This week we’re introducing a new interview series to the site – but with a difference!
As travellers with creativity as the core, we’ve chosen to dig deeper into the how our friends and other fellow travel bloggers search for architecture, art, design and music during their around-the-world journeys.
So, let’s begin with our first interview in our new series called ‘Create/Travel‘
Hi, 20 Years Hence! Though we’ve come to know and love the both of you since we met at the beginning of this year, some of our readers haven’t been quite so lucky, so:
1. Who are you and why do you travel?
We are Steph & Tony! We’re a married writer & photographer who are in our early 30s who left our life in Nashville, TN back in August 2012 with dreams of traveling through Asia and Europe and having the adventure of a lifetime. We were originally supposed to be gone for a year, 18 months tops, while we figured out what we really want to do with our lives and where we want to live. With 15 months under our belt and no signs of stopping any time soon, the one thing we know for sure is that we want to keep on living a life of travel!
As for why we travel, the glib answer to the question is that we want to eat our way around the world while avoiding the need for bottoms with elasticized waists. And while it is true that food is one of our great motivators and we love seeking out local cuisines, the hunt for our next great meal isn’t really what keeps us going. For us, travel is about more than ticking off items from our bucket list (we don’t even have one!) or collecting stamps in our passports. No, we travel to form connections, to learn about things bigger than ourselves, to tell stories, and to live our best lives. Traveling is the one thing that allows us to feel simultaneously that the world is incredibly huge—because of its diversity and all the possibilities each country represents—and impossibly small—because even on the other side of the planet, when you find yourself surrounded by new friends, it feels like home—and it’s hard to think of something more extraordinary than that.
Having spent more than a little of our time together enjoying great food in Taiwan and Malaysia both Franca and I know that enjoying local and ethnic food is your deepest travel passion.
2. Is there one food experience that you’ll never ever forget (good or bad)?
Steph: It’s easy to remember the bad food experiences, even though I am happy to report that they are generally few and far between. However, one recent experience in Nepal will probably haunt me for the rest of my days: during the autumn, Nepal experiences tons of festivals and celebrations, so one night while out to dinner, the restaurant we were dining at told us they had specially prepared some buffalo in honor of the evening’s festivities and asked us if we would like to try some. We both eagerly said yes and popped a morsel of the meat into our mouths. The meat was much softer than I had anticipated and felt a bit like it was exploding into my mouth, having the texture of a pâté, or perhaps even a pudding, and had a faintly metallic flavor. It was unexpected, but not altogether unpleasant. Once we had both swallowed, the men at the restaurant smiled widely at us and revealed that we had just eaten buffalo brain!
Now, I am an adventurous eater and there are only a handful of items that I have proclaimed I don’t ever want to try; brain—or any other part of the central nervous system, for that matter—is at the very top of the list. Once we were told what we had just tried, my eyes went wide as a rushing tide of panic began to rise within me, but I tried to stop myself from doing something to offend the men who had so generously offered us part of this feast. I gave them a watery smile and mumbled something about it being very good, but as soon as they left, I downed a big cup of local rice wine (I guess I was hoping that the alcohol might terminate any killer viruses swirling in my belly?) and then tormented Tony for the rest of the evening about how we were probably going to turn into zombies with an insatiable craving for human flesh and brains. Thankfully, the rice wine seemed to do the trick and I survived to walk amongst the living for another day!
As for good food experiences, happily most countries in Asia have incredible local cuisine. But I think one meal that will be hard to ever top and goes down as one of my all-time best meals is one we shared with a new friend in Hualien, Taiwan: she took us to an aboriginal restaurant that focused on using ingredients unique to the region. Not only did this mean that every dish we had involved something we had never heard of, but everything we tried was out of this world. Each dish tasted utterly unlike anything I had ever tasted, definitely not like other Chinese or Taiwanese food we had tried. It was a very special and surprising meal… but this time in a good way!
Tony: First the good: We were in a small town in south Vietnam called Phan Rang. We’d just gotten in for the night and were looking for some dinner, but were feeling pretty wiped out from the day’s travel, so we weren’t in the mood to wander very far. We took a left out of the front door of our hotel and stopped at the first food stall we found, literally six steps from the hotel. It was a little pho (beef soup) stall, and for 25,000 dong, I got a bowl of pho that changed my life. It still ranks as one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, it was so good that I got seconds and we came back for breakfast the next day. The lady running the stall was totally knocked out by how much we loved her soup, and was so delighted that she asked for a picture with us.
