October 21, 2014

Australia’s Red Center: The beautiful nothing

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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.

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At night, the “nothing” sings.

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

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

The drumbeat of the darkness.

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

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

It’s a lullaby.

There’s nothing in the red center of Australia.

Unless you take the time to look.

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Category: Oceania

October 11, 2014

Native eye for the tourist guy: Avoiding fashion no-nos

65055278_17b40a903cPhoto 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

 

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Category: Asia, Backpacking, Destinations, Vagabonding Styles

October 10, 2014

Deciding to Get Off the Road (well… for a bit)

 

Off the Road

(photo credit: ocarchives on Flickr)

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.

mototaxi

(this is a mototaxi and yes, it is a bit sketchy. photo credit: yonelcampos on Flickr)

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.

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Category: North America, Vagabonding Life

October 1, 2014

Slowing down in Ubud, Bali

Cost/day:

$28 per day per person

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?

There are many interesting and strange things to see on Bali, but if I had to pick just one it would be the statues you come across in seemingly random places.

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Describe a typical day:

Our morning routine stays the same wherever we are. We wake up, make breakfast and do work and homeschool.

After that we typically would go explore an area, temple, mountain, beach, etc. via motorbike. The countryside in Bali is so bright green and beautiful that we would often take longer routes to our intended destination just to see more of it.

Evenings we would relax, make dinner and simply enjoy the tranquility of being surrounded by rice fields.

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Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:

I went to a birthday party for an eighteen-year-old local, Wayan. I talked with his friends and teenage family members for a while and had few shots of whatever local drink they were consuming. Unlike the other times when I’d been with Wayan, where we talked about an array of things, I barely spoke with him.

When I arrived, he sat me down with his cousin, gave me food and a drink and explained that he now would be attending to the others at the party. For the rest of the two hours I was there he spent that time making sure everyone, including me, had enough to eat and drink. He served people at his own birthday party. I have no idea if this is normal in Balinese culture, but I found it incredibly endearing. Certainly a drastic difference to how I, ahem, behaved on my eighteenth birthday.

What do you like about where you are? Dislike?

There is so much to like about Ubud. I liked the people. We met so many kind and smiling people. I liked the amazingly beautiful temples and natural environment. I liked the traditions that were on display with so many aspects of life, from daily offerings (see picture below), to decorating temples, parades and ceremonies, one of which  happened in the middle of the rice field where we stayed. After being in southeast Asia for several months, I really liked the ability to get clean, organic food.

I disliked the traffic in Ubud. It is horrendous on some days. Too many buses on tiny streets causing massive traffic jams. It is not fun inhaling diesel exhaust on a motorbike. I disliked how touristy Ubud is. It is touristy in a different way than is the south of Bali, which is a beach destination, but it is touristy nonetheless.

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Describe a challenge you faced:

We planned to spend a month in Ubud. It actually took about a week of settling down to enjoy the slower pace of life. After having moved every 3-5 days for so many months, being able to relax and not plan our next destination took some adjustment. I guess it was just a feeling of being restless. But in the second week I settled in and had no problem whatsoever enjoying my time there.

What new lesson did you learn?

That I need a break from traveling sometimes. It is so easy to try to see everything in a country. I just had to except that I cannot see it all and to attempt to do so will only lead to burn out, which I was until we recuperated in Bali.

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Where next?

Penang, Malaysia

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Category: Asia, Vagabonding Field Reports

September 28, 2014

Book Review VANISHING TALES FROM ANCIENT TRAILS by James Dorsey

VANISHING TALES FROM ANCIENT TRAILS by James Dorsey, 2014, Vagabundo Magazine Publishing. Buy on Amazon.

DorseyVanishingTrailsWhen I first found his writing on celebrated travel webzine Perceptive Travel, there was one thing that made me an instant James Dorsey’s fan. It was the amount of literary adrenaline he was able to inject straight into readers’ eyes with the opening three lines of each and every story. Indeed, James would pull out his wordy meathook, and catch you right under the chin, pulling you into the action. You would feel the smells, sounds and fear he was trying to tell you all about. I don’t know why, but one of his simplest descriptions, “Akira tells me to follow him closely and I am practically in his back pocket” stayed with me until today: now, whenever I tell people to stay very close to my back, I tell them to “stick to my back pocket”, and I think of Dorsey’s time in Cambodia.

