March 1, 2015

Top 5 language translation apps

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You’re standing in a train station, staring at two signs. Back and forth your head swivels. Likely the words on these signs are the end destination points of the train line.

But they could be anything. The language printed on the signs is complete gibberish to your eyes. In fact, it doesn’t even look like a language — these swooping, artistic curves and flat-topped characters.

You take a deep breath and choose a sign based on gut instinct. Usually your gut guides you down the correct path, following unseen sign posts. But today — if you’re being completely honest with yourself — your gut didn’t make a decision. It was as flabbergasted as you at the sight of these foreign characters, so unlike words you could at least puzzle out.

Before this happens to you on your next trip, download a language translation app to translate those signs into meaning.

Here are the top five language translation apps:

1. Google Translate

(Free, Android Google Play, Apple Store)

The app that lets you do everything: read a foreign language, translate any text (even handwriting), and converse with another person as the app translates. This app translate instantly via text, phone or voice. It includes Word Lens: point your camera to a sign or text, the app translate it without an internet/data connection. Perfect for mastering those foreign transportation systems.

2. Waygo

(Free, Android Google Play, Apple Store)

The only app that gives you an instant visual translation of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters. Simply point and translate signs and food menus. No Internet connection needed. This app will smooth any hiccups in navigating a new transportation system.

3. iVoice Translator Pro

($0.99, Apple Store)

A personal, double-sided translation service that lets two people talking two different language to speak using the app. Speak into the app and it translates for you. It’s like having a personal, mini translator in your pocket.

4. iStone Travel Translation

(Free, Apple Store)

A simple app containing over 300 daily, common phrases in several languages. To get cool features like text to speech to hear the phrase, you have to purchase the paid version ($4.99).

5. myLanguage Free Translator

(Free, Apple Store)
An older translation app that has grown into a powerful translator thanks to a huge database of 59 languages. It’s free to download and, a rarity these days, it’s free of advertisements within the app. You can get voice translation, but in a separate app.

Bonus language translation app:

S Translator

(Free, only on Samsung Galaxy S5)

A preloaded app that translates text or speech for you. You can download language packs for differently regions of the world. An extensive section of the app has preset phrases commonly used, like where’s the bathroom? Only downside to this app is you need a data or Internet connection for it to work.

Laura Lopuch blogs at Waiting To Be Read where she helps you find your next favorite book… and explains why reading expands your mind.

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Category: Travel Gear

February 27, 2015

The challenges and rewards of long-term travel

 

If there is one thing about long-term travel that is underestimated, it is the challenges that come with it. Living indefinitely on the road is not always wonderful. Sometimes it requires choices that are painful and challenging. Do not get me wrong. I love long-term travel, but in all honesty it is not a lifestyle made for everyone.

I have talked to dozens of writers, travelers, and bloggers all over the world.

Many of these people love traveling equally if not more than me, but even so many have told me that long-term travel is not for them, and there is no shame in that fact.

However, for those of us that pursue this lifestyle, the rewards are great.  Let’s delve into some of the challenges and rewards that come from living on the road long-term.

Always starting over

I want to tread carefully here because I don’t want to discredit or insult the hundreds of friendships I have made while traveling. All of the friendships I have made are meaningful and unique. I have met up with some of these friends time and again in different countries. Some of the most meaningful relationships that have impacted my life in irreversible ways have been made while traveling. I cherish these deep friendships and always look forward to when the road brings us back together.

However, most relationships made while traveling are normally the product of random encounters or out of convenience. Unless you are staying in the same place for a long period of time, many of these friendships are brief, yet intense. Basically, bonds of friendship are formed quickly but before you know it, that person is on the other side of the planet and you have to start again.

Another aspect that is encountered while traveling long-term is growing apart from childhood friends. Staying in touch is difficult because of hectic routines and different time zones. Due to the brevity of on the road friendships and growing apart from your lifelong friends sometimes makes you feel completely alone. It can almost be overwhelming as if not a soul in the world truly knows or understands you.

Lack of privacy

Long-term travelers watch every penny they spend. This means that they are likely to be living in hostel dorm rooms and taking overnight buses.

Therefore, privacy is something that is rare and many times in order to be polite, you have to talk to people when you would just rather read a book, write in your journal, or close your eyes and take a nap.

It can be very frustrating when people turn on the lights at 3 A.M. or use your shoulder as a comfortable pillow on an overnight bus ride.

The reward of no privacy is that you meet interesting people from all over the world. You learn about different cultures and customs first hand and with vivid details. You are also forced to break out of your shell and talk to anyone about almost anything for hours.

