Questions to ask yourself while planning a backpacking trip

So there’s really no good/bad way to plan a backpacking trip and it really depends on where you’re going.  But here are some questions you should ask yourself (along with my 2 cents) in order to plan a trip that you will truly enjoy.  I’ve followed these general guidelines for my backpacking trips  (Europe, Southeast Asia, India and Africa) and found they worked for me.  However, some may think this is too much/too little planning so you can chose to follow it or not.

 

  • Where do I want to go? Once you’ve figured that out, get a travel book.  This is KEY for backpacking since none of us are experts on a country we’ve never visited before.  Most travel books have sample itineraries and highlights for each country.  Skim through it, google some itineraries online and start mapping a rough path based on what you find interesting.  For example, do you want to do more historical sightseeing? Or go to party hot spots? Or maybe both? You don’t need to plan every single place you’re going to visit but a rough path (like what countries are you visiting? Are you going north to south or east to west?) will help with further planning, especially length of trip and budget (question #3 and #5 respectively). 
    My 2 cents:
    I personally use the Lonely Planet books like a bible while on the road but there are other great books out there like Rough Guides, Frommer’s  etc.  Also, check out the Travel Independent.info sitefor tons of info aimed at backpackers and region specific websites like travelfish.org (for SE Asia).

 

 

  • Why do I want to travel? This may seem like a no brainer or existentialist question but if you know why you want to go, it’ll give you the drive to plan your trip in advance between 10 hour workdays and having a social life.  It’ll also give you a goal for your trip and get your butt out of bed at an early-ish time every day while on the road.  Sometimes backpacking can get exhausting but if you always keep in mind your goal, it’ll be easier to get through the weeks, months and maybe even years of traveling from city to city.  It can be as simple as “I want to see the Eiffel Tower” to “I need to find myself and figure out my path in life”.

 

 

  • How long do I have to travel? This may be the restrictive factor on how many places you can visit and how fast paced you want to move from city to city.  If you have an indefinite period of time to travel, budget may come into play (see point #5) or something that people sometimes forget is how long can you last living out of a backpack and without sleeping in your own comfy bed at home? You’d be surprised how long you can stand wearing the same clothes and having all your toiletries in a plastic bag once you get into the routine of backpacking. 
    My 2 cents:
    Build up your “travel immunity” – pick a comfortable period of time for your first backpacking trip, then double that on your next trip and then double that on the subsequent trips etc.  If you can come up with a number of days based on the list of cities you want to hit, factor in sightseeing and travel time, you should still DOUBLE that time to give yourself buffer for the unexpected (like loving a city and staying longer than planned, getting tips from fellow travelers along the way on must-see places or unreliable transportation).  It’s always better to have more time to see unplanned sights than to rush through your itinerary and miss sights.  TIP: If you come from North America or Europe, do not expect transportation to take the same amount of time in less developed countries than at home.  Hardly any buses go over 70km/h (even on highways) and “express trains” means it’ll stop maybe 15 times instead of 20.

 

 

  • What is my travel style? More on the grimey side or luxurious side? This will be a big factor when deciding your budget (see point #5) and vice versa.  Are you trying to see how far you can push yourself on the hygiene scale or does the thought of squat toilets make you shudder? You’d be surprised on how much you can live without on the road so don’t rule out squat toilets just yet (they’re apparently cleaner and easier to use than Western style toilets).  Ask yourself, do you really need 1000 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, A/C buses with tinted windows that block the sights/smells/sounds of the landscape rushing by or hot water showers in 45C weather? But don’t go too far off the deep end, everyone needs to keep a certain level of hygiene to avoid getting sick or smelling like B.O. (for your sake and for the sake of the 40 other people packed in with you on the 10 hour bus ride).

 

 

  • What is my budget? Keep in mind that different countries require different budgets.  For example, you can easily live off $30/day in India or SE Asia but if you keep that budget for Western Europe, you’ll be eating sliced bread from the convenience store for every meal (true story) and run a higher risk of getting bed bugs from the 14 bed dorm you’re staying in.  Most travel books have a typical budget/day for each country and a range of accommodation/restaurant choices from low, mid to high end.  If you’re looking for more of a backpacking budget, the Lonely Planet “on a shoestring” guides are great for low budget suggestions. 
    My 2 cents:
    Take your budget/day at home to start with (especially if it’s your first backpacking trip) and start logging how much money you’re spending/day once you start traveling.  After a week of logging, review your expenses and readjust your budget based on that (if you’ve underspent your initial estimate but hated the moldy bathroom then increase your budget or if you found that you didn’t watch the TV that was in your room, maybe you can live with a less expensive place to stay in the next city).

