about We are Akila and Patrick. Our minds (and waistlines) expand as we travel, cook, and eat our way around the world with our two dogs.
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Tag: RTW Travel in Retrospect
on stuff and things

I don't know where the last two months have gone.  The hours and minutes flutter away from me into the ether.  I'm not writing --- as is obvious from this very neglected blog --- and I'm not doing a ton of consulting work, either.  Yet, I seem to be busy every single moment of every single day, from the minute I wake up until the minute I crash into my bed, completely exhausted from doing stuff and dealing with things.

Stuff and things .  If you pin me down, I can point to specific things: finding a house in the finicky real estate market of Atlanta, calling mortgage companies and convincing them that our three year sabbatical does not pose a credit risk, closing on the house (yay!), and searching for a reliable contractor to remodel the kitchen and bathroom before we can move in.  And, stuff --- oh stuff --- I seem to have no shortage of stuff lately: new light fixtures, a washer and dryer, paint, boxes upon boxes of accumulated stuff from our past lives, and a giant list of "to buy/register for baby items" because apparently an eight pound newborn needs as much stuff as a full-grown adult traveling the world.  (Did you know this, by the way?  People complain all the time about how much stuff babies need but, seriously, I packed for three years with less stuff than this baby's going to need in her first six months of life.)

I think part of the shock factor comes from the complete and total disconnect we had from everyday lives for the last three years.  Bloggers always talk about reverse culture shock and how when they return from a long trip, they're frustrated by the lack of freedom they have or annoyed by conversations that center around television shows or pop culture references that they don't understand.

Those aspects of reverse culture shock are there for us --- occasionally, we sit at a restaurant and say to each other, "Do you realize that we can understand every conversation in this place?" --- but, in many ways, we don't really feel like we're back in the United States.  We're still traveling, though right now our packed bags basically take us from my parents' house to Patrick's mom's house, as we try and get our new life in order.  No, what I find disturbing and disconcerting about this new chapter of my life is how much stuff and things we seem to need . . . or want . . . or buy.

Here's a good example: in mid-September, we were looking at houses and we found this gorgeous home in an area we really liked.  I spent a lot of time thinking about whether we should put an offer on it because it was a "bit small."  I kept trying to figure out where all of our furniture, 50+ boxes of books, clothes, and more that we had stored in our ginormous storage facility would go.  How would all of our stuff from our old life fit into our new life?  After a little while, Patrick laughed and said, "You realize that the house is 1700 square feet and we've been living in hostels and apartments that usually run around 500 square feet for the last three years.  That's not small."

It's a big shift from the days when everything we needed and wanted fit into two suitcases and two backpacks.  It's not that I'm opposed to stuff, either.  People always complain about the rampant consumerism of this country but, frankly, consumerism besets most first world nations.  It's part of the reason that so many European nations are struggling with debt, after all.

No, I guess what I'm struggling with is the variety of options in the United States.  The amount and abundance of stuff is simply overwhelming.  It's two months since we've been back from Europe and, yesterday, when I walked into a Super Wal-mart, I thought to myself, "Wow.  This is the size of about three Carrefours packed in together."  And, if I'm not able to find what I want in a store, I can get online and order it from Amazon and have it on my doorstep within two days.

I'm waiting for the moment when living here will feel normal and ordinary and the hugeness of the grocery store won't surprise me every time I walk in.  It hasn't happened yet.  Maybe it will never happen.  Maybe our three years on the road have fundamentally changed my perception of stuff and things.

why take guided tours

Barcelona tour guide London tour guide Costa Rica tour guide British Museum tour guide
Chepecletas Yuki Giulio and us Jacques

Montage of tour guides

There's a lot of "this OR that" in the travel world: you can be a tourist OR a traveler, a fanny-pack-wearing cruise-goer OR a backpack-hefting vagabond.  But, in between, there's us . . . and I suspect many of you.

We are the folks in the middle --- the ones who believe that independent travel is better with a smattering of guided tours and that guided tours are better with a heap of independence.

We travel on our own and have ventured through five continents without any tour operators or travel planners.  We've only twice been on an organized tour group (once in the Outback because we couldn't find a rental car and once through southern Africa because of the expense of traveling independently.)  But, we frequently use tour guides.  In fact, we join at least one group tour in every single city we visit.  Before you lump us in with the fanny-pack-wearers, take at look at these six reasons why I think every independent traveler should consider taking guided tours:

Following the umbrella in Beijing

Following the umbrellas in Beijing

1.  A guided tour doesn't necessarily mean following around a woman with a red umbrella.

Yes, there are guided tours where you're walking around with an earset behind a woman holding a bright red umbrella.  But, that's not all guided tours.  In fact, though we've taken over 100 guided tours all across this world, we have NEVER followed a tour guide holding an umbrella (or a notepad or whatever) nor have we ever worn a headset to hear our tour guide speak.

