Note: After months of procrastinating, I’ve given up on making this an organized, readable document. I just add questions to the top as they come up.
- How did you come up with the idea for your videos?
- I didn’t, really. A friend of mine suggested the idea while we were traveling through Vietnam together back in 2003. Well, he didn’t so much suggest it as say “Hey, go stand over there and do your stupid dance. I’ll film you.” And everything else just sort of fell into place from there.
- How did you get into North Korea?
- I Googled it. Koryo Tours out of Beijing. They’d be perfectly happy to take you there as well, as long as you’re not a journalist.
Travelers are actually reasonably welcome in North Korea.
- Why are the other dancers in Syria blurred?
- For their safety.
I filmed those clips back in July of 2010, about 6 months before the Arab Spring. At the time, the dancers were fine with appearing in the video and I don’t think any of us imagined there being any risk involved. When things turned bad, I was unsure whether even contacting them would put them in jeopardy, and I was advised not to.
I struggled with the decision for months as I watched the news in Syria get worse and worse. In the end, I decided to use the footage but keep them thoroughly blurred. I chose not to cut the shots out, because they spoke so directly to what the video is about for me. I hope that wasn’t a mistake.
To be clear, it’s not a matter of religious conservatism. As I understand it, Syria is relatively liberal about things like men and women dancing together. It’s more of a political issue, with their government just killing citizens willly nilly at this point. They don’t seem to need a logical reason.
- I hope to remove the blurring soon once I know they’re okay.
- What are the lyrics to Trip the Light, the song in the 2012 video?
If all the days that come to pass
Are behind these walls
I’ll be left at the end of things
In a world kept small
Travel far from what i know
I’ll be swept away
I need to know I can be lost
and not afraid
We’re gonna trip the light
We’re gonna break the night
And we’ll see with new eyes
When we trip the light
Remember we’re lost together
Remember we’re the same
We hold the burning rhytm in our hearts
We hold the flame
We’re gonna trip the light
We’re gonna break the night
And we’ll see with new eyes
When we trip the light
I’ll find my way home
On the Western wind
To a place that was once my world
Back from where I’ve been
And in the morning light I’ll remember
As the sun will rise
We are all the glowing embers
Of a distant fire
We’re gonna trip the light
We’re gonna break the night
And we’ll see with new eyes
When we trip the light
- Was that you I saw the other day in that place, dancing in front of that thing?
- Maybe, but probably not. Apparently there are a lot of folks out there dancing badly now, and some of them look an awful lot like I do. Every day I get asked if that was me in Helsinki or Bali or Rome or Topeka, Kansas.You can check my Maps page to see if I was anywhere near where you think you saw me. But as much as I enjoy perpetuating a Johnny Appleseed-like mythos, I was most likely sitting at home playing videogames at the time.
- Do you have any safety advice for women travelers?
- I’m reluctant to chime in for reasons that should be overwhelmingly obvious. I can only offer two non-useful statements that are somewhat at odds. The first I say often to anyone who’ll listen, regardless of circumstance: the world is much safer than we are led to believe. The second is that there’ve been many times when traveling alone that I’ve felt grateful for being a man. It’s an unfortunate reality that members of my gender can often make it a pain in the ass to be a woman.In lieu of giving any real advice, I’ll direct you to Beth Whitman and her site, Wanderlust and Lipstick. She’s infinitely more qualified to respond to that inquiry. Beth literally wrote the book on the subject. Beth’s email address is her first name @ her domain.
- Why don’t you remove the word “hell” from your title?
- Because it’s a perfectly common turn of phrase that never hurt anybody.But it’s offensive to some and it means I can’t show the video to my students/church group.Tough titty…look, I really can’t get on board with the idea of altering the video or the site to protect those whose minds may be corrupted by dangerous words. To me, part of what the videos are about is being exposed to a larger world, and that kind of request runs counter to the whole point.That said, I recognize the word “hell” puts some teachers in a difficult situation. Parents can throw fits over ridiculous nonsense and that means students sometimes miss out on stuff. To address this, I’ve registered “wheretheheckismatt.net” as a domain. There’s nothing there now, but I hope to put a separate site up at some point to serve as a resource for teachers using the videos in class. It will offer downloadable versions of the videos and be totally “hell”-free (but riddled with “hecks”. I welcome any input about features the site can offer that would be useful in the classroom.
