September 6, 2012

A guide to Central Asia: Caravanistan

I would like to introduce a very good online resource dedicated to Central Asia, one of those regions where traveling still comes with a fair amount of headaches. Caravanistan is a complete regional guide divided by country that I used a lot to check for actual information in the labyrinth which Central Asian bureaucracy can be.

I decided to contact the author, Steven Hermans, and ask him a few questions regarding his project.  He decided to start Caravanistan doing an overland trip from Europe to China in 2010.
I had done all my research through the usual channels (Lonely Planet forum, Wikitravel etc.) and I thought I knew what I was doing. However, when I arrived to Kazakhstan and applied for a Chinese visa, they told me it was not possible for foreigners, even though previous reports said it was no problem. As I was stubborn and did not want to fly, and there was a revolution in Kyrgyzstan at the time, I had no choice but to return to Europe by Russia. Things keep changing all the time in Central Asia and I noticed a lot of people get stuck in similar ways, having to change their travel plans because of bad information(more…)

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Category: Asia, Destinations, Travel Guidebooks

June 11, 2012

What do guidebooks say about your country?

Various travel guidebooks.

Various travel guidebooks. Photo: iandoh / Flickr

The Atlantic had an article titled Welcome to America, Please Be On Time: What Guide Books Tell Foreign Visitors to the U.S.  It was a little disorienting to read about your own country from the perspective of a foreigner.  When you live in a place where you grow up, it doesn’t occur to you to pick up the tourist literature.  For context, Lonely Planet is an Australian company (although now owned by the BBC), while Rough Guides are based in England.

What guidebooks say can be less than flattering.  An excerpt:

Lonely Planet urges caution when discussing immigration. “This is the issue that makes Americans edgy, especially when it gets politicized,” they write, subtly suggesting that some Americans might approach the issue differently than others. “Age has a lot to do with Americans’ multicultural tolerance.”

Ouch.  On the other hand, what’s enlightening about seeing things from an outsider’s perspective is that it points out differences you otherwise would have overlooked.  If you’re an American, you’d assume you wouldn’t sit at a stranger’s table and just strike up a conversation.  Yet this is normal in more crowded, communal countries where people share everything.

A particularly American norm that drives visitors crazy is tipping.  My friends from other countries have reacted with confusion, anger and frustration over how to handle this.  One Kiwi friend said flat-out, “I hate tipping.  It reduces all contact with service people to a financial transaction.  Why can’t America just pay them a living wage like civilized societies?”

I’d like to hear from our readers.  What countries are you from?  What have you read about your country in guidebooks?  What was true and what was false?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Guidebooks

March 1, 2012

Possessed by guidebooks: how to exorcise yourself

Travel scientists have unearthed that a human subspecies called backpacker, or traveller, has been observed across many of the furthest flung corners of the globe reading guidebooks more than interacting with locals.

“So do you want to come with me for breakfast?”
“Sure! “
“Any preferences? I saw a street stall at the corner selling what looks like an awesome fruit salad”
“Well… actually, if you look here at page 267, the guidebook mentions this place… I’m sorry, we have to eat there”
“Why?”
“Well… because it’s in the guidebook!!”

If there was a Travel Exorcist, dear guidebook, its power would compel you; because you can be the reason why such a conversation has become a standard among travel circles.  I am sure that, whether you are born a Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Footprints, Moon, Bradt or any other, you and the authors and editors who put your attractive paragraphs together are not the only ones to blame.

I think it is mainly because of the authoritative halo you emanate: with a country’s name printed boldly across your front cover, you are a dangerous spell. You can possess people who think they are travelling freely, and instead follow your suggestions blindly, fearing an almost certain death when going out of your carefully prepared itineraries and suggestions. Some even eat only in those restaurants which you recommend!!!  Dear guidebook… what have you done to travelling? (more…)

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Guidebooks, Vagabonding Advice

April 6, 2011

How to Travel the World on $50 a Day: a new Ebook from Nomadic Matt

Many Vagablogging readers are familiar with Matt Kepnes, or Nomadic Matt. Kepnes’s website is packed full of information on travel deals, travel tips, travel guides, and loads of interesting travel tales suited to any genre. Now Kepnes has taken the next step and has published his own Ebook.

