Transport with a splash of color

Recycled in Anatananarivo by Cori B (farflungistan) on 500px.com
Recycled in Antananarivo


Most trips overseas for the intrepid traveler involve overland travel.  There’s sometimes unavoidable on small islands in the Philippines and the desert expanses of the Middle East.  The road offers adventure, perspective to a new place and experiencing the local color.

Some of us have quickly found that schedules in most places do not go as planned.  I think back to my early travel years and the incredibly long ride from Ephesus to Istanbul. The bus ended up including a surprise ferry ride, arrived 4 hours lake, dropped me off way in the suburbs at 23:00 back in 2005.

Local buses usually run on the drivers schedule, make pit stops where they get kick backs and usually end with you saying you are never taking the bus again.  I have yet managed followed through with that promise.  As one fellow passenger said on a very bumpy road in India, “It feels like we are in God’s hands and he’s shaking our bus in them”.  I have taken plenty of  bus rides since , survived them all and will continue to ride (if there’s no other option).

Many claim that taking an airplane is much safer than ground transport but where’s the adventure in that. Airplanes don’t look like these colorful options and not nearly as fun.

VIP Bus in downtown Shiraz Iran by Cori B (farflungistan) on 500px.com
VIP Bus in downtown Shiraz Iran
Custom ride in Palmyra by Cori B (farflungistan) on 500px.com
Custom ride in Palmyra
El Nino Jeepney on Palawan by Cori B (farflungistan) on 500px.com
El Nino Jeepney on Palawan

Americans in Iran 2011: Planning, applying and waiting…

It’s May 2011 and our next trip will be to Iran. Ignoring the propaganda and the fact that it could take months to get a visa we begin the visa application process and the trip research. It was now or never and we’re going for it. The trip will be at least 14 days which isn’t a whole lot but enough to get a feel for the country.  The itinerary will need shortening and compose a realistic travel budget and itinerary.   Some amazing things will unfortunately be put back on the wish list. This fairly quick trip will be more a best of Iran opposed to a full tour with no limits and a loose vicarious plan which is usually how we roll.  The classic central Iran itinerary that takes us from Shiraz to Tehran is perfect for 14 days by land.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Morning in the center of Esfahan

Traveling with a U.S. passport to Iran requires a guided tour.  Americans have a history in the area so it’s understandable that the government wants to keep tabs on us and we have to do it.  Finding a knowledgable local guide who will not make us feel as if we were on a short leash and hopefully compatible in personality is first on the to do list.   Reading other travelers blog posts, checking out Thorntree posts and Google searches lead me to finding Pars Tourist Agency which is a small but well-known tour agency based in Shiraz.  Zehra is very organized, patient and good at getting back to me despite the time change and how the weekends start on Thursday and end on Saturday.   They ended up putting together a customized tour which included all the attractions we wanted to see and within our budget.

The Somewhat Short List of why we decided to go to Iran:

1. UNESCO sites Iran full of them and we’ll be able to see a good chunk of them in two weeks – plus the flight isn’t that long – just 13 hours.

2. Politics aside The middle east has always a political hotbed so stayed informed, avoid any political discussion and enjoy the scenery

3. Low hustler level It’s not like Egypt, Turkey or Morocco where many rely on baksheesh to supplement their low wages (which is actually a Persian word) .

4. The US Dollar Woes For Americans, the dollar is still going down and the required tour and it’s prices just always go up and never down

5. Angry Israel It has been pretty trigger-happy recently and who knows when they will put their threats to action and each day there is something new like today (Nov 2) on Al-Jazeera

Travelling to Iran was always in our thoughts especially when we went to other areas of Asia and the Middle East.  Ancient history, architecture and modern culture is usually the draw to the places my husband and I visit.  The most influential were visits to the Persian designed Taj Mahal, Xian, Jordan and Syria. They are all connected to the former Silk Road and Iran has links to them all. We wanted to see and experience a different side of the region and dig deeper into how the traders along the Silk Road influenced and  shaped the lands they once journeyed through. I wanted to see where were the great battles were fought, learn more about the area’s history and see in person what in terms of physical structures (caravanserai, forts, and ancient cities to name a few) and various forms of art still remain today.   Additionally, I like to find answers to questions like did the travelers and warriors of those periods still have a place in present Iranian society?  How did the past influence today’s society?

If Rick Steves did it then why can’t we? He said himself that he regretted not travelling to neighboring Iraq when he had the chance. I personally want to see what goes on  in Iran – politics aside? How do people live and how will the receive me even after they find out where I’m from.   There are many questions that I hope to find answers to and some will have to remain unanswered until I return in the future.

