As time goes on, it takes more and more for me to get excited about a destination. Yes, after 18 years of constant travel, I have seen a great deal. And just like anything we do over and over again, travel has just become the norm.
So, to combat this, I need to head beyond every now and then, I need to cross borders that for one reason or another, feel a little different.
Recently, it was the case when I decided to travel to East Timor (Timor-Leste).
Travel to East Timor: The Good
A lot of people have never heard of this country, but…
East Timor sure is a beautiful place. Mountains, beaches, coffee plantations, lush tropical forests…check, check, check and check.
East Timor also has some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered anywhere on this planet. Almost everyone we walked by or came across gave us a wide smile or an enthusiastic thumbs up or quick “hello” or “bon dia” or a handshake. There are many ‘friendly’ countries out there but this was WAY over the top.
The capital city, Dili, offers grand sunsets from the waterfront, a laid-back vibe and an immediate glimpse into Timorese life. It’s not the prettiest of towns but it was real and raw. There are no ultra-fancy shopping malls or built up waterfronts designed just for tourists, that’s for sure.
When we hailed taxis, not a single taxi driver tried to overcharge us. I don’t think I’ve been to any city where taxis don’t use meters yet they still offer foreigners the normal rate. Of course, the drivers almost never knew the street names, even the main avenues, but we always figured it out with some fun back and forth chatting.
The drivers also didn’t seem to know that being able to see out the windshield of their vehicle should be a priority…
During our stay, we also ventured out of Dili. We took a trip, with a local guide, to the town of Gleno, set in the mountains. We drove down the coast to the tiny communities of Liquica and Maubara. We also visited museums, the famous Cristo Rei statue, beaches, markets and a variety of places to eat. And of course, we tried to interact with people wherever we went.
And to top it off, we didn’t see any other tourists during our stay.
Yes, when you travel to East Timor, it can indeed be fascinating.
Travel to East Timor: The Reality
This is where tourism gets confusing.
Sure, I could say ‘travel to East Timor, it’s great, everyone should visit!’. But I wouldn’t mean that in the usual way.
Despite the fact that we did have a good time, that we did meet some wonderfully friendly people, the truth is that going to this country without an interest in digging deeper, without an interest in venturing beyond the beaches, mountains and sunsets, would be a real injustice to the people that call East Timor home.
As travelers, we tend to avoid this deeper digging. We tend to be quite satisfied labeling destinations based only on our limited experiences and what our eyes, or camera lenses, see. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that it is our pure lack of interest that prevents us from learning what life is really like in a place. We just don’t care enough to learn about the reality behind the sights and food and cafes and cool activities.
Usually, we just want to have a good time and leave it at that.
When it comes to East Timor though, I found that it wasn’t possible to just leave it at that.
Alongside those sunsets and lush mountains were towns and villages full of people without any work. Over 40% of the Timorese population survives (or tries to) on less than $1 USD per day.
Everywhere we went around Dili and its surroundings we saw and learned about massive, yet failed, projects – failed resorts, failed harbors, failed attractions, failed development schemes – that are now sitting ‘temporarily’ abandoned, billions upon billions of dollars possibly having been wasted.
All the while, in comparison, the rural communities supposedly receive little attention or assistance, there are slums around Dili without any electricity or sanitation and things such as healthcare and education don’t seem to be high up on the agenda. Locals we spoke with pointed out that the population is being neglected while the government pins its hopes, and the economy, on large-scale, quick-fix solutions that rarely seem to work out.
The infrastructure is poor at best, trash is piling up, too. Believe me, that stunning white sand beach in the photo at the top of this post has its fair share of plastic bottles scattered all over it.
Markets were full of stalls yet barely any shoppers. Everywhere you went people were just hanging around with nothing else to do. This is East Timor, too.
Travel to East Timor: The Challenges
With a history that involves Portuguese rule starting in 1702, Indonesian occupation from 1975 – 1999, brutal massacres and starvation thrown in, as well as literally being far removed from the rest of the world, it’s understandable that this relatively new country is struggling to get on its feet. It’s only been fully independent since 2002.
Spending an hour in the Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum (their website is quite barebones) is enough to leave anyone overwhelmed with grief at what the people of this country have had to endure. It’s not pretty.
Also, the population of just over 1 million people speak a couple of dozen different languages. I imagine it’s quite difficult to create a strong sense of unity or a real identity to build upon when everyone isn’t on the same page in terms of general communication.
Imagine walking through your capital city. One sign is in Portuguese, the next in Tetum, the next in English and then there’s one in Bahasa Indonesia. Now imagine that you can only speak one, maybe two of those languages, at best. I only met one person, who had the good fortune to be educated in Portugal, that spoke all of the main languages above. There are 14 languages with at least 10,000 speakers and while Portuguese is one of two national languages (the other is Tetum), it’s the first language of only 600 people.
That’s a challenge.
It was tough to see so many people struggling in this current situation. A great deal of work needs to be done for it all to improve, however, most Timorese I met were not too hopeful.
Anyway, this is not a political post. I wanted to travel to East Timor, I went and this post is the first result.
Travel to East Timor: The AMAZING
So, I’ll now say this.
What really is fascinating in this country is not the beaches or mountains or colorful fish swimming around the reefs. It’s the fact that despite all of the above, somehow, almost everyone we met showered us with those beaming Timorese smiles and enthusiastic thumbs up that I will never forget.
