ASK THE MAYOR of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, how many nations he’s visited and he might not remember off the top of his head. In an interview at L.A.’s City Hall a few weeks ago, he had to fish his phone out of his pocket and call up an app called Countries Been. A little animated globe displayed the places he’s traveled. “Seventy-eight visited. Lived in five,” he said. “So I think 83 total?” He can be forgiven for losing track. As mayor, Mr. Garcetti, 47, spearheaded L.A.’s successful bid to host the 2028 Summer Olympics, a process that involved racing around the planet, lobbying Olympic decision makers from Denmark to Qatar. For the last year he’s also busily crisscrossed the U.S., with stops in Florida, Arizona and New Hampshire, among others. He travels, in other words, like a guy who’s thinking about running for president, which he’s indicated he might. But Mr Garcetti’s predilection for globe-trotting predates his political career. His worldly parents, each a mashup of ethnicities (his father’s descended from Italian-Mexicans, his mother from Russian Jews), met while working at Pan Am airlines. “Even if they had a lot of money, they wouldn’t spend it on cars or a house,” said Mr. Garcetti, “They’d say ‘We’re going on a trip.’ Not a vacation, ever, but a trip. So, I went to China when I was 12. I went to India as a teenager…all sorts of stuff.” Predictably, though, he lists California among his favorite places on Earth, even making a case for the San Fernando Valley as a worthy tourist destination. “It’s got, like, the best lahmacun [Armenian or Turkish flatbread] in the country…people travel all around the country to see things you can see if you just go to the Valley.”
The difference between traveling as a civilian and as a politician is: As a politician, you’re mostly in a hotel or government building and see nothing, really, of the place. It’s almost like meeting in a virtual-reality chamber with your counterparts.
The best way to blend in as a tourist is to: know how to order the food. I think most tourists wind up with crap food, because it’s the food locals think that you want. If they realize that you appreciate the culture, they’ll give you the hard-core stuff. That can backfire, too. I was once in Bangkok, and I spoke a little Thai. So they brought me the spiciest Tom Kha Gai coconut soup I’d ever had in my life, with little chiles—I think the literal translation is “rat shit chiles.” Those chiles still haunt me today.
I never leave home without: usually, hot sauce—Thai story aside. I lived in Burma for a couple of summers in the ’90s, working with the democratic resistance that had fled to the jungles. All we had to eat was rice, an egg once a week and the occasional vegetable. I met a West-Virginian former-Army-Lieutenant-Colonel who carried a bottle of hot sauce with him wherever he went. Now I usually travel with Tabasco or Tapatio.
I ate the most unusual thing overseas when I: went to a monastery in Eritrea that you had to climb about four hours to reach. They had just slaughtered an ox that day and offered me some. They asked if I wanted some seasoning with my raw meat. I said, “Sure!” They poked a hole in this weird sack and sprayed it on the meat. It was a very unique taste, to say the least. I said “What is this?” And they said, “Oh that’s the gall bladder, and that’s bile.”
One of my favorite places is: Kanadukathan. It’s in the Chettinad region of southeast India, where wealthy Indian traders built these amazing mansions. It’s this beautiful, partially decaying, partially restored place.
My role when traveling in a group is: navigator. I have an incredible compass. You can put me back in a country I haven’t been in 20 years and say “Get me from point A to point B,” and I’ll take you there. I’ve always wanted to do “The Amazing Race” for that reason, but I don’t think it’s gonna work out with this job.
When traveling, I always: send my daughter a postcard. I don’t think her generation will know what a letter is, let alone a postcard, but I want her to have this collection of pictures from places around the world.
My favorite souvenir is: musical instruments. I mean, you can’t carry around a bunch of guitars and pianos, but I have collected a good rhythm section from around the world.
I try not to splurge on: the flight. I’m pretty skinny and I can sleep at the drop of a hat. So, take that middle seat in economy and save the money for other things you can do.
My favorite hotel is: the Hang Nga Guest House, in Da Lat, Vietnam. It’s this complex of structures that look like giant papier-mache animals, or Disney fantasies, built by the daughter of a Vietnamese president. I stayed in the honeymoon suite, which was a giant artificial tree that you climb up into. It looked like something out of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”
My advice to tourists who are driving in L.A. for the first time is: start at 2 a.m. Traffic’s really smooth [laughs]. My advice is: Take public transit. We’re building 15 new rail lines. And it’s actually a really good town, increasingly, for public transportation.
The L.A. destination tourists can safely skip is: the souvenir stores on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But check out the stars.
The biggest myth about L.A. is: that it’s a difficult place to visit. L.A. is a great city to get lost in. The best thing to do is to drive in any direction, find a strip mall, and go from one store to the next. I guarantee you will see a collision of cultures you never imagined. You’ll have a Korean business next to an Armenian business next to a Thai business next to a Guatemalan business, all in the same parking lot.
I would stock Air Force One with: chocolate mint Clif Bars. When I lived in Eritrea, there wasn’t a lot of culinary variety. I’d bring a couple of cases of energy bars. So I think I associate them with quick travel and hard work.
The movie I put on to feel like I’m traveling is: “Tampopo.” It takes place in Japan, where I was a high-school exchange student. It’s the first movie I’d seen where we’re with one character for a half-hour, then somebody walks by and we follow them. That’s what travel’s like. These often-unrelated chapters that are part of your trip.
Before I die I’d like to go to: every country in the world.
—Edited from an interview by Rico Gagliano
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