Posts Tagged ‘sightseeing’

Backpacking in the News

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

Link to article: Backpackers trek the globe with tech toys

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter, as well as applications like Skype, are allowing backpackers to connect with family and friends more easily than ever before, wrote Natalie Armstrong of Reuters (Dec. 7).

Armstrong describes Canadian traveler Dave Arnold, who is on a one-year trip after taking a buyout from his telecom employer (see 44. Quitting your job). Carrying about $9,000 worth of electronic devices, Arnold is a walking Price Is Right Showcase for third-world muggers. He’s also an example of what’s become known as a “flashpacker” (see Backpacker Types, by Nomadic Matt).

It appears the folks over at the L.P. finally heard our call (see 8. The Lonely Planet; and The L.P. on iTunes), making their guidebooks downloadable to iPods and iPhones. Arnold has 100 downloaded guidebooks on his iPod, plus 10 books and his entire music collection.

In fact, Armstrong also writes about a South Korean girl who used her iPhone 4 for everything old fogeys like I used to use the L.P. for: maps, hostels, and information on local sights, food, etc.

All this is fine and dandy, just as long as you don’t slip and fall into a swimming pool or something while carrying all your gear.

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37. Passport/Visa Stress

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I had a Run Lola Run day a couple weeks ago. It was horrifying.

Cold sweat runs down your back. Your heart rate increases. It feels like the second hand is advancing in a smooth and rapid motion, rather than its usual ticking. There aren’t enough minutes in an hour; not enough hours in the day.

cinemapage-run-lola

Just like Manni, in Run Lola Run, I called my girlfriend in a fit of panic. Short of breath, my world was caving in. I had to fly out of the country in a week and even though I’d sent my passport renewal application away a month ago, it still wasn’t processed (I found out later it takes 20 business days to process, not 20 days). The passport office didn’t even know where my application was. And since I’d sent it by snail mail — rather than by registered mail — it couldn’t be tracked. Like Manni, I was freaking out ‘cuz I fucked up.

I hopped on my bike and pedalled violently, until I couldn’t feel my legs. The passport office requested I provide proof of travel (i.e. a printed flight itinerary) within the next couple hours, so they could put a rush on my application (if they could even find it among the stacks of passports awaiting renewal) and issue me a new one in time for my flight. If it was lost, I’d have to re-apply from scratch (with new photos, a guarantor and all that other bullshit), also on a rush.

I got to my office, printed the itinerary, told my boss I was taking the rest of the day off, hurried home, dropped off my bike, and drove my g.f.’s car back to the passport office and delivered the proof of travel. The back of my shirt was soaked with sweat. “What’s next?” I asked the passport officer. “We’ll see if it pops up on the system tomorrow morning. If not, it’s Plan B: re-apply for a new one.”

Luckily, they found it and I didn’t have to go through the added stress of re-applying. It was over. But I didn’t exhale until my new passport was in my hands, three days later. Hats off to Passport Canada: Their staff was patient and helpful, and putting a rush on it only cost me $30.

Czech Visa in Bratislava: It wasn’t the first time I’d had a day like that. Back in ’02, my buddy and I arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia on July 31. We understood that we needed to get a tourist visa to enter the Czech Republic*, but we didn’t know it would take five to 10 days to get it. Since, we were scheduled to fly from Prague to Amsterdam on Aug. 5, we frantically ran around Bratislava trying to get passport photos and reschedule our flight. When the dust finally cleared, we changed our flight to Aug. 11. So, instead of heading to Brussels and Paris from Amsterdam, we spent the rest of our trip in Slovakia and Prague. Turned out to be more fun (and more affordable) than we’d expected.

*Apparently, as a couple of Québécois guys informed us, the CR imposed a visa requirement for Canadians in 2001, as a reaction to a 1997 Canadian policy that required Czechs to obtain visas to enter Canada. They told us a Czech film (it was actually a TV report on Czech Roma in Ostrava) had showed a family of Czech immigrants flourishing in Canada, which caused an influx of Czechs immigrants and led to Canada’s imposing a visa requirement for Czechs. The Québécois guys were right.