Plus, waking up in a new place is an exhilarating feeling. One of my favorite travel quotes states “To awaken alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark

Dating is practically impossible

There are many long-term travel couples out there; I am just not one of them. For me dating is something from the past. When you are constantly on the move, having a relationship is not just tough, it is practically impossible.

Honestly, I have ended great relationships with girls I really care about, and vice versa, because our lives were headed in different directions. I did not expect them to change their lives for me and I knew I could not change my life for them.

I’m not going to lie; there have been times where I have accomplished a goal, got to a destination I have dreamed about, or have been watching a sunset, and in the back of my mind I wished someone was there to share it with me.

This challenge varies from person to person, however, I know for me to accomplish the goals I have set, I need to be alone. The benefit is that I can focus on my goals, go where I want, and when I want.  Every new adventure, every foreign country, and every fulfilled dream leads me closer to my goals and vision.

Long-term travel is not easy. It is a lifestyle that demands as much as it gives.

For me the rewards out way the challenges. The simplicity and beauty of this life gives me fulfillment and peace. I never grow tired of seeing other countries, interacting with other cultures, and exploring this wonderful planet.

If it is a life-style that appeals to you, I urge you to take the leap.

Stephen Schreck has conquered the challenges of long-term traveler, and has experienced its grand rewards. You can follow his travels around the world on A Backpackers Tale.

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Category: General, On The Road, Vagabonding Life

February 25, 2015

Learning to cook Thai food in Krabi

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Traveling often implies a few things about food. In Thailand, for example, it’s assumed that visitors are interested in diversifying their palates and will order Thai iced tea, pad see ew or panang curry, eschewing plain old burgers and pizza. And so, it is a given that most meals will be eaten at a restaurant or a street cart. It makes sense that you’d opt for local fare to taste what the country grows, what they typically eat, and how deliciously they prepare their food. Sometimes, you walk away from your table at the end of the night and wonder how dishes like the ones you tried are even possible to make!

Could they have been delicately marinating that meat for days? Did they make all those thin noodles by hand? What spices could possibly have produced such an unusual and delectable flavour? These are questions I find myself asking (to nobody in particular) whenever I travel.

Another implication from travel is that you will not have an opportunity to cook anything yourself until you get back home. Hotels rarely have kitchens for guests to use, and when they do, the price is often out of reach for the average traveller. Quenching this desire to cook and answer any lingering questions about Thai food can be done by booking a very entertaining and inexpensive cooking class.

(more…)

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Category: Food and Drink

February 22, 2015

The Savannah of Travel Writing

During random social occasions it’s always with a pinch of pride and much more self-pity that I gulp down when I am introduced to new acquaintances as a “writer”. In fact, once my friends drop the “W word”, the person who until a moment ago was thinking “who’s this long-haired nerd standing in the way to the bar” always steps back with eyes and mouth open wide. It’s a moment of mutual awe, as if we were some sort of postmodern Adam and Eve discovering that, besides the proverbial red apple, there’s also sex.
“A writer?” circumstantial gulp, followed by a courteous “VERY pleased to meet you”, and there comes the name which, I’m afraid, I’m never too good at remembering the first time.

Writer. You don’t know what it means until you leave the trench of anonymity and jump out in a battlefield which is far scarier. A place where you must constantly reload your rifle with effective pitches, and shoot them as far and wide as you can, trying to aim straight at editors’ heads. But you only have one shot to impress.

Putting it in a world traveller perspective – my particular niche -, you become one of the poachers headed for an illegal safari hunt. Think of the animals as the assignments you must land: Once you see a running antelope, a very fast one, it’s a highbrow masthead. And it’s very hard to get for newbies, because we can’t shoot that fast. Elephant and rhinos, to the contrary, require much expertise. Subtle words, with a corollary of majestic headlines and impressive photographs. When you realize you just can’t, and that you are about to miss the rest of the game, you get back to crouching in the dust and trying your hand at scoring a wombat or two amidst the melee of other young hunter-writers. Literally, it’s a jungle out there.

Believe me: between us and the feeble connection of our timid handshake, your hand that trembles and numbs as it touches mine because you think I have reached some sort of demigod status, please remember that yours is the wrong perception of a profession. In truth, I’m a poor tiny cogwheel in a system, exactly like you, whatever job you do. My only luck is that I am my own boss; but this, think well, can also be the sharpest double-edged sword ever forged.

