Paradises Lost

Nothing takes me into a google k-hole like abandoned paradise.

Empty Croatian hotels in Kupari.  Varosha in Cyprus.  The Poconos.

Sometimes, the world starts to feel like it’s so full of people, that it’s becoming so interconnected and identical, populations swelling and pushing up against each other.  It feels that way downtown during lunch, with mobs of people on sidewalks, in the mornings when transit is a mass of bodies confined in one foot spaces.  The way urban areas roll out into one another in concrete and endless condominiums, stacking people’s lives into the skies.  And everything is globalizing and I’m eating Pizza Hut pizza in the core of Thailand where I haven’t seen another tourist for hours and no one speaks fluent English.  Everything will just move forward until there is nothing left.

And then there’s a picture of a place that used to be symbolic of everything advancing, a leisure hub, a beloved spot.  It’s still perfection, water to swim in and sand to stretch out on, but now silent and wasted.

No one who had the last holidays in those places likely imagined this, over iced afternoon drinks in brightly lit restaurants and lobbies.  They were probably concerned about their love lives, how they looked in a bathing suit, and what to eat for dinner.  The price of tomatoes.  Maybe the last ones knew things were shifting, talking about the rising conflict as the sun set, or how another garment factory had started laying off people.

Sometimes the world does not move forwards, density moves in reverse.

Places You are Told Not to Go

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The democratization of travel reviews is fascinating. 

Before, Timmy No Travel and Suzy Fresh Shoes probably relied on a prolific guidebook.  It would tell them what to see and where to stay and along the way there would be a lot of people just like them.  They would trade notes with these people, all staying and eating in the same places, about what was worthwhile.  Another kind of travel exchange would occur between a different crowd, the no guidebook, sometimes Timmy or Suzy would end up being part of this crowd.  Addresses would be written down on spare papers and napkins, details exchanged over emails, for the stuff that didn’t make the guidebook (yet).  Early days for online review sites seemed to be an underground information exchange – this place is closed, that place has bedbugs, ask for the unlisted tour.  Now, everyone’s uncool cousin is a travel expert.

My favorite neighborhood in my current city, where I live and spend virtually all of my leisure time, has comically bad reviews:

“scarytown”

“like being in a zombie horror film”

“shops and restaurants closed”

“very uninspiring place to visit”

“should be struck off as a tourist attraction”

“so scary we didn’t even get out of the car”

I walk and use transit in this area all the time without fear.  The only restaurants I regularly go to at all are nearby, and I’m a picky bastard who won’t go out just to be out.  It has the only nightlife I would bother with in this town – multiple spots so you can switch if the show sucks at one.  And people apparently hate it.

Cashed Up and Heading Out: Funding Travel

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It was seven years to figure out what Joey did, no one seriously knew, no one really pushed and asked.  He was aloof and hard, London, pulled a lot of girls while concerningly unkempt.  Joey could always pay his steady bar tab, tipped, and had properly covered a lot of the world over an extended period.  He seemed like he knew things, but never specified what.  We assumed he was a drug dealer.

There are patterns to funding travel, options.

  1. Hard labour plus virtual freeganism, multi-year tour-de-force.
  2. Stockpile spoils of young professional salary, avoid blowing on top shelf bourbon, become expat.
  3. Be secretly rich.
  4. Be a hustler.

Joey, he was a plumber.

My longest trips were funded by semi-insanity.  I knew I needed to clear student loans; even at a low interest rate any payment would be a potential burden. I also needed as much of a safety net as possible, and to keep what I was doing to be kind of a secret because it involved maintaining precarious employment until pulling the chute.  In my mind, I was halfway gone — my apartment was styled like a migrant worker lived there (mattress on the floor, suspicious lack of personal belongings).  I briefly considered how much I could more I could save if I just slept in my office under my desk and got a gym membership, eating my third stale muffin of the weekend collected at 6:00 pm after “muffin Fridays” at the office, while figuring out how to turn in my recyclables for cash conveniently.

It wasn’t all as harsh as that sounds — always a pint or lunch with coworkers when everyone was going (aka keeping the escape plan secret).  Some go much further. Whatever works.

I once had a guy in Paris from a blue blood background sermonize about how hard being a summer caddy at the golf club had been.  YOU DON’T KNOW what it’s like TO SELECT THE CLUBS, man.  People do what they have to do.  He also admitted to voting Republican when that was really, really not a done thing in the international backpacking set (is is now?).  I get that to many purists, I’m probably that guy.  There’s always another sacrifice to be made, someone harder-core.