Vietnamese Visa in Bangkok: In ’07, I had another stressful, fun-filled visa day in Bangkok. It was my second-last day in the city and I knew I wanted to go to Vietnam (via Laos). What I didn’t know was that I had to get the visa while in Thailand. It takes at least a day to be processed. Fuck. So I sprinted from my Khao San-area hostel to take pictures of the Reclining Buddha and knock it off my checklist, then I jumped in a metered cab to rush to the Viet Embassy. The traffic was unbelievable; my stress level was climbing. I asked the cabbie how far. He said 20 minutes. I offered him a 50 baht tip if he could arrive in under 20 minutes. He hit the gas and suddenly we were flying, taking all kinds of short cuts on backroads. We got there in 17 minutes.

Once there, I had to fill out the the visa form (among other backpackers who were also tearing their hair out), run to an adjacent business to get my photo taken, submit the form and think on my toes. The visa officer showed me a price list. In order of increasing cost, I had to choose between: single-entry visa ready in three days (no), single entry visa ready tomorrow (?), multiple entry visa ready in three days (no), multiple entry visa ready tomorrow (?). Option 2 cost 2,500 baht (or $77 USD), which was half as much as Option 4. The officer grew impatient. She started tapping her pen on the desk. I picked Option 2 and decided I’d just see as much of Vietnam as possible in one fell swoop.

I picked up my visa the next day, in time for me to catch the night train from Bangkok to the Lao border. Another bullet dodged. When I boarded the train, my back was still drenched with sweat. But maybe it was just the humidity. Yeah right.

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30. Female Backpacker Type B

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

female-backpacker-type-b11The majority of female backpackers fall under two main types: the Type A and the Type B.

Female Backpacker Type B is a bookish explorer. She gets straight As. She used to sing in the high school choir, or play clarinet in the school band. A self-declared “citizen of the world,” she turns her nose up to the general crudeness of the “party backpacker” scene (a scene openly embraced by her counterpart, Miss Type A).

In a movie, she’d be played by Emmy Rossum, Erika Christensen or Rebecca Hall. Who the F are they? Exactly. That’s why those actresses play her. She’s not a scene stealer. More like a cute dork. But make no mistake : She is NOT HOT.

She studied psychology, anthopology or art history in university and has no idea what she wants to do with her life (a common condition among post-grad backpackers). She’s considering teaching English overseas or working for an NGO before making a real career decision (also a common condition among backpackers).

Female Backpacker Type B is a militant vegetarian and can be seen making a stink about the lack of vegetarian options on the menu, in restaurants the world over. Due to her keen sense of social justice, she is more than happy to cause a scene defending her rights or somebody else’s.

She is unafraid to fuse styles and resemble a crazy old hippie lady, wearing local souvenir garb alongside designer sunglasses and quality outdoor gear (see above photo). She wears grandma panties and refuses to show unnecessary cleavage. In spite of her conservative dress, she may have a tattoo about the place or engage in some uncharacteristic drug/sexual experimentation while at the place. She is human, after all, she confesses.

female-backpacker-type-b2A reader of this blog, Maya, describes Female Backpacker Type B as follows: “what scares me much more (than alpha females) are those chicks… sort of intellectual, specky, vegetarian, tea drinking, not using the f-word, wearing tie-dye stuff and organic hemp bags, etc. i’m sure they are all really nice girls… i consider myself a feminist (yeah, being feminist doesn’t actually mean one has to become a total dude) but somehow they always make me think they should just buy some really slutty underwear instead of the terry pratchett books!!!!!!”

Agreed. But I have no idea who Terry Pratchett is.

