Tag Archives: Travel

What we miss about home

We’ve been on the road for a shade less than five months. While there’s plenty we’re enjoying, and overall the chance to travel is a massive privilege, it’s also timely to acknowledge the things we miss. Here’s a collection ranging from the big and meaningful to the small and practical.

  • Friends and family. Obviously. People who have known you forever, or as good as, are very important. There aren’t many of those in Bolivia, it turns out. Friendships on the road tend to be superficial. Conversations with other travelers are as much a kind of trade and exchange about travel information as anything else.
  • A fridge, a pantry and a fruit bowl. Our food experiences traveling have ranged from sublime to stomach curdling. But no matter how good the food on offer it’s not the same as having control of your own eating destiny, accessing a well stocked kitchen. We miss being able to make a hot drink, or a sandwich, and knowing how it will taste before the first bite.
  • A week with a schedule. This is definitely a grass is always greener one but… Working full time has – in theory at least – a delineation between the time you are working and the time you aren’t. There’s a predetermined time for guilt free relaxation. We recall this pleasing realisation when we moved from studying to working. When we’re traveling we’re 100% in control of our own schedule and therefore need to make judgements about when to relax and when to really get out there and tourist. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether you should forgo that museum for an afternoon nap, or exactly how many House of Cards episodes it takes to recover from a night bus.
  • The news. At home it is easy to absorb the news – local, national, international – through osmosis. That’s probably because of how easy it is to browse news sites when blurring the theoretical work/relax distinction set out above. It’s much harder to dabble in news in this way on the road.
  • Drinking from the tap. Buying bottled water is annoying, costly and bad for the environment.
  • Brushing teeth after breakfast. Very often our morning routine involves checking out of where we’re staying and/or going to find somewhere to breakfast before starting our traveling day. Teeth brushing fits in before check out and before breakfast and is less satisfying this way.
  • Going away and coming home. Surely one of the most satisfying features of travel is the anticipation before the journey. And another is the feeling of homecoming – back to your own bed which feels exactly as it used to. Both these feelings are commonplace when we’re at home. There’s always a trip to be planned and talked of. And there are plenty of homecomings, even if just from a day trip to Auckland.

Obituary for a backpack

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Backpack was finally laid to rest today after struggle with an intensive period of travel and following more than a decade of service to Fiona McAlister.

Like many of its brethren, backpack’s date of birth is unknown but, significantly, it joined its owner Fiona in her sixth form year, 2001. Bred from the MacPac stable, it was destined to be a day pack, sold adjoined to a larger traveling pack that survives it, but only as a place to store ski gear under the stairs. At this time we make no comment on MacPac’s claim of a ‘lifetime guarantee’.

Backpack’s first adventure was a year’s exchange in Spain. Displaying characteristic loyalty to its owner it made no efforts to notify authorities responsible for the exchange of illegal side trips taken throughout Europe and to Morocco.

In the following years backpack endured many a night train ride between Hamilton and Wellington, spent ten weeks being schlepped around Central America, ten more in South Asia and Tibet, more still in South East Asia including a daring ascent of Mt Kinabalu, and countless ski trips in between.

Its owner considered backpack a natural choice when setting out on an indefinite period of travel beginning shortly before New Year 2014. Some detractors were concerned it had an inadequate harness and may not be up for the rigors of ongoing travel. But overwhelming nostalgia won out and it boarded a plane for South America.

Though its fabric faded its functionality remained intact almost to the end. Only when medical tape and sticking plasters raided from the travel first aid kit were not enough to plug the holes in its fraying bottom was a replacement sought.

Backpack was laid to rest in La Paz, Bolivia. Local customs of burning llama fetuses purchased from the witches market were considered, but discounted, to recognise its demise. Instead the heart shaped map of Wellington pin sported by backpack in recent years will be ceremoniously adorned on its successor.

Backpack is survived by a Kathmandu travel-lite, a red Deuter women’s pack and a colourful Ecuadorian handbag.

It’s a ridiculously small world

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We got to talking to Sunny when she was looking for a plug to charge her mobile phone while we were shamelessly abusing free wifi in a cafe. She learned we were from New Zealand and guessed we might possibly know of the pizza place her great-nephew runs in Wellington. We did. It’s Tommy Millions on Courtenay Place and it’s excellent.

But she didn’t guess I would also know the owner. I was in the hostel with him in first year uni, and some law classes. Neither did she guess we could verify the connection on facebook and have him respond within minutes of my message.

These kind of coincidences are increasingly commonplace. But they’re still deserving of wonder.

Equivocating about Ecuador

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I’m just going to come right out and say it. We’re not totally wild about travel in Ecuador.

It hasn’t helped that we’re here in rainy season, which means unexpected dumps of impossibility on our outdoorsy plans. And we’ve both been more than a little under the weather too. But our review of travel in Ecuador will have some equivocation.

We’re not really in a position to complain – many struggling with nine to five jobs at home (or nine to nine, more likely) would probably kill to be here. It’s just that one of the challenges of the kind of long term travel we’re doing is there are likely to be highs and lows of destinations. Ecuador isn’t really a low, but it isn’t a high either. It’s funny the impacts that reference points have on your perspective.