I can barely crack a smile when I feel a little tired or I need to spend an hour sending emails. Quite pathetic when I think about it, I know.
The word ‘amazing’ is quite overused these days but I really don’t hesitate for a moment to use it in order to describe the kindness and warmth we experienced as we wandered around.
I’ll end the post with this. Go and travel to East Timor. Really.
Enjoy the beaches and mountains and snorkeling and markets and all that. Buy the handmade crafts. They are colorful and impressive and they cost so little. The people need it. They need the money, the jobs, the infrastructure and perhaps even more importantly, they need the awareness of their story.
The only way to help with that last part is to remember that, wherever you venture in this country, the people all around you have gone through quite an ordeal and are struggling more than you could possibly imagine.
So be sure to smile back, give a thumbs up, too, introduce yourself and get to know as many people as you can. They are wildly friendly and they would love to interact with you, in whatever combination of languages you can.
Believe me, it’s these interactions, and what you will learn from them, that will turn your trip to East Timor into a trip like no other. Digging deeper is the key and it should be on every traveler’s itinerary.
Have you ever thought about traveling to East Timor? Any questions?
(More details on how to travel to East Timor, getting around, where to stay and more in my next post.)
It’s January. It’s Monday. I’m on the island of Bali. It’s my 6251st day of travel.
I’m sitting here at a nice wooden table, with a ceiling fan whirling above my head and a mosquito whizzing around my left ankle. To my right I hear the occasional churning of an espresso machine. Behind me I hear some chatter in accents ranging from Australian to German to American to others my brain is not able to recognize.
In front of me is a wall with a painting of a man with a unicorn on his head. It says “I believe in unicorn” in blue writing. Behind that wall is the rest of the Dojo Bali co-working space that I’ve been hanging out at lately.
There’s a swimming pool in the back, a loft, a water dispenser, tables everywhere and some good people working away on their laptops. I think they’re good people anyway, I don’t really know.
I’m a bit jittery this morning. It’s not the coffee though, as I’ve only had one sip. Maybe it’s because I haven’t done as much exercise lately as I was planning on doing.
Either way, I need to get some work done.
Let me check my to-do list for the day:
– answer emails
– look at new ways to promote this year’s Wandering Earl Tours
– clean my flip-flops
– order a birthday gift for my mom (important!)
– update my How to Work on a Cruise Ship eBook
– create a presentation for the workshop I’m giving on Thursday at the co-working space
– 2pm: Skype call with a travel startup based in Dubai about possibliy becoming an advisor
And write a blog post. I didn’t actually put that one on the list for some reason.
Shrimp burrito, please. That’s what I’ll have for lunch. A bunch of people from this co-working space are going to a nearby Mexican restaurant at 1pm. My girlfriend and I will join them. I just pre-ordered a shrimp burrito.
Oh shoot, speaking of burritos…I need to purchase flights to Dili, East Timor for next week. We need to do a visa run as our current 30 day visa for Bali ends on the 15th of January. The plan is to take the short flight over to East Timor, stay there for 5 days and then come back to the island of Bali for another 30 days afterwards.
East Timor. Here’s an odd story for you.
Back in 1998, I ate dinner one night at a Tibetan restaurant on Main Street in the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, USA. There were five of us at that dinner. Two of us were university students and members of the local Students for a Free Tibet chapter, one was a Tibetan woman and the last two were Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta. If you’re not familiar with Xanana and Jose, they would both end up becoming Presidents of East Timor after the tiny nation achieved independence later on, in 2002.
I don’t even know how I ended up at that dinner. But there was I, eating Tibetan momos and noodle soup with two future presidents of East Timor.
And now I’m actually going to visit their country. Maybe I should look them up.
[5 minute break]
I’m back. I just sent a message to Jose Ramos-Horta through his Facebook page. Let’s see if he remembers that Tibetan dinner way back then. I doubt it, but you never know!
[2 hour break]
That shrimp burrito was good.
During lunch I also had a nice conversation with a guy from Belarus and a soft spoken gentleman from Turkey, both of whom have lived in Chicago and are passing through Southeast Asia. This island of Bali sure is a popular place. We were also invited to a BBQ this weekend by a Lithuanian fellow sitting at our end of the table.
I’ll tell you this about travel. Once you get out there into the world, it doesn’t take long to realize that everyone is just looking for a place to fit in. Travelers certainly feel joy and belonging just from becoming part of that cool global gang known as, well, travelers.
After all, there is no initiation or application – as soon as you get on a plane or train or bus, you’re part of the group. You can actually be part of the group before then too, why not?
– You like to travel?
– Yes I do.
– (High five)
– Boom, we’re travelers!
But here’s the catch…
Through my travels, I’ve also realized that fitting in doesn’t really have anything to do with other people at all. Fitting in is more about feeling comfortable with yourself and not deviating from who you are at your core. When we don’t need to alter our behavior and we can stay true to ourselves, that’s when we actually fit in…everywhere.
And travel does allow us to feel comfortable with ourselves.
As we constantly interact with people of different nationalities, beliefs, perspectives, interests and personalities, we learn that there is no need to pretend to be someone else or to put on a show or to do anything apart from being who we really are and want to be.
When we travel, we quickly learn that nobody cares. Nobody cares about our faults and defects and quirks. Most humans just want to meet and interact with genuine people – whether it’s for a few seconds, a few weeks or more – and most people are more than happy to accept anyone just the way they are.
