When I handed in my resignation letter, put what few belongings I hadn’t sold into storage and packed my life into a 55L rucksack, I became a vagabond.
Without bricks and mortar, without a stable income and without fear of regret, I altered the direction in which my life was headed and set off to travel the world.
Long term travel is a romantic notion, one that many aspire to but never achieve.
Whenever anyone asks me why I still travel on a shoestring at the ripe old age of 38, I usually tell them about the time I learned how to play the bagpipes in Havana.
Granted, I could probably relate a more typical story about the joys of budget travel - some tidy parable of money saved and experiences gained – but when I mention learning the bagpipes in Cuba it sounds like I’m going to tell a joke, and people like jokes.
The thing is, there’s no punch line. My encounter with Cuban bagpipers wasn’t memorable for its mere quirkiness – it was memorable because it illustrates how travelling on the cheap can offer you windows into a culture that go beyond the caricatured stereotype of what a place is supposed to be like.
If it sounds to you like I’m an ageing backpacker who never quite grew out of his shoestring ways, you’d be exactly right. In many ways, my travel sensibilities have grown out of a journey I took 10 years ago, when I quit my job as an English teacher and took a journey across Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I probably had enough money saved up to invest in a three-month trip. As it turned out, I learned ways to stretch my travel budget into a life-enriching 30-month sojourn – and in all those months of travel, my day-to-day costs were significantly cheaper than day-to-day life would have cost me back in the United States.
The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: like many generations of backpackers and shoestring travellers before me, I was able to make my modest savings last by slowing down and forgoing a few comforts as I travelled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hotels, hostels and guesthouses. Instead of dining at fancy restaurants, I ate food from street vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I travelled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts. In what eventually amounted to over two years of travel, my lodging averaged out to just under $5 a night, my meals cost well under $1 a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded $1,000 a month. Instead of investing my travel budget in luxuries and amenities, I invested it in more travel time – and it never failed to pay off in amazing experiences.
It’s been almost eight years now since I finished that extended stint of vagabonding, but the experience is still very much a part of me. In financial terms, I have the resources to sleep in five-star hotels and eat in expensive international restaurants, but I’ve found I rarely choose such luxurious options. Given a choice between a $400-a-night hotel and an $18-a-night flophouse in Hong Kong, I tend to opt for the latter. Faced with the prospect of an all-inclusive dinner buffet in a Santo Domingo casino, I invariably find myself wandering outside to sample food from street vendors.
Ultimately, the charm of budget travel has always been less about saving money than making the most of my time on the road. Travelling cheaply has forced me to be engaged and creative, rather than to throw money at my holidays and hope for the best. Freed from a rigid, expense-laden itinerary, I’m more likely to be spontaneous, embrace serendipity and enjoy each moment of my journey.
Excerpted from Around The World On a Shoestring-The Guardian Feb. 6, 2009
Some questions just never get old.
This question came in almost eleven years ago from a reader. Rolf’s answer is as applicable today as it was over a decade ago. Do you wonder if it’s still safe to travel?
I got an interesting question from a woman in Texas. The gist of it was this: With all the news of war and anti-Americanism abroad, is it still OK for Americans to go vagabonding?
This is what I told her:
“The short answer is: Yes, it’s still safe for Americans to go vagabonding. Despite the impression you might get from the news media, the world is still an inviting place for travelers of all stripes — now as much as ever. You’d never guess this from watching the evening news, of course, but travel allows you to see the world a way that traditional news media never will. If you need a little encouragement in this regard, just check out traveler message boards at BootsnAll or Lonely Planet. Listen to dispatches from Americans abroad (including a recent one from France by humorist David Sedaris on public radio). Email your friends traveling overseas and ask how they’re faring. Without exception — from Egypt to China to Peru — the refrain I’ve heard (and seen — I’m in Thailand right now) has been this: people around the world may vehemently dislike George Bush’s bellicosity and/or American foreign policy, but they invariably treat Americans with respect and humanity.
“The only catch here is that you, as a thoughtful American traveler, must return that respect. Even if you collect George Bush memorabilia and derive your self-esteem from American foreign policy, your job as a traveler isn’t to argue and pontificate, but listen to what people overseas are saying (this goes for anti-war liberals as much as pro-war conservatives). Ask questions. Learn. Grow. You might go into a country worried about how you are perceived as an American (as I was a couple years ago in Syria and Palestine), but you will invariably come out with new and encouraging perspectives. That is one of the charms of travel.
