a blog about seeing the world

Archive for February, 2012

A few of our favorite things

In the months and weeks before we left home, reading how other travelers have packed for round-the-world trips helped our preparation immensely. We scribbled countless shopping, packing, and to-do lists and took over an entire room for our “staging area.” Now, for those of you setting off in the near or not-so-near future, we can return the favor and help you remember the obvious items (pants; your passport), the small, forgettable items (nail clippers; headlamp) and everything in between.

Getting organized.

But first, we thought we’d share some of the more obscure pieces of gear that we’ve found immeasurably useful. Some of these are rather specific and if you’re using an iPhone for a camera or if you hate the outdoors you can probably ignore half this list. Regardless, here are a few of our favorite possessions:

Mini extension cord/splitter – These days, most people travel with at least one piece of electronic gadgetry (ipod/laptop/cellphone), and if you add in a camera with batteries to charge a cord such as this one will prove useful time and time again. Ours is six feet long and splits one socket into three, meaning we can charge everything from the comfort of a nearby table instead of crawling around on the floor. No joke, this might be the most useful item in our backpack.

Outdoor Research PL Base Gloves – After years of putting up with numb hands on winter video shoots, we finally found a fix for our month of skiing in Japan. These liner gloves are perfect for shooting photos out in the cold. Just thin enough that you can still feel every button and lens ring, and warm enough to take the bite out of the winter wind.

LaCie 500GB Rugged Drive These are far and away the best hard drives for steady travel. While a flash drive may suffice for a shorter trip, if you’re going to be taking a few hundred GB (or in our case, several TB) worth of photos or videos, look no further. These drives are small, light, and, appropriately, quite rugged— I once saw a co-worker drop one to the floor from waist height, plug it in, and continue his work. As an added bonus, they’re powered through the computer via Firewire or USB, so there’s no need to trip over more cords or use up another power outlet.

Dakine Sequence Camera Backpack– This backpack has been used and abused every day since we left home, on top of three years worth of use beforehand. It’s awesome. It has a snug and stable fit, and is protective enough that you can ski or ride full tilt and not worry about crushing your gear in a fall. The internal camera block is removable, which we carry along on multi-day hiking trips inside our larger backpacking packs. A perfect pack for travel or action sports photography. Steph has a Dakine Heli-Pro ski/snowboard pack, which is equally excellent in its own right.

500mL Nalgene screw-top containers – Nothing beats this 16-oz container for food storage on a backpacking trip. Fill it with snacks during the day, eat dinner out of it at night, store leftovers or wash it out and brew a hot drink. It’s rigid so your food doesn’t get crushed, has a solid screw on lid, and it’s just the right size. Plus, it’s cheap—no need for anything fancy. Find them at any good outdoor store.

Pacsafe antitheft bag – We brought this to curb the nagging paranoia that comes with carting around lots of expensive camera gear. This 35L model is a metallic mesh that fits over our bag of camera and computer gear and locks around anything solid (bathroom pipes or the bed, usually) in a hostel room. While it’s hard to tell if it ever thwarted any thieves, the piece of mind it provided made us glad we had it along. Definitely recommended if you’re bringing along a DSLR, a laptop, or any large valuables and don’t want to bring them everywhere you go.

25L Dry bags – We kept our clothes in these, and put the camera in one during kayaking trips. They double as compression sacks and it’s quite nice knowing that even if it starts pouring you’ll have dry clothes at the end of the day. We’d recommend buying one with a transparent window so you can see where your things are instead of digging around blindly for the right t-shirt. (more…)

The best of the worst

Along with all the incredible memories of beautiful places and good times, travel is filled with moments that are unforgettable for other reasons. Moments that bring a sick feeling (sometimes literally) to the pit of your stomach and make you wish you had never left home. It’s about time we share seven of our worst travel experiences. Hopefully, you can learn from our mistakes, or at least get a good laugh.

1. Possibly the lowest moment of the trip came early on, at the end of five otherwise flawless weeks in Japan. We checked in at the Osaka airport, ready for our long flight to Thailand with a 16-hour layover in China. As we prepared to board, however, the attendant grew confused over our lack of a visa and told us to grab a seat.

The U.S. and Chinese embassies both state that you only needed a visa for layovers exceeding 24 hours, but apparently China Southern operates by different standards. To make the matter even more frustrating, the flight attendant kept tacking “Is that OK?” onto the end of statements that were definitely not OK. As in, “We’re not going to let you on the plane. Is that OK?” or  “You’ll have to buy a new ticket. Is that OK?”

Finally, she told us she would take us out to the front desk so we could discuss a refund. The woman dutifully led us out through customs and the busy airport, and told us to proceed to a counter just around the corner. In fact, there was no one waiting to help us just around the corner. China Southern had packed up its operation for the day, leaving us tricked and abandoned in a busy foreign airport. Many failed phone calls later, it was clear there would be no refund. Time to buy tickets to Thailand… again.

2. Funds were getting uncomfortably low a few months into our Australian road trip, but that was OK, because we were still expecting a nice fat tax return. It seemed to be taking a while, though, so we logged on to the IRS tracking website and quickly discovered where the money was. It had arrived right on time. We’d already spent it, weeks ago.

3. At least after the tax return debacle, we could still expect a tidy sum for the buyback on our car. No such luck. Though we’d had conversations with the folks at Traveler’s Auto Barn after hitting an unfortunate wallaby, they’d assured us that we should just leave the dent in the car and they’d take a reasonable sum off the $1,200 buyback price.

