These are a few of my favorite things….

When spending extended time away from home, sometimes it is the little things that can make a difference in your comfort.  I often travel for 3-4 weeks at a time. These are a few things that I have learned make life on the road just a little easier.

  • Bandana- I won’t leave home without it.  I wear it as a head band, or tie it onto my day pack.  On the plane, I pull it down over my eyes when I want to sleep.  It’s like hanging a “do not disturb” sign.   After an overnight flight, I can then use it as a wash cloth.  Washing my face and brushing my teeth after an overnight flight, makes it much easier to face a new day in a new country.  It also serves as a napkin, or “table cloth” for a quick picnic.
  • Waterbottle– one that will fit in your daypack, so that you will take it with you everywhere.  It is so important to stay hydrated when traveling and little bottles of water are expensive.  If tap water is not safe, then I  go to a grocery store and buy the biggest bottles of water available and use those to refill my small bottle. Make sure it is empty before going through security.
  • Earplugs- great for sleeping on an airplane and in a noisy hotel.   A good nights sleep makes all travel much more pleasant.  Earplugs are especially helpful if sharing a room or sleeping with an open window.
  • White noise – I’m addicted to white noise because I sleep with an airfilter in my room at home.  It does wonders for drowning out the little exterior noises that wake you up, especially if you are in an unfamiliar environment.  I used to travel with a radio, alarm, white noise combo, but now I just have a white noise app on my iPhone that does the trick.  I guess you’ve figured out that I value my sleep.  It helps keep me healthy, both physically and mentally!
  • Flashlight– I keep a little one clipped to my camera bag.  I also love headlamps, because they free my hands.  They work great for reading in bed, if your hotel doesn’t have a small lamp by the bed, or if you’re sharing a room.  It’s also helpful for getting things out of your suitcase at night, without disturbing your roommates.
  • Multi-tool and/or Swiss Army Knife–  You never know when you’ll need to fix a piece of gear, or open a bottle of wine!  If you pack one,  be sure to pack it in your checked luggage, so it doesn’t get confiscated by security. 
  • Duct Tape- You can repair all sorts of things with duct tape: rips, tears, shoe soles… you name it, it’s been “fixed” with duct tape.   I wrap a few feet of it around a pen, and keep it in my camera bag.  If you need any more ideas for the possibilities for duct tape, check out this blog.
  • First-Aid Kit– stuff for blisters, indigestion, diarrhea, motion sickness, pain, cuts, bites, etc.  I don’t take an entire pharmacy, just enough of these item to prevent an inconvenient emergency trip to a drugstore.  You can get little sample packs at most pharmacies that have 2 pills of each, just enough to get you through until you can go to a pharmacy. Make sure you are aware of any restrictions that may be in place.  Japan, has some pretty strict guidelines for what they allow in to the country.  Always pack prescriptions in their original container, and bring a copy of your prescription.

Remember, pack light.  Carefully consider each item in your suitcase.  Is it necessary?  How much does it improve your quality of travel?  Can I buy it in country?  I’ve decided that for me, each of these items are worth the little bit of space they take up, even if it means I have to take one less book, or one less pair of shoes.  The good news is that for this year’s trip, Japan is known for being the land of convenience, with 7-11 stores on just about every block, and even vending machines filled with an assortment of items.  So don’t feel like you have to pack everything but the kitchen sink. Going to the store and figuring out which bottle is shampoo, and which is laundry detergent is an adventure in itself.  Allow yourself that experience!

 

I’d love more suggestions for the “little things” that makes a big difference when traveling.

 

 

Updated and reposted from 5/15/12

Traveler or Tourist?

Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala

Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala

The Mayan culture has been getting a lot of attention lately.  Especially yesterday, 12/21/12, the day that the Mayan calendar ended.  The end of this calendar has been interpreted in a variety of ways, but that’s not what I’m going to write about. All this attention to the Mayans has made me think of the two different encounters that I have had with the Mayan culture, and the contrast of travel experiences that I had on those very different trips.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit 4 different locations with mayan ruins: Tikal, Copan, Chitchen Itza and Tulum. The first two sites were visited almost 20 years ago, when I spent 5 weeks backpacking in Guatemala in Honduras. The last two sites were day trips from an all-inclusive resort near Cancun about 6 years ago. Those two trips could not have been more different. The manner of travel and budget being the two biggest differences.

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”  Paul Theroux

enaff_eyetravel-403-4

Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Santo Tomas Church during Holy Week.

The first trip to Guatemala and Honduras was on a budget of less than $15/day, including food and accommodation. I was 23, single and broke.   I stayed in cheap hotels, hostels, hammocks and slept on the deck of a boat.   I ate beans, rice, avocados and lots of liquados (fruit smoothies.) I also spent about 10 days studying spanish in Antiqua, Guatemala. On that trip I met a lot of people, other travelers and locals. I would sit in the park in Antiqua and strike up conversations with strangers so that I could practice spanish. I rode public transportation, and constantly had to ask people for directions and other forms of help. During that trip I was able to visit the ruins of Copan and Tikal, and several small towns and villages that were populated mostly by people of Mayan descent. In general, I felt like a traveler, not a tourist.

Fast forward about 12 years; I’m married with a full time job, and a comfortable income. My husband and I took a trip to Cancun that was an all-inclusive package deal. We could have everything we needed for a relaxing vacation without ever leaving the confines of our resort. My husband and I booked this trip last minute during a very busy period, and we didn’t have much time to plan or choose, we just knew we needed a vacation. We were met at the airport by a driver holding a sign with our name on it. We had a room with a view of the pool and the ocean beyond. There was drink service without leaving our beach chairs, maid service and meals on site. It wasn’t an expensive trip, when you consider that airfare, lodging and food were included. It wasn’t a luxurious resort, but it definitely wasn’t shabby either.  I venture a guess, that sounds like most peoples idea of a dream vacation, we hated it.  Yes, the beach was nice, the drinks were refreshing, the service was good, etc…  It was nice for about the first 36 hours, then we were bored out of our minds.  We might as well have been in Florida. What’s the point of leaving the country, if everything is the same as home?

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” – James Michner

Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza, Yucatan Peninsual, MexicoMayan ruins in Chichen Itza, Yucatan Peninsual, Mexico

Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza, Yucatan Peninsual, Mexico

 

My husband and I made the most of that trip, by renting a car and escaping the resort for a trip to Chitchen Itza and Tulum.  We also promised ourselves, “never again” to the easy allure of a package vacation. Those types of vacation deals are designed to keep the tourist away from the realities of the lives being lived around them. It’s hard to relax, when you’re face to face with the reality of the poverty of the people who are making your drinks and cleaning your rooms. Even more difficult, when you realize they’re probably barely making a living wage, and the money you are spending often goes to the big multi-national corporations.

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” – Clifton Fadiman

 

 

 

So, how can we make the travel experience more authentic?  There are many options of ways to create travel experiences that allow you to interact with local culture, and allow your travel money to have a greater impact on the people you are meeting.  I believe very passionately in the idea of EcoTravel, which is a type of travel that does not damage the environment and helps to support local economies.  It is the idea that local communities can benefit from tourism, without the tourism ruining the environment and culture that made the location a destination in the first place.   There are a lot of ways that we can support these ideals.  Here are just a few:

Buying pineapples from a roadside vendor in Honduras.

Buying pineapples from a roadside vendor in Honduras.

  • Stay in small, family owned hotels or B&B’s.
  • Strike up a relationship with the people who work there.  Go out of your way to talk to them beyond the scope of “I need a towel, or a key”, etc..
  • Study the language, so that these types of interactions are easier.
  • Rent an apartment with a kitchenette, which requires that you…
  • Shop for groceries at the local market or corner store.
  • Eat at the locally owned restaurants, and avoid the fast food chains.
  • Participate in an educational program.
  • Be respectful of the differences in the culture.

Remember: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson