Gary Wilson is an independent traveller. He has lived in seven different countries (South Africa, Thailand, South Korea, England, USA, Germany, and Luxembourg) and he has travelled to 99 UN countries as of July 2021. He currently lives in Luxembourg with his wife and works full time, travelling on his vacations.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
Understanding what it is to be human. One of the main reasons that I travel is to learn about human life, why we live the way we do and do the things that we do. Germany is the country that is richest in learning for me, both from its history and from its present. It is astonishing to me that a country called the land of poets and philosophers also had difficult episodes in its history. I ask myself when I travel there what this tells me about what it is to be human, to hold both beauty and difficulty in ourselves, and what it is to be a social and political community.
It also fascinates me how Germany is evolving in the present time, from the acceptance of large numbers of refugees and the difficulties with that to the growth of the green party and the party that is far to the right. On a recent visit to Heidelberg, I marvelled at the integration of the refugees from Syria who started coming over in 2015. The kids I saw spoke good German and were hanging out with other German kids. The adults I saw were eating in restaurants along with everyone else. There was little separation.
The other reason that I like Germany is that it is astonishingly beautiful. I particularly like the Bavarian Alps and the beautiful small towns that I have seen all over the country. The North Sea and the rivers like the Rhine and the Neckar are also beautiful.
My personal history. My father was murdered just a handful of years ago, stabbed to death with a screwdriver, at home in South Africa, outside in the early morning. He was trying to stop, we think, a group of thieves from breaking into the garage. After his death, I did not want to visit southern Africa for a while, and I have not yet, but Malawi is the first place that I will return to in southern Africa. Even though it is thousands of kilometres away from South Africa, I still consider it part of the southern African family.
Southern Africa is close to my heart. I grew up in Johannesburg, studied in Cape Town, and my first independent travels were overland to Uganda and back. And yet, I choose Malawi above South Africa, Namibia or Botswana, all of which I think are amazing countries too. But there is something serene about Malawi that makes me want to return there more than most other countries.
I have only been to Malawi once, but I am planning another trip soon because it contains so much difficulty, and yet everyone has such big smiles. It may not contain the most spectacular sights in Africa (like Djanet, Chinguetti, Fouta Djallon, Victoria Falls, Arniston), but lake Malawi has a quiet, idyllic beauty that holds its own. It is also not the most difficult place to travel, so it is not as adventurous as some other countries, but this too has its joy, because I could get from place to place without too much hassle.
Maybe though, it is just that I want to go to a place where I sense that my father would be at peace, where his soul can rest, and where I can put to rest the thoughts of his violent death.
Islam and the incredible desert landscape.
I do love travelling in countries where Islam is the dominant religion, and of those, Algeria has been my favourite. I have a master’s in philosophy and comparative religion, and although I now work with numbers, I continue to be fascinated by the religions of the world, and firstly by Islam. There is a famous saying that tourists are already leaving the moment they arrive, whereas travellers can stay forever. Could it be that the ultimate traveller is the convert to another religion, or the person who moves to another country to marry, or the anthropologist who never leaves the site? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that when I travel in Islamic countries, I wonder what it would be like to convert, to believe, to pray five times a day, to do the Hajj?
Additionally, the desert in Algeria is sublimely beautiful. Some say it is the most beautiful desert in the world. Djanet is where I went, and I felt more awe there than anywhere else I have ever visited.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Seeing the blue mosque in Istanbul for the first time
I went to Istanbul the first time without knowing what there is to see. Normally I meticulously plan my trips and then use it as a framework to either follow or discard when I am at a destination or on a route. But this time, I just booked the hotel and was going to spontaneously explore.
I got out of the train from the airport to the central historical area and was walking to the hotel, and I walked onto the area in front of the blue mosque. I looked up and saw it for the first time. Wow, wow, wow. I’m referring to genuine awe. A moment that caused my heart to race, my hair to stand on end, and my breath to be taken away.
Tea in Mashad, Iran
Now, kindly let me emphasise this, I don’t drink tea. Most of the time, that is, if possible. I try to refuse very politely. The reason is that I generally do not sleep well after drinking tea or coffee.
My wife and I met the friend of a friend of ours in Mashad and stayed over with them. He manages a big train station, and his wife is a doctor, and their son is the most well-behaved kid I have ever met. Mashad is a wonderful place. Through the sister of a friend of ours, we were lucky enough to be able to go into the most beautiful mosques we have seen. And then we drove around the city listening to great music at full blast and screeched in some fear as a bus overtook our car with milometers to spare. Another monument and mosques and delicious food, ice cream and juices, and we concluded an amazing day. All of this, the overnight stay, the trip to the mosque, the food, the ice creams, the transport, and the juices, were gifts to us, with nothing expected in return. We were strangers, being treated as the closest family.
