Michael Spencer Bown left his home in Calgary in 1989 and went on one of the biggest adventures of his life so far. He ended his trip this year with a Guinness in Ireland after 23 years on the road. After tracking him down, he kindly agreed to answer some of my questions for me. Here he shares with us some great adventure stories and tips for solo and first time travellers.
Q1. First things first, what influenced you to travel in the beginning?
It was a love of exploring wilderness areas at first. I used to be a bear barger for major expeditions…. That is, I’d have the task of scaring off curious or marauding bears. Also, I liked to go live off the land, hunting and fishing, eating nuts and berries, and spending as long as 86 days without speaking a single word or seeing another person.
As I explored more of North America looking for mountains and forests, and then Central America, I found that people were just as interesting, if not more so, and I was hooked even before I started on South East Asia. I simply carried on with what I loved and became specialized in: exploring our planet free-style.
Q2. I can see that you previously mentioned you funded your travels by working along the way. In your experience do you think it’s easier for men to find work than women?
A bit of work, yes, in the first few years: about a month a year. It would be split up among various continents, as I would be buying and selling silver jewelry and semi-precious stones, and designing product to have manufactured in Asia and shipped elsewhere for sale. This took hardly any of my time, but was very profitable, as I found I had a knack for designing “hot” items that I could wholesale in a day or two for 400% markup or more. That’s the trick for doing that kind of thing: you must already have or develop an eye for what will sell.
If you get something made that’s only average in appeal to western markets, you’ll make very modest profit, or suffer a loss, and have to spend all year trying to push the stuff… in that case, it would be a slog. Men who are willing to take calculated risks and women who are willing to take calculated risks have the same chance of success. Timid people ( bless them, the world takes all sorts to go round) are better off looking for a job, and that I know nothing about.
Q3. Do you have any tips for staying out of trouble while travelling? (Not that I’m looking for any)
Hone your intuition when people are trying to rip you off or otherwise scam you in touristy countries. That way, you have the ability to detect when something isn’t quite right, which can save your life in some of the more dodgy places. Provided, you remember to trust your intuition about people and situations, and act on it. The best outcome is to be passed from the company of decent person to decent person, and thus pass unscathed through some very nasty areas. I met a guy named Stevio in Bali in the late 90’s. He liked to wear an amount of gold jewelry that would be more appropriate on king Tut. Stevio was robbed. Don’t be ‘flash’ I suppose is what I’m trying to say. Also, use ruses in some of the dodgiest areas…
I impersonated a United Nations security inspector when hitch-hiking through the Rworenzori Mountains, with notable success. During the second gulf war in Iraq, I pretended to be a local, by not speaking and trying to put on facial expressions like those around me. Sometimes in former Soviet Union areas, it is worthwhile to carry a Russian language newspaper under your arm if the police are too greedy. ‘Dial a bitch’ works too in these areas, if you have one of those cheap cellphones travelers often buy and discard… if you know a woman who speaks the local language, and has a sharp tongue, then, when the police hassle you, dial her and hand the policeman the phone. He’ll soon let you go… it’s a cultural thing.
Q4. You must have learnt some amazing new skills while on your travels. What stands out as being one of your biggest achievements?
Driving a reindeer sleigh while drunk on vodka has to be up there among the more random skills I’ve picked up… in case you are curious, reindeer have bright white bums, and if one is too slow, you tap it on the bum with a long stick. If you need to turn right, put the stick up on the left, and the reindeer will naturally shy away from that side.
To a large extent, however, you trust the judgment of the team, as they know how to go through forest and muskeg fairly well. I’ve learned how to cross swaying Indiana Jones-style rope bridges, with the rotten planks, and no hand ropes, and hundred plus meter drops to raging river canyons. Also I can eat local food, even if it is goat guts and rice full of rocks, and my stomach is not dismayed.
I can feel when malaria or giardia is about to hit me, and go get the meds so that I have them on hand. And last, but not least, I have a cast iron butt by now, so I can sit a local bus for 50 hours straight if necessary, or travel 18 persons to a station wagon, along jungle roads for 3 days, and enjoy myself.
Q5. Have you learnt any new languages along the way?
Languages change at a blistering pace if you are on the road in remote areas. There are 86 major languages in India alone, and hundreds, if not thousands, in and around Papua New Guinea. As I never stopped to properly study, I ended up learning, mainly, to get by in French, Spanish, Russian, and, at one time, Bahasa, which I have since forgotten… I can still read a menu.
