Interview by Daniel Diner ’14

Photos from Francis Tapon '92

[Travel] Francis Tapon ’92 has visited more than 80 countries and backpacked thousands of miles. After a three-odd-year excursion through 25 Eastern European countries, he recently published a travelogue titled The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. Tapon spoke to Amherst magazine about his writing and adventures. He says he wrote the book to “capture the essence of the differences [among the] cultures and nations. I wanted to understand the difference between the Latvian and the Lithuanian, or a Slovenian and Slovakian. I also wanted to see what the Eastern Europeans do better than us and what we could learn.”

In a Russian village, the view from an abandoned municipal bath

Who was your target audience?

I originally wrote it for Americans. And then I realized that Western Europeans didn’t really know that much about Eastern Europe, and then finally that Eastern Europeans didn’t know that much about Eastern Europe either!  

How did you decide what to include about each country?

I like to point out things that are quirky, interesting or unusual. For example, who would have thought that
Latvia has blue cows? I mean, it’s just an unusual thing. A blue cow? What’s that? Or the Baltic Way, which is where they held their hands across all three Baltic states. Or mushrooming: to me it was interesting how competitive [people] get about chasing mushrooms.

You’ve also walked across America four times.

I’ve walked the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail twice as a round trip (I was the first person to do that) and the Pacific Crest Trail. The Appalachian doesn’t go the entire distance of the United States from north to south, as do the other two trails, but it’s pretty close in mileage. That’s why, for a shorthand, I say four times. I have never gone east to west in America, mainly because it’s incredibly boring to walk across the plains.

Should people travel alone or with a guide?

I’m a big believer in meeting locals, because that’s the rich cultural experience that you’ll have, the memorable thing. You may not remember the Sistine Chapel, but you’ll definitely never forget spending time with an old grandmother in Italy and in her house, feeding you parmesan that she cultivated herself. People [tend to be] too afraid when they travel, and they forget that we’re human beings everywhere, and it’s pretty safe. In general I prefer to avoid guides, but in certain instances they can be useful, say localized small guides, here or there. If you’re going to do a big tour, I think independent travel is a little bit better.

Where are you going next?

I plan to visit all 54 African countries over three years, spending about three weeks on average per country. I want to do a TV show and a documentary about the trip.

Tapon has begun a three-year trip to see all 54 countries in Africa.
His itinerary: Drive south from Morocco to South Africa, then go through East Africa and North Africa.
His rough schedule puts him near Cameroon in February 2014, near Kenya a year later and in Algeria in February 2016.
His ultimate goal: to see every country in the world.

Do you have any travel recommendations?

People ought to be a little bit more adventurous, even if [they’re] just starting out. Get to a place where they don’t speak English. I would go to Central or South America—it’s relatively close.

What’s your advice for aspiring travel writers?

Start by making a blog. Sometimes the ideas are very romantic, but when you actually start and realize how much time you take to write and how few people actually read it, it can be demoralizing. A lot of people give up. You might find out that you don’t care that only 10 people are reading it—you’ve just had such a wonderful time writing it. That’s a good sign: You can keep writing and [monitor the blog to] realize what part of your writing resonates with people and what doesn’t.

Diner is a philosophy major at Amherst. He was born in Riga, Latvia.