Tony and Maureen Wheeler Don’t Chat About Lonely Planet Guide Books!
Hi there fellow travel addicts. Today I’ve got a massive treat for all of you – an interview with Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the founders of the Lonely Planet Travel Guides.
You can follow Tony Wheelers Blog here!
But I’m not going to bother them about Lonely Planet stuff today because they have probably been bombarded about all sorts of questions over the years about the guides, so I don’t need to add to them!
Instead, this interview is going to focus on the more offbeat and bizarre travel related things Tony and Maureen Wheeler have come across the years, as this is what The Travel Tart site is all about.
The Tony and Maureen Wheeler Interview
The Travel Tart: Hi Tony and Maureen, thanks so much for the opportunity to chat! You must have given your passports an absolute flogging over the years. Have you ever managed to lose one of them, and hence, gain the ire of passport control staff from all around the world?
The Wheelers: (Tony) Embarrassingly I did lose a passport once and I still have no idea how I did it. An almost brand new Australian passport which I lost somewhere between checking in for a flight with Emirates at Dubai airport and arriving in London when I put my hand in my pocket and it wasn’t there. Fortunately I have dual nationality and I had my British passport on me, but what happened to the Australian one? Did I leave it at the check in desk? Dropped it on my way through security? Unfortunately they didn’t ask to see it (as they usually do) before boarding. Left it on the plane? I have no idea and it never turned up despite having a contact at Emirates who made enquiries for me.
The Travel Tart: I’ve heard some funny stuff in my travels. By far, the funniest was from a hustler in Tangier, Morocco, who placed a death curse on me when I didn’t pay him some Euro Shrapnel for some useless bus and luggage transfer procedure advice that I didn’t ask for or want! He ended up pointing his finger to the sky and yelled ‘Well, I hope that my God makes your bus crash and you’re the only one who dies!’ (it didn’t work!). What’s the best and funniest one liner you have heard on your travels?
The Wheelers: (Tony) I made a speech in French at an official occasion in Paris once and afterwards a journalist came over and said how interesting it was: ‘not only did you apologise for bad your French was, but you went on to prove how bad it was.’
The Travel Tart: What’s the most clever tacky T-shirt you’ve come across in your travels? My personal favourite is one from New Orleans that was making fun of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent looting, which said ‘I went to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt, a brand new Cadillac, and a Plasma TV!’
The Wheelers: (Tony) I’ve got a soft spot for T-shirts which don’t realize they’ve got it wrong. A rip off one I spotted in Hong Kong announcing it was an Erspit fashion item. And all those Japlish and Chinglish T-shirts using English in totally unexpected and unique fashions.
The Travel Tart: Travelling with a couple can often cause a bit of strain when on the road. I’m sure you have travelled together for a long, long time. If you have had some dummy spits on the road, what was the most unusual reason for it? (Well, one that you’re comfortable with!)
The Wheelers: (Tony) Maureen walked off and left me once in Delhi, on our first overland trip, but leaving me with her passports, all her money etc. Not a good escape.
The Travel Tart: I’ve crashed in all sorts of places such as a tree house, a bus station floor, and Soviet styled hotels blessed with a variety of concrete blocks. What is the most bizarre place you have ever stayed?
The Wheelers: The bar at Dulles Airport in Washington DC, when the airport got snowed in and our flight wasn’t going anywhere. Assorted back seats of cars. Our very first night in Australia in the back of a station wagon in a garage with an orphaned joey in a sack pinned to the wall.
The Travel Tart: When I was reading your story in Once While Travelling – The Lonely Planet Story, I noticed that when you travelled overland from London to Australia, that British citizens were allowed to turn up and live in Australia without any visa process (wow!). Back in the 1790’s, you only needed to steal a loaf of bread to score a one-way ticket to Australia from England in a leaky boat. Times always change, but what’s been your most bizarre and/or frustrating entry procedure into a country?