- What are the lyrics to the song, “Praan,” in your 2008 video?
- That’s a difficult question to answer. The lyrics to “Praan” were taken from a poem by a Nobel Prize winning Indian author named Rabindranath Tagore. While the poem was written in Bengali (or Bangla), I chose it based on its English translation, which I later learned to be more of an interpretationthat captures the spirit of the original without matching it word-for-word.The English version of the poem is called “Stream of Life.” Here it is:
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers. It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow. I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.
To fit the song, we had to chop things up a bit; turning one verse into a repeating chorus and omitting other sections. Here are the lyrics as they ended up in the song, translated in a more direct way from the original Bengali:
I will not easily forget The life that stirs in my soul Hidden amidst Death That infinite Life I hear you in the thunder A simple tune A tune to which I will arise (3x) And in that storm of happiness As your music plays in your mind The whole wide world Dances to your rhythm I hear you in the thunder A simple tune A tune to which I will arise (3x)
- I am an astrologer. What is the exact date, time, and place of your birth?
- September 27th, 1976. 2:30am. Norwalk, Connecticut.
- Your dancing style has changed a little bit over the years. What happened?
- I don’t really know. It just kind of settled a bit and now I can’t do it any other way. I’ve watched the first video and tried to imitate that style, but I can’t remember how to do it, so I just do what comes naturally.
- Are you on Facebook?
- I don’t have a Facebook page. I haven’t been on MySpace in years. Many people have tried to explain it to me, but I still haven’t heard a convincing reason why it’s worth the bother…which is not to suggest that I’m asking you to try. I think I’m just too old to understand.
- Who edits your videos?
- Jarrod Pasha. I used to do it myself, but during the 2012 video I realized I was in over my head. When I hired Jarrod, things got a lot easier.
- Are you religious?
- If you’re asking, you probably don’t want to hear the answer.Come on. Didn’t dancing with all those people make you think about God?I figure I’ll find out the answers to that stuff eventually. And if I don’t, I don’t. Either way, it doesn’t really affect how I behave.When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion. -Abraham Lincoln
- Who is this Melissa Nixon I see credited in the 2008 video?
- That’s my girlfriend. She produced the video with me. She organized all the dancing events; working with locals in each city to pick a meeting location, emailing the thousands of people we invited to show up, and making sure I found my way to the spot on time. She also held the camera in about a third of the clips, and if you ever need to hire a Bollywood dance troupe on two day’s notice, she’s your gal.
- Why don’t you announce your travel schedule in advance?
- That probably wouldn’t be too smart for someone in my situation.Why not?…nevermind.
- How do you afford all this travel?
- I saved up at my job for a few years and then quit. That’s the simple answer.It also doesn’t cost as much as a lot of folks think. Aside from the flights, I spend less on any given day than I would sitting at home paying utilities, car insurance, parking tickets (I get a lot of parking tickets)…If you visit regions like Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, South America, and most of Africa — and you’re willing to rough it a little — you can get by on dollars a day.More recently, with the crazy and unexpected response to the first dancing video, I’ve been lucky enough to find help getting to those hard-to-reach places. So no, I didn’t fund the whirlwind, seven-continent escapade with the money I tucked away making videogames. “Help?” I hear you got a sponsorship. What’s that about? The folks at Stride gum were nice enough to support me on my second trip. Why haven’t I heard of Stride before? Because it’s new. What’s so special about it? The flavor lasts a really long time. Come on. How long? Ridiculously long. Are they paying you to say this? Nope. Honest. Did they make you chew gum on your trip? They didn’t make me do much of anything. They are very good people. Did they tell you where to go? Nope. They said, and I’m quoting here: “We like what you’re doing. We want to help you. We don’t want to mess with you.” These words charmed me, and they stayed true to them. Did they edit the video for you? Nope. I came home, put it together, sorted the music out, and slapped it up on the internet. That was pretty much it. Like I said: good people. Do you get lots of free gum? I get lots of free gum. How did you find them? They found me. How do I get sponsored to travel? I really can’t help you with that. Wouldn’t have a clue. Sorry.
