After many months of blogging silence, it’s a pleasure to be back, and to welcome a guest blogger! Zach Cunning has spent a lot of time traveling and backpacking in various parts of the world, and has honed lightweight travel down to a science.
There are always new travel gadgets coming out. Something lighter, something faster, and invariably, something more expensive. Some of them are worth the price, but a lot aren’t; and as budget travelers, it’s important for us to know what’s worth the money, and what will just slowly shift itself to the bottom of our bag and eventually be left behind at the hostel for some other backpacker.
Here are five absolutely essential pieces of cheap gear you might not think of, all available at REI or Amazon:
- Duct tape…specifically duct tape that’s been taken off the cardboard roll and wrapped around a 3-inch piece of plastic coat hanger. I’m a fan of Gorilla brand tape since it’s about the strongest stuff around, but any duct tape you can get your hands on will work. I have a pair of shorts that ripped in two places after several months on the road, and I still had several months left to go. I stitched them up, but they ripped again a week later, same places. I reinforced the rip with Gorilla tape and then stitched it; a year later, and everything from one-hundred-mile hikes to being used as board shorts on a surf trip, they’re still going strong. Carry duct tape, it will save your ass. Available on Amazon or at most hardware stores– link here
- Sawyer mini filter. Duct tape will save your ass, this thing will save your stomach. They cost 20 bucks, weigh almost nothing, filter out, according to Sawyer’s website, “99.99999% of all bacteria, such as salmonella, cholera and E.coli, and…99.9999% of all protozoa (such as giardia and cryptosporidium).” As long as you don’t accidentally freeze one they’ll filter more water than you’re likely to drink (100,000 gallons). Available at REI: link here
- Light my Fire Spork. Spoon, little knife, and a fork in one plastic carry-on-able package. Hobos were budget backpacking before budget backpacking existed, and they had a little folding knife/fork/spoon combo that they carried for eating whatever food they got. While you’re probably eating off-brand Chobani from a Hudson news stand while waiting for your flight, instead of a can of beans next to the Big Rock Candy mountain, the principle remains the same. Variations on the theme are available from REI and other outfitters but my favorite is here on Amazon: link here
- Quick dry towel. REI, MSR, Sea to Summit, and pretty much any other outdoorsy company make these microfiber towels. They’re sizes range from roughly that of a paper towel to a full size bath towel, and even the smallest will easily dry you off after a shower. They do, however, begin to smell a bit if they aren’t bone dry when they’re put away. Spend a few dollars more on a linen bath towel. They actually dry faster in my experience, don’t smell, and roll down to about the size of a t-shirt. Search Amazon for “linen bath towel,” there’re too many options to link just one.
- S or “double gated” carabiners. Nitecore makes the official ones but there are knockoffs around too. Made of plastic or metal, these things range from itty bitty two-pound-rated up to those rated around 75 pounds (and bigger, but past 75 they just get obnoxious). I use them for everything from attaching gear to my bag, to holding zippers shut, to improvising belts, even hanging flashlights from the top bunk slats at a hostel. The metal ones can also pry off a beer cap if you’re feeling creative. They’re available from REI and Amazon of course, and basically everywhere else from Walmart, to outdoor shops and even some convenience stores.
Bonus Round: 550 paracord. I keep about 100 feet of black paracord in my bag pre- cut to varying lengths between one and 50 feet. Rope has infinite uses, and with 100 feet costing about 10 dollars at any military surplus store and taking up less room than a pair of underwear, it’s well worth it.
George Carlin said, “That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place to put your stuff…If you didn’t have so much goddamn stuff you’d just be walking around all the time.” In other words, backpacking. I’ve found the above stuff helps me carry less stuff while making it easier to find a place to put my stuff when I’m done walking around for the day; hopefully it does the same for you.
Zach Cunning has taken trains throughout Europe; walked Roman roads along the Camino de Santiago; hiked and hitchhiked in Portugal, Peru, Colombia and many other areas: learned to surf in El Salvador; and taught people the fine arts of shaking up the perfect margarita and concocting the perfect pancakes wherever he went. His latest adventures found him in Morocco. When not sprinting for a connecting flight, Zach lives, works, and studies in Chicago.