“Admittedly, there is no such thing as risk-free travel. Guidebooks warn against crooked cops in Mexico, bad roads in Mozambique, and aggressive monkeys in Myanmar. Various websites, such as the U.S. State Department Travel Warnings (which you should definitely peruse when researching your travels), detail hazards in countries worldwide. But keep in mind that even these are worst-case scenarios. Statistically, you are no more likely to come into harm traveling overseas than you are walking across your hometown. Be careful on the road, but not paranoid. Engage local people and travel in such a way that you benefit local economies. And, as much as anything, exercise your humility as you walk through the world — a strategy sure to win hearts and minds everywhere.”
What are your thoughts? How would you answer the question?
“A virtuous life doesn’t reward you with travel.” — Rolf Potts
I had the pleasure of connecting with Rolf in person this week. I’ve written on his blog since 2012 and we’ve passed a few notes back and forth as we’ve shared the occasional orbit in cyber-space but there’s something different about connecting at eye level and feeling someone’s presence and intention. I spent the evening studying the man behind the author bio and really listening as he shared his vagabonding life, his passions for education and writing with a roomful of students. I learned a lot. Woven into stories of bagpipes in Cuba and the ethical dilemma of tribal photography in remote corners of Africa was an underlying message that he summed up in one line that stopped the universe spinning for a moment. I’m not sure anyone else noticed it, but I did, and it reminded me of the urgency of pursuing our dreams:
A virtuous life doesn’t reward you with travel.
Doing all of the “right things,” doesn’t guarantee a damned thing. Pinning all of your hopes on your “golden years” is worse than a crap shoot. Travel is not some gold medal that will be draped around your neck as a prize for a race well run. It’s not something you earn by playing someone else’s organized game. Travel is a building block of a greater life. Travel can be a life in and of itself. If it’s seen as an optional bonus round of life it’s unlikely to happen, or at least not in the way you’re dreaming of now.
A virtuous life doesn’t reward you with travel.
You want to travel? Go. Go now. Create your life to include travel. Build your life around your dream of travel. It’s a very simple mental shift, a change of paradigm and priority structure. You can travel sooner rather than later. If it is in your heart, then you must work to make it a reality and not put it off until some elusive “one day.”
Last weekend, on a sunny Saturday morning at a local Seattle-area library, I kicked off the first of several ninety-minute “Travel talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.
I began doing these talks several years ago after answering the umpteenth question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that’s my specialty), how to plan it, and where to go. I realized there was a hunger for this type of straight-up advice from a trusted source. Since then I’ve done several, and I’m always stuck by audiences’ desire for useful tips and, more importantly, a much-needed infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.
Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically free work and free advice. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information, I’ve found that it’s the message of “you can do it too!” that is truly valuable, no matter what destination you’re discussing. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics needed to plan a trip and where to go, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket.
So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you choose, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a reluctant adventurer to take the trip of a lifetime, and that is time well spent indeed.
I’ve been talking a lot lately to folks who are pushing hard towards their dreams. They’re working the equivalent of two full time jobs to break free from the one they’re sick of to change their whole lives. They’re courageous folks. But then, she goes out for drinks with a sister who ends up getting a whole bar full of dummies to mock her dream. And his family spends the holiday calling them absolutely crazy for bending over backwards to give their kids the world, literally.
But you know what I’ve decided? They’re right. All the naysayers. They’re right. Living your dreams is dumb. It’s unrealistic. It’s ridiculous. Why would anyone in their right minds give up the status quo? It’s so easy. So comfortable. It makes so much sense.
Here are five reasons you should give up all of those dreams of long term travel and just stay home.
1. You’ll sleep better
If there’s one thing that long term travel is, it’s one long parade of sleepless nights: The first night anywhere is a tough sell. Add that to mosquito ridden jungle nights with that infernal drone outside your hammock, and the sweltering nights in concrete rooms with bars on the windows but no screens, and the parade of couches and floors that we’re so very grateful to collapse on and, well, you get the idea.
Just stay home in your soft feather bed. Sure, you won’t have the fantastic beach picture, or that story about howler monkeys and jaguars screaming around you in the darkness, but you’ll also probably live longer and you’ll definitely be better rested.
Here’s one of many nights you’ll be glad to have missed.
2. You’ll be more comfortable
Who in their right mind gives up a warm house with a full kitchen, a bathtub, an easy drive to the grocery store and a flat screen T.V. for backpacks, long bus rides plagued by diarrhea, ocean crossings spent leaning over the rail, green with sea-sickness or pushing a bicycle with broken spokes for miles until she finds a repair shop. Who indeed?