My Russian used to be good enough that the girls considered it cute, but now, sadly, it has deteriorated to the survival level. I can still read Cyrillic alphabet…. I taught myself by reading movie posters in Kiev and elsewhere. The hardest menu I ever had to struggle with was in a Korean restaurant in Ulan Bator….the names of the Korean dishes were translated into Mongolian, but written in Russian Cyrillic. I ended up going into the kitchen and pointing at things.
English is the international language of travel, and weirdly, you are probably better off, if you had a couple hundred or a thousand hours to spare, learning to comprehend different accents of English even more so than spending the same time studying another major language. Strange but true, such is the dominance of English now. But it would be less fun to miss your chance to try other languages.
Q6.Have you had any health scares?
Nearly none… I used to be able to say I’d never even taken a pain killer until 2009 in Bolivia, where one of my teeth hurt, and a traveller offered me an Advil. Also, I’ve still not experienced a head ache, despite being at 6000 meters, on top of Kilimajaro, and many times to 5000 meters and above. In fact, I’ve never seen a doctor for any reason, or complained of an injury. But, the past few years, I’ve managed to catch giardia several times, which is not pleasant, even though it doesn’t hit too hard, and doesn’t stop me from taking a bus or flying, it will cause depression.
The only other concern I’ve had is falciparum malaria… the potentially lethal strain. I suffered from it once when I was staying in a hotel in Yaounde, working for three weeks straight manufacturing impossible documents for a visa to Guinea Equatorial.
The hotel was called Ideal, and it was ideally close to the embassies and not too much of a brothel by African standards. Depression and all the symptoms of malaria befell me quite suddenly one evening, including the sweating and chills. I thought, “Next morning, I’ll go to a doctor for the first time in my life, and get tested.” But, trying to sleep in a pool of sweat, I slipped into strange dreams instead, of walking a path onto an increasingly narrow peninsula, with sea on either side that became colder and wilder, until it was just rock and ice and a terrifying gale force winds.
I woke to the thought that I was walking the path of death. Trusting my intuition, I immediately opened up a pack of co-artem that I’d bought earlier in Rwanda, and took them. A few days later I was feeling much better.
When in Ivory Coast, the same symptoms hit me… a kid with whom I’d shared a car while hitch hiking to yamasoukro wanted me to walk with him to see guards feeding live chickens to the crocodiles in the presidential moat…. And I didn’t feel like going, and had to force myself. Also, I had trouble timing the car traffic to cross the road and mosquitos were flying directly over to try to bite me, so I knew I smelled different. I suspected malaria, went and bought some co-artem, and as soon as I sat on my bed, started to sweat. I popped the pills, and, sorted. It’s dangerous stuff though, always sleep under a mosquito net and wear long clothes and boots in the bad malarial zones.
Q7. There have been some major world events over the past 23 years. Can you remember where you were when events such as 9/11, the Indonesian Tsunami and when the war in Iraq and Afghanistan started and did it affect you in any way?
9/11 didn’t make an impression… I was off in the wilderness, enjoying mountain scenery, and didn’t find out about the event until a couple weeks later. Looking back on my journal of the trip, I find I’d written about lovely sunny days and some interesting butterflies I’d seen.
I’ve been out in a few disasters, however… I was in Bam, Iran, a matter of days before the earthquake destroyed the city, and knocked down the Akbar Guesthouse, killing the guests. I’d just moved on to Shiraz, luckily for me.
Also, there was a vicious typhoon flailing about in the sea near Sumbabwa, which sent car ferries to the bottom, with everyone drowned. I was out in this same typhoon in a top-heavy wooden junk, and we miraculously survived. What I remember most is the phosphorescence on the towering wavetops, such that they glowed a beautiful blue just as they were about to crash upon us in the darkness.
I’ve heard and seen many terrorist attacks… in Kabul one time suicide bombers went off only a hundred feet up the road, with a sound like the opening of a soda pop.
Q8. What were some of the strangest modes of transport you used on your travels?
Once I hopped on an old freighter out of an Albania port… it was more rust than steal, and the whole ship vibrated, such that your teeth would chatter, and I rode a paddle wheeler in Bangladesh, sipping tea in the bow, while moon-lit bats flittered in our wake, downriver to the Sunderban swamp to look for tigers.
