March 26, 2015

Lessons learned on the road vs. lessons learned in school

What happens when the education you receive on the road starts to make you question the lessons you learned before you left?

History is one of those subjects that never fails to look a whole lot different once I’m in a different country. Despite the tragedies that occurred in the region during my lifetime, I don’t remember learning much about Central America. I knew the region officially spoke Spanish. I knew that much of our fruit was shipped in from various countries in the area. I heard whispers about those fruit companies but I was too nervous to admit ignorance so, I never really understood what the whispers meant. In my textbook, there was a paragraph about Reagan’s  “failed policies” in the region. I memorized the words, regurgitated them on tests and never really understood what was behind the big hulking bush everyone seemed to be beating around. I am embarrassed to say that I never even really put two and two together as a kid to realize that the ancient Mayan civilization that conjured up mysteries in my head were from Central America.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. Was I?

As an adult, I learned more about American policy in Central America and was confused as to why I had never learned about it in school. I formed conspiracy theories on a government hiding facts from the masses to hide their awful mistakes and stay in power. When I finally touched Central American soil, I realized that the reality of why I had never learned about things like the genocide in Guatemala and the Contras in Nicaragua was far more devastating. A very quick exploration into the reality of what was left behind in these areas makes it clear that the people affected were simply not considered people. They were enemies; the other; a symbol of a greater monster the US thought it was fighting. The people who lost limbs, dignity, and lives were nothing more than obstacles to be removed in the pursuit of certain international goals. The truth stung as it became clear. It made me question a lot about the “education” I received. You can’t put that in a 9th grade history book.

Similarly, I was thrown completely off guard when I visited Kolkata for the first time and found that Mother Theresa was not as revered in the region as she was claimed to be. Christian or not, every kid in the US knows who Mother Theresa was and knows that everything she did was saintly. Right? Apparently, not so much. Refusing to give medicines or medical care to the poor and ill, rough treatment of wards, babies whose wrists were tied to their sides, physical punishment for infants in her care, and a complete separation of any child with a known disability were not my idea of what this “saint on earth” had been doing. I currently hold a more balanced, if complex, understanding of Mother Theresa, the human, and her work. At the time, however, I found it unsettling and frustrating that no one wanted to talk about the complexities of being a human being who is seen as a walking icon of perfection, help, and love. It seems humans have a hard time worshiping their heroes if they show signs of being human. That  is a conversation I could have really learned something from as a young person.

Yes, history has a way of looking a little less absolute once you are standing on different soil, surrounded by different vantage points. Similarly, science, medicine, human rights, and art are all areas of study where I have found myself thrown off kilter once I left the confines of the US borders.

At some point, I started wondering- does everyone question their schooling, just a little, when they travel to new countries? Does everyone see gaps, inconsistancies, or lies in the textbooks they remember?

It seems the answer is, yes.

I have met travelers who were embarrassed to admit that they truly thought Indians worshipped cows in the street before the went to India themselves; travelers who thought antibiotics were where it was at for every medical professional in the world before discovering ancient holistic practices on their journeys; travelers who couldn’t believe the difference in opinions over how to speak English “correctly”; travelers angry at language teachers who had promised them they were fluent based on textbook quizzes and state exams drafted by non-native speakers; travelers who cried when they visited memorials to genocide victims they never knew about. It seems that everyone I have met along the way has had at least one moment of questioning the education they received before they left their home countries.

And how could they not? Every educational system must ultimately pick and choose what to share with students. Even if, in an ideal world, the very human hand that guides the education of the masses had every desire to share as much information as possible with students, choices would still need to be made. The amount of knowledge available to any human being on earth today is staggering. One only need consider the constant flow of information that is available, literally at our fingertips, to become aware of just how much one person could take in in a lifetime. At some point, a conflict, hero, or medical option will get left out of the textbooks.

And this is precisely why travel is so incredibly important.

Those moments of confusion over the lessons learned before, the ones that no longer jive with your current world experience, are incredibly valuable. More valuable than most people realize. Understanding that educational systems are limited, that making one educational choice means not making another, that the facts we learn are filtered long before they get to us, is the first step to understanding what an education truly is. That understanding opens the door wide to an entire world of learning and, hopefully, keeps us aware that education is never really “complete”.

