October 25, 2014

On Baksheesh

Egyptian Train

Photo Credit: walidhassanein via Compfight cc
I’m riding a second-class train up the Nile valley when a boy in an official-looking blue jacket beckons me to the other side of the carriage.

“Look,” he whispers, pointing outside. “Beautiful!”

I look out the window to see a red sun streaking the sky with bands of pink and yellow. Beyond the train tracks, the mighty Nile glitters with orange spangles of light. It truly is beautiful.

As I soak in the colors, I wonder why the boy has taken the trouble to show me such a simple moment.

It’s not long before I get my answer.

“Please,” he says giving me a solemn look. “Baksheesh.”

For a moment, I’m not sure how to react. After all, baksheesh may be an accepted Eastern form of tipping — but this is the first time I’ve been asked to pay for a sunset.

When Mark Twain visited the Pyramids in 1866, he reportedly suffered “torture that no pen can describe” from the various Egyptian pleas for baksheesh. One hundred years before that, a French visitor complained bitterly about the amounts of baksheesh it took just to dig up and steal a decent mummy.

These days — while its no longer legal to climb the Pyramids or rifle through mummy pits — baksheesh is still a thriving racket wherever tourists are found.

Take my recent visit to Luxor. Whenever I took out my map, some enterprising soul would hustle over and offer me directions. Whenever I entered a tomb, children would fight over who got to fan me with a piece of cardboard. Had I been eating corn on the cob, I’m sure one of them would have produced some dental floss.

If there is any saving grace about baksheesh, it’s that Egyptians use it among themselves as well as on tourists. Most Egyptians earn low wages, so tips and payoffs are seen as a way to provide incentive and supplement an income. Nobody in Cairo, it is said, can get basic services such as mail or electricity without slipping a little baksheesh to the right people.

So, as with any local custom, the best way to get the hang of baksheesh is to watch how the natives do it. Thus, I no longer hesitate to plunk down a few piasters when I get fast and friendly service in a coffee shop, or when the baggage-handler climbs on top of the bus to fetch my bag.

In the end, the baksheesh ritual becomes a matter of trusting your instincts and acting like you know what you’re doing.

And this is why I reach into my pocket and give the boy in the blue jacket 50 piasters.

After all, 15 cents isn’t such a bad price to pay for a sunset — and I might have missed it otherwise.

 

To hear the audio version, read by Rolf, visit Savvy Traveler

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Category: Hospitality, Languages and Culture, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Styles

October 24, 2014

Morning Rituals

 

Morning Ritual

(morning rituals – photo credit: icultist on Flickr)

The fluidity of travel is a double-edged blade. It’s one of the things I love most about it – that each day is different and you don’t know what to expect. It pulls you into the present, encouraging you to pay attention to everything going on around you, rather than going into auto-pilot mode.

We are beings of habit, though. Our brains are wired to develop patterns of behavior, so that we’re not constantly making decisions. It uses less energy and frees up our mental resources. So when I’m traveling for extended periods of time, I begin to miss the structured days, the habits, the rituals. I do take some of these with me on the road, just to make my life a little bit easier. For instance, I usually travel with protein powder and oatmeal, so that I can have a consistent meal to start off the day. It gives me a bit of respite – being able to wake up and not having to worry about what I’m going to eat for breakfast. Get centered into the day before I have to start make decisions. Then, after that – I take the day as it comes.

I also take a kettlebell around with me when I’m able. (Which usually means whenever I’m not traveling by plane.) Yes, I even carried one along for the 8,000 mile motorcycle trek that I took earlier this year. It was 25lbs of extra weight, but then I was also packing my podcast equipment – so I wasn’t traveling light. What I love about the kettlebell is that it’s versitile and allows me to keep fit when I’m on the road. Sure, there are a lot of body-weight exercises I could do, but just having that weight there with me is an extra bit of motivation. I can’t ignore it. Hell, if I’m going to lug it around, I *have* to put it to use.