 

 

  • How adventurous am I? This may be a vague question but it’ll help decide whether you want to backpack on the beaten path or venture out on your own.  It also depends on the region since Southeast Asia and Europe has a fairly well-traveled backpacker path with an established tourism industry whereas Africa may not be as easy to travel through.  However adventurous you decide to be, always do it in a safe way – remember, no one cares how hardcore of a backpacker you are when you’re being robbed at gunpoint in a shady alley at night.

 

In the end, as long as you backpack smartly and keep an open mind, you’ll have an awesome and unforgettable trip! If you have any other suggestions on how to plan for backpacking trips, feel free to add your 2 cents in the comments section.

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How to safely travel without carrying around the drugstore

For many of us who take tylenol at the slightest hint of a headache, it may be hard to imagine traveling without the convenience of your neighbourhood drug store.  But when you’re running for a bus/train with a backpack weighing you down, you’ll be happy you were able to pare down your list to only the essentials.

The list below are some of the necessities for any backpacking trip but by no means is this list complete, so please consult your doctor.

  • Tylenol/Advil/whatever pain killer you fancy
  • Dukoral – traveler’s diarrhea vaccine, take in advance and keep in the fridge, get from doctor.
  • Hydrocortisone cream – good for mosquito bites and other random rashes, get over the counter.
  • Bandaids – can be used as tape too!
  • Antibiotic cream
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Cipro(floxacin) – antibacterial for severe traveler’s diarrhea, get from doctor.  Never used it before but good to know it’s there.
  • Wet wipes/naps – clean wounds, dirty hands, bird poop (been pooped on by birds 7 times and counting so it does happen!)
  • Malaria pills – must-have if going to malaria affected regions.  Can get from doctor.
  • Over the counter antacid & anti-diarrhea – to avoid the dreaded ring of fire
  • Anti-nausea medicine  (Gravol) – good for bumpy bus rides, rough boat trips
  • Any other drugs you’re already taking (i.e. birth control pills, allergy medicine, etc)

To be on the safe side, do a bit of research before you leave to see how readily available medicine will be at the places you’ll be visiting.  For example, pharmacies in Thai cities can give you almost anything without a prescription.

In the end, stress causes most illnesses so as long as you stay relaxed and fully embrace the experience, a calm day in bed or at the beach with a good book will be all the medicine you need!

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Prepping for South East Asia

Sweating through SE Asia

Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

Countries visited: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia

Duration: 2 months (May-June 2008)

Pros: very easy to backpack (good transportation network, wide range of accommodation available), safe for solo female travelers, super friendly locals and other tourists, comparatively clean (worse than Western Europe, better than India)

Cons: tout scams, geckos, mosquitoes/malaria

In our society of shortened attention spans, none of us can read through a paragraph anymore so here’s a list of how to prep for a trip to South East Asia (can be applied to most other trips too):

  1. Google map the region, you need to know how it looks like and how long it’ll take you. However long you think it will take to travel from place to place, double it so to avoid being rushed.
  2. Get a travel book. My bible is Lonely Planet’s South East Asia on a Shoestring. It is THE first ever “on a Shoestring” book. Tab/highlight places you want to see. Tip: if you don’t need the entire book, photocopy the pages you need and throw them away as you travel to save space.
  3. Visit travelfish.org. Print out the free guides for a list of accommodation.
  4. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage site for list of World Heritage places to visit. The map helps narrow down the sites depending on what area you’ll be passing through.
  5. Get a student card if you’re still a student (or “borrow” one if you’re not but still look youngish). There are sometimes discounts for park entrance fees, transportation etc.
  6. Visit the doctor for vaccinations and travel medicine. Malaria medicine is required for parts of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I took Malarone which was more expensive but with less side effects. Ask for Dukoral which is a preventive diarrhea medicine. Yes, no one likes to talk about this “collateral damage” of traveling but it will happen so you might as well be prepared. For more information, see post on travel medicine necessities.
  7. Book your flight. I usually get an open-jaw ticket for the long haul flight only. Domestic and flights within the region can be booked while you’re traveling. For Canadians, visit TravelCuts for super friendly service.
  8. Get travel insurance if not already covered. Again for Canadians, I found TravelCuts (through RBC) had the cheapest insurance compared to the other banks and travel agencies.

You can choose to follow/not follow this list but if you’ve at least thought about the items above, you’re already on your way to an amazing trip!