The next day, we moved on, and we went to the train station with our friend to get the train tickets. You probably know how this is, there was some waiting and some chatting and out then out came a beautiful tray with tea and next to the tea some cubes of sugar. I did try to say no, but in the face of the overwhelming generosity and kindness, I could not. And it was delicious!
Dinner in Gumi, South Korea
My boss in South Korea had a black belt in Taekwondo. He showed us some of the kicks that he could do, and they were powerful and impressive.
I taught English for a year, and we went out for dinner with him a few times. The first time we went for dinner, my wife and I tried to pay. But he refused. We thought it was a boss to worker thing, so we let it go. But the same thing happened the second and the third time, and we started asking our students why this was the case?
We were going out for friendly dinners after all and were happy to pay. They explained that this is part of the culture in South Korea and that we should at least try to pay, but we probably would not want to push it too far. I asked if it was possible to insist on paying, but I did not get a clear answer, so I left it as that for a while. Then a student brought in an article from the newspaper. It detailed how a man accidentally died from a Taekwondo kick to his chest while fighting to pay for the bill.
Now the guy who died had a weak heart, so maybe he should have known. But I now knew, and for the next few dinners, I did try to pay, but I was aware that I had my limits. My wife and I eventually bought our boss, now our friend, a thank you gift when we finished our contract. We will always remember those dinners.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Catching Covid in Rio
On Christmas eve of 2020, I went to a party in Rio, and I don’t know what overcame me, but I did not wear a mask, and hardly anyone else wore masks. I had been cautious up to that point, but then I lost it. Two days later, I took a covid test, got the results later in the week, glanced at it, and went to the airport the next day to fly home. I did not feel sick, so I did not look at the results closely. But in the airport, they sure looked at the results closely. I was told that I could not board because I was covid positive. I was so embarrassed.
Here I was in a crowded place actively with covid. The good side is that I stayed for three weeks longer in Rio, in the amazing Niteroi Hotel, which has the best views over Rio. Also, my wife, who is a superb negotiator, managed to get the flight tickets moved to three weeks’ time, at no cost. And finally, the excellent insurance that I have paid for the hotel! Still, I wish I had read the test closely and also not gone to that party.
Moto-taxi in the DRC
In May 2018, I travelled in the DRC (The Democratic Republic of the Congo) for the first time, down the east side, from Goma to Uvira. It was an amazing adventure. The worst and most adventurous moment happened when I was leaving. I caught a moto-taxi from Uvira to the border with Burundi. As the bike was driving along the road, we saw massive tires being burnt in the road in front of the UN compound, effectively blocking the road. My heart nearly stopped. I have seen and taken part in quite a few demonstrations, mainly in South Africa.
In my experience, they can get dangerous. I just thought that we would turn around and wait it out. But the guy driving the taxi decided to drive into the village on the other side of the road, across from the UN compound and in this way go around the whole demonstration. But, on our way through the village houses, winding and stopping and winding on again, with me still feeling very anxious, I saw this half brick sailing in the air towards me. It was like I was in a time loop where things has slowed down. Clearly, someone in the village was unhappy with us and had thrown this half brick at us. Luckily that brick just missed us on the bike, but it is something that I will never forget, that half brick sailing through the air towards me.
Getting deported from Russia
I had just completed a great trip in central Asia, and I was flying home from Uzbekistan to Munich (where I was living at the time) via Moscow. During my planning for the trip, I noticed that I could fly from Moscow to Belarus and then on to Munich. But it would require changing airline carrier in Moscow. No problem, I thought. I got off the flight from Urgench to Moscow, went into the airport and showed them the ticket from Moscow to Minsk. The airport officials said that my wife and I needed to go out through immigration and then into the other terminal. I knew then that there would be trouble because I did not have a visa.
I had presumed that the transfers would happen inside the international terminal. I did have the original tickets from Moscow to Munich, but I wanted to see if I could get onto the next flight. But I could not, and the airport staff were not happy with us. We were put in a separate room, along with another guy, and it was difficult to understand what was happening. Eventually, with the time for the backup flight to Munich getting closer, I showed them this ticket. Then things moved. The airport police came and escorted us to that plane, kept our passports until we were in Munich and gave us a deported stamp. No Belarus.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Bring business cards
I take personal business cards with me wherever I go. The simple ones and are not expensive to get made. On them, I put my name, email, phone number and the country I live in (not full address). They are so useful for giving to people who I meet in hostels, flights or just on the road. I also use them as luggage labels and put them in every bag that I have or anything that I might take somewhere and forget – wallet, book etc. But they are even more useful in difficult situations, like when talking to an awkward official at a difficult border. Somehow that printed bit of cardboard is reassuring, is a sign of trust – here, please take my contact details, my phone, my email, and contact me at any time. In using them, I have made friends and smoothed over many situations.
