Allan Karl has never been able to sit still. With an insatiable passion for travel, culture, people, and food, he has explored more than 60 countries all over the world, photographing, writing, and blogging about them along the way.
Allan is an author, photographer, professional keynote speaker, committed adventurer, and digital marketing strategist.
In his bestselling book, FORKS: A Quest for Culture, Cuisine, and Connection, Allan brings to life his three-year solo journey around the world on a motorcycle. The journey — and the book — make for a fascinating tale.
Allan Karl Interview
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Allan Karl Transcript
Tim Knox: Hi everyone and welcome in to another edition of Interviewing Authors. Let’s start this show with a question for you:Have you ever thought of just chucking it all and traveling around the world?
That’s exactly what author and photographer Allan Karl did a few years ago. He sold his belongings and started an around the world trek that took him 3 years, through countries in South America and Africa, much of that time spent on a BMW motorcycle.
Allan traveled more than 60,000 miles, through 35 countries, and the result is the amazing book called Forks – A Quest For Culture, Cuisine, and Connection.
Forks is part travelogue, part cook book, part memoir, part commentary; with more than 700 original photos and 40 recipes from around the world.
What made this interview so interesting – other than the obvious – was Allan’s view of the world after taking this trip. At one point he wrecked his motorcycle and broke his leg in the Colombian jungle and could have died if not for the help of the locals.
There were run-ins with unsympathetic border guards and encounters with armed bandits, but at the end of the journey Allan summed it up this way, “Though I set off on this journey alone, I was never alone. It’s easy to connect with people – with humanity – even in the most challenging and dangerous circumstances.”
An amazing story, an incredible journey, and a pretty dang good interview, if I do say so myself.
So here now is my interview with Allan Karl, author of Forks – A Quest For Culture, Cuisine, and Connection, on today’s Interview Authors.
Tim Knox: Allan, welcome to the program.
Allan Karl: Hey Tim, great to be here.
Tim Knox: I’m excited to have you here. You’ve had quite the journey that we’re going to talk about today. Before we get started though if you will, give the audience a little background on you.
Allan Karl: Well my name’s Allan Karl and I am an author, adventurer, a professional inspirational speaker and I have built a business, a couple businesses in digital marketing and branding and brand strategy. My focus today of course is writing and travel.
Tim Knox: How long have you been a writer? Before the book came out, did you do any writing before that?
Allan Karl: You know obviously in the marketing and advertising business I’ve written lots of copy, advertising, sales copy. In addition a lot of times I was writing stories for public relations that would not necessarily be an entire marketing purpose. I’ve always written a journal and on this journey before I even started this book, I was blogging and probably was blogging before people knew what the word was. I think my first blog was in 2001.
Tim Knox: You were one of the early bloggers back when everybody was going what the hell is a blog?
Allan Karl: Yeah, what’s that word?
Tim Knox: The book is called Forks. Tell us about the journey behind the book and then we’ll talk specifics about the book.
Allan Karl: Yeah so the short title’s Forks and then the long title is Forks: A Quest for Culture, Cuisine, and Connection. The book is really chronicles and brings to life my three year journey around the world alone on a motorcycle.
When I first set out on this journey I knew that there would be lessons and there would be stories to share and I thought I’d come back and write a typical travel memoir. However, when I did come back I realized that the real way to bring this story to life was to allow readers to experience the world in many ways how I saw it. That’s through photographs. This book’s got 700 photos in it. And to feel it through the narrative and the stories of connection and sometimes even collision. Then of course to taste it in the flavors of the local food.
So I set about to do what the publishing, traditional publishing industry was unsure could be successful and that it is to bridge genres. Some people might call it a cookbook. Some people may call it a travel log and others may call it a photo essay, photo journalistic style book. It really brings the best of those things in a nice hard cover, a beautiful book – nice to touch and feel.
Tim Knox: Is it only in hardback?
Allan Karl: You don’t know how many times I’ve answered the question, “Is it going to be on Kindle? Is it going to be on the iBook store?” Eventually obviously I do want to do those things but there’s nothing like holding a book. It’s so right off the press right now that you can still smell that fresh ink.
Tim Knox: I love that too and that’s one thing about your book. I think the thing that I first noticed about you, Allan, was the cover of the book, the photography of the book. I want to go a little into that in just a little bit but I think the first question that comes to mind is why on Earth would a sane man get on a motorcycle and spend three years going around the world? What prompted this journey?
