December 18, 2014

Pros and Cons of Off-Peak Europe Travel

American Airlines has some great off-peak prices for award tickets to Europe. Rather than the usual price of 60,000 miles, during off-peak a roundtrip ticket would only cost 40,000 miles. And you can get that amount of miles simply by getting the AAdvantage credit card’s 50,000 mile bonus. (Learn more about these off-peak prices here.)

So when is “off-peak” for Europe?

According to American Airlines, off-peak for Europe is anytime between October 15 and May 15. Other airlines may have different off-peak dates. But basically off-peak exists during the colder, winter months. (US Airway’s off-peak dates for Europe are extremely narrow- only January 15-February 28.)

For this post, we’re going to consider the more generous off-peak dates and take a look at the pros and cons of traveling Europe during winter.

 

PROS:

1.) Christmas Markets

The month of December is an absolutely charming time to be in Europe because of the vast number of cities that set up “Christmas Markets” in their main squares. Imagine the quaint and decorative architecture of days gone by, set aglow with festive lights and market stalls selling baked goods, hot spiced wine and bratwurst.  It’s as if people are fighting back against the gloom of an early sunset.

Each Christmas Market is a little bit different. In Verona, Italy you may find dried meats. In Villach, Austria you’ll find plenty of bratwurst and glühwein; in Brussels, waffles and in Prague, traditional rolled pastries called Trdelnik.

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2.) Snow in the Alps

The Alps take on a different feel when covered in snow. Even if snow has not yet made it to the ground below, when the peaks are dusted and white, it feels like the Alps are all the more striking. Not to mention Ski enthusiasts can explore the Alps best when they’re covered in snow.

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3.) A (slight) decrease in tourism

“Local tourism” is still pretty big during the Christmas season when Christmas Markets decorate the city. But otherwise you may notice slightly cheaper hotel rates and slightly thinner crowds. Certainly, as mentioned in the first paragraph, you tend to at least see slightly cheaper airfare.

 

CONS:

1.) European winters produce gray and sometimes foggy skies

My first trip to Europe was during the summer years ago. But since then, most of my European travel has been during the winter time. This time around I finally decided that it is not just a coincidence that most days are sun-less. In beautiful Bled, Slovenia there was always either fog or clouds creating a thick veil over the steep mountains behind the lake. Rather than the striking photos of peaks reflected in the lake’s waters and towering above the local castle…I have some misty photos that barely even permit a sighting of the island on the lake.


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2.) Sometimes tourism is too slow

While reduced levels of tourism can be nice in hot-spots like Prague and Venice, for more off-the-beaten-path destinations like Bled, Slovenia or Bercthesgaden, Germany, you may find that half the town is closed down. This means half the number of choices for hotels and very few options for dining as well. And restaurants that DO stay open likely have sporadic hours.

3.) Extremely short days

Europe is Northerly enough that the hours of daylight are quite minimal during the winter months. In Prague in December for example, the sun sets at 4 pm and it’s pretty much totally dark by 4:30pm. According to timeanddate.com Prague has 8 hours and 11 minutes of daylight on this day, December 9th. Compare that to Boston’s 9 hours and 11 minutes.

We made the mistake of sleeping in today and by the time we squared away a bit of online work and lunch, we only had two hours of daylight in which to site-see.

 

Conclusion

Europe is beautiful. Just walking around ancient little cobble-stoned streets and soaking up the feeling of being somewhere timeless and historical is all I need for my Europe tours. And in that case, I really don’t mind doing this meandering whilst wrapped in coats and scarves. Especially when there’s an ample supply of hot spiced wine or hot cocoa to sip as I walk.

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But for lovers of photography, it can be quite frustrating. Unlike anywhere else we’ve been, my husband and I sometimes wait until the sun sets to take our photos. We switch to a lens that works best in low-lighting and take advantage of all the golden lights of evening. We prefer this to giant opaquely gray skies that dull the photo.

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Category: Europe, Images from the road

December 14, 2014

Traditional Christmas in Europe

Of the many things Europe does well, it’s the continent’s magnificent Christmas festivities that can charm this cynical traveler every time. From Scotland to Switzerland an extraordinary spirit of festivity, connecting this generations to others long since passed, can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies, their melodies carried to the rafters on frosty puffs of breath.

One of the most interesting aspects of Europe is the subtle variations to each country’s celebratory traditions. I find them fascinating. Here’s a sampling of those variations from three different cultures: The German, French and English traditions.

Germany, despite being a progressive powerhouse not known for sentimentality, is actually one of the most magical places to experience the season. Old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Bavaria to the Baltic, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.

Christmas in Munich

Christmas in Munich

Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the Catholic South and Protestant North.

Sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic Germanic carols.

But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of Salisbury, Westminster, etc. hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight and colorful outdoor Christmas markets buzz with activity.

Do you like your Christmas tree? Thank England, where the tradition of the Christmas tree originated. The custom originated when pagan-era Druids decorated their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.

