A Package Deal

Friday, January 30, 2009

One thing I'm planning for some more exotic destinations is to sign on for a package tour or two (as I mentioned here). There are a lot of companies out there who offer small group "adventure travel" tours, and my impression is that these are not your standard ABC* kinds of affairs (*Another Bloody Castle). They seem to cater to more independent travelers - people who want to see the big sites, but also want to have a bit more "authentic" travel experience, maybe getting off the beaten path onto a slightly-less-beaten path.

There are a lot of companies out there with very similar offerings, and they all put out enticing colour brochures brimming with elephant rides and jungle cruises and panda bear sanctuaries and cooking classes and all manner of other off-beat and interesting ways to see the world. Tours range from 3 days to 146 or more (the long trips usually string together a bunch of shorter itineraries). Locations range from Antarctica to St. Petersburg, but they all have a few things in common:

  1. They all advertise small groups - usually around 10-12, rarely more than 20.
  2. They offer a few levels of travel: more expensive/comfy/private, cheaper/rougher/camp-and-cook-for-yourself, and somewhere in between. I think I'm an in-between. Or maybe cheap 'n' rough.
  3. They mostly all ding you for a "local payment" in US dollars, on top of the cost of the tour. Most also charge a single supplement if you're traveling alone and want a single-occupancy room. (I suspect my traveling life will be plagued by "single supplements". Curses!) Some include admission fees to the sites in the package, many don't. Some get you to throw in to a "kitty" for group food costs.
  4. Transport in usually by local bus or train, with more exotic modes thrown in to spice things up (donkey, camel, elephant, ferry, felucca etc...). Some have custom-designed vehicles that you live and travel in (see below).
  5. You're on your own for most meals, though breakfast is often included. Or, with tours of the cheap 'n' rough camping type, you end up cooking meals as a group.
  6. Despite hitting a lot of sites they claim you still get free time to do your own exploring.
(Ok, I'm lying a bit when I say that these companies are basically all the same. I went to an evening seminar a few weeks ago that highlighted 4 different companies and there's actually quite a bit of difference between the "more expensive/comfy/private" and the "cheaper/rougher/camp-and-cook-for-yourself". For instance, Trek Holidays offers 8 days of "comfort camping" in Tanzania for a mere $3,285.00, or $410.63 per day. This includes private campsites with double beds and mattresses, duvets and pillows, ensuite facilities in your tent, all meals, and optional hot air balloon rides - and that's not even getting into their "spa-fari" options. On the other hand, Dragoman offers a 14 day trip from Nairobi to Zanzibar in basically the same area. They provide tents, but you bring your own sleeping bag and mat. Everyone in the group pitches in with camp chores, including the cooking. There are no ensuite facilities, but the price for 14 days is $1990.00, or $142.14 per day. While Trek sounds nice, Dragoman fits my budget much better.)

This kind of travel is appealing to me for a few reasons. First, I think that sometimes it will be nice to have the minutiae of travel taken care of for me - no worrying about finding a place to sleep when I hit a new town, and no stressing over how to get from point A to point B. Second, I'm doing this whole trip on my own, so I think it would be nice to have a built-in social group sometimes. Finally, there are some places on my list that are going to be more challenging than others (Africa, India, China...), and I think being on an organized tour for at least part of the time will help me get the lay of the land so I can be a bit more comfortable about striking off on my own once the tour is complete.

So far I've got shiny brochures from at least six different companies: GAP Adventures, Imaginative Traveller, Gecko's Grassroots Adventures, Tucan Travel, Dragoman and Intrepid. The big problem seems to be choosing between them. Tucan comes highly recommended for South America, and they have fancy customized yellow buses that look pretty comfy. Dragoman also have custom vehicles - Mercedes Benz trucks, and specialize in the cheap 'n' rough style I mentioned above. Otherwise, there doesn't seem to be much to choose between. I'd be grateful for comments from anyone with experience in this kind of travel, especially if you can comment on any of these particular companies.

Here are some of the locations/tours I'm considering. These are all with Imaginative Traveller, but every company offers something very similar in each of these areas:

The Jordan and Egypt Adventure

China Explored
Essential Peru
Classic India
Kenya Highlights

The big problem right now is that I'm spoiled for choice - even if I were restricted to just one or two companies, the number of different tours available from each of them is staggering. The Imaginative Traveller brochure alone is 243 pages long! And when you consider the other companies, to, well, how can I possibly weigh the merits of the IT Rajasthan Explorer tour with the GAP Rajasthan Adventure and the Gecko Rajasthan at a Glance? It's all a bit overwhelming at this point, like so much else about this whole adventure. Overwhelming, but also pretty exciting.

Happy Birthday to Me

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Today, January 27th, 2009, I turn 40 years old.

For many years when I was single I relied on a couple of friends to help me celebrate my birthday (I called them the "Birthday Rescuers"). When I've been in a relationship, I counted on The Boyfriend. This time I didn't want to rely on anyone else to make my celebration for me. I decided months ago that I didn't want this birthday to slink in under the cover of darkness, so on Saturday night, with the help of friends, I threw myself a birthday party. I pushed the furniture to the sides of the living room, and laid in a load of ice and chips, and hoped that people would come and, as my invitation said, "make my 40th birthday not lame".