Kepnes’s book is a smooth read. Even over the details of dollars, budgets, and savings options, it never reads like a dry financial manual. Kepnes’s book documents specific dollar amounts for many elements of his travels. He starts with how to save money before you even hit the road by detailing the more advantageous international banking options and airline carriers.

Kapnes’s book isn’t just for the new traveler in the beginning stages of planning out their trip. There is a lot of useful information that, even after years of long-term stints on the road, I still haven’t quite been able to work out, like making air miles work for you, or all of the ropes and rules of upgrading to business class on those long flights. Sure, there are loads of details for beginning travelers, like how to pick the right backpack for the road or how to save for your trip before you depart. Though there is something for everyone in this book. Whether you’re a novice when it comes to air miles, or if you’re trying to decipher the endless web of ESL jobs or volunteer options abroad.

There is also a Destinations section in the book, where Kepnes offers readers a look at likely travel budgets for areas on nearly all continents of the globe. He even includes budgets for activities popular to a particular destination, like scuba diving in Southeast Asia. Kepnes also compiles a list of great hostels and budget guesthouses for various locations, along with discount coupons should you be in the area and decide check out one of the accommodations.

You can download a PDF format of the book from Kepnes’s website for US$14. The book is also available for your Kindle or Ipad.

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Category: Money Management, Travel Bargains, Travel Guidebooks, Vagabonding Advice

December 6, 2010

Where to talk to interesting strangers in New York

This month marks the release of Ayun Halliday‘s Zinester’s Guide to NYC, a travelers’ guidebook to the quirkier corners of New York City. As I note in my back-cover blurb of the book, it’s the travel equivalent of an old-school mix-tape — useful and full of surprises for vagabonders. The book also boasts blurbs from New York Times writer Matt Gross, Real Housewife of New Jersey Alex McCord, and Comedy Central personality Stephen Colbert, who notes: “If I could still walk the streets of New York among my People, I would use this truly funny and truly affordable guide book. It kicks ass.”

Ayun, who I interviewed years ago when she was promoting her travel book No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late, is currently in the middle of an online book tour promoting her new guidebook, and today she’s dropping in to share her NYC secrets with Vagablogging readers. Specifically, she’s going to offer her advice on where bashful vagabonders can talk to interesting strangers and meet people in New York.

In her own words, here are Ayun’s tips:

I assume that even shy people crave a little community after long months of solo travel. In my experience, New Yorkers are a pretty chatty bunch, striking up conversations on the subway and in the ladies room lines at intermission. I love the places and events listed below for wholeheartedly welcoming strangers into the mix.

FOR THE CRAFTY:

Etsy Labs
55 Washington St, Suite 512
(btwn Water and Front St, DUMBO, Bklyn) 718-855-7955
(DUMBO: A/C to High St-Brooklyn Bridge)
Monday, 5pm – 8pm

On Monday evenings, Etsy welcomes ordinary citizens into its inner sanctum. Everything’s free…supplies, tools, the expertise of the visiting instructor. ZG2NYC contributor Esther Smith led one Monday night workshop where folks learned how to make rolling ball books and ornaments. Felting, t-shirt surgery, homemade plushies, and pincushions…some of this stuff I sort of know how to do, but this is an opportunity to learn from the masters!

FOR THE SPORTY:

Punk Rope
14th Street Y
344 E. 14th St (btwn 1st & 2nd Ave) 212-780-0800
(East Village: L to 1st Ave)
Mondays 7pm, $12

Long Island City Y
32-23 Queens Blvd (btwn 33rd St & 32nd Pl, LIC, Queens)
718-392-9401
(LIC: 7 to 33rd St-Rawson St)
Tuesday 7:30pm, Friday 5:30 Free trial class! Then $15

Greenpoint Y
99 Meserole (btwn Manhattan Ave and Lorimer, Greenpoint
Bklyn) 718-389-3700
(Greenpoint: G to Nassau Ave)
Wednesday, 7:30pm, $15

Punk rope is a serious workout—wear your most supportive footgear (and bra, if applicable). I particularly like how the instructors take the themes in dead earnest, with bits of costume and thoughtfully constructed playlists. I have fond memories of the Oktoberfest when instructor Shana (aka Pippi) had us clasp our ropes behind our backs, bend at the waist, and lead with our noses, like boars searching for truffles in the Black Forest. A couple of times a month, punk ropers replenish their lost calories with après-class drink specials in sympathetic Greenpoint and East Village bars.

