Category Archives: Review
I just finished reading a book called Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, by Chuck Thompson. I devoured it with almost the passion of Kerouac writing On the Road, in just a couple of days. In the book I found support for just about every crackpot theory and harebrained idea I’ve had about travel. All the conversations I’ve had in broken English – some of it mine – at 4am in some back street alley in China or random Baltic cafe or even just my neighbor’s basement. It was amazing (not to mention somewhat gratifying and a bit of a relief to know I’m at least not the only kook) to see my words and thoughts in his typewriting. I’m not going to review the whole book, but I at least wanted to recap some of the things that struck me as I read through it.
- Latin American police “corruption” is just a more efficient way of accomplishing the same thing. Cut out the lawyers, judges, court clerks, paperwork and everything and just pay the cop a nominal fee. Typically travelers will be confronted for doing something like speeding or not having the right documentation. The officer will, in a roundabout way, imply that there’s a small fee that can be paid on the spot which will allow the traveler to continue. And the American traveler will become indignant. You got caught doing something you knew you weren’t supposed to; pay the man. It’s a small price to pay to be back on your way and you can feel good that you helped the local constabulary put food on their table.
- Most of the time the Americans are the most polite travelers. I’ve met more jackasses among the supposedly more civilized Europeans than anyone else. And that doesn’t count the numerous other of the English-speaking countries’ citizens that usually lead the pack in being idiots (I’m looking at you, New Zealand and South Africa). Note that this doesn’t apply to Americans in Tijuana and Cancun. I once watched a friend of mine scream in a hotel that he was the only reason anyone there had a job and he should be treated like a king. This despite the staff politely assigning him another room after he smashed his window and the glass fell into a playground. Even after his tirade they didn’t kick him out, though I was about to.
- Travel is good for the soul and coming home is usually a bigger culture shock. After being somewhere else for a while you really start to see your homeland from an outsider’s eyes. For better or worse.
- Horror stories are better than pleasant ones. There’s nothing quite as funny as hearing the near-slapstick comedy stories of misunderstanding and woe on the road. There’s nothing so compelling as hearing about a harrowing escape while getting shaken down by the Russian mafia. And there’s nothing more heartwarming than hearing of a travel angel who saved your bacon each time.
- Things are never as bad or as dangerous as you hear. Yes, there’s corruption and danger and squalor out there in the rest of the world. But there is wherever you’re from, too. You just don’t think of it that way. Some of the happiest and most generous people live on less than a dollar a day. Some of the friendliest are in places people tell you are too dangerous. Some of the most honest and helpful are in the places supposedly most corrupt. When someone says “don’t go there” I usually put it on my to-do list.
But there were a couple of topics I rant about that I didn’t see in the book. Though he came close to these topics, the difference is enough that I feel like I have room to expound my ideas without stepping on the author’s toes.
The first crackpot theory I didn’t read about is that the worst words you can learn in a foreign language are “Do you speak English”. If they can, they’ll understand you in English. If they can’t, they won’t. But worse, it more often than not gives them the idea that you probably speak their language passably and so they won’t take the bait. But if you just go up and start talking to them, asking whatever question you had to begin with, they’ll usually reply back well enough or point you to someone who can. It wasn’t trial-and-error of an American lout that taught me that, but by observation of many a fellow traveler – also foreign but never American – who bristle indigently if the English is not good enough or the reply not polite enough. One of the funniest conversations I can say I have witnessed, though it’s only really funny in hindsight, is a Korean yelling at a Russian militia officer in his precinct and implying that it had been his colleagues who had stolen her DSLR along with her travel itinerary across Eastern Europe and the Middle East; each butchering my native tongue more the angrier they got. And neither pausing to apologize for not speaking the other’s language or suggesting such a dumb thing.
