Spending Wisely

Not the moderate $80-per-night lodging I chose in Phuket.

As you begin to plan a trip, one of your first considerations may be budget. Unless you’re a part of the lucky elite who live and travel without a thought for money, you’ll likely have to work within some kind of limit. Does this mean you can’t have fun and enjoy travel? Not at all. One of the keys is choosing where to spend your money—and where not to spend it.

On a recent trip, I had a two-night layover on the resort island of Phuket in Thailand. I had to find accommodations, not a small task, as Phuket has upwards of 5,000 hotels/guesthouses/rentals. I was dreaming of an ultra-luxury resort, the kind you see in ads, with poolside teak bungalows, uniformed waiters delivering drinks to cabanas on a private beach, Thai massage in sublime surrounding, and lotus blossoms floating in the toilet. Thailand is—relatively speaking—cheap, so I could afford the kind of place I could never visit otherwise. Besides, I was only there for two nights, so why not splurge?

But on further thought, I realized this was not a good use of money. I would be arriving late on the first day, so wouldn’t have a chance to really enjoy the place. Maybe the lotus blossoms in the toilet, but not much else. I would be leaving early on the last day, so, again, not much time to play. That left me with one full day. Whatever luxury I enjoyed on that one day, would it be worth the hundreds of dollars it would cost me to book two nights?

Would I really have a massage? Would I want a cabana on the beach? Would I order drinks? Would it be significantly less pleasurable to walk a few metres to the pool instead of jumping in from the bedroom door?

Other factors came into play: were there other, comfortable and clean, if not luxurious, places to stay that offered facilities I really would use? Yup. These were the final two nights of a long trip through Thailand. I knew I would be tired and want to be away from crowds and noise. For convenience, I wanted to be fairly close to the airport.

In the end, I chose a small, locally-owned guesthouse for under $80 that had good reviews and everything I needed for a pleasant two-night stay. I figured I could buy a lotus blossom and throw it in the toilet if the mood hit me.

I can better justify spending big bucks on accommodations that offer something I can’t get anywhere else, or are situated in remote locales. The year we visited Namibia’s Etosha National Park—one of my bucket-list destinations—the park opened up a vast new area previously closed to tourists. The only way to visit this area was to book at their exclusive camp, Dolomite. The camp offers accommodations in permanent safari tents and has a small pool and restaurant. Comfy but not nearly worth the high price tag. I booked because I really wanted to experience that part of the park. As they say: location, location, location.

I feel the same about food and drink when I travel. Generally, I don’t seek out expensive or gourmet food because I just don’t appreciate it enough.* I’m happy to eat simpler fare in humble surroundings. I know this about myself. But when circumstances demand it—like I’m stuck in a lodge with only one, overpriced, restaurant, or I’m thirsty and the only drinks available are selling for three or four times the retail value—I don’t deny myself to economize.

My point is that sometimes you do have to make hard choices about money when you travel. Maybe you just can’t swing the cost of both the deluxe hotel and front-row tickets to that hot Broadway show, and you have to choose. Many times, though, if you examine the options closely, you might find that what you think you want is based more on glossy advertising and other people’s fantasies than your own preferences. Know yourself and understand what truly makes you travel-happy and you’ll be able to dole out your hard-earned cash when and where it counts most.

*Chocolate excepted, of course.

Where do you choose to spend your travel dollar? Luxury resorts with 5-star service? Remote locations? Unusual activities? All-inclusives? First-class airline tickets? Expensive souvenirs? Stupendous food? I’d love to hear about it, so leave a comment.

Morning Has Broken

Image source: easybackpacker.com

From my sixth-floor picture window in the Sheraton Royal Orchid, I am watching dawn come to the Chao Phraya river.

Late into the night, it was filled with brightly lit party cruises, neon pink, electric blue, sunlit wat gold, decks given over to the ultimate hedonism of dancing “The YMCA” upon a waterway both ancient and venerable. Some things are just universal in time and space.

The dockside was crammed with tourists and locals seeking food, fun, or friends–usually all three.

Then, for a few hours, it was dark and quiet, except for the occasional tug and barges on a stealth run.