It worked! There was a good mix - people I run with, people I work with, people I play hockey with, and other uncategorized but equally welcome folks. Some brought food, some brought wine or beer, a few brought presents, and it seems like all enjoyed themselves. I even had a birthday cake! (Thanks for that, K). There was music, food, conversation, mixing and mingling of people from different categories, touring of my house, spilling of red wine all over my kitchen (Thanks for that, K), and staying up until 2am. It was a good party.

There was also a lot of talk about my big plans. Some people at the party have known about the trip plans for ages, but some only found out in the last few days when I finally made my intentions known at work. Universally, though, people thought is was a cool and exciting idea.

And suddenly it's real. The last important people - those at work - know about the plan. Ironically though, there hasn't been a big Moment of Decision. It seems the road to this point has been made up of a series of tiny steps, not one earth shattering kaboom. Now it's almost as if momentum has taken over.

So I'm quite fine with the idea of being 40, perhaps because I'm not clicking over into a new decade with nothing to show. I have a successful career, a great bunch of friends, a nice house, and a loving family. It also helps that people keep telling me there's no way I look like I'm 40 years old.

And I have a PLAN.

Go See Run Eat Drink Welcomes the World!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Welcome! If you're just tuning in, this is the first post I've created since making the blog public. Though I've been posting since July, if this is your first visit you'd be well-advised to check out a few of the introductory posts like "Welcome to Go See Run Eat Drink" and "Blog 101". Or just dive in a poke around, it's all good.

Those of you who've been reading the blog for a while might notice a change over in the sidebar. There's now a place you can click to subscribe to the blog using a feed reader, and there's a link where you can choose to get notifications of new posts by email.

You can also now link to my blog from other places and you're welcome to do that, but if you actually find something I've written so compelling or witty or fantastic that you want to quote it, please credit me if you do. Fair's fair, eh?

And to everyone who's tuning in because they just found out about my big Quit-Job-Sell-House-Travel-World plan: Sorry I kept you in the dark for so long, but I needed to be sure I was really going to do it before I told you guys. There was no point in getting everyone all in a tizzy before then, as much as I'd love to see you all in a tizzy.

And that's it for now - just a quick post for a quick bit of news. Look for a new, more interesting post soon.

Three days with the Aeronaut

Friday, January 23, 2009

I was really pleased that my Tom Bihn Aeronaut arrived in time for my 3-day trip to Montreal this week. I wanted the chance to travel with the bag on a real trip, to test out how it performs, see how much I can get into it, feel what it's like to carry, and find out what it's really like to travel with just one single carry-on sized bag. (Not even a carry-on and a "personal item").

My order from the Tom Bihn website was for one Aeronaut (in steel grey), an Absolute Shoulder Strap, a Convertible Packing Cube/Shoulder Bag and a Large Aeornaut Mesh/Fabric Packing Cube. That came to a total of $283.00 US, but after exchange, shipping, GST and duty, it was $369.16 CDN. Not cheap. Not cheap at all. However, it just doesn't make sense to plan a year long trip around the world with only one piece of luggage, and then cheap out on the luggage you choose. I'd hate to end up strewing my dainty underthings across Asia because my cheapo bag blew up. My first impressions of the Aeronaut were really good, and eveyone I showed it to agreed that it seemed exceptionally sturdy, well-designed and well-made.

Packing the Aeronaut was pretty easy - and I laid out everything that went in so you could see what will fit. Here's a picture of that, but if you click on it and go to the Flickr page you'll see notes on what's in all those little piles.

Here's what went in:

Centre Section:

Large packing cube:
  • fleece sweater
  • jeans
  • long sleeved t-shirt
  • t-shirt for running/sleeping
  • socks x 2
  • undies x 2
  • bra x 1
  • thin running gloves
  • fleece windstopper running gloves
  • long underwear
  • fleece neck warmer
  • running pants
  • long sleeved running shirt, half-zip
  • long sleeved running shirt #2
  • running shorts
  • running socks
  • running toque
  • wind pants
Meshy pocket under the top flap:
  • chequebook
  • business cards
Smaller packing cube:
  • cell phone case
  • heart rate monitor (for running)
  • more snacks
  • digital camera charger
  • Eee PC charger
  • iPod cable
  • iPod remote control
  • travel two-fer
  • USB cable
  • USB charger
Rick Steves Toiletries Kit

On top of everything else:
  • Eee PC in soft sleeve
  • Digital camera, in case, with spare battery
  • 3-1-1 bag o' dangerous liquids and gels
Left side pocket, in Convertible Packing Cube:
  • magazine
  • trade paperback book
  • notebook, 11cm x 17cm
  • Haulite cutlery set
  • Big ziploc bag of snacks: banana, mini oranges, Luna bar, fruit bar, tamari almonds, 2 pieces of dark chocolate
  • water bottle, empty
  • MP3 player and headphones
  • 16GB flash card
  • 8GB USB drive
Right side pocket:

So it was a lot of stuff. It was a bit tighter squeeze than I expected but everything did fit, though in a different way than I'd planned. Here's a shot of everything packed up:

