The Backpacker’s Essential

April 1, 2010 · Posted in Policy, Travel · Comments Off on The Backpacker’s Essential 

Having done a fair bit of backpacking in my time, I think I should provide some perspective on what exactly to bring when backpacking.  This can be around Europe, Asia, Latin America, wherever.  This list will ensure you look like every other backpacker out there and cannot be mistaken for someone who has recently showered.  This is not a comprehensive list and merely my tongue-in-cheek random compilation.


Backpacker packing list

– Che tshirt
– Hammer and sickle t shirt
– One other ironic t shirt from wherever you are that’s supposed to shout your independence but just makes you look like every other mildly rebellious American. The “same same” t shirt from SE Asia fits here…
– Two days stubble.  (not necessarily recommended for women)
– Birkenstocks
– Friend with dreds (okay if this is actually you)
– One item of your choice – ridiculously over priced compared to everything else you own (a Canon DSLR is an excellent choice here – it’s high saturation in this particular market means it’s less likely to get stolen. Careful of your lenses though.)
– Street vendor bracelets
– For women – combo shirt/skirt/sarong, unwashed.
– Unintentional sense of irony
– Condescending attitude to everyone with a real suitcase and hence, not a real traveler like you
– A stench
– A book by famous dead philosopher or poet or politician. Anything communist is a good choice here.
– A towel. See Douglas Adams.  He was right.
– A CD player or Walkman. You wouldn’t dare own an iPod.
– Nothing clean.
– A country more dangerous or exotic than everyone you meet, that you have traveled to that’s less dangerous than current country, so you can always interject and say “yes but when in east Timor don’t do THAT!”
– Cigarettes.

Specific instructions for Americans
– Your gear will look cleaner and newer than most, despite the dirt you tried to rub on it before you left home
– Leave 2003, skip the Canadian flag on your North Face backpack. You’re not fooling anyone and it’s a dead giveaway anyway.
– Check the WHO health rankings before you travel. A handful of third world countries have better health systems than we do – might pay to get hurt there.
– English words in a foreign accent do not a linguist make.

– Bush didn’t hurt travelers reputations that bad and Obama won’t help them. It’s up to you so don’t be a humongous ass and expect everything to be easy. There’s a reason people like Canadians.  They’re just nicer.

– Except parting with your money. That’s always easy.

This should get you started.  You’re practically ready to have your very own, full-blown backpacking adventure.

I’m serious about the towel.


The Austro-Hungarian Empire

February 28, 2010 · Posted in Travel · Comments Off on The Austro-Hungarian Empire 

A few weekends back I traveled to three new countries in the continuing quest to see 100 countries and all 7 continents.  My stops were Bratislava in Slovakia, Budapest in Hungary, and Vienna in Austria.  People see the itinerary and ask “Why would you go to Bratislava?”  Because it’s cheap to fly into, that’s why.

But let’s start there.  Bratislava.  Say it a few times.  Let it pounce off your tongue like it’s going to attack someone.  If I heard someone say “I am Ivan, am from country Slovakia, from city called Bratislava” in an obviously heavy and fake accent, I’d turn and run the other way.  It’s a scary place, this former Soviet bloc country.  Very dark and foreboding…everything is leftover from the Soviet occupation.  I mean, when I left the airport I even drove past….

…an IKEA.

And a Nike store, and McDonalds, Marks & Spencer, and a host of other Western stores anyone would immediately recognize.  My hostel didn’t have room numbers.  It had cute pictures of animals.  Mine was a ladybug.  (Not an animal as we’d recognize it but still an insect and most people find them cute.)  I’ve felt more scared walking to the Dunkin Donuts near my house at Clark and Division to buy coffee on a Sunday morning.

Now it should be noted that the movie “Hostel” does actually take place in Bratislava.  Seeing as how I was staying there on my own, my exchange friends were worried I was going to get raped, murdered, or worse.  I think it’s a pretty universal truth that there’s no raping or murdering going on when there are ladybugs adoring the walls.  So I was safe.

The town itself was very pretty, if a bit cold.  It was winter, after all.  I wandered around through streets I didn’t know, saw buildings I didn’t recognize, past churches I didn’t go into, up to a castle I know nothing about.  This is what happens when you are slightly unprepared for your trip.  My pre-dinner walk ended in a cafe with some locals singing opera at the top of their lungs.

