All I tend to take is toothpaste (I tried packing powdered toothpaste once to circumvent the liquids limit; not only did it taste absolutely foul but the scanners at the airport rendered it bright yellow and highly suspicious), shower gel, hand sanitiser (possibly the most important thing in your arsenal), deodorant, and er, nail varnish (my one ‘vanity’ product, designed to keep my toes pretty!). Anything else I can get while I’m travelling.
I consider usefulness as well; ‘do I use this at home?’ is a good mantra. I don’t really listen to music at home so why would I take a music player? I never go out to formal restaurants at home, so why would I do it while travelling; why would I need smart shoes? Don’t take things because ‘they might be useful’; in truth they almost certainly won’t be. I took an electric beard trimmer on one trip – it didn’t work particularly well with the voltage difference and within a week I’d lost the charger anyway …
5. You’re currently working on a book about your travels in West Africa. As a travel writer, what things make you want to read about someone else’s travels?
As a reader, and this applies to all forms of literature not just travel writing, what pulls me in the most is the style of writing. I’m not fond of overly dry and academic material, but equally nor am I fond of what you might call traditional travel diaries (of the ‘I did this, then I did that’ kind). To get my engagement, first and foremost someone has to write in an engaging, and usually less-than-serious way, but also write in a way that shows that they know their topic and have read/explored ‘around’ it, and aren’t just writing about only their experiences. I’m particularly attracted to anyone who can mix a serious topic with a sense of humour, no matter how dark or casual that humour is. I think it’s because I’m British, and grew up with that kind of style (imagine if Douglas Adams had written travelogues).
There’s a whole host of (British) authors who have written travel books (mainly about Britain) in this light-hearted but detailed style; Charlie Connelly and Tim Moore are two who spring to mind; for something a little more off-the-wall, Amy Baker’s book about her exploits in South America could so easily have fallen into ‘travel diary’ territory but her natural style and self-depreciating humour ensures it never does.
The destination matters less to me, perhaps surprisingly. While I’m more likely to read about a place I either know well, or want to visit, I’ll happily read a book if the destination is written about in that appealing style. Indeed it might make me start thinking about travelling there myself. I once read a book (“Blood on the Tracks” – Miles Bredin / Harriet Logan) about a rail trip from Angola to Mozambique, and the serious politics involved, purely because I was enamoured by the dry humour present in the description of the list of acronyms at the start.
And just for fun …
6. Has there ever been a time when you realised it wasn’t a good idea to go barefoot? Any injuries?
I am particularly *not* fond of gravel. Paths of small stones have me reaching for my sandals very quickly!! That, and snow. I’ve done the ‘barefoot in snow’ type pics for the craic (these days, “for the ‘gram”!); it burns. I like my toes and I want to keep them; in my recent trip to Poland, the temperature reached -12°C and I wore big walking boots. 😀 I’ve never had any injuries per se from walking barefoot, the occasional annoying blister aside. I did once have to scour the shops of Tallinn one morning for a pair of tweezers because I had a bit of twig stuck in my foot having walked from the airport the previous day and must have accidentally stepped on one, but it was more annoying than painful. I’ve also stepped on broken glass in Leeds (“hmm, what was that sharp thing? Oh! Right!”), and a couple of thorny flowers in Albania, but two things to bear in mind about walking barefoot: 1) the more you do it the tougher your feet get, so they can cope with more, and 2) you’re more inclined to see where you’re stepping anyway, so the less likely it is that you’ll step on something unpleasant. In addition, the physical way you walk changes; you tend to walk more on the front of your foot and less of your foot makes contact with the ground anyway, so the chances of injury are limited.
7. You famously wrote an article about your anti-bucket list. If you were forced to choose one buck list stop, where would it be?
Ah now, since writing that article, I’ve been to one of those ultimate ‘bucket list’ stops -> The Grand Canyon. I went there slightly by accident, in that I was passing through Flagstaff and wasn’t sure, but my hostel basically said “don’t be stupid, it’s the Grand Canyon”. I anticipated it to be ‘a hole in the ground’. Well … yeh, it was a ‘hole in the ground’, but it’s quite a spectacular hole and I definitely enjoyed wandering around the rim for a few hours.
As to the article itself, many of my friends on Twitter have raised an eyebrow at my inclusion of ‘Japan’ (it’s because I’m an introvert and I suspect I’d feel very lost and overwhelmed there) , so I suspect of all the places listed on it, Japan would be the one place I’d probably choose to go.
8. What would the world be like if it were filled with male and female copies of you?
My old boss briefly toyed with the same thought. She said the team would be considerably more efficient and productive with multiple clones of me, given my thought process and problem-solving ability. She very quickly realised the disadvantages though …
A world of me? Well, nothing would ever really get done/finished, and it wouldn’t be the most sociable of environments; it would be really quiet, punctuated with highly intense arguments or evidence of passive-aggressive bloodymindedness. Nothing would run on time as people would get distracted by shiny things as they moved about their business. And humanity would be doomed as no-one would want to consider even getting close enough to each other never mind entertain the idea of children!
9. What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen on your travels?
Most people who’ve travelled the way I do would say something about other cultures – the unofficial competitions to see how many people (or doors) one can fit on a motorbike (4), or how many people can ride in a 16-seater minibus (25) – or maybe the absurdity of border crossings (being the only person on the minibus who needs to stamp through the border rather than just give out a cheeky bribe).
However for me, one of the things I always look out for is street art, or even just street graffiti, and sometimes it’s the simplest things that raise a smile. On a bridge in Belgrade, for instance, I noticed a chain of written comments relating to the finer points of English grammar; something completely out of place and easy to miss. Conversely, on a lamppost in my home town, someone who’d obviously thought they were some kind of French philosopher and artist from the 1920s wrote in marker pen “this is not mindless vandalism”.
Always keep your eyes open; you never know what you’ll find.
10. If you were transported 400 years into the past with no clothes or items, what would you do to prove you were from the future?
I don’t think there’s any way to definitively prove it, but I’m sure my knowledge of world events and dates would lead me to at least being regarded as some kind of weird soothsayer. And then probably getting killed in some kind of mob violence as they’d assume I was in league with the devil with all these unnervingly accurate predictions …
Keep up to date with Ian’s travel chats over on Twitter.