Yodeling Vagabond in the Alps – Tour of Mont Blanc

Words and photos by Brian Leibold (Check out Brian’s Rules of the Road on Kindle!)
hiking in the alpsThe valley of Chamonix is set in arguably the most stunning location in Europe, with the great Mont Blanc overlooking it like a wise stern infinitely distinguished grandfather capable of making you feel lucky and inspired or low and humbled, according to his whim.

I arrived on a foggy night, and the clouds obscured the mountains.

There was a refuge called Gite Le Vagabond. This intrigued me, but the price for a cot was unfit for the vagabonds who they purported to attract, so I slept on a bench in a little hut by the train tracks on my ragged blue mat.

In the morning, the fog had cleared, and I woke up to a clear blue sky. Eyes and spirits seemingly magnetically fixed skyward, I embarked on the Tour of Mont Blanc, the TMB for short, a week long 200 kilometer hike beginning in the French Alps and continuing to the Italian and Swiss Alps.

Alps hiking adventuresSolitude if sought in the Alps can always be found, and for me it was always found in the early morning. Every morning I would wake up before six and would usually have about three hours before the rest of the (mostly elderly) hikers would start their day.

In these early hours, I would feel like the lone human viewer of the mountain musical symphony, my companions the chirping birds, the bored cows and their jangling bells, the tranquilly flowing water, the soaring snow-capped peaks, and the enigmatic forests. I would try to discern the age old whisperings of the forests and mountains.

I am inclined to walk fast, and the trees in particular were undesirous of this, I felt. They would silently express their disapproval at my quickness. What would I see walking quickly that I couldn’t see trekking slower?  This is no race, least of all a rat race. Take your time, they seemed to say. They parroted the Ents, the trees of Tolkien, warning me against hastiness.

At one point, I became hopelessly lost in the midst of a ever-thickening forest. Beginning to actually become frightened, I cursed loudly for a few minutes. But the tall trees admonished me for my blasphemous unquiet, and seemed to whisper confidentially to each other,

“Who is this brash young American vagabond who comes into our woods and expects to never get lost?”

Alps Vagabond hikingThey shook their branches at me in the wind. When I quieted down, they welcomed me back saying

“Sit under our branches for a spell and quit your cursing and worrying. You will find the road again.”

Words of Wisdom: In the mountains and the woods, trek slowly, and engage in unhurried reflection. Listen to the Ents, and hasten not back to civilization. Do not give a moment’s thought of the things that burden you in the valleys and back alleys down below.

Thoreau says “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

Mark Twain, in his travels in the Alps, wisely writes that “All frets and worries and chafings sank to sleep in the presence of the benignant serenity of the Alps.”

On the hike, I liked that almost every person that passed would give a friendly greeting. In the French cities, this is unheard of. But in the mountains, it is the norm. Tony Hawks remarks on this in his book A Piano in the Pyrenees when he goes for a hike saying

Alps vagabond hiking“Every person we passed offered a jovial Bonjour! Every single person. It was almost as if the moment they left the speed, noise, and fluster of the town behind and exchanged it for the freedom of the countryside, their manners had changed.”

Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that in the city, the ruck sacked are often looked down upon. What are you doing? Where are you going? Get a job. Take a shower. Button your top button. Buy a lot of stuff you don’t need, and so become normal. Stop making us feel so uncomfortable by your strangeness. There’s nothing wrong with having a job and taking showers and buttoning top buttons. Neither is there anything wrong with not doing those things.

But, in the mountains, we all have the rucksacks and the muddy boots and are alike in that we are choosing (at least for a few days) to voluntarily remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle. We are all trekking vagabonds. So the natural feeling of freedom that comes when we are removed from our burdensome obligations combined with the incredible natural beauty of the Alps allows people the ease to smile at strangers, strangers who are alike in many ways. All greet all with the joy they really feel.

The trek continued. Every day there was a peak above 2000 meters. There is perhaps nothing more satisfying than reaching a peak after an arduous and long climb. The beauty seen below is enhanced by the climb’s difficulty.

John Muir, in his observations of Yosemite says “One must labor for beauty as for bread, here and elsewhere.”

Alps hikingIt is why going to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (and, more especially, coming back up) is so much more satisfying than simply gazing at its grandness from the visitor center. And it is why the view after hiking to a peak in the Alps rewards the traveler more than the same view when reached with the help of the gondola.

