How I Travel: David Farley

David Farley: The Great Foreskin Sleuth

The title of David Farley’s book, An Irreverent Curiosity, could just as easily serve as its author’s byline. Farley is the epitome of the smart travel writer—engaging readers with both his sense of place and his urge to get the whole story. An Irreverent Curiosity follows Farley as he searches for Jesus’ lost foreskin, which had for years been the pride of the town of Calcata, Italy. The story mixes travel with detective work as the author, humor always intact, goes about uncovering the truth behind the relic’s mysterious disappearance while shading in the countryside en route.

This week, with An Irreverent Curiosity, hitting bookstores in paperback, David made time to share his travel philosophy with BootsNAll.

I like spending a lot of time in one place, enough time to get under its skin, to have a better understanding of how it pulses.

For that reason, I’ve lived San Francisco, Prague, Paris, Rome, and Calcata, a medieval hill town between Tuscany and the Eternal City. It also means I’m not the most well-traveled travel writer in the world. I’ve only been to Asia a couple times and South America and the Middle East once. I’ve never been to Africa or Australia or Greenland. I’ve never even been to Delaware!

Standing in front of Calcata, Italy
Standing in front of Calcata, Italy

I’ve never really thought much about my travel style until a recent trip to Vietnam.

I met up with a friend there—Jeremy Kressman who writes for—and he told me he encountered two types of travelers while schlepping around Southeast Asia: the backpacker and the flashpacker. This so-called “flashpacker,” one rung above a backpacker, forks out a few more bucks in order to get, say, a hotel that’s not crawling with roaches or isn’t 100-percent frequented by beer-chugging frat boys. So I guess that’s me: a flashpacker!

I also travel to eat.

The degree to which I do this I didn’t fully cognize until I went to Bolivia where the best thing to eat in the entire country was llama meat. I had to look elsewhere for sensual delights, of which Bolivia offers plenty.

Travel has changed me in indelible, impossible-to-calculate ways.

It has a tendency to do this to people. But here’s the key: only if you let it. I think it was Tony Wheeler, one of the founders of Lonely Planet, who said that we could achieve world peace through travel. I’m not entirely sure this is true. After all, I’ve met a lot of close-minded, bigoted, stupid people who have traveled plenty. But for those of us who let travel change us, it becomes a drug, one that makes some of us (myself included) want to reorganize our lives so we can snort up all the travel we can get. I discovered this when I was 20, during my obligatory college-age trip through Europe. And it was then when I decided that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I did know it had to be something that allowed me to travel on a fairly regular basis. And that—that desire to move—has shaped my life since.

With a faux opium smoker in Jodhpur, India
With a faux opium smoker in Jodhpur, India

I’m usually inspired to hit the road, to conceive of a trip or visit a particular destination, based on a couple different factors.

One might be the unfamiliar. That’s one reason we travel, anyway, right? To embrace the uncomfortable and the foreign so we can easier see the reflection in ourselves and the culture from which we come. The other thing that gets my feet out the front door is a good story. I’m not sure I would have spent an entire year in a tiny Italian hill town if I wasn’t on the trail of the missing foreskin of Jesus.

I profess to having no secrets to staying healthy and fit while on the road.

I have a Jekyll and Hyde attitude about it. At home I hit the gym everyday and on the road I’m a hedonist, eating and drinking everything that tastes good. Of course, I’m usually technically doing it for “work.” At least these are the things tell myself to justify it.

Morning capuccino in Bologna, Italy
Morning capuccino in Bologna, Italy

I love doing pre-trip research.

