A popular backpackers stop off, Gili Trawangan (Gili T) is part of a very small chain of islands just off of Lombok and near Bali. Many people come here to learn to dive because it’s prices are competetive and the island has a reputation for parties. It’s also unique in that there are no motor vehicles or dogs allowed and the only form of transportation on the island apart from your own two feet is either a bicycle or a horse drawn carriage.
Prices are higher in Indonesia compared to cheaper countries like Thailand or Vietnam. A large Bintang beer will cost you about 40,000 rs which equals about $4. A cheap meal at a local food stall can run about 20,000 to 30,000 rs and any western style food or foreign dishes will be closer to 60,000 to 100,000 rs. The money saver will be your accommodation. A single night will still be quite high but booking a homestay for an entire month will only cost you between 1,500,000 to 3,000,000 rs. Don’t let the high numbers scare you, that’s only about $150-$300. These accommodations are very simple and wouldn’t be suitable for families but finding a place for more than one month can get you something with more for the same price if you’re willing to get into a six month contract or more. If you’re a certified diver the fun dives on the island are only $35 and an Open Water course will only set you back $395.
Since I hadn’t had time to change my clothes that morning, I arrived at the Jordanian customs station in Aqaba with the bloodstains still on my pants. The blood had dried to the point where I didn’t look like a fresh mass murderer, but no doubt I appeared a bit odd walking through the ferry station with scallop-edged black droplets on my boots and crusty brown blotches soaked into the cuffs of my khakis.
The blood was from the streets of Cairo, which at the time had been in the midst of celebrations marking the Islamic Feast of the Sacrifice, known locally as the Eid al-Adha.
As with everything in Cairo, the Eid al-Adha was an inadvertent exercise in chaos. For the entire week leading up to the holiday, the alleys and rooftops of the city began to fill up with noisy, nervous knots of livestock brought in for the feast. Cairenes paid little mind as cattle munched clover outside coffee shops, goats gnawed on empty Marlboro packs in alleyways and skittish sheep rained down poop from apartment building balconies. For Egyptians, this preponderance of urban livestock was part of the excitement of the feast — and it was certainly no stranger for them than putting a decorated tree inside one’s house in anticipation of the winter holidays.
In Islamic societies, the Eid al-Adha is a four-day feast that commemorates Abraham’s near murder of his son, Ishmael, to prove his obedience to God. Since tradition tells us that Allah intervened at the last minute and substituted a ram for Ishmael, Muslim families celebrate the Eid by slaughtering their own animal for the feast.
Consequently, on the first morning of the Eid, all of the thousands of sheep, cows and goats that have been accumulating in Cairo during the week are butchered within the span of a few bloody hours. In keeping with tradition, devout Islamic families are instructed to keep a third of the butchered meat for themselves, give a third to friends and family and distribute the final third to the poor. For Muslims, it is an honorable ritual.
For infidel visitors to Cairo, however, the Feast of the Sacrifice seems much more like a Monty Python vision of pagan mayhem. This has less to do with the intent of the holiday than with the fact that Cairo is a very crowded city where almost nothing goes as planned. Thus, on the first morning of this year’s Eid, the lobby of my hotel resonated with vivid secondhand reports of gore: the lamb that panicked on the balcony at the last minute and avoided the knife by tumbling five stories to the alley below, the cow that broke free from its restraints with its throat half-slit and lumbered through the streets spraying blood for 10 minutes before collapsing, the crowd of little girls who started puking as they watched the death spasms of their neighbor’s sheep.
I’ll admit that there is much more to the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice than public displays of carnage. Unfortunately, Cairo has a way of drawing one’s attention away from nuance and subtlety. By the end of the day, I was so accustomed to seeing blood that I didn’t even realize that my pants and boots had been stained until I boarded an overnight bus headed for the Gulf of Aqaba.
For most Westerners, Islam is a religion that doesn’t quite make sense. No doubt this is largely the result of the Western press, which tends to portray Islam only in terms of its most extreme and violent factions.
When I first traveled to the Islamic world earlier this year, I’d hoped that the Arabs’ legendary hospitality would break down such barriers to religious understanding in a direct and personal way.
After 10 weeks of traveling through Egypt, I’d found that Islamic hospitality more than lived up to its reputation: Most of the Muslims I’d talked to were amiable, kindhearted people who practiced their faith with natural sincerity. By the same token, however, none of the Muslims I’d met seemed to know why they were Muslims; they just instinctively knew that their faith allowed them to live with a special sense of peace. Whenever I tried to qualify this faith in objective terms, people became defensive and impatient with me.
Reading the Koran didn’t help. Perhaps when studied in its classical Arabic form, the Koran is a heart-pounding page turner. Its English translation, however, has all the narrative appeal of a real estate contract. Nearly every page is crammed with bewildering sentences that seem to have been worded at random. An example: “But when they proudly persisted in that which was forbidden, we said to them, ‘Become scouted apes’; and then thy Lord declared that until the day of the resurrection, he would send against them those who should evil entreat, and chastise them” (Sura 7:7).
After a while, my only reaction to such verses was to stare at the page while my mind wandered about aimlessly. In this way, I ultimately found that my reflections on Allah were being offset in equal portion by thoughts of breakfast, girls I should have kissed in high school but didn’t and the lyrics to “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” by the Beastie Boys. I gave up on the Koran less than a 10th of the way through.