The real take-home points I wish to make here, besides the obvious “keep your feet on the ground”, is to follow your own voice and ideas. Write about what you know well, and do it in engaging ways which can interest even those who don’t have a minimal interest in what you try to say. And don’t be afraid of having original ideas… journalists call them “angles”. If you think of any geometrical figure, you will find many angles. This means, in practice, that any topic can be tackled from a variety of perspectives. Find the one that nobody, or just very few, have taken previously. Look at this column, for example: I started with a handshake, crossed into the Savannah as a metaphor to describe the publishing world, and have never given you any precise set of rules to follow. However, I am sure that thus far I have taken you by the end where I wanted to, and you have indeed learnt something.

Marco Ferrarese is the author of subcultural noir NAZI GORENG and a freelance travel and culture writer based in Southeast Asia, and metalpunk guitar slinger. He toured most hellholes of Europe and North America, met Kurt Cobain’s alleged murderer, and rode with truckdrivers from Singapore to his native Italy. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com and you can follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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Category: Travel Writing

February 5, 2015

Trip Report: how we did Oman for $570 in airfare and accommodations for two

When I first became interested in traveling, airfare and accommodations were the two most daunting expenses. Both such expenses can add up quite quickly.  For example, these days $420 may not seem like enough to pay for airfare and accommodations for two people visiting the Middle East. But when you are willing to combine a few “travel-hacking” strategies to make it happen, it’s absolutely possible to do a trip like this.

Perhaps the best way to tell you how is simply to lay out the exact costs my husband and I had for airfare and accommodations for our recent trip to Oman.

Now, I’m not assuming that Oman is a particularly popular travel destination. It’s simply an example of a recent trip for which we utilized enough of our travel-hacking strategies to keep the travel-related costs below $500. With a bit of adaptation, you could apply these strategies to a variety of travel destinations.

Trip Details:

We flew from DC to Oman (with a layover in Amsterdam) in economy class and returned from Oman on the same route a week later. Excluding nights spent on the plane in transit, we spent 6 nights in Oman.

Grand Mosque

 

Firstly, let’s tackle the issue of airfare:

Expense: $420 roundtrip for 2 people

(You may notice that this now accounts for the entire “airfare and accommodations” costs. I’ll explain that in a bit…)

Strategy: Mistake Fares

Mistake fares are not the kind of flight deals you can count on if you have a very specific destination in mind. But if you are the kind of person who is curious about a variety of destinations, mistake fares are great.

Just as their name implies, these are simply airfare prices that have come about because of some kind of error in how the price was programmed. These rates disappear as soon as the booking sites who’ve made the errors recognize and fix them, so you have to make your decision about booking quickly. To learn more about how to find these accidental sales, see this post about how to find mistake fares.

 

Now let’s take a look at how we covered 6 nights of accommodations in Oman:

Expense: $150

Strategy: Hotel points and credit card annual fees

Night 1 and 2: 44,000 Club Carlson points for 2 nights at the Park Inn Muscat + $75 annual fee for the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card

I’ll elaborate on the Club Carlson strategy just a bit but the basic strategy revolves around benefits of the program’s Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card, a card with a $75 annual fee.

The first benefit that comes into play is the sign-up bonus. This card currently offers 50,000 points after you make your first purchase and another 35,000 points if you spend $2,500 on the card within your first 90 days.

The second benefit that comes into play is a perk that card-holder’s get when making award bookings. If you redeem your points for a stay of 2 nights or more, the last night of the stay is automatically free. Of course as you can see here, we booked two nights, effectively getting a buy one get one free price in points.

(Please remember that your credit score is a valuable thing to manage cautiously, and therefore using credit card strategies safely depends on your ability to make on-time payments and avoid keeping a high balance on your cards.)

Night 3 and 4: 44,000 club Carlson points for 2 nights at the Radisson Blu Muscat

This of course utilized the same Club Carlson strategy described above.

Night 5: 1 Category 4 certificate for 1 night at the Grand Hyatt Muscat + $75 annual fee for keeping the Hyatt credit card beyond the first year

This strategy, again, requires the Hyatt credit card, a card that has no introductory fee, but a $75 annual fee each year you keep the card.

I’ve listed the expense as 1 Category 4 certificate because that’s what we used, but the card really offers two different strategies. One strategy factors in an annual fee charge (as was the case for us) and one does not. It just depends on where you’re at in your credit-card history.

You could for instance use one of the sign-up bonus certificates instead. The sign-up bonus for this card is 2 certificates for use at any property if you spend $1,000 on the card in the first 3 months of opening your account. Then, each anniversary you will earn 1 category 4 certificate, eligible for use at properties designated as “category 4.”