Looking back, though, it was actually part of the trip, and behind every trip story are the details of the life leading up to it.  Je ne regrette rein. 

Summer in a Ski Town

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Revelstoke

I was once with a friend in Fernie looking for a place to have a drink, we thought that there must have been a zombie apocalypse, we walked around for half an hour (and it’s a small town) without seeing signs of life.  Then we found what appeared to be most of the town chilling and listening to some guy play music in a gazebo, ate a pizza, and had The Best Night of the trip.  Revelstoke’s the go.

Jasper

This town only has an official population of about 4,000.  Met a lot of strictly summer crew, cleaning hotel rooms and serving elderly British rail tourists lunch for a few months.  Rad little bakery and hippie food options, radder little glacial lakes.  Get a loaf of chili cheese bread and hike out for the day (mind the bears and wildlife, for real), then bourgie it up at the Fairmont JPL .  Feels remote, probably because it kind of is.   

Banff

Cluster****.  So many people, so many cameras, not enough parking, why is this so crazy, fin.

Whistler

Really average until:  being able to drink on a patio with people hitting bike jumps a few meters away for your entertainment, and Peak to Peak.  A summer lift ticket seemed kind of ridiculous.  I’M ON A GONDOLA, LOOK AT ME, I’M ON A GONDOLA!  Nope, awesome.  It actually allows you to access all of the lifts in operation, and as I am a sometimes lazy mountain explorer, being whisked around on chairlifts was dreamy.

The Top Four Things I Wish I Knew Before Arriving in Australia to Live

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1)  Clothes are kind of expensive.  I wasn’t fully aware of this until I dropped $110 on basic black Levis and $40 on cheap casual shoes for work the first week.  Normally I say “buy it when you get there” but this is a legitimate exception.

2)  It’s too easy to set up the small things.  I was irrationally worried about getting a bank account / tax number / SIM card. All of this was the most convenient I’ve ever had in any country.  I mean, you could buy ready-to-go smart phones over the counter at the post office for under $100.

3)  You should probably book-in before arriving in any city.  Backpackers hostels were busy in every city I visited in Australia, like crazy busy, even in low season, and waiting until the day before means you might end up paying for a $100+ “single” in some dodgy place.

4)  Getting the initial WHV is super easy, extending or getting another type of visa is a Massive Pain.  Every place has someone who knows someone who got a shady farmer to sign off for $1000 at the last minute, but that system is quickly becoming backpacker urban legend with little basis in reality, for many reasons.  If there is any remote possibility you would want to extend, or go PR, get on this early, so you’re not in a high pressure situation later.

The Downsides to Living Abroad

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Should I live abroad in my twenties?

Beware the comments that suggest only Fancy People get working holiday visas.  If you’ve done it, you know that you’re more likely to find an assortment of middle-to-lower-class kids at Australian backpacking hostels hustling for work because there was nothing for them at home.  It’s true that some locations are trustafarian beacons – it’s surprisingly expensive and a pain to volunteer in most African countries, and it’s a great place to fall off the map when you’re tired of instagramming your Rolex collection (one would think). 

A lot of people aren’t really suited to living abroad and have trouble admitting it.  The messages home will be nothing but beaches and beer, but the reality is a lot more complaining about the food/heat/bad internet connection/locals/working conditions.

How do you know if going abroad is something that might work for you?  Here’s the Empty Suitcase four-question test, which is 100% accurate, forever.

1) If you are living in a place with any measure of diversity (socio-economic, cultural), do you have any close friends who are not like you in every way? 

2) If someone offers you some kind of food you’ve never had before, and cannot quite recognize, do you eat it first and ask questions later?

3) When things suddenly stop working (for example, your computer, the public transit system, your bowels), do you avoid panic and instead cross reference a variety of solutions and rationally pick the best one?

4) You start dating someone who speaks English as a second language.  Is your natural inclination to practice whatever language they speak so as to romance them and charm your future inlaws?

If you answered “of course!” to the above, living overseas is potentially for you.  A lot of what seems to trip people up is that they can’t adapt — because the truth is, there is no place in the world that is likely to adapt to you (even if you read the bucket drinks on Koh San to be a sign from God that the world, was, indeed, adapting to you).

