Musings

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When travel becomes lacklustre

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It isn’t often that I feel dissatisfied after a trip, but a recent 5-day one to Khao Lak had wrong written on it from the very start. I’d planned to dive in the Similan Islands, taking advantage of the early diving season, but a sinus-infection (along with a doctor’s warning not to do it) meant that I was on the verge of cancelling the entire trip, only to go ahead the last minute.

The hotel I was in was overwhelmingly stocked with Germans; my room had a variety of insects and bees in it and the deck chairs reserved the whole damn day with towels on them, while their owners remained conspicuously absent.

I ended up diving only for a day in Koh Tachai, and on impulse, feeling lost after having a free day, booked a day trip with a dodgy operator that to white-water raft (the most fun I had in ages) with everything else such as the flying fox and the waterfall being better forgotten in the Phang-Nga province. Touted as a 200m flying ride, the reality was 10 times shorter – a 20 metre zip across a small stream. The ‘jungle walk’ to the waterfall ended up as mere steps to a small escarpment over which water tumbled over. The Gullfoss experience was it not. What was weirder even was the German/Serbian family who hawked their Bitcoin ventures to me after the white-water rafting trip when it all sounded suspiciously like an Internet scam.

My waterproof camera fell apart, as did my waterproof bag, so I had awful photos, as I had sopping wet things that weren’t supposed to get wet.

I plied the stretch of the whole Nang Thong township by foot so many times that I got quite sick of it. I tried spending the day at the pool doing nothing and got so bored that I felt guilty for feeling that way when obviously the rest of the world had other real problems to worry about.

When it was time to leave, the closed roads at the bottle-neck choke at the Phuket checkpoint because of a bicycle race meant I nearly didn’t make my flight back.

Perhaps it was the experience of being alone in a place where the Travel Companion had been with me before, but this time, I’m almost tempted to say that maybe I should have obeyed my first instinct…to not go on this trip.

The burning question here really is: is it really possible to have gone on a trip, spent all that money on it, and not be excited about it as you thought you were going to be? That in itself, is a revelation because I always expect to enjoy myself on a vacation, learn some new things, though this time in Khao Lak seemed to be proving otherwise. The fact was, it was lacklustre, most un-instagrammable, for want of a better word and it was an experience I was loathed to write about because a blog post about travel is supposed to be one that gushes about the unforgettable sights and smells of that new place you’re exploring.

But it’s out here now, the admission that travel can be simply underwhelming. It’s just an experience I’d rather not repeat though who controls this?

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Planning

Dollars & Sense: 10 things to note when budgeting for a trip

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The problem of trying to figure out how much cash to bring on a holiday is something that typically doesn’t have a good solution. Overdo it and there’s so much excess cash that sometimes tempts you to spend it on things you don’t need just so you don’t have to convert them back to your own currency. Under do it and you’ll be searching out another money exchange counter in no time, which frankly, wastes precious time.

When I used to do bi-annual 2-week trips to Europe about a decade ago, I went on a strict budget and told myself that no matter what, this fixed amount – do or die – was going to have to see me through. It clearly didn’t always work, particularly when I sneaked in a purchase or 2 with a credit/debit card in some seedy places.

Most people go about budgeting like this:

  • ask someone who went to the same place you are going how much they thought they spent
  • (in cases where nobody is around to ask), start asking on online forums
  • wait till the last minute, panic, come up with a random figure to bring and just wing it

None of these methods are very helpful (the last one even more so). And you find yourself either trying to do stupid things to save costs near the end of your holiday (“Who needs to spend on laundry? I will wear the same pair of underwear for 3 days – I know I can do it!”), using a credit card in some seedy venue, then fretting about your card getting cloned or trying to change money at a money changer when you can’t speak the language and don’t recognise the currency properly and so are almost guaranteed to get cheated to some degree.

I figured that there had to be a practical way to get an estimate of how much money to bring on a holiday. After nights of desperate browsing and calculating, it seems I somehow hit upon a sort of method of doing just that.

