October 11, 2014

Native eye for the tourist guy: Avoiding fashion no-nos

65055278_17b40a903cPhoto Credit: tarotastic

A couple of years ago, while riding my bicycle down Burma’s Irrawaddy valley, I somehow managed to destroy my khaki trousers. These were the only pair of pants I had with me at the time, so I stopped off in a town called Pakkoku and — faced with no other realistic clothing options — purchased a long, cotton lungi to cover my legs for the rest of the trip.

In the event that you aren’t familiar with fashions in this part of Asia, a lungi is a tube of silk or cotton cloth that Burmese men wear around their waists. Essentially, it looks like an elegant, ankle-length skirt. And, unless you count the kilt, there is no fashion equivalent for men in the West.

Thus, having no instincts for wearing a skirt, I encountered all kinds of functional challenges while wearing my new lungi. For starters, I invariably tripped over the hem when walking on any surface that wasn’t completely level. Somehow, Burmese men could stride up staircases in their lungis while still looking perfectly masculine, while I was forced to lift the cloth and mince up slight inclines like some kind of “Gone With the Wind” debutante. Even more difficult was riding my bicycle.

The more the Burmese giggled, however, the better I got at wearing the lungi. By the time I arrived in Rangoon nearly two weeks later, I was able to walk and bike gracefully on all variety of surfaces. Impressed locals gave me the thumbs-up at the sight of my dapper Burmese threads, playfully asking me if I was from Burma.

I had, it seemed, successfully “gone native” with my travel wardrobe. And it felt good.

When I flew on from Rangoon to Bangkok, however, I quickly learned that – - by backpacker fashion standards — going native is far more complicated than simply buying local clothing and learning how to wear it.

As I strolled in my new lungi through the Khao San Road backpacker ghetto (where I’d hoped to buy a new pair of khaki pants), I noticed that many of my fellow travelers were giving me funny looks. Since Khao San is a place where Westerners with, say, chicken bones through their noses and dreadlocked armpit hair hardly garner a second glance, I wondered what the problem was.

That afternoon at my guesthouse, a sun-browned Australian traveler clued me in. “Look at ya, mate,” he said. “You’ve got it all mixed up.”

I looked down at my outfit. In addition to my lungi, I sported a nylon fanny pack (which made up for my lack of pockets) and a North Face dry-wick shirt (which had kept the sun off while biking). This ensemble didn’t strike me as particularly strange, but — according to the Aussie — wearing a fanny pack (stereotypically favored by middle-aged tourists) and a boutique safari shirt (which, while functional, is the modern fashion equivalent of a pith helmet) effectively canceled the lungi out.

The problem, it seemed, wasn’t that I had “gone native,” but that I had gone native in an incomplete and bourgeois manner. “From the looks of it,” he said, “you don’t know if you just walked out of a jungle or a shopping mall.”

Going native to one degree or another, of course, has always been a part of the travel experience. Until the past couple of centuries, in fact, going native wasn’t a travel option so much as a travel necessity. From Herodotus to Marco Polo to Lewis and Clark, eating local cuisines, learning local languages and wearing local clothing was simply how the traveler survived in foreign lands. This all changed, however, as British travelers and expats alike were increasingly expected to maintain the same decorum overseas as applied back home. Fraternizing with locals was discouraged, safari parties trotted off into foreign jungles sporting woolen raiment and, as late as the 1930s, officials of the British Empire could be fired for wearing native clothing.

What this colonial protocol overlooked, of course, was that going at least partially native has always been an important step in experiencing other cultures. Wearing native clothing isn’t necessarily a prerequisite, but abiding by local dress codes (particularly in regard to modesty) is essential if you want to be accepted within the cultures you visit.

But it’s often difficult to determine where the propriety of “going native” begins and ends. Travel is not the same as emigration, after all, and no combination of culinary and fashion savvy can truly make you a part of your host culture. At some point, then, many attempts to “go native” cease to be an inquiry into other cultures and begin to be a token of status within travel culture itself.

In “The Songlines,” Bruce Chatwin observes that nomadic animal species tend to be less dependent upon hierarchies and shows of dominance, since the hardships of the journey naturally weed out the weak. However, now that humans’ nomadic life rarely involves natural selection, travel culture seems to have utilized fashion as one subtle kind of litmus test. Ostensibly, a Shan jacket worn with a Mao hat and cotton pajama bottoms implies that you had the Darwinian oomph to survive northern Burma, communist China and the Punjab. As with all fashions, however, the accepted vogue for going native tends to be fickle. In Jordan, for example, scores of Westerners trade ball caps for Arab khaffiyeh scarves to better keep the sun off — but few of those same travelers would don conical peasant hats for the same purpose in Vietnam.

