There’s nothing in the red center of Australia.
If by nothing you mean echos of endless wide spaces and wide sky that holds the world together like an eternal ribbon of Australian blue around a package of rainbow colours that can only be unwrapped slowly.
Beneath the thin veneer of “nothing” are layers of something stunningly, historically, culturally, naturally, creatively beautiful.
The earth is simultaneously desert-hard and sand-silt soft, as if the entire surface was sifted through a flour sieve.
“Red” is not the right word. I’m not sure there is a right word. The soil is a particular shade of burnt sienna that Crayola never thought of.
“Green” runs the gamut from dusty sage, almost grey, through every subtlety of Mediterranean olive, to garish lime. There is plant life everywhere, even where it seems there is not.
Where there are trees, they are black and gnarled; an aboriginal crone’s hand reaching out of the parched soil, grasping desperately at the sky, begging for water.
There’s nothing in the red center of Australia
Except life in unexpected places:
Lizards, big and small. Under rocks, in the shade, waddling awkwardly through the camp kitchen, picking at scraps.
Great big, tick shaped beetles, huddled beneath pieces of curling bark on the trunk of a tree.
Snakes (even though I don’t like them)
Enormous, Wedge-tailed eagles whirling overhead, crouched over road-kill-a-roos, perched majestically on bare branches.
Dusty children perched on piles of old rubber tires on turn offs to dirt roads leading nowhere.
Flies; god, the flies.
Wildflowers, in white and yellow, the tiniest things, blooming in a blooming desert! Against all odds, laughing at the sun.
Heat is a living thing, dancing in an iridescent ball gown to music only she can hear.
There is nothing in the red center of Australia.
Except the beating heart of a continent:
Dirt the colour of dried blood.
A rock, like an enormous, petrified heart jutting out of the earth.
I can hear the heartbeat, if I stand still, in the pounding of my own blood at my temples, agitated by the incredible heat, the searing sun, the blinding reflections.
At night, the “nothing” sings.
Insect songs, celebrating relief from another day’s heat.
Star songs, sung for thousands of years over sleeping souls by watchful guardians.
The drumbeat of the darkness.
The long, low hum of the moon; perhaps it’s echo inspired the didgeridoo.
The grass whispers behind the melody, wind through long, feathery reeds.
It’s a lullaby.
There’s nothing in the red center of Australia.
Unless you take the time to look.
“What raises travel writing to literature is not what the writer brings to a place, but what a place brings out of the writer.”
–William Zinsser, in They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing (1991)
“We need HOW many shots?” Six immunizations, a signed yellow fever card and two prescriptions later we left the doctor’s office. It was going to be worth it, we just knew it! Five years and a few extra booster shots later and we were right. Our time on the African continent yields some of my most favourite travel memories and life-changing experiences. “Africa gets into your soul and stays there”. This is my answer to most questions about my time in Africa. With a smile, I remember the moments that would not have been possible anywhere else. If you’re even a bit curious-Go, you’ll never be the same again.
We’ve traveled to Africa three times and each has been more different than the time before it. There was Egypt in the north, South Africa and its surrounds in the south and Tanzania and Kenya in the east.
Egypt is filled with history, culture, religion and life on the Nile. We slept on a felucca, rode camels in the Sahara, translated hieroglyphics, awed at the pyramids and sphinx and ate our weight in falafel. Egypt’s appeal was the intertwining of religion and life amidst an ever-changing landscape. It seemed that there’s a part of Egypt ruled by the river and a separate part away from it all. Markets clamored with vendors selling their wares and religion was heard all around – most especially as the sound of the muezzin floated through the air calling worshippers to prayer. Perfumes, hookah pipes, cartouches and papyrus were readily sold to travelers as take home items and history was captured on cave walls.
Southern and western Africa is still my favourite of parts we’ve visited so far. We spent three weeks through parts of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Hanging with penguins at Boulder Beach, glimpsing the southernmost tip and feeling like the true king of the world atop Table Mountain are special. Bush camping in the Okavango Delta was more than memorable since a raging hippo chased our mokorros and we lived to tell the tale. And let’s not even talk about the jump into Devil’s Pool-this is truly the definition of living on the edge! My favourite beyond a shadow of a doubt was Namibia. Etosha National Park’s watering hole is Discovery Channel in living colour as silent onlookers sit for hours waiting for animals to visit for a drink. Soussevlei is a sand lover’s paradise and hiking Dune 45’s bright, brilliant sand dunes make you feel like a cherry seated atop nature’s sundae. After visiting Namibia, it’s become one of my most treasured memories.