FOR THE BRAINY:

The Village Chess Shop
230 Thompson St (btwn 3rd St & Bleecker)
212-475-9580
(Greenwich Village: A/B/C/D/E/F/M to W 4th St)

Want to immerse yourself in a small slice of Greenwich Village past? Go to the Village Chess Shop. It’s been here since 1972 and it still doesn’t have air-conditioning. You can buy chess sets here, yes, but the primary objective is not to sell you some novelty board with pieces painted like American Idol contestants or world leaders. Come here with time to kill. You can play pick-up for $2 an hour or just hang around watching the ones in progress. (No cussing—they’ll fine you nearly twice the hourly rate!) They don’t spurn beginners—chess has honed their patience. Many of the regulars have been coming for decades.

FOR THE HUNGRY:

The Brooklyn Chili Takedown
Multiple times throughout the year, various locations — see website for details.

Tell your stomach to watch the fuck out, because once a year is not enough and the competitors are unfettered by any official rules save a mandate to bring enough to feed the crowd! Who knows what they’ll put in that pot in their pursuit of chili excellence! For about 10 bucks, you can sample 20 or so. Get in “free” by registering to compete—though be forewarned, it’ll cost you a lot of beef, beans, stress, and heartache. Wisely, this mother of all hipster cook-offs is always scheduled at a venue where alcohol is sold, a practice that extends to its many spawn, including, but not limited to, tofu, cookie, fondue and bacon takedowns.

FOR THE PHILANTHROPIC:

Church of the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen
296 9th Ave (@ W 27th St) 212-924-0167
(Chelsea: C/E to 23rd St)

I usually feel comfier sticking with the secular, but there’s a lot to love about a church whose rector refused to cave to a request to shut down their long-running, 5-days-a-week soup kitchen operation “for security reasons” when the 2004 Republican National Convention was convening a few blocks away. There’s no proselytizing of any kind, just a hell of a lot of casserole. Whether you’re scooping mashed potatoes, busing tables, or refilling sugar shakers, a morning’s shift will put you in contact with hundreds of hungry New Yorkers. I’m comfortable with any God Bless Yous that get bandied around. Your paper hat is yours to keep, though you can take it off for the hot staff meal everyone shares once the last guests have cleared out. Email Clyde, the guy who keeps this mighty craft on course, with the date or range of dates you’re available. Give him a few days to get back to you with whether or not there’s room for you on the schedule.

Ayun Hallday’s Zinester’s Guide to NYC is available online and in select bookstores as of this month. For more information on the book, including links to other online and real-world book-tour stops, visit Ayun’s website.

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Category: Travel Guidebooks, Vagabonding Advice

September 6, 2010

Wilderness survival guides

A lot of travelers are romanced by the kind of retreat from civilization found in the pages of Henry David Thoreau and Carl G. Jung. Taking a break from our regular lives and living simply in nature is not only personally rewarding, it may be a little more essential to our well being than many may previously have thought.

However, embarking on a journey such as this requires the same amount of research one would do to prepare themselves for travel across several cultures. You may not have to read up on local customs, language, and history, but it is just as important to be well informed about the land around you, even if you are planning to spend the whole of your time within the same camp sight. Not only will it help you get the most out of your experience by bringing you a closer understanding of your surroundings. It just may save your life.
Many people are familiar with the story of Chris McCandless, the free spirited and idealistic wanderer who met a tragic end as a result of being somewhat uninformed. As the story goes, McCandless did indeed take to the bush with a nature guide, but perhaps the story just reinforces the essential need to prepare. Eating the wrong things in the wild can be potentially life threatening. If we really plan to live off of what the land around us yields naturally, it’s good to know the tasty nutritious plants and roots from the ones that might kill us. We don’t want to spend the whole of our time with our noses in a guidebook, but a decent amount of preparation is certainly advisable.

Each area of land will require location specific research and inquiry, as plants and the culture of the terrain varies both between and within different countries. On top of all this, there is an endless sea of herb dictionaries and wilderness survival guides to choose from. So where does one start? As someone who has put in a sizable amount of time searching for a guide that is both area appropriate and systematic and intuitive enough to use, I can admit, the task can be a little daunting.

Ultimately, regardless of the amount of time we study our wilderness survival books, our real education will come by spending time in the outdoors and the myriad situations we will encounter along our journey.

Have you found a specific wilderness guide to be particularly useful? What about it made it ideal for you?

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Category: Food and Drink, Simplicity, Travel Guidebooks, Travel Health

June 25, 2010

Guidebooks go mobile

iPhone running Google Maps. Photo: Marcin Wichary / Flickr Creative Commons

iPhone running Google Maps. Photo: Marcin Wichary / Flickr Creative Commons

Looks like the guidebooks are heading for the really small screen: mobile devices. With the soaring popularity of the iPhone and other smartphones, guidebook publishers are moving to take advantage of new platforms, as this AP article describes: Guidebooks adapt to mobile download era.

However, they are running into a common problem in the tech world: compatibility. Mobile networks may not offer the same availability of apps from country to country. The cost of roaming is also a major dealbreaker, which can cause sudden spikes in phone costs.

The guidebooks may also be playing catch-up to popular websites like WikiTravel, VirtualTourist, and others that already offer similar information online. Will guidebooks on mobiles find an audience?  Or are they doomed to be left behind?

Do you prefer to get your information from the printed page or an electronic screen? Or how do you mix the two?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Category: Travel Guidebooks, Travel News, Travel Tech

May 28, 2010

What do you do with your old guidebooks?

Lonely Planet MonksAt some point in our travel planning, many of us consult a guidebook. How much we each rely on it differs, of course—from those who give a cursory glance early in the process to those who carry it around like a totem from place to place. And some have thrown over guidebooks nearly entirely for Web content.

But however we consume the information inside it, what’s left when we return from our travels? Is it a trusted source or something to be recycled?

I often hang onto mine for a little while—to fill in place names I may not have written down in my notebook. But ultimately, I give them away to a friend or a shop for used books. Even if it wasn’t of particular use to me, it may be to someone else.

I have a friend who keeps his guidebooks like trophies. Looking at them on his bookshelf spurs memories of his travels, just like his photos or his travel diary. It’s just another medium for him. I wonder if at some point, he’ll begin to question this method because he’ll run out of storage space. But for now, he’s got plenty of room.

Another friend never returns with her guidebook. She tears out the pages she needs while she’s on the road, and gives the rest away to travelers who are in need. To her, it’s served its purpose in the field.

What do you do?

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Category: General, On The Road, Travel Guidebooks

December 15, 2009

Book review: Lonely Planet Thailand

Erawan Shrine, Bangkok, by ~MVI~ via Flickr Creative Commons

Erawan Shrine, Bangkok, by ~MVI~ via Flickr Creative Commons

It’s hard to believe the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand is in its 13th edition; having first graced the shelves of alternative bookstores and organic co-ops in 1982, a full month before the guidebook that started it all, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring (or the ‘Yellow Bible’), hit the stands.  Lonely Planet was a little known mom-and-pop (literally — Maureen and Tony Wheeler started the LP juggernaut in 1973 after an overland trip through Turkey, India, Iran, Nepal, and Afghanistan) publisher in Australia and Thailand was largely unmapped for tourism, although streams of well-meaning backpackers were trickling into it without any idea of where to find a grimy hostel short of Khao San in Bangkok.

Now, Lonely Planet is  the ONLY guidebook most people will carry — I saw so many of the blue-and-red Morocco covers when I was there in 1999 that we all started waving at each other. Their 13th edition Thailand guidebook is a masterpiece of slick publishing: gorgeous pictures, well-laid-out maps, and all. (more…)

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Category: Travel Guidebooks

December 2, 2009

Who’s too cool for audio tours?

Headphones are often criticized as one of the fastest ways to close yourself off to a culture. The bell of the rickshaw about to run you over is no match for speakers in your ear blasting, well, anything. However, if you’re going to trade local sounds for an MP3, why not expand your knowledge of a place with a few tracks from the audio tour underground?

This ain’t your daddy’s cassette-in-the-stationwagon-stereo Lombard Street cruise. Forget the image of shuffling through the Louvre with hearing-test headphones and a grimy tape deck. The new breed of audio tour understands the traveler’s goal of truly understanding a place.

By listening to these tours on your MP3 player, you can audiotour not only discreetly, but with as much ambient noise as you wish–just drop the second earbud.

Here are a few to check out: (more…)

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Category: Travel Gear, Travel Guidebooks, Travel News
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