WHERE TO GO?
The world is a big place - where to go first?
As we began to plan our first long post-retirement trip, it seemed like a good idea to take the more adventurous trips first - while we were still relatively fit and energetic. However, during the planning process we became diverted into working out the details for a four-month trip to France - not exactly a rigorous destination! On the way to a family picnic one day, Joan pointed this out to Lou and suggested we rethink our trip to France - then only weeks away. His response was memorable. He simply sat at the picnic table in a nearly catatonic state for a couple of hours while the rest of the family ate and talked around him. The discrepancy between what we had planned and what we were about to do literally stupefied him. Finally, he roused himself and said, "You're right. Let's postpone the trip to France and start planning all over again." Then our nephew mischievously said: "This is perfect, Lou! You said you wanted to travel after retirement in order to stay flexible." (Lou wasn't quite ready to hear this.)
So, instead of four months in France, we traveled in some of the former Soviet satellites of Central Europe, and in Portugal and Morocco. These areas were only mildly more demanding than France would have been, but they helped us gain confidence in moving off the beaten path. Since then, we've become more adventurous travelers as we've gained experience in trip-planning.
To read about place you might enjoy visiting, check the travelogues on this website, or click on the link below for one travel writer's Top 100 Wonders of the World: www.hillmanwonders.com/
WHEN TO GO?
Timing, as they say, is everything. To plan when to travel to an area, look at guidebooks and tour company brochures (because guided tours are usually scheduled for the best seasons.) In planning a ten-month trip to Asia, we made itinerary adjustments to avoid the monsoon season in various areas and we trekked in the mountains of Nepal in October after the mud and leech season. Too often, we've been in the right place but at the wrong time to see a festival. Finally, we found a website that lists festivals, celebrations & major holidays around the world: www.shagtown.com/days
HOW TO GO (GUIDED TOURS)
A guided tour may be the best option when there's too little time, too little experience or too much difficulty. If possible, however, we much prefer to travel on our own. (see PHILOSOPHY)
- TOO LITTLE TIME: If you don't have time to plan a foreign trip, you may be better off on a guided tour. Doing the background reading necessary to discover the highlights of a foreign country takes time, and so does planning an itinerary and making at least a few reservations.
If you only have a short amount of time available to travel (one month or less), consider taking a guided tour. This especially applies to working Americans, who typically have only two or three weeks of annual vacation. A tour operator will spare you the time it takes to plan your trip in detail, making sure you spend your time experiencing the highlights of each area. (While independent travel involves considerable logistical time and effort it can be very rewarding in terms of meeting the locals and being able to arrange your itinerary at will.)
- TOO LITTLE EXPERIENCE: We began our extended travels rather cautiously with an Eldertreks tour to Morocco (see DETAILS below). We'd been to Japan and China with others, and to Western Europe several times on our own. But in 1999 we hadn't yet traveled independently outside of the First World. So we decided to visit Morocco with this small tour group. It was a good decision. There were only 12 of us, we saw a lot of the country, greatly enjoyed our Moroccan guide and learned how to travel in Third World countries. See MOROCCO Since then, after considerable experience in off-the-beaten-path destinations, we'd feel comfortable traveling on our own in Morocco.
- TOO MUCH DIFFICULTY: We also took a guided tour to Irian Jaya, on the island of New Guinea. We definitely needed to be on a tour here, as we went deep into malarial jungles to meet tribal peoples who stopped being cannibals only a generation ago. Because of sporadic guerrilla outbreaks against the Indonesian authorities, we needed police permits to move between areas. Our tour hired a plane to get us into the center of the nearly road-less country and several different longboats to get us around various areas. There were only eight of us travelers, but it took a Canadian guide, an Indonesian guide, several local guide/interpreters, 22 porters and a cook for the trip. This was definitely the right place to be on a guided tour! See IRIAN JAYA
The last of the three tours we took was into an area that has little tourist infrastructure. On the Old Silk Road tour, we traveled for days up the Kharakorum Highway through the mountains of Northern Pakistan and down into Western China. From there we went into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. To do this, we needed transportation (a small bus) and a total - at different times - of four guides. Sometimes we had to travel for many hours between towns, hotels, food, gas stations, etc. Virtually no one spoke English - except our guides. To see the Khyber Pass, we had to travel with two armed guards - arranged by our tour leader. Again, a guided tour made sense under the circumstances. See OLD SILK ROAD
HOW TO GO (INDEPENDENT TRAVEL)
- START EARLY: It's easy to get all set to leave on a trip - only to learn that the inoculation you need is actually a series of shots over a period of weeks! Ugh. Or perhaps your passport needs to be renewed (this can take up to two months) or the visa process for a country involves a lengthy delay while the consulate ponders your application (another month.) For a long foreign journey, six months to a year in advance is not too soon to begin planning and doing background reading. Besides, one of the great pleasures of travel is getting ready for it! During pre-trip preparation, we pore over maps, read histories and biographies, study lots of guidebooks, make long lists, check over gear, get medical and dental check-ups, buy toiletries and supplies, get travelers checks and airline reservations, and make a tentative itinerary.
