October 31, 2014

Vagabonding Case Study: Ellen & Elmar van Drunen

Ellen van Drunen & Elmar van Drunen fietsjunks-3 (1)

fietsjunks.nl & traveltheworldbybicycle.com

Age: 39 and 40

Hometown: Ridderkerk, The Netherlands (small town near Rotterdam)

Quote:  “Live the life you love, love the life you live!”

“Stay hungry, stay foolish.” – Steve Jobs

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” -
Steve Jobs

(more…)

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Category: General, Vagabonding Case Studies

October 30, 2014

Should you volunteer abroad?

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Most travelers consider volunteering at some point. We see a need and we know that we have the time, energy, or money to be able to lend a hand and be a part of creating change. Helping people feels good. Working on environmental issues and seeing results is exciting. We don’t just want to talk about problems, we want to do something about them.

Most travelers also know that there is a strong push within the traveling community not to volunteer while abroad- ever. Volunteers often do more harm than good. Children get attached to a revolving door of volunteers and develop attachment issues. Foreigners create environmental systems and forget to train locals so that when they leave, it all falls apart. And then there is the endless discussion about the harm that comes from middle and upper class Westerners descending upon a developing nation to “save” or “empower” the people there.

So what is a traveler to do? Put their money where there mouth is and actually do something about the problems they see or stay away from the volunteer complex for fear of being labeled as one of “those people” who doesn’t recognize the harm volunteering can do?

I will be the first to admit that even the most well-researched volunteer opportunity can dissolve into a lesson on why so many people are against volunteering. Not too long ago, my husband and I found ourselves pulling away from a volunteer opportunity working with sea turtles when it became apparent that the founder and his assistant had very little respect for the local community. No amount of research into their organization, practices, or beliefs could have prepared us for their level of distaste for the local population or for some other unethical practices going on that had nothing to do with sea turtles or the environment.

I could use this experience to highlight exactly why no one should ever volunteer abroad. I could, but I don’t. That’s because I believe that the potential pitfalls are not enough to outweigh the potential benefits. I also do not think for one minute that any amount of negative exposure on the volunteer industry is enough to make everyone stop volunteering. The drive to do something positive, the belief that things can change, and the need to feel connected in meaningful ways to other people is not going away any time soon. Unfortunately, neither is the “savior complex” that too many volunteers root themselves in. Instead of debating whether volunteering is “good” or “bad” as a whole, a better use of our efforts might be in facilitating real conversation, especially with new volunteers, about how to best research opportunities and combat the “savior complex”.

Before making the decision to volunteer there are three huge questions I think volunteers should be asking.

1) Does tho volunteer opportunity perpetuate the need for more volunteers or does it foster local, sustainable growth with the aim of eliminating the need for outside volunteers? An organization that has plans to utilize foreign volunteers for the length of its existence is a red flag because it means the organization is either choosing to not training community members to do those same jobs or it has a belief that community members can’t do those same jobs. Either way, red flag. Your skill set or knowledge should directly relate to a need and, ideally, you should be sharing your knowledge with a local or locals who want to be able to carry on the work when you leave.

2) Is the organization working in meaningful ways with- not for- the local community? Working to strengthen a community and get to the root of a problem involves working with community members, not doing things for them because the organization “knows better”. This requires mutual respect and open dialogue.

3) Have cultural and community needs been taken into account and does the work reflect this? An organization that invites foreign volunteers but does not educate them on cultural norms, needs, and beliefs is an organization that is asking for conflict and resistance from the community. It’s also a sure sign of an organization that has at least a bit of a savior complex.

There are many other valid considerations as well but these are the three that I think get overlooked the most. Look at the language on the website or paperwork of the organization. How do they talk about the local population? What words do they use to describe the culture? Do they have a clear plan for working with community members? Red flags are not always in plain view, sometimes you have to be a bit of a detective to figure out what’s really going on. Even then, as in our experience, sometimes the evidence just isn’t there until you are on the ground. Don’t be afraid to walk away and don’t be afraid to share your experience with others.

