Wendy Simmons caught the travel bug young. “I honestly have memories of being very small and very young and crying hysterically when it was time to go home from a family vacation,” she says. Today, there are considerably less tears as Simmons, photographer and the president of New York eyewear brand MOSCOT, has successfully incorporated her far-reaching, globetrotting inclinations into her life, with many of her experiences documented on her photography website and her blog. Ask her how many countries she's visited and off the top of her head she couldn’t tell you. (She does know that it's more than 80) Ask her how to make the most of a trip, however, or how to visit a place relatively unchartered by tourists, and the advice is plentiful. We spoke to Simmons about the habits of a successful traveler, what exactly a “fixer” is, and how to plan what sounds like the best 40th birthday party ever.
What was the first place you ever went to alone?
I think I was around 14, and my mom let me go to Mexico by myself. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and a neighbor was a diplomat from Mexico. When they left they said to me, “You have to come to Mexico some time.” This was back when we had air mail letters, and an entire year later, I got an airmail letter inviting me to Mexico. And my mom just let me go! And it was amazing. We both remember her saying that if when I got there no one was there, come back. The funny thing was, that was my first solo trip and it kind of set the stage for my future travels. It was the summer when Reagan fired all the traffic controllers and I couldn't come home when I was supposed to because they cancelled my flight. So I rolled with it then and I've always been that kind of traveler: I love adventure, I love when things go wrong. I think it's all part of the fun.
How do you choose where you travel?
At this point I have no method. I really am going everywhere in the world, and a place kind of pops into my head or there's a direct flight there on the way home from someplace else. Or there are places I just think I feel like going. I literally spend a lot of time staring at the map.
How do you get started planning your trip?
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Something I've been doing more and more lately is using a local travel company (company with agent on the ground there), or an agency who works with a local agent to book me a driver and a “fixer.” Fixer will mean different things depending on where you go, but unlike a tour or tour guide, this is a person who doesn't specifically work in tourism. He knows the country well and has great contacts so he or she can help facilitate really authentic experiences, or get you in and out of places safely when tourism isn't that established, or you don't want to go with a tour.
For example, in Tunisia, I worked with a woman in Georgia who worked with a woman in Tunisia who helped me find a driver so I had someone to drive me all over the country, and a Tunisian journalist who lives there. The journalist knew everyone and of course spoke the language. So we could drive to tiny villages and he could explain that I was from America and wanted to take photos, or whatever explanation was needed. I sat with old men in tiny villages who would have never spoke with a woman, let alone a white one from America, was invited to sit with local politicians to drink coffee, went with him to an artist friend's house, etc. Plus, he helped me sneak into mosques and an Islamic school. So the tip, in short, is to use non-traditional resources in the country to facilitate really one-of-a-kind-experiences—and to find great restaurants.
Tell me about the your latest memorable trip.
North Korea was definitely the most memorable. I went through an agency out of China that works with the only agency in North Korea that facilitates tourism, called KITC—Korea International Travel Company. It’s kind of one those things that if you don’t know me really well it sounds like full of hubris, or obnoxious, but I don’t have a lot of fear. I just never have. And I trust myself to be able to change course if something goes wrong, and not freeze in the face of danger, so I don’t ever worry too much. North Korea, however, was stupid. I just didn’t really have a handle on how bad a place it was. It’s an awful place, but not the way everyone thinks the word awful means. If you go a lot of places where the conditions are really tough or human rights records are awful and poverty is overwhelming, you go to these places where all of the individual parts are equally bad. But North Korea does an amazing job of amalgamating all of those horrible things into one country. It’s an amazing vacation—it’s such an interesting and compelling place. But it’s the worst place on Earth I’ve ever been. They try to hide it from you, so I was constantly questioning what was true and what was false.
What do you do when your travel plans get screwed up?
A long time ago I had one of the worst flights and got stuck alone in South Korea, ironically, and it was terrible, and it was one of those situations—when I was 18 or 19—where I learned very early that there was nothing you can do about it. And I’ve taken that lesson forward my entire life. I don’t really plan that much and I don’t really worry. You just have to take what’s happened and roll with it. I tell people that the path is the plan. First of all, I don’t make a lot of plans before I get anywhere anyways. Because I feel you’re so focused on trying to follow the plan that you’re not really enjoying what you’re doing. And if you go someplace with a list, say, you go to a country and you have a list of 20 things you want to see, then people are more focused on checking things off the list or being disappointed that they missed something, than just enjoying on being in the place. Now if you’re in a park or you find a great restaurant or whatever and you’re having a great time, there’s a tendency for people to rush because they don’t want to miss the next thing, instead of just being happy and amazed at the thing that they’re doing. So I really try to go places with no expectations.