- BE FLEXIBLE: Speaking of itineraries - Joan burst into tears once when Lou showed her a three-page, single-spaced itinerary for eight months in South America. She just couldn't bear to think that every day was going to be that programmed. "Not to worry," said Lou, "this is just a tentative plan. We need to have a rough idea of the main places we want to go and the general route we'll take from one to the other. We won't be locked into this itinerary, but can change it as we go along." And that's what happened. Joan was greatly relieved that we were off the itinerary by day two of that long trip! But having the itinerary as a general guide helped us make choices as we went along, knowing that if we stayed an extra week in one place we'd need to give up something later on. Now our motto is: Make lots of plans - and plan on lots of changes!
When you travel independently you typically don't know where you will decide to eat or sleep or how you will get there on any given day. And that's good because it leaves the way open to wonderful opportunities and surprises. We seldom make advance reservations for transportation, lodging or tours. The only exceptions are 1) reserving a flight date, unique lodge or recommended tour in high season; 2) reserving lodging when we won't be arriving until after dark; 3) reserving ahead when the law requires it, such as the Inca trail to Machu Picchu - 30 days in advance. (In the photo below, Lou is plotting our 2004 South America journey.)
- STAY GROUNDED: We took an astounding 51 flights during our ten-month trip through Asia. That much time in the air is in direct violation of the "threading" principle advocated by travel writer Paul Otteson. He says a journey can be merely a collection of different experiences - or an evolving experience. Rather than traveling via "connect-the-dots" (hopping by plane from city to city), the "threading" traveler seeks a continuity of experience. He moves slowly and steadily on the land, passing from one region to the next and experiencing the ways neighboring landscapes and societies are woven together in a tapestry. To be a "threading" traveler, Otteson advocates that you: 1) travel during daylight hours, 2) use surface transportation, 3) take short hops (when planes are necessary), 4) walk a lot, and 5) break routine often.
- VISIT COUNTRIES IN CLUSTERS: Extending the "threading" approach (see above), we try to visit countries in clusters, in order to minimize traveling long distances and maximize our understanding of a region. For example, we clustered Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary into one trip - and learned first-hand how the Nazis in World War II and afterwards the Soviet Union impacted the lives of the people we met. When we visited Spain, Portugal and Morocco we were tracing part of the Moorish invasion - backwards. In 2001, we visited Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Greece - learning a lot about their shared history, food and customs as well as the differences between Muslim and Christian countries. We'd like to say we "threaded" our way across Asia - but that's when we took those 51 flights. We tried to do too much - seeing 15 countries from New Zealand to Uzbekistan in a ten-month period. Still, we're glad we stretched ourselves to the max in Asia - who knows if we'll have the opportunity to return there?
- USE A "HOME BASE": It's wonderful to return to a familiar place in the middle of a long or difficult trip. Besides being a rest stop, it's a place to store souvenirs and excess gear, get visas, buy airline tickets, and read up on the next destination. We call these travel hubs "home bases." In 1999 our home base was Paris, France. We came through here three times on our way to and from Central Europe and on our way home from Morocco, staying at the Bonsejor (a small hotel in Montmartre) and stuffing ourselves on good French food before taking off again. In 2000 our Asian home base was Bangkok, Thailand. We came and went from the Holiday Mansion Hotel several times. The staff welcomed us with big grins, we had the same room, used the hotel travel agency for airline tickets and the hair salon for much-needed haircuts. We put souvenirs and gear we didn't need in the hotel storage room, and used the nearby Bumrungrad Hospital twice (sinus infection, malaria information.) In 2001 our home base was Istanbul, Turkey. We came and went from here three times, staying in the Kalkan Hotel where we got a very good room rate because of our repeat business. Hostal Mami Panchita in Lima, Peru was our home base on the South America trip; we stayed there three times as we went back and forth between countries.
