Henry Rollins On The Importance Of Travel And Overcoming Fears

Henry Rollins is a travel legend. His grand adventures in the far-flung corners of the world have inspired countless travelers. Oh, and he’s also a rock ‘n roll god — with a career spanning four decades with S.O.A, Black Flag, Rollins Band, and a slew of iconic collaborators. Add in a thriving writing and spoken word career and there’s no denying Rollins’s standing as an urgent and wholly original voice in the American zeitgeist.

On a personal level, Henry Rollins has long been a big part of the reason I love travel. Looking back, when I first started traveling, I never really had a good answer as to “why.” I liked being somewhere new, experiencing new foods, all the usual things you say when you’re young and not really sure. It was during my early travels that I started reading about Rollins’s global wanderings. He inspired me to travel further and go places everyone back home told me were too scary or dangerous.

Since Henry Rollins was a crucial stepping stone to my life as an adventurer, I always hoped that one day we’d get to sit down and swap travel tales. Last week, that dream came true. Rollins spoke to me about travel, the state of our world, and still made time to drop in some good music recommendations.

As a traveler, where has fear helped you overcome obstacles? And how can we find a better balance of knowing what to fear and what not to fear?

I am not remembering when fear was an asset. Awareness of where I was, culturally, economically, ecologically, politically and historically has been of great use. Traveling with as much of this kind of information can allow you to visit a place that might be very different than what you’re used to and maintain high levels of respect and civility. With an awareness of where you are, you can get a lot more out of every moment and it’s good for safety.

I think travel is a deathblow to ignorance and bigotry. It’s hard to harbor fear of a place and its people once you’ve been there. It is true that for Westerners, there are some places where you could have a very, very bad time. One must be careful but there is no reason to fear any place. I would much rather take my chances on the night streets of Nairobi than in some parts of Los Angeles. I have found humans to be for the most part extraordinarily friendly and generous wherever I have been — often in places where I was told not to go.

Do you think planning can get in the way of adventure? That is, over-thinking something may cause you to say no to an otherwise great opportunity?

I would agree that too much planning can kind of chew the taste out of the gum but it depends on where you’re going. Alone to Islamabad, Pakistan, I am not up for too much adventure. I was there when Bhutto was assassinated. That was plenty enough adventure for me.

I would, like I said, be very aware of where I am. Respecting a people and a culture is a very big thing for me. So, perhaps you strike a balance in what you’re up for and what you think you’re ready to handle if things go south.

I was in Nepal when they had that nation wide general strike. A lot of cops and security on high alert in Kathmandu. I walked around until dark, wondering why no one was driving. I got back to the hotel and the staff were amazed I wasn’t harmed. I didn’t smell any danger. So far, the only times I have had to run for my life have been in the USA.

What advice can you give to someone who may feel a bit introverted and less prone to go up to a stranger in a strange land and strike up a conversation?

Let your curiosity overpower your shyness. I am a shy person but when I am somewhere interesting, I usually ask a lot of questions. I think humans can read other humans. If you show genuine respect and curiosity, people will often open up to you. This has been what I have found all over the world. You can’t be naïve and you have to be able to read a situation and see the end of the story before anyone else does but you shouldn’t try to block your curiosity.

Humor is a key element to traveling alone in interesting places. When in doubt, smile.

Likewise, is there an instance of a time when striking up a conversation with a stranger has completely changed the course of a trip?

Absolutely. I met a taxi driver in Beirut. Sami. We got along. We went all over the place. I hung out with the family, played with the kids.

A tour guide I met in Mongolia introduced me to a member of a radical group there. We talked for three hours about their movements and plans. Hectic.

Often you get to a city or region in an otherwise war torn country and find it peaceful — life goes on, people live and work and make love, and really it’s the normalcy of the place that is the most surprising and informing. Can you share an experience that truly shocked you and changed the way you perceived a place from a Western point of view?

Southeast Asia. Getting the other side of the story about the Vietnam War is something that a lot of Americans should do. When you take the tours, go to the museums, ask your guide not to spare you with sugarcoating the facts, it’s quite a thing. I have been to Vietnam a few times, always to do research on the war, agent orange, Operation Ranch Hand, the lasting damage to soil, water and people.