Now the bad: Durian. I’ve just never had a really good experience with it, and without much effort, I can easily recall the rancorous odor of rotten onions and fetid socks that accompanies the oddly creamy—yet fibrous—texture of the fruit. It’s really only the smallest portion of the overall experience that ruins durian for me, but that small portion ruins it so hard that I’ll never really forget the experiences I’ve had.
You know that we’ve several things we like to enjoy during our travels, from food, to laughs and unusual experiences; but above all else, we love searching for unusual architecture, art, design and (on occasion) music.
3. Has there been any architecture during your travel that gave you a real ‘WOW!’ factor?
Steph: I know you guys weren’t big fans of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but what I think might just be my all-time favorite building stands in that city! And no, it’s not the Petronas Towers (though those are nice). It’s a building called Komplex Dayabumi. Completed in 1984, it’s one of the oldest skyscrapers in the city and was constructed in the modern Islamic style. I must have at least 30 pictures of this building because I just find it so captivating that literally every time we walked by it, I would stop and stare and wonder what such a magnificent building could hold within. So frequent were my stops (and my photos), they soon became a running joke with Tony. Alas, despite its elegant and striking façade, I was disappointed to discover it just contains offices and other commercial retail space inside. Doesn’t make me love the outside any less, though!
I will say that in general, this trip has really made me appreciate Islamic architecture. Whether it’s mosques or secular buildings, I just find that these buildings have such an eye for detail and have an undeniable grandeur about them. While in Kuala Lumpur, we visited the Islamic Arts Museum, which is possibly one of my favorite museums I’ve ever been to (and I am not a museum person!). It had a great collection and a wonderful permanent exhibition highlighting the architecture of major mosques throughout Asia; I was completely spellbound and wound up adding about 10 destinations to my travel wish list as a result!
Tony: There has been a lot of architecture I have enjoyed, for a lot of different reasons. Seeing the Marina Bay Sands casino in Singapore was pretty cool. I remember when it was first being proposed, and the renderings made their way across the internet. For a while I didn’t really believe it would end up being a real building, with its crazy infinity pool way above the city, it all seemed impossible and very far away. So, walking through the actual hotel was a reminder of how we never know where life can take us.
The black Temple in Chiang Rai was also really interesting, and very visually arresting. I know it’s more of an art installation, but some of the structures were so massive that they definitely fall into the architecture category as well.
I’m with Steph on KL: it has some great buildings. I really liked the old train station, and the building for the KTMB headquarters. Both are contemporary Moorish masterpieces of minarets, onion domes and colonnaded walkways. KL has a lot of hidden gems of colonial and Muslim architecture and it was really nice to turn a corner and see some great building, or shell of a building, that you might have missed if you turned the other way. For a city whose name means “muddy confluence,” it’s visually very interesting.
Whilst we searched for great art in Asia we found it could truly be hit and miss in many countries where there’s no strong culture for emerging artists and many we spoke with felt that they had to travel to Europe to establish themselves.
4. Have there been any instances where you were dazzled by the local traditional arts of a country?
Steph: At the risk of ending our friendship, I think that there is actually a lot of art to be found in Asia, but perhaps it just isn’t the style of art that you most enjoy. I agree that when it comes to modern and urban art, then the spots to sample this are certainly fewer and farther between than somewhere like Europe, but I’ve noticed there have been plenty of places on our travels where there definitely seems to be a burgeoning (or well-established, even!) art scene. Off the top of my head, I think back on the street art of Georgetown, Malaysia or the murals and open-air installations of Tainan, Taiwan, the elaborate and colorful Buddhist paintings at the temples dotted throughout the country in Cambodia and Thailand, the rich batik tapestries in Indonesia… not all of it was to my taste, but I have always felt that there are strong artistic roots here in Asia that blossom in unexpected ways. They’re not the same as Europe’s, but I wouldn’t say the traditions are any weaker or there is a significant dearth of art here.