Allan Karl: Well you know my dream has always been to travel the world. I’ve always been a traveler and my passions have always been photography, writing and certainly I love motorcycles. One day I woke up and realized that I found myself out of a job. I quit the job from a company that I actually had co-founded. My relationship with my wife of many years had run its course and I was divorced.
I looked at these changes, these forks in my life if you will, as an opportunity to either do what I’ve always done which, be it marketing or a branding strategist and entrepreneur or I could pursue my passions and follow my dream.
So what I did is look at these changes in life as exactly that, an opportunity, and hopped on that motorcycle and three years, 62,000 miles through 35 countries, 5 continents later I found myself back and reliving that journey through about another three years of putting this book together.
Tim Knox: So there was the loss of a job, loss of a marriage and of course I’m sure you’ve been asked this question – was this a midlife crisis of sorts?
Allan Karl: I think it was an extreme route through a midlife crisis.
Tim Knox: I mean I bought a red convertible. You go around the world on a motorcycle for three years.
Allan Karl: Yeah, exactly. Believe me, when I first floated this idea around friends and families most thought I was absolutely crazy. In fact, strongly suggesting that before I go I might want to get my affairs together, maybe update my will.
Tim Knox: That had to be scary for your family. I can just imagine if I told my family I was going to do something like this they would be horrified. What was the response that you got?
Allan Karl: It was, “Are you sure you want to do that? Couldn’t you just get one of those around the world airline tickets? How about a cruise? A motorcycle?” When I shared with them the list of the countries I was going to visit – Columbia, Ethiopia, Syria, Sudan – they were insisting that I would not come back in one piece alive or that I would be ripped and stripped of everything I owned. They were fearful for sure for me.
Tim, in my mind I imagined things a lot different. I imagined a world enhanced by humanity, diversity and culture and that’s really what I set out to see. Regardless there’s bad people everywhere. You can be in California where I live or you can be in Alabama. If you tend to look for what’s wrong with the world or your situation you’ll tend to probably find that. Change your perspective and look for what’s right and you’re going to find that.
I imagine that our neighbors, our worldwide neighbors, these countries I was going to visit were really eager to meet and share and connect with me, together in my utopian mind I really believe this. We would all strive to make the world a better and safer place and as we get so much more connected through internet we’re seeing that happen already.
Tim Knox: And when you explained this to your family did they still go, “you’re crazy”?
Allan Karl: Yes, absolutely. Originally I thought it was going to be a two year trip but I found that at the beginning of the journey that I was going way too fast. I found myself falling into checklist tourism. The concept of a bucket list – let’s just say we did that. Travel should never be about bragging rights or checking things off a list. I did that. I did that.
So really for me I started to slow down and immerse myself in the places I was visiting and that’s where the food really came in. How many people do you know that might end up in a foreign country and they find a restaurant they can order a hamburger at? I don’t want to do that when I’m somewhere. You want to taste the local food and really immerse yourself and connect with people, learn about what makes that country, that person tick.
Tim Knox: So the title, Forks, does it refer to the forks in the road, the forks in life?
Allan Karl: It’s really triple and maybe even four meanings. The book was about forks in the road, forks in life decisions. Make the decision. Choose to do what you want to do, follow your dream, follow your passion. The other of course is the forks on a motorcycle or a bicycle is what keeps the tire straight and guides you, guides you through the turns and the changes and the terrain. Then of course there’s the forks that we eat with and when we sit down and break bread with each other and share and talk and learn about each other over a good meal or good drink.
There’s a fourth one. When I was writing the book I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it but the name of the book just came to me with this rushing, great feeling. Forks, if you’ve ever been to a doctor or play a piano or another instrument, we use tuning forks. That’s kind of how we keep in harmony, keep in tune. When we’re testing if our body is in tune a doctor will take a tuning fork and hit certain parts and ask if you feel that. Are we in tune? Is our body functioning properly?
So I think forks are real important in our lives in many ways so to whoever the reader is, which fork makes most sense to you or do they all?
Tim Knox: Right and which one made the most sense to you now that the journey is over?
Allan Karl: For me it was definitely forks in the road. I had come to the end of a marriage and an end of a job. I really did look at these things as changes. A lot of times when faced with change people tend to look at it with scarcity, as the adage goes, rather than abundance. What am I going to do now? What do we all do? Sometimes we fall into depression, maybe whine and complain about our situation, maybe worst.