The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.

Another particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul.

France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.

Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less ostentatious way than big US cities, but its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any.

Notre Dame at Christmas

Notre Dame at Christmas

In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.

And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy). Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners.

While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.

After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.

 

 

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

December 7, 2014

A gift guide: top 10 gifts for travel-lovers

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Christmas is right around the corner. But what do you get someone who loves travel’s intangible thrill, feeling of a plane taking flight, or adventuring into distant worlds and getting to know themselves deeper?

How do you shop for someone like that?

Answer: you give them gifts to further their travels. Or remove some pesky hurdle in their travel. The greatest gift you can give is to aid them in their travel quest.

To help you, here’s a gift guide of the top ten gifts for travel-lovers:

1. Moleskine journal

An old classic as nothing beats scribbling thoughts in its blank pages while you bounce along the road, staring out the window in search for the perfect word. Its hardy leather cover lasts miles. Eight years and counting, I haven’t had a single page rip out of mine yet. My favorite part — other than how the journal’s edges wear attractively dog-eared — is the pocket flap in the back cover. Perfect for stashing train ticket stubs, receipts, other papers to document your travels.

Where to buy: Amazon

2. Grayl Quest filter

Until you’re stuck on the side of the road, thirsty, in hot sun, you hardly realize the value of water. Never go without fresh drinking water again, wherever you are in the world. In under 15 seconds, you get freshly filtered water. Thanks to the easy-drinking built-in mug, you can drink up right away. Fill, press, repeat, enjoy.

Where to buy: Grayl.com

3. FlyLow Vixen jacket

Light, sexy, and waterproof, this jacket takes London and Moscow’s roughest storms and keeps punching. Originally built for the ski slopes, it has thoughtful design features like three inner pockets on the women’s jacket (compared to a measly none on other jackets), waterproof zippers, and an oversize hood for Boston’s worst storms.

Did I mention it’s lightweight, has armpit vents for regulating your temperature, and folds up into a discrete sleep-able pillow when necessary? She’s everyone’s best friend.

Where to buy: FlyLowGear.com

4. A good book

Some may say a Kindle Fire is better than a book. But I’d argue that a book greatly outweighs a Kindle’s flimsy fight.

A book never requires re-charging, runs out of batteries, dies when you drop it in water. When you’re sitting in the airport, waiting for a delayed flight, a book holds your hand and keeps you company. And when your relationship is finished on the last page, you can make a new friend by passing the book on. A book is truly the gift that never stops giving, especially when that book lingers with you long after the last word.

How to pick a good book: check out GoodReads.com — their reviewers are excellent and have amazing suggestions. Or ask someone in your life what they’re reading and do a quick Google search on the title. The next teacher you stumble across, ask them. Teachers have disturbingly impeccable reading taste.

5. White noise machine

Sleep is vital to good travel. If you can’t sleep, it can throw off your entire mood. Help your vagabonder rest up with a white noise machine. It drowns out ambient noises and soothes you to sleep.

Look for a model that is travel-friendly: small size, uncomplicated, with different plugs to suit country’s outlets. My white noise machine has saved me many restless nights on the road. It’s the first thing I pack in preparation for a trip.

What to buy: Marsona Travel Sound Conditioner

6. Timbuk2 classic messenger bag

Handsome, sturdy, waterproof are three of my favorite words about a bag. The Timbuk2 messenger bag embodies all three.

Small enough to be called a flight carry-on, it comes with a cross-chest strap to prevent the awkward around the waist flop that happen to even the best messenger bags. It has a myriad of pockets, a handy side Napoleon pocket, padded internal laptop slash pocket, and padded shoulder strap.

I’ve used my Timbuk2 to go to Alaska for six days, bike to work, carry gear (and beverages) to football games, and on long weekend camping trips. Thanks to awesome heavy-duty fabric that never gives up a rip, it still looks brand new. And if it does succumb, a lifetime warranty has you covered.

Where to buy: Timbuk2

7. Noise canceling headphones

Sometimes you need a break from the world you set out to experience. This is when noise cancelling headphones will save your sanity.

Noise-cancelling is different than noise isolating. Noise cancelling headphones use technology to block out ambient noise, whereas noise isolating headphones create a seal around your ear (think of padded headphones) to block noise. I haven’t had a chance to try out noise cancelling headphones, but I’d opt for lightweight, compact, and comfortable while still producing excellent sound. According to Amazon reviewers, Audio Technica Noise Cancelling Headphones rated highly on value, size, and sound production.

Where to buy: Amazon

8. Superb quality sunglasses

See your destination clearly with sexy sunglasses.

Look for sturdy construction so they won’t snap the moment you leave the country, UV-protection to protect your eyes, and larger frames to shield the delicate skin around your eyes (i.e. where wrinkles show up first). Get polarized sunglasses to take you easily from land to sea.