One of the most artistic places that I think I’ve been on our travels has to be the little hippie town of Pai up in northern Thailand. We absolutely fell for this place because it was just so gosh-darn cute! It’s often bashed for not being “authentic Thailand” and that is absolutely true, but it’s a place where it feels like artists have flocked and allowed their creativity to flourish and run wild; there is color everywhere and you feel like there is a genuine interest in visual aesthetics. There are so many incredible hand-crafted postcards and t-shirts, and everything—from coffee & chai shops to souvenir shops—has had real effort put into it. We expected this kind of forward-thinking in cutting-edge places like Bangkok, but who would have thought that an idyllic artist’s paradise would be found nestled away in the hills up north?
Pai is anything but traditional, however, so if I were to think of places where I got a real sense that local traditional arts are still practiced and celebrated, the places that immediately come to mind are Vietnam (specifically Hanoi) and Indonesia (specifically Java and Bali). These places have such rich cultural traditions and I really got the feeling that the art we were seeing in these places was really focused on telling and sharing stories (and often extremely epic ones at that!) that have been passed down through the centuries.
Tony: I have been dazzled by local art in every country we have been to thus far, some more than others to be fair, but every country has had something to recommend. While I agree that the communities to support art in the western sense of the word are harder to find in S.E. Asia, that in no way means that there isn’t an overflowing of art in its many forms. Art in Asia tends to exist outside of galleries and controlled environments, and serves more of a public function, which I like a lot. Everything from the cornice of a temple roof to the filigree of a Brunesian kris (curved, decorative dagger) is art. It seems that people often relegate many of the artists in Asia to the status of “artisan,” which is much the same thing, except that they tend to then get overlooked by the wider artistic community. And while this may be true, that is a failing of a western artistic mentality, not due to any lack of art in Asia.
In my opinion, art is a visual expression of a thought, emotion or idea and it can take almost any form, in any medium on any surface in any place. When you see it like this, Asia is exploding with art, and in many ways it’s far more prevalent here than in the west, and that’s one of my favorite things about this part of the world. Much of the art I have seen and appreciated in Asia is religious in nature, and while western art mostly got away from this in later centuries, it is still going strong in Asia, which is another reason I think Asian art can get overlooked: it can be hard to untangle the art from its meaning and function, especially in the modern age, and seeing it as functional makes it easy to fall into the trap of dismissing the work of the artist behind the function.
When I want art in Asia, I look at Islamic calligraphy all over Malaysia and Indonesia, Buddhist murals in Cambodia, the temple facades of Nikko in Japan, damn near everything in the Angkor complex, the ancient caves of Datong in China, Bangkok street art, hand-painted signs on storefronts in Singapore, the cut-vinyl decorations of trishaws in Kathmandu. I see the work of the hands of true artists everywhere I look, and it’s wonderful!
Hunting out great design has been really fun during our travels as we’ve seen local designers trying to do something different in both street markets and boutique shops.
5. Have you come across any design that you wish you could have packed and taken home with you?
Steph: We hardly buy anything on our travels unless we really need it, so I’ve definitely fallen out of the shopping mindset. However, one place where this has definitely been tested was in Kathmandu, Nepal. The shops are positively brimming with colorful icons and mandalas, beautiful and impossibly elaborate necklaces and other jewelry, rugs with patterns so busy and vibrant they make your eyes cross… it’s just a riot of color and texture and everything feels so very exotic. I want to buy it all! But so far my only purchases have been of the boring, practical “need to get this so I don’t die trekking in the Himalaya” variety.
(Also, the same could be said for Pai, but I’ve already gushed about that enough in the previous question!)
Tony: I love all the hand-painted signs and inscriptions I see everywhere. I thought it was particularly interesting on our trek through the Annapurna circuit here in Nepal when I saw Sanskrit painted, with care, on walls of rock and stray boulders. Sometimes it was way out in the middle of nowhere, but it was done with such skill, and I loved that someone went to the trouble to make that stone into a monument or a message. I also love the Kanji painted all over cities in Malaysia along with the English and contemporary Malay. Something about a beautifully executed hand-painted letter form really grabs my eye.
No matter where we are music is one of the most important things that not only keeps us sane, but also provides a great soundtrack for each of the cities and countries along the way.
