Saturday, March 17, 2012

How to be Me

The simple answer is being a cheap bastard with everything and having the right

The question is one which I have been asked a dozens of times, 5 of those in the last few weeks; how do I travel as much as I do and have the experiences that I do, like working for a small Indian NGO for 5 months, without having a job or a hefty inheritance?

I learned most of what I know about travel the hard way. Through a long road of trial and error that has included some of the most wonderful and defining moments of my life, but which has also been tempered by more cultural faux pas and awkward situations than I care to remember.

Though there are as many ways of dealing with travel and new experiences as there are of dealing with life, here are some of the methods that have been the most valuable for me; many of which I wish someone could have told me. And though every country presents different challenges and opportunities, these are some of the universally applicable lessons that my travels across 6 continent and 36 countries have taught me.

Decide to Go

This is the single hardest part of any trip, after doing it everything else is easy. Making this decision means switching your mindset from can I go, to how can I go? This is both a giant leap and a tiny shift.

Most of the time when people have asked me how I get to travel as much as I do, and I tell them how easy and cheap it can be and that they should try it too, I get a list, sometimes a very creative one, of all the excuses for why they can’t possibly do it: “I would miss home.” “It costs money.” “I need to focus on a career.” “I don’t speak another language.” “Other people would judge me for being an American.” “I have to wash my hair this weekend.” Etc, etc,.

All of these may be true (though I have never been judged negatively just for being an American), but if you actually want to travel none of these reasons should stop you. And if you put half of the energy that these people put into thinking of the negatives for why they couldn’t go and instead put it into figuring out how you can, you will be amazed how fast things fall into place.

Yes, there will be challenges but that’s the fun of travel. Once you have decided that you are going and stop looking at the reasons that might prohibit you, and start looking for solutions to how you can, it is incredible how easy it all becomes. But without taking this first step and making the decision that you will be going, real international travel remains an unattainable, impossible feat.

Buy a Ticket

I don’t think I have ever paid more than $1,000 for a round trip ticket anywhere, except to New Zealand. That’s not to say these tickets are easy to find but that if you look around, and wait for deals on different websites, you can go almost anywhere for less than a grand.

And don’t just check the big sites like Travelocity or Priceline, they don’t include all of the airlines. Also make sure to check the sites of the individual carriers that fly the routes to your destination.

As a general rule, once you pick out where you want to end up, look at tickets to all the major cities in that region. There are low-cost carriers for nearly every part of the world and it can be substantially cheaper to fly to a city 1,500 miles away from where you want to end up, and then just get a cheap puddle jumper to your final destination.

For Asia, the best deals I have found on getting here are with China Airlines. For a little extra money they give you either a 6-month or 12-month flexible return date tickets that are perfect if you don’t have a set date that you have to be back by. For getting around Asia, AirAsia is usually the cheapest way, though China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines sometimes have real good prices too. Just don’t expect 5-star service.

Europe is even easier. Once you arrive there are several carriers like Ryan Air that can get you across the continent for less than 20 Euros, if you book far enough ahead.
It is well worth the time to spend 10 minutes on Google figuring out what low-cost local carriers operate where you are going. But depending on how adventurous you are feeling you might want to check to make sure that the one you pick is not on the UN black list, especially for African airlines.

Tourist vs. Traveler

A tourist is one of the people you see in the wanna-be-reporter vests and New Balances, getting on and off air-conditioned tour buses at national monuments. They always stick close to the guide for fear of being abducted by terrorists or touched by poor people. They eat at bad, fixed menu restaurants, stay in 5-star hotels, take photos at prescribed locations, then go back home, probably without ever meeting a person unrelated to the tourism industry.

A traveler, on the other hand, usually gets out of the major cities as fast as possible and as far away from the tourists as they can. They take local transport or hitchhike to get around, and (gasp!) eat the street food. They stay in fleabag hotels and guesthouses, when they are not staying with families they have met, and they carry with them only the essentials that they can fit into a backpack.

Along with being far more interesting, engaging and fun, being a traveler costs a fraction of what being a tourist does. My budget here in Nepal is right around $10 a day for everything; food, housing, transport and activities. When you are spending this kind of money you can easily make up the cost of the plane ticket in a few weeks, when you compare it to the cost of living in the USA.

Work for an NGO

How to find and work for an NGO in another country is the question I have gotten the most often since I have arrived in Asia.

The NGO I worked for in India I found through family connections, but from what I learned there, and have seen and heard from others, you certainly don’t need to know someone before hand to get a volunteer job just about wherever you want.

Before I decided to volunteer for BFTW in India, I did a lot of research into different NGOs and ways to volunteer in different countries. What I found was a little disheartening. There is no shortage of organizations ready and willing to have you come and volunteer with them- provided you want to dish out a few thousand dollars for ‘administrative costs.’ I’m happy to volunteer my time to a worthy cause, but I am not going to pay someone thousands of my hard earned dollars to do what I could get paid for back home.

