Finding Nemo

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Backpacking Belts, part I

Kid with hair braids on Kho San road
So one day on Kho San road in Bangkok, as I was ordering my pad thai from the street-cart, I looked over and noticed a young girl.  She was about 18, and she was getting her whole head of hair braided with colored beads.  It is kind of "traveler" look I guess, a little bit rasta maybe.  But what struck me was the realization that this girl was probably on her first big trip to southeast asia, and getting her hair braided was a way to mark herself as a real backpacker.  In a way it was like getting a reggae-colored cloth bracelet, a beaded necklace, a thai-lettered tattoo, or any of the many other ways that backpackers mark themselves as a member of their tribe.
 I looked down at my own cloth bracelet, and felt the touch of the necklace I had recently purchased which I thought made me look "backpacker-esque".  It begged the question: what makes a "real" backpacker?  What is the difference, if any, between that young girl going on perhaps her first big trip away from home and some people I'd met who'd been traveling for 3 years straight?

I then came up with the idea of "levels of the backpacker", or backpacking belts, like karate.  Just like karate, there is the white belt, which is the novice traveler.  But, at least the white belt has made the decision to study karate and has committed to the idea that gaining new knowledge and skill is a good thing.  Similarly, there are those who have no urge or no means to see the world or travel, and unfortunately will remain ignorant, for lack of a better term, of the incredible power of travel to open the mind, build tolerance and empathy, and gain appreciation of the huge diversity of cultures and ecosystems on our planet.  Most of the world, unfortunately, remains part of the uninitiated, or non-belted, traveler.

Also, I am not including the many people who do travel the world, but stay in comfortable hotels and go on pre-packaged tours.  These travelers also get much of the benefit of traveling, but it is a completely different animal from the independent budget travel that I am talking about here.  I will talk about the differences between these two traveling styles in another post perhaps, but for now suffice to say that I much prefer independent budget travel.  It puts the traveler much closer to the actual locals because hostels tend to be in neighborhoods that are not closed off and isolated from the surrounding community.  Independent travel forces the traveler out of their comfort zone, they generally have to make some attempt at talking local dialect, and having to do things on your own makes you research a place much more thoroughly then perhaps you would if you had the comfort of packaged tour.  There are many more reasons I can get into but I will have to save that for another day.  Again, the backpacking belts apply only to independent budget travel.

what i done need a passport fer???!!
Rank 0: non-belted
The rank 0 is as described above.  For lack of means, determination, or interest, a person confines their traveling within their home country, or perhaps make the occasional foray into the wilds across their closest international border.  Despite the everyday coverage on CNN of our ongoing 10-year war in Iraq (the longest war ever the US has conducted), the rank 0 traveler is bewildered upon being asked where Iraq is located.  This type of traveler will often worry if they ever get around to visiting the country of Africa, that it means they will have to go through the trouble of applying for a passport.  The rank 0 traveler is certain that if they cross the border into Mexico, they will immediately be simultaneously robbed, forced to drink tequila, beheaded, kidnapped, and their corpse sent to a Mexican prison for life.  This traveler is pretty sure that the US is the best damn country in the world and everyone else should just kiss our awesome ass, or we'll just nuke the bejeesus out of them.  And by the way, we should've nuked quite a few places already actually, especially that Kim Dong Jill feller.  The quicker we get to nuking, the better off everyone will be.

Yee-haw! We have passports! We aren't in Kansas!
Rank 1: white belt
The rank 1 backpacker just graduated high school or college, has just booked their totally sweet 6 week tour of Europe, and is stoked!!!!   They are going to party their asses off, hit on foreign girls in English, and get cool stamps on their shiny new passport!  The rank 1 backpacker knows that taking 6 weeks off is a long, long time to travel, so it'd be pretty weird to go for any longer amount of time.  However, that doesn't prevent them from making sure their schedule includes 10 different cities in 10 different countries.  The small fact that this means they will only get 24 hours each in Paris, London, and Rome is definitely not a problem, because how long can it really take to see that Lou-vre place?  Can't be more than a half hour probably.

When the white belt first lands in Paris, suddenly reality hits home.  People frown when they talk in English, and they panic when they discover American dollars really don't work.  Signs don't make sense.  Something that should be simple, like booking a train ticket, actually becomes an ordeal of hand-waving, waiting in obscure lines for no apparent reason, and wandering around looking for someone, anyone, who can help them with a little English.  Locals laugh and smirk, and the white belt feels a little stupid.  He tries desperately to remember some high school French but all he comes up with is "um, like, Oui dude. um. yep. Oui oui?"

The white belt goes to a local nightclub at 9pm and is told it doesn't even open until 2am.... Slowly the white belt realizes that you are supposed to eat dinner at 9pm, then go to a beer bar at 11pm, and only then is it time for the nightclub.  The white belt is surprised that the dinner place, the beer bar, and the nightclub, only play techno music, all night, every night!!  The white belt wakes up hungover at 8am, determined to see the entire city, because he is leaving on a train that same night to the next city in another country!!  The white belt hits the Louvre, and after the first couple hours, realizes he is still on the first floor.  Knowing that he simply cannot miss any of the all-important Louvre, he begins trotting.  When he finally reaches the mob surrounding the Mona Lisa, he is in a full-sprint.  He frantically bowls over the 10-deep pack of Japanese tourists, elbowing them out with one arm, while frantically gesticulating to the closest tourist to snap a picture with his other arm.  When he gets the picture back, he is dismayed to realize it is crooked, 3 japanese heads are in the lower corner of the frame, and the flash from the camera has glared off the bulletproof Mona Lisa case to the point where he can't even see her.  But he gives up when the mob of tourists collapses around the picture again, and defeated, he takes back off in a sprint to see the Venus.