For me, seriously as I said before, I thought these changes were not negative; they were positive. It allowed me to follow my dreams and pursue my passions. Part of what I speak about when I do my professional speaking and what my book is about is to be open, open to new experiences. Something might hit you like a 2×4 in the head like it did me. Instead of saying, “ouch,” say, “Wow, what can I do now and how can I leverage this change and learn more about myself and about others?” I really believe that the possibilities are endless when we just change our perspective.
Tim Knox: I agree. The one thing you said that resonates with me because it’s kind of a pun is that last definition of forks, of the tuning forks. I’m sure this three years that you spent did some tuning on your life. You’re probably on a different wavelength than you were three years ago.
Allan Karl: Absolutely. There’s so many lessons learned, whether it’s just the simple notion that we all know and when we experience it, it just rushes up and fills you with that great wonder – the kindness of strangers for example or the kindness of strangers exhibited in ways that those people I met on the road that seemed to have so little compared to Western standards yet are so willing to give you everything they’ve got.
Yet sometimes we as a society, as entrepreneurs, we’re big on security and fear that we might lose something. We tend to hold onto it really tight. I think that those things that we tend to hold onto too tightly, too much are the first things that we need to let go of. That’s when you really start to have this liberty, this freedom and be able to be open to new experiences and to be open. Really it’s about being open.
Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little about the logistics of this. You make up your mind against the advice of everyone you know to go off on this quest. What were the logistics? You had the motorcycle. Did you ship it? How did this all go from the comfort of Allan’s house to being on the road?
Allan Karl: Yeah so I spent about two years planning this trip, researching, reading, learning. When I finally set out I kind of had an idea, a plan of where I would go and the first step of it was to go north to the Arctic Ocean. One of my goals was to go to the ends of the Earth, as far as you could go on a road and drive or ride in my case. To the north that’s the Arctic Ocean, a place called Dead Horse, Alaska where there’s a road called the Dalton Highway and it takes you to the beginning of the infamous Alaskan pipeline.
I did this for two reasons. I certainly wanted to get to the Arctic Ocean, swim in it but my plan was then to go to South America and that would give me this kind of reconnaissance trip to tune my bike to make sure did I forget to pack something? Did I pack too much? Is my bike not really tuned right? Is it out of kilter somewhere? I would have that chance one last time after going to Alaska doing a U-turn, coming back through the Western states. I followed the route of the Rockies coming back and I could go ahead and tweak my load, tweak my bike and tweak me and my mindset.
By the time I crossed into Mexico that’s when it’s sayonara; I’m on the road and the access to those comforts that we have here in the United States, whether it’s as simple as finding a part for my motorcycle or to solace and connection of good friends. I would still have that last chance. I found I packed too much so I had to alleviate stuff and still as I crossed the border and found myself in South America I still had too much stuff.
So the logistics of at least getting myself, my mind in tune but also the bike in tune, the load of what I was carrying and packing in tune, crossed the border. I did have to ship the bike over oceans a couple times. The first time was from Buenos Aires in Argentina to Africa, to Cape Town. That went on an air freight, put it on an airplane and I flew myself to meet up with it.
Then when I was done with the journey I finally shipped the bike back over the Atlantic Ocean north through Baltimore and from Baltimore I rode my bicycle back to California through our own country trying to experience it like I did the rest of the world through the small towns and small back roads of America. I not once went on an interstate or a highway, all through little back roads. Well I went on parkways because I did do the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Natchez Trace Parkway, not far from Alabama.
Tim Knox: I’ve been on it many times.
Allan Karl: Through the Civil War route and partly through Lewis and Clark’s route. This trip for me was about learning not only about myself but about others and history, whether it was the history of Mexico or the history of Bolivia or Africa or our own backyard right here in the United States. There’s so much to learn here and that was my plan. I also put the bike on a train at one point I believe and it’d been on some other smaller ferries and boats for smaller distances but those two were the biggest hops.
Tim Knox: Right. Now talk about some of the countries that you did travel through and talk about the people and the food there. This ended up being, as you said, kind of a travel log, lots of photography but then there’s also the food aspect of it. At what point did you decide to make it to include the food as one of the features?