At the top of a mountain, the golden eagle, flying towards the golden sun, provides more joy than he would lower down. You have climbed to where the birds fly high above the cowbells. The wind, though fierce, seems benign and congratulatory, like it is applauding you somehow in all its frantic activity. The green unperishing ageless, yet at the same time youthful, hills with innumerable knotty roughened toughened trees and the tranquil Edelweiss flowers high up in the rocky soil soaked by the sun seem also to congratulate you. You have done well, they say, and you have not been hasty. Now, look out and see what we see, and be calm, as we are. And the snow-capped craggy Teton-esque mountains, inimitably eminent on their natural thrones, appear more inviting that they do imposing, as if they are responsive and open to you now that you have worked so hard climbing higher to meet them. They are still unknowable and silent and all knowing and unviolent, but in your proximity to them, you feel closer to unlocking their brooding mysteries.

As you descend, this feeling begins to fade, and as you reach the valley of Chamonix again, you look back up and feel small and unimportant and, well, human. You feel like what you are. But you look with pride back up at the mountains, remembering how you felt and knowing you can feel like that in the future. You feel that thirsting unquenchable desire to rise up high in the sky above the clouds. So, again, you climb.

Peru’s Chavin de Huantar – Epic Archeological Adventure

Guest Post by Greg de Villiers

Ancash lies quietly to the north of Lima, ignored by too many people who hop past to the golden northern beaches, the central jungle, or Cusco and Machu Picchu. But they are all missing one of the great jewels in the Peruvian landscape.

Ancash Peru, Hiking in PeruAncash is bordered by long sandy beaches but then quickly gives way to the mountain ranges which dominate it – the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca, which contains the Huascaran National Park and the famous peak of the same name, at around 6000m it is the highest in Peru and 6th on the continent.

The landscape of Ancash is truly breathtaking, with wide open expanses, lorded over by massive, permanently white tipped peaks. Throughout the range there are some 300 glaciers – although all have been affected to some degree by a warming of the climate – and strikingly crystalline blue lakes – quite likely the origin of the provinces name – anqash in Quehcua means blue.

Tucked between all this majesty in a small valley, itself situated at a humble 3177m above sea level, at the confluence of two regionally important rivers, the Huacheksa and Mosna, is an ancient city built by a civilization that thrived nearly 3000 years ago.

The Chavin culture is one of the best known and influential pre-Incan cultures, at its peak from 900 – 200 BC, with its sophisticated art, metallurgy and textile work influencing many later cultures in Peru, and perhaps even as far abroad as the Olmec culture which shares certain artistic tendencies. It is theorized that the Chavin was not a great military power, but rather that the people of the large stretch of land (roughly between modern Piura in the north and Paracas to the south) under their sphere of influence were culturally colonized – i.e. they chose to follow the Chavin philosophy and religion.

The heart of this culture, is Chavin de Huantar, the remarkably well preserved archeological site in the Huascaran National Park. The main temple and surrounding buildings stand between the two rivers, a position carefully chosen for its supposed mystical energy. (Although the convenient positioning on a major riverine trade and transport connection between the coast and the high mountains was likely a key additional factor.)

The whole site should have been inundated and destroyed, but the builders rerouted one of the rivers and created a complex system of underground water channels, some of which are believed to have been used as acoustic tools which, with water flowing through them during the rainy season would, due to vents above ground, roar like a jaguar – likely the principal deity of the Chavin religion / cult.

The most renowned relics of the Chavin culture are the cabesas clavas or Tenon heads, large stone heads placed in the walls thought the temple complex. Some rows of these stone heads represent the transformation of human to feline (jaguar – and thus divine), a process brought to life by the Chavin shamans, most likely through the use of the psychotropic cactus, SanPedro which grows in the region.

The other relic of great importance and beauty is the Lanzon, a 4.5m obelisk depicting the main deity, located in the labyrinthine heart of the main temple. It is there where I found myself face to face with this ancient monolith; I have no clear picture of it, only swirls and patterns incised precisely into granite. These swirls, the taste of that entire moment, seem branded into my memory. Perhaps due to some mythical energy or more simply, highly sharpened senses as my body desperately tried to convince me that it was a bad idea to be standing underground, in a maze, in a 3000 year old building, in stale light and murkier air.