Bring a water bottle with a carbon filter
On all my trips, I take a water bottle that has a carbon filter for tap water. But when I am travelling somewhere where the water might need a deeper clean, I also have a small UV light filter. I will fill the bottle with water, use the UV light filter to kill the bugs, and then drink the water through the carbon filter.
- Brita = the brand of the carbon filter bottle
- Steripen = the UV light filter
Travel with two smartphones
I got this one from a friend, but it is a very good one, and I use a variant of it too.
I take two smartphones with me when I go on a trip. One is my main phone that has all my online banks, and I am logged in there to Google Drive, where all my travel docs are stored. If I am worried about safety in the area, I am in. I leave this one in the hotel when I go out to explore the town or the area.
On the second phone, I have just the basics: Uber and another Google login with downloaded Google maps for use offline. I use this phone if the area is dangerous, and I am worried that I might get robbed. I also use this phone to put in a local sim, turn it into a Wi-Fi hotspot and connect to my first phone if I need it. This is useful in many situations where I might need more data to download things from my first phone but do not have Wi-Fi.
Do you have any favourite hotels or restaurants?
The H Niteroi Hotel in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, is my favourite hotel in the world. The views over Rio de Janeiro are just incredible. Almost every night I stayed there in Jan of 2021 had sunsets of immense beauty.
Hotel Tequendama in Bogota is the kind of hotel I would like to go to in every new city that I land in. It is large in that it has many rooms, but the rooms are big, quiet, and comfortable, the staff is super friendly, the breakfast is incredible, the internet is fast and mostly reliable, and they have an airport taxi (must be paid separately, but it is so worth it after a long flight).
Dar Rio Oro in Dakhla in Western Sahara. I spent about a week here just relaxing and enjoying this lovely town on the edge of the Sahara, with delicious food and lovely owners and interesting guests.
Restaurant: Saravanaa Bhavan East Ham, London. This is a vegetarian restaurant in the East of London that serves the most delicious Indian food that I have ever eaten. It is also inexpensive and a pleasant cultural experience.
Restaurant: Prinz Myshkin is a beautiful, spacious restaurant in the Altstadt part of Munich. I used to work just around the corner and went there often for the lunch of the day. It is quite enough to have a good conversation. The vegan and vegetarian food are superb.
Do you have any favourite cities?
London, Las Vegas, Cairo, Istanbul and Cali.
What are some of the worst places you’ve stayed?
A Hotel near Istanbul airport
There are not many options outside of the IST Istanbul airport that is close to the airport. On a recent trip there, I went to a cheap hotel about 20 minutes away. It looked great in the pictures, and the room was just okay. It was our neighbours who made it the worst place because the walls were very thin, and they had loud sex all night, with slapping and continual sighing. It was impossible to sleep, and when we finally confronted them about it, the man had disappeared, and the woman said that it absolutely was not her, but rather someone from above us.
What is another good travel story you haven’t mentioned so far?
Bedbugs in Bujumbura
I am tight, I admit it. And sometimes it does not work out, like this time. I arrived in Bujumbura from the Congo, with share taxis and busses, and when I got to the city, I was not sure where I was exactly. I did have a hotel that I wanted to stay at, an expensive one at over 100$ per night and my plan was to get there. I saw a restaurant across the road from where my last share taxi dropped me, and I went in.
I had lots of time, so I sat there enjoying my food. My waiter could speak very good English, so I chatted to him a bit. I asked him about the hotel I wanted to go to, and he told me how to get there. Then he said: “Why not stay here?” The restaurant was part of a hotel. I went and looked at the rooms, and the one that was available was dark, but it did have a mosquito net, and it only costs 5$ per night. I jumped at this. I was saving money after all!
That night though, I noticed a bedbug on the bed. I managed to catch it and squash it. I had bedbugs before, in London of all places, travelling for work, in a good hotel, and then I had researched what they looked like. I went to sleep. I know that bedbug bites take at least one day to show and probably two days to manifest. I stayed there for three nights, and I got bitten hundreds of times. I did not leave because, in my mind, I had decided to stay. But in the two weeks after that, I really suffered. Lesson learned. I try to look for bedbugs now. It is not that easy. And I try to be flexible about moving hotels. I have been bitten a couple more times since then, but never as bad.
If you can only choose one:
Favourite airline: Turkish Airlines.
Favourite airport: Luxembourg.
Favourite city: London.
Favourite island: Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand.
Favourite people: People from Iran.
Favourite small town: Mittenwald, Germany.
Favourite travel book: The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World.
Favourite travel movie: “INCENDIES”: The woman who sings.
Favourite travel website: EPS (Every Passport Stamp) on Facebook and the YouTube travel channels, like Kara and Nate, The Endless Adventure, Drew Binsky, and Eva Zu Beck.