Talking beer, business and travel with Greg Wesson

Greg Wesson is a travel guru. He has travelled across Asia and Europe, attempted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and forayed into Latin America. But most of his travel is closer to home, where his job as a management consultant has kept him busy traversing North America for the last decade.

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You list your hobbies as travel and “sampling beers of the world”… What’s the best beer you’ve ever had?

The last one… until the next one.

Seriously,
though, one of the seminal experiences in introducing me to the beers of the world was a night at a pub in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, USA back in 1993. I was on a ski trip in the Pocono mountains, and we wandered into this bar that had over 200 different types of beer in bottles, organized on the menu by the country of origin. I hadn’t travelled much at that point in my life, and so I decided to try and do a round the world trip by trying beer from different countries that night – Germany, Britain, Japan, Jamaica, even a Belgium beer made by Trappist monks. It was really my initiation to the fact that different beers can really have different tastes. The bartender said that if I could drink a full bottle of the “chili beer,” which is basically a Mexican-style beer that had been picking up the heat and taste of the chili pepper soaking in it for months, he would buy the next round. The chili beer was undrinkable and I had to pay, but the whole night really got me started on experimenting with different types of beer.

I am now a big fan of wheat beers, and getting a chance to have a Hoegaarden in Brussels was pretty cool, because it felt a little bit like making a pilgrimage.

You’ve said that two of the favourite places you’ve visited were Punta Arenas in Chile and Denver, Colorado. What was it about these places that really impressed you?

A lot of people go travelling to “find themselves,” and while I still haven’t found myself completely, both Denver and Punta Arenas were places where I had a small epiphanies.

In Denver, it was really the first time when I was travelling for work that I started to feel like some place other than Toronto could feel like “home.” I had been travelling for work for about 2 years by that time, but every trip prior to heading to Denver always felt like I was away. In Denver, I made a bunch of friends, had some great times hiking in the mountains and skiing and got a beautiful apartment overlooking the Rocky Mountains. I even managed to sort of get myself in shape. I started to really feel like I lived in Denver, and just happened to occasionally visit Toronto, instead of the other way around. I had never before believed that I could “live” anywhere other than Toronto, but Denver made me realize that the whole world was open as a place to live. It came at a really good time for me, because prior to that trip I had been having a bad couple years in Toronto, including the death of my mother, and I was projecting a lot of my anger and sadness on my physical surrounding in Toronto. Everything in Toronto felt haunted. So it was nice to live somewhere else for a while, and let the ghosts in Toronto leave.

Punta Arenas provided me with a feeling that I hadn’t really felt in a long time. I was in Punta Arenas when I took 3 months off my job and backpacked around South America. As a 32 year old who hadn’t had anything longer than a week off since starting university at the age of 18, it had been a long time since I wasn’t loaded down with responsibilities. I was, at this point, about 3 weeks into my trip, and starting to get into the swing of backpacking (it was my first experience with it). On this one day, as I wrote about in my blog entry on Punta Arenas, I walked out from my hotel to a bright sunny day, of which they had been few in Patagonia since I had gotten there, and I was suddenly struck by how happy I was. I was in a place as far as I had ever been from home. Everything was at the same time both so familiar and so alien. Everything that was worrying me back home was completely and totally off my shoulders. I was totally free to not worry about anything except walking around and checking out the town. It was a moment of complete and total freedom. And the sun was shining. It was the first time I think I’d ever had a vacation where I actually felt like I was on vacation, and I didn’t have any thoughts of what I left undone when leaving, or what I had to do when I got back.

What’s the most disappointing trip you’ve ever made?

I don’t know if I’m just lucky or the kind of person that always sees the glass as half full, but I haven’t had a really disappointing trip. There are portions of trips that I’ve taken that have been disappointing, but nothing where I find myself entirely disappointed.

As an example, I loved Missouri, but a day-trip to Meramec Caverns was quite a disappointment. Dubbed “America’s Cave,” Meramec Caverns has an excellent history including being a hiding spot for the outlaw Jesse James. But upon arriving, the place was tourist kitsch. The main entrance was turned into a ballroom complete with disco ball. The cave was nice, but nothing special and no ability to get off the tourist trail and really explore the cave. At the end, you get to sit and watch a SUPER CAMPY light show while “God Bless America” plays, ending with the American Flag being shown in lights on the side of the cave wall. Not at all the day of cave adventure I was hoping for. I had a great time otherwise in Missouri, and can recommend spending some time in St. Louis to check out the excellent blues clubs, so one day of a tourist kitsch doesn’t sound so bad.