Rafael Room in Vatican Museums

One of the Raphael rooms in the Vatican Museums

2.  A good tour guide enhances and simplifies vast and exhausting places.

Most major museums are simply exhausting.  I remember that the first time we went to the Vatican Museums, we spent about seven hours running in and out of rooms, listening frantically to our audio guides, and trying to figure out what it was that we were seeing.

Last year, we did things differently: we went with Gregory DiPippo, the brilliant docent with Context Rome , who simplified the entire Vatican Museums into one cohesive story about how Michaelangelo and Rafael imposed their views of a benevolent Christianity through their art.  (I still have to write about this tour but suffice it to say that you should jump at the chance to go on a tour with Gregory.  I would like to cart him around with me to every cathedral across the world.)  We left that tour feeling that though we saw less of the Vatican Museums than before, we actually understood what we saw.

at the Blue Mosque At the Blue Mosque

3.  A good tour guide bridges cultures.

Travel forces us to learn and understand other cultures, religions, and philosophies.  We discover much of those things by talking with locals and experiencing what the locals experience.  But, often, we are barred from a culture because of different languages, or shut out because people don't know how to talk to us.  Sometimes, we worry about asking "stupid" or "hurtful" questions.  That's where a good tour guide comes in.  When we came to Turkey, we wanted to understand how the Turkish view Islam and the Islamic Spring, but we didn't feel comfortable asking a local those questions.  The docents at Context Istanbul helped us bridge those gaps and, this week, I'll be writing about the interesting perspectives learned while on our walks with them.

Ceiling at V&A museum

V&A Museum, visited because recommended by a tour guide as their favorite museum in London

4.  A good tour guide is your new best friend in the city.

If we like a tour guide, we always pepper them with questions: what's their favorite restaurant, what's their best off-the-beaten path suggestions, how do you say "thank you" in the local language, and so on.  It's like having a best friend wherever you go.  We almost always ask the tour guides for their e-mail addresses and follow up with them (especially if they offer to give us further insights, which they often do.)

Us silhouettes

Silhouettes of our group at sunset in Namibia

5.  Meeting travelers is fun!

Because we mainly stay in vacation rentals, we don't get much of a chance to meet other travelers.  Tour groups are a great way to meet people with common interests and we've gotten great insights and restaurant recommendations from other travelers on tour groups.  We've also learned a lot about the strange and interesting ways that people travel simply by talking to folks in tour groups: for example, in Sofia, Bulgaria, I met a North Carolinian who had never left the United States until he decided to spend a year abroad working as a missionary in remote destinations.

Stonehenge at night

Stonehenge at sunset

6.  Tour groups get us into places we normally can't go.

Two of our all-time favorite guided tours took us into places that the average tourist doesn't get to see.  The fifteen person tour into the Necropolis of St. Peter's Basilica took us under the massive cathedral in Vatican City to see the humble beginnings of Christianity, where St. Peter was buried and careful Christians wrote graffiti on a plain brick wall to mark St. Peter's tomb.  Another favorite behind-the-scenes tour is the Inside the Circle Tour at Stonehenge , where we walked over the ropes and stood within the mystical circle of giant rocks at Stonehenge.  Amazing!

So, these are the six reasons why we take guided tours whenever we visit a new city.  What are your reasons for taking guided tours . . . or not taking guided tours?  Do you have a favorite tour?  (And, if so, please tell us because we'll bookmark it and try to take it when we are next in that city.)

* This year, Patrick and I are working with Context Travel to take and promote their tours all across Europe.  However, Context never asked me to write this post and we are only working with Context because we truly love their company and approach.  In fact, as we have worked with them across this year, I've been more and more impressed by the depth and breadth of their docents' knowledge.  In any event, as always, no matter who sponsors us, every single word on this blog is mine and mine alone (with a bit of input from Patrick.)

airing that dirty laundry abroad

Clothes at an Italian market

Clothes for sale in Siena

The dirty little secret about long-term travel --- that is, the reason that most long-term travelers sing the praises of hostels and apartments rather than hotels --- boils down to one thing: laundry.  Others may tell you stories about how big hotels are anonymous entities and hostels present a local's focus and apartments give us the ability to venture into a neighborhood and all of those nice things -- and yes, I agree -- but, really and truly, the reason that most of us prefer hostels and apartments is because we need to get our laundry done.

