Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Washington State: Northern Exposure to Ginkgo Petrified Forest

Cicely's Gift Shop, Roslyn, WA

Our first official stop on our year long trip throughout the US and Canada was the town of Roslyn, WA. For fans of the hugely popular 90's TV show, Northern Exposure, the locale is a television mecca. Set in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, the show was actually filmed in Roslyn, a much more climatically hospitable place for its stars and film crew. The town transformed itself into a tiny, rustic Alaskan village for the show and wisely decided to keep the look to attract tourists. We stopped there to stretch our legs, get a coffee and chat with the locals. 

Simone & Luis in front of the Roslyn Cafe (aka Roslyn's Cafe)

Bob, who works in the gift shop, told us that, even years after the show wrapped, they still receive thousands of visitors each year from countries all over the world, where it continues to enjoy rerun popularity. It's known variously around the world as Wild North, Welcome to Alaska, Life in the North, Why Alaska?, A Doctor Among Bears, Stop Alaska, At the End of the World and The Sweet Life in Alaska and remains one of the most watched TV shows ever produced.    

    Luis at Ginkgo Petrified Forest, State Park, Vantage, WA

Next stop, Ginkgo Petrified Forest, State Park in Vantage, WA, a 7,470 acre park on the Wanapum Reservoir on the Columbia River. More than 50 species of petrified trees dating from 15.5 million years ago as well as more than 300 ancient well-preserved petroglyphs carved into the petrified wood and river rocks created by members of the Wanapum tribe are housed and protected within the park's borders. The petrified wood is so important that it was named as Washington State's official gem in 1975.  The Wanapum (meaning "river people") tribe refused ti fight European settlers and consequently never signed a peace treaty with them, meaning that today, they have no official right to their ancestors' land, although they have been rolled into the collective Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. 

   Wanapum petroglyphs, Ginkgo Petrified Forest, State Park, Vantage, WA

Next stop: Soap Lake, WA. 


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Denali or Bust! Hmmm, looks like Bust...

Car trouble, Summer 2013, Teslin, Yukon (photo by Simone Cannon) 

Our original plan was to start our 2014 year-long trip to visit the US National Parks and Canadian National Parks by taking another pass at Denali National Park in Alaska, home to the tallest mountain in North America, 20,320-ft Denali (aka Mt. McKinley). Last summer, we decided on the spur of the moment, in retrospect in a seriously deluded and misguided way, that it would be a great idea to drive our Volvo station wagon there and car camp along the way. Okay, it was actually my idea and Luis just went along with it to keep the peace as any good husband would (happy wife = happy life). All went swimmingly until we blew a head gasket in the remote town of Teslin, population 122, in the Yukon Territory, and had to be towed at 4 am to Whitehorse, two hours away. We spent a month in a soggy tent with no means of transportation and very little money waiting for repairs to be made since both Volvo mechanics and parts were hard to come by in that neck of the woods. We never did make it to Denali since the weather started to turn cold and rainy, but we did get as far as Skagway, Alaska before limping back to Seattle in our barely repaired car, $2700 lighter.

Our home in the Yukon while waiting a month for our Volvo to be repaired (photo by Simone Cannon) 

This year, not wanting to experience the same repair issues and 1/2 star travel package that we had inadvertently signed up for, we ditched the tent and decided to buy a small motorhome with a sturdy Ford engine. We set our departure date for June, but life, as it often does, reset our clock several times. Family issues for both of use pushed our escape plans out to September, too late to go north. Denali would have to wait for another year.

After several revisions to our originally planned route, we finally decided to head east to Toronto as quickly as we could, both to help my ill dad and to arrive in time for his 80th birthday, bypassing Yellowstone, Glacier Nat'l Park and the Badlands. As I stared wistfully out the RV window at the signs indicating the turnoffs to parks that I've wanted to visit for as long as I can remember, Luis reminded me that they would all be there next year. Right now, our family needed us. He was right and at least we were finally on the road. When we lived in South America, we spent five years exploring as much of the continent  as we could via backpacking on cross-country buses. Now we had our own wheels and a five-star upgrade to our usual tent. It was time to explore North America...we were on our way!  

Finally on our way! (photo by Simone Cannon) 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On the Road Again: The Search for the Perfect Motorhome, Part Two

So many choices. A trailer? (Photo by Simone Cannon)

I kicked the rear tire on the 24th RV that we had looked at that month. “How many miles did you say it has on it?” I asked the owner.
“175,000. I've owned it for a year.”
“A year? How did you put so many miles on it? ”
“Oh, it wasn't me; it was the previous owner. He was a competitive fisherman and he used the RV to drive to all the national competitions. He cleaned and stored the fish he caught in the shower stall." 
“Well, that would explain the extensive fish odor.”
“I guess.”
I glanced at Luis, who mimicking slashing his own throat, which roughly translated to “If you think that I’m going to spend the next year in what essentially amounts to an ex-lobster tank, you’ve gone temporarily insane.”
“Um…we’ll call you.”

