Friday, November 22, 2013

Frequently Asked Friday: Reaping the Whirlwind

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Someone asked us how we adapted to the lack of structure and control on our trip.  We can definitely see how it would look like there was a lack of structure and control from the outside perspective, but the truth was that there was enough of it to go around.  Yes, we weren’t always in control of our luggage, or our schedule.  But we were in control of our choices, and of our world, no matter how large or small.  It mostly broke down into the following questions: Where are we sleeping tonight? What are we eating next? Where are we going tomorrow?  When you think about it, having things be that simple makes your life feel a lot easier. Once you answer those questions it’s fairly easy to deal with  everything else.

Big Picture Planning

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We started out in planning the trip by making a lengthy list of all the places we wanted to go, finding the most logical route from one to the next, and then trying to factor how much time we would need for each place. When you do that, you realize that a year doesn’t go quite as far as you thought it would. We found ourselves trying to make decisions about which destinations to cross off the list based on either how expensive a destination was, with respect to how much time we’d want/need to spend there (Japan); how complicated or expensive the visa process was (India, China, and Brazil); or how long it would take to get there, and how far outside of the trip trajectory it would take us (gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Namibia came off for these reasons).  One place we really wanted to go, but took off the list for most of these reasons was Easter Island.  Some of these places we may never get to, but most of them moved onto another list—the This Place is Its Own Trip List (Japan, China, India, gorilla trekking, Spain and Portugal, Russia).  Once we finally had a list that made sense in terms of a route and timeframes, we booked our main international flights through AirtTreks. This gave us our basic framework for the trip, which we could work within. In terms of being able to be in control of our environment, this was huge. Sure, we would occasionally have a cancelled flight (we think this only happened twice?), but mostly we knew when we needed to move on, when we needed to be in a certain city to fly on to the next country.  Some travelers prefer to keep everything open; for us, having that fixed framework was actually very freeing, in terms of being able to spend more time enjoying where we were, instead of having to also plan the entire trip as we went.

Pre-booking Hot Destinations


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Lana did enough research before we left to know which parts of our trip we might need to pre-book, as they were very popular and book up ahead of time. These were mainly our trip to the Galapagos, and the Inca Trail hike. The Inca Trail limits the amount of people on the trail each day, so you can’t really roll up to Cuzco the day before you want to hike.  The Galapagos also has a limited number of ships and itineraries, so if you have an idea of where you want to go, booking ahead is important. The specific trip Lana wanted for October was already sold out in May, so we had to go with her second choice.

Additionally we knew there were certain areas of the world where we didn’t feel comfortable just trying to wander around on our own, either due to safety concerns or infrastructure problems (namely Madagascar and Egypt). Those portions Lana had also researched ahead of time, and planned our flights through Egypt to roughly coincide with the tour dates for the G Adventures tour we wanted to take, giving us a day cushion on either side.  Other than those four parts—Galapagos, Inca Trail, Madagascar and Egypt, we opted to plan on the fly. But with those major portions of our trip settled, we knew we would have some timeframes where all the decision making was already done.  So part of the answer to the question is that we did enough research ahead of time to know what we would need to pre-plan, and we planned just those parts. And aside from possibly booking a trip to the Salar de Uyuni before we got to Bolivia, in general this worked very well for us, giving us the flexibility to spend more/less time in specific areas based on what we found interesting there. 

Booking Hotels on the Fly

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Mostly we only booked hotels/accommodations one city ahead of where we were. But generally Lana would start looking at places a few days before we were going to move on, trying to whittle down the options by cross-referencing the Trip Advisor reviews and ratings on booking sites. She learned that the best way was to find the hotels that were available on the booking site, then check the Trip Advisor review (the reverse was an exercise in frustration, as top-rated but inexpensive Trip Advisor properties were inevitably booked for the days we wanted). It’s also important to start looking for the code words that are important to you when interpreting the reviews. Some deal breakers for us were “terrible wifi” and “filthy.”  If we knew we were going to be somewhere on a local holiday, like Songkran in Thailand or Australia Day in Sydney, we tried to book even further ahead, if we knew when we were going to be hitting that destination.  There were times, however, where we just plain got it wrong. 1,000+ fabulous reviews on Booking.com doesn’t mean that a hostel isn’t a dump. We got it wrong a few times, and mostly we just dealt with it. We did have two occasions where it was bad enough that we checked out, once before we even slept in the hotel in Peru (before/after hotel room pictures above do not convey the filth or sewer gas odor), and once after one horrible night at a hotel in Istanbul. You have to know your limits, and when to call an audible and just get the heck out of a situation.  Normally Lana would be the person who said “Oh hell no,” but it wasn’t ever something we disagreed on.

