April 18, 2015

You have now entered the Tourist Zone

sadhuA few years ago, after finishing a journey in the Indian Himalayas, I traveled to the desert state of Rajasthan and visited the Hindu holy-town of Pushkar. A scenic outpost of 13,000 residents, Pushkar was famous for its Brahma Temple, its serene lake, and its annual Camel Fair. Several travelers had recommended it to me as a mellow place to relax for a few days.

From the moment I arrived in Pushkar, however, something seemed strange about the little holy-town. As I walked along the shores of Pushkar Lake, a number of long-bearded, monk-like sadhus approached me and suggested I take their photo for the bargain price of 15 rupees; Brahmin priests kept hustling up and offering to take me through a puja ceremony for just 50 rupees. Having spent the previous two weeks in the sleepy villages of far-northern India, this lakeside hustle made me feel like I was in some bizarre new universe. Prior to Pushkar, no Indian had ever implied that there was a cash value to puja (a Hindu ablution ritual), and most of the sadhus I’d seen were more interested in piety and asceticism than photo opportunities.

The more I wandered the streets of Pushkar, the more I discovered this off-kilter synthesis of culture and commerce. In the bazaar, teenage Rajasthani girls relentlessly offered to dye my hands with henna (a ritual typically reserved for Hindu brides), and cheap paper flyers touted competing yoga academies. Perplexed, I retreated to a lakeside restaurant for a cup of tea. When the host offered me food, I asked him what kind of dishes he offered — thinking he might specialize in tandoori or thali or biryani.

“Oh, we serve Indian food,” he said. “But we also have Mexican food, Chinese food, Italian food, Greek food, and Israeli food.”

“But which food is your specialty?” I asked.

“We specialize in all those foods,” he replied with a cheerful wobble of the head. “Plus we have vegetarian hamburgers and banana pancakes. But we’re out of granola right now.”

Peering around at the other diners in the restaurant, I finally figured out what was going on: Pushkar was a Tourist Zone.

On the surface, of course, Pushkar didn’t seem much like a Tourist Zone: There were no glitzy hotels, no air-conditioned knickknack boutiques, no busloads of sunburned Germans and chubby Texans. Moreover, had you surveyed Pushkar’s visitors, you would have mainly found independent travelers — young wanderers from Europe and North America and Israel, who shunned guided tours and took a genuine interest in Hindu culture.

Still, despite the earnestness of its travelers, Pushkar was very much a Tourist Zone — place that had subtly shifted to cater to the needs of its visitors. Only instead of churning out the standard tourist products (postcards, audio tours, spa treatments), Pushkar had developed a makeshift economy in Hindu “authenticity” (exotically dressed sadhus, quick-fix puja rituals, high-turnover yoga ashrams). After several years of popularity on the backpacker circuit, the residents of Pushkar hadn’t gotten greedy; they’d merely become adept at packaging all of the Indian symbols and rituals that indie travelers found whimsically attractive (as well as a few choice Western amenities, like familiar-sounding food and Internet cafés).

As is the case with so many other traveler haunts around the world, the authentic culture of Pushkar had become difficult to discern from the culture that had been spontaneously adjusted to feed visitors’ notions of “authenticity”. And, in this way, it had become a Tourist Zone.

As independent travelers, of course, we like to assume that we’re above the workings of Tourist Zones. But, as the example of Pushkar illustrates, we have a way of creating our own, more organic tourist areas, whether we intend to or not. Look closely, and you’ll notice that some of the most colorful indie-traveler hangouts in the world — Panahajachel in Guatemala, Dali in China, Dahab in Egypt — have as much in common with each other as they do their host-cultures. Granted, these places retain their own geographical and cultural distinction, but each location shares a laid-back predilection for catering to the aesthetic and recreational needs of Western budget travelers.

Thus, keeping in mind that much of our time as travelers involves moving in and out of Tourist Zones, here are a few tips for making sense of things:

1) Learn to identify Tourist Zones

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a Tourist Zone, but it helps to know when you’re in one, as it will affect how you relate to people. Tourist Zones include airports, hotels, bus and train stations, major city centers, historical venues, pilgrimage sites, nature parks, national monuments, and anyplace where travelers congregate in large numbers — including sleepy backpacker hangouts.

2) Mind your manners

Though interaction with locals in Tourist Zones can often be impersonal and transaction-based, be sure to abide by the simple rules of courtesy. Even when dealing with pushy vendors and aggressive touts, a firm, courteous “no thanks” is always better than an angry rebuff.