Night 6: 1 free-night-credit at the InterContinental Muscat

This strategy actually does not involve the InterContinental credit card. Instead, it involves an annual promotion offered by InterContinental Hotel Group. The promotion changes each time it’s released, but the version of the promotion we used for this stay was called the “Into the Nights” promotion. (The current version is slightly different and is called “Set Your Sights.” )

Basically the promotion gave each participant a few “challenges”. For instance one might be “book a night using our app.” And another might be “stay 4 nights”. Not only did participants win points for completing a goal, they won even more points once they completed a pre-set number of those goals. For instance some people received challenges that required them to complete 7 out of 8 goals. Others, 4 out of 5. It was a targeted promotion that varied per participant.

During the “Into the Nights’ promotion, some people were invited to choose either 50,000 points or 2 free-night-credits as one of their rewards. We chose the free-night-credits.

 

Conclusion:

As you can see, travel-hacking requires a blend of strategies. In this case, we saw some amazing and beautiful things in Oman without worrying about crippling costs. Some of it was luck

 

 

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Category: Destinations, On The Road

February 1, 2015

Top 9 apps for offline maps

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I’m on a deserted street in the middle of the night.

I’m somewhere outside of Rome, a couple blocks south (or north?) of a train station where I caught the last train in from the airport in an echoing station.

My hotel should be up here. Or maybe it was a couple blocks the other way. Or maybe I’m not even on the right street.

I squint in the blackness, trying to find street signs tacked on the sides of buildings. But no signs mark the small side streets. I walk down four more blocks to the large, blinding intersection and stand on a corner, frowning at the light poles, searching for a sign of where I am.

All I want to find is my hotel. All I want is to curl up in a soft bed and sleep away the remaining few hours of the night. All I want is a little blue blinking light of GPS to show me where I am and lead me to my hotel.

Here are the top nine apps for offline maps so you no longer have to wander in the night.

city maps 2go

1. City Maps 2Go by Ulmon

(Apple App Store and Android Google Play, Free)

I used this app a lot. It saved me many times. City specific offline maps which you need to download for each city. But the map shows public transit information like stations, points of interest, and bookmark favorite places.

galileo

2. Galileo Offline Maps

(Apple App Store, $3.99)

This app can record GPS movements and store for later retrieval. It gives you detailed offline maps of entire countries, records your trips, bookmarks favorite spots so you can return to them (or track your path). Claimed to be smaller download size and faster than other offline maps.

osmand

3. Osmand.net

(Android Google Play, $5.99)

This app works totally offline. It gives you turn by turn guidance, highly detailed offline maps, bookmarks your favorite places, displays surrounding points of interest (my favorite). It also shows hiking and bike paths. And it’ll give you navigation for biking the crazy streets of Paris or walking in Venice’s alleys.

pocket earth

4. Pocket Earth

(Apple App Store, Free)

This app gives you detailed, small download size offline maps. Plus, you get public transit information and nearby points of interest.

trip advisor

5. Trip Advisor for specific city

(Apple App Store and Android Google Play, Free)

This app is my husband’s favorite when we travel. He’s in charge of navigation and likes how this offline map shows points of interest, bookmark favorite places, and shows thousands of user reviews for locations. It can be a little glitchy at times.

6. Map app on your smart phone

(Free)

I had no idea the GPS worked without my data enabled. But it does. And it saved me quite a lot. Sometimes the map doesn’t show up very detailed. But it helps to get a bird’s eye view on where you are and see if you’re really walking in the correct direction.

maverick

7. Maverick

(Google Play, Free)

This app has offline maps that are best for navigating the land in hiking or boating. You can bookmark favorite places and record tracks via GPS. The coolest part is you can check out your speed and altitude.

maps.me

8. Maps.Me

(Apple App Store and Google Play, Free)

Offline, highly-detailed maps for all countries and cities. This app claims to never freeze while zooming. You can also do searching on the map, bookmark favorite places, and figure out where you are with GPS positioning.

sygic

9. Sygic

(Apple App Store and Android Google Play, starts at 39.99€ with a world map at 99.99€)

This is the premium offline map app. It calls itself the “world’s most downloaded offline navigation app.” This is the app you spring for when you’re feeling flush. It has offline maps for 100+ countries, free map updates, route planning, points of interest, and bookmarks. If you spring for the premium version, you get turn by turn navigation and voice guidance, with very handy warnings of upcoming speed limit changes.

Laura Lopuch blogs at Waiting To Be Read, where she riffs on reading, traveling, and gives you quotes to strengthen your soul.

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Category: Travel Tech

January 22, 2015

What travel hacking isn’t

While I already have quite a few posts about what travel hacking is, I think ultra-beginners to the topic can benefit from hearing about it in a context of what it ISN’T as well. Because to be honest, the media has picked up on bits and pieces of the travel hacking hobby and…as is often the case with the media…twisted it into the most sensationalist version possible.

