Saturday, 15 June 2013

Wise Words from a World Wanderer, Part 4: Now It's Your Turn!

So now you want to be a traveller, huh?

This may surprise you, but the hardest thing about long term backpacking is not deciding what to bring or how to prepare for it; it's simply overcoming your fear and deciding to do it. So if you've decided to go, congratulations! The hardest part is really over, and it only gets easier from here.

There are many considerations and loose ends to wrap up at home before leaving on such a journey. Get travel insurance (I paid about $400), get your vaccinations at a travel clinic, and pack. So what do you want to pack? I packed (including on my person) about 7 pairs of underwear, two t-shirts, one pair of jeans, one pair of flip-flops, and one pair of sturdy shoes on my feet (barefoot trail running shoes, not for everyone). My most sturdy and reliable garment was my soft-shell Marmot jacket that packs light and small.
Me in my lovely orange Marmot jacket and only pair of jeans.
If you plan on doing lots of shopping on your travels, I would suggest packing with the ultimate bare necessities. My sister made the mistake of overpacking, and could barely buy anything during the trip.

For my security and peace of mind, I found it really handy to bring locks of many kinds: small zipper locks for the backpacks, one combo lock, for hostel lockers, and one extendable wire lock, for tying your main backpack to bedposts in hostels or luggage racks on trains. My favourite stealth item was my slim pouch that fit on a shoulder and tummy strap to the side of my torso, under my shirt. Uncomfortable at first, eventually it became a part of my body and I no longer noticed it was there. This pouch held my passport, cash and cards away from the prying hands of thieves, or even would-be credit card phone scanners. A few more recommended items include a universal charger and a pocket flashlight. All this equipment is available at MEC.

All of the above packed easily into a 65 litre backpack, along with a lot of other things I brought as just-in-case items which were later deemed useless. But because I decided to be an electronics junkie, bringing my Nikon D90 with 3 lenses and a laptop, I had to carry a pretty big packpack on my chest to fit everything. While I do recommend bringing a daypack I would not bring one as big as mine. And a laptop isn't all that necessary either. Many hostels have computers with internet, though the keyboards may have a foreign configuration. I'm not a smartphone advocate, but in this case, I will be. A smartphone is the perfect travelling companion, a substitute for camera and laptop in a small package.

Once on the road, your urban survival skills will kick into action. No matter what kind of advice I give you, you may forget it all when you become lost and panic starts taking over. Have a notebook for writing notes for finding places. Print out maps when leaving one city for the next. Most hostels have printers and, if not, internet shops will be close by. The first place you should visit in a new city is the tourist information office to grab a tourist map and transit map.
I've met some of the most interesting people and made good friends through Couchsurfing
While it's nice to have a Lonely Planet for every place you visit, it starts to weigh down your pack. I stuck with Tripadvisor (I'm a Top Contributor by the way, 104 reviews), hostel advice, and free walking tours (tips afterward). For accommodation I use, which has the most comprehensive hostel reviews of any other website, although it charges a small fee for booking. I still use it because I am loyal, but can book for free, and has access to most of the same hostels. And of course, there is Couchsurfing, which I recommend if you are truly into cultural exchange and are interested in meeting local people wherever you travel.

Getting around within cities, walking is best when possible. It is the most human way to get to know a city. Metros are best for public transport, and buses are okay, but take time to get used to.
Hitchhiking rocks!
Travelling from city to city can be a bit tricky because of the range of comfort and costs can be great. I think the method you choose here really defines you as a traveller. I trade in comfort for cost, opting for buses and hitchhiking, which makes me a bit of a hobo. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with trains and planes. In fact, plane travel can be super cheap if you can deal with barebones airlines such as Ryanair, Easyjet, AirBerlin and more. Be warned that these airlines charge for all extras, including check-in luggage. And if you don't bring your printed boarding pass, they can print you one off for 70 euros! For travel from Canada to the UK, I recommend booking through It's super cheap, if you don't mind booking your flight only a few weeks in advance.

For shorter distances, trains are comfortable, and night trains can offer beds. My sister and I began our trip with a Eurail pass covering 5 preselected countries in 2 months. I soon found out this was not at all worth it unless you are covering long distances and on the move frequently, in other words, you are on a whirlwind fast-paced Eurotrip. Pretty soon, I discovered a much cheaper, though slightly less comfortable, alternative - the bus. Buses connect almost every major city in Europe and are flexible, offering almost daily departures. Bus companies with the most widespread coverage are Eurolines and the Megabus (very cheap).