Questioning those lessons that came before is usually a struggle. There is confusion, then wonder, then possibly anger or frustration, and then once again… wonder. Wonder that the world is actually that complex, that ‘bad guys” and “good guys” don’t exist simplistically, that between the black and white pages of a textbook is whole lot of gray, that there really is that much to learn.

In my experience, travel is the catalyst for an insatiable thirst to know. That knowing takes time but, thankfully, so does travel.

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Category: Ethical Travel, Ethics, Youth 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 26, 2015

Taking kids out of school to travel

There has been a debate raging within the education community recently. It seems many educators, policy makers, and even some parents feel that taking children out of school to travel is a bad idea. Some have even gone so far as to say traveling with children during school time should be banned and parents who ignore the ban should face consequences. Did you know that many states in the United States actually deem it “illegal”?

After hearing so much about this I had three main questions bouncing around in my head.

1. When the heck did spending time with your kid become “illegal”? How did I miss that?

2. Why have we stop recognizing learning that happens freely, without coercion, and outside of a structured classroom?

3. Shouldn’t we be taking a closer look at a system that is so rigid that a few days away makes it “impossible” to catch up and spending less time vilifying travel?

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While I certainly recognize the benefits of education, I fail to see how anyone could possibly argue that any type of travel is detrimental to a child’s learning experience. Arguments about what is “educational” or not absolutely escape me since I see learning happening all around me, all the time. School is but one place where learning takes place. Should we really be teaching our children that if they are not in school then they can’t possibly be learning? Don’t we think that might backfire at some point down the line?

It is particularly baffling that there seems to be a need to label an undesirable action by a parent as “illegal”. Especially an acton that is meant to enhance a child’s family connection and exposure to the world. It makes me wonder, what is gained? I recognize that most teachers feel pressure to “catch a child up” once he or she returns from being away but is that challenge really worth taking away a parent’s ability to make decisions for their family by threatening them with legal action? It seems obvious that the real issue is a school system that is so rigid that a child can’t miss any time and still be confident in their learning experience. The pressure teachers feel to catch a kid up- whether they are traveling or sick- is a product of that rigid system, a system that judges a teacher’s worth by their student’s ability to perform. That would stress me out too! I just wonder why we aren’t worrying about that web of disfunction instead of using energy to punish parents for taking their kids out into the world. After all, whose kids are they?

Before you say it, I know what you might be thinking. “Not every travel experience is educational.” But actually, they are. Every single one. How can I be so sure? Because getting out of your comfort zone, trying something new, watching those close to you problem solve, spending time doing “nothing” and seeing where “nothing” takes you, learning to fit your needs into one bag, and having to make compromises in unfamiliar territory is never, ever anything but educational. While plenty of book reading and scientific exploration happens on many family trips, more important than that is the self exploration and the deepening of family connections. That time is never a waste and, I would argue, it’s far, far more important than any test score they may receive when they get back.

I don’t care if you are headed to the Great Pyramids of Giza or a local beach, travel is beneficial. Varied experiences is what makes a life worth living. Stealing that from our kids by putting their parent’s backs up against a wall is wrong, plain and simple. While school might offer great benefits for many children, it does not offer the only benefits and it does not fulfill the needs of every child. Do we really want a society of non-travelers? Do we want our future leaders to be good rule followers who never operate outside of the pre-defined box or do we want adventurers who take risks, enjoy investigating new places and ideas, and know when to challenge the status quo?

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Category: Youth Travel

February 12, 2015

Ways travel enhances education

Families traveling the world with their children get asked a whole lot of questions. Topping the list are questions about their children’s education. It seems everyone wants to know what these traveling kids are learning, how, and with whom. And these questions don’t really stop as the kids get older. Ask any young adult taking a gap year abroad and they will inevitably tell you that one of the biggest fears expressed by those closest to them was a fear that they would “miss out” on a year of college or other form of higher education.