In the end, then, “going native” is a mixed endeavor — part attempt to understand your host culture, and part extension of how you want to selectively showcase your travels to others. Properly balancing these urges is part of the challenge and fun of travel.

Just for the record, I now own three Burmese lungis — two cotton and one silk. I find them comfortable, functional, and stylish. And chicks dig the look.

But until they make them with pockets, I will — fashion be damned — continue to wear them with a fanny pack.

 

Originally published by SFGate, March 14, 2004

 

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Category: Asia, Backpacking, Destinations, Vagabonding Styles

June 7, 2014

Slumming the Golden Arches

Golden Arches, Barstow Station

Image credit

This month marks the beginning of student-travel season in Europe, which means that — at any given moment — continental McDonald’s restaurants will be filled with scores of American undergraduates. Quiz these young travelers, and they’ll give you a wide range of reasons for seeking out McDonald’s — the clean restrooms, the air conditioning, the fact that it’s the only place open during festivals or siesta. A few oddballs will even claim they are there for the food.

European onlookers will tell you (with a slight sneer) that these itinerant Yanks are simply seeking the dull, familiar comforts American culture. And this explanation might be devastatingly conclusive were it not for the fact that European McDonalds also happen to be crammed this time of year with travelers from Japan, Brazil, Israel, New Zealand, Argentina, Korea, Canada, India, Taiwan, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, and — yes — neighboring European countries.

Indeed, despite its vaunted reputation as a juggernaut of American culture, McDonald’s has come to function as an ecumenical refuge for travelers of all stripes. This is not because McDonalds creates an American sense of place and culture, but because it creates a smoothly standardized absence of place and culture — a neutral environment that allows travelers to take a time-out from the din of their real surroundings. This phenomenon is roundly international: I’ve witnessed Japanese taking this psychic breather in the McDonalds of Santiago de Chile; Chileans seeking refuge in the McDonalds of Venice; and Italians lolling blissfully in the McDonalds of Tokyo.

Before I traveled overseas, I never knew McDonald’s could serve as a postmodern sanctum, and — save the occasional Taco Bell burrito — I rarely ate fast food. This all changed when I moved to Pusan, South Korea ten years ago to teach English. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of new sights, sounds and smells my first week in-country, I retreated to a McDonald’s near my school, where I was able to stretch a Big Mac Meal into three hours of Zen-like oblivion. The appeal of this environment came not from the telltale icons of franchise culture (which I’d always found annoying), but in the simple opportunity to put the over-stimulation of urban Korea on pause. Once I ended my Pusan stint and started traveling across Asia, I retained this habit of occasionally seeking out McDonalds during times of mental exhaustion.

I’ll readily admit here that, within certain hipster circles of indie travel, announcing that you patronize McDonalds is kind of like confessing that you wet your bed or eat your boogers. For many politically minded travelers, McDonald’s is less an eating establishment than it is a broader symbol of cultural degradation and corporate soulnessness. In fact, fast-food franchises have been the target of so much protectionist, environmentalist, and anarchist ire that firebombing a McDonald’s has become a globally standardized symbol of protest — a McDonaldization of dissent, if you will.

(Interestingly, Marlboros are sold worldwide — and American cigarette brands are just as unhealthy and aggressively marketed as American fast food — but for some reason there is not a similar activist reaction. Perhaps this is because there are no Marlboro outlet stores to firebomb — but I suspect it also has to do with subliminal, adolescent-style favoritism. The Marlboro Man is, after all, a handsome tough-guy, whereas Ronald McDonald is a makeup-and-jumpsuit-wearing dork.)

Political gestures aside, I’d wager that the contempt sophisticated travelers hold for McDonald’s has less to do with ethical principle than the fact that fast-food franchises ruin the fantasies of otherness that are an inherent part of travel. To be sure, the aesthetic enjoyment of the Taj Mahal or the Jardin des Tuileries can often feel compromised when the Golden Arches are just a few blocks away.

