Amazing Armenia

24 Aug

armenia

I’m in Armenia right now enjoying one last trip before school starts. And how do I like Armenia? It is AWESOME. The country has the perfect balance of things that make an travel destination exciting: It is easy to visit, but not heavily touristed. It is unfamiliar to people, but safe. It has some amazing sights, and it has an incredibly rich history and culture. In fact, if there was a ranking of “most overlooked countries that deserve more exploration”, Armenia would definitely be up there.

Armenia was the world’s first Christian country, so unsurprisingly the tourist highlight, for many, is the religious buildings. They are a great reason, but not the only reason, to visit the country. What I love about Armenian monasteries is that they have a compelling atmosphere. They are relatively dark and damp, but have a lot of art and writing carved into the stone walls. They really do feel like something out of Lord of the Rings. Pictures don’t do justice. In some places, religious buildings feel clean, sterilized and touristy to the point that they don’t have the atmosphere of old religious buildings anymore. Armenian monasteries are not like that. Even the most visited are very atmospheric.

The food is another great thing about Armenia. The cuisine is a very rich cuisine. Some dishes are more Middle Eastern / East mediterranean influenced, like the Grape Leaves. Other dishes are very meaty and hearty, but not bland like dishes of some of the other Eastern European cuisines. There is also a very large variety of soups. Vegetarians, however, should be warned. It is a meaty cuisine.

Best of all, Armenia will not break the bank. Transport is cheap (even the taxis), food is cheap, and accommodation is cheap. My stay in the hostel was $11 a night. I think that in terms of bang for the buck, it’s far better than places like Poland or Hungary.

Overall, I’d highly recommend visiting Armenia. I think it’s only a matter of time before more tourists discover this fascinating country.

Dawn of a travel addiction – How my worldview changed in three stages

15 Aug

This blog post is about the three stages of the start of my travel addiction

Stage one: What a wonderful, diverse world!

In the days I started my travel blog, a trip was a big, big, big deal. I was sixteen when I first traveled abroad alone. At that time, even a four day trip to Iceland seemed like a huge, magical adventure in a far away, exotic land. When I first stepped off the plane and ventured through the hallway towards customs, I was all of a sudden immersed in a place wit a different language on the signs. Amazing! The place names were nothing like back home. The feel was different, the assortment of people was different, the colour of the landscape was different… In those days, I was enthralled by every little thing. If I saw a bus stop in Iceland, I’d automatically see it as far more futuristic than an American bus stop, even though a bus stop is really just a bus stop wherever you go. But back then, every little thing seemed exotic. And I had a habit of convincing myself that everything I experienced or noticed was a unique thing about its culture, due to my preconceived notions of what the country was like. Travel is a great thing when you start. But then, as you travel more, the reality of modern globalization dawns on you. Places in the world just aren’t that different anymore. Everywhere you go (at least, in the developed world), there are McDonalds, Starbucks, and all that. So after my next few trips (I remember feeling this way after the Netherlands trip I did when I turned 17), I felt a bit disheartened.

Stage Two: What a dull, boring world!

I didn’t tell my parents much, but there were times when I was seventeen when I seriously wondered whether I wanted to keep on traveling. Was it even worth it? If I can go to Europe and find that locals shop in malls that’s exactly like what I’d see in the Midwest US, what on earth is the point? I have recovered from this cynical thinking now, and I’ve realized it isn’t the way to approach travel. But I still went through this difficult phase. My trip to Eastern Europe was approaching. At times, I would search endlessly online to see if I could find statistics about the number of traditional Polish meals eaten in Poland per week per capita, versus the amount of American fast food eaten (I didn’t get very far). I would try constantly to convince myself that Poland was an exotic place, when I knew, deep down, that it isn’t what Poland is. I would spend hours on my computer, times when I would search all over the web for terms like “Polish folk music revival”, to see if I could find anything that suggested cultural difference still existed. Eventually, I began to feel sad. And then I went to Eastern Europe.

Stage Three: What a standardized, and yet also variable, fascinating, ever changing world!

My sense of wonder returned to me in 2014, when I changed my mindset as to how I view travel. I decided that it wasn’t a good idea to convince myself that other countries were alien places. Instead, I decided to focus on the geography and sights of each country I researched. I told myself that in any developed country, a bus stop is a bus stop, and a McDonalds is a McDonalds. And I became okay with that. You know what? Despite the onslaught of McDonalds, there is still plenty of difference to be had in countries. And I have faith now that as long as humans live on Earth, cultural differences will always exist, and will always be fascinating for a tourist to explore, no matter how minor these differences become. If nothing else, the fact remains that every continent has different physical and urban geography, and this directly influences culture. And every now and then, traditions are revived. And traditions die out. Some traditions are modernized, and in some parts of the world, certain traditions need to die (like the way women are treated in Saudi Arabia). But culture doesn’t just vary across space, it changes through time. The world is ever changing, and every year, new things happen that will be explained in future history books. Though the modern world is standardized, it is far from being a soulless dystopia where everything is all the same. And when I decided to look at things this way, the world became more interesting to me again. I would see the McDonalds, but I wouldn’t think in my mind about the death of traditional culture. Instead, I’d just walk to the nearest traditional restaurant and do what travelers have done for years: try new things.

One final thought

This may be a tough thought for some to digest. But if technology and globalization ever did turn the world into a monotonous, soulless place, I have a feeling that would-be backpackers will still find a great way to satisfy their wanderlust. Maybe cheap space travel will be commonplace. If virtual reality advances beyond the Oculus Rift, and ever becomes indistinguishable from real reality, we’ll be able to travel into any sort of fantasy world we create. It’s a disturbing idea in some ways, the idea that we may one day upload our minds into these virtual worlds and spend time traveling there for fun. But it’s a great thing to imagine, the idea that one day we may be able to generate alternate virtual realities at the click of a button. What sort of world would you create? Where would you go? I have plenty of ideas. I’ll just hope I don’t get trapped in a virtual world like in Sword Art Online (an anime about people getting trapped in an online game).

3 reasons South Korea is a great country for first-time visitors to Asia

21 Jul

I’ve been traveling around South Korea the past couple of weeks. It’s a great country with wonderful attractions and parks, as well as a fascinating language, cuisine, and culture. Korea’s culture is rightfully seen as the least well-known of the big three East Asian countries (the other two being Japan and China). But South Korea is well-worth visiting. In general, I think it would be my top choice to recommend a first-time visitor to Asia. Here are three reasons why:

It is easy to travel in

The only major difficulty when traveling here is the language barrier. But on subways, enough is signposted in English that you can find your way around. A few phrases of Korean, as well as some basics of the alphabet, are good to learn.

Other than that, South Korea is an easy place to travel. Public transport goes everywhere and is almost always on time, and sights are well-signposted.

It is not as expensive as Japan

Like Japan, South Korea is a rich country with a high standard of living. However, a lot of things in South Korea are cheaper than they would be in Japan. The most notable examples are taxis and food. There are far more budget eating options, offering a wide variety of Korean food, for less than 10 us dollars (around 10,000 korean won), in South Korea than there are in Japan.

It is an unfamiliar (to westerners) but developed country

Chances are, a first time visitor to Asia will want to visit developed parts of the continent. While Southeast Asian countries entice many first-time visitors to Asia as well, it is still easier to travel in a developed country for obvious reasons. South Korea gives a great taste of an Asian culture while being a developed, largely hassle-free country to visit.

The bottom line is that South Korea provides an easy trip, and a great Asian experience at a cheaper price than Japan. Japan may have more big-name sights, but South Korea is a great, more budget friendly alternative.

The future of travel (United States version)

21 Jul

Here is a future scenario of what it will be like to travel in the United States in the future (assuming current trends continue). International versions are coming soon

You are a freelancer who lives in a studio apartment in a semi-suburban area of Denver, Colorado. It’s a cheap place to live, and many Americans as well as newer immigrants have moved there recently. You’re a freelance computer programmer who has done work for various robot design companies. You are a budget-conscious person. You don’t live an extravagant lifestyle. The American Middle Class has been replaced by a frugal freelance class, often who live in very small spaces and work from home, or rent out their apartments on Airbnb.

America has gotten used to living in smaller spaces. Inequality has grown, but many people can still make ends meet through a mix of both artistic and technical trades. Though making a living as a freelancer can be unpredictable, it is doable. And you have enough to be happy.

Sharing economy services have heavily grown and made travel much cheaper.

One day, you decide to take a trip to Flagstaff, Arizona. You are interested to see Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, and the Navajo reservation. You’ve been saving money for a while, and you feel like it’s time to take a trip. Thankfully, you are subscribed to a driverless car service plan, and you have enough miles left for the month to get from Denver to Flagstaff. You press a button on your smartphone, and choose for your car to pick you up tomorrow at 8AM. Flying is too expensive, as no budget airlines fly cheaply on that route.

You then look at Airbnb to find a cheap place to stay. There is one that is available for $18 a night, and you pick it. The place is a small room in a small, single-floor home, but it has good reviews.

Tomorrow at 7AM, you get out of bed, take a shower, get packed up, and go.

The car journey is very scenic, and takes a long time. But you don’t need to be bored. You can play games with a VR headset, listen to an audiobook, use the internet, write code, or do a combination of any of these things to pass the time. Sometimes, there are stretches of the drive that are very scenic, and you just want to look out the window and appreciate nature. Some things never change.