And then there’s the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. Masai warriors live their lives off of the land and teach their children to do the same. Dotted through the plains you see Masai houses and schools left standing for the next group to come through as the nomads move to a new location. Dry season floods the view in colours of beige, red, brown, orange and yellow showing the effects of nature on the landscape. Pockets of bright green pop where rivers flow with life in the wet season. Dust mixed with gravel and the omnipresent red dirt kicks up as the 4x4s journey the open roads in search of sightings. As trucks pass on the narrow lanes camera lenses and binoculars pass each other as their owners pop the tops of trucks to feel the wind and come face to face with a neighboring giraffe.
Africa is different. Africa is beautiful. Africa is a blending of thousands of cultures amidst a backdrop of animals and a landscape controlled by nature. Africa leaves you wanting to return and teaches lessons you may not have known you needed to learn. Africa gets into your soul and stays there.
For more of Stacey’s travel musings check out her website.
Long- term travelers of all kinds will tell you that one of the most important preliminary steps to taking off is The Purge. That period of time that you devote to deciding which material possessions will still be necessary and dear to your heart after traipsing all over the globe in pursuit of clarity, freedom, connection, adventure, and knowledge. Clothing is donated, items are sold to pay for gear, and maybe a tupperware or two are packed to the brim with things you can’t bare to say goodbye to just yet. Everything else, everything that will represent your existence for the time you spend abroad will be packed into a backpack or suitcase, a necessary piece of gear that looked far bigger before you started packing it.
The act of purging everything was a huge undertaking that occupied our minds and our time for months before we left. The fact that we decided to get rid of almost everything helped in that we didn’t have to think much, we just had to get rid of it. Easier said than done.
For the past several years I have considered myself someone who does not really need all that much. Not a minimalist, but certainly not a materialist either. In new York, my husband and I participated in the consumerist culture far less than our teenage foster daughters would have liked. We didn’t eat at McDonald’s; we didn’t believe that we “needed” anything in a commercial with a catchy jingle; we didn’t eat out more than once a week; we bought local whenever possible instead of feeding the corporate machine of mass made goods; we had a family rule that if you were going to bring a new piece of clothing into your wardrobe, you needed to get rid of another piece first. By most accounts, we were doing pretty good at not getting sucked into the consumerist machine.
And yet, as I cleaned out our closets and gathered our things in boxes, I realized just how much stuff we had. How did that happen??
I don’t know about you but I live in one pair of shoes, depending on the season. Fuzzy boots for winter and flip flops for summer. So how the heck had I accumulated over 20 pairs of shoes?! Aaron could wear the same five shirts over and over again without complaint so why in the world did he have bags and bags of t-shirts to give away?!
The more we purged, the more guilt I felt. While it felt great to get rid of so many uneccesary possessions. I couldn’t help but feel this nagging feeling that despite my best efforts, I had still been pulled in by the “just in case” notion that consumerism thrives on. In fact, when I really took stock, more than half of what we owned could fall into the “just in case” category. Why, in New York City, I was so consumed by the notion of “just in case” (without even being aware of it!) is beyond me. If I really needed something I could just go out and buy said item when the need actually arose. I could have even *gasp* asked a neighbor if I could borrow theirs. Instead, I had filled my house with a bunch of stuff I didn’t even need, “just in case”. What a waste!
Adding to my guilt was the realization of just how many things we had been throwing away. Shoes whose soles had worn through, toys that no longer worked, tools with missing pieces had all gone into the garbage and, eventually, into a landfill. As I packed our entire life into backpacks, I realized just how wasteful we had been. Everything I packed had to do at least double duty. Anything that ripped or became worn we would have to try to repair before replacing it due to budget constraints and lack of resources in some areas. It did not bother us to think that we could not easily replace things on the road so why had we been so flippant about throwing things out in New York? We are very aware that much of the rest of the world lives without the ability to throw out and quickly replace anything they desire so how did we get caught up in doing just that?
Without fully realizing it, my husband and I had been participating, more than either of us cared to admit, in the consumerist culture we didn’t endorse. I have come to think that there is no way to completely avoid consumerism when the entire culture around you embraces it. Convenience becomes an easy thing to pay for and, before you know it, you have lots of stuff and lots of waste. There are some tough souls who are able to resist this culture to a very impressive level, no matter their surroundings. We put in a strong effort, but when we really looked at the evidence we had to admit that we just didn’t do as well as we had thought.
