March 28th, 2006

Cost of Living: Part 1

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

Backpacking should be offered as a major at any worthwhile institute of higher education. This may surprise you as you used to think backpackers were grungy drifters who became backpackers because they couldn’t figure out exactly what major to declare in the first place.

The skill set required for successful backpack-traveling (defined as traveling in no set direction for no particular amount of time, although usually as long as possible, while carrying everything you need on your back) is very similar to the already well defined liberal arts major (Integrated Life Studies at UW Madison). One might also compare the skill set to that needed by James Bond type super spies.

Just the math skills alone for figuring out how far your money is going to go, or more specifically how far you are going to go with your money, are calculator-watch worthy, and then you actually have to buy stuff. You are going to have to convert money in your head within seconds to see if you are getting a good deal on that nondescript meat-on-a-stick you are bargaining for. “How much is 35 baht? Oh, that’s only like 82 cents.” That would have only been four Renmenbi in Beijing, 12 Rubles in Siberia and a deal in Ulaan-Baatar at 850 Togogs.

You have to be a bit of a dietitian too. “What kind of meat is on that stick exactly? Hm, looks like Chicken. What exactly happens to you if you eat rat? How long can I go without eating meat?” Did you know that 33% of all meat-on-sticks in Shanghai is actually cat instead of what they claim it is. They never claim it is cat. Just being honest would fix this statistical anomaly. “Can cats get bird flu if they eat a bird? Is it worse to have bird flu or (using my math again here) worse to have eaten 33% cat over two weeks time?”

Let’s not forget about psychology and sociology. You’re not even going to get a chance to eat anything, mystery food or not, if you aren’t able to adapt to the cultural subtleties around you. While staring a Chinese yam seller in the eyes might get you a better deal because he respects your integrity, it might get your throat slit in Siberia. And since you can’t actually speak any foreign languages fluently (you’re a flunky backpacker remember?), you will need to learn some key words, a few numbers and some universal sign language. Even the up-down is yes and sideways is no head gestures are not carved in cultural stone. Putting this animated mime-babble to use will be what makes the difference between you going to the bathroom or not. I don’t mean finding a bathroom, I mean going to the bathroom. Think about explaining how Milk of Magnesia works to a Russian pharmacist with only hand gestures.

Some other useful psudo-expertise one enjoys while being a backpacker are:

Veterinary/Animal Husbandry such as hotel pest control, stray animal wrangling and possibly pet hypnosis.

Cartography/Orienteering (not applicable to Germany who’s system of direction is based on previous species that inhabited Earth a long, long time ago).

Note: If a backpacker eats at McDonalds (negating above mentioned math and dietary expertise) and watches MTV (ditto to the cultural stuff), he needs not be academically capable in any way to travel around the world. And I mean around the whole entire world, as McDonalds and MTV can be found in every last frontier on Earth.

Tune in next time for the second part of this distance learning course: Cost of Living: Part 2

March 22nd, 2006

312 Cubic Inches of Pictures Posted

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

I posted two new sets of photos on Vitreous Humor: Ulan Ude and Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is in Listvianka just north of Irkutsk. It holds twenty percent of the Earth’s fresh water and harbors more endemic species of plants and animals than any other lake in the world. Fed by 336 rivers and streams including the Angara, Barguzin, Selenga, Turka and Snezhnaya, the lake holds fifty species of fish including bullhead, sturgeon… oh who am I kidding, I just copied that from a web site. But it was quite impressive even for some one who lives on the Great Lakes. Which, by the way, have 6 quadrillion gallons of fresh water; one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. That’s 95 percent of the U.S. supply! Can you belive that if spread evenly across the continental U.S., the Great Lakes would submerge the country under about 9.5 feet of water. I’m not making this up! More than 94,000 square miles/244,000 square kilometres of water (larger than the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire combined, or about 23 percent of the province of Ontario). About 295,000 square miles/767,000 square kilometres in the watershed.

March 20th, 2006

Adapting to a New Environment

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

Traveling has never been so easy. Like a miniature Best Buy with everything short of the appliance section (four lb. washing machines coming soon I’m sure), our backpacks stay relatively light while containing everything a techophile needs for a round the world journey.

Capture those sunrises on the Great wall, fishermen in Siberia and night markets in Hong Kong: mini-DV camcorder. Shave head and rearrange facial hair depending on mood/climate: shaver/clipper combo. Call and text friends with sim card purchased in current country (and accidently leave it in London): mobile phone. Photograph everything in sight and then some (ok, not light but I packed fewer pairs of underwear ok?): digital cameras etc. Listen to tens of thousands of your favorite songs and books while being painfully hip at the same time: Apple iPod. Book flights, check email, make international phone calls for free, watch bootleg DVD’s and write this post: ultra-thin laptop computer.

