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Weird travel is visiting places that other people try to leave or places that are not usually thought of as tourist destinations. Adam Fletcher talks about North Korea, the unexpected beauty of Chernobyl, a tuk-tuk race across India, and the death rituals of Sulawesi, as well as the peculiarities of being British, and how to notice the unique weirdness of your own country, wherever that is.
Adam Fletcher is the best-selling author of Weird Travel books and humorous memoirs, including Don’t Go There, Don’t Come Back, and Tuk-Tuk for Two. You can find all his books on Amazon.
- What is weird travel — and why is it a different way to approach the world?
- How travel can help us notice strange things about our own culture — and a discussion on being British
- Travel in North Korea
- Questioning the morality of travel to places where the money goes to a regime you might not want to support
- Weighing the danger of a trip against the desire for something unique
- Respecting a culture’s rules, even if you don’t agree with them
- Learning to tune into the weird and unusual in every place
- Driving 1000km in India in a tuk-tuk race
- Recommended travel books
You can find Adam Fletcher at Adam-Fletcher.co.uk and his books on Amazon.
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Adam Fletcher is the best-selling author of Weird Travel books and humorous memoir, including Don’t Go There, Don’t Come Back, and Tuk-Tuk for Two. Welcome, Adam.
Adam: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jo: I’m excited to talk about this topic.
What is weird travel and what drew you to write about these kinds of places?
Adam: Weird travel is kind of my term, and the more common term for this genre is probably something like ‘dark tourism,’ which I think has a kind of negative spin that I don’t really like. So, I guess it’s going to places that other people are trying to leave, would probably be how I would describe it, or places that are not kind of primarily thought of as being tourist destinations.
Jo: What drew you to this topic?
Adam: I grew up in one of those places, which is an extremely unremarkable, small, market town in Norfolk, in the southeast of England, that was actually featured in this book, Crap Towns, I remember. I always had the feeling that this is a strange place, and I don’t really understand it, and they don’t really seem to understand me.
As soon as I’m old enough, I’m going to leave this place and try to understand what is odd about it, and if the rest of the world works the same way or not. And maybe it’s like that thing about if you only speak one language, you don’t really know how any languages work. I think it’s a bit like that with cultures.
If you only know one culture, you don’t really know anything about culture, or how your culture works. You’ll be like the fish swimming along that doesn’t know you’re in water. Because I think as soon as I could leave, which was basically straight after uni, I then started traveling, and that gave me the distance to get a look at British culture, and myself, and more of a feeling for why I didn’t fit so well in that place.
I just got really interested in edge cases, and strange places. I guess we’re storytellers so we know the power of story to unite a group of people around a shared belief, and mobilize them. And I’m interested in what happens when people take that tool and use it for bad instead of good.
Jo: That’s really interesting. You do actually have a book, Understanding the British, which doesn’t come so much under your ‘Weird Travel’ brand. It’s travel writing. And you, of course, you are British, but you live in Germany now. You mentioned there that you left because you didn’t feel like you fit.
What do you see as weird about the British, since I’m also British?
Adam: I could talk probably all day about the British, but I also don’t want to get too political because I’ll switch off your listeners. I think we’re definitely quite a weird bunch. And there’s a very strong sense of myth of exceptionalism about the British, that we’ve never really confronted our dark past.
Maybe living in Germany, this is a country that’s definitely done that, and maybe it’s gone too far in the other direction, where they really hated themselves for a really long time and could not see that they were doing any good. And the British, it’s the opposite.
We’ve never really looked at any bad that we’ve done in the past, so we never really look any of the bad that we do in the present. There’s a lot of division, and you saw that with Brexit, and there’s a lot of division between the old and the young, and the North and the South, and people who own their home versus people who rent their home.
It’s a weirdly divided place, that on the surface is incredibly friendly, and yet there’s a whole lot of stuff happening in subtext, which is very hard to understand if you go there, I think, maybe as a foreigner or as a tourist, what’s going on.
Jo: It’s funny you mentioned subtext. I interviewed a Finnish author, Helena Halme, and she said, ‘What’s weird about England is I say something, and someone will say, “Oh, yes, we’ll definitely do that,” and what they actually mean is, “No, we never will. I never want to see you again.” ‘
It really made me laugh because we get it. So much of our communication is subtext. And it’s interesting because, not to get into relationships, but I found when I was trying to date in other cultures that so much of the romantic language in the UK is body language, is subtext. It was very hard to date in other cultures, but clearly, you’ve managed that.
