March 21, 2015

Mister Universe

World

In the remote southwestern Ethiopian town of Jinka, Charles Veley and I were drinking araki sorghum whiskey in the bar of a dirt-lane guesthouse full of Mursi tribesmen and their families. Mursi women are usually recognizable by the clay disks that stretch their severed lower lips, but on this night, in an informal setting (where families had paid the equivalent of 20 cents a person to sleep on the packed-dirt floor), most of the women had removed their ocher-painted plates. Their lower lips sagged around their chins as they nursed babies in the dim light; the Mursi men, who had checked their fighting staves at the door, silently watched television and sipped araki.

For most of the Mursi, this town of 22,500 people, a minimum two-day walk from their villages, is the biggest metropolis they’ll ever know. The next day they would trade their butter and grains for manufactured goods at the Jinka market, but on that night, as they watched Ethiopian music videos on a flickering black-and-white TV, they seemed as giddy and disoriented as I felt in this peculiar setting. We were all travelers here, it seemed, each of us far from home in our own way. In fact, the only person who looked completely at ease was Veley, who worked the room like a V.I.P., casually flattering and flirting as he bought Mursi women drinks. Dressed in quick-dry trekking pants, Hi-Tec boots and a crisp white button-down shirt, he acted as if he were walking through a climate-controlled R.E.I. store instead of a smoky, lamp-lit room with grimy turquoise walls and the rich, rotten aroma of fermented sorghum and hand-cured goat leather. “This is why I travel,” he told me at one point in the evening. “For moments like this.”

For Veley, a 43-year-old San Franciscan, travel is no part-time endeavor: over the past nine years — ever since he resigned as a vice president at the software company MicroStrategy, which he co-founded — he’s logged almost three million miles and spent nearly $2 million in an effort, as he puts it, “to go everywhere in the world.” This seemingly quixotic project has won him a fair amount of notoriety in travel circles. I first met him in a television studio, where we were both serving as experts for a Travel Channel special on classic world destinations.

Despite my own passion for travel, my fascination with Veley’s project isn’t exactly a matter of common interest. My first book is an extended argument for the merits of slow travel and downplays the notion of counting countries as an arbitrary exercise. When Veley invited me to join him on a journey to East Africa, I accepted out of sheer curiosity about what drives such an endeavor, and about what a Charles Veley journey might actually look like.

In just eight days of travel, I watched Veley negotiate a series of buses and hire cars from Kampala up to the isolated Ugandan province of Arua, which shares a porous border with Congo. I accompanied him on a bone-jarring, daylong Land Cruiser journey across the semi-autonomous southern region of Sudan, along roads that were cleared of land mines less than a year ago. I waited as he climbed into an air-traffic control tower in the flyblown Sudanese city of Juba and negotiated our way onto a chartered aid flight to the Kenyan frontier town of Lokichokio. I followed along as he raced to meet a chartered boat to cross Kenya’s Lake Turkana into the Omo River valley in Ethiopia. Veley tackled all of these challenges with uncanny skill and obvious relish, but I have yet to divine exactly what motivates him. Whenever I asked him why he feels called to travel in such an exhaustive manner, his answers were frustratingly vague — “I travel so much because I can,” he told me once.

At a certain level, Veley’s project has been an effort to set world records and distinguish himself as a sort of extreme traveler, a far-ranging geographical trophy hunter. In 2003, at age 37, he became the youngest person to visit all 317 countries and provinces recognized by the Travelers’ Century Club, an organization of globe-trotters who’ve visited at least 100 countries or territories. A year later he approached the Guinness World Records to certify his status as the world’s most traveled person, only to discover that the Guinness authorities had discontinued the category, because, he said, they could no longer agree on an objective standard. “It was like finishing a marathon to discover that all the officials had gone home,” he told me. “It was very frustrating.” Unable to find an organization to verify his “most traveled” claim, Veley created his own arbitrating organization in 2005, a community-driven Web site called Mosttraveledpeople.com that has more than 4,800 members. Veley hopes to make the site the final word on the topic.