 (to be cont.)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Best Cities in the World (part II)

BA soccer craziness

So I got some feedback that I need to finish my best cities in the world post...

Here is the original post from 2006 with my rankings:
Best Cities

Using the same ranking methodology I am adding Buenos Aires and Brazil to the list

1) Postcardiness
2) Things you can do
3) People
4) Nightlife
5) Food and Drink
6) Expensiveness
7) Weather
8) Beaches
9) Mountains
10) Easy to get around

Criteria        1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 TOT
LONDON          5  5  3  5  3  1  3  0  0  6  31
PARIS           8  7  4  5  7  1  4  0  2  6  44
PRAGUE          9  5  7  5  4  8  5  0  3  5  51
BARCELONA       5  7  9  8  8  6  8 10  2  7  70
SYDNEY         10  9  8  8  4  6  8  7  2  7  70
CAPETOWN       10 10  5  5  6  7  5  5  4  8  65
BUENOS AIRES    7  7 10 10 10  6  5  3  5  8  71
RIO DE JANEIRO 10 10  7  7  7  6  7  6  3  3  66
NEW YORK        8  7  3  8  9  2  3  3  3  9  55
LOS ANGELES     4  9  5  9  9  3 10  9  8  1  67
SAN FRANCISCO   9  9  5  8  8  3  4  5  7  6  64
CHICAGO         7  5  4  7  6  6  3  5  2  6  51
SEATTLE         8  7  7  6  7  6  2  4  9  4  60
MIAMI           x  x  x  x  x  x  x  x  x  x   ?
NEW ORLEANS     4  6  6  6  8  7  4  0  0  5  46
LOS VEGAS       8 10  7 10  6  1  7  6  2  7  64
BA steak and wine
BA nightlife
Buenos Aires is my new favorite city in the world!  Edging out Barcelona and Sydney by a hair...
Here is the thing about BA... the people are awesome.  The city has a really unique mix of European style architecture and sensibility mixed with Latin flavor.  Its one of a kind.  The history of course is that Buenos Aires used to be one of the greatest cities in the world especially before the Great Depression.  The colonial influence is everywhere and evokes a sense of faded grandeur and nostalgia.  The people certainly have a lot of pride in the history of their city.  Modern history is not as friendly... when Peron was elected after WWII and moved the country to the left, the economy started to collapse.  Then a series of corrupt and repressive leaders followed, culminating in total finanacial collapse in 2001.  When I visited in 2006 the place was still incredibly cheap, and probably was one of the reasons I loved it.  These days their economy is recovering again and prices have too unfortunately.
The sense of fashion in the streets is sweet, all the young people have dyed hair, designer jeans, girls wear knee high boots and miniskirts.  The main walk street, Florida, is overflowing with cheap clothes outlets, all small-time individual designers.  The nightlife is CRAZY, clubs go every night all night until the sun comes up, its similar to Barcelona in that sense, there are lots of trendy wine bars, and most importantly there are incredible and cheap steak houses all over the city.  There is nothing like the all-natural grass-fed beef from the Argentinian pampa paired with a nice Malbec from Mendoza, all for less than $20.  Mix in a colorful and crazy soccer scene, Tango shows, great public transit, and you have the best city in the world.
The only knocks really are two big ones for me.... the lack of a nice warm clean sandy beach for surfing and kiteboarding, and the fact that snowboarding in the Andes is an airplane ride away.  Not have having easy access to my favorite things to do is a bit of a roadblock.  I think, in fact, that these two things are pretty big reasons I'm not sure I could ever live there.... but ... I am tempted anyway.
Beautiful Rio!
Rio, rio, rio.  What to say.  Visually, it lives up to the hype. The postcard city can't be contained in a single photograph, the steep hills rising up from the long golden sand beaches flanked by skycrapers makes for lots of ooo'ing and aah'ing when you ride up the gondola or visit the big Jesus statue.  The party is legendary and the "don't care" attitude of the people on and off the beach makes for a very fun and relaxed atmposphere.  Yet, I can't say I loved it.  I think its the fact that there are so many poor desperate people in the favelas, and it leads to a feeling that the city isn't safe, especially at night.  The beaches are only beautiful on the surface, before you notice the streams of run-off that smell like sewage.   And the beaches are almost too big in a sense, especially Copacabana.  It leads to a feeling of being lost of a mega-beach... whereas my favorite beaches in the world are cozy and you get to know the people after a week.  At the copa, you will never get to know the constant flow of people at the mega-beach.  Ipanema was nicer, its a smaller beach, more upscale, and better in every sense.  But it too felt a little big, a little touristy, and unfortunately a little expensive.  And the one soccer game I went to was at the Maracana, the mega-soccer stadium that holds an unbelievable 200,000 people.  It was perhaps 1/4 full and felt a little empty.  All in all, Rio is a place that I feel would be amazing if I had someone to lead me through it, but as a solo traveler, I felt it was a little tough to get to know.  Those knocks aside, Rio is Rio.  The partying is crazy, the beaches are pretty, the surf is big, the food is outstanding, and the people are very fun.

Stay tuned for my update in 2012 when I get back from the rest of the world.....!!!!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

the fish and the ocean

I love this clip, basically the old dude is saying that we can never know our own destiny because life is simply too big and complex to really understand.  But I kind of have a different take.... to me its about waking up from the daily grind and realizing the huge potential inside ourselves.  If we really want it, we can find our way out of the river, and are free explore the ocean beyond.

So I guess its about traveling to new places... maybe that's why I like it the most.