Fellow bloggers and Round-The-World Travellers Corina and Jay from in2travel had the following question:
How do you orient yourself to a new place? Do you take a morning to prepare yourself or do you just throw yourself out there?
Corina and Jay that is a good question. We never thought of this before we left for our trip. As you will notice preparing the itinerary for a whole year is almost impossible and not worth the time.
I am reminded of a joke: if you want to make G-d laugh, tell him your plans. This is to say that nothing is ever carved in stone. What you will learn on your trip is that plans change, and they change fast.
There are so many sources of information along the way so advance planning should be kept to a minimum.
Before arriving at a destination we like to read articles on Wikitravel or read threads on Lonely Planet's Thorntree forum. This way we can get a basic idea as to the main attractions. Also, if you have friends that have been to your destination, ask them what they did and how long they recommend to stay there for.
Most destinations have Tourist Information Centers found in the airports, bus or train station or in town. Find them! Pick up all maps, pamphlets and brochures. Ask the agents for advice, afterall, this is what they are there for.
When staying at hostels, fellow travellers will give you plenty of advice on the way on hot, cool and/or exotic destinations. Also, most hostels have guide books left behind which we glance over. We actually never bought a guide book (maybe we're too cheap) but sometimes we do trade it for one of our books. When staying with a couchsurfer, there is no better source for information than your host, so pick their brain!
Now, given the wealth of information we've collected, it's time to start planning! We take some time, spread out the maps, books or whatever reading material acquired and make some rough itineraries. We try to plan for several days at a time and try to do planning in the evening so that we can jump right into the day.
With that said, it is important to be flexible. When staying with couchsurfers we find ourselves just hanging out with our hosts and not doing too many "touristy" things. And like I said before, plans change fast. One of our most memorable days was in Morocco. We had planned to go to a palace and other attractions. We stopped for lunch at a street side cafe when a couple we met the day before came by. They purchased a grill and provisions and planned to make a BBQ by the river and we were invited. We spent the whole day hanging out, chatting, eating and it was amazing. Although we never made it to the palace, the day was worth it!
What about booking accommodations in advance? Well, that depends. When couchsurfing, try to request in advance. Even if you don't know exact dates provide approximate ones...you can always write back later to confirm dates. When couchsurfers are not available, we check Hostelworld.com to check availability of hostels but these are not always reliable as hostels often leave some extra room for walk-ins. We find a few hostels that are close to one another and then check them out when we arrive at location.
Another part of our preparation when moving to different countries is to learn some basic words in the language spoken there. Although we found that in a lot of places people do understand basic English, people do appreciate when you try to speak their language. I know it is not much but learning the following will produce some smiles coming from you; Hello, Please, Thank you, Yes, No and Goodbye. If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, I recommend that you download some free language guides from WorldNomads or other available applications, they are fun and very useful.
One last piece of advice: take it easy! We know there are always lots of things to do and see but it is impossible to do everything. Plus, you have a year. Take a break sometimes. Sleep in, vegetate in front of a TV/computer, go to a park or beach or just hang out. Just go with the flow and you might find yourselves enjoying some of the most memorable experience of your lives.
So far I am strangely managing with the Croatian language - it's almost like Russian transliterated into English. More strangely is that I am communicating is Yiddish, that's right, Yiddish! The older generation speaks in German, so for us to negotiate anything, I have to pull out remnants of my Yiddish skills from the fifth grade..."gib a kook"!
A few hours train ride from Hungary brought us to Zagreb, Croatia. We were greeted by our couchsurfing host, Domagoj. But it's not like he came by car to pick us up, he came by tram to bring us back to his place. His sister, Eva, and twin brother, Mislav, are also so nice.
Eva and Dom gave us a great tour of Zagreb. We were walking up to the old city when all of a sudden there was a large boom! I thought it was a bomb and I was ready to duck...apparently it was a canon that goes off every day at 12 noon. At night Mislav and Dom took us to a restaurant to eat Pljeskavica, Serbian "meat balls"...so good.
Our next stop was Plitvice National Park. I have never seen such natural beauty in all my life! There are lakes, waterfalls and greenery everywhere. There are a total of 16 turquoise colored lakes with varying elevations. The water cascades from from one lake to another forming the most picturesque waterfalls.
Here we met Uwe, a Canadian, German, American, Nicaraguan airplane pilot that lives in Bahrain. Also, he could be a double for Dan Akroyd! It was great to spend time with him. Thanks for the great stories, jokes and bottle of wine.
The second day we wanted to go into the park again. We didn't know if our ticket was still valid and we didn't want to pay again. Along the highway, we found a pathway into the park so we were in. The park was just as amazing the second day as the first. Also along the highway, we found wild mini strawberries that were smaller than my pinky nail and sweeter than sugar.
From here we made our way to Zadar, a coastal town. Honestly, we kind of regret coming here. The beaches are not so nice and are located right by the marinas. The old city center is interesting but there is not much to do for more than a day. The cool thing about the old town was the water organ which uses under water currents to create "music". As I understood, water enters pipes with different diameters which then displace air creating sounds, kind of like blowing over the top of a bottle.
We are now on a bus to Split and I hope it will be as amazing as everyone says it is.
Budapest was our next planned stop. I would put this city up there with Prague for most beautiful cities.
Budapest has a lot of charm with all the palaces, churches, statues and the great views of the Danube river.
Our stay in Budapest consisted in visiting the Dohany synagogue. This place is the biggest synagogue in Europe and the second in the world. It actually looks like a church. The guide told us that the architects were not Jewish so thet based the design on a church. They even play an organ on Shabbat but a non-Jew plays it (the Shabbath goy).