For instance my husband and I were approached by a TV scout once and it was painfully obvious that he wanted the travel hacking of days past. He wanted us to have stories of digging through airport trash-cans for ticket stubs we could turn in for miles.

Well that’s (mostly) not how it works anymore.

So in case you too have heard bits and pieces about travel hacking from the media, let me clarify what it isn’t.

 

1.) Travel hacking is not illegal.

If you’ve heard about the unfortunate situation Aktarer Zaman is now dealing with because of a computer program he was using to help people book “throw away tickets” that would make their trips cheaper, this point may seem a bit confusing.

But let’s be clear about the fact that there is a difference between breaking a law and breaking terms and conditions of a program/product or service. Technically the strategy Zaman was using on a large scale was against United’s terms and conditions. (Article II, Item 31 includes “throwaway ticketing” in the definition of “prohibited practices.) So that means United absolutely has a problem with what he is doing and can absolutely attempt to sue him if they wish.

But Zaman’s “throwaway ticket strategy” is one thing. Basic travel hacking is another.

Most travel hacking practices are NOT in violation of terms and conditions and are instead simply designed to take full advantage of existing benefits. For instance getting a credit card with a mileage bonus even if you aren’t otherwise interested in the card. This is the most common travel hacking strategy for earning miles and is neither against terms and conditions nor illegal. It’s simply intentional.

But aside from the debate of whether or not these practices are or are not against terms and conditions, travel hacking strategies are not against the law. It is not illegal to collect and use points, even if you do so obsessively. It is not illegal to do what you want with your own credit, applying for or canceling cards as you wish.

 

2.) Travel hacking did indeed inspire the pudding-cup part of “Punch Drunk Love”, but it’s hardly ever that interesting anymore.

Once upon a time “Healthy Choice” decided to give away a certain amount of miles for various products if you mailed in the labels. A man who the travel-hacker community calls “Pudding Guy” discovered the cheapest item included in the promotion was a 25 cent pudding cup so he went all out and bought over a million miles’ worth of pudding cups. You can read more about his incredible story on his wikipedia page and of course, you can catch the reference in Adam Sandler’s Punch Drunk Love.

His is not the only amusing story about mileage enthusiasts buying pallets of food they didn’t intend on eating because of mileage promotions, but I don’t expect many more for current or future enthusiasts.

Why? That’s just not the trend of marketing these days for products outside of the credit-card world. More and more mileage earning opportunities are appearing in credit-card bonuses and spending rather than other markets.

Perhaps a new movie will come out including a scene inspired by obsessive credit-card collection, but I doubt it will seem as entertaining as the obsessive collection of pudding cups.

 

3.) Travel hacking isn’t the “extreme couponing” of travel because not everyone can do it.

Many people have compared travel-hacking to extreme couponing, but the truth is there is one very important difference between travel hacking and extreme couponing. Not just anyone can be a travel hacker.

The core strategies of travel hacking are accumulating miles via credit cards. This means you need to have a good credit score to get anywhere in this hobby. Sure, there are few strategies that don’t require a good credit score, but the bulk of travel-hacking comes down to collecting rewards credit-cards. And these are the kinds of credit cards that will require good credit.

Not to mention it is significantly more difficult for non-US residents to pursue travel-hacking. Again, this has to do with the trends we see in various marketing strategies as well as the credit-card culture of various countries. Europe for instance just does not have the same kind of credit-card culture that we do in the US.

 

4.) Travel hacking isn’t backpacking.

If you’re earning hotel points in addition to frequent flyer miles, you will find yourself staying in fewer and fewer hostels. Why? Because they’re honestly not as cheap as the free luxury hotel you could get by using hotel-points.

Ironic as it is, it’s true. We spent over a week at the InterContinental Fiji for free using points.

Now, sometimes I kind of miss the social aspect of hostel-life. It certainly serves a purpose other than just budget. But when I want a free place to stay, the luxury hotel is where I’ll be.

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 5.34.21 PM

 

Maybe this article doesn’t spell out exactly what travel-hacking is, but hopefully if you thought you knew what it was, this article has helped to clarify some of the common misconceptions.

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Category: General, On The Road, Vagabonding Life

January 15, 2015

Do short trips have their own value?

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We long-term travelers sometimes get caught up in the length of a trip. We advocate taking a year to backpack, using a summer break to explore the far corners of the earth, and digging into a new culture for longer than the average winter break from school. There is a reason we do this- long-term travel has limitless benefits. But what about the shorter trip? The weekend getaway, the week spent across the border, the brief vacation between longer journeys? We forget sometimes that these shorter trips have benefits as well.