Laundry is a difficult, difficult thing when you're traveling about as much as we do.  Not only is it our most hated chore, it is also the most frequent time suck.  So, here are the five things you need to know about doing laundry abroad:

Washing machines the size of Chihuahuas.

Americans have monster washing machines.  I miss this sort of appliance and the days when we could dump a week's worth of laundry into a single load.  In Europe and Asia, I'm lucky if I can fit two pairs of jeans and two t-shirt in.  Apparently, European/Asian/African washing machines are made for Chihuahua-sized apparel.

Let's watch Braveheart while the washing machine cycle finishes.

Stick your laundry in the morning and you can do any of the following things before your washing cycle ends:

- Watch Braveheart, all 3 hours and 2 minutes of it, plus you can add in a half hour Friends episode, if you so desire.

- Drive from Zagreb, Croatia , to Budapest, Hungary .

- Make my favorite apple pie , let it cool, and have a slice.

- Take a decent pass at learning basic phrases in Turkish, Italian, and French with our favorite language learning guide .

Because not only are non-American washing machines teeny tiny, but the washing machine manufacturers here apparently follow the principle of energy inefficiency.

Actually, I have a theory on why the washing machines are so slow here.  You see, instead of using electricity, the machines are powered by a system of highly trained mice that keep the machine spinning and spinning, which would also explain why every single thing I own has at least two or three mouse-teeth-sized holes.  The socks I keep losing must be the price they take for running the washing machines.  Keep running, my little washing machine mice overlords.

Oh, you wanted clean and un-holey clothes?  Sorry, can't help you out there.

After three years of constant washing in mice-operated washing machines meant for Chihuahuas and extraordinarily patient people, all my clothes have taken on a middle-of-the-winter English gray sheen.  This gray, if you haven't been to England in the wintertime, is not a pretty chic charcoal gray nor is it a pleasant light gray, but is rather the type of gray that sends grown men whimpering for sunny blue skies and fruity pink umbrella-topped drinks.

Dryers.  What dryers?

Once the clothes come out of the washing machine, in they go to the dryer . . . oh, right, this isn't the U.S.  No dryers here.  Now, I do understand why dryers waste electricity and there's no need for dryers in hot, sunny countries like Namibia and India.  But, England?  People, I went for weeks without seeing sunny sky in that country and our clothes used to take two solid days to dry.  It was a game we played: the sun comes out for two hours, rush out and hang them, oh darn - rain's coming, rush them back in and set them by the heater, and scream in frustration.

Get your hands in those suds.

Often, and all too often at that, hotels don't have laundry machines and expect that you'll be willing to shell out enough to buy your own washing machine to get a simple pair of pants laundered.  So, we handwash.

Handwashing is relatively simple: stick the water in a tub, toss in some detergent, and turn your own hands into a rinse cycle, wring out the soap, clean with water again, and wring dry.  Of course, this isn't an all too bad option but when faced with five days worth of clothes, hand-washing is akin to a really good workout at your local gym.  (And believe me, neither of us are nearly this cute when we're handwashing our laundry.)

Speak that laundry language.

Sometimes, we have to take our laundry to a laundromat because we don't have a washing machine or a tub.  And, in many countries, especially Thailand , Cambodia, and China, laundry services are often cheap and plentiful --- something like one in four stores in Cambodia offer laundry services.  Cue the hilarious conversations about how we want our laundry done in languages we don't understand, meaning that, more often than not, our clothes devolve further into their manky English-gray, holey condition.  [That being said, the Thai and Cambodian laundry services are probably the best in the world --- they even iron your underwear!]  And, for the love of your wardrobe, please never travel with anything that needs to be dry clean only because you might as well just douse them into the Ganges and set fire to them --- you're never going to have those duds in wearable condition again.

As it is, the first thing happening when we head back to the States in the fall is that every single piece of clothing I currently wear is going straight into the trash because even the needy don't need my awful cast-off clothes.  I'm counting down the days when my white shirts are white and my black pants are black again.

an unhelpful guide to planning a rtw itinerary

Sunset in Zambia

How do you plan a round-the-world itinerary?  That's always the question at the top of the Bootsnall message board for RTW travelers and everybody's got an opinion .  You should "not plan," some say, while others tell you to have a "vague notion" of where you're going, and others say that you should plan down to the nitty gritty.  You would think that, now, after planning a RTW trip and being a self-acknowledged planaholic, I would know how to plan a RTW itinerary.  You would think that, considering I get at least an email every couple of weeks asking me to review travel itineraries, I would know about the pitfalls and  the successes of a great RTW itinerary.  You would be wrong.  The truth is, I don't have any good advice for you on planning a round-the-world itinerary.

