backpacking… upgraded

Archive for April, 2008

Attention: One-uppers, here’s your travel itinerary…

Ah, the wonders of Google Earth! Not only can you set the planet a-spinning as fast as you can move your mouse, or watch the sunset across the earth’s face as the Man in the Moon sees it, but you can also plot your next extreme vacation in a few clicks. In fact someone’s already done a lot of the work for you.

In a Google Earth Community forum a user is compiling a list of the world’s superlative places: hottest, driest, tallest, most likely to secede. Kidding about the last one. The exact locations, with descriptions and interesting facts, are then highlighted on Google Earth (see the tiny green triangles on the map above). So if you’ve got a Guinness Book-fixation or are just extreme-ly curious, it’s all mapped out for the going.

Added bonus: The next time someone tells you about their epic, life-threatening ascent of Mount Everest, you can say “Wow. One of the world’s tallest mountains. Pretty impressive.” They’ll doubtless reply, “Everest is the tallest, not one of the tallest. I nearly died.” And you can retort, “Sure, from sea level it is. But the world’s tallest mountain is actually Mauna Kea on Hawaii. 33,472 feet [most of it underwater -- you should leave this part out]. I drove up to the top, ate a Go-gurt, then drove back down to my hotel, where I enjoyed a refreshing nap.” Got ‘em! Incidentally, travel one-upping is not the best way to make friends.

As the list seems to be the product of one person’s work, it’s not a comprehensive one; if you know of others that aren’t yet listed, suggest them.

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When in Japan…

In a recent NYT piece on traveling on the cheap in Kyoto, a site was mentioned that should be bookmarked for any flashpackers planning a visit to Japan:

Japan is unique in many ways, not least because it’s done the rich-country emerging out of a completely non-European lineage. You don’t realize how rare a sight this until you spend some time at the intersection of Japan’s speed-train modernity and omnipresent ancient histories and traditions.

One of my favorite parts of traveling in Japan is staying in the ryokans, traditional guest houses that have been part of Japanese culture for centuries. Domestic tourism is big in Japan, so ryokans are used extensively by Japanese and most have a refreshingly non-touristy feel. Their existence and continued sustenance really has nothing to do with you.

You’re not going to get all the amenities to which you might be accustomed staying in a ryokan. A private bathroom isn’t a given, for instance; neither is central heating or A/C (though you’ll likely have some kind of portable heater for your room). Ryokan owners are dedicated to maintaining the atmosphere of a traditional Japanese guest house, and heavy infrastructure that doesn’t contribute to this end isn’t a priority.

What you do get is a chance to experience the unique elements of Japanese domestic living. Particularly if you won’t have a chance to stay in a Japanese home (which I recommend if at all possible), a visit to a ryokan is a must. From the tatami reed mat flooring in the bedrooms with the futon cushions for sleeping, to the low tables at which meals are taken, to the shoji sliding paper doors, staying in a ryokan provides a wonderful peek into Japan’s rich and meditative architectural and aesthetic traditions.

The website is useful because it’s entirely in English, offers phone support with English speakers (a not-to-be-underestimated benefit when planning travel in Japan), and provides an extensive directory of ryokans, not only by region and prefecture, but also by price range. Traveling in Japan is not easy on the wallet and it’s helpful to have a by-price resource. The website also points you to ryokans linked to onsens, but more about onsens in the next post…

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Looking for a last-minute hotel?

Surf on over to Map Channels Hotel Directory. It may not have the sexiest name, but MCHD is good at what it does: scouring the planet to find you a place to stay. It scans a database of more than 100,000 hotels around the world for availability, price, and guest ratings, and uses Google maps to show you exactly where eligible hotels are located.

You search by city and arrival date. Say you’re headed to Prague, Czech Republic, for the night of June 15th, 2008. My search for that date turned up 281 hotels in Prague ranging from less than US$3 to more than US$600 per night. If you need a bit more information than price and location alone, check ‘Detailed’ to get the list of hotels with descriptions and photos.

MCHD can be a wonderfully convenient tool, depending on where you’re going and what type of accommodation you’re seeking. The database is geared mainly toward North American and European destinations. Only four African and two South American countries are searchable, so if you’re traveling off the grid (read: in a lot of second- or third-world countries), MCHD will leave you wanting. Also, all the searches I tried only returned hotels. So if you’d prefer the communal vibe of a hostel or are looking for an out-of-the-way lodge or B&B, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

I’d imagine that with time the database will grow to be more inclusive, and MCHD will be an even more powerful instrument for flashpackers. Thanks to Mike Elgan at Computerworld for the tip!

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Passport stamps you probably don’t have…

Molossian President Kevin BaughSure, they may not be recognized by the United Nations, but they’re countries, too, gosh darn it! They’re micronations, and what they lack in official status, they make up for with self-declared sovereignty and chutzpah aplenty.

Pictured at left is His Excellency Kevin Baugh, President of the Republic of Molossia, a 6.3-acre micronation located a few miles outside of Reno, Nevada.

