A few quick tips

I’m learning very quickly that keeping a travel blog is sometimes hard to maintain regularly when you’re not traveling regularly.  I’m not going to be able to give you all stories every week even though I’d love to.  So allow me to share some random thoughts/tips every now and then that stem from things that I think of at any given moment.

-When you’re in line at the airport security gate, do yourself and everyone behind you a favor.  Be ready when it’s your turn at the X-Ray scanner.  Nothing is more annoying than someone who has tons of junk and takes forever to get their crap onto the belt – especially when you’re running a little late for your flight.  To make things go a little smoother, while you’re waiting in line, untie your shoes.  Take your watch, cell phone, and belt and put it in your carry-on (assuming you have one).  And while you’re putting stuff in your carry-on, take out that laptop that TSA wants you to separate.   Believe me, that routine will make your life much easier.  You can get all your stuff on the belt quickly, and when you get to the other side, you can quickly grab your bag and put your watch back on, take out your phone, etc. at a nearby chair without fumbling with all of it at the belt causing more traffic.

– Buy a bottle of water before you get on the plane at the Hudson News or whatever near your gate.  You might not be thirsty at the time, but believe me it could pay off.  If your plane is delayed and you’re stuck on the tarmac for an hour, the flight attendants don’t take drink orders.  You’ll be happy you at least have something.

-Finally, let the person in the middle seat have both arm rests.  I know it sounds silly.  But it already sucks to be in the middle (unless of course Giselle is on one side and Megan Fox is on the other), and it sucks even more if the guy on the right is hogging the right armrest, the girl on the left is hogging the left armrest.  Meanwhile, you’re stuck having to keep your elbows awkwardly pressed in your sides.  If you’re in the window seat, lean on the wall and wall arm.  If you’re in the aisle seat, lean a little on the aisle arm.  It’ll go a long way to make the middle person a tad more comfortable.  I’m saying this from a personal middle seat experience – 4 hours ago.

Hanging out at 2800 meters

Continuing my conversation about Venezuela, it’d be remiss of me to not mention further my group of high school friends who I take many of my travels with.  Once a year, we try our best to reunite to take our annual “Fire It Up” trip.  Going to Venezuela was one of the excursions.

First of all, going on the trip we went on to Venezuela was not cheap by any means.  Despite the fact that we’re all pretty low maintenance when traveling, the cost of the airfare and travel package was pricey.  That being said, you DO NOT want to be traveling around Venezuela without some sort of guide, especially on the hiking trip we took, so the cost is worth it.

The trip we took was a climb up Mt. Roraima, which is on the Venezuela/Brazil border.  If you’ve ever seen the movie “Up”, you remember that flaptop they wander around on?

Yeah, well Mt. Roraima is the real life place that the movie was depicting.  And yes, our trip was to go to the top.

Now, if you didn’t read the Wikipedia link I inserted, I’ll give you a brief description of what it is.  Mt. Roraima is a flattop mountain (think Will Smith’s hair in the Fresh Prince).  The top is a plateau that’s about a little under 3000 meters high and has a walking area of about 30 square km.  Getting to the top is no joke and I WOULD NOT recommend it for those of you who might not be in top shape.  The dangerous climb up  and down the side of the mountain is rocky, steep, and wet (at the part when you hike up and down through a waterfall).  And you’re doing all of this with all your gear on your back.  But when you do make it to the top – it’s like no other feeling.

Needless to say, it’s incredible.  It’s hard to describe in words what the plateau is like other than it’s like walking around on another planet.  Literally, you can hike around on the top for miles.   One second it’s sunny and clear, and the next second, a cloud will come cruising in and you’re immersed in fog.  There’s not a whole lot of life on the top, but there are several very unique rock formations all around making it very serene, eerie, and alien.

For those you who don’t like heights, stay away from the edges.  There is literally a straight 3,000 meter drop on the sides of the plateau that would make even a skydiver squirm.

Like I said before and earlier this week, the hiking company we went with was outstanding: New Frontier Adventures.  There’s not enough good things to say about the group of guys who we traveled to the top with.  All of our guides were friendly, competent, and made climbing up the 3000 meter side look like a walk in the park.  (Literally, I thought I was in shape, but after seeing these guys fly up the side of this mountain with 40lbs of gear, I need to rethink my workout).  A few of them always went ahead to have camp setup by the time our group arrived, and a few stayed with our group.  They made sure we all were okay with the pace and every few hours or so we’d have a “cookie break”.  I sorta felt like I was back in 4th grade summer camp.  Our main guy, and translator was Liu Izquierdo.  If you ever go with this company to this place – request him by name.

The guides took care of the tents and cooking while we hiked to the mountain and while we were on top.  I shit you not: these guys can cook.  They didn’t just make rice and beans and give us water to drink.  We had straight up meats, cheeses, pastas, casseroles, and they even hiked up a bottle of rum!  Now you may say to yourself, “why are you doing cartwheels over pasta?”  Believe me, when you’re out on a mountain, hiked all day, legs and back aching, and it’s 30 degrees (the temperature difference from the bottom to the top was like going from Florida to Maine) it’s nice to have real food. And these guys are gourmet chefs of the mountain.