No, I am not writing about politics. Heaven knows there are plenty of websites, podcasts, and other places you can get your political fix. Having grown up in the DC environs, I know only too well how tangled those political webs are.
This particular entry is about the tangled web of…..
Yes, the mess that is not only the Beltway, but the massive mess that encompasses 12-lanes-across, I-need-two-traffic-apps-on-my–phone Washington Metro area traffic.
My last trip wasn’t even a year ago, and it wasn’t that bad then…Google Maps got me reasonably easily from point A to point B. But this time was different. Evidently Google Maps had not kept up with the fact that my first hotel had changed names! My hotel had neglected to tell me they’d changed from a Crowne Plaza to a Hilton Doubletree, but that’s a different story. I drove down an alley between high-rise buildings three times, around in several circles, down one end of Chain Bridge Road, then down the other end, before asking the valet in front of the Marriott about this. He (in a broad Cockney accent–so surreal, I am not kidding!) explained that it was the hotel next door–as in approximately 15 feet away–which had been bought out a week before!!
Several days later, while brunching with a friend at J. Gilbert’s in McLean (one of the few places I was able to find without using any app whatsoever) I mused on the easiest way to get from there to Dulles Airport, to pick up my cousin, who was flying in from England. Google Maps wanted to route me from McLean, east into Arlington, then waaaay out west to Dulles, which-for those playing at home-would mean a half-hour to 45-minute trip. She and I looked at each other with that raised-eyebrow-W-T-F-this-ain’t-gonna-happen-look that natives of a place get. We asked our waiter (Igor, heaven bless him!) his opinion, and he advised us to download Waze and try it on there. Waze gave me a much more direct route, and–long story short–I made it to Dulles in fifteen minutes. Nobody in the DC area goes anywhere in fifteen minutes, unless they’re walking their dog around the block. Trust me. Oh, and I found parking right by the International Arrivals terminal.
Yes, I believe in miracles.
So for the next five days I used a combination of Google Maps and Waze. Nothing was foolproof, however. There was the time I used Google Maps to get to Arlington Cemetery, and ended up at the entrance to Joint Base Ft. Myers/Henderson Hall.
Nicest MP I’ve ever met let me through gate though, let me turn around, and come back. Helped me reprogram my app and we got to the cemetery and parked.
Then a day or so later, we missed an exit going to Mt. Vernon, ending up on some bizarre 12-lane highway I’d never seen in my life! But, the sweet, calming voice on Waze got me where I needed to be. Ended up on a beautifully scenic back road I had no idea existed, and had a wonderful time.
So I (on my own), and we (my cousin Susan and I), managed to untangle the Washington Web. One knot at a time, with patience, humor, and technology!
Tomorrow, I take off on yet another solo trip; this time, to Washington, DC. Not for business, not to rant and rave at politicians, but to return to the place of my birth. I was actually born within the confines of the District of Columbia (how many people can actually say that?), although raised in nearby Arlington, Virginia. Nothing lifts my heart, and makes me feel like I have come home, like getting off the Metro at Smithsonian, coming up the escalator at the Mall exit, and seeing the museums on either side of me, with the Capitol in the distance. I turn around…and there is the Washington Monument. Amazing architecture, in a city that I love, yes, even with all its flaws.
I try to get back once a year or so, as I still have family there, and it’s important to touch base. And, I go back to revisit the old haunts….the old schools have changed, many friends have moved (although some have stayed or come back–see you soon!), but I go back to see the museums, the homes, the places where history came alive for me as a child.
Part of that history is very controversial right now, and some of my wandering through the museums and historic homes will be to look at it with fresh eyes. As the wife of a historic interpreter, I want to see how that history is being interpreted in our nation’s capital. Washington was pivotal during the War of 1812, and of course, during the Civil War. In light of recent events, how has the interpretation changed? Has it? Is it too soon for the programming to have changed? Do the museums and historic homes need more time to plan and execute programming?
