Tag Archives: Culture

Cycling in Vietnam: Summary & Advice

Our two week tour of Vietnam proved a great experience.  While we only cycled a few hundred kilometers on nine days of cycling, the mix of activities fit the conditions we encountered.  For instance, the two days devoted to Ha Long Bay did not involve cycling, nor did our day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon.)

Our experience of Vietnam and its people was very positive.  We had three different sets of drivers and guides – for the three separate regions – and all of them were helpful, experienced, interesting, and personable.  All of our hotels were clean, comfortable, and endowed with good breakfasts.  The personnel were courteous and helpful.  The included meals at chosen restaurants were tasty and copious, if sometimes repetitive.  Overall this trip was “two thumbs up.”

So, should you do this trip?  And if so, what might you need to know beforehand?  Here are a few thoughts.  Some we learned ahead of our departure;   some we wished we had.

So many colourful occasions

So many colourful occasions

Should you do this trip?

If this is your first cycle trip overseas, Vietnam may not be the best place to start.  Vietnam’s travel infrastructure is not as well developed as locations like northern Europe.  You’ll be more exposed to traffic with unfamiliar rules.   Our day cycling in Hanoi was not for everyone – although we wouldn’t have missed it.  Language challenges may be greater here – important should you get separated from your group.  The different cuisine could leave you battling a stomach bug on a ride, and facilities are often hard to find.  But if you’ve got a few tours under your belt, and are looking for more culture, history, and different landscapes, then we’d highly recommend the tour we took.

You might meet one of these in the middle of your path. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

You might meet one of these in the middle of your path. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Best Time to Go

Using climate sites, we determined that February is generally the driest, coolest month of the year, and the average temperature is good for cycling.  However, averages can be deceiving.  On our own tour, it was 60F (16C) in the north, and 95F (35C) in the south.  Most of the time it was cloudy and misty, and in central Vietnam it rained non-stop for two days.  However, two weeks later, some friends enjoyed blue skies all the way.  So, we still think February and March are good bets, as long as you avoid the holiday rush at Tet – usually over by mid-February, occasionally a bit later.

Even rainy days are included in a sunny average.

Even rainy days are included in a sunny average.

Visas, Vaccinations, Medications & Trip Insurance

Finding online information about visas was challenging.  There are a plethora of companies offering to help get you a Vietnam visa for a fee, and it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s legitimate.  In end, Cheryl and I opted to leave our passports at the local Vietnam consulate for a few days.  Others in our group were happy using the services of a local travel company specializing in Vietnam.

Vaccinations were another matter.  This is a complex subject, and a lot comes down to your assessment of the risks versus costs.  We all updated our basic travel inoculations, but we fretted over rabies and Japanese encephalitis.  Different members of our group got different advice from different travel clinics.  How big is the risk?  Frankly, it’s small for both diseases.  Still, losing the gamble would not be fun.  Some in our group opted for both.  Cheryl and I elected just to be cautious about mosquitoes, which can spread more than just encephalitis.  As for rabies, we found a local doctor who offered much cheaper rabies shots provided we came in as a group;  the cost saving came from a technique developed by the WHO.  The lower price tipped the scale for us.  Our decision was reinforced when a friend was bitten by a dog in Cambodia; she underwent the full post-bite inoculation series upon her return to Canada.

Advised by a conservative doctor, we also had prescriptions for anti-malarial drugs and antibiotics, loads of insect repellent, and even a set of clothing impregnated in pyrethrins.  To our surprise, during our two weeks in Vietnam surrounded by flooded rice paddies, we never saw a mosquito, and so left most of our supplies untouched.  We did run out of some common medications like decongestants;  Paul reacted badly to the smoky air that seemed to blanket the country.  However, we easily replenished our supplies locally.

Flooded paddies all around, but no mosquitoes to be found.

Flooded paddies all around, but no mosquitoes to be found.

For the first time, we elected to take the Dukoral oral vaccine against traveler’s diarrhea.  Traveling friends swore by it.  Still, the jury’s out on how effective it was.  We used bottled water, even for teeth-brushing.  We stuck mainly to the tour-sponsored restaurants and didn’t indulge in street food, although we ate salads freely.  Had we slipped up, we were prepared to follow a questionable meal with Pepto-Bismol and a stiff drink – again, as advised by our travel doctor.  But, despite eating a wide variety of dishes from set menus, no one in our group had any problems.  So we didn’t really need that rice wine with snakes in it.