My coffee is getting cold. Let me take the final sip because here on the island of Bali they love clearing your cups away before you’ve finished.
I just looked up and noticed that man with the unicorn on his head again. It puts a smile on my face, even though I don’t believe in unicorns.
Anyway, my conclusion is this – the only group we need to belong to is ourselves. It’s that simple. That’s really how we belong everywhere else.
I’ve learned this from my travels, through long talks with my girlfriend and in the pages of certain books. And it repeatedly proves itself to be true. The more comfortable I am with myself, the more comfortable I am with everyone else.
So this is me, Derek Earl Baron: 40-years old, American, long-term traveler, currently on the island of Bali, slightly goofy, not so comfortable dancing, patient, don’t take things too seriously but can be cynical at times, bored easily, curious, always need to strive for more, analytical mind, sometimes talk too much, very part-time yoga practicer, enjoy being around people but prefer meaningful conversations over polite chit chat, vegetarian most of the time, armpit shaver.
Who are you? Does travel help you be that person? Please share below.
*Oh, Jose Ramos-Horta (or one of his staff) has read my Facebook message. But no reply yet. Oh well.
How could I turn down an offer to visit a remote village in Nepal?
After all, I’ve known my friend Bhudiman for over 5 years.
When I first started organizing tours to India back in 2012, I was connected to Bhudiman through a mutual friend and he instantly became my most trusted driver for these group trips. Not only that, despite his limited English and my limited Hindi and Nepali, we became quick friends.
Bhudiman has now been the main driver for all of the tours that I’ve led to India and my tours would not be the same without him. And while he’s lived in India for over 20 years, he’s originally from Nepal, which he travels back and forth to several times per year in order to spend time with his family.
He has always invited me to join him in his home village too, but I usually couldn’t fit it into my schedule. So, after a few years of this, Bhudiman put his foot down this year and basically demanded that I visit his home.
After my Wander Across India tour ended in November, I finally went to Bhudi’s remote village in Nepal and this is how it went…
VIDEO: My Visit to a Remote Village in Nepal
My Visit to a Remote Village in Nepal - YouTube
To make this trip happen, Bhudiman and I flew from Delhi to Bagdogra, a small town on the opposite side of India. From there we took a bus, followed by a taxi, until we reached the simple border crossing at the town of Kakarbhitta. The Nepali immigration office there consisted of a small, unmanned desk in a dark room. I eventually found an immigration officer out back, I handed over the $25 USD fee and received a 2-week visa in my passport.
We then took another bus and another taxi until we eventually arrived at Bhudiman’s village, Asculchon, in the Jhapa region of the country.
I actually can’t even find anything at all about it online. I’m not even sure if Bhudiman is 100% certain that this is the name of his village!
As you can see, I enjoyed two full days of hanging out with Bhudiman and his family, meeting his brothers and sisters, visiting markets and schools and friends’ homes, riding a motorbike through the countryside, eating wonderful home-cooked food, chatting late into the night, walking through the rice fields, having a drink at the local bar, throwing down dozens of cups of chai, taking bucket showers in the very simple outhouse and basically having such a unique experience that it can barely be put into words.
It really was beyond memorable.
Also, Bhudi and his family are always happy to have visitors so if you ever want to visit this village in Nepal too, let me know and we can try to make it happen!
Have you ever been to a remote village? How was your experience? Is this kind of travel for you?
About two years ago, I started doing something that pretty much guarantees I get an Airbnb discount every time I book accommodation with Airbnb (the website that allows you to book rooms, apartments and homes all around the world).
It wasn’t some crazy secret that I had uncovered or some complicated trick that I figured out over time. It was simply an idea that came into my mind one day.
Here’s how it works:
I send a message to the host before I make a booking.
Yes, I write the host a message, and as you’ll see below, there’s a good reason for it.
First, while Airbnb does try to keep the blue “Contact host” button quite hidden, it does exist and is usually right there on each listing page, just under the property description.
So all I do is click that “Contact host” link and write my message.
In my message, I simply ask for a discount. This really does work and it works even better if your arrival date is less than a month away. Why? At this point, the host will naturally be more motivated to rent out their place for fear of not renting it at all during that period of time.
With that said, this little Airbnb discount trick still tends to work no matter how far in advance you are making your booking, which is why you should always give it a try.
What I typically do is come up with an amount that I want to pay for my stay and I write something such as, “I see your apartment is listed at $500 for two weeks. If you could make that $400 I’d book it right now.”
And then I also provide some details about myself so that the host feels more confident in me as a renter. I’ll include something like “we’re clean, laid-back, we work from home and we don’t party or cause any issues.”
Basically, the idea is to explain to the host that they don’t have to worry at all about you or their apartment/house, making the deal even better for them.
In addition, I’ll also try to use some of the local language as it shows some respect to the host and lets them know that you are an experienced traveler.
An overall message might look like this:
“Dobry den Eva,
I hope you’re doing well. We’re coming to Prague from September 10th – 20th and your apartment really caught our attention. I noticed the price for 10 days is $410 USD. If you could offer us the place for around $330 USD, we’d book it right now. We’re laid-back, we’ll definitely keep the apartment very clean, we actually both work on our laptops from home most mornings and then we like to just wander around the city in the afternoons. We’re not party people and we’ll always respect all the rules of your place. Let me know when you can and we look forward to hopefully staying at your beautiful apartment!