Speaking of books, she ALWAYS reads the book about the place en route to the place (or while at the place). She has a voracious appetite for sightseeing; she goes to bed early and gets up early, so to beat the line-ups at the Louvre, the Vatican City, Venice, the Egyptian pyramids and Angkor Wat. She is planning a hiking trip to Macchu Picchu with her girlfriends but worries that if she waits too long, they will all be settled down, having babies and averse to adventure. Perhaps she’ll simply do it on her own (after teaching English overseas or working for an NGO).

Like the aptly named Natalie Keener, Anna Kendrick’s character in Up in the Air, Female Backpacker Type B is lost in a dichotomous idealism: a hurried checklist of things she intends to see and do before reaching her goal of having a successful career, settling down with the perfect mate (with a lengthy checklist of necessary traits), having babies and somehow remaining as ambitious and adventurous as ever. Good luck with all of that.

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29. The Local Hustler

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

There he is. Waiting for you at the dock or train station. Smiling a toothless smile, chewing on a stick or something. He’s smiling because he already knows he’s got you, right from the moment your eyes meet. He’s your local hustler. He and his counterparts are encircling you like vultures.

hustlers

You’re conflicted, because you don’t want to be a sucker, but The Lonely Planet recommends hiring one, if only to keep the other would-be hustlers/tour guides/drivers at bay. You’re a foreigner here, a bona fide target. You’ve got dollar signs flashing in your fair eyes.

You need him just as much as he needs you. Together, you’ll develop a truly symbiotic relationship. Yet, like the bird that cleans the crocodile’s teeth, it will be awkward at times. But what the hell, you bite the bullet and agree to let the local hustler show you around a bit.

This is where it really gets interesting.

There’s a constant battle of wits. A feeling-out process whereby the local hustler figures out what kind of traveler (and spender) you are. He teases you and goads you with a bounty of food, souvenir and leisure possibilities.

“Up to you,” he says encouragingly. You say you want to see “the real [insert destination here].” He says, he’ll show it to you. You both know he won’t. He asks you if you will eat [insert disgusting local delicacy here]. You squirm inside but keep a straight face. “Maybe,” you say. You both know you won’t.

He can be such a fucking pest. As your link to local tourism, dining, souvenir shopping, entertainment and — in some cases — drugs and prostitution (those are the real hustlers), he’s holding all the cards. In Morocco, at some point during the tour, he’ll be taking you to buy extravagant and outrageously priced rugs. In Thailand and Vietnam, he’ll drag you to buy a tailored suit. In Indonesia, he’ll insist that you buy a batik painting you don’t even want in the first place (see photo, below).

hustler-batik

"You like the art? You drank my tea. Now you buy."

Invariably, the local hustler will take you to the usual tourist attractions, which annoy the hell out of you, so you to ask him to show you the real thing. Problem is, the real thing consists of him bringing you to the restaurants and shops that pay him a commission. Most of the time, they’re not bad. They’re seldom the best. And unfortunately, sometimes they just plain suck. They employ all kinds of guilt trips (e.g. serving you “free” tea or booze while you browse) to force you to buy, only to waste your precious sightseeing time. Besides, you’re backpacking — what use do you have for an 85-lb. Moroccan rug?

Nevertheless, it’s a necessary evil. You’re a fish out of water here. It can be exciting to deal with somebody who has personal ties to the foreign wonders around you, to meander off the beaten path, through a city’s  hidden streets and back alleys. But he may also have ties to the seedy local underground. But because you’re forced to trust him — he’s already driving you around, eating with you and smoking your cigarettes — you try to ignore the possibility that, at any moment, he and his thugs could pull out a gun, rob you or hold you hostage. Such possibilities become significantly more likely if he’s taking you to drug dealers, strip clubs or worse yet, brothels.

My buddy Ben was in downtown Dakar, Senegal when three guys approached him and said one of them just had a baby. “They’re happy as shit and I’m happy for them,” says Ben. “Then one of them gives me this golden-looking piece of metal, says it’s gold from the Congo and that it’s good luck to give it to a foreigner. Sure, why not?! Then they ask if I want to join them to celebrate. Always up for an adventure, I go.

