Mike Spencer Bown is the world’s most travelled man. He’s been travelling for 24 years almost non-stop and has visited every country and territory in the world.
I hadn’t heard of Mike until I ended up living in Kiev for almost 3 months recently.
I got put in touch with him from a Canadian friend in Kiev who had met him in Iraq 5 years previously, and spent the next several weeks hanging out and listening to his stories over some beers and whisky. They were epic.
I asked him to share his views on travel and life.
So if you want to know what it’s like to travel for 24 years then this is it.
Oh, and he’s from Canada.
Mike Spencer Bown – The Worlds Most Travelled Man
Question 1: Why did you start travelling?
I eased into it from wilderness expeditions. Used to be when I was very young that I’d like to live in the mountains or the forests hundreds of kilometers from the nearest civilizations, fishing, snaring birds, picking berries and hazel nuts, and generally communing with nature.
After some years, and a lot of bush-craziness from often going for months without speaking, I had my eye out for a less extreme activity. A girlfriend suggested backpacking, and we did Central America together. I was hooked, on this much more social, and yet fascinating new type of adventure.
My overarching goal was to live a life with no ‘downtime’: no wasted days when I wasn’t doing what interested me or having experiences that I valued. Travel was the best way to live, all things considered.
Question 2: Why have you travelled for so long?
For the most part, the answer is, because that’s how long I’ve been an adult, with the ability to choose how I spend my days. After 23 years, I had the bitter-sweet experience of having no un-visited countries, or places that interested me, still unseen.
Now travel is normal for me: my whole life I’ve lived out of my trusty backpack, which had never been stolen, and holds all my possessions. Travel is my default setting for a way of life, so I carried on dropping in on places I’ve seen before, and old friends, noticing how the landscapes, culture and people have changed or remained the same.
Question 3: Do you feel like you want to stop anytime soon?
It’s possible I might switch to a different type of travel. I’m practicing staying in one area for two or three months at a time, such as this summer, which I split between Saint Petersburg and Kiev. I’ll see how this works out.
It’s certainly allowed me to get more writing done. Living in one place entirely would be difficult, especially if the weather turns sour, and I always know that there is a mountain valley or a beach somewhere sunny, if I’d simply flip to the other hemisphere or head for the equator.
Question 4: Tell us some of the craziest experiences you have had…
War zones are pretty crazy. I did Afghanistan in 2008, sometimes by public transport across roads where the locals warned me that there was a 30 percent chance I’d lose my head to the Taliban. I was the first tourist in Mogadishu after the fall of the central government; the place was a raging battle at the time, with tank shells firing and trench warfare in the city. Puntland, the land of pirates, wasn’t much easier.
Back in late 2003, I hitch-hiked around Iraq during the operation iron grip phase of the gulf war, watching the Americans battle the Iraqis for control of the countryside. I got by keeping my mouth zipped unless it was absolutely necessary to talk, and dressing like an Iraqi.
Some of my experiences of nature were pretty intense: riding out a typhoon in a wooden junk in the sea off of Sumbawa, living with a Bambuti pigmie tribe deep in the Congo rain forest, hunting antelope with nets and spears.
Question 5: What are your favourite countries to travel in?
More so than countries, I like trips that have substantial flow to them: The Karakorum highway; the trip to find trace the source of the Nile; taking the trans-Siberian railroad from Baltic to the Pacific, or floating down the length of the Amazon.
If I’m forced onto planes, I lose touch with the changing landscape and varying ethnicities, and I consider it an unwelcome distraction. The northern part of the Caribbean was annoying that way, as it was hard to find mail-boats or ferries and many islands were given over to package tourists or cruise ships.
Question 6: What countries could you see yourself settling down in?
I wouldn’t mind a set of countries on opposite ends of the planet, so if the weather got nasty in one, you could pop over to the other. I’d feel better about settling down if it was a surprise, and after some years I’d just find that I’d settled.
That would be more interesting as a life event for me than planning to settle, which doesn’t really appeal. We are still in the golden age of travel, before experiences get too expensive for the average backpacker. Consider: there are perhaps 35 million or more Quechua speaking people in the Andes. Machu Piccu can accommodate perhaps 3000 visitors a day. If these locals wanted this experience once in their lives, each, then there will be no room for other visitors.
I’ve seen it twice. Soon everywhere on Earth will be like that, as billions of people rise from utter poverty. Now is the golden age of travel, where backpackers can visit sites on the cheap with only multi-millionaires will be able to visit in the coming decades. I for one, try to make the most of this unique time in world history.