Adam: Oh, for sure. My partner is German. I’m really careful what questions I ask her, because the answer I get will always be always completely honest. And I think in Britain that wouldn’t be that way. Often the recipient of the question would understand what you’re looking for. And what you’re looking for is not always necessarily the truth.
What you’re looking for sometimes is a comforting lie. And I think in Germany, the concept of a comforting lie doesn’t really exist. And so I have to be always very careful what I ask, because I will always get the truth, and the truth sometimes, it hurts.
There’s a good expression I heard, I think it was from a BBC journalist, which was that…let me see if I can remember it now, ‘The Germans are too honest to be nice, and the British are too nice to be honest.’
Jo: Yes. And actually, therefore are not nice, I suppose.
Adam: On the surface level, they’re nice. But you just never know what’s going on in the background.
There’s an ideal of Britishness. And not only do we sell that to the world, there’s this sort of Beatles, Wimbledon, tea-drinking, saying sorry, being nice ideal of Britishness. I feel like we sell that to the world, but we also sell it to ourselves. We get that propaganda a lot.
I’m actually not totally convinced that it has really that much place in modern Britain, which seems to be a slightly more divided, less friendly place than the ideal. I don’t know how often we’re able to live up to the ideal.
Jo: I live in Bath, in the southwest, which is obviously full of brilliant stereotypes, including lots of Jane Austen fans in bonnets. And now we’ve got the ‘Bridgerton’ tea shops. But also now we have a ‘Frankenstein’ museum, thankfully, because of course, Mary Shelley lived here. But it’s interesting because it’s exactly that.
It is this one level, the stereotype, of England. And then, on the other hand, we’ve got ‘Frankenstein’ on the corner over there. I really like that.
Let’s come back to weird travel because I feel like this is places you want to leave, is a good idea. So, you’ve got a lot of books, and you’ve written about a lot of the places that you’ve traveled.
What are some of the places that stick out in your mind as especially weird, and do live up to that reputation as strange?
Adam: I guess the one that people are most interested in, and the strangest place I’ve been, is definitely North Korea. Most people have an idea about North Korea, and that it’s the hermit kingdom. And the most successful cult of personality is in North Korea, and which propaganda has permeated every aspect of the daily life of the 25 million or so people that live there. And that’s from this one family, the Kims, usually referred to as the ‘Dear Leaders’ when you’re there.
This is a place in which you, as a tourist, you have absolutely no freedom, where you have an itinerary, and that begins at maybe 7 a.m. in the morning and might end at maybe 8 p.m. at night.
You have no control about where you go, and you have no control about what you see, and you have little control even about what you talk about when you’re going to these places. Basically, you just tour a wide variety of Dear Leader statues and monuments, and then are told terrible propaganda stories about all of the glorious achievements of the Kims.
So I guess that was definitely the strangest place, and also one of the least pleasant places that I ever visited, I would say.
Jo: Why was it less pleasant? Is it because you felt just uneasy? Or was it actually the food was terrible, the place was ugly, you know? What was it actually like there?
Adam: I think the places themselves, it’s just very Soviet, I would say. It’s a lot of pomp, and it’s a lot of big buildings, and large monuments, and huge squares, and everything is designed to make you feel as small and insignificant as possible, so that you would not dare in any way ever to try to stand up to the might of the state. And in fact, that, as a feeling, is not nice.
As humans, we tend to be more comfortable and more drawn to small places, where you can see and feel the edges and narrow cobbled streets. That’s what you don’t get in North Korea.
The more uncomfortable thing is that you have two guides who follow you at all times. One guide is checking on the other guide, and one guide is guiding you and telling you about the country.
But a lot of the time, I had the feeling they also didn’t believe the things that they were saying to me. They probably had enough contact with foreigners over time, or had read some of the things we were carrying. Our guide was sometimes reading our ‘Lonely Planet on North Korea’ while we were traveling there with them.
They probably had more of a sense of the world than the average North Korean, and knew that a lot of the stories they were telling us were not true. I think that’s uncomfortable, if everyone is taking part in the lie, and can’t say that it’s a lie, that’s a hell.
Jo: It seems odd to me that they would even allow visitors in like that, or is it to maintain this facade that it’s open in some way? Do they welcome visitors?