“They take me to the top floor of a two-storey restaurant. No one else is around. Then they start pressuring me for money — for food, for the celebration, of course. Enough for a bag of rice or some shit. I’m trying to figure out how to get the fuck out of there because it’s getting real sketch, real quick. In the end, I pay for their cokes and get the fuck out of dodge.

“It’s funny because in hindsight I seem like a real dick, but the thing is, sometimes you follow these people around and it works out,” Ben concludes. “And I guess I was willing to take the chance. Oh well, makes for a story, right?”

To scenarios like this, my buddy Sid, another seasoned backpacker,  says, “Lesson learned: Never get cornered in a situation where you feel compelled to pay just to get out of it.”

Sid recently visited Egypt, where the hustlers are notoriously tireless. “When we first arrived in Cairo, we decided to take the local bus, because it cost $2 instead of $70, but it was nearly impossible to find the right bus into town,” he says. “An Egyptian guy, about 30-years-old, was happy to show us the right bus, as he was also taking it into town. We get off at the center of the town and he gets off with us, grabs my bag and refuses to let me carry it myself. Then he points us in the direction of our hotel, but also suggests a very good one nearby.

“That’s when the intial hustler alarm bell went off, but at this point, we totally trusted the guy. I even gave him my Egyptian phone number. We end up finding our hotel and decide to stay for one night, and tell the guy we’ll give him a shout.

“Early the next morning, he calls and I don’t answer. Then he calls another 15 times and I still don’t answer. At this point, we realize something’s up and I swear he called me constantly for three more days. Lesson learned: Never give your phone number or any other details to anyone you don’t know well.”

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24. Bargaining

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Every minute of every hour, in the public markets of the world, people are bargaining over the price of goods. Backpackers, most of whom are financially scraping along their trips, must brave these markets to get the best deals possible and make what little cash they have last. Since bargaining is a battle of wits, weak-willed backpackers from developed nations are traditionally terrible at it.

bartering

Conversely, third-world vendors excel at bargaining. In order to win an argument over price, one must have a hustler’s mentality, a comic disregard for social niceties (almost to the point of a mean streak) and an interminable amount of patience. You need balls and time. Poor people have plenty of both.

Many backpackers will beenou about how good of bargainers they are. They’ll claim that bargaining is a simple process of a) asking the price of an item, b) lowballing and getting denied, c) faking a departure and d) getting the price you want or meeting somewhere in between. If it were so easy, nobody would ever complain about bargaining — they’d just follow the four-step path to public market dominance. It is difficult.

The reason it is so difficult is because bargaining is often a dispute between a poor vendor and a rich traveler. As previously mentioned, poor people have balls and time. People from wealthy, “civilized,” fast-food countries are too nice to get into fights and too impatient to wait on anything. In then end, the poor saps need the extra 10 cents to survive. We don’t.

A vast majority of travelers will give up on the last 10 cents. People say, “It’s not worth the hassle. They need it more than I do, anyways.” These are unsuccessful bargainers. The good ones will not give up. It’s the principle that eats at them. They’ll stoop to the vendor’s level and haggle it out to the bitter end.

Backpackers, on the other hand, have trains to catch and sights to see. And besides, meeting somewhere in between is easier on the conscience. See #3, below.

The following is a list of common barganing catch phrases and strategies salespeople will try to use on unassuming foreigners:

  1. “I give you good price!”: Of course they will. This is capitalism in its rawest form. Their profits depend on giving you a bad price.
  2. “Same same”: This has become somewhat of an institution in Thai tourism, so much so that some cheesy motherfucker had the gall to put it on a t-shirt, with “but different” on the back. Vendors will use this line to reassure a customer that their product is identical to every other vendor’s in the market. A quick rebuttal to the fake departure/threat to buy elsewhere.
  3. Classic guilt trip: Vendors will often employ a variety of sad or desperate facial expressions to dissuade you from further reducing the price.
  4. “No deal”: Vendors may quickly halt negotiations with a simple no. Some even shoo you away or encourage you to buy elsewhere. These are all tactics to pressure you into buying at the last price. Just like your fake departure, their no actually means yes.
  5. Post-deal anger: Many vendors will pretend to still be frustrated after you’ve paid and are walking away. Rest assured that they are laughing inside. 
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20. Getting “wubes”

