TEDx Talk – Travel with a Narrative [VIDEO]

A few years ago I set out on a mission to learn how to dance like a Colombian. But I didn’t just learnt about dance – I learnt something else really cool in the process.

And that’s what I discuss in my talk at TEDxWroclaw 2014.

The video is right here, and the transcript is below.

The book is out now!

Want to know more about my dance adventures in Colombia? They’re detailed in my book: Dancing Feat: One Man’s Mission to Dance Like a Colombian

If you like the sound of it, you can buy it here.


The following transcript is based on my original set of notes, rather than being taken from the video, so there maybe some slight differences. There’s certainly less dancing in the text version:

The problem

Travel is exciting. Especially when you’re travelling independently, and especially when it’s all new to you:

Climbing your first volcano … waking up wondering which country you’re in … experiencing your first bout of traveller’s diarrhoea …


But once you get over the novelty, things can get to feel kind of superficial. You’re just going to the ‘place’ and seeing the ‘thing’.

That sense that you’re just floating along on the surface. Which is a shame, as it’s a great privilege to be able to travel just for pleasure.

Vang Vieng

The solution (or my solution, at least)

Drinking – alcohol alternatives

I’m sure there are a lot of ways of addressing that. I kind of fell into mine.

Due to a health issue, I had to stop drinking alcohol. But that created a problem: Alcohol is a big part of life where I come from.

How do you relax of an evening if you don’t drink? How do you socialise? How do you stagger about, repeating yourself incoherently to strangers?

Actually I still do that last one. Old habits – you know.


I realised that one alternative was dance. Here was potentially a great way to really let go and have fun. And I’d always wanted to be a better dancer.

In England we have a way of dancing where people – well, the men – kind of lean against something and move part of their body, as if to say “I could dance if I wanted – I just choose not to”

And what’s more, I felt like modern generations had missed out on partner dancing – we all seemed to just dance at each other rather than with each other.

So I decided I was going to learn how to dance.

Travel and writing

I could have done this at home, of course, but I sensed the possibility of adventure. I love travel. Also I’m a writer, and I love writing about travel.

So here was the germ of an idea – I would go somewhere, learn how to dance and write about it.

In other words, I would travel with a narrative. With a story.


I decided the place I’d do this was Colombia, South America.

Cut to some months later, and I was sat in a taxi in Bogota, the mountains growing in the background, sliding about on a vinyl seat, listening to the music coming from the radio. I didn’t even know what any of the music was, it was all just… Latin. I couldn’t even name the genres.

I spent the next six or seven months travelling around Colombia learning modern styles and folk dances alike. From those great mountains the Andes to the humid valleys, the coast and the great plains. Going to dance schools, night clubs, festivals.


What did I learn?

And what I learnt, as much as anything else, was that travelling with a narrative is just a great thing to do in general. That’s what I want to share with you.

Why travel with a narrative?

So what is that’s so great about travelling with a narrative? There are lots of reasons…

You do things you might not otherwise do

I was at Carnival in Barranquilla, in a stand full of people. A band was playing at the back, keeping people entertained whilst we waited for the procession.

Out of nowhere, a local woman pulled me out in front of a stand full of people to dance Cumbia. Which was fine except for the fact that I didn’t know how to dance Cumbia.

Cumbia is a flirtatious coastal dance with a shuffling gait. And a big part of me did NOT want to do it. But it tied in with my mission, so … *sigh* … you’ve just got to go for it, haven’t you?

That big *sigh* moment became a recurrent theme on my journey And that’s the kind of stuff you really remember. That kind of self-inflicted mental scar.

You go to places you might not otherwise

This is because your decisions on where to go and what to do aren’t based on an itinerary in a guidebook – they’re based on a quest.

I missed out on some well-known places in Colombia. I didn’t visit any of the islands, for instance. Instead I went to places like Villavicencio, a town on the gateway to the plains, and learnt the flamenco-like folk dance of the plains – Joropo.

So it was all round a far more pretentious journey.

Los Llanos, Colombia

You learn about a country in depth

Because I was exploring the dance culture of the country, I learnt a lot of things that feed into that.

– I learnt about its tri-ethnic heritage – the indigenous people that already lived there, the Spanish that came over as conquistadors, and the Africans who were brought over as slaves.

– I learnt about their love of music.

– And I learnt that you’d pretty much need a leg in plaster to get away with not dancing. As one friend put it to me at a street party when I had the temerity to talk to someone for a while, “Neil, if you want to have a chat, go to a café.”

You engage with people

It turns out that dance is a great way of engaging with people. And not just physically – people were genuinely thrilled by the idea of an outsider come to their country to mangle their proud heritage in front of them.

They especially liked the fact that I was here celebrating some other part of their culture than they’re normally known for. In other words…

You challenge stereotypes

Colombians are acutely aware of the things people associate with their country, and many of them are sick of it.

Here was a chance to challenge my own preconceptions, and also, if I could do a good job of communicating my experiences, those of others, too.

A festival at Neiva

You form a genuine connection with the place

I don’t think I once felt that sense of superficiality I’ve felt in other places.

You are driven on by your goal

I tried and failed at a couple of dances early on, like the mapalé – a highly frenetic folk dance.

Most dances are harder than they look. But the mapalé is exactly as hard as it looks, which is very. I watched a performance of this in the old colonial city of Cartagena, absorbed: the speed the dancers move at seemed to defy gravity.

I knew there was no way I could do this.