Allan Karl: Since I know right now we’re just coming off this wonderful World Cup fever here in Brazil. I spent six months in Brazil and there was one night. It was a horrible night riding my motorcycle because I tried to gauge my distances never to ride at night. Unlike the U.S. where we have these great markings, flashing lights, big barrels, cones – when there are obstacles in the road or you’re going through large farms and where livestock is grazing, typically there’s some fences so these animals don’t wander onto the highway.
Once you leave the United States, the safety of great markings and fences for farms and things like that don’t exist. Traveling at night is very risky because you could end up running into a buffalo or you could run into a construction. I mean there was places where bridges were out and there was nothing warning you that there was a bridge out.
This was a really terrible night. The rain was pouring. I couldn’t see. My speed was very slow. When it’s raining your visibility shuts down. You can’t be riding too fast. You’ve got to keep your eyes focused and it’s very tiring. So I found myself riding through night just to get to this next town and when I got there the guest house that I finally found to stay the night, the owner of this guest house looks at me and says, “You look very tired and very hungry. Come with me. You need a beer and some good food.”
We ended up in this non-descript restaurant. It didn’t even have a sign. Grandma back in the kitchen. She opens her refrigerator and pulls out these fresh fish just caught today and cooked me this fish stew simmered in coconut milk and made with fresh herbs and this red palm oil. This was in Bahia, north of Rio, and every time I saw it on the menu I’d always order it because not only did it remind me of Pepe, the gentleman who brought me to this restaurant, but it also reminded me of just the flavors of the coast – coconut milk, coconut palm trees, the red palm oil, waves crashing on the beach. It’s just gorgeous. Brazil is awesome.
By the time I had it for the fourth of fifth time I asked for the recipe and brought that back with me to the U.S. It’s the only recipe during the trip that I really brought with me. one night after being back for several months in the States I invited good friends of mine, Bonnie and Doug, over and I cooked for them this moqueca. I also had recalled a great fresh salad that I had in Syria of all places at a gas station where an owner had invited me for lunch.
I made those two dishes and Bonnie and Doug looked at me as I was telling them stories of my journey. They said your book of stories needs to include these recipes. A light bulb went off and I said, “Wow, you just hit the nail on the head, and photographs because I’m a photographer and these people, these things needed to be shared in those ways.”
I used my camera not only to take nice pictures that would make the pages maybe of a book or in a gallery but I also used the camera as a notepad, sometimes taking pictures of just things I needed to remember. I often ate alone when I wasn’t being hosted in a home and fed the meal but I’d be in a local restaurant certainly conversing with the people that worked there but I would be bored sitting there and I’d take pictures of my food.
As now as it’s become with Instagram and all this stuff becomes very much the thing to do but these recipes, these dishes I’d be reminded years later and I contacted people I met along the way and tried to get the recipes and remember these dishes I had. I went through the process of recreating the journey not only through those photos and writing but through the food.
Tim Knox: Did you have any interest in food before this other than just eating it?
Allan Karl: Yeah, in fact my wife had run a slow food catering business and I was always very into good food, pairing it with good wine, those things. Yeah, I had an interest and I liked to cook.
Tim Knox: At one point you were in Bolivia I think. You broke your leg or you wrecked your bike. Tell us about that.
Allan Karl: Oh yeah. This is where the family and the friends started to say, “I told you so.” The largest salt flat in the world is in Bolivia. It’s in the Altiplano, the high plains of the Andean Mountains. It sits at about 14,000-15,000 feet and it’s about 4,000 square miles which is roughly the size of the state of Delaware or about the size of the entire county of Los Angeles. This was one of those natural phenomenons, places that I’d read about, learned about that I really wanted to get to much like the Arctic Ocean.
On the way to this place you have to leave a city, the highest city in the world, Potosí, Bolivia. It sits about 14,000 feet in the Andes as well. From Potosí it’s about a half day’s drive, maybe some 300 miles on a dirt road. It had rained the night before. After a few hours of traveling on that road I ended up riding through a small settlement, about the only little piece of civilization between Salar de Uyuni and Potosí, Bolivia and which happens to be the place where all the buses stop and the people that are transporting goods back and forth between the two places.
The road was muddy, rutted and just nasty. My bike was slivering and sliding in this red clay mud, almost like a snake I felt like trying to keep the bike from sliding out from under me. All of a sudden the front tire dug into the mud, stopped, my rear tire spun up from under me. My bike fell, I fell on the mud and my bike which weighs about 400 pounds and I’m carrying about 200 pounds of all my earthly belongings. It lands on top of me and crushes my leg.
