Seeing the world, one country at the time

Oh boy - where to start? We have learned so much over the first 6 months of travel that we need to sit down and digest it all. Which is what we plan on doing in Thailand (second half of August). Thus by the end of August, we should have a comprehensive overview of the different lessons that we learned so far - the hard way.

1. You have heard it before and I will repeat it all the same - bring twice the money and half the stuff. I too read it prior to leaving, several times over, but I still didn't heed this advice. The money part is one thing, but packing lightly is something that is easier to control. And it can NOT be overstated how important this is. If you stuff your pack to the gills, you will spend the next few months or year looking at light travelers with an envious, pained look. I speak from experience on this one.

2. Plan ahead! Anna and I started talking about doing this journey spring 2006. That said, even eight months later, we still scrambled to get everything together in time. And if I have to be absolutely honest, I must admit that we didn't know for certain that we would take off until only two weeks prior to departure. I reckon that an ideal amount of planning (including saving up) is a 1:1 relationship - thus if Anna and I should have done it textbook style, we would have had to start 18 months ahead.

3. Your things WILL get stolen, so make sure anything valuable is insured properly. Get what the insurance companies refer to as a floater. It is a special insurance component that you add on to your homeowners or renters insurance where you pay a bit more, but there will be no deductible. In seven months, we got robbed seven times. Admittedly, only two times were serious, but it was pure luck that the thieves didn't get us good each and every time. And unfortunately, that also means, statistically, that we will be robbed another ten times over the next 10 months. I just hope my insurance company is not reading this page. As for items of sentimental, but little monetary value, such as diaries and journals. Either keep them on you at ALL times, or copy the text into an email and shoot it off. Once it is on Google or Hotmail's mail server, it should be pretty safe. You may think this is too much trouble, but not doing so is the equivalent of signing a waiver that you are willing to loose your journal. I am just saying.

4. If you are like me and shoot a lot of photos that you put on either the laptop hard drive or on an external hard drive, do NOT wait until something happens before you also burn your pictures onto DVDs. Few laptops (with perhaps the exception of the expensive and heavy Panasonic Toughbooks) are built to withstand the kind of abuse you put it through when you stuff it in a backpack and travel the world. Sooner or later, the hard drive WILL fail and if you didn't also back it up on DVDs, well, then you have only yourself to blame. Once again I am speaking from experience. Once you have burned the photos onto DVDs, mail them home and ONLY delete the files off your hard drive after you get confirmation from home that the DVDs arrived safe and sound.

5. When you plan your travel route, take into consideration the relative cost of each destination. For example, Ecuador was twice as expensive as Bolivia, though they are practically neighbors. Similarly, for what you travel on in Australia for one day, you can live for almost a week in Laos. A handy resource for figuring this out is to go to the bookstore, pick up a copy of Lonely Planet and look at the first page where all the facts are listed. Among the information, you will also find an estimated daily budget. If you do this, you will find that you can live on US$10 in Laos, but jump over the border to Vietnam and you will pay US$25 for almost the same standard. Now, if you travel for a year, it is obvious what kind of financial impact this will have on your budget.

6. Figure out how much prices are market up for foreigners in the different countries and haggle accordingly. Frequently, as a traveler, you pay the double of locals, sometimes five times that of locals. Also, if the other party accepts your first number, you know you paid too much. Make a mental note, learn from it and move on.

7. Learn ten words for each country you are going to. If you are linguistically challenged like me, it might be a good idea to write them down on a notecard that you can use as a crutch until you memorize the words. It is absolutely amazing what difference a couple of words make when dealing with locals. And besides the improved service and better prices, it is a sign of respect. Either way, it is a small investment of time that results in a payoff that even Mr. Buffet would approve of.

8. Know how to deal with people in the different countries. For example, in Asia, a polite and friendly demeanor gets you a lot further than pompous authority. Interestingly enough, while I have yet to confirm this, pompous authority actually gets you better service in India. I wish I knew of a source that would tell me how to deal with the different cultures, but I will try to update this point as I learn more from the few countries we are going to.

9. PacSafe - I don't like to promote a commercial product, but Anna and I both have PackSafe nets that allow us to lock our bags inside a metal net and lock it all to a stationary object. It is all about peace of mind. And on a less nice note - it is also all about inconveniencing the thief. If your backpack is harder to get into/steal than the backpack belonging to the guy in front of you - which backpack do you think the thief will go for. Of course, it could also be argued that such a net signifies that there is something incredibly valuable inside and that it will only motivate the thief to put his back into his efforts. Make up your own mind on this one, but at least know that there is such a thing as the PacSafe nets out there.

10. A lot of people wonder what would be the optimal equipment package in terms of photo equipment. If I were to do it all over again, I would probably bring a lighter body, such as the Canon 5D, as well as the 17-35 2/8 and the 70-200 2.8 zooms. I love my 85 1.2, but it is heavy and is very much primarily a portrait lens. Digital cameras inhale dust every time you change your lenses and the importance of minimizing this quickly becomes evident when you start to see large dust bunnies in your pictures. 4.0 is acceptable with an image stabilizer on the lens, but it still tends to be on the slow side for a lot of shots. Darkness comes even more quickly the closer one gets to the Equator and effectively shortens your shooting day. A flash would be a mitigator, but it is no replacement for a more 2.8 or better.

11. Find out in advance what mode of transportation each country is known for, i.e. India is a synonym for trains, Peru busses, and Cambodia and Bolivia - well, nothing really comes to mind - but if you like uncomfortable, you are in for a treat ;- ) Moreover, in some countries, such as Vietnam, you can get a train pass which will make your travels quite a bit cheaper than getting individual tickets.

12. If you travel with someone for the duration of the journey - split up! There are different guidelines for how often and it obviously depends on the couple. Some say one full day every week, others suggest once a month. There are few other situations where one spends so much time with another person. It is the equivalent of living together and working together, all while spending all meals together and sharing the same friends. Of course, it is easy to preach that two people should spend the day doing different things when there is only one thing to do in that particular spot. Regardless, I think it is something to consider for long term travel.

13. Tuk-tuk, moto and taxi drivers - the two former have almost invariably provided us with our least favorable impressions from any one country. As they do not have meters and are not really regulated, it is a bit of a wild wild west. They will overcharge you upfront, then up the agreed-upon price once you reach the location. They will not necessarilly know the address you just gave them, but they will with a straight face tell you that they do. Basically, anything to get you into the Tuk-Tuk or onto the moto. Also, the people who serve this function do, as a rule, not seem too concerned with the Asian concept of "saving face". Thus they do not walk away from a conflict, but will instead often push their new demands quite agressively. They will also tell you that just about ANYTHING is very, very, very far away, when in fact it often proves to only be 300 meter down the road or around the corner. The solution is often called a metered taxi, with the operative word being "metered". If the taxi driver is not willing to kick off the meter - walk away! It is not worth the trouble and with no meter, you almost certainly will get fleeced. Often the taxi driver will tell you that the meter is broken and can thus not be employed. Or while he agreed on using the meter prior to you getting into the car, he will not deploy it. These guys are not especting return business, so why should they care if they try to get one by you. So, if you can, go with a metered taxi and make sure that it is actually deployed.