Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts

Riding the Transsiberian Railway



We are currently in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, having arrived here from Russia on the train. Well, on several trains.

Chasing Pigeons: How to Be Happy



It is becoming increasingly clear that the happiest people at any tourist destination, monument, or historical site are children chasing pigeons.

Why We Won't Fly


When Ricky and I started planning this trip, we thought we knew what we were going to do. First, we were going to buy motorcycles and ride from Texas to Pategonia. Then, we realized Central and South America were not the safest areas at the moment, what with economic crises, political turmoil, and drug violence.

So instead, we decided to buy a jeep in South Africa and drive all the way north. We quickly saw that this trip would have to be postponed for when we had oodles of money lying around for import and export taxes on a vehicle.

So, we came up with the idea of getting to Australia. It's not that hard to get to Australia, though, so we had to add a challenge. We decided to do it without flying.

See, Ricky and I are slow travelers. We arrange our trips so that we have all the time in the world and we're only regulated by budget. So, traveling across the globe slowly and cheaply is right up our alley, and that meant we had to cut out the travel cheats (aka, airplanes).

We will admit, we cheated once. We flew from Houston to New York, where we would begin our trip. This was mostly due to logistics and finances. We considered taking a bus, but that would take over 2 days and was more expensive than flying. We decided we didn't want to begin our journey tired and grumpy. However, since New York was our starting point, we don't really feel all that guilty for flying to get there.

From there on out, though, no planes. We even took a transatlantic cruise to England to avoid flying.

We've already come across instances where it would be cheaper and faster to fly, but we've passed those opportunities up. In actuality, it's been nice avoiding airports. We've not had to worry about packing liquids or the weights of our bags, or whether they can be brought as a carry-on or not. Instead, we throw our stuff in the belly of a bus and enjoy some free wifi and a nap for a few hours until we reach our destination.

There are definitely ups and downs to this method, and I'm sure we'll discover more as we go along. So far, it's been nice to arrive in a city fairly close to our hostel instead of having to trek through an airport and baggage claim, and then hop in an expensive taxi or a long subway to get to the center of town. We've been able to just keep going without feeling like the journey to our accommodation has taken half the day.

On the other hand, buses take a long time. A really long time. We've taken a bus from London to Ireland, then from Ireland back to London, and from London to Paris. Those are very long rides and hopefully we'll master the art of sleeping well in cramped quarters. We'll definitely be hanging out in buses a lot in the next few months.

It may seem like we're torturing ourselves for nothing, but really there's a charm to riding on ground transportation. You really feel like you're going somewhere. In a plane, there are a few seconds of loud noise and shaking, a couple snacks, and then you magically appear at your destination. On a bus or train, though, you feel the earth under you. You see it whiz by in the windows. You see the change in landscapes and weather and you KNOW that you are traveling.

And for us, "traveling" is more than just being in one city and then another and then another. It's the act of getting there. It's the movement. It's feeling connected to the journey rather than stopping in every once in a while.

So for as long and as far as we can, we are not going to fly. That's just the way we like it.


Finally on the Road....Sort Of.


We left on our trip about a month ago, on July 1st. We had just landed in New York, a first for both of us. We stayed with a friend and had a great time seeing the city.

But....

It didn't really feel like we had started traveling. It's hard to say why. Maybe because we were with a friend? Because we hadn't left the country? Because we weren't roughing it?

Oh well, we thought, our next leg will be something new and exciting and once we leave the US it will feel real!

So we boarded our cruise and enjoyed a week of dirty martinis and 3 course meals and masquerade balls and lectures from astronauts and Broadway producers.  We could hardly call ourselves backpackers at that point either, right?

So we didn't. We couldn't claim that we had begun our trip quite yet. It didn't seem fair, not when we were doing pub trivia quizzes with elderly doctors and snacking on smoked salmon.

It's alright, we said, we'll get to England and then head to Ireland where we'll go see parts of the country that neither of us have seen! It'll finally be something new and interesting!

We arrived in Ireland and went to Ricky's childhood home where instead of dropping off a few things and heading out to tour the country, we stayed and did yard work, helped around the house a bit, brought home the turf, and drank wine with aunts and uncles in the evenings.

And playing fetch with the dogs somewhere in between. 
We attempted to salvage some time and used our last full week there to visit Northern Ireland and then go back down to visit a friend. We stayed in a hostel, like usual, but we also rented a car (not so usual). We enjoyed our freedom and seeing the sites around the parts of the country neither of us knew well, but still it felt like we hadn't begun.
It was lovely, though. 


With a ridiculous amount of ruins for one place. 

After nearly 3 weeks of staying at "home" in Ireland we have begun our real trip. We've left both of our home countries and begun riding buses, staying in 20 person dorm rooms, and familiarizing ourselves with local transit.

And yet...

For the bulk of our time in Europe we'll be staying with friends or family, in homes, with home cooked meals. We'll be visiting cities that are new to me but that are old-hat to Ricky. We'll be eating foods that are somewhat familiar (why do the English serve chips with EVERYTHING!?) and getting away with the languages that we speak. We'll be using a phone with free roaming and lots of data so we don't get lost.

So when does our journey actually begin? When do we start the adventure, the not-knowing, the mystery that travel brings? When will we be ok walking around with just a paper map, using nothing but gestures to find a place to eat?

I'm not sure when I'll feel like we're actually traveling, but for now I'll try to enjoy the weird and wonderful that happens daily, try to find something interesting that makes this place, wherever it is, different from every other place.



What Immigration is Really Like




By Ricky


I have a confession to make. I’m not proud of what I’m about to say, but I believe honesty is the best policy. So here goes:

I have spent most of my life with a bitter hatred towards the United States.

Stranger Things: Loving Places Through People.