The second harebrained idea left unaddressed by the book is that I can never respect an American abroad who pretend to be Canadian. I don’t begrudge the Canadians at all, I’ve had great times with many of them. Nor do I resent Americans who are sometimes ashamed of their “home and native land.” No, it’s that these people tend to simply want to hide in the citizenship of the Great White North because they find it tiring to stand up to Eurotrash bullies whose only view of Americans has come through sitcoms and stereotypes. What’s the point of traveling thousands of miles to simply swim downstream because it’s easier? Why not go hang out at the Gap at the corner of Haight and Ashbury and complain about the fascist capitalist pigs while downing another granola bar you pretend wasn’t made by a billion dollar conglomerate, sourced by organic corporate farming (not that I’m against corporations or corporate food – I happen to enjoy quite a lot of it – I’m just against the hypocrisy of the delusional pseudo-hippies who are exactly the kind who follow the Lonely Planet guides’ every recommendation and consider themselves better than those on a package tour even though the effect is the same…but I’m off topic). One of the biggest rewards of traveling is experiencing different viewpoints, perspectives and ways of life. And a part of the responsibility attached to that is to be a good ambassador of your homeland. I absolutely revel in helping a fellow traveler see my country through my eyes, and they usually come away from the experience with an increased respect for Americans and the country. Several of these folks had been sworn enemies of Americans and their bible-thumping, two-Bush-electing, Big-Mac-eating (a German in Australia once asked how Americans could survive with only one McDonald’s around, and it being on the other side of the city), science-hating, racist (I’ve never met so many racists living in the South all my life as I have in my limited travels through Europe and Asia) dimwitted Ugly American ways.
There’s a follow-up book called To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism that just arrived and I’m getting ready to dig into it.
I learned something today from AOL. I had to read that sentence a couple of times before I believed it myself. But it’s true! They’ve got an article on how to spot fake hotel reviews and it’s worth a look. Many of these are something that you look for anyway, but some aren’t obvious. After reading this I have a better sense of what I usually do when I spot a review and say “This looks like an ad.”
A few weeks ago I grabbed a pair of the Vibram Five Fingers shoes after seeing them in a video blog post by Tim Ferriss and Kevin Rose. As soon as I saw them I said to myself that they were made for my barefoot lifestyle! All of the barefoot and none of the splinter and glass and getting thrown out of restaurants. Sandals are nice and I liked my Sanuks at first but they got tattered and stinky fast.
Wearing these things it feels like I’m wearing nothing at all (as Ned Flanders would say)! These are the closest things to being barefoot and, as such, you quickly realize that man was never meant to walk on concrete. But walking on grass or gravel feel practically wonderful. It’s always interesting walking on different surfaces and actually feeling the textures. For example, some carpets have odd textures you can feel. Your feet, long forgotten in the sensing world, are now giving constant feedback on your world. More than once I’ve stopped and looked down to see what I was walking on – some ordinary seeming ground feels different and interesting.
The soles are rubber and have striations which enhance their grip on slippery surfaces. After walking a while you will notice that you’re not walking on your heels quite as hard as you would in normal shoes. That’s probably partly because of the large amount of padding on the heels which mean less penalty for smashing into our heels and which contributes to the way normal shoe heels stick out a little by design (after going barefoot or wearing sandals for a few days I often find myself tripping on the heels like Hank Azaria in The Birdcage). In the Vibrams I tend to strike closer to mid-foot with the heel only used as a pivot point to redirect the force of the step. Striking the heel hard as in shoes stops forward motion and puts stress on knees, hips and back.
One caveat: you’ve got to be more careful where you put your foot. The soles are thin and briars and thorns go right through. Ouch. So don’t use these for hardcore hiking, but then you probably wouldn’t anyway.
I just wanted to pop in here and post something new real quick. There’s not going to be much content for right now. November and December are crunch time in my business, so forgive the lack of updates.
I had a thought the other day that there should be a line in some song lyric about the sand of the hourglass of my life is getting heavy, or there’s enough for a beach, or something like that. I don’t know, it sounded good in my head.
I’m going to London in December! Sweet!
