Preparing and Packing for a Year of Travelschooling

In the late summer of 1995, Jo and Ed Berger commenced their final preparations for an 11 month backpacking trip which would take them and their two sons ages 8 and 11 (hey, that’s me!) through roughly a dozen European countries. Just one short year after returning, they’d once again find themselves packing for a very different type of trip. This time, the trip offered more space: A 32 foot 5th-wheel trailer and crew-cab pickup truck, but came with added challenges such as different academic needs for the boys and a high-energy border collie which shared the back seat with two teenage boys.

In this interview I sit down with Jo and ask her to reflect on what ultimately worked, what didn’t, what she wished she had prepared differently, and gain insights into the thoughts and doubts she had before leaving for the trip with the unusual insight to weigh in on how those panned out now that the boys have grown up and 20+ years have passed.

You can view my interview with Jo and Ed where we discuss the trip and they reflect on their fears learnings and key pieces of advice in the full interview here.

The Human Safari

As children, we often assume different roles while re-enacting grand fantasies. All hail to Cesar, riding atop a palanquin, or to the Astronaut floating above the world looking down at it.  The doctor saving lives, or the war photographer documenting the rawness of the human condition and the horrors of society as it fails. Then, we grow up.  We settle into our role within our socio-cultural strata and send subtle ripples across the fabric of the society that surrounds us.

As tourists, we recapture some of that wonder.  We gain the opportunity to stand in the midst of the Coliseum, to stride casually down the halls of grand empires and to snap photos of exotic peoples, destinations, and in some instances candid moments.  These rich experiences add to the substance of who we are and let us get back in touch with the beautiful sense of exploration which defined our youth. They are, for many, what make travel wondrous, expansive and oh-so addictive.

But, what happens when that sense of exploration leads us to moments and experiences which carry with them a taint of exploitation or dehumanization?  What happens when we suddenly become a modern incarnation of the aloof Roman dictator, well fed, wealthy, and separated by an invisible but nearly impenetrable wall from the people we’re visiting?  It’s something that happens easily, innocently and far more often than we’d like to admit.

The Stirrings of Realization

For me, two instances stand out. The first tickled my awareness with a mild sense of intangible discomfort. The second brought clarity slamming into place combined, strangely, with a sense of helplessness.

Faces of Zambia

The first was during my time in Zambia.  We’d elected to do a Safari with a fantastic company in the South Luangwa region. They invest heavily in protecting the animals, a light footprint on the land, and in the local community.  Yet, as we sat in the back of a large safari Landcruiser rolling along the pockmarked blacktop I looked out at the hundreds of locals that could readily be seen along the side of the road working their yards, walking the road, or going about their business.

Faces of Zambia

Often they’d look up at the four of us, often smiling, and in the case of the children, waving…then bursting into laughter when we’d smile and wave back.  We stuck out like sore thumbs, and not just because of the color of our skin. It was nearly everything about us – from our clothing, to our glasses, camera, and the way we were traveling. Just as often as I waved back, I’d sit, camera raised to my eye, set in sports mode snapping away while watching the landscape race by through my extended zoom lens.  Each shot allowed me to capture a candid photo of daily life. And, if I’m to be honest, each shot was much more comfortable than had I been on the ground, walking from house to house, snapping photos.  Just as fast as I snapped the photo or they looked up, the Landscruiser had spirited me away, erasing any possibility of a confrontation or interaction.

Faces of Zambia

It was only as I sat in that same vehicle the following days, snapping photos in the same fashion of wildlife that I started to register the stark and uncomfortable similarities between the two situations. Somehow, without intending it, I had gone from great explorer on a grand exploration to Dictator atop my palanquin utterly separated and detached from the local people who I was there to meet. True, I was there, but in this instance it would be far more accurate to say I was in actuality just seeing them, not truly meeting them.

Amazing Local Thai Food Just Off Khao San Road in Bangkok

One of my absolute must-dos for Bangkok was to sync up with fellow Arizonan expat, and travel foodie master blogger and YouTube sensation Mark Wiens of Migrationology. His food updates from Asia over the last few years have inspired me, and left my mouth hankering for a visit to Southeast Asia. Of the various folks who inspired me to make the trip to Asia and got me VERY excited about eating my way across the region, the two at the forefront were Mark (Migrationology) and Jodi (Legal Nomads).

