Sunday, February 26, 2012

Money and Travel

     I frequently got questions about the cost of traveling to the far corners of the world from the audiences I lectured, the kids I taught, friends and just about anyone else who knows how many miles I roam. Mumbles about my having to be rich to go where I go are often audible even in large auditoriums. It is time to talk about money. There is no getting past the fact that roaming about in Pakistan or Namibia or Venezuela is more costly than staying home but everything is relative. First of all, in order to travel the globe, you need to dedicate yourself to that undertaking. That means you need to dedicate part of your income as well. There are people who drive fancy cars or dress to the T or buy expensive jewelry and still travel extensively, but I am not one of those. We do not have any of that stuff.  My wife and I have a total of 12 years of use combined on our low priced cars. We have lived in the same home for 49 years. She has no furs and I wear a fifteen dollar watch. We have had to make some significant choices in order to do what we do although there are no regrets about that. We have never yearned for what we don't have. We have designated our savings over the years primarily to our travels. For that reason, we have perhaps paid more attention to money than we might otherwise have done. Our investments have been careful and lucky from the start- all the better to insure future adventures.

     My wife and I always put as much of our savings into those hard to withdraw accounts called IRA's so that we could save for retirement and for travel in our retirement years. That worked out well. We sometimes had to choose which bills to pay from the pile on my desk and we did not indulge in very many luxuries during those earliest years but even then we did do some traveling. I worked in Europe for two years before I was married and managed to get all around the continent on the my salary. On another grand trip, my wife and young kids and I got a year of living in and touring Europe because I taught in Rome for that year. We put on a lot of miles in those twelve months.

    We took other trips too. Each of them was at the economy level but that did not dissuade us or discomfort our journeys. The issue for us was travel, not luxury. We had a budget for everything and we never starved along the way. But the important thing to note is that travel was our prime investment. It still is. If one wishes to stay at the best hotels, eat at the most luxurious restaurants or sail the finest cruises, lots of money is necessary. We did not travel that way. We learned that smaller hotels got us closer to the people we wanted to visit. Local markets and restaurants helped us to get a better feel for the places we visited.

      So what is the answer to the assumption, "He must have money." It is yes and no. Yes, it does cost more to travel than it does to stay home. There is transportation and housing and food and the occasional gift. But if one masters the tricks of the trade and finds bargains, learns how to get the best price for services and avoids unnecessary expenses, it can be done. We are not backpackers so we do spend money on hotels and meals. We know there are travel styles rougher than we prefer. I would refer to us rather as bargain shoppers. We do pretty well that way. And the growth of the internet with its abundance of travel information has made it even easier to travel cheaply if one is willing to put in the time and effort to construct a modest trip for oneself. We enjoy that challenge.

Inexpensive Shopping, Turpan, China

Friday, February 17, 2012

Dialogues with Travelers

      If travel is part of one's life, it surely becomes a significant subject of conversations either on the road or with people one chats with at home. I would categorize the groups of people I have had  discussions with as those who never travelled to unusual locations, those who have done so but with mixed or negative results, and those who are as enamored of the experience as I am. This all makes for spirited and interesting conversation. Each of the groups brings a different flavor into the dialogue. Feelings tend to be high in each case and can even impact interactions much in the same vein that expression of political preferences does. I find each type of discourse worthwhile.

     The most pleasant and rewarding discussions I have had about travel is with folks who share my joy at experiencing the excitement of adventurous, intensive travel and have been many of the places I visited. In these conversations we exchange stories about what was most interesting, what visits we had in common, what places we have missed so far or intended to go to, and other such things. What we share is a personal knowledge of the benefits of exploring places and cultures different from our own. There is lots of agreement in these interactions which usually makes them tension free and lots of fun. Of course, talking to people who agree with you is always a rather pleasant experience.

