July 29, 2014

Vagabonding book club: Chapter 11: Coming home

wolfe island

“Of all the adventures and challenges that wait on the vagabonding road, the most difficult can be the act of coming home. On a certain level, coming home will be a drag because it signals the end of all the fun, freedom and serendipity that you enjoyed on the road. But on a less tangible level, returning home after a vivd experience overseas can be just plain weird and unsettling. Every aspect of home will look more or less like it did when you left, but it will feel completely different.”

Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, Chapter 11 by Rolf Potts

Of all of the journeys we make the journey home is often the most displacing. 

When we take off from everything we know and dive, head long, into the great and glorious unknown, we do so knowing that there will be discomforts, things will shock us and we’ll be confused. We are mentally and emotionally prepared for the culture shock and the disparity between everything we are, everything we know, and the new realities that will engulf us.

In coming home, we often don’t take into account that, after an extended time away, living in an entirely different reality, we’re doing the very same thing in reverse. We hit the ground taking for granted that everything will be the same, assuming that we know what to expect, feeling as if it should all be easy. Except it’s not.

For me, the hard things aren’t what one would expect to be difficult: Big box stores completely overwhelm me, after a year of shopping in markets and corner stores. The onslaught of language on my senses: In my second and subsequent languages, I can choose what to make the effort to read and filter what I don’t want to bother with. In English, I can’t help but read every single word. I can listen to one conversation at a time, and let the background chatter in a foreign language rush by me. In English, I hear the guy three rows behind me in the bus complaining about his girlfriend’s mother and it drives me batty. It’s having to make a choice between twenty brands of ketchup. It’s Fox New’s trite treatment of a country no one can find on a map. It’s the sudden lack of Kinder Eggs.

It never fails, I hit the ground expecting “home” in all of it’s warm and comforting glory, and instead I find that I’m once again an alien in a strange land. It only helps marginally to remember that it’s me, not “them.” On seven levels, re-entry is wonderful. On seven more, it’s unsettling, and hard to navigate without weirding out the people who love us most. I’ve learned three things that seem to help somewhat:

  1. Talk less. (I love Walt Whitman’s admonition to, “leave the best untold.”)
  2. Listen more. (This is our approach abroad, when we’re trying to learn, why not at home?)
  3. Give it time. (In time you’ll find the ways in which the you you’ve become will integrate and enrich everything you rediscover at home.)

What about you? What are your experiences with re-entry and coming home? What have you learned? How has it changed you?

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Category: Travel Writing

July 27, 2014

Enlightening Self-inflicted Ruin Travel

JakartaPunkMarcoFerrarese

The air is unbreathable, hot, and terribly humid. The air conditioner perched at the top of the wall at my right is just an empty plastic shell that reminds me that there could be some extra comfort, if someone had cared to replace the wiring. Instead, rivulets of sweat pour down my forehead and temples, sliding down my spine and flowing over the small of my back, soaking into the elastic of my underwear. I had to take my shirt off to endure this first Indonesian live test.

               “Cut the set short, I can’t breathe…” Sam screams from behind the drums, his man-boobs twitch, lucid with sweat.

               “Why man? They are loving it!” I answer screaming on top of amplifier white noise between two songs.

               “I said cut it fucker, I can’t fucking breathe! I am feeling sick! There’s no air!”

OK then, roger.

This is the best travel I have done recently, hands down.

We are at the back of Khansa Studio’s rehearsal room in Pamulang, somewhere in the sprawling suburbs of Jakarta, nestled between a row of halfstacks and a small melee of young Indonesian hardcore punk believers. They are probably twenty, but the room’s so cramped it feels like they are hundreds, all blowing hot air in our faces. One has just finished walking up the wall to my right, supported by a bunch of other lunatics pushing him at the small of his back. From my perspective, I believe for a moment that the room is rolling sideways, and this guy’s trying to run with it. When Sam hits the last of four strokes with his sticks, we launch into the last song of the night, and I wonder if this still makes sense. Looking at how the kids spin and jump and crawl on top of each other, forcing me to step back against the amps, I am tempted to say “yes”. But reflecting on the fact that I am sweating as if I were playing guitar inside of a Finnish sauna, our drummer is having a respiratory crisis, and tonight – and for the rest of this tour – we will never get paid a single rupiah, my European heritage materializes with a hammer to smash the bubble of underground dedication right before my eyes. Why are you doing this, Marco?

