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Monthly Archives: October 2011

After a year of living in the “sunny” part of San Francisco, I was quite done with living in a cool climate that was constantly covered in a chilling fog.  I grew up in Los Angeles, if I am to only have one climate I prefer it to be warm and sunny.  So when planning this trip I decided to chase summer and festivals across the continents.  I have one cold stop in China in January to celebrate Chinese New Years but hope to make that my only non-balmy stop.  My stops in South America and Southeast Asia will most likely be beaches.

It would not exactly be an endless summer without some surf.  Despite growing up mere miles from the beach and spending whole summers at the beach in my teenage years, I do not know how to surf.  I stuck to boogie boarding, likely due to my inability to swim.  I still don’t know how to swim but the instructor here in Ecuador insisted it was not an issue.  He had taught a 65 year old lady earlier in the month.  There was a woman in her 70’s in capoeira in the Bay Area that could beat me any day.  The geriatrics totally kick my butt at learning fun new things.  I hope I am still that adventurous and able bodied then.

"Imagine the board is like a handsome 9 foot tall man." "Why would I keep trying to get up?" "Good point, I'll stop using that."

I have had friends who learned how to surf and had some ideas that I would not be able to stand on my board after one mere class.  Luckily Pablo and Katherine of Surf Switch were really great teachers and used a much easier longboard for my lesson.  By the end of the hour or two I had managed to stand and catch a few waves.  This was easier than I thought it was going to be!  Having two great private teachers certainly helped. I am rather pleased that Ecuador uses the US dollar as currency and that things here are really pretty darned cheap.  I don’t think I could rent a surfboard for an hour in LA for how much this private lesson was.

I had also managed to swallow a few gallons of seawater, I forgot what that feels like.  I did feel great after class and relaxed as I watched Pablo run out to catch a few more waves.  It’s great to see someone so passionate about enjoying the ocean.  Katherine cleaned up and had a smoke while we waited.  I forget while in America that it is much more common to smoke in other countries.  I only see smokers at bars back home.  It looks like other countries are trying to change that though.

"Smoking causes cancer". The other side said "Smoking kills." This makes the surgeon general's warning look absolutely wimpy.

I am rather amused that quite a few American brands are in South America.  Many of the snacks and packaged food items are brands I am quite used to seeing back home.  When people visit other countries I tell them to bring me potato chips to see what local cultures eat.  I am a little disappointed that the chips here are pretty similar and there are no weird flavors.  Oh well, I’m sure Brazli or Asia will make up for the inoffensive snacks and normal foods.

Sunset and surf photo courtesy of my neighbor in Curia, John.

I am looking forward to the various other new things I am sure I will try as I chase an endless summer.  Maybe I’ll take another surf class.

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I’ve chosen Ecuador out of the list of countries that celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).  Wikipedia tells me Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador seem to celebrate the most.  I love Mexico however it does not seem particularly safe for Americans at the moment.  After some fruitless volunteer searching I ended up finding a rental for two weeks on VBRO.  I was headed to surfing town Montanita on the coast of Ecuador.

Oh, wait.  Nope.  I’m heading to Curia, a small village of 300 outside of Montanita.  This is turning out just fine as Montanita seems to be mostly full of ravers, surfers, and tchotchke crap.  The surfers I do not mind, but I have no need for bad jewelry and lots of drugged out people.   The VBRO ad mentioned it was high season so I was expecting sunny days ahead.  I was unfortunately wrong, it’s been cloudy three of the last four days.  The house is 50 feet from the water though, so I cannot complain too much.

It is not always sunny in Curia, Ecuador.

