Derek Earl Baron is known as Wandering Earl, the name of his website where he writes about his many adventures. He left the United States in 1999 and has now travelled nonstop for more than 20 years.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
Romania would be number one because I honestly think it’s the biggest hidden gem in Europe. It has everything that the rest of Europe has to offer with the castles and best-preserved medieval villages, beautiful countryside and super nice people. It’s just such a gorgeous, comfortable place to be. With so much to offer, and no matter what your interests are. You have all that without the big crowds of tourists that you find in the rest of Europe, so that’s number one.
I was fortunate enough to go there before the fighting began, and it was unlike anything I imagined. It was so beautiful. The people were so incredibly warm and welcoming and were showing me around everywhere. I ended up turning a two-week trip into six weeks there, just because I was having such an incredible time, meeting so many great people and seeing so many amazing sites. Unfortunately, many of which are no longer there. So it’s a bit difficult, but at least back in the day, it was an incredible experience.
It’s another one that’s quite authentic, and even now, it doesn’t get a ton of tourists. Bishkek is still very authentic even though it’s a capital city where a lot of traditions are still holding place. Then you get out to the countryside, and you have your choice of mountain ranges and mountain lakes with gorgeous regions all over the country where you can find nomadic people, and small little villages where people will welcome you into their home.
There is a lot of traditional culture and crafts and a lot of local artisans. So it’s just really authentic experiences over there, which is something that I look for in my travels. So that’s why those three countries above stand out the most.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Angkor Wat for the Millennium, 1999
The first one would be when I was at Angkor Wat in Cambodia for the Millennium in 1999. I celebrated New Year’s there, and that was one week into my first trip. Sitting there in the jungle of Cambodia with 50,000 locals and almost no foreigners around celebrating the Millennium. Looking at the gorgeous Angkor Wat temple was the moment when I realized that I wanted to turn my three-month trip into a lifetime of travel, so quite a memorable moment. I ended up following through with that, and 21 years later, still travelling.
Another incredible moment was when I went to Socotra Island, which is a small island off the coast of Yemen. A place that was quite difficult to reach and at the time was only getting about 700 visitors per year, and that was just totally surreal when the plane landed there. I ended up spending about a week exploring that incredible place. It’s just otherworldly. It’s so trippy. It’s basically like being an Alice in Wonderland between the fascinating trees and landscapes. Everything there was basically something I’d never seen before in my life, almost like I stepped onto another planet.
Visiting the Seychelles
The Seychelles was a destination that I always wanted to go to ever since I read about it when I was younger. It was like my big dream spot, and I finally made it there for my 40th birthday with my girlfriend. We had an unbelievable time because it was even beyond. It was more gorgeous than I could have ever imagined. I am a big tropical beach person so that was just like the icing on the cake. I haven’t been anywhere else quite like it. So yeah, arriving there was pretty spectacular.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Pickpocket in India
As far as my worst travel moments, honestly, that’s a tough one. I could say when I had all my money, wallet and credit cards pickpocketed once in Delhi, India, at night when I was walking through a market after going to an ATM, so I lost everything there. Interestingly enough, though, I ended up going into a small shop to ask the guy if I could use his phone to get some help so that I could get some money sent to me.
That guy ended up becoming a lifelong friend, as he gave me money himself to pay for my hotel and food and just trusted that I would pay him back. I end up visiting him every time I go to India, which is a few times per year, so that was a bad moment turned into a good moment.
Kidnapped in Bangladesh
I would say another bad moment would be when I was kidnapped for about three days in Bangladesh. When I arrived late at the airport in Bangladesh, I went outside, which at the time, every guidebook said not to do, but instead stay in the airport until the morning. I did not listen to that advice. So I went outside and ended up getting kidnapped by a group of taxi drivers who basically took me on a wild three-day journey, locking me up in several rooms around the city, trying to get me to go to banks and take out money for them.
