I met travel writer Vago Damitio online earlier this year when we were both entrants in an online novel writing competition where he was showcasing his brilliant Douchebags, Fags, and Hags. The novel, which deals with the cross-country misadventures of a man named Pigrone, has just been released as an ebook. To mark the occasion I caught up with Vago Damitio, to talk about travel, spirituality, and writing.
I’m sure you get this all the time, but I have to ask: how were you blessed with the name Vago?
People always ask me this– actually, they ask me ‘What’s your ethnic background? Is that Italian?’ I like to tell them that it’s not an Italian name, it’s actually Fanciful. The funny part is when I see that look as they try to place where the country of Fance is. In truth, it is fanciful. Unlike the protaganist in my latest novel, Pigrone or Pig, I wasn’t lucky enough to be given the name by a hot Italian woman looking for a one night stand — but, we do have something in common, Pigrone means lazy in Italian and Vago means lazy in Spanish. My Spanish friends often have a hard time introducing me because mi amigo Vago actually comes out sounding about like ‘my no-good, lazy friend’. Still, I haven’t answered your question. I wasn’t given the name Vago by my parents even though my mom, my wife and just about everyone calls me Vago. Instead, I was named Vago by a bartender who started calling me that after weeks of me peddling my first book “Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond” in his bar. First it was, “Hey, it’s the Vagabond,” after a bit it just became “Hey, Vago” sort of like Norm from Cheers. Friends started calling me that and when I went traveling, it was always how I introduced myself. Now, it’s my name. So you see, it is Fanciful, but I’m not from Fance.
The first book of yours that I read was Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond. Describe the vagabond lifestyle.
This is a tough one. At one point, back when there weren’t a hundred thousand blogs that include the word vagabond and Rolf Potts and I were pretty much the only two writers who thought it was fun to use such an obscure term to describe ourselves, it was pretty easy. The vagabonding lifestyle was all about long term travel and giving up home, job, possessions, and sedentary life to do it. Today, it’s a much broader category because you have techno-vagabonds who travel with the latest gadgets and have full time, online careers. You have vagabond families who sail and drive while living in their vehicles, and you still have penniless, vacant eyed, long term vagabonds too. Essentially, I would say the vagabond lifestyle is about adjusting yourself to a life of long term or perpetual travel. For me, this means I have a home base in country where I can afford one and I wander around as much as I can while trying to figure out how to get my paychecks from all my wandering.
Your book Liminal Travel: How to Travel on Almost Nothing also deals with wanderlust and the appeal of heading out and seeing the globe. What are some of your favorite places and why?
I haven’t even been close to everywhere yet, but out of the places I’ve been, a few stand out. I adore Turkey. I mean, I love it. Everything about Turkey just clicks with me. It’s an image conscious country where people like to look good but they will give you the shirts off their back. It’s a place where you can ride in an air conditioned bus, using onboard wifi, drinking tea and being handed lemon cologne by the bus attendant (every bus has one or two) and then you can look out the window and see ancient Greek, Roman, and Ottoman ruins. I can go on and on about Turkey — I continue to be a legal resident there even though I live mostly in Morocco.
I also love the Hawaiian Islands and the Philippines. While it might sound funny, both places are similar because they have aquatic cultures, heavy Asian influences, beautiful water, and laid back people. The Philippines is more affordable but the sense of Aloha in Hawaii can’t really be matched anywhere else. I’m kama’aina, I graduated from the University of Hawai’i, I’ve worked in Taro patches and I’ve hiked and kayaked about as much as anyone I know of on most of the islands.
Finally, there’s Europe. It’s hard to break it down into tiny little bits but there are some gems. The French countryside, Paris, the lakes region of Italy, Barcelona, Grenada — there’s something to be said for the grand tour. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to explore Europe over the course of years. From sailing in the Greek islands to hiking on the Isle of Skye — there’s no part of Europe that I haven’t found some wonder in.
And then of course there is Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Balkans, and I can go on. I’ve never been able to really make distinctions because every country has it’s charms and wonders and mostly, these come from the wonderful human beings who live in them.
So you’re currently living in Morocco. What brought you there?
Oh, it’s a tricky question for me. I live in Morocco. My wife is Moroccan, my daughter is half Moroccan. I have a lot of friends and family here. In fact though, they all entered my life after I came here. I came here on a whim when I was exploring Spain, I got stuck in a flood when I was couch surfing, I fell for the girl and then, despite trying to leave again and again, I kept coming back for her. I finally married her and dragged her to live in Turkey, but when our daughter came, it was important for my wife to be around family — so back we came. The truth is, I don’t like living here. It’s a beautiful country filled with wonderful people — it’s scenic, exotic, and fascinating — but for me, it’s a bit like living in hell. As soon as I can get my wife’s immigrant visa to the USA cleared, I’m going to drag my family away again and this time, hopefully far enough that we won’t be able to easily come back.
As a searching believer one of the more interesting sections of Liminal Travel to me was the part on spirituality. How would you describe your spirituality? Do you identify with a particular faith?