Great, but all of this equipment makes you feel less like Indiana Jones and more like Jack Ryan working for National Geographic. You begin to notice these things stuffed into every corner of your bag… adapters. Like stowaway rodents, when you arrive in a new room after having been on a train, plane or bus, they emerge from bags and plug themselves into every available outlet. Nothing is left unplugged. Prongs are adapted, wires are supported, devices are attached and little red and green lights are illuminated. An army of AC/DC DV HD LED troopers are charged for tomorrow’s battle.

These adapters, these black, clunky and shapeless anchors are the ugly little secret of this sleek silver army. They are the Achilles’ Heel. Lose one of these creatures and it’s mate is done for. Like a billion dollar space station without it’s miserable Russian cosmonaut, it crashes to Earth, a high price paperweight.

We did just this in Moscow. The biggest adapter of them all: the laptop adapter. It was left plugged in in the lobby of the Marriot. This fact was not realized until we were half way through Siberia. Such is always the case though. You never forget the thousand dollar piece of technology that comes with it’s own hundred dollar carrying case, but you always forget the adapter that slides around knotting itself up at the bottom of a bag somewhere. We watched Family Guy and Lost on the train as our god of communication and entertainment slowly ebbed life and became dead weight.

What we faced was a challenge akin to building a railway connecting two sides of a continent via one of the coldest places on Earth: finding a power adapter for a specific Dell laptop in Siberia. Needless to say, Irkutsk does not have a Dell store and neither does the whole of Mongolia. A few thousand miles, some time zones and a couple countries later we find an adapter in Beijing. Still, this took a couple days of searching and some harsh bargaining to acquire.

Just when the army is at full strength and ready to charge (pun intended), BAM! PFC DV camcorder’s charger gets hit with some freak powersurge and is down for the count, little light all cold and dark. This happens in rural China so the camera is piled on the rest of the non-tech clothes and carried around like a ridiculous bracelet that is neither cool nor comfortable. Luckily, we were on the way to Hong Kong where power adapters thrive and multiply by the millions. Price, while not in the millions, thrives as well making the search for an affordable adapter just as difficult as it was in Siberia. Finally, the Mad Max of power adapting solders together some sort of Robocop device that is half Pekinese dog and half adapter. The camcorder is back in action as long as the battery is “never charged more than two hours” as Max says. Or was it “never less than two hours?” Uh oh.

I got an email today from a friend who is traveling in Norway recalling the woes of hunting for an adapter in Oslo. I can just see these fancy devices travelling all over the world dead and lifeless in search of power. 110V, 220V or either one if you have one of those adapters that do both. If you don’t, well then you need an adapter to convert to the proper power for that adapter. And it doesn’t even stop there. If you have the adapter to charge your device and you have the device to change the power to your adapter, you might not have the correct prong shape to fit in the slot so guess what? You need a prong adapter. If the device is the knight and the adapter his squire, then the prong adapter is the guy who changes his bedpan. But guess what? If you loose the bed pan guy then the whole thing still goes to s#!* anyway.

March 19th, 2006

30 and Over

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

Today I was approached by some English students doing a survey. The survey regarded the qualitative difference between McDonalds and KFC. Begining with the easy: “Which one do you prefer?” To the much more difficult: “Which one has a more polite and efficient restroom cleaning staff?” Makes me wonder just who’s running this English class.

It was tough to answer honestly all the way through the 10 to 12 question poll. I wanted to pretend that I never eat at either of these establishments and to be certain, I actually disdain their corporate greed based business strategies. How dare you even ask me such questions? But I also know that I’ve eaten at McDonalds many times in the past month based on my own selfish greed based hunger strategy.

As a side note, I actually wanted to take the quiz just for pure spite. You see, we ate at KFC in Shanghai one day because we wanted some fried chicken and lo, there was the gigantic “Family Meal Deal” illuminated on the menu in all it’s ten-gallon-pail-of-meat grotesqueness. It was even pretty affordable, a down right bargain actually considering how much chicken you got. Would have been a bargain anyway if they had considered giving us anywhere near how much chicken was in the picture. So we bashed KFC in the survey giving every point to McDonalds. Not that they deserve any, but we were really looking forward to a lot of chicken that day.