Of course, some people might look at the experiences I had with altitude sickness on Mount Kilimanjaro or getting caught in the middle of a revolution in La Paz, Bolivia and think these should be disappointing experiences, but they are really unique experiences, taught me something important about myself and the place I was in, and make great stories at parties, and that’s why we all travel in the first place, right?

You’ve been to every continent, except for Australia and Antarctica. Planning a trip down under any time soon? Or do you have other travel plans on the horizon?

Australia and Antarctica are both on my list of places to see, along with about 10,000 other places, though. I’d love to go down to Australia, but given it’s size and the distance from Canada, I’d like to make sure that if I go, I go for at least a month or two so I can get some time to travel around and see at least part of it.

As for the horizon, other than some business trips in the coming weeks, most likely to see more of Detroit, the next big trip I have planned is to spend a couple weeks in Europe in August. I am going to do a week seeing London and Brussels solo, and then meeting up with some friends to see the Netherlands, before flying out of Frankfurt, Germany.

I think some of my friends and family are a bit shocked at the choice of destination, though. They are usually used to me announcing that I am going off backpacking in Central America or taking a train through Siberia, so they are suggesting that perhaps I’ve gone soft.

Some people idealise the idea of travelling for work. It can seem like a pretty cool life, getting paid to travel. As somebody who’s been doing it for 10 years, do you think that travelling for work is a satisfying way to travel? Or does the thrill of travel get old once you’re doing it as part of your job?

Travelling for work can be a satisfying way to travel, but it does require a different kind of effort than travelling for pleasure. When you travel for work, as you’ve implied, it’s easy to lose the thrill of travelling. When you are on the road, you are often expected to put in longer hours than you would at home, and so after a long day at the office, it’s sometimes hard to get yourself energized to go out and see the city sights, especially when a four-star hotel with air conditioning, cable TV, a soft bed and room service is the other option. If you can get yourself out of the hotel lobby and start wandering around, though, it is almost always worth it. It’s very easy to fall into the habit of seeing just airports, hotels and office buildings, and usually when I see co-workers who spend every night in the hotel, it’s a pretty safe bet that they are going to be looking for a new career pretty quickly.

Travelling for work does provide some benefits that you don’t get when travelling for pleasure. The best benefit is having someone pay for you to travel. Though, when someone else is footing the bill, you lose a lot of the ability to plan the itinerary. You go where you’re needed for work. That can be good, though, because I’ve gone some places for work that I never would have gone to otherwise. I can’t imagine that I would have travelled to Columbus, Ohio or Omaha, Nebraska if I was planning a trip on my own purely for pleasure, but I ended up quite enjoying both places.

Obviously, travelling for work implies that you have to do work when you arrive. That cuts into your sight-seeing time, but it does provide you an opportunity to get to know how people in a place live. I’ve been constantly amazed at the differences in the people who live in different regions in the USA and Canada, let alone what people overseas are like. Working with people from another region or country gives you an opportunity to get to meet people and learn what life is like for a citizen of the area. It’s kind of like getting to do a homestay program, though it’s really more of a “workstay.”

You commented in one blog entry about your doubts when you first started travelling for work, about 10 years ago. At the time, you didn’t really see yourself lasting 2 years – let alone 10. Now that you’ve been doing it for over a decade, could you imagine yourself in a job that didn’t require you to travel?

I have no idea any more. If you’d asked me 6 months ago, I would have said, “of course I can see myself settling down and not travelling for work any more.” Now I’m not so sure. Recently I’ve found myself getting an itch to travel to a new location after spending 4 months in a place.

I do think I could see myself quasi-settling, by moving to a place overseas and living there for a while. I think I could be happy having a job that didn’t require me to travel if I was living in some place I could explore. I really liked Paris, and one of the missions of my upcoming trip to London is see if I think I could live there. London would be good, because my grandparents were English, and therefore I can get an ancestry visa to legally work there relatively easily.

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