30 March 2010

It's No Secret: Top 5 Reasons to go Backpacking

5. No Worries. So many friends of mine worry about traveling abroad for an extended backpacking trip. They worry about every detail, from language barriers to washing out their skivvies by hand. What I always wonder about worry is why people waste their time with it? You’ll never be able to predict what’s going to happen on your trip, and if you can, then why are you going? The best thing about travel is not knowing what’s around the next corner. Backpacking should be free form, loosely scheduled, and at a pace you’re comfortable with. If you’re worried about money, make sure you bring more than you think you will need, and No, your mom will not appreciate the “no smoking” shirt from Amsterdam, a photo will keep you on budget. No need to worry, our species was meant to adapt so the only worry you'll have is getting the best price on your plane ticket.

4. New Buds. You may opt to be an independent traveler, or you may be terrified of a lonely trip. Either way you are going to make friends, sometimes even when you think you don’t need to. Backpacking and hostelling allows travelers to be surrounded in a like-minded community wherever you go. Seeing a couple of tanned, Chaco-clad folks with a huge pack stacked well above their heads at the train station (you will be sporting a similar look) is an invitation to say hello. Friendships are a part of travel than not only enhance your trip, but also allows you to relive the good times when you reconnect with your comrades via Facebook upon your return. I have made friends in one city and met up with them later in a new town on the same trip. You’ll never drink alone when you’ve got your new gang of fellow hostel buddies to join the pub-crawl.

3. Affordability. Backpacking is cheap. A good attitude and a decent pair of shoes will make this trip possible with less than you imagine in your bank account. Sure, you will likely be spending the night with strangers (aka Friends, read #4) but a pair of earplugs and an eye mask and you’ll never even know they’re there. Even Europe can easily be seen on a shoestring with a rail pass and a love for gyros and coke. I stayed in a unique beachside hostel-camp in the Greek Islands for $12/night and shared the beach and the same sunset view with tourists paying ten times the price.

2. Cultural Insight. No matter what you are sure to experience a new culture, and the more keen your senses the more you will uncover. Even a stroll through a mid-week street market will let you in on cultural secrets ethnographers spend PhDs trying to describe. Often times backpacking can get you deeper than the surface, if you are willing to give it a try. Websites such as couchsurfing.org, hospitalityclub.org, and wwoof.org allow you the experience of living with locals, eating their food, and meeting their friends for a drink at their favorite pub where no tourist has ever gone before. Priceless.

1. Adventure. You never know whom you’ll meet or what you’ll run into on your own backpacking adventure. Everyone’s experience is unique. The most important step is the one you take to board the plane and set your trip in motion. The adventure will take you from there!

10 March 2010

Ever-Useful Google

Ah Google, your usefulness seems to be never-ending. Your email is outstanding, your search capabilities unmatched, and I must say, I use Maps more often than I should. One idle pastime of mine is creating maps of places I want to go, and where my friends want to go, viewing related photos, accommodations, and real estate.

My best friend Kiraney has always wanted to travel to Spain. After spending time studying Spanish in Mexico, and hearing of my travels in the country, she decided Spain was her next adventure. Not knowing where to start, and feeling extremely bogged down by work and rainy Portland weather, I decided to get the ball rolling and I created this Google Map of her potential trip, to get the juices of her imagination flowing...

View Kiraney Goes to Europe 2010 in a larger map

Each pinpoint has a brief description of what adventures she may have there, and where she's off to next. So if you're ever wishing for escape, or have a dear friend in need, might I suggest a fantasy map, to bring the journey to you, when you can't make the journey.

08 March 2010

Don't Leave Home Without This

Every guidebook in the world will lecture you on what to bring on your trip, right down to your skivvies. Well, I'm not going to even begin to repeat the list, sorry you'll just have to start from some other source. Everything "they" tell you to bring is great, bring it. Everything "they" tell you not to bring is not great, don't bring it. When they say you should bring only half of what you think you'll need, trust them, they are being serious. If your pack is hemorrhaging before you walk out the front door, something is wrong. Do not upgrade to a larger pack. Keep what you've got and work with the space you have. Seriously.

I am now going to simply emphasize a few items to make your life much, much more pleasant while on the road. Don't agree with me? Think my advice sucks? Check your Lonely Planet or Let's Go... item(s) in question will likely be there. That being said, if I went on a trip tomorrow and brought only my clothes, toiletries, and the following list, I'd be a happy camper.

In no particular order:

Eye mask and earplugs: Highly recommended for hostel-goers, the plane ride over, and light sleepers. You'll thank me in the morning.

Travel pillow, compact towel, and cocoon sleeping sack (not pictured): You may not need the pillow and sack every night, but when you do, you'll be more than happy to have allowed them extra space in your pack. The towel will receive daily use, and can be found 100% dry for next morning's shower if left hanging sufficiently.

Alarm clock and watch: I love to be completely oblivious of the time when I'm on vacation, but let's face it, I've still got a train to catch. Hostel beds often do not have night stands so I tuck the alarm under the edge of my pillow... this also reduces the noise for your hostel-mates. With cell phones these days, who needs a watch? Are you bringing a cell phone? Wanna reach in your bag each time you're curious about the time? Just wear it, its not that complicated.

Medications: Personally I don't bother with any vitamins or diarrhea meds. I always have pain reliever and Lactose pills. I'm lactose intolerant and these little beauties have saved my life, or the noses of people around me. I am forever indebted to them, and I bring them absolutely everywhere.

Shoes: Obviously the photo indicates summer travel, so if you're going any other time of year, use your own discretion, but be wise. Never bring a new and unbroken pair of shoes. Last thing you want is blisters. Whatever you'd walk the dog in is probably fine. These are my personal favorites, the Birkenstock and the Chaco. Classics. Why two? Because they wear differently, and my feet tire of one or the other after 8 hours wandering the streets. I know they are expensive, but consider this: the Chacos I bought for $7.00 at an REI used gear sale. I had to be up by 4am, but hey, I saved $90. The Birkenstocks last a lifetime and can be repaired if/when broken. The rubber flip flop is not a walking shoe, but rather a shower shoe. You must bring this regardless of all other shoe preferences... unless of course you like athlete's foot and a stranger's hair wrapped around your toes.

Camera: Duh. What I'm trying to advise is the functionality of your camera. See the little icon that looks like a video camera? Use it, it will bring much life home to friends and family who've never heard the call to a Muslim prayer or the beat of Brazilian drummers during Carnaval.

Journal and small notepad (not pictured): Self-explanatory, but extremely necessary. A journal for your deepest thoughts, or just what you did that day, a little time consuming, but well worth the effort. Remember your trip, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The notepad is handy for keeping with you to jot down details for your journal, or the names of your new travel buddies to friend request via Facebook later on.

Playing cards: Yes, my cards have a friendly-yet-creepy troll motif... great conversation piece ya know. Endless card possibilities including not only the obvious plane and train rides, but everyone's secret favorite drinking game, King's Cup, and it is known the world over, so don't be a wet blanket, join in!

Headlamp or other small torch-device: I like it because I can strap it to my head when I need my hands (carrying objects, fighting off mosquitoes, peeing in the woods). Its great for late night stumbles into the hostel, or reading a book in bed. Let there be light!

MP3 Player: No, I don't have an ipod, but what I've got is good enough. A great feature of most mp3 players that I use extensively is the AM/FM radio. It gives you a chance to hear the local favorites while on the train to the south of France. You might enjoy a soundtrack to a movie, but this little device provides the soundtrack to your travels.

Have more ideas? Please do not hesitate to add!