While I’m traveling – that’s about all the ritual that I take with me. When I get home, though, I have deeper morning rituals that help me get the most out of the day. When I first get up, I take care of meditation, gratitude and meals. Meditation and gratitude are part of centering myself and taking a moment to recognize the things I should be grateful for. For meditation I’ve been testing out Headspace (an app) and for gratitude I’ve used the 5-minute Journal for over a year. After that I prepare my meals for the day (unless I’m going out). Admittedly, I’m a utilitarian eater – so I just don’t want to have to worry about those decisions when I’m hungry. I’ve also found that taking care of it at once means that I eat healthier, rather than just grabbing whatever is available.

I’ve been trying out a new framework for productivity and happiness each day. The morning ritual is a part, but only the first step. I’m going to stick with it for a few more weeks to see how it works out. If I find it useful, I’ll share.

So, out of curiosity, what morning rituals do you have?

Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.

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Category: Lifestyle Design, North America, Simplicity, Vagabonding Life

October 23, 2014

Why you should be reminded about “mistake-fares”

Everyone’s had those days where they’re day-dreaming about a trip they can’t afford and they just wish to themselves that flight prices would magically drop and they could magically afford that trip to Milan, Italy or Kenya or wherever.

Well…I can’t tell you that magic is happening but I have honestly booked flights to Milan, Italy and Nairobi, Kenya for $300 or less each, roundtrip.

If you’re asking yourself, “Is this some kind of joke?  Is this a mistake?” then the answer is…well…one of those things is true.

I know I’ve blogged about this before, but you seriously need to be reminded about this. Because mistake fares are exactly the kinds of deals you daydream about.

Milan

What is a mistake fare?

Most basically, a mistake fare is any time there’s some kind of mistake in the process of pricing a ticket (or hotel room) online. Most often, this happens because there’s some kind of error in the process of programming that price. For instance, whoever is plugging in the formula for that price somehow misses plugging in the fuel portion of that price.

How cheap can these mistake-fares get?

These mistake-fares are all over the place in terms of price. We don’t tend to pay attention to them until their as low as $400 or less for an international ticket. Once there was even a “$0″ United fare that cost only $5 in airport taxes, but it wasn’t honored.

Which brings me to another important point…

Do these mistake-fares actually get honored?

The airline mistake fares almost always get honored. The $0 United example didn’t get honored because no one actually bought anything. But for the most part a mistake fare is going to be cheap enough to be a ridiculously good deal, but cost you enough for the airlines to make the decision to honor it.

For whatever reason, hotel mistake-fares on the other hand are not always honored. In this case, the hotel will generally reach out to contact you and inform you of the mistake and offer the chance to cancel.

How do you find these mistake-fares? 

There is only a little bit of “finding” involved in mistake-fares. For the most part, the best way to “find” mistake-fares is by connecting with other “travel-hackers” who might publish these mistake-fares on their social media. For instance, my husband and I try to share the mistake-fares we hear of on our Facebook page. Because this network of people is so big, and thanks to the forum “Flyertalk”, the word tends to spread.

However, like I said, there is still some “finding” involved.

Here’s what I mean. Because this pricing mistake is usually an error in how the price was code, it can take some trial and error to figure out what the mistake actually is.

For instance one person may be browsing “fill-in-the-blank-bookingservice.com” and stumble upon a ticket to Milan in February for only $150 roundtrip. The error is existing on fill-in-the-blank-bookingservice.com, so you’ll know right away that you need to be booking your ticket there. But maybe you aren’t free in February, so you try out June. No luck. Or maybe you’re not interested in Milan so you try Rome. No luck.

Many times these mistake-fares are somewhat specific and restrictive, but maybe less than you’d think.

In the example I just used with Milan, there were some people booking in other times of the year, but not all times of the year were revealing the mistaken price. Or, in the case of the Nairobi mistake-fare mentioned, some people were finding that mistaken price for other destinations, but not all destinations.

Finding the mistake-fare you want can take some playing around, but be careful. They don’t last long.

These mistake-fares are such a fine line between amazing and inconvenient, because not only do they tend to be specific, but they go quickly. So sometimes in the time it takes  you to find out if you can get the vacation time off, or in the time it takes you to call up a travel-buddy, the mistake gets fixed and it’s gone.