I used the Absolute Shoulder Strap for the first little while and it was good, but it was not magic. It did not make 25 pounds feel like 15. (I weighed the bag at the airport when I got home on Thursday, and it came in at 24.5 pounds, or 11.1 kg.) It was a bit weighty for comfort, and thus a bit worrying. Wandering around in the Winnipeg airport with the shoulder strap convinced me to break out the backpack straps once I hit the ground in Montreal. I did this as soon as I got into the arrival gate and things immediately got better. I found it quite comfortable moving around with the fully loaded bag on my back. On Thursday after I checked out of my hotel I carried the bag comfortably for the ten or fifteen minute walk to my meeting, and then onto the Metro for a quick stop before grabbing a cab to the airport. And, as I was negotiating the packed snow, slush and puddles in the street, I felt pretty smug about my choice to reject wheeled luggage and schlep everything on my back.

One thing I'm really happy with is the convertible packing cube, which is designed to fit perfectly in either of the Aeronaut's end pockets. It's made from a material Tom Bihn calls "Dyneema", a sort of ripstop nylon. My impression from the website was that it would be very thin and floppy, though strong. In fact, the material is thicker and stiffer than I expected, and I like it very much. The cube is also bigger than I expected, which is good. My intention was to pack this with all my "in flight" goodies - books, magazines, snacks, computer, ipod, water bottle, etc., so that I could pluck the whole cube out of the side pocket when I got to my seat and shove the main bag up in the overhead bin. This worked beautifully, though I ended up packing the computer in the centre section of the Aeronaut, partly because it was a tight squeeze getting it into the convertible cube along with everything else, but also so that it would be easier to extract when going through security at the airport. This worked pretty well, and it wasn't a bit deal to grab it out of the main compartment of the bag when I retrieved the convertible cube from the side. This is definitely a system that can work. Also, the convertible cube has attachment points for a strap, so it can double as a small shoulder bag for times when I don't want to use the Civita day pack.

The large packing cube was ok, though when it was stuffed with all the clothes listed above it bulged somewhat, making it tighter to pack other things on top of it. I got the cube that's part Dyneema and part mesh, though now that I've seen the Dyneema in real life, I think I'd prefer the option that's all Dyneema; it might be less susceptible to bulging. I thought I'd put my toiletries kit and other packing cube on top of the large one, but because of the bulginess they ended up fitting better alongside. However I think that I'll be packing fewer clothes for the real trip (outdoor running in the winter requires an annoying amount of gear and clothing) so I'm not too concerned about this.

Overall, I'm very pleased with the Tom Bihn Aeronaut. The grey colour is different enough from black to be interesting, but subtle enough that it doesn't stand out. The multitude of straps and handles make it really easy to grab from almost any angle, especially when retrieving it from an overhead bin or the back of a cab. The backpack straps make a heavy load quite comfortable to carry, and I'm actually debating whether I really need to take the shoulder strap at all (though it would be handy for the convertible packing cube/shoulder bag thingy mentioned above). I did find it a bit tricky to keep track of the "top" and "bottom" ends of the bag, so I may try to find a subtle way of marking one end to be able to stay oriented, but this is a minor quibble. I think the Aeronaut if definitely worthy of being my "One bag to rule them all" for this big adventure, and the obvious quality of the design, materials and workmanship make it one of those kind of object that's simply a pleasure to own and use.

Book Review: "No Strings Attached"

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait until the other is ready.

- Henry David Thoreau
Like the first of the Go See Run Eat Drink book reviews, this was another Christmas book. It's one that I'd seen in a book store before Christmas, and was quite keen on. Keen enough, in fact, that I made a point of dropping blatant hints about it with potentially generous family members, and they came through!

"No Strings Attached: The Savvy Guide to Solo Travel" was written by Leslie Atkins, apparently an award winning travel writer who has been published by the Washington Post, USA Today, the Baltimore Sun, Car and Travel, AAA World, US Airways Magazine, and who wrote for Oprah Winfrey.

Of course the title is what drew me to the book, and the few sections I read while standing in the store made me really excited to dive in.

Unfortunately, "No Strings Attached" didn't end up living up to my expectations. I think that, despite the title, I am not the target demographic for this book. In fact I found tone of the book kind of ... tame. Perhaps I'm being ungenerous, but I think Ms. Atkins is not writing for people about to embark on a months-long backpacking style trip. She spends a bit too much time talking about when to splurge on room service and how to get the most out of your concierge to really have a lot to offer someone contemplating 12 months of hostels and peanut butter sandwiches. She's clearly a very different kind of traveler.

Who is this book for? Apparently it's for people who need to be told that it can be ok (or even fun!) to go out for a meal in a restaurant by yourself, or even to attend a movie or play alone! (Seriously - there's a whole chapter titled "Dining Alone"). For me - someone who has spent the greater part of her adult life single - these suggestions were a bit much. I think she's addressing a lot of her writing to people traveling domestically within North America, maybe alone for the first time, hopefully with an expense account.

Having said this, though, she did have some good things to offer. For instance, there's a reasonable section on packing light. There wasn't anything new for me there, but I'm a bit of a Packing Light Zealot, so it's unusual for me to run across a truly new tip in that area. But for those just starting to contemplate leaving behind the 30" Samsonite, it's a good beginning.

There's also a good bit about not being afraid to ask for help. Atkins makes this excellent observation: "Trips are invariably too short. I like wasting time... in a café... or a shop... or people-watching on the Las Vegas strip or the Champs Elyseés in Paris. But I don't like getting lost or missing a beautiful cathedral because I'm... hesitant to ask what hours it's open." Good point.

Overall, though it wasn't the book I was hoping for, "No Strings Attached" had enough to offer that I'm glad I read it. It's not a solo RTW backpacker's Bible by any stretch of the imagination, but there are bits of useful information scattered in among the tips on how to get a late check-out time and maximizing your use of the free hotel limo.

And if nothing else, she does toss in this excellent tidbit:
"How far we go is not as important as how much it affects us. The great gift of travel is qualitative rather than quantitative. This is not a numbers game - it is transformational."

This time next year - Jan 16

Friday, January 16, 2009

And now for a destination that has me both excited and nervous: INDIA!

I'll quote here from Travelindependant.info, because they seem to sum it up nicely:
Wow, here it is - the epitome of Asia and all travel. That love it / hate it thing that everyone speaks about. Yes, it's damn trying and hard work, but India has so much to offer on and off the tourist trail: English spoken, culturally/historically fascinating, good transport, cheap and just plain brilliant. But take it easy and do a little bit at a time. This really is one of the few places on the globe you can still get serious culture shock and sensual overload. India really is just so much it's almost impossible to introduce and summarise, perhaps the only common theme is you'll feel like all your senses are being assaulted. It's hard to understand and explain just why somewhere so often dirty, hot, ugly and full of hassle has such an appeal. The answer lies enigmatically with it being often the exact opposite. There is just no way that it won't have an effect on you and if (like me and thousands of others) you leave after your first trip loathing it, you'll probably remember your visit fondly and be back many, many times.
I've heard India referred to as "PhD Level Travel" - that's why I chose to fit it into my itinerary after I've been on the road for 6 months. That was part of my strategy for scheduling the whole trip - I start in the British Isles where the language and culture are the most familiar; this way I can get comfortable with the my new lifestyle, and generally figure out how the whole backpacker thing works. Then I move into Western Europe, which is still pretty tame, and then on to the more exotic after that, working roughly west to east.

(Other scheduling considerations: be in the cold places when it's warm, and the warm places when it's cool. Also: no countries that end in "-stan".)

But back to India! India is positively packed with tourist sites. Of course there's the Taj Mahal, but there's... well... lots. Ok, now I have to admit that I actually don't know a lot about India. I mean, I like butter chicken and mango chutney, and I sort of know the deal with cricket, and I once worked on a show called "The Perfect Ganesh", but I guess I really need to look into this a bit more. I kind of thought that writing this post would force me to figure some things out, but the fact that you're not reading a brilliantly researched treatise on Indian history, culture and politics means that didn't happen.

Instead, I'm going to direct you to some posts from a blog called "Around the World" that really caught my attention last summer. It was written by a young American guy named Jake Cooper, who traveled around a few areas that I'm also going to hit. I love his writing - it's casual and genuine and really engaging.

Here's what he wrote about trying to find a hotel after arriving in India late at night, which isn't as funny as a lot of his writing, but really gives you an idea of the place:
I get out at the train station, start walking west. How do you cross a street here? Rules mean nothing. There are no signs. I find a group of people peering out, not blinking, waiting for their move. I join them. We make it across the street one lane at a time, Frogger style. But scary. A couple of them just dashed. Ran for their lives. There are people everywhere. Some stare at me, unapologetic. Beggars tug on my sleeves. Touts are beelining, "Hey boss!" "Hello mister!" "Sir! Sir!" Ignore them, keep walking. One follows me for blocks. Blocks. "I know good place, sir. Where you from? Hot water, clean room." Keep going. The smells are dizzying, piled up. Where are the hotels?! They must be in these tiny alleys, squeezing past honking motos, rickshaws, cows. I find one. Rooms are 350 rupees. I offer 250. 300, fine. It's disgusting. Fine.
And here's one of his photos from the next day:

Check out his posts on arriving in India, meeting some locals, and on going to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), but really, any of his posts about India are worth a read; I think they really convey what it must be like to be there - the good, the bad and the weird (His bit about trying to mail a package is eye-opening). Reading this blog is one of the things that fired me up about this trip in the first place, so thanks very much Jake.

And I promise before I actually get to India, I'll do a bit more reading.

The Generic Lonely Planet City Guide

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Greece is nice, and the marathon is finished, and yet the blogging still seems to be suffering. I've barely started to formulate thoughts about Greece and it's really not coming together, so it's time to pull something out of the vault and treat you to a piece I composed a while ago, and was saving for just such an occassion.

You all know I’m a Lonely Planet gal. And though I love a good fling with Rick Steves when he’s available, I am committed to a long-term serial relationship with a seemingly endless string of fat blue €30 books that I use, abuse and then break up with on a regular basis. I am one with the LP. However that doesn’t mean I don’t get a bit bored with things every once in a while. It’s a long-term relationship, and like all long term relationships you just can’t keep the magic going forever. So with the greatest affection, I offer you the Generic Lonely Planet Guide to Any European City, just fill in the blanks.