One of the greatest, and sometimes weirdest, aspects of travel can be the people that we meet. Magic can really happen when happenstance takes over and random and fortuitous encounters occur. The meeting of strangers can often, somewhat counterintuitively, eliminate the strangeness of a new place.

We abandoned our babies.




Yesterday we did one of the hardest things we've ever had to do.

We abandoned our babies.

On Traveling With Mental Illness



Talia here, and it's time for some real talk.

I have depression. I've been "dealing" with it for about 6 years now. It's hard. It sucks. It's miserable. It hurts people close to me. In short, it's a big bummer that I'd really rather do without.

Xtreme Travel!




One of the issues that I think a lot of people don’t like about travel is that it can be hard to go to a place where people haven’t already amassed, and when you get there, people tell you that another place is better.

As Talia and I continue inland in Vietnam, we were thinking and discussing how in every place you go there are people who have been to another place which surpasses the place you are in in every way, which can get a little frustrating.

Everywhere there are other travelers who have seen bigger, better, faster, older, purer renditions of what you are currently looking at. For Talia and me this doesn’t take away from the uniqueness of whatever we are looking at, as I suppose is the intention of the naysayers, but we take it all at face value, a lesson we have learned from our travels.

Hardly a day goes by when we don’t overhear a traveler, for example on a bus, saying how their souvenir is more authentic and unique because an old lady made it in her hut or whatever.

Understandably everyone takes away from an experience whatever they put into it and if something is special to you for one reason or another then good for you. But the necessity to always work in superlatives is adolescent at best. I have come to learn that I have not explored a fraction of the world and its wonders nor met enough people to really know what the ultimate experience is, so the search goes on.

We met one young French guy in Laos who was intent on being the “real” traveler, while everyone else (as he told them to their faces, including ours) was merely a tourist with a big Nikon.

But ask yourself, how many superlatives can you REALLY adhere to? I mean, there are factual superlatives and opinionated superlatives and learning the difference can matter! Just earlier today we heard a girl proclaim how the guys who drive Cruiser motorbikes and do one-on-one tours are so incredibly nicer and, I quote, “better” than the usual motorbike taxi drivers who shout at you as they drive past (though just today I would say we got more “HEY YOU”s from the cruiser riding riders).

Granted she was only speaking in the comparative, but the notion remains the same. How can one be any different to another when the only difference, the ONLY difference is one drives a smaller bike than the other?!

I’m sure we all do it from time to time (I was known as “The Topper” in my job in China) but this is my public service announcement to the people of the 2feetoutthedoor world, as a person who speaks from experience, and annoyance:


1.
Better and best are only comparative terms based on contextual personal preference, therefore making them in themselves null and void outside of the realm of your opinion until proven otherwise by fact.

2.
Even if yours is bigger, just shut your loud mouth about it.

On Wanderlust




There’s this thing called Restless Leg Syndrome. My mom, her sisters, and my grandmother all have it, as far as a self-diagnosis can let you have it. I’ve got it too. If you don’t know what it is, then you’re very lucky. But let me explain it to you.

It usually happens at night, or when you’re tired. For me, it starts in my thighs—a weird tingling sensation. Well, less a tingling than a sort of wiggling feeling, like a bunch of mice are running around in there. I have to stand up, walk around, do some stretches, punch myself in the thigh—anything to make the restless feeling stop. Usually, there’s nothing to do but go to bed, stretch out, and hope I’m tired enough to fall asleep before the mice chew their way out of my calves. 

As you can imagine, it’s a very uncomfortable feeling.

But what happens when you get Restless Leg syndrome in your soul?  What do you do when your very being needs to get up and move, to stretch out before you go insane?

Welcome to wanderlust, my friends.

I’ve been stricken with wanderlust, and bad. It started when I was getting ready to graduate high school and knew I had to get away from my quick-sand small town. So I went to Hawaii for college.  After that, I found myself in Argentina for a year and a half. Then Utah to finish college (which I admit isn’t the most wanderlust-y place I could have gone, but it was still a place that I’d never lived in long-term before).  After the (let’s just call it what it was) blandness of 2 years in Utah (which, granted, was interrupted by a study abroad in the UK, a tour in Ireland, and a couple random trips to California and Vegas), my legs were restless. I needed to be on the move again.

So I ended up in China. For a year. And now, traveling in Asia for the last 6 months. I’m stretching my soul, giving myself a few hops to ease the restlessness.

But why does it happen? Why does it happen to some people and not others? I know several people, friends and family, who have barely left their hometown, who may have never left their country, or heaven forbid, their state. It astounds me. Why don’t some people have the desire to just go?

Well, let’s take a look at the word. Wanderlust. Wander. To wander. It’s a word that implies aimlessness, perhaps confusion, or being lost. People wander around when they aren’t really sure where they’re going or what they’re looking for.

But just in case you thought this timeless cliché of a quote was going to escape this post: Not all who wander are lost.

Sometimes, people just wander. Sometimes, we don’t need to have a goal or an endpoint in mind. Sometimes we just want to walk around and see what we find, despite not really looking for anything.

I’m a wanderer. I can spend hours wandering a supermarket or a shopping mall or a busy street, not looking for anything, not trying to get anywhere, but just seeing. The way people walk, how things are organized, where things come from—these are the things I like to see. I’m a browser, and not just for products.

But what about the people who don’t wander? What about those that don’t feel the need to walk the aisles or people watch or just take a walk?  Often, they’re goal oriented—get a degree, get a job, score that promotion, buy a new hairbrush. Whatever it is, they go for it, point A to point B, no room for browsing. Or they don’t. Sometimes it’s the people with no goal that don’t wander. They’re comfortable where they are, with what they have. They don’t deviate from the tried-and-true, the solid foundation of proven success (or failure).  Maybe never leaving home means security. Maybe staying in your hometown means comfort and a sense of belonging.