Let’s go Junk Boating in Vietnam

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Let’s go Junk Boating in Vietnam

Looking back at trip pictures of Halong Bay makes me want to skip the holidays and find a cheap ticket back.  Most Vietnam vacations include the not so traditional overnight stay on the famous Junk boats found in northern Vietnam.  Most trips can be arranged by a tour company in Hanoi and usually don’t require more than a few days notice.  The company who arranged this trip was the “real” Kangaroo Cafe in Hanoi.  The tour was just ok, but I signed up after being so taken with my tasty veggie burger and fries in Hanoi.  Pho is great but sometimes a good burger and fries is needed.  I recommend using the internet to find a tour company that gives back to the local villagers whose livelihood depends on only the bay.  There are plenty of them out there and a little goes a long way.

The Bay itself is beautiful and taking great pictures requires little effort no matter what time of year.  Overall,  it’s best to double-check on the weather before booking.  In May, when I was there, it’s usually on the chilly damp side.  There was little temptation to swim and/or kayak chilly, dark and gloomy water.  Many tour and fishing boats with diesel engines tread those waters on a daily basis and it’s a good time to become vegetarian unless you want to be like Andrew Zimmern and eat the toxic catch of the day and chase it down with some local moonshine.  Cheers!

Travelers can never go wrong doing some online researching to sites like Trip Advisors LP Thorntree and other online forums which offer up to date tour information like ones to Halong Bay. Ownership chances or just getting into a hard copy guidebook like the LP guide can change places for the better or worse.   In Halong Bay, particularly look out for things like the condition of the boat, kayaks and quality of the food and staff.  I also may add that being a vegetarian or just a picky eater is always tricky on these group tours, so don’t go hungry and bring plenty of snacks and whatever else provides a more comfortable experience.

Things to do before checking in to a Budget Hotel – Hotel Tip

Whether you just show up or book online always check the room before handing over the cash.  Here’s why:

  • But the lobby’s nice… Don’t get stuck with the smelly room with broken shower head and lop-sided bed. All hotels have these.
  • Bargain… See what you are getting and then negotiate rate based on quality , length of stay etc.
  • Hot shower…check to see if there’s pressure and how, when and if it’s heated
  • Secure locks/safe…Make sure they work and room feels secure

Budget hotel’s can be clean, safe and comfortable places. Allow enough time to bail and find something more suitable.

    How do you afford to Travel?

    This is a question I get from time to time.  It’s simple and it only takes a little sacrifice, motivation and organization.

    Here are some of the things I do to save for the next trip.

    1.  Manage Eating out. Eat at home as much as possible, take lunch to work and instead of dining out with friends, try doing to brunch instead.

    2.  Things add up. Walk/Bike instead of taking taxis and subways.

    3.  Fully utilized Twitter and local blogs Local blogs/twitter are good resources for free/alternative entertainment

    4.  Visit your local Library Even with budget cuts they have a lot to offer

    A trip to plan: will it be Stoic Russian or Festive Mexico?

    The trip in May came down to two locations.  Mexico or Russia?  My husband and I had our usual debate.  We breakdown each place and do the pros and cons, look to see what the weather is like when we can travel, find out if there are any holidays that could get in the way of travel, and write down the initial costs of going.

    We decided on Russia.  The weather is nice, the end of May will allow us to travel without the hassles of May Day and Victory Day that fall at the beginning of the month (parades would have been a sight but maybe another time) and we could use our miles with Capital One.  The free flight helps when we think about how the costs of hotels, restaurants and all the other chiselers Russian we will meet along the way.   At least we expect it.

    So the plane tickets we decided upon are with Finnair.  This way we won’t be flying through Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle, have a chance of getting a decent vegetarian meal and we get One World sky miles.  The half hour turnaround in Helsinki is going to be a challenge.  A carry-on in this case is required.

    We will only be staying for 11 nights so booking hotels or hostels beforehand is necessary.    There isn’t much room for a side trips on this one.  Moscow and St. Petersburg are both known to be very expensive cities.  It was tricky finding a budget price that’s within a reasonable walking distance to Red Square.  There were plenty of hostels that were very close and have good prices but for the most part were bunk style accommodation and reviewers on the particular booking site seemed to be mostly 18-24 in age.  They may have been an option 10 years ago.

    Another option was renting a flat.   This is nice because they usually have a kitchen (good if you are looking to save money and have diet restrictions), and have privacy.   These are usually best if you are on an extended holiday that runs at least a month.  The rates looked reasonable on a site called http://www.getorussia.com but if you read the fine print the quoted rates are based on a month or more.  A few days stay goes up at least 30%.  So that wasn’t an option.