It is easy to see why these organizations do this. A lot of people want to come and help but don’t have the time to commit to learning enough about the organization to help in ways other than doing menial tasks or manual labor. However, there is no shortage of manual labor in underdeveloped countries. No shortage of workers who will do twice what you can in a day and three times as fast.

So how do you justify bringing in rich white people to do work when doing so will take jobs away from the local communities that you are trying to help? You charge them a ton of money, let them feel good about themselves for getting their hands dirty for 2 weeks, then use the money that they gave you to do the real work.

What underdeveloped countries do lack are educated minds that have grown up in an efficient system who have a willingness and knowledge of how to think creatively and problem solve. And everyone I know who reads this blog has more than enough of that to be an asset to an NGO.

The best way to find an NGO is to first pick where you want to go then do some research to see what the issues in that community are, and see if you can find any organizations that are dealing with problems that interest you. If you don’t find any NGOs don’t be discouraged. Most grass-roots level NGOs don’t have the time, money or knowledge to make a good, easy to find website.

Do your research on the local issues and see if you can come up with some solutions to the problems you find that you think you have the skills to implement, then get on the plane. Once you arrive in-country start asking around about organizations that might be doing what your interested in. Churches, orphanages and community centers are a good place to start but ask everyone you meet, you never know who might have a friend who rehabilitates child drug-addicts.

After you find a place, do what you would do for any job you are trying to get; go talk to them and tell them what you can do and what you want to do. Most small NGOs are so understaffed and underfunded that they will take any warm body that can walk in the door and wants to work. Just don’t expect to get paid.

If you can’t find any organization doing what you want to do you can always start one. Go find some community leaders that have the credibility to get your project off the ground and convince them to help you.

Just remember to stay open minded. Don’t be the white imperialist who soars down from ‘The West’ to save the savages who don’t know how to save themselves. It helps to have a plan but don’t get so set on your solution that you lose perspective. Make sure to talk to people and ask what they need and what they think the best way to get it would be. They know better than you do what will help them, even if they don’t know exactly how to go about getting it.


Be flexible. This is probably the single most important bit of advice I can impart to anyone who wants to travel. It is very important to remember that things don’t work in the rest of the world the same way they do in the USA. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; why would you fly halfway around the world to experience the same thing you left behind?

This flexibility applies to everything from day to day plans to the larger plans and goals for the trip. It is painful to see the tourists who have planned out there entire trip down to the minute, because in doing so they are limiting their experience to what they already know, there is no room for the unknowns that are the heart and soul of travel. It’s fine to have goals and a list of things you want to see, but stay open enough that if something cool comes up you have the freedom to take advantage of it.

Without exception the best and most memorable experiences I have had traveling have come from the completely unexpected. If my bus hadn’t broken down, causing me to flag down a passing mini-van on a desolate stretch of road in eastern Turkey, I would never have met the Kurds who I ended up staying with for 3 days. If I had had a set itinerary I would never have met the Georgian family who fed me, then took me 2 hours up a mountain to get drunk at their grandmothers grave in celebration of her life, before getting their friend to give me a ride to the border. Had I been too set in my original plans, me and Taylor would never have made the 3 day ride to a remote coastal village in Indonesia that is one of the last whaling villages on Earth. Tonight I leave for a 5-day mountain ascent with two expats, who live here in Kunming, that I met yesterday at a noodle house.

It can be uncomfortable at first to give up the illusion of control over your plans, but you will save yourself countless headaches caused by canceled buses and ferries, inane and widely inefficient systems and incompetent bureaucrats.

In my experience, travel rewards flexibility far more than any other attribute.

“This too shall pass.”

There will inevitably be times when you feel like you want nothing more than to get on a plane and get the hell out of this godforsaken country. I have not had a trip where I didn’t feel this way at least once. But what makes us better people is the ability to face the adversity and challenges that life slaps us in the face with, learn from them, and come out the other side better because of it. It is not through comfort and ease that we grow as human beings. It is through pushing ourselves past our comfort zones and throwing ourselves into new trials that we cannot easily see a way out of. The process of hitting rock-bottom and building yourself back up through your own will power and sense of self brings with it a real and lasting confidence that cannot easily be undermined.

I have spent most of my short adult life traveling. The places I have seen, people I have met and challenges I have overcome have had a more profound and indelible impact on the person I that have become than any other aspect of my life. I can honestly say that I feel like I could be dropped in just about any inhabited place on the planet and do just fine. This is not because there is anything inherently special about me; it is because I have, through experience, seen just how easy it is to see the world when you decide that you want to.

Nepal: Country on a Ridge

“Her name is Lenin.” He smiled proudly, pointing at the youngest girl in the photo.