And maybe wandering means just a bit more complications.

But what about the second part? Lust. What a loaded word. Fire, passion, sex—these are the words of lust. Danger. Risk.  This is what lust has to offer.

So why not?

Why not indulge in the lust of wandering? Why not delve into the risks, the challenges, the potential dangers of wanderlust? 

I can think of no reason not to. If you have the passion for it, you can make it happen, regardless of the risks.  Sure, there is no security in wandering, true wandering. There is no fail-safe plan, no insurance. But that does not mean that it is impossible, implausible, improbable.

The passion for wandering is a passion that is strong and difficult to quench. To lust after the wandering experience is to lust after a phantom that is always just out of your grasp. The more you chase her, the more you want her, and the further she is away from you.

Until the chase has satisfied you. Because it’s not the ghost you want, but the hunt.

And what do you do then, when your world-wandering has been sated, when your restless legs have been stretched and kneaded into tranquility?

You wait. You wait because wanderlust is an addiction. The cravings will come again, stronger than before, and won’t be satisfied until you get up and go.  They will be there whether you are ready for them or not, so be prepared.

I’ve been traveling for a long time. I feel like I’ve been on the move for years. I settle down for a year or two at a time, but it’s never permanent. And I like it that way. 

Now, as Ricky and I are a third of the way through our Vietnam motorbike tour, so far over 6 months of traveling, we feel that our wanderlust is being sated for the time being.  Following our trip here, we will be looking for work in China, and a little stability.  Our lady wanderlust has left us dirty, bearded (Ricky, at least), hairy legged (the both of us), and generally unkempt. We’re slightly ill, unhygienic, and sore. But mostly we’re happy.

Wanderlust is a fickle mistress.

So in March, we’ll let her go for a while.

But she’ll come back. She always does.

Ch-ch-ch Changes?



Talia and I sit here in a cafĂ© in North central Vietnam. I have a small cold and we haven’t been able to see any sights or do anything interesting because of it.

I haven’t blogged in a while and while there are many reasons why, I decided to write a little today and share my thoughts.

A lot of the people we speak to don’t really know what we are doing here, in Asia. We heard from Talia’s brother at Christmas that some people seem to think that we are on an Indiana Jones style adventure which, while untrue, would be quite pleasant. No, we aren’t running through caves with huge boulders rolling behind us. We have been to a few tribal villages but they haven’t chased us or tried to eat or sacrifice us…

So what have we been doing? Well… I have no idea. I have no clue. One of the reasons I haven’t written in a while is because I have been doing a little soul searching, trying to find what it is that I am doing.

I am in a very small community of people (just me and my girlfriend, about as small as a community can get) and though we share everything, I spend a lot of time in my solitary shell. Just thinking to myself about … well….. myself.

What am I doing? Am I doing more than the other average traveler? Is that what I want to do? But most importantly, how does it affect ME? So while most people we meet are doing something similar to us, though usually on shorter schedules and quite often more touristic, is that me too?

Am I just an ecologically negative force on my surroundings, taking the same photographs of the same stuff as everyone else? Sometimes I wonder if the money I saved for this trip could have been spent on a nice new Audi, or a deposit for a nice two bedroom apartment overlooking suburbia.

No.

I’m doing this for me.

I am travelling and seeing and doing for the sake of myself and how it will affect me as a person.

All of the time I spend reflecting and thinking about my past, all of the mistakes I made and the trouble I caused. All of the apologies I owe and mistakes, mistakes, mistakes. While I’m sure that because I spend so much time here in my solitary shell thinking about my past while living my present, everything I think is expanded and grows to a gargantuan psychological force that I must over-power and come out the other side a better person.

I saw a movie recently,  a Dreamworks cartoon, but the parallels suffice. The movie was “Bee Movie” and in one of the first scenes there are two bees conversing over their summer experiences. One bee says he was glad he spent the summer travelling around the bee hive, the other bee says “yeah, you really came back different.”

Different?! Will anyone ever comment on my difference when I return to the world? Will others complement my “differences” when I return, the differences in my expectations, personality, wants, intelligence, etc. Will I be different to the one who made all of those mistakes? Or has all of this just been a dream where when I wake up I still don’t talk to certain people because of a mistake I made in my past that in their eyes I am still to be held accountable for?

Will I be able to sit at the adult table at the next family wedding or will I once again be pushed to play kids games at the kids table because I didn’t grow up and get a real job yet, because I haven’t paid into my pension fund like some other people in my life who chose successful work over world travel?

I guess the closest analogy I can make is if I see myself as a shining light, and as I pass through a pane of glass, how do I come out the other side? Will I come out the same as before, just with a fistful of photographs and a boastful ego? Perhaps I come out the other side a completely different colour, as if the glass is stained. But has it stained me for the better or the worse?

I look around and picture Vietnam, in fact all of South East Asia, or even East Asia, with it’s rice paddies and conical straw hats, the stilted houses, and everything that all of this could ever entail. I see all of this as two things, one being amazing experiences, experiences unique to me which I get to enjoy the way I want. And secondly as my pane of glass.  All of this is my shot at redemption. My chance to mentally right my own wrongs on my own terms and come to realize my own faults so I can better myself for the good of primarily myself and secondarily the people around me, especially those close to me.

Who am I? I’m a work in progress.

Something Familiar, Something Foreign: 5 Months on the Road

A lot has happened in the past week.

One of the things that Ricky and I decided is a must for the trip is a motorbike tour of Vietnam. (We have Top Gear to thank for that.) We were in Chiang Mai for a little over a week and decided that Vietnam was our next stop. But how to get there? Flying seemed to be far too expensive, and we really wanted to do the trip without flying at all.