I sighed. Not only had we looked at every RV from Tacoma to Bellingham, we’d visited countless RV shows, followed dozens of potential, yet ultimately fruitless, leads and had an owner-by-owner crash course in RV maintenance, how to avoid potential disasters and a running narrative of the seemingly endless challenges of life on the road. We were exhausted, in a state of information overload and still no closer to finding our perfect motorhome than when we’d started the search three months earlier.

Perhaps an A-Liner? (Photo by Simone Cannon)

Nothing seemed right for us:  too small, too large, too many miles, too expensive, too old, too damaged, weirdly configured (one motorhome had the bathroom in the middle of the living area), too many crucial things missing (one had no ladder to the roof; another, no generator or refrigerator) or the owners were a tad, to put it kindly, shady. One set of fast-talking brothers swore that their motorhome had been owned by their grandfather who only drove it to church on Sundays. When we asked to test drive it and have it checked by a local RV mechanic, they balked and immediately dropped the price to less than half of the original. We later learned from an RV dealership in the neighborhood that they were known locally as “the gypsies” and were rumored to have at least 26 grandfathers who all purportedly treated their vehicles with kid gloves.

A converted bus seems a bit much... (Photo by Simone Cannon)

But just when all hope was fading, a ray of light…our friend who lives In West Seattle messaged me to tell me that her neighbors had listed a motorhome less than an hour ago that seemed exactly what we were looking for and that we should probably high-tail it over there, which we promptly did. She was right; the RV was perfect: excellent condition, 21 feet long, ten years old with only 22K miles on it, a bathroom including a separate shower stall, a kitchen with an oven, a  fridge, freezer and microwave…we made them an offer on the spot. Only one black cloud: a neighbor had already shown interest. As we drove away, we steeled ourselves for disappointment, but only a few minutes later, the owners called us to accept our offer. We beamed...luck and the kindness of the owners were on our side and we were on our way, finally!

   If all else fails, a yurt (Photo by Simone Cannon)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

First Stop on the Cross-Country Dash: Soap Lake, Washington

Soap Lake, Washington State (photo by Simone Cannon)

After we left Roslyn, WA, we faced a ten day drive cross-country, hopefully arriving in time not only to help my stepmother with my hospitalized dad, but also to arrive for his 80th birthday. As Luis would say, nos posimas las pilas, (we put in the batteries) and got going. We needed to get some highway behind us, so we got back on I-90 and hit the gas. Our first night was spent in a small municipal campsite in front of Soap Lake, WA a little-known, but ancient mineral lake similar to the much more famous and costly spa in Baden Baden,GermanyThe water contains over 20 alkaline minerals and is purported to cure or mitigate the symptoms of arthritis, psoriasis, circulatory issues, etc. 

Statue of Chief Joseph (photo by Simone Cannon)

There, we met a lovely Russian couple who lived in Seattle, but vacationed every few months in their little well-appointed van to take in the scenery and soak in the therapeutic waters. Before we left Seattle, a friend had given us a bag of apples from her tree and we brought some over to the couple as a gift; they quickly returned the favor by bringing us some smoked salmon that their son had caught and prepared. I’m constantly blown away by the kindness of strangers. Still, that’s quite a return; note to self: must buy more apples…

Soap Lake guide sign (photo by Simone Cannon)  

Our first night in our new RV was to be a hairy one: we were parked only few feet from the lake and the winds were some of the strongest that we've ever experienced. The waves were incredibly choppy and splashing over the edge of the lake onto our camper. As our little motorhome rocked back and forth that night, I seriously thought that we would be blown into the water; I just hoped that we floated.  Long before European settlers arrived, the lake was regularly visited by Native Americans who treated the lake and surrounding area as a vacation retreat: they spent their time gambling, visiting the local racetrack, soaking in the heavily mineralized waters for health reasons (Smokiam, the original name, meant "Healing Waters") enjoying the sunny, warm weather and getting a well-deserved rest; it was basically the Miami Beach of the West Coast tribal nations. Chief Joseph’s statue still presides over the Soap Lake Park: perhaps the rough weather was his way of exacting revenge for the commandeering of his favorite get-away spot. Can’t say I blame him. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On the Road Again...The Search for the Perfect Motorhome, Part One

We now tell everyone that we live in a Chateau :-) 

After three years of weekend-only travel, Luis & I are finally back out there! Inspired by recent at-least-year-long road trips undertaken by different friends in various areas of the world (the east coast of Africa, the west coast of North America, the entire planet), we made the decision to once again sell all of our belongings (my 4th time, Luis' 3rd...which is why we always purchase our household things at Chez Les Ventes de Garage) and hit the road. We didn't think that our marriage would survive a year of four seasons in a tent, but we also didn't want one of those honkin' 42-foot converted bus RVs with washer/dryers, dishwashers and a 60" flat screen TV either, so we decided to search for something somewhere in between. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into...

Our search started with trying to untangle the threads of the myriad choices available for traveling with our home on our back: Class A, B or C? 20 foot, 30 foot, 40 foot? Self-contained motorhome, truck camper, toy hauler, pop-up, teardrop, 5th wheel, or hybrid trailer? New, used or rental? Diesel or gasoline? Airstream or Winnebago? We started by visiting RV shows to whittle down the options,  but quickly got even more overwhelmed with the hundreds of RVs (and insistent salespeople) on display.

