Servas International

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I'm going to crib directly from Wikipedia here for a bit, to explain what Servas is:

Servas International is a non-profit worldwide cooperative cultural exchange network bringing people together to build understanding, tolerance, mutual-respect, and world peace. It works toward world peace by encouraging individual person-to-person contacts. It operates through a network of Servas hosts around the world who are interested in opening their doors to travelers, and, 'on the other side of the coin', many open-minded travelers who want to get to know the heart of the countries they visit.
And as Servas themselves say:
Servas is divided into nine regions around the world, each with its own coordinator. Each Servas coordinator maintains a list of approved hosts and travelers for their region. Names and addresses of hosts appear in annually produced lists which are made available only to approved travelers.

Through Servas, travelers have opportunities to meet hosts, their families and friends, and join in their everyday life. Where convenient, hosts may offer two nights (or more) accommodation and invite travelers to share a meal.
Or to put it simply, the whole thing is basically pre-screened and therefore safe(ish) couch surfing. I get vetted by the organization here in Canada and become an approved traveler with an official letter of introduction. Hosts get vetted by their local organization and then appear on a list of approved hosts that I have access to as I travel. I look over the list before arriving in a new city and contact hosts who look interesting or appropriate, and they're free to say yes or no according to their own criteria or schedule or whim.

I was first exposed to Servas many many years ago in the dim past of 1988 when I spent a summer in London, England working in the stock room of a W. H. Smith bookstore during the day, and being a tourist on evenings and weekends. My much savvier traveling partner joined Servas before we left, so on a foray to the Continent we were able to secure about 4 nights of accommodations and a couple of meals while visiting Paris. Now that I'm planning my much longer trip, I think it makes sense to hook up with Servas again. Not only does it give me the chance to save a bit of money on accommodations, it's also a way to connect with real local people in the places I visit and get a far more intimate sense of the customs, foods, culture, language and life of the area.

I've already made contact with the local Winnipeg coordinators for Servas, and we've agreed to get together in January for the formal interview process that will get me on the approved travelers list, and give me access to the lists of approved hosts in each country. (Unless, of course, they find out about my secret fondness for petty thievery and kicking puppies, in which case all bets are off.)

I really don't think I'll want to arrange all my accommodations this way - I'm pretty sure that would be a lot of work, and I'm also pretty sure that there will be lots of times when I'll want to be more anonymous. Still, it's another tool in the arsenal, and I'm looking forward to deploying it on occasion.

Book Review: "The Kindness of Strangers"

Saturday, December 27, 2008

I had a very nice Christmas this year, despite being afflicted by a mild cold which left me slightly sniffly and tired by Boxing Day. My family and friends were very generous, yet also quite successful at giving me presents that, for the most part, fit neatly within the "6 Things" rules, including lots of yummy consumables, and cool trip-related stuff. In fact, this was the first time EVER that I was able to fly with carry-on baggage only to and from Christmas at home. This is unprecedented, and a hopeful sign of things to come. However, while I was able to fit everything into my poor old carry-on eBag, I was weighed down quite a bit more on my return to Winnipeg than I was when I set out, mostly due to the acquisition of loads of great new travel-related reading materials.

All this is an introduction to what may become yet another recurring feature here at Go See Run Eat Drink – book reviews! (posts like this will be labeled "books" in the tag cloud). It occurred to me as I dove into the first of several new travel-related publications, that other people might also be interested in hearing about some of them. So here's a look at the first travel book I received this Christmas, one that I actually started reading on the plane home on Christmas Eve, and which I liked from the first page.

"The Kindness of Strangers" is a Lonely Planet published collection of 26 stories by different authors that explore "the unexpected human connections that so often transfigure and transform the experience of travel, and celebrates the gift of kindness around the world."

