Iceland, the Land of Fire & Ice

My family has an ongoing joke that it isn't a Tate-summer if I haven't found myself somewhere in the world where I can throw a snowball in the middle of August.

I've always been more inclined for colder regions - humidity makes me lethargic and grumpy but cold gives me adrenaline - so one year, I was surprised when it dawned on me that I hadn't yet been to a place that's famous for its glaciers, its snow fields, its timeless sensation of long, dark winters and bright summers illuminated by a hovering midnight sun.

I decided to go to Iceland.

I never had any doubt that I wouldn't fall in love with Iceland. The year that I traveled there - 2012 - was right before the internet's craze and obsession over this small island nation really came to fruition. Now it seems that just about every photographer, filmmaker, Instagram-famous travel-blogger and their mom have all been to Iceland, so if you've spent any time perusing any travel social media, the hype for this remote country is undeniable. I'm usually wary of traveling to countries, cities, or regions that are super-duper amped up for being tourist destinations (such as Santorini or Paris, both of which I've had my qualms) because I've found that they're usually saturated with foreigners and tourists, tourbuses and cruise ships. While there's nothing inherently wrong about going to tourist-popular destinations (because hey, they're usually popular for a reason, and I know I am a foreigner too), it gets exhausting when each vista, trail, cafe, and hostel is overcrowded with people elbow-bumping each other to get to the view that seemed so perfectly remote and untouched in all of those Instagram posts.

Iceland, however, is different. The glorious exception to the rule.

With only 300,000 residents in its 40,000 square miles, Iceland is the least inhabited country in Europe, with 80% of the country uninhabitable due to its fjords, glaciers, mountain ranges, lava fields, geysers, and volcanoes (x). En yet, I was still shocked at how alone I felt, and how easy it was to become completely lost with only a few turns off the main road. Most famously, there is the Ring Road, which is the highway that circles the entirety of the island's coast, but most visitors stick to the little Golden Circle; a popular 300km tourist route in the south that makes for a convenient loop from Reykjavik in order to see some of Iceland's southern highlights. Tour buses leave daily from Reykjavik for this route, however if you have more than a few days in Iceland, I recommend renting a car in order to take your time when visiting the sights of the Golden Circle (you'll also have the luxury of being able to see locations during off-hours when they're not flogged with crowds).

But whether you have a week, two weeks, or a month or more in Iceland, I put together some of my favorite highlights.

If you're going to do Iceland, you have to do it right.

Highlights & Must Do's

  1. Spend a full day (or two, depending on your time) exploring Reykjavik, Iceland's charming and compact capital city. Almost everything is in walking distance here, so spend an afternoon strolling the winding streets that snake down to the harbor where you can catch a whale-watching ferry or have lunch at any of the tiny cafes where chic islanders sip their espressos next to burly men who just docked on their fishing vessels. Have a hot chocolate at the colorful Cafe Babalú and watch the dusky evening settle from one of Reykjavik's highest points at the Hallgrímskirkja church. And of course, you have to spend half a day at the Blue Lagoon hot springs; natural thermal hot springs warmed by Iceland's enormous underground volcanic activity (45 minutes outside of Reykjavik).

2.   Rent a car from Reykjavik and spend a day at Snæfellsjökull National Park on the Snæfellnes peninsula. Make your way from the city (approx. 3 hours) to Hellnar, an ancient fishing village perched on rocky cliffs and the southern entrance to the park. As you drive through, you'll pass trails and vistas and careening glaciers, and can end with a steaming bowl of traditional stew in one of the moss-covered cafes in picturesque Hellissandur (the village at the park's northern entrance). Side note, if you want to spend more time up here or just don't want to drive the 3 hours back to Reykjavik all in one day, there are small places for accommodation in Hellissandur.

3.   Iceland is famous for its waterfalls, and for good reason; with over 10,000 falls in the small country, some of the most powerful and spectacular spots are just a day's drive away from Reykjavik. Be sure to see Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Skógafoss, and if you're inclined to turn these three waterfall visits into a couple days of exploration near Reykjavik, consider stopping to see the famous Geysers explode in a valley pinpricked with neon thermal pools, and visit Thingvellir National Park for a quick hike or a picnic; or for the more adventurous, you can go diving or snorkeling in a trench where the North American and European continents divide.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

4.   Spend at least three days in Vatnajökull National Park in Eastern Iceland, which holds sprawling meadows and mountains making for epic climbing, as well as the Vatnajökull Glacier, the second largest glacier in Europe. Stay in the campsite in the meadow valley at the foot of the national park and lay in your tent listening to the glacier as it comes to life, creaking and groaning as the volcano it's nestled on top of makes the ice crack and shift, sending eery echoes down into the valley. The hikes around Vatnajökull range from lovely meadow walks among the wildflowers to intense backpacking trips, as well as offering a host of ice climbing tours, from easy glacier walks to an attempt to summit the highest peak in Iceland.

