Older blog entries for quad (starting at number 336)

Before You Leave

A year ago, I quit my safe and secure life to see a bit of the world. And where our reasonable degree of patience thankfully prohibits a retrospective, I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned. But, please don’t mistake any of the following as authoritative. Well after global oil reserves deplete, the ozone layer dissipates, and the polar ice caps melt away, we’ll still have no shortage of travel advice.

So, before you leave...

Pack light

Palomita In My Backpack (2)

Baggage, in both the physical and emotional sense, is the biggest impediment to new experiences.

Gap years and other periods of life transition are great times to get up and go. When bonds with home are weakest. Significant others, beginning a career, and tackling the financial responsibilities of adult life are the biggest blockers for the young. As time goes on the complexity grows.

Shed or delay those obligations. A minute spent mentally at home takes away hours engaging in the foreign.

Instead, the important duties are keeping your wits, safeguarding your passport, and judiciously spending your money. Those three build upon each other. Anything else can be obtained and any other problem can be solved from them.

Of course, a good backpack doesn’t hurt. But everything past those key three is debatable, because nothing else is strictly necessary.

(What is my minimum? Two changes of clothes, a towel, toiletries, shoes, a water bottle, a sleeping bag, a mess kit, a rain jacket, a camera, a notebook with pens, a deck of cards, and a book.)

Bank smart

The ATM obsoleted the once ubiquitous traveller’s check. But the average checking account has a fee structure crafted to cheat any customer with behaviour outside the norm. This can include an overhead for withdrawing via a third-party, a percentage on exchanging into foreign currency, and a monthly charge for out of country transactions. Research ahead of time!

Plastic money (project365 - 17/365)

Credit unions, virtual banks and institutions that cater to migrant populations (e.g. military families) provide excellent services for wandering tourists.

Regardless of your chosen depositary, forewarn them with an exact itinerary. Then find and save their overseas access numbers. Overzealous fraud departments have a tendency to inconveniently disable cards.

In the end, the best preparation against financial trouble is having options; multiple accounts with multiple cards. Link them together to easily move money where and when it’s needed.

(Which banks? ING and USAA. Additionally, a group of banks including Bank of America, Barclays, BNP Paribas, China Construction Bank, Deutsche Bank, Santander Serfin, Scotiabank, and Westpac all waive interchange fees with each other.)

Fly cheap

A one-way ticket between any two major hubs is around $1,000. Keep that much in savings for an emergency. But, getting out should cost a fraction of that.

Use Kayak. It’s the flight finder of the moment. Sign-up for a free account to use their flexible dates feature and check full weeks at a once. Plan at least a month in advance. And don’t bother searching past the window after which prices level off.


Check regional carriers for special deals. In the US, both Southwest and Virgin reserve their lowest fares for website purchases. In the same vein, Emirates wants people laying over in Dubai. RyanAir is a notorious budget carrier in Europe. And EgyptAir took me from Cairo to Istanbul.

Some countries require proof of onward transit and sufficient finances. Or, more often, the airlines require proof as they bear the cost of deportation. Use timatic to find out entry requirements the same way as the carriers. Still, it’s always best to get a visa ahead of time. It’s always worst to buy a refundable ticket and cancel it upon arrival.

(Really, avoid flying. Going overland is far more rewarding.)

Read ahead

Buy a good guidebook. It will be a knowledgeable companion and an unfailing lifesaver. A handy reference for history, highlights, and maps. It’s also the best way to meet other owners of the same guidebook.

Encadré (Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro)

Before going anywhere, exercise due diligence and read up on both Wikipedia and Wikitravel. The latter is far less comprehensive than any good guidebook. But, it’s more up-to-date and is full of odd bits of knowledge.

The Centers for Disease Control and Travel Health Online publish worldwide health information. Get appropriately vaccinated! And carry at least a month’s worth of medication.

If there’s danger, the State Department will know all about it. And notifying them about any imprudent plans will earn a subscription to a Warden mailing list. Pro is advanced notice of the best parties and protests, con is continued notice months after leaving.