The general idea behind this is to:

  • note down any costs which are fixed
  • try to estimate those costs which are variable (in foreign currency)
  • total the whole lot up
  • figure out how much you need in your home currency to change for that amount of foreign currency

What you are trying to do is to make sense of madness, so some boundaries must exist. Please note that this will only work when some basic conditions of your trip are met before you go on it :

  • you know where you are going (the exact location)
  • you know the length of the trip
  • your accommodation is booked ahead of time
  • activities/side trips are mostly booked ahead of time
  • you spend responsibly while on a holiday

If you are backpacking to a general region, aren’t sure exactly which countries/regions you will be in or how long your trip will last then this won’t work for you. Or if you are the sort who likes buying a round for the entire bar in every bar, this isn’t for you, either.

But if you meet the conditions above, here then, are a rough series of steps to figuring out how much to bring. First, though, figure out the fixed expenses, such as air tickets, pre-booked activities and tours, hotel accommodation charges, transportation and prepaid SIMs.

1. The length of your trip

This is the first thing you figure out since this determines how many days of expenditure are involved. Even if some of the days are partial, note those down since you will need to spend money on those days as well.

2. The number of meals needed

Food is one of the most straightforward expenses you will need to budget for. Although this is a variable (who knows what you will eat for each meal? – more on which, later), you still know how many meals you will need to have. A few things to keep in mind here :

  • Is breakfast is included as part of your stay at your place of accommodation?
  • Are meals provided on flights? (assuming you can stand airline food, of course)

These may be meals you don’t have to budget for as they are already provided.

What you will end up with is a list resembling this :

e.g. for 4 nights
Incoming flight at 10am, outgoing flight at 2pm
4 breakfasts (breakfast provided on incoming flight)
5 lunches
4 dinners (dinner provided on outgoing flight)

3. Planned activities

Any planned activities such as tours are fixed costs. Note these down.

Some of these will insist on payment in cash only, not necessarily in the currency of the country you are visiting (e.g. some tours ask for payment in US dollars only). Remember to take these into account when changing currency!

4. Other fixed costs

There are typically some other costs which you will know of ahead of time, or at least have a rough idea of. Classic examples are transportation costs to/from the airport and possibly mobile phone card costs. Note these down as well since they are generally known values. A google search like ‘prepaid SIM card cost in [insert place]‘ will bring up many threads that will give you an estimate cost.

5. Estimating daily costs

This is where things get a little tricky – you have pretty much removed the costs which are static. Now we try to estimate the variable costs as best we can.

To do this, we need an estimate on the daily costs of living in the places you will be visiting. You can find this on websites such as Expatistan (www.expatistan.com). The information there is crowd-sourced and should give you an idea of the daily costs for various activities on your trip.

6. Meals

The easiest variable cost to deal with is meals. You already know how many meals you need for each meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner). Using the information taken from the website, you should be able to calculate an estimate of how much your meals should cost. A few tips here :

  • In some cases (typically dinner) you may find more than one cost option listed on your cost estimate website (e.g. a meal at a budget restaurant vs a 4 course meal at an Italian restaurant in an expat area). Always use the more expensive choice in your estimates. Overestimating is good.
  • I find that budgeting dinner for 2 people is a good idea, since this puts you in a position to pay for a possible partner or date. At the very worst, it will mean you can manage a more fancy dinner or have a bit of spare cash on hand, never a bad thing. Think about those lovely seaside dinner places on holiday.

7. General daily activities

The next is a list of general daily activities you might undertake. This can be a bit tricky but typically, there are few things that will get done every day on a holiday. Examples of these are :

  • a cab ride
  • a museum trip
  • sitting down for a coffee at a cafe

Of course, this varies from person to person and you should tailor this for the sort of things you might do daily while on holiday.

The general idea is if you think you might do it, then factor it in. Err on the side of caution. Multiply this estimated daily cost against the number of days your trip is and you have another estimated cost dealt with.

8. Daily spare cash

This might be the hardest thing to estimate but looking at the rough costs of various things the website gives you for the place you are going to will give you an idea of how much this can be. Multiply this by the number of days you are spending in the place and you should have a buffer of spare cash, just in case.