Adam: It’s often because of the sanctions that they’re actually really desperate for foreign cash. I think there was about 25,000 tourists a year. So it’s a very tiny amount of tourists. But we were valuable to them because we brought in foreign cash.
I was there quite a few years ago, almost maybe 2015, 2016. And I’ve heard that Kim Jong-un has widened the tourist program, and there’s now significantly more tourists coming every year, and that they’re a really important source of foreign cash, which you have to think about the morality of going there or not, and if you want to give regimes like that money, and I’ve never really come down to a good answer on that.
Jo: This is a really good question, the morality of travel. And it’s a tough one, too, in places that some people would call developing countries.
I went to a school in Malawi, in Central Africa, where people are very poor, and healthcare is very different. And there were questions about whether as a white person you should be living there, and on the other side, in an ex-pat community with swimming pools, and things like that, and whether that’s good, because it brings in money, or if it’s actually just colonialist and terrible.
Although this was back in the ’80s, so that wasn’t really discussed. But it’s the same with what you’re talking about.
With the morality of traveling now, is it better to go to developing places and bring money in and try and support local people, or not have that attitude?
I don’t know. What do you think now?
Adam: I’d also be very interested to hear what conclusions you’ve come to, because this is an issue that I still struggle with. But I guess I have certain guiding principles, which is that the world is made better through exchange, and that’s the exchange between people, usually in the form of stories.
There’s less prejudice, and less stereotypes are able to grow and fester, and ignorance can fester only when we’re not in contact with each other. And so that’s how I justify it to myself without knowing really if that is correct or not. What conclusions did you come to from your experiences in Malawi?
Jo: Well, I was going to school in Malawi, so I didn’t really think about it then. But now, I feel like I want to travel to more and more places. Absolutely, I think travel is so important. In fact, as we were saying, with the divisions in the world, I think the best things are to get to know people of different cultures.
Your partner is German, my husband is a New Zealand Hungarian Jew, my sister-in-law’s Nigerian. We have this multicultural family, and you only get to be with people as romantic partners if you travel and are open to other cultures. I feel that’s the same with traveling in general.
If you go with the attitude of understanding, as opposed to the attitude of, ‘I am a tourist. Serve me,’ that’s maybe the difference.
Adam: I think it so enriches your understanding of your own culture, and that’s somehow also overlooked from travel. I don’t think I would understand my upbringing and my programming if I hadn’t spent so much time abroad.
Jo: Yes, and it’s funny. Just back on Bath again, before the pandemic, we would get coach loads of Chinese tourists every day, rocking up, and they will come off the coach, and take pictures of British people in bonnets, standing next to the tourist bits.
That was great, because that’s exactly what we British people go to other countries and take pictures of people in stereotypical situations. So, I do want to say, it also happens the other way. Plenty of people come to our country and assume stereotypes. I like that Chinese people are coming to Bath, and think we all wear bonnets. It’s brilliant.
Adam: Yeah, I would love to hear the stories they tell when they go back to China about what England is like.
Jo: Even like this, again, this was before the pandemic when they were coming, and none of them had cash. They would try and buy a coffee with WeChat. And they must just think we were so backward.
Adam: The whole world runs on WeChat.
Jo: They were like, ‘Oh, my goodness, these people in Bath, they’re just ancient.’
Adam: With their dirty paper money!
Jo: Coming back on weird places, you have this really interesting chapter on Chernobyl, which is somewhere I’m quite fascinated with. Because in a way, obviously, there’s the danger because of the radiation, but what I’ve heard is that nature is taking the place back.
What was Chernobyl like?
Adam: It’s really like a wildlife sanctuary, which is not what I expected from Chernobyl. And of course, you can go to Pripyat, the town where most of the workers were, and they had to leave with, I think, just two or three hours notice, so a lot of the town is as it was, the bits that haven’t been looted. So, there’s that side of it.
The park itself is a really awesome nature reserve in which everything is poisonous. So on the one side, it’s incredibly lush, but on the other side, you would never eat an apple that you find growing on a tree.
It was definitely not what I expected in that there were lots of animals, horses and dogs running around, and deer, and I can’t remember what other animals we saw. But there was really a sense of, okay, nature’s taken this back over, and it’s in a way incredibly harmonious now that this nuclear power plant that we built there and scarred the land with isn’t working anymore.