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To Baz Bus or Not To Baz Bus

For those planning on traveling around South Africa, there is a very convenient backpacker-geared transportation service called Baz Bus.  Basically, they provide transportation between backpackers/hostels in major destinations with door-to-door service.  They also sell a type of ticket which allows you to hop on/hop off wherever you want for a fixed price.  Personally, I decided not to go with Baz Bus because I wanted to get a local feel of South Africa by traveling as locals do.  However, I would say 90% of the people I met used Baz Bus to get around.  Here are some pros and cons that I found with Baz Bus (having to take it occasionally out of necessity):

Pros

  1. This is the most convenient way to travel around South Africa and allows you to spend more time enjoying your vacation instead of planning your transportation.
  2. Great for meeting new people.  The majority of backpackers use Baz Bus so you’ll meet fellow backpackers and get great tips on what to do, see, eat, stay.
  3. Some of the drivers act as a tour guide, pointing out sites along the way and providing tons of information about South Africa.
  4. Safe, reliable and comfortable travel.  The minibuses they use are very new and easy to fall asleep in.

Cons

  1. More expensive than coach buses or other minibuses (I found on average it was double the price for Baz Bus).
  2. Takes some of the fun out of traveling for me which is independently finding/planning transportation from point A to B.
  3. Less flexible since Baz Bus has only 1 bus per day going in each direction.  Coach buses usually had 2-3 options per day so you can depart and arrive at a time that suits your schedule.
  4. You might miss out on meeting and seeing how local people live since you’re interacting mainly with backpackers from foreign countries.  There’s a backpacker bubble and you may end up traveling with the same people for your entire trip.  Most of the people I met who took Baz Bus ran into people they met previously on the Baz Bus later on in their trip either on another Baz Bus trip or at the hostel.
  5. *New* (thanks Valerie!): It takes a long time to go from Joburg to Cape Town and vice versa because there is no direct route.  You will have to stop multiple times and it can take around 3 days whereas coach buses have direct routes.  Maybe try hop on/off going one way and a direct coach bus on the way back to get the best of both worlds!

My advice is to try a bit of both and see what suits your style of traveling.  Either way, you’ll get to experience South Africa and all that it has to offer!

Baz Bus website: http://www.bazbus.com

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South Africa’s Transkei: Fear and Loathing in the Wild Coast

Coffee Bay, Wild Coast, South Africa

So as a way to procrastinate for job hunting, here’s another blog entry from 2 months ago.  Enjoy!

Although it was hard to pry myself away from Neville’s hospitality and comforts in Southbroom, the scenery in South Africa’s Wild Coast or Transkei was definite worth it – they don’t call this the Wild Coast for nothing!

I hoped on a Greyhound bus for the 6 hour journey and found it very comfortable.  The further we got into the trip, the less populated the outside world was.  After chatting with the hyperactive child sitting beside me, I finally got a chance to look up and enjoy the ride.  As I looked out through the front-of-the-bus-second-level window, all I saw were rolling hills covered in green grass everywhere, dotted with small palm trees and indigenous shrubs and forests.  Scattered throughout the hillside were small villages of brightly coloured concrete houses and rondavels.  There were cattle and sheep and goats being herded by children and men.  Also, all along the road, there were people hitchhiking holding signs with acronyms on them.  I got “PE” for Port Elizabeth but what or where is “XB”? After being dropped off at a gas station on the side of the road, I met Rob the driver from Coffee Bay who herded myself and a bunch of grimey backpackers who had just arrived on the Baz Bus (**more on that here) into a small minibus for the 1.5hr ride to Coffee Bay on the coast.  Thank god I got to sit in the front and chat with Rob.  I mean, one of the backpackers was walking around the gas station barefoot playing a ukulele! And the conversation in the minibus highlighted everything I don’t like about backpackers.  Yes, they are the most laid back, fun and interesting people you’ll ever meet.  But occasionally, you get a bad apple like those backpackers who brag about how “hardcore” they’ve been traveling, all the drugs and alcohol they’ve been ingesting and how little money they’ve been able to live off of.  I was just happy to be sitting in the front talking to Rob about his family while he taught me about his people, the Xhosa.  When I first heard him speak, I was so amazed! Remember when Russell Peters made those jokes about Africans speaking in clicks? Well, he probably met a Xhosan because “Xhosa” is actually pronounced *knocking-click sound*-sa and the birthplace of Nelson Mandela is Qunu but pronounced *click*u- nu.  The road into Coffee Bay was windy and up-and-over the hills – it was beautiful! The only thing that detracted from the beauty was the truck in front of us with young men sitting in the flatbed.  One of these comedians saw a van full of foreigners, decided to drop his pants and moon us.  Welcome to Coffee Bay!