9. Adding it all up

Add up the fixed and estimated costs for your trip and round up to the nearest. Again, overestimating is good. You now have the estimated amount of cash you need in foreign currency.

10. Currency conversion

The final step is to calculate how much you will need of your own home currency in order to change for the foreign currency or currencies you will need. I use currency conversion websites for this (e.g. Oanda) and then add another about 15% on for the amount of home currency I should exchange. This is to take into account getting a crappy exchange rate at the money changer.

Hopefully, this should give you a workable sum of cash to use at your destination. In practice, I typically end up with a bit of extra cash which I have to change back to my home currency. While this isn’t terribly efficient since I almost definitely lose some value in changing currencies back, I’d rather have extra cash at the end of my trip and be prepared for contingencies than find myself short of cash.

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MusingsPlanning

Staying fashionable while on the road

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I’ve personally found it an impossibility to stay chic and fresh as I pull pair after pair of wrinkled pants (and shirts) out of my bags while moving from place to place. Even with hair that has thermally reconditioned (it’s a concession that I’ve been giving myself for the last decade to tame flyaway hair that can sort of still look alright in the morning), jet-lag and travel fatigue generally help guarantee that I wouldn’t be walking down any fashion runway any time soon. Those who look good effortlessly have my perpetual admiration and envy.

Yet I’ve never really been particularly image conscious, until I started walking the streets of Paris, London and Tokyo, where I stood out like a cranky barbarian who absolutely stood out from the fashionable natives because of how sloppy I looked.

Clothes maketh a man, so they say. But this wisdom has clearly passed me by. Sometimes clothes just don’t help me at all, considering how I try to wear my most well-worn things on travel so that they can get ripped and eventually tossed…without me, well, giving a rip and a toss. Paranoia also makes me keep it down to the minimum, especially when it comes to jewellery. I simply don’t wear any, safe for a boring, cheap watch that reliably tells me the time.

In short, I do think that many travellers don’t exactly care how they look as they wander down yellow brick road, just as there are many who do.

My own humble opinion really, is that I try to strike a balance between staying practical and looking as though I can fit in. But because I also dress for safety, what I ultimately throw into my suitcase requires more than a little thought given to it. Here are just some simple rules that I follow:

  1. Choosing basic colours that allow you to mix and match clothes effectively. I’ve always liked Scandinavian chic, so there are loads of black, navy and white (read: dull) combinations in my suitcase. Boring, practical, but easily matchable and great for concealing bulges and slimming silhouettes. Also prevents those sweat stains from showing which is already a huge tick in my book. Personally, patterns and dots and checks spell my doom.
  2. I typically pair loose tops with tight-ish or straight bottoms and vice-versa. No two things should hang loose at the same time, nor should both top and bottom squeeze you into a muffin top. This rule gets tossed out of the window when it comes to visiting religious places–stay conservative, culturally sensitive and respect the rules and regulations.
  3. Minimal accessorising: The most colourful I dare to get would be with a scarf, or at most, with some fancy bracelets that scream costume (not real) jewellery. Add too many colours to your getup and risk looking like a heavily-dressed lantern out of season.
  4. Being very careful with the use of cosmetics. I find myself rushing more often than not and there are fewer fancy nights out that I actually get to. Again, I keep these so very basic (I bother with sunscreen when visiting the beach, for instance), but ladies, I don’t think I should say any more because I do tend to be on the no-maintenance scale here. There are women I know who pack hairdryers and straighteners and every type of mask available in their cupboard, but I’m going to go out on a limb here to say that you’ll need to space for other things.
  5. Finally, looking good from the inside out: I do bring vitamins, keep myself relatively hydrated and try to stay the narrow road when it comes to eating healthily. It’s not always successful, clearly, but well, acne outbreaks and flaking skin have long taught me my lesson.

How do you look good while travelling?

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Musings

Speaking in tongues

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My (ex)Icelandic tutor once told me that she was learning several Japanese phrases for an upcoming trip to Japan, despite knowing nothing of the country. A Travel Companion once, had even bought Turkish and Italian quick-fix language sets in preparation for those holidays.