Our journey into East Africa, however, was not making Veley any more traveled than he was before — at least not by the standards of Mosttraveledpeople.com, which makes no geographical distinction between the isolated tribal corner of Ethiopia we went to and the rest of the country. In fact, while Ethiopia was the sixth African country Veley visited in just over two weeks (he’d spent time in Rwanda and Burundi the week before I joined him), none of those countries constituted a new visit, according to his site’s ever expanding master list of “countries, territories, autonomous regions, enclaves, geographically separated island groups and major states and provinces.” Instead, this African journey was what he called a “go back,” a return to places he had seen only briefly before. Such is the paradox of racking up so many countries in such a short span of time: once you’ve collected enough geographical entities to declare yourself the most traveled person in the world, the next step is to go back and actually experience those places for more than a day.

Veley made no excuses for the expensive whirlwind nature of his initial visits. “One way to look at this is to think of the world as a giant buffet table,” he said. “I wanted to go everywhere, to taste everything first so I’d know where I wanted to come back to for seconds and thirds. I’m doing that now — coming back for more — and it’s really enjoyable.”

Attempting to sample every dish from any buffet table might seem compulsive, but other Mosttraveledpeople.com members I talked to noted that this was not unusual for people who collected countries. “There is a degree of compulsion to this kind of travel, but I think any collection is by its nature compulsive,” noted Alan Hogenauer, who at 568 regions visited is tied for No. 5 on the Mosttraveledpeople.com list. “I think it’s the dogged pursuit of something valuable as opposed to some irrational pursuit.” Lee Abbamonte, a 30-year-old New Yorker who is trying to break Veley’s record of becoming the youngest traveler to reach all the countries on the Travelers’ Century Club list, added that list-driven travel tended to create its own unique worldview. “I don’t consider myself obsessive or compulsive, but sometimes you have to be both when it comes to traveling,” he said. “Most people look at my itineraries and think I’m nuts, but for me that’s the only way to go.”

Since Veley has a wife and three children under the age of 6 back in San Francisco, he covers a lot of ground fast and rarely lingers in places. “Maybe if I was single I could take my time,” he said. “But with a family back home, I’m always on the clock.” Indeed, Veley on the road didn’t resemble Livingstone or Magellan so much as a multitasking American office manager. At one point, when he and I visited the headwaters of the Nile near Jinja, Uganda, he called home on his iPhone to discover that his oldest daughter had just won a ribbon for learning how to swim.

In a way, Veley’s continuing quest to visit each corner of the world is intriguing not because it represents something extraordinary, but because it symbolizes an increasingly quaint notion: a world that might be somehow added up into something knowable, quantifiable and coherent. Once Veley had finished hobnobbing with the Mursi tribesman in this dim little Ethiopian inn, he told me about his plans to return to Iran and Tunisia and his desire to one day sell Mosttraveledpeople.com to a neutral administrator. “It’s not just about the list,” he said. “The more places I go, the richer my regional understanding and the more data points I can bring to bear on relating to people in that next new place. I find a great thrill in imagining a trip in the abstract, then turning it into reality.”

The spreadsheet mentality of Veley’s mission is seductive, but it also struck me as ironic. In an era when ease of transportation and ubiquity of information makes mere arrival at a place less of an accomplishment than it was a generation ago, experiencing one place in depth would seem to be as much a challenge as chasing an ambitious, list-driven itinerary.

After our time together, Veley was scheduled to make his way north to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he would embark on 24 hours of connecting flights to the central Pacific. There, he planned to spend three weeks on a boat traveling 2,500 miles from Samoa to Tuvalu, hitting a number of islands along the way, including three new outposts (Swains Island, the Phoenix Islands and Baker and Howland Islands) that would bring him a little bit closer to completing his master list.

“The list is just a tool that helps me set priorities and stay motivated to see new places,” he said. “It’s not about declaring yourself the winner and being done. For me, there is no done.”