3) Tourist Zones serve an economic purpose for the people who live there

In Tourist Zones, many locals will use friendship as a front to tout hotels or sell souvenirs. And, as annoying as this can be, remember that most locals will take a genuine interest in you, even as they try to sell you things. In this way, many of your interactions as you travel will be with folks who are offering a service — cab drivers, guesthouse clerks, shopkeepers. Thus, be aware that you occupy an economic dynamic wherever you go — and that there is no particular virtue in compulsively avoiding expenses (especially when many of those expenses are of direct benefit to local families).

4) Dare to travel outside of Tourist Zones

Invariably, the easiest way to get out of Tourist Zones and into a more authentic setting is to visit villages and neighborhoods that aren’t in any guidebooks or travel websites — places where other travelers never think to go. Normal safety precautions are in order, of course, but half the charm in travel is finding places where granola, pizza, and veggie burgers aren’t on the menu.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on May 22, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Asia, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

March 8, 2015

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

As travelers, we often find ourselves talking to friends and strangers alike at parties, at work, wherever, about travel and how to do it right. We evangelize for travel, extolling its opportunities and benefits. We often go on at length about the magic of our favorite places, the addictive high that comes from filling up a passport book, and the thrill of crossing a new border and making new connections. We also find ourselves giving out advice on all matters travel, from where to find the cheapest airline tickets to where to stay and when to go. You know you do this.

But normally it’s one-on-one counseling, spreading the gospel of good travel one conversation at a time. In almost any social situation I would meet many would-be travelers are looking for a better option than shelling out a fortune to join a big-bus corporate tour with an itinerary geared toward hitting the owner’s favorite tourist traps. I was always stuck by people’s desire for useful tips for shaping their own experience and, more importantly, the need for an infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.

After thousands of private conversations, I also realized that the most efficient way to share what I knew with those who were interested was to teach.

Next week at a local Seattle-area library I’ll be giving 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.

This marks the tenth year I’ve been doing them, having originally started in my hometown of Chicago. I tackle the question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that happens to be my specialty), how to plan it, and what to do when you’re there.

I wish more experienced travelers, wherever in the world they happen to hang their rucksack, would occasionally give up a Saturday afternoon to teach these sorts of classes. Not only is there a deep need for the info but there’s plenty of reward in it for the speaker. Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically giving me time and advice for free. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Many of the people who attend these classes have an ideal trip in their minds and have had it for most of their life, but have lacked the skills or confidence to go on their own. And seeing their eyes light up when they realize they can take control of their own travel dreams and plan their own adventure is profoundly rewarding.

Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information of planning a trip on a tight budget, arming curious people with the info and inspiration to broaden their horizons is a good thing for them and for their country. They will likely return from their adventure with not only experiences they will cherish, but a better perspective on their world as well.

So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you adore, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library or school. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket. Let them learn from your trial-and-error. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the amazing places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a wannabe adventurer to take the trip of their dreams and change their life, and that is time well spent. Go forth and spread the gospel.

 

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Category: Adventure Travel, Expat Life, General, Notes from the collective travel mind, Solo Travel, Vagabonding Advice, Youth Travel

March 7, 2015

Around the World on a Shoestring

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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.

The travel caricature of Havana, of course, is an elegantly aged vision of cigars and classic cars, son and salsa, communist slogans and café con leche. To actualise this vision, many upscale tourists head for the $120-a-night Hotel Nacional, a classic, mafia-era facility that features $8 mojitos and a lovely terrace looking out over the Malecón and the Straits of Florida. Unfortunately, most Cubans don’t have access to the Hotel Nacional, and – as is the case with luxury hotels in many parts of the world – it tends to create a travel experience based more on the idea of how the city should be than how the city is.

I spent my nights in Cuba just up the street from the Hotel Nacional, shelling out just $15 a night to sleep at a casa particulare homestay in Havana’s leafy Vedado district. I couldn’t see the Malecón from my bedroom, nor could I order room-service rum cocktails, but I did get to take part in the day-to-day home routine of my Cuban hosts. In the mornings I would have coffee with them and practise my Spanish; in the evenings we’d watch the state-run TV station, trying to spot bits of real news through the haze of official propaganda. My host family cheerfully introduced me to various friends and neighbours, and within a few days my little social network had offered me access to underground poetry readings, pickup baseball games, and – on one fateful afternoon – a bagpipe performance at the Asturian Federation in central Havana.