Quito has a really charming old town, and there’s amazing views to be had like the photo we’ve finally an excuse to use in this post. But it’s touristy to the point of seedy in parts. The jungle was entertaining, but our tour company had some issues, and the animals didn’t really show up for us. And, while Banos is a pretty little town, tourism here is much more pervasive than it was in Colombia: we get asked if we want menus in English, there’s hostels on literally every corner, and some light harassment to take tours or go rafting as we walk down the street. That’s probably great if you want to go rafting…

There’s something else more fundamental too. In Colombia we had time to get to grips with things. We had personal relationships with locals. We had the chance to go off the beaten track to places like la Guajira. And we had the time to seek out the things we really wanted, like sloths. Plus we were volunteering, which nearly always seemed meaningful. We’ve less time in Ecuador, and will have less in most places we travel. That makes our journey seem a bit more conventional – the gringo trail.

We’re expecting things to be a little different when we get to Bolivia. Travelers report more of a wild west feel there. And our forthcoming odyssey across Asia will be well off the beaten track. In the meantime, we’re not ungrateful for the the experience we’re having, and we might try and spice it up a little with the unconventional too. But when we look back at our travels we’ll likely rave about Colombia, and be a little ho-hum about Ecuador.

Roughing it without a guide

In Colombia Fiona was never alone because her Lonely Planet was never far away. We weren’t wild about Lonely Planet’s insights in Colombia to be honest. We’ve a sense that it’s trying too much to be all things to all people. But tripadvisor.com is not yet really a friend of the backpacker unless you’re picking a restaurant; the trusty guidebook is still key.

Traveling for months, and all over the place, its impractical for us to carry guides for everywhere. We did our best to pick up a guide for Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia in Colombia but came up with nothing. There’s a startling lack of reading in Colombia, and a lack of bookstores as a result. We were betting on book exchanges for a while but came up with nothing.

In desperation we downloaded a Footprint guide. But it just wasn’t the same. For one thing, Footprint didn’t really do it for us. It’s too objective. Pages and pages of accommodation listings for Quito, but no real suggestion of what might be best. Plus it was cumbersome to peal through a 700 page PDF, and wasn’t portable. That’s to say nothing of the contribution to our laptop use congestion.

Fiona, like a kid at Christmas.
Fiona, like a kid at Christmas.

I hadn’t realised quite how frustrating Fiona was finding this until I saw her exponential delight when leafing through a Rough Guide for South America in a second hand English language bookstore in Quito. There is something enormously satisfying about a guidebook that seems to speak your language. As I blog, Fiona is now happily at work planning us a walking tour for the old town tomorrow. And for us to enjoy big city culinary variety while in Quito before turning back to the carb loaded local cuisine. All round win.

 

The Lonely Planet effect

Like most travelers we meet we travel with a Lonely Planet guidebook most places we go. They have valuable information including about accommodation. But we’ve noticed two consequences of LP reviews that we call the Lonely Planet Effect(s).

A self fulfilling prophecy

If LP says a hostel is a good place to meet other travelers who want to party, then travelers who are so inclined will go there. This is actually pretty useful. It allows you to select your peers. It’s less clear, but certainly very possible, that LP reviews also influence how the hostels organise themselves. LP says the staff are surly? License to surl…

A competitive advantage

Places that get good reviews can become complacent and / or put their prices up. This was probably clearest when we went to Cabo de la Vela. The LP had said there were many similar places to stay – after all they’re all huts made of cactus with hammocks – but still recommended one. We’d had a long day of travel and weren’t especially interested in shopping around so we stayed as recommended.

After we came back from Punta Gallina we stayed somewhere almost identical, but maybe 50% cheaper. Later we asked the first place why they charged more. At least they were honest enough to say it was because they had an LP recommendation.

Everyone’s been to Khao San Road

In our fundraising quizzes for Mariposas I used to include a round of questions about travel. Of course, I asked what the world’s busiest airport is and it stumps most of the teams. But I asked what the name of the famous backpacker haunt in Bangkok is, and they all knew. Always. In fact by shows of hands I discovered that the vast majority of the travelers playing trivia had been to Khao San Road.

This got me thinking about what else travelers of the months-away-in-the-developing-world kind have in common. Obviously the places you go and the things you do are important. But there’s more:

  • There’z an over representation of tattoos (which Fiona and I don’t share) and
  • degrees in politics  and international relations (which we do).
  • There’s also a lot of people that do yoga. Fiona’s in to that. I am not.
  • I’d guess that if the traveler population had voted in the last US election, a Green candidate would probably have given Obama a run for his money.
  • There’s a well established cannon of traveler literature that you see being read in hostels and stacked up in book exchanges around the world: The Beach, Shantoram, The Motorcycle diaries…

Realistically you also have to have a certain level of privilege to be able to travel long term. It’s interesting though because for some traveling can be a disavowal of that. People are less likely to ask you about your job, or what school you go to or what your parents do. And you can tell yourself you’re living a simpler life. But you’re probably traveling with a high end digital camera. And a retreat to the safety of your home, and a fridge well stocked with comfort food is almost always within your reach.