What happens next is that I’ll usually receive a reply from the host followed by a “Special Offer” email from Airbnb. These emails come in when a host has changed the listed price and is offering you a stay at a discounted rate.
I just went through my last six Airbnb stays (Gran Canaria, Prague, Dubrovnik, Kotor, Athens and Mauritius). Sure enough, a discount was received on all of them. The smallest discount was 6% and the largest was 25%.
And it all happened by sending one quick email to the host. That one message creates a human connection which is something that a normal Airbnb booking, or any accommodation booking, lacks if you just book it right away.
When we make a personal connection, everyone involved tends to worry less and feel more confident in whatever we are trying to do. In this case, a host will feel more inclined to give a discount and trust their incoming guests if those guests reach out and give a good first impression.
At least that’s how it’s worked for me!
For those wanting to give this Airbnb discount trick a try, here’s an Airbnb link that will also give you up to $40 off your next booking.
Have you ever tried the above? Any success? Any other Airbnb discount tricks to share?
It’s time for the second episode of my “Life of Travel” video series. This episode was filmed on the rooftop of the wonderful Dev Niwas Hotel in the magical town of Bundi, India.
Bundi is one of my favorite destinations in all of India and as you’ll see in the video, it has a lot to do with its setting. With a massive palace dug into the side of the mountain and a huge fort covering the summit, with a maze of lanes full of old, charming, pastel-colored homes and a population that is perhaps the warmest and most genuine in the country, there’s a reason why travelers have a hard time leaving.
In this episode, I talk a little about Bundi before answering some more of the travel questions that you’ve submitted to me over the past couple of weeks.
I hope you enjoy!
Life of Travel: Episode 2 (Bundi, India) - YouTube
If you have any questions about Bundi or India or anything else travel-related, simply leave a comment below, send me an email or get in touch with me on social media. I’d be happy to assist in any way I can!
From here in my living room in the Canary Islands, I’ve put together a video this morning.
In Part 1, I provide a short update on exactly where I am, what I’ve been up to and what’s next as I continue my 18 year adventure around the world.
In Part 2, I answer some of the interesting travel questions I’ve received from readers over the past week. Topics include…
– how to access funds while traveling
– how long it takes for a blog to start earning money
– would I recommend the Maldives or Seychelles for snorkeling/diving
– getting the most out of a short trip
– dealing with friendships and relationships while constantly traveling
– finding work while traveling
– how I handle bribes
– the best ways to meet people in new destinations
I hope you enjoy the video! (All feedback welcome.)
Life of Travel: Episode 1 (Gran Canaria) - YouTube
Any travel questions?
If you have any questions you’d like me to answer on the next episode of Life of Travel, just reply to this email and let me know. The next video will be from India in about a week.
Two weeks ago, we were in Prague for a 5 night stay. It’s a popular city of course, with that impressive Baroque architecture, imposing castles and Gothic churches and an Old Town that everyone in the world seems eager to explore these days.
As a result, it should’ve been no surprise when we ran into some difficultly finding accommodation.
I’ll admit, we started looking for a room a little late, about a month before our arrival, but we still didn’t expect such a lack of availability. Hotels and guesthouses were full, the handful of Airbnb places left were extremely expensive and hostels only had beds open in their dorm rooms.
We eventually did book an Airbnb apartment in a decent location that popped up out of nowhere one day. It was a little risky though as it only had a few reviews and not much information to go on. But the price was pretty good so we jumped on it.
But then, a few days later, I began communicating with a company called Small Charming Hotels. A friend of mine put me in touch with them as they were looking for a blogger to check out their small hotels in Prague. I figured, why not? I was going to be in Prague anyway and I do like finding lesser known things to do, places to eat and places to stay. And if things went well and they really did offer the kind of accommodation I’d stay at myself, perhaps we could collaborate.
That’s how I ended up meeting their friendly office manager, Hedvika, inside the lobby of Hotel Anna, one of the handful of properties this company manages.
Here’s how I’ll describe Hotel Anna – cute, cozy, located in a central, yet quiet, part of the city, more like a family-run guesthouse, with good-sized, simple, but comfortably furnished rooms that are ideal for budget travelers.
There you go.
Breakfast is included, the staff are all very helpful and full of smiles (something you don’t see everywhere in Prague!) and the prices are more than reasonable for what you get. The hotel is only a 20 minute walk from the heart of the old town (known as Prague 1) which is perfect for those of us that don’t want to be among massive crowds every time we step out the door. As one of the hotels in Prague 2, it’s right in the hip Vinohrady neighborhood, which is where our local friends in the city actually wanted to hang out in the evenings. Plenty of lively cafes, unique bars and great restaurants all around.
Remember, this isn’t Bucharest where you can still find a great hotel room in the heart of the city for $45 USD per night or even less. This is the even more popular Prague, so you can expect to pay more. But in terms of value, for this location and style of accommodation, Hotel Anna is without a doubt very fairly priced.
Had I known about them beforehand, and had I not been traveling to Prague during high season when it seemed there were no rooms available anywhere, I would have booked a room with them myself.
The idea behind Small Charming Hotels is exactly what the name suggests – to create a collection of small, charming hotels in this city that are all run with the same laid-back, personal approach. A guesthouse feel with the comfort of an actual hotel.