So come wander with me as I stroll through museums and historic sites, take driving trips out to the hinterlands (some kind of adventure always happens when I get behind the wheel in the DC Metro area!), and shoot great food photos; Washington is becoming a foodie paradise, and I intend to partake as much as possible!
Have you had your own adventures in the DC area? Let me know in the comments section!
“I could NEVER do that!”
“Weren’t you scared?”
“You brave girl!”
“How did you manage with all your luggage?”
“You mean your husband LET you go so far away all by yourself???”
“Weren’t you lonely?”
OK, my friends, time to debunk some myths here.
First, traveling alone is not for everyone. I happen to love it, but traveling with someone–or several “someones”–is fine too. It depends on what you want to do, and where you want to go. Do what works for you. On this trip, I traveled alone, for about 90 percent of the time. I met up with one of my dearest friends at the end of the trip, and stayed with her for a long weekend, which was glorious!
Ah, the fear factor. Um….I wasn’t in any country where there are travel bans or travel warnings. I could–more or less–understand the language, and I could read the signs, so it was all good. I had done a lot of reading and research beforehand; I kept a small map with me at all times; and I found several wonderful apps for my smartphone. (ALWAYS have a smartphone along!) I have traveled with various family members, friends, and groups in countries where I could NOT read the signs–my German is very elementary, my Greek is almost non-existent, and I don’t read Arabic at all!–and those are places where it has been helpful to have others around. And the joy of discovery in places such as those is multiplied when there are people to share it.
Luggage. Two words….PACK LIGHT. Carry on only. I cannot stress this enough. No, I am not a backpacker, despite my nearly-20-year-old son’s efforts to magically turn me into one at my particular age. Been there, done that. However….I have researched (oh yes, as a former journalist, I love me some research!) the ins and outs of travel bags, proper dimensions for the airline(s) I’m flying, and what I can carry comfortably over long distances. I have switched between a drop-bottom duffel made by a name brand clothing and luggage company (the duffel, alas, is no longer in production) and my old, trusty, but-still-in-great-shape soft-sided rollaboard. Both are tough, with in-line wheels, plenty of space, and fit the dimensions for both foreign and domestic carriers. I believe in the power and organization of packing cubes, heavier items always go on the bottom by the wheels, and I pack for seven days. SEVEN. Unless I will be gone fewer days than that. Going for three weeks? Pack for ONE WEEK, and do laundry. One base color, other multiple colors to go with it. Scarves, inexpensive jewelry will change the look. My other bag, which stays with me at ALL TIMES, is a convertible shoulder bag/backpack or a messenger bag if I’m carrying my bigger camera. This goes under the seat and has my toiletries, documents, any medicines, my tablet, phone, etc. I also carry a spare set of underwear and something to sleep in, should my rollaboard and I get separated (heaven forbid!). A purse? It’s an unobtrusive cross-body bag, and I carry it empty in one of my other bags. When I get to where I can unpack, I put my basic necessities into it, and I’m ready for anything.
So, now, this is the best one. My husband “let” me go. By myself. People….seriously? It’s not a matter of “let”. I’ve been flying on my own since my parents sent me off on my first airplane trip at the age of TEN! I went to upstate New York, a cousin from western Massachusetts met me, and I spent a week with her. My husband understands my wandering soul, sees me off on my trips, and makes wonderful “welcome home” dinners for me when I return. We stayed in touch daily via Facebook Messenger; when I travel in-country, we call each night.
Lonely. Yes, sometimes I was. My husband was here in Missouri, our son off on a gap year; at the time, he was in Central America. Friends are scattered all over the world. Those of you who know me, know my gregarious personality. I’m definitely more of an extrovert than an introvert. But I do need my downtime…my time to listen to the sounds around me, to reflect, to watch and hear the people. Some of my most precious memories of Ireland are the hours I spent at a beer tasting and cooking class with 11 Irish people, and me the only American, laughing and talking and eating. Equally precious–the hours spent alone sipping wine and eating my own simple dinner, watching the BBC and reflecting on the world news as I sat in the living room of my Airbnb rental.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. We have only one life, only one chance to see the world around us….I once lost a chance to travel with my dad (long story there), and promised myself that, if and when the chance came back around, I would grab it. I did. I have. And I have never, ever regretted it.