Dinner was good…kebab of meats and veggies…most of which were wrapped in bacon, which is the proper way to do anything.  Washed it all down with some local beer, and headed to an early bed.   A few pictures below…

Next up was Budapest.  Budapest is in Hungary, famous for paprika, having the highest concentration of geniuses per capita, an inordinate number of Nobel Prize winners, and consistently losing wars to the Romans, Ottomans, Habsburgs….etc.  It’s actually two separate towns that merged a while back.  Buda, which means “where the castle is” and Pest, which means “where the rest of the city is.”  I also think there’s some stuff about killing vampires in its history somewhere…but I’m currently too lazy to back that up.  Overall it’s a very interesting mix of Austrian/German/Turkish/Soviet influence, blending both east and west cultures in a very different way than Istanbul.

One thing is exactly the same.  That scam that happened to me in Istanbul?  Apparently it’s very very common in Budapest.  Didn’t let myself get suckered into paying 200 Euro for one drink this time, however.

The first day was spent wandering around the Pest side, starting with the street Vaci Utca and the market at the end of said street.

After the market I visited St. Stephen’s basilica, the Hungarian Parliament building, and wandered around the city center some more.  I was starting to get a bit cold so I popped in to a little cafe to have some mulled wine, a specialty you can find just about everywhere in Budapest.  Definitely one of my favorite parts.  The best meal of my trip was this night, at a restaurant serving pretty traditional Hungarian foods called the Bagolyvár.  It was the sister restaurant (and less expensive at that) to Gundel, which everyone was recommending.  The meal started off with a plate of traditional cheese lightly grilled, served over a walnut and fruit ragout.  I moved on to a traditional Hungarian soup, which, while pretty standard from a beef soup point of view in terms of ingredients, had an amazing paprika and cinnamon flavor to the broth that made it really stand out.  My main course was a beautifully reddish veal stew, again flavored with a heavy dose of paprika.  I rounded it off with a chocolate cake, and slowly rolled myself home through downtown Budapest.

Cheeses with walnut and fruit ragout

Veal stew


The following day, my last day in Budapest, it sleeted basically the entire day.  I was able to see the castle, the history museum, and a few other things, but mostly I was concerned with catching an earlier train to Vienna.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Vienna, but this was my favorite of the trip.  First of all, you have the Habsburgs building all sorts of empire-like things (palaces, etc) here so that’s pretty cool.  Add to that some delicious encased meats, great beers, and you’ve got the makings of a world class city.

When I arrived, I walked into what I thought was my hostel, but was actually a different branch of the Wombat hostel I was staying in.  It looked very cool, there was music playing, I could hear the sounds of a bar somewhere in the vicinity, and it was all brightly colored.  As I walked out to find the actual place I was staying, there was a giant sign on one of the doors that just said “SEX” in giant letters.  Below that word it said “Please use other door.”  Yeah…I’m gonna like Vienna.

I trudge through the snow a few more blocks and end up at my hostel.  It’s almost 9:00 pm at this point and I’m pretty tired by this point.  I head to my room where….everyone is already asleep.  This was a common occurrence throughout this trip – people asleep at 9:00 at night and waking up at ungodly hours of the morning.  I’m not talking 10:00 a.m. – I’m talking 5:00 a.m.  Who does that?  I guarantee you, no tourist sites are open at 5:00 a.m.  This is Europe, after all.

Not being able to do anything in my room, I leave my bag in my locker and head down to the bar.  At check-in, Wombat gives you a free beer.  Not a bad deal.  So I grab a meal and a couple of beers, ready to call it an early night.  Two American girls sit down next to me, and we start talking.  Turns out, they’re Univ of Michigan students, studying in Prague for the next few months.  Of course they are.  Wolverines are everywhere, because we’re awesome.  (Or maybe because we have a large school and a huge alumni base, but I think it’s because we are awesome.)  They’re rooming with some Scotts on vacation after graduating from law school, and before long the bartender starts handing out free shots.  When I ask him what it is, he responds “It’s an Austrian herbal thing, don’t worry.”  Right – that’s how you wake up in a prison in Bucharest, not wearing any shoes and smelling like you’ve been on a farm all day long.

Thankfully, we woke up in our hostel in Vienna, not in Romania on accident.  The five of us headed out to see Vienna a bit, despite blistering cold.  First up was the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer retreat of the Habsburg dynasty.  Very cool, but photography is not allowed inside so…that’s why we have Google images.

Next up was the Naschmarkt, a local farmer’s market that has grown up to include restaurants, kebab stands, spice vendors, and a large number of now permanent buildings selling all sorts of edible wares.

On the urging of my dad, I stopped for a Turkish kebab – 3 Euro for a sandwich that will rival anything you find at Katz’s deli or Manny’s in Chicago.  Huge, piping hot, stuffed with all sort of delicious condiment and vegetable…you have to sample if you’re here.

