Archive | July, 2013
July 29, 2013

How to Plan Your Round the World Trip: Where to Go?

As Mustafa and I near the 3 month milestone in our trip, there is one question we are often asked by people we meet on our travels:  How do you plan a 16 month trip?

The first logical step in planning was to start with where we wanted to go. We started discussing this about 6 months before we were set to depart and set up a spreadsheet with a list of all the countries we would like to visit.  The first list we compiled had 40 counties.  Seems like a ton of countries to cover in 16 months, doesn’t it?

I did some preliminary research on each of the countries in our list:

  • Degree of interest in visiting.  (Is this country a “must-see” or is it just an interesting place to visit?)
  • Is this an expensive country to visit? (lodging, transportation, food and visa costs)
  • Do we need a visa and if so, how onerous are the visa requirements?

I found a website called Travel Independent to be exceedingly helpful on planning where to go.  It provides a country by country breakdown including highlights, lowlights, costs, food, weather, visas and more.

In the end, after discussing the pro’s and con’s of visiting each place, we shortened our list to about 30 countries.  To our disappointment, we had to take a few “big” countries off our list: Russia and India.

Russia’s visa process is expensive, complex and restrictive, even for tourist visas.  As US citizens, we’d need invitation letters from a hotel or travel agency, each of us would need to pay $140 in visa application fees, we’d have to check-in with police for any city we stay in more than 72 hours. On top of all that, we’d only be allowed in the country for the very specific dates we specified on our application.  Mainly due to the date restrictions, we decided to take Russia off our list.

As much as we wanted to go to India, Mustafa faced complications from being Pakistani (despite also being a US citizen).  The process to get a tourist visa could take anywhere from a few months to over a year with no guarantees, and he wouldn’t be allowed to travel on his US passport (which would afford him better consular assistance if needed). Being all too familiar with how things get done in South Asian countries, Mustafa asked his colleague who used to be a senior bureaucrat in The State Bank of India to intercede with the Indian Embassy on his behalf. We requested a privileged visa for Pakistanis that exempted the holder from a number of restrictions, most important of them being police registration in every city. In the end, all that could be had was the regular restricted visa, and that too after calling in a favor. The prospect of visiting a thanna (jail) in every city on our India vacation was just too distasteful so we were forced to scratch India off our list. We still hope to go to India in the future, perhaps as a side trip when visiting Mustafa’s family in Pakistan, but will have to wait until after the insane visa restrictions have been relaxed.

The remaining list of 30 countries we’ve compiled isn’t an “end all be all”, and is in all likelihood still overly ambitious given our 16 month timeline. On this long of a trip, flexibility is king. So even after all this planning, the nucleus of our approach is “go with the flow”.

Sometimes we find ourselves tired and we decide to skip a place we previously planned to visit.  Other times, the cost of transportation is too expensive, so we simply forgo visiting a particular destination.  For instance, we were in Dubrovnik, Croatia – our next stop was supposed to be Athens and then Crete.  The cost to fly from Dubrovnik to Athens to Crete was about $625/person.  We ended up modifying our plans to fly from Dubrovnik to Milan to Crete, which ended up being $305/person.  We missed out on Athens (which Mustafa had already been to), but unexpectedly got to go to Milan instead. That little modification saved us $640, and as a bonus we had the best raspberry macaroon and tiramisu either of us had ever tasted and one of the best pizzas.IMG_4238



July 29, 2013

Minimizing Baggage Fees on Discount Carriers

Many hard-core backpackers, those that have been on the road for several years already, will simply say travel light and pack small so your backpack can be carried on the plane. Easier said than done.

The maximum carry on size backpack for most airlines is 40 liters (45L also has a good chance of success). Any more and you pay $20-30 per bag on discount airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet. Unfortunately I have a 60L pack and Coleen’s is 55L.

Packed for cheapo airline - My pack (right) is supposed to only be 9% larger than Colleen’s but right now it’s well over twice the volume of hers because it’s packed for an Easyjet flight from Dubrovnik to Milan.

Packed for cheapo airline – My pack (right) is supposed to only be 9% larger than Colleen’s but right now it’s well over twice the volume of hers because it’s packed for an Easyjet flight from Dubrovnik to Milan.

So what we’ve been doing for budget flights is overloading my pack and compressing hers to the smallest size the internal frame will allow it to be. That way we only have to check in my bag and we carry hers on-board. We’ve only tried it on two flights so far but it’s worked both times.

July 24, 2013

Pricey Big Macs and a Controversy over Immigration in Oslo, Norway

After Reykjavik, Oslo seems a proper city. Reykjavik didn’t even have a bloody McDonalds, not that I like Mickey D’s, but it’s an indication that it’s not a large market. We paid $16 for a Big Mac meal in Oslo so you know it’s an expensive town. But then Norway is one of the richest nations in the world. They have massive reserves of offshore oil and gas in the North Sea and the government manages revenues from their exploitation very well, giving Norwegians some of the highest standards on living in the world. Norway is the 4th biggest exporter to the EU behind China, Russia and USA and 2/3rds of that is oil & gas.

