S2, E33: Being a Person With Dwarfism Has Never Stopped Me From Exploring the World

In this episode of Unpacked, we sit down with actor, musician, and podcaster Christophe Zajac-Denek to learn how he caught the travel bug and why being a person with dwarfism has never stopped him from exploring the world.

Christophe Zajac-Denek was born with dwarfism. But his parents were consummate travelers, and his mother always encouraged him to explore the world, no matter what. This week on Unpacked, Christophe shares his journey.


Christophe Zajac-Denek’s mom: What did you see in the cockpit?

Christophe Zajac-Denek, age 2: Mens, men. Men.

Christophe’s mom: And what, what else? What were they doing?

Christophe:They were driving a plane.

Christophe’s mom: Mm-hmm.

Christophe: Mom, I’m the pilot.

Christophe’s mom: Are you gonna be a pilot?

Christophe: Yeah.

Christophe’s mom: And what will you do if you’re a pilot?

Christophe: I would just drive the plane.

Christophe’s mom: Very good.

Aislyn Greene, host: That adorable clip is of today’s guest. Yes. It was about 1980 and they were two years old and traveling with their mom.

I’m Aislyn Greene and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. And this week we are going to be hearing from Christophe Zajac-Denek. Yes, the little boy you heard at the top of the episode.

Christophe is a seasoned traveler and host of the podcast, I’m Kind of a Big Deal. Christopher also has a unique perspective on the world: He’s four feet, four inches tall.

And today he chats with our producer, Nikki Galteland—who’s making her Unpacked debut— about his love of travel and surfing, his intrepid mom, and how being a person with dwarfism has never stopped him from exploring the world

Welcome, Nikki! It’s so fun to finally have you here—in the voice

Nicolle Galteland, producer: Yes! I’m excited to be here. Thank you.

Aislyn: Well, I’m kind of curious to know: How did you and Christophe meet? Because it sounds like you’re, you’re friends.

Nikki: Christophe was actually one of the very first people I met when I moved to LA. So I went to a meetup, kind of just like grabbing drinks with some other radio and audio producers and he was there and just like so friendly and open and had so many interesting stories. Like, I feel like we clicked right away.

Aislyn: Nice. And what struck you the most about his story or stories since there were multiple?

Nikki: I think it was sort of the variety. Just every time I met him, I feel like I learned some—like, a whole new chapter in his life of amazing things that he’d done. He seemed like someone that just really had an appetite for, like, meeting new people and trying new things.

Aislyn: And as we’re going to hear in this episode, a lot of that I think can be credited to his parents, especially his mom, right?

Nikki: Definitely, yes. That was really fun in the process of just chatting with him for the... episode today, just learning how much travel he did as a little kid.

Aislyn: And I love that we’re going to hear these little snippets at different times of that.

Nikki: It was honestly hard to figure out which clips to pull. Cause we have, like, an hour of digitized tape of, like, tiny little Christophe.

Aislyn: I love that. Especially at that time, like, “Go, mom.”

Nikki: Right? I know! And recording it, I’m impressed. My audio heart is like, “Yes! Get that tape!”

Aislyn: He is, in addition to being such a, like, world traveler, he’s a really accomplished guy. Could you just tell us a little bit more about him and his life and what he does?

Nikki: Yeah, definitely. So he hosts this podcast, I’m Kind of a Big Deal, where he interviews other people with dwarfism. And it’s really good. He, like, does it all by himself, and it sounds great, so that’s very impressive. But he’s also a professional actor, and travels all around for that. I learned that he used to be a stuntman, which is really cool.

And then, so like, that’s sort of what I meant when I was saying, like, I learned something new every time. Like, I also learned that he’s a professional surfer, so he has two films that just came out in the Santa Barbara Surf Film Festival. Like, one’s sort of about him, and another one that he’s an editor on, I believe.

Just amazing. And he used to be a rock and roll drummer, like, he used to tour in a band as a drummer. It’s just, like, many careers, many cool, artistic, fun things.

Aislyn: He’s done more in his life than I think many of us.

