The Wander Kind » January 14, 2013

Daily Archives: January 14, 2013

Lebanon: Full of Surprises and Awesomeness

For many Americans that were politically conscious in the early 1980s, “Beirut” is synonymous with the suicide bombing that killed 300 servicemen. For the French, Liban represents a decline of global influence after WWII. For Australians, Brazilians, and many other countries that received torrents of refugees during Lebanon’s 15 year civil war, the country is the source of large social groups that had never existed before. For other Arabs, the Lebanese society is often a symbol of westernization and departure from traditional Muslim values. But whatever your background, you will find that Lebanon is full of surprises if you’re lucky enough to visit it.

Lebanon 1Beirut has reemerged once again as a chic and cosmopolitan capital city, reclaiming a title that it once held—the Paris of the Middle East. Its downtown has been rebuilt in the wake of the war into a modern, clean, and highly organized center. Nearby neighborhoods like Achrafiyeh and Gemmayzeh are known for their extensive nightlife options, ranging from hole-in-the-wall bars to massive nightclubs with internationally-renowned DJs. Hamra Street connects these East Beirut landmarks with Ras Beirut, on the west side of the city, known for its cultural melting pot and student culture. I studied at the American University of Beirut for a semester and enjoyed the liveliness and friendliness of the Hamra neighborhood. Beirut borders the ocean on both the west and north sides, and the lovely Corniche road follows this coastline. This seaside promenade is perfect for morning jogs and evening strolls, and it is a popular local pastime to bring chairs to hang out by the sea and smoke nargilehs with friends and family. Throughout the rest of Beirut are interesting historical neighborhoods with drastically different political and religious leanings, divisions that can at times lead to violence but recently have seen cooperation and coexistence for the most part.

Lebanon 2Outside of Beirut, there are many places worth visiting. In winter, one can ski without the crowds at Faraya or The Cedars and swim in the Mediterranean in the same day, a famously clichéd statement about Lebanon that is entirely true and totally delightful. Jbeil, also known as Byblos, is a short drive north of Beirut along the coast and is said to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It has fascinating ruins of crusader castles and much, much older settlements that will interest archeology and history buffs. In the south, towns like Nabatieh have conservative charm, offering a much more traditional cultural picture of the country than the modern, European cities. Driving through the hills and vineyards is enchanting—the terrain is beautiful, and the rural villages and farms are all welcoming of polite foreigners. Lebanon 3Tripoli, in the north, is the country’s second largest city and boasts more coastal atmosphere. It even has islands famous for palm trees and green turtles. Further to the east, the ancient ruins of Baalbek are larger and better preserved than the Parthenon in Greece, albeit much less famous. This ancient Roman city has layers of intricate stonework built on top of it from Arab and Ottoman periods, and is exquisite in its detail, scope, and preservation. A visit here is a must.

Lebanon is so small that visiting the entire country is not difficult at all. One should always do some research on political conditions, but in general it is a safe place for westerners. People are nice, well-educated, and guaranteed to be curious about you. If nothing else, the sheer variety of the country is reason enough to visit.

 

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5 Tips for Traveling with a Partner

Traveling with a partner 1Solo long-term travel can be a very lonely business. While some people may find this to be a preferable, it is generally more common on the backpacker trail to see groups of friends and couples. Traveling with someone with whom you are in a relationship can be an endlessly rewarding experience, but it also carries with it some potential pitfalls. Here are five tips for making the most out of your trip and your relationship:

1. Get some time apart
Living together, eating together, seeing sites together, taking the bus together…you may easily find yourself doing absolutely nothing without your partner. For a short trip, there’s generally nothing wrong with this. But after a certain point, you need to allow at least a little bit of distance. Constant contact with a person drives both people crazy, especially in situations that are at times stressful (like navigating the logistical, financial, and emotional pitfalls of extended time on the road). It’s also good to establish your own impressions and relationships with a place. In other words, every memory that you have of this trip afterwards should not be dominated by your partner’s presence in it.