They weren’t the most intelligent kidnappers. They were not heavily armed or anything, so it was three days of that until I finally managed to escape when they told me to get my stuff from my room in one building because they were going to take me to another place. I saw sort of a back exit out of the building, got my stuff, ran out the exit and took off.
No third moment
As for a third one. Honestly, I don’t even know. That’s a very tough one. I don’t even have a third one, It’s been an amazing 21 years. It’s pretty hard to find another bad travel moment, actually.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Take a seat upon arrival
Whenever you arrive in a new place, airport, bus station or train station, my advice is to take a seat. As soon as you get into the airport, like the arrival hall, just find a cafe. Take a seat, get a copy of something, sit there for 20 minutes because I find that a lot of times we make some bad decisions when we’re a little bit flustered, maybe after a long journey. When we arrive somewhere new, we don’t know what’s going on in some countries. People approach you and offer you this and that. You kind of get a little bit confused, and it gets a little overwhelming.
We end up just kind of rushing some decisions, and that’s how we can easily get ripped off or end up in the wrong part of town. It just becomes a bad stressful start to travel. So my advice is always to just sit down, take a seat and relax for a bit. Look around, get a feel for the place, and by the time you’re ready after 15-20 minutes, all the people who were going to come up and offer you all kinds of stuff are all gone or moved on to other people. You can then ask airport staff for assistance so you get some real answers, and you can make better decisions to start off your trip on the right foot.
Don’t worry about seeing the main sights
As for another tip, I would say, wherever you are, I’m very big on not worrying about seeing the main sights and not worrying about going to the main places. Obviously, that’s all great but what I like to do is, say I’m walking around Lisbon, and you’re somewhere where it’s just so crowded with tourists, I just try to find a small little street 5-10 minutes away that looks a little bit empty, head down and walk there.
I love just turning somewhere and walking 5-10 minutes away from the crowds because I find that’s where you find some hidden gems. That’s where you’re going to find the little restaurants that aren’t as popular because they’re not on the main road. That’s where you’ll find the people who are just hanging out that are not involved with tourism so heavily, and you can make some real connections. Turning 5-10 minutes away from any main tourist area has led to some of the most rewarding moments and connections I’ve ever had during my 21 years of travel.
Save money on long-term travel
This applies to long-term travel. I’ve noticed that a lot of travellers are going on to Facebook groups to find things like accommodation. That’s great but what I see is that they will say something like, “I’m moving to Lisbon next month, looking for a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre for around $1500 per month.” The problem is that if you advertise how much you are willing to spend, then that will be what they will charge you. And this has led to a major increase in rental prices in places like Lisbon. So it’s better not to provide a number and let the offers come to you first.
Bonus: Say hello and trust your instinct
I’ll give one more that might be for travellers who are going, not as slow or not spending a long time in places. I would say, for me, it’s all about the connections, so saying hello to as many people as you can. That’s what’s going to make travel rewarding. That’s it. It’s simple as that, yes, you can take the amazing photos, that’s fine, but just saying hello to people, that’s why I’ve ended up in Bedouin caves in Jordan, that nobody goes to. That’s why I’ve made unbelievable friends in tiny villages in Kyrgyzstan. That’s how I’ve ended up in all kinds of crazy experiences and cool experiences in India and wherever.
It’s all from saying hello, and then going with your instinct. Yeah, you don’t trust everybody, but the more you travel, the more you get a feel for it. Yes, this person is genuine. If something doesn’t feel right, then you don’t go with them, or you don’t trust it, but other than that, make those connections because, with local people, that’s how you’re going to have the most rewarding experiences.
I think that it’s very easy to kind of avoid that these days because you can go anywhere in the world and find the same cafes, the same everything, and that’s it, we kind of travel even in a little bit of a bubble. So if you can get out of that a little bit and just go to some meetup groups full of locals when you’re travelling and say hello; that’s where you’re going to end up being taken all over the place and just have the experiences that 99.9% of travellers won’t have in that destination. That’s what it’s all about in the end: Some real, authentic and rewarding experiences.