So, when it turned out Mark was going to be in town and free to grab a quick meal, I was thrilled. After a meetup down in the Khao San Road area, we set out to find and introduce me to some fantastic local Thai eats.

The place Mark and his lovely wife/co-camera woman took me to was situated about 5 minutes walk from the tourist district, fully authentic and situated at roughly at 243 Phra Sumen Rd.

We settled in and I left the ordering to them. What followed was a mouth-watering, aromatic, eye watering, flame breathing culinary adventure and intro to a number of new dishes I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore yet.

It was good, it was fresh, at times it was spicy and just like a good dish always inspires, I was left struggling not to pick up and lick every plate along the way.

I also learned some great advice and wisdom: Know all those veggies in many Thai soups? They’re there mostly for flavoring, not consumption. Turns out, all these years, I’ve essentially been eating the equivalent of the garnish and wondering why it was so intense and pallet annihilating.

So, without further adieu, here’s Mark introducing the dishes we tried. For more bite-by-bite introductions to amazing foods from the region hit up Mark’s blog. Even if you’re not a food person, you’re going to find yourself watching more than a few videos.

 

Follow Mark at Migrationology or jump straight to his YouTube Channel.

You can also see Mark and Andrew Zimmern take on Bangkok’s food scene here in his video here.

The Stupid Myths We Believe as Western Travelers Time and Time Again

I’m narrowing in on accomplishing a major life goal on my bucket list. Before I turn 31 my aim is to have visited 50 countries…and yet, fresh back from my 45th, 46th, and 47th, I’ve just had a profoundly eye-opening and humbling experience. I had, once again, ignored the lesson I’ve learned time and time again, and bought into/believed the enormous pile of bullshit I’ve been fed by the western travel narrative about non-western destinations.

Worse than that, I realized quite vividly that I’d been gobbling down, consuming, and allowing myself to be poisoned by said bullshit for years. I always get annoyed when people tell me they can’t travel because it’s unsafe (my chances of getting robbed, stabbed, shot, or killed are far worse in Arizona than when wandering Europe) or when I read announcements like the US’s recent worldwide terror alert which only served to scare people while delivering virtually none of the context needed or adding any real value. But, the real truth highlighted for me time and time again is that I buy into my own version of this nonsense. The part that really pisses me off about the whole thing is that it keeps me from embracing amazing experiences, makes me stand-offish, much more conservative in my approach when I start, and adds bucket-loads of anxiety.

AsiaBlogPost-2916

I’ve talked about misconceptions a few times in the past, such as how wrong my preconceptions about Turkey were, or my African travel fears series looking at how Africa wasn’t nearly the life-threatening-bodily traumatizing disaster adventure I had anticipated. But unfortunately, I still hadn’t learned my lesson.  I’m going to do my best after my latest trip to really finally internalize this lesson and hope you’ll all join me in identifying, acknowledging, and then utterly dismissing the stories and nonsense that we’re spoon fed. It’s also worth noting that I think travel bloggers, myself included, bear some of the responsibility for perpetuating these myths.

As some long-term readers will know, up until two weeks ago, I had never been to Eastern Asia. While this is a very common and popular region for many travelers, especially budget travelers, it has for a long time been my “dark region” in that I had never been. Why? There are a number of factors which range from simple fear, lack of interest, cost, and then desire to protect and cherish the novelty. What do I mean?