That article also isn’t wrong about the cost of distance.  You’ll find out who your friends are, what kind of friend you are.  I’ve also seen people get trapped, there’s part of the expat machine that says “quit your job, get a tan, never look back” but it’s easy to spend a decade having a good time and to wake up to the day your body (and teeth, always the teeth) start to give, and you haven’t really built a life, because the coming and going of people in the expat communities can make everything seem temporary, until it’s not.

If Airlines Were Backpackers

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We all have our favorites.  Flight booking thought process…

British Airways is backpacking for the value, but that’s really just to sleep, during the day British Airways is eating nice food and not afraid of top shelf cocktails.  British Airways would pull a casual but smart polo over the whole plane body, if they could find the right size.  

Virgin Airways starts the drinking game people actually want to play and then introduces everyone to some obscure but cool World Music band.  Virgin prefers big flashy cities or well-worn mid-range backpacker trails, not budget holidays; they surf.

Quantas references both Lonely Planet and Let’s Go before booking.  Everything Quantas does makes sense.  Quantas will add you on Facebook later, and you will accept, but you’ll only have a vague recollection about whether you liked hanging out with them or not. 

United Airlines is always annoyed that no one can keep them and Delta straight, because not all Americans are the same, okay!  United Airlines is mid-western and polite, they mix with everyone.  They always have snacks and they are the best snacks (ahem, Tapas Box guys!).

Air Canada is perpetually hungover, resulting in being consistently late or having busted up gear.  Air Canada is always complaining about running out of money.  For three hours per day when everything goes well, you think you could maybe like Air Canada again, because Air Canada is acceptably human, and then they give up and throw someone’s luggage down the stairs or let a dog out and lose it permanently.

Westjet ended up backpacking by accident.  From high school, Westjet liked all-inclusives that result in everybody posting group pictures from pools in Mexican resorts.  Westjet is really nice, all the time, because Westjet doesn’t have a lot of problems, and likes everyone.

Etihad has logistics worked out and a plan, tagging along on whatever thing they’re doing will probably go ok, although you will have no idea when you are signing up where you are going or what it might involve.  It’s unclear if even Etihad knows what is going to be involved, as they often seem surprised by developments.

Emirates is scheduled to climb a mountain tomorrow, no big deal.  Emirates wants the backpacker experience, but secretly has a trust fund or designed an unusually successful app, or is actually Royalty in a tiny country.  Emirates is selective about destinations and knows Africa well.

KLM doesn’t say much but has all kinds of odd skills and surprises.  KLM whips a dinner out of nowhere from things they bought at a wilting market up the street that you are quietly impressed with, and has way more movies than everyone else that they are willing to share.  KLM is better at this than you.

Jetstar is broke and should probably go home.  Jetstar is in the communal kitchen eating spaghetti with butter for the eighth day in a row.  Jetstar will take an eight hour bus to save fifty cents.  It hangs out with Mango, sometimes they talk about the time six months ago when someone taught them how to fire dance.

South African Airways is really relaxed about this whole travel thing… maybe a little too relaxed.  SAA has been sitting on the common area couch watching Family Guy on repeat for an unexplained amount of time.  SAA does not care when the bus leaves, perhaps does not know there is a schedule, they just go down to the station and patiently wait.

Kulula is down for dollar bucket beers.  It’s on a budget, but it’s not broke. Kulula is charming enough to get along in the world.  You are generally going to have a good day with Kulula.

Korean Air is polite and quietly friendly.  They just want to get on with things, really, they check out on time and have probably booked a tour tomorrow.  They travel with a sleep mask, they have spare earplugs for you too.

All of the above is horribly biased, based purely on subjective personal experience, tainted by jet lag and anhedonia.

Island Hopping

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Spending a lot of time on the islands off Vancouver lately, sometimes escaping the heat, sometimes dodging the all-night-noise on a hot summer night when shutting the windows turns your glass sky box into a sarcophagus.  Scratching around for a cheap room with a pool, this came up.

Kids, we’re going to Nanaimo.

Only about a week ago, when a bunch of Irish people I know described “these little bars” as “delightful” did the limited range of the Nanaimo bar became more obvious.  The prevalence at Canadian Christmas parties is apparently geographically restricted.  This is the food of our people. 

Finding out that Nanaimo has a Nanaimo Bar Trail is, probably almost certainly, the best thing known to my long range island searches, ever (including Tofino, and goats on a roof, so there).  I mean, they are drinking, frying and spring-rolling the things over there.  It’s out of control. 

