We recently connected on Facebook during the Movement Control Order (MCO) in Malaysia as I discovered you not only run a Penang based website but have been based here since 2009.
I have enjoyed delving into your Penang blog rediscovering parts of the island that’s been my home since 2016. It’s one of the best resources for first-timers and longer-term residents online.
You regularly write for independent travel guides like the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guides. I remember back in 1998 when I first started backpacking and these were the go-to resources!
I wanted to find out more about your life, how you get into travel writing, and your recent experience during the lockdown.
So, let’s find out a bit more about Marco’s story and let’s jump straight into this with my first question.
1. Can you give us a little background information on you and your back story? For example, where you’re from, where you grew up.
I’m from Voghera, a small town in Lombardy. To make a long story short (you can read a much longer version here), I lived there until I was 27, playing in two punk bands. The first was Home Alone, a pop-punk teenage band that got me exposed quite early to the Italian underground scene. We released our first 7” ep when I was 14 years old. I then went on to tour Europe and the USA with the Nerds.
For ten years, I dedicated myself to recording albums and tour, until it became clear that I needed a change of environment, some new place where I could put my skills to proper use. In Italy, it was and still is very hard to make a living as a creative, as the category is frowned upon and there are very few jobs available — despite a very high cost of living.
In 2007, I had enough of Italian life and society at large, took a course for teaching English to speakers of other languages, and though I may be better off teaching Italian and English in China.
I didn’t know Asia or China at all, but it seemed like a good opportunity at the time. Thirteen years later, I am married to a Malaysian girl and live in Penang, from where I travel across the Southeast Asian region, India, Pakistan, and the world to find stories to publish and support the lavish lifestyle of the retired punk rock star.
In 2016 I earned a Ph.D. in anthropology at Monash University Malaysia, wrote a few books — the most notorious (and banned) of which is “Nazi Goreng” (2013) — and I’ve just returned from my first trip to South America.
Since December 2019, I and my wife Kit Yeng have traveled to Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. During that time I, unfortunately, lost my parents to COVID19 in Lombardy in March, and have been locked down in Cabanaconde, Peru, for over a month. At last, I’ve been just released from mandatory quarantine in Kuala Lumpur after flying home from Brazil. It was a real shit sandwich to swallow, but I’m still alive and well.
2. I am a huge fan of Penang, what made you decide to make this your base?
I came to Penang for the first time in 2008 on the heels of my one year teaching stint in Qinhuangdao, China. Back then Penang had no street art, no hipster coffee shops, and many fewer tourists. It was a quiet, delightful mix of faiths and people: it reminded me of China but with more tradition, offered amazing Indian and Malay food, and seemed like the right place to be at that time. Even under its current glossy facade, it still feels like the same after a decade.
On that first trip in 2008, I met my wife Kit Yeng on my last night in Penang and that changed everything. I still got to Australia, but I decided that Asia was better for me, and I settled with her in Penang in 2009. I’ve been here ever since, and I do travel a lot.
After eleven years Penang still feels like home, a sticky tropical egg yolk you can’t really swim out of.
3. You regularly write for popular travel guides like Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and Fodors Travel Guides. How did you first get into travel writing?
I loved to travel with guidebooks and books, and pretty much it came back. I was writing short stories in Italy when I was very young, but quickly got disillusioned and my passion for music kicked in. Besides doing one and writing for other punk fanzines, I didn’t write for the best part of ten years, then, at the beginning of my sojourn in China, I decided that if there was one thing I wanted to do in life, that was writing.
Travel writing seemed to be the solution to have an income and keep perusing my unending passion for discovering life and adventure. In 2008, I made a wish in front of one of the deities at Beijing’s Lama Temple, asking to grant me a career as a writer. Then I kept working hard, submitting here and there, revamped a blog, learned a lot in the process, until the stars aligned and at last, I got my foot in the door. But it’s still hard, especially being a non-native speaker, to keep writing compelling stories and stay on top of the game.