2. Make collective decisions
Many partnerships are dominated on some level by a personality that is more assertive. While this person may not rule every aspect of the relationship, the extensive planning and logistical work inherent in long-term travel may all fall to them even if neither of you realize it. Make sure that you are making decisions together, so that both of you get to do what you want and no one feels overworked or under-appreciated.

Traveling with a partner 23. Meet other people
It’s easy to get wrapped up in your comfort zone. This prevents many couples from expanding their social experience by meeting other travelers or locals. If you are traveling with a partner, it is important to make an extra effort to be social with other people. If a group of people is going from your hostel to get dinner, join them. If there are other foreigners on the local bus, talk with them. It’s especially easy to link up with other couples and find good travel partnerships in that way.

4. Keep a blog or email list
Between the two of you, there are likely a million people back home that are interested in what you’re up to. Coordinate together to send an email update to everyone at once, or better yet, keep a travel blog. Review the best hosting accounts available so you can host your own blog to track your journey. This will allow you to keep everyone at home abreast, but also act as a journal and place that you can put photos to words for your own future memory-keeping. It’s much easier to keep up a travel blog if you alternate posts rather than one person writing everything.

Traveling with a partner 35. Communicate your feelings
This is relationship advice that applies under any circumstances, but it can be especially important when traveling because of the extra stress, proximity at all times, and distractions. Make sure that you are on the same page, and if you aren’t, make sure your partner knows. Be honest, even if it leads to conflict, and then focus on solving any disturbances.

Traveling with a romantic partner can be an immensely strengthening experience, but it has risks. Follow these tips, and hopefully you can avoid any potential pitfalls along your path.

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Adventures in Nicaragua

Once off-limits due to its extreme politics, military control of society, and high crime rates, Nicaragua now enjoys a substantial tourism industry and stands as a much more welcoming state. While it certainly still has its share of problems, it was third on a recent New York Times list of the 46 places to visit in 2013, and with good reason. Nicaraguans enjoy an excellent quality of life, and trips to their homeland are always worthwhile.

Of course, that’s excluding Managua, the capital. Managua is a pretty awful place—there really is no center of the city, no downtown, no cultural hub. It is just a sprawling mess, poorly served by police and sanitation and other government offices, and not much to look at. Visitors arriving in Managua are encouraged to escape as soon as possible. However, this poor introduction to Nicaragua shouldn’t dissuade you. The rest of the country is great.

Nicaragua 1Many people take in Granada when they visit, and are very pleased with the decision. This pleasant town 50 kilometers from Managua has great colonial architecture, a vibrant restaurant and live music scene, and plenty of art galleries spread around. There are colorful and artistic old mansions, great bars, and plenty of shady spots to cool off on cobbled backstreets. Granada stands on the edge of Lake Nicaragua, and there are excellent opportunities for renting kayaks and canoes on the shore. Small groups with local guides paddle around the hundreds of tiny islands forming an archipelago in the lake, some only large enough for one modest house. One isle is home to hundreds of monkeys that live in mango trees and offer endlessly entertaining animal watching. When you finish with the lake, there is a magnificent cloud forest on the opposite side of the city. Scaling the slope of a dormant volcano, Nicaragua 2the Mombacho Forest is a great place for treks. Dense mist at times obscures the line of sight down the mountainside, but it occasionally parts and rewards persistence with fantastic views. You can even peer down into the crater of the volcano, now overgrown with jungle. There are also several companies offering canopy tours and zip-line courses, which are a generally safe but still very exhilarating diversion. This is great for children as well as adventurous adults—my mom was brave enough to do it with me on my last visit, and she loved it.

Nicaragua 3Another great place to visit is Ometepe, an island made up of two dormant volcanoes within Lake Nicaragua. Crowded but fun ferries take you to the island, and an uneven road circles its perimeter. Ometepe is known for coffee plantations, hiking trails of various intensity on the volcanoes, and a little bit of ancient history. Large rocks inscribed with petroglyphs stand overgrown with foliage and date back thousands of years. There are also smaller islands within swimmable distance from Ometepe’s shore. Be careful though—this is one of a few places in the world where freshwater sharks have evolved (though they have been hunted almost to extinction at this point).