Will I take a friend or two with me? Of course! Either virtually or in real life…come on along!
Questions? Let me know in the comments–if I don’t have the answer at hand, I have those mad research skills!
*(Photo is me at Howth Castle Cookery School, June, 2017, creating Mousse au Chocolat with a great group of people. Yes, that is a cognac bottle near my left hand. Yes, a bit extra may have gone into the recipe…..or into me.)
Awhile back, I read an entry on a social media site about how many of us who travel need to stop talking about it publicly. The entry stated something to the effect that we are making it uncomfortable for those who neither have the time nor the money to travel, and that many who would like to go places and do things just can’t, for many reasons.
I’d like to speak to that.
With a trip to the grocery store, and a look through some recipes on line, you can start some virtual travel, right there in your kitchen.
Ever wanted to go to Greece? Look up one simple recipe for a Greek dish, with one or two ingredients you know you like, and make it. That’s a start. Perhaps you envision Paris–stop off at your grocery store’s cheese section, and ask about French cheeses. Look at the wine section, and find a French wine, pick up some grapes and sit on your deck. What do you like about that cheese? What do you *not* like? Is that wine too sweet? Too dry? Think about what you like or don’t like. Read about French wine and cheese. How is it made? This is part of travel…learning about the place(s) you’re going. With more education, and more adventure in tastes, you’ll find yourself “travelling by taste” again and again.
It’s not just overseas–I may have grown up in Northern Virginia, but I didn’t eat a corn dog until I was 15! Didn’t try biscuits and gravy ’til I came to Missouri. Never had chili verde (green chili sauce? That’s a thing? Says I) ’til I moved to Colorado after college. Didn’t try the exotic, er, Rocky Mountain oysters (for the uninitiated, bull testicles–tastes like chewy beef), until I was 23. Tried bison meat, in a burger (tasty!) when I was 40.
I travel because I think it’s important. I come from a mother who felt it was an education, not only for us, but to be good ambassadors for our own country. My immigrant father felt it was important that we know as much as possible about the world, personally. We were exposed to many different foods, at home and abroad, and were admonished to “mind our manners, as we were guests in (country)!”
Can you travel overseas? If you save your money, a few dollars at a time, yes. Eventually, you will be able to do it. I have no doubt. And I encourage everyone to spend the money to get a passport, if for no other reason than it’s another good form of government ID. But in the meantime, see the world from your dining room table. Buy a world map, download recipes, find some fascinating foods to make. What do the immigrants in your neighborhood, or school, or office eat?
Let food be our joy, and our connection.
Are you back from that amazing summer vacation yet?
Yes, I’m talking to *you*. I see you there on Facebook…the ones posting the photos from Cozumel and Jamaica; North Carolina and Florida; Colorado and the Grand Canyon. Or those who took mini-vacations, just a short distance away from home. And *you* who spent precious time with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents…HOORAY!
I also took a trip–actually, I took two, and I am back–Ireland and England, then Bardstown, Kentucky. More on those another time.
The important thing is….what did you bring back? No, I don’t mean the T-shirts, or the sea-shells, or the other souvenir “stuff”. What memories did you make? Did you bring back the peace and quiet that comes with watching a sunset? Did you bring back the joy that comes from a long talk with a relative? Did you bring back the memory of laughter with a new baby nephew, niece, or cousin in the family? Did you wander a beach and taste the salt air, or hike a mountain trail for hours?
Yes, I brought back candy, coasters from pubs I visited, and books; but I also brought back the memory of original music echoing off ancient stones in a town square. I brought back the joy of a long conversation in a pub, and when we realized what time it was…it was closing time. John and I brought back bourbon from Bardstown, but we also brought back the memory of delightful meals, savored in a mom-and-pop restaurant, where time goes a lot slower.