All of the critics are right. It’s nuts. It’s too hard. It’s smarter and safer to stay home. Of course if I have to die of something I’d rather it be adventure than boredom, but that’s just me. Listen to the blow-hards in the bar who’ve done exactly *nothing* with their lives and follow the status quo, their lead is clearly the one to follow, over your heart’s.
3. You can pretend “they” don’t exist
If you stay home you can happily pretend that the whole scope of human experience and expression is wrapped up in your particular section of the Bible belt. You can comfortably assume that poverty is defined (and taken care of) by the welfare office of your particular state. You can avoid the unpleasantness of naked children with flies dotting their inner eyes. You can happily believe that “our way” is the “right way” and that everyone, everywhere else clearly just needs to be set aright by being exposed to our clearer way of thinking, or believing, or governance.
If you stay home, you can pretend that “they,” whoever they are, don’t exist; or if they do exist, you can continue in your fantasy that you understand them perfectly. You’ll never have to be brought to your knees by a pile of skulls, or experience the fear of swimming in a dangerous political demonstration, or ask a few seminal questions about the wisdom of the drug war from the point of an AK 47.
Just stay home, it will be easier to continue in your delusion. Because when those walls are broken down, and you have to come face to face with “them,” you have to come face to face with yourself.
4. You won’t know what you’re missing
The best part of giving up your dream and just staying home might be that you’ll never know what you’re missing. If you haven’t every cycled into the yard of complete strangers only to find that they’re chosen family for a lifetime, you’ll never know that wonder. If you’ve never heard your six year old utter the words, “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” as he stares up at the Eiffel Tower, then you won’t know how much you want that moment to happen again, and again. If you’ve never stepped onto a brand new continent and felt the rush of the world expanding exponentially, you won’t miss it.
Listen to that harpy who tells you that you’re ruining your life by reinventing yourself. She’s right. There’s nothing on the other side that is better than living life between Walmart, the office and the Elk’s lodge on Saturday nights, nothing you know you’re missing anyway.
It’s a serious downside to living your dreams, you know exactly what you’re missing.
5. You’ll be happier
Seriously, if you stay home, you’ll be happier. Once the travel bug bites, once you let it get a grip on your heart, you’re going to yearn like you’ve never yearned before. For places you’ve been, for places you haven’t been, for the home you left, for people you miss, it’s one big black hole of discontent. You’ll buy a mango in Wisconsin and whine that it’s not as good as the one you picked from a tree you were camped under in Puerto Arrista, Mexico. You’ll be sitting on a perfectly perfect beach on the Andaman Sea and be ungrateful enough to wish you could get a decent glass of southern sweet tea. You’ll be that jerk who can’t get through a dinner conversation without saying something about, “When we were in Africa…” Your kids will come to blows with “normal” kids in the park over the veracity of their camel stories. You can trust me on that.
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.
Picture credits: Flickr/Travel Aficionado
It’s been in the air for a while, buzzing among the Southeast Asian traveler’s enclave, and making the day of many resolute overlanders. We all knew that the Golden land of Myanmar was changing. After the liberation of Aung San Suu Kyi, punk rockers storming the streets of Yangon, and everyone turning their backpacks to the country, something HAD to change, hadn’t it? And it has: now, the Thai-Myanmar borders are open to overland international traffic and travel, as reported by Mizzima.
People! Rejoice because the country that back in the 1980s wouldn’t let you in for more than 6 days, now has lifted travel restrictions on its eastern land borders. Regardless, the western side bordering with India and Bangladesh still remains locked, and pretty dangerous. Well, please be happy with this first accomplishment, and postpone your overland dreams of shaving off the bulk of Central Asia and China for the next decade, cool?
But my question is: how good will the opening of these land borders be for the country?
I am certainly not wishing that Myanmar stepped back into the darkness of its autocratic military regime, but at the same time, I am afraid that its face might change forever and ever. Something that was still quite magical will be lost, buried under a mound of foreign dollars.
In 2012, the country has already received 1 million tourists. 1 million! An awful lot for a place like Myanmar, which doesn’t have the infrastructures needed to support such an amount of arrivals. I’ve heard many horror stories of travelers who have been forced to sleep on guesthouses’ floors, and paying full price (a lapidary 20 $ minimum per person per night, quite a big sum for SE Asia today) as the demand for accommodation amply surpassed the supply. The Burmese are also starting to become a bit greedier, it seems. My experience goes back to year 2009, and I must say, I had a splendid time, and had basically the country all to myself. When I flew in – as it was impossible to enter by land back then-, my group of 4 whiteys was the only drops of clear skin inside of the airplane’s dark, bottled humanity. Now, the numbers have definitely changed: everyone I meet in Malaysia is bound -or he’s returning – from Myanmar. So much that it makes me feel like as of now, it’s Malaysia the place that nobody dares to visit!
