Tag Archives: travel

Backpacking-through-Europe Part I: Preparation

Ahhh…it’s that time of year…vacation-planning season.  The weather is starting to warm up a bit; people are getting “itchy” to start moving around; and everyone is fantasizing about what they’re going to do for vacation this summer.  Having done just a little bit of travel in my life, I find myself becoming a bit of a “travel advisor” for my friends and coworkers.  Not that I mind, mind you…there’s almost nothing I love more than encouraging people to travel, to fill their heads with enticing stories about what awaits them, to watch them, wide-eyed and giggling, as they imagine themselves there already.  So, my next few posts will be completely travel-related.  First stop, Europe.

Three years ago, with the economy spiraling downward, the company I work for, in a valiant effort to eliminate layoffs, began a program of periodic furloughs for all employees…forced vacation without pay.  At first, we grumbled about it, felt like we were being bullied into it…but it was a helluva lot better than losing our jobs; and, I have to say, it forced me to take a trip I always wanted to take but never did.  I was one of the many who would have loved to have backpacked through Europe between high school and college, or between college and the headlong plunge into the working world.  Alas, high school transitioned instantly into college, which in turn forced me upon the working world while in school.  There was no way to stop the momentum; and my dream of traveling the world alone, a young, wide-open book, passed me by.  (Besides, there were other distractions…but more about that later.)  I eventually landed a job that took me all over the country and all over the world; and I loved every minute of it.  However, the romance, the adventure of traipsing through Europe with nothing but a backpack pestered me…like a 25-plus-year butt itch!

Enter the furlough.  With 2 weeks of furlough facing me, in March 2009, refusing to spend that time at home, I embarked on my dream trip.  I bought my Eurail pass for unlimited train travel through Europe (First Class, oh-la-la!) and loosely planned my circuit of Western and Central Europe.  This is the first of 5 installments I texted on my Blackberry to family and friends of my journey.  Come join me…

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Backpacking-through-Europe Part I: Preparation

Sent Tuesday, March 17, 2009 5:46 PM

Hello! This is the first installment of my 2-week backpacking-through-Europe trip. Don’t feel any obligation to read each installment, which will come every few days; but if you do, I hope you enjoy reading about these adventures…or should I say MISadventures? (And…oh…stay tuned…there’s a surprise twist at the end…it’ll be in the last installment!!!!)

So, you may ask, “Kanani, aren’t you a little OLD for this kind of trip?” Haha! Yeah, this is the trip I shoulda taken at 18 instead of at 44….but at 18, I was just discovering the Big Gay World out there…it was exciting and eye-opening…and during that amazing, fascinating time of self-discovery, Big Gay World trumped Big European World. (I mean….drugs, sex, rock-n-roll…well, more like, “It’s Raining Men, Hallelujah, It’s Raining Men”…the choice was QUITE clear to ME, thank you very much!)

Since the late ’80’s, I’ve made many trips across Europe…on business and pleasure, alone and accompanied variously by Ralph, my parents, my brother Kawika and several close friends. All fabulous trips, no question about it; but there has always remained that unfulfilled, romanticized adventure of procuring a Eurailpass, hopping on and off the train as much as I want, in any country I want, staying in youth hostels (a strange yearning for the college dorm life I never had, perhaps?), and savoring the experience fully for “pennies”…er…”Eurocents”…a day…oh yeah…all the while carrying all I need on my back. (Well, that part kinda sucks; but it comes with the territory. Thankfully, I’m a master at packing light; and Mom and Dad helped me pick out the perfect backpack at REI when we were in Seattle in January…big enough for 2 weeks of “stuff”, without looking like I’ve murdered someone, wrapped them in a tent, and nonchalantly strapped the evidence to my back!)

At 44, I know this whole scenario should sound repulsive to me; but instead, it sets my heart a-flutter and creates the same thrill in me I had as a kid when my Grandpa took me and my sibs to the circus at Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu, or my parents shelled out the big bucks to take us to Six Flags Over Texas! Maybe it’s the thrill of the unknown, the bizarre and unexplained love I have of “not knowing”, of being plunked down in unfamiliar place and having to just “figure it all out”. Or, maybe it’s an early mid-life crisis…my proverbial “red sportscar”…except there’s no gas, maintenance, insurance…nor the DREADED Mahelona-Family-Broke-Down-Automobile Curse!!!