Look closely, however, and you’ll discover that (despite their placeless ambience) the McDonalds in far-flung places are culturally discernible from the McDonalds you’ll find in Modesto or Milwaukee. In India, for example, a McDonald’s serves chicken “Maharaja Macs” instead of Big Macs (due to Hindu and Muslim taboos against beef and pork), and a door-greeter is often available to assist the middle-class clientele. Moreover, as any Pulp Fiction fan will note, Paris McDonalds offer the option of ordering a frothy beer with le Big Mac.

At times, an international McDonald’s franchise can serve as a kind of measuring stick for cultural nuance. In China, where familial identity is a core virtue (and where a sexually ambiguous bachelor-clown mascot might seem a little weird), Ronald McDonald is known as Uncle McDonald, and he has a wife, Aunt McDonald. In parts of Bangkok, where the laid-back Thai concept of sanuk (lightheartedness) threatens fast-food efficiency, McDonald’s staff members use James Bond-style digital countdown clocks to ensure the food arrives in a timely manner. In Cairo, I witnessed young, middle-class Muslim couples going on chaperoned first-dates in a McDonald’s; in Tel Aviv, the teenage staff got so flustered when I ordered non-kosher cheese on my Big Mac that they forgot to add the beef patties.

Just as fascinating as these local variations of American fast food are the local food chains that copy the McDonald’s model. In Jeddah, for instance, you can join Saudis for a round of halal chicken-burgers at Al Baik; in Tokyo, you can compare the teriyaki burgers at McDonald’s to those served at the Japanese Lotteria chain; at Jollibee in the Philippines (which has exported its franchises to the United States), you can sample chicken, burgers, or a startlingly sweet variation of spaghetti.

Ideally, of course, fast food should play a decidedly minor role in any international sojourn. Still, it can be interesting to learn how the simplest experiences overseas can affect the way you see things when you come home. I recall how, after returning from my first year in Korea, the understated calm of a Great Plains Christmas left me with a severe case of reverse culture shock.

My solution? I headed over to the west 13th Street McDonald’s in Wichita, where my sense of place melted away the moment I walked through the front door. Indeed, as I ate that Kansas Big Mac Meal, I may have as well have been back in Asia.

Tip sheet: A few pointers regarding travel and fast-food
1) Street food is the true fast food.

Remember that fast food didn’t originate with Ray Kroc: Street vendors, who cook local delicacies right in front of you, mastered the art centuries ago. Any city or region you visit will have plenty of street-food specialties: samosas in Mumbai, roasted sweet-potatoes in Quito, crepes in Paris, kosher-dogs in New York, sheep’s-brain-and-falafel sandwiches in Damascus, mandu dumplings in Seoul. And fresh squeezed juice from a guy pushing a cart always trumps a Super-Sized Coke.

2) Save franchise food as a last resort.

Visiting a McDonald’s to temporarily escape the urban hubbub of Kiev or Curitiba or Kuala Lumpur is perfectly normal — but eating there every day is silly and escapist. Granted, travel can be taxing and disorienting, but overcoming these challenges make a journey invigorating. One visit to a Burger King or KFC per week on the road is plenty; any more is a cross-cultural copout.

3) McDonald’s (and other fast food) is easy to avoid.

Irritated by the fact that you can spot the Golden Arches from the Acropolis, Tiananmen Square, or Copacabana Beach? Not to worry: McDonald’s doesn’t make Greece any less Greek, China any less Chinese, or Brazil any less Brazilian. Just hike a block in any direction, and it will be easy to find authentic local food (and the farther you get from the tourist attractions, the cheaper that food will get).

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on June 5, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Backpacking, Europe, Food and Drink, Travel Health, Vagabonding Advice

April 20, 2014

Post Salkantay trek, Peru

Well, I did it! Just barely, but I managed to “conquer” around 60 kilometers (37 miles) on one of the most challenging treks I’ve ever done. Four days and three nights of difficult uphill, painful downhill, sunburns, rain, aching muscles, and freezing nights in a tent was rewarded with some of the most beautiful scenery that ends with a visit to Machu Picchu. If you like a good challenge, llamas, starry skies, snowcapped mountains, sleeping in tents, and good food, then this is a trip for you.

The trek started out with a steady incline at almost 10,000 feet above sea level, so the air was thin to start with. The terrain changed from dirt to rock and back again pretty much the entire way. Horses would occasionally run by unmanned, local families would walk past carrying supplies, and sometimes a different tour group would pass us (or at least me). There were birds, flowers, wild animals, and sunshine all along the trail. The people in our group (11 of us) were from Denmark, France, America, and Ireland, and they were all lovely.

