10 Tips to Preparing for Traveling Epic

10 Tips to Preparing for Traveling Epic

Chichen Itza - Traveling with my baby Dean
Chichen Itza – Traveling with my baby Dean

It’s important to listen to your readers as a blogger.  I was asked a direct question over Facebook and felt it was worth explaining and would make a good blog.  Here’s the question…

I was wondering if you could do a post where you share tips on how you prepare before you travel to a location. For example, I’ll be travelling to Toronto in a few weeks. Do you have a method you use before each trip to find out the “must see” locations and events going on at each location? Any details you could share in a post would be awesome. I really like your “immersion” approach to travelling.

1. Minimalist packing – I think think this is a key strategy.  Some people spend weeks to planning what’s in their bags, and end up worrying about all the junk they brought with them.  I literally don’t bring anything that I couldn’t spare to lose.  My phone is the likely exception to that, cause the cheap netbook I often carry with me for presentations is cheaper than my phone… by a long shot.  It’s also very light.  My goal is to fit everything in a Ogio backpack with a laptop slot.  I’ve done 2 weeks in a backpack.  I often bring another bag on the way home with stuff I bring home, but even that has gotten smaller and smaller.  I collect masks, and often bring so unless it’s a really good mask.  One of the tricks that not everyone could use… I’ve used that works for nearly all airlines is to bring a bag that looks like a bag that was stuff you purchased at the airport.  So every checkpoint it doesn’t really count as a bag.  Worst case I attach it to my backpack by tying it on, or rolling it up and stuffing it in. There’s always more room.

2. Twitter & Facebook – Research comes from friends on social networks, not just people I’ve met. I do enjoy posting where I’m planning on going on twitter.  It’s amazing the responses I’ll get from people who are passionate about the area.  My trip to Cappadocia Turkey to the underground city of Derinkuyu would have been very different had I not had a few conversations on twitter that encouraged me to go it alone.  I felt very comfortable understanding what I was getting into.  Knowing a local also made me feel comfortable bouncing ideas that I was planning. Thanks @captcappadocia

3. Lonely Planet – Some of the best destinations on the planet are featured and covered in the Lonely Planet guides.  I’ve personally bought a couple of them when I’m crazy committed to a place.  When I visited India, I really wanted to research the culture, the cities, the palaces, and I really didn’t want to miss anything!  One of the worst things ever is knowing I went to a place and I missed the most important thing.  There are iphone/ipad apps for lonely planet that you can download and take offline.  You can also buy books for your kindle and read them along the way.  Research on the culture. the festivals, and local research about a place is helpful, but you don’t need a book for every place you’re going.  I didn’t tell you this, but copying the pages of the city or region you’re going to is a lot more light weight.  Those books have a lot of research for places you won’t see.  I learned this from a traveller who was carrying the lonely planet guide pages for Cappadocia region of turkey.  Nice!  The online site has great research, communities and helpful forums.  I personally will copy paste things I like, and put them on a word or notepad page, I include pictures as I mention in more detail in #7 below.

4. VirtualTourist.com – Speaking of most important – I use the virtual tourist top “Things to Do” as a checklist.  I read through the descriptions on 10-20 of them and find what people are saying about a place and then decide what are the things I would like most.  Often I’ll add 5 or so of the top 10.  Many of them are the things you MUST do at a place, but I’ll also include the day trip type content, and often use the map to see what cities or towns are nearby and plug those into Virtualtourist.com.  What it does not do well is tell you what is nearby.  Those day trips some times reveal what’s good nearby, but often it will only tell you boring things if you pick a boring town.  Research does not conclude from virtual tourist, it is early research to help me know where to start.  Virtual Tourist in Albania taught me that Tirana is an under the radar tourist destination, and a lot of people didn’t like it, but I also found Durres, an ancient roman port town was only 45 minutes away.  Looking up that town, I found all sorts of things I wanted to see, but I also found key historical things I shouldn’t miss in Tirana.

