Monthly Archives: April 2008

You Do Not Need A Guidebook To Travel

Posted by on April 15, 2008

Wrong Way Sign

Guidebooks often have out of date information

If you have been reading the news the last few days, you have probably come across the “scandal” about the Lonely Planet writer who wrote parts of the Colombia guide book without ever traveling to Colombia.

Actually, it is a non-story. He was never supposed to go to Colombia. He was just supposed to write background material, not get on the ground data for hotels, restaurants and attractions. You can read an interview with him here and it all sort of makes a lot more sense. (that being said, the reviews on Amazon.com are critical of ALL the authors)

But I really don’t want to talk about him. I want to use the story as an excuse to talk about the general use, and over use, of guidebooks by travelers.

Here is your travel hint of the week from this long term traveler: you don’t need a guidebook.

I see backpackers all the time who pour over their guidebooks like it was the bible. They treat it more like a user’s manual to a country as opposed to what it should be…a guide. I’m hear to tell you that for your next trip, leave the book at home or better yet, don’t even buy one to begin with.

Restored 4 - Easter Island

My guidebook had poor information about the internet cafes on Easter Island

Timeliness

Since I started my trip, I have used a grand total of one guidebook, and that was for the first leg of my trip. The book I used was the Moon’s Guide to the South Pacific. It was a fine book (if a bit heavy) but much of the information was out of date, even though it had been published only two years before. Much of the early planning I relied on the book for was thrown out the window because flights which no longer existed and airlines which had gone bankrupt.

This was no fault of the guide book. The author of the book, David Stanley, is an expert on that area of the world. A book however can’t keep up with changes in the world. I ended up carrying around this heavy tome for a good chunk of the time I was in the Pacific, but ended up using the Internet to get most of my information anyhow.

I purchased the book before I left for my trip and really used it more as a wish book than a guidebook. It was the adult version of the Sears christmas catalog. People who dream of traveling can page through the book and dream of all the places they want to go. There is nothing wrong with that, but there are probably better books you can drool over than a glorified white pages. Go buy a photography book or a compilation of travel writing. (…or follow your favorite travel blog :)

Family at Blowholes - Tonga

Flight information in the Pacific was very different than what was published in my guidebook

Quality

Killing Batteries is a website I read on a regular basis. The author, Leif Petterson, is a fellow Minnesotan and a travel writer. He did a lot of the research for the Lonely Planet guide to Romania. The way he describes doing research for creating a guide book isn’t much different than what you would do when traveling on your own. When I move from point A to B, I ask other travelers for recommendations, check the internet, and read the brochures which can be found in most hostels and hotels. There is little in the way of magic when it comes to researching guidebooks. It is mostly grunt work on the front end, and sitting down and condensing it into a compact form on the back end.

Lonely Planet and their ilk are not in the business of providing reviews. They aren’t like Michelin or Zagut’s. They don’t have secret reviewers checking into every hotel and restaurant in a country. They just compile data. If you want to get reviews, get online and check what other people have to say before you go. Or, if you are traveling like me, ask other people you meet who are going in the opposite direction. Taxi drivers are also good sources for information. When I arrived in Bali I told my driver to take me somewhere good and cheap. The place he took me to was great and a block from the beach. I have no idea if he got a kick back, but I also don’t really care.

Koala 1 - Tasmania, Australia

I don’t believe you can adequately cover a country as large as Australia with one book

Depth

Lonely Planet has a guidebook for the United States. The whole country. Likewise, they have a guidebook for Western Europe. I cannot fathom how you could possible cram everything you would need for such large areas into a single book. At best they are leaving lots of information out. At worst, you aren’t getting the information you would need.

Lonely Planet also has separate guidebooks for Australia, New South Wales and Sydney. Each in some respect is just a subset of the other. They wisely charge less for whatever the smaller geographic area is, but it is still just sort of a scam to get the maximum bang out of each guidebook. I don’t blame them for trying to make a buck, but as a consumer, you should be wise to what they are doing.

Remember that no matter where you go, there is an entire industry built around getting you the information you need so you can go see and do things. This industry exists because they want your money. I have literally shown up in a strange city with no idea where I was staying and managed to get by. The process of getting information you can personally collect is no different than the process that guidebook writers go through. Throw away your book.
.