Brief trips can be windows into what we want to see next. For some, shorter trips are like dipping their toes in the water to see what they can do, what they can handle. For others, shorter trips can be a respite from the day to day- even if the day to day is being experienced on the road. As any long-term traveler knows, traveling quickly resembles any other “normal” life in many ways. Bills still have to be paid, planning must be done, visas need to be obtained or renewed, hostel rooms must be cleaned, dentists may need to be visited. Of course there are long walks on beaches, spectacular sunsets, unbelievable meals, personal growth on many levels, and conversations with locals that go on for hours but long-term travel is not always glamorous and for many it’s just… life!

So why do we turn our collective noses up when others describe shorter trips? After all, more than one of us has visited a hot spring in Guatemala to “get away” for the weekend and many of us have taken advantage of a visa run across the border to enjoy a brief “vacation” of sorts. If even we, the never-conform-travel-until-we-drop tribe, need a brief change of scenery every now and then, why do we deny the same need in those who live the “normal” life?

There is no denying the benefits of long-term travel and I am admittedly one of “those people” who thinks everyone should take a genuinely long trip at least once in their lives, thinks every education should include a major travel component before it is considered “completed”, and believes that exploring unfamiliar countries, corners, cultures, and cuisines is best done in a deep manner without regard or how many stamps have been collected. I believe in long-term travel as much as the next traveler. But I also recognize the regenerative nature of the short trip.

I am currently writing in Fort Myers, Florida. It is not exactly my idea of a dream destination but it is warm and sunny none the less. We will only be here for a few short days- hardly long-term travel. Previous to this, my husband and I traded our constant journeying to spend one year, somewhat cooped up in upstate NY, homeschooling two lovely young people. The experience of co-creating individualized educations for two unique individuals is wonderful. Right now, it also happens to be hard work in a cold area of the world. The snow hits our tiny area and we can’t even get out of the driveway. My wanderlust is screaming from within on most days. There is so much I love about how we spend our days and yet… there is so very much I need a break from. So, we packed up the car and drove all the way down to Florida to visit family, get re-accqauinted with Vitamin D, and, most importantly, to enjoy a change of scenery. Do I wish I were in Thailand, snorkeling by day and enjoying a coconut by night? Do I wish I were planning our next visa run, getting ready to cross another border? Sometimes. But for now, a day spent on the beach, searching for shells, is enough to recharge these batteries.

Sometimes I think there is a belief that if you can’t get away for months at a time that it “isn’t worth it”.  I wonder what “it” is because sometimes a short trip can lift spirits, bring already existent perspective into focus, and make life seem exciting again. All of those “its” are certainly worth something!

How many of us can think back to our first weekend in NYC, our first week spent on the beach in Costa Rica, our first three week cross-country trip with family, our first weekend camping trip, our first class trip to France? Even those short trips were enough to get us excited about exploring and planted the very first seeds of wanderlust. Digging deep into a foreign land and culture is beyond amazing but, in truth, feeling that wonderful sense of freedom as you drive coast to coast, in a borrowed car, within the boundaries of your own home country can be pretty amazing as well.

Life is truly a journey. It cannot really be broken up into segments of experiences as it all flows together and creates the one unique path we are traveling. Short or long, any travel is a part of shaping our experience of the world. Next time your cousin tells you he is headed to Mexico for a week, fight the urge to tell him it “isn’t worth it” unless he can go for longer. Instead, smile, wish him well, and take joy in knowing that he will soon experience a break from his own “norm”- a break that just might expand any number of things for him. If you can muster that, than maybe you can cross your fingers that his wanderlust will grow ;) If it doesn’t, at least you know you might have a buddy for those mini-breaks you’ll inevitably need from your own long-term journeys!

 

What do you think? Do short trips have their own value?

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Category: General, On The Road

January 13, 2015

What the frugal foodie eats in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Stroll past the dozens of stalls serving food to the fascinated tourists excitedly pointing at giant, steaming woks of noodles, dried sticks of skewered insects and whirring blenders filled with local fruits, and you’ll find the experience to be an exquisite assault on the senses. Bright lights above each stall harshly illuminate the menus, which are rarely also in English. If the menu can even be seen through the steam and smoke from the never-ending cooking, the blended smells will only confound customers looking for something recognizable for dinner.

Although the intense variety of culinary choices attracts some foreigners to Thailand, many more are drawn by the comparatively low cost of living. Begin always by knowing what the currency conversion rate is so you can have a strong understanding of what prices really are. One Canadian dollar works out to about thirty Thai baht, but I wouldn’t get too hung up on being precise; Thailand ends up being so cheap that it’s not worth counting pennies over it. 