Question 7: What’s the most important lessons about life you have discovered from your years of travel?
People are the same, deep down, good and bad. There is no need to waste life on bad people any more than there is to be stuck in boring or de-humanizing landscapes. Hone your intuition until you can tell when someone is genuine, and put your trust and friendship there. It’s a lot safer and more rewarding path to take for what is, after all, a vanishingly short life, set against the awful sweep of history.
Question 8: What would you say to people travelling for the first time?
Do it now, don’t wait until the perfect time to get away, because there will never come a perfect time – there will always be unfinished business to tie you down. This is still the golden age of travel, the tail end of it. Wait until you are retired, and you will miss it for sure.
Question 9: The most extreme thing you have done?
My wilderness experiences were the most extreme. A mountain lion made a serious effort to kill me once, I almost starved to death twice. Any mistake in deep wilderness can be lethal. Next runner up is war zone countries.
Maybe when I was hitchhiking north from Baghdad, the Iraqi who picked me up was a big fan of Saddam Hussein. When we were passing Tikrit, he said, Saddam’s home town, yay, let’s stop for food. So I ended up taking to him in English in a big open air chicken restaurant, with two hundred of Saddam’s tribesmen giving me the evil eye.
Luckily no-one came over and lopped off my head like they did to the Japanese guy who was trying to hitch-hike Iraq at the same time as me. But I have dozens of stories like that, and hundreds slightly less extreme. There is still a capacity to get into trouble even in our much more peaceful historical times we enjoy now.
Question 10: What would you say to your younger self?
I made lots of mistakes, but I learned from them too. I’m not sure it would be a good idea to say anything to my younger self. Mistakes are part of the struggle and fun of travel, and if anyone from the future came and gave me advice, it would take away my edge.
Maybe I’d tell him to take better care for pebbles in porridge and rice. A lot of villagers don’t sift if carefully, and I’ve lived in the third world most of my life. My teeth are a bit chipped because of this, and it’ll cost me to get them fixed.
Question 11: How difficult is it having relationships with constant travelling?
In my twenties, it was easy, as there are plenty of travel girls with just as much wander lust. We could live together and travel. In my thirties, it was more difficult. Half the time I was alone, as I’d have to wait for girlfriends to have time off work, or go to visit them in their home countries. In my forties, it is much more difficult.
Women anywhere near my age are settled down; younger ones are busy with careers or education. It doesn’t help that I am used to being alone, so I never feel any desperation no matter if I have a girlfriend or not. Desperation probably has done as much to ensure the procreation of the species as love. Anyhow, I have more time now, and a slower pace of travel, so who knows, perhaps there is some romance in my future.
Question 12: What’s the most important thing you could say about travel?
Travel gives you a feel for the big picture: insight and perspective on the human condition. It’s true what Mark Twain said, that it is fatal to prejudice. I can hardly imagine how bewildering reality would seem for me if I hadn’t been exploring so. This is the planet that shaped us and our ancestors and all life through the eons. It would have been a shame not to roam over the Earth’s surface and take a friendly look.
Question 13: How can you afford to travel for so long?
I’m annoyingly good at business, and frustratingly aweful at business, in the same instant. I used to keep my eye out for some product that could be made in one place and sold in another.
I had coffee tables made of coffee wood, carved wooden chicken statues that I knew just where to sell, semi-precious gemstones, and various other schemes. I’d have them made somewhere, travelling around in the meantime, then ship then, allowing for yet more travel, then rush somewhere to sell whatever it was that I had.
The trick was to only try to sell things that are so surprisingly popular that in a month or so, all are gone at a substantial markup, and I’d live off that for many years. When the money was running low, I’d try a new scheme.
This makes me also a terrible businessmen, since anyone with any sense would simply keep the business running doing more of the same, and rake in the money. I’d fold the whole affair and try something entirely different years later. I realize this advice is pretty much useless to someone trying to figure out how to afford to travel.
Basically I’m saying buy things that are such hits with the consumer that you are making dog-choking wads of cash in short order, and then whoop it up on the proceeds for years of exotic travel. This is no more useful to the average reader than saying: buy low, sell high.
But it was how I did it, in those years before people started funding their trips by becoming conduits for media content, catering to other travellers. vicarious and real.
Never Ending Travel
And that’s Mike Spencer Bown.