The Wheelers: It’s not so much the actual entry that drives you nuts as the hoops you have to go through to get visas for some countries. And why do the places where, let’s face it, nobody wants to go to always charge the most and make it most difficult? My current worst ever visa experience goes to the Russians back in 2008. I needed a double entry visa and I was getting it in London. They charged an absurd ₤95 for a single entry visa or ₤105 for a double entry except they absolutely would not issue you with a double entry even though you’d filled in all the right forms, got all the right tickets, made all the right hotel arrangements. So I went to a UK agency specializing in Russian visas – ‘sure we can get that for you, no problem at all, ₤311 please.’ Much better was the Vietnam visa I picked up in Phnom Penh, ‘$25’ said my hotel, ‘what about the visa application form?’ I asked. ‘Don’t worry about it, they just want the money.’
The Travel Tart: To work out the affordability of a country, I’ve devised my own Beer Index which calculates the price per litre of beer in each country. I always like trying out the brews from different places. I know it’s really hard to stuff up beer, but have you come across one that was so terrible, you would prefer to drink razor blades?
The Wheelers: (Tony) No! Although I’m still perplexed why the English should think drinking beer warm is a good idea? And I was born there. I’ve just been in Congo DRC where the standard beer bottle size is 730ml. You need to be really thirsty before you call for a beer.
The Travel Tart: One of the funniest travel writers around, Brian Thacker, recently did a trip to Asia only using an old 1970s version of your first travel guide, Across Asia On the Cheap! I would have guessed things have changed a bit since then! I wrote a piece called Travel 2010 vs Travel in 1990 which reflects how much technology has changed certain aspects of travel over the years. What’s the silliest travel related change you’ve experienced in your time?
The Wheelers: The absurdity of so much airport security, we’ll take those nail clippers but your duty free wine bottle, which could quickly be converted into a lethal weapon, is quite OK. And why can nobody design a straightforward assembly line style lead in to the X-ray machines so everybody is not trying to disrobe, unpack laptops, remove shoes and scatter coins, keys and mobile phones into plastic trays in the 30cm before they arrive at the machine?
The Travel Tart: I wrote a piece about the old Zimbabwe Dollar being the world’s most ridiculous currency especially with the 240 million percent inflation rate. I figured it was cheaper to exchange money for Zim dollars and use them for toilet paper rather than buying actual toilet rolls! Have you come across any other currencies that come even close to this?
The Wheelers: Of course the Zimbabwe dollar finally reached its use by date with the 100 trillion note, the ATM machines dispense US dollars now. Congo DRC has a quite usable currency but with the biggest note around 50 cents you need a lot of them to do anything useful. We were in Bolivia once when it was experiencing a bout of hyperflation and they took to printing the notes only on side, leaving them blank on the other. Of course there are places where they even offer to give money away, like this ATM machine in Ireland:
The Travel Tart: The Irish need more of those Free Cash Machines at the moment! Also, I wrote something about the Worst Drivers In The World – basically, the places which strike fear into me whenever I went near a street! Which place that you have experienced has the craziest traffic? Meaning, you were scared to either cross the street or ride in a taxi?
The Wheelers: I’d agree the Egyptians are up there but for my money (and the statistics tend to agree) the Saudis have to be the worst. A complete disregard for everybody else on the road (I need to turn across 5 lanes of traffic? I will). Plus an enshallah attitude towards driving (and God willing none of those 5 lanes of traffic will hit me). Throw in complete denial when it comes to the laws of physics (what do you mean I cannot continue around the corner at warp speed?) so its no wonder there are so many crumpled cars and so many dark smears on the rock faces on the outside of corners proving that warp speed was too fast.
The Travel Tart: And finally, I ask every interviewee where was the time and place where you thought ‘hell yeah, I’m going to be a travel addict for the rest of my life?’
The Wheelers: (Tony) Oh it happens all the time, here’s the latest, on top of the Nyiragongo Volcano in Congo DRC. It was even more spectacular after dark.
The Travel Tart: Thanks so much for your time Tony and Maureen. Enjoy your travels!