So I guess you have the basic knowledge now to get started. Really sorry for this quick and dirty advice column. I really do recommend you talk to me or an experienced traveller and soak in as much advice and wisdom as you can. But I also do stress that travelling is learning on the go, and that even if you go into the scary world unprepared, as long as you don't make any fatal mistakes, and give yourself plenty of time to overcome obstacles, and bring patience and a positive attitude, you will always get where you want to go safely and grow into a more confident, resourceful person.
Dream big - shoot for the moon - the brightest moon I have seen, Morocco desert
Thank you so much for reading my blog "11 Months To Do Nothing and Everything." This blog has grown as my heart and my mind has grown. As I saw the beauty of the world unfold before me, I felt compelled to share, and you were compelled to listen. As I began to realize its potential, it transformed into a vehicle for ideas and inspiration.

And although this adventure is over, I feel another one is just beginning. My travels have unleashed in me a spirit of unlimited potential, which cannot be trapped by the temptations of a normal life in a gilded cage.

So stay tuned. My original blog will be back, but under a new title. Thanks again for reading, and happy travels to you!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Wise Words from a World Wanderer, Part 3 - Travelling Is The Best Education

Looking back on the past 5 years of my life, starting with my move to Calgary, I have learned so much living on my own and having the freedom to pursue my dreams. Looking back on the past year alone, I have learned just as many life skills and invaluable lessons. Indeed, traveling is the best education.

Don't be offended University of Waterloo, this is not a jab against you and your world class engineering program. You provided me the skills to be successful in my career, and for that I am thankful. But no amount of theory in calculus or physics of structures can make me social, creative and altruistic. And no amount of late night studying and standard testing can teach me passion and optimism, or help me see all the beauty there is in this world.

No amount of school can provide me the tools to be truly successful in life. This job is for traveling. Traveling takes you outside of your comfort zone, then expands it like a balloon. It introduces new cultures, then nurtures acceptance of different people and ways of living. It inspires you with its natural beauty, then grounds you with the simple miracles of everyday life. Being somewhere new connects you in the most intimate way possible with the people and the surroundings, unlike any desktop wallpaper or travel documentary can.

I may have amassed an encyclopedia's worth of random and mostly useless facts about Europe, such as how many assassination attempts were made on Hitler, how many atom bombs the Chernobyl released, what Finnish university students wear when they party, how to say "thank you" and "cheers" in most languages, as well as Australasian lingo such as "jandals" and "bogans."

I have also learned many important life lessons from traveling. I hope to carry these with me forever, and to sprinkle a little bit of my wisdom on every blooming flower I encounter along my life path. You, my readers, are always blooming. So, here, let me sprinkle some of my most significant words of wisdom on you:

Life is beautiful. Beauty is everywhere, it's in the streets, in the people and the trees, or in the warm sun and the cool wind, or in a simple home cooked meal. However, often times we choose not to acknowledge these simple pleasures and instead focus on the negative things in our lives.

Everyone needs some time alone. Both solitude and 24/7 companions have been a staple in my travels. Through it all I discovered that there is a fine line between being alone and being around people. Chris McCandless in Into The Wild is the extreme case of a hermit who dreamt big but eventually went crazy, isolating himself from people and finding solace in the wilderness. In contrast to Chris are people who fear being alone and always need company. These people also lose the ability to think for themselves, because people's voices are constantly drowning out their own internal voice.

Anything is possible. We all have control of our own paths in life. Yet many people are steered by family or peer expectations. As soon as you start measuring yourself by others' standards, you fail yourself. So take time to be alone, and listen to your own thoughts. The more you do this, the more independent you become.

A little help goes a long way. When you're lost and alone in a vast scary country where everyone speaks a different language and just looks at you funny, you're forever grateful to receive help. After receiving lots of help from friendly foreigners, I am ready to do the same back in Canada. I've already picked up two hitchhikers, and had interesting conversations as a result.

Hospitality is friendship. This is the ultimate way to help someone. Couchsurfing has taught me that opening your home to people breaks down invisible walls between people, creating instant friendship. So why does this occur so infrequently in modern society? Maybe because our home has become an overprotected space of privacy filled with valuable possessions, making us mistrustful of strangers. We would rather meet people in more superficial places like coffeeshops or bars. No wonder why poorer countries generally have better hospitality. And why they have less coffeeshops.

Wisdom is gained through real life experiences. It's not gained through textbooks or television, newspapers or hearsay. It's gained through being, doing and trying it yourself.

