#12: Alpine Driving School

Twenty. That’s how old I was in the winter of 1994 when I returned to Europe on my very first international mileage reward trip.

While I was smart enough to figure out how to wrangle an award ticket across the Atlantic as a university student in 1994, I hadn’t exactly honed my life skills in common sense. The good thing about life, however, is that it will teach you lessons along the road. This is the story of what I learned by accident in what I like to call “Alpine Driving School.”

It was a cold and snowy January morning when my friend Lisa and I arrived by overnight train into the mountain town of Innsbruck, Austria. We had no plan, just backpacks and winter clothes more suitable for Alabama then the Alps. We ignored the information desks and hostel helpers in the train station, took our our Let’s Go, and sleepily stumbled out into the snowy day.

(Let me digress to say that in 1994, Let’s Go was the guide book that everyone backpacking Europe had stashed in their gear. Lonely Planet wasn’t much on the scene, and since there was no tripadvisor, hostels.com, or googlemaps yet, a traveler had only this typically incorrect and outdated information and their intuition to figure out where the hell they were and which direction they should turn outside the train station door to navigate to the center of town and away from the ghetto.)

We were following the directions to find our warm hostel, but something went wrong. It wasn’t there.

The only thing worse than wandering around lost in the snow is wandering around lost in the snow for a really long time while carrying a giant backpack. (I travel much lighter now) Misdirections had us going in circles and my toes had gone numb in our quest.

At some point in our wandering we passed a rental car shop and began dreaming of exploring Austria with warm toes in the luxury of a heated automobile.

Now, two problems with being 20 years old in the USA are that you are too young to drink and too young to rent a car. (Thankfully this story has nothing to do with mixing the two) We stood outside in the cold entertaining the thought and decided to go inside. If we were legal to drink in Europe, maybe we could rent a car too.

We were in luck. The only small problem was that the only car available was a standard shift. We looked at each other and said “We’ll take it”. As the man filled out our papers we looked at one another. “Can you drive stick?”, “No.” “Me either.” But we were cold and had no common sense so we walked out of the door with the keys.

In high school I drove my friend Nikki’s standard shift red car around a super market parking lot a few times without crashing. Apparently that was enough qualification to make me the designated driver for this adventure. One other factor we neglected to consider was that we both hailed from Florida and in our four years of cumulative experience behind the wheel neither of us had every encountered mountains or snow.

I stalled our white Renault Clio (which we promptly named Snowflake) at least a dozen times before we got out of the rental car parking space. The next two days were not pretty and in a few cases we were lucky we lived to tell the story.

In my self-taught Alpine Driving School I learned that you have to downshift to go up a mountain. (It took a few stall outs on actual mountains to figure this out). I learned that you need to warm up a car in the winter to get it started and defrosted. I learned that if you don’t know how to drive on a mountain, you shouldn’t stop half way up so you can take pictures because you might almost roll off a cliff trying to get going again. And, I also learned that once you get it into gear on the autobahn you can drive pretty fast.

Apart from the near disaster of it all, it was warm and amazing. We found our way out of Innsbruck into Kitzbuhl and through the corner of Germany. We saw Oberamagauu and I visited Neuschwanstein castle for the very first time. I’ll never forget the view of the open road with deep white snow glimmering in the sun on both sides and the Alps ahead.

I’ve gotten back to this region a few times since, and each time this memory makes me smile and laugh a little at myself. And it makes me glad to know that somewhere in the past 15 years I discovered a little more common sense.

And apart from acquiring the skill of driving a stick shift, the most important lesson I learned is this: What doesn’t kill you makes you smarter.

PS. If you’re American and you can’t drive stick, a bonus lesson for you: It’s called a standard shift because it is standard in the rest of the world. If you ever want to drive outside of the 50 states, you should add it to your life skills. Travel cred to those of you who can.

PSS: This picture isn’t from the Alps, it’s from Pucon,Chile. One of the other trips I nearly died in a car in the snow.

#10 farking in vietnam

I took a run early this morning through the windy streets of Hanoi’s old quarter and made my way north to the city’s wide boulevards lined with government buildings.

As I neared the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum two men in olive green uniforms promptly spotted me and started moving my direction. While my Vietnamese isn’t so great, my international charade interpretation skills were telling me that their yelling and pointing meant that they didn’t want me to be walking on the sidewalk where I was.

Using my ignorant American skills, I snapped a picture anyway then moved along. As I picked up my pace and headed towards the more runner-friendly promenade on the West Lake waterfront, I was reminded of another time I’d been yelled at in this very same spot.

It was was 1998.  Bill Clinton was President and he and Monica Lewinsky were the hot news item of the year. Now, I’m not sure if this only happens to Americans, or if other nationalities experience this phenomenon, but I often find that when someone wants to talk to you, but can’t communicate in your language, they say any words to you that they might know. Often, this just happens to be the name of the President of the United States.