Join CouchSurfing. It isn’t requisite to offer up your home, and neither to crash with perfect strangers. Even for the less adventurous, the website is a trove of information. There are groups, forums and events for every sort of traveller in any spot. Helpful members and community ambassadors love to be instrumental in successful journeys.

Ultimately, no source is better than a local.

(Lonely Planet.)

Thanks to Geneva Drouin for reading drafts and suggesting health resources.

Syndicated 2010-01-28 18:25:35 (Updated 2010-01-28 20:29:05) from David Ryland Scott Robinson

Yer know wot I did.

I apologize for all my past rants with regard to “toward” vs. “towards.”

And I’ll even go a step further. As my misguided attempt at prescription called out my American English dialect, I might even start obeying my dictionary and use words like “color” and “specialize.”

Yes. Maybe.

Syndicated 2010-01-09 06:09:24 (Updated 2010-01-09 06:11:48) from David Ryland Scott Robinson

Always to the south.

It's midnight in George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Sam just returned from his fruitless search for food and has settled to watching YouTube lambastings of Dragon's Lair. Eight more hours until we board Continental Flight #1024 destined for la Ciudad de México.

We've slipped in to the dark night of the soul.

The plan is to overland southbound until the Darién Gap, learn Spanish, and— finally— cross into South America.

I'm giving up the Internet. So, don't waste any time sending me your address for a postcard!

I'll finish the travel blog. Later. From my journals.

Syndicated 2009-12-31 08:32:30 from David Ryland Scott Robinson

18 Dec 2009 (updated 18 Dec 2009 at 21:05 UTC) »

Pagerank is an experiential reality from an existential crisis

It’s been a while since Vienna. Even longer since New Zealand. And, it will be even a while more until the Darién Gap.

I missed you.

This mixtape is a kind of love letter. After coming home, my most important task became reconnecting with my friends. Each of these songs hit rotation because I was enjoying them with someone.

Sadly, due to a hard drive crash, there was one very important track that went missing...

Syndicated 2009-12-18 12:44:23 (Updated 2009-12-18 20:27:11) from David Ryland Scott Robinson

It was night when I finally arrived to Podgorica. The SIM card...

It was night when I finally arrived to Podgorica.

The SIM card that the Vodafone representative in Istanbul promised would work in Serbia and Montenegro didn’t. So, I had been out of contact with Mira until one of the Grandmothers in the train loaned me her mobile. Not a smart idea for a random guy arriving in an unknown city.

Fortunately, ProMonte is on top of things and has Tourist SIMs for sale at every kiosk. I rang Mira in short order. She picked up (yay!), was with her boyfriend (yay!) and would pick me up in a half-hour or so (yay!).

I was totally unprepared for the grade of hospitality that I was about to be given.

Syndicated 2009-12-13 12:35:54 from David Ryland Scott Robinson

I needn't have packed food for my train to Montenegro.

My cabin-mates were a group of four Grandmothers and one surly looking young man. I sat in the line of fire of a social interaction that transcends cultures: a gossip circle. But, as my position became more awkward, I “relented” and offered to swap spots with adjacent lady in the window seat.

I’m so gracious.

Of course, now I was a legitimate conversation topic and target. My Serbian was non-existent at this point, but one of the women spoke a few words of English. Between hand signs, small words, and my woeful but rapidly expanding phrasebook, we exchanged stories. The ladies were all returning from visiting their respective families. And, the woman who spoke some English had learned it to teach her son, who was now living abroad and doing well for himself— in part— thanks to her early tutoring.

Eventually, I stopped being interesting, and we resumed our former activities. The Grandmothers chatting over their knitwork. The surly young man and I watching the countryside descend into breathtaking mountain passes.

I alternated between dozing and counting tunnels. On their walls were white Charlie Brown zig-zag patterns. The base of the waves were inset cubbies I decided were for emergencies.

The Grandmothers were clearly veteran riders. Every couple hours, they would reach into their bags or stowed luggage to produce sandwiches. The first time, I took this as a reminder to munch on my own dwindling leftovers. But, I was surprised in short order by a proffered meal!