- How much did you spend on your trips?
- Manners, people!Manners shmanners. How much did you spend?Why do you want to know? Are you planning a trip? If that’s the case, my numbers probably won’t help you.Are you just curious? Fair enough, but you’ll have to remain so. The way I was raised, it’s not polite to talk about that sort of thing. Fine. Will you at least give some advice to a first time traveler? That I can do. What do you want to know? Well, where should I go? I always recommend Southeast Asia. It’s good for a bunch of reasons. Most of them hinge on the assumption that you’re young, broke, and hail from a westernized culture. First off, Southeast Asia is cheap. Probably less so than it was a few years ago, but you can still get good value for your money. I once stayed in a Cambodian guest house for $3 a night — and that included laundry. Save Europe for when you’re old and rich. I promise it’ll still be there. It’ll look much the way it does now, and your frail, elderly body won’t have any trouble managing the subways and escalators. Southeast Asia, on the other hand, is going to demand a lot more from your body and a lot less from your wallet. Another reason it’s good: it’s a million miles from anything you’re used to. Stepping out of your comfort zone is really important — seeing whole other ways of living.
- Do you travel to dance or dance to travel?
- A bit of both. The dancing gives me an opportunity to see places I’d never get to otherwise. I love to travel. The people and experiences have taught me a great deal. But the video is a project. As fun as it is to make, I take it seriously and put a lot of work into it. So I’m often pretty focused on getting a good clip.
- What’s the message of your videos?
- Up to you. I’m just dancing.
- What’s your favorite clip?
- Do I have to pick one?Okay, fine. You can have three.Kenya, Antarctica, and of course, Rwanda.
- What’s the name of the song in the first video?
- “Sweet Lullaby Dancing Remix” by Deep Forest.
- What’s the name of the song in the second video?
- The second song was created specifically for the new video. The music was written by a composer I knew named Garry Schyman. He brought in LA studio musicians to play live instruments over the same vocals heard in “Sweet Lullaby.” I watched them put the whole thing together in about 10 hours. The song doesn’t really have a name, so you can call it whatever you want.Okay. Then what’s the deal with the girl singing?The girl you hear singing is named Afunakwa. She comes from a place named Fataleka in the Solomon Islands. The song she is singing is a traditional lullaby named “Rorogwela.” The recording was made in 1970 by a UNESCO ethnomusicologist named Hugo Zemp.Boy…that was a lot of names. ”Rorogwela” is part of the oral tradition among the Baegu tribe, passed down through generations for who-knows-how-long, and was thankfully preserved while there were members of the tribe who could still sing it. The song is now a part of the internet video tradition among computer geeks, and is passed through high-bandwidth fiber optic cable to who-knows-where a bajillion times a day. I find this to be nifty. No one seems to know if Afunakwa is still alive. If she is, I would very much like to meet her someday. What are the lyrics to the song? I’m glad you asked. From what I can gather, the song is a lullaby sung by an older sister to her younger brother. Here are the approximate lyrics: Young brother, young brother, be quiet You are crying, but our father has left us He has gone to the place of the dead To protect the living, to protect the orphan child Are you sobbing yet? I don’t care what the lyrics are. How can I get the song from the second video? Unfortunately, you can’t. The only way to hear it is with the video. This is not up to me, so don’t come whining.
- Which of your two videos do you prefer?
- Personally, the second. Though I miss being as skinny as I was in the first.
- How long did it take you to make the first video?
- Started in Vietnam. That was May of 2003. Came home in August, then left for Africa a year later. The last clip was shot on Kilimanjaro in September of 2004.
- How long did it take to make the second one?
- The first clip was shot in San Francisco on a cross-country road trip. That was August of 2005. After that, Stride came along, and in December I started the round-the-world trip. I came home 6 months and 76 flights later, in June of 2006. The last clip was shot in Seattle a few days after landing.
- How long did you stay in each place?
- Anywhere from a couple days to a week. Usually long enough to actually see and experience some stuff, but rarely as long as I would’ve liked.
- Do you use the internet while you travel?