In early 2010, I moderated a panel discussion. The theme: how to travel as a travel writer. The point was for travel writers to offer tips to the general traveling public how we, professional travelers, get the most out of a destination and, thus, how they can too. One of my main points was the importance of pre-trip research and how it helps you understand the place before you step off the plane and therefore makes your experience there much richer and more enlivened. But one of the other writers on the panel, Susan Orlean (who happens to be a favorite of mine) said that she often likes to go on a trip and do no planning, letting the glories of spontaneity influence her experience. I don’t disagree with her, but it was interesting to see the reaction from the crowd: everyone seemed particularly gleeful about this and, in fact, a few blog entries about the panel discussion appeared a few days later espousing her philosophy. Well, I thought, so much for my message. But I’m sticking to it.

I believe in guidebooks.

But only in the same way many of us believe in religion in the 21st century: we need it when we’re in a jam. I try to avoid the popular titles, though, because every restaurant they include is then crammed with people just like us.

I consider myself an adventurous eater but that doesn’t mean I festishize eating certain things just because they’re “weird.”

That said, the strangest food I’ve eaten on the road would be rat, snake, pigs brains, the sperm ducts of fish. I like the way people in Vietnam, for example eat: they don’t waste much, which is something the rest of the world—particularly in the United States—could learn from. The weirdest things I’ve actually eaten are things I’ve found in my home country, the United States: sloppy, gooey Italian-American food (or, as I call it “I-talian”) and all those “jalapeno popper” like things they serve at places like TGI Fridays.

One of the best meals I’ve had on the road—or, rather, in the alley—was in Hoi An, a prettied-up coastal town in central Vietnam.

There’s a particular dish there called Cao Lao: noodles in a pork broth with thin slices of pork and scallion and pork skin cracklings on top. As the legend goes, the only way to make cao lao is with the water from a particular well in town. I’ve heard a few people say they’d eaten it elsewhere and it just wasn’t the same. The first time I had it was in an alleyway sitting on a child-size chair in Hoi An. I liked it so much I immediately ordered a second bowl.

Walking alongside the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium
Walking alongside the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium

I always travel with a small, neat carry-on-size backpack.

Even when I’m traveling for two or three weeks. The trade off is that I have to wash my clothes in the sink, but it’s worth it to not have to lug around a heavy bag.

I recently had to change planes in Moscow, which I wasn’t crazy about doing.

I may be going out on a limb, but Russia seems like a wild, lawless place to me and I’ve never had much desire to go there. Or even to change planes there, since the terminals were miles and miles from each other. But going through Moscow was the cheapest way to my destination (which was Belarus), so I did it. There were no shuttles between terminals and taxi drivers wanted $40 for the ride. Someone pointed to a public city bus and said it went to my terminal, so I ran up to it and then realized I needed to pay to get on and had no Russian rubles. I begged a woman to pay my fare—I was desperate and in serious danger of missing my flight—and fortunately she did. I barely made the flight and I’ll never forget the woman who paid for me. On the way back, I paid a taxi driver $20 for the 20-minute ride, but I got screwed another way: I used my debit card once at the airport and by the time I got home about 12 hours later all the money in my bank account had mysteriously vanished. I think I’ll let other people discover the wonders of Russia while I go see the rest of the world.

Sunburned in La Paz, Boliva
Sunburned in La Paz, Boliva

I’m not sure if I’ve ever been genuinely lost.

If I have one natural gift, it’s an amazing sense of direction. After just one day in Venice, I left the map back in my hotel. All this means, of course, that I’m perhaps destined to be a great taxi driver.

I love travel because even the bad trips are good days.

Be sure to visit Farley’s website, which archives much of his magazine and newspaper work. Also check out David’s informative and often hilarious Twitter feed.

“How I Travel” is a BootsnAll series publishing every Tuesday in an effort to look at the unique and diverse travel habits of some of the world’s most well known and proficient road warriors. Got ideas for who we should talk to? Drop us a note.

You’ll find links to all the “How I Travel” articles on the How I Travel archive page, you can become a fan of “How I Travel” on Facebook, and you can follow the @howitravel profile on Twitter to get updates as soon as new features in this series are published.

all photographs provided by David Farley and may not be used without permission

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