There can be no doubt that ___ is one of ___'s premiere destinations. Situated midway between the north / south / east / west coast and the mountains / ___ River / Industrial Heart, ___ is a vibrant city with much to offer the traveler. A large population of university students keeps ___ lively, and the city's historic centre is full of Roman ruins, medieval churches, bustling market stalls and upscale boutiques; there’s something for everyone. Truly, ___ is a city of contrasts. And don't be intimidated by the language, locals will always appreciate a hearty Bonjour! / Ola! / God Morgen! / Buon Giorno! and most young people speak excellent English.

Start your visit at ___ Square/Plaza/Campo/Piazza, ___'s spiritual and cultural centre (Metro ___, bus 17, 25, 35). The Tourist Information Office is located just a few metres off the Square, behind the statue of ___, ___'s Patron Saint / Victorious General / Founder / Most Famous Son. The friendly staff at the TI can help you book a walking tour of the historic quarter (€12), or a sell you a bus ticket for one of the 156 slightly different hop-on hop-off open-topped double-decker bus tours offered (€25, good for 24 hours. €35 for 48 hours).

Winner of the 2003 "Europe's Most Livable City (Pop. 117,500 - 117,600 Category), ___ takes great pride in the ___ Festival, celebrating all things ___. Visit in July for displays / performances / competitions of the local folk dance / pastry / stringed instrument / hand crafted ___. It's all ___ all the time during ___ Days!

Dangers and Annoyances:

___ is a relatively safe city, but visitors should always be aware of pickpockets that operate in the popular tourist areas. Watch out for any commotion as it’s likely a way to distract your attention from the roving gangs of gypsy children who can strip an unwary traveler down to his or her underwear in 21.7 seconds.


The most important site in ___ is certainly the grand Cathedral / Basilica / Duomo / Chiesa of St. ___. (Map #235, admission free, Hours: 9:00am – 3:30pm M-Sa, Su. only open for religious services). Started in the 14th century and completed in 1987, it was built on the site of a previous 11th century church, that was built over the remains of the first Christian church from the 9th century, that was converted from a Roman Temple of the 4th century, that was erected at the site of a bit of flattened-down turf presumed to have been used in prehistoric fertility rites dating to 973 BC. A magnificent example of perpendicular / Gothic / Renaissance / Counter-Reformation architecture, the facade features 392 individual sculptures representing local figures of the time / apostles / saints / the Muses / the Virtues. Also be sure to visit the chapel of St. ___, where there’s a lovely fresco by ___. Visits to the crypt available by appointment only (Call ahead, admission €5.00).

While the Cathedral might reign over the historic centre of town, ___’s Castle / Chateau / Kremlin / Castello / Fortezza dominates the skyline. An easy 45 minute amble uphill will reward the visitor with a breathtaking vista of the city. Walk along the remains of the castle walls, and visit the lavishly decorated and meticulously restored upper level apartments of the ___ family (Map #294, admission €6.00/€3.00/free adults/EU citizens under 25 or over 60/children under 12, Hours: 10:00am – 6:30pm every day). There’s also a pricey café on the lower terrace that offers indifferent food, but wonderful views.

Those interested in delving deeper into the life and career of the painter / sculptor / composer / architect / designer / soldier ___ (undoubtedly ___'s most famous citizen) can find plenty to keep them busy. Real enthusiasts might want to consider buying the ___ Pass, which gives access to all of the sights surrounding ___'s life: The ___ Museum, ___'s Birthplace, the ___ Studio, #37 ___ Street (home of ___'s mistress from 18xx to 18xx), and the lesser-known café / bar / garret where ___ spent much of his time as a student.

Most visitors to ___ will also want to take in the Archeological Museum (Map #978, admission €12.00/€8.00/free adults/EU citizens under 25 or over 60/children under 12, Hours: 8:30am – 3:30pm Tu-Fri, Closed M, 12:30pm – 12:45pm Sa, 6:30am-8:00am Su). The museum displays unidentifiable potsherds and the vague traces of a ruined Roman villa (including 28 square inches of pristine mosaic floor tiles), unearthed during the 1997 excavation of the Via / Rue / Correia / Avenida ___ to make way for a new Fnac Megastore and a Spar shop.

The ___ Gallery (Map #1845, admission €7.00/€3.00/free adults/EU citizens under 25 or over 60/children under 12, Hours: 9:30am – 6:30pm Tu-Su, Closed M) has a nice collection of modern art, including a lesser Warhol and the torn corner of a pencil sketch of Goya's study for the bottom left-hand corner of “___“. The ___ Gallery also includes 732 unique and delightful depictions of the Madonna and Child. (Note the ___ Gallery is undergoing renovations until 2048 and the main collection will be unavailable for viewing during this time. Visitors can take in temporary exhibits during the renovations, currently including a retrospective on the life and work of local philatelist / knitter / squid chef / balloon folder ___.)