We also bought travelers’ health insurance for our trip.  Since our Vietnam tour was only part of a ten-week away time, we ultimately bought full-year travel coverage, plus a rider for the extended time.  A friend who works as an insurance broker tracked down the best deal for us, which had trip cancelation and lost baggage insurance into the bargain.  Fortunately, we never needed any of it – but we have in the past.

Ate something questionable? Try this! (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Ate something questionable? Try this! (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Clothing

What to take can be a challenge.  We packed largely for biking in the “average” climate.  Turns out we were under-dressed for the cool conditions in the north, and our polyester biking gear was too hot for the steamy heat down south.  Check the temperatures in Hanoi and Saigon.  Cheryl wished she’d brought some compact down, and a couple of extra light pants and long-sleeved tops for the North.  As you may know, the local inhabitants wear long pants and sleeves, even when it gets warm;   tourists are obvious because they wear shorts and singlets, even when it’s chilly.  The cycling rain gear we brought turned out to be too warm; we did better with the semi-disposable ponchos we picked up in Vietnam for a dollar.  After the first day, we eschewed our heavy lace-up shoes in favour of Keen’s sandals;   they were cooler and dried out more quickly after a rain.  Even the locals mostly rode in flip-flops, rain or shine.

Finally, after Cheryl’s run-in with a pickpocket in Hanoi on Day One, we wished we had more clothes with zippered or concealed pockets – anything to make it easy to spread our cards and cash around.

Whenever we stayed two days in the same hotel, we were usually able to wash a few light clothes and have them dry before we checked out.  Laundry prices at the hotels were often fairly high, although at one or two locations that charged by the kilogram instead of per piece, we found them very reasonable.  And the clothes always came back neatly folded, flower scented, and well before the promised time.

Wet-weather riding increases the need for laundry facilities.

Wet-weather riding increases the need for laundry facilities.

Cycling Equipment

Taking your own bike helmets is absolutely necessary.  In some countries, bike tour companies have the odd spare for those without.  In Vietnam, even some of our guides rode without helmets.  Paul had taken a spare to Vietnam and left it with our last guide, who was most appreciative.  Biking gloves were also a good idea, although not essential.  And they did get very sweaty in the steamy south.

Since distances were relatively short, we decided not to take our gel seat covers.  Some of the tour operators supplied bikes with gel covers included.  The bikes themselves were mostly decent Trek mountain bikes; the ones in the hilly north were almost brand new and had disc brakes; in the flat south, they were older and less well equipped.

We had also taken rechargeable blinking lights for front and back, but ended up not using them.  While we use them at home, especially when riding country roads with higher speed limits, we decided not to in Vietnam.  In the traffic conditions we usually encountered, we suspected they might have been more distracting than helpful.  Bright clothing was useful; for one thing, it alerted drivers that we were tourists, unfamiliar with the local driving customs.  It also helped us keep track of our group.

Even with colour, the Mekong Delta trails presented challenges in following.

Even with colour, the Mekong Delta trails presented challenges in following.

Unlike trips in Europe, the bikes did not have carriers or panniers, only a small pouch on the handlebars.  However, the van was seldom far away, so we could generally leave extra clothing there and retrieve it if needed.  However, we were glad we’d brought a couple of small packs to wear.  The operators also supplied water bottles for the rides, but we were glad we’d also brought our own – especially handy on non-ride days.  Given the frequent advice not to drink tap water, we were always buying large bottles of water and refilling our own.  Or drinking the beer, which was often cheaper.

Perhaps the most useful thing we took were rear-view mirrors that attached in seconds with Velcro.  None of the bicycles came with mirrors, but every scooter on the road had two, and we soon knew why.  For about US$4 each, the mirrors were well worth it.  Two per bike wouldn’t have been remiss.

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These paths left little room for passing.

Money, Cards, & Internet

Since almost everything was included on this tour, the money we needed was primarily for drinks, tips, and extras.  Since many of the smaller shops didn’t take cards, a bit of cash was essential and that in Vietnamese Dong.  To keep our wallets filled, we relied on debit cards at ATMs.  We had no trouble finding ATMs, although perhaps only half of them worked with our cards.  One in our group had a “special” card that was non-standard.  She never got it to work, but fortunately she had another.  Advice when traveling: always have more than one type of card, and keep them separate, just in case.  When Cheryl had hers stolen, she still had another – and I had two as well.  The limits on ATM withdrawals were quite low, but then, we didn’t need much money.  Larger hotels and restaurants accepted most credit cards.