It’s like the trend we’re seeing with hostels these days. Upscale hostels are on the rise where you get the budget-friendly prices of a hostel with a few more hotel-like facilities. This company in Prague simply offers the key benefits of a proper hotel while adding the more personal and inexpensive characteristics of a guesthouse. It seems to be the way things are going.
That’s my experience learning about Hotel Anna. For budget travelers heading to Prague, especially if there’s two of you, their rooms are definitely worth checking out.
Even better, for a 10% discount at any property managed by Small Charming Hotels, use this special promo code: BLOG (code is valid for 2 months)
Have you been to Prague? Any questions about Hotel Anna?
On October 26th, I’ll be leaving Gran Canaria and making my way to India. And with that trip, I shall say a big goodbye to all the countries in Europe as I won’t be back before the end of the year.
I’ve actually spent a decent amount of time traveling around Europe in 2017 though, much more than usual. I think it’s been 12 countries.
My European experiences began back in February when I flew from Miami to India, changing planes in Frankfurt. I had a long 6 hour layover there, most of which I spent half-asleep in one of the airport lounges (thanks to the Priority Pass that comes with my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card). I remember eating a sandwich at some point and then, before I knew it I was boarding my second flight, Frankfurt to Kuwait.
It was a quick stop but my subsequent visits to this continent would certainly be longer.
This post is a recap of all the countries in Europe that I’ve visited this year, with my personal highlights and a couple of recommendations in case you happen to be headed to any of the same destinations.
12 Countries in Europe
In May, I landed in Athens. My girlfriend and I were in Greece to meet up with my mom who had traveled in from the US. We spent 5 days in Athens followed by a week on the island of Santorini. I really enjoyed Athens. With a nice list of interesting neighborhoods to explore, plenty of historical sights beyond the Acropolis, excellent food, markets (the Monastiraki Flea Market is definitely worth a visit) and pretty good weather year round, it’s a city that offers plenty to do no matter what kind of traveler you may be.
Highlights (Athens) – The food. I mean, it was nice walking around the Plaka neighborhood and all that but the food, anywhere we sat to eat, was the real highlight. Give me eggplant, fava (split peas), saganaki (grilled cheese), tzatziki, salad and stuffed vine leaves every day and you will have no complaints from me!
Highlights (Santorini) – I could just say everything and that would indeed be true but to be more specific – the magical village of Imerovigli, the stunning walk to Oia, renting a car and driving to Akrotiri, sunset every single night over the caldera and the Venetsanos winery…and the food (Argo restaurant = some of the best food I’ve ever eaten).
Accommodation (Santorini) – Merovigla Studios – Great low-key, budget place with large rooms and perhaps the best location on Santorini, with perfect views across the island and water (see the photo above!). It’s situated in the small, cliff-top village of Imerovigli, away from the big crowds of the more popular Fira but only a beautiful 20 minute walk away.
We came to Tirana, Albania pretty much for no reason. We had a few days in between Greece and meeting up with one of my closest friends in Montenegro so we chose the conveniently located Tirana as our stopover. It was my second time here and we spent most of our four day stay wandering around various neighborhoods, hanging out and working at a handful of cafes and just taking it easy. There aren’t a ton of things to do or see here but that was perfectly fine with us. Besides, as you’ll see below, the main highlight of our visit was exactly the kind of main highlight that I prefer!
Highlights (Tirana) – My favorite experience by far involved a hair dresser in the Blloku district of the city, the Italian language and a local fish restaurant. Here’s the full story.
Accommodation (Tirana) – Vila e Arte – Small, quiet hotel with comfortable budget rooms right in the city center. For around $35 per night, it’s a great deal. Includes a nice breakfast, too.
Once it was time to meet my friend, we took a ride from Tirana across the border and up to the small town of Kotor, Montenegro. It was also my second time here but this is one of the countries in Europe that I wouldn’t mind returning to over and over again. Montenegro itself is small and the town of Kotor is tiny, and quiet, but the setting is gorgeous right there at the end of a mountain-lined bay. The old town is atmospheric and full of charm and the whole place just feels like you’ve been transported into a fairy tale.
Highlights (Kotor) – All it takes in Kotor is one look out the window at the mountains, one stroll along the water or one wander through the narrow lanes of the old walled town to feel good. There is pretty much nothing to do here apart from enjoying the dramatic setting but, hey, sometimes that’s all you need for a rewarding trip. If you venture into the old town, make sure you do so in the morning, afternoon and evening…it has a different feel each time. And just before sunset, head up the path to the Castle Of San Giovanni to really get an idea of your surroundings. It’s worth the hike. (For food, go to the inexpensive waterfront Konoba Akustik for an excellent meal and try to find the very local Fortuna Food for a quick, dirt-cheap and very delicious lunch.
Oh dear Croatia. This was my third time to Croatia and second visit to Dubrovnik. And once again, I struggled. It’s a pretty place, without a doubt. The old town is indeed interesting and pleasing to the eye. But just like my previous visits, I just don’t get what all the fuss is about that brings so many people to this town. I must be a weirdo, that’s the only conclusion I can reach.
Highlights (Dubrovnik) – Watching the sunset every evening from the balcony of our Airbnb. And taking the ferry along the coast to the village of Cavtat was pleasant, too. Apart from that though, I’m not sure what else to list.
