Monday, July 2, 2012

Wanderlust - The 20 most often asked questions about travels

One of my friends (from my group), Guru, has an incredible inexperience of travelling...he has travelled to 49 countries with an INDIAN PASSPORT. He has worked in silicon valley for some years and is travelling for 5 years. He has some interesting FAQs, which might be interesting for Indian travellers, since they have a disadvantaged passport.


" Earlier I posted list of most frequently asked questions. In this note I will attempt to answer them. Would love to hear from you ...

1. How much money do you spend in a month ? 


     The amount of course varies quite dramatically depending on where I am. The amount also depends on the way I travel & the kind of things I do. 
      Traveling as a backpacker means that I normally stay in dormitories - ie rooms with bunk beds for between 4 to 8 people, and with a shared bathroom. Occasionally I couchsurf (see www.couchsurfing.com). I try to cook whenever I have access to a shared kitchen. I avoid flying whenever I can. That means I take land based public transport to most places. Occasionally I hitchhike. That makes for real low-cost travel.

In a country like Bolivia or Ethiopia or Burundi, I can actually survive on less than $300 a month, all costs included! In a country like Argentina, or Malaysia, South Africa or Turkey, I need at least $700 a month.

 a) What countries are the cheapest ?

       I found these countries to be among the cheapest and/or best value for money destinations - Laos, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Uganda, Ethiopia, Malawi, Madagascar, Syria, Bolivia.

 b) What do you do for access to cash in various countries ?


      ATMs are now present in big cities in every country. So cash is never a problem if you have a VISA card. If you are going to remote places you will have to plan accordingly to withdraw cash in advance. Having spare hard currency - dollars, euros, south african rands etc - is always a good idea.

  c) Have you ever been stuck in a place without money ?

      Yes. In Iran once. Due to international sanctions foreign ATM cards do not work inside the country. I had taken some cash but had underestimated the cost of travel there. I was helped by a good samaritan.  I also ran out of cash in Uganda, due to a damaged ATM card. Waited there for a replacement card to arrive. My very generous friends helped/hosted me with everything while I waited.

  d) Where did you make your money ?

      To travel like I do you don't need to be a millionaire, or even close! In fact, if you try a bit harder, you can travel even cheaper than I do. I worked in technology in Silicon Valley for around 8 years & saved towards my dream of traveling around the world. I didn't think I could do it so cheap though. I had budgeted a lot more, & had planned to be gone for just a year. It is almost 5 years now! You can always work along the way - as an English teacher, as a farmhand, in bars/hostels etc. If you have portable/in-demand skills like IT, you can find temporary work anywhere in the world. So you can replenish your balance along the way.


2) How much research or background reading do you do before going to a country / place ?

    During my initial few weeks of travel I did read a lot of material before going to a country/province/city. But that disappeared over time. I normally tend to stay in a city or country till I feel like I have seen enough to move on. So, I am in no hurry to hit all the spots. In fact, I am not even interested in visiting all the highlights. I do read just enough to understand the generation orientation & locations of major cities & attractions & a bit on safety/security/updated political situation. A lot of info that I need is gleaned from talking - with locals, with other travelers in hostels - after coming into a  country. Wikitravel - at http://www.wikitravel.com/ - is an interesting source of info too.

  a) How do you decide where to go next ?

         I do not try to optimize my route, so a lot of times I do backtrack. I tend to keep my main/large backpack in the capital city at a hostel or with a friend, and then travel light around the country or continent. I keep a bunch of options open as to the next destination, &; decide based on how early I can start & how long it takes to get there. If I go to a place, it is usually because someone has highly recommended it. Occasionally I get out of my bus/train at a destination because it looked good through the window - such a stop usually doesn't disappoint. I also try in every country to go to at least one location that is described as remote / hard-to-reach.

3) What does your typical day look like on the road ?

    A typical day once I am settled in a town or city goes thus :

I wake up around 8, & get breakfast, usually just coffee or tea, at the hostel. This is a good way to meet other folks at the hostel, at least the early risers. I try to learn a bit from people who have been in the place for a few days now and from people working in the hostel.
    I then go for a walk around the hostel area, trying to explore places nearby. I learn a lot from taxi drivers as well as restaurant/bar staff. I may sit in a local cafe, again trying to glean more info.