Like all nations, micro and macro alike, Molossia has endured pangs of growth. Originally established in 1977 as the Grand Republic of Vuldstein (and located in Oregon), Molossia has endured upheaval in more than name alone. Prior to denouncing the brief Communist regime (under Premier Kevin Baugh) ten years ago in favor of a democratic republic, Molossia had been a monarchy for two decades.

The Republic boasts a navy consisting of a raft and two kayaks (all inflatable), a robust Air and Space Exploration program (pictured at left), its own system of weights and measurements, and the Valora, a currency whose exchange rate is pegged to the price of a tube of Pillsbury cookie dough (one tube = 3 Valora).

Visitors should take a moment to explore the idyllic park named in honor of Joshua Abraham Norton, a 19th-century American who squandered a massive fortune investing in Peruvian rice and was forced into exile. Don’t recognize the name? Well, perhaps you know him better by his post-exile name: Emperor Norton I. Though his name has been elided (sadly) by nearly all textbooks on American history, Norton declared himself “Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico” in 1859. He’s sort of the forefather of the micronation movement.

Below: Two tourists caught in a moment of reverence at the Tower of the Winds, a national symbol of Molossia.

If you’re planning a flashpacking expedition to Molossia, make sure to email ahead of time. If you’re given permission to visit, you’re legally allowed to stay for two weeks without a visa, but it should take less than an hour to do a proper country tour. Be prepared for a border inspection; should your travel gear include catfish or incandescent lightbulbs, which are outlawed in Molossia, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave them at the gate. Also, Molossian Standard Time is decreed to be exactly 41 minutes behind Mountain Standard Time (though their website appears to be 20 minutes fast, so go figure…), so be prepared for some havoc on your body’s natural clock.

Be the first flashpacker on your block to have a passport adorned with the national stamp of Molossia. Or Sealand (at left), or Lovely, or Redonda, for that matter. The list of micronations is long and ever-growing, and many of them are covered in greater detail in Lonely Planet’s Micronations. Check ‘em out, or better yet, start one of your own!

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Under (and over) the sea

It would be appropriate to mention Jules Verne here, but I never read 20,000 leagues. I’ve also never been to Dubai, but it seems that the closest we’ll get to the 20,000 leagues is probably being built in Dubai.

I mean, where else would you build an underwater hotel the size of Hyde Park?

Interestingly, the architect seems to see this as much more than a gimmick: “”We want to create the first ever faculty for marine architecture because I believe that the future lies in the sea, including the future of city planning. I am certain that one day a whole city will be built in the sea. Our aim is to lay the first mosaic by colonizing the sea.”

Well, if you want to be a colonist, you’re going to have to wait until 2009 and fork over some cash, as rumored daily rates are $5,000!

Or how about the Poseidon retreat in Fiji - opening in 2009 to the tune of $15,000 – $30,000 per couple per week (with only two days underwater). But then Hotel Club Blog reported that you could get rooms for $1,500 a night. I could almost see spending that for the experience, but I think I’ll wait a few years and see if the price starts to come down…

Istanbul is actually looking to build a Poseidon resort in 2010 as well…

Less breathtaking (but half the cost and already available) is the Huvafen Fushi Resort in the Maldives. Only 2 rooms are underwater (as opposed to the entire resort) and they run about $800 a night. It’s also got an in-room espresso machine — score!

If above sea level is more your thing, but you want to stay in one place (as opposed to the more typical cruise ship experience) The Maya will open in 2010 and float somewhere south of Cancun in the Caribbean.

Coming down to earth a little more, spend just the evening underwater and have dinner at the Hilton’s Conrad Maldives Resort, which is still pricey, but probably doable (and the food looks amazing!)

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Forget the MacBook Air, I want a bamboo laptop!

When I saw this new laptop from Asus, I was thinking, “How great is it really for the environment?” Though bamboo is one of the most sustainable materials out there (reason #1 I chose it for my kitchen floor), this is probably more about the hype. But gosh it’s pretty.

But treehugger had this to say: “Its case is covered in bamboo, which I suppose is a statement, but the real show is inside. All of the plastic in it is labeled and recyclable; it is lined with cardboard; there are no paints, sprays or even electroplating used on its components. It looks like it is designed to be easily taken apart for self-service and easy upgrading of components, usually the downfall of notebooks.”

So it is eco-friendly! Now I just have to wait till it launches…

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Air travel on the cheap: become a casual air courier…

Are you young (but over 21) and unencumbered? Or are you older and quite encumbered but can work from anywhere? If so, there is a world of inexpensive travel opportunities waiting for you to explore…

For an annual fee of $45, you can register with the IAATC (International Association of Air Travel Couriers), which gives you access to a members-only website of air courier opportunities. Basically what happens is this: when companies need documents or freight transported overseas, the quickest and cheapest option is often just to purchase a plane ticket and have someone fly a commercial jet to the destination for delivery, rather than shipping them. That’s where you come in.