Then it hit us. Laos. We knew there was a bus from Vientiane to Hanoi, where we wanted to start the tour, and going by bus would be cheaper than flying.

So after a 14 hour mini-bus (like a 12 person van) ride, we are here in Vientiane. Yesterday, we decided that our first item of business would be to get our Vietnam visa. As we walked to the embassy, it struck me how much I liked Laos, and this city in particular. We walked the streets that were familiar to us, yet everything was also so foreign.

We had traveled the same roads before, knew where the too-large shopping mall was, and that the green walking man never showed his face signaling the time to cross the street on foot.

We still don't speak the language, though, or recognize a lot of places. It's still possible for us to get turned around on the side streets.

And that is great!

When you're at home, you sleep in the same bed every night, eat at the table that is always in the same place, leave your keys in the same little dish. Traveling, though, everything is different. Your bed changes often (sometimes more often than your underwear), and you hardly ever have time to have any favorites in a town.

So when we returned to Vientiane, where we stayed for a week two months ago, it was amazing to have the two sensations at once. We are staying in the same hostel we stayed at before, but in a different room with different people. We've eaten at a couple of the same places as before, and found some new ones too. It's a lot easier to branch out this time and try some new things, because we're not so wary. We feel confident in this town.

The same can be said for traveling in general. I was just telling Ricky how I felt like such a noob when we first started in China, and everyone we met had been traveling for a while. Now, though, it's different.

Today is our 5 month mark for the trip. We feel pretty experienced as travelers and are confident in the way we do things. We've made a ton of mistakes, but we've learned from them. Every new country or city we visit throws something new at us, but we are learning to handle them better after having messed up in similar situations before.

We are excited to go to Vietnam, excited for the challenges, the new experiences. We know that there will be things that are very different from what we've experienced so far, but we are confident that we will be able to handle them.


4 Reasons Why Siem Reap is the Most Aggravating City on the Planet


We just spent two and a half days in Siem Reap, which in my opinion was far too long.  See, Siem Reap is a place that just gets to you. It has some inexplicable way of getting right to your nerves and giving them a little flick.

Cambodia: More annoying than this thing.

4. The Children
I know what you’re thinking. I’m some terrible person that hates children and is annoyed  by crying and whining. Well, all of that is true, but is not actually why the children are annoying.  Unlike the children in Phnom Penh, who were often smart and charming and actually selling things, the children of Siem Reap just hassle you.  They will come up to you, holding their “little brother” and a near empty bottle and say “Don’t want money, only milk!” Now, I don’t really get this scam, because obviously a baby needs to eat. But when one girl followed us down an entire street telling us to go into a shop and buy milk, we saw her blatantly pinching the baby so he would cry, because he was “hungry.”  And there were kids everywhere doing this.  Now, I’m not so evil that I would let a baby starve, but I also can’t give money to every begging child, especially when things don’t seem quite right. Still, it's hard to say no, despite how irritating the kids are.

3. The “Salespeople”
Just to be clear, everyone is selling something in Siem Reap. Ricky commented that he would like to meet one person that wasn’t a tourist that didn’t want his money. It’s impossible.  This town is a tourist town, and all the people want is the dollar. You cannot walk down the street without being shouted at by people whose soul job is to sit outside a business and shout at you. “Lady! You have massage! Mister, you eat here!”  And it’s not an offer, either. It’s a command. These people are telling you to buy their stuff of partake of their service. In their mind you don’t have a choice. But you do, and most often that choice is no.

2. The Tourists
As I said a minute ago, Siem Reap is a tourist town, and boy is it ever.  Pub Street is exactly what it sounds like and has the largest concentration of tourists that I’ve seen in a long time.  You can’t get away from them. Once again I’m sure you’re all thinking “Good heavens, that Talia is one anti-social nightmare.” Well sometimes. But mostly Ricky and I  like to enjoy a place for its local culture.  With so many tourists, there is no local culture, unless you count the locals who own the pubs, guesthouses, and restaurants that cater almost solely to tourists.

1. The Tuk-Tuk Drivers
We thought we had it bad in Phnom Penh. We had no idea.
In Phnom Penh, tuk-tuk drivers would shout at you as you pass, wanting to you to know that he was there and ready to take you wherever you needed to go. If you said no, he might ask one more time, just to be sure, but would otherwise leave you alone.
In Siem Reap, however, the drivers just won’t let you go. They rarely sit in their vehicle as they ask you where you want to go. Instead, they wander the street, especially Pub Street, walking by your side as you tell them yet again, that no, you don’t want a tuk-tuk. And they just don’t listen. Instead, they talk.
“Where you go, mister? You want massage? You want eat? I take you. Where you from, lady?  What time is it? Where you stay? I take you there.”
There really is no end to their chatter, until you either shout a very loud NO, or walk further away from the tourist crowd than they are comfortable with.

Now, for you non-travelers, some of this may sound kind of petty, and maybe it is.  Maybe I shouldn’t be bothered by people just trying to do their job, or other travelers having a good time.  Maybe I should learn to be a little more patient in my travels.

In any case, I’m glad to be out of Siem Reap.

Top 10 Travel Apps (Even When You're Not Traveling)



When we left northern China on our great journey it took quite a bit of time to decide what technology I wanted to bring with me. I had just bought a new, very lightweight laptop just for the trip but once it came to the crunch I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bring it and risk it getting damaged or stolen.

So I made a decision to bring an iPod touch instead.

Let me just say that I am not just recommending an Apple product or the standard apps therein (such as the mail and Safari apps which will also be useful for travel). I am recommending the third party apps created by companies who make their profits through other means such as in-app advertising.