Where I come from in the United States, bagpipes are the pastime of earnest, middle-aged men with potbellies and Scottish surnames. In Havana, I discovered that bagpipes are the passion of wicked-smart twentysomething Havana University graduates with a love of music as deep and soulful as anyone portrayed in The Buena Vista Social Club. Instead of playing the Spanish guitar and African percussion that distinguish son music, however, these guys were channelling the Celtic rhythms of Spain’s Asturias region, which sent tens of thousands of immigrants to Cuba in the late 19th century.

When I befriended those hipster kids and began to learn how to play the gaita (an Asturian bagpipe with a single drone pipe), I discovered a side of Havana that was as authentically (if not stereotypically) a part of Cuba as baseball and rumba. Like the tourists in the Hotel Nacional, I still had plenty of access to son, cigars and salsa – but I also got to see a side of Havana that revealed the complexity of the city and its subcultures.

I’m not saying that you have to hang out with bagpipers if you really want to experience Havana; I’m just noting how spending less money has a way of paying off in original and memorable experiences.

And shoestring travel is not just for long trips. Last summer, I travelled to the Czech Republic with my parents. We could have easily splurged on expensive hotels and guided tours during our time in Prague, but instead we bought a three-day tram-pass and checked into a hostel in the city’s suburban Vinohrady district. Even though my parents are in their 60s, the youthful backpackers staying at the hostel treated them as one of their own, and offered travel advice on topics ranging from tourist destinations to experimental theatre to where one can sample the city’s best absinthe. We ended up spending three days exploring various corners of the city on foot and by public transport. We stumbled across standard sights like Stare Mesto and the Charles bridge, of course, but we also happened upon children’s school-jazz performances and a Czech Corvette-club rally. We admired the art nouveau styling of the Mayor’s Hall, but we also marvelled at the casual art nouveau detailing in suburban post offices and pizza parlours. When we stopped into a random pub and used improvised hand signals to order Plzensky Prazdroj and knedliky, we felt as if we were the very first outsiders to discover the joys of Czech beer and dumplings.

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.

Perhaps my favourite budget destination in the world is Bangkok. The city may be chaotic, traffic-snarled and incomprehensible, but it never fails to amaze me. Over the years I’ve found lodging in countless corners of the city – from the $4 backpacker dives of Khao San Road (which has gentrified a lot since my first visit in 1999) to the posh, five-star environs of the storied Mandarin Oriental Hotel. My favourite place to crash is the Atlanta Hotel, a curious little $15-a-night gem (complete with a courtyard swimming pool and an art-deco lobby) off on Sukhumvit Road. To the untrained eye, Sukhumvit Road could pass for a westernised strip of air-conditioned shopping malls and office buildings, but the area wears its globalisation in a distinctively Thai way. Sure, there are McDonalds and Starbuck franchises for those who choose to dine there, but there are also street vendors serving paad thai, fresh pineapple and grilled scorpion on a stick for pennies a serving.

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.

This notion of spending less and experiencing more holds true regardless of economic conditions, but in a time of global recession it makes even more urgent sense – not just for holidays, but for life in general.

 

This story originally published by The Guardian, February 7, 2009

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Category: North America, Vagabonding Advice

January 31, 2015

Explode your comfort zone…why the decision to travel is never a bad one

Growing up in Long Island, New York, my comfort zone was very small. I certainly never thought I’d leave that tiny suburban town for other coasts or other shores. After that first trip abroad everything changed. I had no idea then that harnessing fear of the unknown would be the thing that actually facilitated a growth spurt for my ever so tiny comfort zone. Little by little it started to grow and although, at times the fear tries to blur the lines, the desire of that comfort zone to stretch continues to win out. Almost twenty years after I graduated from a small university outside of Boston, I’m actively exploding that zone wide open and travel, for me, has been the blasting tool.

Even with strife and destruction happening daily in the world, I’ve yet to ever find a reason why the decision to travel could be a bad one. Day after day there’s sadness and devastation with people who aim to do evil striking at the heart of good. I’m not suggesting to directly put oneself in the line of fire or to go where those in the know say to heed, but travel will always open doors, help to defy stereotypes and change the world one traveler at a time.

Travel continues to provide endless gifts of perspective, growth, understanding and compassion. Comfort zones are great, but as we all know, minimal growth happens in them. Learning happens each time those boundaries are pushed and with even the slightest bit of movement, people are forever changed. Have you ever traveled by yourself and noticed those fears creeping in when what would be an adventure with a friend feels like disaster waiting to happen? Have you ever muttered the words ‘I’d never do this at home’ with a smile knowing that some sort of magic is about to happen even though you have no idea what, where or when? Have you ever found yourself wandering down a foreign land’s street filled with insane chaos, maddening sounds, bustling crowds, endless odors thinking just how different this is to your ‘normal Tuesday’ and how utterly amazing it is that you’re enjoying yourself as much as you are? We continue to surprise ourselves, if only we let ourselves.