As the faintest of light arrives, the first commuter ferry departs from the dock below. I hear piercing marmot-like whistles that I take for the calls of magpies, but which I later discover are the code the aft boatmen use to call instructions to the steersmen.

Sounding a bit like a white-crowned sparrow, the earliest bird commences its song.

Boats of diverse types begin to ply the water. The infamous longtails, narrow, painted in vivid colours, dart here and there like cormorants. The local ferries, plump ovoids of yellow or red-orange, bob their way back and forth. The fast ferries, larger, sleeker, and assertively pointed, cut through the water purposefully. Their destinations are indicated with coloured flags, an ingenious solution for a system where many of the users can neither read nor understand Thai. “Does this boat go to …?” The conductor meets all inquiries from confused foreigners the same way: “Go inside! Go inside!” she shrieks impatiently. Clearly, if the boat doesn’t go where you’re going, it’s no concern of hers.

Working ships of indeterminate industry chug by. Tiny bright orange speedboats–Safety vessels? River police?–buzz among the busyness.

In one boat, a woman wearing a broad-brimmed bamboo hat wields a net. Ah, a picturesque Thai fisher, no doubt following centuries of family tradition. No: look again. She’s scooping up garbage from the never-ending supply that rides the brown water. Is she paid by the city to do this, or does she do it to sell what she can: bottles, plastics, who knows what else she finds? The river travels a long way and encounters many things before it arrives here in Bangkok.

Above, a flock of cattle egrets, their white bodies reflecting the strengthening sun, fly by on their way to feed. Over the city buildings, a few wat spires and one church tower compete with electronic aerials for extreme verticality.

As the morning warms, swifts dodge and twist in pursuit of insects.

I reflect on how many people, both today and for centuries past, live or have lived most of their days on and around this river. Locals still fish off hidden piers and between the giant luxury hotels, tumbledown shacks cling to their piece of the shore, drying laundry sharing space with family shrines on the soggy, rotted porches. Well-used canals branch off to other residential areas, to painted wats with steps washed by the water, to still spaces filled with mats of floating lilies.

But none of that can I see from my exalted tower; I am a newcomer here and until I climb down, my view is limited.

My first day in Bangkok beckons.

Do you have a favorite first impression of a place? Let me know in a comment.

We’ve Only Just Begun

My travel companions learning about First-Night Syndrome, courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.

The first 24 hours of a trip are often the most stressful. After the excitement and anticipation of planning and the bustle of packing, actually traveling to and arriving in a new place can make me want to turn around and run straight back home. I don’t know if it’s that more things can go wrong or if my capacity to deal with misadventures is particularly low as I disengage from easy routines and well-known surroundings.
I’ve had too many first nights of a trip where I lie awake listening to the unfamiliar noises, toss and turn in a bed that is too soft or too hard, inhale odd smells from a hotel pillow, and wonder why I ever left my comfortable home.

I call this “First-Night Syndrome.”

Of course, I’m always jet-lagged and have eaten little or no real food for many hours while feeling over-stimulated and exhausted at the same time, so it’s no wonder that I don’t sleep like a baby.

Sometimes, however, I have good reason for wanting to shred my passport.

Like the flight to Hawaii’s Big Island with extended family on one of my least-favourite carriers, Hawaiian Airlines. I’ve had enough bad experiences with Hawaiian that I’ve begun to suspect that the staff are all members of some underground organization dedicated to the goal of eradicating tourism in their state. On this trip, we had the cross-Pacific leg from Vancouver to Oahu and then the short hop across to Kona on Hawaii. We had an hour between flights, which was plenty of time to make the connection. All seemed to be going well until we approached Honolulu, when the pilot announced that due to the U.S. vice-president boarding a jet in the airport, all flights in and out were on hold. We circled Oahu for half an hour.

I told the flight attendant we had a connection to make and asked if there would be a problem; she reassured me. I didn’t see her fingers crossed behind her back.