6. Do you listen to music whilst you travel? If so, what artists have soundtracked your travels in 2013?
Steph: I love music—ask Tony, I’m always humming and singing—but my collection has become seriously out of date since we’ve been traveling. The first half of our journey, I just listened to whatever was playing on radios wherever we happened to be, which meant for better or for worse (definitely worse), the inadvertent soundtrack to the first half of our trip were songs like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”, Rihanna’s “We Found Love”, Fun.’s “We Are Young”, and Maroon Five’s “Moves Like Jagger”. Definitely not the mix I would put together, because it was no longer early 2012 and I am no longer a 14-year-old girl. Oh, and let’s not forget “Gangnam Style”, which found us for the first time in Singapore, I believe, and then followed us around for the next 6 months. SIX MONTHS!!!
Obviously I switched over to listening to my own stuff, but most of it has been music that I already knew pretty well before we left and was already associated with other experiences and adventures. The one exception is absolutely The Lumineers, who I realize were probably already popular back home before I left, but whom I just discovered in June. I’ve listened to their debut album more times than I can count (though I’m sure my iPod could tell me), particularly during some epic road trips in Indonesia.
Tony: I listen to music as much as I can, especially on long bus rides and train trips. While I agree with Steph that we have both fallen way behind on our trip (and I really try to block out the hideous assortment of US pop that dominates Asian public spaces), there are still a few new artists that I have been enjoying, along with the old. Lately I have been deep into an obsession with White Denim, especially their albums D and Last Day of Summer. I’ve also been enjoying Deerhunter, The Tallest Man on Earth, Twin Shadow, Here We Go Magic, Vetiver, Fleet Foxes, and some old jazz/R&B (namely The Ink Spots, Hoagy Carmichael, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller). To name a few.
And finally, we know that you’ve been hiding out in the mountains of one of the countries that’s up near the top of our ‘must travel to’ list – Nepal – and we’re utterly jealous and can’t wait to read about your adventures.
7. What’s next on your immediate travel plans and are there any countries you ‘must’ visit before your adventure ends?
Steph: I think we’ve taken a page out of your book at this point because up until 12 hours ago, we literally had no idea where we were headed next! We purchased a 90-day visa when we arrived in Nepal and just figured we’d decide what to do in three month’s time, or whenever we were struck with the irrepressible desire to move somewhere new. The original plan was to head overland into India, but we felt ambivalent about visiting and I really think that’s a country you have to be 100% excited for and go into with an open mind and heart. We did some soul-searching and we realized that we’re not really ready to leave Asia, however, so we’re heading back to Thailand in a few weeks and are then planning to spend 3 months digging into southern Vietnam. After that, we’d like to head to Laos, which we missed last time we were in the area.
Of course, the only thing we have booked is our ticket to Bangkok. Now that I’ve written all this, I’m sure we’ll find some way to change these plans…
As for must-visit countries, first, I take issue that you insinuate that our adventure has to come to an end! Though we may have to pop back home to Canada & the Sates for a bit next summer, we have no plans to stop traveling and start settling down any time soon. However, within the scope of this trip (which was meant to encompass Asia & Europe), on the list of places that I’m absolutely on fire to see sooner rather than later, it changes regularly, but right now it’s: Sri Lanka, India, Ukraine, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, and Iceland. I also really want to make it to France, Italy and the UK & Ireland, but I’ve been to all of those places before in some capacity, so they fall into a different category for me. And let’s not get started on the places we’ve already been on this trip but that I’d happily fly back to again in a heartbeat!
Tony: Steph definitively handled our “next up” answer. For me, I would really like to make it to Europe (eastern and western), which I have yet to visit (gasp!). I also want to go back to Vietnam, wrap myself up in a giant Banh Xeo and eat fresh lemonmint, rice paddy herb and shiso leaf forever. Sri Lanka is high on my list of “musts”, as are Turkey, The Maldives, and Steph convinced me that some of the “stan” countries look pretty cool too!
Thanks so much to Tony and Steph for letting us into how they view creativity during their ongoing travels.
We’re so glad that your world of travel won’t be ending quite as soon as we thought – yay for travel! – and we wish we could meet up with you in somewhere you’re hoping to travel to in the future (Turkey please!) and we can spend more time trying to convince you of the heavenliness of durian and also of how true your comments are on the beauty of artisan work if we’d only open our eyes to see it.