KFC incorporated ruined and McDonalds poised to open another couple billion restaurants, the survey came to an end. Before I was free to go however, they needed one piece of information… my age. There were just three boxes to check here: 16 to 21, 21 to 29 and 30 and over. I’m assuming that anyone under the age of 16 already works for one of the two contenders and doesn’t count. I, being the honest person I am, checked the appropriate box. That’s right, I am now the box that represents the last phase of life. Clearly, there are all sorts of things that happen before 30 that affect your opinions, but once you’re 30 and over, it seems to mean that you’re 30 and it’s over.

March 15th, 2006

Yangshuo: Crouching Bill Hidden Burton

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

I first visited Yangshuo in 1996 with my brother on the recommendation of the Lonely Planet guidebook. “A quaint fishing village that remains virtually untouched and authentic” or something to that effect. Which it was save for the few shops selling crafts and a couple restaurants that realized they could make an easy buck on the desperate backpackers coming though by offering a “American steak and eggs breakfast.”

Then Bill Clinton came. Who told Bill to come to Yangshuo I don’t know. Why he came? BillWho knows, probably for the steak and eggs breakfast. But sure enough, like mice like rice, where America goes, America follows. We woke up to a KFC being built next to us on the not-so-quaint-anymore street. This KFC was not there the night before, but this will be true a lot of things in Yangshuo. There is even a fee to visit a small village outside of the town because that’s where Bill went. These people used to make pennies a day fishing the way they did for hundreds of years, and then Bill Clinton came to town. Now, they charge admission to their town. Cripes.

Most of the small if too gaudy places in town still fit in though. It is the Chinese New Orleans. There are crowds of people packing the streets on weekends. Mostly Chinese with quite a few foreigners sprinkled about. Bars open their doors, tables are set up on the cobbled street and musicians play in every other doorway. Street food, cheap alcohol and a very generous bar time make it the sleepy little town that never quite sleeps.

It took us over a week to realize there was a massive song and dance extravaganza that was performed each night just across the river. Seeing this the night before we left made me realize why they have a KFC and wonder when the airport is being built. This Spectacular-Spectacular included the following: Water buffallos, hundreds of torch carrying local fisherman’s boats, thousands of yards of red fabric, floating bamboo forests, lit up mountains (smallish, rounded mountains actually but come on!) and even light up people (don’t ask how, but seriously, it was like Tron). And the whole thing was directed by none other than Ang Lee. No kung fu, no superheroes and no gay cowboys just a very well done performance that although hard to believe, integrated itself very well into the rural countryside of China.

On a related note, we believe we saw Tim Burton wisked away by some vans while we walked one day. Unlikely, but then again so was the whole Ang Lee thing. Be on the watch for the next Burton film: Jonny Depp is a quirky but sexy cormorant fisherman who teaches his fishing birds to seduce the local ruler’s daughter. Possibly claymation.

Best part of the whole deal is that everything is still priced to sell. Accommodation and food could be managed for five dollars daily. Ten and you could live like a corrupt communist dictator.

I will post some pictures of Yangshuo in the future. Meanwhile we ride the sleeper bus to Hong Kong where I will suffer the equation: Average Chinese height + desire to fit as many beds on a bus as possible = beds way to small for Nat to lay in for 14 hours.

March 11th, 2006

Picture This: London to Irkutsk

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

First there was London. This is where we unloaded all of that money that would just have been weighing us down for the rest of the trip. We stopped by for the audition for “Luna Lovegood” in the next Harry Potter film. Alas Jacob’s acting failed to impress. Maybe there’s hope for the next Dr. Who. Thanks to Dan for a trip to a session.

-Many more pictures of London on Vitreous Humor

Then there was France. There were however no underpants, but we did see some buttress. Is it possible that the internet is behind the worldwide degradation of quality amongst our graffiti carving youth? (top:2002 bottom:1688)

-Many more pictures of France on VH

In Germany we rented an Opel and went from the Black Forest to Berlin in no time flat (thanks to 160kph on the Autobahn). The Holocaust Memorial and Checkpoint Charlie were like a walk-in History Channel.