There were very few times that we felt confident enough to just wander into a town and try to get a room. The world of travel has changed with internet booking, and it can be hard to find a room at a decent hotel on the fly, especially during a holiday season. We did this more often in places like New Zealand and Australia, where there were a wealth of holiday accommodations, and generally not much of an issue.  Sometimes, when a choice seemed borderline, we would research a couple of backup choices, and then book in person after asking to see the room, and generally we stuck with our first choice.

At the Mercy of Slow Travel

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In some countries (and some continents) the methods of travel were either airplane--fast but very expensive--or bus: slow, and cheap, but lengthy, uncomfortable, and often delayed. We chose the bus option in South  America if we had the time, in part because we wanted to see the country, and in part because plane fare was pretty pricey, and we hadn't quite worked out our cost-to-misery ratio that early in the trip.  While we were subject to bum numbness, horribly violent movie marathons, and lengthy delays, the bus options were frequent and inexpensive.  This was an aspect of control that we voluntarily surrendered.  We did this again in other places as well, both in Vietnam and Thailand, as well as Europe.  In Vietnam, we also found extremely cheap flights, which were some of the few flights we booked during the trip.

Lessons in Being Hangry

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One of the ways in which things spiral out of control for Lana has to do with what her blood sugar level is (David is not immune to this either). We can’t tell you how many times our whole outlook changed after getting a meal, or even a snack. This is a type of control we could exercise, and we definitely got better at it as we went.  Keeping a granola bar in a purse and backpack was a great way to deal with hangry tendencies when we aren’t in a position to find a meal (or, sometimes, while we were trying to find a meal; searching for a restaurant when famished can lead to mistakes just as grocery shopping when hungry). Of course, ice cream is always a good solution as well. Or pie.  Or...

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So Does Pie

Perspective: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—there is no better souvenir than perspective. Yes, we both got horribly ill or injured at inconvenient times (we dealt with it and cleaned up the mess).

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Yes, it rained on days when we’d planned outdoor activities. We went anyway, or just left it off our itinerary. It wasn’t ever the end of the world, even when we didn’t get to see the Salar de Uyuni when we were in Bolivia.  Sometimes, like in Acadia, pictured below, not only did we get free park admission, but we saw some beautiful scenes that would have been blah on a pretty day.

Acadia in the rain

Things went wrong, although rarely very badly, and maybe that’s just because we were lucky. Before this trip, Lana obsessively planned our vacations, because she could. Half the fun was in the planning.  She would dream and budget and pour over Trip Advisor reviews and book everything ahead of time. But we knew that this wasn’t that kind of trip, and we went into the year as a way to get us out of our safe rut.

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We’ve felt more out of control since we’ve been back from our trip than we ever did on the trip.  Between not being able to find a job (or not sure what job to find, for David), to all of our parents having health issues, to the fact that we found out our renter is moving out before Christmas, we just feel like we stepped in to a maelstrom of circumstances beyond our control. And because things have gone from the simplistic needs of food, shelter and entertainment to larger questions of life’s purpose and 5 year plans, we’re having a tough time switching gears.  We’re writing this post from the waiting room while Lana's father undergoes an angiogram. Everything seems fragile and tenuous in our lives right now. We have to trust that we’ll figure it out, but right now it’s very tempting to just take off again and leave the real world behind. Traveling the world was so much easier.

It will be interesting to look back on this phase of our life, to see how our perspective changes.  There were certainly times on the trip when things looked dim at the time, but now seem rosy because we know how things worked out.  We're at the point where we can't tell if the light at the end of the tunnel is a train or not.  Chances are excellent it's not.

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