If you are more adventurous or have more time, you may consider making the trip out to the Corn Islands, or taking a boat down the Rio San Juan. There are tons of options within this underdeveloped country, and at least for now you don’t have to share them with too many other travelers. Enjoy!

 

 

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5 Common Health Problems for Backpackers

If you’re on the road for any amount of time, you’re likely to run into a myriad of minor health issues. None of these are generally worth ending your trip for, but it does pay to know what your poor body and mind are likely to undergo as you traipse around the globe. Here are five of the most common:

 

5 common health problems 11. Traveler’s Diarrhea

Nothing is guaranteed in this life but death and the inevitability of contracting Delhi Belly/Mummy’s Tummy/Montezuma’s Revenge. Yup, you’re going to get the runs. You can put it off by drinking bottled water and avoiding ice and uncooked fruits and veggies, but sooner or later your luck will run out. Fortunately, this affliction generally hurts nothing but your pride (so long as you lay off the spicy food), and passes within a few days. Stay hydrated, eat plain rice and toast, take OTC medications, and antibiotics only if it becomes too severe. If you venture out of your room, bring lots of TP—the next bathroom you rush into may not be equipped.

 

2. Dehydration

It’s hot, you’re carrying 20 kilos of stuff you were sure you would need when you were packing two months ago, and this damn restaurant charges too much for bottled water. Without your mom reminding you to drink lots of water, you’ve forgotten to do so, and now you’re in for it. Extreme dehydration can be quite dangerous and result in an unpleasant trip to the local clinic for IV fluids and possibly overnight monitoring. Drink your fluids. Booze doesn’t count.

5 common health problems 23. Motorbike accidents

Sure, renting a scooter for a few dollars and riding around with your lady on the back can be the best part of a trip to a rural area in a foreign country. It seems easy enough, and there isn’t much traffic to worry about, until you hit that speedbump. There’s always a speedbump that has no purpose other than to maim foreigners. Wear a helmet, drive slowly, don’t listen to music, and be as vigilant as humanly possible. It sucks to carry your pack while wearing a cast.

 

4. Stress and headaches

Adapting to the insanity of life in developing countries can be overwhelming. Noise, heat, pollution, and annoyance with these %$&#&@%$ tuk tuk drivers can get to your head easily and cause psychological and physical pain. Add to that the strain of being constantly on the move, and you have a recipe for a pretty bad day. Take time to relax, get a massage, and check into a hotel that costs more than $5 once in a while just to keep hold of your sanity.

 

5 common health problems 3

5. Alcohol and drug overdose

Sure, you’re not that kind of person, but we know about that happy shake you had on Koh Phanang, and that wild night in Goa. Add cheap liquor and good times to the mix, and there’s potential for some serious damage. Moderate your intake of any mind-altering substances that you choose to imbibe, be as sure as possible that what you’re taking is safe, and stick with your friends. Don’t mix substances, and have relevant emergency contact numbers readily available. Every year, young people die very tragically while having the time of their lives. Don’t be one of them.

 

With a few basic precautions, you can avoid having your trip affected or even ruined by these common problems. Take care of yourself, and keep adventuring.

 

 

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Desert Dreams Part II: Western Rajasthan

The deeper you go into India’s desert state, the more rewarding the experience can be. From ancient cities to modern hangout spots to truly unique cultural experiences, there is a lot to see. If you missed it, make sure you check out the previous post in this series to see our top recommendations for eastern Rajasthan. For now, though, deeper into the desert!

West Rajasthan 1

Jodhpur contrasts to Jaipur in many ways, and in my opinion is preferable. Its extensive old city is painted various shades of deep blue, and wandering through the back alleyways is fascinating. There is excellent food to be found, and endless opportunities to see local life played out—incense burning on windowsills, flower offerings on doorsteps, children playing with cows in the street, and so on. The Blue City is perhaps even more impressive when viewed from above, either from a guesthouse rooftop or on the parapets of the awe-inspiring Mehrangarh Fort. Jodhpur’s location makes it a possible starting point for camel treks, for anywhere between an afternoon and a week.