 

Originally published by the NY Times, November 16, 2008

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Category: Adventure Travel

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

February 15, 2015

Getting my Open Water in Thailand

Learning to dive was in the front of my mind when I started planning my trip to southeast Asia. Friends had learned in Thailand and I had heard that it was one of the cheapest places to get certified. After some research, we headed towards Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. I was keen to get my Open Water certification, but my husband was not. He agreed to stay on shore and I signed up for the three day course.

dive-photo-7

My brain was stretched and challenged as I did my homework each night; I enjoyed learning new terms and pondering the science involved in taking a human body deep underwater. I was back in school and excited to learn about decompression sickness and the volume of the air in my lungs under pressure. Over those three days, I learned the skills I needed to stay alive and also realized a recurring dream I have of being able to breathe underwater. I made new friends and relied on them for my safety. Diving began to feel natural and, at the end of my course, I got my very own photo ID to prove that I was now a licensed diver. While having lunch with my group on that last day, I pondered where this new skill was going to take me.

dive-photo-9

Having my OW was nice, but what about deeper dives like wrecks? I wouldn’t be able to dive past 18 meters and having a limitation on the kinds of dives I could do made me consider sticking around. Later that day, on an impulse, I signed up for my advanced course to spend two more days learning a few more skills and practice my buoyancy control and breathing. I dived a sunken wreck and did a night dive where I saw herds of porcupine fish and phosphorescence. In a classroom, I wasn’t enthralled by the science of volume and pressure, but as I watched a raw egg cracked open at 30 meters depth, I marveled at the real world demonstration: holding its shape, floating weightlessly as if in space. After leaving Koh Tao, I started doing fun dives near the Koh Phi Phi islands and had a chance to see some amazing sea life. I practiced using my GoPro on dives and bought a red filter for taking photos and video at depth to bring back some of the red that gets lost the further down you go. There’s still a lot of work to do and perhaps some new gear to acquire, but the opportunity to expand my photography to include underwater shots is also exciting.

dive-photo-11

Diving is a skill that lets me explore an entirely new part of a country and see things I wouldn’t have been able to see before. I can wander the grounds of the ancient city of Sukhothai one week, and the next be face to face with a lionfish in the Andaman Sea. Who knows where this endeavor will take me?

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia

October 26, 2014

Two Places to Rock to in Malaysia

Travelling might be all about discovery and abandoning our comfort zones. But at times, when your comfort zone is a club with some loud music, well, it’s nice to know where to find it when you are abroad.

As a resident of Malaysia, I feel it is time to give justice to my acquired home talking about two places that host a plethora of local and international touring bands. They are both prominent Malaysian homes for the loudest kinds of music, and as such might not be ideal for everybody. But again, if it’s about going in and out of “comfort zones”, it might as well be great to get out of yours and discover some Malaysian loudness, after all.

 

soundmaker

Soundmaker – Penang

Literally hidden at the second floor of a tattered building along Pengkalan Weld, about half a mile down the road from the main Jetty and facing the entrance of the Lee Jetty, this is the place to rock in Northern Malaysia. Check their show listings before you go because although they have a bar, it is not open every day. It’s a real, do it yourself underground venue, where heavy metal, punk, death metal, alternative rock and heavy derivates spray the walls with sweat. The show room is decently sized and the PA quite OK for an underground enterprise: consider that in Malaysia, a country who forced a ban on black metal music in 2001, and whose Islamic party has given a hard time even to Elton John because he is openly gay, you cannot really get much better than this. Soundmaker is the place to rock away your early nights, as shows usually end by 12 am.
Soundmaker is also a recording studio and jam room, and recently opened a small hostel room. The novelty is, it welcomes travelling bands and musicians to stay and record their music at a fraction of western prices.

rumahapi

Rumah ApiKuala Lumpur
In a place called the “fire house”, you may only expect amplifiers to burst out sparks of white heat, and set your own eardrums on fire. If you know what a real punk house is, and I mean an independent space where DIY is the law, the ceiling is about to cave in, and sitting on torn car backseats slung on the floor a common practice, well,  welcome to Rumah Api then. The only place in Kuala Lumpur that dares to object the city’s rampant, over-constructed technological wealth and high-class-loving youth. A stone throw away from the Ampang LRT station in the northeastern part of the city, Rumah Api stands to KL as the CBGB’s stood to early New York punk. Catch a dose of local and international punk, hardcore, crust, thrash and grindcore bands sweating – literally, as the only wall fan provided resembles a World War II airplane’s engine – on the low stage, and mingle with the most alternative youth in the capital. This place has plenty of character, but you gotta have some too to enjoy it. Otherwise, this could come as kind of a shock.