In exchange for providing courier service, you are offered heavily discounted (up to 85 percent!) round-trip airfare to and from the destination, with stays of one week, 10 days, two weeks, or even longer, depending on the destination. According to the website, “recent bargain fares for couriers have included trips to the Orient for $200 roundtrip, Europe for $99 to $199, South America for $150.” Flashpackers living in or around (or with quick access to) New York or London have the widest range of travel possibilities open to them.

Despite the handsome satchel, this one's not eligible to be an air courier...Caveat: the goods or documents in your charge will be checked, so typically you’ll have to carry your own stuff on the plane with you. Pack light and pack wisely. Also, since jobs tend to be assigned at the last minute, it can be difficult to travel with friends unless they can arrange for a similar courier mission or buy a plane ticket themselves.

The catches for any would-be air courier: you must 1) maintain a clean passport record, and 2) not resemble a wookie. Easy enough? I thought so. Safe and happy travels!

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More thoughts on affordable safaris

More for our readers looking for affordable safaris…

This month Travel + Leisure’s website features a slideshow of affordable safaris (that you may or may not be able to afford). One of their recommendations, though not a safari they’ve highlighted, is something we did – fly into Johannesburg, rent a car, and drive to Kruger National Park. We then camped the rest of the time. I’m pretty sure it’s probably the cheapest safari option out there.

In my last post I mentioned Sky Auction. A few others are:

Try the late-breaking offers and last minute deals at Africa Travel Guide. They had a 28-day hippo expedition to Lake Malawi for $1,894. Another fantastic deal they had was $1,432 per person for 21 days that covered Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Zanzibar! Not only do you do wildlife tours, you also get rafting, canoeing, photography, etc., and the expedition hits up the best spots (Ngorongoro, Lake Malawi, Victoria Falls).

Another site I like is (you have to register, but it’s worth it) – I found several 10-day safaris that tour Nambia and Zambia for $625-$895 for 10 days! They also have “The Big 5” tours in Kenya and Tanzania for $1,395 if you’re looking for the quintessential safari experience. They had other deals that I through were really good as well, like a 15-day safari plus trekking trip that takes you through Kenya and Tanzania for only $1000. Most of these prices are quoted without airfare, but you can call the tour operator and see what kind of airfare deal they can get you, which might end up saving quite a bit.

If you really want to go super-budget, the absolute best option is to do an Overland Adventure with African Trails. Basically they convert an enormous truck into a bus that carries about 30 people. You set up your own tent, take turns cooking, etc.

For our four flashpacking friends considering a safari and trip to Zanzibar, this would definitely be the best budget option — the Nairobi to Zanzibar trip for 10 days for about $800 US per person (which covers about 2 meals a day). You visit the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, which are the most famous and breathtaking parks. Then you get to end your trip in Zanzibar!

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Once bitten, twice shot mosquitoI am a walking malaria risk. My skin is irresistible, 100% pure mosquito lovebait. I wish it weren’t so, but I just can’t help it. I have friends, very attractive people, who could pass a July afternoon wading through a Georgia bog, unadorned as newborns, and emerge with nary a nibble. On the coldest winter day, however, my scent will arouse the passion of an ice-imprisoned mosquito, which will chew its way free and spend its final moments navigating the folds of my parka and wiggling through a copse of hair to plant a dying kiss on the back of my neck, a look of ecstasy forever preserved on its little bug face.

The point is, before we take a trip to a place where a mosquito bite will leave a lot more than a pink, itchy bump, I get an armful of vaccinations. Even as I type this post, I’ve got inactivated strains of Japanese encephalitis, flu, hep A, diphtheria, pertussis, and other unspellable maladies swimming impotently through my bloodstream. (If there are typos, it’s their fault, I swear…) And as if that weren’t enough of a party, I’m about to down a live strain of typhoid-causing Salmonella bacteria. Sometimes I just get so crazy!

Obviously, the right combination of vaccinations to get depends on which infectious diseases are prevalent where you’re headed. If you’ve got an international trip planned, search the CDC’s Travelers’ Health website by destination for info on which shots to get, if any. Don’t read it for too long, though, or you’ll never want to leave your house or eat canned salted meats again.

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Unique voluntourism program in France

I saw this in Shape Magazine of all places and thought it sounded offbeat and cool. There’s a program where you travel to Provence and help restore medieval structures that are rapidly deteriorating. Since I work in international aid and development, I definitely support voluntourism programs focusing on poverty and the environment, but I thought this one was particularly cool for being different.

Rates start at $655 per week for accommodation and meals, which is actually a pretty good deal (voluntourism even in developing countries can be prohibitively expensive). Bonus: you get to live in one of the renovated buildings! Meals are prepared by a chef using local produce and served family-style for all the volunteers. Most afternoons are free for exploring the small town of Saint Victor la Coste, hiking, visiting vineyards, etc.

Volunteers work with craftsmen, helping to preserve not only the physical structures, but also the skills and culture.

For more information, check out:

Since I’m still not allowed to use power tools unsupervised (bad things tend to ensue), I’m not entirely sure that it would be a good idea for someone to let me near ancient ruins with a chisel, but it’s hard to deny my friends the inevitable story — “So, there was this one time that I was working on a rampart…”

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