Music I’ve been listening to lately:
Ray LaMontagne – Gossip in the Grain
This is a great album. I’m not sure it’s better than his other two, but it’s definitely worth a listen if you like anything he’s done before. Best Tracks: You Are the Best Thing; I Still Love You
Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
This one is really out there. Lots of haunting piano, flute, harmony, etc. It’s good for background and isn’t as depressing as it sounds at first. Best Track: Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause for Your Step-Mother!; Jacksonville
Silver State – Cut and Run
This is a band I ran across in Grand Junction and San Francisco. They’re really good live and Memorex. I’m not sure what they’re up to these days, but these guys should get more airtime. Best Tracks: Faith, You’ve Changed Your Name; Gotta Cut
Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Gimme Fiction
These guys are getting more airplay now, though mostly on college radio. They’re really amazing and if you haven’t checked them out yet, I highly recommend it. Best Tracks: You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb; The Underdog and I Turn My Camera On; The Beast And Dragon, Adored
Lou Reed – Transformer
This is a great old album, full of gems. Best Tracks: Satellite of Love; Andy’s Chest
The Beatles – Love
This is a great all-around album. No favorites here, I listen to it first to last.
Any of these alone would be worth the price of the album, in my opinion. Especially since the first two are available on my Emusic subscription. The Streets – On the Edge of a Cliff – I really love this song. It’s really upbeat and I think it’s got a really great line in there. There’s a couple more good songs on the album, too. Gov’t Mule – Soulshine – The song that made me break down and buy an album by a hippie jam band. It’s really bluesy and great. Fun to sing in the car when nobody’s listening. Elbow – Grounds for Divorce – This sounds like a Black Keys song or something. It’s really great, and the other songs on the album aren’t too bad. Listen loud.
I travel a lot and I’m always looking to make the necessities easier so I can focus on those things that are unique on each trip. Getting the right bag to fit all my stuff is a big part of that. So I figured I should start talking about all of the bags I’ve gone through.
First, a few requirements that I have. I’m very picky about what I carry so my requirements are fairly strict. First, I want something I can put on my back or over my shoulder backpack style – roller bags are for dorks. Second, it’s got to fit in the overhead compartment and/or under the seat in front of me – checked bags are lost bags. Third, it’s got to be able to fit my basic outfits:
- Two-piece suit – preferably without wrinkling it too much,
- Two business shirts,
- Two to Three undershirts,
- A week’s worth of underwear,
- A week’s worth of socks,
- A pair of shoes,
- Toiletries (inside a plastic bag in a convenient location), and
- A t-shirt and pair of shorts/pants.
Those are the minimum things that I look for in a bag. Other niceties are things like someplace to put extra books, roller wheels (hey, sometimes my shoulder gets tired), internal structure, tie and belt compartments, lightweight, etc.
I took the Rick Steves’ Convertible Carry-On on my trip to Dallas. I’ve had it for a while but just didn’t put it to much use. So I pulled it out of the attic and opened it up. The bag is at the maximum allowable size for carry-on luggage by most airlines, which makes the interior cavernous. Also it expands a couple of inches. As far as carry-ons go, this is as big as you’re likely to find.
I put all of my stuff in it and still had room to spare. There was a good amount of room for my suit and business shirts and I locked them in with the internal straps so they wouldn’t go anywhere when I slung it on my back. Unfortunately everything else sagged to the bottom.
The bag is kind of lumpy and awkward. Even filling it up took effort as I had to lay it out, move it around, fit my clothes in, and move it around more. It’s like filling up a grocery sack – if you’ don’t just cram stuff in it’s not going to be pretty. And wearing it around felt funny. There’s just no structure to it or anything.
- Fits anything you’re likely to carry, short of a VW.
- Extremely light and flexible
- Awkward when empty and uncomfortable to wear
Conclusion: If it’s fully packed out, this bag is probably great. But nearly empty it’s just cumbersome. I’s built for trecking across the globe so that’s no surprise. The bag is very light so that’s also good for long hauls, especially in the Winter when you’ve got to pack lots of bulky stuff. But at that point you would probably be better off just grabbing a frame pack and going with that.
The TSA recently allowed you to leave your laptop in your bag to go through screening. But not just any bag qualifies. Basically, the bag has to allow the screener to see through the material without any cables or other things over it. There are lots of custom bags out that will do this. But here’s what I’ve used a couple of times: a plain siliconized shopping bag that you may get from clothing stores.
You can carry the “laptop bag” with you up to the screening point, then stow it in one of your carryon bags if you want. Or if you just want to have easy access to the laptop in your bag, the silicon seems to be easier for me to grip when sliding it out. For me this is a better process than buying a new bag just for ease of use.