Nikki: I know, and it’s just so fun to see how he, like, transitions from one to another so fluidly. Like, I feel like he’s just has that adventurous spirit.

Nikki [in interview]: Christoph Zdenek, you are an actor, a surfer, a drummer, an advocate, a podcast host, and a great friend in the radio community. So welcome.

Christophe: Oh, thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m so excited to be on this episode with you.

Nikki: So this is a travel podcast and I was hoping we could get started with a little bit of how you developed your appreciation for travel. I know that you’ve done quite a bit of it in your life so far.

Christophe: Yeah, the appreciation for travel, I mean, it’s from my parents. They were traveling me at a very young age. I mean, also travel was a necessity for me when I was two, because I’m a little person. I’m four four, and when I was born in 1979, people had a lot less information about dwarfism and how to treat dwarfism.

And so I’m from Detroit, Michigan, and my parents found a specialist in Baltimore, Maryland. So since I was two, I was driving, you know, as a passenger in the car from Detroit to Baltimore twice a year.

Nikki: How did your parents make it fun for you? I imagine those trips to Baltimore were not always exciting, if you’re going to see doctors.

Christophe: Yeah. There was SeaWorld, I think it was in Sandusky, Ohio, and I don’t know, I wanted to work at SeaWorld so badly. I thought that was the coolest job to be swimming around with orcas and dolphins, and I’ve always loved the water, so that’s, that’s a huge thing for me too.

So yeah, we would make, you know, stops along the way and, then in Baltimore too, we would go to the aquarium. We’d go to the harbor place. Baltimore has an amazing downtown, so the food is incredible. You know, you can’t get fresh crab cakes in Detroit, Michigan.

Or maybe you can get them there, but they’re probably not the ones that you want to eat. Baltimore has incredible seafood and so, you know, we just, both of my parents liked nice food, nice things, nice experiences, and so I got to benefit from that and, and it was great. It was cool.

Nikki: So good seafood in Baltimore was making trips to the doctor more fun but not all kids love crab cakes at that age. Is there anything your parents did to encourage you to explore or go out of your comfort zone?

Christophe: Funny you ask that Nikki. My mom came up with, kind of like, a barter points system. She always wanted me to try things, she really saw the value in bringing someone up, having a son that wouldn’t be scared of new experiences and new things.

And so as a child, probably, you know, four years old I was offered points if I were to try something that was not conventional. So if my mom would order lobster or escargot or pâté or something, like, that, you know, wasn’t a burger and fries and melted cheese, I could get, you know, 25 points or 50. It was arbitrary, whatever it was. And then if I ended up getting up to, you know, 500 points or a thousand points, my mom would buy me a toy or a Lego, or something like that. So it was, you know, just such a great incentive for me as a kid.

You know, something I care about. I can, like, trade this for some experience where I’m gonna live if I put, you know, a shrimp in my mouth or, you know, a snail or something like that. And if I don’t like it, I don’t have to, but I could try. It was a win-win. That was another thing too, that again, when I would see my friends and they’d be afraid of foods that weren’t exotic at all. You know, maybe if a chicken wasn’t fried but it was baked, they’d be like, “Oh, I don’t—it’s not fried. I don’t want to eat it.” And I’d be like, “Yeah, but it’s chicken.” Like, it still tastes good.

Nikki: Did it really work for you? Like, were you ever really pleasantly surprised by something you tried or were you normally just trying to get through it as quickly as possible?

Christophe: It wasn’t all “get through it as quick as possible.” I think I started to, like, play the system after a while. Cause I was like, “I actually like a lot of these things. Maybe I can say like, ‘Yeah, that’s a tough one, mom. I don’t know if I want to try that.’ Like, let’s bump it up to 75 points for this one.” And then I’d eat the whole plate, you know? So, uh, I did get smart like that. I think. I remember escargot, I remember, just like kind of buttery holes with garlic in them. It was delicious.

My mom was a French teacher and she would take her class to Quebec or France or, you know, whenever they would go on trips. And I remember going to Quebec and I think the entire group ordered all these foods and some of her students wouldn’t try the foods.