Jo: In these times of environmental difficulty, that gives me hope. I love the Chernobyl story because of this. It’s like we destroyed it. We poisoned it. And within a few generations, nature has taken it back, and is just getting on with it, really.
Jo: One of the interesting things, of course, is like you mentioned, everything is dangerous there.
How do you weigh up the danger of a particular trip with the desire for something unique?
Adam: I think Chernobyl is not especially dangerous. We had Geiger counters in the group that I was in, and you can watch and move around and see how the needle moves. It depends greatly on what surfaces you’re on.
Asphalt doesn’t really retain radiation, but then you could move off the asphalt, and move into the wooded areas, and you would see that it would be 10 times as high. But it’s still very low. If you’re just there for a day, it’s not really dangerous.
I remember my guide at the time told me that you get more radiation on a flight. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve chosen to believe it.
I definitely don’t consider myself an adventure traveler. I’m really interested in specific places for specific reasons. And it’s really usually around propaganda, or unique forms of government, or someone’s trying something weird.
I have a chapter on Liberland in Don’t Go There, which is a group of people trying to create their own country on an island in the Danube. That’s really interesting to me, and very safe. Although, actually, we could get stopped by Croatian police boats. But in general, it’s very safe.
I have all of the privileges that make travel as safe as it can be. I’m a large, white male heterosexual, with English as a native language, who’s also middle class. I feel like there’s a lot of things I don’t have to worry about that other people would have to worry about. And I’m cognizant of that, and I’m very lucky that I can travel largely safely.
I’ve been in so many countries by now that I don’t really fear the average person.
The average person everywhere is awesome. It’s only regimes that I fear. And so I’m careful about which regimes I go to.
There are places like North Korea which I don’t think are really very dangerous as tourists, because the rules are so clear. And then there are other countries I’ve been, like, I was in Iran recently, where I didn’t feel safe because the rules were less obvious.
I also have a German passport, so I was there on my German passport, and there was a bit of a spat between Iran and Germany at that time. And then you start to get worried, because then you say, ‘Okay, this regime seems to apply its rules very arbitrarily, and I could become a bargaining chip between these two nations.’
There’s a good example of the guy in North Korea, what was his name? Otto Warmbier was an American guy in North Korea, who stole a propaganda poster, actually, from the hotel I stayed at when I was there. And I think mostly because he was American, he became a very useful bargaining chip because the relations between the two countries were really in a bad state at that time. That was before Trump.
I feel like maybe as an American, I would be careful about going to North Korea, or maybe slightly less now because Trump seemed to have made friends.
I’m not sure what Biden’s stance on North Korea is, but things definitely improved. But I feel like it’s definitely worth looking at the relations between your two countries, so, where you’re going and where you came from, and seeing, okay, can I become a bargaining chip here? Because I definitely fear regimes more than I fear the people that I’ll meet, who have been uniformly fantastic everywhere I’ve ever been.
Jo: Although, of course, it is people who put the regime rules into practice.
Adam: That’s true.
Jo: I agree with you. And I think that this also comes down to respect, which is just as true in a safe country as it is in a more dangerous one, in that if you abide by the social rules.
For example, when I traveled on my own as a woman in the Middle East, I would cover my head a lot, I wore a wedding ring when I wasn’t married. I made sure everything was very modest. I behaved in a way that I thought was appropriate for the culture.
Some people would arrive on coaches wearing little shorts, or clothing and attitude, respect for the culture. Even if you don’t agree with it, you still have to live like that while you’re there, right?
Adam: Of course. By going there, you’re agreeing to play by their rules for the duration of your stay. I feel like that’s a contract I make with that country when I agree to go there, is that I will respect their culture, and I will behave in accordance with that culture, regardless of why and what I think about it. And then I’ll go away and write horrible things about it, and then never go back.
Jo: This is the interesting thing. I feel like because of social media, which has obviously got a lot worse, people are used to saying what they think, even when that might be really culturally insensitive. So, probably don’t post that thing on Instagram while you’re in the country.
Adam: Yes. I would also be worried these days that your social media is checked. Things you said in the past could come back to haunt you when you arrive in that country at immigration. I would also be worried about that. Maybe as a travel writer I’m more nervous now than the average person.
Jo: Most people listening, including myself, we’re not going to go to these places that you go to. But I do think that it is important, and one of the principles of safe travel, is just abiding by the rules of the place.