    With a little more  research on Thorn tree and basic google searches I found a place called the Petrovka Loft. This place looks good through pictures they and travelers on http://www.tripadvisor.com had posted.  There gets to a point where I have to just believe the reviewers.   I found that they are listed on http://www.hostelworld.com.  I like using this site or http://www.hostelbookers over others like Expedia and Orbitz because a reservation only requires a 10% down-payment.  The remainder is paid when you arrive.  If you don’t like it for some reason you don’t lose too much money if you keep on walking.  It’s also a trust issue between yourself and the hotel.  I have had the times when I show up at a hostel and they haven’t a record of my reservation.  It’s always safe to make contact ahead if possible so they know you are coming.  This may just prod them to check their bookings from outside agencies and update yours and other reservations.

    The fun has momentarily ended.  It’s time to gather documents for putting together the Visa application.  Each country that requires a visa has their own system.  Some are easy at the border stamps (they just really want cash) and others require filling out questionnaires and forking over large sums of cash.  Russia is stuck in the pre-Pesrestroika days. The questions are pretty much aimed at figuring out if you are a Jason Bourne character whom they are trying to prevent from entering the country or just an innocent tourist wanting to take pictures and spend money.  The questions are like an employment application.  I wonder if they ever call up your previous employees and ask them questions about your character and if you legit?   I had visions of the person on the other line not having a clue that I worked there since it’s been so long.  Let’s just hope they believe I have written only the truth.

    The Russian Federation is very thorough with each applicant.  Visitors are required to get an invitation from a hotel, travel agency or person living in Russia.  Basically, someone who will be responsible for you  while in Russia.  These days it’s just another money-making tool but you have to do it.  The hotel you have booked can either vouch for you or they can recommend a travel company to process the paper work.  We just paid the $30 used http://www.getorussia.com.  It took less than 5 minutes on the internet.

    Now, my  (1) valid passport with at least  two clear visa places available (2) a 1″ 3/8 X 1″ 3/4 photo of myself not smiling and showing my shoulders up (3) questionnaire is filled out, I have a copy of (4) my invitation, and  now all I need to do is get (5) a  $131 USD money order from the bank.  I hope I don’t forget anything when I head to the Russian Consulates office in the morning.  I’m fortunate to have a Russian Consulates office in town so I don’t have to mail off my passport and nervously await for it to come back to me via U.S. Mail or Fed-ex.

    The process takes anywhere from 4-20 business days.  I’ve got some time but these things seem to end up taking more than you think.  Now, I have to go look for more trip information including what our hotel options will be in St. Petersburg, train schedules to St. Petersburg and what there is to do and see in each city.  After that, a good nights sleep because who knows how long it’s going to take me to get through the consulates office tomorrow.

    Maybe I should have gone with the room facing the Caribbean and the days of sipping margaritas on the beach…naahh

    Click here for more information on obtaining a Russian Visa

    For a quick guide of St. Petersburg click here

    For Moscow click here

    Squat Toilets…what’s all the flush?

    The reward for the best Squat Toilet scene in a movie by no doubt goes to Slum Dog Millionaire.  It’s actually a very big smelly problem in countries like India.This is a great video from YouTube done by user rahulbrown that gives a good understanding of how valuable something most of us take advantage of everyday.

    Toilets along the way

    Yeah… it’s something everyone thinks about if you are on a crowded public bus or van in a foreign country.  “How long is this trip really going to take, will we stop for a toilet break and what kind of porcelain throne will be put before me?”  Being a women who occasionally gets sick (ok…let’s say I make sure I have a good amount of Cipro with me on each trip) it’s always on my mind for one reason or another.   There’s never a need to panic when it comes to using the least favorite option:  a swat toilet.  Just let it be clean.

    It’s all in the technique

    Just make sure you correctly use it, don’t flush anything down the toilet if it does flush (that’s what the bucket is for or is it for the flushing part or both?  Just do what you think others have done before you)  Travelers going off the beaten path will most likely encounter the squat toilet in some shape or form.  They can even be found in rural areas of Europe and Japan.  There not just South Asia.  Travelers need to just get over it when to these places.  It’s a good reason to get those inner thigh and glut muscles toned before the trip and get use of the face mask if it’s smelly. Just be sensitive to those who have no other options.