Thus, I considered my trip to Jordan on the second day of the Eid to be my most immediate and realistic chance of knowing the intimate ways of Islam. Just as a person can’t know Christmas by interrogating shopping-mall Santas, I figured my understanding of the Eid al-Adha lay outside the bloody distractions of Cairo. In Aqaba, I hoped, I stood a better chance of experiencing the Feast of the Sacrifice as an insider.
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Aqaba, Jordan, owes much of its fate to the rather arbitrary international borders drawn up in Versailles, France, and London in the wake of World War I. Though the city had been used as a trading post since the days of the Edomites and Nabateans, its port and beaches never found much permanent distinction. This all changed in 1921, when Winston Churchill (who was the British colonial secretary at the time) oversaw the creation of a Transjordanian state that featured a mere 11 miles of coast on the Gulf of Aqaba. Nearly 80 years later, Jordan’s only seaport has inevitably blossomed into a dusty, yet functional resort town. Jet skis and glass-bottomed boats ply its waters, weekend revelers from Amman, Jordan’s capital, crowd its beaches and drab concrete buildings dominate its shore.
Upon arriving in Aqaba, I hiked into the city center in search of a hotel where I could change out of my bloodstained clothes. Because most hotels in Aqaba were full of Jordanians spending their Eid holiday on the beach, my only option was to rent a foam pad and sleep on the roof of a six-floor budget complex called the Petra Hotel.
I shared the roof with four other travelers, from Denmark and Canada. When I told them about my plans to celebrate the Feast of the Sacrifice in Aqaba, I got two completely different reactions. The Danes, Anna and Kat, were horrified by the thought that I would intentionally seek out Arab companionship. Both of them had just spent a week on the Egyptian beach resorts in Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab, where the aggressive local Casanovas had worn them both to a frazzle. The two spoke in wistful terms of getting back to the peace and predictability of their kibbutz in Israel.
Amber and Judith, on the other hand, stopped just short of calling me a wuss. The two Canadians had just returned from spending a couple of weeks with Bedouins in the desert near Wadi Rum. Not only did they celebrate the Eid as part of their farewell party, but they personally helped butcher the goats. To experience the Feast of the Sacrifice any other way, they reasoned, would seem a tad artificial.
“And besides,” Amber told me as I changed into clean clothes and prepared to hit the streets, “Aqaba is a tourist town. The only people you’ll find here are college kids and paper pushers on vacation from Amman. You’d have better luck getting invited to the Eid in Toronto.”
Amber had a point, but she was wrong: I was invited to celebrate the Eid before I reached the ground floor of the Petra Hotel.
My would-be host was Mohammed, a bespectacled 16-year-old who stopped me in the second-floor stairwell. “Where are you going?” he asked as I walked by.
“Well, I’m hoping to go out and celebrate the Eid al-Adha,” I said.
“The Eid!” he exclaimed. “Please come and celebrate with us!”
It was that simple. Such is the gregariousness of the Arab world.
Unfortunately for my notions of authenticity, however, Mohammed’s “Eid” consisted of him and two other goofy-looking 16-year-olds drinking canned beer in a tiny room on the second floor of the Petra. Mohammed introduced his two friends as Sayeed and Ali. Neither of them looked very natural as they grinned up at me, clutching their cans of beer.
I noticed there were only two beds. “Are you all sleeping in here?” I asked.
“Just Sayeed and Ali,” he said. “I sleep at my uncle’s house in Aqaba. My family always comes here for the Eid al-Adha.”
Mohammed poured some of his beer into a glass for me and put an Arabic pop tape into his friends’ boombox. The four of us sat in the room chatting, drinking and listening to the music. After about 15 or so minutes of this, I began to wonder what any of this had to do with the Feast of the Sacrifice. “Aren’t we going to celebrate the Eid?” I asked finally.
“Of course,” Mohammed said. “This is the Eid.”
“Yes, this is the Eid,” I said, “but won’t you be doing something special at your uncle’s house?”
“It’s not interesting at my uncle’s house. That’s why I came here.”
I looked skeptically at my three companions. “But isn’t there something traditional that you do when you celebrate the Eid?”
Mohammed thought for a moment. “We spend time with our family.”
“But you just said that you didn’t want to be with your family.”
“So you aren’t really celebrating the Eid, are you?”
“No. This is the Eid!”
“How?” I asked, gesturing around the tiny room. “How is this the Eid?”
“We’re drinking beer. Many people drink during the Eid.”
Ignorant as I was about Islam, I was positive that a true Muslim holiday would have very little to do with swilling beer. “I’m sorry guys,” I announced, “but I think I’m gonna have to go now.”
Mohammed looked hurt. “But you said you came here for the Eid!”
“Yes,” I said, “but I could drink beer and listen to music back home in America. I want to do something different.”
“Maybe you want to dance?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Where can we dance?”
Mohammed reached over to the boombox and turned up the music. The three Jordanian teens leapt up and started to shake their hips to the music. There was no room to move, so they stood in place and waved their arms around. The Arabic music was as stereotypical as it could get: a snake-charming, harem-inspiring swirl of strings and drums and flutes. Mohammed took me by the arm; I stood and tried to mimic his dance moves.