  • Fear: Simply put, the Asia I had built in my mind was a very alien place where getting around using English would be difficult, where everything would be deeply exotic, and where even the most basic of daily activities would be challenging. Add to that a fear of a large amount of human and animal suffering. It was a part of the world I always had very mixed feelings about.
  • Lack of Interest: When I was younger I had a very strong interest in Greco-Roman and Medieval history. I find for many young people, tend to be drawn in strongly by Asia or Europe, while others sort out to Latin America, or Africa to a lesser extent. There were elements of ancient history in these other regions that offered passing interest, but beyond that I felt minimal draw. I felt their history was somewhat uninteresting, was not enamored from a cultural dating perspective, and had only minimal interest in cultural creations like anime and food.  As I’ve traveled more, learned more history, been exposed to more culture, and pivoted more to an interest in food, much of this has changed and Asia has increasingly grown in appeal and draw.
  • Cost: This is an odd one, as SEA (Southeast Asia) has always been extremely popular because of its relatively low cost areas. It’s why regions such as Vietnam and Thailand are thick with travel bloggers and has been a major tourist draw for decades. But, the flights from the US were usually fairly significant and even once I got to Denmark, prices and availability when I looked at SEA as a destination never seemed to work out. In 2010 I almost booked a trip to Thailand but, at the last minute, opted for South America (Argentina) instead based on pricing. Had the other factors mentioned in this section not also been weighing on me, perhaps I would have prioritized it.  Never the less I didn’t and the rest is history.
  • Novelty: This is a tricky one to convey. I’ve written in the past about how important it is to travel and experience things NOW in THIS MOMENT because the destination will change and evolve just as you do. You will never see or experience a place the same way as you would have if you went now and the more we travel and are exposed to, the more our relationship with novelty and novel cultures evolves. Globally, if we stereotype regional cultures down to geo-cultural macro-groups there are regions that share some (albeit very limited) cultural characteristics. As my travels took me to different continents and exposed me to different cultures, I felt a shred of sadness as the fear, novelty, excitement and sense of pure discovery that came from exploring an entirely new culture faded away. As I got a taste of Europe, Central America, South America, the Middle East, and Africa, I felt as though the last great region to explore and discover became Asia and perhaps as a separate entity Eastern Eurasia and India. While I still have an enormous amount of exploration, discovery and novel cultural exploration to do in all of these areas, I found myself keeping Asia to the side as one of my quasi-last opportunities for that utter sense of the unknown.

But, this winter I decided it was time to explore. I opted for a teaser trip to SEA which started purely by coincidence in Ho Chi Mihn Vietnam. Somehow I would then touch base in Cambodia’s Siem Reap region to see Angkor Wat, and then terminate from Bangkok with a few days in either the north or south to explore. This was far too much ground to cover properly in 19 days, but the goal was to test the waters, explore a bit, see how I coped, and if I liked it/where I wanted to go back.

AsiaBlogPost-0310

The Myths

I mentioned that for years I’d been very resistant to a visit to SEA because of different fear-based factors. Eventhough I ultimately found these to be greatly exaggerated, that is not to say that if you go into rural areas, have bad luck, or are in the heart of a heavy tourist area some of these won’t hold some truth, but they are far from the prevalent, unavoidable, and highly experientially potent experiences we’ve been led to believe.

A UNESCO Filled Return to Hamburg – Come Follow Along!

In the midst of a beautiful hot, humid and record setting July in 2010 I found myself sitting on a sweltering train (inside a large ferry) headed across the channel from Denmark to Germany on my way to Hamburg. What followed was a very pleasant whirlwind tour through a city that struck me as being far more charming and rich in history and culture than I had expected.  In my preliminary post back then about Hamburg, you get a sense for the positive opinion of the city I was left with and what, I believe, will be an exciting insight into how much the city has changed in fun and exciting ways in the past five short years.

In truth, I’m shocked when I consider that it has been five years. I’ve often toyed with a return trip to Hamburg, but have only recently started re-visiting and exploring the areas close to my home-base here in Copenhagen.  Over the last year I’ve run into Hamburg repeatedly.  It all started with a NYE trip good friends took last year, which I was unable to attend, but which left me listening to grand stories of amazing adventures. Then once again as friends re-located to Hamburg and sang its praises.  Then even more recently during a series of events here in Copenhagen that touted the many exciting things going on in Hamburg. At the event I was reminded that Hamburg has now progressed fairly far into the construction of their fascinating Elbe Philharmonic Hall project, a captivating project that was only beginning to take shape during my initial visit. Even more importantly, earlier this year, the city’s Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus were named as UNESCO World Heritage sites. While I brushed up against these parts of the city in my initial visit, as a bit of a UNESCO World Heritage addict, I made a mental note that I’d definitely be heading back for a more in-depth exploration.

The Black Sun – Ribe – HD Video

Twice a year for several weeks the Wadden Sea National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the surrounding area of Southern Jutland in Denmark is inundated by more than 14 million birds.  The birds flock to the region during their migration from all across Europe.  Luckily for the birds, it seems that the French Starlings have no problem effortlessly coordinating their complex movements alongside British and German Starlings. The result are massive boiling balls of Starlings that act and look very similar to massive fish bait balls in the sea.