In his introduction to the book, the editor Don George, writes this alarming but hopeful message:

"In twenty-five years of wandering the world, I have learned two things: the first is that when you travel, at some point you will find yourself in a dire predicament – out of money, out of food, unable to find a hotel room, lost in the big city or on a remote trail, stranded in the middle of nowhere. The second is that someone will miraculously emerge to take care of you – to lend you money, feed you, put you up for the night, lead you to where you want to go. Whatever the situation dramatic or mundane, some stranger will save you."
As promised, these are stories by many different authors. Some are only a few pages long, some longer, but each one recounts a true experience of the author as traveler encountering some small or large kindness rendered by a complete stranger, usually when the traveler is in distress: alone, sick, lost, or otherwise in need of help and with no one to turn to.

In the happiest of these stories lucky travelers are showered with food and gifts and friendship in Venice, or picked up from the muddy, potholed streets of Haymarket in St. Petersburg, or even lead by a Wodaabe tribesman out of the darkness of a Sahara night and back to a lost campsite. In each case the friendship or gift or help is unexpected, but turns out to be one of the the most memorable parts of the journey. There are some more complicated stories too – ones where the exact nature of the kindness is murky, and where the traveler comes away conflicted about the experience. Each story I've read so far has been a pleasure, and because they're only a few pages each they are, fittingly, excellent for reading on the plane. You probably won't have to stop in the middle of one when the "Fasten Seatbelts" sign goes on.

The other thing I like about the book is that while many professional travel writers are represented in its pages – people like Tim Cahill, Pico Iyer and Rolf Potts, there are also several stories by ordinary travelers as well. This is because as the editor was soliciting entries from professionals, Lonely Planet sponsored a contest on its website and hundreds of people submitted their own tales from the road. Three of their stories are included in the collection alongside the professionals.

It's also worth noting that the collection is graced with a preface by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, so really, what more incentive do you need to seek out this book? It's recommended by Go See Run Eat Drink, AND by the Dalai Lama. Oh, and it was the winner of the 2004 Independent Publishers Book Awards in the Travel Essay category.

These stories give me real hope for this solo journey I'm planning. They reassure me that though I'll be traveling on my own I'll never really be alone, not if I can trust my instincts and accept help when it's needed and offered. Though I hope I never find myself in the kind of adversity that some of these story talk about, I also hope that when the inevitable small disasters befall me I can figure out who to trust and be grateful that they found me.

I'll leave you with a thought from the story "Adnan's Secret", by Maxine Rose Shur:
"As travelers we were strangers to everyone, and everyone a stranger to us. We had to rely on only the fragile, often surprising connection we knew we could feel with others, and others with us. This is the connection made despite difference, distance and even death. It is the delicate thread of sympathy that stitches humanity together."

Home for Christmas

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tomorrow I'm heading home for Christmas, on a quick 4-day break from work. I always go home for Christmas. ALWAYS. In fact when I first conceived of this trip I thought I'd do it in two legs - Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, then home for a break and some downtime at Christmas, then back out for India, China, SEA (that's how we savvy RTW types refer to South East Asia), and South America. It seemed like a good idea to build in a break from traveling - an escape hatch of sorts. Also, it would be nice to have an extended break at home during the holidays since I haven't had more than 4 days off at Christmas since I was in school in about 1990. Then I examined the costs of this plan and quickly decided maybe 2009 would be the first time I wouldn't be home for Christmas.

Since that time I've been trying to get used to the idea, and I'm starting to make peace with it. My sister and brother-in-law missed Christmas at home a few years ago; their excuse was the birth of their first child, my niece, on Christmas Eve. They survived fine (all three of them), and I imagine the new baby thing was distracting enough that Christmas was a mere footnote that week. Similarly, I suspect that when next December rolls around I'll be so far removed from my "normal" life that the whole Christmas season won't have nearly the all-pervasive impact that it has here in snowy, urban western Canada. Or at least I hope so.