I’ve had my Oakley Inmate polarized glasses for four years and they’ve held up well under many miles of travels. A few scratches on the lenses are unavoidable, but I haven’t had any cracking or breaking of the frame. Plus, they came with a one-year warranty with excellent customer service.

Where to buy: Oakley.com

9. City pass (or equivalent) for destination

Opt for thoughtful with this gift and buy your traveler a pass so they can cut to the front of the line at museums, historic cites, and cool attractions in their destination city.

Many cites in the United States have a CityPass allowing you entrance to about six attractions at a significant discount off normal ticket price. As a side perk, you can usually jump to the front of the line. I’ve done Boston and Seattle’s CityPasses and both were well-worth the cost.

However, Paris’ Museum Pass was one of the best I’ve seen: one-time payment gives you free access (and queue jumping abilities!) to over 60 museums and monuments in a certain allotment of time. Perhaps one of the best choices I’ve made was buy that little credit-card-sized pass in the time it saved me in just waiting in lines.

Where to buy: CityPass and Paris Museum Pass

10. GoPro Hero +3

Tougher than a square linebacker, this compact camera is ready to take on the world — and record your adventures while you jump off mountains, dive into lakes, jostle down rocky trails.

About the size of Post-It notes but far meatier, the camera is encased in a waterproof shell. It comes with a dual-purpose clip that attaches to a variety of mounts like chest strap, handlebar or helmet mount. This little guy hangs in the bottom of your bag until you need him to record your white-knuckle, heart pounding adventure in high def, fish-eye video that unbelievably captures your elation. And when you need him, he’s quick to respond and takes amazing photos.

Where to buy: Amazon

Splurge: DSLR camera

Photography extends your travel long after you return home. Hang pictures of your adventures on your walls, breathe in the imaginary Swiss Alps air, and lose yourself in memories.

But that only helps if your photos are clear enough to recognize your subject. DSLR cameras are a god-send to remedy that issue. I do not have a DSLR camera yet (my iPhone takes stunningly good pictures), but cost and size are two important factors. You need something small so you don’t feel like you’re a traveling movie set, and not blow the bank on a camera. Also, I want a camera quick to catch those fleeting moments. Based on my research, Canon EOS Rebel T2i and Nikon D3100 (or D3300) are two very popular options for their smaller price tags and heft.

Laura Lopuch writes at Waiting to Be Read where she gives you the best books to read, which books to avoid, and why deep thoughts are vital to your health.

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Category: Travel Gear

December 6, 2014

In the Hall of the Baby Jesuses

SUMMER 07 PARIS PRAGUE 139The first time I was in Paris, I went to the Louvre and — like a million other tourists before me — headed straight for the Mona Lisa.

Since the famous French museum houses one of the most extensive art collections in the world, I’ll admit that making a beeline for a painting I’d already seen on countless refrigerator magnets and coffee mugs was a wholly unimaginative act. In tourist terms, hurrying through hallways of miscellaneous masterpieces to seek out the Mona Lisa was kind of like picking one harried celebrity from a crowd of a thousand interesting people and bugging her with questions I could have answered by reading a gossip magazine.

Apparently aware of this compulsion for artistic celebrity-worship, Louvre officials had plastered the gallery walls with signs directing impatient tourists to the Mona Lisa, and I soon fell into step with crowds of Japanese, European and North American tourists eager for a glimpse of Da Vinci’s famous portrait.

Anyone who’s been to the Louvre, of course, will know that I was setting myself up for an anticlimax. The Mona Lisa was there all right — looking exactly like she was supposed to look — yet this was somehow disappointing. Standing there, staring at her familiar, coy smile, it occurred to me that I had no good reason why I wanted to see her so badly in the first place.

Moreover, once I’d left the Mona Lisa gallery and moved on to other parts of the Louvre, I discovered just how ignorant I was in the ways of art history. Surrounded by thousands of vaguely familiar-looking paintings and sculptures, I realized I had no clue as to how I could meaningfully approach the rest of the museum.

Fortunately, before I could fall into touristic despair, I was saved by the Baby Jesus.

I don’t mean to imply here that I had some sort of spiritual epiphany in the Louvre. Rather, having noted the strange abundance of Madonna-and-Child paintings in the museum’s halls, I resolved to explore the Louvre by seeking out every Baby Jesus in the building.

Silly as this may sound, it was actually a fascinating way to ponder the idiosyncrasies of world-class art. Each Baby Jesus in the Louvre, it seemed, had his own, distinct preoccupations and personality. Botticelli’s Baby Jesus, for example, looked like he was about to vomit after having eaten most of an apple; Giovanni Bolfraffio’s Baby Jesus looked stoned. Ambrosius Benson’s Baby Jesus resembled his mother — girlish with crimped hair and a fistful of grapes — while Barend van Orley’s chubby Baby Jesus looked like a miniature version of NFL analyst John Madden. Francesco Gessi’s pale, goth-like Baby Jesus was passed out in Mary’s lap, looking haggard and middle-aged; Barnaba da Modena’s balding, doe-eyed Baby Jesus was nonchalantly shoving Mary’s teat into his mouth. Lorenzo di Credi’s Baby Jesus had jowls, his hair in a Mohawk as he gave a blessing to Saint Julien; Mariotto Albertinelli’s Baby Jesus coolly flashed a peace sign at Saint Jerome.