In 1998, the conversation went like this. “You are American. American. Bill Clinton. American.”

In 2011, “You are American, American. Barak Obama, American”

Back to 1998. I was traveling in Vietnam with my friend Michelle. Hanoi was the last stop on our trans-Vietnam bus journey which included midnight fistfights.

As all good tourists to Hanoi, we paid a visit to see the waxy body of Uncle Ho. Unlike today’s Hanoi that is chock-full of motorcycles, in 1998, the main way for a tourist (and anyone else) to get from point A to point B was on a bicycle, or in a bicycle rickshaw.

We had hired a rickshaw to transport us to the mausoleum, and when we arrived our driver was trying to tell us something.  The only problem, was that we had no idea what he was saying. So, he started yelling at us.

The yelling sounded something like this, “F#$@ing. F#$@ing. Bill Clinton. F$#&ing Bill Clinton.”

We sat in the rickshaw confused. “Um, rickshaw driver, sir, that isn’t very nice,” was our naive traveler response back, but of course he didn’t understand and just kept yelling.

In this case, it would have been great to know a little Vietnamese, or even the name of the Vietnamese leader, President guy, but alas, all we had was our best charades.

Finally, after a few rounds we finally decoded the mystery.  F#&%ing = Farking = PARKING.  He was trying to tell us where he was going to park, so we could find him after our visit to Ho Chi Minh was complete. The Bill Clinton bit was just an added bonus to the conversation in an attempt to make a connection.

I still laugh when I think of this story. And wonder how many other times someone was yelling at me in attempt to communicate something that was probably meant to be helpful to me.

Maybe the mausoleum guard pointing at the ground yelling at me today, wasn’t telling me to get off the sidewalk, maybe he was just trying to tell me my shoe was untied.

I finished my run around the lake and headed back towards my hotel, passing a beautiful Catholic church where I stopped to take a picture. As I stood there shooting with my iPhone, I was greeted by a man waiting at the gate. “Where are you from?” he began “Ah, American.  George Bush once visited this church.”

The lesson is this: In the art of travel, we will be misunderstood and we will misunderstand. Never forget to pack your sense of humor. And when in doubt, it is always helpful to know the names of world leaders.

How do you pack your sense of humor?

#6 good morning vietnam ::

Friends don’t let friends take drugs in a mini-van. While real drugs have never been one of my travel vices, many of my travel mis-adventures have been fueled by a little blue pill:  the should-be-harmless Tylenol PM.

In 1998, I had just finished two years in Bangkok and decided to take a trip around Vietnam prior to my exit from Asia.  Together with my friend Michelle, we flew into Ho Chi Minh City with tickets to depart from Hanoi.  Ambitious, young travelers that we were, we were determined to see every inch of Vietnam while we were there, or at least die trying.

There are a number of stories that I could highlight from the 712 miles we covered between Vietnam’s two anchor cities, like: the best yogurt and avocados I’ve ever eaten, my first experience designing a whole new wardrobe in a market of tailors, sampling fresh spring rolls everyday, swimming in Halong Bay, and riding motorbikes along the white sand of China beach.

Vietnam amazed me and I can’t wait to go back.  But when I do, one thing is certain, I will not ride the backpacker bus.

You see, in 1997 there were limited options to cross Vietnam: public trains or one backpacker bus company that had a monopoly on all of the travelers. For some ungodly reason, we chose the bus. Probably because they gave us a free t-shirt when we bought our ticket, and, like all backpackers we didn’t have any clean clothes.

The bus was the hop on – hop off type, letting you to fly through the rice fields at whatever speed suited your style.  However, what you didn’t know when you started, was that the further you traveled from Saigon, the worse the buses got, and eventually they morphed into mini-vans.

One particular night we had an incredibly bad run on an overnight mini-van stuffed full of backpackers.  This wasn’t your mom’s stow and go mini-van with a dvd player and bucket seats. Friends, this was a nightmare van with four to five large unshowered people crammed into each of the four uncomfortable bench seat.

As the sun set on the start of our journey, people packed away their Lonely Planets, and settled into their sardine-like sleeping conditions.  With no doubt there was a long night ahead, I popped a Tylenol PM and wished for the best.

The best however, never came, and that night I learned that one of the side effects of mixing sleeping aids with uncomfortable mini-van rest can be violence.  Apparently while drugged into my upright slumber, I punched Michelle for trying to get something out of my bag. I don’t exactly remember it, but we got into a fight that at least gave our mini-van companions some midnight road trip entertainment.