And I was, like, just mowing down on all this like octopus and, you know, all these things that her students were like, “I don’t, I just want french fries. That’s all.” I mean, a French Canadian country. That’s all I want.

Nikki: That’s really funny. It seems like your parents and maybe your mom in particular were really excited to see you out adventuring and exploring in the world. Do you think that would’ve been different at all if you were average height?

Christophe: I do think it would’ve been different for me. I think going out as a little person, especially when you’re a child, when you’re 6, 7, 8, 9, and you’re with your mom or dad, there are a lot of other kids that you encounter and even adults. And my mom has talked about, you know, being by a pool in California and somebody coming up to her and talking to them about my dwarfism and stuff that she should do to better my life. So there are these really interesting scenarios where people feel like they want to give instruction or give advice or give whatever it is, you know. And I guess people mean well, but there’s also a place and a time and, you know, relationship bumpers, I guess boundaries, that’s what it is, right? Boundaries, relationship bumpers.

Nikki: That’s great. I like that.

Christophe: And so I think going out, it’s always a huge confidence builder to kind of get through something like that and build the love for yourself, build the acceptance for yourself. And then when I would go out on my own, I think because I had watched both my parents—they’re kind of both one-man bands in their own right—and so I definitely took a lot of inspiration for that, whether I wanted to or not. It’s just what I saw all the time .

Nikki: Yeah? Tell me a little more about your parents. What was their relationship with travel like?

Christophe: My dad worked for General Motors. He was a clay modeler, which is an incredibly unique and interesting profession. He’s a supremely talented artist. And he also loved the ocean and sea. His favorite music is sea shanties, which—I’m a musician, I’ve listened to so many different styles of music [and] I never heard, or knew, what sea shanties were until my dad, like, exposed them to me. I was like, “Well, now I’ve, now I’ve heard everything.” My dad loved bluegrass music as well, and so we’d listened to the NPR station in Detroit and they played bluegrass on Saturdays, which is when I would be hanging out with my dad.

And so I listened to a ton of blue bluegrass music, the Arkansas Traveler Show, I I love that. And I think, sea shanties are kind of like the bluegrass of the ocean, right? Maybe. I don’t know. I’m just pulling that out of the air. But I think that could be, you know, the the similarity there.

Nikki: I love that—tying the music to the geographic setting where you are in the world. It makes sense.

Christophe: Yeah. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not wheat that you’re singing about. It’s like open ocean or—

Nikki: Yeah. But it’s still like a vast expanse of sort of waving something—

Christophe: There you go. Absolutely. Yes.

Nikki: —water, grass. Yes. I love that. And how about your mom? Tell me a little bit more about her.

Christophe: My mom, she was a school teacher and I think she probably had the travel bug more than my dad. She just did everything on her own. Like if she had an idea or a thought to do something, nothing would stand in her way. She’s so determined and she’s so into having an experience and having, like, a brilliant experience.

She wants the best experience for everyone that’s involved. So she had the summers off, just, you know, [a] consummate explorer. Just always looking and seeking and taking in cultures. And my mom taught me to speak French before English as a baby. So you know, that again, like more culture from afar was just in my world, in my ether and just at home all the time.

Nikki: That’s awesome. So do you feel like you have picked up her sense of adventure and exploration?

Christophe: Probably. I think, uh, it’s definitely a combination of both my mom and my dad. Yeah, for sure. My dad took me on these really amazing trips too, across the U.S. when I was in my early teens, like 11, 12, 13, I think. And we went to the BadLands and the Grand Canyon in Nevada and just, you know, this huge circle that he wanted to show me. And then we also did a trip out east too, where we went to New York City and Massachusetts and Maine. And I didn’t realize that other kids, other people, didn’t see this stuff. And so, when I was 13 and I came home from this trip, I would tell my friends and I was like, “What did you do?”

“I just played in the yard for the entire summer.” I’m like, “Oh, I got to see South Dakota and Colorado.” It just seemed like the logical thing that you’re supposed to do.

Nikki: Just normal for your family.

Christophe: Yeah.

Nikki: What are some ways that you feel your dwarfism has maybe changed how you travel?