A visit to Chavin to Huantar gives you chance to come in contact with something unthinkably ancient, created by human beings completely different from (or perhaps remarkably similar to – depending on your perspective) anything we know today. And all within one of the most spectacular setting Peru has to offer.

Getting there:

The most common access to Chavin de Huantar is a three hour ride in a public bus from Huaraz, the capital city of the region. The route between Huaraz and Lima is well serviced by a number of companies and takes about eight hours. If at all possible, a rental car (preferably a 4×4, but this is not essential) is the very best option as the roads of Ancash are one of the best driving experiences in the country. If you are short on time you could book a guided tour with a specialist in Peru adventure trips.

The Choquequirao Trek or How to Be a Weekend Warrior in Peru

By Maureen Santucci

I love to trek – it’s one of my absolute favorite things to do. It’s one of the reasons I chose to live in Peru in the first place. In fact, I love it so much that I somehow decided to go on one of the most infamously difficult treks without properly preparing for it.

Choquequirao PeruWe were heading for the Inca ruins of Choquequirao: famed as the lesser-known “sister” to Machu Picchu. Ruins perched atop a distant and isolated mountain, said to be the last stronghold of the Inca.

To keep me company on the adventure I brought along two old friends, also trekking enthusiasts. We all knew it was going to be tough but had no real idea what we were getting into. I started getting a clue, however, when discussing it with my guide, Alfredo Fisher, along with another friend who intended to come with us. She has bad knees and had thought she could ride most of the way.

One look at Alfredo’s face told us that was not happening. Bless him, he can be overly optimistic but he doesn’t lie. He informed us that there were many areas of the trail that were too steep to ride on. With hindsight maybe he was lying: I’d say there are areas of the trail that were too steep to WALK on, let alone ride.

We set out by car from Cusco at around 5 in the morning and traveled a few hours through the hills to a town called Cachora from where we were to begin our trek. There, we met up with our horses that were to carry all the equipment and our bags, their handler (Don Julio) and our assistant cook. The cook had come with us from Cusco.

That first day we soon found out what Alfredo meant by steep. Before long we had left the smooth rolling fields behind us and entered the towering gorge of the Apurimac valley. An unspeakable distance below us thundered the river. Between us and the water stretched the thin line of our trail, following the near-sheer drop to the valley floor.

We negotiated the precipitous trail right into the fearsome heart of the valley. We descended such distances that the climate visibly changed around us, getting warmer and subtropical until the trees were dripping with ripe mangos and avocados. Just hours before we’d been shivering in the chilly, thin Andean air!

Part of the fun of trekking is the camaraderie at the end of each day’s hiking, enjoying a few drinks at camp after dinner. Not for us on day one of the Choquequirao trek: we ate dinner at the valley floor and took our weary legs to bed.

What goes up must come down. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true and on the morning of our second day we looked back up the other side of the valley, trembling with the prospect of climbing all the way back to the top.

The trail followed a seemingly infinite series of switchbacks, each turn blending into the last. Legs burning, mid focused on making it to the next turn, I almost forgot to look up from time to time; whenever I did I was virtually bowled over by the site of the enormous valley and up ahead, peaking out of the clouds, our destination; the ruins of Choquequirao.

When we finally reached our camp for the second night, the view was simply breathtaking. Eating dinner with the sun setting behind the mountains and the ruins almost within our grasp, we soon remembered why we willingly put ourselves through such ordeals: the payoff is easily worth the pain.

Waking up the next morning to the panoramic view is one of the reasons I love these treks. The scenery is so dramatic it is almost impossible for a camera to do it justice.

An hour or so after leaving camp we reached the gates of Choquequirao. Although not built with the same Imperial grandeur as Machu Picchu, the site is still an amazing place, if only for its isolation and lack of visitors: we had the entire place to ourselves.

trekking in PeruIt can take days to explore the ruins in their entirety and archeologists reckon most of the ruins are still hidden. Experts believe the city was originally an administrative centre for the region. It has a bloody and dramatic history: these mountains provided the final stronghold for the beleaguered Inca as the Spanish chased them from their capital in Cusco. The gates of Choquequirao were among the last to fall before the once mighty Empire was vanquished once and for all.

We took our time exploring the ruins; partially through fascination, partially through trepidation of resuming our hike through the valley.

