On The Bus, A New Man (or, The Culmination of a Decade of Transformation)

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

How has travel changed your life? Can you pinpoint a single moment – a day, an hour, a split second – when you knew that things had changed? How did that change impact your life, both on your travels and at home?


of all things, a bus ride was my transformative moment, though i don’t think i recognized it at the time. i’ve been contemplating this blog post over the past couple days, and i can safely put my finger on the ride back from český krumlov to prague as the point at which i opened a new chapter in my life.

on the surface, yes, it was the end of a week-long trip, but beyond that, it was the culmination of a handful of disparate, yet intertwined inner changes that started nearly a decade prior.

first, some background (tl;dr: i used to be shy and had low self-esteem)

growing up, i was an introvert; in hindsight i was really insecure and overly self-conscious. that was evident in how i hated going into stores if i was the only customer there (thinking all the salespeople would be staring at me) or eating alone or, well, any sort of activity where i could be judged without the comfort and safety net of being in a group of friends.

i went out of state for college (1995) and, for the first time, starting feeling truly alive. it was there that i started emerging from my metaphorical shell. slowly but surely, i started coming into my own and being comfortable with myself. i was free from the confines of my overprotective parents (excellent parents who first introduced me to travel, but think tiger mom but with church thrown in as well) and high school (where i had a blast, but i was sheltered and pigeonholed in the nerd clique). i finished college with expanded horizons and dwindling insecurities.

over the next couple of years i flourished (heh), to the point of being probably unrecognizable (and unfathomable) to the me of a decade earlier. i learned to be myself, with no apologies.

The view from my hostel bed in Český Krumlov

fast foward to january of 2005

i’m not quite sure what all possessed me to go alone, backpacking and hosteling, at the ripe old age of 27. i think a lot had to do with the way i was feeling (and somewhat still do), that i had to reclaim a lost youth. sure, i enjoyed travel and had been to europe and india and hong kong before, but that was with family or friends, and there was still that whole college backpack around thing that eluded me. i figured a week in the czech would be a fine start. it only made sense to try a solo trip: it was what everything was building up to.

i bought a plane ticket, booked some hostels, bought a backpack, and off i went! who knew it would bloom into a passion for travel and the dawning of a new age! (ok, perhaps that’s a bit grandiose, but really, for me, it  was.)

yes. the bus ride. it was on that ride, in hindsight, since i can now connect the dots, that i proved to myself that i was my own man. i was no longer the guy who would get flushed and sweaty with just the thought of buying clothes at the gap. i triumphed, empowered and emboldened from a week alone in a foreign country, where i made friends with people i never thought i would or could be friends with, where i explored an entire city with no support system save a printout of sightseeing hotspots and a camera. from then on, i knew this was something i had to keep doing.

my seatmate on that three-hour bus ride was the girl who shared the hostel room in český krumlov with me. we talked and listened to each other’s music and laughed and it was just so different, so something i would never have done before. i was a new man.

and i discovered that the new me feeds on travel and encountering the world.

i do not lament the fact that it took me so long to begin to feel comfortable in my own skin, and i love that this continuing transformation is so tightly coupled with getting on a jet plane and discovering humanity (including my own!). the ultimate effect is that with each trip i not only learn more about the human experience, but i prove to myself that i am continually becoming a better person. both of these facets are incredibly alluring for me: there is not one day that passes where i don’t daydream about going somewhere. some might call it unhealthy, but it’s what keeps me sane.

random side note: i still remember passing by this nuclear power plant on that bus, thinking how i’ve never been so close to one before.

¡Vámonos! — Not Your Usual Transportation in Latin America

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

For week 14 of the Indie Travel Challenge, we want to hear your best Latin America transportation stories – and you get to decide what “best” means. Whether you were served champagne on an overnight bus ride or feared for your life as you biked along a dodgy trail on a steep cliff, we want to hear about it! Pictures are, of course, encouraged.


i don’t have a lot of central/south america travel under my belt — just the two countries below, but each trip had its own special “out and about” experience.

ATVing Around Puerto Vallarta

Posing in San Sebastián after riding down those dirty and dusty trails

in 2008, a bunch of us went to puerto vallarta, and my brother and cousin, who had gone ATVing in the greek isles, wanted to go out for a ride again. none of the other four of us had even been before, but i was totally game.  not ones to half-ass anything, we chose an intermediate level tour that had previous experience riding an ATV as a prerequisite. i can’t in good conscience recommend doing this, since they impose such requirements for a reason, but we put on our game faces and faked it until we made it.

we signed our lives away, got a quick introduction to how to to work an ATV, and were off! it was quite jerky pulling out of the ATV offices but i think we managed quite well (no [hard] crashes). the leader took us through the sierra madre mountains until we got to the tiny town of san sebastián del oeste (and the four of us n00bs, being uhh, complete n00bs, failed exquisitely in the tougher parts; he had to drive our vehicles for us several times). by now, i think he caught on that we probably would have taken forever to go off-road back to PV (we were already an hour or two late arriving in sebastián for lunch), so we took the highway instead. i don’t remember why, but i was hecka scared; i kept thinking i was going to lose control of my ATV and go plummeting off the side of the winding mountain road. i would have felt better going over dusty and rocky backcountry terrain!

on the way to san sebastián we stopped by a small ranch house to use the facilities and get some refreshments. there were no inhabitants except for a bunch of poultry — i’d never been so close to (live) fowl before!

we finally made it back (despite my starting to get a flat tire, but by this point we were in town already), and i loved it so much i went on another ATV ride in cambodia last year.