Time. That’s what our trips can give us. Let go of the frantic. Let go of the need to screech along at warp speed. Once the work day is done (and those work days are manic!!), sit out on the deck or patio, with a favorite beverage and a before-dinner snack. Savor that time. Take a mini-vacation, right then and there. That time belongs to you. Remember what you loved about that trip, and relive it. Watch the sun set. Watch the neighbors walk their dogs, and the neighborhood kids ride their bikes. Listen to the birds. Read a chapter in a new book.
Hold fast to the peace a vacation trip gives you, and let it carry you until you can take your next one.
Long ago and far away, I traveled to England with my mother. Thirty years ago. With a tour group. It’s not something either of us would normally do, but we were on our way to Egypt, to see the opera “Aida” at the Temple of Luxor. If you know the opera, you know it takes place in Egypt, so, in a sense, we were seeing it “on site”. We then took a ship down the Nile to various sites (yes, like Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile; I KNOW!), flew back to Cairo, back to London, then back to New York.
It was an amazing trip, and rejuvenated me at a very low point in my life…for those particular details, buy me strong drink and very good food.
I’m usually not good at tour groups, and frankly neither was Mom–they often involve people with attitudes, restrictive schedules, piling on the bus, piling off the bus, “stick with the group, stick with the tour”, etc. But this particular tour offered something neither one of us could find otherwise; an opera we knew we would both enjoy, visits to ancient sites, and a tour guide who was herself a historian! The schedule was fairly flexible, and the tour company had also been in business for generations–always a good sign.
Mom and I had traveled solo and together, and understood each other’s idiosyncrasies–I enjoyed wine and beer, while she did not. She was an early bird, and I was a night owl…she was much more of an introvert, and I was/am….well, you know me. I’ll talk to almost anyone. But we worked through those things–she got up before me, and wrote in her journal, and I stayed up late and wrote in mine, and she left the social gatherings when her tolerance level for small talk hit its peak (earlier than mine!).
My point is that, while she and I had enjoyed solo travel, and she had traveled with my dad quite a bit, we found a way to take our differences into consideration and travel together. We found something we both wanted to do, a group that wasn’t huge, an itinerary we could live with, and a company with an excellent reputation.
She’s been gone for nearly 10 years, and I think of her often–her love of travel, her adventuresome spirit, the things she taught me about packing, here lesson in to wash and dry the entire wardrobe for a family of four in a hotel bathroom(!), and how to take the misadventures of travel in stride.
The take-away here? You can do this. Yes, *YOU*. It doesn’t have to be England and Egypt. It can be an Amtrak trip two hours away, or four, or all the way across the country! It can be you and your kids hopping in the car for a weekend and seeing how far one tank of gas takes you….then putting another tank in to get you back home. It can be camping in the nearest state park and cooking hot dogs over a campfire. It can be a tour group going to the nearest big city for the day. Somewhere. Anywhere. But *GO*! It’s the going that counts.
(Photo is a much younger me in front of the Chesterfield Hotel, Mayfair, London. One of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in)
Well, I’ve done it. After “radio silence” on my old blog for several years, I’ve taken a complete leap of faith and started a new one. There will be a few stumbles and stutters–as happens with anything new– along with adventures and misadventures (which happen when you come along on anything involving ME!), but be assured, we will have fun!
There will be travel, food, and stories. We will sit by fires, and drink good drinks. We will laugh, cry, and talk long into the night, perhaps even watching the sunrise. I am hoping some of YOU will tell your tales here. There might even be music.
If any of you are conversant with this new and improved version of WordPress, I would be delighted to have advice and assistance…I have already lost stuff twice in trying to set this thing up!! I can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and at Coffee Zone…mainlining Rocket Fuel!! I will buy you coffee and food, because that’s how I roll.
In the meantime, I am shaping up extended stories on being a woman “of a certain age” traveling alone, how to travel with a child (and have fun!), dealing with food allergies on the road, and “things you DON’T need” while traveling.
Looking forward to your input!