I believe in the Invented God. In fact, I am the latest prophet of the Invented God. I’m currently writing a book called The Invented God in which I am delving into all of the major religions to find truth. I believe that God is revealed to different peoples and cultures in different ways — I also believe that power hungry people soon subvert the truth with lies, so finding the true Invented God is a huge challenge. This is my life’s work. It’s one reason I want to leave Morocco, this work could get me killed here. Seriously, I can never publish while I live here. This is actually the first time I’m discussing it in print. It’s incredibly dangerous.
That books sounds amazing, I hope you are able to publish it. Lately I’ve been taking a more experimental approach to spirituality. In Liminal Travel you talk about experiences with the hallucinogen salvia. How has that affected your spiritual beliefs?
I believe that my experiences with salvia showed me the true nature of God. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about the God Particle they’ve discovered with the Hadron Collider in Switzerland — the funny thing is, that idea was revealed to me years ago as I was seeking and using salvia. Salvia is the most intense substance I’ve encountered. It’s not recreational, it’s only for the most stoic of seekers.
If you had the power to change one thing about the world, what would it be?
I would eliminate completely the idea of fiat currency, cash, money, interest, and banking. Erase them completely. Humanity existed for millennia without them and in fact, would be better off if they disappeared completely. There would still be power, there would still be trade, but it would be very different.
So let’s talk about your writing, starting with how long you have been at it.
I’ve been writing since I was about six. I used to make little stapled books. I was first published in a school paper when I was fifteen. My first magazine article happened when I was twenty-five, my first newspaper column when I was twenty-six, and my first book when I was twenty-nine. I’m forty now.
You write both non-fiction and fiction. Do you have a preference?
I prefer to write fiction. I love the way that the characters take over and take my outlined plot in completely different directions than I’d intended. If there is anything close to playing God, writing a novel is it. For me, giving my characters free-will to make their own decisions based on who they have become, what they have experienced, who they are — that is beautiful. What I love is that shortly after I create them, they begin to surprise me by doing things I would never think of.
Still, writing non-fiction is incredibly rewarding. I think what I really love about non-fiction is the research. It’s all about standing on the backs of giants and putting pieces together. I would love to be a researcher and just be able to tell someone else how to put the pieces together, how to reference previous sources, and all that tedious stuff. Maybe someday, one of my books will hit and I can hire an assistant or two.
Who are your favorite writers and why do you love them?
I love Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul. I can see why they were friends and why they fell out. They are keen observers, detail obsessed, narcissists. Perfect. I’m also a huge fan of Neil Stephenson — I love that he creates these fantastic novels around actual details and historical facts in such a way that the line between the real and the imaginary is very blurred. And then of course, there are all those classic vagabonds — Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, and many more.
Tell me about your new novel Douchebags, Fags, and Hags.
This was one of those books that took me to places I never meant to go. I meant to write a snarky critique of the expat community in Morocco but as soon as I created the character Pigrone, he refused to cooperate with me. I kept trying to get him to go to the Sultanate of Baboob where I imagined the story would take place and I’d created a whole slew of secondary characters, but he refused to go! First he went to Spain, then to Italy, he decided to go wandering in Tunisia, and finally when he got to where I wanted him to be in the first place, the story was already over! It changed from a snarky expat expose to the journey of a very average guy on his way to find out who he really is. I became so frustrated with Pig, that at times I thought of throwing out the whole project and starting over, but at the end of the day, people read it and love it. They love Pig and the experiences he has. Someone told me today that he was amazed at how much he learned from Pig! To be honest, I learned a lot from him too.
When I recommended the book online a gay man asked me if he should be offended. Is the title meant to be inflammatory?
Well, of course it is. I could have called it ‘An Unlikely Journey to the Sultanate of Baboob’ but the truth is, Pig is constantly meeting these odd characters — a Tunisian cross dresser is actually the closest thing to a gay man he meets, fags actually refers to cigarettes, which I think is pretty funny. I’ve had several gay friends read it and they all loved it and didn’t find it offensive — though I admit, there are some laughs involving gay innuendos.
On your travel website vagobond.com you recently wrote a travelogue about the Sultanate of Baboob. I understand that the fact that Baboob doesn’t actually exist was lost on some readers. How did that turn out?
I’m not too popular with ‘Travel Bloggers’ these days. I’ve recently spearheaded creation of the International Association of Professional Online Travel Journalists (IAPOTJ.org) and I’ve called for people to stop using the terms travel blog and travel blogger. Still, a lot of travel bloggers still read my articles so when I posted a story about my trip to the Sultanate of Baboob and how I was one of the first travel journalists invited there — I expected that there would be an immediate cry of foul and people would point out that there is no such place. Instead, after more than a thousand page views — the only reaction has been people sharing it and saying it sounds like an amazing journey. Lonely Planet actually syndicated the story which I find incredibly funny. 48 hours later and you are the first one to call me on it. Nice work!