As soon as we disembarked, we raced for the departure gate, arriving while the plane was still boarding. However, as the check-in agent coolly informed us, we would not be permitted to board—despite having valid tickets and being right there at the gate—because our luggage still needed to be transferred. I was stunned at this level of ineptitude. Although the entire airport had been on lock-down while the VP wended his merry way through, and every incoming flight had been delayed by half an hour, no one in Hawaiian Airlines had considered that this would mean passengers and luggage would naturally be arriving late for connecting flights, and perhaps some provision should be made for this.

The clincher in this situation was that ours was the last Honolulu-Kona flight of the day, so we were not being delayed, we were being stranded in the airport until the next morning.

After I suggested that, as the late flight was not our fault, and as the airline was well aware of the issue before we showed up, it was probably their responsibility to solve the problem, I was told that if I continued to argue, they would call security. Well done, Hawaiian: I commend you on your customer service training. This agent had aced How to Frustrate and Threaten Clients 101.

In the end, five tired people spent the night in moderate discomfort. The seating in Honolulu Airport is deliberately designed to preclude the possibility of an exhausted traveler lying prone, so I stretched out on the only non-floor area I could find, the cold and very hard narrow concrete shelf surrounding the plants. As I dozed there in some awkward and bruising position, the automatic sprinkler system switched itself on and I was duly watered.

It was a miserable “first night” of travel, just one of many I’ve chalked up. I try to remember that first nights are soon past and the rest of the trip can still be wonderful, if I don’t allow a bad beginning to ruin it. First mornings in a new place can be glorious, as when I woke up in Cairns, Australia, at sunrise to the sound and sight of hundreds of white cockatoos flying into the trees around the hotel. Or the first morning of a long-ago vacation in Hilo, when my companion and I opened our eyes to a huge picture window looking over the tropical ocean with early-morning surfers riding the waves, tinged pink from the rising sun.

Challenging circumstances can also create bonding: when you endure a bad first night along with travel buddies, if you’re lucky, the shared wretchedness creates a unity you might not achieve through many easy, fun days spent together. You gain new respect (or not) for someone based on how they come through the situation. On that not-soon-to-be-forgotten night in Honolulu, I learned that both my sister and my niece are cheerful and intrepid souls in the face of adversity. Good to know.

With the wisdom of age, I’m now able to step back and recognize the symptoms. Whether a disastrous beginning is just a case of nerves or the result of travel gone awry, I remind myself that I’m in the clutches of First-Night Syndrome, that I can get through it, and that the dawn will almost certainly usher in a fresh start to another—happier—adventure.

Thank you, National Geographic

My photo on the cover of National Geographic! (Okay, I admit, I PhotoShopped it–but it IS a photo from my first trip to Africa.)

I grew up with National Geographic. My father subscribed to the magazine for many years—the only magazine we did subscribe to, BTW. Dad even compiled his own index to the issues, cross-referenced by subject, date, and what else, I don’t know. As a very young child, I saw him at his beat-up wooden desk, meticulously entering the information in a duotang with his precise engineer’s printing, using a pencil, no less. That was, perhaps, the first lesson I learned from Dad’s relationship with NG: that the information was precious and worth organizing so that you could return to it again and again.

Return to those magazines I did; when I was ill and stayed home from elementary school, I would creep to the bookshelf and take down a half-dozen copies to have in bed with me. Peppermint tea, Vicks VapoRub, and NG.

I didn’t read every article, although I did read many. But I did pour over every photo in those thick, glossy pages. Maybe I’m looking back through the rose-coloured glasses of childhood now, but I remember the photos as spectacular, marvellous, intriguing, thought-provoking, sometimes even stunning. To me, they set the bar for photography for the rest of my life. Fifty years later, when I see a photo with that wow factor, my first thought is still, “That’s a National Geographic shot!”

As I grew older, I read more of the text and I’m sure that NG’s clean, well-edited, journalistic style started me on the path to being a non-fiction editor and writer. The photos caught your eye and engaged your emotions; the words gave you the background and story. I met Goodall and Heyerdahl, Tutankhamun and the Leakey clan.

I dreamed of being a NG photographer or writer: that was the pinnacle.