I don’t know. Probably because these days I only conceive traveling as a concoction of brutal anthropology, self-inflicted ruin and mind-numbing exploration of the weirdest fringes available in the world. But it does indeed make me feel good, for I know that I’m probably not the only one, but certainly one of the few, to have had this vision and this cross. Suddenly all of the problematic divides among travelers and tourists disappear, because they are not important anymore. I’m only trying to make my time on Earth meaningful to my own self, I guess. Is there anything wrong with it?

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

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, On The Road

July 25, 2014

Lost in the crowd when traveling?

Lost in a Crowd

(Lost in a Crowd – photo by Keoni Cabral)

This week I’m in San Francisco, after riding my motorcycle from Washington. First, I have to say – the ride down the PCH was in-damn-credible! Thanks to a friend’s suggestions, I got off the PCH near Fortuna and took the Avenue of the Giants scenic route. Who would have thought that there was a scenic route to an already incredible scenic route? I’ll write more about this another time. Take my recommendation, though, if you are ever in southern Oregon, take 199 West and to 101 South, then just take that as far as you’re able. Here’s a couple pictures to wet your appetite.

Trinity at the Pacific Ocean

(Trinity and I at the Pacific Ocean)

Avenue of the Giants

(Avenue of the Giants)

Now – this week, I wanted to ask a question. When you travel to busy, vibrant locations (big cities and such) – do you feel a bit lost? A bit secluded?

The other night, I was talking with my friend Boris, who I met when trekking through Siberia (a real awesome guy, btw). Anyway – we were discussing what it was like to visit a large city like San Francisco when you’re traveling solo. We both felt that if you don’t already know someone there, it’s easy to feel a bit alone. It’s the reason he gave me some things to do in SF; recommendations that would get me started and he also introduced me to some of his friends.

Truth is – often when I’m traveling solo, I feel the need to some alone time to acclimate. I remember going to Göteborg, Sweden a few years ago. It was a great place to hang out with a vibrant night life. Before I could venture out, though, I had to spend about a day alone in the hotel to absorb the new environment. Only after that did I feel comfortable in going out to explore the city. Yet, on every adventure I’ve been on, I’m often traveling as part of a small group. In those instances, I felt comfortable in most situations (well – except for some really sketchy ones). I was able to jump right in and explore the surroundings.

I noticed the same thing at World Domination Summit a few weeks ago. I was fortunate to have a lot of friends to hang out with and springboard from; but, it’s something that I would have struggled with otherwise. I find that with small, intimate destinations it’s much easier for me to get involved and to be a vibrant part. Once there’s too many people, I tend to step back and observe, rather than participating.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts – is this just part of my introvert tendencies – or is this a more common feeling?

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, On The Road, Solo Travel

July 22, 2014

Long term travel with a family: You have to really want to do this

Camping with kids

“You really have to WANT to do this, don’t you, Dear?”

Ann’s words have echoed in my mind as her sweet, octogenarian face has pleasantly haunted my afternoon walks. We wandered slowly through the natural bridge outside of Waitomo with her and her husband, Ross. I quietly got the kids’ attention and encouraged them to walk more slowly behind him, and not press forward as he did his aged best to step over tree roots and up the rocky stairs to the high meadow where we laughed together about the crazy idea of standing in the presence of 3 million year old oysters. Tony gave him a leg up over the fences. He laughed, good-naturedly, when the boys leapt out from behind blackberry bushes with a roar, as he had undoubtedly done forty years before I took my first breath.

Ann was hand washing for the two of them in a little tub out the back of her camper van, using water that Ross was bringing, one bucket at a time from the bridge. He’d lower the bucket the twenty or so feet to the surface with a long rope and then haul it up, mostly full, hand over hand before delivering it to his white haired wife. By the time she was done rinsing he was there to help her wring out his trousers, one on each end, twisting hard, and hang the clothes from a line he’s strung under the awning.

She commiserated with me over hand washing for six, producing meals for an army on two burners in a three foot square space, and the difficulties of adventuring with children. She’d raised a tribe too, in her day, and they’d camped the length and breadth of their island homes. Perhaps she’s a premonition of myself.

You have to really WANT to do this.

I’ve been thinking about that statement, and the layers of meaning it embodies.

Truth be told, living this way is a lot of work. Staying home is far and away easier. But the best things in life are always the things that require the most from us, that we have to work our rear-ends off to achieve. The things we are proudest of mean so much to us because they’ve cost us the most.

Marriage is like that.

Raising kids is like that.

Traveling is like that.

All three together is the perfect storm of all that and two bags of chips.

