Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What Worked, What Didn't

As we embark on the next stage of our travels, I thought it might be useful to reflect on some of the things—equipment, travel strategies, experiences—that worked and also on some of those that didn't during our six months of independent travel in Asia and the Pacific. Our travels included considerable trekking and hiking, and thus some of the equipment we carried. Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts:

Our SteriPen—a UV water-purification system for backpacking—worked great, both in developing countries and on trails. These devices are not well known, and often caused a stir when we brought it out to use. But we swear by it and are carrying it to Europe. Relatively light-weight, too.

Buzz-Off clothing. We bought a couple outfits each, at some expense. In our view, Buzz-Off doesn't work beyond a few washings and does not justify the expense. The bugs light and bite. We covered up and used DEET.

Vasque boots. I bought a pair of medium weight hiking boots, admittedly more for fit and style. Vasque is a well-known name in backpacking and hiking. But these boots did nor hold up. A month in Nepal, on generally excellent trails, and they needed to be re-glued as well as re-sewn. The re-gluing and re-sewing were needed a couple months later in Queenstown. I won't buy any more Vasque boots. (I am currently wearing some older Raichles; the best hiking boots I ever owned were Merrill's. And I still have my original Colin Fletcher-recommended Pivetta Eiger one-piece Italian leather boots from 1971, re-soled twice and still functional (but very heavy)).

FootPrint guides to New Zealand worked. Excellent, informative, reliable. Also the AAA spiral guide to China. We'll be using the AAA spiral for Ireland too.

Chopsticks. In Chongqing and in Chengdu we saw spoons at every table setting, in addition to the chopsticks. Why not go the other 50% and include forks? I ask. The Chinese themselves estimate some 45 million trees are cut down annually for chopsticks.

My Tilley Lightweight Mesh hat: the gold standard of travel/adventure hats.

Wheeled luggage. Several sites or blogs we visited recommended against wheeled luggage, since it's not so useful off-pavement. Most of the time we carried the big pieces, however, it was just from the baggage claim to the taxi or bus; and then from the taxi or bus to the hotel or hostel. The times wheels would have been great far outnumbered the times they would not have worked. Our Osprey wheeled piece was great; we often wished we had two of them.

My little Asus 900 eee computer worked flawlessly. At 2 lbs, it is the perfect travel laptop. The SSD drive is small—only 20 gigs on the version I converted from Linux to Windows. But that's an issue only with pix, and we put them on an iPod, which functions just fine for the bigger storage.

Blogger was just fine for effortless, intuitive blogging.

Asian airlines, in China, India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, all were great, new, efficient, competent. Only the Twin Otters that Yeti flies to Lukla seemed sub-standard, and the airfield there dictates the kind of craft used. The airlines we flew—some 35-40 flights—never lost nor damaged our luggage, they were with one cancellation always on time or early departures and arrivals, and they fed us some very good food, normally with both Asian and Euro-American options. Oh yes, there was the matter of the airport closure in Thailand, for nearly 2 weeks, but that was hardly the airlines' fault.

A strategy that worked for us was to buy local flights locally. The half dozen flights we made in China would have cost far more if booked in the US. The Chinese have sites just like Expedia and its competitors.

Train travel in China and India turned out fine, but would have been difficult for us to book.

Our Circle Asia passes with United Airlines worked fine. We had done considerable reading and research on the merits of consolidator tickets versus the circle fares, and opted for the latter. They worked and were less risky and expensive.

Four sets of clothes—all quick-drying—were ample. Of course, we carried additional cold-weather garments for trekking. Three pairs of shoes also were adequate, one for hiking, one closed-toes Keens for comfort/warm weather, and a pair of flip-flops for the showers, beaches, and creek crossings.

Our camera, a Panasonic DMC-TZ5 Lumix, was great, an excellent compromise between weight and quality. Our only complaint is that it took so very few bad pictures to delete! Our Asia/Pacific pix occupy 35 gigs of staorage. To download, edit and post pix, we simply inserted the camera's SD card into the Asus computer.

For our kind of travel and communications, Skype was indispensable. We carried a cost-per-minute Mobal World Phone for emergency use, but never once used it. We're still carrying it though.

Vicki's Sony E-Book Reader was a major disappointment. Sony claims you can keep it charged through your computer, but, in fact, if you let it get too low, it requires an AC adaptor, which is not included in the regular purchase. Vicki's E-Book indeed got too low (in Nepal, India), and despite adaptors bought in Thailand and Australia, never re-charged. It was useless baggage for most of the 6 months. Sony subsequently replaced the unit for a $40 charge.

Beware electronics purchases in Bangkok. Once you get the wrapper off, you're likely to find it is a refurbished model that still doesn't work.

We did a number of one-day excursions and hired local guides. These were uniformly good and often got us to places we could not have gotten to ourselves. (See my post at the end of India, November, 2008, for our arrangements and guides in India).

On the Everest trek, we felt like we did it the right way, hiring only locally, both guide and porter, and not joining a larger tour. With the larger tours, we suspect, little of one's money gets to the locals. See my post at the end of the Everest trek.

Although we enjoyed it, we felt the Yangtze cruise was not worth the expense and time. You cruise by half the scenery at night. Duh. And it's not that spectacular.

Next time, we'll take a day cruise on Milford Sound rather than kayak. One sees relatively little of the fiord's 20 miles from a kayak.

The Kalalau trail on Kauai was a disappointment and a disgrace.

Of the tramps we did in New Zealand, the Abel Tasman was the best. The Rob Roy Glacier was the best day hike we have ever done anywhere. Among the NZ “Great Walks,” only the Milford absolutely requires advance reservations.

September in China is very hot and humid...the “Autumn Tiger.” And in the Gulf of Thailand, the monsoon lasts well into November.

In Cambodia, we saw only Siem Reap and Angor Wat, but loved it all.

From Australia on, we spent a good number of nights in “backpackers” and hostels. At least in that part of the world, hostels are no longer for the gap-year set. The “grey nomads,” including us, are now a substantial part of tourism and are as often to be found in hostels as younger people. We wish other parts of the world featured budget travel and tourism so prominently.

Local beer is always cheaper, and often better, than the imported stuff. It was often cheaper than bottled water. Local hard liquor is often cheaper, but not so good. Forget the wines until you get to Australia and particularly New Zealand.

PS...a year later; Vicki asks I add Dukoral as something that worked. The two cases of intestinal distress we had were more on the order of food poisoning; generally we had no traveler's diarrhea nor like symptoms, despite diverse places visited, etc; I'd have to say our other meds worked too (e.g., the altitutde sickness stuff and the anti-malarial stuff) at least to the extent we didn't get any of those maladies. FWIW.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Adios, Disney

We had some time at the Orlando airport to which I put to good use, getting better acquainted with Sleeping Beauty.

Vicki adds:

April 27, 2009 Leaving Orlando, FL

We are sitting in the airport, ready for world travel chapter 2. Being in the US has been wonderful but not stress free. The wonderful part has been seeing friends and family. My sister Marie and her husband Norm have opened their home to us for a month, and being able to spend a lot of time with her has meant a great deal to me. No one could have a better sister.

The stress has come from doing things for the first and only time. Having throughly messed up the first attempt at getting the camper on the ship in early April, we rescheduled and drove to Brunswick, GA last Thursday. Unfortunately, this shipper requires the propane tank not only to be empty but certified by a propane company as having been purged. Our agent neglected to mention this. No one in southeast Georgia could manage this until Friday. So we had to get a motel, extend the rental car, etc. So the Grey Wanderer was finally delivered Friday morning.

We will not really feel safe about it until May 5, when the ship is finally scheduled to sail. The reason for our continued nervousness is that the shipping directions say that nothing can be shipped in the van. However, the book we have and several blogs have said you can put in anything you want. So clearly in sight, we have two older bikes we bought in Orlando—they said nothing about those. However, under the ottomans and the power sofa we have stuffed books, clothes, linens, dishes, pots and pans, food, and all manner of things that we might need over the next 17 months. Mark built a false back for under the sofa and screwed the wood to the frame with special headed screws to ward off casual theft, but if the shipping company would actually decide to search the van and enforce their policy we would be in a mess. I hope all those bloggers are right!

