Friday, 13 July 2012

Lessons Learned While Traveling (Part I)

I’ve always wanted to travel full time. I imagined it would finally happen when I retired. I would live the transient life of adventure and see the world. It was all very romantic in my head.

I’m glad we’re traveling now, because if there’s one thing that the last five weeks have taught me, it’s that there’s a lot of things I won’t want to do when I’m 70. Namely, climbing steep hills and scrambling over wet rocks.

If I hadn’t experimented with traveling this summer, there’s a good chance I would’ve wasted a lot of time and energy stressing over the fact that I wasn’t on the road. I would’ve overlooked the good things about home in favor of dreaming about traveling. It’s the “grass is always greener” syndrome.

I still love to travel, but I feel I should be completely honest about the pros and cons of traveling. With that, here’s four things I learned this summer while dragging around a backpack, washing my sweat-soaked clothes in a sink, and occasionally saying nasty things to my adventure partner.

1. Visiting historic sites is overrated. 

The first thing anyone does when they visit a new place is map out all of the sites of importance and make it their mission to see them. This makes sense. Why go to Athens if you’re not going to see the Parthenon?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go and see the leaning tower of Pisa if your heart desires, but here’s the thing: if you find yourself feeling disappointed or underwhelmed, that’s ok. It’s not a sign that you’re not “getting it” or that you’re unable to recognize greatness; it’s that you’re trying to appreciate the past by visiting a place in the present.

The reason we want to visit these amazing places is because they have historical significance. It’s not so much about where it happened as what happened. For centuries, the Roman Forum was the heart of the city. Everything of importance happened at the Forum. You can walk in the footsteps of Cato the Elder, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Marcus Tullius Cicero. That was the past. The footsteps surrounding you today are of less impressive men, and there's going to be lots of them.


If you’re visiting the Parthenon because you want to impress your friends with pictures on your Facebook wall, you’re going to be disappointed. You need to visit these places because they’re important to you, not because they’re important to someone else. If your heart’s not in it, you’ll be doubly pissed as you pour sweat and dodge aggressive salesmen trying to sell you overpriced stuff you don’t want.

Another reason you may find yourself wishing you’d saved your entrance fee for another round at the Irish pub is that we’ve been spoiled by technology. Thanks to the Internet, you’ve already seen every close up shot that any professional photographer could deliver. With a few simple clicks, you can see the individual brush strokes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. You can take an HD virtual tour of some of the greatest monuments on Earth, and you’ll get to see more detail than you’ll ever see in person.

When you visit a monument in person, you’re going to be fighting through crowds of other tourists trying to get a picture that doesn’t have someone’s mullet in it. Additionally, most national treasures are roped off so that you can’t get anywhere near it, in the hopes that you won’t climb on it, write your name on it, or steal a part of it.

Take Stonehenge, for example. You can get an excellent view of Stonehenge from anywhere in the surrounding area. You can also pay £7.80/person (~$12/person) to visit Stonehenge. This visit gives you the chance to stand behind a rope and stare out into the distance at the circle, much like you can do in the parking lot for free. Your entrance fee also gets you an audio recording that explains how they still have no idea why/how it was built. Fascinating.

Some say it was aliens. Others disagree.

Museums are another place that can be a let down. As a nerd, I love a good museum, but I’m going to say the following in all honestly: once you’ve seen an exhibit’s worth of ancient Greek bowls, you really don’t have to see anymore of them. You can cross that one off your bucket list without feeling like an uncultured swine if you don’t want to see anymore.

After the first few hundred, you get the idea.

Everyone has their own personal list of must-see places. For me, it’s cathedrals and on a somewhat creepier note, grave sites. Yup, I like to visit the final resting places of historical figures. I have a weird obsession with pondering how a person can create a masterpiece, discover a scientific principle, or rise to greatness, and yet still end up in the same place that we all eventually find ourselves. It’s that whole “one life to live” concept personified.

I love cathedrals for a few reasons. They’re quiet, they’re usually the perfect mix of imposing yet beautiful, and the work that went into their construction is simply awe-inspiring. There’s nothing like standing in the echoing grandeur of a 12th-century building and marveling at how mere mortals were able to create such a massive, intricate structure without the aid of modern technology.

For me, nothing will be the same as visiting a grave or a cathedral in person. It’s up to you to define your own list, and that list might not include the Louvre or the Colosseum.  The important thing is that when you do visit your must-see places, you’ll know you’re visiting because they’re meaningful to you, and not just because they’re in a tourist guide.

To be continued…

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Long Trip Home

The final days of our European Adventure were spent in Dubrovnik and Montenegro. I’d been looking forward to Dubrovnik as I had heard nothing but good things about the city. I loved everything about Croatia, so I didn’t think there was any way that this city could be disappointing. Our arrival was everything I had hoped it would be. The walled city looked amazing and I loved watching the cruise ships pull into the harbor.

The main street in the Old City

I was over my love of the city by the second day. It didn’t occur to me how many tourists were on each of those cruise ships until they swarmed into Old City. I’m not a fan of crowds to begin with, and there were two massive ships each day. The overpriced kitsch mixed with hoards of people and hot, sticky air was overwhelming. Our landlord asked what I thought of the city and when I responded that it was “ok,” he laughed and said that he won’t go anywhere near the Old City unless it’s the off-season.

On the fourth day, we hopped on a bus and headed south. Our bus was a few hours late, which wasn’t a big deal, but then we blew a tire on the Croatia-Montenegro border. Changing a tire on a bus is much more difficult than our crew expected, but luckily a truck driver helped out and it only took a few hours. Meanwhile, the border guards were trying to contain 60 people from various countries, none of whom wanted to stay in the designated space. Herding cats is an understatement.

We made it to Hercig-Novi, were we found a driver who was happy to take us the rest of the way to Tivat. He started the engine of his glorified van, moved two parking spots to the left, and then walked away. Not a good start…

Eventually he came back and took us an hour further down the road. Air conditioning consisted of leaving the door open. Then he parked on the side of the road and gestured for us to join him in another van, which we did because really, what other option did we have?

We finally made it to Tivat and began the long hike to our hostel, which did not have the AC we so desperately needed at that point. After spending 9 hours traveling 65 miles, I was in no mood for a rickety fan, wasps, and a flooded bathroom. Surprisingly, we ended up meeting some great people and had a really good time that night, even with the less-than-stellar accommodations.

We booked into a different hotel that advertised AC the next day. They warned us that the hotel was still “under construction” but we underestimated what they meant by that. We literally stayed on a construction site.

Four stars?

Always an adventure, but at least they had AC! Their work ethic was insane; they ran that jackhammer from 7 am until 9 pm.

We flew home the following day. I have never been so relieved to drop a bag down on my kitchen floor. I’ve always thought that I wanted to travel full time, but I had no idea how exhausting traveling can be. After a month of lugging a 45 pound bag around the Mediterranean, I was done for awhile. By “awhile” I mean 2 days, because that’s how long we had before our next big adventure: flying home to visit the family for a week!
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