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However, travel in itself is one of the best forms of “higher education”. Not only are practical life skills put into practice everyday on the road, but experiences had while traveling generally serve to enhance any education. Some of the deepest thoughts, biggest questions, and most divergent problem solving happens while journeying.

So, how exactly can travel be it’s own (or enhance) education?

Communication Skills- Learning a new language is the most obvious way this skill is developed. There is no down side to knowing a second language- even just the basics- in an increasingly global society. But consider all the other ways you need to communicate when traveling. Language barriers and cultural norms are just two major hurdles to navigate when communicating abroad. You need to have a pretty good grasp on body language in order to communicate effectively and without offense in a culture that isn’t your own. Hand gestures and charades become refined skills for use in challenging situations. Clarity and intentionality become increasingly important when communicating across language barriers. Knowing how to communicate effectively across language and cultural barriers is a serious benefit for anyone hoping to function in our current world.

Cultural Awareness- Trust me, there is a huge difference between being lectured on cultural sensitivity and developing an awareness of cultural norms through first hand experience. There is nothing quite like being the odd man out in a foreign culture to create a space within yourself to feel empathy for people who are often overlooked or treated poorly. Likewise, navigating the ins and outs of a foreign culture in person is far more informative than reading about it in a book. Being forced to adjust to unfamiliar cultural norms can be challenging but it also encourages the traveler to become increasingly aware of social cues, norms, and expectations. This all happens while making personal connections with the people you are learning from and about, making the development of awareness far more likely to be internalized. It’s an incredible synchronicity that offers lessons in navigating cultural differences more confidently.

Adaptability – Traveling, especially long term, offers no shortage of opportunities to adapt. From trains that don’t come to baggage that never arrives, when you have no “extra” time, space, or things- you adapt. Just getting out into the world, away from the creature comforts you have come to know and love, is a lesson in adaptability. What is the hottest temperature you can stand without air conditioning? What time can you pull yourself out of bed to catch that bus? What is the least amount of sleep you can run on? How many times can you eat the same dish before you scream? How an you communicate your needs to this host family without offending? The ability to operate outside of your comfort zone is something that most educators would say is a benefit to any student.

Self- Reflection- No education is complete without the ability to self-reflect. Why? Well, if you aren’t able to apply what you have learned to your own life, philosophies, and choices, have you really internalized the lesson? Sitting in a classroom, discussing oppression is one thing. Having the ability to reflect on your own words and actions and how they might be adding to the systemic oppression of certain people is a whole other ball of wax. Self-reflection is what separates the good students from the truly educated. In order to perfect the art of self-reflection, you need time and space. Travel provides plenty of that. Not only that, but sometimes getting outside of your home county provides just enough distance to contemplate your role in the world thus far and what it might look like moving forward.

Perspective- Sometimes, in order to gain perspective on your needs, goals, and actions, you need to get some distance. Even a seven year old, sitting on the beach in El Salvador, is aware enough to notice stark contrasts between how the world functions in a developing nation and a developed one. Learning about the developing world from a book is nice but actually seeing it brings it to life. Perspective often creates space for a student to “connect the dots” so that history and economic lessons are no longer just words on a page.

Awareness- It could be argued that this is the key ingredient missing from a lot of standard educations. Travel makes it impossible not to recognize that other people matter. It breaks down the barrier between “us” and “them”, even just little. As mentioned above, travel also creates space for intense self-reflection, which helps creates a deeper awareness of self. Awareness of your own needs and the need of others is something that isn’t focused on in the fact and results based education most students receive today. But an enhanced awareness of others and of yourself can lead to a more engaged student, one who understands the real-life ramifications of her lessons learned.

Problem Solving- This one almost goes without saying. Who in the world has ever traveled and not had to solve some problem that cropped up? Anyone? Hands on experience in problem solving is almost a given when you are traveling. Any kid who is on the road with their parents (or taking a gap year) is going to have an incredible abundance of opportunities for practicing and witnessing problem solving- sometimes extremely creative problem solving. The ability to think outside of the box is something that is often not practiced enough in the era of high stakes testing. Adding this skill to any students’ tool kit is going to go a long way.