I sort of plan to be in Africa around the holidays next year, and I can't imagine anywhere less Christmas-y. I also sort of plan to connect with an old friend who is now living in Uganda, but it seems awkward to basically invite myself over for Christmas. Perhaps I'll get lucky and he'll see this post and pick up on my not-so-subtle hint. If that doesn't work out, I may go on safari over the holidays. It might also be kind of neat to see how people in a place so very different celebrate something so very familiar.

I suppose being away for Christmas is just another aspect of being away in general - part of committing myself wholly to this adventure. I'm sure there will be some bouts of homesickness in my future, and not just around the holidays. I have no idea how I'll react to that. For now I'll just enjoy seeing family, unwrapping exciting travel-related packages, eating my weight in Christmas baking, turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, and wondering what next Christmas will bring.

I guess if I really want to, there's nothing stopping me from booking a flight from Kampala to Calgary next December. It's only money.*

*Note to family: DO NOT count on this!

Random Realizations

Friday, December 19, 2008

First Random Realization:
I normally get my hair cut about every 4-6 weeks; I keep it short, and short cuts need frequent attention. This means I'm going to be getting a lot of haircuts on the road, and the idea of getting my hair cut by someone I can't really communicate with is sort of alarming. It's not like I'm particularly particular about my hair - it's a wash-and-wear style that doesn't even require a brush, just a dollop of some kind of goopy styling product. Still, it's an odd thought. I've contemplated taking my camera with me the next time I get my hair cut here at home, so I can get some pictures to show the friendly Chinese stylist in Beijing. Then again it's probable that I'll often be able to find a semi-English speaker for this task. Also, I guess I just need to get used to the idea that my hair will probably look different once I've been out there for a while.

Second Random Realization:
I don't eat out very much. At all. Maybe once or twice a month I'll go out for lunch or supper with friends. I cook at home a lot - breakfast, lunch and dinner. I make up recipes. I improvise. I bake stuff. I watch the Food Network (Alton Brown rocks!). I subscribe to more than one food blog. I have an actual vanilla bean in my fridge right now. So what I'm saying is I really like to prepare food for myself, which is something that I think I'll rarely get a chance to do while traveling. Yes, there will be a lot of hostel kitchens in my future, but I imagine those will be more breakfast oatmeal / PB&J kinds of places. I doubt there will be a lot of long-simmering pots of yummy goodness in my future. At least not ones I cook for myself. I think I'll really miss that after a while.

Third Random Realization:
Once I sell my house, even after I spend a big bunch of money on traveling, and even after I settle back down in a new city, I should be completely free of debt. This is not to imply that I'm drowning in debt right now; I've got the mortgage and a mortgage-backed line of credit, but my net worth is definitely positive and I pay off my credit card bills every month. Still, the fact is that ever since I got that first student Visa back in about 1989 I have never been completely free of debt. Sometimes I think about my first Visa purchase - lunch with a friend - and I realize that I really haven't actually paid that back yet. That Visa debt got rolled into a line of credit and consolidated and mortgaged and blah blah blah... but it's still with me. It's cool to think that my new life after traveling will start with a clean slate. Of course the flip side of having no debt is that I'll also have almost no assets, other than my personal belongings and a sturdy 1998 Toyota, but you can't have everything.

Gear Picks - Tilley Travel Socks

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Now we finally come to a piece of gear that I've actually tried, tested and found worthy of pack space - Tilley travel socks. Tilley is a Canadian company best know for the Tilley hat, seen on the heads of (usually) senior travelers around the word. While I'm definitely not going to join the ranks of the Tilley Hat Crowd (not that there's anything wrong with that...) I am so far quite impressed with my Unholey Socks. I've got 2 pairs of the women's ankle socks, and one pair of the crew length, which I took with my on my eastern trip this summer.