I don’t know if you saw, as we record this, there was a shark attack in Western Australia, on a beach. And when I was in WA, I remember people saying to me, ‘You don’t go swimming over there because there’s really big great white sharks.’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, okay. That sounds fine to me.’
There are stereotypes all over the world, right?
Have you been to places that had a reputation or a stereotypical thing of being weird, but actually didn’t turn out that way?
Adam: That is a very good question. I don’t think so. I feel like everywhere is weird. And if you can’t see its weirdness, that’s probably more a failure of your own imagination or attention than that the place itself is normal. And that’s mostly just because humans are pretty weird, and our cultures all had to optimize for something.
We’ve made trade-offs. Every culture has made trade-offs. And that leaves it strong in some areas, but weak in others. It’s often in that area of weakness that the weirdness comes in. You just realize, ‘Okay, this country just works really differently than the country where I’m from. In this country, it’s all about religion, or it’s all about the family, and this like extended family networks are everything’.
Jo: But then, as you said, maybe that’s because of your attention and you’re noticing these things. How can the rest of us tune into what’s weird?
How do you go about changing your attitude to travel so that you notice these weird things?
Adam: I think the story is a really huge part of it for me. I feel like I’m really trying to meet as many people as possible. I’ve always been a huge fan of couch surfing, which is basically gone now. Staying with locals where possible, and then you’re observing them in their natural environment and natural habitat, and you have a lot of time with them. And then any pretense at normalcy will fall away by hour four in someone’s company.
And that’s also in my case as well. You can have this veneer of normalcy for a little while, but eventually, the cracks will come through, and you’ll see each other’s idiosyncrasies, and you start getting all of these stories. And it’s often you don’t know until you’re asking enough questions, you don’t know what is…or they don’t know what is interesting about their own culture.
It takes time to tease out this stuff. I always travel for long periods of time, and move slowly. I might spend three months in a country, and maybe only go to three places. And so that I’m really spending time there. And that’s, of course, again, a real luxury and privilege that I can do that. But yeah, I guess that’s pretty much it.
Jo: Anything that you notice that you think that’s different to my culture and why might that be, I think is always an interesting question.
Adam: Yeah, that’s a great chain of thought. And I think that will leave you really interesting places. When you start asking them about that, it’s often that they don’t know also that the rest of the world doesn’t work that way, like the Chinese people with WeChat.
I feel like then it’s really interesting to explore with them, with the people that you’re staying with, why their culture works that way. What has it optimized for? And what are the advantages of that, versus what the British culture is optimized for, or German culture is optimized for? And what does that cost us?
In the example of subtext, it costs us a huge amount of mental energy to try to work out what is really being communicated. I remember when I settled in Germany that at some point I was no longer thinking before I spoke. And I hadn’t been aware that I was thinking before I spoke before. It was only somehow living here long enough that I noticed this just went away.
When I lived in Britain, I don’t know if all British people do this, but I would often think about what I was saying, and if there was a way that it could be misconstrued or offend the person I was talking to. Because we have such a value around being nice, and not ruffling feathers and offending people.
It was incredibly freeing to notice that I’m no longer doing that. I trust German culture, that if I get in a conflict, the other person will tell me directly what I have done wrong, and we will discuss that, and to the point of which of mutual satisfaction, or we will just have an argument and go our separate ways and never talk again. But it will come to a head.
Whereas in England, it would be more like my mum would tell me five years after I did something wrong that I did it wrong, and that it hurt her.
Jo: Oh yeah, holding a grudge for a generation.
Adam: She’s been carrying this thing for five years. And I feel like, ‘Why?’ That has not benefited me in any way. We could have wrapped that up in an afternoon, and you’ve been stuck with that all of this time.
Jo: I completely get that. In my own family, there are these feuds that have gone on for 30 years, and I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ But it’s also interesting.
I said my husband is Jewish. Sometimes, I’m like, ‘I don’t want to argue about this.’ And he’s like, ‘We’re not arguing. We’re having a discussion.’ And of course, in the Jewish culture, they discuss everything. Everybody will have a long discussion about something, and everyone jumps in and has it, and then it’s all over.
Like you say, it’s just we move on. And I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t want to offend you. Don’t want to talk about it that way.’ I’ve learned that this is just a cultural difference between us, and what I see as an argument he just sees as a discussion.
