Stories and journeys off the beaten track
He stands for almost 2 hours as he recounts his escapades, and I am entranced. I can’t look away. He’s got me. This is Dario Castaldo.
Despite knowing him for years, there’s always something inexplicably disconcerting about listening to him in the flesh. Perhaps it’s his voice, with its Roman lilt and famed brio, heard most days on the SBS Italian radio program. No longer disembodied, this voice recalls the same passion and verve in person, fortified by his enthusiastic gestures.
I’m convinced that there’s a softness and humility that derives from extensive soul-searching travel; and Dario embodies both in spades. I’m referring to the kind of travel that changes you, opens your heart and mind, and binds you deeply and profoundly to other worlds and cultures. This is how Dario travels, and it’s well off the beaten track:
I travel to certain places because I like the dynamics and the relationships I can experience with the locals of non-Western and non-tourist countries. It satisfies my spirit and my view of things. I find it educational and formative from cultural and human perspectives, and therefore it fills and excites me. That enthusiasm is probably contagious.
Dario is a traveler, having journeyed across 153 countries, and counting. There’s no one better equipped, or more eloquent, to engage in a conversation about the beauty of travel. There’s a difference, he tells me, between traveling and being on holiday. It’s about the mindset you bring to the experience, as well as the level of immersion you allow yourself in a place. There, is when you travel.
While Dario’s own personal brand of travel often involves showering with his passport and picking scorpions from his reading material in the dark, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Off the beaten track there’s no tourism industry,” he says. “Nobody awaits your arrival. No one arranges the parameters, or the mental and social mechanics required that render you a tourist. You are simply a person.”
Considering some of the countries on Dario’s list, most recently being Iraq, I can’t help but wonder if his is a love for being off the beaten track, or for life lived on the edge. I refer to his encounters with nature and wildlife – the Komodo dragons in Indonesia which left him wounded and risking amputation, whale sharks in the Philippines, penguins in the Galapagos, mountain gorillas in Uganda, rattlesnakes in Brazil, rhinoceroses in South Africa, hippopotamuses in Zambia, hyenas in Ethiopia, not to mention tigers in Nepal, and lions in Botswana. He casually adds:
Along with the time when police broke down my hotel room door while I was sleeping in Lahore, Pakistan. Or when two Israeli jets bombed the Lebanese village I was in. Or when the Serbian police stopped me during the Balkan war.
My heart is racing, yet there’s an unsettling calmness that comes with the power of hindsight as he continues. “In the moment, the air is sucked from your lungs and you can’t feel the Earth under your feet, but in retrospect, it’s all beautiful – even when they tell you that you have been traveling the world for 13 months with an invalid passport.”
Dario prefers to travel alone, as this solitude leaves him open to a wider range of experiences, despite the issues of personal security this can exacerbate. He contemplated this in Iraq and believes his enthusiasm is the key to establishing trust in unfamiliar situations. “Locals appreciate those who show more interest than fear, the desire to join in rather than to remain separate, observing from a distance, protected by one’s comfort zone,” he says. Of his personal safety, he adds, “We have to walk on the edge of paranoia. It’s a balancing act, but it's the only way. Over time, you refine your sense of intuition and you understand how far you can go, who is trustworthy, and whom to be wary of.”
I asked Dario what beauty in travel means to him. “It’s everywhere, but in my opinion, in people, in their stories,” he answers. This doesn’t surprise me. His passion and natural aptitude for photography attest to his ability to respectfully capture individuals who enter his life, even for a few moments. “Often you realize that you’re the only foreigner locals will see that week, or that month. Locals represent a discovery for you as much as you represent a discovery for them. In this way, a relationship of mutual interest and attraction is created.” The shared smiles and fixed stares in his photos embody this exchange of worlds.
With his usual considered and sensitive humility – which can only derive from having seen what he’s seen and having been where he’s been – he concludes:
Beauty lies in discovery. When you travel you rediscover yourself ignorant every day, because wherever you are it’s likely that you’re the person who knows the least about that particular place. For me, there’s nothing more beautiful than finding an answer to a question that – until the day before – you did not know you had.
Dario, keep telling your stories. You will always have an audience in me.
Images provided by Dario Castaldo