Strange as it may sound – boundaries are pushed and comfort zones are meant to expand. As we grow, we learn of what we’re capable, what scares us and what, just maybe, we might want to push through. It’s the feeling of that little one finally letting go of a few fingers when she learns to cross the street or shouting, ‘let go, let go’ when he tries to take off on that first two-wheeler ride. Parents stand proudly by watching as that fine line swarms around them wondering, ‘do I run after him to keep hold or let him see what he can do on his own’. Now, we’re those grown up little ones guarding our choices and teetering on the edge of can I or can’t I, will I or won’t I and pushing ourselves to take that risk knowing that we’ll be alright whatever the outcome. Each leap really is one of leaps and bounds.

Travel has been the force propelling me forward. That desire to see the world, visit other destinations, meet new people, experience and wonder has frightened me, pushed me, amazed me and changed me. It gave me direction when I had little. It showed me paths that I would have never before taken. It introduced me to impactful people I wouldn’t have otherwise met. It showed me that different isn’t bad, difficult is worth the struggle and that change shouldn’t only scare me. I owe a debt to travel and the best way I know to repay it is to keep on going and thanking travel each day for helping me to explode that comfort zone.

Things I never thought I could…and did!

Live overseas

Jump into the edge of Victoria Falls

Travel solo

Go on an around the world honeymoon

Make my way through a language barrier

Walk with lions

Road trip across the USA

Quit my job to travel

How do you explode your comfort zone? How did a travel experience push your boundaries?

For more of Stacey’s travel musings, check out her blog.

 

 

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Category: General, Notes from the collective travel mind, Vagabonding Advice

January 30, 2015

Dealing with the Loneliness of Long-Term Travel

Long-Term-Travel

Every now and then long-term travel is rough.

The lifestyle of never remaining in one city or continent for more than a few months requires commitment and sacrifice.

Traveling alone means experiencing days and occasionally weeks without making friends and starting over in a new place can seem tedious.

When this happens, travelers often feel overwhelmed with homesickness, wishing for old friends and all the comforts of home.

Through my experience on the road, I have learned long-term travel requires determination, but the rewards and perks of this astounding lifestyle outweigh the battle of loneliness.

Let’s talk about a few ways to combat loneliness on the road.

Embrace Your Feelings

Loneliness is a good feeling. When it is creeping up on you, use it as a time for personal growth. With no one around, there is ample time to reflect on your adventures and how traveling has transformed you as a person.

Reflection is a tool to help us learn more about ourselves. Evaluate the lessons the road has taught and ponder where your path might lead.

Embrace your loneliness. Within a short period of time, you will feel renewed and excited for the journey ahead.

Stay Productive

Beginning a project is a vital way to keep loneliness from entering your mind. If you are journaling, video editing, or photo sorting; long hours in trains, buses, and airports become desirable.

For example, many times my travel blog, and other projects keeps me extremely busy. I often look forward to alone time so I can get caught up. I don’t even have a chance to get lonely.

Find something you are passionate, or start a travel job and pour yourself into it when you start to feel alone.

Improve Yourself

We live in the golden age of travel. With easy access to Ipads, laptops, and smart phones the world is easily accessible.  New discoveries and knowledge are just clicks away.

When I started traveling, I promised myself every day I would try to improve as a person.

One goal was teach myself a new language. This not only took my mind off of being alone, but also gave me a better cultural understanding of the countries I was visiting.

Use loneliness for self-improvement and you will not only become a better person but a more responsible traveler.

Remember Your Goals

Having travel goals is one of the best ways to deal with loneliness on the road.

Goals help keep long-term travelers focused and are a continual reminder of why traveling is important.

Whether you want to see every country in the world or to just sip wine under the Eiffel Tower, goals keep your ship pointed north when it wants to go astray.

Talk to Strangers

This is going against everything you mother taught you since you were two years old, but one lesson the road teaches quickly is that 99% of people want to help.

If you are missing home or feeling alone, just start talking to someone in the area.

Chances are you will make a new friend which can ease loneliness.

 

I’ve seen loneliness break travelers and honestly, it has almost broken me a few times.

Knowing how to deal with loneliness is vital for any long-term traveler.

While the feeling is not always pleasant, it can be a gift to learn more about yourself, break out of your shell, and grow as a person.