The Tacoma RV Show in July (photo courtesy of OT Shows)

Here's what we learned:

  • Trailer pros: good gas mileage, inexpensive, you can uncouple your vehicle and drive unencumbered around town and you have more interior space since there's no cab; cons: you may have to unhitch in the dead of night in the rain, it is necessary to buy a large SUV or truck to pull it (our Volvo could barely pull itself, much less a trailer) and because of the total length, it would be difficult to reverse or find parking/camping. 
  • Truck Camper pros: convenient & compact, inexpensive, you can leave it at the campground and drive your pickup truck around town; cons: small interior space, you have to drive a pickup around town and I would not be able to stop humming the theme song from the Beverly Hillbillies
  • Class A RV pros: a lot of space, luxurious options. cons: off-the-charts cost to buy and operate (the large ones get 1-2 miles/per gallon and campsites and ferries charge by the foot), difficult/impossible to find parking or drive on small winding roads. 

We finally decided to look for a 21-25 foot C Class: just the right size, much better gas mileage, can be parked almost anywhere. But, unfortunately, as we where soon to find out, everyone else was already clued in, making a small, used C-Class with low mileage and in good condition almost impossible to find. During the months we searched for just the right motorhome for us, we also discovered how abysmally little we knew about RV maintenance and life on the road. To be continued...

Packing our new home; no idea how we're going to get everything in there!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How to Prepare for Your First Visit to a Developing Country

Simone with artist Jorge Seleron, the creator of the famous Escadaria Selaron, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Recently, I received a phone call from a friend asking me whether she should be worried about traveling to Guatemala. Although she's an experienced traveler, it would be her first trip to a developing country and she had some reservations about going. It is a humanitarian trip, one that will give her the opportunity to significantly improve the lives of many poor families by installing clean water systems, so she is understandably torn between concern for her own safety and the desire to help others. My first instinct was to downplay her concerns since so many potential travelers tend to overestimate the dangers of traveling abroad, through, in fairness, very little fault of their own. For various self-serving reasons, alarmist media outlets (you know who you are), bombard their viewers with terrifying messages of greatly exaggerated threats of terrorists, flesh-eating diseases, violent crime and rude, non-English speaking, unhelpful foreigners. After watching these shows, it's amazing that anyone ever leaves the house, much less the country, but since I love my friend like a sister and would never want any harm to come to her, I decided to provide her with some real information. After all, knowledge is power, which hopefully leads to peace of mind and the freedom to go out into the world.
  Comparing mendhi henna tattoos in Agra, India 

1) Gather as Much Pre-Trip Information as Possible: before you go, visit several advisory sites for the current political and economic status as well as any weather or health-related issues of the country you intend to visit. Check back often, especially when you are getting closer to your departure date, since developing countries tend to have swiftly changing social and political environments and unstable infrastructures. Do not rely on one site as your sole source of advice since you are looking for a balanced, wide-reaching view. The U. S. State Department Travel Advisory, for example, tends to overstate danger since the government's aim is to mitigate the risk of lawsuits brought by US citizens. Australian, Canadian and British governmental advisory sites are generally less alarmist and so should also be included in your review. Visit the official website of the country as well as reliable news and non-governmental sites such as the New York Times Travel Blogs, Lonely Planet Thorntree Forums and Trip Advisor for up-to-date comments from recent travelers. Talk to friends and family who have visited the country. The idea is to arrive at a broad spectrum view: if only one source mentions a high violent crime rate or violence directed specifically at foreigners, you will probably not have to worry too much, but if the information appears repeatedly, you may want to rethink the timing of your trip.

Our 4 x 4 Jeep and fellow passengers, Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia (photo by Simone Cannon) 

2) Take all precautions: visit a doctor near your home that specializes in foreign travel to get all necessary immunizations and medicines before you leave. You should be able to find someone online or ask your own doctor for recommendations. Always keep emergency remedies and supplies such as anti-diarrhea pills, an all-purpose quick-acting antibiotic like Ciproflaxin, rehydration packets, toilet paper and a few bills and coins of local currency in your money belt or backpack; you never know when you will need them in a hurry. Make sure that your passport is up to date, you have all visas and you are fully aware of customs regulations so that your entry will be smooth. Make a copy of your passport, credit cards and other documents and keep it in a separate place than the originals; while you're at it, Google the international access phone numbers for your credit cards in case you have to call from a foreign country to report them stolen.

3) Do whatever you need to do to put your mind at rest: ask yourself (be brutally honest) what your greatest fears are and write them down, no matter how crazy they might seem. Air them out by talking about them with your spouse, partner, kids, friends. If fears aren't vented and sanity-checked, they tend to take on a life of their own out of all proportion to reality, creating fear and insecurity. Do practical things like buying life insurance, putting your will in order, paying off bills. Knowing that your ducks are in a row will give you greater peace of mind before you leave and also in the highly unlikely event that you do find yourself in a threatening situation later.  