This is the best quality I admire in Dorsey’s writing: his simple, dry, straight forward and damn catchy list of words that one after another “dance on the page”, as Bukowsky put it. But in this case, they dance at the sound of tribal drums during a secret and ancient ritual consumed under a moonlit forest thicket. (more…)

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Category: Africa, Asia, South America, Travel Writing

September 27, 2014

The Dark Side of Travel Romance

shadowWhen it comes to the ways of love and romance, no aphrodisiac is quite so potent as travel. On the road — freed from the dull routines and restrictions of home — you become more open, more daring, more willing to seize the moment. Away from home, the people you meet (be they locals or fellow travelers) seem sexier, more exotic, less repressed — and this makes you feel sexy, exotic, liberated. Freed from your past, happily anonymous, and filled with a sense of possibility, you are never more willing (or able) to fall headlong into a love affair.

The only downside is this: Rekindling things when you get home almost never works. Regardless of how great you and your lover felt in Rio; regardless of how seamlessly the two of you bonded in Paris; regardless of the memories you cherish from Koh Samui, you are risking heartbreak if you try to resume the romance in Hackensack or Burbank or Minnetonka.

I used to wonder why this was the case — why, after sharing intense travel experiences, my relationships with the intriguing women I met in Cuzco or Tel Aviv would sour into a series of uninspired emails, awkward phone calls and (on occasion) anticlimactic reunions. Why would everything change once we’d stopped traveling?

I finally got a clue to the problem several winters ago in Thailand, when I met a Belgian lass I’ll call Katia. Willowy and doe-eyed, with a sexy pout and effortless European grace, Katia would have been out of my league back home — but in the colorful madness of Bangkok, we somehow fell into an easy love affair. Together, we took a train down to Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand, where we stayed in a tree-house hotel, swam the jungle-rivers, drank Mekhong whiskey, and shared the stories of our lives. After a week, when it came time for Katia to fly back to Brussels, I felt like we had really connected — that our time together had amounted to something special.

Katia must have felt the same way, since — over the course of the next several weeks — she told me how much she missed me, how much she cared for me, and how much our time together had meant to her. When she eventually invited me to join her in Brussels for Christmas, I didn’t hesitate: I bought a plane ticket and flew out as soon as I could.

Once I arrived in Brussels, things fell apart almost immediately. When I tried to put my arm around her as we walked to meet her friends at a bar, Katia curtly warned me not to touch her in front of her friends (“They know I’m not sentimental like that,” she told me). Once in the bar, Katia continually scolded me: for eating too much; for not sitting up straight; for not asking her friends the right kind of questions. For some reason, I’d suddenly become an embarrassment to Katia — an uncultured American fool who couldn’t do anything right.

The disappointment went both ways: Back in Thailand, Katia was laid-back and affectionate, and she’d talked about her passionate calling to design jewelry; in Brussels, I’d quickly discovered that she was a shrill busybody who used her art studio mainly to play computer games. When we visited Belgian museums, Katia sneered at my ignorance of art history; when I read a book on the train to Louven, she scolded me for not looking out at the scenery; when we ate dinner with her parents, she lost her temper when I didn’t pay enough attention to the conversation (which, I reminded her, was mostly in Dutch). In Thailand, Katia had found pleasure in the simplest moments; in Brussels, the only times she seemed remotely satisfied were when we were arguing.

After a week of being trapped in a small Brussels apartment with Katia, I had a realization: despite everything that had happened between us in Thailand, she was still complete stranger to me. I had fallen for Thailand as much as I’d fallen for Katia, and she had done the same. The world we’d experienced together as travelers was, in many ways, a transient fantasy world — and the mountaintop experiences we’d shared in Asia amounted to a sandcastle by the time I’d arrived in Europe.

Indeed, if the anonymity and renewal of travel makes love bloom easier, returning to the noise of your home-life makes road-romance reunions that much harder. Despite all the memories you’ve shared on the road, you can’t pick up the relationship where it left off, because that place is now thousands of miles away.

Last summer, after having not communicated for four years, Katia sent me an email suggesting we meet up and talk. We met — as friends — in Paris, and I felt like I got to know my old Belgian lover for the first time.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Apr. 10, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Europe, Sex and Travel, Vagabonding Advice

September 25, 2014

Reaching the bottom of the Grand Canyon

As magical as the Grand Canyon is from the top, peering down into red and purple shades of rock so far down your eyes lose an ability to judge the distance, it is yet more magical from the very bottom peering up. Perhaps because of the feeling of accomplishment that comes from a journey down, and perhaps from a feeling of quiet, peaceful seclusion from the modern world.

South Rim GC

Whatever the reason, it’s well worth a trek down just to spend the night at the bottom in either Phantom Ranch or nearby Bright Angel Campground. It may not feel that way as you wade through the tedious reservation process for Phantom Ranch, but that is not the logistical detail I’ll be going over in this post.

