Guide Books, Nicaragua and Benin: Interview with Randall Wood
If you’ve spent time travelling around Nicaragua in the past few years, you may already know of Randall Wood.
Randy co-authored the Moon Handbook Nicaragua after living there for several years, part of which was spent working with the Peace Corps. He also wrote a companion guide for expats living in Nicaragua.
TravelBlogs got in touch with him to find out about more about his experiences with the Peace Corps, Nicaragua and his current home, Benin.
When did you first start travelling?
I think my first really formative trip was in 1983 when my family drove from New York to California and back in a 1968 VW Bus. It was a really eye opening experience for me as a 12 year old, and ever since then I’ve been curious about what lies just over the horizon. My first independent trip was after my freshman year at Cornell, however. Rather than going back home when classes ended I packed a backpack and took a Greyhound to Seattle and a boat up to Alaska, where I worked on fishing boats for a summer. That was a great, independent trip, and the first of three cross country bus rides. The feeling of a backpack on your back that you know contains just what you need to get by and nothing else is unmistakable and frankly, rather addictive. I’ve tried to keep moving ever since, and immediately after I graduated from Cornell I relocated once every year for a decade.
What inspired you to go to Nicaragua with the Peace Corps?
By slowing down long enough to really integrate myself into Nicaraguan culture I probably learned as much about myself and about my own culture as I did about Nicaragua
The Peace Corps assigns you a country, you don’t choose it, so I didn’t choose Nicaragua in particular, although that happened to be a great choice for me. And I actually went into Peace Corps reluctantly, thinking I would find a more interesting and non-traditional route to working overseas. But in hindsight it was one of the best experiences of my life, and it did change my life dramatically. I was in Boston at the time, doing engineering work and dreaming about working overseas. I was also at a point in my life where I was looking for adventure and a change of pace, and I liked the idea of experiencing another culture in a very up close and personal way. There are a lot of advantages to traveling, but you miss out on that level of insight when you are moving fast. The Peace Corps was a great opportunity to spend a long period of time in a foreign culture, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, by slowing down long enough to really integrate myself into Nicaraguan culture I probably learned as much about myself and about my own culture as I did about Nicaragua. And this, of course, is the reason we travel.
You’re currently living and working in Benin for the Millennium Challenge Corporation. What kind of work does the MCC do?
The MCC is an innovative economic development agency – have a look at www.mcc.gov. The MCC works with a small subset of developing countries and helps them implement development projects that remove key impediments to economic growth. It’s challenging and exciting work, and has given me a chance to experience life in West Africa, an area of the world I had never visited before. Benin is probably 20 years behind Nicaragua with regard to its economic development. And Nicaragua was 20 years behind Indonesia, the first place I spent a serious amount of time overseas. So in a way, each country I’ve lived in has been less developed than the previous one. It’s amazing what you learn by stripping away the layers of the American lifestyle to see what’s underneath. Benin is a much different world relative to the United States, and the Beninese people have been fascinating and friendly.
Why did you decide to go to Benin? Why not another place in Latin America?
Because the world is large! I’ve never understood how people can decide to become an expert in a single country, when there are so many different places and cultures to experience. I have lived in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Europe, and found something interesting and challenging about each of those places. I have worked briefly in Mozambique but didn’t know much about Francophone Africa, and this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Fortunately, it is an opportunity that hasn’t disappointed me. I think my heart will always be in Latin America, but someday I will look back on my years in Africa with pride and pleasure. And the surf has been fantastic.
Tell us a bit more about the Moon Handbook. How are Moon Handbooks different from Lonely Planet guides, for example?
You’re referring to Moon Handbook Nicaragua, which I co-authored with Joshua Berman. We also wrote a companion guide to Nicaragua called Moon Living Abroad Nicaragua. Guidebooks are a matter of taste, and to some degree there’s a bit of variation even among titles by the same publisher, because the author’s ability to research and describe places is so important to the success of a guidebook. My first experience with a travel guidebook was in Indonesia with Moon Handbook Indonesia, by Bill Dalton. It was hands down the bible to traveling in Indonesia, and I really appreciated the insight that book gave me into the culture, the history, and really the flavor of life in Indonesia. So when I began writing a guidebook to Nicaragua, Moon was the first publisher I thought of approaching. It turns out they were evaluating another proposal at the time, but they put that one on hold to look at our proposal. A couple of months later we had a contract and a deadline, and the race was on to complete the manuscript. It was a wild time. Any good guidebook should do three things: provide you the facts you need to make good decisions about your trip, provide guidance with regard to what is worth doing and what is worth skipping, and provide you with enough cultural context to help you understand and appreciate the people among whom you are traveling. In my opinion, the Moon handbook series does these three things admirably, and Joshua and I are both very proud of Moon Handbook Nicaragua, which immediately became the best selling guidebook to Nicaragua.
In what ways did writing the Moon Handbook to Nicaragua deepen your appreciation of the country?
Something strange happens when you start to write about a place: enjoying it and helping others to enjoy it are much different activities.
That’s a great question. I wrote Moon Handbook Nicaragua after living in Nicaragua for almost five years, and I’ve lived there on and off with my wife ever since, so before I even picked up a pencil to write I had already had a long time with which to appreciate Nicaragua. But something strange happens when you start to write about a place: enjoying it and helping others to enjoy it are much different activities. Something about writing forces you to analyze and pare down the emotional side of travel so you can give other people a sense of what you think is worth liking, and to do so you really have to focus on the facts. Guidebook writing, in particular, is an extreme example of this. In writing Moon Handbook Nicaragua I really had to focus on what I liked about Nicaragua, but I also had to come to a better understanding about what makes life in Nicaragua a challenge. Any good guidebook should show you both sides and let you make your own decision. So the experience of writing that guidebook and later, Moon Living Abroad Nicaragua, helped me to focus on what I thought makes Nicaragua special. I hope that comes through in the text of both books.
Are you working on any new major writing projects?
I’m working on several writing projects, including a collection of short stories about life in Nicaragua, a memoir about Indonesia, and several analytical/research works about economics and development. You can have a sneak preview here.
Check out Randy’s site to read his latest travel writing.