Located in a classy but nondescript building in the Kensington neighborhood of London, the Royal Geographical Society is not your normal tourist attraction—but it should hold a special place in every traveler’s heart. Founded in 1830 as a dinner club hosting lectures from hearty travelers, the Society (or RGS as it’s often called) became a world-class institution for the advancement of knowledge about the planet.
With generous endowments, the RGS evolved into a training hub and planning headquarters for several famous Victorian and Edwardian explorers such as Livingstone, Darwin, Shackleton and Burton. They and other like-minded adventurers—all partially financed, trained by and associated with the RGS—mapped rivers in Africa, measured mountains in Asia, reached the North and South poles, discovered islands in the South Pacific, and carried out zoological studies everywhere. The official creed of the RGS was that no corner of the planet was too remote, too obscure, or too dangerous.
The rich heritage of the RGS earned it a role in my new novel, “Dangerous Latitudes”, about an adventurous travel writer on an extraordinary expedition. As the lead character Matthew Hunt explains to a colleague, “The RGS was the NASA of its time, training explorers and then sending them off on expeditions to learn about the world and return with new insights. Think Dr. Livingston and Darwin. Guys like that were the astronauts to the RGS’ NASA. And the places they went seemed just as remote to them as other worlds seem to us.”
The explorers who survived their journeys brought back amazing tales of new lands, new cultures, and new ways of looking at the world. The well-maintained RGS archives are an array of sextants, telescopes, compasses, charts and diaries comprising a breathtaking chronicle of human exploration—and almost all of them were from expeditions done when the telegraph was new, and airplanes and antibiotics were still just a dream.
Today the RGS promotes research and education as it transitions into the new millennium, and its archives are considered a treasure to historians and scientists alike. The next time you’re in London, get off at the South Kensington tube stop and drop by their headquarters (near Royal Albert Hall) to peruse the collections of hand-scrawled maps, drawings, and field notes made by the astronauts of another era. I dare you not to be inspired.
There are some places in the world where we, as travelers, or as humans, are discouraged from going. First of all there is Afghanistan, the mother of all evil. Then comes Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Iran, and a few more monsters on the list. I did not expect that Turkey was on it, too. But as I crossed the border from Iran and got off a car in the small town of Yuksekova, that smell of burnt chemical in the air made me think otherwise. Lacerating for my eyes and throat, it just did not seem right; nevertheless, we kept walking as we needed to get out of the main road to hitch another ride.
It was then that I understood something was going wrong: normally, they do not welcome tourists burning tires in the middle of a traffic light’s junction. And normally, they do not do so holding metal crowbars and hiding their faces behind black scarves and sunglasses. This was not a normal Turkish welcome. I am not completely sure, but this way of Eurasian greeting may relate more to the PKK, better known as the Kurdish Liberation Front.
The whole scenario looked like unreal, like it was being played in slow-motion. Seconds later, police tanks rolled up the street without any sort of grace. The sound of tear gas’ explosions lacerated the air with a slow fatigue, as it was forced out of a thinner cannon’s mouth. People gathered around us, asking where we wanted to go. I tried to indicate the riot just one hundred meters in front of us, but nobody seemed to take it too seriously. “Go to the bus terminal”, someone said. Another one could see my discomfort and show his own, without speaking a language I can understand. Seconds later, a truck pulled in and swerved to the curb at my thumb’s command. We got quickly in and out, riding away from a junction that was getting more and more crowded with tanks as I looked in the rearview mirror. At last, even such enormous machines became tiny dots on a reversed horizon line.
This time it ended up well, luckily. But what may happen the next? It is extremely tricky and unpredictable to forecast what may happen travelling across a Danger Zone, a conflict area, a hellhole, as some may call it. As a matter of fact, we should not go, although at times we are geographically forced to. I confess, I did not check the security situation of the Hakkari border region before setting out of Iran – a perfectly lovely, safe country, If I may say -.
At times, we just do not know why we get there. Or, more dangerously, sometimes we want to visit these places because we believe that the ultimate travel thrill is there, where the unknown, the risk, and the dangerous all lurk together holding long knives and shotguns in their scary claws. I reckon that a few meters more may have been a lethal, if not deadly, introduction to Turkey for me and my partner. And I more shockingly reckon that by thinking backwards, that moment was sort of thrilling. A GOOD thrill, I mean. Something unexpected, something wrong that made me understand why many jaded travelers try to push the limits further, looking for adventure thrills that resemble a Ballardian vision of travel.
If this post may seem pointless, please understand that I just felt it was right and worth to share this story and my reflections with the Vagabonding readers…
And it is not because I crave danger or I am so jaded that stupidity has eaten my brains… it is just because that moment will keep on flashing back to my memory for years to come as the moment I really understood what being there, in the Danger Zone, feels like.
Recently I’ve been reading, “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. When the author was in her mid-twenties she solo hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Her book unfolds as she treks north, nursing her blistered feet and cumbersome heavy pack along a majority of the 2,663mi (4,286km) trail. It initially begins at the Mexican border, passes through California, Oregon, and Washington in the USA and over the border into Canada. Several years ago I’d been gearing up to ride my horses along the same trail, but heavy snows in high mountain ranges and challenges with support team coordination threw a wrench in the trip–so it never happen. But I did ride sections of that trail, along with parts of the Continental Divide Trail, Chilkoot Trail, and the historic Oregon Trail. On foot I’ve graced sections of several other long paths, and driven a dog cart on one pulled by twelve huskies.
Reading Strayed’s book got me thinking about other long-distance footpaths around the world. A popular one in Europe that comes to mind is El Camino de Santiago which starts many different places but ultimately ends at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I first heard of the trail in a novel by Paulo Coelho called, “The Pilgrimage.” Other countries in Europe such as Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have quite a lot of paths. In Asia I’d looked into hiking the Annapurna Circuit in central Nepal. But it appears that Israel and Japan have many for the choosing as well; Japan’s most popular being the 88 Temple Pilgrimage.
Here are the worlds’ best hikes according to National Geographic.
Mark Moxon has an extensive website of information and stories from his long walking adventures.
The UK has a Long Walkers Association.
One Canadian man even walked around the world in eleven years.
Have you ever hiked or ridden on a long-distance path? Or do you have plans to do so?
Please share your stories or plans in the comments!
Cost: $50-60 a day
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen recently?
Immediately after learning to scuba dive in Utila, I hopped on over to nearby Cayos Cochinos (Hog Islands). Some of the small islands and cayes that make up Cayos Cochinos resemble one of those ‘paradise island’ posters that bored office workers paste on their cubicle walls to remind them of the next holiday they’re working towards. You know the ones. Chalk white sand at their perimeters and a couple of lonely coconut trees with an obligatory hammock slung across them. The waters are clear turquoise and the shallows hint at the abundant marine life that abounds in the deeper waters. Bait fish flit around as spotted eagle rays glide past. At night queer bio luminescent creatures twinkle in the inky waters creating a bizarre light show.
Under water things are perhaps stranger. Shortly into our fifth dive along a big reef wall at a dive site called Pelican 2 my girlfriend and I were met by a small remora fish that ended up accompanying us for the entire dive. Remora’s attach themselves to sharks or large fish via a sucker on top of their heads so they may get a free ride and feed on the scraps of food produced by their larger hosts feeding habits. This particular remora was somewhat confused and continuously tried to attach itself to my girlfriends upper thigh. Given that she is highly unlikely to start devouring reef fish mid-dive the little creature was out of luck.
At one point in the dive we saw a majestic hawksbill turtle flapping elegantly along the reef wall. We followed it for a short while before it moved off into deeper water. At this point our remora companion saw the turtle and decided to check out the heavy shelled reptile. It quickly swam towards the departing turtle with an awkward wriggling motion, sussed the situation out and upon deciding the herbivore wasn’t worth its time turned back and returned to us.
Towards the end of the dive the remora rejected my girlfriend and decided to attempt attachment on me. It tickled but after a while I gave up fending him off and let him nibble at bits of debris attached to my wet suit. I felt a little warm inside at making a new friend and was a touch sad when our dive ended and we had to part ways.
As I am thumbing my way across the Central Asian republics, I made a very much welcome discovery by typing “hitching to Dushanbe” in Google. What I found was a bit puzzling, at first: I would have never thought that a volatile, hazardous and utterly non-scientific art such as hitching a ride could have a wiki website!! But it really has!
Hitchwiki is some sort of Wikipedia of hitching, and it works wonders. Subdivided into geographic areas and countries, it gives you proper practical information from the mouths of experienced hitch hikers. You may now tackle every country’s highway with the right dose of preparation. And if you believe you do not need it, it means you have never thumbed a ride before!!
As the simplest example: how to get out of a city to actually be able to stop the car and get the ride you want? Do you think you may start hitching in the city center of Paris? This website proves extremely useful as it gives a low down on the ways to reach the toll heads of the most useful highways, and describes accurately what kind of city transport you may take to get there. I got some very useful information on how to leave the city center of Khujand and arrive directly in front of the Dushanbe highway using public transport. As Hitchwiki suggested, I got there, and in five minutes I was riding happily – and free of charge – down the highway towards my destination.
For some countries this sites suggests useful hitching language and a detailed description of some cultural aspects you may come across – or against – during your hitching adventures are readily explained. Such as the concept of Tarof in Iranian society: according to this, a driver would never ask you to pay for a ride, although he may want to, as many private cars in Iran are unlicensed taxis!!
I am glad I made such a discovery and that hitch hikers decided to share their experience and knowledge for the joy of other road adventurers… and I am also psyched to have more reasons to leave the bus stations’ touts and hassle behind!!
Hitching a ride was, is and always will be evoking images of young, reckless, crazy travel. It is for adventurers, because you do not know who will pick you up and when you will arrive at your destination. And it is indeed for adventurous drivers too: our imagination is so full of hideous stories based on this phenomenon that, before you would pick up that random guy standing at the crossroad, you would definitely think twice.
Luckily, this kind of popular culture has not invaded the Asian media as much as the Western ,and seeing a foreigner at the side of the road generally does not ignite serial killer’s thoughts: on the contrary, it is quite easy to be picked up and helped out.
You may think that only someone with a very low civic sense or a very desperate need for money would be thinking of hitching in Asia. Sorry friends, but you are dead wrong: there are many people, surprisingly foreigners and local Asians alike, thumbing at the side of those roads.
Furthermore, in countries with a big exponential growth such as China, where transportation and fuel prices have doubled or tripled since the last decade, buying bus and train tickets to get around can be killer for low budgets. Hitching is on the contrary a great way to travel the extra mile, trying to have a more authentic experience observing what actually happens inside of those Asian cars you do not have to pay for. Sounds strange, isn’t it? Well, it is not, in reality: you just have to try.
The same opinion is shared by a young French guy I met recently; he arrived to China fromT urkey thumbing along the Caucasus andCentral Asiafor four months. He claims that he not only got lifts, but also met people and got to visit their homes, was invited for dinner or sleeping over, and overall he had a fantastic, genuine vagabonding time.
Westerners are not the only ones: the biggest number of hitchers I recently met is constituted by Chinese students in their early 20s to 30s. They complained that transportation costs inChinabecame unbearable, thus they are forced to hitchhike if they want to get out and travel their huge country during the summer holidays. Others just strike off toTibeton a pushbike!
To test if the great tales of hundreds of kilometers travelled at no cost was part of the Asians’ travel folklore, or if it was actually true, I had to personally give it a go myself. The equation worked out fairly well in favor of the road folklore: I was able to hitchhike and get lifts by several people. However, as I had to reach a particular destination in time to catch a train connection, I also had to resort to some private minivans I had to pay – sometimes less than the ongoing rate. Truck drivers seem to be the best bet to move long distances, although many of them – at least the Chinese – require you to make a money offer. Have clearly in mind how much you should pay for a bus or a train, and work your way around this fare, of course bargaining it down.
Sometimes you may be even lucky and get to hitch out of the ordinary, as it happened to me in Tibetan Kham, where me and a group of friends could flag down a local police car driven by two young officers who gladly took us for a 3 and more hours ride to the next town… where we got stranded for the night at the side of the road because the next chunk of highway had been submerged by a nearby river’s high waters! So keep clearly in mind that if you want security and reaching a place on a particular time, you should not attempt hitchhiking, especially in countries with roads as bad as the Asian. Of course, all of these unexpected problems would make the best travel stories, later… but do not say I did not advise you on the potential risk of natural catastrophe. For other risks, well, I do not think the Asian drivers would be one.
Cost: $50 a day
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Two days of trekking through muddy paths deep into the mosquito infested jungle of Northern Guatemala’s Peten region brought me and nine other adventurous travelers to the ancient Mayan city of El Mirador. Upon first viewing the ruins I was struck by how thoroughly nature can reclaim its territory after human abandonment. Thick layers of soil and dense vegetation surround, infiltrate and in some cases completely cover structures that are believed to have been abandoned almost two thousand years ago.
Even the higher reaches of the mighty, multi-tiered La Danta temple rising roughly seventy meters (230 feet) from the jungle floor are covered with trees. Archeologists have deliberately left the vegetation there to provide shade and protect the antiquated walls from the debilitating effects of the sun. Without our leather skinned Guatemalan guide Antonio, I’m sure that myself and my compadres would’ve been largely unaware that we were standing on the most massive ancient Mayan structure in the world. Unlike at the more popular site of Tikal it’s easy to mistake parts of the structure for normal contours of the land.
Over time it appears that the wilderness can erase almost all traces of a civilization. El Mirador, which is thought to have been populated by as many as 200,000 people at its peak was engulfed by the jungle and only discovered in 1926.
Sitting atop the 55 meter (180 foot) El Tigre temple as the sun set and pink oozed over the horizon like a slow bleed, I pondered the tenacity of nature. As if to punctuate my thoughts some howler monkeys started a chorus of guttural roars, spider monkeys crashed though the canopy and a diminutive humming bird the size of a large insect helicoptered onto a near by branch. Left alone the wilderneas is raw and formidable.
Chartering a boat isn’t cheap. If you are lucky and know the right people you could however, get a job as crew, stewarding, cooking or being a deck hand if you don’t have sailing qualifications. If you are not working then watch out for hidden costs such as moorings, docking, water and tips for the crew which may not be included in the bill.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
There is an excellent musician in St.Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, called Kurt Schindler, he has a catamaran style boat which he uses as a stage. He parks it a few meters off the beach in Cruz Bay, St. John or off White Bay, Jost van Dyke and plays his gigs from there. I saw this rickety contraption with only an outboard motor, no sails and with banners flying in the wind, making it’s way considerable distances between islands.
On the 7th of June, 37 year old Andy Campbell and his team set out from The Royal Geographic Society in London. Over the next two years he’s making his way around the world without a distinctively planned route. Eight years ago, Andy fell while rock climbing and became paralyzed from the waist down. As an able-bodied person, suddenly loosing the use of your legs can come as quite a shock. Mobility takes on a whole new angle of thinking. But it hasn’t dampened his adventurous spirit.
A few years ago I vividly remember standing in the doctor’s office blinking at X-rays of my spine hoping magically they’d look “normal” the next time-no such luck. My own gypsy spirit drifted beyond the walls as she said the words, “scoliosis” and “phase two, spinal degeneration”. Putting on the recommended back brace my view of the world changed. For the next year and a half it became part of my daily clothing. I began to take notice of little things like the weight of doors as my hand opened them. Seven months after I was told not to lift over 15lbs for a long while; our very own vagabonding inspiration, Rolf, traveled around the world on his “No baggage” journey.
“Disability does not mean inability” as one Michigan based Service Dog training facility promotes. And in that light, Andy of “Pushing the Limits” is making his way around the globe and would appreciate your ideas on where to visit! Check out his blog, drop an email and give him suggestions on where to go next!
I’ve applied to join the expedition when it reaches North America…
Traveling isn’t limited to putting one foot in front of the other—especially after the invention of the wheel–it’s all about attitude.
When writing a novel involving places that actually exist, you need to get the details exactly right or the boat won’t float. And the details aren’t just in the names and locations. It’s the sensory data that pulls the reader in.
I’m currently in the process of writing such a novel. The story takes the main character on a treasure hunt from the dusty archives of Barcelona to the ramshackle seaport of Lisbon and finally to the humid jungles of South America.
Suffice it to say there’s lots of research is involved in such an undertaking. But that’s not to say it’s drudgery. Quite the opposite, actually; the joys will be familiar to many fellow travelers, trip planners, and history buffs.
The details of the various locals matter, big time; I’ve needed to get a sense of the atmosphere of these places to portray them on the page. Take for example one of the books early settings: The Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain. The building houses the world’s biggest repository of documents about the Spanish Empire’s expeditions during the Age of Discovery.
I had to be there to breathe in the mustiness that hangs in the air. I had to smell the dust from the ancient, historic parchments flanked by soaring pink marble columns. I had to feel the stale air settle into my lungs as the leather of an old journal’s binding cracks under my fingers as I open it. I had to watch other researchers trawl through yellowing documents, handwritten by real people lost to time. I had to wander the opulent library as historians pore over documents in hope that the faded ink scratches will yield insight.
The majestic old archive in Seville was, as in so many cases, merely the starting point of a larger and greatly enriching journey.
Some call book research “work”. I call it the fun part.