There was so much encouragement in Ann’s face as we talked and washed and shared “mama” stories. The older I get the more I appreciate the stories of old women. I think because I’m just beginning to understand the many-layered thing that a woman’s life is, stretched thin over the better part of a century. Perhaps it’s because I can see myself in their eyes more clearly than I could at twenty, or thirty.

You have to really WANT to do this.

So many people give up. They give up on the thing they really, really want to do. There are so many reasons: It gets too hard. It costs too much. It hurts too badly. It isn’t what we signed up for. Someone else fails us. We fail ourselves. It’s inconvenient. It’s easier to stay home, in some capacity. We feel that we don’t deserve it, aren’t “worth” it. It’s a fight.

I’ve been thinking lots about the things I really want to do. The big things and the small things. The hard things and the harder things.The things that seem mundane, like staying married until I’m in my eighties, raising kids who are productive citizens and learning to write. The things that seem like pipe dreams too: seeing Antarctica, changing the world, and successfully handing my parents’ legacy to my grandkids.  I really, really want to do these things.

For tonight, the things I really want to do included cooking 3 kilos of meat, enough potatoes, cheesy cauliflower & salad for an army, making a double batch of ginger cookies and making my husband laugh until he was squirming to get away from me, which is an accomplishment. I want to sit and sip my tea, munch my still warm ginger treat and thank the gods that be for friends who love me enough to mail me the exact type of tea that keeps me from killing the children; who I want so desperately to strangle sometimes when we all are living in 126 square feet. And I’m willing to live in 126 square feet of rolling space because I really, really want, quite desperately, to make their childhood epic and not to miss a moment of it.

What do you really want to do?

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Category: Family Travel, Oceania, On The Road

July 20, 2014

My top beaches around the world

Since it’s summer and the beach is on my mind, I thought I would do a recap of my favorite beaches I’ve visited over the years. I’m not really one for the crowded party beaches, or cold weather beaches, both of those seem to have made my list because of how beautiful they are. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that there’s nothing much better than walking a quite beach at sunset, reading a good book in the shade, or enjoying a tropical drink with the ocean in view. Most of these beaches took a bit of traveling to get to but they were worth it.

We’ll start with Italy, specifically the Amalfi Coast.

A friend and I made the trip here a few years ago and I was amazed at how picturesque it was. We rented a car and had to drive up along the coastal cliffs, which for me was a bit nerve-wrecking. The roads were narrow and windy and people drive insanely fast. In September we were able to find a last minute hotel for around $40 a night, with a beautiful ocean view. To get to the beach you had to follow steep switchback stairs for about half an hour through charming coastal neighborhoods. Some parts of the beach are crowded, others very secluded.

Beach number two, Gili Meno, a small island in Indonesia.

Getting here required a flight to Bali, then a flight to the island of Lombok, then a taxi to the harbor, and then a long boat to the second island in the Gili chain. My friend and I were dropped off on the beach after sunset with no hotel reservations and no plan, but as we walked the coast we easily found a hotel with friend staff right on the beach (as are all of the hotels there). You can walk the perimeter of the entire island in one hour, and the sunsets are supposedly world famous.

(more…)

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Category: General, Images from the road, On The Road

July 19, 2014

Skepticism and salvation in Cyprus

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Photo Credit: TeryKats via Compfight cc

Perhaps I never would have met the Iranian had it not been for the influenza
epidemic raging across Europe at the time. Because of the flu,
Larnaca — a holiday beach town on the southern coast of Cyprus — was
nearly empty of tourists. I was walking along the deserted beachfront
promenade when a lone man in coveralls approached me.

“I am from Iran,” he said. “I think you are not from Cyprus.”

I smiled at both the man’s abrupt introduction and his unusual appearance.
He looked like he’d just come in from bow-hunting deer in Idaho: dark-green
coveralls, heavy boots, a bright orange stocking cap. He wore thick
glasses and looked to be about 40 years old.

“Yes, I’m not from Cyprus,” I told him. “I’m from America.”

“America!” the man exclaimed. “I have an American nickname: Harrison.
Like Harrison Ford. I made up this name because I like Harrison Ford, and I
love America. In my mind, I think that America must be like Paradise. Is
it wonderful to live there?”

“Well I wouldn’t call it Paradise, but I like living there.”

“I wish I could go to America, but I cannot get a visa. So last week I came
here to Cyprus instead.”

“Vacation?”

The Iranian scoffed. “For me, there is no vacation. I come here to fix
satellites.”

“Satellites?”