Stephen is a long-term traveler and loneliness defeater. You can check out more of his musing of life on the road at his website A Backpackers Tale, Facebook, and Instagram.

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Category: General, Vagabonding Advice

January 7, 2015

Why making mistakes while traveling is important

Making-mistakes-backpacking “What If” – two powerful words that potentially stop travelers with crippling fear.

It is natural to worry about the possibilities of being stranded alone in a city where you don’t speak the language, having your passport stolen, or missing a train and spending the night on the street. However, to allow these “What If’s” to keep you at home is a huge mistake.

You will definitely make mistakes while traveling; it is part of life on the road.

Usually, they are little mistakes that hurt your bank balance and pride more than your health. A comforting thought is that at this moment there are hundreds of travelers around the world making mistakes, and if they can recover, then so can you. I have spent more than three and a half years on the road and haven’t gone a single week without making a random travel mistake. Some have been big, like not booking accommodation which meant spending a few nights on the street, and some have been small, like heading to the wrong airport. As time went on, I saw these mistakes for what they really were – opportunities.

Looking at your errors in a positive light, will change your entire outlook. Mistakes make you a better traveler and a stronger person. Now I cherish these crucial moments as they have taught me valuable life lessons while traveling the world. make-friends Meet other travelers

Once on the Greek island of Paros, I missed my ferry. Looking around, I noticed four other people had also missed it, so I walked up and started a conversation. By the next day when a new ferry showed up, we had all become fast friends. In fact, we got along so well that I changed my plans to travel with them for the next month. Today, I still stay in contact with them, have met them regularly in different countries, and consider them close friends.

You might think this is a fluke, but it happens over and over again. I’ve met most of my closest travel friends because I have missed a bus, train, or ferry. The next time you make a mistake, look around. There is a good chance you are not the only one. After all, misery loves company. Use this as an opportunity to start a conversation and make new friends. This is a good way to meet locals as well as travelers.

Live in the moment

Some people want a planned itinerary from the second they step onto the plane until they arrive back at their doorstep. However, nothing goes according to plan when traveling and when plans go awry, you need to think on your feet. Spontaneity sets you in the moment completly. It helps people come out of their shells, and shows them that the world will not end if they stray from their schedule, or get off the beaten path.

Mistakes usually end in unexpected adventures and exciting stories. Think about it. When people tell you stories from their travels, they do not spend an hour describing every painting they saw in the Lourve, but they will excitedly share all the funny misadventures that happened to them on their way. Losing wallets, missing trains, or driving a day in the wrong direction becomes the highlight of the trip.

Discover your strength

As you make mistakes, one of the first things you will figure out is that you are not a fragile human being. When everything goes wrong and you have the patience and determination to figure it out, you will discover you are stronger than what you thought.

I have learned that I possess not only the courage to face my fears, but also the unknown.

This realization has given me confidence not only when traveling but also dealing with everyday problems in my personal life. Honestly, I love making travel mistakes. They have opened doors and have given me a fresh perspective on traveling. If you embrace your mishaps and learn from them, you will make valuable friends, gain a deeper understanding of yourself, and experience traveling on a new level. Let’s embrace our travel mistakes and venture into the unknown.

Stephen is a long-term traveler and enthusiastic adventurer. You can check out more of his musing of life on the road at his website A Backpackers Tale Travel Blog, Facebook, or Twitter.

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Category: Vagabonding Advice

December 6, 2014

In the Hall of the Baby Jesuses

SUMMER 07 PARIS PRAGUE 139The first time I was in Paris, I went to the Louvre and — like a million other tourists before me — headed straight for the Mona Lisa.

Since the famous French museum houses one of the most extensive art collections in the world, I’ll admit that making a beeline for a painting I’d already seen on countless refrigerator magnets and coffee mugs was a wholly unimaginative act. In tourist terms, hurrying through hallways of miscellaneous masterpieces to seek out the Mona Lisa was kind of like picking one harried celebrity from a crowd of a thousand interesting people and bugging her with questions I could have answered by reading a gossip magazine.

Apparently aware of this compulsion for artistic celebrity-worship, Louvre officials had plastered the gallery walls with signs directing impatient tourists to the Mona Lisa, and I soon fell into step with crowds of Japanese, European and North American tourists eager for a glimpse of Da Vinci’s famous portrait.

Anyone who’s been to the Louvre, of course, will know that I was setting myself up for an anticlimax. The Mona Lisa was there all right — looking exactly like she was supposed to look — yet this was somehow disappointing. Standing there, staring at her familiar, coy smile, it occurred to me that I had no good reason why I wanted to see her so badly in the first place.

