Vagabonding – Asia, Europe, Africa

It’s been a while since I’ve last written anything, but at long last, I’m planning to take a vagabonding trip from May through October, covering (hypothetically) SE Asia, southern Europe/the Balkans, and parts of Africa.

The itinerary and the budget are merely shadow outlines, but as I sit here at the Frankfurt Airport typing, I will aim to spend May/June/July in Asia; late July/mid August in Europe; and September in Africa.

As some friends have recently asked me to post about how to do a trip like this, what to bring and how much it would cost, I will carefully detail expenses, infrastructure and recommendations along the way.

First stop: Hong Kong. Here we go!

Back in Europe

I never really envisioned this as a potential reality. Had you asked me six months before, I may have told you I’d seen myself as a South American vagabond tossed to the winds of fortune by now. Yet six months later–eight and a half years I made that first fate move to Paris–I find myself a resident of Germany about to embark on an unforeseen adventure of an indefinite variety. 

I have a job to do, of course, and I feel again invigorated by the possibilities of opportunity. I no longer feel trapped; the world is a simultaneously large and tiny place. I don’t know how long I’ll go next… But the world ahead looks full of promises and light. At 27, I had felt my heart aging. Now, 28 doesn’t feel so old anymore.

Welcome to Europe

 

Istanbul’s THY Lounge is Amazing

I arrived in Istanbul in relatively steamy heat. The hot summer sun even at 4:30 seems to penetrate everything.

With 4 hours to go prior to my flight to CDG (yes, it’s wonderful to overshoot your destination by more than three hours only to turn back a few hours later).

But, because Star Alliance Gold affords you access to ALL the international lounges, I found myself at the end of the hall in the magical Turkish Airlines lounge, fully equipped with a movie theater, Playstations, a child’s play corner, tons of cush seating, a fully functional espresso bar with desserts, two fully stocked beverage kingdoms, two chefs on hand, and copious amounts of pizzas, dishes and treats. Of course, free wifi is a given.

 

If this place was open 24 hours, I may never get a hotel. Why did I never come here before?!

How to Maximize Time and See the World

[Originally published in the Huffington Post]

Sunset cruise in a dhow in Zanzibar
Sunset cruise in a dhow in Zanzibar

Seeing the world can feel like an impossible feat, as it always seems that those who have time don’t have money, and those who have money don’t have time. Particularly in uncertain economic times, the priority of keeping a steady job tends to supersede the savory qualities of travel. We rationalize that you can’t have it all, and when push comes to shove, better to survive than enjoy.

Of course, there are the professions that integrate a fair amount of both–consulting, business development and private equity, to name a few. But, if you find yourself more limited to cubicle (or if your work travel is directed to the likes of Tuscaloosa or Cincinnati), is it still possible?

I’ve spent the past six years developing my career and averaging between four to six international trips a year for pleasure–without breaking the bank or exceeding my paid-time-off limits. I can say, with certainty, yes. How? In this first article, I’ll address maximizing time:

Take all your vacation days: According to Expedia’s annual vacation deprivation survey, after Asian countries, Americans are among the worst at depriving themselves of allotted vacation days. “Twelve days of paid-time-off? Thanks sir, but I’d prefer to take 10.” Silly, right? Take advantage of all your days; that’s why you negotiated them.

Make time work for you: There are pockets of time a year when companies give you freebie days off. The obvious ones: holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the slightly less obvious ones, like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Labor Day. Barring family obligations or traditions, these pockets provide the best return-on-investment for time. Aside from this, too often, people discount shorter one-day holidays that still provide an added value–take President’s Day, MLK or Pulaski Day (if you work for the City of Chicago). Taking four days of PTO during these periods still provide nine days net of vacation time.

Consider your destination time zone: I currently live in Chicago, and as much as I love Asia and Europe, when it comes to traveling over an abridged time period (e.g. two days wrapped around each side of a weekend), it is much wiser to fly south. Why?

  1. Time zones are close. The time difference between Chicago, Central and South America is only a few hours apart in most cases; in Central, there is no difference. Therefore, my body does not need to adjust and shift to a seven-hour time change that can leave me sluggish for half of an already short trip.
  2. Overnight flights use time efficiently. Many flights to South American countries from Colombia to Chile to Argentina to Brazil have red-eyes that depart from Houston, Miami or Fort Lauderdale (trying to be One World and Star Alliance agnostic here) around midnight and land in the morning. I’m an easy one to consume a glass of wine and sleep on the plane. It’s so simple: fall asleep in Houston; wake up in Rio.

Know your commodity. Don’t put money first when time should come first: A piece of travel advice I always give is to know your commodity. For most, this is either time or money. Assuming employment is the default, time should generally be the priority commodity. Don’t skimp on a $70 plane ride for a $20 bus in Tanzania just because the 10 hours of time you inherently “trade” can significantly impact what activities you can do. The bus ride may prevent you from going on safari for an extra day or keep you overnight in the capital city because you’ve missed the last ferry to Zanzibar. Actual cost is more than dollars.

