The spoils of travel

I had previously volunteered at this retirement home teaching the residents how to use Facebook, Skype, YouTube etc. You know, trying to make them “hip” and “cool” except I was only making them as “hip” and as “cool” as myself, a tech-dinosaur in comparison to the current generation. After these lessons, I gave out an email address asking the residents to email me anytime they had technology-related questions, or if they needed help setting up their computers or phones.

A few months after my last official lesson, my cobweb-filled inbox receives an email asking for computer help. I pop over to the lady’s place and proceed to fumble my way through the process. As I chatted with her, I learned she was a well-traveled person. This was evident by all the Spoils of Travel I saw adorning her apartment. There were tiny statues of Buddha and Ganesh. Paintings from Cuba and Peru. Walking sticks from various countries in Asia. A variety of smaller knick-knacks and collectibles which looked foreign.

I started thinking about all the spoils I’ve collected throughout my travels, or lack thereof. There are the Nepali prayer flags. The unframed canvas painting from Malawi of a woman balancing a jug on her head, something I purchased because I gave in to the persistence of someone I wasn’t even sure was the actual artist. The…the… that’s all I got. My apartment is minimalistic in decor and charm. It is basic (read: boring). Anyone who visits will think I’m plain vanilla Ken and maybe I am. They’ll never see (and then ask) about the hand-drawn self-portrait created for me by a 7 year old orphan girl in the mountains in McLeod Ganj, or the rare thousand-year-old smuggled Egyptian papyrus art showing Horus and Seti embracing, or the rare gold medallion I won from a battle with a Shaolin priest in Henan province. They’ll never see any of it because I never obtained any of them. OK, so they are all fictionalized but you get the point.

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve done my fair share of travel but through it all, I did not have room or money to buy many souvenirs. My backpack had finite space and mailing souvenirs home was not exactly economical nor convenient. If you think the US Postal Service is horribly inefficient, wait until you are in Tiny Village, India. All I have are my pictures (why did I not learn proper photography skills my first RTW trip? I’m too embarrassed to print and hang them up), my gradually-fading memories, and this blog.

Scuba diving

Every time I talk to someone about scuba diving, they give me the same reply: “I don’t like being submerged in water”.

Water covers roughly 70% of the Earth. I’d consider scuba diving a form of travel. We are traveling to parts of Earth that can’t be reached by train or plane or walking. To visit the “cities” and meet all its “citizens” in these parts of the world, you have to wear some special gear, your Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Getting Open-Water Certified is like getting a passport to travel to cities beneath the waves.

When you fear what you don’t understand, seek to understand and your fear will disappear.

Video by Eunjae Im (ejlabs.net)

A Map for Saturday

All those years ago, before I started my first year-long Round-The-World journey, I watched “A Map for Saturday”. It was a documentary about the journey of a backpacker through his RTW trip and the people he meets, their experiences, and life on the road. It opened my eyes and prepared me (somewhat) for my own journey.
Re-watching it after my own journey made me nostalgic. It confirmed many things but I also felt some things were exaggerated. I guess it all comes down to perspective.

Cleaning up after getting home

I have a ritual which I enjoy doing every few months; go through all my things and downsize. This is part of my ongoing efforts to be a minimalist; buy what I need and fight temptation as much as I can for things I want.

I’ve already downsized a few times and I’m at a point where I just can’t get rid of anymore unnecessary things I’ve accumulated over the years. But I did finally throw away my shoes from my first RTW trip. They had holes in them and keeping them for sentimental reasons just meant that space will be taken up. I have to learn not to be too attached to a material good.

But my REI 55L backpack and NF Borealis backpack are still with me, dirty but perfectly functional.

Sick of paying “Stupid Tax”

By “Stupid Tax”, I mean losing money by not doing things efficiently. Of course, hindsight is 20/20.

1. Bought a $100 plane ticket in Brazil that I cannot use (Sao Paulo – Porto Alegre) because I had to change my plans for the visa application. The embassy needed proof I am leaving Brazil. I couldn’t buy a bus ticket online (Porto Alegre – Montevideo) so I bought a plane ticket out (Sao Paulo – Buenos Aires). In hindsight, I should have done more research on “onward tickets” and realized how stringent embassies can be.