The free Internet in every hotel was excellent without exception:  fast, ubiquitous, and reliable – much better than we later experienced in Australia.  We had no problems backing up photos to the cloud – until we left Vietnam.  Reminder:  don’t forget your power-plug adapter.

Water puppets in Hanoi.  (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Water puppets in Hanoi. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Tips

Tipping provided us with considerable confusion, and our group had several lengthy discussions on what to do.  Tipping porters at hotels and airports was easy enough, usually around US$1.  At meals, we only paid for drinks, and tipped on that amount.  However, all the set meals were included in the tour price, as were hotel stays, but we never figured out how tips should be handled on these items.  Mostly we just muddled through.

The real confusion came with tipping cycle guides and drivers.  We received three different guidelines from the tour operator and the booking company.  Some implied a sliding scale, depending upon the size of the group, others did not.  None were clear on whether the suggested amounts were a total for guides and drivers, or an amount for each.   In the end, our group held lengthy discussions and came up with a per-day per-couple minimum for guides and a smaller minimum for drivers.  Then, at the end of each segment, Rob would collect the amounts in an envelope and present it to the service provider.  Even that didn’t go as smoothly as hoped.  Most of the time – but not always – there were two drivers, one for the van, one for the bike truck.  Drivers sometimes came and went without notice; twice, last minute changes of plan had us miss our farewells with a driver.  The line between drivers and guides was often blurred:  on one leg, our cycle guide spoke little English, so a second attractions guide rode with us, and the first guide doubled as van driver.  One day, our cycle guide was under the weather, so, he brought in cyclist friend and sat the ride out.  In the end, we did the best we could.  We tried to remember that everyone we dealt with worked long and hard, and none were overpaid.  Tips were always welcome, whether in dong or US dollars.

Our guide and drivers make tea, while we admire the view.

Our guide and drivers make tea, while we admire the view.

Cycling Protocol

Finally, it would have helped if we’d reviewed our cycling protocols.  The six of us had often ridden together at home as part of a larger group, and we should have known better.  Somehow, in the excitement of a foreign country, we forgot some of our practices.  Especially in the Mekong Delta, the trails turned and branched endlessly, and it was very easy to miss a turn.  If each of us had stopped at every decision point until we could see the following rider knew where to go, we would never have become separated.  As it was, we lost members twice, both times for more than twenty minutes – which seems like an eternity when you’re listening to crickets.  We will allow that following the protocol can be challenging here, as there are so many decision points.  So, don’t hesitate to ask your guide to slow down, especially if you want to stop to take photos.  At day’s end, we were all reunited, and after unruffling a few feathers, had a good laugh about it all.

P1050616croppedsmall

There’s lots to distract an avid photographer. “Which way’d they go?”

Bon Voyage!

We trust you’ve found these thoughts useful in planning your cycle trip to Vietnam.  Have a great time, and let us know how it went.

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Rest stop in a northern village.

Rest stop in a northern village.

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Cycling in Vietnam – Hanoi

Day 1:  Our jet-lagged party of six was greeted by our friendly guide Nam upon landing at Hanoi airport in Vietnam  and we felt instantly in good hands. On our trip from the airport to the Authentic Hanoi Hotel, my first thought was “where is the sun”?.   The hazy sky of Hanoi seemed a combination of exhaust, smoke, and humidity, and it was hard to pinpoint where the sun actually resided.

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A roundabout near our hotel

Hanoi is a crazy chaotic city with an astonishing number of small cars, trucks,  scooters, bikes, pedal cabs and people that drive, walk, cycle and park in whatever direction they want, on the roads and sidewalks.   The majority of vehicles are scooters, which carry up to four people, and are often used to carry huge loads including fish traps, produce, poultry, eggs, and building supplies.  Whole families with the dad in front, mom in back, and two small children sandwiched between them are seen everywhere.  Most intersections are  uncontrolled and the infrequent traffic lights are largely ignored.  There is a constant cacophony of honking, and weaving going on, but there’s a certain rhythm to it all that works.  Paul summed up the rules of the road as “Everyone has the right of way;  just don’t hit anyone.”  Road rage seems nonexistent.  But more than half the scooter riders wear face masks to filter out the fumes.