Now, this might sound a bit strange as an iPod surely can’t be worth more than a computer while travelling, can it? Well, funnily enough, it can actually be better! Let me explain why….

-all apps listed here are completely free from the App Store at time of writing and some of them work offline without 3G, 4G or wifi networks-


10.
 Booking.com speaks for itself. It is quite simply an app connected to the booking.com website. Booking.com is handy for getting a very cheap last minute reservation in almost any city in the world. –Requires internet connection-






9.

 THIS. IS. PHOTOSHOP! This app is outrageously fun and cool on the go. Edit pictures, make collages and more all while waiting for your noodles at a noodle stand. It’s fast, it’s very easy, it’s intuitive and best of all, it’s free!




8.

 Couchsurfing is a relatively recent phenomenon where a person offers up their couch for new friends to stay with them for free, with the expectation that the surfer will also host other surfers when they finish travelling. Well the clever buffs over at Couchsurfers finally released an official user friendly app earlier this year. A must for any cheapskate traveler! –Requires internet connection-



7.

 The first of the guides! Tripadvisor gives a user information about things to do, see and, of course, eat in pretty much any city in the world with user reviews available for thousands of restaurants and places to stay. It’s perfect for people who don’t want to search for hours to find that Yak burger in the Himalayas or that North Korean restaurant in Shanghai! -Requires an internet connection-



6.

 The standard photos app is where all of your photos are stored on your iPod. It seems like a pretty standard app which doesn’t require a mention until you start to uncover its other uses. The photos app can double as a place to store maps you download from the internet. Once again, this might seem simple enough but becomes essential once you realize that city maps are not always widely available and in a lot of cases the city maps offered at the train stations or hotels omit very important  features such as subway maps, etc.


5.

 Using this app on your travels may seem obvious, but sometimes it just isn’t. We have met several travelers who depended solely on their SLR cameras or digital compacts, only to realize the memory was full, the battery died, it fell into the blue lagoon, got splashed on by the kids etc. Well, with your IOS device you have a very capable backup camera with 7mp images and 720p video…. Very very handy.



4.

 iBooks gets a high ranking because it is a double whammy app. I recently read Dracula, Through the Looking Glass, Burmese Days and many more books on my little iPod FOR FREE! I don’t have to carry heavy books around and the screen is more than capable of displaying readable (albeit small) backlit pages of books, saving weight big time.

The second whammy is that I can also email pdf files to my iPod and read those on the device. Why is this so great you ask? Well I recently uploaded the Lonely Planet books I need, including maps, ratings, suggestions, etc. from all over the world onto my little iPod and it all works offline! A real prize winner.

3.

 More than once I have been in a country where more than one currency is accepted for a purchase and I think to myself “I wonder in which currency my purchase will work out cheaper….” Well this little beauty is ideal. Every time I go to the bank I have the most recent exchange rates downloaded from the internet and I can see how much I lose on exchanges.

It is so up to date that recently while exchanging $100 into Cambodian riel I had more up to date rates than the bank teller and in the exchange I actually gained $3 thanks to this app!

2.

 Skype. Absolutely essential. With Skype I can video call my friends and family, voice conference with several people at once, instant message friends from work and send large files like recent pictures of my trip.
ALL.        FOR.      FREE.

Add a little Skype credit (similar to phone credit but all done online) and you can call cell phones for less than the cell phone rates actually cost. That means I can call my mom for less on Skype from the other side of the world than if I called her from a cell phone while sitting next to her! –Requires internet connection-


1.

 In keeping with the travel app genre here, this has to be a clear winner. The biggest difference between this app and the other Tripadvisor app is this app works completely offline. Tripadvisor city guides is in a complete league of it’s own. Let me lay it down for you: this app can…
1.Display recent maps at varying degrees of detail
2.Suggest sights
3.Recommend restaurants, hotels, bars and nightclubs (all at different price ranges)
4.Show recent reviews of everything it has listed
5.Display other users’ walking tours, as well as TA recommended tours
6.Allows you to make your own walking tours
And way more.
ALL…OFF….LINE…
ALL….FOR….FREE!!!!

When in China Talia and I took a walking tour of the forbidden city in Beijing and at the entrance we were approached by some tour guides, looking for 30euros or so to give a tour. Well with this app we got a self guided tour, with history and pictures of the sights, a map and descriptions of everything around us all offline, in clear English and for free. It really saved us a lot of money and time and it really doesn’t get any better than that!

Well there you have it! We use all of these apps in some shape or form during our travels and I would recommend all of them especially the last few, which I would consider essential. Hope this post was helpful and informative!

Waterfalls and Villages: Unexpected Beauty


If you recall from this post, my bike had a bit of unexpected trouble on our way to Pakse. Well, the bike was fixed by the time we got there to pick it up the next day, and everything went swimmingly until a couple hours later when I got a flat tire from driving over a nail. But other than that, things went great.

Today was also a most unexpected day, in a good way. We thought we’d go to a waterfall, because there’s nothing better than swimming in delightfully chilly water on a hot day in Southeast Asia.  We didn’t end up swimming, but what we did get was so much better.

We hopped onto Lady Stark (who, if you didn’t know, is my lovely green motorbike. She’s feisty and quick.) and headed out, semi-blind. There were no road signs to point our way, and we weren’t sure what road we were on, or if it would lead us anywhere. We stopped and asked for directions a couple of times, using our limited Lao, and the miming techniques we have all but perfected.

We arrived, much to our surprise, and as we entered I read the sign and realized that this wasn’t the waterfall we had planned on going to. Well, at least we got somewhere.