Buh Bye Brisbane

Posted by on April 14, 2008

Waterfall 2, Springbrook National Park - Queensland, Australia

Waterfall at Sprinkbrook National Park in Queensland

My very brief time in Brisbane is over. I has several people in the area who contacted me, but I wasn’t able to meet up with anyone. My apologies to everyone.

Queensland is really big. It is bigger than Alaska and 2.5x bigger than Texas. I still have over 800 miles to go to get to Cairns and it took 10 hours of driving just to get from Sydney to Brisbane.

Yesterday I managed to take advangate of the only free wifi connection I’ve found in Australia to get totally caught up on my photos. If you go to my Flickr page, you can see all my photos from Tasmania and Sprinkbrook National Park. This is the first time I’ve been totally caught up on my photos in months.

Today I’m off to Fraser Island. It is the world’s largest sand island and a World Heritage site. It is also one of the big east coast backpacker destinations. I’ll probably do a day tour of the island, which is probably one of the only places in the world where the buses have four-wheel drive. I’ll also do a few other stops on the way to Cairns, probably to do some diving.


I also have a request to make to the masses. I am having problems with iMovie 08 on my Mac. When I try to edit clips from my camera (Sanyo Xacti 1000) they seem to work fine in editing mode. When I export to anything however, the video is gone. The audio works and the text overlay is there, but no video. The video is black or just a still image depending on what I try to export as. Back in the US, Kris seems to be able to edit things just fine on his Mac, so I think the problem might be a codec issue or something. I have all the updates that I know of installed. Anyone have any ideas on how to solve this?

Good Old North New South Wales

Posted by on April 12, 2008

Just a quick update. I’m in Ballina NSW, just south of Byron Bay. The McDonald’s here had wifi, so I stopped to check my email.

I spent last night in Coffs Harbor. The drive was very uneventful. This part of Australia is much more green and lush than what I saw in Victoria.

From here I’ll be stopping at Springbook National Park, which is the most accessible section of the Gondwana Raninforests World Heritage Site. From there I’ll go to Brisbane for the night. It is only 11am so I have plenty of time. I figure I’m about 2 hours from Brisbane, and Sprinkbrook shouldn’t be more than 30-45 min from the highway.

It turns out that the schools here have the next two weeks off, so there was a ton of traffic coming out of Sydney on Saturday. I’m hoping it gets better as I get north of Brisbane.

I also got stopped in a road side drunk driving check point. The cops here seems much….nicer, than American cops. They aren’t out to make you respect their authority. All the signs on the side of the road are about slowing down, taking rest breaks, and how there are speed cameras everywhere. It is like taking a road trip in Orwell’s 1984. Big Brother is everywhere.

It is now rugby season, so most of the talk on the radio is all about “footy”.

I’ll see you next time from Queensland.

See Ya Sydney

Posted by on April 11, 2008

The last few days have been an exercise in frustration. I’ve spent hours trying to upload video only have it end up in failure, I couldn’t get iMovies to export my video, and made a big screw up with Google. There are limits on how much time I can spend on photos and the website, however. So in a few hours, I’m off to Queensland.

I managed to get a really cheap car to rent from Sydney to Cairns, which leads me to believe that most rentals go the other way. I’ll have nine says to make the trip, which should be plenty of time. The trip will take me to Brisbane, and four world heritage sites: Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, Fraser Island, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Wet Tropics of Queensland.

Sydney to Cairns seems to be the road trip people make in Australia. It is also no small endeavor. To give you an idea of the distance, it is like driving from Jacksonville, Florida to the north shore of Lake Superior in Ontario, or in Europe, like driving from the middle of Turkey to northern Ukraine.

I’m ready to leave Sydney. I have nothing against the city, I’ve just stayed here too long. I need to get moving. I should be in Brisbane in 2-3 days. I know I have some readers there, so if you want to get together for a beer or something, send me an email.

I’ll be doing periodic updates the next nine days when I can find Internet, but I wouldn’t expect too much. Given how poor the internet has been at this hostel, I’m not sure it will be any worse.

As you can see below, during the next week I’m showing photos I took from my previous trips, just to do something different. The image quality wont be quite as good because I didn’t have a very good camera, but it will let you see something a bit different than what I’ve been showing you.