MARCO FERRARESE is a metalpunk guitarist who travelled extensively and lived in Italy, the United States, China, Australia and Malaysia. Since 2009 he’s been based in Southeast Asia as a writer, hardcore punk musician and researcher. He travelled from Mongolia to Australia in 2009, and hitchhiked from Singapore to Milano through Silk Road routes and the Middle East in 2012. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com. Marco’s first Asian pulp novel Nazi Goreng  was published in November 2013 on Monsoon Books. Follow him @monkeyrockworld

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, Destinations, On The Road

September 25, 2014

Reaching the bottom of the Grand Canyon

As magical as the Grand Canyon is from the top, peering down into red and purple shades of rock so far down your eyes lose an ability to judge the distance, it is yet more magical from the very bottom peering up. Perhaps because of the feeling of accomplishment that comes from a journey down, and perhaps from a feeling of quiet, peaceful seclusion from the modern world.

South Rim GC

Whatever the reason, it’s well worth a trek down just to spend the night at the bottom in either Phantom Ranch or nearby Bright Angel Campground. It may not feel that way as you wade through the tedious reservation process for Phantom Ranch, but that is not the logistical detail I’ll be going over in this post.

In this post, I’d like to give a little bit of insight for potential hikers trying to decide which trail to take, as there are 3 major trails leading down to the bottom, North Kaibob, South Kaibob, and Bright Angel Trail. Having hiked the entirety of each of these trails at some point, I’d love to give a hiker’s perspective.

 Bright Angel Trail 

Distance to Phantom Ranch: 9.9 miles

Access points: Phantom Ranch and Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim

Bright Angel Trail is probably the easiest trail to recommend because of its frequent water stops and moderate distance. Hikers who are not interested in going all the way down to the bottom of the canyon can hike down to the Indian Gardens region 4.9 miles down instead.

But what this trail is especially good for is the journey back up, regardless of which trail you’ve taken down. While it’s not the shortest of the trails we’ll talk about, it is the shortest one with water stops. Both of these details are extremely important for an upward journey. Hiking up the canyon can take significantly longer than hiking down and can be far more fatiguing.

The atmosphere of this trail is interesting as well. It will lead you through a quintessential red-rock desert type of environment until you reach the lush area of the Indian Gardens. After this point, you descent towards the river and complete the last part of your journey walking alongside it.

 

South Kaibob Trail

Distance to Bright Angel Campground: 7.1 miles

Access points: Bright Angel Campground and Yaki Point along the South Rim.

I chose this for an ascending hike one year and it was the most difficult Grand Canyon hike I’ve done. It is steep, has no water stops, and leads you through a dry, winding cliffside that offers little relief from the sun at times. Hikers who choose this route should be very intentional and realistic about the supplies they pack with them. It is indeed a shorter hike, as the shortest of the trails we’ll mention today, but the most strenuous one, so take this into account.

I recommend this trail mostly for descending. Particularly if a person is concerned about making it to the bottom in time for a scheduled dinner. (All meals at phantom ranch must be reserved and fall into a strict schedule). And while it’s not impossible to use this trail for ascending, it’s not to be taken lightly.

 

North Kaibob Trail

Distance to Phantom Ranch: 14 miles

Access points: Phantom Ranch and the North Rim Trailhead.

I chose this one to discuss last because it is my favorite, and I’d like to share a piece I wrote about it after hiking it last month.