2. Paid $150 to get out of Galapagos early. But I didn’t know I’d be “Galapagos-ed out”. That cruise really gave me all I wanted and I would’ve been spending $100-150 for a day or two doing day-tours or dive trips to pass time so maybe I ended up saving money.

3. Found out the $172 ticket I paid for Lima-Cusco could’ve been $92. So I lost $80 there. But I don’t know if this was because I booked it outside of Peru. I’ve read prices are lower if you are booking in Peru itself. Computer IP address tells the airline websites if I am in Peru or not. (edit: After speaking to a Peruvian Airlines rep, I don’t think there is much difference between $92 Class M and $172 Class H. Apparently there’s a little more flexibility with re-booking tickets with Class H but certainly not worth $80 more.)

Expenditures like these irk me.

How I feel at the start of every trip I take

It always takes me a little while to get used to the whole backpacking thing all over again. It doesn’t matter how much travelling I’ve done in the past.

Initially, I always feel a little homesick, a little turned off by noisy hostels (they were blasting music in the next door attached-bar until 11 pm), and a little anti-social (I need space to acclimatize to my surroundings). Once I’m well-rested and adjust to my surroundings, I start getting into a groove. For me, it’s important not to start off fast. Some people are ok with packing their first day with a ton of activities but I need to take it slow. I need to feel my way about my new surroundings. Sitting in a public space and just people watching and reading my guidebook and looking at the map of the city. Visit one or two sites a day, taking my time through them. Eating light. Finding out where the supermarket, banks, public transport stations are. Long-term travel is a marathon, not a sprint.

Planning for South America

The last 2 weeks have been spent planning my upcoming trip to South America.

Most of the trip is pretty straightforward except for the Galapagos Islands cruise and my stay in Brazil.  I’ll elaborate more on this later.

Where as I traveled in Europe, Africa, and Asia mostly using ground transportation, I will mostly be flying around in South America. If I had more time, I might have taken it slower and stopped by all the unknown smaller towns between the major cities. Each bus ride between major cities in, for example, Colombia, takes around 12-20 hours one way. I may not have minded 5 hours but 12-20 seems a bit longer than I’d like. Moreover, the cost of long distance bus rides are about 50-60% of a planet ticket for the same route,  which takes a tenth of the time. It’s a no-brainer to fly in South America most of the time. (But I will be traveling via bus for a few legs of my journey through South America.)

TIP: Don’t rely on Kayak to research plane ticket prices. This is because ever since they were bought my Priceline, they will show a low price initially but when you hit “Select”, they will look again and give you messages like “Sorry, this price isn’t available anymore. It is now $xxx.xx”. I used Expedia.com and prices shown are what you pay.

Back to Galapagos and Brazil.

I’ve read that the best way to experience the Galapagos Islands is with a cruise, which is usually offered in the 5-day or 8-day variety on various classes of boats ranging from economy to luxury. Now, to get the best prices for these cruises, it is recommended people fly to the Galapagos Islands (most people land in Isla Santa Cruz), take the bus to Puerto Ayora, and look for last-minute cruise deals there (alternately, you could do the same in Quito or Guayacil on the mainland but you may not get as good a deal as you would in Puerto Ayora). I also read that the longer you can spend waiting in Puerto Ayora, the better the chance of you scoring a great deal. We are talking about a 20-30% difference in price, which is considerable when you realize the price of an 8-day cruise can range from $1500 to $4000, depending on which boat class you pick. I personally have chosen to travel to Puerto Ayora and take my chances. It is the shoulder season after all. I don’t know if I would have the same luck traveling during peak season (June to September).

