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An Interview with Darrin DuFord: Breakfast for Alligators and the Speed of the Shoe

A group of candombe drummers marches through the Barrio Sur neighborhood of Montevideo, Uruguay
A cuerda (group) of candombe drummers marches through the Barrio Sur neighborhood of Montevideo, Uruguay.

In Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns, and Revelations in the Americas, author Darrin DuFord takes you on a hunt for rodent invaders in New Orleans, through a fragrant cassava-sauce factory in Guyana, and 2,000 feet under the Caribbean in a homemade submarine off the island of Roatán, Honduras.

You’ll laugh as he avoids rats on the New York City subway, smile when he samples street cuisine high in the Andes, and wish you were there while he shares meals and beers with locals from Uruguay to Trinidad.

Hungry iguanas in Parque Bolivar. Guayaquil, Ecuador
A sign for an undertaker in Granada, Nicaragua.

But the 32 travel stories in Breakfast for Alligators are more than eloquent, entertaining portraits of lesser-known corners of North and South America—they also invite the reader to get to know their relentlessly curious and perceptive narrator, with his eye for the unusual and ear for the unexplained.

Darrin DuFord is the kind of guy any world traveler would enjoy trading tales with over a pisco sour in a strange hotel bar in Latin America. In his stories, he’s knowledgeable but not arrogant, eager to laugh but not judgmental, and he travels not for mere pleasure, but to gain a better understanding of the world.

Darrin is, in his own words, a husband, father, writer, percussionist, seed saver, hat collector, jungle rodent connoisseur, and map gazer. Between working as a programmer and taking care of his six-month-old son, Darrin took the time to join me in a discussion about writing, travel, and his new collection of stories.

Ted: When did you first realize that you are a writer, or when did you first start writing?

Darrin: The first pieces I wrote were not worth reading, but they had to exist so there was something to build on and learn from. When I won a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for my first book, I felt that I was a writer, albeit still an emerging one. When I write, I always ask “What’s in it for the reader?” The award answered that question.

Ted: Do you write about topics other than travel and food? Do you want to?

Darrin: Lately, I’ve written about music and I have a few humor pieces I’ve been pitching. This branching out is for a few reasons. One is that I’ve always been interested in doing both. The other is that I can more easily write in those areas without traveling. That last reason is important for me now as I am taking a break from traveling for a little while until my son is old enough to bring on the road.

Corn tortilla stuffed with fresh cheese and banana leaf.
A street vendor prepares a guirila, a thick corn tortilla stuffed with fresh cheese and wrapped in a banana leaf. Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

Ted: All of the stories in Breakfast for Alligators are from the Americas, from Chile to Quebec. What’s so special about traveling in the New World?

Darrin: It’s a hemisphere we Americans share with people from many different cultures and political constructs. Traveling through the Americas makes me feel like an American in the broader, hemispheric sense, not just the “citizen of the United States” sense.

Ted: The stories in the collection are from 2004-2010. Are you a different kind of traveler now?

Darrin: The world is my school, so I am always growing and learning as I travel. Over time, my senses have become heightened, so I feel that I take in more when I travel now.

Ted: Are you a different kind of writer now?

Darrin: I’d like to think that I’m the same writer, but every new experience seasons the pan a little more, adding tangible complexity.

Ted: This is your second book. How do you feel when you look back on your first, Is There a Hole in the Boat?

Darrin: When I wrote Is There a Hole in the Boat?, which is about Panama exclusively, I hadn’t visited as many countries in Latin America before Panama, and thus I had less context as to how Panama fits in with the rest of its neighbors. Now, I can see how customs morph from one country to another; for instance, some of Panama’s woven hats resemble those made in northwestern Colombia, Panama’s neighbor to the east. Some of my Colombian neighbors in Queens even thought one of my Panamanian-made hats was one of theirs.

Ted: When traveling, some people like the beach, some like to party, some like to go shopping. For example, wherever I go, I always visit markets, look for places to hike, and seek out live music. What about you? What do you always want to experience when you travel?

Darrin: I like to find what makes a culture tick. Visits to markets and live music venues can contribute, as can trips on public transport or wandering by foot. The speed of the shoe allows for bountiful observation, and can reveal details you never knew existed.

Ted: I like how the stories in Breakfast for Alligators have a theme beyond the destination itself, illuminating some element of culture (often culinary) specific to the place. Do you investigate these things because you’re planning to write a story, or is that how you’ve always traveled—driven by curiosity?

Darrin: I usually do research first, and usually make a few contacts before I go somewhere. But sometimes, a new story stares me down when I arrive and demands that I write it.

Ted: So, in general, what comes first, the trip or the story? For example, when you are looking at street art in Valparaiso, do you think, this would make a good story? Or do you decide to go to Valparaiso because of the street art? 

Darrin: The Valparaiso chapter is an example of a story that took me by surprise when I arrived and demanded that I write it. I was planning on writing a piece on Chile’s comic books, perhaps on Condorito, found on newsstands in every Latin American country I’ve been too, as well as several newsstands in Queens, New York. I hadn’t heard about the plentiful street art of Valparaiso before I arrived in the city. The interplay between the murals, the city’s topography, and the city’s architecture fascinated me. I knew then that I had to write about the street art and how it affected me. Sorry, Condorito! A different comic book, from a Valparaiso artist, made its way into the story, so the comic book idea morphed from a main idea to a supporting episode in a story about the city’s art.