The entrance fee was surprisingly cheap, and the place had a nice atmosphere about it.  There were signs pointing the way to ethnic villages and caves, but we headed straight to the falls, ready to jump into some cold water. We were a tad disappointed when we saw that the path led to the top of the falls with no way to get to the pool below, so swimming wasn’t really an option.

We doubled back found a group tourists wandering aimlessly, trying to make sense of the many signs and arrows and paths.  We followed them down a path paved in tree stumps, and found ourselves in the middle of a village of wooden huts with thatched roofs. In the center of everything was a blue tarp covered in drying coffee cherries.  Take a look here for a 360 degree photo of the village.

We walked past a small hut with a local family sitting on the porch taking pictures with a couple of the tourists. I think they thought it would be a great idea to get a picture with natives AND white people, so they beckoned us in, and I sat with them as Ricky took some pictures. I was a little hesitant to join because I prepared for the day thinking we would go swimming, so I was wearing short swim shorts and a tank over my swimsuit. I was afraid I would offend them being so scantily clad, but they were friendly and didn’t kick me out of the village.



We soon found ourselves at a tree-top “bachelor cabin” and then under a small hut with a tiny old man who was definitely the highlight of our visit.




 He was standing at a sort of woven bamboo table covered in various musical instruments. Ricky asked if he could pick up the boxy guitar-shaped one, and he and the small old man jammed for a while, and I had a go at some pipes and an oboe sounding instrument made from a single bit of bamboo.






We were in no rush to leave the man or his instruments, because he was such a jolly fella, and I think he saw that clearly enough. He brought out a few toys for us to play with. They were more like puzzles, made of bits of bamboo and string. We sat for AGES trying to figure them out. He showed us multiple times how to do them, but we just didn’t get it for a while. When he showed us how to do it, he would tap a finger to his temple and give us a little grin, meaning that he knew the trick, the clever old man. Eventually, though, we figured them out. And of course we bought them, because we like toys.

We finally left the man and found ourselves at the place where we came in. Beyond some trees was another waterfall, which confused us a little, because the water was flowing the opposite way of the other waterfall. We made our way along some rocks in the stream right to where the fall was, only 
slipping a few times and enjoying the cool water on our feet. Here is the 360 picture.

The waterfall we found.

Woven bamboo bridge is probably the safest way to go across a raging river.

The view from the waterfall after crossing the river.


We couldn't believe that we had found this place, and it was so inexpensive and so beautiful and authentic. It was definitely one of our favorite attractions so far, and made for a beautiful day. 

The goings-on


Ok, so here’s the DL.

 We’re in a town called Khoun Kham today (tonight), and last night we stayed in a town called…. Something or other. It was next to impossible to find on the map because here in Laos the name of anything depends on how you feel it should be spelt, leading to …some confusion.

 I have to say it’s not hard to see this place was once a French colony with all the ways they hide everything so no-one can understand anything except the locals. Anyway, the town was called either:

Pak Xin

Paxxan

Paksan

Pakxan

Paksane

Pakxane

Pak sin

Or Paxxane

Between road maps, street signs and what have you, I don’t know how to spell it.  Our journey here to Khoun Kham was uneventful but very interesting. We stopped off on the road to have a look at the “limestone forest” which was in all honesty, very beautiful.

 
We found a room for 1 euro a day (about a buck forty to all the ‘mericans) which is an absolute steal, though I get a feeling that a zero may have been omitted somewhere.

 Once we got the room here in town I was doing a quick run over the bikes and discovered that we had next to no oil in the engines so we went to a local mechanic, who spoke oddly great English. The guy ended up checking our bikes all the way over (all brakes, greased the chain, tire pressure and complete oil change) for just 75,000 kip ($9.50) for both bikes, which is very cheap considering he was working for almost a half hour between both the bikes. We were well happy!

 We wanted to blog loads for everyone tonight but a very odd storm passed by town (no rain, just thunder and lightning) and there was no electricity for a few hours, and despite the power coming back, the internet hasn’t. So I am writing to you from the past, as I plan to post this once the internet recovers.

Hello future self.

 Well now that our bikes, Betsy Black and Lady Stark (previously Arya, but her title and surname has a better ring to it) are fit and healthy and well fed, it’s time for us to venture from here to the 7.5km Kong Lor cave.

 Why is that significant, you ask?

 It’s a cave, and I’m claustrophobic. Also, it is home to not Laos’, not Asia’s but the world’s biggest spiders discovered in the last decade.  And I’m arachnophobic.

 See you on the other side future self.

Dusty Roads, Dusty Faces: Getting to the Country


Well, friends, we’re back, after a long and dusty road of…dust. Seriously. That’s about all I can recall from our last couple of drives. We left Vientiane, having done all that city has to offer (like seeing the abandoned water park and trying to find the zoo that mysteriously disappeared at some point), two days ago, apparently a Tuesday. We never really know anymore.
The long road ahead


Getting a drink of water before heading on again.
 

We drove to a small town called Paxsan, one of those places where if you blink, you miss it. And we pretty much did. When we got close to the town we saw a guesthouse and decided to get a room there, as opposed to driving on and trying to find another one. The room was cheap, which was fine, but I’ll get to the not-so-fine stuff in a minute.

We dropped our things off, and headed back on the road to find a place with internet and food so we could do a little blogging. We drove couple kilometers and the small wooden buildings became ever more sparse so we had to pull over and ask each other if we had passed the whole city. We had, so we turned around and drove through the two or three streets of the actual town. And apparently the whole town is internet-free, so we satisfied ourselves with overpriced drinks at a bar outside of town, not blogging. Meanwhile, a few feet away from us, the ladies that run the place were sitting on the floor watching TV, while pulling wings off of giant bugs that they would later eat.
Ladies hard at work.


The final wingless product
If you want to see them in action, here's a video for you.