After lunch we began the hike back down the canyon, on a trail that turned out to be the most treacherous part of the trek. Coming across a series of steep stone steps, our porters were forced to unload the mules for fear of losing them to the canyon.

Almost crawling along the last stretch leading to the trailhead, my self esteem received a welcome boost when our cook caught up with me, only to declare that this was the first and last time he would ever work on the Choquequirao trail! I wasn’t alone, and even better: my pain was being shared by someone born and bred in the highlands, accustomed to hiking and working on the mountain trails!

Thanks to the grueling trek, Choquequirao remains an under-visited site, but is within easy reach of Cusco and makes an excellent alternative to the Inca Trail. Maureen travelled with Alfredo who can be contacted on: pachamamawawakuna@hotmail.com. Alternatively book in advance through a reputable Peru trips provider.

Caravaggio – Bergamo Revisited – Airport Refugees

One of the side effects of the renaissance of budget air and cheap flights is that a number of small regional airports have become major hubs for carriers such as RyanAir and Wizz Airlines.

Bergamo airportSmall airports in places like Volos, Greece ; Orio, Italy, ; and Charleroi, Belgium weren’t designed with thousands of passengers passing through each day in mind. They are adapting, upgrading, and building the infrastructure.

Take Bergamo – actually Caravaggio Airport Bergamo Orio al Serio or as referred to by RyanAir – Milan/Bergamo. In fact it’s about 45 km from Milan about 4 km from Bergamo and actually sits in the small city of Orio al Serio. Last year this small airport served over 7 million passengers!

A funny thing happens because of the mis-labeling and the fact that this is a transport hub for RyanAir, WizzAir, and Pegasus which has flights to and from destinations all over Europe, the Balkans, and Turkey. Lots of people come to ‘Bergamo/Milan’ simply because it is where they can catch a flight to where they are really going. That’s why I was there in September. I wanted to fly from Barcelona (actually Girona) to Volos, Greece but there were no direct flights and the cheapest way to get there was to fly with RyanAir to Bergamo, wait 7 hours overnight, and then catch an early morning flight (again with Ryanair) to Greece. Since I arrived at nearly midnight and left at 7 a.m. it seemed silly to go all the way to Milan or Bergamo only to wake up after a couple of hours of sleep and take the bus or a taxi back – who needs the expense of a hotel room and a taxi for a few hours sleep…I decided to sleep in the airport.

And so did hundreds of other people who were catching flights to Romania, flights to Turkey, flights to Barcelona, flights to Paris, flights to Moscow, flights to Sofia etc etc etc –

There just aren’t that many seats or benches in the waiting area and they weren’t going to let us into the departure lounges before 5:30 am. So, it was like being at a protest or stuck at an airport during a storm or at some kind of hippie camp.

Around me were circles of strangers making friends and playing cards on the floor. Groups of girls sleeping in a circle on the ground while one stayed awake to guard their bags, older travelers walking around warily and eyeing everyone as if they were potential thieves, a guy with a guitar sitting outside strumming. Groups sat around with beers or bottles of wine while others found bare floor to curl up with their bags under their heads.The scene was completely surreal and certainly would have been looked on with approval by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, for whom the airport is named – especially since I noted a couple engaged in some serious hanky-panky under a sleeping bag in the alcove where his bust looks out over the airport party. Here’s my favorite blurb about Caravaggio from Wikipedia:

Airport renaissance

Caravaggio’s novelty was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro. This came to be known as Tenebrism, the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value. He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissions, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew. Thereafter he never lacked commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success atrociously. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment, and ultimately had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope.

An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle three years previously, tells how “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in a brawl in Malta in 1608, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. This encounter left him severely injured. A year later, at the age of 38, he died of a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.

caravaggio

And then – when they opened the departure lounges and allowed us to start going through security, the sweepers came in, the cleaners mopped and suddenly it all seemed just like any other busy little regional airport.

 

Travel in the Time of Covid-19 – Vagobond in Australia – Back on the Road in 2020

It seems like the only times I really travel are when the world is in turmoil. September 11th, H1N1, Arab Spring, the Great Recession, and now – coronavirus. I don’t plan it that way, but it’s what happens. Also, for some strange reason, the world resists my attempts to see it – so there is always a bit of a personal struggle.

