Photo: Chris Sanders

The Way to Unite the World Is Through Travel: An Interview With Andrew McCarthy

by Tom Gates Nov 13, 2012
Andrew McCarthy’s new book The Longest Way Home finds him using travel as a method for sorting through life’s toughest questions.

Matador: I don’t think I realized that your acting career happened so fast, and that your first movie was a leading role. When you turned your mind to travel writing, did it happen that fast for you, too?

Andrew: I started in 2004 with my first story. I took off in a bigger way in 2010 with the Travel Journalist of the Year award. So it took that long. And then it took off instantly. People that were vaguely responding to my emails suddenly had an urgent need that I write for them.

It was very different from my acting career, whereas the acting I was always re-acting to – I was 22 odd years old and had no idea what was happening. In the writing it’s been very conscious. I was making sure I was trying to write for certain kinds of publications. The way I emerged was very deliberate. So, by the same time I was ‘outed’ as the same guy who was in these movies, I would have had a large body of substantial work under my belt, so that it wasn’t so easy to dismiss. By then I’d written for National Geographic, The New York Times, The Atlantic, so people couldn’t just say “Huh? The guy from Pretty in Pink?”

You’ve really put it all out there in this book. Were there any last minute nerves about revealing so much about personal struggles and relationships before it came out?

People ask me about this and I guess it’s a bit revealing, but I kind of feel like I don’t reveal anything except my human-ness. It’s not like a tell-all. I just talk about feelings that I think everyone has. I had no interest in writing a straight travel narrative, per se. Travel to me has always been as much about the internal as the external one.

My experience with travel is a very personal one. It’s not usually about a place. It’s my experience in the place that makes it memorable. That’s what I wanted to capture with the book. I have no great desire to see a bunch of ‘stuff’ and check things off my list, to see how many countries I could go to. That has no appeal to me. But I love what happens to me when I travel. And I love the experience of different cultures and different people. So, the book had to be that to me. It had to be this personal thing, if it was going to reflect how I travel, which is what I wanted it to do.

There were also issues I was just grappling with in life. That’s what I do when I travel, try to figure stuff out. Some people go to therapy, some people have coffee with the girls and chat about it, I go travel to figure it out. That’s what I did. I traveled this problem. I applied my travels to this dilemma to see where I was going to get with it.

Have you ever been on a traditional press trip?

No. It’s everything that I’m not looking for in a trip. I don’t want you to tell me where I’m going to go, and who I’m going to meet, and who I’m going to talk to. That just seems insane to me. It holds no allure for me at all.

I love that you have an enthusiasm for hotels that aren’t necessarily big names or chains. What are some of your favorites?

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

I like family run places because you get all of the charming neurosis of the family without any of the dysfunction because you can just walk away. But you can so clearly see how quirky and dysfunctional they are, but to you as an outsider it’s just charm.

I love a place where…when I get an extra bar of soap I feel like I’m being taken care of. As opposed to if I go stay at the St. Regis and my in-room supply of green tea isn’t replenished every day, I get furious. I hate how I behave, how I become when I’m in those places. I do not do pampered well. The best part of me does not come out when I’m pampered.

You talk about an elixir you drank in Peru, which I thought was funny when I read it, but ten times funnier when I saw the picture of you on the stuff at the end of your book. Have you ever figured out what it was?

No, it was probably just pure rum (laughs).

I was dragged into a hairy political conversation over the weekend. I went mute because I realized that many of the people I was sitting with, their idea of travel was to go to Orlando. Do you think this country would be different if people saw more of the world?

Yes. That’s my whole soapbox. I’ve said the Mark Twain line over and over in interviews, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” America is an amazing place. But America is an incredibly fearful place. Most of our political decisions are based in fear. And travel obliterates fear. It just does. You can’t come back from somewhere and not be altered by it.

If Americans traveled, they’d be a much less fearful people. And if Americans were less fearful people, the world would react to us less fearfully, and the world would be a safer place. I do believe in sort of ‘change the world one trip at a time.’ If you can get that guy from Ohio who’s never been out of Ohio, the guy who decides our election… you would come back a different person, and you would see that the guy with a “towel on his head” is not trying to kill you any more than that crazy guy in Idaho is.

People take great exception when I say this. I said it on some TV show and I got all of these Tweets and emails. “That’s not true!” People will defend their fears to the grave. The reason we don’t travel is not money, it’s fear, period.

If we traveled we’d be different. You’re changed when you come back. The way to unite the world is through travel.

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