After a few more sites, a few stops for beers, wine, coffee, etc, I spotted something I’d been looking forward to finding in Vienna.

In Chicago, there is a cafe called Julius Meinl and it is the first of its kind in the US.  JM is a Viennese coffee company selling some of the finest coffees you can obtain in commercial form.  Obviously picking and roasting the beans yourself would be better, but if you’re doing that you probably have no time to read my blog, so please don’t start picking your own beans.  The furniture inside is imported from Vienna and the cafe itself exudes a legitimate European atmosphere.

When I saw the giant letters spelling out Julius Meinl at the end of a square, I had to stop in.  I figured I would end up paying roughly $18 for a cappuccino but I didn’t care.  I needed to go to the source.

As the picture shows above, with your cappuccino you receive a trio of sugars, a small glass of water, and a small bit of silky dark chocolate.  And it didn’t cost an arm and a leg.  Much more than a cafe, however, the store itself is a complete gourmet food store.  Much like Peck in Milan or EATaly in Torino, it had a high-end restaurant on the top floor, a large wine section, and more chocolate than even the most committed chocoholic can stand.

Satiated from kebabs, chocolates, coffee, spiced wine, we wandered back to our hostel in time for happy hour at the bar.  Which, you know where this is going by now, lasted at least 4 or 5 hours.

The next day was mine to see Vienna for a few hours before heading back to Milan…and the beginning of Fashion Week.  It’s a rough life over here…


Nova Roma (or Hong Kong)

January 1, 2010 · Posted in Travel · 1 Comment 

This must be what the future will be like, someday, in America.  Trains are clean and almost noise-less.  Streets are clean.  Cars run on garbage and….okay something like that.  They do make toy trains out of solid lead and mercury still so it’s not perfect yet.  The best analogy I can come up with is that Hong Kong in 2010 is probably what New York would have looked like in the 1920’s if, in the 1920’s, we possessed the same level of technology we do today.  That’s just my best guess.  I have no idea.  But there’s an opulence here not often matched in the US with the exception of some parts of Vegas and maybe a few others.  Here, it is ubiquitous.  Down every street is another watch store selling $5,000 US watches, or handmade Italian leather bags, and, wait, there’s yet another Ferragamo store.  (Although, to be fair, just while switching planes in the Tokyo Narita airport, I saw two Ferragamo stores.  Within 400 yards of each other.)

I am probably most jealous of the train system here.  It’s dorky but I don’t buy $5,000 watches every day.  Or ever.  I ride the train every day back home.  The stations are well-lit, super clean, they don’t smell, and there are doors separating you from the tracks.  This keeps the grime from the train out of the station.  Novel concept, I know.  Doors.  Whudathunkit?  The cars themselves are nicer, and they’ve done away with doors in the middle of the cars so it looks like one giant tube careening through the city at warp speed.  (I guess you add some doors, you lose some doors…)  Really a well-designed, convenient and clean system.

Super clean, right?  I guess if you have all sorts of animal-related flu running around you’ve got to be careful.

Hong Kong itself is divided into two major parts, more or less.  Hong Kong proper, which is the island, and Kowloon, which is on but not part of the mainland.  I’m staying in Kowloon, and I actually appreciate this side more.  Hong Kong proper feels a bit too sterile, a bit too clean, and almost contrived at parts.  Kowloon is a bit more real and I think provides a bit more culture.  But this is just my been-here-for-two-days-don’t-speak-the-language-so-what-do-I-know opinion.  Take it for what it’s worth.

My trip here started with a bump to Business Class – and – being suspicious, I demanded to know why.  They said “No reason, but we can put you back in coach if you like.”  No thank you!  I will fly business class, if you insist Mr. United person.  I think it might have been the “I’m not carrying an I.E.D.” upgrade special, who knows?  Quick travel note : security actually wasn’t that bad.  I think the deepest darkest pits of hell are reserved for TSA operatives and their sniveling governmental counterparts, so it takes a lot for me to admit that.  I guess technically they weren’t USA-based but it was a US airline and the US does like to bully around…

Flight got in on time, and I promptly took an hour nap.  I’d been up since 3:30 and was a bit tired.  Now where I took the nap was interesting – I checked into the Lee Guest House as recommended by Lonely Planet only to discover it was in the Fook Kiu Mansion.  I am not making this up. The Fook Kiu mansion.  I had to reread it a few times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.

It was Wednesday, and most of the museums in HK are free on Wednesday.  I grabbed a quick bowl of braised brisket, water spinach, and noodles in soup, and visited the HK Museum of Art, the Museum of Space, walked along the pier in Kowloon, visited the Avenue of Stars, and watched sunset over the harbor.