I’ve pretty much given up on everything I’ve sent from Bali. It seems that no one has gotten a post card, or at least I haven’t been told of anyone getting a post card.

The YaYa Brotherhood of the Traveling Pants

Posted by on April 8, 2008

These are my pants. There are many other like them, but these are mine. (yes, I actually took off my pants to take this photo)

These are my pants. There are many other like them, but these are mine. (yes, I actually took off my pants to take this photo)

As you may have noticed, this blog really isn’t a diary. I don’t like to narrative descriptions of every meal I ate and everything I did every day. Honestly, you’d be bored to tears.

Traveling like I do isn’t like being on vacation. When you are on vacation, you try to cram as much rest and relaxation in, in the time you got, even if it kills you.

I try to set out with one or two objectives for each day. Most days it might be going to see something, take photos of something, do something with the website, go from A to B, etc. I usually try not to schedule anything if I’m actually moving from place to place. I’ve discovered it is foolish if you are in a new city to try and go sightseeing for more than about 4-6 hours.

Since getting back from Tasmania this week, I’ve been focused on archiving my photos and sending them back to the US. That was a high priority because the longer I didn’t do it, the greater the risk of something happening. Once I got that done and out the door, there was only one thing left I needed to do in Sydney, and that was shoot the footage for my podcast.

I actually have footage for about 8 episodes ready to go, all from previous video I shot earlier in my trip. Before I go live, I wanted to do a particular first episode and I wanted to do it here in Sydney. So yesterday, I put my video camera in my small backpack, grabbed my tripod, and headed out.

I get to the harbor and start shooting some the establishing shots I want. I should also note that I didn’t really get to the harbor until about 3pm and it was overcast. By the time I got to where I wanted to shoot myself talking, the sun was very low, directly in the camera (when it wasn’t behind clouds), and dark. Oh, and because I left my SLR and camera bag back in my room I didn’t have my extra lens, microphone, or the remote control, which is needed when you are both the camera man and the star of the show.

In the end, it was so dark you couldn’t see my face and the sound was so poor without the mic that I said “this isn’t gonna happen”. I’d come back tomorrow, earlier in the day and do it right.

Doing video has been a learning experience for me. Like photography, I’ve never done it before. However, I at least have a solid year of shooting still photos and 10,000 photographs under my belt. I just wasn’t thinking in terms of lighting and sound.

I was pretty dejected. What to do, what to do? Answer: SHOPPING!!!

I have two pair of pants I carry with me. One I purchased before the trip and one I had been wearing for a few years before I left. That pair had been with me for six weeks up in the Rocky Mountains at geology field camp and the entire year of this trip. They are showing their age. The zipper on the inside pocket (which I use all the time) is broken. The saps on the leg cuffs are broken, small holes are starting to show and there is a dirt ground in so heavily, that no washing will ever make it clean.

It was time to put the pants out of their misery.

I got a new pair of very similar pants at the North Face store. I can say with pride that my waist has gotten smaller as they new pants are an L where as the old ones were an XL. I have no idea if I’ve lost weight or pants sizes since I started traveling, but I must be doing something right. Walking everywhere, everyday probably has something to do with that.

Backing Up Is Hard To Do

Posted by on April 7, 2008

I spent the last few days doing nothing but burning DVDs. It was really boring and frustrating. I had a stack of 50 DVDs which I started with. About 20 of the 50 didn’t work properly. I purchased a smaller stack of 20 and about 6 of those didn’t work properly.

I learned a valuable lesson. I should have been backing up the entire time or at least I should have done it while I was in Melbourne.

Nonetheless, it is done now. I sent about 50 DVDs, a 40gb iPod I had been carrying around and my 160gb HD back to the US via FedEx. Sending it cost about as much purchasing a HD (and I sent it in a small FedEx box). I also dropped 1.6 kg off my baggage weight (closed circuit to Pete: all the airlines outside the US measure baggage in kilograms, so that is how I think now)

Assuming everything arrives undamaged, my friend Amy should be able to just copy the files from the 160gb drive I sent to the 500gb I gave her before I left on my trip. That, plus the DVDs and iPod, and the 160gb drive should give me redundant copies of every photo I’ve shot so far. I’ll feel much better once I know it has made the trip safely and doesn’t end up like the packages in Castaway.