Adam: Yeah. And it feels to me that the Jewish frame might be healthier.
Jo: Completely. But as you say, it’s very hard to, even if you recognize it in yourself, it’s very hard to change your cultural upbringing.
Adam: Oh, for sure. This stuff is so deep.
Jo: I do want to ask about India, because, talking of cultural differences, when I was doing a cycling trip down the west of India, and our bus driver sometimes, if you got tired, you could get in the bus. And every morning, our bus driver would pray, and he was very devout. I asked him about what he was praying for, and it was if we all died, we would get…
Adam: To not crash.
Jo: Yeah, well, not to crash, but if we died, then we’d all go to the right place, and all this, and he was just lovely.
Adam: Very interesting that he didn’t pray to stay alive.
Jo: Exactly. And that’s why it’s interesting, right?
Tell us about Tuk-Tuk for Two because I think Indian driving is one of the craziest things on the planet.
Adam: Definitely. I’m not sure I’ve been anywhere with worse driving than India. And the only thing that saves it from complete calamity is the congestion. When the crash has happened, you’re going so slow that it’s more like the whole country is more like a giant, open-air dodgems experiment. It’s saved by the fact that you’re rarely above 30 kilometers an hour.
I did a tuk-tuk race, which was 1,000 kilometers in five days. Which doesn’t sound that much, but it’s India, so you’re very rarely going at all. And when you are going, you’re often going no more than 30 kilometers an hour. So I think actually, we averaged 12 hours of driving a day to get it done, which was incredibly exhausting, and terrifying. I got terror fatigue.
I don’t know if I knew that terror fatigue existed. At some point we were having so many near-crashes, or near-death experiences, that I just entered some sort of Zen state, where I didn’t really feel terror at that anymore.
But I think with travel, I often divide things between present fun and retrospective fun. And this race was retrospective fun. It’s something that I enjoy having done, rather than I enjoyed doing.
Jo: You say the terror. I’ve been in tuk-tuks in India, but for people who might not have had that experience, you mentioned how slow things are. I remember the animals in the road, things on vehicles that should not be on vehicles.
Adam: Oh, for sure. And the biggest vehicle always has right of way. This is Indian traffic rules. And a tuk-tuk is, other than a scooter, the tuk-tuk is always the smallest vehicle. So you never have right of way, basically, at any moment.
You’d be driving along normally, and then there’s this bus that comes up alongside you, and will automatically expect you to slow down so that it can pull back in if it wants to. And it knows where the stops are, but you don’t. If there’s a stop just in front of you, it will just swerve immediately in front of you, and then slam on its brakes, and then you’ll have to react, and you’ll have a very tiny amount of time to do that.
Lorries seem to have priority over buses, although they’re often of a similar size. And sometimes you’ll have it that you’re being overtaken by a bus at the precise moment that a lorry has decided it wants to overtake the bus, and so you’re blocking three lanes, even though there is only one lane going in your direction. It’s just stuff like this.
They already warned us, because there are cows wandering around, often with bells, so you get some warning that there’s a cow coming. But the organizers of the race already told us, if you kill a cow, they will kill you. And so, we’re also terrified of crashing into a cow and being the victims of some sort of holy mob justice for killing the sacred cow. It was terrifying, but in some ways wonderful, now that I survived it.
Jo: Being British, we have a lot of Indian culture in the UK. And I feel very at home in India. I just felt very comfortable. I like the food as well.
Adam: Oh, the food is incredible.
Jo: It is, isn’t it? I’m probably the only person who cycled through India for three weeks and put on weight. I just ate so much good food. But one of the kind of, maybe weird in terms of not like our culture, a place in India would be Varanasi, with the burning ghats, the burning of the bodies, and death culture. You mentioned dark tourism at the beginning, is absolutely fascinating.
Are there places you’ve been where death is treated very differently?
Adam: There was one place in Don’t Come Back, the Tana Toraja, which is a tribe that’s on Sulawesi, which is an island in Indonesia. And they have very unusual death customs, in that they save their entire lives in order to afford an enormous, multi-day ceremony funeral, in which you have to sacrifice a certain number of buffalo. I think it was 21, or 23, or 24 buffalo, which might cost you $50,000, which is a huge amount of money in Indonesia.
This is the only way to go to heaven. And until you have sacrificed a buffalo, your soul lives in Purgatory, where it haunts the remaining family in this life with bad luck. I’d say that’s incredibly weird.