Moving through galleries full of European art, these Baby Jesuses hinted at the diversity of human experience behind their creation, and ultimately redeemed my trip to the Louvre. What had initially been a huge and daunting museum was now a place of light-hearted fascination.

I’m sure I’m not the first person who lapsed into fancy when faced with a museum full of human erudition and accomplishment. To this day, I’m still never quite sure what I’m supposed to do, exactly, when I visit museums. Sure, there’s much to be learned in these cultural trophy-cases, and visiting them is a time-honored travel activity — but I often find them lacking in charm and surprise and discovery. For me, an afternoon spent eyeing pretty girls in the Jardin des Tuileries has always carried as much or more promise than squinting at baroque maidens in a place like the Louvre.

Part of the problem, I think, is that museums are becoming harder to appreciate in an age of competing information. Back in the early 19th century, when many of the world’s classic museums were founded, exhibiting relics, fossils and artwork was a way for urban populations to make sense of the world and celebrate the accomplishments of renaissance and exploration. Now that these items of beauty and genius can readily be accessed in digital form, however (where they compete for screen-time with special-interest porn and YouTube parodies), their power can be diluted by the time we see them in display cases and on gallery walls.

In this way, museums are emblematic of the travel experience in general. In 1964, media critic Marshall McLuhan wrote that, within an information society, “the world itself becomes a sort of museum of objects that have already been encountered in some other medium.” More than forty years later, that “museum of objects” has been catalogued in ways that even McLuhan could never have imagined — this means that seeing Baby Jesuses where you had expected Mona Lisas might well be a worthwhile strategy outside of museums as well.

In the purely metaphorical sense, of course.

Tip sheet: How to get the most out of museums on the road.
1) Know how to approach big museums.

Having just confessed to my own bemusement in the presence big museums, I do have a few suggestions. Many national museums are so extensive that it’s impossible to experience them meaningfully in a single visit. Thus, study up a little before you go, and isolate yourself to one wing or hall of the museum. Make yourself an expert-in-training on, say, one period of Chinese history, or one phase of Dutch art. Don’t just watch the exhibits; watch how people react to them. Be an extrovert, and engage your fellow museum patrons on the meanings and significance of the displays.

If studying up beforehand seems too deliberate for your tastes, approach a big museum as if it were a highlight-reel of history or culture. Walk through the museum slowly and steadily, front to back, noting what grabs your attention. After the initial walk-though, go back to the area that interested you the most and spend some time there. Take notes, and read up on your new discoveries when you get home.

2) Make the most of small museums.

Small community museums can be found in all corners of the world, and they offer a fascinating example of how local people balance the relationship between themselves and the rest of the world. Because their exhibits are humble and anonymous compared to the likes of the Louvre, there is no set of expectations, and no tyranny declaring that you must favor one relic or piece of art over another. Much of the time, this better enables you to see things for what they are (instead of what they are supposed to represent). The secret to exploring these small museums is their curators (and their regulars), who are invariably knowledgeable and a tad eccentric. Take an interest and ask lots of questions, because these local experts will have plenty to share.

3) Let the world be your museum.

If the world itself has become a museum of objects, treat it with the same attention and curiosity you would a formal gallery. As tourist scholar Lucy L. Lippard has noted, a shopping mall, a thrift store, or even a junkyard can be as revelatory in a faraway place as a gallery full of relics. Similarly, daily life in a given neighborhood off the tourist trail is just as likely to reveal the nuances of a given culture as is an official exhibit. Wherever you go as you travel, allow yourself to wander, ponder, and ask questions. Odds are, you’ll come home with a deeper appreciation of a place than if you were just breezing from one tourist attraction to another.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Nov. 6, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Europe, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

December 4, 2014

Carpooling sites for travel in Europe

While frequent flyer miles can help alleviate the costs of flights to a destination in a game-changing way, the travel that happens once in a destination can really add up too. This is particularly true in an affluent place like Europe.

But, as a continent that has a fabulous infrastructure for public transit, it should come as no surprise that even those with their own personal cars find a way to contribute to the public’s transit needs.

Indeed, carpooling is yet another task that the internet is revolutionizing in some way. Europe has a number of websites that exist to connect passengers to carpooling hosts, much as Couchsurfing.com or Airbnb.com do for travelers’ accommodation needs or Uber and Lyft do for local transportation needs

Unlike the short, local jaunts that Uber and Lyft accommodate however, these carpooling sites help you connect with drivers going long distances. For instance we’ve gotten rides for 150 miles or more such as Salzburg to Vienna or Berlin to Hamburg. Or even London to Paris in one case.