The footage in this clip was taken in so-so weather (light rain) on October the 17th in the wetland/fielded area that sits right alongside (essentially inside) the town of Ribe.  The fact that you can view this many birds directly in the heart of Ribe is definitely one of the coolest parts about the experience and makes it very convenient, especially given you only have two chances (sunrise and sunset) to see the birds congregate and swarm.

The Spirit of the Moment

I’m thrilled to share that VirtualWayfarer just passed 1,000,000 views on YouTube (I’m so incredibly humbled and flattered – you are all amazing!). To celebrate, I decided to dive into my video archives, sort through the footage I’ve accrued over the past six years, pull out some favorite shots and to create a travel tribute video exploring and embracing snippets from some of the incredible adventures I’ve had over the past few years.  The result is just under 15 minutes of some of my favorite HD footage and spans 19 countries.

To go with the footage I pulled up a chair, sat down, and attempted to explore the lessons I’ve learned from travel.  The result is a heartfelt exploration of life, travel, and the magic of the road.  In it, I attempt to share some of the more significant lessons I’ve learned from travel, offer some advice, and aspire to convey the sense of ever-increasing wonder I have at the richness of the world at large.

It’s a smudge long, but the feedback has been that the combination of the footage and some of the ideas expressed in the monologue make it well worth the watch.  I hope you’ll take the time to give it a watch and then to share some of your own revelations or grand adventures. At the end of the day, travel and the opportunity to embrace the spirit of the moment is a wondrous thing.

Thank you all so, so, much for continuing to read (and watch!) VirtualWayfarer, offer your feedback, share your special moments, questions, and passion with me. I’m profoundly humbled and flattered by the messages you share with me and that you find my stories, photography, and video interesting.

Some have asked about the quality differences given clips were filmed over 6+ years – footage was shot on a mixture of devices. The earliest footage was filmed on an old Flip HD 720p handheld cam. Other footage was taken on a Vixia HF200. More recent footage was taken on a Canon 600D and a Canon 6D.  Video didn’t load properly?  View it here.

A Road Trip Through Denmark in Fall

If you crack a guidebook for Copenhagen you’ll find a number of great (and not so great) suggestions.  Everything from a visit to The Little Mermaid (yuck) to the incredible vista out over the Sand Buried Lighthouse or Skagen’s world famous light. One thing missing is a suggestion to see Denmark, in Fall, as the leaves change.  This past fall I had the pleasure of, mostly by happenstance, taking a week-long road trip with family through Denmark at the end of October. The results were a complete, and utterly enchanting, surprise.  Of course, if you’re somewhere with four distinct seasons, the beauty of fall is a given.  But, there are some places that are better equipped to charm your socks off and, after my road trip, I’ll happy add Denmark to that list.

What makes it special? A large portion of the Danish countryside uses buried power lines. Fences are also usually less-than-blatant, or artfully done where present. This creates rolling farmland, with fresh fall/winter cover crops sprouting (or blooming), with a sporadic mixture of small stands of trees and large forests. The forests themselves range in density and plant life fairly significantly throughout the Danish landscape. With a wealth of islands, exposed coasts, and inland lakes Denmark’s forests are also typically heavily blended with many types of trees thrust together in a veritable tree-bouquet that adds rich texture, depth, and in fall a brilliant array of colors.  All of which is dotted by small one and a half lane country roads, brilliant coast line, charming old farm houses many of which are brightly colored and have thatched rooftops…and then of course, brilliantly hygge historical Danish towns.

If you’re visiting Denmark from abroad, another great incentive is that depending on how and where you book, the country which is famous for its 180% tax on new vehicles has tax-free rentals specifically available for visiting foreigners which results in drastically reduced rental prices and in many cases unlimited mileage. These rentals require that you and your drivers don’t live in Denmark and are not Danish citizens. If you meet these criteria, renting a car suddenly becomes a very affordable way to see the country.

So, without further adieu, here is a mixture of color photos taken during my week-long road trip through Denmark, including visits to the island of Fyn, Sjaelland, and Jutland. Don’t miss the full album on flickr here.

The Back Roads of Jutland