Hitching

I’ve taken rides from strangers on every continent.  Controversial, because it’s not safe, but a lot of things aren’t safe and that doesn’t mean they don’t happen.  Most of the times I’ve ended up taking rides it’s been someone offering a ride to me rather than waiving a ride down if I’m alone.  Carrying a surfboard has also seemed to have been a major factor in some places, call it karma or aloha, or whatever.  Some highlights.

CENTRAL AMERICA:  sometimes buses are confusing.  I was trying to get back to a major city via ferry and some guy pulled up and offered me a lift because the bus wasn’t coming.  Totally suspicious, there was actually kind of a stand-off and then I decided I probably wouldn’t be harmed.  He had lived in the United States as an expat and we talked politics.

AFRICA:  the most memorable was a dude that drove me up the road telling me about hiding his surfboard from his conservative family during Apartheid.  His toddler was in the back, he dropped me at Supers.  I’ve also done the back of the truck highway trip to get to an airport on time, which is pretty much The Worst.

EUROPE:  I ended up driving to Versailles with a Latvian that knew someone I knew.  We were in a van with a child seat, after midnight.  This wasn’t really hitching, I guess, more of a random tour.  I remember being cold and kind of sleepy and probably a bit of a buzzkill.

AUSTRALIA:  I think I only hitched in groups here.  We would waive down people in town to get just out of town to the beach, and had a pretty good success rate, probably because we worked in town and were a bunch of twenty something girls.  Tip, it’s good to bring a German that looks like Claudia Schiffer.  The best pick up was this short bus full of religious kids coming back from a church event that had a bunch of glow sticks after we had been at a party.

NORTH AMERICA: in some places people just assume you want a lift and pull over to offer, like on the small West Coast islands where hitching is the norm (though note it’s illegal on Vancouver Island and a lot of other places).

ASIA:  usually I’ve had to hitch in Asia after overestimating my ability to explore an area in extreme heat and getting too tired to try and make it back to where I came from/not seeing any actual transit options/sometimes being lost.  Most of my hitching in Asia has been via motorbike and normally I’ve offered cash, which I guess makes it kind of black-cab and not hitching.  People have generally been cool about it and the most traumatic part has been zooming through traffic in congested cities thinking about how unimpressed my insurance company would be. 

HAWAII:  people would offer rides during the day while I was waiting for The Bus, particularly on the North Shore, and we’d talk North Shore, because that’s what people wanted to talk about and everyone had an opinion on it.  I also hitched at night with a girl I met who was staying where I was staying, but things got sketchy at night and I don’t think I’d necessarily take a ride alone.

 

Travel Thing I Have Had Forever: One-Cup French Press

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About five years ago, I bought a one-cup french press from Woolie’s in South Africa for about R70 (at that time, $10).  I think it’s German made.

Before the last couple of years, almost all the trips I took were for months at a time.  I started with this thing because coffee at the time was dragging on my weekly expenses and what was conveniently available wasn’t even that great.  A matter of math.  There was usually a kettle wherever I wound up, but very rarely a coffee maker of any kind, at best some low grade instant powder.

Being able to make coffee when I wake up somewhere turned into one of the things that keeps me sane.  Traveling around is awesome and incredible and selfish and a privilege, but any person who has done it for a long time will probably tell you about hitting walls and disorientation.

Being able to make my own coffee in the morning, away from any conversation, with the same mug and press, makes wherever I’m doing it a little more familiar.  I’ve had brewed cups sitting on a number of lonely beaches, and big city balconies.  It calms me down and is the twenty minutes of normal sameness that makes me feel at home wherever I am.

Travel Thing I Have Had Forever: a MEC Bag

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Actually, TWO MEC bags.

One of the ways you can spot Canadians on the road is by keeping an eye out for MEC gear.  MEC stands for “Mountain Equipment Co-op” and while it is a legit co-op where you need a membership, joining is a token $5 ‘for life’.  I’ve only ever gone a handful of times, but it’s been well worthwhile.

About a thousand years ago I bought a MEC schoolbag I don’t even think they make anymore that was ubiquitous amongst college kids and about 20L fully loaded, though it looks much smaller.  It has a divider that functions as a velcro laptop sleeve, is relatively water resistant, and padded by frame-less.  I think it has a lifetime warranty.

No matter what I have done to it, it refuses to die.

I’ve jammed it too full of heavy books as a student, overfilled it as a carry on, washed it, checked it as luggage, lent it to people, lived out of it as my only bag on extended trips, and other things that should normally cause a bag to start to bust at some weak point.  It has been so dirty and gross that I assumed on washing it I would discover underlying damage, but no, it washes and comes out looking oddly new. At this point I am just going to write it into my will so that when it outlives me it can keep going.

I think the modern version is probably this.

My other long term bag is also from MEC.  I’ve gone through a bunch of luggage and the soft-sided rolling bag they make is by far the most durable and maneuverable (although the straps they give so you can wear it as a ‘backpack’ are a bit of a farce if you’re not Paul Bunyan – I’ve done it, not optimal at all).  This is the bag I use when I uproot myself and move coasts or continents.  One of the things I like the most is that I know, fully packed with clothes and gear, it’s going to come in at roughly 20-22kgs, AKA the checked limit on most airlines.  Because it’s soft sided, it collapses flat enough to tuck away in whatever accommodation I’ve ended up in until it’s time to Littlest Hobo out.

I’ve taken these wheels bumping down stairs through international public transit, seen the bag fly through airport luggage abuse, and have seen it survive where lesser luggage has failed.  It has really well placed straps for lifting, and a frame that Will Not Buckle.  There is a modern version but not every reviewer is happy they moved away from the original design, although I think dropping the “backpack straps” was a good choice.

It Both Is and Is Not a Checklist

I listed the countries, like ex lovers, because I didn’t know how many there were.  That list had the same quality as one writing down the people you used to spend time with, everyone gets one line but not every experience is equal.  Either list was probably not that impressive, but made me smile all the same.

Lately I’ve been disappearing on weekends to waterfalls and valleys, a year of visiting the nearby instead of the far away.  The Pacific Northwest.  I keep going even though I feel a bit numbed, because I know that this is probably not where I finally sleep, because sometimes I can see it through strange eyes and understand a bit.  Part of the problem is that travel in this part of the world is kind of expensive, probably for most people, and it seems to make the interesting runaway nomadic culture a little rarer.  There are glimpses of it in ski towns, and I just about gave up my keys to move into a rafting guide camp this summer, but it’s not like the lost boys and girls you stumble on in places people go to live simply and be forgotten.

But then this weekend, bam!, a documentary on the islands of PNG, and I find myself thinking about long haul trips to places I don’t even know about yet, places I don’t even know I want to go yet.

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.

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