Another clear contrast to Iceland is the proportion of immigrants. Over a quarter of Oslo residents are immigrants. All of Reykjavik had maybe one quarter of an immigrant. Talking to people we met, we realized our hostel was widely known to be the cheapest place to stay in Oslo. Even day laborer types stayed there! I had a chat with a Polish fellow and a Canadian/French man who had recently arrived looking for work and were comparing notes over a beer. Neither was having much luck finding work and they were already discussing where they’d go next if they didn’t find anything in Oslo. It seems you need a permanent local address to get a job and landlords want proof of a job before they rent you anything so these two were stuck in a Catch-22.

In fact, the big story that leapt out at me in Oslo was immigration. Unlike the US which has centuries of experience with immigration, large scale immigration to Norway is relatively recent and happened very quickly. This has spurned something of a backlash. Most Norwegians are now dissatisfied with or at least concerned about immigration.  Anger at immigration, or “Multiculturalism” as he referred to it, was the justification used by the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik who in 2011 bombed government buildings in Oslo killing 8 people, and then shot and killed 69 others, mostly teenagers, at a labour party youth camp. Norwegians are also more nervous after the recent riots (May 2013) in an immigrant suburb of Stockholm as Swedish and Norwegian immigration systems are similar and both have a high proportion of refugees.

The big word that kept coming up in my conversations with Norwegians was “integration”. Yes, the immigrants were there and now they are here, but they are not giving up their old ways and becoming Norwegian. Depending on who you speak to, this is because of social exclusion that keeps them marginalized and removes the incentives to integrate, or because they are simply unwilling to change regardless of the opportunities before them. Frankly I think “integration” is a euphemism for “assimilation”. Integration sounds reasonable, assimilation doesn’t. Assimilation reminds me of the Borg menace from Star Trek.

For non-trekkies, the Borg are a pseudo-race that sweeps across galaxies forcing other species into their collective and connecting them to “the hive mind”; the act is called assimilation and entails abductions and injections of microscopic machines called nanoprobes. The Borg’s ultimate goal is “achieving perfection” (thank you Wikipedia because I am not a trekkie either. I was always more of a Star Wars guy).

In a nutshell, Norway needs workers but Norwegians don’t want to have more children, so their only option is immigration, but they’re unhappy with the immigrants they’re getting because they’re not becoming Norwegian fast enough.

To any admiral contemplating a sea invasion of Oslo I say "you've got to ask yourself one question - Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

To any admiral contemplating a sea invasion of Oslo I say “you’ve got to ask yourself one question – Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

We toured the Oslo Opera House, Akershus Fortress, OsloCity Hall, the National Gallery and the MunchMuseum, but by a large margin the highlight of Oslo was FrognerPark which contains the Vigeland sculpture park. The artist responsible for the park design and all 212 bronze and granite sculptures, Gustav Vigeland, was nothing short of a spectacular genius. The frozen characters scattered about the park represent human and particularly familial relationships and offer a deep study of the emotional complications that enter these relationships from factors like love, shame, obligation, competition, betrayal, beauty, envy, pride, disappointment, ageing and death. The expressions and body language of the sculptures are so spot on that you can distinguish between paternal, maternal, fraternal and other relationships on their basis alone. As you journey across the garden you feel the fury of the cranky grandfather chasing his mischievous grandkids, the warmth of the old woman comforting her adult daughter with a broken heart (or sadness over miscarriage, it’s up to the viewer to interpret) and the sadness and jealously of the less loved and popular brother. Seriously, I wasn’t expecting to be affected this way but I found myself in deep reflection in the park that day as the sculptures shared with me their most intimate insecurities, pitiful failings, heroic courage and boundless love. It’s not an experience I will soon forget.

Vigeland Park viewed over clasped granite hands

Vigeland Park viewed over clasped granite hands

Just like with Reykjavik I want to be clear that this post is about Oslo. We visited that city but not the country of Norway, not properly anyway. We did see some of the countryside as our train carried us from Oslo to Stockholm, but we saw no Fjords and really, that’s what this country is famous for. Perhaps on another trip.

July 4, 2013

Happy Birthday America, but who are you?

We’ve been pretty bad about posting to our blog lately and must apologize, but it’s because we’ve been moving through the US and Western Europe very quickly to save money, and by the time we get back to the hotel neither of us is in the mood for serious reflection or thinking.

In May and June we drove over 8,300 miles across America through Washington DC, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, California, Nevada, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. We met old friends and absolute strangers along the way and visited nine national parks.

The scale and diversity of America is truly breathtaking. One morning we stood in scorching desert sand and the same evening in snow covered granite. Along the way we met cowboys and indians, and immigrants from every corner of the Earth. And all the while we wondered, how does one sum all this up?

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

- “One Today” by Richard Blanco