For lunch, you stop at Chipotle, and then for Dinner, you stop at a Airbnb-listed dining room that has been turned into a pop-up restaurant. It’s well reviewed on Airbnb, with cheap diner fare options.

When you arrive in the Airbnb room in Flagstaff, a polite host shows you around and gives you some local restaurant advice.

The next few days, you do tours. Driverless cars equipped with tour guide apps have enabled tours that were once only possible on tour buses. These tours are programmed with information about the area’s history, as well as videos, or virtual reality simulations showing what it was like in the past. After each tour, you do a hike, complete with augmented reality apps that explain the names of many of the plants you see.

Overall, you are happy that you took this trip. On your way back to Denver, you post pictures you took online. Travel nowadays can take you to local, Airbnb-listed bedrooms and dining rooms, or you can travel the traditional way and stay at expensive hotels. Most choose the former option.

And best of all, there are more ways to experience tourist sights than ever before.

The 7 most annoying types of travelers you’ll meet on your trips

8 Jul

1: The one who won’t stop bragging about going to the more “exotic” places

“Yeah, you know, Italy’s great and all, but Eastern Europe is far more interesting to me, more off the beaten path to me, you know”

These people are just the worst. Some people want to be treated like Christopher Columbus simply because they went to Bulgaria instead of France. In reality, the more touristy places are usually like that for a reason. That’s not to say there’s no value in going to Eastern Europe, but it doesn’t make you more adventurous or special. The natural habitat of these people is the common room of a hostel.

2: The smug person who asks loads of pointless questions on tours

“So before we enter the next room in this beautiful historic home, let me just ask you, what forest did the wood in that bookcase over there come from?”

Anyone who’s been on at least two guided historic site tours probably has encountered the type of person I’m talking about. This species of traveler’s natural habitat is often the middle or the back of a tour group, where they hold up the group for 20 minutes in each room in the tour, usually asking questions that are barely related to the tour at all. They often act very smug, and try hard not to be rude. In reality these people are rude in a different way, and rightfully hated by everyone else in the tour group.

3: The dude who leaves or enters a hostel dorm at 2 am

“Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up!”

I think quite a few travelers (including myself), who have been on delayed flights can confess that they have been this type of person at some point. But still, I don’t care whether you whisper an apology. I was trying to ****ing sleep! So, even though it is sometimes inevitable, please, fellow travelers, try not to be this person!

4: The budget travel know-it-all

“Let me tell you something, if you know where to eat and all, it can definitely be possible to travel to Oslo on $30 a day”

Travel should be done cheaply, and it’s often more immersive and fun to travel on a budget. But budget travel should not be a contest, or a way people try to act like they are superior. If you managed to get by in Oslo on $30 a day, good for you! The rest of the world doesn’t care.

5: The luxury travel know-it-all

“Jeez Man, I could never fly 14 hours in economy!”

These people are just snobs. Plenty of people manage to do 14+ hour flights in economy. If I have extra money to spend on travel, I’d rather spend it there than when I’m on the plane. These people hang out a lot on airline nerd websites, where they compare the different airline’s first classes and business classes. And they act like it’s a normal thing to stay in a five star hotel. In the rare occasion that this species of traveler is found in a hostel, they do nothing but complain.

6: The smug, pseudo-swaggy, swearing bigot who tries to be cool

“Yeah, uh huh, I think I’ll go to some s***hole Eastern European country, where they drink loads of vodka and s*** and then I’ll see some overrated castles or some s***, and then I’ll go to some Balkan country or some s*** like that…”

I’ve met quite a few people like this, and usually they are the ones who have traveled a bit, but haven’t traveled much. It’s to some extent understandable that they would rely on preconceived notions of a place to justify their choices of where to go. But please, when you’re lying on the couch talking like this (see above), you just make me want to puke. Some people really are bigoted and love to act all smug about it, as if they are above all those “socialist political correctness freaks”.

7: The one who just won’t shut up

“Oh, you’re from Boston, that’s awesome”. So I have a friend who lived in Boston and really loved it. I mean, the city really has a lot of character and I think it’s so amazing that I finally met someone from Boston. You must love the Red Sox, oh, or the, um, Celtics is it?…”

I’ve had plenty of times when I’ve done everything I can to politely indicate that I’m no longer in the mood to converse. Putting in earphones, being less responsive, all that. But some people still just don’t know when to shut up.

5 safety tips for riding intercity buses in the USA

30 Jun

The past week I’ve traveled from New York, NY to Richmond VA, and then to Charleston, SC. In this time I’ve done a lot of travel by America’s iconic intercity Greyhound buses. For the most part, Greyhound buses are a no frills, low cost way to get from point A to point B. The Greyhound system is far more extensive and cheaper to use than the Amtrak system. So why do so many avoid it like the plague?

