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Diary of a top environmental journalist and bad traveler: Q&A with Jeremy Hance

Jeremy Hance's new book cover

  • Mongabay’s award-winning senior correspondent Jeremy Hance’s new book – “Baggage: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Hypochondriac” – lands in bookstores and on e-readers worldwide today.
  • Despite dealing with extreme anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder since the age of 10, Jeremy has traveled extensively to report for Mongabay, and has filed an almost unbelievable 3,000+ environmental news stories since 2008.
  • In an interview about the new book, he shares some favorite treks and top tricks for dealing with travel anxiety.
  • “Baggage” is available via HCI and the major publishing house Simon and Schuster in digital, paper format, and as audiobook.

Are you a ‘bad traveler’ or a ‘good’ one? Do you care about conservation and telling stories about the environment enough to risk a wild ride or two?

Today marks the day that Mongabay’s award-winning senior correspondent Jeremy Hance’s new book about his adventures – Baggage: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Hypochondriac – lands in bookstores and on e-readers worldwide.

Published by HCI and distributed by Simon and Schuster, Jeremy’s wildly entertaining new title shares the challenges of doing this crazy and mostly thankless work of traveling to tell important stories despite having a suite of mental illnesses – extreme anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – two syndromes which make it nigh impossible for many to even leave home, let alone their country’s borders, via an array of precarious arrangements known as mass transit, public restrooms, restaurants and plane travel.

The author of 3,000 plus features for Mongabay, plus many more for the Guardian and others, his latest project is already accruing praise from top traveler-authors Sy Montgomery and Carl Safina, Mongabay took this opportunity to drill into Jeremy’s seemingly self-destructive embrace of the unknown in jungles, jets and more to deliver on his commitment to, and love for, the natural world, and to hear about his survival strategies.

Mongabay: What’s the furthest off the beaten path you’ve ever traveled for us?

Jeremy Hance: That’s a tough one! Was it the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti to find the cryptic solenodon? Or how about a little town in northern Vietnam to look for a rediscovered mammal? Actually, thinking about it: it was probably Guyana.

Solenodons are rare, not just because they’re one of the world’s few venomous mammals, but also due to habitat loss on the island of Hispaniola. Photo courtesy of the author.

In 2008, I attended a conference in Paramaribo, Suriname. It was my first trip for Mongabay, and the first time I met Mongabay founder Rhett Butler in person. My wife, who accompanied me, and I decided after the conference to head to neighboring Guyana to check out an amazing place called Iwokrama. The trek there required a full day in a mini-bus like vehicle from Paramaribo to Georgetown, Guyana, including a ferry. It was the kind of day you’d really like to forget.

We spent the night in Georgetown and then woke up before dawn to begin another trek, some eight hours into the rainforests of Guyana in an SUV. A few hours in, the road turned to mud and mini-lakes. We finally reached Iwokrama around dinner time.

It was worth it, though, as Guyana’s deep rainforest was one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been. Certainly, one of the most intact ecologically. It was an incredible experience.

What’s a favorite wildlife encounter you had after reaching the destination for one such trip?

I have to say solenodon, right? How could I not? I planned a 10-day trip to see this one totally bizarre mammal that’s like nothing else on Earth. The full story is in the book, but basically, I shadowed a researcher who was capturing solenodons and was lucky enough to meet a beautiful female. I was really fortunate, as I could have easily gone all that way and never seen one. They are very difficult to catch.

But also meeting Tam the Sumatran rhino really changed my career and life, so I’ll add that one, too.

Jeremy with a Sumatran rhino at a captive breeding center in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of the author.

What key strategies do you use for travel anxiety?

Lots of things. None of them full-proof, alas. When you live as I do with extreme anxiety and OCD, you can’t completely get rid of the anxiety, but you can mitigate the symptoms.

I’m a firm believer in going on a trip well-prepared. This means I know where I’ll be sleeping pretty much every night, and how I’m getting from one place to another. This means I’ve got all the travel and psych meds I need and have gotten all my vaccines. I’ve also learned the hard way about how many days on the road I can do before my anxiety starts to get really awful. So, I make sure my trips aren’t marathons.