West Rajasthan 2Even more famous for camel-related activities is Jaisalmer, further into the desert and another tourist hotspot. Known as the Gold City (notice a trend, yet?), Jaisalmer is famous for massively inflated prices—haggle like your life depends on it, and even after that plan on paying around three times as much as an item is actually worth. Better yet, just don’t buy anything. Still, the city has great architecture, and plenty of music and dance on offer (something it exports to the rest of the country). This is a place to see a lot of cultural variety, and get a really foreign feel for India. Just keep an eye on your wallet and think carefully before buying gifts for yourself or people back home—can you get this same item in another city? If so, it is almost guaranteed to be cheaper elsewhere.

West Rajasthan 3One last stop to consider on your Rajasthani adventure is Udaipur. Another city around a lake, Udaipur is a princely place that retains its relaxed character in contrast to somewhat overrun spots like Jaipur and Jaisalmer. It too has its share of impressive palaces and architecturally rich mansions, as well as enjoyable streets for walking. The surrounding hills are attractively green, and the size of the lake gives it a cooler atmosphere. There’s even some pop culture history here—the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy was filmed here, on an island in the lake and around the city. Many guesthouses have showings of the movie every night, so you’re sure to see Roger Moore in action if you haven’t yet.

Wherever you choose to go, Rajasthan is a romantic destination. It is easy to access from Delhi and Agra, and offers totally unique cultural experiences. This is the India that many first time visitors are looking to discover. Enjoy!

 

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Desert Dreams Part 1: Eastern Rajasthan

East Rajasthan 1

Trips to India can vary widely depending on how much time you have available and how much off the beaten path you want to go. Most short visits include Delhi (the megacity capital, where most flights arrive, and a textbook example of the poverty and wealth that exist side by side across the country) and Agra (home to the Taj Mahal and a few other, less famous monuments). The third corner of the classic India-in-one-week triangle is the desert kingdom of Rajasthan, known for its camels, handicrafts, and colorful festivals. Finding your way in this expansive state can be difficult, be here are some pointers on what to see and what to pass on.

Jaipur is the easiest accessed of the Rajasthani cities via the traditional route. Known as the Pink City, it has a historic old city that is required by local law to be painted an odd shade of coral that dates back to the king’s decision to paint it that color in the 1800s. Jaipur has plentiful markets and some interesting architectural sites like the honeycombed Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) and the Jantar Mantar, an impressively accurate set of car and building-sized astronomy instruments. Nearby is the Amber Fort, a sprawlingly huge castle. While there is plenty of the local charm and color, you may find Jaipur overrun with tourists and those who make a living by taking advantage of them.

East Rajasthan 2For a much more laidback experience, hit up Pushkar. This much smaller town surrounds a small lake and is painted entirely in a pleasing pastel blue shade. Pushkar is a holy site and the destination for many religious pilgrimages, but also an important stop on the so-called Banana Pancake trail. Hippies are pilgrims too, in their own way. This ultra-chilled out place is a great spot to meet other travelers, eat Israeli food, drink bhang lassis (a canniboid extract legal in Rajasthan, surprisingly strong—be careful). A word of warning: don’t accept “free” flowers or assistance from anyone offering to help you do a puja (prayer) at the lakeside. You’re getting conned, and a large amount of money is going to be demanded.

East Rajasthan 3

Not far away is the town of Ajmer. Ajmer doesn’t have much going for it besides a massive Jain temple that is worth a stop as you transit to or from Pushkar. The Jain religion is similar to Buddhism in many ways, but predates it and generally has stricter rules relating to asceticism and purity. Their temples, however, are some of the most interesting in India. Ajmer’s is three stories tall, with a central hall that is filled floor to ceiling with a wood and gold models of religious figures and a fantasy city or heaven. There are elephants and angels and kings and mythological creatures and a whole paradise in miniature. The whole display is astoundingly large and intricate, and visitors can circle it on all three levels on walkways around the perimeter. There are even models hanging from the ceiling, of swans and flying boats. Jain’s definitely know how to build a temple.

This is only a few of the excellent places to visit around this colorful state. Rajasthan has a lot to offer—stay tuned for the second post in this series with more expert tips!

 

 

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