Do your research: Research is ultimately the key to success to both preventing stupid, time-costly mistakes and squeezing the most out of a day. Going to Patagonia in South American summer (peak season) means that rental cars may not be available for a few days when you book them on the fly, particularly if you are a silly American who can only drive automatic vehicles (me). An overnight bus from Santiago north to San Pedro de Atacama can save you the loss of a day in transit. Taking the time to understand infrastructure challenges and possibilities prior to taking a trip has the potential to save a precious day.

Negotiate work flexibility: I personally believe that the age of the 9-5 is over. I can’t remember the last time I actually worked from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Some of my best thinking happens in shower; I fall asleep with my laptop in bed mid-email; and sometimes the conversations and experiences I have abroad inextricably affect my passion for my job. Most people are afraid to ask about flexibility: Can I do some assignments while I’m not physically in the office? Can I work remotely on Fridays? I personally believe in a world of hyper-transparency, and being honest about your personal desires can help identify points of intersection between what you–and your company–want. Retention of good employees is, after all, a corporate priority. But you won’t get anything until you ask.

There are many ways to stretch time, both on utilizing vacation days and maximizing each day on the ground. It takes just a few insights to help make time work for you. Next up: stretching a budget.

Going home to Changchun, China

When I awake, I instinctively look at the clock. The one that sits overhead is broken. 4:35. It’s perpetually 4:35.

I am back in Changchun after three years. I had arrived at the airport after a grueling travel session, spanning 1 ½ hours Chicago to Vancouver; 13 ½ Vancouver to Beijing; and another 1 ½ to finally get here. Whisked away by my Mom, stepdad and Tao Ge, my second aunt’s son, we whiz through the dark streets.

The air is damp and thick with the light smell of smoke, as Mom explains that is a mix of the heavy construction and the season—farmers are burning the stalks in their fields for planting season.

People still burn fields?

It’s nearly 10 when we arrive at the apartment complex—the one that my Grandma and fourth aunt’s family had moved into back in 2007: one of the then most chic in Changchun. In true Chinese style, Grandma already has her helper frying flour patties, and re-heating zhou and vegetables for me to eat.

“Child must be hungry,” she says, wrapping me in a thick hug in her fuzzy red sweater.

My things are promptly whisked into a bedroom.

Just our luck, Mom says, they have exactly two extra rooms. She and my stepfather are sleeping in the extra room in fourth aunt’s condo two stories above, and I’m sleeping here in Grandma’s guest room.

It’s my Grandfather’s old room of course. He has been gone nearly five years now. I still remember coming back in 2007 and 2008, when he had sat in his chair smoking cigarettes and crouching over the small TV, body frailer by the year. You go to hug him and pay your respects. He smiles a bit and hums up the energy from within to shout out your name in enthusiastic exuberance.

Yieyie!

And then it’s back to the TV, back to his writing, back to his cigarette. What did we have to talk about anyway? And his ears, growing increasingly deaf, wouldn’t hear my awkwardly loud and deliberately spaced words in limited vocabulary anyway. You’d smile a bit. Give him another hug and retreat—no idea what might be swirling within his mind.

And now the image of him sitting in the chair is frozen in time through Mulberry Child. I’d seen it dozens of times, the scene they replayed from 2008 with my grandfather waving in front of the TV, taking a brief moment from watching the Games. It was when Mom had visited with a video camera when we knew—we all knew—the end was coming. I remember sitting in this house and knowing that this would be the last time I saw my Grandfather—family, and yet so distant from me—alive. That I would be an ocean away when he left us. And I was. In Las Vegas. An ocean away a month later when breathed his last.

The room has been converted, although in the center of the top shelf, there is a portrait of my Grandfather, perhaps in his 60s, with a shock of white hair and slightly smiling, looking dignified, proud and shining from within. Around him, there are family photos, of their kids when they were young—my aunts and uncles—photos throughout the year of when the family got together, all in terrible outfits. Despite the years, they still all pose like an old Chinese photograph—parents in the front, sitting regally—children and grandchildren all about. In some, Mom has terrible farmer tan lines on her arms and gigantic coke-bottle glasses. Those were from the 90s; it didn’t make sense why she had coke bottle glasses.

Family

4:35. 4:35. The time seems to taunt me. The way that time kind of stands still in this room. And my grandfather is immortalized.Grandpa's portrait

Yes, Beijing Capital International Airport has Free Wifi… and a Star Alliance Gold Lounge

However, you do have to go to a kiosk and register to get the user number and password. You will also need your passport to do this.

I’ve only done so in the Star Alliance Gold lounge, which has okay food (you can always find noodles in the lounges in China), warm beer, juice but no booze. There’s a kiosk right by the check-in counter where you can scan in your passport and get a login good for a few hours.

My favorite images of Tanzania

In February 2011, I traveled to Tanzania for 2 1/2 weeks, spending a few days in Dar es Salaam (the capital) before heading into a whirlwind of safari (and gypsy safari), getting lost in the Usambara mountains, to the coastal wonders of Zanzibar. You can find my full itinerary here.

The following are some highlight photos from the trip.