Young girls celebrating a quinceañera party, Mexico City, Mexico (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

4) Learn Customs, Etiquette and Some Basic Language: the vast majority of difficult situations abroad (and at home) are due to miscommunication or misunderstood signals. Read up on the rules of society and culture of a place, including the meaning of gestures, which often have very different, often offensive, meanings in other countries. Learning what is considered to be polite and impolite behavior will often avoid landing you in trouble. Also take the time to learn a few basic words and phrases in the language of the country that you will be visiting. Knowing how to say hello, thank you, I'm sorry and excuse me can go a very long way in fostering good relations. Even if your pronunciation is not very good, most people will appreciate you for making the effort to learn. Check websites such as Kwintessential and Culture Crossing for global etiquette guides and Fodor's Language for Travelers site for a few basics.

5) Keep your faith in humanity, but trust your instincts: it's good to be prepared, but also maintain a balanced perspective. The criminal element in any society is generally a minuscule percentage of the population. Most people that you will encounter when traveling are hardworking family types who want the same things that you do: happiness, health, moderate success, to raise their family well, to keep their kids safe. In all my years of traveling, I have never found myself in a truly dangerous situation and have, in fact, been humbled by the incredible kindness of complete strangers who wanted nothing more than to show off their country and help me in any way that they could. I've been invited by complete strangers to stay in their homes, have been bought presents, had people cancel appointments to walk me 40 blocks to an internet cafe, have been invited to join others at their tables in restaurants and many other kindnesses too numerous to mention. People are basically good, but trust your instincts of course; if you feel that someone is acting suspiciously (not making eye contact, seeming distracted, making you feel generally uncomfortable), get out. Don't be polite, don't make excuses, just leave, quickly. 

Lone monk meditating, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia (photo by Simone Cannon)

6) Keep a lowish profile: forget about not looking like a tourist; it is nearly impossible to blend into a place completely, even if you're actually a citizen of the country (think Nebraska natives in New York City). Everything about you, your mode of dress, your mannerisms, the way you walk, your language screams tourist, so people will immediately peg you as foreign, but you can minimize being targeted in several ways. Being cognizant of local customs and manners and using them appropriately, dressing in low-key clothing similar to what locals wear, not talking too loudly, but also not acting in a way that makes you appear too timid or tentative. In other words, act respectfully and confidently and try to get into the flow of daily life. Think of it as learning to drive in a place where the traffic has a different flow & rhythm than you are used to at home; you will have plenty of missteps initially, but will soon get the feel of the current.   
7) Remember why you're going: don't let fear rule your decision to travel. There is an element of danger in everything that you endeavor to do in life, even close to home. You have to weigh the risk against the rewards. Once you have made the decision to go and have prepared as well as you can, let it go. Sometimes you just have to take that leap: be courageous, trust yourself  to handle sticky situations if they should arise and know that the universe will provide. Have faith.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Strange Mother's Day Facts & Origins Around the World

Bouquets of flowers from a Seattle, U.S. farmers' market, ready to give to mom (photo by Simone Cannon)

Every year during the month of May in the U.S. and Canada, we celebrate the happy occasion of Mother's Day, honoring our mothers by bringing gifts such as flowers and sweets or taking them to a nice brunch. We recognize our moms for the sacrifices they have made raising us and for their ongoing support and friendship. We appropriately celebrate in the spring month of May, traditionally the season of birth and rebirth, fertilization, new beginnings and life itself. But not everyone in the world shares our traditions. Although we think of Mother's Day as a happy light-hearted day of celebration and spending time with mom, in some countries it is a more somber day or it occurs at a different time of year. Here's a look at the more unusual customs around the world.

Argentina: Mother's Day is also celebrated in spring, but because it is in the Southern Hemisphere, where seasons are opposite to those of the Northern Hemisphere, it falls during the third week of October when spring flowers for gift-giving are in full bloom. Other countries in the southern hemisphere, such as Malawi, follow suit.

Mother and baby, La Paz, Bolivia (photo by Simone Cannon)

Bolivia: Mother's Day, also known as the Day of the Heroines of Coronillas, is less celebratory and festive since it commemorates the deaths of hundreds of women in the battle for Bolivian independence against the invading Spaniards. When most of the male soldiers had been killed in the initial battles, the wives, sisters, mothers and daughters refused to give up and took up the fight. It may sound like a depressing day, but in fact, celebrates the bravery of these incredible, strong-minded and proud women who refused to surrender their country and freedom to the conquistadors. Thanks in great part to their efforts, Bolivia finally did achieve independence from colonial rule in 1825.

France & Germany: Mother's Day was originally adopted in these countries to promote child-bearing. In the early 1900s, the birth rate of many European countries was in steep decline and governments started to panic. In France, they even offered a merit award to mothers who gave birth to more than nine children. Mother's Day was seen as a way to "promote family values", that is, to encourage more women to take up what was considered at that time to be the only acceptable female role: to bear children. Today, mothers of all size families are honored.      

Frangipani (Plumeria) flower offerings in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia (photo by Simone Cannon)

Indonesia: empowering women is the time-honored basis for celebration on this island nation, where Mother's Day is held on the anniversary of the first Women's Congress. Indonesia has always been far ahead of much of the world regarding women's rights, having established its first feminist organizations in 1912. Despite the efforts of the late President Suharto to use the occasion to encourage women to stay at home and to keep out of politics, the day has continued to focus on improving women's lives through education and social policies.