So go out and do it! My last blog will give you some basic tips to get started backpacking through Europe, in the hopes that someday you will take the leap.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Wise Words from a World Wanderer, Part 2 - The Happiness Project

We all know that happiness is a function of time and money. The majority of people today place a greater emphasis on money. I did at one point too. But the most valuable lesson I learned, for myself and many others I have met on my travels, is that time has a much stronger effect on producing happiness than money.

My interpretation of happiness uses the simple equation below:

happiness = timen X money
n = an unknown exponent which places greater emphasis on time

This is the ultimate equation to everything in life and with respect to travelling, it works two fold. If you have more time, you will not only increase your happiness but you will also reduce the amount of money you spend.

However, in today's reality, most people cannot devote enough time to travel and, instead, spend excessive amounts of money to make up for it. Really, the problem starts with the short vacations permitted from work. While it is still possible to take your time on short vacations, the temptation of knocking off as many bucket list items as possible is too alluring.

I even admit my own pace was super-quick and exhausting when I began my travels. But I slowly realized that it was more fulfilling to take my time (all of which I was so blessed to be granted for work) and maximize every moment, instead of spreading my energies thinly across these moments, enjoying each one less. So I changed my pace.

I left early and walked to the museum instead of taking transit, enjoying a leisurely stroll, observing the local culture on the street and people-watching along the way. I took the bus versus train, which takes more time but is much cheaper. In the extreme case, I hitchhiked, which usually takes the most time and patience, but I traveled virtually for free, and ended up having nice conversations with my drivers, thereby increasing my happiness.

In the future I will try, somehow, to travel even slower, and at some point in my life, I want to do some cycle touring. Riding a bike across a country is very alluring to me, especially because it is a slow way to see and understand a country. So I guess my point is...

Take. Your. Time!

This is my ultimate lesson for you folks and, believe it or not, it not only maximizes happiness but saves money. I really can't stress this enough!

It is important to note that the debate about whether time or money is important for happiness is an impossible one. In the end everyone has their own approach. But I do suspect that more people in the world are fooled into thinking that money is more important time than vice versa.

At least in North America, my prevailing observation is that most people are overworked, busy and tired, while still blowing most of their cash on things that produce fleeting happiness. In Europe I get more of the sense that people worry less about money, and spend more time on simple yet important things such as food or good company, and they are overall more relaxed, less stressed and complain less.

Have a nice day. And I hope today that you take your time in whatever you do =)

Friday, 7 June 2013

Wise Words from a World Wanderer, Part 1 - I Perspire to Inspire

The End of 10 Months, The Beginning of a New Me...
Me in the beginning - colourless, hairless
After all this time that you, my faithful readers have been following me around on my adventures through Europe it's about time that I admit this: my apologies for the slight deception in my blog title. Although I did take an 11 month sabbatical from work, my time out of country has actually been 10 months - 303 days to be precise. Hopefully, this is neither earth-shattering nor credibility-eroding news (you know by now that my blog is not a means to massage my own vanity). Anyway, I believe that in all other aspects of my travel journalism, I have been straight as an arrow, blunt in honesty, sharp in wit, and forcefully thought provoking.

I don't know why you follow my blog, but I do know why I write: not to shine glory on myself as a travelling wunderkind and bask in your awe, adoration and jealousy (well, maybe just a bit). No, not that. I write to open your minds, to dispel stereotypes, to broadcast the true beauty and diversity of the world, to bring awareness to your conscience, to inspire and ultimately motivate you to change and improve yourself. And hopefully whatever little changes I create in you will ripple out and affect those around you and maybe, in the end, this world will be a better place.

I hope I have achieved these goals, or my blog was for naught.

One request I received was to write a blog about how to save money while travelling through Europe. I have decided not to blog about this because it is not one of the goals of my blog. However, I do ask that you contact me directly if you are looking for specific advice on this matter. The only thing I will write here is that the most important step is simply to start travelling. Once you do, you will quickly learn ways to save money and also learn what you are capable of doing in order to save.
Me in the middle 
Your travelling style may also change to focus on cheaper, more fulfilling activities. For me, the best memories of my trip were not of museums and churches, or beaches and parties. They were working on a farm, teaching English, meeting great people, learning and expanding my mind; they were times of challenging and inspiring myself, detaching from the real world and immersing in a dream world as just a guy with a backpack.