Istanbul for the second time

Sitting on the plane to Belgrade, I catch myself looking down at my visa. Surely that’s not right. Surely…my entrance stamp says the 18th? No today is the 18th. My exit stamp says the 18th. But what…is…that…number? The 13th? No, not possible. How is it that the days just glide by like this?

Ahhh, the 16th. I entered on the 16th. How was it only the 16th?!? I feel like I’ve been here for a week.

Or perhaps it’s just the combined deja vu of this being round 2.

**

Feb. 16:

I arrive in Istanbul again after the 10-hour flight from EWR, which always seems to fly by watching back to back movies. I swear I love long flights sometimes because it’s an opportunity for the mind to go quiet. No interuptions. No phone calls. No connections. I’ll be sad the day wifi becomes commonplace and free. The airplane is my sanctuary, and one day it’ll be gone. Perhaps that’s why I’m so addicted to going anywhere, any place. I’ll do anything to force myself to disconnect.

Alongside a couple and a man who is en route to Dubai after a weekend in Istanbul, we quickly gather liras from the Citibank ATM (among many in a row at the airport) and head to the metro. I vaguely remember taking it with An-an almost precisely two years ago and knew that Sultanahmed would bring me to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, and a transfer would take me across the Bosphorus by tram to Beyoglu, from the Galata Tower to Kabatas. I’ve always felt safer on metros. No traffic. No surprises.

Leaning up against the window is also deja vu, and stepping out into the street at Karakoy, the air is crisp, the sky cloudy and the traffic thick. This is how I remember the city, although staying in Sultanahmed last time really helped ramp up the beauty/exotic factor.

We take a cab from Karakoy, where I am to drop off my new friend at his hotel–the Mermera Palace. I cringe visibly. I have yet to have a positive experience with taxis, thinking back to when An-an and I took one from Kabatas to the W hotel and were taken around for 40 minutes and charged nearly $50 only to find the drive should have been about 5 minutes.

When the cab finally pulls up to the Mermera, it is 40 minutes later and we have gone  from Karakoy to Taksim three separate times. The driver apparently also pulls the 50/5 switch on my friend [when my friend gave him 50 liras for the 45 lira cab drive, the driver switched the 50 with a 5 and insisted he was not paid]. My friend ends up paying 95 liras when it’s said and done. What can he do? One word against another.

Yes, Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport Has Free Wifi

Finding myself in a desperate situation of needing to hop on a conference call within 40 minutes of landing at BEG, Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport, I had tried DESPERATELY for hours to google IF BEG had wifi (free or paid) available.

Googling different variations of “Belgrade, airport, wifi”; “Is there wifi available at Belgrade airport?”; “wifi, BEG” yielded no tangible results and even the likely players like www.sleepinginairports.net did not provide any of the regular useful information.

I received a good tip from a fellow Couchsurfer that left me hopeful… and now sitting with at the Dufry cafe, I can confidentlyl say that YES, THERE IS FREE WIFI AT BEG in case any one else finds themselves equally curious.

Fun facts about renting a car and driving in the Balkans

Some things I learned for driving in the Balkans:

1) You don’t need an international driver’s license to rent a car

2) Websites are terribly outdated

3) There are no consolidated online resources for people who want to rent cars and drive places

4) The Balkans are harder to navigate and research online than Guatemala

5) I really need to learn how to drive a stickshift car again…. Mom.

**

It’s 9:30 p.m. in Chicago and I find myself somewhat balking at the fact that I while I have a ticket (upgraded!) in hand, I have not a place to stay nor a better idea of what I’m going to do in the Balkans than I did two weeks ago when I decided to book the $130 R/T ticket from Istanbul to Belgrade for Monday the 18th.

Nor did I have a better idea than when I booked the original flight to Turkey back in November thinking surely, with all of Turkish Airlines’ new routes across EMEA, I could get anywhere, even South Africa or India for Istanbul if I wanted. But the prices did not agree with my mentality, and soon I was left to consider Egypt or the Balkans to jump to from Istanbul.

To be frank, although I don’t scare so easily, the security in Egypt seems fragile at best (outside of the exaggerations of western media), so the Balkans took the cake.

The reports vary, some of which dictate that the roads are dangerous due to aggressive drivers and poor conditions. Others speak of windy roads covered in snow. Then there’s the occasional story of not taking a back road because there may be a landmine…unexploded yet.

I’m torn between just renting a car now (one week, automatic transmission, about $300), or taking a chance on the buses between countries. After all, a 7-hour trip between Belgrade and Sarajevo isn’t exactly a walk through the park. It is a long drive. Even driving from Puerto Natales out to El Chalten was …. and just looked it up… 432 km, 6 hours 14 minutes, without me speeding at twice the speed limit.

I guess perhaps 7 would not be so bad. At least I’ve learned today that Serbia is  not a country where you need an IDP to drive. International Drivers Licenses seem like a AAA rip-off…

http://www.driverabroad.com/self-drive/international-driving-permit/

**
Found a great website for checking bus travel schedules

http://www.balkanviator.com/en/#