“Is this an Eid dance?” I yelled over the din of the music.
“Is this Eid music?”
Mohammed laughed. “Of course not!”
“Then why are we doing this?”
“Because it’s the Eid! It’s fun, yes?”
I told Mohammed that it was indeed fun, but that was a lie. As with freeze tag, heavy petting and bingo, many exercises in human joy are best appreciated at a very specific age. To truly understand the appeal of drinking beer and dancing with your buddies in a bland resort-town hotel room, I suspect you have to be 16 years old. I danced halfheartedly to the music, politely waiting for it to stop.
When I sat down after the first song, Mohammed happily yanked me to my feet. Twenty minutes later, the young Jordanians had moved on to the Side B songs without any sign of fatigue. I weakly shuffled in place, desperate for an excuse to leave. It occurred to me that, technically, I could just sprint out of the room and never have to talk to these guys again.
Then the inspiration hit. Leaning across the bed, I shut off the boombox and unplugged it from the wall. Mohammed and his friends looked at me in confusion.
“Let’s go,” I said to them. Carrying the boombox with an air of authority, I led the Jordanian boys up the stairwell to the roof of the Petra Hotel. There, I introduced them to Anna, Kat, Amber and Judith.
Serendipity is a rare thing, so it must be appreciated even in its humbler forms. As Mohammed, Sayeed and Ali exchanged formal handshakes with the Danes and the Canadians, I saw that their faces were frozen into expressions of rapturous terror; they had probably never been that intimate with Western women in their lives. Perhaps charmed by the boys’ awkwardness, the girls regarded the young Jordanians with sisterly affection.
I plugged in the boombox and announced that it was time to dance.
I’m not sure if that evening on the roof of the Petra Hotel meant much to any of the other parties involved, but I like to think that it was an all-around triumph: Anna and Kat were able to interact with Arabs in a charmed, unthreatening setting; Amber and Judith got to boss the boys around in colloquial Arabic and showcase their Bedouin dance steps; Mohammed, Sayeed and Ali — in their goofy, reverent, 16-year-old way — got to dance with angels on the heights of Aqaba.
For me, however, the night was a technical failure: I’d come to Jordan to experience the Islamic soul of the Eid al-Adha, and I’d ended up spearheading a secular sock hop on the roof of my hotel.
But, at a very basic level, even this was a bona fide extension of the Feast of the Sacrifice. After all, any holiday — when stripped of its identifying traditions and theologies — is simply an intentional break from the drab routines of life: a chance to eat or drink heartily with family and friends, an opportunity to give thanks to God or fate or randomly converging odds, a date to anticipate with optimism or recall with satisfaction.
With this in mind, I reckon that the ritual intricacies of feasts and festivals anywhere are mere decoration for a notion we’re usually too busy to address: that, at the heart of things, being alive is a pretty good thing.
Six stories above Aqaba, the eight of us talked and joked and danced to the Arabic tunes, improvising our moves when we weren’t sure what else to do.
Originally published by Salon.com, May 9, 2000
A few months ago you may have noticed something on Facebook or Google+ called the Black and White Challenge. It was a challenge started by photographers to post a black and white photo every day for five days. Typically someone would nominate you and you could then nominate someone else. Challenges like this can be a good way to improve your skills or force you to take and post photos. For me it was a perfect way to focus my photography while traveling. A lot of times it’s easy to aimlessly shoot photos as you walk around but having a mission to accomplish can be a fun way to seek out travel photos.
If you’re new to travel photography try giving yourself a challenge like this one or writing down what you’d like to shoot before you go out with your camera. Sometimes just thinking about it beforehand will help you to focus your time.
Check out Unknown Home for more travel stories and photography!
A few years ago, after finishing a journey in the Indian Himalayas, I traveled to the desert state of Rajasthan and visited the Hindu holy-town of Pushkar. A scenic outpost of 13,000 residents, Pushkar was famous for its Brahma Temple, its serene lake, and its annual Camel Fair. Several travelers had recommended it to me as a mellow place to relax for a few days.
From the moment I arrived in Pushkar, however, something seemed strange about the little holy-town. As I walked along the shores of Pushkar Lake, a number of long-bearded, monk-like sadhus approached me and suggested I take their photo for the bargain price of 15 rupees; Brahmin priests kept hustling up and offering to take me through a puja ceremony for just 50 rupees. Having spent the previous two weeks in the sleepy villages of far-northern India, this lakeside hustle made me feel like I was in some bizarre new universe. Prior to Pushkar, no Indian had ever implied that there was a cash value to puja (a Hindu ablution ritual), and most of the sadhus I’d seen were more interested in piety and asceticism than photo opportunities.
The more I wandered the streets of Pushkar, the more I discovered this off-kilter synthesis of culture and commerce. In the bazaar, teenage Rajasthani girls relentlessly offered to dye my hands with henna (a ritual typically reserved for Hindu brides), and cheap paper flyers touted competing yoga academies. Perplexed, I retreated to a lakeside restaurant for a cup of tea. When the host offered me food, I asked him what kind of dishes he offered — thinking he might specialize in tandoori or thali or biryani.