10 months was long enough for me to become detached from home and reinvent myself. Yet - not completely and utterly so. Occasionally the ominous deadline of June 2013 loomed over my travel planning, like a pinprick of light at the end of an immensely long hallway, barely discernible but clearly present, and growing larger by the day. It loomed heavily at times, enough to not feel completely free to go everywhere I wanted.

Some of you may think why the hell I spent my entire travels in just Europe, Turkey and Morocco. At times, I also thought this myself. But the fact of the matter is that even within 10 months of travelling around one of the tiniest smallest continents, I barely scratched the surface of Europe. There is so much natural and cultural diversity here, it could take a lifetime to see it all. And if I had but one regret, it's that I didn't spend long enough during every stop along the way.
Me by the end - colourful, hairier, wiser
Which leads me to my first life lesson learned...

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

My 10 Months In Europe Top 5's

Here are some of my top 5 lists for places visited or experiences during my travels.

I admit these rankings are far from perfect. I used a balanced approach to include personal opinion and to make unbiased recommendations for you, the viewer, to decide your next travel destination. Rankings were spread out geographically, in order to highlight as many different parts of Europe as possible, and sometimes underdogs were picked to bring attention to little known places.

That is why you will notice that my rankings do not include the most popular countries and cities in Europe, such as London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, etc. You already know about these places, thus, I preferred to highlight other lesser known great travel destinations.

Controversy dogged me in every category. In the end these rankings were painstaking to compile, and I flip flopped many times, eventually forced to exclude many places worthy of a ranking. Even now, I'm still not sure about the results. Nevertheless...

Over my 10 months of travels, in no particular order, here are my top 5 rankings for:

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Waiting for the End

I spent the final 3 days of my trip in London on a stopover to slowly wind down my trip. Like the weather, my mood was somber. Like the London fog, an air of sadness and emptiness was hanging over my head, clouding my thoughts.

To distract myself, I spent time in London with friends whom I had met abroad. But when I was alone in my friend's flat or walking along the south bank of the Thames, admiring Tower Bridge and Big Ben, long spells of vast silence would overcome me, and it felt like I was the only person in London. It was like being stuck in some parallel dimension between traveling and real life.

Over 10 months I became completely detached from real life, grown accustomed to spontaneity and adventure, lost all concept of time, and adopted the road as my new home. But soon I will be once again enslaved by routine, no longer able to wake up whenever I want, no longer living out of just a backpack, but tied down by my condo, car and material goods. I wasn't sure if I was ready for it yet.

At times my trip felt like a movie, and now that the movie is over, I was the only one sitting in the theatre after everyone left and went home. But I was afraid to go home to reality. Going home meant abandoning all the places I visited and friends I made, and memory wouldn't be enough to hold onto them.

One other thought haunted me. Coming home, I was afraid of how I would fit back into society. While on the outside I have not changed much, besides having longer, slightly more grey hair, and more wrinkles (wisdom lines as I call them), on the inside I have changed immeasurably. My previously outlying views on philosophy and society have become stretched further from my travel experiences. While family and friends will welcome my return with open arms, I am afraid I will feel like an outsider.

At 4 pm on May 21, I finally landed back on Canadian soil and my trip officially ended. I am still in Montreal, so still not quite home yet, but everything feels familiar, and I'm starting to feel positive again. Time will tell how I fit back into the real world, but in the meantime I have the comfort of great memories from 303 days of the most amazing trip of my life and the knowledge that there is a beautiful inspiring world out there, ready and waiting for me to explore it.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

From Russia With... A Fresh Perspective

Often times during my second visit to Russia I got the feeling that I was conducting my own cultural anthropological experiment. The same way famous anthropologists wandered into primeval forests and lived with native tribes in order to understand them, I felt like a pioneer, wandering into a country so vast and significant yet such a mystery, at least among my peers back home, and on a mission to find out the truth about its people.

Here are some of my experiences and anecdotes about Russia with the intention, hopefully, of dispelling certain stereotypes or foster understanding of its people and culture.
Kremlin - the palace of the central government of Russia
Moscow itself is a unique metropolis due to its geopolitical and economic status in Russia and relations with nearby countries. It has a deep history. Today it teems with culture. It is one of the most expensive cities in the world, yet it attracts people from all walks of life from poor illegal immigrants (including prehistoric looking Asians from the -stan countries) to multi-billionaires like Roman Abramovich. Aside from my sidebar to St. Petersburg, I have spent my time wholly in Moscow, wandering and getting to know the city, learning Russian, and meeting people for language and culture exchange.