This has been bothering me because my hard drive was full and it was limiting what I could do in terms of taking more photos. I had let this go to the point where I had to take care of it and take care of it now.

I appreciate all the feedback I got from everyone. Having burned 50 DVDs, there is no way I’m going to do that again, so I think the answer will be in redundnat external hard drives. I looked into some online services, but honestly, even at $0.15 per gig per month, S3 can get expensive when you are talking about hundreds of gigs and uploading and downloading all that data.

I think the next photo thing I need to do is get a copy of Photoshop C3 (I have C2 still) and Lightroom. I have never used Lightroom, but I’ve been hearing so many good things about it I’d like to give it a try.

I was talking to Scott Kurtz last night about photography. He is just starting to get into it. It is sort of daunting to start to take photos seriously. You guys have been able to literally see my progress as I’ve been traveling the past year. There is a lot to learn and if you try to absorb it all at once, it can be overwhelming.

Just as a break, and to show you the difference in my photography, next week I’m going to showcase photos I took on my previous travels. I had a 2 megapixel Kodak camera back in the late 90s. Going back to look at them, I can see the huge difference in quality.

I’m off to Brisbane the day after tomorrow and then on to Cairns. I think I’m going to to to Papua New Guinea from there so I can renew my tourist visa, and because it is a logical point to fly to Port Moresby from. From there I’ll fly back to Cairns or Darwin and work my way to Perth.

I have developed a very bad habit of staying in place when I’m in large cities. I spent far longer in Honolulu, Taipei, Tokyo, Kagoshima, Hong Kong, Melbourne and now Sydeny than I originally intended. I need to get out of that habit. I fear how long I’ll end up in Singapore….

The Shrines and Temples of Japan: Part 3, Nikko

Posted by on April 6, 2008

Water Well and Fall Leaves - Nikko, Japan (by Everything Everywhere)

The leaves were changing when I visited Nikko

If you haven’t yet, first read part one and part two.

I had a reader ask me what she should do when she’s in Tokyo and I suggested a visit to Nikko. That reminded me that I never wrote the final party of my three part Shrines and Temples of Japan series. So, in the spirit of better late than never, I give you…..Nikko.

History

Unlike Kyoto or Nara, Nikko was not a capital of Japan. Nikko is located in the mountains in central Honshu surrounded by Japanese cedar forests. The first temple was established in 782 by the high priest Shodo as the forests around the area had always been sacred to the Shinto religion. The town of Nikko eventually grew around the shrines and temples.

The current temples date back to the seventeenth century and consist of a mix of Buddhist and Shinto temples and shrines. In addition to worshipers, Nikko became a popular attraction during the Miji Dynasty in the 19th century.

Hear, See, Speak No Evil - Nikko, Japan (by Everything Everywhere)

The world famous Hear No Evil, See No Evil, and Speak No Evil monkeys hail from Nikko Tosho-gu temple.

Most non-Japanese are probably not aware that the hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil saying comes from Nikko. The monkeys are found on a carving on a stable building at the Tosho-gu temple. I had no idea of this fact when I arrived in Nikko so I didn’t understand why so many stores in Nikko had t-shirts and statues of the three monkeys. I also didn’t understand why so many people were making goofy faces and getting their photos taken in front of the same building.

The Shrines

There are three primary sites, all adjoined to each other which compromise the Shrines and Temples of Nikko World Heritage Area. Tosho-gu, Rinno-ji, and Futarasan. Rinno-ji is Buddhist and the others are Shinto.

I am not going to go into detail regarding each site and building, because to be honest, they all sort of blurred together and I’m just not that much of an expert on Buddhism or Shintoism. I am aware of different schools of Buddhism and how the different temples are home to different schools, but if I tried to describe the difference I’d probably get it wrong and just end up plagiarizing Wikipedia.

_GMA5242.jpg (by Everything Everywhere)

The buildings in Nikko are very ornate.

What I can tell you are the very obvious differences between Nikko and Kyoto or Nara. The location of Nikko in the mountains and nestled in the cedar forest gives it a very different vibe than either city. Kyoto is a large city and no matter where you go, you are never far away from city. Even in Nara, while not nearly as big, you always sort of have the feeling you are in a city park.

