April 19, 2014

Up Cambodia without a phrase book

landmine

Image credit

I am 15 minutes into my hike down the muddy little stream when a tree carving captures my attention. Sticky with sap and arcing brown across the bark, it seems to have been made recently.

I drop to my haunches and run my fingers over the design. After three days of living on the Indochinese outback without electricity or running water, I feel like my senses have been sharpened to the details of the landscape. I take a step back for perspective, and my mind suddenly goes blank.

The carving is a crude depiction of a skull and crossbones.

Were I anyplace else in the world, I might be able to write off the skull and crossbones as a morbid adolescent prank. Unfortunately, since I am in northwestern Cambodia, the ghoulish symbol can mean only one thing: land mines. Suddenly convinced that everything in my immediate vicinity is about to erupt into a fury of fire and shrapnel, I freeze.

My brain slowly starts to track again, but I can’t pinpoint a plan of action. If this were a tornado, I’d prone myself in a low-lying area. Were this an earthquake, I’d run to an open space away from trees and buildings. Were this a hurricane, I’d pack up my worldly possessions and drive to South Dakota. But since I am in a manmade disaster zone, all I can think to do is nothing.

My thoughts drift to a random quote from a United Nations official a few years back, who was expressing his frustration in trying to clear the Cambodian countryside of hundreds of thousands of unmarked and unmapped mines. “Cambodia’s mines will be cleared,” he’d quipped fatalistically, “by people walking on them.”

As gingerly as possible, I lower myself to the ground, resolved to sit here until I can formulate a course of action that won’t result in blowing myself up. (more…)

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, Destinations, Rolf Potts

March 23, 2014

Preparing to hike the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

I am writing from my sleeping bag in the Lima airport, getting ready to go to “bed” for the night on the food court floor. Today starts my two week trip to Peru, and I have an early flight to Cusco in the morning. In some ways I feel prepared (for instance right now I have a sleeping bag, ear plugs, and eye mask, while I see other struggling to sleep/fight sleep at food court tables), but in most ways I feel very unprepared for this trip. It was a spontaneous decision that myself and two girlfriends made just a few months ago, after finding ourselves on the same continent for the first time in over a year. Why not fly halfway around the world and hike Machu Picchu? I think a good bit of planning could have happened if we had really put our minds to it, but instead this will be an account of travel “winging it.”

It seems that the more I travel, the less I prepare. This is good in some ways, but of course could result in some major inconveniences. When I first left for a round-the-world trip in March of 2012, all I could think about for months in advance was plan, plan, planning. I even committed to the decision to save money and leave everything behind a full year in advance. Today, I find myself running to my flight as they are paging my name, only vaguely knowing the name of the hotel I am staying, not knowing the exchange rate for the country I’m visiting, etc.

Here is a photo of the things I packed before I left in 2012:

Here is a photo of my preparation for this trip:

This picture is a good representation of my current attention to detail in planning. Not at the top of my game, and maybe not completely recommended, but also not completely detrimental to a trip. Sometimes you just have to jump in without a plan.

Thanks to some internet research we came to the conclusion that a few basic tasks were necessary prior to arriving in Peru: booking a specific trek with a tour company due to limited availability, booking some basic internal flights before the price jumped, and knowing where to find the llamas (apparently they are quite bountiful). Some trips to our favorite outdoor clothing stores fitted us with sturdy boots, warm gloves, and plenty of layers for the high altitude weather. We used the company Cuscoperuviajes for our Salkantay trek. They were a bit cheaper than a lot of the other companies out there, and the reviews we saw were positive.

And the plan is to meet in Cusco.

I have a unique situation where I absolutely completely loathe flying, every single time. Unfortunately it doesn’t get better with experience. I also get anxiety and motion sickness on fast moving buses, and the thought of altitude sickness stresses me out. It’s not easy to want to travel so often but to be so scared of your means to do so. Sometimes you find yourself thrown into a situation by no one other than yourself, only to love and hate it at the same time. You might find yourself on a plane to get to the one place you’ve always wanted to go, only to wish you could call the whole thing off to escape the sudden onset of rough turbulence at 35,000 feet in the air. Climbing a mountain for four days to get to a World Heritage Site sounds like a great idea until you realize you aren’t really in shape for it and that you may suffer from altitude sickness and will be forced to ride on a disgruntled donkey along the edge of a cliff for hours on end. Travel has a way of pulling out the very best and worst of you, the most adventurous and the most fearful parts. But, you do it because you get something more out of it. You learn to depend on yourself in ways that you never thought you were capable. You have a new appreciation for where you are from, or maybe you find that you belong somewhere else. You meet people that inspire you to embrace life and adventure that you would have otherwise never met. Travel is one of the most enriching things you can do for yourself, and hopefully the people around you.

So all that said, here I am, waiting for an early flight, pushing all the anxiety I have to the bottom of my thoughts, and thinking about the positives. The photos I will take, the physical challenges I will overcome, and the new foods I will try. I’m thankful for my equally spontaneous friends and the chance to go see a new country and culture. Assuming I make it out alive, I’ll be back with an update on how it all went.

Has anyone else been to Cusco or hiked the Salkantay? Any advice on what not to miss or important things to pack would be welcomed!

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Category: Adventure Travel, Backpacking, South America

February 6, 2014

Giving free travel talks—A great way to share knowledge and ignite travel dreams

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.

globe--flags

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.

Tiber River in Rome

Tiber River in Rome

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.

chateaux

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Category: Adventure Travel, Backpacking, Europe, Images from the road, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Solo Travel, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

January 2, 2014

Want some free Travel Wickedness?

I admit it, I have been lacking a few posts and overall been bogged down with work (yes, work, because even to sustain a life abroad we need some, in a form or the other), and I beg your pardon. To start off the New Year right, I believe you might love reading some quirky, wicked travel narratives from around the world.

You might take this as a shameless example of self-promotion, but the third issue of Wicked World, an alternative digital magazine I edit with British travel writer Tom Coote, is finally available as a great eye candy: just love the gloriously wicked Ethiopian Mursi warrior on the cover!!

As well as a range of alternative travel articles and photo features, for the first time we have also included some travel related fiction. At one end of the story telling scale, is a traditional Moroccan folk tale, The Red Lantern, selected by Richard Hamilton. In a more contemporary vein, where the lines between fact and fiction blur, we are also showcasing The Death Kiss of a King Cobra Show by Jim Algie.

At the reportage end of the travel writing spectrum, in Barbed Wire Scars, Marcello Di Cintio encounters desperate African migrants determined to make their way across the razor wired walls at Ceuta, in the hope of making it to the promised land of Europe. Equally contemporary, E T Laing investigates recent political upheavals in Bangladesh in A Savage Fundamentalism. (more…)

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Category: Adventure Travel, Africa, Asia, South America, Travel Writing

September 13, 2013

Has it all been done?

old suitcases 1

Recently I was asked by a magazine to look at possibilities for a travel article. Specifically about some Western European locale that featured prominently in World War II, but hadn’t been covered too widely. Turns out it was not an easy task. While scouring my map of Western Europe looking for places that hadn’t been done a thousand times already, the thought entered my mind, “has it all been done before?” Just as when I’m playing my guitar and writing a tune, I wonder if every possible permutation of chords has already been explored.

The more I stared at the map, my eyes raking over familiar place names, the more I began to despair at the thought of “it all having been done.” Later that day, while talking to a friend, she mentioned in an off-hand way how her grandpa, who’d recently died, and was given a deeply moving military burial. “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was really nice. Actually, I had no idea he’d been in the military.”

“Neither did I”, she said. “He only mentioned it a couple times that I recall, and I was a kid, so I didn’t really care.” Evidently she found out while talking to his friends and other relatives at the funeral. She proceeded to tell me the harrowing and sometimes grisly story about her granddad’s exploits in World War Two, where as a young man he fought bravely in France and Germany, and was awarded medals for valor.

“I didn’t know this stuff till recently,” she said, a tone of amazement in her voice. “And I never saw the medals or knew about them till they were taken out of a drawer and put in his coffin with him. He had lots of them. He was always so quiet; he kept all of that stuff inside.”

old suitcase 2

Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that, yes, there are still great stories to be told about amazing lives; stories that often go unknown until that life is extinguished. It’s just a matter of asking; of seeking. Every location holds its own stories too, just like people. I recall the many times I have found that a flower-blanketed field was the scene of an epic medieval battle that decided the fate of nations, or that a pile of stones in the countryside was once a soaring abbey that witnessed a coronation of a great king beneath its vaulted ceilings.

And that is our job as travel writers, and as people fortunate enough to be able to tell these stories: We need to seek, we need to ask. Because there are stories worth telling, and they hide in the most unlikely of places, like a quiet valley, a broken-down complex of haunted stones, and a kind old man’s heart.

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Category: Adventure Travel, General, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Life

July 12, 2013

Scars from Scotland and Bills from Budapest

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.”

train station

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.

 

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Category: Adventure Travel, Europe, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Simplicity, Vagabonding Advice

June 13, 2013

Wicked World releases its first digital issue

In the past few months, I have complained several times about the current status of travel writing and how it does not satisfy my needs.
In this sense, it would have been too easy to just sit there and complain without actually doing something about it. And that’s exactly what I did by joining forces with British travel writer Tom Coote.
We sat down and worked hard to create a new digital magazine: Wicked World.
You can access it by clicking here.

Wicked World
exists to promote the kind of travel related writing that wouldn’t normally find an outlet in more mainstream publications. We’re not here to sell expensive guided tours, round the world tickets or travel insurance. On the contrary, we are here to provide a showcase for honest, alternative and irreverent writing, with a particular emphasis on internationally oriented underground culture. And we of course accept related, inspired submissions from like minded travel writers and adventurers.

If you want examples, the very first issue of Wicked World has articles on: the burgeoning black metal scene in Bangladesh; the rarely visited Meroe Pyramids in Sudan; mine clearance in Cambodia; a haunting return to Vicksburg, Mississippi; the resurrection of a mummified monk in Thailand; a bizarre encounter with the police in Kyrgyzstan; System of a Down’s self-financed film about the Armenian Genocide; and a festival for hungry ghosts in Malaysia and Singapore.

In the future, we are planning to provide a syndication service for travel related articles, and to experiment with publishing the kind of eBooks that wouldn’t normally find an outlet through more mainstream publishers.

If you would like to get involved in Wicked World, or would simply like to know more, then send an email to either marco@wickedworld.net or tom@wickedworld.net

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Category: Adventure Travel, Africa, Asia, Destinations, North America, Travel Writing

June 6, 2013

The Echoes of War Remain

My travels in northern France have always provided vivid reminders of the battle for Normandy, which raged from D-Day through the summer of 1944. Though partially healed by the decades, scars still remain in the rolling countryside, picturesque villages, and gentle beaches.

Sixty-nine years ago today, the Allies waded ashore on the beaches of Normandy, France, and began the liberation of Europe from Hitler. A US veteran of the Normandy campaign said recently, “Out of my squad of 13, only 3 survived.” His story was not unique. The fighting was ferocious, and casualties on both sides were severe.

Normandy, France, today. Peaceful and pretty.

Normandy, France, today. Peaceful and pretty.

On each of my visits to this beautiful area, I have been struck by the locals’ affection for Americans. The French are not normally known for their liking of the US tourist, but in Normandy, the appreciation for the US sacrifice is strong. Several coastal villages fly American flags and bear plaques in the town square commemorating the day of their liberation by US troops in June of 1944.

D-Day in Normandy--June 6, 1944

D-Day in Normandy–June 6, 1944

Some reminders are particularly evocative for me. For example, I find few sites as poignant as the rusted ports lurking in the waves just off the coast of Arromanches-les-Bains.

Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the tiny beach village of Arromanches-les-Bains was chosen to be the main port of the Allies. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports known as “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to move those millions of pounds of Allied men, vehicles, and supplies from ship to shore in the fight against Hitler.

"Mulberry" Port in action on D-Day

“Mulberry” Port in action on D-Day

The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a 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.

A ghost in the waves.

A ghost in the waves.

The years go on, but the echoes remain.

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Category: Adventure Travel, Europe, Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Writing

May 21, 2013

Ellis Emmett: The nine most important things in life

Ellis

The first things you notice about Ellis Emmett are his piercing blue eyes, the source of his deep, rolling laugh. This is a guy who loves life, and lives large; that much is clear from the moment he shakes your hand. He’s a builder, a farmer, an expert white water rafter, a mountain climber, an avid traveler, a photographer, a writer, and co-host of the fantastic SCUBA & adventure documentary series: Descending, which has been nominated for awards in Canada. He’s also a husband, a father, a mentor and a guy who dedicates a great deal of his life and efforts to inspiring others to “get off their butts and live their dreams.”

We talked about a lot of things while feeding his alpacas and rolling my kids down his back hill in the big blue barrels that he uses on rafting trips to store gear when there aren’t little boys who want to use them as adventure vehicles. We talked through mouthfuls of red curry with chickpeas that my kids said tasted like Thailand but reminded them of their favourite restaurant in Guatemala. We laughed in front of his enormous stone fireplace and swapped travel stories. This is a guy who lives in our world and who “gets it” in ways few people do.

Ellis is positively dripping with pearls of wisdom. Here is a short excerpt from our discussions on what he sees as being the most important aspects of life:

The nine things that I believe are important in life: 

Dream- have a dream. Dreams are so important. Without a dream you have nothing to strive for every day becomes the same.

Freedom- sometimes in order to have freedom you have to make a commitment not to have freedom for a certain time to achieve what you want to. Freedom has two parts: time and money. If you have enough time and enough money to do whatever you want,  whenever you want to, then you have freedom. You don’t have to have a lot of money, to be free. You can always scale down so that you need less, instead of continually scaling up

Growth- It’s important to be in a constant state of growth, to be continually evolving and learning in some way. If you’re not growing, you’re stagnating. To avoid stagnation, travel, explore, learn.