We also visited the Cathedral of St. Stephen. We were lucky to step into the cathedral on the day they were practicing the organ for an upcoming concert. The organ player was incredible and the accoustics in the place was great. The sounds of the organ was hair-raising!
We were lucky to be offered a new GPS audio guide system for free. Well, it was not entirely free. They were testing it and wanted some feedback. They gave it to us for 24hrs and if we came back with a smile on our faces then they would charge us 10 euros. Everything was good except that the told us that the device's batteries will last for about 8 hrs but it only lasted for about 3hrs. So at the end we got it for free. At least it gave us some important information about the castle and some other general information.
We followed Rebecca's advice and went to the Budavari Laborintus. This is a labyrinth under the castle. This was quite cheesy and not worth the money we paid. Oh well. There is one part of the labyrinth called the Chamber of Courage. The room was pitch black and you had to follow a rope attached to the wall. We wanted to go in but were too scared. In the end, we cheated and used our iPod touch as a flashlight...
We were given the advice to visit the town of Pecs in the south of Hungary. We were lucky to find Jim Bean, our couchsurfer friend, to host us. He lives with 3 other German medical students. They were all very friendly and welcoming.
Pecs is a small but quite nice town. We did a bit of walking but we mainly hung out at the house. The house had a very big cheery tree so Rebecca made 2 cherry pies for the big and hungry boys. They were all in their exam period so they were a bit stressed out. Hopefully the sugar helped!
We did a day trip to the village of Villany. There we found lots of different wineries. So after doing a little bit of tasting we went back to Pecs and crashed.
We are now on the train to Zagreb, Croatia.
Tomorrow, will be 5 months on the road. Seven to more to go!
So it has been quite some time since the last entry.
Our first stop from Buenos Aires was the town of El Calafate in the province of Santa Cruz an area known as Patagonia. This very picturesque and expensive was a great place to visit. We followed the advice of Keren (my sister) to try to get the Glaciar Perito Moreno before 7:30 in the morning so we avoid paying. Yeah, if you get to the National Park before the guards do, YOU DON´T HAVE TO PAY the $60 (foreigners) or $20 (local) access fee! To do that we met three other people to share a car with. So woke up early and drove to the glaciar. It was quite the site. Even though it is not the biggest glaciar in the world it is said to be the one that advances the fastest (I believe I got that right, you can correct me otherwise). I even got to see a big junk of ice fall off which made a sound that lasted at lest 3-4 minutes... From there we drove to Lago Roca, a pretty lake, that you get there by driving on a gravel road.
After staying one night at a hostel we got a reply from a Couchsurfer in town. So we decided to join them at their place. It was really a great time. We meet Jose, Fernando, Matias and Esteban which were great host. There were 4 french people there too so it was a great party. We really enjoyed the drinking and all the asado!
We followed the advice of the french couple (Sebastian and Elody) and hitchhiked to El Chalten (our next stop). It was really a great experience. Yes, we were hitchhiking virgins! It only took us a couple of hours but a very nice woman took us on the 2 hour ride.
El Chalten, another must see place for the avid hiker like ourselves! This is the gateway to the Mount Fitz Roy. Here we met some amazing people (Israelis of course, they are the most seen tourist in this area).
The first day rain like crazy so we stayed in our hostel. The next day was a great day to see all the way to the Fitz Roy. The hike is only 4 hour to the base of the mountain but it was quite intense at the last hour. At the top we got to see very beautiful glaciars and lagoons.
Our last day in El Chalten proved to be an interesting one. It started very poorly but ended in a very high note. Our bus was planned to leave at 11:30 pm so we had planned to to take it easy in the hostel because we were a bit sore from the previous hike. Apparently, the hostel manager did not like the idea of us staying there so they order us to leave. After getting threatened by the manager and having the door shut in our faces we were left on the street, nowhere to go! We were pissed!
During our stay we befriended the owners and cook at one of the bar/restaurant called Aires Patagonicos. So we decided to go get some beers to cool off the fight with the hostel managers. We ended up staying there for about 11 hours. These people (Susana, Rodrigo and Mauricio) were the sweetest people we have met so far in this trip. They were so kind to let us use the restaurant kitchen to cook our own food. The israeli boys taught Rodrigo (the cook) how to prepare an Israeli dish called shakshuka. We ended up working as servers, dishwashers, hostesses, etc. Best wishes with the new restaurant.
After 36 hours on a bus through the famous and un-paved Ruta 40 (Route 40) we got to Bariloche, the same city where my parents had their honeymoon. But enough of writing. We will tell you more another time.
We have left the busy and noisy but well maintained city of Lima to come to Cuzco.
The view of Cusco from the plane on the way in was really amazing. The town is situated in a valley enclosed by mountains on all sides. The architecture is a mixture of Inca and Spanish. Like Ernesto Che Guevara said in his trip to Cusco when the was talking about the walls of the building "call this one the Inca wall and that one the wall of the Incapables, those were the Spanish". You can really tell the difference.
For the first time in our lives we experience the effects that altitude can cause on a person. We had to climb a few steps to get to our hostal and it was one of the hardest things we have done in a long time. We had headaches and were exhausted. It is now day 2 and I think we are way better.
We haven´t seen much of Cusco yet but we were able to obtain our tickets for the Inca Trail (one of the most famous and popular options to get to Machu Picchu). This will be a 4 day trek through the mountains to finish up at one of the 7 Wonders of the World. We feel really good about ourselves because we were able to get our trek for about 1 half of what other travellers have paid.
Last night we got a surpise email from a girls we met in our hostal in Lima. She is a fellow Couchsurfer and invited us to a Couchsurfing gathering in the city. We had a blast, meeting Couchsurfers from all over the world. We hopped from bar to bar from disco to disco. It was really a fun experience and we hope to go to more of these kind of events in the future travels.