Subway Line A, Buenos Aires

i am a public transportation, especially subway, fanatic. i had read that there were vintage subway cars on línea A of the subte, and yes, i took a ride to nowhere and back  just to ride in them. i mean, really. wood interiors? subdued lighting? manual doors? you could just hear some old-timey jazz music playing! heritage cars ftw.

Riding in a La Brugeoise car

they are the oldest running metro cars in commercial service, dating back to the subway’s opening in 1913. unfortunately, research also shows that these la brugeoise cars are starting to be phased out of service, so get your ride on while you can! (if not, i found a video on youtube.)

Ex-Bloc Party

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

Have you traveled in Eastern Europe? What did you know about the region before visiting? If you haven’t been to Eastern Europe, what country or city appeals to you most as a place to visit? Or, more generally speaking, how much does knowing about the history of a place inspire your future travels?

first off, what is eastern europe? as a(n american) child of the ’80s, eastern europe meant a combination of poverty, communism, oppressive regimes, this iron curtain thing (which i remember thinking everyone was confused about because the berlin wall was made of concrete LOL), and goose step marches to slow, plaintive music. of course, this is the gross caricature of a pre-teen, and ha, most certainly has not been borne out in my travels to the region.

Besides (East) Germany, I've been to Estonia, the Czech Republic (twice), Hungary, and Slovenia (and passed through Croatia on a train).

in any case, given the very disparate definitions of eastern europe, i’m going to go with my perhaps-distorted notion of what eastern europe is: those countries that used to be in the eastern bloc. of those, the czech republic holds a very special place in my heart because it was the destination of my first solo trip (2005). i really didn’t know much about the area other than vague recollections of CNN broadcasts from over a decade prior, but i do remember hearing that it used to be a cool place for backpackers that had since changed from what it was in those years immediately after its bloc exit. in other words, i was late to the game. ok, fine, it may not have been the cheap backpacker haven of yesteryear, but that didn’t diminish my experience in the least, and that held true for the other former eastern bloc countries i’ve been to as well.

also, it goes without saying that these countries are just as much a part of europe (and deserve a visit) as their siblings to the west. it was pretty cool being in slovenia the year prior to its conversion to the euro (prices were marked in both tolars and euros), thinking that there was still change in the air. (speaking of change in the air, perhaps consider playing this song as the background music to this post.)

back to the question at hand: given what i knew, or thought i knew, and with the understanding that much had changed since the dissolution of the bloc, i really had no idea what to expect.

what i found was a mix of “old europe”, relics from their communist past, and modern and thriving places that are by no means second or third tier.

what i hoped to see (bloc-y)

i have an odd fascination with life under a communist regime. not that i would ever want to live in one (nor wish it on anybody, especially after going to the house of terror museum in budapest), but there is this whole “evil yet unknown” quality about it. i just knew growing up it was a bad thing, and as an adult, i want to understand it more (maybe it’s like watching a train wreck? morbid fascination/can’t look away?). plus, i’m in love with the socialist realism style of art.

Cosmonaut statue, outside Haje station (was Kosmonautů), Prague

Odd communist monument, Tallinn

Paneláky, Jižní Město (I think), outskirts of Prague

what i knew would be there (splendor from a great past)

Interior of Széchenyi Medicinal Bath, Budapest

Ljubljana

Looking across the Danube and the Chain Bridge towards Buda, Budapest

what i was pleased to discover (ongoing vibrance)

Griffin Ice Sculpture, Tallinn

Lennon Wall, Prague (though started during communist days, it constantly evolves)

Street art, Prague

i’m not done with eastern europe yet! if my september trip to georgia goes as planned, i will have a day to spend in warsaw during a layover. also, i went to graduate school with students from bulgaria, romania, and serbia and would love to visit the places they called home as well.

two random facts:

Following the Tracks

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

What is it about train travel that captivates the imagination of travelers in every corner of the world? What about it makes the word “romantic” so apt? Do you have a rail experience that perfectly captures why we love trains so much? Or are you one of the people who actually avoids trains whenever possible?

yes. oh yes. as much as i love flying (#avgeek, y’all), if i could travel exclusively by train instead, i think i would. i. love. traveling. by. rail.

i’m not sure why that is. is it the technology (tilting, high speed, maglev…)? the way the countryside rolls — or whizzes — by as you stare mesmerized out the window? how even as toddlers we’re made familiar with them, taught that trains go choo-choo and i think i can i think i can?