In my previous post I mentioned that I felt a bit unprepared, and I have to admit that I questioned my ability to get through the whole trek on day one, when I got hit with altitude sickness. I was worried that it would be an issue for me, and almost wonder if I talked myself into experiencing it subconsciously. After walking uphill for a few hours in the direct sunlight, I suddenly felt like I couldn’t take in enough air, felt dizzy and panicky, and needed to sit down. Fortunately, our guide Primo had his “magic potion” with him, which is some mix of herbs that are supposed to help open up your lungs to take in a bit more oxygen. After resting for a few minutes and breathing in the mixture, I was able to get going again, slowly at first, but I made it through the rest of the ascent with no issues. Sadly, since I had a little trouble the first day, I decided to take a horse for two hours at the beginning of the second day, which is exactly what I had hoped wouldn’t happen. I’m not a big fan of riding animals because I find it terrifying. Especially up windy mountains, through rivers, and down rocky terrain. However, I managed to survive, and on day two we made it to the highest point, which was 15,000 feet above sea level. I give approximate numbers for things like distance and altitude because even the guides seemed unsure at times of the exact numbers.

The company we chose was Cuscoperuviajes and our guide was great. He put up with our constant slowness due to picture-taking, outfit rearranging, and water breaks. The tour included horses to carry up to 6 kilos per person and cooks that ran ahead of the group to prepare the meals and set up camp. It was almost freezing at night, and we were so tired from hiking at least 12 miles every day that I could barely make it through dinner without passing out. However, being up so high on a clear night allowed us a view of the brightest star-filled sky I’ve probably ever seen.

In the end, I felt that I was prepared enough as far as gear went. We packed for pretty much every temperature, had great shoes and socks, plenty of first aid stuff, bug spray and sunscreen, snacks, raingear, and camera equipment. I definitely recommend plenty of pairs of socks and warm layers for sleeping. Also, you are provided with a thin sleeping mat but no pillow, so I was glad I remembered my travel pillow. I packed extra snacks but was surprised at my lack of hunger while trekking. I wasn’t in my absolute best physical shape, but it only slowed me down, I still finished.

At the end of the third day, we were taken to the hot springs, which were beautiful and very much needed. The rest of the group stayed on for a 4th day that allowed for activities like ziplining, but me and my two friends took a bus and train to a hostel in Aguas Calientes. We were determined to go out for drinks to celebrate surviving the three tough days, but of course wound up being tired and went to bed early to rest before our big day at Machu Picchu. We were pleased that it wasn’t as crowded there as we had feared, and we were free to roam around one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, frolicking with the llama population.

I definitely recommend this trek, and visiting Peru in general. Cusco and Aguas Calientes were both really neat cities that you have to pass through to get to Machu Picchu. Overall we spent two weeks, and we didn’t see nearly enough of Peru. If anyone has any questions about the trek or getting around I’d be happy to help, you can reach me here or on my website. Thanks for reading, more photos below!

(more…)

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Category: Backpacking, Destinations, South America

April 12, 2014

Leaping Without The Pile in the Back of the Closet

The pile in the back of the closet

The pile in the back of the closet

Petrified, excited, invigorated, exhilarated, daunted…I felt them all in the weeks leading up to my first round the world journey. So many emotions, so little time. All the planning for this idea of taking a hiatus from the everyday was thrilling, yet frightening. From visa applications to inoculations (those weren’t fun) and new passport pages to hotel bookings the excitement continued to grow. But then it was six weeks before, one-month prior and days ahead of wheels up and the packing began. First world problem, no question; but all the worries came to a head with this-will I be okay without the ‘just in case stuff’ in the back of my closet?

You know that pile with the favourite t-shirt from university, the worn out jumper from sleep-away camp or those old standby jeans for the ‘I’m feeling fat’ days…where would you be without them? Was I really worried about stuff? We’ve all experienced that tug and pull in our own way. At this point, on this day, this was mine. Hindsight is twenty-twenty; was it really the stuff or was it something else? It’s what many who have made the leap to long-term travel have experienced with similar stories about managing on far less than in their pre-long-term travel days. But, I was stuck. Collapsing in a heap beside the flung open closet door staring at the ‘stuff’, I sat. The fashion consultants on What No To Wear would have thrown it out years ago since it’s been that long since I put my hand on it, but it was comforting to know it was there. Smaller after bouts of culling and donating, but, still there. I knew that pile held far more than clothes.