I may have picked a sight or two for the day. If it is nearby I head there. As a slow traveler I am not in a rush to do all these on the first day itself. Taking things slow allows me to enjoy the few sights I see. In most places I end up spending a few days just walking all over the city.

Lunch or dinner, I try to arrange with local friends I may have made, or others in the hostel, or friends of friends that I may have been referred to via facebook, or couchsurfing locals.

Hanging out in malls, parks, bars in the evenings can be extremely fruitful. Locals & expats are always looking to meet new travelers & are generally very generous with tips & leads.

If the day is among the last days in that town or city, I visit transport points - bus terminals, train stations & travel/tour agents - to help me to decide where I can go next.
     I also tend to read a lot, either in cafes or in hostels. Books are great conversation starters. I jot down my thoughts in my journal every other day. The process of writing also helps in going over the days' events again & crystallize perceptions & plans.

4) How do you handle being a vegetarian in all these places ?

     I am a vegetarian but not vegan. I do take milk, cheese etc.
     Being a vegetarian isn't too hard; being vegan can be. You can always find rice or pasta or bread with some kind of vegetable stew or salad in most places in the world. It also helps not to be picky. On those rare occasions where I wasn't able to find vegetarian food, I survived on cookies, bananas & chocolates. There were also days when my sole source of nourishment was liquid foods like mango juice or even Coke!
While I am vegetarian, I have no issues with non-vegetarians or eating in places that serve meat. I will never say no when I am being invited by a group of people to go out to a restaurant, even when the destination is a steak place. I go for the company. There will always be a salad I can munch on.

   a) Do you cook on the road ?

       I cook whenever I get a chance. Lots of hostels have shared kitchens that are open to guests. Cooking gives a chance to wander around in the local markets, for buying groceries, & a chance to invite & socialize with other people around.
      Most couchsurfing hosts also allow you, with certain restrictions, to use their kitchens. Cooking for your host is a good way to return a favor.
      Occasionally I rent an apartment in places where I know I will be staying for a while. In such cases I try and cook often, & use these occasions to host parties. They never disappoint :)

5) What is your favorite country ?

     Picking a favorite is a hard job, but this is one of the most frequently asked questions.
    If I had no choice but to pick a favorite - say at gunpoint - then I would go for Laos. I stayed there for close to a month, with around 10 days in Luang Prabang. Did some incredible on the spur of the moment trips and loved it. Also rented a motorbike and rode around the countryside. The people were lovely. I intend to go back for another month someday.


    a) What are your 3 favorite countries ? Favorite countries in each continent ?

         Now that I have sinned by picking a favorite, being a repeat offender isn't hard. So, the 3 favorites would be Laos, Uganda, Bolivia.

    b) Is there any country that you actually hated ?

        I don't have visceral hatred for any country. That said the treatment i received at certain embassies & borders left a bad taste in my mouth. I would love to revisit Turkey, Jordan, Argentina but I am unlikely to. There are also countries where something untoward - say I was a victim of mugging, robbery etc - happened & that association would stick for a while. But knowing that such things could have happened equally likely anywhere dispels the mild discomfort.

    c) What countries would you want to live in ?
        By extension from my earlier response, I can live anywhere, definitely for a short (3-6 months) time. For longer periods I would be choosy even in my favorite countries. That is because I love my freedoms & I wouldn't last long - on the desirable side of prison bars - if I live in places where my speech/activities are restricted. I would love to live - for between a year and two - in Turkey, Uganda, Iran, Madagascar, Rwanda, Botswana, Indonesia, Vietnam, Uruguay etc.

    d) What countries would you *not* go back to ?

        None really. For short-term visits I would go back to any of them. Having said that, there is really no reason for me to go back to Somaliland :)

    e) Recommendations for romantic places ?
         Places to go with your spouse, gf/bf, or harem or groupies ? Too many of those. But a disclaimer - one man's meat could be another man's poison. My picks may well turn out to fit your definition of hellholes.