But first, the logistical details: This trail is the longest of those mentioned today. Significantly so. And yet, it is not a strenuous 14 miles comparatively. It is not as steep, and the environment transitions frequently. There are plenty of water stops and as long as you are providing a realistic amount of time for the hike (anywhere from 5 – 9 hours), this is a wonderful choice for a descending hike. Anyone considering this hike for the ascending trip should remember that ascending hikes take significantly longer than descending.

This is not a very popular trail, as the only trail leading up to the North Rim, but I’d like to reference the thoughts I made in a post last month to advocate for this trail as a favorite.

 

“The North Rim is quiet.  If you stand and listen for a moment you don’t hear the chatter of a high traffic tourist destination as you would on the South Rim.  Instead you hear the wind through the pines.  In fact, the beginning of your trek does not feel like quintessential Canyon red rock dust and desert.  Instead you’re in a gentle pine forest.  In fact the first stretch of the North Kaibab Trail hike begins in this setting until the vegetation shrinks back and you can see the height of the cliff you’re standing on.  The view opens up and you make your way down along cliffs into the floor of a side canyon.  And then the landscape changes again.  Every few miles, in fact, the landscape of the North Kaibab seems to change into something new as the canyon walls rise around you, layering back until the rim disappears behind the cliffs nearest your path.

These early miles of the trail find you descending through an ancient solidified display of the earth’s history- a core sample of the layers of earth in front of your very eyes till you reach the most ancient layers of subtly glittering Vishnu Shist, so ancient it lacks any traces of organic, biological matter.  This amazing artifact of geological history lines the later miles of the trail like gravel, kicked along humbly by the feet of hikers.

This is also where you reach a little canyon creek that slips like melted glass through desert rock and brings green life wherever it goes.  Most of the remaining 7.2 miles of the North Kaibab follow this creek. As I looked at it, I wondered at how different it seemed from the forest creeks I grew up with in Ohio, clouded with decaying plant life and stirring up mud.  This water, cupped by canyon rock seemed more pure and more lively.  And the plants that line the banks are so foreign to someone who grew up far from the desert.  Prickly, spiny, spindly little plants keeping themselves as inward as possible, not spilling out clumsily into one another like the leaves and grasses of the east.  Orderly, linear plants.

The creekside portion of this trail levels out significantly and you find yourself anticipating each bend will reveal the little cabins of Phantom Ranch.

It’s always further than you think.  But I don’t mind in that environment.  Even tired and hungry, I’m happy to be there.”

North Kaibob

North Rim GC

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Category: Adventure Travel, Destinations, North America

July 27, 2014

Enlightening Self-inflicted Ruin Travel

JakartaPunkMarcoFerrarese

The air is unbreathable, hot, and terribly humid. The air conditioner perched at the top of the wall at my right is just an empty plastic shell that reminds me that there could be some extra comfort, if someone had cared to replace the wiring. Instead, rivulets of sweat pour down my forehead and temples, sliding down my spine and flowing over the small of my back, soaking into the elastic of my underwear. I had to take my shirt off to endure this first Indonesian live test.

               “Cut the set short, I can’t breathe…” Sam screams from behind the drums, his man-boobs twitch, lucid with sweat.

               “Why man? They are loving it!” I answer screaming on top of amplifier white noise between two songs.

               “I said cut it fucker, I can’t fucking breathe! I am feeling sick! There’s no air!”

OK then, roger.

This is the best travel I have done recently, hands down.

We are at the back of Khansa Studio’s rehearsal room in Pamulang, somewhere in the sprawling suburbs of Jakarta, nestled between a row of halfstacks and a small melee of young Indonesian hardcore punk believers. They are probably twenty, but the room’s so cramped it feels like they are hundreds, all blowing hot air in our faces. One has just finished walking up the wall to my right, supported by a bunch of other lunatics pushing him at the small of his back. From my perspective, I believe for a moment that the room is rolling sideways, and this guy’s trying to run with it. When Sam hits the last of four strokes with his sticks, we launch into the last song of the night, and I wonder if this still makes sense. Looking at how the kids spin and jump and crawl on top of each other, forcing me to step back against the amps, I am tempted to say “yes”. But reflecting on the fact that I am sweating as if I were playing guitar inside of a Finnish sauna, our drummer is having a respiratory crisis, and tonight – and for the rest of this tour – we will never get paid a single rupiah, my European heritage materializes with a hammer to smash the bubble of underground dedication right before my eyes. Why are you doing this, Marco?