I needed to find a way out of there and this is where you rely on people again, the locals. It took about 12 hours from the time that I crashed and broke my leg until the time I got back to Potosí, Bolivia and ended up in a hospital there where they… this is the funny part of this. They X-ray it and confirm what I already knew. Yes, my leg is broken in three different places. Then they give me pills for the pain because I was in excruciating pain, especially after being transported in the back of what would be like an old 1970’s Suburban with a bad suspension and all. Every bump in the road I could feel in my leg.
Nonetheless, they give me pills for the pain and it’s the strongest that they’ve got here. It’s like a high dose of Ibuprofen. I think, “Great, here I am in one of the largest cocaine producing countries in the world and all they can give me for pain is Advil? Where’s the justice there?”
Tim Knox: That’s hilarious. That is funny. Were you really in the middle of nowhere when you had this accident? Were there people around at all?
Allan Karl: Yeah it was a little settlement. It was about a small town block of coffee colored adobe buildings. Again, this is almost the halfway point. There’s no cell phone coverage but they did have a radio telephone, like a ship to shore I would imagine out on a boat or something. The only way that phone works is when it’s clear skies. When there’s bad weather and you can imagine in the Andes it’s often bad weather.
They were on the phone calling this ambulance or this truck to come get me and before they could really confirm that the truck would come the connection was lost. That’s where a lot of my time, the 12 hours, I was waiting and really nobody knowing whether or not they got the complete message, whether or not they could come. It was a long time before it came but they did come.
I had to be Med-evac’d to the U.S., have surgery and then months later after rehabilitation and physical therapy I returned to Bolivia where I had a man watching over my motorcycle. That was another thing my friends thought. “Your bike will never be there. Why are you going back? Haven’t you had enough? You busted your leg, dude.” No, I went back not to quit, never to quit, never to give up. My bike was there and I continued the journey.
Tim Knox: That’s incredible. I was going to ask you what was going through your mind as you’re lying there in the middle of this little village in Bolivia going, “what the heck have I done?” Did it occur to you to question this at all or were you just hell bent on keeping on going?
Allan Karl: I was hell bent on keeping this going. I never once thought of quitting, though surprisingly most everybody else did, including the man watching my motorcycle. Probably about two months after I was in the U.S. still getting my leg back, trying to walk without a limp, all those things that we do when we recover from injuries. He writes me an email and asks me if I’d sell the motorcycle since I wasn’t going to come back.
I have to tell you that there was just no way. I was going back. I was going to the very bottom of South America to Tierra del Fuego and I needed to get to Salar de Uyuni. I didn’t even get there. I broke my leg on that road. I said I got to see the Salar. I got to get to the bottom and I got to get to Africa.
Tim Knox: Now what was the impact other than your broken leg? How did your body hold up? You’re not an 18 year old.
Allan Karl: Not at all.
Tim Knox: How old are you?
Allan Karl: During the trip I was in my mid-40s so I’m early 50s now.
Tim Knox: I’m in my 50s and I get stiff going to the bathroom. How do you ride a motorcycle that much and what was the impact on your body?
Allan Karl: Well interestingly I would try to do as much exercise and I didn’t necessarily work out but I would do what I call motorcycle yoga. That is on long stretches I would do stretching moves and twisting your body around as much as you can on a motorcycle. Certainly when I stopped I would always mostly do stretching. I found that worked a lot.
I have to say that in some areas just… the clutch on my motorcycle is very tight. It’s a tough clutch. When I first got back after this broken leg I hadn’t been on a motorcycle for months and in the point leading up to the accident pulling on the clutch, you know, have you ever used those wrist strengtheners?
I got back and I hadn’t been doing any wrist strength. I was so focused on the trip. The first couple of weeks I found myself really cramping and pain in my left wrist, the clutch wrist. I was like why is that? It occurred to me oh it’s that clutch, particularly because the roads right when I returned to Bolivia… Bolivia, only 20% of that country’s roads are paved so they’re dirt and you’re constantly feathering the clutch making sure when you’re driving through sand or really rough terrain. You’re using that clutch a lot.
I would certainly be sore in the butt after a long day. But it was taxing and I would have to stretch because I would feel cramped. Like you said, going to the bathroom. That really worked for me. If I didn’t do that I would be this hunched over guy always on that motorcycle. Particular in bad weather you tend to tense up on a bike and that tension you put through your body can be devastating.