I travel hard because I want to get to less-discovered places and write about it. And I think that helped to stand out. Most travel writing these days is not like that, I believe. To me, Instagram (I don’t have an account) and the whole influencer and digital nomad thing (I don’t consider myself as one) have sugar-coated the whole traveling experience, putting comfort in foreign lands to the fore, while the focus should be on testing your limits while trying to hunt down some unknown trails.
I believe that writing about extreme music in Asia, which was my background, helped me move forward in that sense.
By the way, I consider myself a “writer”, meaning that I don’t just do travel stories. I wrote fiction and non-fiction books, travel guides, journalistic reportages. I try to infuse them all with music, great lyrics, and rocking song.
Check out Marco’s travel books on Amazon.com
4. With the proliferation of online resources from YouTube channels to independent travel blogs, how have you seen the travel writing industry change in the last few years? Have the days of carrying your Lonely Planet guide gone?
As I mentioned above, to be frank, I don’t know if there has been anything new in travel beyond the “influencer” or the “digital nomad” label as of late. Again, I strive to be a writer. I am not on Instagram, despise using social media, and believe that too many image filters almost impeccably distort the reality.
The coronavirus pandemic has now put a stop to that, and to travel, in general. Some of the world’s biggest brands, like Lonely Planet, have closed offices and slashed personnel. Planes are on the ground and nobody really knows when and how the future of travel will be.
I recently returned to Malaysia from Brazil, and it was one long and crazy ordeal I won’t easily forget for the rest of my life. You can read more here.
So yeah: it’s hard to say what’s going to happen in the next few months. I think that free international travel as we were used to is gone for a while. It looks like, at least in Southeast Asia, that life will be back to semi-normal by the end of the year, but I don’t see international borders opening soon. Maybe travel will first continue regionally, with an uptick in local visitors, and travel writers will have to get creative in exploring and presenting their own backyards to their own people.
I won’t still create an Instagram account!
In terms of carrying a guide: I still see people lugging bulky Lonely Planet books on coffee tables all over the world. The travel guidebook remains an object of authentication, it makes you look both unprepared and yet determined to explore, and singles you out to other travelers as someone you could approach to start a conversation with.
I do like guides because, unlike the internet, they are always with you and provide hours of useful reading entertainment on long bus rides. But these days I carry PDF versions on my phone or Kindle.
Books are heavy, and I do travel very light.
These days, updating guidebooks is not a very well-paid endeavor, nor a particularly interesting one, either. It’s long hours of fact-checking details, noting phone numbers and number of rooms, taking pictures of toilets and bedrooms. But I do it for the love of it, it’s an experience and a duty to get the facts right for those other travelers who still love to get their information from a book, and especially, from my research.
5. You have traveled to many countries, I believe over 60 so far, what have been your favorite places and why?
I don’t count the number of countries I have been to, but it should be a bit more than that by now. Sometimes it’s not even about countries but regions… countries are too big. We have a soft spot for Pakistan and India, especially the Northeast, and have traveled and worked a lot there, and still hope we’ll be able to return soon. Both countries have incredible mountains and nature, welcoming people, and tons of different shades of color that make for great images and stories.
After a decade trying to get there, I am now a big fan of South America, too. Even if our trip was cut short, we managed to spend four months traveling in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. Nature is incredible, especially in Patagonia, in the Altiplano and the Atacama Desert region of Chile, without forgetting el Salar de Uyuni, of course.
Iran is great too, with so much history, natural beauty, and hospitable people. We also loved the Caucasus region, and there’s so much to explore in Indonesia… so many places, really, it’s hard to pick favorites.
6. Your recent trip to Peru was cut short due to the global pandemic, which meant you and your wife struggled to return home back in Malaysia.
Yeah, right. The whole ordeal is explained here.
I lost my parents as I was waiting it out in Peru, where I arrived to work for Fodor’s on a guidebook update. It was an inexplicable situation to be in, trying to get things moving using a bare-bone mobile hotspot at 3,300 meters of height…
Cabanaconde, the village we stayed, was actually pretty nice and especially safe from the virus. But cases were raising around Peru, the lockdown was rigid and eternally extended every fortnight, and it really felt like we would have never gotten home if we hadn’t taken the last opportunity offered by Lima’s Malaysian embassy.