- Obsessively. It’s a lifeline; it makes being away from home for long stretches a whole lot easier.There’s almost nowhere in the world that doesn’t have internet access. Free wi-fi abounds in cities all over the globe. Borneo is rife with net cafes. I could send email from the ship’s satellite in Antarctica.The world has changed very quickly.
- You say you work in videogames. Any that I’ve played?
- I doubt it, but who knows.Are you a programmer?Nope. I worked as a game designer for a few years, then realized I was actually very bad at it. I migrated over to writing the storylines and dialogue, which I am marginally less bad at.
- Do you really read all your email?
- Pretty much, yeah.Do you reply to any of it?I try to respond to all of it, but it’s gotten a lot harder lately. Sometimes, on a whim, I’ll write back immediately. But most emails go straight into a folder that has swelled way beyond a thousand. I maybe sift through a dozen or so each day.How do I increase the chances of a response? Short and to the point. If you have a question, please read through this page first to make sure I haven’t answered it already. If you’re not particularly interested in a response, feel free to wax on for as long as you’d like.
- How do I get your video to play on my computer?
- Find a nerd.
- How many countries have you been to?
- At last count: 80.How many countries have you danced in?Someone told me it’s 71, based on all my videos. So there you go.
- Will you come dance in my country?
- Maybe. Someday.My town?Less likely, but still maybe.My house? Probably not (It’s shocking how often I’m asked this). Like I said, I don’t want to get into the “message” of what the video is about, but what it definitely isn’t about is acknowledging where you live. It’s more about seeing the places where you don’t live, ya know? Granted, I did put my mom’s house in the first video. But it’s MY mom, not yours.
- What kind of camera do you use?
- A regular old Canon Powershot digital camera.It’s mainly for pictures, but it shoots great video too. And the pocket size makes it easy to carry around anywhere. It doesn’t become a burden the way videocameras tend to.
- Who holds the camera for you?
- If I’m traveling with someone, they hold it. When I’m on my own, I recruit whoever’s nearby. They assume I want a snapshot. By the time I start dancing, it’s too late to back out. Generally, folks just laugh and play along.
- Where did you learn to dance?
- I spent four years training with the Alvin Ailey dance troupe.…honestly, I just flail my limbs in a way that feels natural and good and fun.When are you going to add some new moves?That’s all I’ve got. If you want quality dancing, I suggest you look elsewhere.
- Why are you always wearing the same clothes?
- Ever travel for an extended period?…I didn’t think so.
- Is there music playing while you dance?
- Someone pointed out that I snap my fingers while I’m dancing. I never really noticed. I guess that’s what I’m dancing to.
- What’s your favorite place you’ve ever been?
- I don’t know.What’s your least favorite?The Totem Lake Shopping Center in Kirkland, Washington. It’s the most depressing place I’ve ever been. I almost didn’t make it out. I think it might be some kind of gateway to the netherworld.
- How do you arrange your travel?
- I used STA Travel to book most of the flights for both trips. They specialize in backpacker-style travel and can get you pretty much anywhere. They also have branches all over the planet in case you get into trouble. Booking online is fine for normal domestic travel, but when you’re heading to Botswana, you need to talk face-to-face with an expert.The first time out, I got a package-deal round-the-world fare at a fantastic price. It let me fly to about a dozen locations, starting in Brisbane, Australia and finishing in New York. There were loads of restrictions, but I was able to see a lot of places for not-much-money.For the Stride-sponsored trip, my itinerary was far too wacky to fit into any of STA’s deals. I had to purchase each flight separately and spend several days working with Lynn the ace travel agent and manager of the branch on Capitol Hill in Seattle.Tell her I sent you. For shorter flights within a particular region, I usually bought tickets on the spot a few hours before departure. It’s a lot easier when you can maintain that flexibility. The flights for the second trip cost…considerably…more…money. Easter Island, for example, is a killer. Really? How much money? Did we not cover this earlier?
- How come you give your email address as matt_at_wherethehellismatt_dot_com?
- To thwart spam-bots that troll the web looking for email addresses. At least I’m told this is what happens. I don’t really know, but I figure it also thwarts folks who can’t figure out how to swap in a “@” for an “at” and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
- Seriously. Indoor ski resort in Dubai?
- What was that thing you were dancing in front of underwater in Chuuk?