I don’t know. Probably because these days I only conceive traveling as a concoction of brutal anthropology, self-inflicted ruin and mind-numbing exploration of the weirdest fringes available in the world. But it does indeed make me feel good, for I know that I’m probably not the only one, but certainly one of the few, to have had this vision and this cross. Suddenly all of the problematic divides among travelers and tourists disappear, because they are not important anymore. I’m only trying to make my time on Earth meaningful to my own self, I guess. Is there anything wrong with it?

MARCO FERRARESE is a metalpunk guitarist who travelled extensively and lived in Italy, the United States, China, Australia and Malaysia. Since 2009 he’s been based in Southeast Asia as a writer, hardcore punk musician and researcher. He travelled from Mongolia to Australia in 2009, and hitchhiked from Singapore to Milano through Silk Road routes and the Middle East in 2012. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com. Marco’s first Asian pulp novel Nazi Goreng  was published in November 2013 on Monsoon Books. Follow him @monkeyrockworld

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, On The Road

July 11, 2014

Lesson from Siberia: making it till morning

Camping in Siberia

(Camping in Siberia)

Earlier this year, I rode a Ural motorcycle and sidecar through Siberia, up 1800km of ice roads and ending in the Arctic Circle. It was one hell of a journey which taught me how to survive in extreme sub-zero temperatures. More importantly, it expanded my limits and showed me what I was capable of.

One of the most important lessons happened on the second night of the trip – our first attempt camping out. Now, I don’t know about you, but I had never camped in extreme cold before. Sure – I had tested out my equipment on a -20C night in South Dakota, but there is a world of difference once you get below -30C. That night was mild, compared to the rest of the trip, but it still hit -32C.

So – we setup camp and tried to building a fire. We could make a lot of smoke, but couldn’t get a strong fire blazing. Fortunately, with the help of a good MSR camp stove, we were able to boil enough water to fill our bellies with pelmeni. Around 9pm we called it a night. I was riding solo, so I had a tent to myself. Quickly I stripped down to base layers and stuffed the upper layers into my sleeping bag to keep them from freezing. After the long day, I fell asleep quickly.

Waking up inside the tent

(Waking up inside the tent)

Around midnight, I woke up and realized that I couldn’t feel my toes. Now, one of my biggest fears was getting frostbite and loosing a few digits. I could feel the panic rising; but, after a few slow breaths, I was able to get it under control. I tried flexing my toes, but they wouldn’t move. I took a moment to think about my options – get up and try to get my blood flowing? Aside from my feet, I was warm enough in the sleeping bag. I didn’t know how much body heat I’d lose by getting out. I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to stand on my numb feet. Too many unknowns, so I decided to stay where I was and move my legs to get blood flowing. After a few minutes of that, my core was getting warmer, but my toes were still numb. Time for a different tack. I had just enough room in my sleeping bag to bring one foot at a time up within reach. I used my hands to manually flex my toes and warmed them up by contact. After a few minutes, I could feel them again and was able to move them just a bit. I switched feet and repeated.

Each time I would put a foot down to work on the other one, it would go numb again. I just couldn’t seem to keep them going without working them with my hands. I kept at it. After I was sure eons had passed, I checked the time, only to be disappointed that only a few minutes had gone by. I began to think things through – I had several hours to go until the sun would come out and temperatures would begin to rise. Would I be able to make it until morning? Did I have another choice?

So that eternally long night, I kept at it – switching feet every few minutes and wishing I could fast forward to morning. I couldn’t control time, though, all I had control over was my will to endure. I began to relax and just focused on the task at hand.  Eventually, the sun began to rise. As soon as the inside of the tent began to glow, I breathed a sigh of relief and knew that I would be okay.