Bikini season, no, it’s Nanaimo Bar season. 

The Definitive Guide to Skytrain Happiness for Visitors

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Why, hello.  I’m so glad you’ve come to Vancouver for the summer, to cuddle our hipsters and instagram our still, flat, ocean views.  You may have realized that this city is very easy to get around – first, the parts you want to see are actually probably all pretty close to one another.  Not like that time you hiked Yonge Street in Toronto and got all Rob-Ford-bender sweaty.  And I bet you were delighted on your first Skytrain ride from the airport, though mystified why it appears to operate on the honour system (that is a story for another day!).

But I can’t help but notice you, traveler.  No, it’s not your shoes, those are fine.  It’s that no one has explained to you the nuanced etiquette of transit.  I know this because right now, I’ve just seen you break about six unspoken rules, and it is clear the commuter beside you is ready to wrestle that day pass right from your hands.  Some tips.

1) When you get on the bus/train, Keep Walking.  I know, it’s exciting, so many places for you to go and sit or stand, you are overwhelmed and must pause for fifteen seconds in the doorway or aisle making up your mind.  Where will the best view be? Who might you sit with?  This may shock you, but public transit pauses for mere seconds so that a large number of people can get off and on.  Behind you, other people must get on.  Move. Darling.

2) Perhaps avoid rush hours.  In particular, if you are prone to the above, you may note that after you have selected your standing spot and unblocked the door, around 8:30 a.m. there are many people in office wear glowering.  If you can spot them amidst the limbs and limited floor space.  Why so glum, office chum?!  Rush hours are not a great time to haul your giant suitcase or six-month-supply backpack on public transit.  They are not a great time to be on transit if you have no idea, or do not care, where you are going, or if you are having trouble with Rule 1.  Just give it the extra half hour.  Have some coffee, there’s a lot of it.

3) Last down, first up.  Whoooo the bus has finally come! I am so tired from casing Zara! And look, open seat at the front of a full bus, who is a champ today?  First, look at who else is getting on when you are getting on. Are they elderly? Are they a baby? Is it a pirate with a wooden leg that seems a little hard to handle? Give them priority.  If you get on, and accidentally take the last seat in the front because you did not see the baby pirate behind you, it is your job to pay attention and stand up and give priority.  Don’t look at that poor lady next to you, or your phone, just stand up and move along.

4) Plan for your stop.  Sometimes, we are but sardines in tin cans, in which case there is nothing you can do but try not to be gross or loud (imagine how terrible loud sardines would be).  If this is not the case, there are options.  If you know you are on the bus for the next 30 minutes, as much as you can, move away from the doors and toward the back.  Take the window seat.  If you are aware that you are only going one stop on the Skytrain, maneuver yourself towards the doors.  Do not hustle your way to the back for a seat you will sit in for fifteen seconds.  It is difficult to manage this in concert with #1, but you can do it, promise.

If you do all of these things, the transit gods will bless you and your progeny, for eternity.

Jamming in Northern Washington State

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My first thought when Washington declared marijuana legal for sale was how much more desirable Washington just became for holidays.  My second, much later thought, was Pike Place Market having a producer with a weed booth would pretty much make THAT my number one holiday destination in Washington.  My third thought, on thinking about actually putting these travel plans into action was… what about border security?

See, border security is Federal, and thus, as confirmed by a Washington immigration lawyer, they DGAF what the state of Washington is up to, the war on drugs continues.  Telling border security the plan is a visit to Mary Jane… nope.  So I’ve been compiling a list of things I would be doing in Bellingham (dude, two dispensaries) that would work well with the possibility of having a legal joint if one presented itself, and the anticipated border guard response.

  1. Eating decent Mexican food:  unless the guard is well versed in how superior Mexican food is in Washington versus immediately North… “please open your bags.”
  2. Trader Joes:  angry silence.  Guard likely to know Canadians are always down buying up all the Speculous and ruining TJ’s for local people a few days per week, those cheese loving jerks!  Likely waived through.
  3. Being Cheap: “have a nice day.”  ‘Bellingham’ is associated with paying less for something than you would two hours North.  I think the Fifth Estate covered this.  I’m not that sold (ha), as my bank card has always seemed to hurt just as much after a tour of Bellis Fair as it has after a tour of Metrotown, and no one can take away the pain of sitting in the non-Nexus customs line – even with cheap milk.

Sounds like a plan.  Report to follow.

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