For the remainder of the trip, I was forcibly stuffed like a piñata. My adopted family had decided I was too helpless to be left to fend for myself. And, after bidding farewell to each woman at her stop, the last and I disembarked and hugged partings at Podgorica.

Syndicated 2009-12-12 12:35:56 from David Ryland Scott Robinson

I snapped this photo because I recognized the icon but...

I snapped this photo because I recognized the icon but couldn’t quite place it.

Shortly after uploading the photo to Flickr, a friend of mine tagged it.


Syndicated 2009-12-11 12:35:56 from David Ryland Scott Robinson

The morning train to Montenegro departed five minutes before I...

The morning train to Montenegro departed five minutes before I arrived in Belgrade. I hadn’t planned on exploring; but, who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth?

Back in Sofia, I had cached a map with an overview of the city center. I knew where I was, and I knew where the Kalemegdan was.


I can do north.

The city awoke around me as I walked and watched day begin to break. I ascended on the switchbacked paths and passed through the fortress gates. Finally, I climbed the northern wall that overlooked the Danube.

Then I napped on my backpack.

I was startled back into consciousness by a park warden politely informing me that I couldn’t sleep there. As there were bums dozing in nearby benches, I figured he was just worried about me falling to my death.

Syndicated 2009-12-10 12:35:55 from David Ryland Scott Robinson

Graffiti at the Belgrade tram depot.

Graffiti at the Belgrade tram depot.

Syndicated 2009-12-09 12:35:56 from David Ryland Scott Robinson

I stepped off the train in Sofia and was promptly hustled by a...

I stepped off the train in Sofia and was promptly hustled by a tout.

Two other backpackers and I were searching for international ticketing. Over my half-hearted objections, we accepted the “help” of a man dressed in what passed as a maintenance staff uniform. He guided us and politely demanded a tip.

From using touts as an instrument of abuse upon my travel-mate, to coughing up currency to—frankly — a second-class act. I was so embarrassed. But, I smiled and looked thankful.

Regardless, reservation in hand, I strode out of the dark station and in to the day-lit city of Sofia.

My time limit was nine hours, 50 Bulgarian lev was split between two pockets, and I had no travel guide, But, there was a solid plan fixed in my mind. Two words: ride buses.

I beelined for the transit kiosk and used sign language to purchase a day-pass. (Show the brochure for bus passes. Point at your watch, then use your hands in the air to indicate 24-hours. Realize the kind lady sold you the wrong ticket. Try again while smiling and look thankful!) Then, after photographing a map of the transit system, hopped on the first bus that goes out of the city.

The city center is stylish and modern. It takes a few miles before you’re in communist-era concrete highrises. Another mile, the end the line, and it’s green fields. I lounged in the sun until I was hungry. Rode back to the city and went to the grocery store to make a sandwich.

It was in Sofia that I first encountered the European style tagging of produce. You put your fresh foods in a bag, weigh it, enter an item code on adjacent terminal, and an adhesive ticket is printed. I watched other people do this, and as I was about to tag my green peppers the security guard ran up and did it for me.

His facial expression and body language indicated that he expected me to be confused. I smiled and looked thankful.

The checkout girl flirted with me. She liked my hair. I smiled and looked thankful.

Rode to the city center on the presumption there would be a park. There was. Lounged around and finished both “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “A Hundred Years of Solitude.” Out of books, again.

Chatted with a nice young man from city who was incredulous that I wanted to vacation here. Then we took turns playing WWE SmackDown vs. Raw on his mobile and watching beautiful young women pushing children in strollers.

Finally, with an hour remaining, and I excused myself to catch my train. He said it was nice to talk with an American, I said it was nice to talk with a Bulgarian. We both smiled and looked thankful.

Met back up with my backpacker friends. They had a rushed day seeing the cathedral, visiting a museum, and eating at local restaurants. I had no worries and a half-eaten sandwich.

You know what I did.

Syndicated 2009-12-08 12:35:55 from David Ryland Scott Robinson

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