How I Travel: Kelsey Timmerman

Kelsey Timmerman: Lives to Tell the Tale

Kelsey Timmerman launched his career with a pair of “Jingle These” Christmas boxers. Noticing that his new undies were made in Bangladesh, he grew curious about the people making them and decided to investigate further. That adventure, which brought him to factories and textile markets around the world, eventually became the book “Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes” The narrative is both a deeply intriguing look at globalization and a fascinating travelogue.

Currently, Timmerman is on a whirlwind tour of Central Africa and Ireland, talking to victims of the global financial crisis.

I’m totally a Touron – moron tourist.

I always find new and amazing ways to embarrass myself. This week I arrived in Dublin after four weeks in Africa. I had plans to meet a friend at his hostel. He told me that it was on the Liffey. I went into a coffee shop and asked, “What’s a Liffey?” “Uh, you mean the river?” The barista said. I shook my head at my impressive ignorance and thought, “Yes I mean the most prominent geographical feature in this city, which I crossed on foot to get to your coffee shop.”


I began my first published bit of writing with this: “In the Land of Tourons, I am the Great Touron King.”

A touron is one part eager tourist and one part well-meaning moron. I try my best to be polite and culturally sensitive and not make myself look like a fool, but it takes some real effort sometimes. When I fail, I just laugh and apologize if necessary. Travel is quite humbling.

My most humbling travel moment was…

playing Frisbee with a girl at the Phnom Penh city dump. [Click that link, you won’t regret it. -ED]


My travel secret is to trust someone.

I’m probably totally stealing this: Travel isn’t measured in miles, it’s measured in friends. My greatest moments in travel have all been the result of trusting someone. When you travel in developing countries there are so many people fighting for your attention; they want to “help” you. Deciding who to trust is the most important decision I make every time I step into a different country.

I never quite understood the green movement’s lash out at travel.

Some folks think you shouldn’t go here or do this because of your carbon footprint. That’s ridiculous. The footprint that really matters is mine on the beach in Australia where a whale surfaces with its calf. At that moment I become a champion for whales. The footprint that matters is mine in the jungle squinting up at a monkey hiding in the canopy. At that moment I become a champion for rainforests. I care about people and places near and far more because I’ve been there. They’ve spoken to me.

Schedules, like rules, and social etiquettes are made to be broken.

kelsey in kenya

I pretend to research a place before I go there.

I buy a novel and a work of nonfiction. I get a guidebook. It’s often quite painful to be standing outside of an airport thinking, “Huh, this is Bangladesh. Now where the hell am I going to stay and how am I going to get there.” I usually dig into the literature when I’m back from the trip. It’s much more interesting to read about places that you’ve been and histories that have happened to people you’ve met.

I was in rural village in China and ate pig heart.

I’m not real big on eating organs.

Mom said I was always a “good little traveler.”

In fact, to my embarrassment, she would probably use the same terminology today. My earliest traveling memory is of sitting in my car seat in our old maroon Buick, an Indiana Jones metal lunch tray across my lap with matchboxes zooming around on it chasing bad guys and saving the world. My job was to get out the change for tolls. It was a pretty easy job – considering at the time I wasn’t quite clear on which was the nickel and which was the dime – because all you needed was one big coin, one medium, and one small one.

Annie, my main squeeze rarely travels with me, but she’s been there supporting me from my very first 6-month trip abroad.

She was my girlfriend when I was in Australia, my fiancé when I was in Bangladesh, and now she‘s my wife and the mother of my daughter as I write this from Ireland. She keeps my feet on the ground and I keep her head in the clouds. We have a good thing going.

Becoming a Dad has helped me relate better to the folks I meet.

Everybody is a child or a parent. Until my daughter Harper was born I only new what the child-side of things was like.


I’m currently in Ireland and it’s been an entire month since Harper gave me a hug or a kiss or a smile that wasn’t a choppy mash of pixels via Skype.