Initiative- This one is something not everyone recognizes right away as a benefit of travel. What happens to a kid when they see their parents take the plunge into an alternative lifestyle, one that bucks the system and involves long- term travel? What happens to the teenager who, against all advice, takes an entire year (or more) to put college off and do exactly what their gut tells them is imperative to their development? These kids become go-getters. They learn that taking initiative is not a bad thing. They learn to go after what they want and blaze their own trails. As far as education goes, the ability to take initiative is incredibly beneficial! It means knowing when to ask questions, where to look for resources, and not waiting for others to tell you how to do it. Initiative creates life-long learners that continue to educate themselves long after the last school bell.

Time- Time isn’t a skill but it is a gift that all students should have access to. Time to explore, think, question, interact, and just be. In this world that places a high demand on the constant pursuit of “success”, time is often sorely lacking. As a result, lots of students have forgotten how to just be without doing work (or actively trying to avoid it, as the case may be). Stepping outside of the norm and purposely carving time for all of those things leads to a richer, fuller experience of life. That richer, fuller experience in turn leads to more content people who actually enjoy learning and truly internalize the lessons that come their way. Every teacher looks for a student who is eager to learn. Give a student the gift of time and even some of the most reluctant learners will start to resemble that ideal student.

While every traveling family or student will find their own ways of addressing education on the road, there is no need to be worried about anyone “missing out” on education while traveling. These are just some of the ways travel supports and enhances any type of education- there are many more! Can you add to the list?

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Category: Family Travel, Youth Travel

December 11, 2014

Teen travel- more than being “thankful for what you have”

Over the course of my traveling years, I have made a fair number of trips with children, teens, and young people. I am a huge advocate for the benefits of travel on developing minds and souls. Many people recognize the benefits of getting outside of the comfortable bubble of Western adolescence and digging into new cultures, new customs, and new values. It is certainly satisfying to greet a young person, fresh off the plane from their first international trip, and hear them say just how thankful they are for what they have. Likewise, it’s refreshing to have conversations with well-traveled teens who recognize that designer jeans and name brand electronics are not the things to hang one’s entire being on.

But it’s more than simply “being thankful for what you have”. Not all travel happens in the developing world, where materialistic needs are quickly pulled into question. Not every trip to the developing world yields such a simple realization as thankfulness for one’s material possessions back home.

It’s so much more than that.

Here are six wonderful things young people have told me they gained a new appreciation for after traveling.

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6. “I am so grateful that my parents trust me enough to let me do this.” There is something incredibly liberating for a young person when the adults in their life make the decision to let them fly on their own, even for a brief time. Anxiety is ever-present in parenting these days. There is an almost relentless push to make us believe that danger lurks around every corner. Culturally, we make a sincere effort at keeping our kids absolutely “safe”. But, fairly or not, when Mom drives you everywhere, Dad takes two years to let you go to the movie alone with your friends, and everyone keeps telling you about all the “creeps” out there, you begin to wonder if they really are trying to keep you safe or if they just don’t trust you to make good decisions. In my experience, the most “rebellious” teens are the ones who are wrestling with this question the most. They are also the kids who get joyfully teary eyed when describing how it makes them feel to know that their parents have enough trust in them to allow them the freedom to explore this vast world. Being grateful that the people who care about you most also trust you is a huge building block in the creation of a confident, capable adult.

5. “I am so glad you told me to bring less stuff!” Funny, but true. When you have to carry everything around on your back, suddenly there are a whole lot of creature comforts that seem very, very unnecessary. Hair straighteners, expensive clothes, jewelry, and extraneous electronics continually try to wiggle their way into the backpacks of my young travel companions. Those who choose to heed my advice and put thought into each item they pack not only have an easier time boarding planes, buses, and trains, they also realize that “needs” beyond the basics are subjective. They don’t just learn to be “thankful for what they have”, they learn that “stuff” does not define them and that they actually could live without much of it.