Then there were the National Geographic television specials, broadcast during my childhood maybe four times a year. When we saw the ads announcing an upcoming NG special, the excitement would start to build in our household. On the night, the whole family would gather around the TV. I can still feel the old thrill every time I hear the iconic NG music with its pounding percussion and triumphant horns. The World of Jacque-Yves Cousteau, 1966. Amazon, 1968. Search for the Great Apes, 1976. Etosha: Place of Dry Water, 1981.

I imagined the African sun on my back as I patiently stalked lions, or the boredom of waiting in a hide for days to get a unique shot. I excavated tombs and dove the oceans for shipwreck treasure. I met cannibals and climbed castle walls.

It has only been recently that I really began to reflect on how much all of this has influenced my life. Why do certain destinations and experiences call to me? Why do I love to photograph animals and birds? Are all my travels merely attempts to live out childhood fantasies?

There is no question in my mind now that National Geographic has shaped my world view. If so, I can think of far worse mentors. Opening my eyes to the color, complexity, mysteries, and magic of places outside my small community was a priceless gift from all the scientists, writers, photographers, and filmmakers who poured their passion and talent into NG. I thank them, and I thank you, National Geographic. Long may you inspire.

Did you grow up with NG magazines or documentaries? What was your favourite article, photo, or show? Let me know in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

Talk May Be Cheap, But Travel Talk is Beyond Price

I love it when people share their travel experiences with me.

I have read that the Internet is replacing one-on-one discussions with those you actually know in favour of anonymous opinions online. Probably it’s true that when Jill wants to get more information about a movie or a restaurant, instead of phoning James to hear what he has to say, she likely turns to Google. It’s fast, it’s free, and hey, 1,257 reviews by total strangers can’t be wrong, right?

I admit that I read those 1,257 reviews, too (okay, maybe not all of them). But I value the reports from my friends and even from casual acquaintances much higher and I take the trouble to seek them out.

On a recent trip, I spent 20 minutes with a taxi driver as he conveyed me to the airport. As often happens, he was an immigrant and quite happy to talk about his homeland, Croatia. As he described the blue of the Adriatic Sea, the historic streets of Dubrovnic, and the beauty of the islands, I was captivated. I had never thought about visiting that area before, but now, I was eager to learn more.

By coincidence, I soon had two more chances to share the experiences of people who were familiar with Croatia. At a dinner party, I met another immigrant who, with a little encouragement, was equally eager to rhapsodize about his native country. Following that, I met up with some friends who, I remembered, had travelled through eastern Europe recently. Had they visited Croatia? Yes, indeed, they had, and the conversation revolved around their impressions (also favourable).

By asking a simple question or two, I can open up a world of first-hand knowledge and experience.

So have you travelled anywhere recently?

What’s your favourite place that you’ve travelled to?

Were you born here? Tell me about the place where you grew up.

From the ensuing discussion, I learn much more than I can from online reviews.

First of all, people that you speak to face-to-face will almost certainly be honest. Anonymous online reports, not so much. They should always be taken with a grain of salt, because you never know whether a review has been posted by someone who was paid to say good things, or, on the other hand, by someone who holds a grudge. When you talk to someone, their genuine enthusiasm or disappointment comes through clearly.

Secondly, if it is a friend, I know that person and her or his tastes, so I can judge the information in that context. If, for example, I know Jill is a budget traveller who always seeks the least-expensive option, I’m likely to pay attention if she describes something as “value for money.” If James is the kind who likes pampering and feeling everything is taken care of for him, I might not expect him to enjoy a “roughing-it” adventure weekend in the desert that his girlfriend talked him into.

On the flip side, by listening, I learn more about my friends. How people react to travel—especially challenging situations—is very revealing. When James tells me about that adventure weekend and chuckles when describing the giant creepy-crawly in his tent, I may have to reassess my opinion of him and his travel tastes!

Finally, their experiences open my eyes to travel ideas that may never occur to me. When I go online, I have a specific destination in mind. When I talk to people, I’m open to any travel idea they care to share with me.

So talk to your friends, and even strangers, about their travels. What they have to say is—as MasterCard would put it—priceless.

Have you received a priceless piece of travel information from talking with friends or strangers? I’d love to hear about it.