The next morning, the van dumped us out at our destination, and as I nursed my Tylenol PM hangover with amazingly delicious Vietnamese yogurt, Michelle and I looked at each other awkwardly, and then broke into out loud laughter.

The lessons are these:  The backpacker bus is almost never a good deal.  But having a travel companion who you can slap at night and laugh with about it in the morning is priceless.

I’m sure there is also a lesson about Tylenol PM usage, but as later stories in this series will prove, I hadn’t learned that one yet.

What’s your travel vice?

 

“hammock enlightenment” ::

today I spent an amazing 22 minutes listening to Canadian Eoin Finn of Blissology give a TEDx talk on “Hammock Enlightenment”. If you know anything about me, you know I loved this because I love hammocks.

If you don’t really know me yet, you should know that I love hammocks so much that I started a hammock company with my friends. I’m a self proclaimed global hammocker, and for the last eight years I’ve always keep a hammock in my bag when I travel just in case.

Yes, I love hammocks.  And I loved this talk from the moment I saw the title. What’s important though is that I didn’t only love “Hammock Enlightenment” because it resonated with my own love for hanging out under the trees.  I mostly loved Eoin’s words because they challenged me.

Thinking about challenges, I realized that most challenges I take require me to do something that makes me even busier:  make something.  sell something. give 10$ away everyday. travel more. blog more.

The challenge Eoin gives in this talk is different.  He challenges us to STOP.

As I was watching this talk I had to ask myself, “When was the last time you really stopped?”

Am I too busy making hammocks and mailing hammocks and promoting hammocks and finding places to take photos of my hammock that I don’t have time to actually take a break to sit in my hammock. Ironic, isn’t it?

And when was the last time I sat in my hammock without my computer? Without my iPad? Without my iPhone? (I also love apple)  Funny that multi-tasking while resting really isn’t resting.

Truth is:   I. Am. Guilty.

If you like me are too busy, you might not think that you have 22 minutes to listen to this whole talk.  But I hope you will.  And I hope you will also be challenged.

If you aren’t going to listen to it all, tune in at 19:35.  You can get an idea of what I’m  going to do to challenge myself in June. I must stop more.

And should you decide that you also want to experiment with the art of Hammock Enlightenment, I know where you can buy an amazing Color Cloud Hammock.

I challenge you to watch this.  And then stop for a bit.

What are you doing for the next 22 minutes?

 

PS.  After you rest, you should also follow Eoin -> @eoinfinnyoga

 

centennial resolutions ::

in April last year I achieved a goal I’d been working towards for a long time.  I went to my 100th country.   I celebrated with a dance in my head as the immigration official in Colombo, Sri Lanka stamped my passport, and then went on my merry way to enjoy a trip in my centennial nation.

While I was visiting Sri Lanka, it happened to be the Singhalese traditional new year, and so I took the auspicious opportunity to make some centennial travel resolutions.

1.Write 100 travel stories

2.Revise country counting rules and reach 100 again

3. Print a photo book of images from the first 100

This year as Sri Lanka was celebrating their New Year again, I was in New Zealand accomplishing goal #2. In celebration of reaching 100 countries for the second time around, and in the spirit of Catching Up, I’ve decided to revisit my centennial resolutions.

Here’s my plan:

1. The only thing keeping me from my goal of writing travel memoirs is my own procrastination. Because telling you that I’m going to post these will serve as a strong motivation, that’s what I’m going to do.  In fact, here’s story #1 to get us started -> 012693: the day I got my first passport stamp.

2. Before you jump to any conclusions about why I even had my original goal #2, please know that I’ve never counted airports as countries, and I think that every country counter should be free to set their own rules.

I set this to help me reconcile what to do with non-official countries like the Faroe Islands and border jumping trips where I was physically in a nation but never really experienced it.  While I had counted these in my original 100, I decided to subtract these and reach 100 countries again based on a more stringent UN recognized standard.

Now that this has been achieved, I’ve decided to update goal #2 to reflect continent counting and aim to get to all seven before another three Sri Lankan new years pass. Of course, I’ll keep counting countries. My 2011 goal is to visit 20 countries including 11 new ones.

3. Publishing a photo book should have been an easy goal to tick off the list in the modern age.  I got off to a running start, but I stalled out when I soon realized that I’d visited nearly 70 countries before I got my first digital camera. To complicate things further the books of negatives and boxes of prints that I need to achieve this live in a storage unit on a different continent. While this is a great excuse not to finish, I’m not a quitter.  I’ll be working on a couple of small photo projects and will keep recover photos high on the priority list for my next transatlantic storage visit.  Stay tuned for these.

Whether you visit 20 countries this year, or just the one that you’re in, setting goals and reflecting on them remind each of us to keep ours eyes open and make every trip, or simply every day count. We only get one life after all.

What are you doing with yours today?