Christophe: It’s a bit of a bummer because I’m little. I do feel socially I’ve been stifled a little bit, and that’s partially my own doing, and that’s partially society being either afraid or wanting to look the other way.

But also there was a part, like, once you get hooked on having experiences on your own and once they’re so incredible that you’re like, “The last time I did that, I got in a situation and this wonderful thing happened, and I don’t think it would’ve happened if I would’ve been with someone else at this at this time.”

Which, you know, looking back now, sometimes I’m like, “I wish I would’ve had a, a partner or a friend or something like that be with me.” But there have been so many times where I’ve just been somewhere and said, “This probably couldn’t have happened if I was with somebody.” Like, maybe we’d be in a hotel room eating food and watching television or something like that.

Nikki: Sure. And traveling on your own gets you out in the world more.

Christophe: Yeah. And it forces you to take a risk that you might not take, or a risk that someone else might not want to take with you.

Nikki: Mm, mm-hmm. That makes a lot of sense. So let’s talk a little bit more about your travel experiences. I feel like you’ve traveled for so many different reasons. How did you get into drumming and what kind of travel have you done associated with that part of your life?

Christophe: Yeah. Lots of traveling for music. The band bought its own van, which was amazing, and we just hit the road. And we’re from Detroit, so everyone was comfortable driving in snow long distances, you know, through the night, whatever. I loved it. I loved being out on the road. That was such a goal of mine: to be professional and play music, and then getting the chance to travel the country and eventually the world doing that. I just loved it because I met so many people. I’ve seen so many different places in weird ways, you know, from either from the stage or from the side of the road, or, getting stuck in almost avalanche conditions and freaking out at 2:00 a.m. that you might not make it to your destination.

I’m really grateful to have had all of those experiences and again, I think it just feeds that want and that drive for more. So I really enjoyed seeing the country and being on the road because, again, because I’m little and I realize that I had my own protections up.

So whenever I would go to a venue and I’d be loading my drums in at 4:00 p.m., you know, so that we could soundcheck, it was brought to my attention later on that like every time I do that, everyone in the bar is staring at me and I don’t realize it at all because that’s just been my entire life. Everyone’s always made comments or had looks or glares or stares or taken photographs or avoided me or whatever. And it just kind of felt like an extension of a road trip with my dad in a sense, because, you know, there were times then too when I obviously would be stared at, or would garner a lot of attention and I just had to find my own ways to deal with it.

But, like, playing music on the road was incredible, we played some massive shows, but we also played to no one. But it, that’s, I don’t know—that builds your character and you get that story from Fort Worth, Texas, when no one showed up and you had to fight for your $50 from the bar just so you could buy gas to get to the next place.

Nikki: I love that. Let’s pivot a little bit to surfing. Tell me how—

Christophe: Let’s pivot to surfing.

Nikki: —how did you, as a kid in Detroit, fall in love with surfing? What, what happened there?

Christophe: I was born on the wrong coast, I think, I don’t know. My mom would take me to Florida for Easter and spring breaks when I was, um, in school. And we had family that lived in Florida and so my mom loved to go to Captiva Island near Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast, and, you know, she’d go for the pool and tennis and there was a beach there too, there were surf shops around there.

You couldn’t really surf there, but there were surf shops and I would just be obsessed with the image of somebody standing on a surfboard, on a wave. I just thought it was the coolest thing. I also loved skateboard culture, which you know, goes hand-in-hand with surf culture in Michigan. If there was a skate shop, I would find it. I would be in it as much as I possibly could, however I could get there. I just wanted to be, I just thought maybe it’s like a counterculture thing and also maybe being somewhat of an outcast, a social outcast as well.

Like, maybe I identified with the folks that were riding skateboards or you know, living that, I don’t know how you wanna describe that life. It’s like, maybe it’s a counterculture life, but I just love that. And then mix that with the water. That’s my thing. Gotta do it. And so one year I begged my mom to take me to Cocoa Beach.