Central Asia. Those people have been invaded, leveled, occupied and otherwise pulled around, for centuries. What the Mongols didn’t raze, Stalin twisted. The recent independence of the “Stans” has led to a lot of good, a lot of bad and a lot of cultural confusion.

Tibet will break you to pieces. The government of China is crushing that culture to a powder. Haiti can make you feel completely hopeless. Humans have it very, very hard all over the world. Parts of Africa are incredibly harsh, where people don’t live as much as not die that day.

When I meet a genuinely mean person, they are usually untraveled.

Travel is a lot about luck and coincidence. When I ask my friends who are former war photographers or correspondents why they left the field, they always answer that they wanted to leave before their luck ran out. What do you say to someone who has traveled their whole life, but may be losing their nerve?

When you no longer have the mojo, get out immediately. Traveling past your use-by date can be fatal. I was in Damascus a few years ago. It was obvious that it was going to blow up. It was like everyone in the city was holding their breath but me.

And how much do you feel luck has played in your travel?

I have absolutely no idea.

A lot of pro travelers get what’s called reverse culture shock. Is it ever hard coming home?

I travel for up to a year at a time. Being back here is the hardest time I ever do. I’m not built for living in a house. I don’t trust it. I feel like I get softer and stupider every minute that passes. I’ve been back for a couple of months now. It’s not good.

As someone who has spent the better part of their life on the road through music, spoken word, and book tours plus all the independent travel — do you feel like travel can become an addiction that needs feeding?

Sure. Once you blow the doors off and get a taste of how big the human experience can be, anything less is almost an insult. That’s one of the reasons so many older photographers are so crazy. They literally saw too much. Jim Marshall had seen so much go down, he would fairly explode in front of you. Perhaps it’s not an addiction as much as not being able to un-know what you know.

Okay, lightning round … What is the first question you ask when you get in country?

Where is the supply of clean water.

What are you looking for when you have a meal in a new country?

Sanitary conditions

What do you bring home from a trip?

Photos, writing, the occasional piece of shrapnel or bullet casing.

How does one go about collecting music around the world?

I go to the kiosks in the market places and check out the CDRs and cassettes.

What culture’s music have you gotten into recently that’s new and exciting for you?

Really digging jukebox singles from Morocco from the 1960’s and 1970’s.

There are some universals around the world — music, sex, rice, caffeine, tobacco. What are some of the less obvious universalities of humanity?

Generosity, civility, kindness. No one is all that much different, beyond all of your wonderful eccentricities. Everyone wants clean water and a toilet, peace rather than war, safety over danger.

If there’s one place that you go back to the most, where is it and why?

For the most part, I go where the work is. Beyond that, the African continent. It’s where I learn the big lessons.

What are Henry Rollins’ five places he wants to see next and why?

South Georgia Island, Kuala Lumpur, more of China, New Guinea, the Philippines. All but China I have not yet been to, that’s about all it takes to make me want to go almost anywhere. I would like to get into more parts of the African continent. I have been many times but there is always more to see and learn there.

Over the past 30ish years we were lucky enough to see the world open up drastically. Now, the pendulum seems to be swinging back in the other direction. People want more borders and walls (often through propaganda inciting irrational fears). How can we fight this shift back to more borders, more tariffs, less connectivity? Or is it just something we have to ride out?

I think to ride it out would be giving these people what they want and lose everything. I think those few who want to oppress the many factor in your exhaustion — they know that you will stop paying attention or fall into a state of apathy.

I advocate for more travel, more information derived from really going somewhere and seeing it for yourself. It will inform how you vote and conduct yourself with others.

In the USA, a lot of people don’t travel outside of the country. They can be convinced of a lot of things that are simply not true. Look at the current president. It is obvious he doesn’t know and doesn’t want to know about the world he lives in. Almost everything he does, you should do the opposite. The vast majority of the human population have been gamed by a small fraction and they run a lot of stuff. Travel and the knowledge that comes from it makes it harder to be fooled. To be succinct, riding it out is death.

You can follow Henry Rollins’ work and travels on his website, on Twitter, and his new podcast Henry & Heidi.
The Mad Ones is a reference to a famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”
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