Physical- A healthy body and healthy mind go hand in hand. If you are not proud of yourself then how can you expect anyone else to treat you with respect? Ellis has a gym in his basement. His wife is a personal trainer. The day we’re visiting, his legs are killing him from a massive workout the evening before. He laughs about that as we hike up the hill from the alpaca paddock

Contribution- It’s very very important to give back. Don’t’ try to hold on to everything for yourself. It’s all part of the wheel and the process itself. In giving you open the avenue for receiving. The more you help and give to others, the more others will do the same for you.

Spirituality-  This can be in any form you want it to be. Spirituality is, I believe, a sense of self and acceptance of self. As human beings we have this inherent need to have a belief, who are we, what are we why are we here, where are we going (god I feel like a school teacher now!) Maybe to put it into one word, have a grounding. If you believe in Christianity that is equally as fine as Buddhism. it doesn’t matter what it is, you just have to believe in it. For myself personally, I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in any higher power. I believe we are the higher power. I believe each person has this massive energy and power within us. I’m not saying we are all gods, no, no. but we can do more than we know we can; we can do astounding things. If you set your mind to something you can do; it doesn’t matter what it is.

Love- “Just a small one,” he jokes with sarcasm in his voice… we as human beings need love in our lives, it comes in many forms: Romantic, family and self love.  But self love is probably the most important form. And this is where people make a mistake; people think, “No one loves me,” and love for themselves is overlooked. I’m not talking about self love in an egotistical sense, but it comes back to respect. if you don’t love/respect the person you are, then you can’t expect others to. It comes back to the old cliche, “You get back what you give out.” If there are particular reasons you don’t love yourself, get out there and change those things.

Passion- Passion is a lot like love, it’s one of those things that, if you don’t have it in your heart you’re half dead already. You have to have passion to get out there and live life. You have to have interests, things that drive you. If you don’t have passion, then keep trying things until you find the thing you love to do. It doesn’t matter if no one else sees it, if you feel it, go with it… you don’t have to explain it, just like love

Environment- Be very aware of your environment and its affect on you and your life. Many times it’s our environment that is holding us back, not the home you are living in. There are many things you don’t have a choice over, the family you are born into and the home you are in, but most people have more choices than they believe they do.

There are two aspects of your environment to consider:

The physical aspect: your surroundings. And the social aspect: This is even more important. Who do you hang out with? We hang out with the people we want to become. The people we hang with don’t want us to change, so they try to keep us the same. If you want to be better at something, go find the people who are doing what you want to do, find something in common and learn from them, grow from that lesson that they can teach you subliminally. If you don’t like the person you are, then look at the people in your life, the place you are living, who you are hanging out with. Maybe the first thing you should do is move, reinvent yourself in a new place, rebuild from the ground up.

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Category: Adventure Travel, General

March 7, 2013

Teaching Asians the Vagabonding way

Picture credit:Flickr/WarzauWynn

A couple weeks ago I have witnessed something quite interesting: I won’t name the company, as this is not the place to make some free advertising, BUT I was quite entertained and shocked to learn that in Malaysia, someone has decided to teach people how to travel on a budget. Obviously, for a price.

I have attended the press conference of a Malaysian company that is offering “backpacking tours” to interesting Asian destinations such as Mongolia, India and Tibet, offering a full vagabonding adventure under the tutorial of a guide. They won’t pay for your meals, they will make you sleep in gers and tents, and they will teach you how to take great travel photography. Still, you will pay to get out of your comfort zone, and have fun learning the backpacking style under expert supervision. Cool, isn’t it?

I liked the idea: as many Asians I met complain about safety issues and high costs of travel, and seem to be alien to the concept of backpacking and traveling independently without buying a full package tour, this seems to be a welcome educational improvement coming from Malaysia.
I reflected that, in Asia, what we take for granted may not be the same: a stronger money and family ethic, and the fear of the unknown are common among the young. Plus, they struggle to create their own critical thinking identities. For sure, there are quite a number of Asian backpackers on the road already, including Japanese, Taiwanese, Malaysians, Chinese, South Koreans and some Indians. But I think that, as the majority prefers organized tours, by offering a modest package to understand adventure travel and backpacking ethics, this company has made a right choice in its market.

How do you consider such an idea in the West? Do you know of any Western companies offering this sort of educational backpacking travel? Please comment below.

MARCO FERRARESE  explored 50 countries and lives in Penang, Malaysia since 2009. He is currently a PhD candidate at Monash University’s Sunway Campus, Kuala Lumpur, researching the anthropology of punk rock and heavy metal in Southeast Asia. Besides his academic endeavors, he blogs about overland Asian travel and extreme music in Asia at www.monkeyrockworld.com

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, Backpacking, Vagabonding Styles
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