Even the researchers seem smitten with the raccoon-sized species, which is the first carnivore species to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in the past 35 years. “It looks kind of like a fuzzball … kind of like a cross between a teddy bear and a house cat,” said Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian’s curator of animals (talk about a dream job).
Most interestingly, researchers who went looking for the new species found it on the very first night they were in South America. They think there are thousands of olinguitos in the forests. But travelers: don’t expect to find one unless camping out in the middle of night is in the cards; these little guys are hard to spot unless you know exactly where to look.
On the Caribbean coast of Colombia, a man named Duran Duran shares his love of Cartagena with visitors from near and far.
Some want to see the main sights, others come to explore backstreets of the colonial walled city on foot, but all leave with the benefit of this experienced guide’s knowledge of history and awareness of small details with big meaning. When Duran Duran leads the way, curious travelers learn more about the story of Cartagena than they might discover on their own.
After exploring Cartagena one morning with Duran Duran, he stopped to take a phone call away from the group. From what I could gather, he was confirming plans to meet friends for lunch and play pool for the afternoon. I got to thinking about how he lives a normal day, what he learns from people on his tours, and about how his work has influenced the way he chooses to travel.
Have you changed the way you travel since you became a tour guide?
My work has taught me that a place is not only buildings, but a lot more. Now when I travel, I get in touch with a tour guide. This gives an instant connection with local culture and the best guides customize tours in any way you want.You meet a variety of people through your work – what have you learned from these encounters?
I meet all kinds of people on my tours, and I’ve learned that everybody is just trying to be happy. Traveling and learning makes a lot of them very happy, and I’m glad to be a part of that. Visitors are also very curious about the Colombian people and have many questions on our customs and culture.
Tell me about a typical day for you – what do you do for fun? How do you spend time with your family?
I start each day with a reminder of how grateful I am for each new day in my life. I work six days a week, and go cycling three times a week. I love reading history and work on improving my command of the English language. My favorite days are spent at the beach with my wife and our kids.
In your work as a tour guide, have you learned anything unusual about Cartagena’s history?
Many local people don’t know that their names are connected to important events in the history of Cartagena and Colombia. By reading about history, I discovered that many common names have deep significance.
Do you have any advice for people visiting Cartagena for the first time?
Do not change money in the streets – under any circumstances. This is a common scam. They not only will shortchange you on the exchange, but they will take your money and give fake bills that you will not be able to spend. And if you take a photo of our palenqueras, the colorfully dressed women that carry large bowls of fruit on their heads, it is customary to leave a small tip in exchange for the beautiful photo.
If travelers want to interact with locals in Cartagena, where should they begin?
Travelers should venture to a regular neighborhood like Getsemani, to wander the streets and eat the traditional food of Cartagena. They must also join in and dance cumbia and salsa.
Whenever I need a little escape but can’t get out of town, I fire up an episode or two of “Globe Trekker” so I can live vicariously through the adventures of travelers like Megan McCormick. Since she started hosting the show in 1997, she’s taken viewers to the Greek Islands, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, Micronesia, India, the Silk Road and a host of other exotic locales.
“Globe Trekker,” shown in the U.S. on PBS, is my favorite travel show because it focuses on real travelers experiencing slices of local cultures, not sightseeing. McCormick is my kind of traveler. Her enthusiasm for the places she visits is infectious and you can’t help but conclude that she’d be a fun person to travel with. She got the travel bug in college and has found a way to make a living out of her wanderlust.
McCormick has lived in three U.S. states plus Argentina, Japan, Spain and the U.K., but says she’s now settling down in New York. We spoke to her this week about her favorite places, how she balances family life with her nomadic lifestyle and how she landed her dream job.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Ohio but I was mostly raised in Florida. I first came to New York when I was 12 and I remember feeling this tremendous sigh of relief because I didn’t really fit in in Florida. I was this gawky, ballet-dancing geek who never went in the sun.
Were you a traveler growing up?
I grew up with a giant map of the world and a subscription to National Geographic. That was my mom’s influence. She had this wonderful wanderlust but we didn’t have the resources to travel very much. I studied abroad in France and after I graduated (with a degree from Boston University in philosophy and political science), I taught English in Japan through the JET program. And that was my first foray into traveling independently.
That was in the mid-’90s after I graduated from college. Then I stayed in Asia and backpacked around the region for almost a year and then I moved to New York. I saved a lot of money teaching in Japan and my dad said I should save that money and come home, but I didn’t do that dad, I didn’t! It’s been very hard for me to grow up and settle down.
Do you have a family?
I do. I’m married with kids now so that’s changed a lot. I have an 8-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son.
My daughter traveled with me when she was really little and I just kept doing the show. My husband is in television as well, so we would alternate jobs to keep traveling. Then about two years ago, we alighted in Brooklyn and decided to put down roots here for a little while.