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Intrepid pedestrians

Crossing a busy road for the first time was a life-altering experience.    Traffic will never stop for pedestrians, even at a crosswalk.  Our guide Nam instructed us to raise a hand, move into the fray (and pray), walk slowly but steadily, make no sudden moves,  and weave in between the traffic.  The ‘raise your hand’ step didn’t seem to  be used by the locals, but perhaps helped the locals recognize us as tourists and make some allowances for us.  The method of  give and take, ebb and flow, seems to work.   Nam shared with us a story of his friend who got a ticket from the local police for not stopping at a traffic light.  The police asked him “Did you see the light” and he said “Yes’.  The policeman then asked”  So why didn’t you stop” and he said  “because I didn’t see you”.  Wrong answer, followed by pretty large fine.

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The 1000-eyed Buddha might have foiled the pickpocket

I wasn’t paying attention on the first day while walking in a crowded tourist area in the Old Quarter, around Hoan Kiem Lake,  one hour into our first outing, and  had my wallet stolen from my purse.  Cancelled the cards quickly, but lost some cash.  Took a day to shake off the funk, but it was a reasonably inexpensive lesson.  After several tips with my bag zippers pinned together, I had grown careless.

Dinner out at a nice restaurant with nearby croaking frogs.  Great spring rolls, beer passable.

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The sacred unicorn

Day 2: We also had the second day on our own, so we visited the Museum of Natural History, where we discovered the four most important sacred animals for the Vietnamese – the phoenix, unicorn, turtle and dragon.  Of these, only the turtle closely resembles the western concept.    We now had our “Hanoi legs”:  using bottled water, finding our way around the restaurants and local shops, figuring out the money  (15,000 Dong = 1 Canadian dollar) and how the ATMs work, and returning to the correct hotel at the end of the day.  Still, we kept forgetting to watch for mopeds traveling counterflow on both sides of the street, and seriously doubted our sanity when we contemplated a city tour by bicycle the following day.

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About one ATM in five honoured our cards

We failed to notice that the Temple of Literature was on tomorrow’s tour agenda, and spent a couple of hours marveling at this centuries-old university.

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At the outskirts of Hanoi

Day 3: Our single day of cycling in Hanoi consisted of a visit to crowded cemeteries and rural pottery plants, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (closed Mondays and Fridays, unfortunately for us), the Ethnology Museum,  the One Pillar Pagoda, and the Citadel.  As with almost every meal on this tour, we enjoyed a copious set-menu lunch at a nicely appointed restaurant revealed to us by our guide.  Still enjoying the spring rolls.

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Excess kumquats

After our first and only day of cycling 30 kms within Hanoi, at the end of the day were amazed at how well we had done in the traffic, without feeling the  panic we would have felt doing the same at home.  The relatively slow pace of the cars/scooter/bikes probably made this workable.  Speeds ranged from 10 kph for the latter to 30 for the former.  We finished the day with a colourful water puppet show just a block from the spot I last saw my wallet.

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Nam, our guide for the North

We especially enjoyed the personal stories told us by Nam:  how he’d helped a friend dig up his ancestor after three years in an overcrowded cemetery so his bones could be reburied more compactly;  how he’d paid for his condo with a backpack full of Vietnamese cash (worth about US$ 38,000) delivered by scooter;  how he’d paid his bride’s parents about one percent of that for the ”bride price,” and a bargain at any price.  Friends of Nam’s, faced with a bride price financially out of reach, did an end run around the parents by getting in the family way.

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At the Museum of Ethnology (Objects not to scale)

We were most fascinated by the Ethnology Museum, where we learned a little about some of Vietnam’s many ethnic groups, some male-dominated, others ruled by the women.  We would run into several of these groups during our rural cycling in the days to come.  We tried out some of the houses on stilts, not unlike one we would later spend a night in.  We fell asleep dreaming of the quiet country roads we hoped were in our future.

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Several ethnic minorities live on stilts

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Changing of Ho Chi Minh’s guard

Travel at the Speed of Thought

For the past few days, I was reminded that, even close to home, one can immerse oneself in cultures that seem very different from one’s own. In this case, I’m not referring to an ethnic culture. In our everyday life, we encounter cultures built around occupations, or interests, or dispositions. Often they have their own specialized languages – sometimes we call them “jargon.”

Visiting such a culture can create an experience very similar to visiting a foreign land: our curiosity is piqued; we have to pay attention to a language we may understand only slightly; we’re trying to understand how they “do things here.” Just like visiting a new place, this can bring presence, aliveness, and excitement.