“Oh, we serve Indian food,” he said. “But we also have Mexican food, Chinese food, Italian food, Greek food, and Israeli food.”
“But which food is your specialty?” I asked.
“We specialize in all those foods,” he replied with a cheerful wobble of the head. “Plus we have vegetarian hamburgers and banana pancakes. But we’re out of granola right now.”
Peering around at the other diners in the restaurant, I finally figured out what was going on: Pushkar was a Tourist Zone.
On the surface, of course, Pushkar didn’t seem much like a Tourist Zone: There were no glitzy hotels, no air-conditioned knickknack boutiques, no busloads of sunburned Germans and chubby Texans. Moreover, had you surveyed Pushkar’s visitors, you would have mainly found independent travelers — young wanderers from Europe and North America and Israel, who shunned guided tours and took a genuine interest in Hindu culture.
Still, despite the earnestness of its travelers, Pushkar was very much a Tourist Zone — place that had subtly shifted to cater to the needs of its visitors. Only instead of churning out the standard tourist products (postcards, audio tours, spa treatments), Pushkar had developed a makeshift economy in Hindu “authenticity” (exotically dressed sadhus, quick-fix puja rituals, high-turnover yoga ashrams). After several years of popularity on the backpacker circuit, the residents of Pushkar hadn’t gotten greedy; they’d merely become adept at packaging all of the Indian symbols and rituals that indie travelers found whimsically attractive (as well as a few choice Western amenities, like familiar-sounding food and Internet cafés).
As is the case with so many other traveler haunts around the world, the authentic culture of Pushkar had become difficult to discern from the culture that had been spontaneously adjusted to feed visitors’ notions of “authenticity”. And, in this way, it had become a Tourist Zone.
As independent travelers, of course, we like to assume that we’re above the workings of Tourist Zones. But, as the example of Pushkar illustrates, we have a way of creating our own, more organic tourist areas, whether we intend to or not. Look closely, and you’ll notice that some of the most colorful indie-traveler hangouts in the world — Panahajachel in Guatemala, Dali in China, Dahab in Egypt — have as much in common with each other as they do their host-cultures. Granted, these places retain their own geographical and cultural distinction, but each location shares a laid-back predilection for catering to the aesthetic and recreational needs of Western budget travelers.
Thus, keeping in mind that much of our time as travelers involves moving in and out of Tourist Zones, here are a few tips for making sense of things:
1) Learn to identify Tourist Zones
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a Tourist Zone, but it helps to know when you’re in one, as it will affect how you relate to people. Tourist Zones include airports, hotels, bus and train stations, major city centers, historical venues, pilgrimage sites, nature parks, national monuments, and anyplace where travelers congregate in large numbers — including sleepy backpacker hangouts.
2) Mind your manners
Though interaction with locals in Tourist Zones can often be impersonal and transaction-based, be sure to abide by the simple rules of courtesy. Even when dealing with pushy vendors and aggressive touts, a firm, courteous “no thanks” is always better than an angry rebuff.
3) Tourist Zones serve an economic purpose for the people who live there
In Tourist Zones, many locals will use friendship as a front to tout hotels or sell souvenirs. And, as annoying as this can be, remember that most locals will take a genuine interest in you, even as they try to sell you things. In this way, many of your interactions as you travel will be with folks who are offering a service — cab drivers, guesthouse clerks, shopkeepers. Thus, be aware that you occupy an economic dynamic wherever you go — and that there is no particular virtue in compulsively avoiding expenses (especially when many of those expenses are of direct benefit to local families).
4) Dare to travel outside of Tourist Zones
Invariably, the easiest way to get out of Tourist Zones and into a more authentic setting is to visit villages and neighborhoods that aren’t in any guidebooks or travel websites — places where other travelers never think to go. Normal safety precautions are in order, of course, but half the charm in travel is finding places where granola, pizza, and veggie burgers aren’t on the menu.
In northern Vietnam lies this gem of a city where French food and fashion meet Vietnamese culture and vermicelli. Sometimes overlooked as it’s not as big of a hub as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi offers a taste of authentic street food and genuinely good prices.
Hanoi has a huge range of hotels on offer from $4 a night for a shared dorm to much, much more at some of the fancier establishments in the French quarter. We’re at a solid $14 USD a night which has a western bathroom/shower and includes breakfast. With only a few minutes walk to the old quarter, we’re at the heart of the city and don’t need to rent scooters or bicycles. For lunch we eat street food, sitting on tiny child-sized plastic stools along the sidewalk: maybe a bowl of phở or a sweet and savory bun cha, each costing somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 dong. A bowl of fruit salad mixed with coconut cream, tapioca balls, and jelly cubes with crushed ice will only run you about 20,000 dong as a sweet snack to tide you over until dinner. Dinner may set you back you a bit more but can still be done affordably. We often eat phở on the street for 50,000 dong, but there are many restaurants serving western fare as well as Vietnamese and French for a bit more. Household items can be bought from corner shops (we bought electrical tape for 5,000 dong, the equivalent of about $0.25 USD) and shopping for clothing and handicrafts is plentiful but requires a lot of hard bargaining. Beer is the cheapest I’ve ever seen at 20,000 dong or less.