The beach is really quite empty except for a few motorcycles and trucks zooming over the hard packed wet sand.  The motorcycles sometimes carry fish vendors with coolers on the back.  The prices are not particularly cheap and it appears the locals cannot afford to buy much seafood.  They tend to eat two types of starch with every meal, rice and then either pasta or fried plantains.  I trekked into town to find vegetables as in the village I am in, only sporadic trucks show up with vegetables unannounced short of a few honks before zooming off.  My Spanish is sadly rusty but this is a good place to practice as not many villagers speak English.  I am a little disappointed as the vegetables in town seem to mostly consist of potatoes and carrots.  The only spices available appear to be salt, pepper, and the orange spice they use for encebellado, a fish and onion soup eaten for breakfast.  At least the weather lends itself to eating lots of soup.

Some interestingly pink potatoes and beans. Sadly they lost their color when cooked.

I have not headed into town much but i am enjoying the tranquility of this area.  The house is quiet and I can hear the waves lapping as I sleep.  What a good place to catch up on some reading, DS games, writing and drawing.

I feel like a Corona ad. Change my lattitude, except for those hiking pants because it isn't really that warm.

My round the world travel ticket is booked with my first airline, which happens to be LAN airlines.  I have had nothing but trouble and rudeness with AA so I thought this might be a step up.  Unfortunately that would be too much to ask for.  In what I hope is the only time I must call LAN multiple times, they have royally screwed up my ticket purchase.  I saw a one dollar charge on my credit card when I bought my ticket and thought that meant that approval was coming soon.  Little did I know what that really meant was LAN would wait two weeks to tell me my credit card company declined and that in the meantime they overbooked my first two flights so I lost them entirely.  This is not the news you want to hear the day before you leave the country. I called my credit card company and was told no charges were ever made after that first dollar transaction check.  I’m not sure who’s lying here.

The phone system only rings sometimes and randomly hangs up on you.  The first four people I tried to talk to had no idea what I was talking about with my lost flights and did not want to help me.  Often their English speaking abilities were questionable.  Accents I can deal with, but their understanding of the situation was poor.  Finally after much screaming, hollering, and crying on the phone I got someone who took the tie to see what happened and tried to fix it.  Two to three days later of hanging on to every sound my phone made and I finally had a ticket and a few more gray hairs.

The joys of my round the world travel ticket mean I will be dealing with LAN this entire year any time something happens with my flights.  I hope that this is the last time I must deal with their automated phone system.

How does one really plan for traveling for a year?  More than one person has asked me what my plan is, and I really didn’t have an answer.  What I do have is a whole bunch of research that I hope is useful for other people on their travels.  A lot of the articles available online seem to be dated to 2008 or before for some reason.

I’m not your average backpacker.  I likely do not drink enough.  I am not interested in taking my picture with every landmark in every country.  I am also not a fan of moving cities very quickly or spending lots of time on transport. So where does one start?  I started with the plane ticket, so I would have to pick countries/hubs that I wanted to visit. One year is both a lot of time and not very much time at all.  I chose to go with planes over ground transport for the big hops to cover more continents.

Round the World Fares

A round the world ticket is an airplane ticket that covers your multiple flights to circle the globe.  They can have a few or very many stops.  Usually you have to head in one direction (east or west) on your journey but there seems to be some flexibility within each continent.  With most tickets, you are free to change the date and time of your filghts but there are fees for destination changes.

There are three main airline alliances: OneWorld (American Airlines), Star Alliance (United & Continental), and SkyTeam (Delta).  They each have websites that have amazingly fun and frustratingly slow/buggy trip planners.  It is possible to get a ticket through other travel agencies or student travel sites, but I found them to go to less locations, more common locations only, or in the case of agencies, not necessarily be a better deal as they have no incentive to sell you a cheap ticket to go around the world.  As of this post, I was seeing tickets for $4000-$8000 dollars.  The price varies with your starting location and with number of locations/continents/stops/miles.  America is particularly expensive to leave from.

