Travel Stuff

If you've been following along with me on this blog recently you know that I've got a few trips to Squamish, BC lined up, already drove to Spokane, WA, have a trip or two to Oregon in the coming weeks, and will be driving to Leadville, CO later this summer. Although the thought of buying gas for these trips makes me want to cry (I paid $4.35 per gallon this past Saturday morning), there is one thing that has been making these lengthy road-trips much more enjoyable: Rick Steves.

Yes, that Rick Steves. I downloaded nearly 120 of his nearly hour-long "Travel With Rick Steves" podcasts from iTunes and I am totally hooked. These are taken right from his weekly radio shows (without the commercials) and usually feature a few callers with questions, one or two lengthy interviews with tour guides or travel writers, and some really poignant observations and tips. I'm not a big podcast fan. I've tried to listen to a few gaming and mountain biking related ones and they've always bored and/or annoyed me. But not this one. I can listen to these shows all day long. If you enjoy travel and have some lengthy road trips planned, I highly recommend downloading Rick's free podcasts and giving them a listening to. The topics are vast and vary wildly and although his shows on PBS and his books deal only with Europe, his radio shows cover the world. One of my favorite episodes was when he was talking with the guidebook author of Lonely Planet's Afghanistan travel guide. Very, very entertaining!

Since Rick is a Seattle-area resident, he often gets to interview some local experts for his radio show. One of the regular guests on his show Willie Weir, a Seattle area expert in bicycle touring who has criss-crossed the planet several times under his own pedal-power. Willie has a book titled "Spokesongs: Bicycle Adventures on Three Continents" and has discussed some fascinating bicycle journeys with Rick on the radio show, including a trip across northern Thailand and Laos. I had Barnes & Noble order me a copy of the book and will be picking it up today. I'll be sure to let you know what I think. If you see me with panniers, that will be a good indication I liked it.

Speaking of books, I recently read "The Kindness of Strangers" which was a collection of travel stories edited by Don George of Lonely Planet. Despite the preface by the Dalai Lama and alson containing a story from one of the my favorite authors, Simon Winchester, I have to say the book as a whole was disappointing. It was a collection of tales from people who found sudden generosity and potentially life-saving kindness in strangers, but many of the stories were poorly written, dull, and didn't really showcase any noteworth acts of kindness. I'm sure most people who have ventured outside their nation's borders have experienced similar acts. There were a couple of stories that certainly stand out, but oddly enough the one that was perhaps the most memorable was about a woman buying sexy underwear in South America. Go figure. Sure, there were one or two that were far more adventurous than that, but all in all the book was a big letdown. I suppose only those people who have an aversion to travel or who have a tendency to mistrust strangers would find the stores contained within it impressive or entertaining.

But back to Rick Steves for a second. Having finished the travel books on my shelf, I decided to pick up a copy of his seminal "Europe Through the Back Door" how-to book. This particular tome isn't a travel guide per se, but rather a very detailed guide to infiltrating Europe not as tourist, but as someone who fits in and is seen as more than a source of revenue. Consider this small portion of the preface:

The average American traveler enters Europe through the front door. This Europe greets you with cash registers cocked, $5 cups of coffee, and service with a purchased smile.

To give your trip an extra, more real dimension, come with me through the back door. Through the back oor, a warm, relaxed, personable Europe welcomes us as friends. We're part of the party -- not part of the economy.

Traveling this way, we become temporary Europeans, members of the family --
approaching Europe on its level, accepting and enjoying its unique ways of life. We'll demand nothing, except that no fuss be made over us.

"This "Back Door-style" travel is better because of -- not in spite of -- your budget. Spending money has little to do with enjoying your trip. In fact, spending less money brings you closer to Europe. A lot of money forces you through Europe's grand front entrance, where people in uniforms greet you with formal smiles. But the back door is what keeps me in my wonderful European rut.

The book is nearly 700 pages long and is chock full of great tips and advice including some sample itineraries for those who want them. Our grand RTW trip is 4-5 years off (saving for it is going very well, thank you for asking) but reading this book has me already itching to go and taking plenty of notes on what to bring, where to go, and how to do it. I look back on our trip two summers ago along the Danube River and while we definitely had a good time with Kristin's grandmother and saw some spectacular sites, I can't recall talking to a single European who wasn't in one way or another being paid to talk to us. Tour groups certainly have their place -- I hope to take my mother on a similar river cruise in the coming years -- but I can't wait to get back across the pond and break free from the travelling herd. The people you meet can certainly become more memorable than the sights you're striving for. My trip up Cerro Chirripo was far more memorable for the international collection of fellow hikers and locals I met than for the view from the summit (although that was pretty spectacular too).

And speaking of our RTW trip, I came across a fantastic travel-themed encyclopedia for North Africa and the Middle East. The project is called Looklex and although they are striving to create a free online travel guide for the world, the current Lexicorient section conains only the areas I just mentioned. The site has fantastic info, photos, travel tips, and maps and although taking a ferry from Portugal to Morocco was already on our must-do list, I now think a stop in Tunisia is going to be mandatory as well. If only getting across Algeria could be done reasonably by land...

Lastly, there is this site, that contains a form designed to tell you how much money (in Pounds Sterling) you'll need for so many weeks of budget travel in different countries. The individual country estimates expect you to go as no-frills as possible and don't include major transportation costs or other niceties.That said, I entered in a bunch of countries and the number of weeks we assume we might want to stay in them for and then took the number it gave us and multiplied it by 3 before coverting it to US dollars. I multiplied by 3 because there are two of us going and because we're not going to want to stick to the absolute cheapest option for sleeping and eating all the time. As I suspected, this ends up bringing us closer to the $125/day average I anticipate us having to stick close to. And I think the word "average" can't be stressed enough. There will be some parts of the world where we'll find it hard to spend less than twice that amount and other parts where we'll find it hard to spend half that much. Either way, the site does help reveal which countries are cheaper and which are more expensive. Give it a look.

Planning a trip like this has been such a great source of pleasant daydreaming. I highly recommend it.


Maarten said...

Willie Weir is an awesome guy.

So what does "back door" traveling involve? How is it different from the usual?

Doug Walsh said...

He talks a lot about avoiding recognizable hotels and staying in guesthouses, about staying off the beaten tourist path and asking complete strangers where they like to go for dinner instead of asking concierge's where to go. About avoiding the "it" season and the "it" places and instead to go venturing off into areas where the guidebooks don't discuss.

It's more about travelling light, trying to fit in, and, seemingly, doing enough research ahead of time so that you don't fall into the same paths of all the folks on guided tours. About spending time in a locals cafe and maybe playing a boardgame with them or just going for a picnic in a park and doing the normal stuff you would at home without looking to be pampered.

Stuff like that. The idea behind "through the back door" is just trying to avoid the tourist traps and the crowds and the touts and try to fit in as a local.

I picked up my copy of Willie's book. I can't wait to read it.

Maarten said...

The catch probably is that you have to spend enough time to be able to do those tourist traps you just can't miss, and still hang out in the park as well. Traveling slower is a good thing. Just like it's more fun to see the countryside on your bike than in a car.