Because of this, figure out the cancellation policy right away. If the cancellation policy allows any decision-making time at all, then you can feel free to book a mistake-fare speculatively. Which is to say, you can book the first mistake-fare that catches your attention as possibly feasible, without worrying about working out the details ahead of time.

If there is any flexibility of cancellation at all, book first and work it out later.

Who are mistake-fares good for?

While this may sound complicated, it is perfect for anyone with a free spirit and a spontaneous nature. Or, for people who want to see the whole world. If you have one specific destination in mind for your next trip, and are uninterested in other destinations, then mistake-fares are not for you. But if you are always up for an adventure, and curious about travel of all kinds, then you may just find a mistake-fare fitting your next spontaneous travel needs.

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Category: Travel Bargains

October 22, 2014

Vagabonding Field Report: Magnetic Island and Barbie Cars

Cost/day

There are 2 significant expenses with Magnetic Island. The first is the ferry that takes you to the island which is $32 for an adult. The second is just as much a necessity as it is a luxury and that is the Mokes. For around $80 you can hire one of these miniature petrol cars to take you around the must see island. Food can be pricy also, but a picnic could see you through the day.

Mokes 2

Describe a typical day

We boarded the passenger ferry in Townsville, a smooth but breezy cold ride took us to Magnetic Island. We first stocked up on water and sun cream at the local IGA supermarket. Then we made our way to hire a moke. Parting with $80 we had picked up the keys to our new ride. The car was nothing more than an oversized Barbie car. Pink and white and just enough room for the two of us. So we took off on a tour of the island. Magnetic Island is scenically beautifully.

We pulled our car up at several look outs. The luscious green foliage stretched down the rolling hills into the sea. Each point we took in was a pleasure and a treat for the eyes. We watched the wildlife of exotic bird and marsupials fluttering. hopping. crawling out of the many bushes and trees that stretched the steep roads.

Soon it was time to park the car on the shore line and start walking one of the many walking tracks that weave around the Island. We removed out shoes and dipped our feet in the sea. Boulders lay at the bottom of the cliff face immersed in water. Here is where a keen eye could spot much of the islands aquatic wildlife amongst the cracks and crevices. The track was beautiful and secluded. We were aloud our own private peace as we looked out to sea watching the wave’s crash against the shore

. Magnetic Island beach boat

Our stomachs grumbled to let us know it was time for lunch. After a quick read of a local pamphlet that spelled out where to eat we decided to settle for a Mexican feed. With directions in hand and a small road map it still took us almost 45 mins to find the eatery. This however was wasted 45 minutes, the restaurant looked like a dilapidated unkempt old shack that was in dire need of a bulldozer. We imagined a buffet at a wake would have better ambience. So we gave up on Mexican and headed back to the dock to eat at Peppers. We sat on the veranda and took in the view. A rather over enthusiastic waitress took our orders and we sat and drank lemonade whilst talking over the mornings highlights. The food was great but with a substantial price tag to suit. I tucked into an Angus burger and chips with all the bacon and cheese I could want. My mouth is watering just at the thought of just how beautiful that meal was.

After lunch we decided it was time to relax on the beach so with a few essentials in hand we made our way to Magnetic Island’s paradise beach on Nelly Bay. We led out on the beautiful golden sands and took an occasional swim in the sea. It was quiet but we shared the beach with a couple of family’s holiday making. Before long it came time to hand back our miniature motors and climb aboard the ferry. A downside to Magnetic Island is the first and last ferry don’t run early or late enough, as this was a day trip we had to abide by those times. So we set off back across the water and back to Townsville for the night.

Magnetic Island me on pier

 

Describe an interesting conversation you had:

There wasn’t really a chance to get to talk to the locals but along the way we did pick up some interesting information. Magnetic Island got its name from exactly that a Magnetic force, which probably doesn’t come as a big surprise. The interesting element is that it was the only island around the area and further down the coast that would put the old ships off course as it would interfere with the ships compasses, and hence the reason it took the name Magnetic Island.

What did you like? Dislike?