Whenever anyone asks me why I still travel on a shoestring at the ripe old age of 38, I usually tell them about the time I learned how to play the bagpipes in Havana.
Granted, I could probably relate a more typical story about the joys of budget travel – some tidy parable of money saved and experiences gained – but when I mention learning the bagpipes in Cuba it sounds like I’m going to tell a joke, and people like jokes.
The thing is, there’s no punch line. My encounter with Cuban bagpipers wasn’t memorable for its mere quirkiness – it was memorable because it illustrates how travelling on the cheap can offer you windows into a culture that go beyond the caricatured stereotype of what a place is supposed to be like.
The travel caricature of Havana, of course, is an elegantly aged vision of cigars and classic cars, son and salsa, communist slogans and café con leche. To actualise this vision, many upscale tourists head for the $120-a-night Hotel Nacional, a classic, mafia-era facility that features $8 mojitos and a lovely terrace looking out over the Malecón and the Straits of Florida. Unfortunately, most Cubans don’t have access to the Hotel Nacional, and – as is the case with luxury hotels in many parts of the world – it tends to create a travel experience based more on the idea of how the city should be than how the city is.
I spent my nights in Cuba just up the street from the Hotel Nacional, shelling out just $15 a night to sleep at a casa particulare homestay in Havana’s leafy Vedado district. I couldn’t see the Malecón from my bedroom, nor could I order room-service rum cocktails, but I did get to take part in the day-to-day home routine of my Cuban hosts. In the mornings I would have coffee with them and practise my Spanish; in the evenings we’d watch the state-run TV station, trying to spot bits of real news through the haze of official propaganda. My host family cheerfully introduced me to various friends and neighbours, and within a few days my little social network had offered me access to underground poetry readings, pickup baseball games, and – on one fateful afternoon – a bagpipe performance at the Asturian Federation in central Havana.
When I befriended those hipster kids and began to learn how to play the gaita (an Asturian bagpipe with a single drone pipe), I discovered a side of Havana that was as authentically (if not stereotypically) a part of Cuba as baseball and rumba. Like the tourists in the Hotel Nacional, I still had plenty of access to son, cigars and salsa – but I also got to see a side of Havana that revealed the complexity of the city and its subcultures.
I’m not saying that you have to hang out with bagpipers if you really want to experience Havana; I’m just noting how spending less money has a way of paying off in original and memorable experiences.
And shoestring travel is not just for long trips. Last summer, I travelled to the Czech Republic with my parents. We could have easily splurged on expensive hotels and guided tours during our time in Prague, but instead we bought a three-day tram-pass and checked into a hostel in the city’s suburban Vinohrady district. Even though my parents are in their 60s, the youthful backpackers staying at the hostel treated them as one of their own, and offered travel advice on topics ranging from tourist destinations to experimental theatre to where one can sample the city’s best absinthe. We ended up spending three days exploring various corners of the city on foot and by public transport. We stumbled across standard sights like Stare Mesto and the Charles bridge, of course, but we also happened upon children’s school-jazz performances and a Czech Corvette-club rally. We admired the art nouveau styling of the Mayor’s Hall, but we also marvelled at the casual art nouveau detailing in suburban post offices and pizza parlours. When we stopped into a random pub and used improvised hand signals to order Plzensky Prazdroj and knedliky, we felt as if we were the very first outsiders to discover the joys of Czech beer and dumplings.
If it sounds to you like I’m an ageing backpacker who never quite grew out of his shoestring ways, you’d be exactly right. In many ways, my travel sensibilities have grown out of a journey I took 10 years ago, when I quit my job as an English teacher and took a journey across Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I probably had enough money saved up to invest in a three-month trip. As it turned out, I learned ways to stretch my travel budget into a life-enriching 30-month sojourn – and in all those months of travel, my day-to-day costs were significantly cheaper than day-to-day life would have cost me back in the United States.
The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: like many generations of backpackers and shoestring travellers before me, I was able to make my modest savings last by slowing down and forgoing a few comforts as I travelled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hotels, hostels and guesthouses. Instead of dining at fancy restaurants, I ate food from street vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I travelled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts. In what eventually amounted to over two years of travel, my lodging averaged out to just under $5 a night, my meals cost well under $1 a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded $1,000 a month. Instead of investing my travel budget in luxuries and amenities, I invested it in more travel time – and it never failed to pay off in amazing experiences.
Perhaps my favourite budget destination in the world is Bangkok. The city may be chaotic, traffic-snarled and incomprehensible, but it never fails to amaze me. Over the years I’ve found lodging in countless corners of the city – from the $4 backpacker dives of Khao San Road (which has gentrified a lot since my first visit in 1999) to the posh, five-star environs of the storied Mandarin Oriental Hotel. My favourite place to crash is the Atlanta Hotel, a curious little $15-a-night gem (complete with a courtyard swimming pool and an art-deco lobby) off on Sukhumvit Road. To the untrained eye, Sukhumvit Road could pass for a westernised strip of air-conditioned shopping malls and office buildings, but the area wears its globalisation in a distinctively Thai way. Sure, there are McDonalds and Starbuck franchises for those who choose to dine there, but there are also street vendors serving paad thai, fresh pineapple and grilled scorpion on a stick for pennies a serving.