-Many more pictures of Germany on VH

Onto the longest train journey on Earth…

Back in the U.S.S.R (for the first time). It was a little bit cold in Siberia. Say, -40 degrees F. as a low. It was so cold a bear sprung on Rachel and froze in mid-attack. We saw through two meters of ice into Lake Bikal, the deepest lake in the world. Um.. what else? oh yeah, cold.
-Many more pictures of Moscow on VH
-Many more pictures of Irkutsk on VH

Pictures from Ulan Ude to Beijing to beyond coming soon…

March 2nd, 2006

The Great Gatsby

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

The technological restrictions of our particular hostel have led to an interesting situation. Internet access is limited and therefore we can’t spend entire days online as we would at home. Luckily, there are bootleg DVDs that can be purchased for a dollar. This would seem to be the solution to the problem as we could easily watch a week’s worth of movies for under 25 bucks. Again, the current situation is such that we can’t watch movies downstairs because the hall in which the big-screen tv resides is too noisy and we can’t watch them in our room because we share it with others and we would be too noisy. There is only so much street food you can eat in a day.

So I read all of our books and found myself desperate for more. This is all hardly worth mentioning except for the coincidence to which it led. While searching the communal bookshelf for something readable amongst the mostly German titles (why Germans tend to leave the most books behind I don’t know), I found “The Fitzgerald Reader.” Of particular interest to me was one of its included stories: “The Great Gatsby.” Why, I don’t know, I just felt that I had to read it (actually, I do know why. It’s because it’s one of those books you should’ve read a long time ago and you feel guilty for seeing it unread, on a shelf when you’re 29 years old and cringing your way through a horribly pirated copy of “DOOM.”)

Needless to say, it was excellent. What is needing to be said is that the narrator, Nick, turns 30 during the course of the story. So I think, “wow, that’s interesting, he’s turning 30 too,” and I soon after meet Jay, our neighbor in the doorm next door. Now, I’m not saying his last name is Gatsby, but I’m not saying it isn’t either. Jay G. let’s call him. Jay G. seems to be the life of the hostel, as if everyone wants to hang out with him in his dorm room. Jay G. heads off at random hours of the day to some job that no one has been able to explain to me. Investing, trading and even starting a sweat shop have been suggested. He wears a very nice suit when he goes to “work” and has a facinating wardrobe beyond that. He said that he’s English even though he clearly has an American accent (we all know, as Americans, that any American capable of delivering a convincing English accent would always, and I mean ALWAYS, go for this more intelligent and romantic option.) Is he an “Oxford man?” I don’t know, maybe, but he is a charismatic character with a mysterious past, a successful if unknown job and a good wardrobe. To top it off, he can’t speak to you without adding, “man,” “dude” or “bro.” Not nearly as annoying as “old sport” would be, but nonetheless strange. Could this be the Great Gatsby of Shanghai? Are people going to die in swimming pools? Am I dating a tennis playing compulsive liar? Stay tuned…

March 1st, 2006

The Shanghai Curse

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

The Shanghai curse has been lifted. 1987: Tickets to Shanghai cancelled due to outbreak of cholera. 1997: Tickets to Shanghai cancelled due to extreme lack of interest. 2000: Tickets to Shanghai cancelled due to decision to see somewhere “more interesting.” 2006: We arrive in Shanghai with plans to live in this mysterious cancelable destination.

Shanghai turns out to be the unhappy medium between Beijing and Hong Kong. Half the lights and glitz of Hong Kong, a truly east meets west city, and an even smaller fraction of the ancient culture that makes Beijing so fascinating. Not that it is devoid of any value. It has a rich history, albeit a westernized one. This is where communism began. This is partially WHY communism began. Ironically, the very building that the Chinese Communist Party was founded in is now a tourist attraction for the very westerners it previously banished. You know, the ones who are leading Shanghai up to be king of the capitalist hill. The problem for us is that it doesn’t suit the temporary life of the live-in tourist; people who want to experience a place longer than the average week but have no interest in permanence. People who want to be reminded that they are not home but not necessarily wish they were.

I suppose the prior 19 years of near misses has created expectations that can’t be met. How could it possibly live up to NYC, Hong Kong, Tokyo and London as a metropolis on the cutting edge? Could it possibly feel more Chinese than Beijing without a Great Wall or entombed Mao Tse Tung hanging around downtown? The great cities of the world have met their match however in the area of street-food. There seems to be no more satisfying day in Shanghai than one spent wandering in no particular direction with no particular goal besides trying the next item steaming in a cart on the street. There are steamed buns with mysterious innards; sometimes green and helpful in the illusion that you are eating healthy. There are also all manner of meats on sticks including live scorpions. I won’t easily forget the cookies that first taste good and then hit you with an aftertaste that explains why they cost less than three cents. There are of course dumplings and noodles that can be mixed with just about anything in sight. My favorite is the flat bread with a sprinkle of pork that makes for a handheld pizza pie at the bargain price of 24 cents. NYC hot dogs are an institution for sure, but the variety is limited and they are hardly a value.