So, the trip begins with fasting the day of departure. (C’mon…y’all know I don’t do things “normal”!)  I had read that drinking only fruit and vegetable juices (no food, caffeine, milk or alcohol) from the time you wake up on the day of departure until your morning arrival in your destination city (including the free “food” on the plane and all that free wine-DAMN!!!-you get on Trans-Atlantic flights) is the ultimate jet-lag prevention…something about recent findings that it’s the feeding cycle that affects our body-clock more than anything else…the fasting allows you to sliiiiide on into your destination feeding cycle smooooothly.  It sounded pretty primal…and compelling to me!

I’m happy to tell you that it worked like a charm…the ONLY thing I’ve ever tried that really works! Over the years, I’ve tried timed naps and sleeping, jet-lag pills, abstaining from caffeine or alcohol (but not food), melatonin, drinking lots of water….and always, about halfway through the day in my arrival city, BAM!…I hit a wall and am reduced to a worthless, snoring, drooling, zombified Dorothy-in-the-poppy-fields-of-Oz. But my entire first day in Brussels, I had tons of energy, wakefulness and clarity.

Granted, when the flight attendants began the hard-sell, “We’ve got (mummified) chicken or (rubberized) lasagna today (surprise, surprise!)”, I actually felt a fire of desire in my stomach…but I stuck to my guns and doused it with another bottle of V-8. But I have NO regrets….my body-clock and appetite were immediately on Brussels time…I never got sleepy (until all the Bruxellois did); and I haven’t kept odd hours or needed a nap since then!

Good thing, because I’m on a tight schedule! I’ve basically allowed myself an afternoon train arrival in each city, 1-1/2 days and 2 nights of exploration (read: walking my ass off) and sightseeing, then an early morning train departure to the next city.  It’ll be the same pattern for the entire trip. I’ll start in Brussels/Bruxelles, with a daytrip on the 2nd day to the Flemish town of Brugge/Bruges. (They spell everything 2 ways in Belgium…Flemish and French…how international…how cooperative…how annoying!)  Brussels will be followed by Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. I had originally left the last 3 days of the trip open before heading back to Brussels for my return flight to NYC. But, I’ve decided to head back to Brussels for the last 3 days, “rounding out” my “European Tour”!

Oh…and did I mention that I’ve budgeted 100 Euros for each city? Not each day…each city! At the current exchange rate, that means about $80 for each 2-night, 1-1/2-day stay…including lodging, food, sightseeing and local metro/tram/bus transport (hence the “walking my ass off” I mentioned earlier!).

This means sitting down in restaurants will be out of the question. Instead, I’ll be eating mainly local “street food” which, in my opinion, is the best way to “soak up the local flavor” (and grease!). That, and beer and cafe food…again, not a sacrifice for me at all! Top off my nutritional pyramid with amazingly cheap (not to mention fresh and delicious) European supermarket fare, plus the free (and pretty damned good!) breakfasts at the hostels.

Wanna know the REAL clincher here, without which this whole trip would be completely ludicrous? My hostel stays average only about $18 a night! (Sit down, Rick Steves! Haha!) Ever wonder why Europeans can travel so much? It’s not just because their countries are so small and close together…it’s because they stay in hostels!

So far, the hostels have been fantastic…way better than I expected.  (They even have their own bars; and I’ve made some great new friends there!) I’ve eaten lots of delicious food; and I have imbibed more awesome beer than ever (well, at least since my beer-buddy, Ben, shared his German beer collection with me last Thursday in NYC!).

At this writing, I’m already in Amsterdam, leaving for Berlin in the morning, having enjoyed Brussels (and especially Brugge) tremendously. I will work on the 2nd installment of my travelogue (Brussels, Brugge and Amsterdam) tomorrow, during my 6-hour rail journey across The Netherlands and northern Germany (with a train change in the Dutch town of Amersfoort) into Berlin. Until then, I hope you enjoy the reading!

Guten Nacht! (Yeah, gotta practice my German for Berlin; and I gotta get up early tomorrow!)