Having a daughter also leaves me homesick more. I’m not crying myself to sleep or anything, but there’s a place inside my chest somewhere that I haven’t thought much about since my first night at scout camp.

I usually get the feel of a place when I’m on some mission that introduces me to a cross-section of locals.

That’s when I end up at family dinners, birthday parties, and sporting events. The day I return with no local names, numbers, and email addresses scratched in my moleskine, is the day I stop traveling.


I won’t leave home without my Aerobie Superdisc and my 1992 USA Dream Team basketball shorts.

My Superdisc is a friend-maker and a plate. My basketball shorts, despite their incredibly loose waist band, are my good luck charm.

I always travel alone. There aren’t many places that I want to go back to alone.

However, there are many places I want to go back to with my wife and daughter.

The best meal I’ve had on the road was in a small village of a garment worker I wrote about in my book.

Her family prepared dinner. Everything we ate – chicken, veggies, and fruit – they could point to where it came from in their yard. It was the freshest meal I’ve ever had. While we’re on the subject, there’s also something about eating my spear-fishing catch in the Keys that ignites some kind of hunter-gatherer thing inside me and makes the snapper taste that much better.

If you handed me a ticket to anywhere in the world, I would want it to be to Indianapolis, Indiana, to my home.

It’s been over a month since I held my daughter. That’s too long. I would fly home, play with her until bedtime, rock her to sleep, and then fall asleep with my wife on the couch. I would slip out in the middle of the night back to the airport and head back to Ireland because there are some stories that need telling and I’m the man to tell them.


Traveling isn’t quite a religion for me, but I have my own holy triumvirate of travelers who inspired me.

(1) I caught the travel bug from Alby Mangels, a half-naked Australian who traipsed around the world chasing danger and ladies in bikinis. He hosted a show on the Travel Channel called Adventure Bound. I tried tracking him down when I visited Australia and ended up meeting his nephew Rick who appeared in some of the episodes.

(2) This is sort of embarrassing, but the reason I majored in Anthropology in school was Indiana Jones. I pictured myself one day standing in a jungle and shouting, “It belongs in a museum!” at some unsuspecting German. Class was like story hour for me. Many of my classmates chose anthropology for the same reason. One of them even had the balls to wear a brown leather fedora. I was embarrassed for him. The Navy has Top Gun. Anthropology has Indiana Jones. In reality, to me archaeology is quite boring, but I loved learning about other people and how they lived.

(3) Growing up in Ohio, Jimmy Buffett provided the bit of escapism that I needed from the flat fields of corn and beans and long sunless winters. Ultimately, he inspired me to got to Key West where I lived for two dive seasons. He came into our shop one time and bought fins.

There’s a tie for the most interesting character I’ve met on the road.

It’s between the prophetess in Nairobi who predicted my arrival, which was hard to argue with. She also predicted the end of the world in 2010; we’ll have to wait and see about that one. The other character is a kiwi farmer in New Zealand who gave me a lift. He met Jesus in Malaysia. Apparently before getting to all of that second-coming, raining frog stuff, the Lord is living it up as a Malaysian movie star.


It drives me crazy when other travelers think they are worldly because they’ve got a few stamps in their passport.

I’m the same schmuck as the one smiling in my first passport photo. It’s just now I give a darn a lot more about people and places around the world.

I travel with the voices in my head.

They’re my audience and whenever I’m suffering the physical and mental anguish that comes with travel, they’re always there encouraging me, “You might not actually make it back, but if you do, this is going to be a great story.” One day the voices will be the end of me.

I love to travel because the world is filled with stories.

Pick up Timmerman’s book, “Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes” , read about his trip to Central Africa at and on his Twitter feed. For more info on the Where am I Wearing speaking tour—or to get updated or bring him in to speak at your college or university –  visit his website:

“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.

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all photographs provided by Kelsey Timmerman and may not be used without permission

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