We ended up going back to our guesthouse where I debated taking a shower, but I decided against it. To do so would require me to stand against the toilet, over the flush-bucket (a bucket full of water and a scoop to dump water into the toilet when you’re finished. Also doubles as back-side wash water after a healthy number two), and far too close to a huge cockroach carcass being carried away by hundreds of tiny black ants. Instead, I took a nap, covered in red grit from the dusty drive.

 When I woke up, Ricky and I went for dinner at a karaoke place where no one was singing and there were 3 whole tables of people. I ordered “fried fish with basil.” What came to me was undercooked, boiled fish with onions and carrots, whole leaves of basil on stems, and sliced peppers in an unbearably spicy sauce. By the third bite I felt like even my teeth were on fire.

Now, there are a few things I really dislike: snow on my face, overuse of the word random, Crocs. But needlessly spicy food is at the top of the list. Everything from my gums to the back of my throat were tingling with some sort of mutant-power chili spice.  I had to take a break every couple of bites so I could down some more soda, and by the time I was finished (and given away the mushy uncooked bits to the begging dogs around my feet), I was so grumpy and in pain that I demanded we stop to find ice cream on the way home, which we did.

Today we got up and headed out of the guesthouse, once again not bothering to shower. The roach was gone, but when Ricky tried to rinse his hands off in the shower, the shower head fell off.  So we hit the road, not caring how dirty we were, because we knew we’d just get dirtier. And did we ever.

Now, I sweat. A lot. And here in Laos it’s incredible the way my sweatstache reappears just seconds after wiping it away. So when I’m covered in sweat and then driving on sometimes-unpaved roads, I get real dirty real quick. Take a look at this pic. That’s not tan. That’s dirt.


Here's a better view of the karsts behind us.



And an even better one.


We also had to drive through veritable clouds of white butterflies. Now, butterflies may look delicate and sweet, but when you hit them going 80 km an hour, they feel like rocks pelting you.

 When Ricky and I finally got into the village we were to stay at, I was so gritty and dirty that I could scrape off layers of it with my fingernails. We decided to eat before we really got settled, and while we waited for the food, I decided to have look at a nearby market for a loofah or bath scrub of some sort. What I found was a scouring pad, guaranteed to get rid of grease and grime. Well, I was covered in that stuff, so I bought it, and let me tell you, I’ve never felt cleaner.

Of course, the glory of my super clean and shiny skin didn’t last long, because the power shortly went out, so Ricky and I played cards by headlamp in the main building, while small children chased puppies in the dark and somehow did not fall.

So now the lights are back on and I am typing this while we wait for our post-dinner dinner. The Lao boy next to me is playing World of Warcraft and there’s a moth fluttering on the floor. I have to admit that the last couple of days have been pretty strange, but sitting next to this kid that thinks he’s a warlock is pretty cool.

 

The Day We Became Fugitives in a Foreign Country

Today started off as a normal day. I woke up quite late because I couldn’t sleep. Meanwhile, Ricky was on the bunk below me, giggling to himself while watching Top Gear.  At about noon, we got out of bed, had ourselves some cereal and prepared for the day.

Some of our plans fell through, so we decided to go for a little drive and see a couple of sights.  We headed toward a huge golden stupa in the distance, and as we neared, we saw that what separated it  from us was a massive empty parking lot, the kind you put a traveling carnival in. As soon as we scooted in past a mostly closed gate (which should have been our first sign), Ricky got a devious grin on his face.

“This is going to be fun.”

We drove around the lot for a while until we came to one end and he challenged me.

“Naught to  fifty to naught.”

So we backed up to the curb, counted down and took off. Much to Ricky’s surprise I stayed right with him, and when I looked down I was nearly at 55 kmph and slammed on the brakes.  My tail snaked around me, but I stayed upright, much to my own surprise.

Well, it was so much fun that we decided to go again so we headed back to the start. Right behind us, however, were the coppers.

I smiled at them as they headed toward us, despite my fear that I was about to be arrested, because I heard that was the best defense mechanism for Lao police, and offered a cheerful “Sabaidee!” (hello)

They didn’t speak English, but sign-languaged their way into telling us that we can’t be here and that we have to leave. We apologized profusely, told them we would exit right away, and thanked them with a smile. Before we had put our helmets back on they had driven away.

We were pleasantly surprised, because we had heard some horror stories about foreigners being locked up or forced to pay outrageous amounts of money.

Well, our time would come…

Later in the evening we met a couple from Spain and an American girl they were traveling with. We sat and chatted for a while, then went off for dinner. After dinner, Ricky suggested that we burn some cash. Literally.

See, in China, they sell fake 100 RMB bills for people to burn in huge piles on the street. When they burn, the ashes and smoke go upward, toward the person’s ancestors in the afterlife. There, they will be rich.

Ricky had bought a stack of the money in China but we had never gotten around to burning it. So we got the money and headed down to the shores of the Mekong River to make an offering to our ancestors.

We sat in a circle, taking turns tossing bills into the small fire, as we said who each one was for. Grandmothers, grandfathers, great aunts, everybody. It was actually quite nice to take a moment and think of the ones we had lost.



We had just burned the last bill and begun talking about how we felt (awww!) when trouble came.




The police came to bust up our party. There was one who seemed to be in charge, and a few lackeys.  
The conversation went something like this.

Police: You, no here.

Us: What?

Police: You, no here, after 9. You mistake.

Us: Oh yes, mistake! We made a mistake, we can’t be here after 9! We’ll just be going now!

Police: Stop! You, Thailand *swimming motion*

Us: No sir, we didn’t swim over from Thailand. See? We’re dry

Police: Passports!

Us: Sorry, we don’t have our passports with us.

Police: You, mistake, no here. Follow me, police station.