OneWorld:

This is the one I ended up going with.  They have options for both number of continents visited or miles based travel.  The continent based travel seems to be promoted more and is the one I’m going with.  It was advantageous for me because the number of miles I wanted to travel was driving up the price of mile based tickets.  The downside is that they count layovers and non flight segments in your final number of maximum allowed stops (16).  Layovers are a particular pain with OneWorld because they count layovers when they calculate whether you’ve been to a continent or country yet.  This stopped me from being able to go to Belize as all the layovers involved stopping in the US.  It seemed like a waste of my entrance into the US on this ticket to go to Belize.  Of note is that while date and time changes are free, OneWorld has a cheaper flight change fee ($125) than Star Alliance ($150).  Another possible hiccup is that OneWorld doesn’t have a listed number or way to contact them, you end up dealing with the company with whom your first international flight is.  I, unfortunately, am dealing with LAN airlines.  This is a rant that will be it’s own post.

Star Alliance:

This had been standing out as the cheaper and more flexible option for a bit.  I had managed to enter the US twice as I was starting out in South America and managed to schedule flights into LA upon leaving South America and into NY upon arrival back into South America a year later.  If you are not darting around to many far off locations, this could be the cheaper option as they have price levels at 29,000, 34,000, and 39,0000 miles. They also have options to let you explore regions as opposed to all around the world.  Random trivia that I looked up while curious about how far I could go on these fares: the Earth is about 24,900 miles around at the Equator.

The planner can be frustrating as it would often highlight multiple cities and then not allow you to add new ones.  Only frantic clicking on various cities and sometimes deleting a few stops would allow you to add more.

SkyTeam:

This was the newest website and had launched some sort of beta/buggy version when I tried using it.  They are currently running a fantastic promotion (I’ve never seen any mention of round the world discounts before) where you get 50% off because they are trying to launch the site.  However when I tried to use the website, it was so awful and expensive that it was not worth it.  The sale was also very limited on miles and when you could travel.

Lodging

I’ve explored many options in this regard.  Couch Surfing, Workaway, HelpXChange, WWOOF weighed in as the free/volunteer options that would allow me to meet more locals or other travelers.  Couch Surfing looks interesting but I’m not sure how one gets started as you start with zero friends or recommendations and I’m sure you look rather sketchy when you ask to stay in someone’s house without any links to other real people.  I signed up for Workaway and messaged many people but did not get any helpful responses.  Instead I only get scattered messages from places where they ask you to pay to volunteer or they obviously want you as free labor for the harvest.  I hope to volunteer at some point on this journey and figure out how to get through to what I am sure are very busy hosts.

For cheaper options I have also looked at AirBnB.com and VBRO.  I prefer to have access to kitchens so that I do not have to eat all my meals out.  VBRO has been more useful abroad but also seems to have more expensive options.  I am open to suggestion if anyone else has a useful site for looking up cheaper accommodation.  Otherwise I will just be surfing TripAdvisor looking for good hostels and deals.

Gear

I am not much of an outdoorsy backpacker, so I solicited the help of friends and the internet for this one.  I have never spent so much time in an REI before.  I also discovered the Southern California mini-chain Adventure 16 that was incredibly helpful as well.  They seemed to have more time to give me advice and were staffed with what seemed like avid travelers.

There were some things I expected to buy or knew I wanted.  I got a nice Gregory backpack that holds quite a bit.  I was hoping to bring only a carry on sized pack but that would not have allowed me to bring on large liquids like my months long supply of contact solution or a leatherman.  There were things that I am not a seasoned enough traveler to know are useful as well.  I picked up a universal sink stopper and some 550 paracord to make sure I could do laundry in any sort of situation.  I am also trying out the Pacsafe TravelSafe, which looks rather useful as a laptop safe but was a pain to find on short notice.

I have a full list in a google doc for anyone really curious about what I lug around with me.  As noted in many other travel blogs, organizational tools (bags, compartments, etc.) are rather helpful for packing and knowing where your stuff is.