In this post, I’d like to give a little bit of insight for potential hikers trying to decide which trail to take, as there are 3 major trails leading down to the bottom, North Kaibob, South Kaibob, and Bright Angel Trail. Having hiked the entirety of each of these trails at some point, I’d love to give a hiker’s perspective.

 Bright Angel Trail 

Distance to Phantom Ranch: 9.9 miles

Access points: Phantom Ranch and Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim

Bright Angel Trail is probably the easiest trail to recommend because of its frequent water stops and moderate distance. Hikers who are not interested in going all the way down to the bottom of the canyon can hike down to the Indian Gardens region 4.9 miles down instead.

But what this trail is especially good for is the journey back up, regardless of which trail you’ve taken down. While it’s not the shortest of the trails we’ll talk about, it is the shortest one with water stops. Both of these details are extremely important for an upward journey. Hiking up the canyon can take significantly longer than hiking down and can be far more fatiguing.

The atmosphere of this trail is interesting as well. It will lead you through a quintessential red-rock desert type of environment until you reach the lush area of the Indian Gardens. After this point, you descent towards the river and complete the last part of your journey walking alongside it.

 

South Kaibob Trail

Distance to Bright Angel Campground: 7.1 miles

Access points: Bright Angel Campground and Yaki Point along the South Rim.

I chose this for an ascending hike one year and it was the most difficult Grand Canyon hike I’ve done. It is steep, has no water stops, and leads you through a dry, winding cliffside that offers little relief from the sun at times. Hikers who choose this route should be very intentional and realistic about the supplies they pack with them. It is indeed a shorter hike, as the shortest of the trails we’ll mention today, but the most strenuous one, so take this into account.

I recommend this trail mostly for descending. Particularly if a person is concerned about making it to the bottom in time for a scheduled dinner. (All meals at phantom ranch must be reserved and fall into a strict schedule). And while it’s not impossible to use this trail for ascending, it’s not to be taken lightly.

 

North Kaibob Trail

Distance to Phantom Ranch: 14 miles

Access points: Phantom Ranch and the North Rim Trailhead.

I chose this one to discuss last because it is my favorite, and I’d like to share a piece I wrote about it after hiking it last month.

But first, the logistical details: This trail is the longest of those mentioned today. Significantly so. And yet, it is not a strenuous 14 miles comparatively. It is not as steep, and the environment transitions frequently. There are plenty of water stops and as long as you are providing a realistic amount of time for the hike (anywhere from 5 – 9 hours), this is a wonderful choice for a descending hike. Anyone considering this hike for the ascending trip should remember that ascending hikes take significantly longer than descending.

This is not a very popular trail, as the only trail leading up to the North Rim, but I’d like to reference the thoughts I made in a post last month to advocate for this trail as a favorite.

 

“The North Rim is quiet.  If you stand and listen for a moment you don’t hear the chatter of a high traffic tourist destination as you would on the South Rim.  Instead you hear the wind through the pines.  In fact, the beginning of your trek does not feel like quintessential Canyon red rock dust and desert.  Instead you’re in a gentle pine forest.  In fact the first stretch of the North Kaibab Trail hike begins in this setting until the vegetation shrinks back and you can see the height of the cliff you’re standing on.  The view opens up and you make your way down along cliffs into the floor of a side canyon.  And then the landscape changes again.  Every few miles, in fact, the landscape of the North Kaibab seems to change into something new as the canyon walls rise around you, layering back until the rim disappears behind the cliffs nearest your path.

These early miles of the trail find you descending through an ancient solidified display of the earth’s history- a core sample of the layers of earth in front of your very eyes till you reach the most ancient layers of subtly glittering Vishnu Shist, so ancient it lacks any traces of organic, biological matter.  This amazing artifact of geological history lines the later miles of the trail like gravel, kicked along humbly by the feet of hikers.

This is also where you reach a little canyon creek that slips like melted glass through desert rock and brings green life wherever it goes.  Most of the remaining 7.2 miles of the North Kaibab follow this creek. As I looked at it, I wondered at how different it seemed from the forest creeks I grew up with in Ohio, clouded with decaying plant life and stirring up mud.  This water, cupped by canyon rock seemed more pure and more lively.  And the plants that line the banks are so foreign to someone who grew up far from the desert.  Prickly, spiny, spindly little plants keeping themselves as inward as possible, not spilling out clumsily into one another like the leaves and grasses of the east.  Orderly, linear plants.

The creekside portion of this trail levels out significantly and you find yourself anticipating each bend will reveal the little cabins of Phantom Ranch.

It’s always further than you think.  But I don’t mind in that environment.  Even tired and hungry, I’m happy to be there.”

