Thoughts on making it half way

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I've reached the half way mark. I left home on June 15, 2009 and the plan is to be back in Winnipeg by about June 1st, 2010. That makes a total of 50 weeks, meaning that 175 days is the halfway mark. I still have things to say about Turkey, and I’ve been in Israel for days now without posting about that, but let’s pause and take stock for a minute. I’ve been trying for a while to gather some thoughts about this whole crazy business, and as usual it’s a long, random collection of unconnected musings. At least you’re used to that by now.

Thoughts on interesting numbers:

  • 175 days traveling
  • 13 countries visited
  • 11 languages attempted
  • 9 metro systems conquered
  • 6 currencies squandered
  • 47 city maps cursed at
  • 5 overnight trains, 3 overnight buses and 1 overnight ferry endured
  • 71 different beds collapsed into
  • 16 hashes met and welcomed by
  • 12 guide books consulted, abbreviated, mangled and discarded
  • 5922 photos taken (and counting)
  • 1 extravagantly ferocious hangover

    Metro System #1, Day #1, London

    Thoughts on money: Those of you who know me won’t be surprised to find out that I’m keeping pretty careful track of what this is all costing. (Oh yes, there are spreadsheets.) So I can say with reasonable confidence that I’m spending about $165.00 (CDN) every day. Portugal was cheapest at $52.00/day, mostly thanks to Freddie’s spare room and extensive wine cellar. Russia was the most expensive at $277.00/day, but that includes the cost of the tour I was on and the flight from Dublin to Moscow. Denmark was next at $244.00/day, not even including the computer disaster.

    As for the rest of the trip, my best estimate is that I’ll be over budget by about $5,000. The odd thing is that it’s not day-to-day expenses that are the problem. I’m pretty good at setting a daily budget for each city or country and sticking to it reasonably well. The trouble is with the extras, I think. These included sending and receiving packages, buying new computers, getting visas, generously donating money to random people walking by the spot where I left my wallet in Barcelona… I have no plan yet on what I’ll decide to do if I’m somewhere in Malaysia and the numbers on the spreadsheet start to turn red.

    Thoughts on photos: Photos are a problem. I want to take more and better photos, especially of people (I really do, Rob!) but don't want to be intrusive. There seem to be three options. The best would be to introduce myself, make friends and then take photos of my new friends. I think of this as the Rick Steves Method. The worst would be to snap away like the local people are exhibits in a zoo. I think of this as the Ugly American Method. The unhappy medium I’ve found is to take occasional snaps on the sly. That's why you don't get to see the old women sweeping up twigs on the streets of Göreme, or the old men sitting at the bar playing a strange domino-like game. Rick Steves would dive in and be playing with the old guys in 5 minutes flat. I guess I'm not made of that stuff. This trip pushes me out of my natural introversion a lot already, but I just can't see myself making the leap to that Steves-ian level of gregariousness.

    Then again, these orthodox Jewish guys rockin’ out at the Mehade Yehuda market in Jerusalem were practically begging to be photographed.

    Thoughts on the downside of long term travel: I have no regrets about the decision I made to ditch my whole life and travel, but I’m also pretty sure now that it’s not the best way to see the world. On a trip with fewer destinations and a shorter timetable there would be a lot more opportunity for preparation and anticipation. That’s part of the fun of travel - falling asleep at night with the LP open, dreaming about what to do and where to go. As it is, I often don't even buy a guide book more than a day or two before arriving, and crack it open for the first time on the flight. I kind of miss that, but I also know that level of preparation is impossible for a trip like this, and I do kind of like being as flexible as I am. Still, it would be nice to be able to read up on a country, the culture and the people a bit before arriving, and maybe even learn some of the language before touching down. Certainly there are economies of scale to be realized on longer trips, but if I had the means, I think I’d rather travel in chunks of a month or so.

    Thoughts on maps: God. Don’t get me started. Ok, too late. Here’s some advice for anyone who publishes maps of any kind:

    1. Please, for the love of GOD, stop putting streets on your maps without noting the name of the street. If you don’t put the name of the street are you really creating a map? Or is it simply an abstract collection of intersecting lines? (Lovely Plant you know I love you, but you are a serious offender in this area. Pull up your socks.)
    2. If you’re not going to indicate street names, then at least put ALL the streets on the map so your hapless victims can count the number of intersections to pass through before turning or stopping or hailing a cab in desperation.
    3. Also please indicate the SCALE of the map. It’s exceedingly helpful, especially given the on-again off-again nature of numbers 1 and 2 above, to be able to judge the rough distance between points before giving up and turning back. At least the time spent navigating can be filled devising special forms of torture for sub-standard map makers.
    (And as a side note… Dear City Planners of the World: Please make the effort to affix or erect some indication of street name at each intersection, or at least at major ones. I’m begging you. And Turkey, I’m talking to you here, a sign that’s 4” square and placed 12’ up on the side of a building behind an awning does NOT count.)

