On the Couch with George Negus
George Negus is one of Australia’s most prominent journalists and media commentators. His upcoming journey – ‘Travel for the Mind’ with George Negus – Venezuela & Cuba – has been incredibly popular, with a handful of spots left for the November 2014 departure.
We took some time to sit down with George to ask him about the philosophy behind ‘Travel for the Mind’, why he selected Venezuela and Cuba and destinations for his inaugural trip in the series and who he thinks will win the 2014 World Cup.
You can meet George and ask your own questions at our office in Sydney on Tuesday 24 June - Register here.
1. What is the idea behind your new “Travel for the Mind” series with World Expeditions?
“Travel for the Mind” is actually an idea that’s been rattling around in my head for quite a while. Over the years, any number of keen travellers has remarked that the experience I’ve gained as a globe-trotting correspondent would make me a “good fit” as the host of a very different kind of international excursion. Terms like “the Negus experience” kept cropping up – as in having had more than 30 years of almost constant professional and personal travel experience both around the world and in my own backyard, Australia. To be honest, I’ve lost track of how many amazing travel destinations television journalism has taken me! That said, my work has been more than a job. It’s been almost an adult lifetime of so much learning and so many unique experiences of not just places, but people.
During decades of “globe-trotting,” I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a lot to be enjoyed and learned about countries, their cultures and their peoples by experiencing first-hand their passions – stuff like what they eat and why, what they “do” for fun, leisure and relaxation, their political views and their and religious beliefs. So, I guess the overall purpose of the exercise is to blend the place with its people. That way, we just might come away having got to know – as much as a welcome interloper ever can – what it’s like to be a Venezuelan, or having spent time in Cuba, cross-country fertilising, “pretending” for a while that you are Cuban. If you like, the “Travel for the Mind” excursions will be “life experiences” – not tours – and our group will be fellow-travellers, not tourists!
2. Where will “Travel for the Mind” take travellers in 2014 and 2015?
Surprise! Surprise! Our 2014 excursion will be to Venezuela and Cuba. And 2015? In many ways, the world is pretty much our oyster – but, think maybe the Middle East, the Gulf, North Africa, Turkey and Iran, Northern Ireland and Eire, northern and southern Italy, Siberia, China, the world’s new “Cap-Com” powerhouse, et al. What do you, our fellow-travellers think? Whatever our destinations and excursions turn out to be, they will be chosen with the “Travel for the Mind” concept driving their itineraries!
3. What else is different about your concept?
Well, for instance, where English is, at best, a second language, we’ll be using experienced, bi-lingual local guides and translators. As well, our preference will be for consciously interesting, decent, localised, “non-touristy” accommodation, food, entertainment and leisure. Where possible, stimulating individual or group contacts, socially or formally, with relevant resident experts and players – “movers and shakers” – will also be sourced to value-add and put local political and cultural “scenes” and issues into context and perspective. All of this is why I find myself describing the whole Travel for the Mind concept as “international excursions for the culturally and politically inquisitive” – but by now, anyone reading this would almost certainly have picked that up for themselves, huh? Where and when it’s feasible and convenient, we’ll bunk down in culturally and environmentally sensitive traditional accommodation, occasionally use local transport, eat local food, relax as the locals do and get their advice on the best local sight-seeing!
Frankly, my experience of the exigencies and the unpredictability of global travel mean that informality, flexibility and companionability are the best priorities to adopt on any excursion. “Learn by enjoying” and “enjoy the learning” would be the Negus catch-cries. Get back home from Cuba, from Venezuela, Oman or Beijing having had a hell of a good time, had plenty of fun, eaten amazingly different food, met intriguing locals, understand better their culture, their politics, their religion and discovered memorable places – essentially, having had a unique experience.
4. Changing tack for a moment, who you think will win the World Cup this year?
Who told you I was a diehard World Game “tragic”? Not sure who will win, but I definitely know who won’t! I know what you’re thinking, but the new-look, younger Socceroos just might account for themselves better than most of us expect. Venezuela did not make the cut, by the way, and the Cubans were far too busy playing US-style baseball – which ironically they are actually very good at.
5. What book are you reading at the moment?
I have to admit I’m never reading just one book at a time – an old personal habit and professional necessity! But, it will come as no surprise to find that as well as “Dog Days,” Ross Garnaut’s latest tome on the Australian economy and Bernard Salt’s “Decent Obsessions,” I am looking at material about the likes of post-Fidel Cuba, the curious Western “cult of Ché” and whither Venezuela post-Chavez. Old journalistic habits die hard, I guess, but I am also “googling” my way through the latest news and comment on both Venezuela and Cuba, keeping myself up to date with developments on our two 2014 destinations.
6. Why did you select Venezuela and Cuba for your inaugural “Travel for the Mind” trip, given that both nations have been unpopular with international travellers in the past – and even more recently – in Venezuela’s case, due largely to a history of, to say the least, controversial politics, street rioting and globally record-high crime rates?
That’s a really good question! Where the genuine safety issues related to Venezuelan crime and violence are concerned, I would refer you to the excellent and very affordable Culture Smart! publication Venezuela --the essential guide to customs and culture, pp 134-137. This will answer most of your concerns. Knowing your destination’s social and political idiosyncrasies helps you deal with them – intelligently! Serious urban violence in Latin America is not restricted to Venezuela.
It is a regional malaise, exemplified by Venezuela. That said, Kings Cross and George Street in Sydney are worrying and potentially dangerous places if you are not aware of the city’s “dark side.”
On the contentious issue of Venezuela’s ideologically divisive political scene – including on-going street protests and deaths particularly in the capital Caracas – I strongly urge you to read this recent article in the Guardian for a balanced view of what is a volatile Venezuelan situation.
Meanwhile, Cuba is a very different politico-cultural story which, dare I say it, like Venezuela’s messy political story, is very much at the heart the raison d’etre of “Travel for the Mind.” Recently, I read the following intriguing comment about the contemporary Cuba we will be visiting: “What is it about Cubans that has enabled Cuban socialism to survive for nearly half a century, against considerable odds, while most other socialist experiments have foundered? Clearly it is not simple coercion: the people who saw off the slave-owners, the Spanish and Batista, could have seen off the Castro regime too, but they have not done so...”
My advice, folks? Keep these few thoughts and suggestions in your head if and when you’re asked – as you will be – why Venezuela, why Cuba?
7. What do you think is going to surprise people on your trip the most?
All of the above, I hope. In short, that their curiosity about two fascinating parts of the world will be satisfied – before their very eyes, in their ears, their taste buds and their camera lens!
8. What are you most looking forward to on your upcoming trip – football, food or politics?
All three – plus a heap of fun and camaraderie with hopefully like-minded fellow-travellers who enjoy new and different places, new and different people, new and different experiences, even new and different thinking!