“Yes, that is my work. The police in Iran don’t like satellites, so I have
to come to Cyprus. There are many satellites in Larnaca.”

Since I was quite certain Cyprus didn’t have a space program, I decided to
clarify. “What kind of satellites?”

“Satellites!” Harrison exclaimed. He pointed skyward and waved his hands
around. “In Iran, the police say they are bad for women, so I have no
work.”

“How are satellites bad for women?”

“With a satellite, women can see too many things. They can see Dallas.”

“Dallas?”

“Dallas! Julia Roberts! CNN! The police think women will forget their
duty to Islam.”

“Oh, right. You fix satellite dishes.”

“And many other electronics. But Iran is not a good place for me to live or
work. I hope Cyprus is better. Tell me, did you come to Larnaca for
living?”

“No, I’m just here for a visit.”

“A tourist! You come for the beach, or to see Lazarus?”

“What’s Lazarus?”

“Lazarus. He was friends with Jesus. His tomb is here. Don’t you read the
Bible?”

“Of course, but I’m pretty sure his tomb should be in Israel. And it should
be empty, since the story is that Jesus raised him from the dead.”

“Yes, but after Jesus gave him life, Lazarus decided to come to Cyprus. If
you wish, I can show you where is his tomb.”

“Sure,” I shrugged. “Let’s see it.”

As I followed the stocking-capped Iranian away from the beachfront, I
couldn’t help chuckling at the thought of Lazarus choosing to come to
Cyprus (of all places) after his resurrection. I kept getting this mental
image of a post-miracle press event at the open tomb in Bethany, with
reporters shoving in to ask questions. “Lazarus,” I imagined them saying,
“Jesus just raised you from the dead after four days in the tomb — what’ll
you do now?” And instead of Disneyland, Lazarus tells them he’s going to
Larnaca.

“Why do you smile?” Harrison asked me as we went down the winding back streets of Larnaca in search of the tomb.

“I’m just wondering why Lazarus came to Cyprus,” I said. “I’m wondering
what he did when he got here.”

The Iranian shrugged. “He died again, I think.”

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
Lazarus or no Lazarus, I had never planned on going to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in the first place. Originally, my plan had been to find a direct flight from Rome to Cairo. I’d soon discovered, however, that Cyprus Air offered passage to Cairo at less than half the cost of other airlines. The only catch was a 24-hour layover in Larnaca. Always a sucker for cheap airfare, I went for it.

The drawback to this was that I arrived in Cyprus without any idea of what I
could see or do there. The tourist authority at the Larnaca airport gave
me a stack of brochures, but it seemed self-defeating to spend much time
studying them when I had only a day in the country. When I’d skimmed over
the parts about how Larnaca featured the St. Lazarus Church, it never occurred
to me that Lazarus himself might be there. The Iranian who called himself
Harrison set me straight.

“Do you believe in Lazarus?” he asked as we made our way to the tomb.

“Well, I don’t really believe he was raised from the dead after four days,”
I said.

“But his bones are here in Larnaca! Don’t you believe in the Christian
God?”

“I believe in God, but I also believe in a healthy dose of skepticism.”

“What is ‘skepticism’?”

“Skepticism is like doubt. A skeptic is someone who doesn’t believe very
easily. That’s me.”

“Do you believe in artificial blood?”

This question threw me a bit. “Artificial blood? Like in the movies?”

“No, in real life. The blood that people use.”

“I don’t think I know about that.”

“It comes from America, and doctors use it. I read this in a magazine, and
it sounded crazy. Still, I am not a skeptic. I think it is real. I want
to see it and know what color it is. I want to know how it is made. Do you
know where I might see some?”

“Actually, this is the first I’ve heard of anything like artificial blood.”

“You are a skeptic.”

I laughed. “Or maybe just ignorant.”

Harrison reached out and took me lightly by the arm. “Do you know how to
get a visa to America?” he said in a quiet voice.

“Not really,” I said. “I’m from America, so of course I don’t need a visa
to go there. Why do you want one — you want to see artificial blood that badly?”

“Iran is a bad place,” he said, ignoring my clumsy joke. “There was some
hope before, but things are getting bad. The elections will make things
worse. I don’t want to go back; I want to leave.”

“What about Cyprus? Aren’t you going to stay here?”

“My visa is only for three months. But while I am here, I want to get an
American visa. Can’t you help me?”

“I’d like to, but I don’t know anything about the visa process. Especially
for Iranians.”

“Can you write down for me your name and address in America? Maybe it would
help if I had an American friend.”