“How do you spell th-…” I trail off, realizing mid-way through that this is a stupid question to ask a Nepali villager who told me 5 minutes ago that he was illiterate and had never been in a classroom before.

“…You mean like, Bolshevik, Russian Communist, 1917 October Revolution? That Lenin?”
“I think so. A week after she was born she got sick so we had to take her to the Maoist hospital in Dhunche (the nearest town, a full days walk away since there are no roads).” Dorjee explained. “They asked her name and we said she didn’t have one yet, so the doctor asked if he could name her and we said OK.”

“And the doctor picked Lenin?”


“Well, I think that’s a great name for your youngest daughter.” I say, biting my cheek so hard my eyes start to water and handing him back the photo.
He beams.

I had staggered up to the front door of Dorjee’s guesthouse about 2 hours before he showed me this family photo. A Korean tourist had taken the picture and then sent a copy back to him.

At first he had seemed a little apprehensive of this exhausted, unshaven foreigner hiking so late and by himself. I don’t blame him; I wasn’t looking my best. And I don’t think my ragged “Namaste!,” which sounded more like a death rattle than a greeting, helped my case much either.

This being my tenth day of trekking in Langtang National Park, I had decided that I should really push it and try to get to a village 25km away. Starting that morning I had descended 7,200ft over 16km down a valley, then turned off onto switchbacks that climbed up 3,100ft over 5km. It was steep.

The sun was starting to set when I came upon Dorjee’s guesthouse. I decided that, as the size of my blisters were now about equal to that of my ego, it was time to call it a day.

Despite my appearance he had taken pity on me and showed me to a room, and after lying down for a few minutes and throwing some water on my face, I felt human enough to go down and try for a second impression.

As we sit on the old utilitarian wooden bench outside the kitchen, Dorjee carefully places the family photo back into a cellophane sleeve. We watch the pink and gold light of the setting sun fade from the western Himalayan slopes across the steep, glacial valley from where we sit. He sighs.

He tells me that it is his dream that his three children do what he couldn’t and receive an education. Things are going well for now and he can just afford tuition costs, he says. But the local school only goes up to Class 10 and, after that, he will have to send his kids to Kathmandu if he wants them to finish their schooling and he doesn’t know how he can y get the money to do that.

As we retreat from the evening cool into the cramped, smoky kitchen where his wife is cooking our dinner of rice, potatoes and dhal, he sighs again, “What to do? Our guesthouse is off the main trail and not many people stop here.” Through the window I watch the last rays of sunlight vanish from the top of the ridge.

In many ways modern Nepal mirrors that rugged Himalayan ridge. Geographically is sits perched atop a chain of mountains that comprises 8 of the 10 world’s highest peaks, sandwiched between two rising economic superpowers. To the north is the assertive, authoritarian juggernaut of China; the country that gave birth to the Maoist ideology espoused by Nepal’s ruling political party and the greatest economic success story in human history. Below Nepal to the south lies the bureaucratic, lumbering, but quickly accelerating, democratic subcontinent of India; the birthplace of both of Nepal’s major religions and its biggest trading partner. Indians and Nepalis don’t even need visas to live or work in each other’s countries.

Both China and India seem to be competing in a charm and development offensive in Nepal, with each country trying to outdo the other in number of roads and hydropower plants that they build for the Nepalis. Never mind that they insist on purchasing so much of the power generated by Nepal’s rivers that residents of Kathmandu regularly go without power for up to 16 hours a day (I don’t know of any other national capital that can boast that). Or that, strategically, many of the roads that India and China build look like little more than invasion corridors aimed at each others northern and southern borders. Nepal is in a precarious position.

True, Nepalis are, for the moment, benefiting from this competition. But with lower than 50% literacy and having 85% of its 30 million people making less than $2 a day, there is little that Nepal can do but play nice and hope the world’s only 2 population billionaires do the same.

Economically, Nepal also seems to run along a ridge. Tourism is the single biggest contributor to Nepal’s GDP and, with the vast majority of travelers coming to Nepal to trek among its peaks, its mountains are the backbone of this economy. With the areas that serve these trekkers functioning as the nerve centers that supply the capital that keeps much of the rest of the country functioning.

This ridge starts in Kathmandu. The capital city has the only international airport in the country as well as the tourist ghetto Thamel; a packed, haphazard collection of alleyways that boasts 2,500 tourism-related businesses within just 5 square kilometers. This is the base camp from which nearly all tourist set out. From Kathmandu, the ridge traverses from east to west to reach several high points; Everest Base Camp, the Annapurna circuit and Langtang.

Together these 3 trekking areas make up 90% of the treks done in Nepal, and within these areas I would guess that at least 70% of the trekkers stay at the handful of villages and guesthouses mentioned as suggested waypoints in guide books like Lonely Planet.