One backpack was all I allowed myself. If it didn’t fit it wasn’t coming. If it didn’t have more than one purpose or matched with three other things it wasn’t making it. I cried. Having looked forward to this journey for over a year, was I really crying over STUFF? Really? Wrapped up in this stuff were worries of everything and nothing. Would we be okay? What if something happened to someone I love? Who would keep in touch? What if everything changed when we were gone? The anticipation and worry manifested in that tiny pile in the back of the closet. The pile, that metaphor for the ‘what ifs of the world’ had taken hold and had me in its grasp. There were memories of time passed mixed with the notion of the unknown possibilities for a time yet to come. The crying continued. Logically, I knew how lucky we would all be if this truly was one of the most difficult decisions to make (perspective is a wonderful thing), but still, it was hard. On a precipice filled with greater meaning, this felt like one of those teachable moments. Either choice was fine, but I knew one led to a new journey in both destinations and personal growth while the other stayed stuck with the unchanging ease of ‘the devil you know’. Getting to the place to make the jump was a journey in itself and this felt like a turning point. Stay with the comfort of the pile or embrace the idea that you hold the key to the meaning of the pile? The rest is just that, ‘stuff’.

It didn’t make it into the backpack and after awhile I got up off the floor. I wasn’t yet ready to get rid of the pile but I was ready to close the closet door and leave room in the bag for the unknown future. The pile didn’t win. It remained, for the time being, in the back of the closet (to be revisited at a later date) and I took comfort in the knowledge that it was there. This journey to a place open to the risks and rewards of the frightening while slowly disentangling from the worries of the ‘what ifs’ is a continual one but each step does make a difference. Long-term travel was ahead with indeterminable adventure and experiences far greater than the stuff could ever hold. It is worth the risk. Maybe I wasn’t yet ready to discard the pile from the back of the closet entirely, but I was able to close the door and open a new one.

Traveler 1-Pile 0.

What’s your ‘pile’? What helped you make your leap?

 

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Category: Backpacking, Notes from the collective travel mind

April 6, 2014

Review: Osprey Kestrel 48 backpack and how to choose a great backpack

IMG_1854

A good backpack can make or break a trip. Drenching rain, language barriers, delayed flights — you can weather all with humor and go-get-’em attitude.

But a good backpack is the foundation upon which your trip rests. It holds your entire life in one place. It protects it. Sometimes you wear it so often it feels like another appendage.

That’s why it’s important to take some time before your trip to figure out what kind of new appendage — or backpack — works for you. Next to figuring out which book to take with me, this decision was the most important on my two-week trip to Europe.

Review on Osprey Kestrel 48 backpack

osprey frontAfter lots of research, I decided on Osprey Packs Kestrel 48 backpack for three reasons:

But the true test came after wearing my pack for two solid weeks. Included in that time were some very long midnight wanderings in suburban Rome searching for our hotel, running through train stations and for vaporettos, and getting shoved under train seats.

What I liked and disliked about the Osprey Kestrel

Liked:

Disliked:

What to look for when choosing a backpack

1. Functionality

How are you planning to use your pack? Will you be hiking or walking a lot? Do you need it to be water-repellant?

If you’ll be walking with it a lot, pick one with an interior frame and hip belt to redistribute the weight off your shoulders. Water-resistance is a good thing to consider, so check for a rain cover. You can’t always control the weather, but it’s nice to know your stuff won’t get soaked.

2. Durability

You want a pack that wears its age and travels well. You don’t want to deal with broken zippers or rips on the road.

Look for fabric at least 400 denier nylon packcloth with a urethane coating (aka water-repellant). Test the zippers. Do some Google searches on “broken zipper + pack name” to see how it stands up.

A good place to check out long-term durability is reading Amazon’s reviews on the pack; you get a wide smattering of opinions to help your decision.

3. Access into the bag

Do you want to access the bag just from the top (top-loading pack)? Or from the top and bottom (called the sleeping bag compartment)? Exterior pockets or no pockets?

These are things to consider if you want to lock your bag. The more access points into your bag equals more locks you need.

4. Carrying Capacity

Ah, the clincher. Getting a pack that’s too big will restrict your ability to carry it on the plane. Getting a pack too small will curtail your purchasing abilities.