On the other hand…I love Italy. How can you go wrong here, at least as a tourist? With that said, there were only 2 reasons that we came to Italy on this occasion. The first was to hang out with some friends and second was to go with those friends to the Guns N Roses concert in the town of Imola. The friends lived in Pisa, so that’s where we spent our first 4 days and then we went to the concert and spent two nights in Bologna after that.
Highlights – The Guns N Roses concert!! Apart from getting there super early and standing in the sun for 8 hours before they came on stage, it was excellent and well worth traveling to Italy for. And of course, I also had a great time meeting my girlfriend’s friends, eating real Italian food (awesome pizza at In Provincia di Pizza just outside of Pisa) and just being in Pisa itself, away from the leaning tower and crowds, soaking up the atmosphere of the regular neighborhoods with someone who had actually lived there.
The trip to Germany was to visit another friend of mine in Berlin. The idea was to spend all of our time in that one city and that’s exactly what we ended up doing. The days were spent working, wandering around different areas, hanging out with my friend, eating good, cheap food and shopping for warm clothes as the autumn winds and low temperatures hit us quite unexpectedly.
Highlights (Berlin) – The food market on Thursday nights in the Kreuzberg neighborhood, the Kreuzberg neighborhood itself with all its local eateries, cafes, parks and inspiring vibe and a vegan Vietnamese restaurant we found called Soy. Vegan or not, it’s mighty good. We went three times. One of the best restaurants I’ve found all year actually, and cheap.
Accommodation – Leonardo Royal Hotel Alexanderplatz – We went for a little splurge here and it was a solid choice. Very comfortable rooms in the city center, close to public transportation and within walking distance to Alexanderplatz and all kinds of restaurants, cafes, nightlife and activities.
The time had come for the Midsummer Festival! And to meet up with some more of my girlfriend’s family and friends. It was a great combination for a trip to this beautiful country, my first visit back here in many years. Our destination was not Stockholm though. We were in the far, far, far lesser known towns of…Skovde and Lidkoping. Much to do in these places? Nope. But any slice of Sweden seems to come with that uniquely enchanting, calming ambience that is quite appealing at all times and which only a handful of countries in Europe can offer.
Highlights – Beautiful nature everywhere. We were in places that nobody has ever heard of but it doesn’t matter. All you need to do in Sweden is go for a walk. Find a trail near a lake, head off into the middle of some fields, find a forest path…even the 10 minute walk from where we were staying in Skovde to the supermarket was filled with enough beautiful nature to instantly turn a bad mood into a good one.
At this point, it was time for me to lead my Wandering Earl Wander Across Romania Tour and so I flew to Bucharest. I arrived a couple of days before the tour began and then for two weeks I traveled around with my group. We visited Brasov, Sighisoara, Corund, Cluj-Napoca, Hunedoara, Sibiu and the Transfagarasan and no matter how many times I travel around this country, I simply can’t get enough of it. Trust me when I say that Romania is going to be on everyone’s travel radar very soon!
Highlights – The region of Corund. This was the first time I took my group to this region and it won’t be the last. I’m talking about real, traditional life out here, nothing touristy whatsoever. We ate with locals in their homes, visited their local workshops (not operating for tourists), met so many local people, tasted their homemade drinks, roamed around beautiful, remote plateaus, visited a straw hat museum (sounds corny but it’s pretty damn cool) and more. My 2018 Romania tours will also include this region as it’s perhaps the most local and authentic place I’ve ever visited in Europe.
Accommodation – Casa Lia in Sighisoara – This one is my favorite. Run by a sweet couple, it’s a chance to have a real homestay in the heart of this medieval village. Comfy, low-cost rooms with hospitality like you won’t believe. It’s not just accommodation, it’s a complete and wonderful travel experience.
Second time in Budapest. And sort of like with Dubrovnik, I’ve still yet to join the masses and become a huge fan. It certainly has nice buildings but I just didn’t connect with the place again. Maybe it was because I had arrived from Romania, one of my favorite countries in Europe. No idea.
Highlights (Budapest) – Our nightly walks along the Danube River, past the famous Parliament building, across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and around the area of the Buda Castle. The Central Market Hall was good to visit as well, but compared to the last time I was there, it seems to have become specifically a tourist destination.
Back to Romania…this time to visit my girlfriend’s aunt in the small village of Pesac. We went from city to city for much of our European travels and then suddenly, there we were, in the quiet countryside. Surrounded by dirt roads with well-maintained country homes, forests and fields, large family gardens, horse-drawn carts, cows and goats and dogs roaming around and a complete lack of noise, pollution, traffic or any worry whatsoever, it was the most serene experience I’ve had this year. Throw in some home-cooked food, much of which was made from locally grown products, some local home-made wine, evenings outside walking and chatting in the warm air and some wonderfully kind people…and I quickly realized how unnecessarily complicated we human beings have made our lives.
Highlights – Every single meal (such good food!!), the evening walks through the village and letting go of that idea that I need to constantly be running around doing something ‘exciting’. Just being around good people and good food, while breathing in good air, brings far more joy and excitement than we tend to realize.
When you’re only 30 minutes from the border with Serbia, it’s worth going across for a weekend trip. And so off we went, spending a couple of nights in Belgrade. I enjoy visiting Belgrade. I can’t quite pinpoint what it is that I like but the big city has a welcoming, laid-back atmosphere along with nice markets, decent food, parks and quaint neighborhoods, great nightlife and a very livable feel. Again, it’s hard for me to give specifics but I’ve just had an overall positive experience during my two visits to this city.