It’s been almost eight years now since I finished that extended stint of vagabonding, but the experience is still very much a part of me. In financial terms, I have the resources to sleep in five-star hotels and eat in expensive international restaurants, but I’ve found I rarely choose such luxurious options. Given a choice between a $400-a-night hotel and an $18-a-night flophouse in Hong Kong, I tend to opt for the latter. Faced with the prospect of an all-inclusive dinner buffet in a Santo Domingo casino, I invariably find myself wandering outside to sample food from street vendors.
Ultimately, the charm of budget travel has always been less about saving money than making the most of my time on the road. Travelling cheaply has forced me to be engaged and creative, rather than to throw money at my holidays and hope for the best. Freed from a rigid, expense-laden itinerary, I’m more likely to be spontaneous, embrace serendipity and enjoy each moment of my journey.
This notion of spending less and experiencing more holds true regardless of economic conditions, but in a time of global recession it makes even more urgent sense – not just for holidays, but for life in general.
This story originally published by The Guardian, February 7, 2009
This tightly compacted city holds some of Cambodia’s best food and most tragic history. Without knowing its past of civil war and genocide, you would think Cambodians and Phnom Penhers in particular were just really friendly people. Once you learn their history and realize that everyone you see was affected by the notorious Khmer Rouge in the 1970s in one way or another, then you know they’re more than just friendly; they’re admirable. Visiting Phnom Penh is easy if you’re already in Southeast Asia. Cambodia can be overlooked and a lot of visitors only see Siem Reap in the north to visit the temples of Angkor Wat then move on, but Phnom Penh is the heart of the country and merits a visit all its own.
Our Cambodian truck driver, who says his name is “Mr. T,” pulls the Nissan pickup to the side of the road and looks back at me expressionlessly. “You get out!” he says. As if to underscore this suggestion, he steps out of the truck himself, unzips his jeans and begins to urinate on the side of the road.
Since I welcome any chance to exit the jammed mini-cab, I follow suit.
I have been riding in Mr. T’s truck long enough to know that he was not being rude with this curt demand. He was merely showing off his arsenal of English phrases, which also includes “I am Mr. T” and “You pay $6.” Every 20 or so minutes, he turns around and says, “This road very bad, ha-ha!” The quip is meant to be a joke, but after two hours of slamming through the unending succession of potholes and washouts known as Cambodia Route 6, I’m not laughing.
Since Route 6 is the only passable road from the Thai border to the ancient Khmer monuments at Angkor Wat, it gets a surprisingly steady stream of tourist traffic. We are currently at the height of dry season, and the road is as brown and featureless as the Texas panhandle in winter. Each time a truck full of glassy-eyed travelers bounces past, I feel like I’m journeying through some sadistic antipode to Disneyland, where the only ride lasts six hours and is designed to underscore just how long, difficult and boring life can be.
As I void my bladder onto the Route 6 shoulder, I notice that my white-haired seatmate, Mr. Cham, is standing a few paces away, watching me. All dandied-up in a brown porkpie hat and a purple polo shirt, Mr. Cham looks like he’s ready for an afternoon at the horse races. I half expect him to break into applause as I take my whiz. Once I’m finished, he hurries down the road to watch the other foreigner — a middle-aged Belgian named Claude — urinate. I’m beginning to suspect that Mr. Cham doesn’t get out of the house much.
Mr. Cham and I have been smashed up against each other in the Nissan mini-cab all morning. For reasons I don’t completely understand, I am sponsoring his ride. The first time I ever saw him was yesterday. He was wearing a black Bon Jovi T-shirt at the time, and had just stolen my sandals. My second encounter with him was this morning, when he showed up at my departure point from a town known as Opasat and informed my Cambodian hosts that I was to pay for his transit to Siem Reap. It seemed like an odd request at the time, but I went ahead and obliged him out of generic courtesy.
Mr. Cham has no personality and smells like a bag of stale Cool Ranch Doritos. If I had it to do all over again, I would have saved $3 back at the truck depot and made him ride in the back of the Nissan with the old women, the chickens and the bags of rice.
As I return to the truck from my toilet break, Mr. T rushes up to cut me off at the door. At first I think there’s some sort of danger, but it turns out he’s just looking for a chance to show off some more English. “You get in!” he says.
In the waning days of the Jimmy Carter administration, when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I dressed up like Batman and, as part of a UNICEF Halloween promotion, went door to door collecting money for the starving children of Cambodia. As I recall, I was far more interested in Batman than Cambodia, and I only mention it now because it occurs to me that Mr. T (who, despite his authoritative name, is no older than me) was probably one of those starving children.
Perhaps out of gratitude all these years later, Mr. T is hell-bent on driving me to Siem Reap as fast as possible. His road style is bold, unorthodox and unnerving, and I’m beginning to suspect that he originally learned how to drive by watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Claude the Belgian, who shelled out $10 for the shotgun seat, is gripping the dashboard with a queasy, defeated look. The rest of the passengers, including Mr. Cham and me, are packed into the mini-cab so tightly that there’s no point in trying to steady ourselves. With each road flaw, our heads bang back and forth in unison, like we’ve just been teleported here from a Judas Priest concert.