My wife is a greater packer — she always packs the things I need within easy reach on planes, trains, or camels — such as medications, books, earplugs. I always make sure I have a ton of funny podcasts downloaded, plus some good music and a number of meditations. Listening to podcasts while being driven across Sumatra or flying over the Pacific has helped me avoid any number of potential panic attacks.

A bottle of beer can also be a wonderful thing at the end of a long day.

Finally, I bring a little token everywhere I go. Think of it like my totally masculine teddy bear. Sometimes it’s been a little plastic tiger, other times a pangolin. It helps, really, to have something tactile when you start to feel anxious. It sounds kooky I know, but when you’ve had enough panic attacks abroad, like I’ve had, you’ll do pretty much anything that works.

Hoatzins are one of many kinds of fascinating creatures sometimes encountered while on assignment in Ecuador. Photo courtesy of the author.

Have these coping mechanisms helped during our current pandemic?

Yes! Honestly, if you live with chronic mental illness like I do, you basically have to establish a regime of healthiness. It’s actually something that’d probably be good for everyone, but for me it’s about basic functioning, about being a good father and partner and writer.

So, I have a great therapist. I’m on meds. I do mediations, yoga, and exercise regularly. I’d guess that I work fewer hours and sleep more hours than most. I try to make sure I get out into nature as much as possible, which science now shows is so good for maintaining our mental health and decreasing stress. If these things slip, I pay the price in my symptoms ratcheting up.

The pandemic has been strange, because on the one hand plagues are what OCD sufferers like myself are built for. Seriously. We’re very good at routines: washing hands, putting on masks, not touching stuff, staying away from people. We’re practiced at that. At the same time, of course, the pandemic-stress has pushed all of us into new territory.

Like many of us, I have my good days and my bad days. And I’ve had to ratchet up my techniques to take care of myself when the anxiety and depression calls. I am grateful, though, that I have 30 years of practice at this — I was first diagnosed with mental illness when I was 10. I think in some ways this has been even harder on people who have never struggled with severe anxiety and suddenly find themselves having their first attacks in the middle of lockdown.

Hypochondria is of course warranted when traveling like this, what kinds of parasites, diseases or other nasties you’ve encountered while afield?

It’s sort of ironic given how paranoid I am, but I’ve been blessedly lucky on my trips. I’ve only been sick a couple times, and never seriously. I got more ill from a trip to Glacier National Park (in the U.S.) than I ever have had abroad.

I think one of the most difficult things for me when traveling is when I’m in countries where you can’t drink the water. Americans take our relatively clean water — Flint, Michigan aside, of course — for granted. It’s a nightmare to live with unsafe water.

Jeremy likes helping things grow wherever he goes. Photo courtesy of the author.

Given all of this, why do you want to keep traveling for journalism?

Because I love it. I really do. I have an inborn wanderlust and I love to travel — to meet new people, see new places, experience new cultures. It’s the best.

Even as bad as some moments or days have been on trips, the good (so far, fingers crossed) has always outweighed the bad. Traveling to these places has given me so much, not only as a journalist and writer, but as a human. I’m a better person for having gone.

I think the other reason is that I feel a duty to do it. Look, environmental journalism isn’t exactly glamorous. You’re not going to make much money from doing it. And, right now, it’s a depressing and dispiriting field given all the ecological crises. It’s a struggle not to become crushed under the weight of all the bad news.

But I have long felt a calling to tell these stories of places, people, and maybe most of all for me, species, that are at risk of destruction. I honestly wouldn’t trade this for ‘the American dream’ of being born with a silver spoon in my mouth and a million dollars in a trust fund. I’ll take my ridiculous adventures instead.

Erik Hoffner is an editor for Mongabay, find him on Twitter via @erikhoffner.

One can order a paper or digital version of the book wherever books are sold like Amazon, and in the U.S. one can procure copies via Bookshop.org which is connected to local bookstores, to support local merchants during the pandemic (there is also an audio version of the book available).

For a list of all the merchants across the world that are making Baggage available, see here.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter for updates and to hear more of his tips, trips, and coping strategies from the road, listen to this terrific new interview on the syndicated radio show Sea Change Radio here:

Jeremy has a swim to relax while on the road. Photo courtesy of the author.

Here’s Jeremy’s book trailer, featuring his adorable daughter: