I sat on the porch in the Australian late afternoon sun, shadows stretching long across the grass, cockatoos screaming through the bush canopy, sipping my tea, knitting. My mind wandered as the guys discussed the merits of following our instinct and road tripping right straight up through the red heart of Australia instead of the well traveled coastal route. There was a lull in the conversation.
“My Dad make that walking stick?” I changed the subject, pointing to a stick, with a sad face carved into the hand grip, sticking out of an oriental pot next to the front door of the mud brick house.
Robert nodded. He’s a man of few words.
I smiled. My mother’s stained glass hangs in their big round window. There’s a photograph of my Dad and Robert hanging by the front door. In it they are young men wearing jalabas, standing under an umbrella with posed, stone faces, in front of a violent orange tent somewhere in North Africa.
“You see that number plate on the wall,” Jesse pointed out, the first morning at breakfast, “That’s off the bug we were driving in Africa when we picked up your parents.”
And so, I find myself as far away from my Canadian home as I could possibly be, and yet surrounded by my family. That’s a special kind of traveler’s magic. At every turn this weekend I’ve been reminded how the smallest act of kindness, the impulse of a moment can change the history of the world, or the path of a family, for generations.
Robert and Jesse picked up my parents, hitchhiking, in North Africa forty-some years ago. The rest, as they say, is a well-storied history. Last night Robert played his guitar and sang in his lilting Australian voice along with a fiddle played by the granddaughter of his long-time adventuring buddy.
I guess they’re right; the folks who say picking up hitchhikers is so dangerous. If you’re not careful, you might just change your world, the path of your life, the people you call friends and chosen family. You might end up weaving generations together on opposite sides of the planet in ways that enrich the lives of a stranger’s grandchildren. Dangerous business, this.
Let’s face it: It’s summer and you’re broke. If you’ve somehow managed to make it to Europe and have some money for food and shelter, you might not have cash for much else. Trust me, I’ve been there. Everyone knows activities in places like London, for example, is pricey. But it’s important to know that there are several fun and interesting things to see and do that are completely free.
With that in mind, this is the first in a series focusing on free sights and activities in some of Europe’s best cities.
Taking the London example, here’s just a short list of free activities that give you a good taste of that amazing city:
-The National Gallery is free, although that may surprise many. Yes, one of the world’s great art museums—hosting works by world-renown masters—does not charge for entry.
-Piccadilly Circus, the gateway to the West End, is a colorful sea of people—especially when the sun goes down and the neon lights wash over the surroundings. Great people watching.
-The Changing of the Guard at the palace is always a sight to behold. The military pomp has been tradition for centuries, epitomizing military precision.
-Regent’s Park includes the city zoo and a wildlife garden. An oasis of leafy tranquility in the heart of the metropolis.
-There’s also St. James’s Park, ringed by some of London’s biggest landmarks (Buckingham Palace and Whitehall) featuring gorgeous greens and a soothing lake when the Tube and the crowds drive you mad.
-Speaking of great urban parks, no list would be complete without mention of Hyde Park. Lots of open air festivals and concerts are held here, especially in summer. Amble on over and enjoy.
-The Tate Modern (free except for certain special exhibitions) hosts a dazzling array of modern art, if you’re into that sort of thing.
-The rightfully revered British Museum is another world-class treasure trove of history that deserves your time. It’s a jaw-droppingly thorough survey of human civilization.
Of course, the best parts of travel, meeting the people and sampling the culture, are always free—but having a list of other free stuff to do certainly helps.
As I noticed that readers enjoyed my post on China bus travel , I thought to continue giving some extra advice on the Middle Kingdom…
Image Credit: Flickr/SBoyd
So are you departing from China, right? You have indeed a few border options: Mongolia, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan… or probably much easier: Hong Kong.
So many people cross into Hong Kong daily from the mainland. Some to fly back home, or to renew their Chinese visas. Whatever is your reason to come to Hong Kong, this brief post will explain how to get there overland. My personal favorite way.
Hong Kong’s sister city sits in the mainland, and connects through easy customs. There is not that much in Shenzen to lure you in, but if you have time, try to check out the art districts and the commercial center. Shenzen is a jewel of booming China’s architecture, and boasts spacious lanes and has a definitely “western” feel. There are many connections to Shenzen. You may connect to Shenzen by sleeper bus from the North: popular Guilin in Guanxi is 10 hours overnight ride away. Guangzhou is otherwise the hub from incoming traffic. From Shenzen main bus station, cross the road and avoid the taxi driver touts and get to the bus stop. For only 2 yuan, bus 7 will take you directly to the main train station and Luo Hu exit/entry point. Get off at the last stop, and keep your right: Luo Hu is in front of you. A fast 10 minute walk will get you trough customs and out of Mainland China, and a further 5 minutes walk will get you into Honk Kong territory proper. Take an LRT train from there and get to your central destination changing trains at Kowloon Tong station. Welcome to Hong Kong!
With more time and money on your hands, make Macau an interesting stop on your way out of the Mainland. Coming from Guilin or the North, reach Guangzhou first, and then Zhu Hai. By train, you will most likely have to reach Guangzhou first, but it is possible to get some sleeper buses and travel to Zhu Hai directly. Zhu Hai itself is a nice harbor town, and you might want to linger for a bit, enjoying its breezy air and detached atmosphere. From here, the cross into Macau is straightforward.
Be forewarned: your passport will be stamped, so check if your nationality allows you visa-free entry into Macau territory. Most likely, the answer is yes. If not, a visa on arrival will be generally issued for around 20 US $. Macau is quite compact, made up by the peninsula of Taipa and the island of Coloane, and can be walked on foot in a few hours. From its main jetty, half hourly boat departures to Hong Kong make a scenic entry into the city, for 150 HK $ one way. Once in Hong Kong, your passport will be stamped again. Indeed, a nice collection of foreign ink!!
These routes make for a straightforward, easy entry or exit from China. Remember that you need to be on a double entry visa to activate your second stay in the Mainland or you will have to get a new visa once in Hong Kong in order to get back in trough Shenzen or Macau/Zhu Hai. If you only intend to visit Macau from Hong Kong, Chinese visas are not necessary… have fun!!
I don’t hitchhike too much, I have four kids and a husband, which is a prohibitive number of people for a convenient pick up. I do, however, pick up hitchhikers just about every chance I get. To me, it’s a great trade, a chance to increase my per-capita gas mileage and the entertainment is for free! Sure, it takes a certain amount of faith in humanity to pick up a stranger on the side of the road, but then again, it takes a certain amount of faith in humanity for them to take the chance and get in my car. I’ll reach across that divide if you will.
So as someone with a propensity to go out of my way to pick you up while you’re hitching, let me give you a little advice, that will increase your odds of catching a ride and sharing my chips while we drive.
1. Image matters
You don’t have to be squeaky clean (you’re traveling the hard way, after all!) You don’t have to be the picture of the boy or girl next door. You can be a bit grungy, your pack can be worn (in fact it’s a good sign if it is!) You can be tired and road worn. But remember that what I see is selling me, your image matters. Smile. Have the look of the intrepid adventurer that you are. Don’t be afraid to make me laugh with your sign or your roadside “hook.” Have an instrument, be playing it. Look like you’re going to be fun to ride with. Look like I’ll regret it if I drive on past. Be the photograph that sells your story.
2. Be flexible
Be willing to hop in the back of our camper with four kids, or tie your pack on the roof of my van. Be willing to stop and run an errand with me between point A & point B. Be willing to run to catch up if I can’t stop for another hundred yards. Be willing to go only half of the distance you want me to take you. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up taking you the whole way after all!
3. Pay for your ride
That’s right. Pay for your ride. A good hitchhiker always pays for her ride. I’m not talking about offering money, or to pay for gas, or to buy me a meal. I would never expect you to do that, but I do expect a good trade for my effort, so be thinking about what you bring to the table, or the vehicle, as it were. I’ll expect some good stories, some intelligent conversation, or a good laugh, at the very least! Some of our best hitchers have become interviews for travel stories. Others have taught the kids to juggle something, or told us new jokes, or shared recommendations for things we must see in our own travels. Don’t ever take a ride without giving something of yourself in return.
Do you hitch? What are your best hooks for getting picked up? Do you pick up? How do you decide who makes the cut?
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
Argentina recently enacted new visa rules, according to this post on The Flight Deal. U.S. citizens must pay a “Reciprocity Fee” of $160. More importantly, this must be paid before entry. If you don’t do this, you’ll be denied entry on arrival. The reciprocity refers to how if Country A charges Country B’s citizens a visa fee, then Country B will do the same to Country A’s citizens.
This problem happened to another backpacker I’d met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was having breakfast with some fellow travelers at First Cup Cafe in Bukit Bintang. A British girl talked about how she was excited to go to Vietnam.
I asked, “So have you got your visa yet?”
“I’ll just get one on arrival,” she said.
The rest of us looked at each other, our faces saying, “Who wants to tell her the bad news?”
Clearing my throat, I spoke up. “Vietnam requires you to apply for a visa before arrival. You’ll have to go to a Vietnamese consulate. You might be able to apply for an e-visa on short notice.”
“Oh no! Really?!” she said.
After breakfast, the girl and her friend hurried back to the hostel to get online and check their options. In the end, they skipped Vietnam in favor of Thailand’s beaches. From the happy photos she shared on Facebook, it worked out for the best.
A good resource to check is Project Visa. To be sure, you should always check with the official website of that country’s consulate or embassy.
Have you ever had visa problems? Do citizens from your country enjoy lower visa fees? Please share your stories in the comments.
It may be because I have just watched “Life of Pi”, or because once you go to India, if you loved it, you can hardly get it out of your mind. Anyhow, this week I would like to bring this article to your attention. It is an interesting series of suggestions for women travellers to India.
The author “found India both tough and rewarding in the same breath. And from time to time the experience can seem even more perplexing for girls (we are talking about a country where the metro offers a separate carriage for women), but India also has the potential to offer its female visitors even richer rewards (imprinted with henna and swathed in sari silks it’s impossible not to feel like a princess)”. Fantastic. I think the author has pointed out some interesting essential topics.