The experience was memorable not only because of the great guides and environment, but because meeting the other hikers going up the mountain was a lot of fun.  Not a lot of people hike up and down the challenging face, so when there’s a group that is going up alongside yours, a bond is formed.  We met some really friendly locals during our climb, and exchanged stories, drinks, and items with them such as Venezuelan chocolate for Trader Joe’s trail mix.

The challenge, the bonding, and the unbelievble sights is what made this trip a must-do.  So, if you’re looking for an adventure, but are apprehensive about going it alone – save up your cash and vacation time and book a trip with New Frontier’s up Mt. Roraima.  Just remember to bring plenty of bug spray.  The insects at the base of Mt. Roraima had a Chinese buffet courtesy of my limbs.

Plastic can only go so far

These days when you’re traveling, most people do what they can do get currency at a place that has the best exchange rate.  There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s actually very smart.  Credit cards usually are the best bet when you’re purchasing items abroad, and most of the time you can find an ATM machine that’ll have a Star or Cirrus logo that you can get your local cash at.  Traveler’s checks (or cheques if you want to be anal) are alright, but honestly, who’s even seen a traveler’s check in the past 10 years?  I think the last time I used them was in 1999.

So all the plastic you have is fine in theory.  Unless your cards don’t work.

So here’s the tip: Bring three days worth of cash with you. It doesn’t matter if it’s U.S. Dollars, Euros, or the local currency.  Have something in paper.   Maybe your card doesn’t work, or it gets eaten by the ATM; it doesn’t matter.  You’ll want the security of a few bucks to either exchange or live off of.  If it’s the weekend, and the banks aren’t open then you’ll want to have enough cash for a few days until the banks do open.

You don’t want to end up like me and my friends in 2009.  The 6 of us all landed in Venezuela, each with a few bucks here and there, but all of us thinking, “We’ll grab some cash from the ATM when we get there.”  That thought process usually works fine in Europe, but in South America, that’s a different story.  So, one of us tries our ATM card at the kiosk.  Result: Fail.  The second person tries.   Same result.  So here we are, 6 helpless looking Americans who don’t speak Spanish and about 100 U.S. dollars.  It could have been really bad.  We even came really close to getting some folks back home to wire us some cash.

Luckily for us, we were going on a guided hiking trip with all meals included.  And our housing was our sleeping bags and tents anyways – so we were able to make due for a while.  You wanna know how we finally got money?  Our guide (Liu Izquierdo, more about him and this great hiking company in Venezuela in the next post) drove a few of us across the border into Brazil where we used the ATMs there.  Once we got Brazilian cash from those machines, we had to exchange like $1,000 worth of Brazilian currency into Venezuelan money in the back of Liu’s cousin’s restaurant in the kitchen (yes, it’s as shady as it sounds).  I shit you not, we came back over to Venezuela with a ratty-ass Jansport backpack full of cash, which we used as our money for the rest of the trip.

So, if you’re going to go abroad – make sure to have a money belt with a few Benjamins on you.

Conde Duque Hotel

Since we were on the topic of losing luggage, I wanted to talk about this hotel we stayed at in Madrid.  Like I said, losing your luggage is always a pain, especially when you have to deal with calling the airport and the one person in your party who speaks any Spanish has the proficiency of a 10 year old.

But if you happen to stay at a place like Conde Duque Hotel, your ordeal can be a whole lot less stressful.  If you want a good place to stay if you’re visiting Madrid, Conde Duque Hotel is a great choice.  The price is right, it’s right near the Madrid subway (or T, Metro, Underground, whatever you want to call it), and there’s a big supermarket conveniently down the street.  It’s not in the central part of Madrid, but if you want to stay at a hotel without all of the noise at night, this location is for you.  The subway, like I said, is only 100 meters away anyways.  And the breakfast that they provide each morning is pretty decent.  But the service is what made the experience memorable.

The bellman’s name was Victor and when we first walked in, he was so quiet that we weren’t sure if he was in a bad mood, or if he was just a dour person.  Not exactly uplifting to my luggage-less party.  But once we told him our situation, the curtain rose and he was tremendously helpful in getting our bags back. He gave us some great tips about food (I wish to god I could remember the paella place he sent us too – phenomenal) and getting around.  To this day, my sister still emails with Victor (every time I hear that name, I have an urge to growl/yell it out like Hugh Jackman) and although he’s probably still not working there, the hotel is one that I’d recommend to anyone.

UPDATE: Speak of the devil.  So my sister emailed Victor and he replied with the name of that great paella restaurant I mentioned above.  If you don’t know what paella is, click here.