When I finally arrived at Sugar Loaf Backpackers, I was given the best welcome ever – a sundowner (yummy cocktail drunken at sunset) by 2 old drunk Afrikaan men and a lesbian couple who run the place.  Again, welcome to Coffee Bay! The rest of the night was spent eating a delicious dinner at the dining table and talking with Wilson, Vernon (the 2 old men), Linda and Joet (the lesbian couple).  Wilson and Vernon told us stories about the apartheid and how they were conscripted as police or army men.  Talking to them was very interesting and like other older generation Afrikaans I’ve met so far in South Africa, there are still traces of racism and racial tension.  The whites still blame the blacks for their country’s problems and vice versa.  The next day, I wondered around the small village of Coffee Bay.  There are only about 20 huts scattered along the hillside and one paved road that runs through it.  After relaxing on the beach and chatting with a bunch of backpackers who just arrived on a big yellow school bus from AfrikaBurn (it’s like Burning Man but in South Africa), I grew tired of their “Burn stories” of partying and drugs.  I never thought that I would meet people straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas! I should’ve known – apparently Coffee Bay is a drug and backpacker haven because it’s so secluded.  I started hiking up Sugar Loaf Mountain and didn’t make it very far when a little local boy started following me and kept on asking “Do you want to sing?”.  I thought it was some sort of slang for drugs but he actually started singing and dancing over my tired, out-of-breath heaving while hiking up this mountain.  Although it was a tiring hike, the view was amazing! There were huge cliff drops into the ocean all along the coast and behind me were rolling hills for miles, all dotted with brightly coloured huts and rondavels.

Sadly, I had to leave the next day to keep moving or else I’ll never make it to Cape Town! I was planning on changing up the scenery and making a stop in Hogsback up in the mountains.  Along the way, I met a fellow backpacker, Henry, from South Africa who was moving across to Cape Town.  And I thought I was traveling with a lot of stuff – Henry was traveling with 2 backpacks, a duffle bag, a mountain bike, a kayak and paddles! Along the way, Henry pointed out some very interesting sights like Mandela’s hometown of Qunu and a house he built near the freeway which is a replica of the cottage he lived in during his house arrest.  Henry also pointed out the Execution Rock where they used to throw people off and that the Transkei (Wild Coast) region used to be its own country until the end of apartheid.  We finally started moving away from the beautiful coast line and rolling hills to a more wooded region closer to Hogsback.  The small town nestled between the mountains is named Hogsback after the unusual shape of the surrounding mountains which, ingeniously, looks like the back of a wild hog (or a warthog).  The mountains were quite impressive – with tiny waterfalls scattered about and indigenous forests blanketing the mountainsides.  It actually reminded me a lot like Canada and definitely reminded me of the Canadian weather.  It was freezing in Hogsback – not freezing in the Canadian winter sense but cold for Africa.  I think I’ve been spoiled by the fact that I haven’t had to wear a sweater or long pants for the last couple of months that anything under 15C is considered cold now.

Hogsback resembled the Shire from the Lord of the Rings (yes, that’s a geeked out reference) and had capitalized on this fact by setting up stores called the Ring Shoppe, Hobbiton Shoppe and Fairie Sculptures (the fact that their shops are all “shoppes” makes it fancier in itself).  I stayed at a hostel called Away With the Fairies which is comprised of small cottages along the cliff.   After putting on layers of clothing, I wandered around the garden and discovered a bath tub on the edge of the cliff overlooking the mountains.  How awesome is that?! I would’ve definitely taken a bath in such a unique location except for the fact that I would have to heat up the water by building a fire.  That just seems like too much work for a bath – that was my laziness flaring up again.  I hiked along this trail (in flip flops, not a good idea) and stumbled upon a ladder attached to a tree only to look up and find that attached to the ladder was a tree house 15m up.  Maybe I’m just getting old but the climb up and down that ladder almost gave me a panic attack.  However, the view from the well-built tree house was worth it.  You could see the mountain range, the valley below and just trees for miles and miles.   Once it got dark, it was dinnertime! I was starving so when the chef told me tonight’s dinner was going to be warthog and kudu (like a deer), I didn’t hesitate for a second before saying yes.  The warthog and kudu was surprisingly very delicious – although I tried my hardest not to think of Pumba or Bambi while chowing down.   After dinner, I chatted with 2 guys from Texas who were traveling/working in Africa.  One of them turned out to be an engineer (we’re everywhere!) working in Gabon.  Now, traveling in Africa may be a bit adventurous but working in Gabon is downright ballsy.  Paul, the bartender, was super nice and didn’t look at me funny when I introduced him to the best drink in the world – apple juice and Malibu (Tina and I discovered this and always had both stocked in our apartment).  We traded traveling horror stories (he won with being in a bus crash in Peru where the bus flipped over on the side of a mountain and the driver ran away) and gave us free shots of something called “Shit in the Woods”.  It was disgusting but just being able to tell Tamara that I had a shit in the woods was worth it.

The next morning, I decided to leave Hogsback because it was just way too cold and headed towards Tsitsikamma in the Garden Route.  I’m halfway through South Africa and already, I want to move here!

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