- The propeller of the Heian Maru; a 510 foot Japanese submarine tender ship that was sunk by US bombers during World War II.How did you dance underwater?With great difficulty.
- Why didn’t you die from jellyfish stings in Palau?
- There is a place in Palau called Jellyfish Lake. Long ago, the lake connected with the surrounding ocean, but at some point it got closed off. Without any predators to worry about, the lake’s jellyfish population evolved — oh, I’m sorry, “intelligently designiated” — to lose their stingers.It’s a completely harmless jellyfish soup….well, not completely harmless. swimmers are advised not to dive deep below the surface, as the lake bottom is a toxic swill that can cause hydrogen sulfide poisoning. Drink it and you’ll die.So don’t do that.
- How did you get those kids in Rwanda to dance with you?
- I just started dancing. There was no prior discussion or explanation. They thought it looked like a fun thing to be doing and joined in. They also really dug seeing themselves on the camera’s playback screen.
- How did you get to Antarctica?
- Four days on a Norwegian ice-breaker ship.Don’t they only let scientists go there?There are a few outfits that carry tourists during the reasonably warm summer months.Is it crazy expensive? It’s crazy expensive. But maybe not quite as much as you’re thinking. How much? … Why didn’t you dance with penguins? I did. But penguins are small, and it just didn’t turn out as good as the shot that’s in there.
- Is that rock in Norway as dangerous as it looks?
- Some things look a lot scarier in photographs than they are in real life. The Kjeragbolten is not one of them.How’d it get there?My understanding is it got lodged in the chasm during the last ice age. There’s nothing holding it in place, but it’s been there a long time and no one has bothered to stop folks from standing on it.If that thing were in America, I have to imagine there’d be a pile of skeletons down below. Norwegians must have a lot more common sense than us — or maybe just better balance. How far is the drop? 1000 meters — the better part of a mile.
- Is that the same little girl dancing with you in both videos?
- Yep. That’s my niece, Ellie. She’s the taller one in the second video. Standing next to her is her younger sister, Sarah, who was kind of busy feeding from her umbilical cord when I shot the first one.
- Can I come with you on your next trip?
- Um…I don’t know you.You’d like me. I’m awesome.This may be true. But have you ever considered that you might not like me?
Less Frequently Asked Questions
- Why is the world so screwed up?
- Men.How do we fix it?Women.
- How many languages do you speak?
- Just the one. English is increasingly common all over the world, especially in hotels, airports, and other places that are likely to have tourists passing through.But even in spots where English isn’t spoken, it’s not hard to get by. You don’t have to be fluent to communicate that you want to go somewhere, or buy something, or you want a room. Pointing and gesturing goes a long way.It’s also helpful and not too difficult to learn a few words of the local language. At a minimum, it’s good to know “hello,” “excuse me,” and “thank you.” “Yes,” “no,” and “please” are a bonus. If you want to get really fancy you can learn to count and ask “how much?” I also make frequent use of “sorry.”
- How much research do you do before you go to a place?
- Some, but not a lot. I go to places to learn about them, so a lot of times I’m armed only with curiosity.Wikipedia is a great resource for the basics. You learn a lot by talking to other travelers. And I almost always carry a guidebook for whatever region I’m in. I’ve tried exploring without one, and you can do it, but it usually makes for a diminished experience.Another research suggestion is to bring novels with you that were written in the places you’re visiting. Guys like Hemingway, Orwell, Kipling, and Greene got around a lot in their day and wrote some pretty good stuff about their travels.
- Can you recommend a brand of guide books?
- I use Lonely Planet. I’ve strayed in the past; Rough Guide often has better maps, other smaller brands are more likely to have the out-of-the-way places. But I always come crawling back to LP’s simple, efficient format. I just find that I’m able to get to what I want to know a lot quicker and more reliably than with any other books. There are certainly improvements that could be made, and the books for some regions are better than others just because they’re written by so many different authors. But the bottom line is that Lonely Planet gets my endorsement. They’re the biggest and the best.
- How do you handle money when you travel?
