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.