Nepal: all mothers are honored on the roof of world, including the living and the dead. The holiday, which lasts for two weeks and is called Mata Tirtha Puja or "Mother Pilgrimage Worship", includes visiting local ponds in the hope of seeing a late mother's face in the reflective waters. As well as providing solace to grieving children, the practice is thought to bestow a sense of peace on the dead.

Staring into the pond, Mother's Day in Nepal (photo courtesy of

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Never Choose The Tarantula Cabin and other Lessons of the Jungle

Happily on our way to the eco-lodge on the eco-bus (photo by Luis Bastardo)

"Tarantulas are usually nocturnal and are difficult to notice unless you are searching for them. Most people encounter adult males, which wander during daylight hours looking for female mates." - The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Travel 

As our plane reached cruising altitude, I leaned back in my seat, sipping my gin and tonic slowly, feeling a huge wave of relief to finally be free of the daily 10-hour hikes through the rugged Andes. For five days, Luis, my 50-something husband, and I had hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with a group of 20-something athletic Spaniards. It was a terribly isolating experience since I was just starting to learn Spanish and so didn't understand much of what was said, my body was at the level of physical condition brought on by years of owner neglect and, even in the best of circumstances, I am a very slow hiker, so we spent most of the trip trailing far behind the other hikers and the guide. The declines were much harder on my knees than I had expected and I was now unable to walk for more than 15 minutes or so, even on a flat surface, without tearing up in pain. But far above the Andes with my gin and tonic in hand on the way to Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian jungle, all that was behind me now. I had done it! 

From plane to bus to boat: arriving at the eco-lodge (photo by Simone Cannon)
When the plane landed, we rode the open-sided bus, then a boat to the EcoAmazonia Lodge were we were warmly greeted by the staff.
"Hola y Bienvenidos! We have a wide selection of eco-cabins; which one would you like?"
I looked at the list of cabins, then at Luis.
"I don't know. They all look identical to me...what's the difference?"
"They have different names."  
"There is the Llama cabin and the Caiman cabin and the Macaw cabin and the Iguana cabin and the Anaconda cabin and the Tarantula cabin and the..."
"We'll take the Tarantula cabin." Luis looked at me. "Really"?
"Would you prefer the Anaconda cabin?"
"The Tarantula's fine"
"We'll take the Tarantula."
"Excellent choice!"

We followed the front desk clerk to our eco-cabin and peered inside. It looked normal enough. No tarantula-shaped chandeliers, no tarantula-printed sheets, just a rattan framed bed and grass cloth walls and flooring. Nothing to worry about here. We dropped our bags and I sat on the bed with my back against the wall.
"So, what's our itinerary for the rest of the day?"
Luis looked up and past me. "Well, first, we'll have to kill that tarantula that's walking down the wall toward your head".
"Ha ha, very funny. Seriously, are we supposed to meet the guide or what?"

Now, one thing that you have to know about my husband is that his great delight in life is playing practical jokes. He is the original snakes-in-the-can guy, anything for a laugh, so naturally I didn't bite.

"Look, Luis, I'm tired and not in the mood for silly games. I'm so sure that there's a giant tarantula crawling down toward me in the Tarantula Cabin...I mean, really, what are the odds? A tarantula hanging on the wall five feet above my head in its namesake room? I doubt that tarantulas have a sense of irony."
"Actually, it's more like three feet."
"I'm not looking up."
"Suit yourself."
"I'm absolutely not looking up or moving because I refuse to fall for your infantile jokes one more...AGGGGGHHHH!!!"

Tarantula on the wall (photo courtesy of Matt Moyers)

My screams brought the eco-staff running into our room.
Señora! Señora! ¿está bien?"  
"Ah! You have a tarantula!" 
"Pero, Señora, a tarantula is good luck!"
"I don't care! If I want luck, I'll buy a rabbit's foot at the eco-gift shop! Get it out of here!"
"Yes, of course." 
Four more men arrived carrying a broom. 
"What are you going to do with that?" 
"Cut his legs off."
"Cut his legs off."
"So he can't crawl back into your room." 
"Oh, my God. I'm going to have a tiny disabled spider hobbling around outside my room?"
"More like gyrating."
"That's terrible!"
"Although of course his family will still have all of their legs. They will probably return tonight to see what happened to their relative. Tarantulas are well-known in the jungle for their vendettas." 
Peels of laughter. They were kidding. I think. I spent the night wide awake sitting up in bed with my flashlight in hand and my shoes on just in case.  