      The conversations I have with those who do not travel or limit themselves to self-contained resorts or Caribbean cruises tend to be similar to one another. The usual "How do you do that?" stuff enters the dialogue first, the worries about the lack of security or convenient foods or clean water come along shortly and the general fears of unknown settings are sure to pop up along the way. Yet folks who do not travel simply have not traveled yet and most of them show great interest in stories of adventures and rationales for risk-taking. They may not be up for that but they can appreciate it vicariously. Some even measure themselves against what I describe about my trip and are encouraged to try something that stretches them just a little further than they might otherwise have. Aside from the satisfaction I derive in just socializing and having conversations with others, when that occurs I get a little special satisfaction. People I know have tried a few places they might otherwise not have journeyed to had we not spoken about my experiences there. At the very least, they have learned about other possibilities and often something about other cultures. No loss there. In a few cases where friends have just said to me, "We would like to go with you next time," we have travelled together with them and they had an experience in the Third World. That usually turned out fine for them and for us.  Of course, there are always quite a few folks who just tell me I am crazy and they would never go to the place I am describing. A few others resignedly state that, now that they have heard my tale or seen my images, they don't need to go in person. Vicarious experiences are simply enough. Those whose experiences mirror mine but whose reactions to them are diametrically opposed to what I have taken from them provide me an opportunity to look at aspects of my voyages through their eyes. That is also interesting and often enlightening. I find those differences rest more in personality and interests than in the direct experiences each of us has had. For me, for example, Varanasi at dawn was a mystical highlight of my travel; it was filled with wonderment and emotion. For others, I realize that the poverty, the seeming pollution in the water or the cremations alongside the river could well be their  focus and make for quite a different trip. Travel is, in great part, what you bring to it. At any event, the conversations are interesting and I enjoy having them with friends or, even more engaging, people I have just met.

Huli Medicine Man, Papua New Guinea

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Trip We Opted Out Of

     I spent several weeks planning a trip to the Philippines. I had heard that the nation was an interesting place to visit but when I began to read about it in detail, I got quite excited because it featured my major travel fascination- various indigenous peoples whose lives were quite distinct from their neighbors'. I learned that the geography of the area was also worthy of exploration- diverse urban areas, wonderful isolated islands, lonely and lovely beaches, etc. So I did the usual trip planning and off we went. As soon as we arrived in Manila, it started raining. It never stopped. We made the most of our stay in the Manila area by sampling the delightful festivals held in nearby villages. Each day, we got up and headed for another village. The celebrations were varied and colorful and never disappointed us. And the rain kept coming down. It poured on the parades, it drenched the religious objects carried on palanquins and on carriages propelled by massive bulls, and it soaked the multitude of creative displays constructed for whatever festival was being celebrated. We usually had good luck with the weather in our travels, but not this time. We decided it was time to leave Manila.

     We headed north in our car toward Banga-an, a small village located in the center of the Ifugao culture. We were on our way to visit the wonderful rice terraces in that area. The awe inspiring  Banaue Rice Terraces are located in the north of Luzon. More than 2,000 years ago, the lfugao people who lived in that area, carved the rice fields out of the mountainsides with peaks rising up to 6,000 feet high using simple tools and their bare hands. Our visit was not to be. When we left our Manila hotel, it was still raining heavily. At the entrance to the toll road which led to the terraces, we were informed that the road was closed and no cars were permitted in that area. It was flooded. It was then that we finally came to realize that the infamous monsoons had come early and our weather timing was destined to make our Luzon tour impossible.

     From the toll road entrance, we made our way to the tourist agency we had made a few reservations with and discussed our intended travel to the southern islands, most of them rich with beautiful beaches, interesting tribes and lots of worthwhile sites. No such luck. Of course the weather in the South was fine, mostly sunshine and warm breezes; the political situation was not.  It was strongly suggested that a trip to Palawan and the towering marble cliffs of El Nido or a stop in Cebu with its lovely shores and snorkeling as well as its fine cultural sites would be a great risk to our safety. The Maoist guerrillas were apparently quite active in the that area. Their effort to peel off southern islands where the Muslims were a majority was brutal and destructive. Tourists had been captured and even beheaded. Even the airport we would have flown into had been bombed and damaged significantly. If that was not enough to discourage us, perhaps the headline in the Manila papers the next morning would have been. It was about a bombing at the department store where we had shopped the previous day. Manila was more than wet. I did not customarily worry greatly about safety but I did have to confront the reality that was presented to me

     My wife, sick of the rain and our relative immobility, said to me that morning  "Get me out of here." Although I do not quit such activities easily, I had to agree she was right. We pleaded our case to the agents which they immediately empathized with and we got a refund on whatever reservations they were holding for us. They secured a convenient flight to Spain for us the next morning and off we went. When I told my son what had happened, he had two responses. You guys don't have the clothing for Spain- a completely correct observation (we take few clothes and usually our oldest attire on our typical trips) - and you won't get Mommy back to the Third World after she visits Spain. That turned out not to be accurate. We had a different kind of trip in Spain which we enjoyed very much but we both relished a later return to the kind of places we were used to traveling to and we have continued to roam the Third World ever since. Life goes on as ever.

                                                       Restaurant, near Madrid, Spain