The Purposeful Traveler
A prolific travel writer and expert on Central America, Joshua Berman began his writing career after a stint in the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Nicaragua. He now writes a monthly column for The Denver Post, has published travel articles in the New York Times, Delta SKY, Sunset and National Geographic Traveler, acted as my guide on Bizarre Foods Nicaragua, and has authored five guide books, including Moon Nicaragua and Moon Belize. His latest book and first narrative, Crocodile Love: Travel Tales form an Extended Honeymoon, chronicles his 16-month, 16-country voluntourism honeymoon, with stories of adventure and mishaps from Ghana to Pakistan. Below, Berman talks about how to become a good storyteller, a few of his most memorable meals on the road, and the best way to experience Nicaragua and Belize.
AndrewZimmern.com: Your new book recounts tales from a round-the-world honeymoon. How did you go about writing this book a decade later? What was it like revisiting these memories?
Joshua Berman: I’ve actually been working on the book, off-and-on, over the ten years since we returned from our trip. We started a family during that time and shifted careers, so there were long chunks of time when the project was on the back burner, but here it is. And now that people are reading it and telling my stories back to me, yes, it’s absolutely like re-living some of those moments, but through my readers’ eyes, which is fun.
AZ.com: It’s an amazing and intimate story. How did this wild, adventurous and fulfilling trip at the beginning of a marriage influence or inspire your relationship?
JB: I think by discovering what kinds of risks we were willing to take together, by getting ourselves into these situations and adventures, we prepared ourselves to nourish that part of our relationship. Now, as parents, every moment of our lives is still defined by risk, reward, and pure discovery. Those are a few of the similarities I’ve found between travel and parenting. I’d like to think our trip prepared us for this.
AZ.com: How did you become a good storyteller? What’s the best way to gain access to locals and make personal connections on the road?
JB: That’s just it—gaining access and meeting people who bring their own rich, exotic stories. There are different ways to go about it, but I’ve found that signing up to volunteer with an existing, trusted organization is one way to enter a community with a purpose other than tourism. In our case, our assignments involved pairing up with local work counterparts. We were supposed to train and support each other. We lived with our counterparts in Birpara, India, and other times, we were assigned housing, which we shared with local families connected with our host organization. These situations put us right in the middle of it, so then it was just my job to jot down some of the crazy dialogue and descriptions, hoping they’d make sense later.
AZ.com: It’s likely an impossible task, but can you describe a few of your most memorable meals on the road?
JB: Well, there was the time in northern Ghana when Chief took me to the bus station to eat fufu, a kind of fermented cassava flour, drowned in a crusty ladle-ful of gravy scooped out of a fly-swarmed cauldron of beef stew. I was hesitant while Chief and his sons gulped it all down, slapping me on the back and challenging my manhood as I choked the stuff down. Then there was India, where we spent days stuffing ourselves with kichuri during the week-long Durga Puja festivities in our village in West Bengal. I’ll say this: Always remember to eat with your right hand, not the left, and always, always, always check your straw before using it. While drinking at a bar in Kolkata, my wife sucked a live cockroach into her mouth one night—then spit it out on the bar and finished her drink!
AZ.com: What are a few resources for those who want to travel and volunteer abroad?
JB: There are some good guidebooks out there, including Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America by my colleague, Amy E. Robertson. Another excellent resource is Transitions Abroad. In general, it’s very important to research a prospective host organization and to speak with past volunteers before committing to any one program. You want to help, not be a burden. The organization we worked through was American Jewish World Service, based in New York, but I believe they have since suspended their Volunteer Corps program.
AZ.com: What are the biggest challenges of travel writing as a livelihood?
JB: It’s just hard to do it while raising a family and working full-time. Luckily, I’m a teacher so I get lots of breaks, and (so far), it looks like my family likes to travel too.
AZ.com: The million dollar question I have to ask: Any advice for those wanderlust young people who want to be paid to travel and write about it?
JB: Discover your niche, then dive into it head-on. My first little expertise in the wider travel writing world was as a Nicaragua travel author and expert. Then I expanded to Belize, then Honduras, and now with my next book, Moon Colorado Camping, my focus is about to shift to being a camping specialist. In Colorado. The more specific and targeted you can be, whether your focus is a geographic destination or region, an activity, or a certain travel style, embrace it and use it to wedge yourself into the discussion.
AZ.com: Where are you traveling in 2016?
JB: Not sure yet. Definitely camping in the spring and summer, perhaps a rafting trip in Utah, or a dude ranch in the mountains…?
AZ.com: You’ve written extensively about Nicaragua and Belize. What is the best way to experience the best these countries have to offer?
JB: They are two beautiful, welcoming, and remarkably unique countries in Central America. I recommend signing up to a week of Spanish language school in Nicaragua, which you can combine with activities like volcano hiking, surfing, or coffee picking. In Belize, most people opt for the “surf ‘n turf” vacation, spending half their time on the Caribbean coast or on a caye, and the other half at an inland jungle lodge, visiting Maya ruins and caves.
AZ.com: What’s the next book on the horizon?
JB: My next book is another guidebook for Moon Travel Guides, it’s called Moon Colorado Camping: The Complete Guide to Tent and RV Camping. My family and I drove over 3,000 miles around the state last summer, tent camping in every national park and monument, and discovering Colorado as we researched the book.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
JB: Two freshly dad-packed lunches for my girls (cream cheese and raisin bagel sandwiches, hummus and veggies, crackers, salami slices); pesto penne and chicken sausage from last night’s dinner; bottle of white; cheese; two very questionable pickle jars.
About Joshua Berman
Joshua Berman is a travel writer, a columnist for The Denver Post, and an expert on Central America travel. He appeared on the Nicaragua episode of “Bizarre Foods” as Andrew Zimmern’s guide and table companion. Joshua is the author of five guidebooks, including Moon Nicaragua, Moon Belize, and Moon Colorado Camping. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Delta Sky, and Yoga Journal. Joshua lives with his wife and three daughters in Boulder, CO, where he also works as a K-12 Spanish teacher. Crocodile Love: Travel Tales from an Extended Honeymoon is his first narrative travel book. His website is http://joshuaberman.net.
Photographs courtesy of Joshua Berman.