Highlights (Belgrade) – The long walk that leads from the Belgrade Fortress at the edge of the Danube and Sava Rivers, up the bustling Knez Mihailova pedestrian street, through the Skadarlija neighborhood with it’s old-style restaurants, cafes and bars and then twisting through the residential streets heading east until you reach the Pijaca Kalenić Farmer’s Market. There’s lots of historical sights along the way and the Nikola Tesla Museum as well.
Accommodation (Belgrade) – Centar Guesthouse – We thought this was a joke when we found it online. It seemed way too cheap for the extremely central location and seemingly good rooms. Turned out to be real. Simple, clean rooms with everything you need, modern bathrooms and less than 20 seconds walk from the main Republic Square, all for 35 Euros.
Our original plan was to spend 6 weeks in Prague but after getting a late start on our apartment search, there wasn’t much left for a good price and location. So we decided to simply stop here for 5 days en route to the Canary Islands instead. Anyway, Prague is popular, it’s beautiful, it’s one of those cities that definitely needs to be seen. Of course, we spent some time checking out the major sights – the castle, the cathedrals, the old town, Wenceslas Square and so on – but it turned out to be the time we spent away from those places that really stuck in our minds.
Highlights (Prague) – An evening out with friends in the vibrant Vinohrady neighborhood and our afternoon wander to Vyšehrad, an old fortress in the south part of the city along the Vltava River. While it might not be as well-known as other landmarks in the city, it makes for a great afternoon excursion. Walking all over the hilltop site allows you to escape from the massive crowds of tourists and the noise of the old town, while still soaking up some interesting history (check out The Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul) and great views over the city.
That brings me to Spain. Technically, I’m in Spain, although, not on the mainland. I’m in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands. And since Prague didn’t work out as a long-term destination, Gran Canaria took that role instead. So far, I’d say this was definitely the right decision. Not only is Gran Canaria full of really awesome things to do and see – mountains, villages, beaches, sand dunes, hiking trails, remote national parks, surfing and more – but Las Palmas is one of the most livable cities I’ve ever been to. For a fraction of what it costs to live in most countries in Europe, you get perfect weather, a laid-back island lifestyle, excellent Spanish food, a large international community of travelers, digital nomads and expats and no shortage of activities and events to join. With two weeks left of our stay here, we already understand why so many people claim this island to be one of the most ideal places to hang out in Europe!
Highlights – The ridiculously gorgeous drive we did the other day. We went from Las Palmas to the Point of Galdar, over to the picturesque towns of Agaete and Puerto de las Nieves, and then way up into the mountains. We drove along narrow, cliffside roads that took us on a several hour, remote adventure that, apart from being a death-defying experience, offered some of the most impressive scenery I’ve seen in a long, long time. I genuinely can’t wait to explore some more.
So, thank you Europe. It’s been a most rewarding year and I look forward to visiting more of you in 2018. Countries such as Poland, Denmark and Belarus are high up on the list!
Did you visit Europe this year? Are you planning a trip to any countries in Europe, maybe next year? Any questions?
On the wall is some graffiti that I can’t make much sense of. I think there are small round robots buzzing about, working on computers and talking on the phone. The table where I sit is long and white. There are four of us sitting here, laptops open, yet eight seats still remain empty. Inside this space it feels modern and industrial, yet welcoming enough, with wires hanging form the ceiling, a minimalist design and a front door that opens with the use of an app.
Outside plastered on the wall across the street is an advertisement for rum, next to a brown door that leads to a currently closed nightclub. In front of the wall and the door stands a tall green parking meter on the sidewalk.
How did I end up here in the Canary Islands? I hear a coffee machine rumble in the back of the room. There is a small yellow wooden duck on wheels only inches from my laptop, its black dot of an eye staring me down since I got here. It is the duck that won’t stop asking me how I ended up here. A middle-aged man with a worn out backpack, holding in his hand a salad in a plastic container, straight from the supermarket, just walked in to the room and sat down across from me.
I need to pee.
It reminds me of high school. Not the duck or the salad or the robots. The need to pee. Too often would I be at a high school party or a gathering at a friend’s house and despite the need to use the bathroom, I would just remain seated on a sofa or chair, for minutes, hours actually. My fear was that I would stand up, walk across the room and trip over my own two feet. And people would laugh. So I wouldn’t get up.
I’m more confident now of course. If I need to go, I go.
Sometimes the thought crosses my mind at the most random of moments, the thought that I’ve been traveling for 18 years. The funny thing is that no matter how long that thought stays in my head, a half a second or ten minutes, it always leaves my eyes ever so slightly covered in moisture. They are not tears though. It’s an impossibly thin layer of wetness that appears and then dries up almost immediately afterwards.
Is it a quick wash of these old dusty eyes? I like to believe it is the flash of a transparent curtain that marks yet another scene in this never-ending adventure.
Scene #4281: 5 Weeks in Las Palmas
Yes, this current scene takes place in the Canary Islands. I’m hunkered down in the town of Las Palmas on the island of Gran Canaria. We’ve rented a large apartment near the ocean, for five weeks, five whole weeks in Las Palmas, rented on Airbnb for 1000 Euros. A routine, a closet for my clothes, a renewed dedication to my push-up regimen, a sea breeze as soon as I walk out the door and two extremely chill pugs sitting on the street corner that I look forward to seeing every day.