         A warning - do not fall for marketing slogans. 'Virginia is for lovers' ? Really ? Virginia is beautiful for sure, but I don't see why it would appeal specifically to those possessed by Cupid. The slogan is even more ironic when you consider that the state is named for someone who was never laid - Queen Elizabeth I, the 'virgin' queen!

         Now for the answer ...

         First, the usual suspects - Istanbul (Turkey), Zanzibar (Tanzania), Cape Town (South Africa), Buenos Aires (Argentina), San Francisco (United States), Taj Mahal (Agra, India), Vancouver (Canada).

         The unusual suspects ... Ubud (Bali, Indonesia), Hoi An (Vietnam), Luang Prabang (Laos), Krabi (Thailand), Nuwara Eliya (Sri Lanka), Esfahan (Iran), Antalya (Turkey), Aleppo (Syria), Alexandria (Egypt), Mombasa (Kenya), Victoria (Seychelles), Mendoza (Argentina), Punta del Diablo (Uruguay), Florianapolis (Brazil), Cochabamba (Bolivia), Arequipa (Peru).

          For the more adventurous amongst you, I also recommend ... Yogyakarta (Java, Indonesia), Hanoi (Vietnam), Sihanoukville (Cambodia), Sanaa/Socotra (Yemen), Palmyra (Syria), Beirut (Lebanon), Gisenyi/Kigali (Rwanda), Johannesburg (South Africa), Maseru (Lesotho), Maputo (Mozambique), Antananarivo (Madagascar), Moroni (Comoros), Salta (Argentina), Cusco (Peru).

          Quite a few places in India, assuming you can handle the country & its hustle & bustle, can be appealing. I would have in such a list Mysore, Kochi, Pune, Chandigarh, Dharamsala, New Delhi, Hampi.

          In the United States, apart from San Francisco, other cities that would go on my list are Albuquerque (NM), Boulder (CO), Tampa/St. Petersburg (FL), Charleston (SC), Portland (OR), Seattle (WA), Sedona (AZ), New York City, Kauai (Hawaii) & the whole of Vermont during fall.

         If you are going with groupies, there is Cleveland with its Rock n Roll museum! And when you go to NYC, do peep into the Museum of Sex, though I have to warn you that it can be less-than-satisfying as it fails to deliver a sufficiently big bang for your buck. And, while Virginia may have picked the wrong name, Bangkok got lucky :). For shotgun weddings, Las Vegas may still be your best bet! 

         I haven't been to Europe, hence some famous names are missing. While I cannot comment on the suitability of Paris for lovers, please beware of cheap imitations. Paris, TX is guaranteed to disappoint!


6) Do you have lot of problems with visas & immigration officials ?


     Do I!!! There aren't too many solo brown backpackers going around the world on an Indian passport. So yes, I am a rare species & get that unwelcome special attention. Initially it was very hard to obtain some of the visas. These days, with all the visas & stamps I can show on my 4 passports (from 4 continents - I hope to get 6 from 6), it is somewhat easier. Also, I can now show a published article (one in San Francisco Chronicle about Couchsurfing) & a book (Plunnge, by Rakesh Godhwani) that mention me & my travels, & thus reduce the hassle by proving formally that I am a genuine traveler.

     It sure hasn't been a cakewalk. I have been to 49 countries (full list). But for that pleasure I have had to submit myself to torture at more than 100 embassies - see the list. I have been treated like scum at consulates, been thrown out of embassies, been denied entry on suspicion of attempting to sneak into Europe on a fake or stolen passport (read story), been interrogated on suspicion of being an extremist (story), been asked if I was a refugee, almost arrested at gunpoint etc etc. It is a long list.

     The world is not yet kind to a dark-skinned, seemingly poor wanderer. Hopefully, someday it will be. But yes, along the way there have also been some generous & friendly folks at embassies & borders, who realized once I explained my story that all I am guilty of is being possessed by just a little bit more wanderlust than most.


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