But I gave it a go anyway. And in doing so I learnt an important lesson:

If you take lots of classes, try really hard and keep persevering, just keep going, keep trying, go beyond the point where the very sinews of your body are begging you to stop … you still can’t do it.

You overcome obstacles that might otherwise defeat you

I had my passport stolen. This wouldn’t normally be a big problem, but the British embassy in Colombia had just relocated all its passport services to the USA. This meant it was going to take a long time to get a new passport. Which meant I couldn’t renew my stay with the Colombian authorities in time. I was told the only solution was to get temporary exit papers and leave the country.

But I couldn’t stop now – I hadn’t finished what I came out to do! I was determined to stay.

So I kept going into the consulate and bothering them with new ideas:

– Could I get a new passport air-mailed from the UK?

– Could I fly to the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean and get a passport there?

– Could I make my own passport with paper and crayons?

The answers were: no, no, and only if it was really colourful.

But I stuck at it, and in the end, perhaps because they were all just sick of hearing my ideas, the consulate and the authorities came to an agreement and I was able to remain in the country. If I hadn’t been on a quest, I don’t think I’d have been anything like as persistent.

Or annoying for that matter.


You grow, whether you like it or not

At the start of my journey I wasn’t just a bad dancer, I was actively making excuses to avoid dancing. Or practising. Or anything. I was a total dance-floor coward.

At times I had to be practically frogmarched to the dance floor.

I’m quite proud at how good I got at saying no, though. You keep doing something – you improve. By the end of it something in me had changed. I was feeling anxious, but saying ‘what the heck’, and putting myself out there – having that *sigh* moment.

You leave with a sense of completion

I finished with a show – I had to dance for a group of people – meaning there was a definite end to the journey.

Ask yourself – how many times in your life do you get to leave a place with that sense of smug self-satisfaction?

The elements of a travel narrative

So what does this mean to you? What about if you’d like to do something like this yourself? How do you go about it? The elements are the same as with a good story… >


Think about your inner yearnings, or maybe think about your perceived failings or weaknesses, or even the things you’re scared of. Could that long-standing fear of cheese actually be an opportunity for an adventure?


You need a goal. Something that’s going to create a climactic ending. A goal drives you on, and gives some kind of focus to your journey.

If your aim is to head overland to Istanbul, you know if you succeeded. (Did you get to Istanbul? No? Well maybe you failed then)

But if your journey is more abstract, you need a test of some kind.

The climax of my own journey was to put on a show of the various dances I’d learnt. It raised the stakes. I had to learn the dances, or the show would just have consisted of me stood at the front, shrugging my shoulders to music from all over Colombia. Though I suppose that would at least have been performance art.

Carlos Valderrama statue, Santa Marta


Where would be a good place to do all this? It could be related, like Colombia and dance, but it needn’t be. The author Tony Hawks went to Moldova and played the entire national football team. At tennis.


It’s the people that make a country, and it’s characters that make a story. So try to choose an adventure, or a way of going about it, that means you have to interact with other people. And when you’re out there, be open to meeting new people.

Obviously, if you end up on cannibal island, you might want to be a bit wary. Although I’ve heard the people there are very friendly, for some reason. They certainly feed you well.

(With apologies to any inhabitants of the real-life Cannibal Island, Manitoba, Canada)


The protagonist – that’s you – needs to undergo some kind of change. They should grow as a result of what they go through. You can’t make that happen directly – “Have I grown yet? … How about now?” – but you can create the circumstances where it’s more likely.

You do that by creating a challenge.

As Polar explorer Ben Saunders said in one of his TED talks:

If I’ve learnt anything […] it’s that true, real inspiration and growth only comes from adversity and challenge; from stepping away from what’s comfortable and familiar and stepping out into the unknown.

Putting on that show was a pretty big deal for me. What would be a big deal for you?

Document it

Documenting stuff changes things. You’re more likely to put yourself out there if you know you’re recording and especially sharing what you’re doing. How are you going to do that?

Write about it! Blog, tweet, film it! Record a daily video diary! Wear a head-mounted camera and go exploring the pit toilets of the Mongolian steppe!

Please don’t ask me what the climax of that journey would be.

Share it

You can – and should – share your journey with all your friends, which is great news for your inner narcissist.

Over to you

Your journey

Put that all together and you should have an idea of what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. It doesn’t have to be on a huge scale. We don’t all have the resources to take six months out and go swanning off somewhere. A couple of years ago I learnt the basics of Sevillanas from YouTube and went dancing at the Seville April Fair. It was just a few days out of my life. That’s a mini-adventure right there.


End of my own journey

So, after all that… can I dance well? Ha! No! Not really. I’m better than I was, that’s all. People often ask me, ‘Are you going to open a dance school?’

Well, only if there’s a demand for someone who can teach a series of half-learnt, half-forgotten dances at a very mediocre level. In which case – yes, of course.

But as you can hopefully see, I gained a lot more than just learning how to dance.

In conclusion

I’m not saying this is the only way to travel. Like ‘Oh I’d love to visit Lithuania, but I can’t think of a hair-brained adventure, so I’ll just have to leave it.’

Sometimes it is just fun to explore, or chargrill yourself on the sand, or whatever else.

But if you want something a trip that’s memorable, unique, authentic then just once in your life try travelling with a narrative.

(Main image: Tomasz Kuc)

The book is out now!

Want to know more about my dance adventures in Colombia? They’re detailed in my book: Dancing Feat: One Man’s Mission to Dance Like a Colombian

If you like the sound of it, you can buy it here.

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