Chiang Mai is a city that is always in motion, yet retains the slow, old-world charm that Bangkok seems to have long ago left behind. The centre of Thailand’s second-biggest city is a grouping of several blocks consisting mostly of old temples, schools, and residences, and shaped almost as a perfect square. Protecting the old city is its moat that symbolically keeps modernity from encroaching too far inside. The food, however, hasn’t been able to maintain the same degree of separation from the influences of the new millennium and the globalization that increased tourism brings.

For the traveller looking for something delicious and different from the norm, Chiang Mai not only offers reliable favourites, such as the ubiquitous Pad Thai and green curries, but lesser-known meals such as Khao Soi and Som Tam salad can be sampled for about a dollar. International dishes are very easy to locate, as one can find a bacon burger or cheese pizza being served beside someone else grilling an entire squid over a barrel fire.

The way to really travel and eat cheaply is to seek out the food stalls and put aside any unfounded lingering fears over the possibility of food poisoning. Cooks take great pride in serving tourists something authentic, clean, memorable, and probably a little spicier than expected. It can all be done without making a significant dent in anyone’s wallet.

Chiang Mai Food

Typically, a cheap walking-street dinner is done by visiting several carts that sell a few bites of some sort of tasty local dish. A meal might start with a light appetizer, perhaps a fried spring roll, sliced curry sausage, or a piece of grilled chicken on a skewer. Patrons jostle for the vendor’s attention, and those clutching exact change will find their order quickly filled. My large elbows are a blessing in times of hunger, and my stomach thanks them for their unwieldy size as they help keep my position at the front of the queue. I’m not a monster, I’m just hungry.

In Chiang Mai, it’s crucial to try the regional dishes that are nearly impossible to find back home, and that includes Khao Soi. With neither pictures nor translation for one to point to, the cook will only need to shout its name and everyone will know what to expect. Served in a bowl, it is a wonderful lightly spiced chicken curry sauce poured over fried yellow noodles, topped with pickled vegetables, often accompanied by a stewed chicken drumstick. The server directs customers to sit at a nearby folding table and it is lined with locals working their way through their own bowls. One serving could fill the void in most travellers’ stomachs, yet I must remind myself to avoid the compulsion to order a second bowl, for Khao Soi is oily, and there remain far too many other things to try. 

A voracious appetite might need a plate of Som Tam to fill the cracks at this point. It’s a papaya-based salad that is tossed with sweet and spicy ingredients, mixed with a clay mortar and pestle only at the moment it is ordered. Although sublimely refreshing, Som Tam can set one’s mouth ablaze if proper care is not taken as to the level of hot pepper added; it has the potential to create a serious need to guzzle a gallon of ice water or beer. Speaking of beer, the cheapest brand of lager is Chang, followed by Leo, Tiger, and Singha. None is particularly remarkable in terms of quality, but I am not one to complain about cold beer after spicy food.

Dessert is acceptable, no matter how full the last three dishes have made anyone feel. On the off-chance that fried dough with sweet milk seems too heavy, there is always the Thai classic: ancient ice cream. Ancient ice cream surprises most with its rectangular shape, and that it is served on a stick. Made with coconut milk and ice, individual portions are cut from large slabs, and can be eaten as is, or inside a piece of bread. With no dearth of flavours from which to choose, the usual suspects such as vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry are common favourites. While coffee, caramel, and coconut are some of the more subtle flavours, the few brave will try durian, matcha, or maybe red bean. The alternative to ice cream is roti, a flattened piece of soft dough, which can then be filled with bananas, chocolate, egg, or any sweet fruits, then fried gently on a large pan. It is wrapped up in itself, chopped into bite-sized morsels, and never runs more than a buck fifty.

The reaction inside my body at this point of dinner is overwhelming. It is not from excessive spice, nor is it something possibly undercooked that my stomach is trying to digest. The feeling is one of incredulity at how much time I’ve wasted in life not eating this amazing cuisine. It is appreciation for the opportunity to travel just to appease the foodie nature of the heart. It is a sense of smug satisfaction at having spent only four dollars on stuffing my belly so completely that I feel like giving away the rest of my budgeted money. It is contentment. Chiang Mai is accessible to the world, and it is a place of deep exploration for the lovers of food. It can be pursued and discovered again and again in every meal eaten.

 

Tony Hajdu writes more over at Unknown Home. Head over there and bookmark it!