“I don’t think having an address will make a difference. Especially the
address of someone you just met in the street.”

Harrison looked a bit hurt by this comment. “But I think we are already
friends,” he insisted.

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
St. Lazarus Church is a sturdy stone structure in a clean courtyard not far from the old Larnaca Fort. Harrison waited outside as I entered to discover a narrow maze of wooden pews, vaulted ceilings and curving stone-block columns. Ornate chandeliers hung from the stone arches, and an intricate gilded iconostation dominated the front of the church. Byzantine saints with golden halos peeked out from every wall and corner. A painted wooden altar in the middle of the church contained a silver crucifix and large glass disc fastened down with a ruby-studded rim. Beneath the glass was the yellowed crown of a human skull.

According to church tradition, Lazarus went to Cyprus in about A.D. 33 to
escape persecution at the hands of the Jews in Bethany. He settled in
Larnaca (then called Kition) and was consecrated as the first bishop of
Kition by the Apostles Paul and Barnabas. During his time in Cyprus,
Lazarus never smiled save on one occasion, when he saw someone stealing a
pot and said, “The clay steals the clay.” His melancholy demeanor was said
to be a result of the four days his soul spent in Hades before Jesus raised
him from the dead. He died for the second and final time in A.D. 63, and
the present stone church was built on the site of his tomb in the late ninth
century.

Harrison was waiting for me outside when I’d finished peering around inside
the old church. “Was it a good place?” he said. “Are you glad I showed it
to you?”

“Yes,” I said. “It was very interesting.”

“Do you believe in Lazarus now?”

“No, I’m afraid I’m still a skeptic when it comes to Lazarus.”

“I am not a skeptic. I believe in Lazarus.”

“Are you a Christian?”

“Of course not!” he laughed. “I am a Muslim.”

“Do Muslims believe in the miracle of Lazarus?”

“The Koran does not speak of Lazarus. But the Koran does say that Jesus
could do miracles. I think it is bad to be a skeptic. I think you should
believe.”

“A skeptic believes in many things, but he also doubts. All I’m saying is
that I doubt the miracle of Lazarus.”

“But how can you doubt miracles if you believe in God?”

“God is God — I just don’t believe he deals much in miracles. I don’t much
believe in believers, either. That’s how skepticism works.”

Harrison nodded solemnly. “There are too many believers in Iran. I think I
am a skeptic sometimes, too.” He paused for a moment, then went on. “Do
you think I am a good man?”

“Sure, I think so.”

“Then can you please give me your address for an American visa?”

“I don’t think my address will make a difference on your visa.”

“But will you give it to me?”

For some reason, I didn’t want to encourage what seemed like a doomed
enterprise. “It will take a lot more than my address to get you to
America.”

“But will you give it to me?”

I gave Harrison a hesitant stare, still not comfortable at being the object
of such blind hope. “OK,” I said finally. “Give me some paper.”

Harrison unzipped his coveralls and took out a small, dogeared notebook.
“If anybody asks, you must tell them I am your friend.”

“I think I can do that,” I said. I took the notebook and wrote down my
American address — touched by Harrison’s desperate sense of optimism, but
still skeptical at his odds for a new life.

When I’d finished, Harrison thanked me profusely and made vague plans to meet me that evening. After he’d gone, I stuck around the courtyard to stroll
through the Byzantine museum and examine the marble graves in the adjacent Protestant merchant cemetery.

Before I went back to the waterfront, however, I returned to the St. Lazarus
sanctuary to get one more look at what may or may not have been the bones of a man who may or may not have been raised from the dead.

 

Originally published by Salon.com in February 2000

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Category: Rolf Potts, Travel Writing

July 15, 2014

Vagabonding Book Club: Chapter 10

Offerings, Bali

“Thus, travel compels you to discover your spiritual side by simple elimination: Without all the rituals, routines and possessions that give your life meaning at home, you’re forced to look for meaning within yourself…. Indeed, if travel is a process that helps you “find yourself,” it’s because it leaves you with nothing to hide behind– it yanks you out from the realm of rehearsed responses and dull comforts, and forces you into the present. Here in the fleeting moment, you are left to improvise, to come to terms with your raw, true Self.”

Chapter 10 Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts

This chapter falls in an interesting week for me, having just finished walking the Camino de Santiago, 800 km, France into Spain a little over a week ago. It was an interesting thing, to make a pilgrimage as a non-religious person. My experience, over the years of travel, has been the same as Rolf’s, in that the moments of greatest spiritual impact and growth have, invariably, been mundane moments and not visits to great temples or sunrise yoga sessions. For me, the forward motion of travel has become a meditation of its own; a ritual that draws me back to the essentials of my internal life. Lightening my physical pack and lightening the internal loads as well.