    Jungle Transport (photo by Simone Cannon)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Travel as a Form of Pushing Your Limits or Why I'm a Glutton for Punishment

Luis and Simone still looking perky on the first day of the five day hike from hell, Inca Trail, Peru   

I stuck my head through the tent flap one last time, trying not to wake my snoring husband. The sky was jet black, filled with more brilliant stars and asteroids than I'd ever seen in one place. The sharply jagged, snow-capped Andes Mountains surrounded our encampment; tomorrow's climb would be steep. The frigid air cut the viewing short and, shivering, I quickly returned to the relative warmth of my sleeping bag, still fully clothed. I hadn't been able to bring myself to remove my sweat-stained clothes in the sub-zero temperatures, much less bathe, even after eight hours of strenuous hiking the previous day. I felt terrible. I was still suffering from the effects of altitude sickness, my feet had already developed several blisters, every muscle ached, my head pounded and I was dirty and (no doubt) smelly. And I couldn't sleep because of the giant pit in my stomach. This was only the first night; we had four more days and nights to go. How would I ever be able to traverse the Andes? The Andes! Planes crashed here and people were forced to eat fellow passengers. I thought of my buff traveling companions; they would barely make a snack, much less a meal. The terrain had defeated hundreds of steely Spanish Conquistadors in their normally unstoppable quest for gold. I was a 45-year old out-of-shape woman who had never attempted anything like this in her life. On top of that, the travel agency in Cuzco had, for some insane reason, placed us in a group of 20-somethings from Spain, all of whom were in spectacular shape, including one triathlete and one professional mountain guide. How could I possibly keep up? Well, nothing for it, really. I had three choices: keep up with them, turn back without a guide or move to this encampment permanently. Sigh...

Hikers and horses taking a break on the Inca Trail (photo by Luis Bastardo)   

It remains, to this day, one of the hardest things that I've ever done. It far surpasses other endeavors that I've more or less successfully completed: a 240-foot bungee jump over Miami Beach, a stint learning to swing on a circus trapeze, being awoken at 5 a.m. on an overnight bus through Bolivia by drug police dressed in black ski masks and jackboots and carrying semi-automatic weapons. All of those things were nerve-racking, but they were also over in less than three hours, not five days. Hiking the Peruvian Inca Trail from Cuzco to the ancient city of Machu Picchu was something that I'd wanted to do for a long time in order to check another box on my travel bucket list, but I never gave much thought to the actual logistics of the trip. Keep in mind that I am not what anyone would describe as even remotely athletic, or even coordinated. I have no interest in sports, I fall off bicycles regularly, I can't dance, and I trip over my own feet at least once a month (I have the scarred knees to prove it). The one thing that I do have going for me, though, is tenacity. I refuse to give up once I've committed to something. This isn't always a strength; sometimes it's wiser to walk away from a situation, but often it is the force that pushes me ahead and lets me accomplish things that I never thought were possible.  

A well-deserved siesta after lunch, Inca Trail, Peru (photo by Simone Cannon) 

For me, experiences such as this are one of the main reasons that I travel and will continue to travel for as long as I am able. Pushing myself past the boundaries of my perceived limits is much more likely to happen far away from home for several reasons: it is much more adventurous and exotic to challenge myself in other countries, I'm not able to easily quit and return to my comfy bed, and I have my husband, fellow travelers and guides to offer much-needed support and to push me along. Let's face it, very few accomplishments are completed without assistance in one form or another. But at the end of the day, I am the one who has to cross the finish line alone.

A refreshing cup of coca leaf tea, Peru (photo by Simone Cannon)

After five days of hiking on average, 10 hours a day, we arrived at the town of Aguas Calientes exhausted, but exhilarated. Luis and I had spent most of our time on the trail lagging far behind the younger hikers, with the guide running back to us a few times a day to make sure that we hadn't collapsed. In truth, my uber-fit husband could have kept up with them but he kindly stayed back with me. The deeply inclined downhill hikes would turn out to be much more damaging to my knees than the feared upward paths, my extensive blisters forced me to wear no other shoes than flip-flops for a month afterwards and, even after many cups of coca tea, my altitude sickness would linger for another week. But none of that mattered, sitting on a precipice at Machu Picchu , watching the sun rise and staring out at the breathtaking views of a real-life Shangri-La. Would I do it again? In a second.

Yes! We made it! 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

5 Quick Cures for TFS (Travel Fatigue Syndrome)

Simone, unable to visit one more historically important site, ready for a sanctuary and a stiff drink, Salvador de Bahia, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

You can feel it coming. You want to be excited, you know how life-altering travel can be, you want to get every minute's worth of value out of this expensive trip, you feel a moral imperative to understand the historical importance of the ancient cobblestones that you're shuffling across to reach El Plaza Mayor where the country that you are currently visiting (Colombia? Peru? Brazil?) staged its first political revolutions, but then...everything starts to become a blur. The walking tour guide's words start to run together, the dates become all mixed up (is this the plaza commemorating the revolution of October 12th, May 17th or August 10th?), your camera hand is on auto-pilot, snapping random photos of the latest commemorative plaque or castle ruins. Local touts are entering your personal space to sell you yet another postcard, t-shirt and tweeting bird toy. You can't figure out one more bus route, sign in a foreign language or whether the taxi driver is ripping you off or not. There are still seven days left in this trip and all you want to do is lie in a hammock with a tall, frosty cocktail (which you can do at home for free). What to do? No worries; it's perfectly okay to slow down and recharge. Here are some suggestions for quick  rejuvenation:

A warm and comforting bowl of Pho (photo by Simone Cannon) 

1) Find Some Comfort Food (and Drink): one of the fastest and easiest way to recover is to have a slow-paced, relaxing meal of simple warm food, such as a delicious bowl of soup or noodles. Take a break from touring and wander down the side streets of a city. Follow your nose or ask locals for suggestions (be sure to specify that you would like to know where they eat and not where they think you would like to eat) to find an inexpensive, local restaurant. For the most authentic experience, look for menus only in the local language, that is, without an English or German translation, try to find a family-run place, and check the proportion of local people to tourists eating there (should be high). Suspend your nervousness about eating something unusual, take a leap and ask your server to bring you whatever food is the most popular (be sure to mention in advance any serious food allergies of course, you don't want your sanctuary to be the ER). If you're a drinker, try the local beer, wine or cocktail. You might find a new favorite, like Sri Lankan Lion Stout or Brazilian Caipirinhas. Just don't overindulge; a little alcohol is relaxing, a lot may make you feel worse than ever.