I’ve always wanted to come to Australia. It’s been a dream since I was a child. When I was in high school, I lost faith in the system I was in and my father motivated me by offering a trip to Australia if I got straight A’s. I was up to the challenge, but he, unfortunately, was not. It wasn’t the first nor the last disappointment I felt in my life – but it was certainly formative. I’m not sure why I waited this long to come here, maybe I was waiting for him to make good on his promise – but I think after 32 years, he’s unlikely to fulfill it. I sometimes joke that I am so sure that Australia will be the place I want to stay that I avoided going there so I could see everywhere else first. So far, it hasn’t disappointed, but unless the pandemic blossoms and flights are cut off – there is nothing besides death that would keep me from getting back to Hawaii because my wife and daughter are there.

I bought myself this trip in December when I saw an incredibly low fare from Honolulu to Sydney. My wife had work, my daughter had school, but there was nothing I needed to be doing in Hawaii – so I went for it. My mantra has been ultra-budget because this is a luxury – I’m not a rich person by any means – at least not in the sense of money.

I’ve been getting excited about this trip and knowing that I would be taking it has helped me through some minor depression and anxiety about life in general. One week before takeoff – I was munching on some macadamia nuts and suddenly felt what might be the most excruciating pain of my life. I cracked a tooth and for the next three nights didn’t sleep a wink but lay hunched up in a little ball of pain, hoping the pain would go away. I’m American and I don’t have dental insurance, I can’t afford it. It’s either after school care for my daughter so my wife and I can work, or dental insurance. This was too much to bear though – I went to the dentist and had an emergency procedure done that should have helped – it was $1000, but after a few more days, the pain was still there, though not as bad as it had been – now it only hurt when I ate or drank anything. A second trip to the dentist confirmed that I would need to see a specialist but that doctor wouldn’t be available for nearly two weeks – not until after I had returned from Australia – at least there was no reason to cancel my trip.

So with less money and chronic pain, I went to Honolulu International Airport which was a scary place to be with nearly every Asian person there (which seemed to be the majority) wearing coronavirus masks. The good news is that we don’t have any COVID-19 cases yet in Hawaii and Australia is also on the low end of things – but still, one can’t help wondering if one of those many people might be a carrier.

My budget flight (Less than $200 each way! Less than a trip to the USA) which was a JetStar flight – here’s a measure of how I travel without doing much in the way of research – I didn’t realize that I had to have a visa for Australia. Luckily for me, the flight was delayed and the very nice desk agent arranged my visa for me (a $70 value) and gave me a free meal voucher ($12) for the inconvenience of the delayed flight. She also, very kindly upgraded me to a window seat with an empty seat next to me which enabled me to sleep for a large part of the flight. Sleep that I desperately needed.

The flight was uneventful until just before landing. I had tooth pain, but in general, the meal before the flight carried me through and between reading and sleep, it passed without much event. As we got close to Sydney, the clouds looked like nothing I have ever seen before. I was struck by a dark cloud that looked like a devil and a light cloud that looked remarkably like an angel. As we made our final turn and descent into Sydney, we suddenly entered the dark cloud and hit turbulence like I’ve never felt before – the lights went on and off, the engines made some very strained sounds and the plane was thrown around like a toy. Some passengers screamed – I didn’t but in my head I said “I guess this is it. I’m not ready to die, but please look out for my little girl.” I’m not religious, but I guess I was praying to the universe. The plane shook again and then came out of the clouds. The small white cloud that looked like an angel was there. I said a mental thank you as we landed. For a moment there, I thought my time had come and it was a similar feeling to when they told us that nuclear missiles had been launched at Hawaii from North Korea a few years ago – I looked around at the people around me and thought “Huh, this is it.” A mixture of sadness and disappointment, but no regret.

Australian customs and security is much more civilized and easy than U.S. – I was through in a breeze with my 6.5kg of baggage (the free allowance) which consisted of a small backpack, a laptop, cords, phone, kindle, water bottle, toiletries, and a few changes of clothes.

Next post I’ll write about my first  impressions of Sydney.

The Fully Integrated Backpacker Treehouse Resort – Kadir’s Treehouses

Treehouse Hostel Turkey OlymposThe most surprising thing about Olympos is the huge volume of choice when it comes to places to stay. Since Thailand, I haven’t seen this many bungalows, backpackers, or pancake stands – perhaps the hardest part of coming to Olympos is picking where to stay.