    Thoughts on sight-seeing fatigue: I've mentioned it before, but the big problem with this full-time tourist gig is that you really start to get numb to what you're seeing. I've seen so many amazing sights - galleries, cathedrals, blah blah blah. I joke about it, but l'm not kidding when I say I never need to see another Madonna and Child. It bothers me, but I've also come to recognize that I can only take in so much during a day. Sometimes this means I skip one if the LP's "must see" sights in favour of a nap. What I'd really like to be able to do is be a full-time tourist from Monday to Friday and go home on the weekends. Instead, I'm making my own long weekends where I need them, like the 12 day stop in Athens.

    The church of St. I-don’t-care-anymore (Big bonus points if you can actually identify this location, which has appeared on the blog…)

    Thoughts on general fatigue: There’s no getting around it, long term travel is a grind. It’s got a lot of payoffs – seeing great stuff, meeting great people and eating great food to name the obvious ones – but it’s also hard on the body. Sleeping in a new bed every 2.46 nights, eating poorly (either too much or too little, with vegetable thrown in about every 3 weeks…) staying up late, getting up early and exercising infrequently are physically tough, but the mental stuff may be harder. Deciding where to go, figuring out how to get there, finding somewhere to sleep, and deciphering every new language take a lot of time and energy. Add to that the fun but frustrating task of winnowing down the list of worthy sites, galleries, museums, parks, markets, churches, ruins and monuments to a manageable size and it all becomes a bit much after a while. Then again, it’s better than sitting at a desk all day. As I write this paragraph, for instance, my office is a picnic table in a small, shady park in Jaffa, Israel. I can see the Mediterranean over my shoulder, just past the almost-empty passion fruit slushy.

    Yes you’re right, I do need a haircut.

    Thoughts on food: There’s too much of it. Lots of days I feel like when I’m not eating I’m just killing time before I can eat again. Sometimes it’s because there are so many new and interesting things I’d like to try, and sometimes it’s because I just want to sit and have a break, and the easiest place to do that is often in a café or restaurant. Sometimes though, food becomes a reward or a comfort when I’m tired or lonely or fed up, which seems to happen quite often.

    Thoughts on the stretchy nature of time: Often I find myself remembering some sight or activity or event as if it was in the dim reaches of the past and then am shocked to realize that hazy memory happened only a week ago. So much can happen in one day that experiences just pile up on top of each other until it all becomes a blur. In "normal life" things are mostly routine and go by without notice. I used to get up in the morning, have the same breakfast I had the day before, go to the same job, and run along the same streets. While the minutiae might have differed from day to day, it was all pretty familiar.

    Now there is no real routine - every day is full of completely new experiences. Even boring things like doing laundry or buying groceries come with a whole layer of exotic or complicating factors that make them events by themselves. Every laundromat is different, and the instructions might be in 6 languages. Buying bananas in a grocery store requires finding a grocery store in the first place, and then deciphering whether the bananas are sold by the piece or by the kilo, and then figuring out if you weigh and tag the bananas yourself or if the cashier does it at the till or if there's a whole other person who does that. It can be either an adventure or a pain in the ass, depending on your mood and how much you just want a bloody banana and not a meaningful cross-cultural experience.

    It’s easier if you can just smile at the scary man and point.

    On an average day I get up, have an odd local breakfast at a hostel, find a place to buy some fruit or a snack, see one big sight, have an odd local lunch, and then walk around a market or interesting neighbourhood for the afternoon, so by 4 or 5 o'clock I'm pretty much wiped out. Add a run in there, or drinks with hashers or single-serving friends and then do that day after day after day. Then toss in a generous measure of packing, unpacking, navigating, getting lost, and sitting on trains, buses, boats and waiting room benches, and you can see why a day might feel like a week and a week like a month. Then again, it also seems like it’s going by very quickly. I can’t believe it’s half over.

    Thoughts on the Toiletries Event Horizon: Somewhere in Italy (Sienna, I think) I reached what I have termed the Toiletries Event Horizon. This is the point at which none of the consumable toiletries product one started one’s trip with are left. I now have the much-commented-on toenail polish from London, Vaseline from Amsterdam, deodorant from France, hair gel from Lisbon, sunscreen from somewhere I can’t recall (though it looks sort of Spanish…), toothpaste from Siena, nasal spray from Greece, body butter (mango-mandarin) from Turkey, and Vitamin C from Israel. Who needs souvenirs?

    Thoughts on Souvenirs: Speaking of souvenirs – I don’t really have any, other than the aforementioned 6,000 photos. Karen asked me the other day if I’ve bought anything for myself and I really haven’t, other than things I need to keep functioning. My stance thus far has been that I don’t have the room or the budget for collecting something from everywhere I go. But I have got a few new bits of clothing, and I bought a key-chain matrushka doll in Russia, but I think that’s it. I did send home some swag from the marathon, but perhaps I’ll consider picking up some other things if the mood strikes me. I came very close to buying a small olivewood backgammon set in the Arab quarter of old Jerusalem (the price started at 480 shekels and went down as low as 100 by the time is was disappearing down the street) but the logistics of carrying things around until I get a chance to mail them, and then packaging them, and then finding a post office and figuring out how it works… it’s like the banana-buying thing. Sometimes it’s just more than I feel like dealing with. Oh, wait. I am saving currency – I’m keeping one example of the smallest denomination note of each new currency I encounter. So far I’ve got English, Scottish and Northern Irish pounds, euros, rubles, kroner, Turkish lira and shekels. The shekels are easily the prettiest, though I can’t get over the idea that shekels are a real currency. No offense Israel, but I keep expecting to get my change in camels or sacks of grain.

    Shekels!

    Thoughts on declining standards of hygiene: He mentions it in "A Map for Saturday", and it's true. The longer you travel, the lower your standards of hygiene get. It’s not like there’s fuzz growing on my teeth or dirt of three continents in the bottom of my bag, but when I started out I was dutifully washing socks and underwear in the sink every couple of days. Now I employ the Sniff Test regularly.

    Thoughts on clothing: My clothing is in a bit of a state. I mentioned the disastrous laundry experience in Athens, right? That left my short-sleeved shirt, beige pants and white socks a distinctly melancholy colour and gave the much-maligned Patagonia long-sleeved shirt weird perma-wrinkles that make me look like I wore it to bed. (I'd like to try ironing it at a low temp, but in my current life an iron and ironing board is about as rare as a two-headed unicorn, or a reliable map.) This is all to say that I'm looking and feeling a bit rough around the edges these days.

    Thoughts on body image: Added to the scruffy clothing is the fact that I really have gained weight, I’m guessing 10-15 pounds. So you might understand why I feel like a pudgy slob a lot of the time. My pants are uncomfortably tight around the thighs and I really don’t need that belt that was so important a few months ago. I'm not saying I'm unrecognizable or anything, but I notice it and it bugs me. I sort of knew this would happen – food is a big part of traveling, and it’s really hard not to try every delectable local pastry or deep-fired whatever. Really though I think the biggest culprit is beer… the circumference of my thighs has risen in direct proportion with my consumption of beer.

    Thoughts on Hostel living: It’s not so bad. There are good hostels and bad ones, and a few that stand out at either end of the spectrum. And while I like a private room every once in a while, hostels are great for meeting friendly English-speakers who can totally sympathize with the transient lifestyle. I need a few things to find a hostel tolerable, in descending order of importance they are:

    1. Wifi, preferably free. It’s the 21st century people. No excuses. (Africa may be the exception to this…)
    2. A bottom bunk. I’m not sure why, but I find top bunks logistically challenging and highly depressing. While I can get quite cozy in a bottom bunk, I always feel sort of precariously perched in a top bunk, and there’s never anywhere to put anything. I have been known to lay in wait when a roommate is vacating a bottom bunk so I can annex it before the door slams behind them. The only real downside is that most bunks are rickety metal things and when the person up top makes the slightest twitch it's magnified through the whole structure as they're performing excerpts from Riverdance.
    3. A central location. I really don’t want to have to walk for an hour or catch an endless series of impenetrably labeled local buses to find a place. And I don’t want to have to conquer the public transit system to see the sights either.
    4. A decent number of bathrooms and showers, not too far from the room. It’s also preferable if the showers include an area where you can dry off and change that’s private but not in the splash-zone, but that’s often a pipe dream. Increasingly I’m running into bathrooms where the whole room is the shower. There’s no shower door or curtain, and the whole place is a swamp when you’re done. Forget going in there in sock feet for about 6 hours.
    5. Free breakfast. Even coffee, tea and toast can make a difference if you don’t feel like going out to forage in the big, bad world.
    6. A kitchen. Restaurants are nice. Eating out is nice. But sometimes you just want some mashed potatoes.

    Bed #71, 48 Hayarkon Hostel, Tel Aviv. Typical.

