Ask Albert Anything

"Temple monkeys in India are often aggressive crooks." (Photo courtesy of Albert Podell) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Albert Podell, the near-octogenarian world traveler and author of Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth, takes your questions, submitted over email and left in the comments section of his Atlantic piece about the most difficult travel visas for an American to obtain. (It was a rare case of a contributor being so involved in the comments section.) The first of ten questions is the simplest: “Which was your favorite country to be in?

Depends on what I was looking for.
For scenery: Nepal, Switzerland, and the U.S.
For food: China, Vietnam, Thailand, France, Italy, Spain, Morocco
For cultural heritage: England, Egypt, China, Peru, Italy
For women: Russia, Belarus, Germany
For adventure: Almost anywhere in Africa

And the least favorite?

My least favorite countries are, generally, those impoverished wrecks that once had it all but screwed up along the way and ruined it all. Their sense of failure and depression is abysmal. Among these I include Nauru, which was once the richest per capita land of earth, until their guano deposits ran out and they had failed to save for this future, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, which wrecked once-thriving economies with stupid civil wars, and lately, Argentina and Brazil, both mired in scandals and downward economic spirals as the result of corruption and political ineptitude.

What’s the strangest accommodation you ever stayed in?

A floating ship-hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan. It was half brothel, with the hookers fore and the tourists aft. Also, one night sleeping under the luggage conveyor belt at the airport in the Congo awaiting a 4am flight.

What was your most memorable romantic encounter in another country?

Picking up a gorgeous vacationing 18-year-old Russian college student in Malta (when I was 68) who became my traveling companion and girlfriend for the next five years.  Unfortunately, it did not end romantically. I was waiting for her at the airport in Ougoudougou to begin a three-week trip, but she was not on the flight, and she did not answer her home phone. I called her best friend in Moscow and learned that she was in the hospital after miscarrying the child of some other guy.

There must be so many, but who was the most fascinating person you met on your travels?

Lamyi Ibrahim Ghoneim, the world’s most famous camel driver, and Canada Dray, his beloved old camel, also the world’s most famous. There are three pages in my book about him.

How did you make it into Iran?

Easily. I went in 1965 when the Shah was in charge and Americans were their best friends.

When did you most fear for your life?

When a lynch mob in East Pakistan was convinced that I was an Indian spy because I had been caught taking photos in their Defense Ministry on the day a big war with India began. They threw a rope over a rafter and put the noose around my neck while the crowd canted, “Hang him. Hang him. Hang the lying Indian spy.”

To find out how I escaped, you gotta get the book. Sorry, but we authors have to eat and pay rent, and we certainly can’t afford to do that with what The Atlantic pays us.

What’s the worst American faux pas you ever committed in another country?

Propositioning my beautiful hotel maid in Cairo. She spoke no English, so I pointed to me, then to her, then pulled the blanket back and pointed to the bed, then gave her some money. She nodded affirmatively, pointed to the wall calendar for the next day, then pointed to 2 o’clock on her watch. So I assumed we had agreed to an afternoon delight.

When she arrived, I tore my clothing off and she ran out screaming. It turns out that the innocent creature  had thought I wanted her to change the sheets.

I live in Ecuador but have yet to get deep into the Amazon (El Oriente). What I’ve heard and read is that, the deeper one wants to go, the more important it is to seek approval from the local indigenous groups (e.g., via an established tour group). In the past, adventurers have checked in but never checked out. Is this still true?

This has not been my experience. I find that they love visitors, especially if you give them some salt, or sugar, or matches, or cigarettes. Or a lift to visit their relatives downriver.

Did you ever make it to Antarctica?

Not yet. I have been slavishly focused on visiting countries. I also get readily seasick. And the oceans around Antarctica are the roughest in the world. Maybe next year.

Update: I worked with my colleague Nadine to craft a response to both Albert’s creepy answer and his compelling essay—read Nadine here. And email if you have thoughts on any of the broader ideas addressed by either.