I’ve no idea if they actually succeeded in getting around more easily, but they’ve never worked for me. Should I bother memorising anything other than “Yes”, “No”, “Thank you” and “Please” in a language I’m completely unfamiliar with?

I’ve often asked myself if I should even bother with the short section found at the back of every travel guide called “Useful phrases” in the language of the country you’re visiting, knowing that I’ll mostly likely sound like a complete idiot when I mangle the pronunciation and say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Forget about even counting to ten, when I can barely remember the basics.

I’ve tried to go beyond the polite niceties, rattling off something and either annoyed someone, or got drawn into an enthusiastic conversation during which I’ll be raising my hands sheepishly and admitting that I know nothing of the language to the crestfallen person.

All too often, I’ve had more success with pantomime and a little dancing around involving frantic gestures. Got hands? Use them. Got legs? Even better. Walk till someone helps you. Have a killer smile? Hopefully someone will take pity on that face. Sometimes, I simply hold up the guidebook to their face, point at the phrase I’m trying to say and hope that at some meta level, they know what I’m trying to get at.

The alternative however, involves learning several languages to a competent level – and for me, that takes years and a heck of a lot of investment – before I feel comfortable conversing with a local or asking for help and not receiving a barrage of information I can’t unravel quickly enough.

In most cases, my interest in the language grew only after visiting the country. And I’ve never quite regretted learning the language since.

The truth is, many locals are charmed and receptive enough when you make an effort to speak what they speak and that’s why I still try these hacks from time to time.

So learn those phrases if you think they will help, but know that they can be as futile as you’ve thought they’d be.

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Musings

2016: What I remember

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I’ve never been the sort who catalogues every good and bad moment of the year and up until now, it has been difficult trying to sort each and every memorable one out. The months and the weeks go by in a manner that makes me feel I’d been in a coma for several months; a bad blip rolls over into a good one, which sometimes stays on…until the next disappointment or roadblock hits. And on it goes.

But now that I think a little harder about it, the good memories always tend involve the process of learning something new, either as a hobby or as skills acquisition (I hate this corporate-sounding term in any case), along with the times I’ve been away travelling doing something new.

In no particular order, this was what really stuck out:

  1. Taking rock climbing technique classes.
    Over a period of 4 weeks, I shook my bon-bon, twisted from side to side, gained many bruises along the way and trashed my ankle while at it. And still came out of it liking the sport more and more.
  2. Visiting the Lofoten islands in Norway.
    The pictures that I’d seen did all the justice to this place. Best done with a travelling companion and a rental car. Probably also best done while not during Easter when the whole country shuts down.
  3. Visiting Okinawa.
    Yet another amazing place I’d seen from afar, then finally made good on the personal goal to do it. This was a solo trip, done with a rental car and the blue, blue sea everywhere I went.
  4. Finally signing up for motorcycle lessons.
    I figured that wanting to be a biker chick starts with learning how to get my limbs coordinated with the brakes, clutch and the throttle while enduring the insults and the yells of the instructors. I’m barely into the practical lessons and also have the bruises to prove it after a skid and fall.
  5. A death in the family.
    I can’t even begin to describe the deluge of emotions that accompanies this, the scrambling that occurs later and the fallout from it do chip away some part of the soul.
  6. Coming to a point where important relationships had to be evaluated, giving up some things, while hanging onto others.
    Not to say it isn’t all figured out, neatly compartmentalised and sorted in my head, but such housekeeping has been and I suspect, always will be painful.

The truth is, I don’t remember much more beyond this. There’s only just the mantra of keeping on, then hanging onto the hope of what will come next. And then I look up and pray.

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Musings

Embers and ashes

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Not a week ago, an uncle of mine died very suddenly, in a hospital where he was being treated for a fall. He had been weak for some time, but his death was nonetheless a shock. He was joking with the nurses at 7 p.m. on a monday night; a half hour later, his heart gave out and he couldn’t be resuscitated at all. The details (and the full extent of) his ill health came later: the official cause of death was ischaemic heart disease, a ticking time bomb that was simply waiting to happen.

My aunt – his widow – and the woman whom we know as Aunt D, had a hard time processing it all.

We all did. 

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Musings

Staying Fit on the road

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Being a creature of routine brings its own comforts when I’m back the my daily grind. After a few years, I’ve settled into a fixed sort of schedule that allots time for work and play and exercise.

Going on the road changes that routine drastically and throwing in jetlag, the lack of movement makes me twitchy and sometimes, ill-tempered, because I think I can’t really handle sitting down and doing nothing for long periods. Long flights, needless to say, are extremely traumatic and painful for me. Some people tolerate it much better, but I think I’ve become a bear on planes.

But I digress. There are some ways I sneak in exercise while travelling and a lot of it is hotel-room based, so I can actually jump around in comfort and privacy without garnering weird looks from everyone.

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Musings

Dancing on walls

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So said the climbing instructor last night, because climbers endeavour to ‘flow’ on walls, with one movement melding smoothly into the next in a series of twists, turns, smears and flags. Those definitions confound me and only make sense when they’re broken down into simple moves and repeated.

It’s jaw-droppingly graceful when the instructor does it (so much that I felt like he needed a glossy magazine spread of his own), unlike my own stilted movements when I go from one hand-hold to another with gritted teeth.

The last two weeks of sports climbing have been interesting, to say the least. Rather than learning rope techniques again, I signed up for a climbing basic technique class, in the hope of not looking like an utter idiot when going vertical.

The instructors are fantastic, their students rubbish. Most of them, at least, including me.

There are 2 more sessions to go and with each one, I keep thinking of canyoneering and outdoor climbing.

Baby steps.

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Musings

Adventure Travel

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I’ve toyed numerous times with adding a little more adventure to my travels. But this is an impetus that has only grown in my head recently as I started looking for something that went beyond walking around city streets and ducking into suburban lanes and cafés for most of a holiday.

Having tried some white-water rafting, ice-climbing, snowmobiling and hikes as part of day trips, I think I’m hooked to some more adrenaline pumping moves that I want to explore: there’s climbing outdoors, Antarctica to visit, more rafting to do, canyoning, skiing, surfing and more diving in the Northern Hemisphere, visiting the world’s most remote islands and inland places…

The list is endless. The more I think about it, the more I’m also rethinking my own personal career trajectory and it is gets more and more difficult not to want to shift everything outdoors. There was even a crazy moment a couple of weeks ago when I wondered about the viability of becoming an Arctic or an Antarctic postal worker.

I’d be the first to admit that travel has caused new loves to be born. Travel companions have made me aware that I can’t – shouldn’t – subsist on convenience store takeout for lunches and dinners and that entire cultures, lineages and heritage could be discovered within cuisines. Because of an accidental ice-climb in Ilulissat, I’m actually going to a climbing gym for courses to be less incompetent when going up a vertical wall. My cameras have grown in megapixels and size when I discovered how much I liked the sights I saw and wanted them as high-definition photographs just as they are imprinted in my memory.

But getting weighed down by doubts after that mental high just thinking about adventure travel is brutal. Travel takes time and money – commodities which are tied together and aren’t always in abundance – and guts and stamina and an attitude that demands constant learning and constant reevaluating. The potential for injuries and falling into whatever type of danger is real, ever-present and not as easily brushed off as what glossy travel magazines make every trip out to be.

Like my bucket list, this negative sheet of paralysing doubts is just as long.

But there’s also a nagging voice in my head that overpower it all: you’ll never know if you don’t try.

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Health and SafetyMusingsPlanning

She goes alone

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Is the world an infinitely more dangerous place for a solo female traveller?

Yes and no.

There is no succinct answer. Much of that depends on the places you decide to visit, the precautions you take and the force of a charming personality that can actually overcome some obstacles that an otherwise surly person wouldn’t.