And so we went to Cocoa Beach and I rented a surfboard and it was probably the most dreadful surfing experience you could ever have. I think my surfboard was taking on water. I didn’t know how to paddle it. I got caught in a rip current. I didn’t catch any waves. I was just floundering out there. But I loved it. I was like, “I’m gonna crack this nut. I want to ride a wave. I wanna learn how to ride a wave, you know?” And I surfed two days a year for like five years.

Like, you know, not just dreaming in my mom’s basement with my Surfer magazine subscription. You know, like once I got home from spring break, it was another 12 months until I could go into the Atlantic Ocean again to try and surf for two days. I just, I don’t know, it was just, you know, skateboarding on water and I just thought it was so cool.

And it was, like, that’s a huge thing when you don’t have that social outlet, you you seek out acceptance in yourself or, uh, ways to boost your own confidence. And I think drumming and surfing or skateboarding, those were boosts to my confidence. They weren’t social boosts to my confidence, but they were boosts to my confidence in just in my life, you know?

Nikki: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. When you were dreaming of surfing, were you normally thinking of going back to the same place or did you have, like, a travel list of all the different spots you wanted to hit?

Christophe: Oh my God. I had this VHS tape that somebody gave me of American Samoa. I don’t know how many times I watched it. I mean, it must have been 200 times, 200, 300 times. I don’t know. And it was, like, a clip of, like, three minutes long of waves in Samoa. Yeah. I wanna go to Samoa. Let’s go.

Nikki: That’s super cool. Of all of the different modes of travel you’ve done, is there a certain type of trip that is just your favorite?

Christophe: Oh man. When it comes to modes of travel, travel’s hard on my body these days.

Nikki: Yeah, tell me about it.

Christophe: It just stresses a lot of muscles and, but I mean, I guess like going to New Zealand and Australia, I think that was maybe one of the best travel experiences because the plane was massive and the seats were massive and it was dark and so you could sleep and then you arrived and it was just this incredible new world.

And maybe that’s the mode that’s so great, is [to] go really, really far in something that’s very comfortable. Maybe that’s what I want to get to now or do now is those types of situations. But I just, I still love, you know, I’ll drive 12 hours or 16 hours and I don’t mind that.

I think it’s really fun to drive across the desert and see how the desert changes in 12 hours of straight driving. It’s magnificent, you know? It’s so beautiful to see what it looks like from Texas to New Mexico to Arizona. I just think that’s something that everyone should experience.

It’s really amazing just to have that, like, that slow change, you know, in a car where you’re just driving it and you see just all these different ways that the desert presents.

Nikki: Yeah, that is super cool. Can you do a little compare and contrast between driving and flying for you? What are the pros and cons?

Christophe: Flying is stressful on my body. It’s a lot to move luggage in more frequent succession. Does that make sense? So I’m, like, moving my luggage from the plane to the rental car to, like, across the airport, back to the plane, back to, you know, moving heavy stuff in higher frequency. That puts wear and tear on my body. And that’s, that’s, that’s tough.

Nikki: Sure, definitely. I think a lot of people can relate to that struggle in some sense. Is that something that is of particular concern for you as a little person?

Christophe: It is in a sense, but sometimes you just have to power through. I think it’s hilarious, the airlines now will tell you that the flight attendants are not required to help you put your bags in the containers above the seats. I think maybe once somebody didn’t want to help me, everyone else has helped me.

I don’t show up and apologize for that. I’m just like, “Hey, I just, can you help me with this? Or do I need to ask somebody else? Cuz it’s fine either way.” You know, I’m not gonna do it. I’m not gonna climb and, like, risk my safety to do this. And people just get it. And so that’s one thing that I’ve noticed and I’ve found interesting and I’m oftentimes, I’m just really grateful because a lot of people just want to help.

Nikki: That’s really nice to hear. How would you say that all of this travel has influenced you?

Christophe: I mean, travel just opens your eyes and opens your mind and exhausts you in sometimes the greatest ways, you know? I love travel for so many different reasons. There was a point in my life where I went to Death Valley in Anza Borrego after a really difficult breakup when I needed to just kind of reposition or recenter my life, and that was—those trips, I still reflect on those today, even though they were relatively short trips, like three or four days.