The socks come in navy blue, white and beige. I bought beige, because it's my firm belief that the best colour for travel clothing is the colour of dirt. (I've also got the Tilley short-sleeved "cool" shirt in "tan stripe", perhaps more on that in another post. ) At $16.00 per pair, they're not cheap, but not outrageous either, especially considering they are guaranteed to remain free of holes for three years.

I tested the claim that they dry overnight several times and so far that's been true. In fact, they probably dry quicker than that. They're fairly thin, which means they don't have any of that thick-sock-coziness that's so comforting, but I figure if I need some extra warmth or coziness, I can just put on two pairs. (Layering! It's the one-bag traveler's friend!) I'm even contemplating using these socks for running, saving me from carrying the extra .0000001 lbs of a pair of running socks.

Or perhaps that's taking things a bit too far...

Edited to add: I had a lot of trouble linking to the different Tilley products in this post, for some reason they all morph into links to the Tilley start page whenever I save the post, so if you they're working right now, great. If they're not, and you want details on the socks or hats or shirts or whatever, you'll just have to click around and find them for yourelf.

Regarding Henry

Friday, December 12, 2008

Some of you may be lucky enough to have met my dog Henry, a purebred basset hound of immense character, advancing years, and lingering pungency. Henry has been with me almost the whole time I've been in Winnipeg, and will turn 10 years old in January. He even comes with me to work most days, and has been a joy, a frustration and a constant companion since I first picked him up from the kennel almost ten years ago.

Obviously Mr. Henry will not fit in my carry on bag, so my original hope was to take him to live with my sister and brother-in-law for the year while I was traveling. Also occupying that household is my 3 year-old niece who is a big fan of Henry Hound. They're definitely dog people, and they seemed amenable to the idea, so it looked like a great solution.

Here's the bad news: Mr Henry was recently diagnosed with an inoperable cancerous prostate tumor. It's an adenocarcinoma, which is apparently the more aggressive type. Palliative treatment is possible with radiation, but that would mean sending the dog the the vet college in Saskatoon for 3 weeks at a time, and would really only prolong the inevitable. I won't be doing that; he'll stay here with me in comfortable, familiar surroundings.

Now for the good news: someone seems to have forgotten to tell Henry that he's got terminal cancer, because he is almost completely his normal self. He's as active as he ever was (not very), he's snoozing 22½ hours a day, he's lapping up the love of his fan club at work, and he's savouring the fancy new canned dog food recommended by the vet, which I could hardly refuse him, could I?

When I pressed the vet for a timeline - "Weeks? Months? Years?" - he suggested that we're likely talking about months, though he also said Henry may surprise us.

And that's the dilemma. If Mr. Henry turns out to be a trooper he could be with us for a while yet, but at the same time I can't send him off to a new home when I know he's sick, and I know the inevitable is coming. It's not fair to the people I send him to ("Here's my dying dog, when the time comes, go ahead and do what needs to be done. Oops, gotta go - they're calling my flight! Bye!"). And of course it's certainly not fair to Henry. It's my responsibility to be there for him until the end, and maybe even for me to decide when that end should be. He may be gone before the snow melts, but if he hangs in there, my plans need to be flexible enough to accommodate that.

So I guess I'm saying that countdown timer over on the right may need to be adjusted. Maybe by a few weeks, or months, maybe more, maybe not at all; I don't really know. I do know that I will take this trip, and I know that I will do right by Henry. But it has to be Henry first, trip second.

In a strange way, the thought that Henry won't be there when I get home is one more thing pushing me to take this trip. I don't have a spouse or boyfriend or kids to leave behind, and I've prepared myself (I think) for giving up my house and my job. Henry is kind of the last really big thing that ties me to this place and this life.

And to end on an up-note, for those of you who've never seen Mr. Henry's famous helicopter impression, here's a taste:

This time next year - December 9

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

POP QUIZ: Can you guess today's "This Time Next Year" location from this audio clue?:

If you guessed the Lost City of Petra, you're correct! (And you know me well.) To quote Wikipedia:
Petra is an extraordinary archaeological site in southwestern Jordan, lying on the slope of Mount Hor in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Arabah (Wadi Araba), the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. The site was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 when it was described as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage".
To quote me: "Petra is dead cool!"

