Note: Travel Tip Tuesday posts are more travel resource than travel blog. They will generally contain advice and specific tips and recommendations we came up with during our trip. While these posts are more firmly geared towards those readers who may be contemplating or planning a trip of their own, we hope they will not be uninteresting to everyone else. And we promise to pepper them vigorously with little anecdotes and tidbits from our travels to keep you coming back for more!
When you're bored on the road and trying to kill a little time in an internet cafe, one amusing little diversion is to browse amongst some of the more heated discussions on online travel forums: ThornTree, BootsnAll, etc. (Or, if your name is Klaus, wade right into them and stir up some trouble.)
One of the topics guaranteed to encourage some feisty debate is the question of whether or not to take a money belt with you on your travels. You know, one of those canvas belts full of zippered pouches, which you wear beneath your clothes and pack with all of your most valuable posessions: your plane tickets, your money, your credit cards, your travelers' checks. So, do you need one? People get crazy over that question sometimes.
When planning for our trip, I approached these sorts of forums as a soon-to-be-backpacker, thirsty for knowledge. For instance, I wondered whether I should wear a money belt when we traveled, to keep our stuff safe. I was looking for guidance, and didn't find it. Or rather, I found far too much of it, all completely contradictary.
Everyone had their own idea. Everyone disagreed with everyone else. And everyone was absolutely convinced that they were right and everyone else was crazy.
Quick, what's the glaring omission from the above list of "valuable posessions" you might be hoarding away in your money belt? If you said "passport", then you get two points. (And if you're now randomly thinking of the movie Sneakers, I get a point too!)
Many travelers consider their passport to be the most important thing they posess. You need it to get back home. You need it to board that flight to Fiji. You often need it to check into your hotel. And as you travel, and it fills up with those oh-so-precious stamps, it becomes special as far more than proof of identification and citizenship.
So, unsurprisingly, another common question is what the heck to do with it. Not when you're flying somewhere or checking in someplace, but just when you're walking around town. And once again, opinions are like feet: nearly everyone has one or two, and we all seem to be pretty sure everyone else's stink.
We know people who swear blue that you're just asking for trouble if you do anything but leave your passport in the hotel safe. Others say that's just crazy, keep your passport on you at all times! (Preferably in that money belt we were talking about.) Some hide their passport beneath the mattress, while others shove theirs into a slash-proof backpack and chain it to the bathroom sink. And every one of them is convinced the others need to have their heads examined.
Especially when you're just starting out on your trip, you can sometimes find yourself wanting someone to tell you what to do. You want black and white answers to gray-area questions. If I can't drink the local water, can I brush my teeth with it? Should I give money to street beggars? Is it safe for them to shove my beloved backpack up onto the roof of the bus?
Usually, there isn't a real "right" or "wrong" answer. But you wouldn't know that from asking people.
Many readers will remember our good friends Paul and Caroline. During those lovely days the four of us spent in El Bolsón, Jessica and I recommended to them a bus company named Andesmar. Andesmar, you may recall, puts on quite a show as far a busrides are concerned. Whenever the two of us took a bus anywhere in Argentina, we'd take an Andesmar if we could. They are just spectacular beyond words.
Well, Paul and Caroline booked themselves an Andesmar for their very next bus journey, from El Bolsón up to Mendoza. When we caught up with them a week or so later, we were shocked to hear that it had been awful. The bus was suffocatingly hot, stunk unsettlingly of gasoline, and was just a crappy experience overall. Egads. What had become of our beloved Andesmar? Why had they let us down so?
The fact is, we never had a bad experience with them. But sometimes, shit happens. If our first experience with them had been the trip that Paul and Caroline had had, we'd have never taken them again. And we'd have smack-talked them six ways from Sunday.
It was in Vilcabamba, Ecuador that we first met our friend Klaus. One evening, the three of us were briefly joined at dinner by a couple with whom Klaus had arranged to exchange some currency. (It's not uncommon for travelers to exchange currency after crossing into a new country: "Oh, you're headed into Peru? Here, let me sell you my leftover soles!")
While Klaus and the gentleman counted out their money, Jessica and I made conversation with the young lady. We never filed her name away into long-term memory, and today I can only remember her as "BoliviaGirl". (She had been living in Bolivia for a year or so when we met her.) As so often happens among travelers, the talk turned to itineraries, and soon we found ourselves discussing our beloved Argentina.
"I hate Argentina," she pronounced sharply, "it's the worst country in the world."
Again, we were shocked. Surely she was mistaken. Not Argentina. Surely not.
We asked her why she hated Argentina, and were taken even more aback by her answer.
"In Buenos Aires, a group of armed gunmen broke into the hostel we were staying at. They had machine guns, and they ransacked all the rooms, stealing everything everyone had. It's an awful place, Buenos Aires."
Buenos Aires is our favorite city in the world. Number two is Istanbul, then Phnom Penh, then Bangkok. But Buenos Aires is head and shoulders above the rest. Never before and never again did we feel so at home.
BoliviaGirl's story about Buenos Aires was as bizarre and surreal to us as it would have been had it been set in Philadelphia. Machinegun-armed bandits? In Buenos Aires? No wonder she hated Argentina.
If we'd met BoliviaGirl before traveling to Argentina, we might never have gone. We'd have had this impression of it as a dangerous, awful place where armed gangs broke into hotels.
And I found myself thinking of Montevideo. We hated that city with a passion. We'd been telling people for months to avoid it like the plague.
What if Montevideo had just been having a bad day that day, like Buenos Aires was for BoliviaGirl, like Andesmar was for Paul and Caroline? Maybe there's someone out there who adores Piura the same way we love Phnom Penh.
There's so much chance involved in trips like these. If we'd never met our friend Sam Nang, we may never have fallen for Kratie the way we did. When we tell people they should make a trip up to Kratie when they visit Cambodia, I can't help but wonder if they'll fall for it like we did. What if it's their Montevideo?
Over the course of many Tuesdays to come, we'll be both talking about how we approached certain aspects of traveling (like finances, what to bring, etc) and giving specific recommendations for specific cities (like which hotel to stay in when you visit Göreme).
Just remember: your mileage may vary.
We didn't take money belts. We left our passports in our room when we went out. That doesn't mean that's right, or that's what you should do. It's just what we did.
You might hate the places we loved, or love the places we hated. Don't cross some place off your itinerary just because we didn't like it. Remember the lesson of BoliviaGirl.
Whew! Now, that said, we can get on with the Travel Tips...
...but not until another Tuesday.