It’s a really good idea to check out the bags in person. After all, this is gear that interacts with your body. Like shoes, how it feels on you will impact how you feel about the trip.

Play around with the packs. Try them on. Figure out how it feels on your back and do a few spins to check your bull in a china shop prowess. The empty pack should feel light and not too bulky on your back.

For me, the perfect capacity size was 48: still small enough for carry on, but large enough for clothes and extras picked up along the way.

5. Backpack size

Backpacks come in three sizes: small, medium and large. The sizes are determined by your torso length, not your height.

Here’s a general guide to figuring out the pack size from your torso length:

Men’s and Women’s
Pack Size Torso Length
Extra small Up to 15½”
Small 16″ to 17½”
Medium/Regular 18″ to 19½”
Large/Tall 20″+

Difference between men and women packs:

Generally, compared to men’s packs, women’s packs are:

But really, it comes down to how the pack feels on you. Even though I’m a woman, I picked a men’s pack based on how it fit me and what it looked like. Oh — and that it had good pockets.

Read more by Laura at Waiting To Be Read.

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Category: Backpacking, Travel Gear

April 5, 2014

Rolf Potts on Budget Travel

Backpack on boat 2

Whenever anyone asks me why I still travel on a shoestring at the ripe old age of 38, I usually tell them about the time I learned how to play the bagpipes in Havana.

Granted, I could probably relate a more typical story about the joys of budget travel - some tidy parable of money saved and experiences gained – but when I mention learning the bagpipes in Cuba it sounds like I’m going to tell a joke, and people like jokes.

The thing is, there’s no punch line. My encounter with Cuban bagpipers wasn’t memorable for its mere quirkiness – it was memorable because it illustrates how travelling on the cheap can offer you windows into a culture that go beyond the caricatured stereotype of what a place is supposed to be like.

If it sounds to you like I’m an ageing backpacker who never quite grew out of his shoestring ways, you’d be exactly right. In many ways, my travel sensibilities have grown out of a journey I took 10 years ago, when I quit my job as an English teacher and took a journey across Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I probably had enough money saved up to invest in a three-month trip. As it turned out, I learned ways to stretch my travel budget into a life-enriching 30-month sojourn – and in all those months of travel, my day-to-day costs were significantly cheaper than day-to-day life would have cost me back in the United States.

The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: like many generations of backpackers and shoestring travellers before me, I was able to make my modest savings last by slowing down and forgoing a few comforts as I travelled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hotels, hostels and guesthouses. Instead of dining at fancy restaurants, I ate food from street vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I travelled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts. In what eventually amounted to over two years of travel, my lodging averaged out to just under $5 a night, my meals cost well under $1 a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded $1,000 a month. Instead of investing my travel budget in luxuries and amenities, I invested it in more travel time – and it never failed to pay off in amazing experiences.

It’s been almost eight years now since I finished that extended stint of vagabonding, but the experience is still very much a part of me. In financial terms, I have the resources to sleep in five-star hotels and eat in expensive international restaurants, but I’ve found I rarely choose such luxurious options. Given a choice between a $400-a-night hotel and an $18-a-night flophouse in Hong Kong, I tend to opt for the latter. Faced with the prospect of an all-inclusive dinner buffet in a Santo Domingo casino, I invariably find myself wandering outside to sample food from street vendors.

Ultimately, the charm of budget travel has always been less about saving money than making the most of my time on the road. Travelling cheaply has forced me to be engaged and creative, rather than to throw money at my holidays and hope for the best. Freed from a rigid, expense-laden itinerary, I’m more likely to be spontaneous, embrace serendipity and enjoy each moment of my journey.

Excerpted from Around The World On a Shoestring-The Guardian Feb. 6, 2009

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Category: Backpacking, Rolf Potts, Vagabonding Advice

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

September 24, 2013

Traveling: Dangerous business

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.

Dad & RobertI 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.

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Category: Backpacking

July 19, 2013

When You’re Out of Loot in London

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.

London Bridge is always free, and always majestic.

London Bridge is always free, and always majestic.

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.

St. James's Park

St. James’s Park

-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.

Tate Modern

Tate Modern

-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.

British Museum

British Museum

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.

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Category: Backpacking, Europe, On The Road, Travel Bargains, Vagabonding Advice, Vagabonding Life
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