The reason: there are no rules in planning a RTW itinerary.

This is your trip.  Your travel.  Your dream.

There is no wrong answer to a RTW itinerary.  If you are a planner --- that is, the sort of person who likes to know exactly where you are going to be on every day of your trip, don't let people tell you that you're a bad RTW traveler.  (We did that in our first three months and it worked out just fine.)  If you're a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser, that works, too.  (We flew by the seat of our pants in most of Asia and it worked out generally great.)  Whatever you decide, it is your trip.

And, the truth that nobody really mentions is that there are as many ways to travel around the world as there are people interested in traveling RTW.  Don't believe me?  Check out some of the unique RTW combinations out there:

Gary from Everything Everywhere : 90 countries in 48 months over 6 continents.  (This includes some short stays as well.  You can check out his very impressive lists of where he has been over here .  I should really put something like this together for ourselves because I have no idea how many countries I've been to in my life.)

Audrey and Dan from Uncornered Market : 65+ countries in 48 months over 7 (!) continents.  Yeah, they're totally our role models.

Danny and Jillian from I Should Log Off : 50 countries in 22 months over 6 continents.

Michael from Go See Write : 44 countries in 16 months over 6 continents, using entirely overland transportation.

Manali and Terry from Manali and Terry : 27 countries in 12 months over 4 continents.

Dave from The Longest Way Home :  18 countries in 72 + months over 2 continents.

Keith and Amy from Green Around the Globe : 17 countries in 10 months over 4 continents.

Gillian and Jason from One Giant Step : 14 countries in 12 months over 4 continents.

The Vogel Family from Family on Bikes : 14 countries in 34 months over 2 continents, entirely on bicycles from the northernmost point in Alaska to the southernmost point of Argentina.

Me and Patrick: 13 countries in 13 months over 4 continents.  And, we spent 2-3 months in a specific region, returned home to the United States to check in on Chewy and Abby, and left to go to another region.  We never purchased a RTW ticket, instead using discretely purchased transcontinental flights when we wanted.

Ayngelina from Bacon is Magic : 9 countries in 12 months in 1 continent.  She just hit her one year traveliversary!

See that?  There is no formula, no unmissable place, no unmissable thing.  If you don't make it to Peru, don't sweat it.  If you fall in love with Thailand and spend six out of your allotted 12 months there, no worries.

No matter what you choose, your trip will be amazing because the world is amazing.

I know . . . . this is an entirely unhelpful post but it's the truth.  And, I wish someone had shared this truth with me while I was stressing about our potential RTW itinerary with maps and spreadsheets strewn across our house.  In the end, we didn't see all the places we wanted but we found wonder in places we never expected, on both our planned and unplanned spots.  As I plan our European leg, I keep this in mind.  Sure, I'd love to hit every single country in Western Europe but I'm not going to be able to see it all.

All this being said, there are a few general concepts we keep in mind when we plan our travels but they are about as far from rules as an American grocery store banana is from the miniature ripened ones plucked from the branches of an Indian banana tree (which is to say quite far).  Here they are:

  • Try to avoid high season.  Yeah, this can be tough but it's a complete hassle dealing with masses of tourists who all want to be in the same place you are.
  • Opt for places with good food.  This matters to us because food is, obviously, important to us.  We've found that three days in a city with no decent restaurant or market selection leaves us very grumpy.
  • Pick places that match your budget.  This one is pretty obvious but sometimes we get overly excited and splurge which means that our next country has to be cheaper.
  • Spend more time in a single place or single country and less time traveling.  We hate travel days and try to minimize them as much as possible.

And that's pretty much it.  Sometimes we plan like crazy and other times we arrive in a country with nothing planned.  I guess you could say that we tend to plan when we feel like and if we have time to plan.  And, when we plan, we don't stick to any hard and fast rules.

*An Unhelpful Guide to Planning a RTW Itinerary is part of the RTW Travel Planning in Retrospect Project, a weekly community project that seeks to gather insights and advice on round-the-world travel planning from those who have been in the metaphorical trenches. Stay tuned because, on Tuesday, some very fabulous travel bloggers will join in the discussion and reveal much better itinerary planning tips than mine.