We should have kept in mind that they are, after all, used car dealers. Something that became glaringly obvious when they handed us a check for a measly $400.

4. You may have noticed a common theme up until now. Let’s take a break and review a medley of low moments that generally comes along with Southeast Asian overland travel.

-Getting dropped off on the curb in Bangkok at 3 a.m. at the end of our “overnight” bus ride from Koh Tao.

-Being awoken at approximately 1 a.m. on a bus ride Koh Phi Phi by the loudest, most horrendous music you can imagine. It was time for our “complementary meal.” Which apparently was mandatory.

-Being awoken at approximately 1 a.m. on a bus ride to Vietnam because the bus was mysteriously filling up with noxious engine fumes.

-The 14th hour of our 14-hour train ride from Sapa to Hanoi. Also, the 11th, 12th and 13th hours were pretty bad.

– All eight hours of an impressively curvy bus ride through northern Laos. Made worse by a killer hangover from a few Beer Lao Darks the night before, and the many locals puking out of windows.

5. Nate’s intense bout of sickness in Bangkok. Along with several hours spent on the bathroom floor, it included a lot of moaning, writhing, and a next-morning statement of “I feel like I didn’t take that like a man.”

6. Up in a remote corner of Australia’s Northern Territory, we woke up one morning to find that our car simply wouldn’t turn on. After a failed jump-start, we hitched a ride to the nearest tiny town, Pine Creek. The town mechanic was nowhere to be found, and a few phone calls revealed that it was going to cost $500 just to tow the car to a shop an hour down the highway. Not good. We spent an hour wandering around the depressing confines of Pine Creek, wondering if this was the end of the road.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. After asking around some more, we were directed to an old guy named Roscoe, who had a yard full of broken down cars and seemed buried in other projects. It wasn’t long before he gave in and kindly agreed to bring us out to our car and got it running. Thank you Roscoe!

7. More recently, we returned from an overnight hike to Brewster Hut, tired, hungry and ready for some relaxation. Instead, we found our car window smashed and many of our belongings missing. They grabbed two bags containing nearly all of Steph’s possessions—clothes, jewelry and souvenirs from Thailand, journal, toiletries, etc.— the tripod and random camera accessories, battery chargers and USB cords, Deborah’s backpack and everything in it. Luckily, everything of real value (passports, wallets, ipods and the Macbook) was safe in the DOC office for a $5 fee.

A few days later, we got a call from the police department—Steph’s pack full of clothing had washed up along the river.  Another somewhat happy ending to some dark times.

How to be homeless

After calling our trusty tent home for about seven of the last 10 months, we like to think we have become experts in the camping life. Some of you have no doubt found this blog while researching for your own travels, and we thought it might do some good to pass along our wealth of knowledge on camping in Australia and New Zealand. Hopefully the rest of you, clean and content under a solid roof, will still find amusement in our degenerate lifestyle.

First, let’s face it, you’re not choosing to live out of a car because you thought it would be fun. Judging by the amount of dirty young people on the road, the only way to travel for an extended period of time in a first-world country is to live out of your car. Which brings you to your first decision:

Tent vs. campervan

Though we’re by far the minority, we swear by our little red tent. For one thing, you already spend all day in the car, do you really want to sleep in it too?  Unless you’re traveling solo your vehicle is going to be trashed, no matter how hard you try. Pulling into a campground, setting up a tent, and escaping from the clutter of the car brings everyone a little much-needed space at the end of each day. It’s like a little house, separate from the stress and frustrations of travel… and prone to leaking when it rains.

Tenting also gives us a definite advantage in securing a prime camping spot. On numerous occasions, we have breezed into a grungy parking lot packed with vans and had a lovely adjacent green space all to ourselves. There have only been two occasions when we have wished for a van: an unexpectedly sodden night in Blenheim, and at an Australian rest stop infested with brazen mice that enjoyed crawling up the sides of our tent.

Finally, it allows you a bit of anonymity. Drive around in a campervan, and you are immediately pegged as a backpacker. We like to think people look at our packed car and think we’re locals. Locals with no place to live… and American accents.

Home away from home.

Where to sleep

While it’s possible to pull over and sleep on the side of the road for free, unless you have a bathroom on board it’s technically illegal. Your choice; it will surely save money, but we like to pay a nominal fee for running water and a place to take a shit.

DOC Sites (NZ) – Our homes away from home. There are a few hundred Department of Conservation sites scattered about New Zealand’s two islands, and they are excellent. Found in National Parks and elsewhere, they are generally low on amenities, but are very cheap ($6/person) and sometimes come with a view:

Near Cannan Downs, NZ.


A home in the vines

It’s amazing how much life can be improved by a roof.  After months of wandering around the south island, we’re quite pleased to pack the tent away and park the car in the driveway of our own place.

Our lovely little stone house is in the small town of Renwick, surrounded by miles of neatly hedged vines. It came complete with colorful flower beds, a cheery picnic table, and, possibly the most exciting of all, a grill on a backyard patio. A previous tenant also left us a flourishing garden full of corn, potatoes, onions, broccoli, cucumbers and zucchini.

A secondhand store provided cheap if somewhat battered furniture, and soon we felt completely at home.

Though we’d been assured of a couple months work in the vines, unseasonably cool weather slowed the work to a trickle, and soon left us unemployed once more. When not hunting for a new job, we fill our days of free time with baking, reading, and revisiting some of our travels. In the midst of what I hear is a mediocre winter back home, perhaps we could all use a day at the beach… here is a look back to the beautiful Philippines.