Monday, August 10th, 2009

I mean I’m a big eater to begin with. That’s not a beenou. It’s a problem. I don’t have a primo metabolism anymore. That about ended at 16. I’m more of an Oprah type now — a major weight fluctuator. If I don’t do cardio, I’m in big trouble. The love handles and double chin come out and then it all starts to unravel.

That’s why traveling does a number on my body. “Wubes” is short for W.U.B.A.R. (Washed Up Beyond Any Recognition), which at my age works on so many levels: athletic ability (used to be deece at basketball, beenou — now I can barely get off the ground), party stamina (I’m old — I can’t drink all day and stay up past midnight like I did at 21), scoring game (I can admit it), the list goes on. But when it comes to overall physical fitness, however, backpacking makes me wubes.

drinking-on-the-beach2I know I’m not alone here. Every fit girl I know that spent a year in Australia came back fat. No joke. One hundred percent of ’em. “OMG the partying over there is insane. And like, after the bar, we like all go and eat kebabs, Tim Tams and these weird meat pies.” Yeah, no shit, I can tell. You’re looking wubes. Don’t worry, I know what it’s like.

Here are a few reasons backpacking makes you wubes:

1. Heavy boozing. After spending the entire day sightseeing, hiking, or even just lying on the beach, everybody is in the mood to party. You’re on vacation, so you might as well have a few drinks. Even when you plan on taking it easy, a few drinks quickly turn into a wild night. Soon enough, you’re absolutely lit. And you do this five nights a week. If you’re over 21 with an average or less metabolic rate, the calories quickly add up.

2. Unhealthy eating. It’s not just the drunken eats that get you. You’re in a foreign country, so you always have the excuse of trying some local fare. No matter that you’re on a 17-day bender and haven’t done any physical activity (apart from masturbating in the hostel shower) in months, you simply HAVE to try the deep-fried pork hocks. It’s a local delicacy, so fuck it — you’re on vacation.

3. Sleeping irregularly. You try sleeping on a bus or train that may or may not be going to the right town (which you can’t pronounce, in a language you don’t speak) next to people whose feet stink and who have no concept of Western personal space. And when you arrive at 3 a.m. you need to wake up, pick up your heavy backpack, find something (unhealthy) to eat and figure out why you’re in the wrong town. And when you are in the right town, you eventually lock into the sightseeing-by-day, partying-by-night routine anyway, so there goes the quality shut eye. Oh and you have to rush to the airport tomorrow at 4 a.m., too.

4. No exercise. I hate  guys that try to work out while backpacking. Some might argue that surfing should be considered an exception. I suck at surfing. Surfing is fucking difficult. I hate surfers too, mostly because they’re way cooler than me, jacked and get more vibes. They also wear white sunglasses, so whatever. I don’t really want to be the guy doing push-ups and sit-ups on the hostel floor, either. Others would insist that all the daytime sightseeing/hiking/biking/[insert eco-tourism activity here]/etc. is sufficient exercise, but it’s not when you’re eating fatty delicacies at every turn, boozing all night and sleeping irregularly.

5. Smoking and drug use. I don’t smoke while at home; I smoke when I travel. There’s so much idle time spent waiting in line for tickets, hostels, information, currency, food, vehicles… Smoking helps pass the time. And did I mention you’re boozing non-stop? From my experience, smoking accompanies boozing fairly well. As for drugs, well, suffice it to say that nobody is as experimental as when they’re backpacking.

6. Stress. See #3. Backpacking can be extremely stressful: constant travel, visa acquisition, sexual frustration, perpetual hangovers, tight budgets, douchebag/thief aversion, and unexpected catastrophes can get to a person. Whoever said the journey is more important than the destination clearly never went backpacking.