Can you travel into this young man's thoughts?  Try it!

Can you travel into this man’s world? Try it!

I hope to be able to write about my recent “trip” before long, but I have not yet processed its many inputs, so it will have to wait. But there are many ways to travel.

I was reminded of an exercise I did a few years ago. I was shown a random photo of an elderly woman standing in front of her barn, and instructed to put myself in her mind. It was a fascinating exercise, and I felt as if I’d traveled to another time and place.

If you want to give it a try, grab a photo somewhere, or use this one.  Don’t think about it too much.  Just do it. Let me know how it goes.

Meanwhile, here’s what the elderly woman was thinking…

Remembrance Day

Shutter’s broken outside the guest room, Jim. Heard it banging away in the gale last night. Guess you’ll have to take a look if it’s fair tomorrow.

Oh, what am I saying! You’ve been gone these six years now. Won’t likely be doing any more fixing for me, I suppose. If I can’t do anything with it, I’ll have to give Pat a call and see if her Roger can come over with his toolbox.

Haven’t seen so much of Pat and Roger lately. I figure they’ve got other things to attend to. Roger’s fixing up that back bedroom so there’ll be more room at Christmas. You know, they’ve got seven grandkids now. The youngest came just last Spring – cute as a little garden mouse he is. Bit of a handful already, if you ask me. Must have known that when they named him after our Tommy.

Damn! Just spilled tea leaves all over. Let me get a broom and set things right…

He would have been fifty the other night. Our Tommy fifty! Can you believe it, Jim? He would have married that nice girl Selena when he got back. There’d be grandkids. Maybe great-grandkids, cute as that little garden-mouse grandson of Pat’s: a house-full of happiness to keep the memories in their proper place.

I sometimes can’t believe I ever turned fifty myself. But I remember the day like I could smell it. You came in the door with that parcel all wrapped up, and told me we were going to the city for the weekend. Surprised me completely, you did, booking that fancy hotel room down by the river. And it was a beautiful sweater you gave me, even if it was the warmest night of the year. I used to feel you next to my skin when I was wearing it.

But that was a long time ago. I found that sweater in the bottom drawer after you’d gone, when I was cleaning up. I didn’t want to get rid of it, but I figured the memory needed to move on. Besides, it didn’t fit any more.

Some memories won’t move on, though, Jim. Not that I haven’t tried to make them. You remember that crazy song about American Pie that Tommy used to play on the record player all the time? He used to dance around the room – called it dancing, anyway – and sing about Chevies and levees and something about a day for dying. A catchy sort of tune, I guess, though it sure went on. Sometimes, when it gets real quiet here of an evening, I swear I can still hear it playing in the other room.

Got a letter from Pat’s boy Alec the other day. He was going on about some Christmas truce back in World War One. Said for four months, the soldiers on both sides refused to fight. Found they had more in common with each other than with their commanders. Alec wondered how it would have been if he and the other boys had refused to fight. Made me real mad to read that. I didn’t want to write back to him for days.

He’s a good boy, though, Jim. Just wants a future for those little nephews of his.

Alec came back from the War kind of all turned around, you know? Didn’t smile so much – laughed a bit louder than he used to. Started hanging around with those peace groups. I know you thought he was disloyal. God’s sake, maybe we both blamed him for coming back at all!

Wait a minute! I’m so distracted tonight I forgot to plug in the kettle. There! Got it. Now where was I? Oh, yes.

Jim, this is going to be hard. You won’t like it, but you’ve just got to hear me out.

I think Alec’s right, Jim. It wasn’t right what happened. Wasn’t right that Tommy’s life got used up that way. He wasn’t just a means to some do-gooder’s dreams. He was a living, breathing boy of 19, with a whole damn life ahead of him! He never got a chance to move on past 19. He just got stuck there for me. I aged, we aged – and we had to move on. But Tommy couldn’t go with us. I guess that’s what a life stolen from you feels like. All that time, we were growing and changing and tasting life. And Tommy was still singing about American Pie.

What’s that, Jim? Yes, it’s just a little water in my eye. You know, he would have been fifty the other night.

There, see what you’ve made me do! I’ve gone and put too much water in teapot again.

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Travel, Allophilia, and World Peace

From time to time, I ask myself “What is this thing about travel? It’s a lot of hard work, and usually costs more than staying home. So why do we do it?”