 

How it works:

Signing up for many of these sites requires registering a text number. If you do not have a phone that works internationally, we usually communicate with someone back home to use their text number and have them send us the code to complete registration.

Once registered, you have the ability to connect with drivers who have posted the routes they intend to do along with the payment required. Unlike Couchsurfing, the guest pays the “host”. It’s more like AirBnB in that way. However, we have always found the prices to be cheaper than the other public transit options, not to mention the trip is almost always quicker than these options as well.

 

Car-pooling sites you for Europe travel, by region:

UK carpooling sites:

1.) Liftshare.com/uk

2.) Carpooling.co.uk

German carpooling sites:

1.) Mitfahrgelegenheit.de -(the German version of carpooling.co.uk)

Non-region-specific carpooling sites:

1.) blablacar.com -(the site that seems to be most popular here in Europe.)

2.) Carpoolworld.com

3.) Carpooling.com

 

A few extra notes/challenges:

1.) As suggested above, some of these resources can be challenging without a phone. Even if you have a web-generated text number from apps like “TextMe” and “TextPlus”, sites like this do not seem to function properly with web-generated text numbers. (This is true for resources like Uber and Lyft too.) So even if you have a travel-friendly phone alternative like those mentioned here, not all of them will cooperate with these resources. Specifically ones relying on web-generated numbers.

2.) Even though Europe has a pretty decent coverage when it comes to these car-pooling sites, some regions of Europe are still lacking. For instance we’ve had trouble finding carpooling options to the Balkans.

3.) This car-sharing strategy is virtually impossible if you are a person who doesn’t like to pack light, because drivers often try to fill every seat in their car. Do not assume you are the only passenger taking advantage of any given car-share. If you have more than one or two pieces of luggage, include that in your correspondence with your driver ahead of time.

4.) Sometimes you can suggest the meet-up location and sometimes the driver will suggest a spot that works for them. You may have to do a little traditional public-transiting in order to catch your ride.

 

Conclusion

Of course, another reason I love using carpooling resources is because, like all the other people-to-people resources, it connects you with locals and other travelers.

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I mean, in some ways it gives me the thing I love about hitch-hiking without the exhaustion and uncertainty. When people connect with locals, and locals connect with travelers, there’s a host/guest mentality that’s naturally built in and it produces conversations you simply wouldn’t have in the service-provider/consumer environment of traditional public transit.

We’ve had so many fascinating conversations with drivers and most times the hours spent driving just fly by. Next time you are in Europe, remember this carpooling option for your semi-long-distance journeys.

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Category: Backpacking, Europe, Travel Tech

December 2, 2014

Three things I hope my kids will learn from life and travel

We’re sneaking up on our fifth anniversary of full time travel with our kids. When we left on our bicycle trip around Europe and N. Africa they were five through eleven years old. They are now ten through sixteen, and as comfortable in the livestock market in Tona Toroja as they are in a department store in the USA.

We travel specifically for the education and development of our children; we want them to grow up in the real world and become citizens of it in a way that transcends borders. There are so many things they learn in a classroom without walls, here are three of the most important:

1. People Are People

You can preach tolerance and multi-culturalism in a classroom until you’re blue in the face, but it’s so much easier to just take your kids to a park in every country you pass through, have as many guests in for dinner as you can lay hands on, and accept every offer of food or shelter from strangers as you go. Before long the kids stop seeing skin color, stop worrying about what kind of food hits the table, and get over stressing out about the language barrier. Pretty soon they’ll take off to play with the Indonesian kids and carry a soccer ball so that they can always draw in kids to play with.

I remember, when I was young, hearing my Dad say that it was good for my brother and I to have the experience of being, “The only white people within a couple hundred miles.” What he meant by that was that it’s a very good thing to experience life as a minority, perhaps to even be discriminated against a little bit. It builds compassion in a way little else can. It helps a developing person to see the commonalities, instead of the differences: We’re all doing our best to keep a roof over head, feed and clothe our families, celebrate the beautiful things in life, and leave the world a better place for our children.

It’s hard to hold on to an “us vs. them” mentality when you’ve eaten a meal with “them,” and count “them” among your friends. One of the primary benefits to liberal travel with children is that this lesson is absorbed organically, you won’t have to say a word to teach it.

2. Live Generously

We are not rich people, but on a world scale, we are fabulously, ridiculously, filthy-stinking rich. Just the ability to make American dollars as we travel and spend them in places that they go much further is a huge lottery win on the international economic scale.

We have dear friends who live in huts with dirt floors and metal roofs rusted through with holes. Others who support families of seven on less than $5,000 USD a year; some far less.

There is a lot of talk in traveling circles about how to give, and where to give, or more specifically, where NOT to give, so as not to exacerbate the problems. Careful consideration must be given to that balance.