People are constantly getting into debt, or saving their entire lives to be able to afford to buy this certain number of buffalo so that they can go to heaven and not haunt their families and bring them bad luck.
I went to one of these funerals, which is lasting five days. And you can see them there slaughtering all of the Buffalo, and there’s a big feast that takes place, and a lot of special dancing. Not only buffaloes, but you also have to have a life-size wooden effigy of yourself, called a Tao Tao.
Jo: That comes back to respect, because that does sound crazy to us, but humans are humans, right? And humans generally will find a reason to believe what they believe. And we have the same thing.
The pandemic has been fascinating to see what stories have emerged from different areas that in some ways sound absolutely crazy, but presumably make sense to some other people. It’s difficult, isn’t it, for you to see all those buffalo being slaughtered, and people believing that. It seems strange, but I presume they took it very seriously. It wasn’t a joke.
Adam: They took it extremely seriously. I think it was more the debt that they were putting themselves in that was so hard to accept. A British person might splunk 30K on a wedding and think nothing of it. I haven’t looked recently what the average wedding costs in the UK, but I can’t imagine it’s less than 20,000 pounds. It’s probably more than that, huh?
Jo: Yes. Or in America, $100,000 on a degree.
Adam: Yeah. And so, I think it’s almost always about status and expressions of status. And in the UK, we would do it on a wedding, and they’re doing it on a funeral. But at that funeral, enormous social interaction is happening behind the scenes, that I’m not privy to as a foreigner, but that’s where a lot of marriages will come out of those funerals.
That’s where the community is all coming together, and this tight-knit bonding is taking place. And we’re displaying our status at a wedding, and they’re displaying their status through funerals. It’s not really that different.
Jo: I just checked the news before we got on the phone, but Paris Hilton has got married. I’m not sure what number wedding that is, but it has all these descriptions of her five-day wedding, and all the different outfits she wore. And like you say, it is, it’s about status, and all of that in different societies.
Goodness, we could talk for ages. I’m just fascinated by all this. Now, your book’s fantastic.
Apart from your books, what are a few other books that you recommend about weird travel or dark travel, or just travel in general?
Adam: I had to look through, because I don’t actually read that much travel, but there are a few that are travel-adjacent, which I would love to recommend. The first is Tracks by Robyn Davidson, which is a pretty old book. It’s from 1990.
It’s about a woman who decides that she wants to cross the Outback on her own, with camels. And so she has to first learn about how to look after camels, and then she’s spending time with Aborigines, and then she goes off on this quest to travel, I think, 1,700 miles she travels across the Outback with her camels. And it’s hilarious and heartbreaking, and many, many other emotions.
Jo: I read that before I went to Australia. In the year 2000, I left the UK and went to Australia, and was gone 11 years. But I read that book before I left, along with The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. Those were the books that sent me to Australia, basically.
Adam: Oh, they’re both terrific. Yeah. And the second one is by a British journalist called Will Storr, and it’s a book called The Heretics. The subtitle is, Adventures with the Enemies of Science.
In this one, it has a somewhat similar format to Don’t Go There, in which each chapter in my case, it was a different place, and in his, it’s a different set of beliefs, or a different strange belief. And he goes and spends time with those people, which often involves travel of some kind, and then he writes about where they got their beliefs from, and how what holding that belief cost them. Often, it cost them a lot, hence the ‘Enemies of Science’ part of it. It’s just a really terrific book, like all these books.
And the third one is Stasiland by Anna Funder. And this is about the Stasi, so, the East German secret police, and she was, if I remember it right… It’s been a few years. This one came out in 2003. I think she’s also Australian. Anyway, she was a young person living here, who spoke German.
It was after the fall of the wall, and she was working for one of the broadcasting companies, and noticed that no one was collecting stories about the East German experience with the Stasi. I think she put an ad in a newspaper, asking for anyone who wanted to talk about what happened to them at the hands of the Stasi, and just started collecting these stories, and that became this book, Stasiland. And it’s just a really, really incredible book that taught me a lot about East Germany.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Adam: You can find me at your local friendly Amazon store. I’m exclusive to them, at least for the ‘Weird Travel’ stuff. You can just search Adam Fletcher on Amazon, and you will find me.
Jo: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Adam. That was great.
Adam: It was a pleasure.
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