As a final thought, it’s also very important that volunteers, as well as those who choose not to volunteer, hold ourselves accountable to the words we use to describe our experiences. We are not “saving” anyone. “If it weren’t for us” should be followed up with “someone else would fill the role”. And, I know this may seem radical, but the words “poor”, “uneducated”, “simple”, or “backwards” need not be employed to evoke pity for the communities volunteers work in. Treating the recipients of our volunteer hours as human equals goes a long way in avoiding the perpetuation of that “savior complex”.

There are very real concerns when it comes to volunteering abroad. There is also no doubt that changes need to be made in the way we view volunteering and how we go about it. However, there are many small, locally focused organizations in true need of foreign volunteers to get the ball rolling, get a specific project off the ground, or to share specific skills and knowledge with the locals ultimately running the program. Connecting with people and lending a helping hand does not need to be viewed as a vice when partnered with the word “volunteering” nor should we be glorifying any and all things volunteer related. There is a very real balance to be achieved when it comes to volunteering, no doubt about it. The question for everyone is, how do we do that?

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Category: Ethical Travel, Ethics, Volunteering Abroad

October 29, 2014

Vagabonding Case Study: Karin-Marijke Vis

 Karin-Marijke Vis  91d070970c91ded525b47dd6db527ba9

landcruisingadventure.com / notesonslowtravel.com

Age: 45

Hometown: Apeldoorn, the Netherlands

Quote: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” ~Lewis Caroll

  (more…)

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Category: General, Vagabonding Case Studies

October 28, 2014

On returning: Things change

My Dad's photo of Lago de Atitlan, 1973

My Dad’s photo of Lago de Atitlan, 1973

It seems the nature of humanity to freeze a moment in time. 

We remember a person, a place, an experience, as it was when we were last present with it. It is frozen, forever, in our minds; like the fading koda-chrome slides my parents took across the north of Africa forty odd years ago. We return to these places often, in our memories; the tastes, the smells, the sensations in our bodies as real as they were years ago. The characters remain eternally young. The buildings never deteriorate. The music in our minds never changes. Until, we return.

It’s a funny trick our minds play, allowing ourselves to remain fluid, to move forward, to constantly evolve, and yet expecting, somehow, that the places and people of our past experience remain the same. It takes a great deal of presence as a traveler, to remain conscious of this ongoing illusion, this magic trick that we play on ourselves. Returning is dangerous business.

There is a witchcraft in some places that weaves a web that continues to draw us back. When we return the spell is often broken and we find ourselves living in the past, wishing for people, or experiences, or a particular vibe that has come and gone. I’ll admit that there are place to which I refuse to return, simply because I love my illusion too much. The memories made on the first pass are so powerful that I wish to preserve them just as they are.

When we do choose to return, we must do so with an open hand, not grasping at what was past, an open heart, ready to receive what is new, and with open minds, allowing for the growth that has occurred in our absence. It isn’t fair, to a people, or a place, to expect it to remain locked in some eternal nostalgia that we’ve created around it. Of course it’s not the same; progress is the nature of things. Roads will replace foot paths, cell phones will be tucked inside native dresses. Nikes will replace woven sandals, electric lights crowd out the daily use of candles. It would be usurious of us to expect a place to exist at a lesser stage of technological development because it fills a particular emotional need or provides us with a sense of the exotic, or an escape from our real world.

The world changes, so do we. Just as a place will change in our absence, so does the person we bring back to the location. The eyes with which we see now are not the same as the lenses we experienced the spot the first time, or the last time, we attended it. It’s worth considering that for a while as we prepare to return.

My Dad and I had this chat four years ago, as we were settling into our favourite little spot on Lago de Atitlan, in Guatemala for the winter. We were returning for the first time, following a 10 month absence. He was returning for the first time after a 36 year absence.

“You can come, Dad,” I said across the crappy phone connection between ends of the continent, “But you can’t complain about how much it’s changed. It won’t be the same, but remember that for the children this is all it’s ever been, and they get to experience it in their own way, without our biases.”

I could hear him nodding his head in his office in our log home at the edge of the fall snow in Canada. And so, they came, the people who brought me to this lake for the first time in-utero just as the country was beginning to descend into a decades long civil war. It was as much of a joy to watch my parents rediscover the lago they’d long loved as it was to watch my children come alive to the Mayan culture for the first time.