Also got a few good shots once sun went down….

The building with all the triangles is an I.M. Pei-designed building that houses the new Bank of China HQ.  There’s a public viewing gallery located on the 43rd floor (also free) but it was pretty overcast on the 31st when I visited.

Most of the 31st was spent hunting for food – some of which I found, most of which I didn’t.  I did find Kau Kee (21 Gough street, Sheung Wan)  that was listed in T&L 30 Dishes worth traveling for.  It was an honorable mention in the “Under $5” section but deserves a place in the top 30 I think.  They serve little soup bowl of four different kinds of noodle and about six or so different kinds of meat.  I’m not entirely sure – I was given 30 seconds to look at the menu.  I ate two – one was a plain braised beef brisket with rice noodles in a traditional broth.  The second was a curried braised beef brisket with tendon, egg noodles, and a thicker broth.  You’ll notice the use of braised meats here – yet another reason why I love this country.  Braising is the best way to cook meat IMO and damn near everything here is braised.  Wonderful.  Anyway Kau Kee has a huge line out the door so it’s hard to miss.  They sit you at a table with a bunch of other people and since I was alone, I ate with six Chinese men and two women, all over 45 years old.  They just stared me for like 20 minutes wondering what the hell I was doing in their beloved noodle shop.  The wait and the stares were worth it.  Hands down some of the best soup I’ve ever had.  Up there with Pho, for sure.  I don’t have a picture because I was too nervous to take one…

And of course, I saw the fireworks over the harbor.  They shot them off of 2 IFC which was actually pretty cool to see.  The display itself wasn’t that big (and in America we know bigger means better) but I guess the logistics of firing rockets off the sides of a glass building sort of impose some limits to what you can actually do?

Fireworks off the building…

Friday, the 1st, was pretty low key.  After hearing much ado about this movie, I went to see Avatar in 3-D and all I can say is WOW.  Go see it in IMAX 3-D.  It was that incredible.  The theatre was located in “one of the poshest shopping malls in Hong Kong” according to one of the websites I looked at.  It was actually an enjoyable mall to visit, which was weird.  Usually I find malls incredibly annoying, filled with dirty rude teenagers and out-of-towners not realizing they’re overpaying for whatever they’re buying.  (Guilty on this last count for this particular mall.)  But Festival Walk had an ice rink built in and so I sat and watched little kids practice eventually win gold medals or else!  The theatre itself was sort of amusing – it had signs everywhere saying “Outside food and beverage (EXCEPT STARBUCKS) forbidden!” (Caps theirs)  I guess Starbucks is doing pretty well over here…

I ate at a little cheap place called mi2Cool – a Japanese place through and through.  I got these little fried dumplings for about $3US.  Not bad for cheap mall food –

After a hard day of shopping, I decided to spend the night…shopping.  The Temple Street Night Market was one of my favorite things about Hong Kong.  It’s hard not to smile just wandering around – crowds are everywhere, street stall-type restaurants spill out into the streets and the smells waft over the booths, drawing you in.  If you can spare the time, wait in one of the insane lines for the two or three most popular restaurants.  One was Four Seasons Rice, another was called Hing Kee restaurant.  Although Hing Kee seemed to be a restaurant in about 12 different buildings – it confused me a bit.  The market itself sells every kind of good imaginable from flashlights to leather goods to ironic t-shirts of Che or Chairman Mao to paintings to lighters to underwear to jewelry to socks to…and so on.  (PG – 13 warning)  There was even a particular strip selling all manner of weird sex toys including something called an inflatable anus.  I have no idea what one does with that…

After the market I walked down to the Peninsula Hotel where the Felix bar on the 28th floor looks out over the harbor.  While the view was great, and the bar itself was nice, the bathroom steals the show.  Philippe Starck designed the men’s room to give you a very unique experience.  I think he designed it with 55 year old white male corporate execs in mind who spend their days pissing on the little people because, frankly, you get the feeling you’re doing just that when you’re at one of his urinals.

So the black thing is the urinal and yes, that’s a window looking out over Kowloon.  I was watching people go about their jobs in their offices right across the street.  For those of us who don’t spend our days pissing on people below us, it gives a good approximation of what it’s like to be The Man.  I quite enjoyed it.  <there’s no ironic emoticon to go here..>  I kind of want one in my house, sans window.  Or maybe with window, who knows.

I’m currently at the airport, waiting for my flight to take me to Istanbul.  I probably won’t post there because I only have two days and somehow I feel like your life will be just fine if I don’t post for a bit.  I will have another one coming out soon that I’ve time-delayed to post so if you in fact won’t be fine, you’ll have a short note to keep you company.