Long-term travel is an amazing educator when it comes to sustainability. Cars from the 50′s troll the streets of Mumbai, serviced and repaired beyond what any American would think is “reasonable”. Cobblers make a decent living on streets around the world where throwing out shoes with small holes is inconceivable. Chicken wire is taken down and repurposed over and over again until it finds a home within the walls of a cob house in Guatemala. Baby food jars become perfect containers for homemade salves, creams, and cosmetics in Puerto Viejo. Most of the world survives easily without a constant need for new things.
The initial purge is just phase one in a long journey to recognizing the reality of our personal roles in a consumerist society. The continuing journey can be eye opening in terms of illuminating just how much “need” (I use the term loosely) we really could eliminate just by shifting our thinking away from a mentality based in scarcity and replacing it with one based in abundance.
I no longer by things “just in case”. In fact, we no longer buy anything without checking first to see if we can make it, borrow it, or Macgyver it. I still carry a little but of guilt about how much I use to have (and waste) but then again, once you know better, you do better.
What do you think? Has travel influenced your perception of consumerism or changed how you view your consumption habits?
Hometown: Manila, Philippines
Quote: “I may be young at age but older in hours, because I wasted no time.” –J. Beacon
“This is the grand fiction of tourism, that bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it. It’s a quick fix of empathy. We take it like a shot of tequila, or a bump of coke from the key to a stranger’s home. We want the inebriation of presence to dissolve the fact of difference. Sometimes the city fucks on the first date, and sometimes it doesn’t. But always, always, we wake up in the morning and find that we didn’t know it at all.”
–Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (2014)
Photo Credit: tarotastic
A couple of years ago, while riding my bicycle down Burma’s Irrawaddy valley, I somehow managed to destroy my khaki trousers. These were the only pair of pants I had with me at the time, so I stopped off in a town called Pakkoku and — faced with no other realistic clothing options — purchased a long, cotton lungi to cover my legs for the rest of the trip.
In the event that you aren’t familiar with fashions in this part of Asia, a lungi is a tube of silk or cotton cloth that Burmese men wear around their waists. Essentially, it looks like an elegant, ankle-length skirt. And, unless you count the kilt, there is no fashion equivalent for men in the West.
Thus, having no instincts for wearing a skirt, I encountered all kinds of functional challenges while wearing my new lungi. For starters, I invariably tripped over the hem when walking on any surface that wasn’t completely level. Somehow, Burmese men could stride up staircases in their lungis while still looking perfectly masculine, while I was forced to lift the cloth and mince up slight inclines like some kind of “Gone With the Wind” debutante. Even more difficult was riding my bicycle.
The more the Burmese giggled, however, the better I got at wearing the lungi. By the time I arrived in Rangoon nearly two weeks later, I was able to walk and bike gracefully on all variety of surfaces. Impressed locals gave me the thumbs-up at the sight of my dapper Burmese threads, playfully asking me if I was from Burma.
I had, it seemed, successfully “gone native” with my travel wardrobe. And it felt good.
When I flew on from Rangoon to Bangkok, however, I quickly learned that – - by backpacker fashion standards — going native is far more complicated than simply buying local clothing and learning how to wear it.
As I strolled in my new lungi through the Khao San Road backpacker ghetto (where I’d hoped to buy a new pair of khaki pants), I noticed that many of my fellow travelers were giving me funny looks. Since Khao San is a place where Westerners with, say, chicken bones through their noses and dreadlocked armpit hair hardly garner a second glance, I wondered what the problem was.
That afternoon at my guesthouse, a sun-browned Australian traveler clued me in. “Look at ya, mate,” he said. “You’ve got it all mixed up.”
I looked down at my outfit. In addition to my lungi, I sported a nylon fanny pack (which made up for my lack of pockets) and a North Face dry-wick shirt (which had kept the sun off while biking). This ensemble didn’t strike me as particularly strange, but — according to the Aussie — wearing a fanny pack (stereotypically favored by middle-aged tourists) and a boutique safari shirt (which, while functional, is the modern fashion equivalent of a pith helmet) effectively canceled the lungi out.