In the past 24 months, I have spent 7 in India, and I have grown a particular fondness for its thunderous character. I met fantastic people there, and I have also made some strange encounters. Based on my experience, it was interesting to read about the perceptions of a woman travelling around India, as it is undeniably true: sex makes a big difference in this country.
I have been lucky enough to be the guest of a big number of Indian families of all social strata: the rich, the poor, the excessively posh and the dirt poor. One time, I did not stay with a friend because the double bed provided at his house with no roof already had to accommodate six other family members. But apart for this case, one thing was clear in my personal picture: women and men in Indian society are very different classes of people. A man is advanced by a patriarchal society, and a woman is generally employed as a “slave in the house”, regardless of her social status. The only difference may be the number of maids she has. (more…)
Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.
Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per Federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.
Bruges is a lovely little time capsule, a prosperous medieval port city that saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The city’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cathedral, cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals, and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.
My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the galaxy (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).
Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.
Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300, the gorgeous Crusader-financed Basilica of the Holy Blood, and the terrific Gruuthuse Museum housed in the former home of a wealthy medieval merchant. Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and then checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.
Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night. The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of pralines, a hangover, and a few good stories.
I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.
By Tom Vater – published by Crimewave Press, 2012
A bunch of hippies, a rattler of a bus and the adventure of a lifetime along freely open South Asian land borders in the mid 70s are the base ingredients of “The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu”, Tom Vater’s first novel, originally released in 2006 and newly available now. Add and blend in a scary amount of drug abuse, corrupted border officials and a drug smuggling deal gone bad in the Pakistani mountains of the Swat valley, and you can complete this lethal Molotov cocktail of a book. To my knowledge, one of the few pulp adventures set in the Hippy Trail’s background, if not the first.
The plot is precisely knit as a handmade, intricate Kashmiri carpet: the events unfold between a lysergic trippin’ past in 1976 and present day Kathmandu, where the surviving units of the wild bunch have reunited to piece together the last fragments of a puzzle scattered across much more than just time.
When a mysterious email lands in Dan’s inbox, a story which may have stayed buried under the Himalayan snows comes back to life, rippin’ and taking hostages like a terrorist attack. And it is rendezvous’ time, adding young Robbie, Dan’s son who finds himself in Kathmandu at the same time, looking for his own version of Asia. The plethora of gangsters, guns, women and holy men coming in the middle will just help to make it a dangerous one.
Tom Vater, travel writer and expert of the region, mixes a fondness for Asian travel with a deep appreciation for noir and crime fiction, painting a vivid portrait of a Thamel-haunted Kathmandu and its dwellers. If you ever visited the Nepali capital, you may easily get lost in the abounding topographic details scattered all over the novel. Its characters get slowly uncovered, pieced together with 25 years old tape, showing that for some not much has changed between now and then. Inevitably, the gathering becomes housekeeping time for restless souls and bank accounts, respectively.
“The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu” successfully depicts an odd world of lawless Western abuse against the magical backdrop of Asia’s southern roads; at the end, it is difficult to discern who plays worst between strung-out travelers and strange locals. One thing is certain, tough: it is a ride you won’t likely put down until this book is finished. A noteworthy addition to your travel literature.
Some twenty odd years ago, Ian Mckaye – at the time the angry singer of straight edge punk pioneers Minor Threat – sung “guilty of being white”. The lines of the aggressive chorus blazed into my mind as I stepped at the airport’s immigration line to re-enter Malaysia; a bunch of what seemed young Australians were waiting behind me. They were dressed and attired in the quintessential banana pancake trail non-outfit: singlets, flip-flops, short pants. The picture was stereotypically completed by over exposed tattoos – even the shabbiest ones -, visibly dirty long hair, and the red cheeks which are typical of an in-flight heavy boozing session. They were exchanging idiotic comments on the situation in their slurred, drunken Aussie lingo.
As I tried to forget them and walked to the officer getting my papers in order and surpassing the passport check stations, here I see another white trash queen: she is about 20 years old, trashing her thongs around, wearing the shortest mini hot pants you may imagine in order to expose her tighs, emblazoned with one of those silly female-skull-with-butterfly-wings tats you can get at every cornershop. I instantly turn around to check if the beach is in sight, but the only thing I can score is the luggage carousel, slowly spitting bags out of his noisy esophagus. Luckily, no other passenger around me suffered from the banana pancake syndrome.
It may be the coming of age, or it may be the fact I have been used to travel in Islamic nations where such a behavior would result in an instant flash mob or a brutal gang rape, but I think that by carrying the symptoms of Western casual stupidity and holiday retardedness, these youth are reconfirming to Southeast Asian people that inventing ways to empty their wallets is approved by every God. Mohamed included.
I feel offended by the low profile of such people: Southeast Asia is not a fool’s playground, for chrissakes. If humanity has a decency level which is measured in the ways we act, I candidate the backpacker type as some of the ugliest, gone wrongest experiments. Please people, react and do something. Asia is not your playground, and when your flabby beergut stinks, let me tell you, it really does.