The air is unbreathable, hot, and terribly humid. The air conditioner perched at the top of the wall at my right is just an empty plastic shell that reminds me that there could be some extra comfort, if someone had cared to replace the wiring. Instead, rivulets of sweat pour down my forehead and temples, sliding down my spine and flowing over the small of my back, soaking into the elastic of my underwear. I had to take my shirt off to endure this first Indonesian live test.
“Cut the set short, I can’t breathe…” Sam screams from behind the drums, his man-boobs twitch, lucid with sweat.
“Why man? They are loving it!” I answer screaming on top of amplifier white noise between two songs.
“I said cut it fucker, I can’t fucking breathe! I am feeling sick! There’s no air!”
OK then, roger.
This is the best travel I have done recently, hands down.
We are at the back of Khansa Studio’s rehearsal room in Pamulang, somewhere in the sprawling suburbs of Jakarta, nestled between a row of halfstacks and a small melee of young Indonesian hardcore punk believers. They are probably twenty, but the room’s so cramped it feels like they are hundreds, all blowing hot air in our faces. One has just finished walking up the wall to my right, supported by a bunch of other lunatics pushing him at the small of his back. From my perspective, I believe for a moment that the room is rolling sideways, and this guy’s trying to run with it. When Sam hits the last of four strokes with his sticks, we launch into the last song of the night, and I wonder if this still makes sense. Looking at how the kids spin and jump and crawl on top of each other, forcing me to step back against the amps, I am tempted to say “yes”. But reflecting on the fact that I am sweating as if I were playing guitar inside of a Finnish sauna, our drummer is having a respiratory crisis, and tonight – and for the rest of this tour – we will never get paid a single rupiah, my European heritage materializes with a hammer to smash the bubble of underground dedication right before my eyes. Why are you doing this, Marco?
I don’t know. Probably because these days I only conceive traveling as a concoction of brutal anthropology, self-inflicted ruin and mind-numbing exploration of the weirdest fringes available in the world. But it does indeed make me feel good, for I know that I’m probably not the only one, but certainly one of the few, to have had this vision and this cross. Suddenly all of the problematic divides among travelers and tourists disappear, because they are not important anymore. I’m only trying to make my time on Earth meaningful to my own self, I guess. Is there anything wrong with it?
MARCO FERRARESE is a metalpunk guitarist who travelled extensively and lived in Italy, the United States, China, Australia and Malaysia. Since 2009 he’s been based in Southeast Asia as a writer, hardcore punk musician and researcher. He travelled from Mongolia to Australia in 2009, and hitchhiked from Singapore to Milano through Silk Road routes and the Middle East in 2012. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com. Marco’s first Asian pulp novel Nazi Goreng was published in November 2013 on Monsoon Books. Follow him @monkeyrockworld
Earlier this year, I rode a Ural motorcycle and sidecar through Siberia, up 1800km of ice roads and ending in the Arctic Circle. It was one hell of a journey which taught me how to survive in extreme sub-zero temperatures. More importantly, it expanded my limits and showed me what I was capable of.
One of the most important lessons happened on the second night of the trip – our first attempt camping out. Now, I don’t know about you, but I had never camped in extreme cold before. Sure – I had tested out my equipment on a -20C night in South Dakota, but there is a world of difference once you get below -30C. That night was mild, compared to the rest of the trip, but it still hit -32C.
So – we setup camp and tried to building a fire. We could make a lot of smoke, but couldn’t get a strong fire blazing. Fortunately, with the help of a good MSR camp stove, we were able to boil enough water to fill our bellies with pelmeni. Around 9pm we called it a night. I was riding solo, so I had a tent to myself. Quickly I stripped down to base layers and stuffed the upper layers into my sleeping bag to keep them from freezing. After the long day, I fell asleep quickly.
Around midnight, I woke up and realized that I couldn’t feel my toes. Now, one of my biggest fears was getting frostbite and loosing a few digits. I could feel the panic rising; but, after a few slow breaths, I was able to get it under control. I tried flexing my toes, but they wouldn’t move. I took a moment to think about my options – get up and try to get my blood flowing? Aside from my feet, I was warm enough in the sleeping bag. I didn’t know how much body heat I’d lose by getting out. I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to stand on my numb feet. Too many unknowns, so I decided to stay where I was and move my legs to get blood flowing. After a few minutes of that, my core was getting warmer, but my toes were still numb. Time for a different tack. I had just enough room in my sleeping bag to bring one foot at a time up within reach. I used my hands to manually flex my toes and warmed them up by contact. After a few minutes, I could feel them again and was able to move them just a bit. I switched feet and repeated.
Each time I would put a foot down to work on the other one, it would go numb again. I just couldn’t seem to keep them going without working them with my hands. I kept at it. After I was sure eons had passed, I checked the time, only to be disappointed that only a few minutes had gone by. I began to think things through – I had several hours to go until the sun would come out and temperatures would begin to rise. Would I be able to make it until morning? Did I have another choice?
So that eternally long night, I kept at it – switching feet every few minutes and wishing I could fast forward to morning. I couldn’t control time, though, all I had control over was my will to endure. I began to relax and just focused on the task at hand. Eventually, the sun began to rise. As soon as the inside of the tent began to glow, I breathed a sigh of relief and knew that I would be okay.
I’ve been taught that lesson before – but sometimes a reminder is necessary. Relax, breath and just focus on what is right in front of you. Keep at it long enough and you’ll eventually make it through to the other side.
Later on during the trip, I camped out in harsher temperatures (-43C) but had a much easier time. Partially I’d say it was due to my body acclimating the the environment and also because I learned a couple tricks — like filling a water bottle with boiling water and putting it at the bottom of your sleeping bag to warm it up. That definitely prolongs your comfort and allows you to get a bit of sleep – but trust me, either way, the mornings are still painful.
It’s funny how that these moments turn into a fond memory. Time and distance do strange things.
Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.
We spent a couple of weeks researching Sulawesi and found very little information for independent travel on the island. Then, I lucked into Dodo Mursalim’s contact details on a TripAdvisor forum.
Dodo turned out to be a gold mine of information and he bent over backwards to help us do Sulawesi our way.
He rented us his little house behind the mosque for a fraction of what the cheapest hotels in Makassar could offer, and it has a kitchen and washing machine! He arranged an 8 seater van rental for us for the price of a much smaller car through any of the agencies we’d contacted on the island (car rental on Sulawesi can be expensive!) and he was willing to let us self drive, which is not commonly done on this island, with terrible roads and questionable signage. He taxied us all over Makassar for three days out of the goodness of his heart, helped arrange our three days on Samalona island, and sent us off on our road trip armed with his recommendations for hotels in various towns and a list of phone numbers of contacts in different places.
Dodo has an almost uncanny network of friends and cohorts on Sulawesi.
Four separate times during our very unplanned journey around the island, complete strangers would walk up, shake our hand and say, “Mr. Dodo says, “Hello!” He wanted me to make sure you knew that his recommendation for a certain hotel is full… or can I help you with a guide… or do you need help finding….” He was attentive to the highest degree, calling to check in with us, calling ahead of us to be sure that the arrangements we had made (independent of him) and just mentioned in passing, were properly sorted and awaiting us suitably. We have never encountered a tour guide of his calibre anywhere in the world, but certainly not in the developing world, where we expect things to go a little haywire.
Nothing goes haywire on Mr. Dodo’s watch; nothing.
He also does magic tricks, tells jokes, and speaks nearly perfect English. If you’re inclined to an adventure on Sulawesi, have Mr. Dodo be your man on the ground in Makassar. He can arrange any journey you want, guided, or solo, and he’ll take care of you like you’ve never been taken care of before.
Contact info for Dodo Mursalim
http://dodopenman.blogspot.com (visit this page and you’ll see our picture and entry in his guestbook!)
About a week and a half ago my train pulled up to the platform in Tundla, India where a sea of Indian military men were waiting for it. There was a rush of commotion as we all pushed towards the doors- a commotion which only grew when we discovered all the doors were locked. The train sat there with its locked doors for 5 minutes while the military men grew angrier and angrier, beginning to bang on the doors with their fists, sticks, muskets, anything. I kept thinking that surely someone would open the door. We’d paid for tickets after all. We’d reserved cots for the overnight train.
Then, the train started to pull away without us. Hardly thinking, we rushed through the crowds to the one door that someone had managed to open a few yards away and with our heavy bags in hand, we jumped onto the moving train. The rush of frantic soldiers crowding behind us carried us like the current of the river onto the train.
I laid in my cot and felt what would have been homesickness if I had a home.
So my question is this: what do you do when this whole “travel thing” scares you, exhausts you, bewilders you in a way that leaves you in need of something secure? What gives a nomad security?
In attempt to wrestle with this question, I’ve come up with a list of 5 things that help me cope with the moments that scare me.
Writing is not only a great way to process your thoughts, it’s also a way to record the feelings that may likely evolve over time. At one point in time I did this by keeping a travel journal, but my laptop has since replaced it. I have documents upon documents that I may never read again, but the act of formulating my thoughts was all I needed at the time. Not to mention, it helps me to see the experience as the story it will be tomorrow, when I’ll feel it less dramatically and see it more logically.
2.) These are the times I’ll make sure I can find a more secluded hotel with an environment I can really find relaxing.
Getting a hotel right in the center of activity can be wonderful when you’ve got the energy for it. But the exhausting moments leave me wanting space and quiet. As much of a clean slate as I can get. This has been especially true in a place like India. For this reason it’s a great idea to have some kind of rainy-day fund of either money or hotel points.
3.) Something from home, even if it’s McDonalds or Pizza Hut!
Never again will I judge a traveler for eating at McDonalds. (Is it sad that the McChicken is my home away from home sometimes?)
4.) Good Internet.
These days internet is the most basic necessity for contacting loved ones back home. The days of calling cards and pay phones are on the way out. This involves point number 2- finding a hotel you can relax in means, in my case, finding a hotel with good internet. Preferably this is in-room internet I can use while curled up in bed in my own space.
5.) A few days of nothing.
Sometimes the main attraction in any given destination is just not worth pushing your nerves past what they can handle. In our case, we found a quiet place in Katra where there happened to be a popular mountain temple. It was a very popular spot for Indian tourism… but we let it go. And I don’t regret that. I needed some time to clean the slate and regroup.
These are some things that helped me get back on my feet and face the vibrant and intense world that is India again, despite the fear I felt at the thought of all the things that could have gone wrong in our impromptu train-hopping experience.
But I’m curious, what are the things that help you feel secure?
Nomads and vagabonds, and all long-term travelers are in a unique position of transient-ness with an almost ephemeral concept of home rather than a permanent one. This is at least the case for myself as well as a few other travelers I know. So we’re faced with an interesting challenge when we need the kind of comfort a different person may find in their stationary routines and their permanent homes. So I’d like to learn from the creative ways other travelers have found comfort in moments of fear.
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…)
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.
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!
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 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…)
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.”
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.
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.