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Russia Travel Rocks – St Petersburg to Majestic Moscow

Russia Travel Rocks – St Petersburg to Majestic Moscow

Russia is just the most amazing place.  Part of this for me is just the pure history of the last century, but also it’s just so prominent on the globe.  Russia has been so imperial.  So majestic.  So mysterious. There’s the crazy cold war, and my favorite the space race.  Forget about the arms race, although I really do need to visit Chernobyl.  I did fly over it on a jet on my way out of Moldova. Can you believe it? The US is now hitching rides with the Russians into space to the international space station.  Amazing how the dynamics themselves have definitely changed.  At least the space people are collaborating.

Red Square - State Historical Museum

When I was growing up I remember looking for places to hide just in case the Russians came.  There was the attic, and the potato cellar.  Either way Russians were always the enemy, but in church we would talk about when Russia would be open for the preaching of the gospel.  The end of the world would come shortly after missionaries entered Russia, or so it would seem. Ronald Regan had that big arms race thing.  The “Wall” comes down and shortly Russia would be open for preaching of the gospel.  I’d hear of friends who would go there on their missions.  There was stories that reached all the way to Idaho about the first McDonalds in Russia and how lines wrapped around the block or worse.  Fast forward a few years, and I’m a minority on a Russia majority software company up in Seattle.  I find these “refugees” are amazing, and I’m fascinated with their culture.  I never hated Russians, just fascinated by their culture and the communist machine.  So many stories about how we should be extremely worried about anything that had anything to do with it.  Living in Seattle, I’d find a HUGE Leningrad Lenin at a coffee shop.  There was even communist magazines and articles in Fremont area in Washington, that made it seem almost cool to be communist, because it was racy.  Why do I give you this terse background story?  Because going to Russia is a HUGE rush.  Most American’s have some weird ideas of what it would be like to go to Russia.  How dangerous it might be, what might happen.  The crazy Russian Mafia stories.

First thing I had to do as an American was getting the Russian Visa.  It was the longest visa form I’ve ever filled out.  I started having doubts that they might not admit me.  It’s not just asking about my passport details and where I’m going… It gets into my parents and grandparents on both sides.  It asks about every country I’ve visited plus dates, that’s a pretty good list that ends up being pretty complex.  Despite the complexity and the couple of weeks it took.  I get the visa!!  I’m on my way to Russia.  What’s better I’ve got colleagues in St. Petersburg and I’ve got a SharePoint user group meeting setup in Moscow.  So work is paying for hotels, and all I’ve got to do is cover a train ticket from St. Petersburg to Moscow.  The Nevsky express!  Strangely about a week after that train ride that same train would get blown up and derailed by Chechen Rebels. Crazy.

St Petersburg Church of Spilled Blood

Pictured Above:  One of my favorite buildings in St Petersburg is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This Church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and was dedicated in his memory.

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Secrets of Cambodia from Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields

Secrets of Cambodia from Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields

The largest religious complex in the world.  Angkor Wat is one of the most amazing structures in the world.

Sure, Karnak in Luxor, Egypt is the largest religious structure, but Angkor Wat stretches over miles and miles including many many buildings.  I’d like to see a comparison of Tikal to Angkor Wat.  It’s a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason.  The complex itself was built 1110-1150.  It’s estimated it would take 300 years to do today, but took 40 years back then with thousands of workers brining in stones from all over.  Ok, read more on Wikipedia article on Angkor Wat beyond my research… If this was the only building that was constructed it would still be one of the most amazing in the world, but it is among 74 others in the complex of buildings many many miles apart.

This is definitely a bucket list item.  A New Seven Wonders runner up.  One of the most amazing places in the world!