If you’re able to stay trim while on a hardcore backpacking trip, please share your secret. As long as it doesn’t require me to stay sober, watch my diet, go to bed early, or work out, I may give it a shot.

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15. Dormitories

Friday, June 26th, 2009

If you don’t know what it’s like to sleep in a dormitory, you’ve obviously never backpacked in Europe (beenou), North America  or Down Under. The reason there’s a difference is because backpacking in the developed world is expensive as hell (See 8. The Lonely Planet). Meanwhile, in underdeveloped countries, one can procure a luxurious private hotel room for the price of a Happy Meal in Western currency.

hostel-dorm1Because affordable lodging space is so limited in the former, it becomes possible to charge a premium for not only a room, but for a tiny fraction of a room (literally one-16th). There are, of course, varying levels of expensiveness. For example, North American backpackers know what it feels like to pay outrageous sums of money (after converting their meager dollars to English Pounds or Euros) for half of a bunk bed. It’s a sensation akin to non-consensual jailhouse sodomy (i.e. ass rape).

Aside from obvious disparities in global currency and real estate values, the inflation in high-traffic tourist areas is senseless. The average minimum cost of a dorm bed in Prague in July is 15 Euros (21 USD) per night; 23 Euros in Rome; 26 Euros in Barcelona; 22 Pounds (36 USD) in London; 30 Euros (43 USD) in Paris;  and a whopping 35 Euros (49 USD) in Amsterdam. Go to the same cities in, say, November and the price is 30 to 40 percent cheaper. That’s the beauty of supply and demand, folks.

Remember: a) this is for a wretched dorm bed, and b) backpackers have no money.

So what makes dormitories so awful? Hygiene is a major issue. Before going on my first backpacking trip, I brought a sleepsack (a bedsheet folded over once and sewn) as it was suggested to me to avoid using hostel bedsheets, which could have bedbugs. Long story short, the sleepsack was excess baggage and I’d overpacked to begin with, so I ditched it early on. Besides, I was too lazy to use or wash it, so I went ahead and used the hostel bedsheets. Bad idea. I got bitten by bedbugs and it was terrible – but that’s for another post altogether.

hostel-dorm2Regardless of the hundreds of online reviews you read about competing hostels, they are all dirty. It’s not the hostel’s fault. Consider their clientele. A typical backpacker’s day consists of sightseeing and heavy drinking, both of which involve perpetual movement and perspiration. Piles of unwashed and reworn clothes, especially socks and underwear, contribute to the dormitory’s signature potpourri. At capacity, there can be 8 to 16 people in a room (on 4 to 8 bunk beds), depending on its size. The room smells of other people’s feet, breath and sweat. It’s disgusting. Every morning, a sour, humid stench hangs over the place as sunlight begins to cook it through the windows.

The mattresses are uncomfortable and sometimes squeaky. The really bad ones have uneven springs that dig into your back. So, it’s hard enough to fall asleep, and then there’s the element of noise. Whispering, giggling, snoring and, God forbid, fornicating. Like bedbugs, dorm sex requires its own post. There are also the drunks that stumble in, yelling belligerently, turning on all the lights and crashing violently into their bunk… which is incidentally right beneath yours.

Because other backpackers are generally untrustworthy, there are often large lockers in the corners of the dormitory, consuming whatever residual space that would have allowed for orderly room navigation. Lockers must be large enough to fit a 90-liter pack. Thus, occupants bump into and step over each other attempting to get from one end of the room to the other. Doing so in pitch darkness, while drunk, is no easy task.

Sleeping in close proximity to foreign strangers is creepy. Movies like Hostel or Taken are not particularly inspiring cinema to watch prior to going on a cross-Europe dormitory tour. You never know what kind of nutjobs are sleeping in there – above you, under you, or beside you. Some of them are Aussies, others are Israeli – both are crazy. Sweet dreams, everybody.

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