So we are off to Ireland by way of Cincinnati and NYC. Our layover in Cincinnati is 31 minutes, so we are expecting for either us or our luggage to miss the next flight—but that will be Delta's problem. The price through Priceline was $525 for both of us for a one way ticket, so if we spend a night in an airport, so be it. We have done that before!

Farewell, Florida

Kissimmee architecture

Castle for sale; the nobility evidently is hurting; actually, there's a lot of stuff for sale here

Shell World's incredible flying shark

Thirty-eight counter stations (count 'em) at the Dollar Rent-a-Car site at Sanford International Airport; and one employee. I was going to award Dollar the "most interesting business practice award" for the day. But when we returned the car the next afternoon, the place was swamped. Sanford apparently is where all the charters come in, especially from the UK. The airport terminal is studded with "look left" and similar signs.

So our time in Florida is at an end. It has been good, picking up the Grey Wanderer, outfitting it, seeing the signts, visiting with family. Most everything good here has been due to the extraordinary-beyond-extraordinary hospitality of Vicki's sister Marie and her husband Norm, who have put us up for a month and put up with us. Their patience, tolerance, and generosity is beyond praise or gratitude.

Monday we are off again, to Dublin, for three weeks of backpacking in Ireland. We'll rent a car but tent mostly, rain permitting. Marie reminds us there's a reason the place is so green. After Ireland, we'll move on to Germany, pick up the Grey Wanderer in Bremerhaven, and then head north to Scandinavia. The road goes ever on.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Shipping News

The Good Ship Otello

Thursday we took the Grey Wanderer to the port in Brunswick, GA, and Friday, after having the propane tank purged, and certified purged (it was already empty), we delivered it to Atlantic Vehicle Processors, who, we hope, will get it aboard our ship, the Otello, by its May 5 sailing date. The propane matter was a surprise--we had already dutifully burned off all the gas ourselves--and cost us an extra day on the rental car and a motel in Darien, GA. Darien, FWIW, is the second oldest town in GA, founded in 1736 by James Oglethorpe himself, and it is also home to the only propane dealer (Branches') within miles of Brunswick who would purge and certify on short notice. We are indebted to the Branches. Nice folks. Interstate 95 was not so nice.

While in Darien, we took full advantage of the opportunity to get back in touch with our inner Southerners, eating BBQ, grits (yes!), swatting mosquitoes, drinking sweet tea, and shopping at the Piggly Wiggly. We spent several college years in Tallahassee, which is, or was then, part of Georgia, except in name. Well, some of it, culturally, was part of Alabama; Dothan, Alabama, to be precise. Coastal GA is a particularly interesting place, and, hopefully, someday we will return for more lengthy explorations. It is also the Sherouse ancestral home, this side of the Pond, Johann and Maria Scheraus having settled in Ebeneezer, a few miles up-river from Savannah, in 1741. Savannah, I know from a c. 2003 visit, is a particularly interesting and well-put-together place.

Shipping and especially shipping a vehicle is a strange new world for us amateurs. We are still discovering new entities and agencies to deal with: freight forwarders, brokers, vehicle processors, marine insurers (there is a fascinating article in the Wikipedia), port authorities, port police, TWIC cards, escorts, customs, and so on. We have not even heard of the ship except for its name, the Otello (appropriately literary), nor the merchant lines we are shipping on. Alas, we do not expect to be invited to the Captain's dinner. Hopefully, all this will work out, and the receiving agent, in Bremerhaven, will let us have our RV back, once we have produced the appropriate documentation (which we surrendered to the vehicle processor, who will over-night it to the forwarding agent...) and paid the appropriate fees, in Deutsche Marks, amount as yet unknown. Then there is German customs. And I have not even contemplated TSA. Is all the diesel fuel in 2 ounce containers in a 1 quart bag? Did I take my shoes off at the vehicle processors'? I am sure we will look back upon all this as an essential prerequisite to a wonderful European excursion.

The Otello, I have discerned, is a BIG ship, a vehicle-hauler, 60,000 tons displacement, bigger than any WWII warship except the Japanese super-battleships Musashi and Yamato. I am impressed. It does not have the 18" guns, however.

Once the Grey Wanderer is safely aboard the Otello, and underway, we will be watching for news of the ship's whereabouts and its ETA in Bremerhaven. You too can watch by subscribing (free) to There is a website for everything, and for everything there is a website.