You are under no illusion that you are in a city at the Nikko shrines. Many of the buildings literally stand under or close to very large cedar trees. Even with large crowds, I still had a feeling that I was in the forest because you are totally surrounded by trees.

The other thing I noticed in Nikko was that the buildings were much more colorful and elaborate than what I had seen in Kyoto and Nara. In Nikko, the facades of buildings were often covered in gold leaf and you could see bright reds, blues and yellows everywhere.

There was one path I was able to take which went up a hill and into the woods. I probably got sidetracked for over and hour hiking up there and I eventually came across a paved hillside and a system of pipes which sort of took away the magic of everything.

_GMA5281.jpg (by Everything Everywhere)

Almost everywhere in Nikko feels like the forest.

Getting There

It takes about two hours to get from Tokyo to Nikko. I took the Shinkansen to the Nikko line. There was only one train transfer and I think there may have been a slower train which went directly into Tokyo from Nikko, but I wasn’t aware of it. I also had a JR Rail pass, so I took the Shinkansen because I could.

Once you arrive in Nikko, it is possible to walk to the temple complex. It took me about 30 minutes to walk there and it was almost all uphill. There is a bus which can take you there, but I didn’t bother. The walk back is much easier as it is all downhill.

When I was there, there seemed to be a much higher percentage of Japanese tourists than I saw in Kyoto or Nara. I don’t think Nikko is as sexy of an attraction as either of those and tends to get more pilgrims and worshipers.

I was there in late November so it was getting chilly and the sun set early. The temples closed around five-ish on a Sunday.

I arrived at the complex a little after noon and I don’t think I was able to see everything (but it was also busy).

If you are in Tokyo and have a spare day, take a trip out to Nikko. It is probably the best option to experience traditional Japanese culture and religion available in the area.

Backing Up

Posted by on April 3, 2008

The most valuable thing I carry around with me isn’t my computer or my cameras. It is my photos. I can replace any of the equipment I have, but I can’t replace the photos I’ve taken.

That raises a pretty big problem for me. How can I make sure that I don’t lose the photos I’ve taken?

What you see on Flickr really isn’t a back up. I shoot everything in RAW which is sort of the equivalent of a digital negative. What you see on Flickr is a compressed jpeg file which may or may not have been touched up with PhotoShop (I will sometimes do small adjustments to shadows). I want to keep all the original RAW files so I can go back at a later date and process my photos. What is on Flickr is maybe 20% of the photos I’ve taken.

I’ve adopted as a philosophy what I heard Alex Lindsay say about the Pixel Corps this week on TWIP: it doesn’t exist unless it exists in at least two places.

I spent all day yesterday trying shore up my photos by backing things up and getting them ready to send back to the US. It has been far more daunting than I had expected.

I have a 160gb external HD I use to store most of my photos. I originally brought an old, semi-broken 40gb iPod with me for photo storage, but I quickly out grew that (the iPod works, but only when plugged in. The battery is shot. It is basically just a hard drive at this point).

As I was burning DVDs yesterday (a process which takes forever) I realized that this is not something which will work for me in the long run. Each DVD is about 4.3gb. That is about the size of the memory card in my camera. I have a big stack of DVDs burned already, and I still have all of Japan and the Philippines to back up with will probably be another 10 DVDs. Carrying around a stack of 50 blank DVDs is heavy.

I have also had zero luck with online storage. ElephantDrive.com has proven to be worse than useless. Since December, I’ve only managed to upload 200mb of files. Their uploading process takes up all the available space on my HD, and when the drive is full the upload will just quit. All the files which were “uploaded” then appear as files with a size of 0k later on. Worse, it tells me the files were uploaded. Not uploading would be better than wasting time on an upload only to be given false information regarding the success of the upload.

Sadly, I’m coming to the conclusion that the solution might lie in purchasing “cheap” external hard drives. Factoring in the cost of shipping, it might be the simplest and most reasonable solution. As it stands, I think I’m going to have to ship my 160gb drive back to the US. I need extra storage space and I need it now. My 160gb drive has lasted almost 6 months, which isn’t too bad. They keep getting cheaper and bigger while my photo creation is pretty steady.

While I will get another external HD, it doesn’t really serve as a backup. If the HD breaks or is lost, I’m still screwed.

I’m trying to balance cost, weight and reliability. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears.