Traveling to Hell with Chuck Thompson

In 2008, I had the privilege of interviewing Chuck Thompson. Chuck is a very well known travel writer and one of the first interviews I ever did. I had just finished his book, “Smile When You’re Lying, and sent an off chance interview request to him. Surprisingly”, he agreed. Smile When You’re lying is a look at his adventures through the travel industry and its white washed picture perfect world. It’s a funny, witty, cynical book that is an amazing piece of writing. I laughed, I cried, I wished I could be a third of the writer he was.

Over the holidays, he sent me his new book, “To Hellholes and Back”. The book is about the four places he has always been too afraid to visit (Congo, India, Mexico City, and Disney World) and how he overcomes his fears by visiting them. Here’s what Chuck said about the book:

Nomadic Matt: What made you decide to write this book?
Chuck: Aside from money, which is always the most honest answer to this question, it occurred to me that in all my years of writing and reading about travel, I’d never seen a thoughtful treatment of the role fear and paranoia plays in travel. In significant ways, these things factor into all of our decisions about where or where not to book a trip.

Then there was the issue of reputations. How do some places get bad ones? Are they merited? If not, why do they have such a hard time shaking them? Is it all “the media’s” fault or are there other factors at play?

I’m also deeply annoyed by those fear-mongering State Department travel warnings about every third foreign country. Anytime I’ve ever gone to a place that I’ve been told was going to be dangerous or horrible, it’s turned out to be mostly great.

author chuck thompsonIs this book really just about you overcoming your travel fears?
Only partly. I mean, I really always have been intimidated by India and wary of doing heavy time in Africa. This was never a problem until after the success of “Smile,” when I began being introduced at events and in interviews as a “travel expert” or “travel guru.” What the hell kind of travel expert has never set foot in Africa or India? Or can’t face up to the largest city in North America (Mexico City)? These seemed like big holes in the resume.

However, and it’s a big however, I never thought a book that focused solely on me overcoming my fears was going to keep readers engaged for very long. So, I used that simply as the starting point and as a bit of subtext to get to the funnier stuff and a few larger themes that I found more interesting.

What’s the one takeaway you took from your “hellhole tour”?
That Mexico City is one of the coolest cities in the world and to bring your own toilet paper to Africa. That’s two takeaways. Always give ’em more than they asked for, that’s a good rule.

How did you pick these destinations? Was it simply because you hadn’t been there before? I assume you could have gone to other places that are equally as dangerous.
In the beginning I made a long list of presumed hellholes, places I had no interest in going or was even afraid of. Since I couldn’t get to them all, I whittled the list to a core group that represent a near-complete spread of traveler anxieties: the Congo, India, Mexico City, Disney World.

That fearsome foursome covers everything from honest to God danger and violence in the Congo to food poisoning and slumdog scams in India to pollution and kidnapping in Mexico City to baking in the Florida sun next to little Madisons and Coopers waiting to enter the Toontown Hall of Fame Tent. And, by the way, you want scary travel? Check out the shrieking and crying six-year-olds streaming out of that alleged attraction. I haven’t seen so much abject terror since the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan.

What advice do you have for other travelers regarding traveling to “dangerous” places or places they are simply afraid of?
No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be. You’d be surprised even in war zones how much normalcy there is. I’m not being cavalier here and I do recognize authentic exceptions. As I say in the book, I’m no war correspondent.

But wherever you have large populations, people go about their lives pretty much the way everyone else in the world does. They eat breakfast and go to work. They get their kids off to school. They go to the market. They go to church. They have dinner with their families. And, almost always, they love showing visitors the best parts of their countries, not the worst parts.

There’s an enormous pressure on travel writers and travelers in general to return from trips abroad with nothing but touchy feely accounts of beautiful and eye-opening foreign cultures from which we have so much to learn and this hands-across-the-sea twaddle about global brotherhood and amity.

Obviously, I don’t want to feel confined by that. I’m happy to call a spade a spade and if things suck, I don’t mind saying so. But, for the most part, it’s true that getting over your travel anxieties almost always pays off with extremely positive experiences and that cultural and personal enlightenment is a big reward to be found within all the hassles of travel.

And what do I say about the book? I liked hellholes. It’s written in Chuck’s style- funny, witty, cynical, off color, and charismatic. (I mean just look at his interview answers? Now imagine that as a whole book! Brilliant!) I was laughing all the way through. Unlike Chuck’s first book, this book felt like one of those travel books that tries to convey deep meaning about something. Usually, that’s boring but luckily Chuck’s writing style saves the book (and us) from boredom. He gives us the roughness that makes travel so challenging and amazing at the same time.

While I liked the book, I thought Smile When You’re lying was better. “Smile” was more a journey through the travel writing industry, with all its highs and lows and inside information. Maybe it was because I was just getting into travel writing that I found that book so interesting. Maybe it is because I read so many travel blogs, the impact of another travel story (“To Hellholes and Back”) wasn’t as exciting as it would be for the average person. Who knows! I still loved the book. Chuck Thompson is one of my all time favorite travel writers because, unlike so many out there, he doesn’t sugar coat travel or turn it into some esoteric path to enlightenment. He gives you the good and the bad and avoids cliches like “picture perfect” and “breathtaking.”

I recommend buying this book and his other book if you want some gritty, candid writing. But, as great as “To Hellholes and Back” is, Chuck’s first book was better. Then again, it could be because it’s more of my interest. “To Hellholes and Back” could be more your interest. Either way. Read them both. Thank me in the morning.

  1. Great interview, Matt. Now if only I can find the equivalent in female form. Any ideas for an interview? Gonzoesque female writers seem few and far between.

  2. Thanks for the review, Matt. I’ve been devouring travel writing lately and I’ve never heard of this book, so it’s going to the top of my to-read list.

  3. Yay! So glad that Chuck discovered that Mexico City is one of the coolest cities in the world. Having lived there two years, I absolutely agree, and wish I still lived there.

    Mexico City is easily the single-most underrated and overlooked destination on the planet. It’s an incredible, vibrant, cosmopolitan city where polar opposites of everything co-exist in relative equilibrium.

    If I had any other job than the one I had, it would be full-time evangelist for Mexico City.

  4. As I read the title I was really intrigue and interested, I thought its all about disastrous travel, but oh as I found it was very nice, very informative, by the way thanks for the interview.

  5. Its always been a pleasure to read him. Guys like him can never make you bored. His adventures inspire me to travel and find the goods from every place.

  6. Matt, you have me convinced. “To Hellholes and Back” is now officially on my books to read list, as is “Smile When You’re Lying”. But I do wonder, how is it possible to be afraid of visiting Disney World? I guess I find the answer in Chuck’s book.

  7. awesome interview! i actually just finished this book, and i thought it was great! i really liked the concept. i don’t know which one of his books I liked better though…I’ll have to re read Smile While You’re Lying. I’m going to see Chuck Thompson at a reading in a couple of weeks…should be good!

  8. Good interview Matt! I will have to add this book to the list to get me revved up before we leave. Strangely I just published the first post about vacationing in a really bad area that is in the middle of a drug war – Tijuana. I’ve got 4 more posts coming up on the subject. I know Chuck visited Mexico City but I wonder -did he visit TJ too? It’d be interesting to hear his thoughts compared to my own. Mexico in general has a bad rep but it’s an amazing country. Strangely I fell in love with Mexico before I even visited in person – my first “visit” was on the ride at Epcot Center when we went to Disney World many, many years ago.

  9. Thanks for a fantastic interview. I love the diversity of your blog–the book, place and food recommendations, the interviews, the videos. As a fellow traveller and blogger for the friends and family back home, I love getting ideas from how you approach blogging and travelling. Keep up the great work!

    – Johanna

  10. I just finished “Smile When You’re Lying” and really enjoyed it, especially his Theroux-hating chapter. I can’t stand how Theroux complains non-stop on every trip and then makes mucho bucks off the books he writes furthering his platform to complain. Thompson complains a bit too, but he knows how lucky he is to have such an amazing career and he keeps getting out there adding new insight into old locations. Great interview, I would love to see more travel book reviews and interviews!

  11. I fell into a fit of laughter when I read Chuck’s list of hellholes – Congo and Disney World, in the same list? That’s hilarious. Surprisingly, Disney World is the one place in that list I wouldn’t want to go to, so maybe that IS fear I feel when I shudder at the thought of queueing for the pink elephant ride…

  12. Matt that’s a great interview. I’ve read both of his books now and agree that Smile edges out Hellholes. Either way, I’m a huge Chuck Thompson fan. He’s one of the few authors that makes me laugh out loud while reading. I thought Hellholes started out strong and faded by the time he got to Disney World. I would still recommend both books highly though. Thanks for the great interview.

    P.S. I also just linked to you from my blog, on the ‘What I’m Reading Now’ page.

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