Interview: Phil Paoletta and His Camel


Welcome to the second installment of the 4,007,236 part series Are There Any Other Travel Bloggers? Whether you’re an adventurer looking for another travel blog (other than Somewhere Or Bust), a reader seeking out tales of distant lands, a blogger wanting to learn the ins and outs of the industry, or someone who enjoys ridiculous questions where answers lack relevancy, you’ll like this segment. This week I spoke with Phil Paoletta of Phil in the Blank. You’ll learn quickly that Phil loves camels. Sadly the camel could not join us due to nearly succumbing to hyponatremia.

Phil Paoletta and His Camels

Hi Phil. Tell me, what inspired you to start your travel blog?

Typical and somewhat boring reason: to inform friends and family while traveling. But also to serve as a home for music I was/am collecting and creating.

Why do you draw camels?

Camels are important to me for many reasons. They are seductive and graceful animals and they can live just about anywhere. In the desert, in the cold. They can drink salt water and they can lose 40% of their body weight without dying. I was also blessed with an ability to draw camels from birth.

That makes complete sense, Phil, since an infant’s survival depends on its ability to recognize two humps. Now, what is your best teaching-someone-to-draw-a-camel story?

My favorite camel drawing moment was teaching a Tuareg family in Timbuktu. They owned several camels themselves and they were ecstatic after the lesson. Pretty sure I have a lifetime hookup for food and accommodation there now. Unfortunately, they are currently living in the desert and north Mali is currently off limits for me as it is being occupied by – largely foreign – jihadists. Too sad.


Phil in the Blank and Travel

Which of your posts do you love best? Why?

I don’t know about “the best” but I like this post about a bus trip between Bamako and Abidjan. I don’t do as much narrative travel writing as I used to, and when I think about this piece I want to get back to that. It’s a long piece, but engaging and hopefully entertaining.

Describe your greatest misadventure.

Most of my misadventures involve absurd long-haul overland travel and illness. My greatest misadventure may have been coming down with malaria and a leg infection within a very short timeframe while in northwest Benin in 2005, but that memory is buffered by many years now. A journey south from Timbuktu with amoebic dysentery in 2010 is what sticks out these days. Dry heaving in a crowded minibus, seeing black spots in my vision, driving on a rutted dirt track — it was one of my lowest moments as a traveler.

Language and Music

What language and music are you exploring these days?

I have been working on fluency in Bambara aka bamana, which is widely spoken in Mali and in neighboring countries as Jula, which sounds very similar. Musically, I have been exploring a lot of dance music from Cote d’Ivoire.

How has Bamabara and Cote d’Ivoire dance music affected your life?

Bambara is a beautiful and rich language and it’s instructive when it comes to Malian culture. Learning the language has keyed me into life in Mali and it’s hard to imagine anything else having the same effect. Highly recommend learning local languages, if only to get in deeper when it comes to discovering a place. As far as the music goes, I was never a huge dance fan until I started spending a lot of time in West Africa. Now, I love it.

Blogging and Bizarreness

What advice can you give to new travel bloggers?

I think the most important thing is developing your own voice and finding a niche. There are a lot of travel blogs now and many of them are posting more or less the same thing. You need to offer something unique, whether its tips and advice for traveling to a place that few people go to or a fresh take on places that are already well visited… My readership skyrocketed when I released that how to draw camels ebook. The post went viral and many of those new visitors stuck around.

What blogs and books are you reading these days? How have they affected you?

I am a big fan of Africa’s A Country, particularly for its much needed perspective on Africa as it appears in western media. I just finished reading Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge by John Gimlette. Some of the best travel writing I have read in a while and it’s rounded out with a good dose of history from a part of South America that few people think about.

Which African world leader would you like to have a beer with? Why?

Macky Sall, the recently elected president of Senegal. Although, it might have to be a tea with him. He’s made a lot of challenging and controversial decisions since taking office and Senegal carries a lot of weight for the region.

What’s the most bizarre thing you’ve ever eaten?

Grasscutter. It is a somewhat rodent-like animal that lives in Ghana. Not bad, actually.

What’s your favorite expression or word that you’ve learned while traveling?

i bε fara kini bolo fε – this is what you would say in Bambara to a taxi driver when you want him to turn right. What it literally means is “go in the direction of your rice-eating hand.” I’m also a big fan of bambara’s use of “children” in the language. For example, the word for fruit is yiridenw – children of the tree. The word for fingers, tegedenw – children of the hand. etc. etc.

You can find Phil at:

Any questions for Phil? Post them in the comments section below.


Photos by Phil Paoletta
1. Phil at the Festival in the Desert outside of Timbuktu, Jan. 2012
2. At the Festival in the Desert with Mariam, Tuareg camel drawing student, Jan. 2012
3. Sunset on the Niger River in Bamako

Posted on by Noah Lederman in Uncategorized

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