    Thoughts on the kindness of strangers: When I was trying to decide what to call the blog, one of the names I considered was “The Kindness of Strangers”. And though I love (LOVE) Go See Run Eat Drink, in some ways TKoS might have been more appropriate. Everyone in my life right now is a stranger (with the exception of Freddie in Portugal), or at least they start out that way. Hashers, hostel roommates, bus drivers, tour guides, hotel staff, waiters, passers-by… I don’t know anyone. In some ways this is a bit liberating, but mostly it gets to be tiresome. Luckily, I’ve found that people are basically nice, and they’ll almost always help if they can. This has become increasingly important since I left the English-speaking world behind. (And again I have to say thank you to every non-native English speaker in the world for taking the time to learn my language so that I can stumble around almost anywhere and manage to acquire food, shelter and beer from day to day.)

    Thoughts on gear: Rob - In answer to your question about the State of the Pack, it turns out that my estimate of the weight of my bag on the sweaty trek from hostel to station in Naples was a bit inflated. It weighed in at 15 kg when I checked in for the flight from Athens to Istanbul. So I exaggerated a bit, but it's still too heavy for carry-on and certainly uncomfortable to jog with. As for an update on gear, I’ve added a few boring things you haven’t heard about like some sweatpants, my Athens marathon t-shirt, and a new button-up short sleeved shirt (I’m sure it will appear in pictures soon). Also, I just bought myself a little halfway-done present, so welcome to the team cheap Swiss Army knife! (Also, fond farewells to Copenhagen exacto knife and Barcelona corkscrew….)

    Thoughts on standout gear: The other thing Rob asked about was whether any particular bit of gear has distinguished itself either for it’s indispensability or it’s utter uselessness. Without bothering to comment on every item in the pack, here are a few things I’m glad I brought. (If you ask me next week, this will probably all be different…)

    • Travel towel: Though I still miss the pleasing scrubby nubbliness of proper terrycloth towels and use them whenever they’re offered, the MSR travel towel has been solid. I use it for drying myself and for wringing out sink-washed laundry. And even when it’s wet from a morning shower it’s often dry enough to pack by the time I’m ready to leave.
    • Retractasafe cable lock: Lots of hostels don’t have lockers in the rooms, so in these cases I just lock the zipper tabs of the Aeronaut together and then lock all that to an immovable object with the cable lock. It’s not a perfect solution, but I think it’s reasonable.
    • Palm Centro: It’s my cell phone and text message device, notepad, alarm clock, watch, calendar, address book, currency converter, e-book reader,flashlight, packing list and back-up camera. I am never without it. Never.
    • Silk Sleep Sheets: Whenever I fetch up at a bed that just looks too… experienced for me to be comfortable, out comes the silk sleep sack. It gets between me and the creepies, and it’s all silky and smooth!
    • Folding scissors: Not glamorous, but really useful, and I’ve even taken them in my carry on bags with no hassle.
    • Shower Caddy: Again, not sexy, but it’s much nicer to be able hang something on the shower head than have to lay it all on the floor of some grimy hostel bathroom.
    On packing: Not surprisingly, packing is down to a science. I know that if I’m leaving a hostel I need to get up 1-1/2 hours before I want to walk out the door. 1/2 an hour to shower and clean up, 1/2 an hour for breakfast, and 1/2 an hour to pack. In reality, all these things are usually quicker than that, but I’d rather not be rushed. And though I’ve done it about 70 times already, I still check my list every time I pack. It’s just too easy to leave things behind so I am rigorous about the list. (Ah… lists. Is there nothing you can’t do?)

    On Hashing: I think I will owe a favour to every hasher on the planet by the time this is all over. There have been personal pub crawls in London and Lisbon, borrowed camping gear in Scotland, last minute laundry in Dublin, impromptu night-time sightseeing and taxi services in Moscow, package deliveries in Amsterdam, and guided tours in Rome, all thanks to hashers. They’ve been there for me almost every step of the way. Every hash I’ve visited has welcomed me without question, given me beer, treated me with the respect a hasher deserves (none) and made me feel right at home. They are simply good people, and I hope that wherever I end up when this is all over I can repay the favour to any visiting hasher that crosses my path.

    Me and Hash #5 – the Dublin House Harriers, in the bog! (And I'm so glad I finally found a reason to post this photo!)

    *****

    So now it’s just three days before I leave for Africa! I’m still sick, and I’m tired, and I need a haircut, but an old friend awaits me in Kampala, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him and relaxing for a bit before diving into Africa in earnest. Stay tuned, the weirdest is yet to come.

  • 9 Comments:

    Robert said...

    Pam: A new best blog posting to date!