The best known site at Petra is the iconic Al Khazneh, or Treasury Building, but the whole site has a lot more to see. I'll admit that when I thought of Petra, I really just thought of that one building, but it turns out that Petra is not just the Treasury, a souvenir stand, and a guy selling falafel from a cart... its a whole CITY, and they think most of it hasn't even been uncovered yet. There's the remains of the fantastic Ad-Deir monastery, along with "rock-cut tombs, obelisks, temples, sacrificial altars and colonnaded streets". One website claims you need 4 or 5 days to really explore the whole city so I'm a little worried that my proposed itinerary will rush me through Petra too quickly. (Of course if I wanted to do it really quickly, I should run the first ever Petra Marathon on September 26th, 2009.)

I'm actually planning on seeing Petra as part of a package tour (more on the whole idea of package tours is probably coming in a later post). The particular tour I've got my eye on is called the "Jordan and Egypt Adventure", and just reading the itinerary makes me positively buzz with excitement:

This tour combines our ‘Petra to the Pyramids’ and ‘Nubian Sailtrek’ tours to give you the highlights of both Jordan and Egypt. We’ll see the hidden city of Petra, take a camel ride amidst the weird rock formations of Wadi Rum, sail along the Nile on a felucca and explore the Pharaonic treasures left by the Ancient Egyptians.

  • Camel ride in Wadi Rum
  • Overnight in Bedouin camp
  • Full day guided exploration of Petra
  • Sunrise on Mt Sinai
  • Pyramids & Sphinx at Giza
  • 1 day felucca cruise
  • Horse-drawn carriage ride to Karnak Temple
  • Donkey ride to the Valley of the Kings
Seriously? A camel ride? A bedouin camp? A felucca cruise? Pyramids? It's like the Greatest Hits of the Ancient World. How is it that YOU have not already signed on to come with me on this? I mean look at this map:

The Jordan and Egypt Adventure, December 7-22, 2009. You know you want to.

Wonder of Wonders

Friday, December 5, 2008

Here's an exciting discovery: during my trip, I will actually be visiting six out of seven of The New Seven Wonders of the World:

  1. Chichen Itza (Mayan archeological site) - Yucatan, Mexico
  2. The statue of Christ the Redeemer - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  3. The Colosseum - Rome
  4. The Great Wall of China
  5. Machu Picchu (Incan archeological site) - Peru
  6. The Lost City of Petra - Jordan
  7. The Taj Mahal - Agra, India
The only one I'll miss on my present itinerary is that Mexico thingy. As compensation though, I will be seeing the Great Pyramid of Giza, the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World.

The declaration of the "New Seven Wonders" was spear-headed by a Swiss company, starting in 2001. They claim more than 100 million votes were cast on the internet and by phone, though duplicate votes were allowed so they admit the results are "decidedly unscientific". Of particular note on the subject of unscientific voting is a story about the voting in Brazil, where cell phone companies not only stopped charging people for voting, they actually solicited votes:
One morning in June, Rio de Janeiro residents awoke to a beeping text message on their cell phones: “Press 4916 and vote for Christ. It’s free!” The same pitch had been popping up all over the city since late January—flashing across an electronic screen every time city-dwellers swiped their transit cards on city buses and echoing on TV infomercials that featured a reality-show celebrity posing next to the city’s trademark Christ the Redeemer statute.
So like they say... the voting was not exactly United Nations sanctioned as "free and fair". Perhaps these Swiss were also the ones behind the voting system in Florida for the 2000 U.S. election.

And as an aside, I will also see several of the other 13 finalists in the voting, including the Acropolis, Angkor Wat, the Hagia Sophia, and the Eiffel Tour (seen it already, though).

And to gild the lily, I may also check out several of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, as decided by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Stuff like the Channel Tunnel, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Delta Works in the Netherlands (dams, sluices, locks, dikes, and storm surge barriers).

It's all going to be pretty wonderful.

Gear Picks - One Bag to Rule Them All

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

In case you haven't realized it yet, my plan isn't just to spend a year traveling. It's to spend a year traveling with just a single carry-on sized bag. Therefore the choice of bag is, to put it mildly, somewhat important. The best website out there for packing light is that of the one-bag guru Doug Dyment. If you're looking for great information on what to pack, how to pack, and what to pack it all in, you can't go wrong at that site.

Here are my basic criteria for an RTW bag (RTW is short for 'Round The World, and is what all the Cool Kids say). My bag must be:

  • Soft-sided - No wheels! They add weight and take away interior space. Also, they're Hell on cobblestones, dirt, grass, gravel... really anything that isn't a smooth airport concourse or featureless sidewalk. I know there will be times I wish I could roll along, but I think overall the extra weight and bulk would be too much.
  • Convertible - meaning it can be carried with a handle like a suitcase, or with a shoulder strap, or with stow-away backpack straps. Note that the backpack straps on convertibles aren't nearly as ergonomically designed as those on REAL trekking backpacks, but I'm not climbing Everest here.
  • Carry-on sized - Every airline has slightly different rules which makes this is a slippery concept, but most people seem to agree that about 9" x 14" x 22" is a reasonable size (about 45 litres). A bag this size will end up being too big to carry on with a few airlines, but anything small enough for all contingencies might be, well, too small. (For a look at a bag that would probably pass anywhere, check out the Tom Bihn Westen Flyer and imagine living out of 26 litres for a year.)
  • Tough - This bag has to last me through a year of packing and unpacking almost every day. While my eBags Weekender Convertible was a steal at $69.99, I really don't think it would last.
My current favourite pick for an RTW bag is the Tom Bihn Aeronaut. It's been very well reviewed here, here and here (and in a zillion other places too). There's even a video here of a guy taking a ten-minute shower with a packed Aeronaut showing Tom Bihn's claim that the zippers are "splash-proof" is a bit of an understatement. I think I've read every word the internet has to offer on this bag, and most people agree that Tom Bihn makes really high end stuff of exceptional quality - tough enough to live out of for a year. In fact, people tend to rave.

Here's what the Aeronaut looks like:It's pricey, especially when you add in things like the Absolute Shoulder Strap, and the Convertible Packing Cube, but I have a feeling this is an area where I really shouldn't cheap out.

Here's what I like about the bag:
  • It's got a few compartments which will help with organization, but it doesn't have so many pockets that I'll forget where I put things.
  • I think the end pockets will be big enough to hold two pairs of shoes in one end and a day pack with Eee PC, guidebook, MP3 player, and snack in the other end. This would make for easy extraction of the day pack before stowing the main bag and sitting down in a plane, train, bus, rickshaw, donkey cart etc...
  • I like that it's got lots of places to grab - both ends and the top, plus the straps.
  • Most reviewers say that they were able to fit lots more into the bag than they expected, and found it more comfortable to carry than they thought they would, despite the weight.
Here's what I don't like:
  • It's expensive, and there's really no way I can get a look at one without shelling out the money up front.
  • It only comes in red, black and grey. Though the red is flashy, I'm leaning towards grey.
  • There's no obvious place for a water bottle, unlike the Rick Steves bag, which is also a contender (though the decided underdog) in my One Bag Smackdown.
  • The square-shaped centre compartment looks like it might be kind of awkward to pack.
Despite these minor drawback I think that once I actually commit fully to this crazy plan one of my first purchases will be a shiny new Aeronaut, with all the accessories. I even have a short trip to Montreal in January which would let me test it out a bit. When I actually take the plunge, you'll hear about it here first.