Since we wanted to come here for four days, we opted to split our time between two of the most famous tree house resorts. The first, Bayram’s tree houses, I should point out that this is the off season, so it was pretty calm and quiet, but even so there were some serious drinking sessions around the nightly campfire.

Treehouse Hostel Turkey OlymposAfter two very fun days there, we moved up the road to Kadir’s Treehouses.  While there are tree houses and bungalows here – it would be more appropriate to call it Kadir’s fully integrated backpacker tree house resort and bungalow complex and village – but that might be too much of a mouthful. We had plenty of opportunity to meet with Kadir himself and to explore the property –

Kadir came here 25 years ago when there was nothing in Olympos but farmhouses and shepherd camps. He left a career in economics in Ankara behind to tune in, turn on and drop out – well after the hippies of the 60’s but well before the hippies of the now. His parents and friends told him he was crazy but he bought a piece of land next to a stream in Olympos, built a tree house, and carried what he needed from up the mountain or bought it from the nearby farms.

At this point, a few backpackers started coming to see the ruins at Olympos and a couple of them asked if they could rent his tree house for the night. Then it happened again. And again. So he built a second tree house – but more backpackers came. So he built more. And within a couple of years he had tree houses, bungalows, and even a couple of bars to satisfy the thirst of the the backpackers.

Turkey Treehouse HostelThe nearby farms saw his success and they copied the model. Now, while I didn’t hear anyone say this overtly, there seems to be some bad blood between the farmers and Kadir these days – on the one hand, Kadir is the stranger in a valley filled with family – and on the other, people stole his business model and then – according to one source – when his property caught on fire while he was away – just let it burn and didn’t notify anyone until it was too late. Kadir says that when he arrived his tree houses, bungalows, bars, and even the trees were completely gone. I’m assuming that no one was here when it happened since Kadir said that nothing was saved.

So Kadir built again. Today, his sprawling complex still has a few tree houses – including one built on a huge 750 year old cedar stump that Kadir bought from the government and then trucked down here! It’s his log-o now.

During peak times, Kadir hosts as many as 350 backpackers! His complex has a nightclub (The Bull Bar), a Pizza House, The Hanger Bar, an activity center, a volleyball court, a huge fire pit, and the downstairs restaurant/bar where dinner and breakfast are served which feels like it could have been imported directly from Alaska. This is even including the bartender Simon who wears a red plaid lumberjack shirt and even though his English is very good always replies “Thank you very much!” even when it doesn’t fit. (As in Alaska – the odds are good but the goods are odd)

Kadir is usually playing backgammon, snapping photos on his Galaxy Note, or wandering around. The bungalows and treehouses are colorfully painted and built in a haphazard, Tom Sawyer treehouse way which includes half bent rusty nails and railings that feel as if they might break under your hand. If there is a downside to Kadir’s – it is that the size and numbers create a sort of junkyard feel to parts of the complex with disused furniture being piled in unused corners and piles of broken plumbing or wood scraps tumbled around devil may care – but then, that adds to the overall feel of the place. Sanford and Son meets Tom Sawyer. Kadir’s is about a 20 minute walk from the beach but the stream and mountain views make that a pleasant journey.

Treehouse Hostel Turkey OlymposWe stayed in a deluxe bungalow facing a gorgeous rock face and the beautiful clear water stream. It was big, clean, had AC and heat, hot water and was comfortable. We found the included breakfast and dinner to be tasty and filling. All of this for about 25 Euro per night, is a steal and one of the best deals going in Turkey, if you ask me. If you want to go even cheaper – you can rough it in the treehouses or sleep in the dorms, but honestly – the lack of comfort and privacy wouldn’t be worth it for me. Still, the backpackers we spoke with who were doing that, loved it.

What’s next for Kadir? He told me he has found a new location where no one goes yet and this time he is going to open an eco-resort. It will be his fourth property – he now has a family resort, Kadir’s Garden, Kadir’s treehouses and then Kadir’s Eco-Resort – the moral of the story? Sometimes it pays to drop out and go live in a treehouse!