A trompe l'oeil mural adorns a building on Templeman Street in Valparaiso, Chile
A trompe l'oeil mural adorns a building on Templeman Street in Valparaiso, Chile.

For other stories, like the Roatán sub piece and the nutria hunt in New Orleans, I planned them in advance. Before I arrived in either place, I researched them both enough to gain an understanding of the context of what was going on, without letting the sight-unseen research color the street-level (or submarine-level) experience.

Ted: How long after a trip do you usually write about it? Or do you write while you are traveling?

Darrin: I take notes while traveling, but I’m lucky if I end up with a few complete sentences in my notebook (and I’m unlucky when I can’t read my handwriting). I like to let an experience stew and ferment in my head for a few weeks when I return home before I write. 

Ted: One of my favorite stories is the “The Peanut Fiends of Guayaquil” with its vivid descriptions of the iguanas in the park. Do the metaphors and imagery just pop into your head, or do you have to work for them?

Darrin: That was one of my favorite stories to write. Imagery arrives on its own when I clear my head and recount an experience in its context. I just let my mind wander between the general and the specific, zooming in and out. Reflections on the experience may begin to mingle with recollections of other experiences, the unfamiliar meeting the familiar. Then the imagery asserts itself, or not. Either way can work. If the imagery helps propel the narrative, great. If it gets in the way, then it is not needed. The story has to come first.

Hungry iguanas in Parque Bolivar. Guayaquil, Ecuador
A family greeted by hungry iguanas in Parque Bolivar. Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Ted: I loved the Beavis and Butthead reference in “The Peanut Fiends of Guayaquil,” but how did you miss an allusion to Spaceballs in “Pedaling for Agrotourism,” when you carried your finance’s hairdryer in your backpack?

Darrin: Ha! You got me, Ted—I spaced on that one. Luckily, my wife’s hairdryer was not as big as the Princess’ accessory, even though weight-wise it sure seemed it.

Ted: Another one of my favorites was “Dispatching Shellfish and Getting Engaged”—in fact I had to Google for photos of the Rocher Percé after I read it. Does this story have a special meaning for you, as it’s about your engagement and you placed it last in the collection?

Darrin: Thanks for all the kind words, Ted. “Dispatching Shellfish and Getting Engaged” is about how traveling with the love of your life can bring you closer together as you share the same experiences learning and adapting together. It was the most life-changing, and thus I felt it belonged last to clinch a collection of stories that are otherwise loosely related to one another.

Ted: Where haven’t you traveled in the Americas (or the world) where you can’t wait to go next?

Darrin: Mars. Oh wait, that’s not part of this world. So I will say Guadeloupe. It’s a sort of sister island to Martinique, where I went in 2014, and I enjoyed the music scene. Without visiting Guadeloupe, I feel that I am listening to French Antillean music with only one ear.

Ted: I see on your website, The Omnivorous Traveler (where you can purchase Breakfast for Alligators), that you recently published a story about Mexico, where I live, about mole in Oaxaca. Was it your first trip here? What was your impression of Mexico, and would you like to come back?

Darrin: I first went to Puerto Vallarta because my wife scored a cheap hotel/airfare deal. We didn’t care for the timeshare-hawking types hanging around (I suppose that’s par for the course if you stay in the hotel zone), but we eventually found someone working at the hotel who told us which buses to take to visit some of the surrounding towns, where we got blissfully lost in the produce and meat markets. I will return to Mexico, not sure when though…

Ted: Did you self-publish Breakfast for Alligators? If so, can you tell me a little about the process?

Darrin: I released the book on my own, but I hired professionals for the cover and the editing, two areas where my skills are not even close to the pros. I’m very happy with how both turned out, and I’ve gotten many compliments on the cover, so I think I made the right choice. Yup, that’s right, people judge books by their covers all the time. As for the editing—I haven’t heard or read about anyone talking about that, and that’s a good thing, because that means the book was edited well. Readers usually only comment if the editing stinks or is nonexistent.

Breakfast for Alligators

Ted: Your stories appear in many different publications, both online and in print. What advice can you give to aspiring travel writers for getting their first story published?

Darrin: If you’re interested in getting published in a particular publication, read several of their pieces first to get an idea of what works for them. Always write a custom query letter for each publication that explains why your piece is right for them. They haven’t run a piece about place X in six years? Your piece on custom X can complement a piece they ran on custom Y in the same country a few months back? Is the piece timely, and the publication likes to run timely pieces?

Also, for those interested in narrative-style travel writing, try reading outside of the genre as well. Reading great fiction helps with developing one’s storytelling skills, necessary for travel stories.

Ted: Thank you very much, and congratulations on Breakfast for Alligators, an excellent collection of travel stories available on The Omnivorous Traveler.

Darrin: Thank you, Ted! I enjoyed the interview. And as always, I look forward to checking out more of Transitions Abroad's travel pieces, including yours.

 Related Topics
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