The answer usually isn’t long in coming: I’ve enjoyed and profited by the different perspective that meeting other cultures provides. Travel is one of my favourite activities for satisfying my incessant curiosity. It engages me fully: most of the time when I’m visiting some place new, I find myself solidly in the present moment. And in every culture I’ve visited, I’ve found some aspect I like better than my own.

Similarly, learning other languages has let me see where my own language constrains my view of reality. Knowing different ways of thinking gives a certain freedom from one’s own unconscious inherited biases. Plus you get a whole new set of proverbs.

Hiroshima destroyed

Destructed Hiroshima with autograph of “Enola Gay” Bomber pilot Paul Tibbets

Recently, I got to thinking about the connection between international travel and world peace: “See the world, while helping to prevent World War III!”

A possible WWIII had been one of my personal bugbears since watching – in my teen years – a 1960s documentary depicting the horrors of an atomic attack. With the war in Vietnam heating up, it didn’t seem so far-fetched. The decades that followed offered little indication that wars were going out of style: the Cambodian civil war, the Iran-Iraq War, the Rwandan genocide, the Afghan conflicts, the war on Iraq, the Ugandan civil war punctuate a long list of lesser conflicts. Today there is conflict in the Ukraine, not to mention ISIS. The world’s nuclear missiles have yet to be mothballed.

Hiroshima injuries

Hiroshima, Japan. 1945-08. Hiroshima street scene after the dropping of the atomic bomb of 1945-08-06

Still, being anti-war brings a certain negativity to life. Is there more to peace than just the absence of war? I was pondering this recently and wondered if the growing discipline of positive psychology had been applied to this question.

An internet search for “world peace” together with “positive psychology” led me to discover a new word: “allophila.” The neologism was coined by Todd Pittinsky, the author of “Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” when he realized there was no word to describe the opposite of “prejudice” or “intolerance.” Tolerance, the absence of intolerance, was not really it. There had to be a word for more “positive attitudes of behaviors towards the members of another group.”

Us Plus Them

“Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” by Pittinsky

In Dr. Pittinsky’s research, it turns out that decreasing intolerance does not equate to increasing allophilia. Furthermore, high allophilia seems to be much better at guaranteeing peace than does mere tolerance. As we’ve seen recently in several world hotspots, political demagogues have been able to wipe out years of tolerance in short order, sending formerly peaceful societies into internecine warfare. Perhaps what was missing was a higher degree of allophilia, manifested in terms of curiosity, comfort, engagement, and even kinship, affection and enthusiasm for members of other groups.

What organizations, I wondered, were fostering curiosity, engagement or enthusiasm for other cultures?

The obvious first answer was the original hospitality exchange, Servas International. Founded in aftermath of WWII by an American conscientious objector, the mission of Servas is “to help build world peace, goodwill and understanding by providing opportunities for personal contacts among people of different cultures, backgrounds and nationalities.” Their system of “open door” directories made it “possible for people of various nations to make visits to each other’s homes.” Servas now has official UN status and boasts of about 20,000 hosts in about 100 countries. Cheryl and I have been among those opening their doors for the past two decades.

Servas International

Peace through cross cultural understanding

Lately, Servas has been facing some stiff competition from the new Internet hospitality exchanges such as Couchsurfing. The old paper-based organization is having trouble quickly adopting the new technologies used by Internet startups, and their membership is ageing. Travelership is down.

A debate is ongoing about whether these new Internet exchanges represent the same peacebuilding ethic, or whether they’re just about cheap travel. Site names like GlobalFreeloaders and WarmShowers suggest the latter. Cheryl and I decided to join Couchsurfing as well as continue our Servas association. We have hosted and traveled with both organizations. In all cases, we try to adhere to the original vision of cultural interchange: hosts and guests interact like friends, often eating or cooking together. The Servas and Couchsurfing hosts we’ve stayed with have all done the same. It’s not just about accommodation: when we’re in that I-wanna-be-alone mood, we book a hotel or AirBnB.

Our delightful Couchsurfing hosts showed us all around Avignon in Provence, with lots of time for discussion.

Our delightful Couchsurfing hosts showed us all around Avignon in Provence, with lots of time for discussion.

Meanwhile, while Servas struggles to bring their 100 constituent national organizations into the Internet era, a Servas discussion group within the Couchsurfing site expresses two opposing views. The first tries to encourage Couchsurfers to adopt the more allophilic perspective of Servas. The second suggests this was never the intention, nor should it be. We hope the former view predominates – although we never discount the value of free accommodation.

And while travelers may view a hospitality exchange as merely a cheap way to travel, it’s hard to see what hosts get out of offering free room and board if it’s not the opportunity to connect with people from other lands and cultures. So perhaps the allophilic spirit is alive and well in the new Internet world.

Santiago de Cuba

Our boys jamming with a couple of local musicians in Santiago de Cuba (circa 2006)

Will it help? Is WWIII becoming less likely because of the humble hospitality exchange? Perhaps these words from the founder of Servas provide a clue.

“This story is not only about the beginning of Servas but the awakening of a mind on a slow overland trip from Norway to India. Confrontations with divergent cultures replaced my colored glasses with an often diamond clear vision. An ever deepening awareness from immersion in diverse ways of life shook up my ingrained assumptions. From shades of gray suddenly rainbow colors burst into my consciousness. Freed from the shackles of my upbringing and a classic American mentality I began to soar with the perspective of a global citizen. The human community emerged as a magic quilt of life styles and manners of thinking and living, a single tapestry of myriad designs unfolding before me.

“Shifting from a tourist absorbing scenic vistas to a traveler actively searching the central ideas of cultures happens gradually. At first the subtle thought/observation changes are unnoticeable. Then one discovers that a once passive and barely opened mind has blossomed into an inquisitive flower hungry for pollination. As I learned to listen with empathy, the most humble persons from distant corners of the globe became my mentors, pulling me into undreamed of chambers of thoughts and insights. I was no longer a touring observer looking in but a participant savoring many ways of life.”

Near Plitvice

Near Plitvice Park in Croatia, a 1990s war memorial stands guard over a bombed out home.

As I continue my investigation of this new concept, I have a question for you: which organizations are you aware of fostering world peace through intercultural allophilia?

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Question:

Which organizations foster world peace through intercultural allophilia? Please leave a comment below.

Keeping Travel Alive between Trips

A couple of friends remarked recently, “Haven’t seen much about travel at ‘No Pension, Will Travel.’  Sounds like no pension, no travel.

Yes, it’s true.  I’ve been writing about almost every other aspect of our journey these days.  Cheryl and I were lamenting that – as we are still both working – all of our vacation time is spoken for this year, and our first trip longer than a weekend isn’t until late June.  So how do we keep travel alive when we’re not traveling?

There’s the usual travel-related tasks such as budgeting for the next trip – a lot more exciting than paying for the last one!  Or trying to find the cheapest way from Rome to Rio.  (If you don’t let the shenanigans of the airline and other travel sites drive you crazy!)  Planning a vacation is often listed as one of the top ways to improve your mood.  We’ve discovered quite a few others.

Canoeing in Croatia's National Plitvice Park - photo credit Huck Finn Adventure Tours

Canoeing in Croatia’s National Plitvice Park – photo credit Huck Finn Adventure Tours

Most of our upcoming trips are with groups of various sizes.  Following our resolution made on our cycling trip in Provence, we pulled together an ad hoc group of 16 people for a week of cycling in Croatia.  This has given us lots of excuses to get together with fun-loving people and talk about the upcoming trip.  Half of the original group of 16 decided to add on another week of exploring Croatia’s Plitvice National Park, so we met at the coordinator’s home for spaghetti, wine, and a little bit of travel planning.  With eight people, we have enough to make a custom itinerary cost-effective.  In the next month or so, we hope to get all 16 together for dinner as some of us have yet to meet.

Arranging accommodation through services such as Servas, Couchsurfing and AirBnB has given us another way to start a trip months before liftoff.  Once we’ve booked something, we often find the host happy to talk about our upcoming visit, offering us information and ideas, as well as just getting to know each other a little.  Recently we’ve been chatting with Sara, our upcoming host in the old centre of Ljubljana, Slovenia this Fall.  Nothing like connecting with a real person to make it feel like you’re already there.  We also stay in loose touch with hosts we’ve had on earlier trips – to Paris, Avignon, Barcelona, Costa Rica, Tuscany, and the Italian Riviera.  Add Mexico and Columbia for those we’ve hosted here.  Often it’s just Facebook, but special connections warrant something more.