Note: nearby to the national park is the iconic glacial lagoon, Jökulsárlón, where icebergs that have broken off from the glacier float in a frigid lagoon, nestled in an amphitheater of peaks, glaciers, and volcanic black sand beaches.

Picnic on a hike in Vatnajökull National Park

Picnic on a hike in Vatnajökull National Park

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

On the way to our ice climbing spot on the Vatnajökull glacier

On the way to our ice climbing spot on the Vatnajökull glacier

5.   Often missed on most tourists' itineraries is Landmannalaugar. This mountain region hidden deep in the center of Iceland is perhaps one of the most brilliantly unique natural landscapes that I've seen in all of Europe. Multi-colored mountains painted in rich ribbons of pink, purple, burgundy, turquoise sands, sloping against a backdrop of neon green volcanic hills. There's a campsite in the Landmannalaugar valley that's the perfect jumping-off point for day-hikes or extended treks through the backcountry.

To hit all of those sights I just listed, you could do it in minimum 10 days or extend it all the way into an epic month or more. Take your time and pause in the villages perched on the cliffs, talk to locals about their history and their story, visit a viking museum or two, sink your feet into the hidden black sand beaches, have a frisbee game at midnight (thanks, midnight sun!), follow trails of wild horses and streams of bubbling thermal waters, be captivated by the farmhouses covered in vines, the herds of sheep grazing beneath magnificent waterfalls, the steam from a volcano rising from just over the next horizon.

I promise you.

It's worth the hype.

11.11.15

Do you ever walk into a room and you smell crushed coriander and Indian bay leaves that were simmered on a stove twenty-four hours ago, and suddenly you are hit with such an overwhelming saturation of homesickness (the good kind) and longing (the exciting kind) and wanderlust (the beautiful kind), and it just smothers you and sweeps over you, and in that second you are taken over by images of yourself walking those winding sun-bleached streets of Delhi or looking out onto the sun-dappled valleys of the high Kashmir, where you can hear a rooster nearby or the distant shifting of a glacier, and you smell those spices intertwined in the woodsmoke as they float from a nearby village on the breeze.

___

Folks, my heart is aching right now. With joy, with adrenaline, with love, with nostalgia (so much), with wanderlust (so much), with an almost unfathomable amount of homesickness for the world. It’s as simple as that.

Last night and this morning I spent hours upon hours with probably one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met. We will be spending the next several years traveling the world together (with at least 12 countries under our belt by this time next year). She wore a scarf from her travels and had a soft voice as she spoke of her stories from around the globe, which we swapped and delved into as she cooked a spicy coconut curry from Northern India that she was taught when she was over there “however many winters ago.” We found out where we each most want to go in the world. Where we would never go again. Why we do this. How did we begin this. And all the remarkably small events and degrees-of-separation that lead us to each other and then, somehow, bizarrely and wonderfully and fatefully, here. 

Look.

Whatever happens, happens, but when I say that I am living my dream, I mean it. Something kept coming up in our conversation: dreams that we share and realized that, hey, we could actually begin to accomplish them. Dream of an exploration of Iran; of weeks upon months of backpacking the Far East; of the spice markets and vanishing tribes of Ethiopia, of the lava-ridden craters of the volcanoes deep in the Congo; of an epic, epic, epic photo book that we may have just agreed to collaborate on and bring to fruition, which would, well, change everything.

All day these past few months and especially today, the images of these places and these goals have been plastered to the forefront of everything I do. Lifelong dreams, remarkable accomplishments, connections with lifelong idols, are suddenly not just possibilities, but are on my calendar. Are business calls. Are real. Are happening. There is so much I want to say here but it’s really too soon, but I just had to say something. Hence this babble.

So.

My heart is bursting at the seams for this extraordinary chapter about to begin. These amazing people. These dreams coming true. These dreams already come true.

Here’s to those nights when you love your life so much that you’re too excited to sleep.

Here’s to living a life so full and so rich that the smallest things have the power to move you to tears of joy; even something as small as the smell of coriander; of indian bay leaves.

Budgeting for a Trip & How to Save

Allow me to shout something from the rooftops for a moment:

Traveling does not have to be expensive.
Traveling does not have to be expensive.
Traveling does not have to be expensive.