    Here’s some supposed healthy reasons why you should use the squat position.  The best thing a woman can do is like the Army ad says be prepared.  A good tip for women is to bring along a long skirt since it’s difficult to keep your pant bottoms from hitting the squat toilet floor (icky)  There is a reason why most women around the world just wear dresses and skirts (men too).  Or, just use some common sense and roll the legs up before entering then take a deep breathe and focus on getting things done.  Oh yeah, and don’t forget the TP and that person hanging out isn’t just hanging out.  They probably have the job of selling TP and or cleaning up.  Do them a favor and give up some coin.

    It’s all a part of the experience.  If anything, mastering it makes for good travel anecdotes at the end of the day.  I wish I had some pictures of toilets I have mastered but I usually didn’t want to stay to long and/or accidentally drop my camera in the bottomless hole (see toilet scene from Slumdog Millionaire)

    Happy Squatting and remember to wash those hands.

    A little slice of paradise

    wo years ago this week my husband and I we stuck in Phuket, Thailand.   For most being stuck in a tropical resort beach with nothing to do but looking at naked Europeans and ladyboys playing volleyball in 70-80’s F temperatures is heaven.  For us it was just killing time and itching for something with more adventure.

    We had arrived in Hong Kong at the end of 2007. We had unfortunately applied for our visas to China after the unforseen Tibetan riots occurred in Tibet, so this ment we could only be issued a single entry 30 day visa.  The Chinese government had totally messed up our plan.  We had not only planned to stay in China for 6 weeks but our travel path would have taken us over the Himalayas and into a whole different part of Asia and not Thailand.  We love south-east asia but had been to Vietnam and Cambodia a few years back and wanted to see experience traveling in northern India, Burma and then way down to Malaysia and Bali for some beach time.

    I’m not saying that Thailand isn’t a great place to visit.  The people seemed very friendly but since they were still in recovery mode and most of the visitors to the area were those from the Euro zone countries prices were incredibly high and I could have been on any island in the Caribbean for the experience I got there.  Very commercialized and tacky.  The only good feeling I got was that I was helping a cause when I was there.  The hotel we stayed was rebuilt and run by a family who had most likely been a victim of the tsunami two years earlier.  We selected places to eat based not on popularity but whether it was locally owned and run.  There were no trips to Starbuck’s, McDonald’s or any of the chain restaurants that had re-established themselves there.

    The only sadness I had in leaving was knowing that this area had a tough road ahead of them.  We had spent our days hiking up either side of Patong Beach to the outskirts of town.  These areas where either abandoned or being turned into very high-end condominium developments in the hills overlooking the beach that was once a place of very high devastation.  The only reminder of the tsunami was a small memorial located not far from the beach area.  It’s a simple construction which people have placed small elephant figurines and other mementos on it to show remembrance of love ones lost.

    The early morning we left behind the cheap massages on the beach, the overzealous prostitutes, the noisy waterfront and the ladyboy that was ironically waving at our taxi as we skipped town.  He/she in her/his magenta wig pretty much summed up the place.  I don’t mean to discourage those in going to Phuket but know that it’s not like Leonardo’s movie.  If you are in for a place where you can recover from your hangover on the beach, ride an elephant through the jungle and get a cheap massage it’s a great place to go.  I only wish them well in there own journey to full recovery and hope they are better prepared next time.

    Please let me know your thoughts on the matter of Phuket or other places like it.  I would love to hear other travelers comments.

    She’s traveling to the Middle East

    What a girl packs away in her travel bag will all depend on where she’s planning to go.  This case is the Middle East.   This being said, taking great care in how you dress and act while visiting. What a woman traveler wears and how she behaves will show how locals in turn treat her.  A woman well versed  in local social etiquette to avoid the long stares and unwarranted cat calls and hisses that go along being inconsiderate.

    Clothing

    Keep in mind that the less skin showing the better.   The year-round weather in most Middle Eastern areas usually no lower than 50F and can get up to an uncomfortable 115F (one considering the humidity levels which can make it feel much warmer).  Staying cool in clothing that covers you from head to toe will be challenging.

    In these modern times, it is much easier to find women’s clothing that is both comfortable and covers most of your body.  The designs are getting better and the fabric is becoming more technologically advanced.  Caprilene is one of the greatest things available these days.  The designers are also making clothing out of these lighter and water whisking recycled polyester.  It’s a green product as well.  If you would like to really blend in to the local culture check out a tailor or local clothing market and buy a Hijab while you are visiting.  People will appreciate the gesture and it may lead to more interaction with the locals.

    The women of Islam are usually required to dress in a hijab by law of the state and/or by their family.  The hajib has been a topic of discussion in many countries and has often lead to heated debates about when women should wear them, if they should banned, if the law requires women to wear them and what are they acceptable styles.  Women travelers need to have an understanding of local social codes.  This knowledge will help to avoid disrespecting the local population.  It is a very highly politicized  subject which requires a traveler, male or female, to educate themselves and be aware of current events popping up which surround the very sensitive subject.