Even in non-stop, full-on India, a traveler can find quiet places, such as the vast, peaceful lawns at the Taj Mahal, Agra, India (photo by Simone Cannon)    

2) Find a Sanctuary: even in the most frenetic of countries, there are many places of calm where it is possible to escape the constant barrage of sounds, colors, smells and activity which can overwhelm anyone in a new place and culture. Places of worship or memorial are usually a safe bet. For example, in Agra, India, although the Taj Mahal tomb itself is often flooded with tourists, the grounds are usually much less crowded. Since so many visitors make a bee-line for the Taj, then head back to their tour bus, a traveler in need of escape can wander across the lawns, sit under a shady tree, explore the numerous mosques, shrines and forts that are also part of the complex, all included in a low entrance fee. In Thailand, although most places of worship are bustling with people, there is a prevailing sense of reflection and peace which most visitors respect.

Taking a break for lunch on the beach while sea kayaking, Cathedral Cove, Hahei, New Zealand (photo by Simone Cannon)

3) Treat Yourself: the natural world is full of free treats such gorgeous beaches, breath-taking mountain trails, thermal springs, forests, rushing rivers and deep blue lakes. Whatever rejuvenates you at home will rejuvenate you abroad. If you enjoy splashing about in the ocean, mountain-biking, kayaking, hiking, sitting in the jacuzzi, fly fishing or photographing butterflies, you will almost always be able to find somewhere to indulge in your favorite pastime. You might even meet some fellow enthusiasts. If you are a spa-goer at home, you will be pleasantly surprised at the variety of spa treatments available around the world, often at much lower prices than at home. Book a 1/2 day at a local spa or get a foot and leg massage at a temple. Wat Po in Bangkok, Thailand is a Buddhist temple that also houses a massage school, where visitors can get a 1/2 hour or full hour fully-clothed Thai massage for 260/420 baht (approx. US $8 for 1/2 hr & $12 for 1 hr).          
Luis taking a very sexy tango lesson in (oddly enough) Lima, Peru (photo by Simone Cannon)

4) Teach or Learn Something: leap in and take advantage of your locale to learn something new. In Argentina, learn the tango or how to make a parrilla; in Calgary, Alberta learn how to lasso; in Norway, learn how to cross-country ski. The idea is to immerse yourself in what makes that country special. Aside from learning a new skill, you will almost certainly get some valuable insight into another culture, language and history and meet many people that you might not have otherwise encountered. If you have skills or an interesting hobby, especially if they are specific to your home country, you may consider offering your services to a local school, whose members are often thrilled to have international guest speakers. English conversational groups are extremely popular and, as a native speaker, you will be welcomed with open arms into the group even if you can only attend a session or two.

 Simone, listening to soul-saving music on her Ipod, after five days aboard a water barge on the Amazon River, between Manaus and Porto Velho, Brazil 

5) Listen to Some Energizing Music from Home: I always have a wide variety of music on my Ipod when traveling, ready for every possible situation. If I can't sleep because of noise or jet lag, I have soothing jazz or new age like Diana Krall or SpaTunes; for ratcheting up my energy level, I have the playlist that I use for running or walking at home, Katy Perry's Firework, Whitney Houston's I'm Every Woman, Earth Wind and Fire's Shining Star, etc. Music has amazing transforming powers and having my tunes loaded and organized into playlists for every musical emergency has saved my sanity more times that I can remember. Although I love the sights and sounds of a new place, after a while, I need some down time and just want to drown the noise out and return home for a brief 30-minute stop, then I'm ready and rarin' to go once more.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

10 Secrets to Even Cheaper Camping This Summer

Camping and Fishing Dockside at Water's Edge Campground, Dease Lake, British Columbia (photo by Simone Cannon) 

Camping season is almost here and since Luis and I have lately been, shall we say, cash-challenged, yet still hopelessly addicted to travel, camping trips to sites within a few hours drive of our apartment has been the answer to staving off our travel DTs. We even managed to get as far as Whitehorse in the Canadian Yukon Territory this summer, where we made some amazing discoveries about the many free and extremely cheap things that are part of our "1/2-star" travel style.

1) Free Campsites: campers (including car campers) can park overnight in Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Flying J Truck Stops parking lots for free. Keep in mind that this is meant to be a temporary stay, not long-term camping. It's important to respect other campers and to not take advantage of this privilege. The arrangement also benefits the stores because many campers go inside to replenish their supplies and buy gas before setting out on the road. Other big box stores such as K-Mart and Costco also occasionally offer this courtesy, but it's best to check ahead of time at specific locations, since several do not allow overnight parking. Many national, state and provincial parks offer free campsites as well, but they are often classified as "primitive", meaning that there are no facilities at all and are usually quite remote.

