Underwear, Chapstick, Passport: The Long Journey to Travel Minimalism

All ready for the weekend trip!

All ready for the weekend trip!

My backpack was slowly boring a hole into my coccyx.

I was nineteen and had borrowed a 50 litre green Osprey from my uncle to prepare for my Eurotrip. I stitched a Canadian patch across the crest for everyone to see, as seemed necessary at the time. I purchased a compass and some maps and an industrial-sized container of sun-screen. I looked upon my rental pack, considered its dimensions, and decided that its depth and girth were challenges issued to me by the universe. Could I fill it to the brim and manage to cart it around most of western Europe with me?

In hindsight I probably didn’t need all of the button-down shirts, nor the full bottle of shampoo, nor the half-dozen books, nor the array of sweaters, nor the comically large number of socks. The bottle of Windex was probably a little overzealous. The full Dutch-Mandarin dictionary may have been ancillary. Several dozen packets of clean, type B positive blood in vacuum sealed were probably unnecessary preparation for a trip that was very unlikely to include grievous bodily wounds nor encounters with eastern European vampires.

I was young and had never travelled alone before. Previously accompanied by parents, there was always an advisor looming over my suitcase, scrutinizing my choices and declaring when I had packed enough. I would stand before my trunk, stuffing shirts and underwear and socks and books and toothbrushes and then packets of saltines and X-Men action figures and 1980s commemorative mugs featuring Peanuts characters until an adult would tell me to stop. Someone would seal my bag with a travel lock, remove the key from sight, and cart my possessions around for me.

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Off We Go, Apparently: The Art of Winging It

On the road

Our hobbled chariot.

The smell was growing worrisome: it had the fragrance of action figures in a microwave, of an immolating computer hard drive. Burning wires, fried circuitry, sparks and electrical calamity. There were six of us in the Ranger, with two grown adults wedged into the trunk space atop the baggage like so much meaty cargo, and we were speeding down a mountain pass where travellers died about two or three a week. I ignored the growing terror fragrance for some time, until smoke began to issue out from the depths of the vehicle, somewhere amidst all the bags and humans. It became apparent that something was on fire.

We somehow managed to get the vehicle into the parking lot of a Tim Horton’s, and then set to work poking at the trunk door, which was still smoking and hissing. The inside panel was ripped off, wires were disconnected and put back in place, and the door was once more sealed. We sat around outside the vehicle, looking at it suspiciously, as though it was just waiting, trying to lure us back into its death trap.

But in time we all climbed back in, each with a nervous chuckle, and a particular, concerted effort to secure our seatbelts (except for those people in the trunk, who just tried to hold on to the beer cooler and sleeping bags).

We drove another 9 hours in that vehicle, arriving in Calgary at around 4 a.m. We eventually forgot about the constant risk of electrical fire and, we assumed, super cool explosion that would claim all of our lives as we were travelling, and danger was part of the adventure. Plus, there were hundreds of deer along the roadside late at night, each spookily watching the vehicle as it passed, and our concern was more about slamming into so many hundreds of pounds of walking venison.

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The Farang Effect: Why is This Restaurant Crawling with German Tourists?

Dock

Uh oh. This island has no tourists. That means it probably sucks!

Pakbeng was the pitstop city on the two-day boatride down the Laotian portion of the Mekong. We checked our bags into one of the numerous hotels that existed solely for one-night-only stays, each with the same threadbare blankets and cheery-bored proprietors, and went looking for a restaurant early in the evening. All of them were empty, all of them lit with strobe lights and blasting strange techno, ghosts of electronic noise and foreign tongues on tinny speakers. Each had a menu of buffalo meat and locally brewed bathtub liquor at bargain prices, so we picked at random and sat down.

As we ate, we noticed that the tables around us gradually filling up until the restaurant was packed. We recognized people from our boat, gave them our barely-committed acquaintanceship smiles, and noted how suddenly our pick for dinner was suddenly flooded with business. When we looked up and down the street, a similar pattern held. Those few restaurants that lured some tourists within the early goings were flush with business, while those that hadn’t remained desolate and empty.

When we exited the restaurant, some Australian teenagers sauntered up and asked us to recommend a hotel nearby. The restaurant owner tried to interject and the young Aussies recoiled as if assaulted, declaring they would only follow our advice. Restaurant Owner rolled his eyes, wandered off, and got back to the business of selling water buffalo sausage.

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5 ½ Warning Signs of the Travel Douche

I mean, one hopes.

On the road, you fall into a certain state of disrepair. You don’t keep up with your usual self-hygiene regimen, and in time, your body begins to accrue a corona of stank. That much walking and inclement weather invites wear and tear, and pretty soon you have a cake of your own filth. But it’s okay, because you’re on the road, so everyone else is also disgusting. But some people decide to take this liberty too far. Some people decide that once a backpack cushions their spine, they are free to abandon the mores of gentle society like so much garbage and scalp grease, and hoe the road of grossness unbraved by so many before them. They take the opportunity to be a douchebag because no one they know will ever see them, except maybe in the facebook photos, and make a stinky, oppressive time for all the rest of us on the trail.

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