Thanks to 156 amazing people, we raised enough funds to face the high costs of the repatriation procedure, and here we are, medically tested and approved, on parole after 14 days of hotel quarantine.
7. You recently have experienced I read your heart-gripping story of loss due to the Coronavirus where you sadly lost both parents. I am so sorry for your loss and I can’t fully comprehend how you feel. You have confronted this head-on by publishing some articles on this.
Ok, I actually thank you for asking this question. I would like to take the chance to explain that, if anyone had a problem in me trying to get the story of my parents’ death out, thinking I was trying to capitalize on it, well, they can go fuck themselves.
I don’t wish anyone to experience what it means to lose people you love when you are stuck on the other side of the world. Plus, I am a very strong-willed person and don’t like to sit around. It takes an incredible amount of faith, self-strength, and determination to muster the moment and quell the nirvana of pain you are in and sit down to fucking write about it.
Writing is my skill and as such, being able to do what I think I do best to ease my pain, spitting a big chunk of black soul bile out to the world, was frankly liberating. I also wanted to let as many people as possible know what happened to me, that this virus is not “just the flu”. It kills people. We need to be responsible for that, ourselves, and the others around us.
I also think that my stories have somewhat immortalized them, making people understand how much they were important to me throughout my whole life.
Now, of course, I am back in Malaysia and there still are a lot of things to take care of in Italy, where I’ll go as soon as travel bans lift, and I’m allowed. Writing it out has partially healed the wound… but it will be only when I’ll enter their empty house again when I will confront the reality in the first-person narrative, not via phone calls, that I fear I’ll go through hell again.
In loving memory: Maurizio Ferrarese and Tundra Sartorel
8. The effects of Covid-19 have and will continue to make a dramatic impact on everybody’s lives. What are your thoughts on the impact on global travel and tourism?
As I mentioned before, I don’t think there will be much international travel for the foreseeable future. People are tired of staying at home too, and I think they will start traveling close to their homes as soon as possible. This will be a great time for local tourism, and for lesser-known places that will forcibly get in the spotlight after people will start getting bored of the same old’ famous places.
Tourism is also the bread and butter of many economies in developing countries, so I can’t see international travel staying shut for more than one year. I guess everyone wants to get back on their feet, but what I hope for, instead, is a reprise that’s more sustainable, more balanced.
I don’t know about you, but as of late, over-tourism and simplicity of international travel have taken a huge toll on many parts of the world, endangering cultures, creating greed, but also many opportunities. In an intelligent world, what happened during the pandemic — including the beneficial effects that slowing down human economies have given to the planet — should be teaching material for the next generation of business-savvy, experienced, and yet environment-conscious global citizens who want to thrive both economically and naturally.
On the contrary, it seems like what everybody wants to get back to is the same old, with all the issues, the problems, and the mad rush to acquire material wealth.
9. What are you working on now, any projects on the go or coming up?
To close up the sad circus of sorrow, I am now completing my work on “Fodor’s Essential Peru”, which should be published at the beginning of next year, and concentrating on my sites www.penang-insider.com and www.monkeyrockworld.com. The first is a resource to great things to see, eat, and do in Penang, while the second collect guides and itineraries from our latest trips around Asia.
I am trying to get a bunch of new content up as I wait it out, to be ready to have it rank in the future. Basically, trying to spread my eggs in more baskets, as the travel writing industry has taken a huge hit, and most of my regular gigs have dried up, paused, or even closed shop.
I’m also toying with the idea of fixing and restarting a novel, “Apocalypse Lou”, that’s been languishing in the back-burner for too many years and am also thoroughly enjoying my time back here in Penang. It’s so much freer than what we have experienced in Peru, and we are both very glad to have come back home to this.
If I will have to be forcibly bound to a desk for a while, I will surely be productive, preparing for new local and international travels as soon as the possibility will arise.
Thanks Marco, for being up for posting this interview. It would be great to meet in person once the MCO restrictions ease up.
Anyone looking for in-depth information on Penang then I truly recommend checking out https://www.penang-insider.com/. It really is a treasure trove of what to find and do in Penang.
You can check out more about Marco on his personal site too: https://www.marcoferrarese.com/