The place is called La Paella de la Reina.  The restaurant is on a little side street, and yes, it looks a little shady from the outside, but trust me it’s fine.  When we asked the folks at Conde Duque for a quintessential place in Madrid to get paella, they didn’t hesitate to recommend this place.  You have to order the paella in advance, so be sure to plan ahead and call in the morning.  Since Madrid is known for their seafood (yes, I thought it was weird too since Madrid is right smack in the middle of Spain) I ordered the seafood paella.  Let’s just say I’ll never be able to eat any seafood dish (seriously, any seafood dish) again without comparing it to the paella I ate at this restaurant.

Trials and tribulations of lost luggage

Accepting that one might lose their luggage is an inherent risk that all travelers face.  Although it has rarely happened to me domestically, when it does the bags usually follow me on another flight and I’m able to get them later that day.  Flying internationally though is a different story.  Going somewhere abroad usually involves transfers, and when you have a layover, that’s the most likely time your bag ends up sitting on a tarmac somewhere.

The first rule of packing to try to follow is don’t pack anything that you’ll regret losing.  I know, sometimes it’s unavoidable.  You don’t want to have to go to Vegas hoping to get into the nightclubs looking like a scrub.  And sure, the reason why you bought that new bathing suit was so that you could wear it on the beach in the Bahamas.  But if you can avoid packing that dress shirt that fits you perfectly or that necklace that you got from grandma, then do it and keep them at home.

If you’re going abroad for a long trip, always, ALWAYS pack in your carry-on a spare shirt, pair of underwear, pair of socks and toothbrush/toothpaste.  It may seem simple and obvious, but its something that I had often failed to do and it bit me in the ass.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been stuck in another country, while my bags are 500 miles away.  Yes, I’m referring to you Alitalia – twice.  If you fly Alitalia, know that there’s an 80% chance they’ll lose your bags.  Go to any Alitalia lost luggage desk in any airport in the world and I guarantee you’ll see at least 15 people in line.  And its not just me saying this.  When my family finally received our bags back from one of our trips, our cab driver in Boston said “It’s always the Italians losing peoples stuff.  You’d think they were giving away free pizza with the amount of people at that [Alitalia] desk

So, back to the topic at hand.  You don’t want to end up like me, wandering around Prague in the height of winter with only the pair of underwear, pants, and socks you’re wearing, and a “Prague, Czech Me Out” t-shirt.  (Yes, I thought it would be funny to wear on the plane on the way there since it was a Xmas gift, and no, the locals didn’t find the American wandering around their city for 2 days in that shirt amusing.)  I know you’re thinking “he could have bought a new set of clothes while he was there.”  But in my opinion, why waste the money if you can be prepared.  You save a few bucks, and avoid the stress of having to have to find clothes when you should be enjoying the sights.

As a side tip:  If you don’t own a pair of those pants with the zipper on the knees, go buy a pair.  Though they can be on the pricey side, if you travel a lot the investment will be worth it.  Say you’re on a plane, and the air isn’t working well or you’re in a holding pattern on the runway waiting to take off, with the sun beaming through your window.  You’ll be happy that you can unzip the bottoms of your pants instead of being stuck with only a pair of hot, sticky jeans on.  Also, another advantage is if you’re traveling from a place like Wisconsin to maybe Mexico for the holiday, the beauty of being able to change up from pants to shorts once you land at a moments notice is really nice.

Starting Up

Welcome.  Welcome to my first ever blog post.  If you’re reading this, you’re probably a close friend or relative, so thanks for checking this out and making me feel like this isn’t a complete waste of time.  If you’re neither of those, thanks to you as well, but of course I’m totally confused at how you ended up here in the first place.  In any case, you’re lucky enough now to hear my stories.

So in hindsight, I probably should have done this a long, long time ago.  Honestly, I am probably one of the luckiest people to be able say that I have been to and seen enough in my short time on Earth to warrant starting my own blog.  For someone who’s walked the black sands of Iceland, gone cliff jumping off the shores of Cinque Terre, dined on goat eyeball in Marrakech, and smoked hooka on the Bosphorus in Istanbul, I kinda wish I had recorded and shared my experiences with you all.  I’ve been to some great restaurants, stayed in a few grand (and not so grand) places, met people of all types, and it’s a crying shame that all that knowledge has been displaced to the deep recesses of my vague memories.

But now that I’ve started up this little project, from here on out I’ll be able to share my tips and stories.  I’m not Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern, and I certainly don’t expect you to take me too, too seriously.  But I hope that you enjoy my hearing about my experiences and that you get something out of them.  Maybe you’ll avoid making the mistakes I’ve made.  Maybe you’ll end up in a place that I’ve been and are looking for somewhere to eat, or something to do, and think “Oh yeah, Andrew said…” If you get anything out of these posts, then that makes me happy and I’ll feel like I’ve done my job.

And I’d like to give a shout out to Mak, for helping me get this thing going.  Alas, the journey begins.