    Social Behavior

    It is well-known that women in a moderate to strict Muslim society must follow the rules of Islāmic laws or face the consequences.  It is important to remember that we travelers are just visiting and must respect local codes of conduct.

    On the other side, we are like embassadors from our own countries.  The way we behave in public while visiting may have a long reached effect on how locals view our country.  We should want to make the best impression since most of the time the country’s media and the movies and television shows exported to the country are the only exposure they have to a country like the United States.  All media takes an extreme perspective on a culture or group of people.  This being said, act on your best behavior.

    This means, act on the side of caution.  It is best to be self aware and not get lost in and forget what surrounds you.  We all have those moments were we start getting comfortable with our surrounds.  So much, that we behave as if we are back in our own country.  Stay focused and always remember where you are and concentrate on what surrounds you.  This will also keep you out of harms way.

    Here is more  information on gender roles in different societies.

    To pack or not to pack?

    So it’s about a week or so until the flight is taking off to the other side of the earth and it’s time to start packing.  What is in your bag will be the same amount for a trip that’s a month or a year in general terms.  This is of course considering that you will be finding a laundry to freshen up the travel garments along the way.  Don’t count on it.  Save your money since most places will be doing what you would do and that’s washing by hand and in a tub of water with a little soap.  As Rick Steves says, “Pack light and pack smart.”

    The basic clothing

    Best course of action is to lay out what you have to take with you.  This will all depend on the climate or types of climates you will be trudging through.  The basics first will be undergarments (underwear and socks)  and then bottoms, tops, jacket (preferably one multi-functioning, light in weight, and water proof or resistant), shoes (also ideally one pair that is also multi-functioning)  and small cosmetics bag (most in the 2 ounce size if possible).  Now, put everything out and  see if they will fit your minimum standard for comfort.  The choices of tops and bottoms  (I have had luck with Patagonia gear) ideally will be ones that are also made of fast drying materials and are easily washable.  Personally, my laundry has many times been done in the sink or wash basin supplied by my hostel.  Don’t expect most things made of cotton to dry overnight unless you are in the middle of the Sahara in the summer.

    The bag and it’s peripherals

    It’s now time to start packing.  I’m assuming you have taken the time to find the best pack.   I like the ones that have good zipper with a proper place to attach a small lock on(TSA approved of course), are light in weight, and have a good hip belt for support.  Forget the ones with the wheels and the cool colors.  They end up being bulky, heavy and who wants to wheel around a suitcase through a dirty street and then pick it up after being covered in filth.  Besides, the backpack allows you to have your hands free.

    Look for something that’s feels comfortable and the correct size.  This is an investment so do your research by reading reviews and find out which type and brand of pack is worth the money.  I suggest a company that just specialized in travel gear like my favorite:  Eagle Creek.  It suits me but like everything, find what works for you. A 30 liter size is an ideal size to start looking at.  It will likely be small enough to carry on a plane and be universally acceptable when using public buses and vans.  Less like to make the locals annoyed or agree when they will be using the same space to put their own goods into.  Also, good to consider one with a built-in cover for when it rains or you need to put it on top of a van or bus.  For further help,  consult the folks at stores like REI and Patagonia are also experienced travelers.

    Next is consider using compression stuff sacks made of sturdy nylon.  I usually take two medium-sized ones using one for clean and one for dirty laundry.  The clothes and other basics can now be placed in the bag.  Let’s see how much room you have left, and is it time to put more or less in?  This is a good time to try the pack on and see how comfortable you are with the weight.  If you are comfortable with the weight then add more to the pack.  Keep in mind that you may want to leave room for stuff you want to pick up along the way and consider if you can live without out it.  There is no need for it weighing you down if you end up using the items a couple of times if not at all.

    All the rest

    The items in your bag and what you decide to take on your journey is up to you.  Many travelers debate on what is and what is not acceptable. Each traveler is different and each trip is different.   It is just important to take the time and consider what works for you.  Things to keep in mind are the following:

    Do you need it?

    Can I get this along the way and if so, will it be extremely expensive or hard to find or the opposite?

    Do I want to carry this much stuff and if not what can I get rid of?

    Are my clothing choices practical?

    Be aware that the first trip of this sort will be a learning experience and you will have to learn as you go.  Be able to just let it go.  Do the best you can and hope that you don’t forget anything.  Even if you do, you will probably find it along the way and there’s always fed-ex and DHL.  This is the beginning of the simple life and hopefully you will discover how little we really need to survive.