Thus far, I’ve kept my travels to countries that have been relatively ‘safe’, but I’m never more painfully aware that the definition of this particular word differs from person to person. I’ve not taken any self-defense classes (though I wish I did); neither do I really carry mace or pepper spray or god forbid, a knife around. They’re also illegal in some places and I’d rather not spend a night in jail.

Buy a package tour, endure the extra single-bed charges and you’ll have company and the relative safety of a group looking out for you; walk around blindly as a large group and risk your pocket getting picked in the crowded streets of Rome. Plan your itinerary from start to end without the help of a tour agent and you might just find out that the accommodation you’ve reserved has suddenly been given up to someone else, leaving you on the streets at midnight with nowhere to go.

There are however, some rules of common sense that I do adhere to when I’m out alone and these aren’t exactly new or groundbreaking in any way, but they’ve worked for me.

The single rule that I’ve always gone with is that preparation is key. 

1. Do the best prep you can

I never leave it to chance when it comes to getting an itinerary all rolled out before I depart, which means that the preparation begins weeks or even months in advance. I peruse versions of a map, sometimes even going into Google streetview just to see where my hotel is, so that I don’t fumble and looking like a lost sheep after stumbling out of the airport. It does take the spontaneity out of the fun of wandering wherever I want to go, but I would rather not find myself stuck in a train station overnight when all the rooms in the area are full. Look out for festival or events that will run at the same time you’ll be in the city too – rooms go so quickly that sometimes, the only way around this is to modify my entire itinerary and skip the place altogether when there’s no place to stay that wouldn’t blow my budget.

Tripadvisor and Booking.com give me the best places to look for places to stay and the reviews – driven by other tourists – have been infinitely helpful in helping me to decide where I want to put my head to rest for the night.

That’s just the start. I do go into the nitty-gritty of arranging transport way ahead of time by checking out the ways I can get around, not just for cost effectiveness, but also boat/train/bus/rail timings. Mostly, I keep my moving around confined to the daylight hours and if I do indeed venture out at night, I mostly ensure there’s a clear and direct way back to the place I’m staying.

Think you’ll be in for a culture shock? Do a little reading on forums about what people expect of travellers (and single women travellers for that matter).

2. Body position, language and dressing

How do you carry yourself? I’ll never be able to blend in, say, in a place like India or in Tanzania because I don’t look remotely like the locals, but dressing conservatively goes a long way in not drawing any attention to yourself. In this case, being sloppy (my personal attire of choice) works, unless you’re too fashion-conscious and determined to strut down the cobblestones in the latest D&G to make an impression on everyone.

In crowded alleys, I’d rather look stupid and defensive than fashionable and swanky, so I do keep my backpack close to my body at all times.

I keep my guard up at all times – which makes for exhausting evenings – and by the same token, keep the same measure of caution when speaking to the locals, even fellow travellers. Don’t be too quick to get drawn into conversations with people you don’t know, although I’ve heard and read of people who’ve found lifelong friends or even partners during a trip.

Trust your instincts in general; don’t do what you wouldn’t do in your home country.

Getting hassled? I’ve been there. From crazy stalkers in Birmingham and Athens (I ducked into the nearest shop and took refuge) to even crazier carpet-sellers in Istanbul, these incidents can be anything from stressful to scary. Don’t hesitate to make a scene if you think your safety is compromised. Overreact, embarrass the fellow(s) publicly, run or simply ask for help from people around you. Invent a boyfriend, a husband or a group that you’re travelling with and say you’re waiting for them to join you.

3. Day tours

These offer a more controlled environment if you’d like to see the place while meeting other people as well. In fact, I’ve done this more times than I care to count and while some were loads better than others, I can’t deny it’s a great way to see a new place without the 9-day commitment of a tour group’s fixed itinerary.

4. Travel Gear

I’ve only recently started looking for more secure bags, but these aren’t strictly necessary. Pac-safe’s anti-theft stuff, for instance, has been tempting me for a while but they aren’t easy on the pocket, especially when you’re looking to spend your hard-earned money on other things. I’ll say it right here though, these things aren’t necessities. Keeping a good head, staying calm and generally maintaining a semblance of good ol’ common sense has helped me more than fancy equipment.

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