Credit & Debit Cards

After much research because I did not want to pay international transaction fees, I settled on one credit card and one debit card.  I’m currently using the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.  It’s an attractive metallic blue and feels particularly heavy like it is actually made or coated in metal.  I do worry that the slick design with the numbers and information on the back with the magnetic strip will confuse people in other countries.  I angered a clerk in Taiwan one time because my signature lines generally say “SEE ID”. The card costs $95 a year but the fee is waived for the first year.  The rewards are higher for travel and restaurant purchases.  That is where I suspect I spend most of my money and will continue to do so on this trip.

As for my debit card, I opened up an account with Schwab bank.  This process was a little confusing as they are an online only bank.  However the benefit of not paying ATM fees anywhere in the world at any ATM was too attractive to pass up.  The interest on the account is certainly a bonus as well, but the amount is so low, unlike the 5% I used to see on these accounts.  Application is done through the Charles Schwab investment arm and you keep a brokerage account you don’t need to do anything with.  Do not apply through the actual Schwab bank as their ATM benefits are not as good.  I also learned that it would take quite a bit of time to get the account approved and to mail in or wire in money into the account.  Start this process a good two months before you plan to leave the country.  They also like sending you welcome mail, I think I got around 10 pieces in two weeks.  My favorite was the mail to tell me I signed up for paperless delivery.  I did try to stop in a Schwab office to deposit money and could not do so.  The visit was useful as the clerk caught that my account had gotten stalled based on some security problem that they then cleared up immediately.  I hope you see this Bank of America, I’m enjoying the customer service over here.

Visas

This is something that I find frustrating and probably did not do enough research on or start nearly early enough.  As America charges $140 to get in the country, many countries feel they must reciprocate and make only Americans pay that amount.  Often times visas can also take a week or more to process and involves leaving your passport at the consulate or embassy of this country.  I am fortunate enough to have launched out of Los Angeles, I can’t even begin to imagine what a pain it is to apply for visas if you cannot reach the consulate or embassy.  The most confounding thing about this process is that you often need to prove your flight information and lodging.  I’m not sure why you would book all these things if you are not even guaranteed to be allowed in the country.  My first continent is South America, and I found out Brazil and Bolivia charge the fee for Americans.  I went through a rather rushed stressful application for Brazil.  Luckily I crossed all my T’s and dotted my I’s as I left no room for error if they denied me even once.  The consulate of Brazil is full of nice people and is hilariously in the Hustler building on La Cienega.  I will be taking care of my Asian passports when I return for Christmas.  I hope they are less stressful.

Extra Identification/Discounts

I am unfortunately no longer a student so I could not grab an international student card.  They’re useful in Europe mostly for ground transport and entry into places like museums.  I snagged an international youth travel card from STA travel and will report back on whether it is useful.  I am unfortunately turning 26 in the middle of this trip before I reach Europe and do not look forward to paying full price for things.  I am not any more of an adult or have any more money by turning 26.  I hope they pass the law to bump the youth age up to 30 before I get there.

I also snagged an international driving permit (IDP) from AAA in case I want to drive anywhere.  Of note as Brazil is a destination of mine, they do not accept the IDP and require some other permit that only works in South America and mostly overlaps with the IDP.  Thanks for being difficult Brazil, luckily I wasn’t planning to drive there anyways.

Overall Thoughts

There were many things that I looked into but did not find satisfactory enough answers to carry through or did not think they were worth the hassle.  I looked into virtual private networks (VPN) to be able to log securely into a network and not worry about losing sensitive computer information.  Luckily a friend offered me a solution to log into his server as I found no good commercial solution.  I also looked into a scheme to have Google Voice route to Skype to a local sim card phone.  I ended up deciding against this and am just carrying two phones, both global capable.  I will be looking into multiple sim card phones in the future.

My pack is rather full and I look forward to reevaluating when I return home for Christmas what was useful and what was never unpacked.  I’m sure I’ll be missing a few things as well.  I also tend to pack a few days worth of clothing and essential gear in my carry on bag as I’ve had my luggage lost before.  It leads to an unfortunate series of photos where I only wear two shirts all the time and did not have any contact lenses.  I hope all of my research helps someone else be more prepared.