This winter we’re back, all three generations of us. The lake has changed. The people have changed. The village we love the most has changed. We have changed. And yet, the magic remains, so long as we allow the world, and ourselves, to be as we really are.

Lago de Atitlan- 2014

Lago de Atitlan- 2014

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Category: Ethics, Family Travel, Vagabonding Advice

October 27, 2014

What makes us blind is that we think we see

“This is a truth about leaving the culture that raised you and crossing into another: We leave home with an arsenal of things we know about the place we’re going. There is no disarming all of what we know, no matter how much touching and kneading and feeling we do, no matter how much we think we’re trying. What makes us blind is that we think we see.”
–Alden Jones, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia (2013)

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Category: Travel Quote of the Day

October 26, 2014

Two Places to Rock to in Malaysia

Travelling might be all about discovery and abandoning our comfort zones. But at times, when your comfort zone is a club with some loud music, well, it’s nice to know where to find it when you are abroad.

As a resident of Malaysia, I feel it is time to give justice to my acquired home talking about two places that host a plethora of local and international touring bands. They are both prominent Malaysian homes for the loudest kinds of music, and as such might not be ideal for everybody. But again, if it’s about going in and out of “comfort zones”, it might as well be great to get out of yours and discover some Malaysian loudness, after all.

 

soundmaker

Soundmaker – Penang

Literally hidden at the second floor of a tattered building along Pengkalan Weld, about half a mile down the road from the main Jetty and facing the entrance of the Lee Jetty, this is the place to rock in Northern Malaysia. Check their show listings before you go because although they have a bar, it is not open every day. It’s a real, do it yourself underground venue, where heavy metal, punk, death metal, alternative rock and heavy derivates spray the walls with sweat. The show room is decently sized and the PA quite OK for an underground enterprise: consider that in Malaysia, a country who forced a ban on black metal music in 2001, and whose Islamic party has given a hard time even to Elton John because he is openly gay, you cannot really get much better than this. Soundmaker is the place to rock away your early nights, as shows usually end by 12 am.
Soundmaker is also a recording studio and jam room, and recently opened a small hostel room. The novelty is, it welcomes travelling bands and musicians to stay and record their music at a fraction of western prices.

rumahapi

Rumah ApiKuala Lumpur
In a place called the “fire house”, you may only expect amplifiers to burst out sparks of white heat, and set your own eardrums on fire. If you know what a real punk house is, and I mean an independent space where DIY is the law, the ceiling is about to cave in, and sitting on torn car backseats slung on the floor a common practice, well,  welcome to Rumah Api then. The only place in Kuala Lumpur that dares to object the city’s rampant, over-constructed technological wealth and high-class-loving youth. A stone throw away from the Ampang LRT station in the northeastern part of the city, Rumah Api stands to KL as the CBGB’s stood to early New York punk. Catch a dose of local and international punk, hardcore, crust, thrash and grindcore bands sweating – literally, as the only wall fan provided resembles a World War II airplane’s engine – on the low stage, and mingle with the most alternative youth in the capital. This place has plenty of character, but you gotta have some too to enjoy it. Otherwise, this could come as kind of a shock.

MARCO FERRARESE is a metalpunk guitarist who travelled extensively and lived in Italy, the United States, China, Australia and Malaysia. Since 2009 he’s been based in Southeast Asia as a writer, hardcore punk musician and researcher. He travelled from Mongolia to Australia in 2009, and hitchhiked from Singapore to Milano through Silk Road routes and the Middle East in 2012. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com. Marco’s first Asian pulp novel Nazi Goreng  was published in November 2013 on Monsoon Books. Follow him @monkeyrockworld

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, Destinations, On The Road

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
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Vagabonding Case Study: Ellen & Elmar van Drunen
Should you volunteer abroad?
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On returning: Things change
What makes us blind is that we think we see
Two Places to Rock to in Malaysia
On Baksheesh
Morning Rituals
Why you should be reminded about “mistake-fares”
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