I love the image of how travel systematically strips away all of the things that we hide behind: material possessions, relationships, jobs and titles, busy-ness, social constructs and a million other things. We’re left standing in the world, naked, with no one looking except ourselves. It is in that moment that we begin to see who we really are. Sometimes it’s necessary to walk naked for quite some distance before we can begin to pick up a few things and clothe ourselves intentionally in the lessons we’ve learned and the discoveries of self as we relate to the whole, in both the temporal and spiritual sense. To me, the truest of spiritual revelations have their boots fully grounded in the mud on the trail.

How about you? Do you travel for spiritual reasons? Where have you been? What have you learned? What surprised you about the journey?

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Category: Travel Writing

July 13, 2014

Lessons from a tour guide, part I

This week I returned from a month and a half overseas working as a tour guide, helping to lead two different groups on an epic Best-of-Europe grand tour. The experience was a new one for me; after years of exploring the continent’s cobbled backstreets and ancient cities as a solo travel writer, I found myself with the unique opportunity of being a guide for one of America’s most well-respected touring companies.

plane image for blog

A couple of concerns dogged me as I flew over the Arctic Circle, the plane making its slow path from my home base of Seattle to the tour departure point of Amsterdam. Questions like, how would I be able to handle a large group as we steam across the continent day in and day out? And, how will the mechanics of moving groups from one site to the other in an efficient way work? But these concerns paled next to the most significant challenge: Helping the scores of American travelers connect to the history and culture of the places they came so far to experience.

Staring out my window at the endless expanse of the north Atlantic, I began to feel the weight of the responsibility settle into my gut. How do I curate this experience for our flock? I’d always done it for myself just fine; teaching others how to appreciate the richness of Europe was something I’d never needed to do beyond my writing. It was easy enough to crank out articles about the places I’d visited and about the treasures—the food, the history, the people, all the things that make up the culture—those places had to offer. Would I be able to help our travelers connect to them and appreciate them in the same way that I did?

A final goodbye to the group near the Eiffel Tower at dusk.

A final goodbye to the group near the Eiffel Tower at dusk.

The teaching I’d done before—giving free travel talks at public libraries to would-be travelers who were interested in learning how to create their own independent European adventure—was indispensable. The classes I’d taught had given me a sense of what tickled a traveler’s fancy and what common-sense issues they worried about. This gave me the advantage of being able to anticipate questions and concerns, sometime before the group members even knew they had them.

The true challenge was facilitating the tour member’s experience of the culture. It was in trying to cast new food experiences as a part of good travel, as “sightseeing for your palate”. It was in helping them fend off museum overload by urging them to see the art of the Louvre and the Accademia with their hearts rather than their mind. It was in not rushing through another “check the box” locale (don’t rush through St. Mark’s square, I counseled, just take your time and find your own way to relate to the space). And it was in fending off cathedral overload by teaching that architecture was art we walk through—art that took generations of devoted believers and craftsman to create—rather than just another drafty old building.

Helping the group appreciate the elegant, historic decay of Venice is a challenge when the city is crowded and hot.

venice 1

Finally I kept the old teacher’s maxim close to my heart: “The task of the teacher is to honor the integrity of fact while at the same time igniting the student’s imagination.”

Over the course of the following weeks I’d work on striking that balance, always trying to bring long-ago stories and long-dead people to Technicolor life. Success for the tour guide also means the tourists returning home knowing that the struggles, the tragedies and triumphs of those who inhabited the majestic castles and cobbled city streets so long ago set the stage for the world as we know it today.

The trick to achieving that was helping them forge an emotional connection to the events a given site had witnessed; that its history was not just a collection of faceless dates and facts, but human beings with hopes and dreams who lived in similarly dramatic times of war, economic uncertainty and dramatic social change. Those folks tried to make the best of it, and somehow got through it. We can too. But more than just the appreciation of history, it’s the appreciation of the culture that really informs a successful travel experience. My hope is that the tour members came away with a renewed perspective on how Europe’s endlessly varied tapestry of cultures, while wonderfully diverse, are similar to our own in the most fundamentally human ways.

If you ever find yourself in the trying but satisfying role as tour guide, I think you’ll find that those lessons are your tour members’ best souvenirs.