Except propane dealers near Brunswick, GA.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Florida Family Fun

Marie, Rachel, Me and Rebecca at Planet Rodent

Carole attempting a particularly difficult putt at Congo River, as Vicki and Lexi look on

Rachel, scorekeeper, and Rebecca await their turns

Rachel and Lexi feed the gators

Sister Carole and niece Lexi drove up to Orlando to see us and get the cousins, Lexi, Rebecca, and Rachel together. Saturday afternoon we did putt-putt in Kissimmee. Vicki was champion of the Sherouse Open. Despite watching almost all of the Masters with Norm the previous weekend, I finished next to last. But it was fun to get us all together. Thank you, Carole.

Vicki adds:

April 20, 2009, Orlando

Rachel has bequethed to me her old computer which is replacing my old computer which was Rebecca's from 2004. I am very happy as 512k of memory and a 30 gig harddrive doesn't cut it anymore. This is my first post from my "new" machine. What ever happened to the days when the parents got the new stuff and the kids got the hand-me-downs?

This week both Rachel and Rebecca have come to my sister Marie's home to spend 4 days with us. Also Mark's sister and our neice, Alexis, drove up from Ft. Lauderdale yesterday. We have had a great time, but everyone is leaving tomorrow. Marie and Norm are true saints to allow this Sherouse invasion.

We have had a difficult time getting the van shipped to Europe as some of you know who are reading Mark's blog. Our camper title finally came yesterday so we plan to drive to Brunswick, GA this Thursday to begin again the shipping process. We have had to change our original travel itinerary due to the Schengen visa issues. Most of the European Union countries have a visa agreement that allows US residents to travel for 90 days out of 180. We had read that it wasn't really enforced and we had thought we might qualify for a long stay visa since I have a cousin in Belgium. Wrong on all counts. US residents are not eligible for long stays and they are enforcing the visa stay with fines up to $1500 a person and denial of reentry for 7 years. Great Britain allows 6 months and the countries such as Croatia and Turkey don't participate yet. So our new plan is to ship the camper to Germany, arriving May 20. We leave here April 27 for Dublin and will rent a car and tent camp for 3 weeks then fly to Hamburg, Germany to get the camper. We then have about 8 weeks to see northern Germany, Scandanavia, and perhaps a trip to St. Petersburg. We will be in Paris on July 29 to pick up Rebecca, then do some touring in France until we meet Rachel in Rouen on Aug. 2. The girls and their partners are getting a Paris apartment and we will be camping for a week in the Bois de Boulougne. About Aug. 11 we all head off in different directions with Mark and I headed for England having spent almost 90 days in Europe.

We plan to go north to Scotland first, then Wales and spend about 90 days with the Brits until about mid November. We really didn't want to be that far north in November but Schengen gives us no choice. Then we will recross the Channel, hugging the coast of France heading for northern Spain. In early December we will store the camper for a month and fly back to Florida for visits with family for Christmas. Early January we fly back to Spain, then Portugal, southern France, Italy, etc. We will need to be in Croatia by about March 15 to meet the visa deadline. Now we have 90 days for several Eastern European countries and Turkey. We are allowed back in EU about mid June to visit Austria, Switzerland, southern Germany and more of France. Have to leave in mid September, either back to the States or maybe fly to China or somewhere.

The whole thing is a lot more complicated than we had hoped but at least it is still doable. The road goes ever on but is taking some convoluted turnings.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

D-Day; or, When in Rome...

Castello del Cinderella

Sleeping Beauty re-enactress; or maybe it was Mary Poppins

Rodent re-enactors; actually the Mouse and his symbols were hardly in evidence

Detail of column in Castello del Cinderella

Grand Mosaic in the Castello

Our favorite scene..."It's a Small World," the penultimate hall, where everything goes White and they all sing in English (we call it the Aryan Hall), at the very, very end: an afterthought-ful Native American...

I am very proud of these artsy-fartsy pix

Ditto; double ditto

For reasons almost beyond explaining, we have visited Disneyworld perhaps a dozen times. It all started at Disneyland in August, 1970, the same night the Youth International Party party paid a visit and then the Anaheim police paid a visit, in full riot gear. (Look it up). We were there, but as young tourists and not as yippies. The park closed early, but I probably did not mind. In retrospect, I see now it was not an auspicious beginning.