2) Save Money on Taxes: if you are US resident, you can deduct the bank loan's interest that you used to buy your a trailer or camper just like mortgage interest because the IRS considers it a home. You don't have to be a full-time camper/RVer to take advantage of this tax benefit; even if you use the camper as a second holiday home and not as your primary residence,  the interest is still deductible. Check the IRS website for complete details and current status and requirements of this benefit, as tax laws change constantly.

Welcome sign at the Robert Service Campground, Whitehorse, YT, Canada (photo by Simone Cannon)
3) Camp in Other Countries: camping in other countries is just as safe and generally much less expensive as camping in the U.S. For example, Canada, Britain and Argentina have some of the loveliest and most stunning camping venues in the world: excellent and well-maintained national and provincial parks, inexpensive, clean and secure campsites, gorgeous scenery, etc). They generally have several options of sleeping arrangements, ranging from individual tent sites to camper hook-ups to small rustic cabins or "refugios". Unless you are camping when there is a festival or other high-attendance event, you should be able to walk in to most camping areas and secure a site.

4) Ask About Long-Term Discounts: many campsites offer separate areas for long-term campers with discounted rates. You don't have to settle in for the season to take advantage of these bargains; often the minimum stay need only exceed 7 days. Ask at check-in if you are eligible for the reduced fees.

5) Area Discounts: you can take advantage of your status as a guest at a campsite by asking about discounts on day trips, public transportation, local restaurants, firewood, camping supplies, etc. The campsite office should have lots of information about local activities, complete with maps and coupons. They also are often able to arrange group excursions to visit local sights or participate in an activity such as kayaking or rock-climbing.

Campers in the solarium on the deck of a ferry of the Alaska Marine Highway System (photo by Simone Cannon)

6) Alternate Forms of "Camping": most ferries offer free camping on their open decks included in your fare. No need to buy a pricey cabin or pay for an extra night at a hotel when taking a ferry; just hop aboard and stake out a place for yourself  as soon as you can. The ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway, for example, allow passengers to sleep under the stars for free, even providing a plexi-glass shelter from the rain and overhead heaters. When you board the ship, head immediately to the top deck, grab a reclining deck chair or lounger and put your sleeping bag on it to claim it. The ferries are generally very safe and there are lockers available for your belongings, although few people use them. There are also free, clean bathrooms with hot water showers and an inexpensive cafeteria with a wide variety of food, although many people choose to bring their own food and picnic.

7) Flash Your Pass: buying National Park Annual Passes and State or Provincial parks can save a fortune in camp-site fees. These camp-sites are exceptionally well-maintained, safe and beautiful and usually have facilities such as bathrooms, picnic tables and BBQ areas. They also often host concerts or festivals in the summer months and offer discounts out of season. Many have beaches, hiking trails, boat rentals, fishing docks and other amenities and many have well-stocked camping supply stores. The passes are available in various categories and prices, e.g. adult, senior citizen, physically challenged visitor and park volunteers. One adult pass will allow up to four people and one vehicle into a park for stays between 1-7 days, depending on the park.

Luis enjoying a "home-cooked" breakfast thanks to our new camp stove (photo by Simone Cannon) 

8) Cook Your Own Meals: buying a camp stove will cut your food bill by at least 50% and will help you to eat fresher, more nutritious food. Before we had our stove, we would groan at the thought of lighting a campfire each morning to make coffee and our breakfast, then waiting for it to die down before we could head out for the day. In the evenings, we were wiped out from hiking all day, so generally just picked up some food on the way home. Also, the search for dry firewood is especially challenging here in the rainy Pacific Northwest, especially in the cold and darkness of the evening. Once we broke down and bought our Coleman stove, life changed dramatically. Now, we cook almost every meal at your campsite, make coffee and tea and have had some lovely, romantic dinners under the stars. We bring along staples such as eggs, bread, peanut butter (a necessity for me, although Luis would rather eat the cat) and also take advantage of the fare at farmers' markets and road-side produce stands.

9) Hang with the Locals: check local newspapers and community bulletin boards when you arrive at a new location. They often have events such as church barbeques, seasonal festivals, fairs, free concerts, art shows, etc. Most tourists are not aware of these generally inexpensive events so there is a chance to get to know the residents and learn about their lives, as well as get a real feel for the community. It is also a way to eat and be entertained much more cheaply than sticking to the worn and often over-priced tourist trail.

Dancing at a free concert given by Hank Karr and The Canucks at the MacBride Museum, Whitehorse, YT

10) Take Advantage of Local Services: walk and use public transportation as much as possible. Buying a pass for the time that you will be in one location is usually the cheapest way to go. Most systems offer a 1-, 3- or 5-day pass which includes buses, subways and transfers and often also includes ferries and trams. If you will be staying in one place for a month or more or if you frequently visit one area, it may be worth investing in a stored value card, such as Puget Sound's ORCA card.