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Category: Europe, Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Case Studies, Vagabonding Life

July 11, 2014

Lesson from Siberia: making it till morning

Camping in Siberia

(Camping in Siberia)

Earlier this year, I rode a Ural motorcycle and sidecar through Siberia, up 1800km of ice roads and ending in the Arctic Circle. It was one hell of a journey which taught me how to survive in extreme sub-zero temperatures. More importantly, it expanded my limits and showed me what I was capable of.

One of the most important lessons happened on the second night of the trip – our first attempt camping out. Now, I don’t know about you, but I had never camped in extreme cold before. Sure – I had tested out my equipment on a -20C night in South Dakota, but there is a world of difference once you get below -30C. That night was mild, compared to the rest of the trip, but it still hit -32C.

So – we setup camp and tried to building a fire. We could make a lot of smoke, but couldn’t get a strong fire blazing. Fortunately, with the help of a good MSR camp stove, we were able to boil enough water to fill our bellies with pelmeni. Around 9pm we called it a night. I was riding solo, so I had a tent to myself. Quickly I stripped down to base layers and stuffed the upper layers into my sleeping bag to keep them from freezing. After the long day, I fell asleep quickly.

Waking up inside the tent

(Waking up inside the tent)

Around midnight, I woke up and realized that I couldn’t feel my toes. Now, one of my biggest fears was getting frostbite and loosing a few digits. I could feel the panic rising; but, after a few slow breaths, I was able to get it under control. I tried flexing my toes, but they wouldn’t move. I took a moment to think about my options – get up and try to get my blood flowing? Aside from my feet, I was warm enough in the sleeping bag. I didn’t know how much body heat I’d lose by getting out. I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to stand on my numb feet. Too many unknowns, so I decided to stay where I was and move my legs to get blood flowing. After a few minutes of that, my core was getting warmer, but my toes were still numb. Time for a different tack. I had just enough room in my sleeping bag to bring one foot at a time up within reach. I used my hands to manually flex my toes and warmed them up by contact. After a few minutes, I could feel them again and was able to move them just a bit. I switched feet and repeated.

Each time I would put a foot down to work on the other one, it would go numb again. I just couldn’t seem to keep them going without working them with my hands. I kept at it. After I was sure eons had passed, I checked the time, only to be disappointed that only a few minutes had gone by. I began to think things through – I had several hours to go until the sun would come out and temperatures would begin to rise. Would I be able to make it until morning? Did I have another choice?

So that eternally long night, I kept at it – switching feet every few minutes and wishing I could fast forward to morning. I couldn’t control time, though, all I had control over was my will to endure. I began to relax and just focused on the task at hand.  Eventually, the sun began to rise. As soon as the inside of the tent began to glow, I breathed a sigh of relief and knew that I would be okay.

The moment I knew I'd be okay

(The moment I knew I’d be okay)

I’ve been taught that lesson before – but sometimes a reminder is necessary. Relax, breath and just focus on what is right in front of you. Keep at it long enough and you’ll eventually make it through to the other side.

Later on during the trip, I camped out in harsher temperatures (-43C) but had a much easier time. Partially I’d say it was due to my body acclimating the the environment and also because I learned a couple tricks — like filling a water bottle with boiling water and putting it at the bottom of your sleeping bag to warm it up. That definitely prolongs your comfort and allows you to get a bit of sleep – but trust me, either way, the mornings are still painful.

It’s funny how that these moments turn into a fond memory. Time and distance do strange things.

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: Adventure Travel, Asia, On The Road, Vagabonding Advice

July 10, 2014

Finding a good working environment for travelers with online incomes- the travel-hacker way

It is hard to get work done in a hostel, if only for the flurry of social activity vying for one’s attention.

The number one reason that my husband and I really appreciate having status with a few of the major hotel chains is for one important detail: free wifi. We work online so honestly, we wouldn’t be able to travel without wifi.

Or some statuses come with free breakfast, lounge access, business center access, and upgrades. All of these things are in no way necessary. Absolutely luxuries and nothing more. But they happen to be luxuries that are perfectly suited for a person working as they travel. It all makes sense really seeing as these statuses were somewhat designed top make life easier for and reward the loyalty of those traveling on business a bulk of the year.

But these perks are just as convenient for travel bloggers, photographers, programmers or anyone else creating an income online.