I loved the Island and there is a great element of fun in driving the mokes around to explore. My dislike is the ferry times, they no doubt accommodate for the 9-5 workers who work on or off the island, and it felt we couldn’t cram in enough in such a short span of time. The island has so much more to explore and provides a huge amount of entertainment all year round. Next time around I think I would book in to stay at a hotel and give more time to exploring more of the beautiful island

Where Next? Robe!!!!!

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Category: General, Vagabonding Field Reports

October 21, 2014

Australia’s Red Center: The beautiful nothing

IMG_7172

There’s nothing in the red center of Australia.

If by nothing you mean echos of endless wide spaces and wide sky that holds the world together like an eternal ribbon of Australian blue around a package of rainbow colours that can only be unwrapped slowly.

Beneath the thin veneer of “nothing” are layers of something stunningly, historically, culturally, naturally, creatively beautiful.

The earth is simultaneously desert-hard and sand-silt soft, as if the entire surface was sifted through a flour sieve.

“Red” is not the right word. I’m not sure there is a right word.  The soil is a particular shade of burnt sienna that Crayola never thought of.

“Green” runs the gamut from dusty sage, almost grey, through every subtlety of Mediterranean olive, to garish lime. There is plant life everywhere, even where it seems there is not.

Where there are trees, they are black and gnarled; an aboriginal crone’s hand reaching out of the parched soil, grasping desperately at the sky, begging for water.

There’s nothing in the red center of Australia

Except life in unexpected places:

Lizards, big and small. Under rocks, in the shade, waddling awkwardly through the camp kitchen, picking at scraps.

Great big, tick shaped beetles, huddled beneath pieces of curling bark on the trunk of a tree.

Snakes (even though I don’t like them)

Enormous, Wedge-tailed eagles whirling overhead, crouched over road-kill-a-roos, perched majestically on bare branches.

Dusty children perched on piles of old rubber tires on turn offs to dirt roads leading nowhere.

Flies; god, the flies.

Wildflowers, in white and yellow, the tiniest things, blooming in a blooming desert! Against all odds, laughing at the sun.

Heat is a living thing, dancing in an iridescent ball gown to music only she can hear.

There is nothing in the red center of Australia.

Except the beating heart of a continent:

Dirt the colour of dried blood.

A rock, like an enormous, petrified heart jutting out of the earth.

I can hear the heartbeat, if I stand still, in the pounding of my own blood at my temples, agitated by the incredible heat, the searing sun, the blinding reflections.

IMG_7718

At night, the “nothing” sings.

Insect songs, celebrating relief from another day’s heat.

Star songs, sung for thousands of years over sleeping souls by watchful guardians.

The drumbeat of the darkness.

The long, low hum of the moon; perhaps it’s echo inspired the didgeridoo.

The grass whispers behind the melody, wind through long, feathery reeds.

It’s a lullaby.

There’s nothing in the red center of Australia.

Unless you take the time to look.

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Category: Oceania

October 20, 2014

Travel writing is about what the place brings out of the writer

“What raises travel writing to literature is not what the writer brings to a place, but what a place brings out of the writer.”
–William Zinsser, in They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing (1991)

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Category: Travel Quote of the Day

October 18, 2014

How Africa got in my soul (and stayed there)

Etosha National Park's Watering Hole

“We need HOW many shots?” Six immunizations, a signed yellow fever card and two prescriptions later we left the doctor’s office. It was going to be worth it, we just knew it! Five years and a few extra booster shots later and we were right. Our time on the African continent yields some of my most favourite travel memories and life-changing experiences. “Africa gets into your soul and stays there”. This is my answer to most questions about my time in Africa. With a smile, I remember the moments that would not have been possible anywhere else. If you’re even a bit curious-Go, you’ll never be the same again.

We’ve traveled to Africa three times and each has been more different than the time before it. There was Egypt in the north, South Africa and its surrounds in the south and Tanzania and Kenya in the east.