In our experience, it is always better to live generously. When a need is presented, we try to find a way to give into it to fill it in a way that empowers instead of enables. We hope that our children will recognize their extreme privilege on the grander scale and do the same. We see glimmers of it, in their willingness to share the little they carry in their packs with kids who have far less. Their willingness to stretch a buck or do with less so that we can give more to someone else. And sometimes, they’ve seen us get taken advantage of too. But there’s a lesson, even in that: the “takers” are in the vast minority, and living generously is worth the risk.

We have so much, how can we not give?

 3. Tread Lightly

The invention of plastic was simultaneously a boon and the bane of human existence. Trash is strewn from horizon to horizon across Tunisia. Barefoot children pick through heaps of plastic detritus in the margins of virtually every paradise. Plastic grocery bags are caught, like limp jelly fish on the coral of dying reefs in even the “best” of the world’s dive destinations. Jakarta is a fetid cesspool. Walking out in Beijing puts your lungs at risk. We can talk “green” all we want, but these are realities, and realities that are hard to remedy in places where money, education and resources are lacking.

It’s easy to look at the global problem and throw up our hands. We talk about that, in various arenas, with our children on a regular basis. But the answer lies in our own two hands. Understanding that every choice we make has consequences for the planet, and every piece of plastic anything that we buy will end up in a landfill somewhere eventually.

It’s not just about the three R’s, reduce, reuse, recycle, although those are important. We have to learn, as a race, to “need” less. To be happy without consuming more “stuff” and to tread lightly on the planet. One of the easiest ways to “teach” this is simply to travel. To allow kids to see the consequences of our over consumption first hand, and to connect the dots between the first world usage and the prices paid for that in other parts of the world. With global eyes, perhaps the next generation will do better.

What are you learning from your travels?

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Category: Family Travel, On The Road, Vagabonding Styles

November 30, 2014

Packing for a longterm trip in a warm climate

Packing

Packing for long-term travel is unique because you have to consider what you may need over a long period of time rather than what you can do without for a few weeks. Questions arise, like Will I need allergy meds? How many books should I bring? How many tank tops do I really need? Is it worth bringing my laptop? Here are some simple tips that I’ve learned from over- and under-packing through the years.

Buy a box of travel space bags

These nifty bags cut the size of your clothing in half. Just throw your clothes in and roll the air out the bottom. A bonus is that it keeps your clothes airtight and wrapped in plastic so you don’t have to worry that your clothes are all now sopping wet when you get caught in that freak monsoon shower.

Only bring half of what you first laid out

On a camping trip through the Arizona desert two years ago, we had a short stop in Las Vegas. I figured it would be very important to have a nice dress and a pair of high heels to go see Cirque de Soleil. By the end of the night, my feet were so sore that I walked home barefoot carrying the damn shoes and then lugged them around in my bag for the rest of the camping trip. More than once have I brought too many clothes or something bulky thinking it was worth the hassle and then regretted it. You only need the basics.

It is imperative that you either learn to hand-wash your clothes or seek out laundry services that wash for you. Bring no more than a week’s worth of clothes. You will likely wear an item more than once before washing it, so this doesn’t mean you need to bring seven t-shirts.

Men: Your jeans are bulky, heavy, and they don’t pack well. Sorry. Consider finding some lightweight linen/cotton pants. It’s not weird; trust me. Most travelers switch over to them at some point along the way.

Women: You may also never wear that dress or skirt you brought. Some countries have these for sale at great prices and are more suited to the climate you are in. Forego packing these and just buy them when you arrive. You’ll fit in a bit more with the locals. If you have a favorite piece from home you don’t think you can live without, just bring it as long as it’s lightweight and packs small.

Bring an eBook

You will always finish that first book on the flight to your destination. If you’re heading to Europe, Asia, or Africa from North America your flight/s will be long. Very long. You may not be able to sleep for a chunk of the time. Your book won’t last long. An eBook can be hundreds of books in one and quite compact. Before you leave, load it up with books you’ve always wanted to read from free eBook sites like Project Gutenberg, and download some best sellers or a trilogy while you’re at it. You’ll be set for reading and won’t ever have to carry around more than one book at a time.

Personal Hygiene

Everyone has a different idea of what a must-have personal hygiene item is. Just be sure to keep yourself clean in whatever way is necessary while you travel. Consider these tips to cut down on what needs to be brought.

Women: Feminine hygiene products can be hard to find or expensive in foreign countries. Buy a Diva Cup a few months before you leave so that you have time to adjust (it does take a couple months to get used to). The bonus is that it’s small and has a little baggie for storage when not in use to keep it clean. It’s reusable for quite a long time and there’s no garbage. Ladies, this is a lifesaver.

Make medication smaller

Those boxes or bottles they come in are BULKY. If your pills are in a blister pack inside a box, just pull them out. I keep a small zippered first aid kit with all the meds in it. If it’s a blister pack write directions in sharpie on the back. Believe me, if you can’t remember if you’re supposed to take one sleep aid or two, writing down the directions can make a huge difference. You shouldn’t be bringing an entire pharmacy with you, but if you know you usually get headaches, have trouble sleeping in new places, or get motion sick on windy roads, it’s nice to have these already with you. In a top-heavy Indian SUV, making tight turns and speeding down pot hole ridden roads in Southern India, I met my match: motion sickness. A friend with a ginger supplement helped me keep my insides inside and I vowed to never go without this important medication ever again.