And of course no visit to ___ would be complete without setting aside an afternoon to get lost in the winding streets of ___’s medieval quarter. Here you’ll find quaint kebab shops, overpriced artisinal chocolatiers, mobile phone shops, and stalls selling charming keychains, miniature copies of the local landmark the ___, and guide books in 832 different languages. Wandering accordion players and numerous “living statue” performers complete the area’s indefinable charm.


Camping L'Enfer. ($) A not unpleasant site 7.5 km from the city boasting a solid square kilometre of gravel for the hardy traveler to pitch-up. Summer months have campfire sing-alongs & night hikes to the abandoned quarry (20 km). Full washing & toilet facilities in nearby canal. No open fires.

Auberge Titanic ($$) This sprawling youth hostel on the wrong side of town has 20 & 25 bed dorms all with panoramic views over the prominent rendering plant & a scrubland of challenging ugliness. A favourite with itinerant performers & members of the Gypsy community, a lively atmosphere is guaranteed. Ask about mime evenings & peg making workshops. (Brisk 75 minute walk from the central station, or take Bus #27 and transfer to Bus #456 at the unmarked intersection of ___ Street and ___ Avenue.)

Pension Stumpy ($$$) A misguided attempt at faux deluxe with flock wallpaper reminiscent of a Turkish brothel and ill-appointed rooms designed for midgets. This is indeed the last resort should the campsite be full. s/d €45/60 Full pensione €60pppn evening, menu has the best of Albanian & Romanian cuisine.


___ has a wide selection of restaurants ranging from the cheap and cheerful ($) to the gob-smackingly expensive ($$$$$$$$$$$$$). All restaurants close down for the afternoon between 1:15pm and 9:45pm, as locals tend not to sit down to dinner until midnight at the earliest, when toddlers and children are served. Adults tend to not to eat until 2 or 3:00am.

Zonko’s: ($) This nation-wide chain of convenience stores is open 24 hours a day and has locations approximately every 35 feet in tourist areas. They offer pre-packed sandwiches drenched in mayonnaise, cans of unrefrigerated beer, thimble-sized cups of coffee and Milka chocolate bars in abundance.

Crystal Friendship Co-op: ($$) Run by ex-pat Americans Sunflower and Gerhardt, this tiny, quirky café offers daily vegetarian and vegan specials. Try the Gruel of the Day, the Tofu Surprise and the non-dairy eggless flourless chocolate-less low fat turnip-based chokolat cake.

Trattoria Testiculo: ($$$) The best place for the local specialty ___ (a delightful concoction of lamb testicles and fig paste), this restaurant has been run by the same family since 23 BC and continues its tradition of serving both locals and tourists with equal contempt.

Chez Fi-Fi: ($$$$$$$$$$$$$) Top-quality ingredients are transformed into tiny portions of amuse-bouche served on square white plates the size of billboards artfully painted with 6 different coulis and topped with gold leaf. Specialties of the house include pure oxygen cocktails infused with saffron and panda sweat, and shaved unicorn horn quenelles topped in a reduction of Madagascar vanilla and ostrich egg foam. Starters €37-47, mains from €112, desserts €36-59. Don’t even ask about the wine list.

Getting Around:

To/from the airport: ___ Airport is 97km from the centre of the city. Taxis to the historic centre will cost approximately €117.00 (Be careful to take only the pale blue licensed taxis, and opposed to the light blue gypsy cabs). Shuttles run every 380 minutes, departing from Terminal 17a (€12.00). Public bus #39 runs on alternate Tuesdays during months ending in “R”. (€1.50, 4.5 hours).

Bus and Tram: Local buses and trams are infrequent and baffling. Tickets are available from the driver (€1.37 one-way, no change provided), or from incomprehensible and/or non-functional ticket vending machines infrequently encountered at main stops. Buses generally run from about 5:30am to 11:00pm (1/2 hour before the bars close).

Metro and Train: ___’s metro system is convenient and easy to use with stops at most major tourist attractions (except the Cathedral, Castle, ___ Museum, Archeological Museum and medieval quarter). The system map (inside back cover) resembles the electrical schematic diagram for the space shuttle but will become familiar with just 2 or 3 months of regular use. Individual metro tickets are not a good value (€2.45 each) but you can purchase a strip of 10 tickets for €24.00. Local residents can buy a lifetime metro pass for €12.50.

(Please note: The ”Sleeping” section above was written by GSRED’s first freelance contributor, a like-minded and very experienced fellow traveler who shall remain nameless. Thanks P.)

Henry Hound, January 24, 1999 - January 12, 2009

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It wasn't supposed to be like this. I was supposed to leave Mr. Henry in the embrace of family and head off for my adventure secure in the knowledge that he was well-cared for, safe and loved. Then I would return and he would be a bit greyer and creakier, but generally sound and happy and overjoyed to see me. But you know what they say about the best laid plans, and cancer sucks for dogs just like it sucks for people.

Instead of that idyllic scenario, yesterday I bundled my poor, skinny, sick hound up in one of his old blankets and rode with him out to the vet where I said goodbye to him for the last time.