Next time I write I will have traveled about 2/3 of the way around the world.

A domani…


Trapped in Cambodia!

December 24, 2009 · Posted in Travel · 1 Comment 

If there is one thing the world over that is inescapable while backpacking, it is buses.  Hot, smelly, sweaty, cramped, dirty buses.  Buses packed with multiple nationalities, camera toting tourists, rude locals (most locals are nice – but the rude ones always make the bus), and invariably a few good friends.  Whether these friends boarded with you or not is sort of up to you.  In any case, it is on one of these buses where we find ourselves several days ago, heading toward Cambodia.  At the border it is incredibly clear what the difference between a socialist republic and a kingdom can be.  On Vietnam’s border – an austere off-white building, no adornments of any kind.  On Cambodia’s side – beautiful carvings, embellished buildings, fancy facades.  Probably one of the only areas where Cambodia is clearly ahead of Vietnam, so we’ll give it to them.  The three of us did make some friends though – six Chilean lawyers (newly graduated, not yet practicing) who were backpacking through Asia.  All six of them were reading one of the Twilight books, which immediately brings to question their taste but that’s neither here nor there.  I think the Americans scared them initially, but after realizing we didn’t bite (not like Edward anyway) <gratuitous Twilight reference!> they warmed up to us a bit.  That’s pretty much where the story stops because, upon arrival, we suggested drinks, they suggested church, and that was that.

The next morning was “sunrise” at Angkor Wat, one of the largest religious temples in the world.  Some say it’s the biggest, some say Karnak (but Karnak’s stature may also encompass it’s surrounding temples so that’s like putting a steeple on a skyscraper…) but it’s really neither here nor there so let’s carry on now shall we?

So I put “sunrise” in quotes because

1 – the sky was overcast and so the sun didn’t really rise when it was supposed to.  Traveled halfway around the world to see CLOUDS.  Awesome.

2 – The 1,743,483 Japanese tourists using their flash to take pictures of the alleged sunrise so completely blinded me that I was unable to see for the next three hours.  Now, if you know anything about photography, you should know approximately how far a flash is effective.  We were several HUNDRED feet from the temple.  Well beyond the six or so feet that’s normal.  Yet they kept flashing away like they were hoping to induce epileptic shock on anyone within striking distance.

However, I did manage to pull off a few nice shots – here you go:

Sunrise over one of the towers.

Flowers in the reflecting pond.

Reflection in the pool…

View from the East Gate…

It was a pretty awe-inspiring day overall, and it went something like this.

Temple-temple-temple-temple-quick breakfast-navigate vendors-temple-temple-temple-quick water break-temple-temple-moat-tell girl selling water “No” for the 4,000th time-temple-home.

We got back to our guest house (Mandalay Inn – never to be confused with Mandalay Bay) around 5:00 and promptly took a four hour nap.

Dinner was at Angkor Palm where we enjoyed a sampler platter of traditional Khmer foods.  Among my favorite is a light curried fish called “Amok”.  Noticeably less spicy than the Indian or Thai varieties, this curry is baked with fish and vegetables in a banana leaf.  A bit bland for some people most likely, but overall it’s excellent.

(Full disclosure: this picture is actually from the night before at Cambodian BBQ but it’s the same thing.  “Same same but different” as they say here.)

December 21st we just bummed around Siem Reap, shopping at Psar Chaa for scarves, eating at a few different restaurants, and enjoying the town itself.  Dinner this time was a whopping $1.25 at a street stall and was definitely better than a lot of the Cambodian food we’d had prior.

That’s about when the fun started.  The next day we caught a bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, and then hoped to catch a bus from Phnom Penh to Saigon later that day.  Due to a visa mixup in Vietnam, Alex and Brandy needed to go to the embassy and apply for another visa.  When we get there and ask if they can rush the it, they say the soonest we can pick it up is 4:30 p.m.  The next day.

So there we are, trapped in Cambodia.

Resolved to make the best of it, we hop in a tuk-tuk (basically a motorcycle with a cart attached to it) and head to some guesthouses.  Once we find one, it’s to the river, where everything happens.

Despite a horrible bus ride, getting trapped in Cambodia, schlepping around from guesthouse to guesthouse, we end up at a cafe / lounge overlooking a beautiful park which happens to overlook the Royal Palace.  AND they had free wi-fi and $1 beers.  Cambodia is damn near dollarized – they very rarely use their own currency to quote prices.  That would have been a good enough way to end the night, but then we had dinner on the river and wandered around looking for a bar to continue our captivity in Cambodia.  We ended up at a place called the Candy Bar, and I think that’s where I’ll end this post.  Use your imagination…