Us: What? Why? We’ll leave now. We didn’t know. We’re very sorry.

Police: Passports! You smoke?

Us: What?

Police: You smoke (something no one understood)?

Us: No, sir, we don’t smoke that.

Police: Bag! (pointing at Ricky. He then proceeds to go through the contents of our backpack. He was 
very suspicious of one pen.)

Police: You follow me police station. Give mistake money.

Us: Well, how much?

Police: (counts us) Ah,  5. Ah, $200 each.

Us: What? No way! We don’t have that! We’ll just be going now.

We began to walk away, ignoring a weak “Stop!”

We walked faster, feeling like fugitives escaping the law, and when we were brave enough to look behind us, we realized they weren't following us. We walked fast anyway and hurried through the marked and out the other side, back to our guesthouse where we caught our breath and thanked our ancestors for helping us out, which was nice, after all that money we sent them.

So now we’re here, safe in our tiny dorm room, with a cement floor and a window that looks out into the indoor stairwell,  basking in our fugitive glory.

The Lao police probably aren’t hunting for us, and that’s probably for the best, but being a fugitive for those couple of minutes today sure was exciting!


7 Reasons Why Traveling as a Couple is the Best Way to Go




Most of you know that Ricky and I met while we were teaching English in China, and have been pretty much inseparable since. We planned our travels for months before we actually left, working on the details of what to pack, what route to take, how much to spend, all that jazz. 
Ricky and I when we first met.

And now we’re out, traveling around, having a blast.  Now, it’s not all a bed of roses, but it’s definitely an amazing and eye-opening experience. So here’s a list of why traveling as a couple is awesome.

7.  It’s cheaper
Everything is cheaper when you travel with someone else because you share a lot more. Food is cheaper, hostels are cheaper. It’s also handy to have someone there to keep you in line with the budget you’ve set. Of course, there are those times when you both want to splurge on something, but that’s ok, as long as you’re both aware of how it will affect the budget.
It’s also wonderful to have someone with you when shopping at markets. Haggling is a must, and it’s fun to play the good customer/bad customer card.  Sellers offer you a “special price,” which of course is far too high. One of you thinks it might be ok (which of course it isn’t), and then the other puts on a grumpy face and refuses the price until it’s lowered (which of course it will be).  It’s team haggling!
On a tea-boat in the river, Chongqing, China.

6.  Less shopping pressure
Like I said, markets can be an intimidating place to shop. Fun, and exciting, but intimidating.  People are shouting at you from every direction.  And it’s impossible to browse. As soon as you show a tiny bit of interest in something, they are there in your face, showing you how much it costs, what it’s made of, etc. When you have someone with you, you can just talk to them and avoid the hassle of trying to communicate in a language you don’t speak when you’re not in the mood for it.
So excited to have visitor passes for the International Financial Center in Hong Kong.

5.  Better packing
There are a lot of things that we need to carry with us. We have a first aid kit, complete with medications we may need for everything from headaches to bowel problems, flashlights, rope, guidebooks, a laptop, lots of hand sanitizer, and so much more. All of the stuff that isn’t our personal clothing we split up between us so our weight is more even. I can’t imagine trying to cram all of that into just one bag, and having to carry it all myself. When you travel as a couple, you pretty much share everything you take with you, which lowers the weight that one person has to carry.
Time to dye our hair blue!


4.  More Food!
Yep, we like food. A lot. We like trying new things at interesting places. When there’s more than one of you, you can order 2 or 3 dishes you want to try without having leftovers you can’t take home.  And then there’s always someone to eat the stuff off your plate that you don’t like. (I usually end up with an excess of mushrooms.)

3.  More adventures
I’m sure you know that Ricky and I are doing a motorbike tour through Laos now. Before two weeks ago, I’d never driven a motorbike, and was somewhat less than steady on the two-wheeled beast.  But now, here I am, having driven on upwards of 200 kilometers through the jungle. I never would have done this if it weren’t for Ricky and his ideas of adventure. And I’m loving it! I can’t believe how much I would have missed out on if I had been traveling alone, and I don’t know if Ricky would do it either.
Time to get on the road!

2.  Companionship
Outside the war museum in Beijing

Yes, this is kind of obvious, and perchance a tad mushy. My apologies. But yes, when traveling you need companionship. Well, maybe you don’t, but I do. There are days when we’re tired or worn out or stressed or annoyed and we just need to stop and relax.  It’s times like that when I’m especially glad that I have someone.  We can stay in the hostel all day, watching reruns of Parks and Rec or Top Gear, playing spider solitaire together despite the fact that it is “solitaire,”  only leaving for food. 
And it’s nice to have someone there to bring you a sandwich, make sure you have enough water, and spend the day reading without a complaint instead of exploring the town while you’re sick in bed.

1. Someone to share with
I don’t just mean food here. I mean a deeper kind of sharing, the kind of sharing that can only be done standing on top of a hill looking down on an amazingly lit skyline, or looking in wonder at giant pandas, or swimming at beautiful waterfalls, or exploring massive caves. 

Amazed by the giant Buddha in LeShan
  But there’s also someone to commiserate with during the times that aren’t so great. There’s someone there to share the times when you’re both suffering on a crowded hard-seat train for 20 hours, and when you’re lost somewhere in a huge city.
Forget those silly pandas--look into my eyes!

After swimming at the Kuang Si waterfalls in Luang Prabang, Laos.
It’s the kind of sharing that makes traveling—and life—better.


Like I said, traveling together isn’t all smiles and happy-go-lucky skipping through fields of flowers. Sometimes it’s hard—really hard. But the good times outweigh the bad, and I can honestly say that there’s no one else I’d rather live this experience with.


Hong Kong skyline.


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