The moment I knew I'd be okay

(The moment I knew I’d be okay)

I’ve been taught that lesson before – but sometimes a reminder is necessary. Relax, breath and just focus on what is right in front of you. Keep at it long enough and you’ll eventually make it through to the other side.

Later on during the trip, I camped out in harsher temperatures (-43C) but had a much easier time. Partially I’d say it was due to my body acclimating the the environment and also because I learned a couple tricks — like filling a water bottle with boiling water and putting it at the bottom of your sleeping bag to warm it up. That definitely prolongs your comfort and allows you to get a bit of sleep – but trust me, either way, the mornings are still painful.

It’s funny how that these moments turn into a fond memory. Time and distance do strange things.

Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.

 

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, On The Road, Vagabonding Advice

June 17, 2014

Visiting Sulawesi Indonesia: Guide recommendation for Dodo Mursalim

Dodo Mursalim

We spent a couple of weeks researching Sulawesi and found very little information for independent travel on the island. Then, I lucked into Dodo Mursalim’s contact details on a TripAdvisor forum.

Dodo turned out to be a gold mine of information and he bent over backwards to help us do Sulawesi our way.

He rented us his little house behind the mosque for a fraction of what the cheapest hotels in Makassar could offer, and it has a kitchen and washing machine! He arranged an 8 seater van rental for us for the price of a much smaller car through any of the agencies we’d contacted on the island (car rental on Sulawesi can be expensive!) and he was willing to let us self drive, which is not commonly done on this island, with terrible roads and questionable signage. He taxied us all over Makassar for three days out of the goodness of his heart, helped arrange our three days on Samalona island, and sent us off on our road trip armed with his recommendations for hotels in various towns and a list of phone numbers of contacts in different places.
Dodo has an almost uncanny network of friends and cohorts on Sulawesi.
Four separate times during our very unplanned journey around the island, complete strangers would walk up, shake our hand and say, “Mr. Dodo says, “Hello!” He wanted me to make sure you knew that his recommendation for a certain hotel is full… or can I help you with a guide… or do you need help finding….” He was attentive to the highest degree, calling to check in with us, calling ahead of us to be sure that the arrangements we had made (independent of him) and just mentioned in passing, were properly sorted and awaiting us suitably. We have never encountered a tour guide of his calibre anywhere in the world, but certainly not in the developing world, where we expect things to go a little haywire.

Nothing goes haywire on Mr. Dodo’s watch; nothing.

He also does magic tricks, tells jokes, and speaks nearly perfect English. If you’re inclined to an adventure on Sulawesi, have Mr. Dodo be your man on the ground in Makassar. He can arrange any journey you want, guided, or solo, and he’ll take care of you like you’ve never been taken care of before.

Contact info for Dodo Mursalim
donow77(AT)hotmail(DOT)com

https://www.facebook.com/dodo.mursalim

http://dodopenman.blogspot.com (visit this page and you’ll see our picture and entry in his guestbook!)

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, Destinations, Hospitality

May 8, 2014

Does travel ever scare you? 5 thoughts on finding security as a nomad.

About a week and a half ago my train pulled up to the platform in Tundla, India where a sea of Indian military men were waiting for it. There was a rush of commotion as we all pushed towards the doors- a commotion which only grew when we discovered all the doors were locked. The train sat there with its locked doors for 5 minutes while the military men grew angrier and angrier, beginning to bang on the doors with their fists, sticks, muskets, anything. I kept thinking that surely someone would open the door. We’d paid for tickets after all. We’d reserved cots for the overnight train.

Then, the train started to pull away without us. Hardly thinking, we rushed through the crowds to the one door that someone had managed to open a few yards away and with our heavy bags in hand, we jumped onto the moving train. The rush of frantic soldiers crowding behind us carried us like the current of the river onto the train.

I laid in my cot and felt what would have been homesickness if I had a home.

So my question is this: what do you do when this whole “travel thing” scares you, exhausts you, bewilders you in a way that leaves you in need of something secure? What gives a nomad security?