Moreover, once I’d left the Mona Lisa gallery and moved on to other parts of the Louvre, I discovered just how ignorant I was in the ways of art history. Surrounded by thousands of vaguely familiar-looking paintings and sculptures, I realized I had no clue as to how I could meaningfully approach the rest of the museum.

Fortunately, before I could fall into touristic despair, I was saved by the Baby Jesus.

I don’t mean to imply here that I had some sort of spiritual epiphany in the Louvre. Rather, having noted the strange abundance of Madonna-and-Child paintings in the museum’s halls, I resolved to explore the Louvre by seeking out every Baby Jesus in the building.

Silly as this may sound, it was actually a fascinating way to ponder the idiosyncrasies of world-class art. Each Baby Jesus in the Louvre, it seemed, had his own, distinct preoccupations and personality. Botticelli’s Baby Jesus, for example, looked like he was about to vomit after having eaten most of an apple; Giovanni Bolfraffio’s Baby Jesus looked stoned. Ambrosius Benson’s Baby Jesus resembled his mother — girlish with crimped hair and a fistful of grapes — while Barend van Orley’s chubby Baby Jesus looked like a miniature version of NFL analyst John Madden. Francesco Gessi’s pale, goth-like Baby Jesus was passed out in Mary’s lap, looking haggard and middle-aged; Barnaba da Modena’s balding, doe-eyed Baby Jesus was nonchalantly shoving Mary’s teat into his mouth. Lorenzo di Credi’s Baby Jesus had jowls, his hair in a Mohawk as he gave a blessing to Saint Julien; Mariotto Albertinelli’s Baby Jesus coolly flashed a peace sign at Saint Jerome.

Moving through galleries full of European art, these Baby Jesuses hinted at the diversity of human experience behind their creation, and ultimately redeemed my trip to the Louvre. What had initially been a huge and daunting museum was now a place of light-hearted fascination.

I’m sure I’m not the first person who lapsed into fancy when faced with a museum full of human erudition and accomplishment. To this day, I’m still never quite sure what I’m supposed to do, exactly, when I visit museums. Sure, there’s much to be learned in these cultural trophy-cases, and visiting them is a time-honored travel activity — but I often find them lacking in charm and surprise and discovery. For me, an afternoon spent eyeing pretty girls in the Jardin des Tuileries has always carried as much or more promise than squinting at baroque maidens in a place like the Louvre.

Part of the problem, I think, is that museums are becoming harder to appreciate in an age of competing information. Back in the early 19th century, when many of the world’s classic museums were founded, exhibiting relics, fossils and artwork was a way for urban populations to make sense of the world and celebrate the accomplishments of renaissance and exploration. Now that these items of beauty and genius can readily be accessed in digital form, however (where they compete for screen-time with special-interest porn and YouTube parodies), their power can be diluted by the time we see them in display cases and on gallery walls.

In this way, museums are emblematic of the travel experience in general. In 1964, media critic Marshall McLuhan wrote that, within an information society, “the world itself becomes a sort of museum of objects that have already been encountered in some other medium.” More than forty years later, that “museum of objects” has been catalogued in ways that even McLuhan could never have imagined — this means that seeing Baby Jesuses where you had expected Mona Lisas might well be a worthwhile strategy outside of museums as well.

In the purely metaphorical sense, of course.

Tip sheet: How to get the most out of museums on the road.
1) Know how to approach big museums.

Having just confessed to my own bemusement in the presence big museums, I do have a few suggestions. Many national museums are so extensive that it’s impossible to experience them meaningfully in a single visit. Thus, study up a little before you go, and isolate yourself to one wing or hall of the museum. Make yourself an expert-in-training on, say, one period of Chinese history, or one phase of Dutch art. Don’t just watch the exhibits; watch how people react to them. Be an extrovert, and engage your fellow museum patrons on the meanings and significance of the displays.

If studying up beforehand seems too deliberate for your tastes, approach a big museum as if it were a highlight-reel of history or culture. Walk through the museum slowly and steadily, front to back, noting what grabs your attention. After the initial walk-though, go back to the area that interested you the most and spend some time there. Take notes, and read up on your new discoveries when you get home.

2) Make the most of small museums.

Small community museums can be found in all corners of the world, and they offer a fascinating example of how local people balance the relationship between themselves and the rest of the world. Because their exhibits are humble and anonymous compared to the likes of the Louvre, there is no set of expectations, and no tyranny declaring that you must favor one relic or piece of art over another. Much of the time, this better enables you to see things for what they are (instead of what they are supposed to represent). The secret to exploring these small museums is their curators (and their regulars), who are invariably knowledgeable and a tad eccentric. Take an interest and ask lots of questions, because these local experts will have plenty to share.

