Travel writer brings his tales to West Van library

Michael McCarthy monthly series begins Feb. 14

Travel Tales, a monthly slideshow presentation by veteran travel writer Michael McCarthy, Thursdays, 2-3 p.m. starting Feb. 14 at West Vancouver Memorial Library.

Michael McCarthy wants to test the waters at the West Van library.

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The travel writer figures he’ll start off his series of slideshows with the universally palatable – sunshine destinations. These globe-trotting tales are rated suitable for those with general wanderlust.

Down the road – once he gains their trust – McCarthy will take his audience to some dark and wild places.

“It’s all up to the people who show up to choose the next destinations,” explains McCarthy, who makes North Vancouver his home base.

Keep in mind, this is someone who once travelled the shadowy streets of Phnom Penh with a Cambodia-based child protection organization, to find and expose sexual predators buying street children to exploit.

McCarthy is also the guy whose idea of adventure is sneaking into the notorious San Quentin State Prison, where he came face-to-face with hardened criminals in their natural environment.

But again, McCarthy wants to get know his audience first before revealing the more colourful slides.

His monthly travel talks at the library start on Valentine’s Day with a vicarious journey to idyllic Caribbean locales: Jamaica, St. Maarten, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.

In March, ride a bamboo raft with McCarthy down a lazy river, meet the locals, and explore villages and caves in the strangely beautiful “karst” mountains of the Guilin District of southern China.

Then in May, the audience will head Down Under as McCarthy takes them to meet the Aboriginal residents of the oldest inhabited rainforest on the planet. Odd creatures like tree kangaroos and platypuses will also come into view at the library.

However, McCarthy is keeping those “other” travel slides in his back pocket for when the time is right. 

At a North Vancouver retirement residence, guest speaker McCarthy waited six months before he got the nerve to show his “really crazy” adventures. “And that’s what they really liked,” he attests.

McCarthy has been told he makes Indiana Jones look like a wimp.

While many of his adventures are not for faint of heart, they do nourish the soul.

A former radio news reporter, McCarthy discovered travel perks about 20 years ago. He quickly learned how to parlay a press trip into a philanthropic side adventure.

McCarthy would escape sheltered life at five-star resorts in developing countries – swapping champagne breakfasts for local school visits. The prolific travel writer would come home with stories for different audiences, including the all-inclusive experience and the eye-opening adventure beyond the gates.

“I say this to everybody and they don’t believe me: ‘After 100 five-star resorts – it’s all the same,’” says McCarthy.

In the Dominican Republic, McCarthy discovered a hostel owned by a Canadian expat. McCarthy offered to promote the hostel with his writing savvy in exchange for directions to a local school and “batey” – a shantytown camp where sugarcane cutters live.

In his bag were gently-used clothes and ball caps from home that McCarthy brought for the locals. He spent the $6 in his pocket on bananas for the kids.

Back at the all-inclusive that night, McCarthy reviewed the photos on his camera’s LCD screen. His dining companions’ mouths fell agape.

“And everyone’s going, ‘My God, where have you been? What have you been doing?’” says McCarthy.

On press trips fellow scribes will carry around a pen and paper, furiously taking notes while on vacation.

McCarthy just has his trusty camera in tow, the same one he’s relied on for years: a Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot with a “phenomenal” zoom lens. 

“Like really, how close do I want to get to a grizzly bear,” he says with a chuckle.

Learning how to befriend the locals can be a delicate game.

One concierge in Kathmandu suggested McCarthy talk with the warden at a female prison. The inmates were suffering due to lack of food and medication. 

The warden told McCarthy pointedly: “Get out of here and never come back, I hate people like you (journalists). I’ll never let you in here.”

McCarthy calmly explained what he had in mind – to start a cosmetology project in the prison to teach all the women a skill that would allow them to be pardoned of their crime: begging on the streets for basic survival needs. 

The altruistic scribe bought all the supplies and paid estheticians to teach the imprisoned how to perfectly paint fingernails and toenails. McCarthy even allowed the warden and his team to take all the credit.

Meanwhile, McCarthy raised money for a proper graduation ceremony for the women, who would have otherwise died in prison.

“I had 35 women come up to me and hug me and kiss me and say: ‘You’ve changed my life – I’m a free person now.’ I was bawling like a baby. It hit me so hard that I could do this so easily.”

McCarthy has also seen the inside of a notorious U.S. prison – San Quentin. Actually, he snuck in. 

“Well, I won’t be doing that again soon,” says McCarthy, with a slight shiver to his voice.

Disguised as a gaffer for a film crew, McCarthy mingled with violent inmates while surreptitiously doing research for his story on rehabilitation programs versus punishment and the death penalty.

Muscular prisoners looked at McCarthy like a dog salivating over a piece of raw hamburger, with one even calling him out as a reporter.

“I was scared out of my life,” recalls McCarthy. “That’s a very serious place.”

With more than 300 trips to more than 40 countries to draw from, many of McCarthy’s adventures have been recounted in newspapers, magazines and his own books. His real interest is not tourism, but rather to learn and teach “transformative travel” which he defines as “making the world a better place on your journey through life.”

McCarthy won’t soon forget the time he nearly drowned in crocodile-infested waters in Cambodia, and then almost got arrested. It was the worst day of the travel writer’s life.

But he lived to tell another adventure.

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