What does that mean?
I don’t know. It means we’ve stopped being peripatetic and moving from place to place. When “Globe Trekker” sent me to a location, especially in the early years, I was so excited; I would just stay. The crew would move on after we finished taping but I would stay. I was consistently away. In 2001, I was based in Barcelona and I thought I was missing too many moments in people’s lives, so I moved back to New York. Then I was in Argentina in 2008 for three years.
Waita minute. I’m lost. Now you’re in Argentina? Your resume might be even more of a mess than mine.
I more or less backpacked most of the year until 2004 when my daughter was born, but I kept traveling for the first few years. In 2008, we went on vacation to Argentina for six weeks, but decided to stay. We ended up staying (in Mendoza) for three years but that wasn’t really the plan. That’s the beauty of working for yourself.
So how did you transition from backpacker to “Globe Trekker” host?
I had just moved back to New York and I was applying to grad schools for East Asian studies. I was a production assistant for “The News with Brian Williams.” I had some high level duties such as photocopying, ordering supplies and sending faxes. The whole time I was scheming to get out of there. I had a friend who was an actor and he saw this ad in an actor’s magazine announcing an audition for someone who loved to travel.
I’d never been on camera and had never been an actress, so instead of sending a headshot, I sent a collage of photos, kind of like an 8th grade book report. And I wrote a poetic, it’s-the-journey-that-matters kind of thing on the back of it. The director said she had never received a collage before and gave me an audition.
The first audition was great, but on the second one everything went wrong. We were wandering around Chinatown. A cat peed on me. I knocked over a fruit bin. I stumbled across a guy who was painting and he shouted at me like a crazy person and said I was stealing his soul.
It was a disaster but they called and said, “If you can leave in ten days, you’ll have one show and it’s in India.” This was in 1997. I think I’ve done 30-35 shows since then.
Do you know how many countries you’ve been to?
I should know that. My husband and I have a competition to see who’s been to more countries.
He’s slightly ahead. He had some hard-to-get-to ones, which was very annoying. He did this great trip from Morocco to Mauritania, down to Nigeria. But I’ve done shows on six continents.
Howlong do you spend in-country when you’re filming?
We used to shoot for nearly three and a half weeks. But times have changed and budgets have changed. Travel has gotten easier. Now, depending on location, it might be two to three weeks.
And you take your family with you?
My daughter traveled with me until she was older. I’ve only done a few shows since my son was born. My husband would watch the kids while I was working but now he has a grown up job, so the kids stay here. Now that my daughter is in school the nomadic lifestyle is a little more challenging but I still go away every summer. I can’t stay still in the summer.
On the show, you stay in a mix of places. Sometimes it’s a $5 per night hostel, other times you’re in a really nice place, right?
It depends on the location. Generally we try to find unique places to stay that are affordable for most people. And those are usually the places that have the most character.
Tell me about one of the dodgier places you’ve stayed in?
A bed is a bed as long as there is nothing crawling in the mattress. I travel with a silk sleeping bag liner, just in case. But I did stay in a very strange, concrete hostel in the middle of nowhere in Inner Mongolia. The bathroom was outside and I went to find it in the middle of the night and I had to dodge two sheep and the bathroom was a hole in the ground over some pigs. There were pigs underneath; there were pigs! That was not a pleasant experience at all.
What are thecountries you’re most passionate about?
I love Lebanon so much. And I’m also a big fan of Colombia.
What places do you recommend in Colombia?
I love cities, so I would check out Bogota and Cartagena. And from there, I would go to Santa Marta and then inland up into the mountains. If you like hiking, there is a five- or six-day hike into La Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City. You’re into the jungle and there are indigenous people there who are incredible. And then there’s a beautiful island called Providencia, just off the coast with great beaches.
When you get bad weather do you wait it out or keep shooting?
Sometimes we wait 5-6 days for it to stop raining; other times, we work around it. Ian Wright was in Ireland recently and he said it rained 24 hours a day for days, but they just kept going though. I was in Myanmar for the show about three weeks ago. It’s an amazing country that’s in transition. The people are so lovely. We were there for Burmese New Year. They celebrate by shutting down the country for five days. They have a water festival, where they spray people with water or dump buckets of water on people. You have to have rain gear on because you’re going to get wet.
How many hours a day is the camera trained on you when you’re traveling?
It’s not a reality show so the camera isn’t on me all day long. But we film from sun up to sun down.
Have they ever asked you to wear something or do something that was a little too hokey?
Yes! I would say the entire Southeastern United States program. I think I wore more embarrassing outfits there than everywhere else but it was fun. I was decked out in an antebellum gown walking down some stairs, a Civil War dress, and I was in a cotillion dress dancing with a 16-year-old.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m going to Hokkaido in Japan for “Globe Trekker” and I also tried to make my own program, “Sea Nation.” We had a 12-part series where we gave up our normal lives in New York to live on a boat sailing around the Caribbean. It was incredible! We went to 25 different islands and met people from all walks of life. It was 2008, right at the beginning of the economic downturn, and we explored the idea – what can make you happy besides all the things we think will make us happy.