3) Let the world be your museum.

If the world itself has become a museum of objects, treat it with the same attention and curiosity you would a formal gallery. As tourist scholar Lucy L. Lippard has noted, a shopping mall, a thrift store, or even a junkyard can be as revelatory in a faraway place as a gallery full of relics. Similarly, daily life in a given neighborhood off the tourist trail is just as likely to reveal the nuances of a given culture as is an official exhibit. Wherever you go as you travel, allow yourself to wander, ponder, and ask questions. Odds are, you’ll come home with a deeper appreciation of a place than if you were just breezing from one tourist attraction to another.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Nov. 6, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Europe, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

November 29, 2014

Road Health Tips from an Asthma and Allergy Sufferer

“Hypoallergenic bedding, pet free and a non-smoking room on a non-smoking floor, please”-that’s my typical request anytime I make a reservation to stay just about anywhere. I move a zillion times on the train if there’s a smoker or heavily doused perfume/cologne wearer near me. Scented anti-bacterial, oils or lotions set me off in an instant and any strong food smell in an enclosed area is a risk. And don’t even put me in any setting a cat has ever been. Seriously…and yet, I happily travel.

When I was teaching, one of the ladies in the office, Lorraine, would always have tissues ready for me come allergy season. And in a school, every season is allergy season-there’s mold, mildew and all things dust! She knew that even with the latest pills and drops my eyes would be puffy, itchy and all shades of red. Regularly, when she asked, ‘how are you when you travel?’-she smiled, already knowing the answer. We do our best to follow the sun whenever possible. Never heading to anywhere in spring or autumn where the pollen counts would go through the roof and aside from a fear of a bee sting allergy, we search for summer sunshine, minimal cold (where my asthma is also aggravated) and nothing floral or feather related at all. The season in which I feel best is summer and that is for what we regularly search. She could see why, at least in the health department, travel makes me happy.

Half the time I can’t tell you what makes my lungs unhappy. Everyone has his/her own triggers yet when I head to the allergist office and look at the poster asking ‘what’s your trigger’…I just roll my eyes…..I have ALL of them! When I travel, my allergies and asthma come with me. I’ve picked up some helpful hints along the way that I hope will make your travels a little easier.

Here are a few tips to hopefully lessen your suffering on the road:

 

Take care of yourself and enjoy the adventure. Breathe easy and happy travels.

For more of Stacey’s musings follow her at thegiftoftravel.wordpress.com.

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Category: General, Vagabonding Advice

November 15, 2014

Easing In: How to Lessen Culture Shock in new Surroundings

Easing in...

Wham! After being in transit for so long, that fresh outside air smacks you in the face when you finally step outside of the airport and take that first deep breath of non-circulated stale airplane air. It took forever to get here. After hours and hours you got to the airport, flew on the plane (or for many of us-planes plural), went to more airports, made it through customs, got jostled at baggage claim and finally arrived at your destination. That combination of being completely spent, confused over time changes and excitement for that journey to get underway usually ends in a flop on a bed or a cup of something to pop open those dreary eyelids and jump start the adventure. How do you manage to enjoy your surroundings and embrace the new cultures in front of you without an enormous freak out of culture shock? How do you ease in and lessen the shock to your new surroundings?

Many of us don’t have the time that we’d like to be able to slow travel and take the time we’d want to get fully used to a place and ease in at our own pace. Still, there are things to do to make it easier regardless of time. What if your tour starts the day after you arrive in a country where you do not speak the language? What if you’ve decided to jump in with both feet and take months to immerse yourself in a new land and culture without much research or planning? What if you are not accustomed to huge changes all at once and are starting to feel a bit overwhelmed? Do we find you folded in a ball on the bed or are you ready to attack the day no matter the risk? For those of us who want to greet the day head on and struggle regularly to resist the urge of the fetal position on that bed that is no longer the reclining seat in front of the bathroom in economy class, here are a few tips to make the culture shock as easy as possible.