As for Brazil, it’s World Cup year. Which means most places (and I’m just referring to “lowly” hostels, not fancy hotels) mark up their per-night price about 500%, starting June 12 and ending July 13, which is when the WC starts and ends. Yes, 500%! US$20/night turns into US$100 for a DORM BED. So my plan is to spend about 2 weeks prior to the World Cup in Brazil when all the prices are normal, and then spend a few days staying in a city which is hosting a match, for the purpose of experiencing the atmosphere.  And let’s not even discuss the battle for a place to sleep, even at those prices. After messing around with alternate itineraries and doing a ton of research using my Rough Guide, Wikitravel, Hostelworld, and Hotels.com, I was fortunate enough to secure accommodation in Sao Paulo (and at a much better price than originally thought, which I can’t confirm until I actually get there in June, so I’ll keep you posted). On June 12, I will get to be in Sao Paulo as host nation Brazil open the 2014 World Cup by taking on Croatia in Sao Paulo itself. I will then leave Brazil shortly after. I will write about the details of my “escape from high prices” route out of Brazil when I’m there. Also, it’s probably better to fly around Brazil. If you wonder why, open Google Maps and check out its size. Flights are relatively cheap, plenty of time will be saved, and your butt/sanity will thank you for it.

End of the road for now.

I landed in LA on 14th of April and got back to Austin TX on the 19th after spending a few days in LA and San Francisco.

I remember walking outside Dublin International Airport and thinking, “How the hell do I get to my hostel?” At that moment, Dublin felt like the largest place in the world.

Some people may ask what have I learned or if I found what I was looking for. I can’t summarize 11 months (475200 minutes!) into a single minute (you know how people switch off after the first minute). You would have to pour through all my entries to read about my thoughts. Yes, I went out to learn about other countries and cultures and yes, maybe a smidge of soul searching, as cliché as that sounds. But those weren’t the main reasons that sent me off for 11 months. I went out to flood myself with new experiences. This trip was at the top of my bucket list and I did it and I’m happy about that. I still have many places I’d like to go so I’ll definitely be doing more traveling down the road but probably nothing as extensive.

Anyway, it’s been a fun ride. I want to thank everyone for following me. I am going to post some videos on this blog in the next few weeks. Pictures are one thing but I thought I’d throw in a few sounds from my trip.

edit : No videos because Timewarner upload speeds are atrocious. Maybe one day…

So what now?…

*This was written in Andong, South Korea on April 6th 2011 @ 9:15 pm.

I was in Hanoi, debating for days on whether or not:

1. To go to China
2. Skip China, fly to Hong Kong
3. Skip China and Hong Kong, fly to South Korea
4. Skip all of them and fly straight home to the USA (stopping by to visit my friend Tim in LA)

Let me break down each #:

1. Getting a Chinese visa in Hanoi, which would cost $140 + travel agency fees ($30-40 from what I was told) + wait time (4-6 business days). More hassle than it’s worth. China is worth it but I really only want to see the Beijing (Forbidden City and the Great Wall nearby) and Xian (Terracotta warriors, an image I can’t get out of my head since I watched some HK movie when I was a kid…). I originally wanted to see Shanghai but not only do I have temple-burnout and museum-burnout, I also have big-city-burnout. It didn’t seem to have much new and exciting things to offer and I can’t deal with it this trip. And not only that, I would have to spend a lot of time on the train to get from Vietnam to HK to Shanghai to Beijing. China, you’ll have to wait.

2. HK is another “big” city. Food would be the only motivation for me going there and maybe the harbor. The stop (2-3 days tops) is not worth the ticket price ($360 from Hanoi to HK) for a 1.5 hour ride.

3. I wanted to visit some friends in South Korea. Also, the Korean culture, language, and food is quite unique to me. And there’s the DMZ. Should be a breathe of fresh air. Plus, I gotta do some Hyori stalking for my friend Peter. I gotta see if South Korea (in particular, Seoul and it’s “hot” people) is all it’s hyped up to be, so I can report back to my friends/family.

4. But I would be home so soon…there’s time and energy for one last push for adventure.

I tried to come to a single perfect decision but as I’ve learned many times, there is no perfect decision. I will have wished I went to China when I feel bored and fresh back home in the States. But I have to make a decision based on my situation and feelings at that particular time.