Egypt is filled with history, culture, religion and life on the Nile. We slept on a felucca, rode camels in the Sahara, translated hieroglyphics, awed at the pyramids and sphinx and ate our weight in falafel. Egypt’s appeal was the intertwining of religion and life amidst an ever-changing landscape. It seemed that there’s a part of Egypt ruled by the river and a separate part away from it all. Markets clamored with vendors selling their wares and religion was heard all around – most especially as the sound of the muezzin floated through the air calling worshippers to prayer. Perfumes, hookah pipes, cartouches and papyrus were readily sold to travelers as take home items and history was captured on cave walls.

Devil's Pool, Victoria Falls, ZambiaSouthern and western Africa is still my favourite of parts we’ve visited so far. We spent three weeks through parts of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Hanging with penguins at Boulder Beach, glimpsing the southernmost tip and feeling like the true king of the world atop Table Mountain are special. Bush camping in the Okavango Delta was more than memorable since a raging hippo chased our mokorros and we lived to tell the tale. And let’s not even talk about the jump into Devil’s Pool-this is truly the definition of living on the edge! My favourite beyond a shadow of a doubt was Namibia. Etosha National Park’s watering hole is Discovery Channel in living colour as silent onlookers sit for hours waiting for animals to visit for a drink. Soussevlei is a sand lover’s paradise and hiking Dune 45’s bright, brilliant sand dunes make you feel like a cherry seated atop nature’s sundae. After visiting Namibia, it’s become one of my most treasured memories.

Namibia's Dune 45

And then there’s the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. Masai warriors live their lives off of the land and teach their children to do the same. Dotted through the plains you see Masai houses and schools left standing for the next group to come through as the nomads move to a new location. Dry season floods the view in colours of beige, red, brown, orange and yellow showing the effects of nature on the landscape. Pockets of bright green pop where rivers flow with life in the wet season. Dust mixed with gravel and the omnipresent red dirt kicks up as the 4x4s journey the open roads in search of sightings. As trucks pass on the narrow lanes camera lenses and binoculars pass each other as their owners pop the tops of trucks to feel the wind and come face to face with a neighboring giraffe.

Africa is different. Africa is beautiful. Africa is a blending of thousands of cultures amidst a backdrop of animals and a landscape controlled by nature. Africa leaves you wanting to return and teaches lessons you may not have known you needed to learn. Africa gets into your soul and stays there.

For more of Stacey’s travel musings check out her website.

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Category: General, Notes from the collective travel mind

October 17, 2014

Vagabonding Case Study: Dyanne Kruger

Dyanne Kruger  unnamed

TravelnLass.com

Age:  Uh, somewhere breathtakingly near the tender age of 7-oh!

Hometown: Seattle, but haven’t lived in the U.S. for several years

Quote:  “This ain’t a dress rehearsal, folks!”  (I also favor “I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”)

(more…)

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Category: General, Vagabonding Case Studies

October 16, 2014

Long-term travel, consumerism, and purging

Long- term travelers of all kinds will tell you that one of the most important preliminary steps to taking off is The Purge. That period of time that you devote to deciding which material possessions will still be necessary and dear to your heart after traipsing all over the globe in pursuit of clarity, freedom, connection, adventure, and knowledge. Clothing is donated, items are sold to pay for gear, and maybe a tupperware or two are packed to the brim with things you can’t bare to say goodbye to just yet. Everything else, everything that will represent your existence for the time you spend abroad will be packed into a backpack or suitcase, a necessary piece of gear that looked far bigger before you started packing it.

The act of purging everything was a huge undertaking that occupied our minds and our time for months before we left. The fact that we decided to get rid of almost everything helped in that we didn’t have to think much, we just had to get rid of it. Easier said than done.

For the past several years I have considered myself someone who does not really need all that much. Not a minimalist, but certainly not a materialist either. In new York, my husband and I participated in the consumerist culture far less than our teenage foster daughters would have liked. We didn’t eat at McDonald’s; we didn’t believe that we “needed” anything in a commercial with a catchy jingle; we didn’t eat out more than once a week; we bought local whenever possible instead of feeding the corporate machine of mass made goods; we had a family rule that if you were going to bring a new piece of clothing into your wardrobe, you needed to get rid of another piece first. By most accounts, we were doing pretty good at not getting sucked into the consumerist machine.