  1. Take your time: There’s no rush and no deadlines…you can get there at your own pace.
  2. Find your accommodation, grab a business card with address and phone number (in local language/script) in case of emergency and head out for a wander: Let yourself get used to the sights, sounds and scents of your new surroundings…you’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll begin to feel.
  3. Speak to those at reception at your accommodation: They can often help you get started on a path that works for you.
  4. Find a local supermarket, farmers market, street vendors or grocer and take a look at what’s available: The familiar will intertwine with the new and different in a most comforting way.
  5. Grab a snack and a drink and head to a public space to people watch and take in your surroundings: Getting to see life first hand will start to increase your comfort level.
  6. If you can, connect with a local guide who can take you on a tour of his/her home culture and lessen the culture shock you might be feeling: Hearing an individual’s perspective of how they view their own culture will lessen the fears you brought along for the journey; you’ll be surprised at how quickly they start to fade away.
  7. Interact with locals in a place of comfort (food store, hostel, restaurant, park): Remember you don’t even have to speak the language to be able to learn to communicate with others.
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!: Remember this and embrace it along the way.

We’ve all been in the situation at one point or another in our traveler lives. Whether we’ve been the local on the street to help the visitor with a map and directions or the lost soul relying on the kindness of those very strangers we’ve been for others, it’s safe to say that all of us have come out on the other side. Remember, not all places are the same to the ones in which you’ve grown up. I mean, really, if they were, why would you go? Embrace the diversity and keep in mind that we are all more alike than we are different. You will learn as much if not more from the people and place you’re in than they will learn from you. Share what makes us similar and learn about the differences. Take in what the culture has to offer…you’re bound to see the world with new and open eyes IF and when you decide it’s time to leave.

For more of Stacey’s musings, check out her website.

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Category: General, Vagabonding Advice

October 28, 2014

On returning: Things change

My Dad's photo of Lago de Atitlan, 1973

My Dad’s photo of Lago de Atitlan, 1973

It seems the nature of humanity to freeze a moment in time. 

We remember a person, a place, an experience, as it was when we were last present with it. It is frozen, forever, in our minds; like the fading koda-chrome slides my parents took across the north of Africa forty odd years ago. We return to these places often, in our memories; the tastes, the smells, the sensations in our bodies as real as they were years ago. The characters remain eternally young. The buildings never deteriorate. The music in our minds never changes. Until, we return.

It’s a funny trick our minds play, allowing ourselves to remain fluid, to move forward, to constantly evolve, and yet expecting, somehow, that the places and people of our past experience remain the same. It takes a great deal of presence as a traveler, to remain conscious of this ongoing illusion, this magic trick that we play on ourselves. Returning is dangerous business.

There is a witchcraft in some places that weaves a web that continues to draw us back. When we return the spell is often broken and we find ourselves living in the past, wishing for people, or experiences, or a particular vibe that has come and gone. I’ll admit that there are place to which I refuse to return, simply because I love my illusion too much. The memories made on the first pass are so powerful that I wish to preserve them just as they are.

When we do choose to return, we must do so with an open hand, not grasping at what was past, an open heart, ready to receive what is new, and with open minds, allowing for the growth that has occurred in our absence. It isn’t fair, to a people, or a place, to expect it to remain locked in some eternal nostalgia that we’ve created around it. Of course it’s not the same; progress is the nature of things. Roads will replace foot paths, cell phones will be tucked inside native dresses. Nikes will replace woven sandals, electric lights crowd out the daily use of candles. It would be usurious of us to expect a place to exist at a lesser stage of technological development because it fills a particular emotional need or provides us with a sense of the exotic, or an escape from our real world.

The world changes, so do we. Just as a place will change in our absence, so does the person we bring back to the location. The eyes with which we see now are not the same as the lenses we experienced the spot the first time, or the last time, we attended it. It’s worth considering that for a while as we prepare to return.

My Dad and I had this chat four years ago, as we were settling into our favourite little spot on Lago de Atitlan, in Guatemala for the winter. We were returning for the first time, following a 10 month absence. He was returning for the first time after a 36 year absence.

“You can come, Dad,” I said across the crappy phone connection between ends of the continent, “But you can’t complain about how much it’s changed. It won’t be the same, but remember that for the children this is all it’s ever been, and they get to experience it in their own way, without our biases.”

I could hear him nodding his head in his office in our log home at the edge of the fall snow in Canada. And so, they came, the people who brought me to this lake for the first time in-utero just as the country was beginning to descend into a decades long civil war. It was as much of a joy to watch my parents rediscover the lago they’d long loved as it was to watch my children come alive to the Mayan culture for the first time.

This winter we’re back, all three generations of us. The lake has changed. The people have changed. The village we love the most has changed. We have changed. And yet, the magic remains, so long as we allow the world, and ourselves, to be as we really are.

Lago de Atitlan- 2014

Lago de Atitlan- 2014

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Category: Ethics, Family Travel, Vagabonding Advice
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