Youdid this with your kids?
With my daughter, she was 4 at the time. She loved it! My son wasn’t born yet. We were at sea for about four months.
The show was on the Discovery Channel in Asia and a few places in Europe but it never found a home in the U.S. It’s with a sales agent now, so maybe something will happen with it. But there are 11 episodes available online or you can buy the DVD.
Do you consider your job a dream job?
If someone is organizing an opportunity for me to travel and paying me a small amount of money, I will never, ever complain about that. It’s been such a gift. Even the worst days, the day when they made a left instead of a right and we had to stay in the car in a desert for 14 hours, you still get funny stories. I can’t argue with anyone who says it’s a dream job.
More and more often, ads are showing up in unlikely places. Soon, grocery store shoppers will find a tiny ad promoting tourism to Ecuador in a curious place: on each of the 24 million tons of bananas that are exported from the country each year.
Skift first broke the news about the new campaign, what the Ministry of Tourism in Ecuador is calling the “Banana Ambassador” program. Workers in Ecuador will affix tiny stickers with the colorful tourism logo and an accompanying QR code on bananas, just the same as other stickers that are placed on the front of the fruit in the past. The idea is that, hopefully, curious breakfast eaters will scan the code and be connected to a promotional video and tourism site, eventually increasing the numbers of tourists to the tiny country.
Although, as Rafat Ali of Skift points out, QR usage in general is low and the program might have little effect on intent to travel, at least now people will be more aware of where their food comes from. Ecuador is the largest exporter of bananas in the world, sending just as many bananas as the next three largest exporters – Costa Rica, Colombia and the Philippines – combined, accounting for 29 percent of the world’s total exported bananas. And in case you’re curious about those pre-export prices, bananas cost about 10 cents each in Ecuador.
I had come to Colombia to write – or at least I had hoped. But on my third day, I was sitting in the bar of the Santa Clara Sofitel hotel sipping mojitos spiked with lulo juice, one of the many exotic fruits found here, and all I could write about in my notebook was that I had nothing to write about. A friend of a friend who works at this hotel found me a guy here who takes care of a toucan. But that wasn’t the story I was hoping to write.
It was nearly a whim that brought me here, booking a ticket on the new JFK-to-Cartagena route on JetBlue. It was almost a personal anomaly for me but I had no itinerary and I did little research. What did I know about this part of the world? I knew that singer Shakira and actress Sofia Vergara were from near here. Perhaps on some level I pathetically half expected (or hoped?) all the women to look like Ms. Vergara, whose physical appearance reminds me of a woman I still wish I was dating. I was wrong. I also thought I could maybe kickstart a book idea I had after visiting Bolivia a few years ago – a book about the coca leaf. But like Sofia Vergara lookalikes, there’s no coca leaf culture in Cartagena like there is in Bolivia or the southern parts of Colombia. Two stereotypes down, several more to go.I thought I’d be an old-school journalist (or just a journalist) and come here and sniff out a story, come upon something unique and interesting that would lead me to smoky clubs, inside the cars of strangers going god knows where, or to parts of town I would have never stumbled upon. So I strolled the streets of this handsome seaside colonial town. I was unprepared for the bold sun and, as a result, my face turned a severe red by the second day, prompting locals to call out “Rojo!” as I walked by. I was a different kind of gringo here – the dumb kind – opting to wear jeans instead of shorts and a black button-down shirt instead a light T-shirt, because where I come from only the tourists wear shorts.
I went to the Convent Santa Cruz de la Popa, to the fortress, and I walked the walls around the old town. I talked to restaurant owners and chefs, all of whom reminded me how much safer it is here now, which was great but reminded me that I needed to find a fresher angle, one that didn’t involve the travel publication clichés in the headline, “The New Cartagena” or, my favorite, “Cartagena Reborn,” as if somehow an entire city was reborn and we barely knew about it.
One day I took a boat out to one of the Rosario Islands. As I was traipsing off the boat, I was immediately accosted by options: scuba diving, mountain biking, a trip to an aquarium – all potential stories. But as I scanned the tourists relaxing on the beach next to the teal-colored sea, I had a realization: maybe I just need a vacation. Travel writers need a vacation, too, and, when I thought about it, I’d pretty much been doing tourist stuff all along. I haven’t traveled anywhere without an assignment in maybe a decade and perhaps the subconscious voices in my head were telling me to relax a bit.
Instead of the options that were presented to me on the island, I put my notebook away and I planted myself under a palapa. I ordered a mojito and pulled out the Joan Didion book in my bag and began reading.