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Chichen Itza Mayan Masterpiece Pyramid Perfection and Wonder of the World (6 of 7)

Chichen Itza Mayan Masterpiece Pyramid Perfection and Wonder of the World (6 of 7)

Visit of Christ to the Americas

This post is in a series of 7 posts on the 7 Wonders of the New World

 

When I was planning our Cancun vacation, my wife was thinking… we’ll chill on the beach at an all inclusive resort, and I was thinking… we’ll grab a rental car and pick up as many of the Mayan temples as possible within a 2 week period.  Finally I can see one of the 7 finalists of the new 7 Wonders of the World – Chichen Itza.  As a traveller I was anxious to see real wonders of the ancient world. I love temples, I love archeology, and I love the mystery that surrounds these massive new world temples. I also was incredibly interested in Tulum on the coast, and my ultimate Tikal the Mayan Capital.  We know so little about the Mayans, but I was surprised to find out they weren’t totally wiped out.  There is a group of Mayans that give the tours in Tulum, and they speak the ancient Mayan language.  It’s so, so sad that the culture has so much of who they were.  They lost everything.  A few documents recently were rediscovered in Germany referred to as the Mayan Dresden Codex.  Mayan Temple of Chichen ItzaWhich some point to as the source of the 12, 21, 2012 apocalyptic date or the beginning of 1000 years of peace, but “A German expert who says his decoding of a Mayan tablet with a reference to a 2012 date denotes a transition to a new era and not a possible end of the world as others have read it…The interpretation of the hieroglyphs by Sven Gronemeyer…He said the inscription describes the return of mysterious Mayan god. Continue reading on Examiner.com German Mayan researcher’s 2012 conclusions.  Cool.  Beginning of the end of the world or return of a Mayan god… Bearded white god?  (By the way, ask to see the rock carving of the bearded god at Chichen Itza.  It’s pretty cool.  If it’s Lief Erickson or Jesus or insane stone carver it’s mind numbing given the carvings all around it.  Seriously fun stuff.  You gotta enjoy the speculation and not get too caught up either way, since we can’t know.

While I don’t think the end will happen in December 2012 (No one is suppose to know the day or hour when Jesus is coming back Matthew 24:36), I have used it as an opportunity to be prepared for disaster.  In my church, we have been asked to have a year supply of food on hand in case of disaster.  It has paid off with members all over the world.  As recent as the tsunami in Japan and earthquake in Hati, the members who obeyed have been blessed. As a member of the LDS Church there is a fascinating Book of Mormon back story of Christ in the Americas and Artists often paint pictures of Christ appearing to the righteous people in 3 Nephi 11 with the back drop of Tulum.  There are Mormon tours all over this region.  In fact we discovered that more Mayan Temple of Tulumthan 30% of the guides in Tulum were Mayan members of the LDS Church.  It’s understood that there really hasn’t been any LDS revelations on the locations, and anything discovered is purely speculation.  Our guide at Tulum was actually a Mormon Bishop named Mosiah.  It was a quick tour, which really didn’t add any info on what we had already got from our tour in Chichen Itza.  He shared pictures of Tulum where light shines through specific building on April 6th, and sold us a tree of life medallion.  Great stories.  Amazing place.  While I didn’t necessarily subscribe to all he shared, I was fascinated with the history of the Mayans, he being one himself.  The PC accepted story is that Mayan calendar simply points toward a new era.  Great.  Others are looking for the Age of Aquarius.

Dean%2520taking%2520it%2520inThese grandios temples are mucho bueno.  Very incredible.  Left: My trooper, Dean at Chichen Itza.  This is 3 of 7 New Wonders for him.  He’s been to Machu Picchu and the Great Pyramids in Egypt.