What’s the first thing you do when you go to a new country?
Generally I just try to hit the street and get my bearings. Let me clarify—I normally have some idea of where I’m going in a country, like which cities. And I generally have some idea of how I’m getting from one place to the next. As you get older you learn that much. Because if there’s only one train a week you don’t want to miss it. One rule for sure is I always have transportation arranged from the airport to the first place I’m going. That’s an absolute must. Because there’s nothing worse than when you land and you’re tired—unless you’re in Europe or there’s some place easy—I almost always have transportation arranged.
What are some other tips you've picked up from your travel experience?
Another really good tip is that when you go to a town and you put your bags down and you’re ready to go exploring is I always make sure to take the business card of a hotel so I know where I am. It’s amazing how difficult to remember what your hotel is if you just run in and run out. Or that you know the hotel but you can’t pronounce it properly. So you get in a cab and no one understands you. So always take a business card of the hotel with me.
So to get the lay of the land you actually just hit the streets.
Yup, I just hit the streets. Or if there’s a really well-known tall building or tall monument of some kind that you can see all across the city, I love doing that first so I can get my bearings. It’s really helpful.
What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve eaten while traveling?
Well, I’m vegetarian. It’s a bit different for me than for other people—I’ve been veggie my entire life. But I one time did—when I was turning 40 I had my party on Positano and all my friends came and my family. And we went on the boat one day and the guy did free diving, where he doesn’t use a mask or anything. He pulled the sea urchins out alive and we ate them. It was amazing. It was worth not being a vegetarian for two minutes.
You used to own a bar in NYC's Lower East Side. Do you seek out bars when you travel?
Yeah, my favorite thing to do—I just think it’s so much fun to sit outside all day in a café. I can waste an entire day sitting in a café drinking. Especially if you meet somebody. To me that’s what it’s about. I truly have friends all over the world. Our CFO here at MOSCOT? I met her in Namibia. And we just sat around drinking. And six months later we vacationed in the Arctic together. And she moved here from London and is now our CFO.
So you advocate talking to strangers.
I mean, they’re strangers at first, then they become your friends. I always joke that I collect people. I’ve had the most amazing experiences just going with people I’ve met to their houses and hanging out and living in their lives.
What advice do you have for first-time travelers to a country?
I’m a huge believer in avoiding chain hotels. I think you really deprive yourself of understanding the culture. If you’re going to go all the way to another country, why would you take the experience of the place outside of the visit? The smaller hotel, the boutique hotel that reflects the local culture of where you are is going to give you a much richer experience. Also often the person working the desk is the owner and is very knowledgeable and in a lot of cases they become your first friend in the place, and introduces you to their friends.
Are there any spectacular boutiques you’ve stayed in?
I just stayed in this hotel—actually it’s kind of big. It’s the oldest hotel in Bali. It was called the Tandjung Sari. It was just beautiful. I mean Bali I thought was disgusting, to tell you the truth, and it was in a little village called Sanur which in all of Bali I found it to be like the nicest village. It felt probably the closest to what Bali was supposed to be like. And you felt like you were in your own little house. They were so accommodating and they were very lovely. I love the Apoka Lodge in the Kidepo Valley in northern Uganda. You feel like you’re the only person there. They definitely should get a shout-out. Nobody knows about them. It’s a game area but it’s not a traditional, more established safari park. It’s completely wild and I was literally the only one there. You can do walking safaris, and every time I walked out of my room, there were wild animals right outside my door. There was a water buck that followed me everywhere. I called him Waterbuck Henry.
I love the tchotchkes you have decorating your Brooklyn loft. Do you have any favorite pieces that you brought back from your travels?
My favorite piece is an antique Ganesh from India. I got it in Jaisalmer. It’s made of wood, it’s probably like a hundred years old, and it’s a little bit broken. I love Ganesh. I’m never particularly looking for anything, but I found him. Nothing in India was very costly, but he was. You just know when you’re supposed to bring something back. You know when something’s yours.
What’s the one thing you never travel without?
I never travel without my camera. And I never go anywhere without basically a pharmacy. If you’re in Namibia far from the city and you cut yourself and that becomes an infection, you’re screwed. So the one area that I’m prepared I’m really thorough—it’s a little bag I keep packed all the time with Neosporin and Cipro and all that kind of stuff. I really do travel with a pharmacy of every conceivable thing you might need.