In 2008, Tom Gates quit his job as a music manager in New York City and started writing travel stories for Matador Network. Soon after his transition, he embarked on a yearlong, twelve-country journey around the globe documented in his book Wayward: Fetching Tales From a Year on the Road. Gates took a break from sitting in traffic in L.A. to chat about eating dog, jail, and enlightened travelers.
A quote from the book reads, “The unplanned stops are going to be better than the planned ones.” Did you figure out a formula for how much to plan and how much to leave up to chance?
I am kind of a planner, so a year of winging it was definitely a challenge. There are certain places you go and you just can’t really plan. When you are trying to get across the river, and you have to bribe the kid to bring his boat over to get you, there is not much you can do. I had this moment in Laos when I showed someone a map of where I wanted to go and they couldn’t explain to me where it was. I became really frustrated with them and then I realized the reason they couldn’t do it is because they never saw a map and didn’t know what a map was. That’s me being an asshole (laughs).
You ate dog in Hanoi. Was that the most regrettable non-touristy thing you ever did?
That was a huge lesson for me. If I had gone to eat dog because I was living with a family in Vietnam and they wanted to show me how it fit culturally then I wouldn’t have any problem talking about it. But the reason I went to go do it was because it was in a guidebook and it looked cool. I thought I’d be able to tell some people and gross them out. As soon as I did it I felt ridiculous, like I did it for all the wrong reasons. It is probably one of the biggest epiphanies I have had as a traveler: the reason you go and do things is as important as actually going and doing them.
London (or almost London) was a torrid time during your journey. You were denied entry to the county, thrown in jail and shipped back to the U.S. Any advice for travelers who get in a situation like you did?
It was such a bizarre incident. I don’t know how to advise not to let it happen because I’ve been into the U.K. fifty times in my life without a problem. It is really down to the customs official that you get. In my case I was at the end of a shift and that played into why they denied me entry. They were going off duty and just didn’t want to deal. I didn’t have a copy of my ongoing ticket to the U.S., and I didn’t have documentation of where I was staying.
One sentence that stuck with me was, “I don’t know why I need to meet people that I’ll never see again and why the time I spend with them is more powerful than many of my lifelong relationships.” Do you have any more insight to this after returning home?
No. I’m not the kind of person who gets depressed, but when I stop and think about that it actually depresses me. I have lived in L.A. for two years and I have a bunch of friends here. I know that if I move to Argentina tomorrow I would quadruple that. There is something that happens when I’m away that makes me connect with people a lot more than happens when I’m here; particularly in L.A. because it is kind of a weird city. I don’t know, it totally guts me that I could be in a youth hostel in France and have a really important conversation about something that will open my mind and two years in Los Angeles maybe that doesn’t even happen.
Can you tell a difference between your L.A. personality and your vagabond personality?
No. I think it comes down the fact that travelers are way more enlightened. L.A. is a city full of actors, models and booking agents. They want to talk about their new Mercedes, not Kilimanjaro. There is something that kind of happens when you put a group of travelers in a room together. And it usually involves shots.