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Travel: The Fountain of Youth

In response to one of my recent Facebook travel posts, my Aunty Jan responded, “Wow, you guys are traveling a lot lately!”. That started me thinking about my love for travel; and why it’s such an important part of my (and Ralph’s) life. I noticed an elderly couple in Roma’s Fiumicino Airport today on our way back to New York: holding hands, energetically pulling their small roll-aboards behind them at a brisk, determined pace. You can spot a seasoned traveler a mile away: minimal luggage, sailing cleanly and quickly through an airport (rather than standing, dazed, mouths agape, at the TV monitors, blocking all traffic around them.)  I wondered, “Are they young at heart, therefore they travel? Or…do they travel, therefore they are young at heart?”. I pondered it for about an hour (I ponder a lot, as you will see from upcoming blog posts), then came to the conclusion that though it is a mixture of both, the answer leans heavily toward the latter – they travel, therefore they are young at heart.

Travel keeps you young by re-awakening the child in you.  Everything about traveling to a foreign place (whether it be across 7 time zones or the other side of the tracks in your own hometown) is like being a child again. You experience everything fresh and anew:  new places, new languages, new ways of doing things. People (strangers, in fact) have to show you the way, explain things to you, teach you how to speak, how to listen, how to behave properly. You have to try new foods; and your reactions are just like those of a child trying eggplant or cotton candy for the first time: you wrinkle your nose in disgust and grab the nearest beverage to wash it (and the memory of it) down, or your eyes grow to saucers and you lick your lips in recognition of a new addiction.  When you travel, you are afraid of getting lost; yet you can’t wait to venture ahead – through that narrow alleyway, down that craggy ravine, into that deeper, bluer water. You greet everything with equal parts fear and exhilaration, like your first rollercoaster ride, your first trip away from home without your parents, your first kiss.

The travel experience can be a beautiful thing, a uniquely creative affair. The trip itself is just an empty canvas, a blob of clay awaiting your touch. You are the painter, the potter; and the place you visit, the people you encounter, the experiences you allow yourself, are your tools and your media. You can sculpt and paint with the familiar, cellophane-wrapped logs of modeling clay in the 3 primary colors (yawn!) or the pre-packaged, dime-store paint-by-numbers kit (with it’s horrid paintbrushes that start out with 5 mangy, synthetic hairs and end up with 2 by the time you’re done); or you can venture out into the wilderness, the unknown, to execute a wild and wonderful composition of charcoal strokes and swirling ochres, siennas and umbers, or handbuild an organic, “breathing” body of vivid, palm-staining riverbed clay studded with bits of shell and fossil.  No one determines the outcome but you, really.

This is what it means to travel…to artistically create “works of life”, to become a native of the world, to bravely surrender your soft underbelly by being a beginner, a child again…to be re-schooled in the filled-to-capacity class, Life 101…to know (once more) what youthfulness feels like.

And contrary to popular belief, it really doesn’t require a lot of money to travel.  “Travel” can mean heading to the next state, next town over…or even your own city. (There’s nothing more fun than being a tourist in your own hometown!)  I camped out for several days in a backpackers’ lodge in New Delhi’s Paharganj district for less than $5/night; and in 2009, I backpacked solo for 2 weeks through Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Budapest…after being robbed of all my money less than an hour after arriving in Europe from New York. (I will re-post those travel blogs soon, if your curiosity is piqued.)  A crispy (“bien cuit”), paper-wrapped baguette from a corner boulangerie and a bottle of grocery-store wine, all for pocket change, have been some of my most memorable meals in Paris.

See yourself, as I see myself and Ralph, holding hands when we’re in our eighties…hurriedly pulling our roll-aboards through JFK (I’m guessing we will have eschewed backpacks by then) to catch our flight to Timbuktu. (Better yet, come WITH us to Timbuktu!)  We can live life like Auntie Mame, ebullient and daring…or we can play it safe, stay home and watch reality TV – the canvas left unpainted and bare, the unmolded clay a shrunken, hardened rock, rattling in its container.  I know my choice.  I’m with YOU, Rosalind Russell…”live, live, LIIIIIVE!!!!”