4. “I chose my college/thesis/after school activity/job/partner partially based on my trip.” This happens more often than you think. Shaking up the norm sometimes leads to clarity. A young person who previously felt unsure of what they might be headed toward might discover a new interest they may not have been exposed to at home. New languages, customs, and flavors might spark interest in the world around us. Like other big experiences, international exploration can have positive reach far beyond the dates of travel and many young people express gratitude for the experience when they realize the far reaching influence of their experiences.

3. “This is so cool! I have friends in _____ now!” In this age of technology, keeping in touch with friends made at the far corners of the earth is easier than ever. Teens and young adults are known for being quite interested in their friend groups. Broadening that friend circle to include people from different countries, races, religions, and cultures has an enormous benefit in the long run. It’s not a magic pill for reversing stereotypes or ending racism but being thankful for having met people from backgrounds different than yours is certainly a step in the right direction.

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2. “I can’t believe I am here. This is… amazing.” This planet is full of awe-inspiring adventures. Exploring the Taj Mahal at sunrise, navigating ChiChi market in Guatemala, snorkeling in the Red Sea, and sharing a chai at a road side stand in Kolkata are just some of the big and small exploits that can make a kid say, “wow”. Connecting with people across cultures is often eye opening for young people seeking their place in the world. Realizing just how many experiences there are to be had in a lifetime can be freeing for young people, many of whom were just beginning to wonder if all there was to life was the familiar daily grind of their hometown. Recognizing the infinite possibilities in this world is something to be truly thankful for.

1. “I am so incredibly glad to be home!” Believe it or not, I love this one. Learning to “be thankful for what you have” is one thing, realizing with utter clarity that you are thankful for the “home” you come back to is quite another. Most often when a young person says this, they are referring to home cooked meals, playing games with siblings, and laughing with friends. Sure, some of them missed their cell phones, but that’s generally not the focus of their gratitude. Sometimes distance really does make the heart grow fonder.

The writer Frank Herbert once said, “Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.” This could not be more true for young travelers. New experiences feed their souls and make it possible for them to awaken to a new view of their own lives and the world around them.
Have you ever traveled with young people? Did they express gratitude in surprising ways?

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Category: Family Travel, Youth Travel

April 1, 2014

Saskia: On Vagabonding & thanks to Rolf

Last weekend I was in NYC, meeting with Rolf, among other things. It was mentioned, in passing, to a girl I met over dinner one evening and she got so excited: “I’ve read his book!! It literally changed my life!” She gushed. Her enthusiasm for travel was palpable, and she agreed to let me film her talking a bit about what the book, Vagabonding, had meant to her… she also had something to say to Rolf, personally:

Would you like to contribute a video about what Vagabonding has meant to you? Contact me: jenn(AT)vagabonding.net

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Category: Female Travelers, Youth Travel

December 19, 2013

Christmas in France–delicious and traditional

One of the great things about Europe is its magnificent Christmases, when the frosty air is infused with a spirit of joy and celebration. From Scotland to Slovakia, a smorgasbord of culture is on display as each country celebrates with its own unique traditions.

This is the second in a series about the Continent’s various subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) yuletide differences that make each culture uniquely fun.

Some of France’s yuletide traditions have spilled over to the US, where we associate the word “Noel” with the holiday. In fact Noel is the French word for Christmas, stemming from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles, which means “the good news”.

Christmas in Alsace.

Christmas in Alsace.

Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less red-and green-light gaudy way than big US cities. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a realm of secular Scrooges: its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any scene in New York City. The shoppers bustle under the glow of the light-strewn Eiffel Tower, radiating light like a beacon against the cold night sky.

In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Soaring abbeys host more elaborate performances of ancient music under their arches. The smell of burning wood emanates from the fireplaces and stoves of old farmhouses in the chiller Normandy and Brittany regions, while the southern areas of the country enjoy the more moderate temperatures afforded by their proximity to the Mediterranean. Epic manger scenes crowd around the courtyards in front of the great cathedrals, uncomfortably close to the commerce-heavy outdoor markets where locals score the freshest chestnuts and tastiest red wine while shivering carolers entertain with the old favorites.

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In this strongly Catholic country, many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.

And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy).

Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners. While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.

Small towns do Christmas right.