The problem, it seemed, wasn’t that I had “gone native,” but that I had gone native in an incomplete and bourgeois manner. “From the looks of it,” he said, “you don’t know if you just walked out of a jungle or a shopping mall.”
Going native to one degree or another, of course, has always been a part of the travel experience. Until the past couple of centuries, in fact, going native wasn’t a travel option so much as a travel necessity. From Herodotus to Marco Polo to Lewis and Clark, eating local cuisines, learning local languages and wearing local clothing was simply how the traveler survived in foreign lands. This all changed, however, as British travelers and expats alike were increasingly expected to maintain the same decorum overseas as applied back home. Fraternizing with locals was discouraged, safari parties trotted off into foreign jungles sporting woolen raiment and, as late as the 1930s, officials of the British Empire could be fired for wearing native clothing.
What this colonial protocol overlooked, of course, was that going at least partially native has always been an important step in experiencing other cultures. Wearing native clothing isn’t necessarily a prerequisite, but abiding by local dress codes (particularly in regard to modesty) is essential if you want to be accepted within the cultures you visit.
But it’s often difficult to determine where the propriety of “going native” begins and ends. Travel is not the same as emigration, after all, and no combination of culinary and fashion savvy can truly make you a part of your host culture. At some point, then, many attempts to “go native” cease to be an inquiry into other cultures and begin to be a token of status within travel culture itself.
In “The Songlines,” Bruce Chatwin observes that nomadic animal species tend to be less dependent upon hierarchies and shows of dominance, since the hardships of the journey naturally weed out the weak. However, now that humans’ nomadic life rarely involves natural selection, travel culture seems to have utilized fashion as one subtle kind of litmus test. Ostensibly, a Shan jacket worn with a Mao hat and cotton pajama bottoms implies that you had the Darwinian oomph to survive northern Burma, communist China and the Punjab. As with all fashions, however, the accepted vogue for going native tends to be fickle. In Jordan, for example, scores of Westerners trade ball caps for Arab khaffiyeh scarves to better keep the sun off — but few of those same travelers would don conical peasant hats for the same purpose in Vietnam.
In the end, then, “going native” is a mixed endeavor — part attempt to understand your host culture, and part extension of how you want to selectively showcase your travels to others. Properly balancing these urges is part of the challenge and fun of travel.
Just for the record, I now own three Burmese lungis — two cotton and one silk. I find them comfortable, functional, and stylish. And chicks dig the look.
But until they make them with pockets, I will — fashion be damned — continue to wear them with a fanny pack.
Originally published by SFGate, March 14, 2004
I book my bigger trips a up to a year in advance. This way I know they’re set and I won’t succumb to “I’m too busy, I can’t do this now” syndrome. Last year I put a deposit down on a trip to Peru. Not just any trip – this was with The Adventurists. A bunch of us get together down in Piura, learn to ride old, unreliable mototaxis. Then we’ll attempt to ride them across the Andes and through the jungle to Urubamba, Sacred Valley. By all accounts, one hell of an adventure and I’ve been excitedly looking forward to it.
For some reason, some part of me wasn’t. A little voice has been telling me, “Should you really go?” and, “Don’t you have other things you need to do?” Now I’m normally the one who encourages people to ignore the little nervous voice in their head and get out of their comfort zone. Except this wasn’t one of those. It wasn’t the skittish nervous voice, worried about the risks of the adventure. It wasn’t the stiff workaholic voice, encouraging me to spend another weekend in front of the computer. It wasn’t the sweet lazy voice, lulling me into spending a week glued to the couch. This was a deeper voice… and so I sat down and contemplated what it was saying.
I’m sharing because we all go through this struggle eventually. Now I advocate travel — as a way to expand your comfort zone, to get back into the moment and out of our heads. Heck, look at this whole site. It’s dedicated to traveling. Sometimes, though, staying home is the right decision. Here’s how I weigh things.
First – do a gut check to see which voice you are listening to. If it is the workaholic or lazy voice, take it with a grain of salt. Take both of them with a whole shaker of salt. Push through anyway.
The more difficult ones to sus out are the nervous voice versus the fear voice. I may not be using the right words, so let me explain. The nervous voice is the one that fills us with anxiety and dread. It’s the one that keeps us from doing something, not because there’s an eminent danger, but because it’s afraid of leaving the status quo. Worse, it’s afraid of succeeding. This is the voice that tells us not to ask out that person that we’re interested in. The one that tells us we aren’t good enough. It fills you with self-doubt. When you hear this voice, it is often a pointer for the exact direction that we should be moving in. When it says don’t do something, that may be exactly the thing you should do.