Electronics

If you’re not a professional photographer and your photos are all going on social media, you only need one small camera. Something digital that’s lightweight. If you find something waterproof, even better. This may even be your phone. Your smartphone can be an easy all-in-one to save space. It’s a music player, a web browser, a camera, and, if it’s unlocked, it can even be a phone if you buy a local SIM card. If you’re bringing more than this, you should have a good reason for hauling around more gadgets. I’m referring to digital nomads who travel with laptops and tablets for work or photographers who travel with all of their camera gear. These people are in a totally different category for electronics. If you are bringing your smartphone, consider investing in a sturdy case like Lifeproof or Otterbox. These keep your phones safe and waterproof.

Must haves:

Luxury items

If you can forgo a luxury item, then good on you. I’m not there yet, and may never be, because I just feel better about myself when I have a little bit of makeup on. On my latest trip, I had to decide whether to bring makeup or a travel-sized flat iron. I allowed myself one. I brought a tiny bag of makeup (mascara, concealer, and powder) and let my hair be wild and free. My husband, on the other hand, allowed himself a very small hair trimmer (actually marketed as a mustache trimmer) for his beard. It saves him from having to shave and his beard from getting too long and hot. Just remember that when you’re on the road, you’re often choosing experiences over possessions. Don’t let your possessions hinder you.

 

Everyone’s packing style is different and priorities will differ from person to person. Be sure you’re willing to carry what you pack and that you have the essentials. Also keep in mind that each country will have different ideas about what is modest and this can often mean bringing along a scarf to cover your head/shoulders if you’re a woman or long pants if you’re a man. Do your research and get packing!

 

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Category: On The Road, Travel Gear

November 27, 2014

Don’t sacrifice the experience for the story

I find myself, more often than not, looking at travel experiences through a writer’s lens. Every meal, every trek, every chance meeting has the potential to be material for a travel piece. On boat rides, I think about phrasing. On long bus rides, I scroll through pictures, looking for the right one to go with the idea in my head. In cars, I pass the time by writing down thoughts that pop into my head as potential pieces.

DSC_1041

I want to share. I want others to know what this traveling life looks like- beautiful, challenging, freeing, and difficult.

So, I plot and plan and jot down ideas. I get excited when a new experience brings up images of perfectly worded paragraphs on a screen. When I snap just the right picture, I rejoice! It’s lovely when the ideas and the words come easily.

 

But sometimes they don’t.

Sometimes I feel as though I have reached the absolute corners of my mind and I have nothing left to write about.  Nothing of value or interest. My world starts to look quite average and I wonder who could possibly care about my excitement over finding vegetarian food in Central America.

Those are the days I most need to stop writing. Those are the days I need to get back to enjoying each moment for what it is and not worry about how I will weave it into a well-crafted article. Perfect adjectives to describe the moments take a back seat to actually experiencing the moments, as they should.

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It is nice to share tales from the road. Connecting with like-minded people through the written word is wonderful. But without a connection to and enjoyment of the actual moments that are behind those stories, it’s just empty talk.

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Sometimes we need to put down the pen, the computer, the camera and focus on being present.

There is no test at the end of our journey. No judgement on whether we wrote enough words or took the right pictures. There is just our own perception of what we have experienced. We need to be present for those experiences.

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How do you make sure you are engaged in the experience while on the road? Do you ever get the urge to put the pen and the camera down and get reconnected with the experience of living?

 

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Category: General, Travel Writing

November 16, 2014

Veterans Day and Historic Military Sites

Veterans’ Day in the US and the UK is replete with ceremonies (concerts and parades in the US, red poppies in the UK) to commemorate those who served their country in uniform. Aside from a great opportunity to thank those that fought in foreign lands, it’s a great opportunity to remember some of the historic sites that can give testament to the events they witnessed.

While some sites are now little more than quiet fields that have been reclaimed by nature, many places can still pack an educational punch that leaves the visitor still give the visitor a sense of the enormity and ruthlessness of war.

Here are a couple of my recent favorites:

Duxford Airbase and Imperial War Museum, Duxford, England

Revered as a major Royal Air Force (RAF) base during the legendary “Battle of Britain”, RAF Duxford also boasts an Imperial War Museum. With more than 200 historic aircraft ranging from rickety World War I biplanes to the B-17 Flying Fortress to the SR-71 Blackbird, the collection is arguably the finest in Europe. Also on display is part of the Imperial War Museum’s vast trove of historic photographs, uniforms and documents.

RAF Duxford exhibits

RAF Duxford exhibits

RAF Duxford, situated in bucolic countryside outside Cambridge, was founded during World War I but earned its place in history during the darkest days of World War II. In preparation for his planned invasion of Britain, Hitler launched the full might of the Luftwaffe at England’s factories and cities in 1940.