Slovenian Sunday Brunch - photo credit EatWith.com

Slovenian Sunday Brunch – photo credit EatWith.com

Learning something about the culture of the countries we’re going to visit is another way to savour an upcoming trip, one that can also amplify the experience when we’re there.  We’re hoping to visit the local Croatian cultural centre before we go – in our city, there seems to be a centre for almost every ethnicity you can imagine.  Something we’ve yet to try is EatWith.com, billed as “Dine in homes around the world! Meet amazing people, eat great food and enjoy unforgettable experiences!  Besides using them when we travel, we could also find an authentic Croatian meal right in our home town.

Perhaps the most significant cultural undertaking before a trip is to learn something of the language. As Rita Mae Brown observed, “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.  I’m just starting my Croatian lessons, hoping I can achieve a working knowledge before we arrive in Dubrovnik.  Travel has been the main reason that I’ve learned several other languages since leaving high school, although there are other advantages.  Sure you can get by with English in most countries these days, but bear in mind the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby – so helpless and so ridiculous.

In the meantime, my volunteer work as an immigrant mentor has led to a number of invitations to meals and parties among the local Chinese community.  Most recent was an invitation to a house party to welcome in the Chinese Year of the Horse on January 31.  Definitely a cultural

40th annual Chinese New Year parade, Vancouver, Canada

40th annual Chinese New Year parade, Vancouver, Canada

experience, even if we don’t yet have a trip to China in the planning stages.  Even if you don’t have any personal immigrant connections, check out the public festivals celebrated by immigrant communities in your area.

There are lots of other ways to travel between trips.  As members of Servas and Couchsurfing, we also host overseas visitors from time to time.  This Spring we have a special visit in the works.  Through dabbling in my family tree on the great collaborative genealogy site, WikiTree, I’ve made contact with hitherto unknown second and third cousins in England, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Australia and Brazil.  Our current challenge is to choose between invitations to several countries.  A cousin from Brazil plans to visit us this year, and Cheryl and I are already making tentative plans to visit my new extended family in Florianópolis in the next couple of years.  It would be great stopover en route to learning tango in Buenos Aires.

If you keep your eyes open, there are lots of opportunities to experience the world within easy commuting distance.  In most cities, there are frequent “world music” concerts to expose you to new sounds.  I’ve been greatly enjoying my first attempts to learn Latin Funk Dance.  I’m pretty much off balance for the entire hour every week, but just think of all the new synapses I’m creating.  And with that Latin beat, I could be back in the main square of Santiago de Cuba.

Being “off balance” is a lot of what good travel is about.  As a dear friend recently reminded me in her post, “Out of the Blue”, travel “rattles our carefully-designed world view.”  If you have any doubts, check out one of the many Internet lists on how travel makes you a better person.  The truth is, however, that we don’t have to travel at all to live in “vacation mode.”

A Tree Drum - photo credit, Drumming & Health

A Tree Drum – photo credit, Drumming & Health

I was reminded of this the other day when I discovered an opportunity to join a “drumming circle” and bring along as many friends as I could muster.  The opportunity to join a drumming master, schooled for months in western Africa, and experiment with call-response rhythms on djenbe and other drums sounds like a great new experience.  I jumped at the chance, and invited 25 of my friends along too.  I was sure that they’d all leap at the chance to experience something new.  Yet, as the excuses started to dribble in – “I have to go skiing the weekend following.” – “I’ve got to do my tax return.” – Really!? – I began to realize that not everyone saw the value in jumping in to brand new experiences.  It’s a pity.  The evening was magical, and those who showed up were excited to invite others to a future event.

I think this points to the real way to keep travel alive even when you’re not traveling:  bring that attitude of open-mindedness, that stance of being perpetually a little “off balance”, to everything you do.  I collected some of the markers of my own travel attitude in a “vacation mode” posting a few years back: “Do only one good thing every day…  Talk to people for no reason…  Live with less material stuff…  Go outside even when the weather isn’t cooperating…  Spend time with friends and family that you enjoy being with…  Have sex any time of the day…”  You get the picture.

Under a Full Moon - photo credit, Meetup.com

Under a Full Moon – photo credit, Meetup.com

So, what can you do today in that spirit of exploring a brand new place you’ve never been before?  How can you rekindle that wide-eyed curiosity in familiar surroundings?  When you start to look, there’s no shortage of opportunities.  On Valentine’s evening, Cheryl and I joined a small group for a snowshoe hike under the full moon.  Snowshoeing is a fairly new activity for us, and this was the first time we’d ever been out after dark.  It was magical.  And, yes, it was romantic too.

What are you taking on in vacation mode?  How do you keep the travel spirit alive between trips?

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