And yet, as I cleaned out our closets and gathered our things in boxes, I realized just how much stuff we had. How did that happen?? 

I don’t know about you but I live in one pair of shoes, depending on the season. Fuzzy boots for winter and flip flops for summer. So how the heck had I accumulated over 20 pairs of shoes?! Aaron could wear the same five shirts over and over again without complaint so why in the world did he have bags and bags of t-shirts to give away?!

The more we purged, the more guilt I felt. While it felt great to get rid of so many uneccesary possessions. I couldn’t help but feel this nagging feeling that despite my best efforts, I had still been pulled in by the “just in case” notion that consumerism thrives on. In fact, when I really took stock, more than half of what we owned could fall into the “just in case” category. Why, in New York City, I was so consumed by the notion of “just in case” (without even being aware of it!) is beyond me. If I really needed something I could just go out and buy said item when the need actually arose. I could have even *gasp* asked a neighbor if I could borrow theirs. Instead, I had filled my house with a bunch of stuff I didn’t even need, “just in case”. What a waste!

Adding to my guilt was the realization of just how many things we had been throwing away. Shoes whose soles had worn through, toys that no longer worked, tools with missing pieces had all gone into the garbage and, eventually, into a landfill. As I packed our entire life into backpacks, I realized just how wasteful we had been. Everything I packed had to do at least double duty. Anything that ripped or became worn we would have to try to repair before replacing it due to budget constraints and lack of resources in some areas. It did not bother us to think that we could not easily replace things on the road so why had we been so flippant about throwing things out in New York? We are very aware that much of the rest of the world lives without the ability to throw out and quickly replace anything they desire so how did we get caught up in doing just that?

Without fully realizing it, my husband and I had been participating, more than either of us cared to admit, in the consumerist culture we didn’t endorse. I have come to think that there is no way to completely avoid consumerism when the entire culture around you embraces it. Convenience becomes an easy thing to pay for and, before you know it, you have lots of stuff and lots of waste. There are some tough souls who are able to resist this culture to a very impressive level, no matter their surroundings. We put in a strong effort, but when we really looked at the evidence we had to admit that we just didn’t do as well as we had thought.

Long-term travel is an amazing educator when it comes to sustainability. Cars from the 50′s troll the streets of Mumbai, serviced and repaired beyond what any American would think is “reasonable”. Cobblers make a decent living on streets around the world where throwing out shoes with small holes is inconceivable. Chicken wire is taken down and repurposed over and over again until it finds a home within the walls of a cob house in Guatemala. Baby food jars become perfect containers for homemade salves, creams, and cosmetics in Puerto Viejo. Most of the world survives easily without a constant need for new things.

The initial purge is just phase one in a long journey to recognizing the reality of our personal roles in a consumerist society. The continuing journey can be eye opening in terms of illuminating just how much “need” (I use the term loosely) we really could eliminate just by shifting our thinking away from a mentality based in scarcity and replacing it with one based in abundance.

I no longer by things “just in case”. In fact, we no longer buy anything without checking first to see if we can make it, borrow it, or Macgyver it. I still carry a little but of guilt about how much I use to have (and waste) but then again, once you know better, you do better.

What do you think? Has travel influenced your perception of consumerism or changed how you view your consumption habits?

 

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Category: Ethical Travel, Ethics, General

October 15, 2014

Vagabonding Case Study: Lyndsay Cabildo

Lyndsay Cabildo unnamed

 

discounttravelblogger.com

Age: 31

Hometown: Manila, Philippines

Quote: “I may be young at age but older in hours, because I wasted no time.” –J. Beacon

(more…)

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Category: General, Vagabonding Case Studies
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On Baksheesh
Morning Rituals
Why you should be reminded about “mistake-fares”
Vagabonding Field Report: Magnetic Island and Barbie Cars
Australia’s Red Center: The beautiful nothing
Travel writing is about what the place brings out of the writer
How Africa got in my soul (and stayed there)
Vagabonding Case Study: Dyanne Kruger
Long-term travel, consumerism, and purging
Vagabonding Case Study: Lyndsay Cabildo


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