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Category: Asia, Food and Drink, General

January 4, 2015

Top 5 travel apps to stay organized on the road

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It’s hard to be organized constantly.

It’s hard when you’re at home. It’s more difficult when you’re on the road, trying to remember where exactly you put that super-important sticky note with the really-super-important booking confirmation number for your hotel.

Thankfully there’s an app for your troubles. I rounded up the top five travel apps I regularly use to stay organized, both on the road and at home.

evernote

1. Evernote

iOS // Android // Free

Imagine if your brain could immediately access every website, memory or note you ever encountered. Imagine if you eliminated your wagging Post-It notes, your notebooks crammed with places to see, scribbled recommendations passed along by friends, or the couple last night at the table next to you.

Imagine if you could search those notes by a single word. Or organize them according to a simple yet effective filing system.

Welcome to Evernote: a virtual library of your must-sees and must-dos nicely organized in one place.

Install the app on your phone that automatically syncs to the website. Should something indescribable happen to your phone, panic not. Your entire precious database is secure and easily accessible via the Internet.

Save pages from the web, forward special emails, input notes, capture thoughts and pictures, record voice memos and share all your goodies with friends with a click of the button.

Evernote is my favorite. He keeps my mind organized and clutter-free while planning my greatest adventures.

I used this bad boy to plan multi-city trips, plot our route through Europe, and dream up new adventures. I also use it daily to record recommendations on what to see and where to stay on my next trip.

It serves as my highly organized personal assistant who even prods me to complete my daily to-do list. So I can never forget to check into a flight again.

dropbox2. Dropbox

iOS // Android // Free for 2GB

Call it your personal CYA plan. Call it your never-forget-a-document-again plan. Call it your ultimate back-up plan. Call it your storage in the cloud.

Call it what you want, but Dropbox is vital to life on the road. You can access your whole library of files from your smartphone or the slow computer at the Internet cafe down the street. Back up your photos from your iPhone into Dropbox for a complete database of hundreds of sunsets you’ve seen around the world.

Or keep writing, page by page, at the novel you’ve been dreaming of while clacking over train tracks in Siberia. It even saves former drafts of the same document so you can pull that sentence from five drafts ago back to life.

Dropbox holds your music, photos, videos, and files while you explore the world. It’s all organized by folders and as many sub-folders as your little heart desires. And if you drop your phone or computer in a lake or off a helicopter, no big deal. Your virtual world is still safe.

tripit3. TripIt

iOS // Android // Free

Finally, an app that organizes all your convoluted, brilliantly messy flight plans into a nice, neat pile that actually makes sense. And that others — like your grandparents — can understand. It’s a master itinerary, with all your plans, in one place.

My favorite part is the notifications that kindly tell you of gate changes at the airport. (It’s unbelievably empowering to arrive at the airport already knowing your new gate when the airport’s computers haven’t updated yet.) And it reminds you of when to check in for flights.

It’s easy to use. Simply forward your confirmation emails for flights, car rentals, transportation, hotels to plans@tripit.com. The app automatically organizes your plans. When you step off the plane, it gives you directions to your hotel from your current location.

The TripIt Pro version ($4.09/mo) gives you a slew of other helpful, awesome features like syncing plans with your calendar, real-time flight alerts, and finding out when a better seat is available. I use the free version, but have had a couple chances to try out the Pro thanks to TripIt’s generosity in allowing users to limited-time access.

trip advisor4. TripAdvisor City Guides

iOS // Android // Free

TripAdvisor lets you see how other travelers rate attractions, hotels, and more. But you already knew that.

The better part of TripAdvisor is their maps and City Guides. You can see a map of the city’s transportation system, star favorite places, and navigate your way back to the hostel, even if it’s your first night in the new city.

Use the “point me there” feature to get oriented in the correct direction — very useful if you’re like me, twirling on a sidewalk, trying to figure out which direction is correct. Or ask the app to give you directions to your destination.

My favorite part is reading other travelers’ advice and recommendations. You can quickly get a flavor for the highly touristy areas of a city, so you can skim through them on your way to the meatier, juicier aspects where the locals live.

Best part? It works completely offline.

wifi finder5. Wi-Fi Finder

iOS // Android // Free

A database of hundreds of spots offering free WiFi around the world.

This app has gotten me out of a pickle once or twice while trying to decipher transit maps in Dublin and when exactly the next bus comes when no timetable is posted.

It’s not always perfect, but it sure helps when you need WiFi and no Starbucks’ free WiFi is in sight.

Laura blogs at Waiting to Be Read where she dishes about awesome books to read, what actors work best as main characters, and why thinking is a dying sport.

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Category: Travel Tech
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