This gives a whole new meaning to the old real estate saying that the 3 things that matter most are location, location and location. It puts the very small number of Nepalis with either enough money, or, and more often, with ancestral land rights, in a very good position. And it leaves a lot of less fortunate villagers, like Dorjee, left trying to battle uphill, through their shadow.

The concentrated floods of foreign cash that these areas produce have also created interesting localized and cyclical economies, which are based around these villages. They are micro-economies that, like side trails or day hikes, may deviate slightly from the ridge or trail, but always end up joining back up with the main route.

Take the village of Langtang for example. It is the largest of around half a dozen communities that lie along the main Langtang trail. A trail that leads up a gorgeous alpine valley to the base of its 21,000ft namesake, along with a score of cirques and glacial moraines, all of which are walled in by a ring of jagged, snow-covered peaks.
The village itself is made up of maybe 50 homes, at least 20 of which are guesthouses. Everyone, almost without exception, who lives there and doesn’t own or work in a guesthouse is either a farmer, a Yak herder or a porter. The farmers and Yak herders sell their produce and dairy products to the guesthouses, who then substantially mark up the prices and then sell them on to the tourists. The porters, trudging up the steep, rocky trails- their 100-130lbs loads of everything from rice to toilet paper tied into bamboo baskets and held up with a nylon strap pushed across their forehead- follow the same formula.

Different paths can, and often do, come up and join this monetary ridge. They come in the form of the guides and baggage porters form other regions who come to toil under these tourist’s brand name and brand new, over-priced and over-stuffed bags. To toil while the trekkers themselves huff and puff under their half-full day packs and complain that they can’t understand why they are getting altitude sickness when they are only drinking a liter and a half of water a day while hiking at 10,000+ft- “I just don’t know why I should drink if I don’t feel thirsty…”

These guides and porters send their money back to the bereaved families and communities that they left behind. The communities that are not lucky enough to have these soaring peaks right outside their back doors.

Like any ridge ours is a narrow one; it can’t fit everyone. The supply of guides and porters already outstrips the demand for their services, leaving few options for those not lucky enough to get and keep a good foothold.

Many of those that can’t break into this tight market, like Da Rinji Sherpa -a Nepali man with a high pitched voice whom I met on a train out of Varanasi- roll down the slope and end up working in the resource-rich states of the Persian Gulf.
Da Rinji makes good money. Money that he earns working as a truck driver at the Shell oil refinery in Qatar that he is able to send back to his wife and children. But he can only return home for 4 months every 2 years, and his income falls well short of the $60 a day his friends get for guiding treks.

Through the cloud of these reflections an epiphany strikes, snapping my attention back to the present-

“iPhone and camera cases!”

“What?” Asks Dorjee.

“iPhone and camera cases.” I repeat. “That’s what you should sell.”

It was obvious that he needed more money if he was going to educate his kids, but even if I had that kind of money that I could give him, I don’t believe that the dependency and sense of inferiority such gift creates are usually beneficial in the long run. And how do you know your money is actually going to the school?

So I had been staring at the stove that we were all huddled around, trying to force my fatigue-addled brain to think of some untapped economic niche he could fill.
“Ya!” I say excitedly, “ Think about it, everyone, including your wife, sells yak wool mittens, scarfs and hats; the market is completely saturated though, no one person really makes any money on them. But what does almost every tourist that comes here have? A digital camera and probably either an iPhone or an iPod! And I haven’t seen anyone selling little woven cases for them. A guy from Finland I was hiking with for a few days even had a lady make one specially for him. Seriously, if you make some little Tibetan design out of the wool, like one of the 8 auspicious symbols, and put a sign up that says ‘Tibetan Yak wool iPhone cases’ people would eat that shit up!”
“What’s an iPhone?”

I jump up, run upstairs and grab the iPod Touch out of my bag that my friend Myra gave to me before the trip. In another 5 minutes I have taught an illiterate Nepali villager how to use a touch screen mp3 player. Guess there is a reason Apple is the most valuable company on earth.

“See? All you would have to do is make a little pocket that something about twice this size will fit into and put a sign up. Just try making 10 of them and see how they do. I bet tourists will love ‘em!”

“Uh-huh, that’s a good idea…” Though he is a bit preoccupied with switching through the equalizer settings on the Kanye West song he just started playing, Dorjee seems to agree.

Before I leave the next morning Dorjee mentions to me that he wants Lenin to learn Chinese. I have him write his address down and promise to send him a Mandarin phrase book when I get back to Kathmandu if he promises to have his friend email me and tell me how the iPhone cases work out. He agrees, and his wife shyly comes up and hands me one of the red and black bracelets she makes; a token of my contribution to the economic future of Nepal.

As I walk up away from the guesthouse and up the trail I realize that the ridge across the valley looks a lot closer to Dorjee’s than it did last night.