In attempt to wrestle with this question, I’ve come up with a list of 5 things that help me cope with the moments that scare me.

1.) Writing.

Writing is not only a great way to process your thoughts, it’s also a way to record the feelings that may likely evolve over time. At one point in time I did this by keeping a travel journal, but my laptop has since replaced it. I have documents upon documents that I may never read again, but the act of formulating my thoughts was all I needed at the time. Not to mention, it helps me to see the experience as the story it will be tomorrow, when I’ll feel it less dramatically and see it more logically.

2.) These are the times I’ll make sure I can find a more secluded hotel with an environment I can really find relaxing.

tranqilhotel

Getting a hotel right in the center of activity can be wonderful when you’ve got the energy for it. But the exhausting moments leave me wanting space and quiet. As much of a clean slate as I can get. This has been especially true in a place like India. For this reason it’s a great idea to have some kind of rainy-day fund of either money or hotel points.

3.) Something from home, even if it’s McDonalds or Pizza Hut!

Never again will I judge a traveler for eating at McDonalds. (Is it sad that the McChicken is my home away from home sometimes?)

4.) Good Internet.

These days internet is the most basic necessity for contacting loved ones back home. The days of calling cards and pay phones are on the way out. This involves point number 2- finding a hotel you can relax in means, in my case, finding a hotel with good internet. Preferably this is in-room internet I can use while curled up in bed in my own space.

5.) A few days of nothing.

Sometimes the main attraction in any given destination is just not worth pushing your nerves past what they can handle. In our case, we found a quiet place in Katra where there happened to be a popular mountain temple. It was a very popular spot for Indian tourism… but we let it go. And I don’t regret that. I needed some time to clean the slate and regroup.

 

Conclusion

These are some things that helped me get back on my feet and face the vibrant and intense world that is India again, despite the fear I felt at the thought of all the things that could have gone wrong in our impromptu train-hopping experience.

But I’m curious, what are the things that help you feel secure?

Nomads and vagabonds, and all long-term travelers are in a unique position of transient-ness with an almost ephemeral concept of home rather than a permanent one. This is at least the case for myself as well as a few other travelers I know. So we’re faced with an interesting challenge when we need the kind of comfort a different person may find in their stationary routines and their permanent homes. So I’d like to learn from the creative ways other travelers have found comfort in moments of fear.

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Category: Adventure Travel, Travel Health, Travel Safety

April 19, 2014

Up Cambodia without a phrase book

landmine

Image credit

I am 15 minutes into my hike down the muddy little stream when a tree carving captures my attention. Sticky with sap and arcing brown across the bark, it seems to have been made recently.

I drop to my haunches and run my fingers over the design. After three days of living on the Indochinese outback without electricity or running water, I feel like my senses have been sharpened to the details of the landscape. I take a step back for perspective, and my mind suddenly goes blank.

The carving is a crude depiction of a skull and crossbones.

Were I anyplace else in the world, I might be able to write off the skull and crossbones as a morbid adolescent prank. Unfortunately, since I am in northwestern Cambodia, the ghoulish symbol can mean only one thing: land mines. Suddenly convinced that everything in my immediate vicinity is about to erupt into a fury of fire and shrapnel, I freeze.

My brain slowly starts to track again, but I can’t pinpoint a plan of action. If this were a tornado, I’d prone myself in a low-lying area. Were this an earthquake, I’d run to an open space away from trees and buildings. Were this a hurricane, I’d pack up my worldly possessions and drive to South Dakota. But since I am in a manmade disaster zone, all I can think to do is nothing.

My thoughts drift to a random quote from a United Nations official a few years back, who was expressing his frustration in trying to clear the Cambodian countryside of hundreds of thousands of unmarked and unmapped mines. “Cambodia’s mines will be cleared,” he’d quipped fatalistically, “by people walking on them.”

As gingerly as possible, I lower myself to the ground, resolved to sit here until I can formulate a course of action that won’t result in blowing myself up. (more…)

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, Destinations, Rolf Potts
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