Our first visit to the Florida version was in 1971, not long after it opened. A bunch of us then-20-somethings piled into a car and drove from Miami to Kissimmee for the day. Being native Floridians and having family in Florida may explain many of our subsequent visits. Having children provides further explanation. Disney is continually unveiling new rides and attractions. Nostalgia must have something to do with it. More recently, a fascination on my part with simulacra and social criticism has more to do with it. Baudrillard (or was it Derrida?) said that DisneyLand/World was the only real thing in America. Everything else is an imitation, but in DisneyRealm they are at least deliberate and reflective and calculating and therefore authentic about it. ("The absence of any reference whatever to Foucault demonstrates the all-pervasiveness of his thought."). Etc.

So there we were again, last Wednesday. I must admit this was the first time I actually enjoyed visiting the place. Maybe I am getting old, even maturing; or just tired; or maybe my brain cells are expiring more rapidly now. Or maybe it was having all the Sherouses aboard (Rebecca and Rachel). We nearly always visit the Magic Kingdom. I don't think we visited any sites we have not visited many times before. Still I enjoyed it, even to the last of the fireworks and monorail and tram rides back to the ("Donald") parking lot.

It was a beautiful day with a moderate crowd. The day also was helped along by some background literature, namely The Imagineering Field Guide to the Magic Kingdom, which Marie provided; she joined us later for dinner (it was her birthday). Each site, ride, exhibit, whatever, was addressed in this little book, a bit of its history, intent, and technology. Rebecca read the relevant extracts as we waited in lines. Text really helps. It almost became a humanities experience for me...but not quite. Maybe next time.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Missed the Boat

We seriously misunderestimated the time required for an inter-state title change, and so did not get the Grey Wanderer on the boat March 31 for its trip to Southampton (via Bremerhaven). So, now we're aiming for an April 22 ship date, staying with Marie and Norm in St. Cloud, as planned, through April 23 or so. The good news is we will have the camper, and transportation without mooching, through mid-April. There is so much to see and do here in Mordor, I mean, central Florida. The other good news is that we will arrive some weeks before the camper does and will spend those weeks in Ireland as backpackers. Meanwhile, we continue outfitting the Wanderer, planning, coordinating, shopping, returning, shopping, returning (the Myth of the Eternal Return is a Truth) etc.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

LazyDays RV Center

Clark: "So, when did you get the tenement on wheels?"
Eddie: "Oh, that uh, that there's an RV. Yeah, yeah, I borrowed it off a buddy of mine. He took my house, I took the RV. It's a good looking vehicle, ain't it?"
Clark: "Yeah, it looks so nice parked in the driveway."
Eddie: "Yeah, it sure does. But, don't you go falling in love with it now, because, we're taking it with us when we leave here next month."

We bought the Grey Wanderer from LazyDays RV Center, in Seffner, FL, near Tampa. Normally I'd be suspicious of anything for sale in Florida (watch Marx's Coconuts), and especially real estate or RVs. But our experience with LazyDays was more than satisfactory, in every respect. Their goal is to make every customer a “customer for life,” and with us, at least so far, they have succeeded. Our delivery advisor, Chuck, was mostly responsible, coordinating their variety of services and working a miracle or two on the side.

LazyDays does not claim to be the nation's largest RV dealership, although I am sure they must be, at least for a single site. Their campus is 140 acres, the administrative building alone must be 35,000-40,000 square feet. The service bays are in three different huge buildings. They have 700 employees at peak. When you arrive for delivery, they feed you breakfast and lunch in their restaurant and house you in your RV on site for however long it takes. They have three campgrounds on the premises, a rally campground, the Crown Club (for coaches over $350,000), and the delivery campground, where we stayed three nights. (We had some modifications done.) Strong wifi is available everywhere. Most of their business is the big Class A rigs, but, even with our puny, used Class B purchase, we felt we were treated as well as the half-a-million dollar customer might be. A Flying J, a Camping World, and a Cracker Barrel (of course!) adjoin the Lazy Days campus. See pix at
Aerial view of LazyDays RV Center; I was impressed

Wednesday morning class on baking in convection microwaves (in the 
Learning Center)

Part of the sales lot; a tiny part

Some of the campus golf cart fleet...