Small towns do Christmas right.

After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.

From Bayeux to Arles, France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than the act of gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.

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Category: Europe, Family Travel, Food and Drink, On The Road, Solo Travel, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Life, Youth Travel

December 6, 2012

Women Travellers and India

Picture credit: Flickr/mckaysavage

It may be because I have just watched “Life of Pi”, or because once you go to India, if you loved it, you can hardly get it out of your mind. Anyhow, this week I would like to bring this article to your attention. It is an interesting series of suggestions for women travellers to India.

The author “found India both tough and rewarding in the same breath. And from time to time the experience can seem even more perplexing for girls (we are talking about a country where the metro offers a separate carriage for women), but India also has the potential to offer its female visitors even richer rewards (imprinted with henna and swathed in sari silks it’s impossible not to feel like a princess)”. Fantastic. I think the author has pointed out some interesting essential topics.

In the past 24 months, I have spent 7 in India, and I have grown a particular fondness for its thunderous character. I met fantastic people there, and I have also made some strange encounters. Based on my experience, it was interesting to read about the perceptions of a woman travelling around India, as it is undeniably true: sex makes a big difference in this country.

I have been lucky enough to be the guest of a big number of Indian families of all social strata: the rich, the poor, the excessively posh and the dirt poor. One time, I did not stay with a friend because the double bed provided at his house with no roof already had to accommodate six other family members. But apart for this case, one thing was clear in my personal picture: women and men in Indian society are very different classes of people. A man is advanced by a patriarchal society, and a woman is generally employed as a “slave in the house”, regardless of her social status. The only difference may be the number of maids she has. (more…)

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Category: Asia, Backpacking, On The Road, Youth Travel

August 7, 2012

Reflections on Hitching a Ride in Asia

Chinese police: serving the law and taking me for a ride - picture by Kit Yeng Chan, 2012

Hitching a ride was, is and always will be evoking images of young, reckless, crazy travel. It is for adventurers, because you do not know who will pick you up and when you will arrive at your destination. And it is indeed for adventurous drivers too: our imagination is so full of hideous stories based on this phenomenon that, before you would pick up that random guy standing at the crossroad, you would definitely think twice.

Luckily, this kind of popular culture has not invaded the Asian media as much as the Western ,and seeing a foreigner at the side of the road generally does not ignite serial killer’s thoughts: on the contrary, it is quite easy to be picked up and helped out.
You may think that only someone with a very low civic sense or a very desperate need for money would be thinking of hitching in Asia. Sorry friends, but you are dead wrong: there are many people, surprisingly foreigners and local Asians alike, thumbing at the side of those roads.
Furthermore, in countries with a big exponential growth such as China, where transportation and fuel prices have doubled or tripled since the last decade, buying bus and train tickets to get around can be killer for low budgets. Hitching is on the contrary a great way to travel the extra mile, trying to have a more authentic experience observing what actually happens inside of those Asian cars you do not have to pay for. Sounds strange, isn’t it? Well, it is not, in reality: you just have to try.

The same opinion is shared by a young French guy I met recently; he arrived to China fromT urkey thumbing along the Caucasus andCentral Asiafor four months. He claims that he not only got lifts, but also met people and got to visit their homes, was invited for dinner or sleeping over, and overall he had a fantastic, genuine vagabonding time.

Westerners are not the only ones: the biggest number of hitchers I recently met is constituted by Chinese students in their early 20s to 30s. They complained that transportation costs inChinabecame unbearable, thus they are forced to hitchhike if they want to get out and travel their huge country during the summer holidays. Others just strike off toTibeton a pushbike!

To test if the great tales of hundreds of kilometers travelled at no cost was part of the Asians’ travel folklore, or if it was actually true, I had to personally give it a go myself. The equation worked out fairly well in favor of the road folklore: I was able to hitchhike and get lifts by several people. However, as I had to reach a particular destination in time to catch a train connection, I also had to resort to some private minivans I had to pay – sometimes less than the ongoing rate. Truck drivers seem to be the best bet to move long distances, although many of them – at least the Chinese – require you to make a money offer. Have clearly in mind how much you should pay for a bus or a train, and work your way around this fare, of course bargaining it down.