One stereotype Russians are aware they have, and that they jokingly questioned me about, is that they are serious people. The Russians I met were ashamed to admit that the majority of them never smile on the Metro, and that shopkeepers are brutal and straightforward, and don't understand the concept of customer service.

Well, I think the former complaint can be excused, after all it's an urban big city phenomenon. I feel that people are generally less friendly (and in more of a hurry) the bigger the city, based on my experiences throughout Europe and even in Canada. And Moscow is the biggest city I have ever visited, with estimates of its population between 12 and 19 million. So it is no surprise that people are less friendly here. In addition, I was told people are friendlier in the countryside of Russia.
One super friendly Russian - my Couchsurfing friend Vitalak

Pretending I can play guitar with Vitalak's replica of Flea's guitar from Red Hot Chili Peppers
While most of my Russian friends are not heavy drinkers, Russians are generally known as such. While I didn't notice much heavy drinking, quite often, I've seen people with a beer in their hand while walking down the street, sitting on benches in parks, in the Metro and on the bus. It's a curious phenomenon to witness, as someone from a country where drinking in public is illegal (it is in Russia too, but never enforced). At least it seems that public drinking is done responsibly and respectabley.

Like friendliness level, alcohol consumption increases in the rural areas. I've been told Russians don't just drink vodka either; they drink anything and everything. It's just that vodka is the most common and cheapest liquor available. Apparently poor airport workers in Siberia even know of a way to separate alcohol from antifreeze...
Lenin's Tomb in Red Square - he is still a hero amongst older Russians; not as much amongst the younger

Corruption is still a problem here in Russia. And it starts at the very top. Its current president, Putin, has secured a stronghold on the presidency through less than integral means. And anyone who crosses Putin will likely be punished, whether it's nosy journalists, outspoken celebrities, or the general public. I may even be on his black list now for these comments.

There's a running joke made famous following a recent political election. The election was rigged, but exposed itself on TV when a voting poll mistakenly totaled 146%. Now whenever a Russian is quite certain of something, they sometimes say they are 146% sure.
Screenshot from the rigged election. Total voting = 146,47%
This corruption trickles down to street level and can be observed in police enforcement. Cops can stop you anywhere without reason, slap you with a ghost fine, then hint at a bribe in exchange for your freedom. I was randomly asked for my passport by a cop at a Metro station. But did I really look like a suspicious character in my bright orange jacket and a bright multicoloured toque?

On the bright side, when cops aren't out for your money, they are pretty slack about the laws. People can drink just about anywhere, and cars can virtually do whatever they want on the road in Russia. My driver to St. Petersburg stopped on the highway shoulder after missing an offramp and backed all the way up to catch it. My favourite road scene is seeing cars towed by other cars, tied by means of a simple rope, to avoid hiring tow trucks.
Posing near the Kremlin on my last full day in Moscow

This unique twist of freedom, among other things, is what makes Russia a fascinating and beautiful country. It's the only place where I've seen local food markets selling vegetables past its prime at discount rates, preventing waste. The general disregard of rules allows the Russian version of Facebook, vKontakte, to stream music, outright ignoring copyright laws. Besides this, Russia is amazingly diverse, with tens or hundreds of small culturally unique tribes or "republics" living in mountain regions of the south, and up in the frozen north. It's moving up the world stage, set to host Sochi Winter Olympics and, soon after, the World Cup. If they don't remove barriers to obtaining tourist Visas by then, if you are willing to endure the complications of getting the Visa, I recommend going to check out this country which is far down most peoples' travel lists.

I think the general North American view of Russians is confined to a few stereotypes, which are not so flattering. I was eager to play journalist, to dispel these negative stereotypes, or at the very least uncover the cause of them. After all, we are all humans that have simply grown up in different environments and become accustomed to them.
Another one of my many awesome Couchsurfers in Moscow - thanks Philip and Yulia!
Russia's roughness around the edges is part of its slow and sometimes painful smoothing out process from a long, embattled 20th century of political oppression and war. People haven't forgotten the Soviet Times, which shaped who they are today. In fact I often heard sentences beginning with "In Soviet Russia..." However, generation by generation, the bitterness and pessimism from the past is fading from memory. The people are sometimes harsh, but at least they are honest and unabashed, and definitely very interesting to talk to.

Russia has grown on me the more time I have spent here, especially Moscow and the many great people I have met here. I would love to come back to spend more time and visit other cities, and even experience the wildnerness of Siberia. But for now, it's mission accomplished...

I'm coming back to Canada!

Bonus picture for fans of Master & Margarita! - Patriarch's Pond