- Good question. First of all, I’ve never ever used a traveler’s cheque. There may be benefits I’m not aware of, but I haven’t yet felt a need for them. You get better exchange rates with cash, anyway.These days, an ATM/Debit card is pretty much all you need. It’s good to have another card for backup, in case one gets eaten by an ATM or stolen or whatever.When you arrive at the airport in a new country, there will always be a bank machine happy to dispense cash in the local currency for a small exchange fee. If you’re crossing a border overland, convert just enough with the money changers at their scam rates to get you to the nearest town, then find a proper bank once you get there.But my most important tip is this: always carry some emergency US currency or Euros wherever you go. There are few predicaments that can’t be resolved with a $20 bill. It is, at times literally, a get-out-of-jail-free card. …well, not free, but you know what I mean.
- Have you ever been robbed or mugged?
- I used to quote Don King and say, “Only in America.” But I can’t anymore. I had my wallet stolen on a train in Italy. And, full disclosure, I caught a kid with his hand in my pocket at the Thai/Cambodian border and experienced a botched pick-pocketing in Vietnam that yielded only my free map of Saigon. There was an awkward moment, we all looked at each other in confusion, then the kids ran off.
- What do you bring with you on your trips?
- Want the long answer? Here ya go.I break everything into two bags – three if I’m diving.For the main luggage I use an Osprey Transporter 90 backpack. I find it more manageable to have something with as much space as possible in one giant cavity and a minimum of side pockets, cause you never know when your load is going to increase and it’s nice to have some flexibility. Osprey bags are also incredibly durable without looking showy — both of these things are important. Inside the bag, everything breaks down into smaller bags that stack neatly inside. Let’s itemize, shall we?:
- – A vacuum-compressor bag for clean clothes
- – Another for dirty/wet clothes
- – Toiletries bag
- – Bag for Electronic junk (cords, chargers, camera junk, Skype headset)
- – Western Digital portable external hard drive (stores days of HD video footage)
- – Guidebooks and other reading material
- – Sony tripod (for when there’s no one around to hold the camera)
- – Gifts
- – Hiking boots
- – Walking shoes (two pairs if I’m feeling extravagant)
- – Spare passport photos
- – Receipt holder (for tax purposes)
- – Stack of release forms (for anyone who dances with me in a video)
My second bag is the carry-on. It stays with me pretty much at all times. Everything I’d be really pissed to have stolen goes in here. I use a Victoronox laptop backpack that they’ve apparently discontinued. It’s the opposite of the big Osprey, with loads of little zip pockets. Everything has it’s place where I can get to it quickly. Inside the bag is:
- – Passport
- – Plane tickets
- – Teeny tiny Sony HD videocamera and case
- – Canon pocket digital camera (if it doesn’t fit in my pocket, I don’t want it)
- – Nintendo DS (with Advance Wars and usually some crossword puzzles, Picross, and Sudoku)
- – Panasonic clip headphones (the cord auto-retracts into the earpieces making them small and tangle-free)
- – Altoids (for airplane breath)
- – Halls sore throat lozenges (for airplane germs)
- – Stride gum (courtesy of my benevolent sponsor)
- – Sleeping mask (dorky but essential)
- – Pens
- – iPod Touch (not a huge fan, but iPods are now required for US citizenship)
- – Cell phone (Nokia gave me a great one for international calling, total life saver)
- – Business cards (I don’t know why I have business cards)
- – Bottled water
- – Universal plug adapter (brilliant, the only one you’ll ever need)
- – Sunglasses with case
- – Relevant guidebook
- – Irrelevant book book
- – Dell laptop (with spare battery and Logitech wireless left-handed mouse)
Altogether it weighs about 55 pounds (25kg). Next to the passport, my laptop is the most essential object I carry. A lot of people think I’m crazy for bringing it and true backpackers scoff when I pull it out, but to me it’s indispensable. It provides entertainment, contact with the outside world, virtually limitless storage for photos and video, and a place to vent.
- Can my band make the music for your next video?
- Highly doubtful. But I can’t stop you from slapping whatever soundtrack you want on there and making your own version. It’s the internet. Anything is possible.
- Are you sure you don’t want to tell me how much this all cost?
- Pretty sure.
- This is all a big hoax, isn’t it? You did it with a green screen. You never left your house. It’s true, isn’t it?
- Yes.I knew it! I’m telling everyone! You’re nailed, buddy!