I almost did it on Friday, but I guess I just wasn't ready. I feel kind of bad about that because though he didn't seem to be in obvious pain, it was clear he wasn't comfortable either, but I made him stay for those extra few days anyways. I guess I wanted to have a bit more time with him, though I knew it really wouldn't make any difference. It's not like I could spoil him with all his favourite treats - he hadn't eaten in a week and refused everything except the occasional bit of water (though he did lick out my rice pudding bowl!). There wasn't much point in taking him for a walk either. He was weak, and it was cold out, and he seemed to take no joy in it. Mostly he seemed to want to lay in his kennel, or on the couch, so I spent a lot of time sitting nearby, petting him and talking to him and wishing he could understand. I apologized for things I didn't do and could have, and for things I shouldn't have done and did, and most of all for not being able to fix this horrible thing. And I told him over and over again that he was a good boy.

I know I gave him a good life; he even came with me to work most days, which is something most dogs can only dream of. In many ways, he didn't know how good he had it. And I guess I didn't know how good I had it either, except I always kind of felt like he was a better dog than I deserved. I am haunted by all the walks not taken, and treats not given and plates not licked and chins not scratched. It stings when I remember every harsh word and every sharp tug on the leash and every time I thought he was annoying or smelly or inconvenient. And I'm haunted by the fun times we had together too. Not really the big things, but the little habits and rituals that make up the majority of life. Even though it was -20°, I wanted to go out and sit on the step so that he would come and stick his nose under my arm to make me pet him.

By Monday morning, though, he was so tired and worn out and just done that I felt bad I'd made the appointment at the vet for 3:30pm instead of 9:30am. And it was over so fast - it sounds cliché, but it really was just like he went to sleep. It seemed strange to think that he was really gone. Even now it still hasn't really sunk in I think. It will take a while.

So if you're a pet owner (and God, why do any of us do it when this is how it ends?), please give your beast an extra hug or two today, and cut them a bit of slack the next time they do something that makes your blood boil. Because believe me when I say that no matter how long it lasts, it will still be over too soon.

I miss you buddy. You're my best hound.

Henry's first baby picture.

Gear Picks - Orikaso Fold Flat Tableware

Friday, January 9, 2009

Today's gear pick is Orikaso folding dishes, and let me say right up front: I LOVE this stuff. It's practical, it's clever, it's fun, it works, it's very packable, and it's really really cool. I put this on my Christmas list this year and Santa (ok, my sister) brought me a lovely Orikaso Solo Set - a folding plate, bowl and mug. Yup - folding. It's real, functional dishes, made out of thin plastic, that you fold together like origami.

Here's a look at the whole set in blue:

And here's a quick video to give you the idea - this is the bowl (it's even the same colour as mine!):

And here's the mug, which is more devilishly clever, and also has measurement markings on the sides:

There's also a plate - which goes together just like the bowl, but it's wider and shallower, more like a ... plate. It also doubles as a cutting board.

I've tried out the bowl at home, and it performed quite well, and was really easy to clean - you just open it out flat and wipe it off. The set even comes in a sturdy plastic folder to keep it all together, which is good because the pieces have lots of tabs and flaps that would probably catch on everything around them if uncontained. The folder is ever-so-slightly wide to fit comfortably in my new Rick Steves Civita Daypack, but it's not too bad. It will, however, fit perfectly in the bottom of the Aeronaut (which just arrived!!!).

I plan to take the set with me on my two upcoming trips to Montreal (one for 3 days, one for 2 weeks), so I'll be able to give it all a thorough test. So far, through, the Orikaso Solo Set gets two thumbs up from the Product Testing Department here at Go See Run Eat Drink World Headquarters (Note: Product Testing is located on the 5th Floor, between the Cafeteria and the Yoga Studio).

In the Bleak Midwinter

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The countdown clock is showing 160 days as I write this, which has me kind of freaked out. It was fine to talk about the Eiffel Tower and pyramids and safaris and such in July, but now it's the bleak midwinter and Winnipeg has been in a deep freeze for weeks. My dog is dying, and the trip-related expenses are getting serious, and I'm about to commit to leaving my comfy job and my beautiful house and my fantastic friends, and it all seems a bit much. Right now I'm relying on momentum and the kind words of those fantastic friends to keep me focused and on track.

Having said all that, here's an update:

I've decided that if I'm going to do this trip I might as well jump in with both feet. To that end, I will pursue getting my British citizenship. I found a better website that gives a much clearer idea of what's required, so I'm gathering the paperwork and hoping it all goes smoothly and quickly.

And in the spirit of "jumping in with both feet", I will not buy a RTW plane ticket. I'm worried any ticket of this sort would be too restrictive - limited mileage, small number of stops, blah blah blah. Instead I'll just get myself across the pond and then book as I go. If I have British citizenship they'll have to let me in, even if I don't have on onward ticket, and I think I'll be glad to have the flexibility to change plans whenever I want.
I bought the computer I'll take on the trip! I went with the Asus Eee PC 901, Windows version. I found a good deal on a "recertified" model from Tiger Direct.ca . I'm really excited about getting my hands on it and getting it all ready to go.