The point of this post is to suggest to the new visitors to go to Myanmar with a respectful attitude, and an open mind. I would not like it if in five years I’ll meet people telling me how Myanmar be a new version of touristy Thailand. I’m crossing my fingers, but the responsibility is not on me. It’s on all those who decide to visit. Please, I am begging you, take care of Myanmar, until we can.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a first-timer, a travel newbie; everyone has a first time and there is a sweetness in that first trip that you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to recapture. The lessons you learn and the experiences you have will shape your life and your adventures to come and those are things to celebrate and embrace.
There is no shame in being a newbie. There is, however, a little danger in it and perhaps good reason not to advertise the fact. The road will be a little smoother for you if it’s not obvious that this is your first rodeo and you’ll have less of a target painted on your back if you avoid some of the more obvious “I’m a brand new traveler” advertisements.
If you’ve been around a bit, you’ll recognize yourself or your friends in some of these, no doubt. Don’t get offended, we all want to save the next guy the hassle, right?
1. Don’t Travel With A New Bag
My Dad’s sage wisdom for travel is this: Look like you have less than everyone else. This might be impossible a lot of places, but you can look like you have less by traveling with an old, used pack, or scuffing up the new one before you go. Buy a used pack and put the extra money towards your travels. As an added bonus, you’ll be less attached to it. If you already bought the new pack, sew some patches on it even if it doesn’t need it, rub it on the sidewalk and scuff the seams, take a pencil or a marker to it and mark it up a bit.
2. Don’t Wear Your Money-Belt On The Outside
The point of a money-belt is to hide the fact that you’re carrying valuables. If it’s hung around your neck on the beach, you’re advertising. Instead, carry your money in pockets that zip closed or purchase one of those cool, traveler waist packs that you find abroad that are out of some native fabric and have zippered pouches with buttoned overlays. If you must carry wads of extra cash and valuables with you when you’re out and about, do so more discretely, by using one of the fake battery safes, with a screw off bottom, instead. You’re much less likely to have a “spare battery” stolen off of your person than you are a money-belt swinging in the wind.
3. Don’t Buy The “Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel” T-Shirt
Or if you do, at least don’t wear the damned thing in Hanoi. Nothing says, “This is my first rodeo,” quite like actually buying (and wearing) the t-shirt. Take it home, wear it in Kansas, it will look exotic there. Over here, it’s painting a target on your ass.
Of course you stick out when you visit a culture that is not your own; that’s the whole point. But you can fly below the radar of the pirates who prey on travelers by wearing clothes that don’t advertise that you’re a tourist and have been in town five seconds. If you’re lucky, you’ll be mistaken for a long term traveler, or an expat, or someone who is not traveling through with tons of money to spend on t-shirts!
4. Don’t Ask Stupid Questions
I’ve offended you already, haven’t I? Your Mama was right, there are no stupid questions. But there are questions that are unnecessary and will mark you as a first timer for sure. It’s impossible to list all of these, but this is what defines a stupid question in a given context: Its answer can be found without words if you will just pay attention.
Think about this for a second: What separates a tourist from a quasi-local? The need for directions and to have questions answered, right? If you know a place you don’t need to ask questions. Who do the pirates target? Mainly those who don’t know a place. There’s no shame in not knowing a place, I live my whole life in places I don’t know, but there’s no need to advertise the fact and put yourself at unnecessary risk.
What to do instead: Slow down, be cool, shut up and listen, use your eyes and do your homework. There will be signs. If there are no signs, there will be people to follow. If there are no people to follow then use your intuition and move in a likely direction. There are times to ask questions, even obvious ones, but don’t be the first guy rushing to ask, be the guy who tries to suss out the answer on his own first. Every teacher will tell you that finding the answer to a question through doing is a better way to learn than simply being given the answer.
5. Don’t Carry Your Guidebook
Guidebooks are great, for pre-game research and post-game toilet paper. They have no business in your hands on the street (and for god’s sake don’t take one from your local library with the bar code stickers on the outside). I know there are people arguing this point before they even get to the end of the paragraph. Are there exceptions? Yes, of course; there are always exceptions! By all means, carry that guidebook into the ancient ruins site so you can read the descriptions of each temple complex. The point I’m making is this: you don’t want to be the guy walking down the Champs Elyse with his nose buried in the guidebook. You can read about Paris from anywhere in the world, when you are actually in Paris stop reading, and be there.
What have I missed? What else can you do to avoid looking like it’s your first rodeo?