Sometimes you may be even lucky and get to hitch out of the ordinary, as it happened to me in Tibetan Kham, where me and a group of friends could flag down a local police car driven by two young officers who gladly took us for a 3 and more hours ride to the next town… where we got stranded for the night at the side of the road because the next chunk of highway had been submerged by a nearby river’s high waters! So keep clearly in mind that if you want security and reaching a place on a particular time, you should not attempt hitchhiking, especially in countries with roads as bad as the Asian. Of course, all of these unexpected problems would make the best travel stories, later… but do not say I did not advise you on the potential risk of natural catastrophe. For other risks, well, I do not think the Asian drivers would be one.

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, Backpacking, Destinations, On The Road, Travel Safety, Vagabonding Advice, Vagabonding Styles, Youth Travel

May 24, 2012

Vagabonding as a rock musician: a step by step guide. Post #6: How to get the max out of a van

This article is the sixth in a series of posts explaining how to bring your music on the road and get to travel with it. Read the series’ introduction , Post#1 , Post # 2 , Post #3  , Post #4 and Post #5

Photo Credit: http://www.metalinjection.net/editorials/dispatches-van/dispatches-from-the-van-on-the-road-with-psyopus-part-1

In my last post I concluded that vans are the ideal mean of transportation for a touring band: more comfortable, more professional and, at last, a possible place to sleep when everything else fails on the road.  I would like to expand the topic and give you some useful suggestions to get yourself and your van ready for touring.

First of all, most probably you will not be able to afford the luxury to buy a van, especially in Europe: unlike in the USA, they are expensive and have high road taxes and insurance to pay every year. Therefore, unless you are playing shows every weekend or own a booking agency, you will most likely resort to rent one for your tours or shorter periods of time.

Speaking of rentals, generally a van would cost in between 80 to 100 Euros per day. This is definitely not that cheap, especially considering the extra cost of petrol. However, you have to budget rental fees into your daily expenses and make them work according to your shows’ guarantees. If it may sound easier, some booking agencies also offer full rental packages including a backline and a driver – very handy to cruise the narrow European lanes for first timers – for a few Euros a day more.

When choosing a van, consider that smaller vans would require you to take out the last row of seats in order to make room for backline and luggage. For this reason, it would probably be wiser and easier for maximal comfort to leave friends and girlfriends at home, and travel with your bandmates only. For example, in Europe vans can generally fit a maximum of nine passengers, and you would be left with six seats only when loading luggage. On average, three to four bandmates, a roadie and an extra helper  – a tour manager, merchandise seller etc. – would already make for a crammed van.

I will not suggest a particular kind of van as it would be just impossible to individuate the “best of”. However, besides comfort, your vehicle should be safe and sound. This means you should choose a reputable rental company or make sure you have some sort of insurance: it is not uncommon to rent old vehicles, and have problems along the way. I may tell countless tales of friends who rented a van in southern Europe, and had to abandon it somewhere in the North with a melted engine, having to cancel several shows in the process. This would waste your time and your earnings, as a tour is generally a matter of a few weeks only. For this reason, be well aware of what you choose and the people you deal with, as the rock and roll business is thriving with shady entities.

Get yourself prepared to travel light and bring the essential backline only; make space for it in the trunk, or practically remove the last row of seats, as I suggested. Another practical tip would be to pack the drumset by removing the kick’s outer skin, and insert the other drums in it, like if mounting a Russian matrioska. Consider carrying one half-stack and one amp head per instrument, and you should be good to go. And of course, factor some space for your merchandise box, the best source of earnings while on the road.

Now, prepare your favorite soundtrack on an Mp3 player and get a cable to blast it trough the van’s sound system, and you should really be all geared up to go. And in case you do your own driving, if a GPS is too expensive to rent or buy, remember to print out your own directions. Trust me, I would have been stranded in the Dutch or German countryside countless times if I didn’t!!

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Category: On The Road, Vagabonding Life, Vagabonding Styles, Youth Travel
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