The fear voice is the one that tells you, instinctually, that something is wrong with a situation. The hairs on the back of your neck go up and your gut gets tight. This voice tells you that something is wrong with the situation. That the alley you’re about to go down is dangerous. That the person you just met isn’t being honest. This is a voice you listen to. Now, it isn’t always right; but you should pay closer attention. Your subconscious has picked up on something and you need to take it into consideration. I’ve honed this voice and it has saved me in some sketchy situations.
Sometimes the voice is even deeper – something akin to Jiminy Cricket, guiding you like a conscious.
After I figure out which voices I’m listening to, I consider the risks intellectually. I weight the the intellectual and intuitive together. The result is a decision that I can stand behind, knowing that I’ve taken the whole of me into consideration.
In the case of this trip, I decided not to go. It wasn’t easy. I was supposed to leave on Wednesday, October 1st. I know that the amazing people who do go down to Peru will have an incredible time. I know that I’ll be slightly jealous of the stories they come back with.
In the end, the decision was clear. I’ve been on the road since January and have put almost 10,000 miles on various motorcycles. I realized that going on another adventure would have been an escape; that I now need to get shit done. The deciding factor, though, was the nervous voice. It didn’t make a peep about going to Peru, but it sure made a fuss when I thought about spending the next 2-3 months off the road. It recoiled at the thought of recuperating and focusing on things that I’ve been putting off for the last year. Things that make me nervous and anxious. Things that, if I do them right, will open up a new path next year. Yeah, it wasn’t easy, but I’m pretty sure I made the right choice.
For those of you out on the road – travel safe and have a hell of a good time! To those continuing on in Peru, enjoy one incredible adventure! I’ll be with you again shortly.
Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.
The travel-hacking hobby is all about getting miles and points by signing up for credit cards that have good bonuses. Usually these are travel rewards cards put out by airlines or banks who allow transfers to airlines and hotels. For instance the Citi AAdvantage card which helps you earn American Airline miles or the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which helps you transfer to a number of travel programs.
While many are satisfied to spend on cash-back cards, 9 times out of 10 we travel-hackers will opt for the travel rewards cards mentioned above, confident that we can actually get more value out of miles than cash-back. But every now and again a cash-back card comes along that’s great for travelers and travel-hackers alike.
One such cash-back card is the Barclay Arrival Plus card. (Not to be confused with the other Barclay Arrival card.)
A bit about the card
Currently the Barclay Arrival Plus card is offering a 40,000 point bonus which you can receive after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days. This 40,000 bonus points will transfer into $400 worth of travel reimbursement. This includes hotel charges, airline charges, and rental car charges that exceed the minimum of $25.
You can also earn as you spend at a rate of 2 points per dollar spent.
Also note that after the first year, (which comes without a fee), the annual fee will be $89.
Why we recommend this card
While we definitely rely on frequent flyer miles and hotel points, there are some expenses we can’t cover with these currencies. Rental cars are a great example. But also many reward flights will come with a few residual charges, even if you’re choosing a low-surcharge mileage program like American Airlines and United Airlines. For instance airport taxes and the like. These are charges you can cover with the Barclay Arrival Plus points.
We just experimented with an entirely free trip to South America; a trip whose travel costs would equal zero. Now, keep in mind that for this trip we considered meal expenses to be unavoidable expenses that we would have whether we were at home buying groceries our out on the road buying food from food stands, so those expenses were not included in the $0 calculation.
This experiment would have been impossible without the opportunity to use the Barclay Arrival Plus points for expenses not covered by frequent flyer miles and hotel points. While we did still have a few expenses we hadn’t predicted, we quite nearly made it.
Being smart about your credit card strategies
I must make a disclaimer that is quite crucial in making any credit-card-related strategies successful. Perhaps it goes without saying, but these credit-card strategies are not worth it if you let the credit card get the best of you. the idea is to get the credit cards for their perks and make certain you can make on-time payments, and keep minimal balances on the card, ideally paying off the card before interest kicks in. If you already have a habit of treating your credit cards more like debit cards that you pay off in full on a regular basis, then the travel-hacking strategies are right for you. But if this will be a challenge for you, then it’s not worth the risk. Debt is a serious issue and should not be a part of the travel-hacking strategy.