I just explored so much. I got myself lost. I got my heart going. I hiked by myself when, you know, it said that there were rattlesnakes and mountain lions that were probably around. I think you just have to do that to reconnect with nature and reconnect with different surroundings so that you’re not just in this—at least myself anyway, speaking to myself—you’re in this, you know, stifling, familiar world, these surroundings that are just almost predictable to you and I, I, that helps me so much to get out and be surprised. And it was funny when I was on, you know, those trips and I was hiking and just, you know, jumping or clambering up rocks or going down steep places, or I grabbed the camera and I was shooting astrophotography at 3:00 a.m.

It’s like, this is getting my heart going in a way that it hasn’t been in a while. And I think that’s just so important. And that can really come from travel.

Nikki: I know that a lot of your work and your podcast relates to advocacy and normalizing experiences that little people have. Why do you think it’s important to have representation of more different types of people in the travel industry?

Christophe: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s so important to see different bodies, wherever you go. It’s amazing to see, you know, just any different bodies when you, when you’re traveling around. I think it’s so important to see little people, and for little people to feel like they belong in a travel situation.

Myself, I’m very fortunate I am physically able enough to travel in the way that I’m able to travel. And a lot of folks, I think it might be more difficult for them to move their bags or to walk across an airport, you know, assistance is probably going to be beneficial for them. And oftentimes that stuff is overlooked or just passed over and, and it’s not really considered.

And I think that filters back to us. You know, I think when you don’t see people that you identify with or that should be represented in these spaces, you forget that they even exist and if you don’t offer up the visibility for people who are different to be able to do these things, they oftentimes feel like they don’t belong or that it’s not for them.

And, you know, my mind is as curious as anybody else’s mind. And I believe that of all the people who look like me, I think just because our bodies are different, I don’t want that creativity or that sense for exploration to be stifled or quieted. I think it’s, you know, it should be enhanced because also at the same time, as much as I want to see things, I think it’s very important for people to see me getting around, moving around the space, knowing that there are people that look like me, in all of my baldness as well, uh, out in the world. And doing the things that they love because they feel OK to do the things that they love and they found out that they love it just from trying it.

Nikki: Awesome. Do you have any words of advice or wisdom for someone who maybe feels like travel isn’t for them, or is a little hesitant to get out and explore?

Christophe: Yeah, my advice for anybody who might be tentative to explore: Listen to my mom. You know what I mean? Like, if you’re not gonna listen to your mom, listen to my mom. “Christophe, just try it, you know? Just get out there and try it. It might be for you, you don’t know, but if you do try it, then you’ll know.”

I think so many amazing things can come from travel and from putting yourself in new situations. You know, don’t do stuff that’s not safe, but do stuff that gets your heart going a little bit and, and opens your eyes and, and makes you sit in bed thinking about other cultures or the way other people do things instead of just, like, looking at it on your phone.

I think having that real-life experience and seeing it for yourself and then having the ability to contemplate later on what all this means to other people, I think is really important.

Aislyn: Thanks so much, Christophe. If you want to know more about Christophe and his travels, including some amazing new films and documentaries, he’s recently been a part of, head over to christophezd.com. You can also find his podcast, I’m Kind of a Big Deal wherever you’re listening right now. We’ll link to all of this in our show notes. And before we part, a moment of zen from Christophe’s travel archives.

Christophe’s mom: How did you like your vacation?

Christophe, age 2: Good.

Christophe’s mom: What did you like?

Christophe: Um, the pool.

Christophe’s mom: What did you do in the pool?

Christophe: Just swim all by myself.

Christophe’s mom: Where did you go by yourself?

Christophe: I just went under.

Christophe’s mom: Oh, you went under all by yourself.

Christophe: Yeah.

Christophe’s mom: Oh, how do you do that?

Christophe: Just go under, like that.

Christophe’s mom: Yeah. Did you like the ocean?

Christophe: Uh, no. I didn’t like the ocean.

Christophe’s mom: Pourquoi?

Christophe: Did you like the ocean?

Christophe’s mom: I loved the ocean.

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This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.

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