The Art of Conversation with Grumpy Expats

Grumpy Expats
Grumpy Expats

One perk of traveling the world with no guidebook is that it gives you a valid excuse to strike up conversations with other foreigners you might meet while you are traveling. I’ve been to some of the coolest places in my travels on the advice of local expats I met in random places. A two minute conversation can lead you Kipu Falls, the House Hotel in Sokcho, South Korea, a hidden restaurant on Istanbul’s Prince’s Islands, or a natural hot spring in the Sahara. It’s worth it to talk to the foreigners who live wherever in the world you might go.

As a small aside; I like to live in countries where I was not born, and honestly, there is little more annoying than someone coming up to me and saying “Hi, I’m a foreigner too. I’m a tourist here on vacation, where are you from?” This might be one reason I take the approach I do when I am introducing myself to expats, travelers, or people who look like they might be from other than where they are. Here is my approach, I suggest you either use it, develop your own, or expect to be snubbed by jerks like me who probably left their countries to avoid just the kind of person you might be (if you approach as above.)

Me: Excuse me. Do you live here?
(This is far better than asking “Are you a tourist?” since grumpy expats like me tend to think of most tourists as one step below pond scum. Even if they don’t live there, they will probably be a bit flattered that you thought they might)

Grumpy ExpatsExpat: (cautiously) Ughhh
(Don’t expect more than a grunt since they have no idea what you want and probably are hit up by art students who want to ‘practice their English’, merchants who always offer a ‘free’ cup of tea, and all manner of locals who see them as a cash machine of some sort. Also keep in mind that expats choose to live away from their countrymen so saying “Hi, I’m American and you look American too.” is usually the wrong approach.)

Me: Sorry to bother you, but I’m traveling without a guidebook and purely going on the recommendations of the people I meet. Since you look like you live here, I wonder if I could ask you a question.

Expat: (gruffly) What’s your question?
(All of this is assuming that they speak your language (which, if they don’t makes this all impossible) and that you’re not a hot young woman or George Clooney type (which probably makes things much easier but since I’m neither, I wouldn’t know.)

Me: Oh, nothing much. I just wondered if you could recommend a restaurant nearby that serves great food at a reasonable price. (The truth is, I want much more information than that, but everyone has a restaurant they like and most people aren’t scared to share that information)

Expat: (Warming up a bit) Oh, is that all? Sure, there’s a great little place over there called something or other.

Me: Sounds great. I’ll check it out. Thanks. Bye.
(Wait a minute, I want more info, right? Right! The key is that I now give them the chance to answer the questions they are thinking by prematurely ending the conversation and staring out the train window, sitting on a nearby bench, or sitting at a nearby table in Starbucks…)

Grumpy Expats
Not Grumpy Expats

Let a few minutes pass so the person really begins to wonder “Wow, that was it? I wonder where this person is from? Why are they traveling with no guidebook? What other tips have they gotten from the locals? Is that really it?”

The thing is, it takes someone to start a conversation and the first conversation is the hardest. By just keeping it simple, you open up the door and make it easier for the other person to approach you. You demonstrate that you are not a threat and you make yourself both interesting and approachable as a result.

At this point, one of three things will happen. 1) The person will be glad to be rid of you so easily and will leave 2) The person will take the bold move of striking up further conversation by asking something simple like “Where are you from?” “Why are you here?” “Why do you travel with no guidebook?” In this case, you can jump wholeheartedly into the conversation. or 3) They may need more reassurance or might need you to start the follow up conversation (for example : Excuse me, sorry to bother you again, but I want to take a short day trip from town, can you recommend anyplace?)

This might all sound crazy to you, but for me it works. Give it a try!

Making Money on the Road – Vagabond Tips

Teaching English Abroad
The world is full of people who want to learn English….

Backpacking trips are something we tend to plan for, and dream about, for a long time. Chances are, you’ve been saving towards them for some time too, but how far will your budget stretch when you are out on the open road and how can you make it last that little bit longer?

When it comes to it, making money while traveling could actually be easier than you think.

There are many ways to boost your income if you are willing to put the effort in; who wouldn’t want to make their backpacking trip last for that little bit longer (and avoid that boring 9-5 wage slave reality waiting for you at ‘home’)?

Below are 6 ways in which you can subsidize your income while you are traveling:

1: Teaching English; if your first language is English, you could boost your backpacking fund by teaching English language courses in some countries. To increase your chances of finding a suitable position, it’s a good idea to get TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) accredited.
This is a brilliant way to fund a trip abroad – although you might have to give up 6 months to a year of your time – and even better if you get to do it in a country that’s on your wish list.