Tim Knox: You mentioned that a lot of this trip you were alone. Did you ever get lonely out there?
Allan Karl: You know, that’s a really good question. I have to say that I was never lonely but I found myself experiencing some amazing things, whether it is the connection of a person, the beauty of some natural place or tasting an incredible meal that I often would say I feel a little bit selfish because I need to share this. I wish there was somebody here. Look at that view. Isn’t this cool? We’re hanging out with this 105 year old guy and he’s introducing us to seven generations of his family and eating this amazing, different food that would be hard to find in the States? Often I thought I do miss that, sharing that.
If I was ever lost, even lonely or hungry I found that if I just opened my eyes, opened my mind and turned around someone was always there.
Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little bit in the time we have left about the photographs that you took. I’ve spent probably way more time than I should have on your website looking at these photographs. These are amazing. Talk about the way that you got folks to pose in these photographs. You’ve got a lot of nature shots here, just incredible. Talk a little about the photography aspect of the book.
Allan Karl: I love photography and I love beautiful nature photography and I love capturing phot-journalistic style photography. What really inspires me is connecting with people. Rather than just doing man on the street quick, flip out the camera and try to catch somebody. A lot of times if you take a picture of somebody in a foreign country and you don’t ask them you might rub them the wrong way. Some people are really offended. Some people get downright angry. I felt that the best way to capture the people was to connect with them, get to know them the best you can in the time that I’ve got.
So those portraits, some of those very natural portraits kept capturing people. I remember one Ethiopian monk that I met at a monastery island and they’re very strict. The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian religion is about praying every day.
We had such a fun time. I got this guy and again he doesn’t speak English and I hardly speak any Amharic, the language the Ethiopians speak. Somehow we connected through sharing. It’s just that powerful gift that when you really find something, whether it’s using sign language, whether it’s walking and pointing and things like that. This monk started smiling and they never smile. That’s what I think is so much fun for me.
I think capturing vistas are fun but all you really need to do to capture a beautiful vista is obviously be in the right place at the right time, make sure the lighting’s right and have a good eye for composition. To capture a person, to me I’d much rather spend that time instead of waiting for the light and hiking miles and miles. It’s like I want to connect with that person so the people shots are my favorite, although I certainly… trust me. I’ll hike and capture a good vista but I’m most proud of those photos of the people and capturing their expression.
Tim Knox: You did such a great job of it. A lot of the pictures of people remind me of the old National Geographic. Remember those layouts they would do? You’ve hit it right on the head here. This is good stuff.
Allan Karl: Yeah, I love it and that’s probably where I got my inspiration and if not maybe my motivation. In the basement growing up my folks had stacks and stacks of those yellow magazine. Nobody would ever throw away a National Geographic.
Tim Knox: Right mine too. It was a sin to throw those away.
Allan Karl: Yeah so I really, really enjoyed that and I’m sure I got that inspiration there. I carried three cameras with me – a point and shoot, a DSLR and actually a video camera. I thought I would get a lot more video footage but that’s another drawback of going alone. Really to do a video in the right away it’s best to have somebody to help there.
Photography is such a passion. I shot over almost 60,000 photographs during my three years. Now not all of those are good of course. There’s a lot of real bad ones. That was such a decision on this book. It’s 280 pages and it’s not 100% photo book because there are great stories in there and then the recipes. I had a hard time choosing the photos to go in. Some of them matches to the stories specifically and some of them were just to give you that sense of being there.
Tim Knox: Two of my favorites… there’s one of you going nose to nose with a camel and there’s another one. It looks like a station wagon that has three or four llamas sitting on top of it going down the road.
Allan Karl: Yes the llamas. I call that the Bolivian llama car. Since this book has come out, it’s probably the most talked about image. If there’s a “famous shot” in my book it is that llama shot. If you look close look in the back of the station wagon. There’s actually five llamas strapped to the top of this old Toyota and then in the back, in the little small cargo area there’s another two or three llamas. They’re coming from the market or going to the market. They use the llamas to make clothing, like the alpaca and llamas to keep shedding them and creating clothing.
