Last week Joe Coca and I were invited to do a presentation at Interweave’s annual Yarn Fest. The idea was to show what we’ve been up to since leaving Interweave and launching Thrums Books. The event was great—so many old friends, such a yarn-loving vibe. Figuring out what to share was something else—there’s been so much.
First of all, in preparation, I calculated that we have traveled more than 100,000 air miles in pursuit of our 20 (so far) books. And that’s before miles by train, boat, bus, pickup, van, automobile, tuk tuk, motor bike, and foot. Please don’t talk to me about carbon footprint. I feel only shame. Second, what were our basic principles of interacting in cultures far from our own? This is an area where Joe shines—he blends in, gets comfortable, makes friends, and then everyone wants their picture taken! Here is some behind-the-scenes documentation of how that works and our travel advice.
Be appropriate (Skirts for women in some countries, scarves in some. Long pants for men almost everywhere. Nothing flashy, nothing revealing). Even more important, appreciate local fashion! Try it on, buy some if it’s for sale, even if you know you’ll never wear it at home. I’ve seen Joe trade the shirt off his back (literally) or the hat off his head for ones of our host’s. Basic cultural exchange.
Eat local. Whatever you’re offered. Even if it’s chicken feet, or sheep intestines, or stewed polliwogs, or fresh duck blood, or silkworm larvae, or donkey burgers. The only thing we’ve avoided is dog. Just can’t do it.
If you shun alcohol, you’re in good shape in Muslim countries. But everywhere else we’ve been, sharing local beverages is important. We’ve had homemade rice wine and rice whiskey in Laos and China; pox (corn liquor) in Chiapas; sorghum-based whiskey in China (tastes like fermented backstrap molasses); corn beer (chicha) in Peru; barley-saliva beer (the traditional kind of chicha) in the Amazon. In peoples’ homes, drinking together is a jovial and bonding activity. Toasts galore! During festivals, booze is offered freely by strangers on the street, and “no” is not an answer. On one memorable occasion, our sidekick Karen Brock was obliged to down twelve hefty shots (twelve!) of rice wine in a Chinese village prior to helping conduct an interview. She was so cheerful!
Joe speaks semi-decent Spanish, but otherwise we are both unskilled. But we always master a few key words: hello! (Sabaidee, Nǐ hǎo, Buenas dias, Imanallya); thank you (Gracias, Xièxiè, Sullpayki), and so forth. Joe also commits “slow down,” “stop,” and “smile” to his vocabulary. Everywhere we go, Joe is bombarded with kids asking “whereareyoufrom?” Most important is to have a good translator, and we’ve been so fortunate: Nilda Callañaupa, Chip Morris, Deborah Chandler and Tere Cordón, Mailatong Bounasay, Wang Jun, and others. At least as important, though, is don’t be afraid to try. If you sound stupid, it’s okay. Just another stupid gringo. As some old women in rural Oaxaca said, on learning that I didn’t speak Zapotec, “The poor thing! She can’t understand a word we’re saying.”
Travel the world with these Thrums Books: