Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work almost immediately. It’s amazing how profoundly engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.
As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with a local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d taken. The clusters of pixels in my camera contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.
It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community who lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—alone at sunset.
At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.
Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.
As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research I did and the photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.
When it comes to travel on a shoestring – my favorite style – the amount of money you spend or save on accommodation becomes a serious matter. There was a time when travelling to China was very, very cheap, and accommodation options where everywhere. Unfortunately, with China experiencing the economic boom, things have changed quite a lot. On the other hand, the development of Chinese tourism has also created a wide range of opportunities for all kinds of travellers, making it quite easy and affordable to find budget accommodation in comfortable, clean beds. Where?
Simple: at YHA, the first wonder of Chinese Budget accommodation!
Everywhere and anywhere in China, my first option is to look for the YGA symbol, which means Youth Hostelling International. This international franchise is widely spread all around the major tourist destinations of China, and at times also a bit out of the beaten track. Generally, this kind of hostels are the Chinese equivalent of the Southeast Asian guesthouses, are full of travelers, good vibes and dispense good travel information. Besides, they are generally very cheap to stay in, they provide free wi-fi connectivity, restaurant facilities, self-service kitchen areas, luggage storage options and, very important if you cannot speak any Mandarin Chinese, can help you book your onward train or flight tickets. You will pay a little surcharge, but believe me, it is worth to save time and effort.
Most likely if you are looking for the cheapest option, you will end up staying in a dormitory: have no fear, as YHA dormitories are usually big, equipped with your own locker, sparkling clean, spacious and comfortable. They are also great places to meet other travelers. Dorms usually come in different sizes, and are generally equipped with several rows of bunk beds able to accommodate 4, 6, 8, and even up to 10 or 12 people. Dorms are also very cheap, as they start from 20 to 40/50 yuan per bed. So far, I only found the higher end of the spectrum (50 yuan) in Shenzen, Beijing and Shanghai.
One of the best services provided is definitely the onward-travel hostel booking service: each hostel will have many cards advertising other hostels in the next “tourist towns”. Just glance trough and pick the one you like most, tell the receptionist and he/she will make a call to reserve your bed at your next destination. Generally, you will have to pay half of the fee to the hostel you are reserving from and once you get to your destination, you will pay the difference. It works like Hostelworld, but over the phone, and most times free train or bus station pick-ups are guaranteed.
A good traveler knows that it isn’t the number of places you’ve been that counts, it’s the number of meaningful experiences. Just like the saying, “it’s not the number of breaths you take that matters, it’s the number of moments that take your breath away.” Same with traveling. Miles mean little, so do stamps in your passport. That stuff is ancillary to the true story: the adventures themselves (be they emotional, fun, or just plain interesting) and the souls you were lucky enough to encounter along the way.
For example, a friend asked me today, “So how many places have you been to?” I get asked question a lot. My answer is always, “I don’t know. Never counted. But you know what? I’ve got a scar from Scotland, some friends from Florence and a parking bill from Budapest.”
All true, and all linked to great travel memories. All the best travelers use this sort of yardstick to measure their experiences abroad. The key is perspective: think qualitatively, not quantitatively.
Having said that, I think it’s safe to assume the Hungarian police have given up expecting me to pay that stupid fine they left on my windshield. To this day I’m not quite sure what it says on that thing, but it looks cool in a frame. As for the scar from Scotland, that’s another story altogether.
As a first stop during my “charity discovery tour” in India I visited the village of Sujata, just behind Buddhist pilgrimage center – and Tibetan refugee colony – Bodhgaya, in Bihar state. If Bodhgaya is a bit more developed, although desperately poor, Sujata represents a real Bihar’s backwater: the kind of Indian village where houses are half built, their walls covered in thick cow dung’s cakes, and most people roam jobless looking for something to do under the scorching sun.
I was a host of Dinu, a young chap I met through Couchsurfing. He has been helping a local charity school, Lord Buddha, to develop and raise the foundations of the building thanks to the offers of a few foreign contributors. Dinu is still a young student: he dedicates his time to the school project for the poor kids of the adjoining villages, and he is trying to study Chinese besides the dearth of opportunities to find updated textbooks in Bihar.
Dinu also would like to be able to build a small “Couchsurfing Hostel” where he may be able to host many people passing through Bodhgaya, giving them a chance to volunteer participating to the schools’ activities. So far, the only thing Dinu has is some free land space, and some tons of bricks generously provided by a Canadian donor. Although having a vision, Dinu lacks funds, and needs help.
This post has the sole intention to let you know Dinu’s story and open up a channel in order to contact him, if interested. If you could even send him an English-Chinese dictionary or textbooks, he would be extremely thankful. Regarding the Lord Buddha school, I had a chance to visit during India’s Independence Day 2012, as the little kids put up a parade in front of the – for the moment being – single storey school building. Parents and families from the surrounding village were all present, flags were raised, dances and songs were performed, and everyone had a very sweet and entertaining morning.
I urge people to get in touch with him, at least to give some encouragement or practical tips, as this young fellow is really dedicated and has a very good heart: you can write an email to dinusinha(at)yahoo.co.in and get in touch regarding the project, or make a donation by contacting Dinu and using Paypal.
I sat down and tried to calculate how much money I spent visiting India last year, my way: the balance is ridiculously low. India is a cheap country, yes, but this would not have been possible without a few tricks.
Here is a lowdown on how I managed to spend 110$ for 6 weeks travelling from Kolkata to Delhi in North India, taking it slow, and doing a lot side trips. Hopefully the following suggestions may be useful for someone else!
You are in India, PAY like and Indian
This is a basic rule that applies to all of my trips: I do not want to pay more. If my skin is white, it does not mean I am rich, or stupid. If an Indian pays 10, why do I have to pay 100? A tourist in India has to bear enough of this double-tier pricing when visiting all Indian main sites (more on this next), but seriously, why should I pay 20 rupees when the guy next to me pays 5 for the same auto-rickshaw ride? It is a game, and a damn funny one. Learn the local lingo: pach rupee is five, das is ten. Surprise them. Talk to them in other languages than English as they keep on talking to a clueless you in Hindi. See how much fun it is. Send five, ten, twenty drivers away before you find a honest man, because they do exist, although very rare.
Avoid the inflated tourist attractions’ entry fees
India is the most unfair country in the world when it comes to double tier pricing. A Taj Mahal ticket which costs you a whooping 750 rupees, costs an Indian 20. Yes, 20 only. It is just a little over 300% more. Because they think we are rich, and we deserve to pay. Fine, let’s pay more. But do not pay for everything, be wise. The Sun Temple in Konark, Orissa, for example: just walk around it. It will not give you the perfect visual, but it would save the 200 rupees entry fee. And you will see it even better from the outer enclosure. And whenever they ask you to pay to be able to take pictures, please hide your camera and snatch away as much as you can. (more…)
Picture credit: Flickr/ Marcio Cabral de Moura
Living in Asia and trying to have real, normal friends can often bring to “that” conversation topic: travel. And whenever I say I have been to 50 countries, my friends roll eyes and vent out some long, strange sounds before freezing in awe with open mouths. Then, their jaws drop for about 10 seconds, and the dire question always comes up next.
“How can you do it? Are you RICH?”
No, I’m not and it seems that – like in the West – most Asians cannot conceive travel without a sackcloth bag full of cash tied to their waist. What’s more, to them travel is to shell out on something they cannot have at home. Understandable: if I also lived in a tiny house with too many people, I think I would enjoy spending a weekend at the local Holiday Inn laying by the poolside.
When I start to explain how I like to travel, and how I like to do things that they consider dangerous, downright crazy or just plain boring, they lose interest and continue sipping their drinks.
Their curiosity, however, surprises me. To the contrary of most Western folks of all ages, Asians probably have a deeper sense of responsibility towards their families, or are just less inclined to “leave it and risk it”. Japanese and some Koreans have been an exception, but not casually, their currency is stronger than most other Asians. It seems that the main problem between their desire for vagabonding, and the actual realization of their dream, is fear of not having enough money to make it.
So, they think I am rich.
I do not even own an Ipad like the one they are toying with as we speak. For one of those, they are not afraid to pay roughly one month’s salary …. funny, isn’t it?
Maybe it is all related to a matter of priorities, and everything will change when Asians will realize that trying to be Western actually leads to – errr… – escapism and vagabonding. We can just wait, and see what the future will bring…
The subject of my life as a minimalist keeps coming up in conversations lately.
I’m always a bit taken aback when someone suggests it, because I don’t think of myself as a minimalist at all. It’s true, I’ve lived out of a backpack, essentially, for over five years now. My whole life fits into one checked bag and one carry-on. Does that make me a minimalist? Perhaps.
Interestingly, I view myself in the exact opposite fashion: I refer to myself as a maximalist. It’s not about stripping life down to the bare essentials for me, it’s about living as large as I possibly can, experiencing it all, and finding good in both extremes, with my heart somewhere in the middle. It just so happens that in this incarnation of my life, as I travel relentlessly in search of memories with my family as the kids evaporate before my very eyes, that I don’t have much in the way of “stuff.” That’s not because I’m morally opposed to the stuff. It’s because the stuff would interfere with what matters most to me, with what I’m trying to achieve to the maximum, which is time, freedom, experience and relationship building. For now, I choose to spend my time and money on those things, which means that I don’t have much “stuff,” which makes me look like a minimalist, I suppose.
So what about you? Are you a minimalist? Or a maximalist, like me? Where do you fall on the sliding scale of moral debate about “stuff,” its origin, impact and use? This is a discussion, and there’s no “right answer,” so please, chime in!
After I read this article about motorbike travel in Indonesia, I started thinking of my own experiences: I switched the focus from great memories of incredible biking trips around Southeast Asia and India, and I considered my actual situation. I concluded that I could not lead the same comfortable life if it wasn’t for an old rattler of a motorbike I am driving around Penang Island since 2010.
To be honest, when I tell my foreign friends that I use a motorbike to get around town, I am confronted with skeptical stares: ”Oh man. That is dangerous.” And I do not blame them: the vision of rush hour traffic in most Asian cities may discourage the most hardcore city driver from hitting the road, and inspire safer options such as public transport or taxis. However, I think that by committing to learn how to handle the traffic, the long-term traveler can really increase his chances to blend in with the local city hustle.
Before I used the bike, I had to ask my girlfriend for rides, or use the erratic public transportation: this last option would have been ok if the buses showed up at the expected time. And when borrowing her car, parking was always a problem. One of the occasional perks was to get stuck in traffic at 32 Celsius degrees for longer than I had ever wished for.
I needed to get back my freedom of movements and time, and put both of them to greater use than to improve the art of cursing the next approaching driver. I decided to try to do what the locals did: so many of them were zooming past me blocked in traffic, wedging with dexterity among the oppressing lines of cars. It looked like the perfect solution to speed up my days, and possibly have some fun doing it. (more…)
“But you’re just going to leave!”
Although I hated to admit it, who said that was right. At the time I’d been seasonally migrating as a guide for four years. And had no intention to confine my adventurous spirit in domestic American life, then—if ever. The catch though was he was not American; Swedish born to immigrated Polish parents. And unless we got married, physically being together was a matter of juggling countless visas. I was willing to explore the challenges of the relationship. He proposed, and I accepted. However, the seemingly prince-charming-fairy-tale was soured after five months, in one evening by his jealousy. (I’d been out socializing–drinking and playing cards with colleagues after a conference—and being that my fiancé and I were nine time zones apart, I missed talking to him on the phone for a whole day.) When I told him why, he got irate. The plot got thicker; but, long-story-short things didn’t work out with us.
My traveling continued, and continues still…But for several years after that break-up I abstained from dating or intimate relationships.
How do us late “Generation X” travelers bridge tradition and progressive thought?
I grew up with a passion for horses, not wanting to get married, or have children. My passion for horses keeps getting stronger. I was intrigued with the idea of marriage a few years back, and now have warmed up to fostering or adopting a child down the road. So where does that adult understanding leave me?
My current boyfriend and I are in an open relationship. We are committed to one another, but are non-monogamous and can have relationships with other partners. This doesn’t mean I can be traveling half-a-world-away, get drunk, and wake up naked next to some stranger; then afterwards confess to my boyfriend that it “didn’t mean anything” the morning after. Rather, as a couple, we consent to our partners other relations—be it flirting, dating, sexual contact, or intercourse. Everything, all our feelings are in full disclosure. We talk about everything!
There’s a Polish proverb that says, “Love enters a man through his eyes, women though her ears.” So shouldn’t it be every womens’ dream to have a guy that will actually talk to her?
So I began this post with a very traditional phenomena of girl-meets-foreign-boy-and-falls-in-love fantasy. And while I don’t doubt that could happen, it didn’t eventually work out for me. In the end, my original prince charming and I lacked one true thing…an open line and space of communication. But the guy who was always there happened to be my best friend.
At the root of most relationships, communication is lacking. Distance shouldn’t matter. In the end, every human is seeking a connection. It could be simply a friendly conversation; an exchange of directions; or one’s life story that just needed to be expressed.
My point is that communication should, and can be, the heart of travel when it comes to any form of relationship. Within in a few moments, or several hours of stories, you can make a friend.
What are you willing to give?
Personally, I’ve known my current boyfriend for more than a decade. He knows everything; all my travel stories, personal/health issues and fears. Perhaps that makes an open relationship plausible. We agree. We work. We love each other unconditionally.
And yes, I realize, both within my country (of the USA) and copious amounts of others it presents a multitude of controversy…
But because we as a whole, at vagablogging, share this progressive space…how do you feel about open relationships? Or in general…the way communication happens between fellow humans that you meet along your travels…
Who doesn’t like getting a postcard in the mail?
With the overwhelming evolution of technology, the act of putting pen to paper almost seems old-fashion. Words have the same definition whether typed or scrolled by hand. But handwriting can reveal clues about an individuals personality where digital text lacks that touch.
Years ago I discovered a site called Postcrossing that links together people who enjoy writing postcards. Once signed up for a free account, you request an address, and can begin exchanging postcards with random people around the world! All cards are assigned an ID that you write along with your message. Once the person receives your card, they register that ID and a map program calculates the distance it traveled. It’s a fun way to learn about other cultures, geography and connect with real people. I’ve received amazing handmade cards and messages that took me a while to translate.
Do you enjoy sending postcards? Have you ever used postcrossing?