That camel, another dream has always been to see the pyramids, the Great Pyramid of Giza. I didn’t want to just go there and take a tour. I had to ride my motorcycle there. I rode my motorcycle within 300, 500 yards of that pyramid. There are these men riding around on camels and this camel came up to me, looked at the motorcycle. It was kind of odd. I don’t know whether or not this camel had ever seen a motorcycle or maybe this camel was slightly envious. He was like, “Why don’t you ride that instead of riding me?”
Tim Knox: Exactly.
Allan Karl: He sat down there and he’s looking at me and I’m like this is just too beautiful. If you can say I connected with this camel and we are just staring each other down. It’s like me or the motorcycle, me or the motorcycle. Of course you could see the pyramids in the background. It’s wonderful.
Tim Knox: It really is a great shot. You also went to some places that I would assume could be quite dangerous. Talk a little bit about going through Syria.
Allan Karl: Syria of course for those of us that have never been to Syria and especially now with the conflict but if rewind back to about four or five years ago when I was there, it’s still… I think one of our presidents famously called it one of the axis of evil. I found that when, well the first thing is people told me that Syria is very bureaucratic as far as getting a visa. You can’t just show up there and get a visa and get access into the country. They’ve got rules just like we have rules for getting passports and things like this.
Their rule is a visitor’s home country has diplomatic relations with Syria it is required that you get your visa in your own country before coming to Syria. Now visa’s don’t last that long. You have to tell them which day you’re going to be in and they usually last for about 90 days, sometimes shorter. There’s no way I could know when I was going to get to Syria so I didn’t have a visa.
Travelers along the way said, “Allan, you’re going to find yourself in a really tough situation. You’re going to be at the border of Jordan in Syria and they’re not going to let you in.” Well for those people who know me know I never take no for an answer and I don’t believe that. I believe everything is possible.
When I got to the Syrian border I learned that my friends, my fellow travelers who had warned me were right. They would not give me a visa. In fact they handed me, the Syrian consulates website and phone number in Washington D.C. and said you have to go there. I proceeded to do what I always do and try to persuade them otherwise. They said, “No, this is the law of the land.”
I’m in Jordan. I took out my tent in my motorcycle, unpacked it, pulled out my sleeping bag and I basically camped right there. I was very odd looking there because it’s a busy border. There’s trucks going through. It’s a major commerce between Syria and Jordan. That’s the shift change for the guards over the 24 hour period I was there. I would try again and again. Finally I managed to convince the Syrian immigration and customs to let me in. I said, “Can we at least call Damascus?” They did it and let me have a visa.
Where it really gets funny and wow is when I drove, rode the motorcycle up to the armed guards who are guarding a big iron gate that needs to be lifted with a big counterweight to let the vehicle through, the guy waves his gun in front of me and says, “No, step aside. The chief inspector wants to see you.” I thought oh no. The guy who gave me the visa’s in trouble. They fired him, stripped him of his rank, whatever.
I get off the bike, sit down, I’m in my motorcycle suit. It’s hot. It’s desert weather. A few minutes later the chief inspector shows up and he’s carrying a tray and on it are three cups of tea. He said, “Mr. Allan before you go we must have shai,” which is the Middle Eastern word, Arabic word for tea. Everybody, there’s always time in the Middle East for tea, for shai.
He says, “We want to hear about your travels, about your country,” and then he continued to share information about his country and drew an outline of the shape of the country on the dirt ground in front of him with a stick and put dots in little places. He said, “You must go here, must go here.”
So I found Syria… that was just the start. What could have been a bad situation was great to the point where the chief inspector wants to be my tour guide. I loved it. In fact it astonishes people because the typical question people will ask me is, “What was your favorite country?” “I had such a great experience in Syria.” Part of that certainly can be having low expectations but part of that is the warmness of the people.
I had my only flat tire in Syria, in Damascus, in the city and this guy who worked at a local business there sees me outside sweating like a you know what and trying to get my tire off and fix my tire. He comes out. He’s dressed in a tie and a white shirt, nice slacks. He’s an executive for this business. He says, “Step aside. I have four motorcycles.” He wouldn’t even let me barely help him but he insisted on helping me get the motorcycle up and replacing that tube. Those stories go on. These people were just so friendly and so eager to learn and be curious about me and my country and my travels.
Tim Knox: Right. Was there ever a time when you… did you ever feel like you were in danger?
Allan Karl: Not once.
Tim Knox: Really, the entire time?