my first big train journey was in 1999. i had just graduated from college and started working, and finally had the resources (time and money) to rail long distances instead of fly. that one-way trip from chicago, il (where i lived) to roseville, ca (where my parents live), cemented the romanticism of rail travel for me. i had my own compartment on the california zephyr where i watched the midwest, great plains, and rockies roll on by. i was glued to that window and in 48 hours i had seen more than i ever would have seen had i just taken the 4.5 hour flight. being born and raised in los angeles, i did things i never thought i would: i waved at strangers and they waved back. i saw the big black night sky, pinpricked by stars and a bright moon, covering like a blanket a vast expanse of prairie stretching as far the eye could see. i watched breathless as the train glided through the snowy rockies. i ate dinner at the same table as complete strangers! (i was pretty shy back then.) even though it was well over a decade ago, these are parts i still recall so vividly because it made such a big impression on me. sure, in my head i romanticized it (i still do), but that’s the magic of trains.

OK, don't laugh, but I blogged about it back then, which, thanks to the folks at archive.org, we can still read today (unfortunately I think I've lost all the pictures).

since then, my love for traveling by rail has only grown, especially when it comes to high speed train travel. here are some of my more memorable journeys:

  • 2002: up the west coast of india from thrissur to mumbai. this was amazing. you could hang out the open door, waving at people along the tracks, watching fishermen fish, seeing farmers tend their fields. the second part of this short video shows some highlights of that ride. it was by no means high speed, and i’m grateful it wasn’t.
  • 2003: my first high speed train ride, on a german ICE 3 from cologne to frankfurt. i remember staring at the monitor at the end of the car we were in, practically fainting when we hit the vaunted 300 km/h — it was as if i broke the sound barrier!

After I moved to Germany and traveling by ICE became the norm, it still never lost its appeal, even the ICE 1.

  • 2006: took trenitalia’s new high speed rail service from milan to turin for the winter olympics. literally brand new (the rail line had just opened less than two weeks before), i remember a loud cheer went up after the conductor announced we had reached trecento chilometri all’ora. i couldn’t help but smile and join in their pride and excitement.
  • 2006: bernina and glacier express trains. slow as all get out, but the scenery was breathtaking, especially going down into italy on the bernina.

  • 2011: bucket list item! i took the shinkansen from odawara to kyoto and it was everything i’d hoped for. like a true railfan, i purposely booked a connection so i could try both the hikari and nozomi services. for so long it was the pinnacle of rail technology and finally i was able to experience it firsthand. (in the video below, my poor iphone camera couldn’t even keep up with the speed of the train, hence its slanted appearance.)

I even had an ekiben to complete the experience!

Cambodia: The Bestest For Indie-ing

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

So, let us know – what country do you think is the best for independent travel, and why? Or what four countries (one per region) would you choose as the top picks going into the tournament? Make your case for your country/countries of choice!


although i’ve only been to one area of Cambodia, it gets my vote for the best for independent travel. why?

for one thing, it’s pretty cheap. i think i spent less than half as much on an equivalent hotel room (with wifi and breakfast!) as i would have in the states, much less europe, and you can’t beat the price of food. also, since they pretty much use the american dollar, no need to do crazy math in your head for those of us whose currencies are or are similar to the dollar (remember paying thousands or millions of italian or turkish lira?).

A typical menu. Try and break your $20s and larger as much as you can; some places are reluctant to give you change.

also, while it can be touristy in parts, there’s still a lot of culture awe (i’m purposely refraining from using the term culture shock, since i think you’re more awed — in a good way — than shocked).

Oh nothing. Just a mom carrying a TV. And a kid carrying laundry. While dad drives the motorcycle. Taken from a tuktuk.

you can easily get off the beaten path

Taking a break from ATVing

…but there is a good infrastructure should you need it. for example, i got a pretty bad sunburn but was able to get cream for it without any hassle.

it’s still got a bit of that off the rails vibe, and this tweet (from my private account) is all i’m going to say about that:

spinning room, kept hearing things (a chant that wouldn’t end), kept seeing random images of toys from childhood, barfed in toilet…

and last, but not least, great things to see.

Ruins

Hauling

Buddhas

there’s so much more i could write about this trip but it’s 1:30 in the morning and i’ve still got work to do :\. suffice it to say, if you haven’t been yet, be sure cambodia is on your list!

update

some important information about the “orphanages” you may see in cambodia from @pandpvolunteer. i had always suspected there was something going on with these orphanages and visiting them — i think we were supposed to go to one during my ATV tour but it was just me and the guide so i think he just wanted to have fun and speed along, plus it was starting to pour (i got drenched, but it was fun!).

so yeah, be warned that the “orphanages” you visit may not be real orphanages, and those little kids are likely not orphans at all but innocent pawns in a larger scheme to try and get your tourist (and child trafficking) dollars. scary, and definitely not cool.