- PLAN NON-TRAVEL DAYS: It's o.k. to move around non-stop on a two-week vacation - you can rest when you get back home. Because we travel for long periods, our itineraries include frequent stays of a week or two in one place. We can handle three or four one-night-stands in a row without getting too cranky, but then it's a good idea to stop awhile in one location.
- MEET THE PEOPLE: For us, one of the main attractions of foreign travel is meeting the local people. We're members of Servas, an international, non-profit, non-political, non-religious organization that believes in one-on-one contact across nations and cultures. See www.usservas.org Membership enables us to contact host families with common interests around the world and stay with them in their homes for two nights, sometimes more. It's been richly rewarding. After spending four fascinating days with a Servas family in Krakow, Poland, we had to move on. Later, after a fellow traveler heard how we'd spent our time there, he finally blurted, "What? You were in Krakow for four days and didn't see the Black Madonna?" Our response was that you can't see everything, and visiting a local family can be more rewarding than visiting all the "must-see" sights.
To be able to talk with local people, we took Spanish lessons for three weeks in Ecuador, five weeks in Peru and three weeks in Bolivia. Our teachers asked us to practice in the shops and parks, and the school arranged for us to lodge and eat with a local family. Another way to meet people is to use public transportation. Sitting jam-packed in a mini-bus with people and their chickens you get closely acquainted!
- LAUGH AT YOUR MISTAKES: We made an incredible number of "rookie mistakes" at the beginning of an eight-month trip to South America. Despite years of foreign travel, we still get it wrong sometimes. To have a good laugh at our bumbling start in South America, see ECUADOR
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
BOOKS AND MAPS:
To think about why you are traveling and to get a general overview of ways you could travel, we highly recommend The World Awaits: How to Travel Far and Well by Paul Otteson
For logistical planning, we recommend The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, Edward Hasbrouck. Also, use catalogues published by tour operators to plan itineraries and the best timing of trips.
It's essential to carry a guidebook (and it's just as essential to set it aside as much as possible to avoid following a too-well-trod "gringo trail.") A good guidebook will help in the planning process before a trip, and save time, energy and money during a trip. We particularly like the Lonely Planet series for their good city maps and useful organization. For a long trip, we often carry two region-wide guidebooks,. For example, in 2004 we carried Lonely Planet's South America on a Shoestring as well as Footprints South America Handbook. The former had great maps, while the latter had better background and historical information, as well as a wider range of hotel and restaurant choices. (Before a trip, we also refer to Rough Guide and Bradt guidebooks at the library.)
Background reading: One good book leads to another. In getting ready for our Africa trip, we began with a title we knew - Cry, the Beloved Country - and looked it up on Amazon. From this point it was easy to follow a network of other titles on Africa. We read books of biography, history, political commentary, anthropology and fiction - almost all of them fascinating.
For books and maps: www.amazon.com www.globecorner.com www.randmcnally.com
U.S. Government travel information: www.travel.state.gov/travel
Universal currency converter: www.xe.com/ucc/
Travelers' reports on "Thorn Tree Forum" www.lonelyplanet.com
List of all embassies and consulates: www.embpage.org/ If you need a passport or visa in a hurry, you can pay a courier to take care of it for you: www.travisa.com/ On several occasions it's been necessary for us, as U.S. citizens, to obtain three-month or six-month visas before we leave our country. This is serious problem on a trip of many months, because a visa often requires entering the country within three months of its issuance. Itinerary-juggling may be necessary to avoid an expired visa.
www.airtreks.com www.bootsnall.com These are two travel companies that specialize in putting together the best prices and routes for multi-stop international travel. We relied on them when planning our trip to Africa. It's easy to go online and find tickets for flights out of and back into the U.S.. But it's difficult to get tickets for international flights outside the U.S. - such as the one from Cape Town, South Africa to Accra, Ghana. Air Treks and Bootsnall were invaluable in finding those flights for us at low prices. Another good place to look for budget air fares is in the Sunday travel section of a large city newspaper - especially the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times.
Eldertreks is a Canadian company that specializes in small-group adventure travel for travelers 50 and over. (Not to be confused with Elderhostel, a non-profit that takes up to 42 older people on tours that are usually less-adventurous than Eldertreks.) We warmly recommend this company, which is friendly and well-run. We took their tours to Morocco, Irian Jaya (New Guinea) and the Old Silk Road (Pakistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) For a catalogue: www.eldertreks.com
We've also had good experience with Adventure Life, based in Missoula, Montana, which specializes in tours to Central and South America, including the Galapagos Islands, plus Antarctica. For a catalogue: www.adventure-life.com
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com