America, more so than most places, has a huge, often racist stigma around the types of people who ride the bus. Many middle class, suburban Americans would rather spend a lot of extra money to fly or even take Amtrak than even consider taking the Greyhound bus. A google search for “Greyhound horror stories” can bring up many results that scare travelers away.

To some extent, the fear of taking the bus is understandable. The bus stations, outside of Boston and New York, are often not located in very nice neighborhoods. And while I think the stereotypes about bus riders are usually not true and often racist, it is important to be careful. I’ve been on buses people who argue with the driver about where the bus station is. I once saw a woman get in between the door of the bus and the curb, arguing with the driver about where her ticket allowed her to get off after she was supposed to leave. And one time there was a dude who walked up and tried to talk to me while I was washing my hands. Soon after, a Greyhound security officer walked into the bathroom and made him leave the station, so apparently he must have been up to no good.

This, however, should not scare travelers away from taking the bus. Usually, it is a cheap way to get around America, and it’s a shame more travelers don’t use it. For the most part, my Greyhound bus journeys have been uneventful and good value. Here are five tips for riding the bus.

1. Sit near the front of the bus

From a safety perspective, the front of the bus is where to be. The front is close to the driver, less bumpy, and away from the weird people who tend to cluster in the back of the bus. Get in line for your bus departure earlier than most do, so you’ll have a good choice of seat.

2. Don’t make eye contact with strangers

I always follow this one just to be safe. If someone thinks you are staring at them, they may be provoked.

3. Be willing to say “NO”

Several times, beggars have asked me for money in the bus stations. Another thing some of them do is try to start a conversation with you about something or give you advice, then, once you’re talking to them, they’ll say “just one thing, could I please have fifty cents?”. It can be awkward, but the safest, smartest, thing to do is to say a firm “NO” and swiftly walk away.

4. Don’t flaunt any signs of wealth

This is an important one. Don’t have your new smartphone out all the time, don’t leave your laptop unattended, and don’t wear expensive clothing. Doing any of these things makes you a target.

5. Don’t leave the stations except by taxi (unless you know for sure the area is safe)

Violent crime in the United States has been on the decline since the early 1990s, but there are still plenty of places where you have to be very careful. The greyhound stations, which tend to be located in dodgy neighborhoods, are usually heavily policed, with many guards and security cameras. If you stray outside of them, understand that you may be in a dangerous area, be careful, and take a taxi if it’s your last stop and you’re going to where you’re staying.

The most important thing: DON’T BE AFRAID TO RIDE THE BUS

From my experience, most Greyhound journeys are hassle free. You may meet a new friend on the bus, and you’ll certainly get to your destination. Be sure, however, to leave long connection times if you’re changing buses. Traffic can be pretty bad in some places.

 

 

 

 

Travel and the false notion of “The good old days”

12 Jun

If I hear someone mourn the death of the “Good Old Days” one more time I think I’m going to go insane. Too often do travelers, and many other types of people, fixate on romanticized notions of the past.

“Back when kids could be kids, back when suburbs were fun places to live, back when we weren’t brainwashed zombies using smartphones, back when America was safer”.

And while there may have been certain aspects of life that were better in the past, the fact is, that in the vast majority of countries on this planet, an average citizen is better off today than in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Even the United States, which has been economically in decline since the 1980’s, has made progress in important areas. There is less violent crime than there has been at any point since the 1950’s, and there have been major social advances for homosexuals, women, and minorities.

I personally couldn’t imagine living in America in the 1950’s. It’s hard for me to believe the fact that one of the most glorified times in America’s recent history was before the Civil Rights Act was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson.

The other thing that bothers me is when people say that technology has taken the fun out of travel. The reality is that technology has given people far more travel options. An increasing number of people, myself included, are using Airbnb and Uber on their travels. These all have been great examples of free market competition that will make traveling cheaper. Airbnb is especially good, in my opinion, for US travel, as the US has always had fewer hostels than Europe.

People love to complain about how Google Maps has taken the joy out of exploration in somewhere new. But before Google Maps, there were paper maps. And I can’t figure out see why so many people love to romanticize the old fashioned compass and map. It’s no different than Google Maps, except that it can only show one area, is on paper, and it’s annoying to unfold every time you want to look at it.

Also, there are plenty of places people can still interact face-to-face while traveling. And there’s new online “meet locals” services which can facilitate this too. I really don’t mind being able to put in earphones while I’m not in the mood to talk, and I’ve still had plenty of interesting conversations on trains and in coffee shops. More than enough to satisfy me.

Really, in order to appreciate travel, we should stop fixating on the notions of what travel was like in the past.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.