WESTWORLD: Winter, 2009
PROFILE: The Father of Modern Journey-ism
by Jeff Topham
I hate Robin Esrock. I always choose CSI reruns over Word Travels, the nifty television show he co-hosts that sees him jetting around the world doing amazing things in the hunt for a story. (Testing bulletproof vests in Colombia. Getting radioactive in Chernobyl.) I’ve blocked his blog, Modern Gonzo, all chocked full of ribald tales of his off-the-beaten path adventures. (Testing Ferraris and Lamborghinis in Italy. Shopping for bikinis in Rio.) I’ve even stopped reading the morning news lest one of his dozens of entertaining and informative articles appear and ruin my breakfast. (Vampires in Zanzibar.) Truth be told, this assignment
was just a pretense for us to meet so I could break his other kneecap and steal his job –and his identity. Although chances are, he would have turned that into an article, too.(Physio in the Bahamas.)
All joking aside, a broken kneecap is actually the reason Esrock is riding the jet stream he is today. Back in 2004, the Jo’burg native J-school grad was in the corporate express lane, producing websites, pimping musicians and generally being miserable, when he and his Spanish scooter were sideswiped by a careless motorist. The resulting insurance payout would catalyze a dramatic year-long around-the-world backpacking adventure –and the accompanying clever and quirky Modern Gonzo website (Esrock’s nom de plume, in homage to his hero Hunter S. Thompson) that he designed primarily to keep his Grandma back in South Africa apprised of his whereabouts, quickly attracted worldwide traffic. It also led to a regular column in the Vancouver Sun, to published stories in a dozen major newspapers from Dallas to Dubai, to a series of cross-country talks – and ultimately to his own TV show.
As proper travel writers do, we meet over booze at Me and Julio’s, a popular drinking spot on Vancouver’s culturally diverse Commercial Drive. (Robin lives next door above the Ethiopian restaurant, and I like to come to the east side from Kits to pretend like I’m travelling.) It’s just a week before Esrock is to leave for South America to start filming the third season of Word Travels (snowboarding in Chile, no less). Friendly, easygoing and with a South African accent as smooth as
butter, it’s easy to see how he slides in and out of countries and cultures with ease. Five years and 55 countries since he first set out, Esrock’s obviously still got a travel bug that no amount of inoculations seems to have killed. He has also gathered a backpack full of experience and wisdom that belies his wiry 34 year-old frame. With the sparkly eye and practised tongue of a skilled TV host, he eloquently spills insights that I hastily scribble down in my faithful Moleskine note-book . . .
WW: So what have you learned fromall of this travel?
RE: I’ve boiled it down to four things:
1. Wherever you are is where you’re supposed to be. I always used to be the biggest grass is greener kind of guy. No matter what, there was always something better - shopping, careers, relationships. I think we grow up in that kind of culture. Traveling has really forced me to appreciate everything that we have. The best possible vibe we could have is right here, right now.
2. Listen to ‘The Voice’. I’ve never had a really bad experience in all these years I’ve been traveling. I’ve never been robbed, never been really sick. (He touches wood.) I think I’m exceptionally lucky, no doubt about it, but there’s always this voice, this feeling. Food arrives, hmmm, that kinda looks sketchy. Get on a bus, hmmm, you can feel there’s something up. You’ve gotta respect that instinct.
3. People would rather help you than hurt you. When I tell people what I do – they say ‘Oh isn’t it dangerous!? You get sick, you get robbed!?’ Sure, I’ve had some hairy situations, but there are more good people than bad people in the world. Given the opportunity, people will help. And because I believe that people are good, I can walk into any situation and know someone’s going to help me out – things are not going to get that bad…
4. Just smile. With a smile, it’s amazing what you can get away with.
WW: There certainly can’t be much left on your bucket list?
RE: One thing: Everest base camp.
WW: Unlimited time and funds –what would you do?
RE: You know, I would do exactly what I’m doing now, and that’s a beautiful thing. However, I would make a few small changes. I would bring my girlfriend and I’d bring a couple of friends . . . hell, I’d bring all of my friends. And I’d definitely travel at a much grander, slower pace.
WW: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
RE: That I’m really a chickensh**. I think it's hilarious that I’m 34, Jewish, and call myself Gonzo - and that I write a column called Thrillseeker. But I know my limits. People who get in trouble are people who don’t know their limits. I learned that driving go-karts...
WW: Why do you write so prolifically?
RE: Mostly just to remember it all. I look forward to sitting in a rocking chair on the porch near the end of my days and saying, ‘Yup, been there . . . ‘
WW: How can I be more like you?
RE: I always hear people say, ‘I’d love to do that, but . . . ‘ But what? What is holding us back? Chances are it’s usually fear. Take away that fear and we can actually do a sh**load of stuff. – Jeff Topham
You can see this magazine profile online by clicking here.
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