Celebration dinner: my 62nd birthday, and the largest Rusty Nail I have ever 
seen; Vicki celebrated her birthday the 29th at Epcot, with Marie (Disney gives 
free admission to birthday persons with appropriate government-issued 

Grey Wanderer

While in Missoula, we finally made a decision about an RV for Europe. We had narrowed our choices to a class B (considering vehicle size, European roads and lanes, parking, towns, villages), a Sprinter for some additional size and the diesel engine, a RoadTrek for the two-living/working-area-design, and further by price and location. Needless to say, our search was almost entirely on the Web, with a few visits to RV lots in CA. We settled on a 2008 Roadtrek Adventurous in Tampa, 13,000 miles new, with most of the features and functions we wanted. We'll spend a few days in Tampa outfitting and re-fitting it, then take it to St. Cloud at Marie's and Norm's for more outfitting, and then drive it to Jacksonville for shipping to Southampton. So I guess we are not really homeless anymore.

Oh, the vehicle is white with grey trim and interior, so we have resolved to call it the “Grey Wanderer.” (Exegetical note: Gandalf was the “Grey Pilgrim”; Wotan, in Siegfried, was “Der Wanderer.” People often ask me, “Mark, so how does Tolkien's Ring compares with Wagner's?” About like how Jaws compares with Moby Dick, I say. But I always hasten to add, in fairness to Tolkien, that nothing at all in the world of art compares with Wagner. Nothung. (As Joyce would say.))

The Road Goes Ever On: The Book, Volume I

A special retirement gift was from my daughters, Rachel (publisher) and Rebecca (editor): the book version of my Asia/Pacific blog. OK, it's not at fine bookstores everywhere. But I presume you can buy a copy from Anyway, I love it, it's going with us on our next travels, and Volume II is already in the works. Thank you, Rebecca and Rachel!

Retired At Last!

Jamie Doggett


Vicki with Jeff Gritzner and Alan Weltzien

Friday, March 13, I finally joined the ranks of the homeless and the unemployed. Humanities Montana, my former employer, honored me with a very nice reception in Missoula. I am not sure how many were in attendance, but there were enough to impress and gratify me, particularly those who drove long distances on mid-March Montana roads. I only regret there was not enough time to speak with each and every one. So many good memories, so many proud moments together. I am particularly indebted to Ken, Kim, Ken, and Clair at Humanities Montana for putting on such a good show. [Thanks for the pix, Ken]. And I am especially indebted to a special person, Jamie Doggett, Montana humanities goddess and legend, who hosted the affair. It was so good to see her again and to hear about all our mutual friends.


Missoula, from the South Hills
Our "home," the Hellgate Canyon Storage Center; hey, it
has water features, a great view of Mt. Dumbo, and is near
the confluence of the Big Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers

The Rott's dog, Zoe, demonstrates the "Corpse" pose

Back home at last! It was so nice to spend some time in a place where you don't need a map or a dictionary, and are not always visiting with strangers, even sympatico strangers. Returning to Missoula after six months was almost like re-discovering it, as we did in 1995. It is truly a special place, with special people, that we love. Our thanks to Phyllis and to Kim and Dave for putting us up, and for putting up with us.

We were in town for two weeks—last work for Humanities Montana, doctor and dentist visits, social get-togethers, some shopping, and a whole lot of work at “home,” our storage unit at Hellgate Canyon Storage, converting from a backpacker lifestyle to that of an RVer. Happily, the weather cooperated, as much as it ever does at spring-time in the Rockies. It started cold, got fairly mild, and then ended with a wintry mix as we departed on the 23rd.

Six cartons have accompanied us, together with the usual carry-on's, for our journey from Missoula to Spokane, then Las Vegas, then Tampa, where we will pick up our new rig. With so much luggage, we elected to fly Southwest with its generous luggage allowance and low fare, with a Greyhound trip across I-90 to Spokane. Except for the driver's injunction against smoking, drinking, drugs, and “profound language” (“The Real is the Rational; the Rational is the Real”?), Greyhound was OK. We've done much worse. Recently. At least we were able to use our cell phone.