Our apartment is far from being homey though. A couple of hallways and empty spaces too many, cold areas that seem to serve no purpose. But my stuff is scattered around nonetheless and this apartment is slowly becoming that place I return to and which I recognize. How odd indeed.
Only two small blocks from our pad on Calle Fernando Guanarteme is where you’ll find Playa de las Canteras. Sometimes I think I need the beach to be happy. It’s a golden black beach here, far from the white sands we dream of, yet it’s still an ideal location for an hour or two sprawled out on my cheap beach towel, Kindle in hand. Low constant waves, cool and lightly tinted turquoise water, topless sunbathers, flocks of surfers, views of the town and distant mountains whenever I sit up and look around.
Behind the beach sits the long boardwalk, the Paseo Las Canteras, that stretches perhaps two miles from the funky-looking Auditorio Alfredo Kraus in the south to Calle Prudencio Morales in the north. We walk much of this boardwalk every day. It’s alive with tourists, locals, cafes and bars, the occasional street performer, runners and groups of friends. I like the energy in the evening, the low lighting, the chatter, the boom of the waves.
The boardwalk is our real base. It’s the foundation of our stay here so far and unlikely to change over these five weeks in Las Palmas. There won’t be a day that we do not stroll upon it, at least once.
Fresh seafood, tapas of all sorts and home-cooked delights are found on every corner in Las Palmas, along the water, in the small, still lanes, on the main avenidas. A table on the boardwalk, a bottle of local wine, paella for two. 20 Euros. Potatoes arrugadas con mojo with grilled octopus, some grouper and a plate of fried cheese. 20 Euros. And satisfying. La Taperia, a cozy restaurant that we blindly entered on our first night, has proven to be a favorite. La Tosca Lonja around the corner served up Spanish seafood in divine form. That alluring Spanish flair helps of course, from the surrounding architecture to the bustling about of the dedicated waitstaff to the loud conversations that hum like meditative chants.
On Saturday we went for a long afternoon walk. One and a half hours each way. Through the commercial center of Las Palmas and along the other coast, the more residential and affluent section, with its streets loaded up on villas, private schools and language institutes. Twenty minutes later and things shifted. A bit darker, a bit more rundown, with people just sitting on the curb smoking their cigarettes and giving us a quick, grumpy ‘what’s your deal?’ kind of glance. And then another street crossed and we found ourselves in the most quaint and atmospheric neighborhood yet, and we cut straight through it along the overly pleasant pedestrian lane of Calle Perez Galdos, with its sense of art, active residents, attractive eateries and charming street lamps.
Las Palmas has it all.
After some time lost in conversation and smiles, we came upon an old, blue, mint condition palace. It’s now a music conservatory. We passed a small park with a colorful playground. And then a Burger King and the Catedral de Santa Ana before we landed on the steps of the Casa de Colon, right among the weathered, empty structures and narrow passageways of Vegueta.
We spent an hour wandering this museum, sprawled among four historic, connected Canarian homes, all while learning about Cristobal Colon, or Christopher Columbus. We also battled two giant parrots that fiercely guarded a courtyard leading towards the exit. Columbus visited the Canary Islands on several occasions. The first time in 1492 in order to stock up his fleet and fix a rudder on the Pinta before heading off towards the unknown. It appers he spent several weeks in Las Palmas too.
Columbus seemed unable to sit still. Each time he returned home from a voyage, he soon set off for yet another.
I also have trouble sitting still. Maybe that’s why I worked on cruise ships at one point. The constant journeys to New Worlds. New Worlds to me at least.
When I stay in one place, I do get anxious. It’s as if my body and mind still think we are constantly on the go. They get confused by the closet with my clothes inside, by the sight of the same bed for more than a few nights, by the lack of urgency to explore. As I attempt to sit quietly, they instead shout, “Do this, do that. We must do and see everything there is to do and see here by this Friday.”
Not this time. We will visit the neighboring island of Tenerife in due time. We will drive around Gran Canaria, climb mountains, visit villages and get lost, oh yes, in due time. We have plenty of that now. Time. And my body and mind will have to learn to live with it.
Last night on a stroll through the lively Parque de Santa Catalina I actually saw two cruise ships docked in port. As always, I was nostalgic for a few moments as I recalled my old teammates from around the world and those quiet times when I just stood on the open deck watching the flying fish and wondering what lay beyond the horizon.
But these two mighty vessels I saw yesterday, and all their passengers, would of course be gone by morning, without me. As would the flights and buses and trains of the world.
Now I shall stay put. An exchange of New Worlds for New Experiments.
And what better place to give this a shot than Las Palmas. Life is easy here. You can enjoy your surroundings within minutes of arrival and there really isn’t much to worry about. Food, people, atmosphere. Easy.
My eyes have watered again. 18 years. I feel hungry right now as I sit here at the Coworking Canary Islands location in Las Palmas. The one with the robots on the walls and the long white table. And the duck staring me down.
I start to think of volcanoes and ferries. But then I think of making a salad in my kitchen.
This is me trying to make sense of being a traveler in one place for some time.
I think I can handle five weeks in Las Palmas. I’m excited to find out.
Thoughts on slow travel? Have you been to the Canary Islands?
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