The bombs killed indiscriminately. His aim was as psychological as it was practical; he sought to terrorize the population and break Britain’s will to fight. It fell to the undermanned RAF to defend the homeland.

As the sector station for Fighter Command’s No. 12 Group, Duxford Air Base was in the thick of the battle. Casualties were immense. The pilots who fought in the Battle were enshrined in lore as “The Few”.

Historic air show at RAF Duxford

Historic air show at RAF Duxford

In June 1944 the planes launched from the same runways would protect the Allied fleet as it steamed toward Normandy. It would also gain fame as one of the homes of the fighter escorts for the Allied bombers that pulverized Nazi Germany’s industrial might.

RAF Duxford continued as a fighter station after the war and was decommissioned in the 1970’s. With over thirty authentic buildings recognized by the British government for their historical significance, the base was granted to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in 1976 and has been a world-class center of exhibits and education ever since.

***

Mulberry Harbors and Museum, Arromanches, France

The tiny French coastal town of Arromanches, perched on the sands of Normandy, holds another of my favorite war sites. Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the beach village had its fate permanently altered when it was chosen to be the main port of the Allies.

One of the most vexing logistical challenges for D-Day planners was the issue of transferring the move millions of pounds of Allied soldiers, vehicles, weapons, and supplies from ship to shore once the troops had established a beachhead. At Churchill’s order, engineers were set to the monumental task of constructing giant ports nicknamed “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to accomplish the feat.

Remains of Mulberry Harbor, Arromanches, Normandy

Remains of Mulberry Harbor, Arromanches, Normandy

Before the blood had washed away from the Normandy sand, the ports were unloaded from ships and attached by brave engineers under enemy fire. While bullets still flew the ports were operational and offloading tons of materiel per hour for the final push against Hitler’s Riech.

Today, a very well done museum perches above the coast and describes the incredible engineering task undertaken to build the ports. It gives even a layman like me a good idea of how this was pulled off, and of the massive challenges (storms, waves, German gunfire) that the Mulberry builders had to contend with.

Remains of Mulberry Harbor, Arromanches, Normandy

Remains of Mulberry Harbor, Arromanches, Normandy

But this isn’t the most moving part of the area; the really evocative sights are sitting just off the coast and demand no entrance fee. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports themselves. The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a silent reminder of the world-changing event that came to Normandy’s shores. And they remind us of the ordinary people—most now passed away—who found themselves swept up in the gale force of history.

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

November 14, 2014

The Future of Travel?

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard

I just spend the last 3 and a half days trying to get from Rapid City to Bangkok. Due to the Polar Vortex (or whatever they’re calling it this year), massive storms blew through RC and Denver, dropping off a foot of snow and plummeting the temperatures. Flights were canceled, delayed and connections were missed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining or venting. Matter of fact, I’m not upset about it – it’s just an experience that is fresh in my mind.

Then, while browsing through photos my photos from this summer, I came across the one above – of the Google Cardboard contraption. If you don’t know that that is – basically it’s a Oculus Rift headset built from a piece of cardboard, 2 lenses and your smartphone. Don’t know what an Oculus Rift is? It’s an advanced virtual reality headset that creates stereoscopic (3-D) images, extends beyond your field of vision (you can’t see the edges of the screen) and has sensors so everything moves as you move your head around. Do a search on YouTube – it’s amazing and hilarious to watch people wearing it react to their virtual environment (like these). This is the VR we were promised when we were kids.

That’s when it hit me – is this the future of travel? Soon it will be difficult to differentiate between real and virtual environments. Imagine being able to go anywhere and everywhere in seconds. Being able to intereact with people anywhere on the globe – and not being limited to a little Skype window. Co-existing in an environment – being able to look into each other’s eyes – key off of each other’s body language. Sharing the experience of seeing incredible wonders. Avoiding long, uncomfortable flights (not to mention the reduction in carbon footprint).

Yeah, it’s far from perfect. Much of the fun and experience of travel is just getting to where you’re going. Learning to deal with the issues you encounter and remaining flexible to overcome them. Plus, I can’t imagine breaking bread with people would be nearly as enjoyable in a digital environment. Unless they figure out some way to replicate smell, taste and texture. It would be like exploring the world via Google Images or YouTube, but totally immersive.

I’ll be clear – I believe I’d prefer “real” travel. Then again, much of my travel is driven by either adventure oriented (seeing if I’m capable of a journey) or breaking bread with friends. I’m less drawn to monuments, sites and structures. I can imagine using it to replace the other travel I do – business trips, collaboration, brainstorming.

I’m excited for where this technology will go – what it will enable. I don’t believe it would be a replacement for “real” experiences. It would leave more time for the travel that we enjoy most. More time to get lost and meander. More time to explore.

What do you think? Is this growing technology going to become a part of your travel experience, or is it blasphemy?

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: On The Road, Travel Tech
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