In Puntland state I was riding everywhere in a technical, belt-fed machine gun in the back. Camels and donkeys and horses, of course…. Isn’t the best thing in life riding over the plains of central Asia, with the wind in your hair? Only the Great Khan himself answered “No, it is to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.” For the rest of us, riding to look at lakes full of jumping grayling, and ancient Scythian tombs, and forests of larch with bubbling brooks, is very fine indeed.
A long time ago, in northern Burma, I used to get around by stage coach. One of my friends was making a television show called ‘Africa Bike adventure” a few years ago… he wanted me to film him while clinging to the back of his Yamaha Tenere motorbike, while he did crazy things in the highlands of Cameroon. I had only one hand to hold tight, the other to hold the camera… I think it was a few weeks till the nerves grew back in some of the fingers of my right hand.
I canoed through an underground river in Palawan. There are so many. I’m not the best judge of strange transport, because I feel it is most strange when I’m in a vehicle with power windows and computer interface on the dash, whereas a donkey cart seems completely ordinary.
One of the best ways to get around Ethiopia is to hitchhike on the Isuzu beer trucks… that way, when the Chinese have blocked the road, while they blast and clear rubble, you can enjoy some beer… is that strange, or simply wise?
Q9. What’s the scariest flight you’ve ever been on?
Once I took a flight into Puntland state of Somalia, where even many Somalis had told me that the government were a bunch of pirates, and that I’d be killed or tortured on arrival. It was a beaten-up little prop plane, and we landed once in the desert, so that the crew could go out with a wheelbarrow and take parts off a similar crashed plane sticking out of a sand dune.
I made friends with a Somali businessman on the way, so, when we landed, in a flatter than normal stretch of sand, he helped me with customs. Turned out I needed help.. customs was some guys with machine pistols and assault rifled, and the desk was two empty kerosene barrels, with a plank of wood laid over them. As soon as they saw me, they got very excited, and my new Somali friend ensured that all that befell me was being detained, guarded by two guys with Uzis, and the Minister of the Interior stopped by to threaten me. But that’s another story, and I eventually saw the friendly side to the Puntland government, including the Interior Minister.
When they determined that I was not a terrorist, released me and invited me to attend the Puntland festival in the company of the Ministers of Education and Good Governance, riding to and fro in one of a convoy of technicals.
Q10. Seeing as you have travelled to every country, what would you say is the best place to visit for a) a first time traveller b) a female solo traveller c) a traveller with limited funds?
First time travellers do well in South East Asia, or South America… these places you can backpack drunk the whole time without too much trouble… and some people do. Women have an easy time in Malaysia, Ethiopia and Indonesia….. Peru and Bolivia are pretty good too, and luckily, these places are suitable for travellers with limited funds.
Some of the cheapest countries these days are Ethiopia, Pakistan, Egypt, and Yemen. Bolivia and Ecuador are good value for the South American continent, with lots to do and see. South Pacific is expensive, and Africa is relatively expensive… the cheaper areas tend to be so dodgy that few to no people go there, and even then, they are poor value for money…. Of course, it is worth it, as Africa is great for free-style travel, just not as cheap as you might be used to elsewhere.
Asia is not as budget as it used to be, but the south is somewhat affordable still, and china is good value for money if you are travelling with a friend, and are looking for mid-range hotels. In the Caribbean, the Grenadines are still fairly cheap, as is Dominica and Dominican Republic. Happy trails.
Q11. What would you consider to be the biggest personal change in yourself over the past 23 years?
Nothing fazes me anymore, or gets me too worked-up…. After you’ve been in war zones, and taken roads were the locals tell you there is a thirty percent chance you’ll lose your head if you dare the trip, and been charged by wild elephants, attacked by mountain lions, flung into military prison where an interrogator is shouting that ‘You’ll suffer worse than you’ve ever suffered before,” and survived it all, while having fun and laughs, the other stuff doesn’t tend to bother you too much. I’m fairly unflappable now. I’m a lot more optimistic about the human race, after seeing how many decent and kind people there are in every region of our world.
Q12. and finally, would you do it all over again?
Sadly, no. my mind is swimming in fond memories, but I want a fresh adventure, not an encore. I might want to concentrate on wilderness expeditions rather than free-style travel, or perhaps settle down at last, to a greater degree than my younger self would have thought likely or possible. 23 years is a lot of time and I probably deserve a rest, but, as a change is as good as a rest, time for a change.
I wish you all the best on your new adventures and I personally cannot wait for your book to be published. I will be first in line to buy it! Best of luck Mike!