Mr. T slows down only for roadblocks that are manned by men with assault rifles. I have yet to figure out if these armed sentries are soldiers or bandits — or if there is even any distinction between those two job descriptions in northwestern Cambodia. The roadblocks seem to be located only in shaded places where one can hang a hammock, and I suspect that anyone in this country with a spare AK-47 and a little initiative can find part-time work as a freelance Route 6 tollkeeper. Mr. T doesn’t pay the tollkeepers much mind, slowing only to toss a 500-riel note (about $0.13) out the window at each roadblock.
When an old codger on a parched section of the highway tries to wave our truck down with a slingshot and a shoddy bundle of sticks, Mr. T slams on the brakes, jumps out of the truck and chases the old man off into the scrub bushes. I’m not exactly sure what nuances lurk behind this confrontation, but it’s the most excitement we’ve had all day. Everyone cheers when Mr. T gets back into the truck.
The strangest detail about Cambodia Route 6 is that it is populated by so many children. Some of them are out fixing road defects with shovels; others help guide the trucks over dilapidated bridges. All of these kids demand a tip for their services, but Mr. T unconditionally ignores them. Lots of the kids are armed with Super Soaker water guns — probably a holdover from the Khmer New Year’s festivities — and we get ambushed with water whenever we slow down.
Were I a sentimental ironist, I might make some dewy-eyed observation about how these kids represent the peace-loving hopes of post-Pol Pot Cambodia — how these gentle, harmless water guns have replaced the tools of genocide. Unfortunately, I’m not so optimistic. The old ladies and chickens in the bed of the Nissan are completely soaked because of these spiteful little extortionists, and each time Mr. T drives past without tipping them, they shake their fists at him in pre-adolescent fury.
Four hours into our journey, we stop at a village for lunch. “You get out,” Mr. T tells me as we coast to a stop in front of a roadside food stand. I get out.
Since I’m not all that hungry, I stand with Claude the Belgian and stretch my legs. I have stopped trying to talk to Claude because he speaks only French and Khmer. What little English he knows is not much better than Mr. T’s repertoire. I try not to hold this against him, since I studied French for two semesters in college, and all I can remember now is that fromage means cheese.
As Claude and I stand in silence, a Cambodian man across the street takes an AK-47 out from the cab of his truck and starts to fire it into the sky. He is part of a large crowd, and all the women in his immediate vicinity start to scream. Even from across the road, the noise of the weapon gives me a start. The only thing that keeps me from running for cover is Claude, who acts as if nothing is happening.
“What the hell is that all about?” I say under my breath, not really expecting an answer.
“Waiting,” Claude says.
“Waiting for what?” I reply, still under my breath.
“Waiting,” Claude says. “Man, woo-man. Waiting.”
It dawns on me. “Oh, wedding. It’s a wedding party.”
“Oui. Waiting part-ee.”
As I am watching the quirky wedding festivities across the street, I feel a tug on my shirt. It’s Mr. Cham, who indicates that he wants me to come over to the food stand. For a moment, I think Mr. Cham has redeemed himself by ordering me lunch; as it turns out, he just wants me to pay for his lunch. I foot Cham’s lunch bill, secretly formulating ways to dump this creepy little freeloader as soon as I get to Siem Reap.
Since I’m already at the food stand, I decide to check out what kinds of cuisine they offer. The lone on-duty chef at this moment is a scowling 8-year-old girl who chops up a dead chicken with fearsome strokes from a butcher knife. When she finishes, she scoops up the gelatinous cubes of deceased fowl and dumps them onto a plate of rice.
Since the bird was never properly disemboweled, each chicken cube resembles a tidy anatomical cross-section of meat, bones, skin and viscera. In all my international culinary experience, I have never seen the likes of this. I half expect an elementary-school gifted-student coordinator to walk up and cheerily announce, “OK, now let’s see which one of you can put that chicken back together!”
I elect to skip lunch. My quest for a toilet leads me to a forlorn strip of cement behind the food stand, which provides a nice view of Route 6 twisting off into the distance. I wish I could say that the midday sun makes the dusty, brown road seem full of intrigue and possibility, but I’m on the wrong continent for that kind of notion.
In Cambodia, there are no hipster myths or soda advertisements to insinuate that the road is some kind of romantic-individualist icon. In the Cambodian outback, the road is little more than a long, dully dangerous, frequently uncomfortable way to get to Point B from Point A — a monotonous, head-banging waltz-with-misery that you endure in the hope that it will eventually stop, so you can begin to forget about it.
I feel another tug on my shirt. It’s Mr. T, who points back to the Nissan. “You get in!” he says.
I get in. But only because there are no other options out here.
Originally published on Salon.com, May 18, 1999
Learning to dive was in the front of my mind when I started planning my trip to southeast Asia. Friends had learned in Thailand and I had heard that it was one of the cheapest places to get certified. After some research, we headed towards Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. I was keen to get my Open Water certification, but my husband was not. He agreed to stay on shore and I signed up for the three day course.