North Kaibob

North Rim GC

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Category: Adventure Travel, Destinations, North America

September 21, 2014

Nepal: A last minute escape

Not too long ago my friend and I went to Nepal during our 8 month round the world trip. It was a last minute stop-over (escape) during our three weeks in India, and we were pleasantly surprised with how beautiful and easy it was compared to the chaos we were experiencing in India. We were supposed to take an overnight train and bus from New Delhi, but after missing the train had to book a last minute flight to Kathmandu. We took a cab to Nagarkot, a village in the mountains, and stayed at a cute hotel.

After resting for a day, we decided to go on a three day trek that our hotel helped arrange. We had a great guide named Bikram who works for a Territory Himalaya (we highly recommend him) and left the next day. It was considered one of the easier treks you can do, but it was as hot as can be and by the end of the three days I can dropped a few pounds for sure.

After hiking all day up and down and through the woods then back into the sun, we made it to a small hotel for the night. We were hiking towards Chisapani, where we would stay our last night before hiking and then getting a local bus back to Kathmandu.

(more…)

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Category: Asia, Destinations

September 16, 2014

Vagabonding Field Report: Escaping to the real Hawaii

Catnip to adventure travellers in search of an authentic Hawaiian escape, Molokai is often referred to as ‘The most Hawaiian island’. With little other than true Aloha on offer, those who board a tiny turboprop plane in Honolulu should expect to step back in time when they land in Ho’olehua.

Unlike its neighbours Molokai does not cater for the package holiday goer. There are no major chain hotels or supermarkets, no luxury resorts and very few tour operators. Without the usual selection of restaurants, activities and tours to occupy your time Molokai encourages you to connect with the heritage of the Hawaiian people, to drink in the lush landscape and immerse yourself in the tropical waters.

Cost/day

Hawaii is not a low cost destination however there are a number of ways you can keep your travel expenses to a minimum

Connections to Molokai – $98 – $140 return

With no major airlines flying into Molokai a connection is essential, this can be obtained via Mokulele Air on Oahu or Maui, or via the Hawaiian Ocean Project Ferry on Maui.

Accommodations on Molokai based on double occupancy – from $120/night

Despite the closure of the island’s only resort in 2008, there are plenty of places to lay your head. Self-catered options are by far the most popular, with limited dining options on the island kitchen facilities provide the flexibility to be budget and health conscious should you wish.

During my week on Molokai I rented a one bedroom Vacations-Abroad.com Wavecrest Condo which offers self-catered accommodation, a private lanai with views over the ocean to Maui, and use of a private pool. It was also equipped with snorkelling gear, beach towels, games and a small library of reference books detailing various aspects of the island and its heritage.

If you’re feeling adventurous check out Pu’u O Hoku Ranch. Offering a rather more rustic retreat this biodynamic and organic ranch and farm is set on 14,000 acres of protected land, immersed in the transcendent beauty of forest, sky and ocean.

Transport on Molokai – from $40/day

There is no public transport on the island so a rental car is a necessity if you are to avoid high taxi fares throughout your stay.

For international visitors Alamo offer standard car rental packages, I paid around $280 for one week rental of an economy class car however on arrival I received a free upgrade to a convertible sports car as the depot were sold out of economy options.

If you hold a valid US car insurance policy of your own, you can rent from local resident Pat who operates Mobettah Cars.

Describe a typical day

Although to some it may appear as though Moloaki has little in the way of entertainment there’s ample to keep you occupied during your stay.

After a breakfast of tropical fruits and pancakes it’s time to hit the beach, and at just 38 miles in length you can be at any beach on the island with ease.

I spent a number of afternoons exploring the island’s coastline, lazing on Papohaku Beach and diving on the fringing reef which runs like a marine highway between Molokai and neighbouring Maui.

Action & Adventure – from $100pp

If outdoor adventure is your cup of tea then head to Molokai Outdoors who will outfit you for guided sea kayaking, scuba diving and hiking excursions. I chose to dive the fringing reef and had a close encounter with some of Hawaii’s turtles!

History & Heritage – $199pp

Molokai is renowned for its rich cultural heritage and breathing in the island’s past is an integral itinerary addition.

Those keen to immerse themselves in Molokai’s darker side can take a guided mule ride or hike down through the Kalaupapa National Historical Park to a remote peninsula that was once home to those islanders afflicted with Hansen’s Disease. As I was on a restricted budget I opted to visit the spectacular Kalaupapa Lookout which offers a dramatic view of the peninsula and the island’s vast sea cliffs.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?

There are no traffic lights on the island!

Molokai is home to just 8,000 people. There is one major road which links the east and west coast and another which links the north and south. In all honesty there’s just no need for traffic management.