Allan Karl: Never felt in any sense of danger. I’ll qualify that I was in a really tight traffic jam in the high city of La Paz in Bolivia. It’s a very packed, crowded probably dangerous looking place. I was there in the midst of this crazy traffic. There seems to be no rhyme or reason. There’s no lines on the road. There’s no traffic lights and everybody seems to be going their own directions like bumper cars or one of those smashup derbies.
I thought I really need to get out of here. I feared more there that somebody would run into me than I was about somebody doing damage to me intentionally or hurting me or wanting to rip me off.
Tim Knox: Amazing. The book is called Forks: A Quest for Culture, Cuisine, and Connection. Do you have a favorite memory from the trip?
Allan Karl: There are several but one that always sticks out for me is in Columbia I was warned by armed policemen before heading into this one very remote area through the juggle, I was warned by these policemen not to stop. They said it’s about four hours and to just ride straight through. It’s a very twisty mountain road and each bend in the road, the mountains get taller and the cliffs seem to get steeper. It’s just lush, gorgeous jungle.
After two hours I see perhaps the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever seen in my life and I have to stop even though they told me not to. I hadn’t seen anybody for hours. I stop and before I know it there’s two guys on either side of my motorcycle holding automatic weapons and dressed in jungle fatigues. I’m shaking and just at my wits end. My heart is beating so loud I’m sure they can hear it. My hands are shaking. I’m thinking, “This is the end.”
After some dialogue finally I try to… I say, “La cascada, the waterfall, incredible”, wow incredible.” One of the two guys turns to me and in Spanish says, “So you like waterfalls do you?” I said, “Si, si, si, si.” I’m like shaking. He says there’s another one in the jungle a kilometer away. “Follow us.” I’m thinking is this an offer or an order? Do I even have a choice and if I run are they going to shoot? If I go with them will I ever come out?
Well without belaboring the entire story and I tell this story in my professional talks because it’s just incredible. It takes an hour to go into this jungle. I’ll leave the mystery exactly to what happens in the jungle to readers of the book or those who see me but we finally do come to a waterfall three tiers tumbling in this clearing. We all laugh and take pictures and just connect. It occurred to me in that jungle, first of all, it was a place where we shared this universe feeling of enjoying a beautiful waterfall in a beautiful place but we also shared that powerful gift of connection, human connection.
As I headed to the border eventually, the next country, it occurred to me just what happens when you just trust yourself a bit. I didn’t walk in there totally blind. I had a gut feeling. I listened to my gut, my intuition and it turned out to be right. I came out alive. I truly think that they saw someone curious about nature, curious about their country and had no intention of harm. And I was alone on a motorcycle.
Tim Knox: They’re probably wondering who is this crazy man standing here looking at a waterfall.
Allan Karl: Yeah, in a place where the cartels and the drug runners are using this jungle and the policemen are even warning you to be careful.
Tim Knox: Allan, a great story. It sounds like a great book. I can’t wait to get it myself. Tell the folks where they can find out more about you and also buy the book.
Allan Karl: So the website is ForksTheBook.com. You can read a lot about the book there and there’s links to my other websites, including my speaking and my travel log. The book of course is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and your local independent bookstore. They might have to order it but it is available through major distribution. If you order it on my website I will sign the book for sure. It will be a signed copy. Any place you want to get it I would just love to hear from you and let me know what you think about it.
Tim Knox: Very good. Any future trips planned?
Allan Karl: Yes I’m hoping, and one of the reasons I stopped is because even though I was able to convince the Syrians to let me in the country I never could convince the Iranians to let me in so I want to go to Iran on my motorcycle and explore that country and then into Pakistan into the Karakorum Mountains on this wonderful road called the Karakoram Highway, which takes you through the most beautiful scenery in the Himalayas to the Chinese border, to the China border. So that’s next.
Tim Knox: Well on behalf of everyone who knows, loves and respects you, be very careful when you do that. Maybe you could wait a year.
Allan Karl: Let’s see how things shake out. Right now I want to get this book into as many hands and on as many tables as possible. I’ll be focused on that and then we’ll see where this goes.
Tim Knox: Fantastic. Allan Karl, the book is Forks: A Quest for Culture, Cuisine, and Connection. The website is ForksTheBook.com. You can also go to AllanKarl.com. We will put up links. Just go look at the pictures. I think you’ll order the book just based on that and then you get to try the recipes. Allan, this has been a pleasure.
Allan Karl: It’s been outstanding, Tim. This has been a great interview, one of my favorites. Thank you.