Maybe the best way to explain who I am is to describe the travelling I have done. I love the East. The Easter the Better. After a trip through the former Yugoslavia, I could tell there was something different here to Western Europe. It seemed older and slower, and it was off the main tourist trail. It was hundreds of miles to the nearest Burger King (this was 2006). I was hooked.
Then in 2012 a friend and I went to China for 5 weeks and then got the Trans-Siberian. Then in Berlin bought motorcycles and rode to Iran and back. As way of prep, I had been learning Russian for a year or so beforehand. What struck me was the way that cultures change. Flying over the top I would have had no idea but on the road – feeling every kilometre, seeing over months the churches change from steeples to onion domes then to mosques – was riveting.
I kept learning Russian and writing and in 2015 I got a book deal with Random House in 2015 and decided to return. Spend seven months in the former USSR – talking to people from Kyrgyzstan to Belarus on how they feel about the world they knew – the political project that was the Soviet Union – one day disappeared.
The Red Wake was published 2016 and now I live in Melbourne, working as a web developer for a startup Be Collective. Next year I would love to travel around Australia and investigate the possibility of populist revolution of the sorts we saw with Brexit and Trump happening here – so that’s something to worry about.
What first ignited your passion for travel?
My grandparents on both sides had weird accents and so I realised very early that there existed a world different from the one I knew: a place where those accents were normal and my way of speaking was itself an accent.
In year 6 my mother took my sister and I to Germany to meet my family. Even now, over twenty years later, I can remember parts of that experience very vividly. What made the deepest impression was a sense of space and history: space – that the world is so large to encompass a multitude of different cultures; and history – that a foreign place comes with its own set of stories. The idea that the world was an unending landscape of stories waiting to be discovered was a very compelling.
What are the biggest things you have you learned from your travels?
I have learned how privileged I am to I travel – I know that not everyone has such an opportunity. It means I have a responsibility to try and understand any culture I visit, to make an effort to appreciate that it is most likely as rich as the one I come from but in different ways. And there is a lot you can learn with an open mind.
I have been to breakaway states – unrecognized republics that don’t appear on any map – countries under the strict authoritarian rule – where the secret police will go through all your photos before letting you in. For all this my experience is that people are people – their days are filled up with human dramas, big and small – the truism is that street level generosity is most often apparent in the poorest places.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen, done or eaten on your adventures?
I have visited Chernobyl the scene of the 1986 nuclear disaster. We had to walk around with Geiger-counters which would beep when the radiation got too high. There are whole forests that were turned orange by the massive doses of radiation in the area, and old people that did not heed government warning to evacuate and live there as they did in Soviet times.
Do you have a favourite travel memory or a particular moment that stands out for you?
Crossing the border from Iran to Northern Iraq. The whole place was a shambles – whole families of ragged people fenced off like refugees in cyclone fencing, mud and dust and chaos. With our motorcycles, my friend and I had been trying for 2 days to get through but the lines were so long and we couldn’t work out exactly where we were supposed to go. A random man, an Iranian, who had once lived in Britain so spoke perfect English spent the whole day helping us through. In the end, he wouldn’t accept any money – even though clearly he didn’t have much or perhaps even a job. As we crossed over in Iraq he said – “Don’t come back – a war is coming soon – take that money and enjoy yourself.” I often wonder what he is doing now.
What’s the most emotional or intense moment you’ve had during your travels?
That’s a tough one. Traveling is a pretty intense activity. Goodbyes are hard, sometimes out of nowhere. You can form a very deep friendship in the space of a week with someone because you’re in a foreign land things are accelerated. You’re thrown together. And you say you’ll keep in contact but once you get home things are different – the gap in space and time seems too big.
If you had to choose one song to be the soundtrack of your adventures, what would it be?
Depends on the terrain. When I was motorcycling I got a really cheap helmet and it had terrible wind noise. With the sound cranked up to full the only thing that would cut through was Bob Dylan on harmonica.
How has travel changed you, what impact has it had on you and your life?
I can’t imagine the person I would be not having travelled. Perhaps I would own my own house but I would still be much poorer. In another way, I think I would be more satisfied because it would be far easier to accept my life without the knowledge that out there was a myriad of other cultures and other stories waiting to happen.
I was 33 when I moved to Melbourne and everything I owned fit into a few boxes. I gave myself a two-year moratorium on travel to try and build something but I always found myself on google maps moving the window to somewhere exotic and trying to sound out the names. I really want to capture that feeling but here in my own country.
What would you say to someone thinking about travelling like you have, but maybe is too scared to do it?
I know that some of the places I have travelled are much harder for women than men – so that depends but I do know that my little sister has travelled further and to more intense places than I have and she’s fine – so do it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and who was it from?
From an old mate – don’t ever return to the same place to recapture what was there.
What has been the hardest thing you’ve come up against in your travels and how did you overcome it?
I spent 6 (SIX!) months trying to get approval for a space shuttle launch from an ex-Soviet launch pad in central Kazakhstan. I had everything booked including a 40-hour train trip there and then at the last minute, I received notice that I was not getting approval. I went anyway – and was arrested by the secret police, let go and made friends with an American with a motorcycle who took me in the desert to see the launch.
Do you know an inspiring real adventurer? I’m always looking for real travellers with interesting and inspiring stories to feature. Let me know in the comments below.
Phoebe Lee is a travel writer and award-winning blogger with a love for storytelling. Phoebe creates practical, fun and engaging written content designed to inspire and energise travel-lovers and dreamers. Follow her and Matt’s adventures at home and around the world, right here on Little Grey Box and through Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.