    Hair: You look better with longer hair. Try growing it longer - much longer. If you don't do it on a year trip, when would you?

    Fatigue: No more overnight travel. Take 1 day off from tourism each week just to do laundry, get groceries, catch up on blog etc.

    Plus: Take 1 day off a week completely - no chores, no trip planning, not even blogging. Go read your book in the park, go see a movie or live show. Dance shows or symphonies are good because language is not a factor. Or try a proper opera. All good for a little holiday from your holiday.

    Food: I am surprised YOU do not have a daily food checklist - Eat More Veggies - they have them in all countries and they are usually the cheapest thing on the menu! I sound like a Mom!

    Routine: You can create your own routine. Pick 5 things you would like to do every day and try to make them happen. For me my favourite holiday routine is the daily 3pm Double-Espresso!

    Clothes: I am surprised you have any of the clothes you left home with still holding together. After only 4 months my clothes were so worn thin you could see through them. I threw them all out when I got home. Treat yourself to new clothes continuously from now on.

    People: Although this posting was very insightful, it barely mentions all the great people you have met. As a GSRED regular, can I request that you think about it for a week or so and come up with a big juicy blog posting about the people of your travels (with or without photos)? Thanks.

    Terminology: Single Serving Friends – I gotta tell you how much I dislike that term. Can you switch to something less degrading?
    How about Friend-du-Jour?
    Or Travel-buddy?
    Anything!

    Cannot wait to hear about the Holy Land and future destinations.

    Keep on truckin'.

    Rob H.

    FLF said...

    Might I say that Rob H (whom I have never met) beat me to many points in a post. Listen to him!!
    Rest up, get well, and go see the wilderbeest.

    Colleen said...

    Hey Pam,
    Loved this blog and can relate to many of the comments on travel -- the wonder, the disorientation, the fatique, the joy, the discovery. Give yourself the odd break and remember roses are meant to be sniffed, you can't see/do everything (even with a whole year to try), travel is meant to be broadening (even literally!?) and, as Auntie Mame would say "Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!" I'm glad you're the one trying the local delicacies (especially the intestines) and going for the gusto! Shalom, Colleen

    Anonymous said...

    Great post, Pam! Thanks for keeping it real & sharing where your head is at as well as your feet. I second Rob's opinion on permitting longer hair - looks fine to me, give it a chance.

    Above all, congrats on making it to this point - give yourself a solid pat on the back!

    Karen said...

    Great post and thanks for sharing these thoughts. You answered many of questions about how things are progressing so far.

    I agree with others - leave the hair longish as it looks good.

    John Bardos - JetSetCitizen.com said...

    Now this is a blog post! Wow! Great work. I love hearing all the details of your adventure. Thank you for sharing.

    Your trip is quite a bit more expensive then I had imagined. Are you splurging a lot?

    marg said...

    Love this post. I too was curious on what your feelings were at this point.
    I have learned so much about this planet's history and geography thanks to you.

    Be good to yourself. Good response Rob, sounds like great advice!

    Enjoy Africa!

    ilikesprite said...

    I just found this blog, but I love it! You made me laugh several times, including this: "in my current life an iron and ironing board is about as rare as a two-headed unicorn, or a reliable map". It's good that you at least still have your sense of humor.

    While I haven't traveled as extensively or for as long as you have, I can relate in so many ways to your complaints about everything from map issues to the energy required just to get a banana. The emotions that accompany solo travel have to be experienced first-hand to truly understand how frustrating/liberating/lonely/enlightening/frightening it feels. And just when you think you can't take it anymore, some stranger comes along and makes your day.

    I concur with the others about taking some time to get better and just chill out. I've done that on short trips, sometimes, too, just to recharge my batteries (literally and figuratively!), or do something brainless like watch TV (even if it's Japanese people dressed as various monsters and robots performing the "Thriller" dance on a non-sensical game show).

    I'm going to have to set aside some time and read more of your blog; I've only gotten through a few pages thus far, but wanted to tell you how much I was enjoying reading about your adventures. Keep your chin up! Stay safe, and be well.

    Anonymous said...

    Wow! I must say it again...you are my hero! Without question. I don't read about it everyday but I get a great big dose on the weekend and it makes my whole week. It's better than an adventure novel..can't wait to hear what happens next.
    Personally I like the phrase 'Single Serving Friends'. It's the perfect description of the people that you meet when travelling and not the least bit derogatory. Little mini relationships, forged under unique circumstances, that will no doubt stay with you for the rest of your life. That's what friends are supposed to do even in really small doses. I hope you meet lots more of them and I'll be here waiting to read about it. Long distance hug. Lin.

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