For a brief snapshot of my week long stay on Molokai check out this video or refer to my handy Molokai travel guide for more information.

Have you explored the island of Molokai? Share your trip report with me below.

 

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Category: North America, Vagabonding Field Reports

September 14, 2014

Finding new perspectives on familiar places

It can be difficult to find new angles through which to view places you already know well. Human nature being what is, it takes a conscious effort to see anything through new eyes. We tend to see only what we’re familiar with, and what strikes our vision on the most surface levels: the old buildings, the people, the streets, the here-and-now bustle that is so easy to get caught up in. But shifting our approach is sometimes needed if we are to really appreciate all the layers and the richness any place has to offer.

As a travel writer I’m always forced to do this, and though it’s challenging, it always rewards me with a much deeper perspective of a city’s beating heart and long-hidden scars.

For example, trying to find a topic in which to write about can suddenly have me thinking thematically. In the case of Amsterdam, I was recently casting about for a theme. The picturesque canals and predictable clichés are worn out. I wanted to go deeper.

Clichés are lame.

Clichés are lame.

Of course, a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance in previously intolerant times is a strong undercurrent in the city’s history, shaping its character. But everyone knows about the city’s lenient attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. The pot-selling “coffeshops” and the brightly painted brothels of the Red Light District are hard to miss, and at any rate weed and sex are not exactly major taboos anymore. So, in doing this “personality profile”, as I like to view travel writing, I decided to focus on the less well-known, more hidden-in-plain-sight landmarks that quietly but effectively tell the story of Amsterdam’s legacy of tolerance in intolerant times.

The point is, looking around the city for these things forced me to look through fresh eyes. I began to notice things I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Statues and plaques commemorating Amsterdam’s history—normally easy to pass over in the bustling, thoroughly modern city—began to emerge from the background, as if reaching out through the centuries to educate me with a silent power.

Paying attention to these small reminders eventually told a story, a long and rich narrative, of how the city’s philosophy of tolerance became a beacon for many persecuted people seeking a safe refuge from their own country’s intolerance in a way that the pot bars and sex shops could not. Small churches emerged from the urban crush and hordes of camera-toting tourists, inviting me into their quiet, solemn interior just as they’d invited minority sects whose beliefs had marked them out for discrimination. Small Catholic churches in times of Protestant intolerance (and vice versa) thrived here, as did humble little synagogues that operated without interference or malice from the city’s fathers.

Around a corner from a busy street, a small brick building in a quiet courtyard bears a faded plaque indicating that English pilgrims came here to worship before heading to the New World. They prayed here, and then boarded the Mayflower to escape persecution in their home country.  They were made to feel comfortable here.

The remnants of more recent times came to the fore as well. I begin to notice the many houses bearing historical plaques indicating that the occupants courageously sheltered Jewish families during the Second Word War.

Not far away a statue of a portly, none-too-attractive dockworker seems at first glance to be a forgettable, bland post-war tribute to laborers. Look closer and you’ll find an inscription indicating that it memorializes the brave stand of the Amsterdam’s dockworkers, who staged the first strike undertaken in Occupied Europe to protest the mistreatment of the city’s Jews by the Nazis.

Statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

Statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

The strike, held a few days after 400 Jewish men were herded together on the spot where the statue now stands, was brutally put down by the SS within hours, and is remembered by few today. The statue’s rotund subject was a real-life non-Jewish dockworker who participated in the strike because he felt it was the right thing to do.

A small room in the city’s historic Dutch Theatre, once a point of assembly for Jews about to be shipped off to concentration camps, holds a humble memorial of three little stones. The memorial seems unimportant. Search for the true story, however, and you’ll find that the three stones represent a local man named Walter Suskind, his wife and small daughter. Suskind smuggled 1,200 Jewish children to safety during the war. In 1945 his work was discovered by the Nazis and he and his family were themselves sent to Auschwitz, never to return.

Hollandsche Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre)

Hollandsche Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre)

Soon I begin to understand how many centuries’ worth of brave Amsterdammers have risked it all to welcome and aid minorities in dark times, and that courage was common place in the face of tyranny. It underscores the strength of Amsterdam’s heritage of tolerance more than any fashionable pot bar or cheesy sex shop ever could.

My point is, the “what” that you look for isn’t nearly as important as the act of searching for new ways to connect to a city’s unique DNA. The important thing is looking from a thematic perspective, searching for that thread of history that informs its culture. This can provide the prism through which you can see through the here-and-now veneer and access the richness of a city’s historical character, forged in the crucible of time and trial.

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Category: Europe, Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Writing
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