Ladies and gents meet Billy Zeb Smith. He’s here to share his travel tips, favorite trips, and a story that takes you into the jungle at the end of the world’s longest road, and alongside the indigenous people fighting its arrival.
1. Who are you?
My name is Billy Zeb Smith, and I’m a documentary filmmaker.
2. What do you do (job or otherwise)?
I try to make a difference by giving those without voices a platform and an audience.
3. Where are you right now?
Right now I’m in a diner eating pancakes amidst a rare and lovely Los Angeles downpour.
4. Where’s the last place you’ve been?
I just came back from a quick 36-hour trip to New York to meet with Eco Health Alliance, Wildlife Conservation Society, and a couple production companies. I was also able to team up with some friends over at Sons of Essex to throw a great event to help bring awareness to the issues I’m focusing my next film on.
5. Next place you’re going/want to go?
I have a few small trips planned over the next couple months, but the most important one I have coming up is a return to the Darién Gap in southeastern Panama to start production on this next project.
6. Three things you take with you on every trip?
My knife, my camera, and pants.
7. Do you book your own travel? If so, what websites do you most use or airlines do you frequently fly?
I tend to use Kayak because it’s so easy. And some friends recently convinced me to focus my travel rewards towards a singular collection of frequent flyer miles, so I’m trying to travel with American and their affiliates as much as possible now. As far as I could tell, they had the most wide-ranging partnerships around the world, and they’re always offering some good deal on something.
8. What’s your favorite foreign custom or tradition?
I’ve always loved the strict and very culture-specific traditions surrounding tea and coffee. From the very rigid rules of who pours and who tastes each serving of coffee at the smallest of Bedouin camps, to the unique codes of order and conduct within each and every tea ceremony from London to Tokyo. The customs are very telling of the culture’s history, and for me it’s always very heartwarming to be invited, as an outsider, to partake in something so culturally important.
I try to always volunteer while traveling. It has a twofold, win-win affect—it both allows me to become organically immersed in the local community, and it helps foreign communities learn a little more about Americans, and that we’re not all greedy capitalists looking to pilfer and appropriate their country’s resources.
10. What’s the best thing that’s happened to you on a trip that you didn’t plan for?
11. What’s your favorite trip you’ve taken by yourself?
I went backpacking with NOLS for 6 weeks in Alaska when I was 13. My dad lied about my age to get me in. I learned more about myself and my capabilities in those 6 weeks then all of high school combined.
12. Have you ever stayed in touch with someone you met while traveling? Who are they and what draws you to them?
I was very fortunate to get to meet and spend a week with Arthur Demarest in northern Guatemala while working for The History Channel a few years back, and we’ve managed to keep in touch. Widely regarded as the “real-life Indiana Jones,” he’s a wildly entertaining character. And with a life’s worth of field knowledge and wisdom, coupled with a personality born in the bayou, educated at Harvard, and developed in the jungles of Central America, each nightly conversation we’ve shared has had the wine and chatter flowing until early the next morning.
13. What would you say to someone that wants to travel, but struggles with time or money?
Read. People with a lot more excuses than you have taken that road less traveled, and it intrinsically changed their lives forever. Fortunately, a lot of them wrote about it. Let your eyes follow their stories, and your feet will find a way to follow their paths.
14. If someone came to your town what would you want to show them?
Depends on the season. After the past four days of cold rain down here at sea level, I’d take them to the Eastern Sierras to make some fresh tracks.
15. Where would you travel to a second time?
Anywhere. But this time I’d take a girlfriend.
16. What is something that you’ve always wanted to do within 50 miles of your house?
17. What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve done on a trip?
18. What’s the biggest travel mistake you’ve ever made?
Mistakes are what make a trip an adventure. I try to make a bigger one with each new trip. That said, I learned my lesson with snakes.
19. Where’s the best meal you’ve ever had?
My Mom’s house.
20. Where’s the longest you’ve lived or visited outside of your home country?
I lived in an extremely rural part of southern Paraguay for two months when I was 14. The closest paved road was an hour and a half away by truck. I stayed with a local family, and spent my days administering minor medical and dental care, and installing latrines to families that were without. It’s not the longest I’ve ever been away, or the furthest from home, but at that point in my life, it seemed like a lifetime. And it changed the direction in which the rest of my life was headed.
21. Where’s the furthest you’ve FELT from home?
The middle of the Sahara in southern Libya. It’s also the furthest I’ve ever felt from Earth.
22. What has traveling taught you about yourself?
Traveling has taught me I am just as able as any to make a difference.
23. What has traveling taught you about the world?
It is very small. Until you go deep inside the jungle, or the desert, or the tundra or the woods. Then it’s horrifyingly endless.
24. What does it mean to you to Live Like You’re On Vacation?
I’ve been close to death in more ways and on more occasions than most, so I make sure to live each day deliberately and with purpose. But I enjoy myself thoroughly, and throughout it all. I set my own clock and my own schedule, and will definitely work my ass off on a Monday so I can go ski Tuesday. But life is a vacation. Every day is like Christmas, except we get to decide what’s inside that box in front of us. And if we all choose something we’re passionate about, the vacation will last forever.
If Zeb’s stories of far off lands didn’t hit home, here’s a story that should.
A road is being built between Panama and Columbia via the Darien Gap endangering North America’s last untouched rainforest. It’s the beginning of deforestation that will impact biodiversity, global climate patterns, indigenous tribes, and much much more. Support Zeb and the “Where The Road Ends” team in their mission to protect this land and it’s people.
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