2: Blogging: Are you a keen writer and do you have a blog? Even if the answer is no to both questions, why not set up a blog to document your travels and you might be able to earn a little money in the process. Once your blog is more established you might find that companies will pay you to feature an advert or review one of their products; you could even write guest posts for other paying blogs.

Seasonal Work Travel
Working from home is wonderful when your home is a new place on the road!

3: Seasonal work; while traveling in most countries, you should be able to find local, seasonal work which will give your income a welcome temporary boost. Try to research each country you plan to visit to find out when certain crops – such as grapes or olives – are harvested and aim to visit around this time.

4: Hostel/Hotel reviews; some websites will pay you for a review of hostels, hotels and guest houses you’ve stayed in. It might only be a few Dollars for each review (and you don’t even need to have an English degree to write one!) but that could pay for another night in a hostel or buy your next meal.

5: Put your skills to good use; if you have a skill you can put to use such as hairdressing, DIY or similar, why not advertise the fact and earn some easy money.If you’ll be staying in a hostel for a couple of days, make a quick cardboard sign and stick it on your door and get others to spread the word for you.

6: Work from home; this might sound a little unusual but I’m not referring to this terminology in the usual sense. Some companies will now allow staff members to log in remotely and carry out their work; this is especially relevant if you work in an IT or internet marketing position. If you are lucky enough to work in one of these roles or something similar, why not have a word with your employer and see if you can get paid for consultancy.

So, as you can see, there are definitely ways to boost your funds whilst backpacking, but we’re not talking big bucks. Depending on your budgeting skills and expectations though, this could be enough to let you extend your travels for an extra few months, so it’s well worth it, after all; who wants to come back to that office job…

Arriving in Spain back in 2009 – Vagobond Travel Video

I arrived in Spain back in early January of 2009. It was a mind blowing experience. I’d been couch surfing for several years but I arrived in Barcelona at the height of the platform being great. Barcelona was hosting a European Couchsurfing Meetup so there were hundreds of CSers and hosts were going all out to showcase their city.

I need to talk about what Couchsurfing was at that time for you to understand – there was no AirBnB and social media was still a toddler. Couchsurfing was a way for like minded global citizens to meet each other, share their cities and countries, and become friends. It was absolutely astounding. No one was charging for rooms and we hadn’t reached the point where baby boomers trying to save money on their travels were trying to use Couchsurfing as a way to get a cheap room. There was no such thing as a ‘global digital nomad’ and working remote was still a thing that was the exception rather than the rule. Only the oldest of millennials were on the road – this was mostly a young cohort of Gen X before marriage or startups slowed us down. Travel blogging was a thing – but it was a NEW thing and food blogging, mommy blogging, and those kind of niches weren’t around yet because we invented them later. There was no Instagram, Youtube was a real  struggle on the road, and everyone carried an actual camera – digital, but not a phone – a camera.

So there I was – arriving in Spain, making new friends, and finding out that there was an entire world of people like me. It was exhilarating. I wish it could have lasted forever. Just a few years later – it was an experience that couldn’t happen again. Condenast and other Boomer travel magazines had found that Boomers could save a few bucks using CS. Date rapists and scammers had infiltrated the CS community and put everyone on edge. AirBnb came along and showed everyone that rather than giving their rooms away they could rent them out, and then the ‘boomer mini-me’ generation came of age and made everything that had been cheap more expensive as their digital nomad lifestyles, van lifestyles, and desire for foods that had been cheap (avocados, ramen, saracha, granola, brown bread etc) made those foods and experiences expensive. And of course, smart phones, Instagram and the other tech we take for granted today made a lot of what we did impractical or unnecessary. Back in those days hosts were guides, friends, ambassadors, and sometimes lovers – as were the other CSers we met. 2006 to 2011 were the glory days of Couchsurfing – if you missed it – well, maybe you can get a sense from this video.

Iwahai: Save Memories with Voice and Place

Introducing Iwahai.  Sign up for the free email tutorial here. Iwahai lets you put voice recordings on a map. It’s easy, it’s revolutionary, and it’s free. Designed by travelers for travelers…and everyone else.

Iwahai Time MachineIwahai Time MachineIwahai Time MachineIwahai Voice Recording on a MapIwahai Time Machine

 

 

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