I also bought my luggage! On Saturday I placed the order for the Aeronaut,the Absolute shoulder strap, the convertible packing cube/shoulder bag, and one large Aeronaut packing cube. Yikes, that was expensive, but I should have it all in plenty of time for my short trip to Montreal at the end of the month, when I plan to try one-bag travel for the first time. (Note: I've traveled carry-on only lots of times, but I've always had a suitcase type thing AND a "personal item". This time it'll be one bag, and one bag only!)

I also bought a new iPod (it was an EXPENSIVE weekend!). At first I gave in to my gadget lust and bought a 16GB iPod Touch, despite my misgivings. I had fun playing with it on Friday night; the App Store is very cool, and the device itself is beautiful. HOWEVER, on Sunday I took it back and I plan to get an iPod Nano instead. Here's my logic:
  • The Nano is actually a more functional music player than the Touch. The controls are much easier to access, which is something that always bugged me about the Touch. The Nano is MUCH better for running with.
  • What does the Touch do that the Nano doesn't? Video playing, Wifi Web, photo viewing, ebook reading... those are all things I can do on the computer, with a bigger screen.
  • I suppose the Touch could also do things like handheld translation or currency conversion and such, but a lot of the apps require web access, which I won't always have.
  • The speaker on the Touch wasn't great - not much volume, and certainly not as good as the speaker on the tiny Creative Zen Stone Plus with Speaker. If I need a speaker, I'm probably better off with the X-mini.
  • The Nano will also, I think, be more robust. I can't get past how easily my Touch died after a short fall.
I'm going for my second set of vaccinations today - Twinrix (round two) and Yellow Fever. I elected not to get the meningitis vaccine, because since I'm now mere days from turning 40, I'm not exactly in a high-risk group. And I will not get the vaccine for Japanese Encephalitis; once I get to Asia, someone please remind me not to spend more than two weeks in a rice paddy at night.

Finally, sadly, I have to report that Mr. Henry Hound is not well. His decline has occurred much more quickly than I expected, and it's hard to take. He's not really eating anymore, and has lost a noticeable amount of weight. He also has to go out to pee a lot now - I can't leave him for more than about 2 hours or he'll have an accident inside. I'm doing a lot of loads of laundry to wash towels used in clean-up (I'll be picking up one of these for him today). And really, he's not himself. It's clear that the end will come much much sooner than I thought, I just have no idea how to decide when that should be.

I took Henry to the vet on Monday, and he's now on a good anti-inflammatory that we hope will make him more comfortable. I also got a prescription for some kind of doggie-morphine, which the vet said should improve his mood (no kidding!). And I remembered that I've got a couple of pounds of beef liver in the freezer, so I defrosted some of that and Mr. Henry ate more in those 10 minutes than he did in the previous couple of days. It wasn't a huge amount, but coupled with the NSAIDs and the opiates, I expect he'll feel a bit better. Still, the whole thing is miserable.

I originally thought that this would be the week I'd tell everyone at work about the whole big crazy plan, but the stress of dealing with the dog makes me feel like I want to leave that for a bit. One thing at a time is all I can handle right now.

And that's what it's like here at Go See Run Eat Drink World Headquarters at the beginning of 2009: sad, scared, hopeful, excited, nervous, increasingly debt-ridden, slightly more disease-resistant, much more stressed, and definitely in need of a boost.

This time next year - January 1

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

The farther into the future these TTNY posts project, the more theoretical it all becomes. And as I become more committed to this trip, I'm actually getting less concerned about having a set schedule, so don't be surprised if the "This Time Next Year" schedule starts getting kind of... loose. Having said all that, let's forge ahead with today's TTNY destination: KENYA!

Lions... elephants... giraffes... now we're really getting into Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom territory. Kenya has some of the world's best game reserves, and I certainly plan to seek out some kind of safari experience, probably as part of one of those package tours I've mentioned before. I can't imagine going to East Africa without getting out there with a pith helmet and multi-pocketed vest to see the Big Five (lion, elephant, water buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros) and whatever else there is to see. And what a cool way to ring in the New Year - toasting the first sunrise of 2010 over the Rift Valley, where some scientists believe the human species originated.

Throughout 2008 Kenya was in the news due to political turmoil about the disputed presidential election held in December of 2007, but Wikitravel reports "Things have now quieted down and the country is considered safe for travelers, but the situation remains somewhat on edge, so follow local news carefully". In addition, like many African nations, the HIV/AIDS infection rate in Kenya is high - about 6% of adults are infected. And of course there's the ever-present danger of malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever from infected mosquitoes. Not surprisingly, Wikitravel also notes that "It is advisable to have traveler's and accident insurance." No kidding.

However, rather than focusing on that, let's talk about Kenya's history of producing magnificent world-class runners, including (among many many others) the four-time women's Boston Marathon winner and two-time world champion Catherine Ndereba, four-time men's Boston Marathon winner Robert Cheruiyot, former marathon world record-holder Paul Tergat, and most recently the first ever winner of the Olympic marathon for Kenya, 21-year-old Sammy Wanjiru, who set a new Olympic record in Beijing this summer. In fact, Kenyans have dominated long-distance running so much that it's a bit of a cliche.

Kenya is also enticingly close to Zanzibar (the Spice Islands!) which looks like a great place for a relaxing getaway from dusty safari life, tents, and shaking out your boots in the morning to get out the scorpions.