My brain was stretched and challenged as I did my homework each night; I enjoyed learning new terms and pondering the science involved in taking a human body deep underwater. I was back in school and excited to learn about decompression sickness and the volume of the air in my lungs under pressure. Over those three days, I learned the skills I needed to stay alive and also realized a recurring dream I have of being able to breathe underwater. I made new friends and relied on them for my safety. Diving began to feel natural and, at the end of my course, I got my very own photo ID to prove that I was now a licensed diver. While having lunch with my group on that last day, I pondered where this new skill was going to take me.
Having my OW was nice, but what about deeper dives like wrecks? I wouldn’t be able to dive past 18 meters and having a limitation on the kinds of dives I could do made me consider sticking around. Later that day, on an impulse, I signed up for my advanced course to spend two more days learning a few more skills and practice my buoyancy control and breathing. I dived a sunken wreck and did a night dive where I saw herds of porcupine fish and phosphorescence. In a classroom, I wasn’t enthralled by the science of volume and pressure, but as I watched a raw egg cracked open at 30 meters depth, I marveled at the real world demonstration: holding its shape, floating weightlessly as if in space. After leaving Koh Tao, I started doing fun dives near the Koh Phi Phi islands and had a chance to see some amazing sea life. I practiced using my GoPro on dives and bought a red filter for taking photos and video at depth to bring back some of the red that gets lost the further down you go. There’s still a lot of work to do and perhaps some new gear to acquire, but the opportunity to expand my photography to include underwater shots is also exciting.
Diving is a skill that lets me explore an entirely new part of a country and see things I wouldn’t have been able to see before. I can wander the grounds of the ancient city of Sukhothai one week, and the next be face to face with a lionfish in the Andaman Sea. Who knows where this endeavor will take me?
One of the most startling travel epiphanies I’ve had in recent years came on a trip to Burma, when I was counting out small change so I could buy a packet of toilet tissues. The Burmese kyat had recently suffered a jag of devaluation, and when I’d tallied up my toilet-tissue money, I noticed that it consisted of twelve small denomination bills.
Given that Burmese tissues came in packets of ten, it occurred to me that it would be more economical to just wipe my ass in kyat and pocket the difference.
Though this Burma experience was an unusually vivid example, travel always has a way of testing one’s faith when it comes to the workings of money. At home, one can pass bills without thinking too much about it, but the arbitrariness of modern currency can be alarmingly apparent when one is abroad.
As a veteran Asia traveler, my bewilderment with legal tender goes back to a day seven years ago, when an elderly vendor in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market refused to accept a worn $10 bill I’d brought directly from the United States. “Too old,” she’d told me. When I asked the woman to show me an example of acceptable currency, she held up a discolored (yet crisp) $20 bill that had obviously been counterfeited locally. In Cambodia, it seemed, the true value of American money was not pegged to its authenticity, but to whether or not it was wrinkled.
Such an idiosyncrasy may well derive from fact that portable currency (a system created in part by the demands of travel itself) has never been foolproof. In areas where a standardized money system has yet to catch on, for example, the act of shopping can prove ambiguous. In the 19th century guidebook The Art of Travel, Francis Galton suggested bringing beads and shells to use as “small change” when traveling in remote regions. Galton warned against knickknack-inflation, however — noting that one African chief had complained that his women were already “grunting like pigs” under the burden of beads given to them by previous travelers.
Other times, the absence of standardized currency has worked in travelers’ favor. Pioneering voyages to the South Pacific abound with tales of an improvised iron-based economy, wherein a sailor could acquire a short-term Tahitian wife through the gift of “an old razor, a pair of scissors, or a very large nail.” In 1767, Captain Samuel Wallis of the Dolphis had to forbid his men from trading nails for anything save wood or water, “to preserve the ship from being pulled to pieces” by horny sailors. Of course, iron isn’t the only item that has served as de facto travel currency. Wandering Norsemen once brokered deals in butter, the nomads of the Sahara traded in salt, and (in a scenario that’s fun to imagine) ancient Aztecs paid off their debts in chocolate. Tobacco was legal tender along the roads of colonial Virginia — a fact that sounds strange only until you consider that cigarettes were used as money in many parts of Europe after World War II.
In fact, paper money — which carries a purely hypothetical value — has only recently caught on as a world currency. The Chinese may have valued paper notes against silk to mixed success 1000 years ago, but a similar effort in 13th century Persia was ruined by counterfeiters. William the Bad tried to introduce leather money in 14th century Sicily — though (given the king’s unfortunate name) it’s easy to conclude that this royal experiment didn’t go over so well. To this day, the uncertainty of paper money has been known to break a regime: In late 2001, forged paper notes reportedly helped destabilize the Taliban government (one naturally wonders what graven image the Afghan Islamists had printed on their money — a grenade? an unplugged TV set? a smashed chunk of Buddha statue?).
Even in the United States, a paper dollar has little inherent value beyond the fact that it’s a part of the largest system of common faith in the world. Indeed, despite doctrinal differences, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and animists readily accept paper dollars — and even the metaphysical workings of the dollar’s “managed system” of value (wherein American banks and the Federal Reserve determine, Old Testament-style, that a dollar Is What It Is) seems firmly rooted in the ways of shared belief.
When such faith begins to crumble, of course — like it did for me in Burma — it’s easy to conclude that, for all its usefulness, paper money is still just paper.
For the record, I went ahead and swapped those twelve banknotes for ten tissues. But only because the latter were more absorbent.