Traditionally status is for people who stay a ton of nights with a hotel and spend an exorbitant amount of money with them. (Or rather…someone whose business does so). But luckily there are a few hotel statuses that come as perks for having the hotel credit card. Now, this does require a good credit score and an ability to be smart with your credit, but if you make sure that you are using the card for the perks and not as an excuse to spend money you don’t have, then check out the list below of cards that come with hotel status as a perk.

(For a more thorough rundown of hotel loyalty programs, I recommend our infographic about the Best Hotel Rewards Programs.)

I’ve ordered this list from lowest annual fee to highest.

1.) Hilton HHonors Visa: (no annual fee).

Status earned: Silver

Perks of the status: This is one of the lesser impressive statuses as its only real benefit is a 15% increase on points earnings for paid stays. However, the card comes with a 40,000 point bonus after spending $1,000 in 4 months and has no annual fee.

Status earned: Silver

Perks of the status: This is one of the lesser impressive statuses as its only real benefit is a 15% increase on points earnings for paid stays. However, the card comes with a 40,000 point bonus after spending $1,000 in 4 months and has no annual fee.

2.) IHG Rewards Select Visa: ($49 annual fee, waived for the first year).

Status earned: Platinum Status

Perks of the status: This status is a bit more helpful in that it gives 50% increased points earnings as well as free wifi. Also occasionally (though unofficially) you’ll get a free drink voucher or upgrade as well. It’s not a listed benefit but platinums may still get upgrades when visiting the more budget members of the chain like Holiday Inn, Hotel Indigo, etc.

Also worth mentioning, this credit card comes with an anniversary gift of a free night at any IHG property.

3.) Hyatt Credit Card: ($75 annual fee).

Status earned: Platinum

Perks of the status and perks of the card: Again, this status gives 15% increased points earnings as well as free internet. Better than the status perk however is the credit card’s other perk- a certificate for a free night at any category 1-4 Hyatt property. And, after spending $1,000 in 3 months on this card, you’ll earn 2 free night certificates for any Hyatt property.

4.) Club Carlson Visa: ($75 annual fee).

Status earned: Gold

Perks of the status and perks of the card: Much like the others, this status earns %30 more points for stays and comes with free wifi. The card offers 50,000 points (quite generous) after just the first purchase with a possibility of 35,000 more points after spending $2,500 in the first 90 days of having your card.

This card needs some special attention though because of my favorite credit card perk ever: for every stay you reserve with points, card-holders automatically get a free night added on, including for 1 night stays. It’s almost like a buy one get one arrangement! I cannot tell you how much use my husband and I have made of this perk. Obviously this means that we try to use our Club Carlson points in two-night increments (with the second night being free). Then, since you aren’t allowed to just do back to back two night stays and still receive the extra night perk for both of them, we might make a paid stay in-between our two-night blocks for a total of 5 nights, 2 of which are paid for in points, 2 of which are free, and one for which we pay with cash.

5.) Marriott Visa Signature: ($85 annual fee, waived for the first year).

Status earned: Silver

Perks of the status and perks of the card: This is one of the lesser impressive statuses again as it only gets you a %20 increase on points earnings. The perks of the card itself are alright though, earning 50,000 points after spending $1,000 in 3 months as well as 1 free night certificate for a category 1-4 Marriott property. (On the anniversary of this card, you’ll get a category 1-5 certificate.)

6.) Hilton HHonors Reserve: ($95 annual fee).

Status earned: Gold

Perks of the status and perks of the card: This is at last quite a rewarding status. It earns only %15 extra points for stays but comes with free wifi, lounge access, and free breakfast. The lounge access is sometimes just as good as having access to a business center. Not always as sometimes printing and scanning still costs, but some lounges will have a set-up for free printing etc. But the best part is the free food. Not to mention a great, quiet place to work and sip your free coffee.

Otherwise, the only perk of this card is 2 free night certificates after spending $2,500 in the first 4 months of having your card.

 

As you can see almost all of these cards will get you free wifi, though with an annual fee can you really call that free? Ultimately these cards will only truly be worth it to you if you also take advantage of the points bonuses and/or the free night certificates. You see, travel-hacking is all about maximizing your benefits or at the very least, making sure you’re taking full advantage of all the benefits you’re entitled to.

Here we are enjoying the outdoor seating at a Club Carlson hotel’s lounge in Salzburg.

salzburg2

 

salzburg1

It could be a very helpful thing to start thinking intentionally about status and points when it comes to hotels. In the case of Club Carlson you could hop across Europe spending your points in a buy-one-get-one fashion and getting free wifi in a comfortable working environment as we did this past year.

 

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Category: Hostels/Hotels, Working Abroad
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