Travel Tip: I do recommend highly recommend seeing Chichen Itza.  I do recommend getting a negotiated tour there.  There are some inscriptions and history that you’d miss otherwise.  There are a lot of things to point out in the area.  There are half a dozen buildings and a great ball court area, and you need to know more about the rules of that game and what happens to the winners and losers.  Those stories you must hear.  There’s a lot of inscriptions and interpretations and stories you need to hear.  We got the 2 hour guided tour, that we negotiated on the spot after we arrived.  It wasn’t too outrageous.  There are a lot of people that can give tours, so shop around and negotiate.  Don’t take the first rate you hear.  Many hotels in Cancun can arrange transport and tour as well.  Just don’t over pay.  There is a lot of cushion.  In relation to Cancun both Tulum and Chichen Itza are both day trips. There is a toll road all the way to Chichen Itza from Cancun. You’ll pay 20-30 USD for that trip one way! We decided we’d take the scenic route on the way there, and hurry back. It is a difference of about an hour. You can get to other ruins as well including Coba. I didn’t make it to Coba, we were with my wife’s family and Jeff got sick, so we missed out on that one, but that’s ok because my eye was on the ultimate prize of Tikal, Jaguar temple the largest temples in the new world.  In contrast to Chichen Itza, I do not recommend the tour in Tulum.  The buildings are a lot smaller, things are close and if you did this one after doing Chichen Itza there’s a lot of overlap.  Our tour may have ultimately been 15 minutes of explanation and he didn’t even walk the whole thing with us.  Don’t miss the views from either side of the temple near the water.  There are some great photo shots by of Tulum by the water.  Another reason to do your research of Tulum ahead of time and get the guided tour at Chichen Itza.

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Virgin Tourist Destinations: Albania and Kosovo

Virgin Tourist Destinations: Albania and Kosovo

Albanian Art
Albanian Art

When I said I was flying into Albania and traveling across Kosovo to Macedonia some thought it was a very odd choice.  After having done it, I really enjoyed this trip and would recommend it for those looking for more of a raw European experience.  Some of the cheapest areas in Europe with the least number of tourists with some incredibly beautiful terrain.  At the end of this trip, from my UN country list I’m only missing Andorra from continental Europe, that may also explain our odd choice, but again, great adventure.  Did you know Mother Theresa is ethnic Albanian?  She was born in Skopje, Macedonia.

The Balkans are one of my favorite areas in Europe.  Dubrovnik, Split, Sarajevo, Mostar, Budapest and Belgrade continue to be some of my favorite cities in Europe.  The Balkans fail to get the best mention for beauty because of stains of war, but this history shouldn’t keep you from enjoying what hasn’t yet been claimed by tourists.  Seriously, you are missing out on the best if you ignore this region.

I met up with Paul Swider in Istanbul for his birthday, and Michael in Tirana.  You’ll hear a lot about these guys… my traveling companions for many adventures.  The night before our flight I was walking with Paul on the famous Taxim.  A walking street in Istanbul that’s known for it’s incredible night life, shopping, food, and it may have a million visitors in a day.  It’s pretty incredible area for getting the vibe of the city and just people watching.

Mega ATM Machine
Mega ATM Machine

Can you tell this city is interested in tourists?  This ATM machine spits out dollars, euros, pounds, and Turkish Lira!  Minutes later we’d be talked into going into this lounge.  They sell drinks for crazy high prices.  I had warned Paul, and thankfully we looked at the pricelist.  A couple years ago I was in a similar situation, but not with any knowledge of the scam that happens in that area with dancing Ukrainian girls sipping champaign, and within 20 minutes my buddy I had met that night had racked up a charge of over 500 Euros and was looking to split it.  Uhhh, no thanks.  Just a quick word of caution to not be talked into going into boring lounges with crazy expensive drinks.  Thirsty girls that just want to talk, is a bad sign.

As avid travelers Paul and I were so crazy impressed by the Turkish Airlines international lounge at the Istanbul Airport.  It wasn’t just the massage therapist who was walking around giving back massages, or the high speed wifi, the omelet bar, the huge free drink selection, breakfast buffet, but when you lockup your bags in a digital locker area with tons of space, a theatre room with rows of leather recliners, a news room area with 9 screens all showing different news programs all over the world and head sets where you could tune in at will.

Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul
Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul

I hadn’t really done much research, but after landing in Tirana, Albania and checking into our hotel, I quickly did some searches and found we were only about 40 minutes from the coast or better.  Tirana is named after a castle and is relatively a new city in European terms, but Durres, a roman port town was an easy drive.  So I convinced my traveling companions we needed to head for the coast.  After walking around down town, we saw some remnants of the communist era as well as a mosque that luckily survived 40 years of no religion in Albania and a touch of modernism.

 

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