All the glamorous photos of luxury safaris in Zimbabwe or hotel rooms overlooking the Siene are trying to sell you the idea that in order to travel, you need to have a pretty hefty wallet. We all know this, and more often than not, it's the #1 reason why people come to the conclusion that they "can't travel," or at least won't be able to for years (and a solid savings account) to come. While, yes, some places in the world will be more expensive to travel than others - there's just no way around that - I promise you that there are ways to bend and break the rules so that you can affordably travel and still be able to have all the amazing experiences you want.

How to Come Up With a Budget

Activities

After you have purchased your guidebook (or have spent a fair amount of time researching your destination on the internet), you should come up with a solid list of things you want to do, and then take your time gathering a vague idea of how much each activity is going to cost. If you want to go backpacking in the Andes of Peru, with some flitting through the pages of your guidebook or quick googling, you should be able to see how expensive permits are to backpack there. If you want to go bungee-jumping and abseiling and rock climbing in New Zealand, find a couple tour operators or guides to gather general quotes on how much those activities cost.

This does not mean that you have to know everything you want to do before you get to your destination. For long-term trips or people who like to wing it, it just isn't realistic. But it's a good idea to have a vague idea of how much "fun stuff" generally costs so you don't find yourself over-saving or without enough. If you find on a budget tour operator's website that most activities in Laos are between $40 and $100, bring an extra $300 for activities that may spring up while you're over there on a 2-3 week trip.

Trekking in South America is a highlight for most backpackers, but most national parks require a certain entrance/park fee that should be considered in a budget

Trekking in South America is a highlight for most backpackers, but most national parks require a certain entrance/park fee that should be considered in a budget

Transportation

If you're traveling in Africa or Asia or some parts of South America, public transport generally won't cost you more than $50 on long-haul bus or train rides, but if you're planning on taking trains consistently through Europe or buses through New Zealand, those will most likely be a high expense. Use websites such as www.EurRail.com to get estimates on how much it costs to take trains to and from your destinations, and do Google searches regarding buses to get an idea of how much you should save for the typical distances you plan to go. And if you are renting a car, get a quote online, and ask your rental company what they recommend you budget for gas (depending on the length of your trip).

Insider Tip: Several countries in Europe, such as Switzerland, offer discounted train passes for students, or people under certain ages, or people traveling on their trains consistently. Check out your guidebook to see if any information is available on discounts.

Long bus rides, especially public ones, can be arduous but offer spectacular views

Long bus rides, especially public ones, can be arduous but offer spectacular views

Accommodations

Some hostels and/or campsites are $2 are night.
Others are $40, at their cheapest.
Sometimes CouchSurfing may be the best and most budget-friendly option. Often times, the prices of hostels and campsites depend exclusively on where in the world they are, and what time of year you're planning on being there (such as, getting a dorm bed in a hostel in Rio is usually about $12 a night, but during Carnival, prices for the same bed can skyrocket up to $100 or higher; be aware of what's going on when planning your budget and if you should expect dramatic changes in prices). To estimate how much you should save for accommodation, use any number of hostel/campsite searching websites to get an idea of how much hostels typically cost where and when you're going. That way, you can generate an average number, and use that number for however-many-nights you're going to be traveling. That will give you a generous allotted budget for accommodation expenses.

For your estimations:
www.HostelWorld.com
www.HostelBookers.com
www.Hostels.com

Budget accommodation outside Tzaneen, South Africa

Budget accommodation outside Tzaneen, South Africa

Food

You can eat out at restaurants for all three meals a day and have it cost you a total of $9 if you're traveling in India. You can struggle to find a breakfast sandwich for under $15 if you're traveling in Switzerland. Unfortunately, food expenses are very similar to accommodation expenses in that they depend almost entirely on where in the world you are. That's why I say, ditch the breakfast sandwich. Eating on the road, no matter where you are, can be affordable as long as you know how to eat budget-friendly. While you may easily get away with a $10-a-day food budget in India, you're going to have to get more creative in most other places in the worth; especially pricier nations in Europe (I'm looking at you, Scandinavia and Switzerland), or the US and Australia.

Do not fret.

Most hostels offer kitchenettes that usually contain a stove, fridge, and maybe even an oven at the bare minimum. An extremely affordable way to eat cheaply on the road is by buying your own food and cooking your own meals. You can stretch a $3 bag of pasta and $4 bag of marinara sauce over the course of 3 dinners, and you can transform a $2 loaf of bread and a $5 jar of peanut butter and jelly into a week's worth of lunches. A box of granola bars, a $1 container of instant coffee, and a bag of bananas are a week's breakfast and snacks. Visit your destination's supermarkets or farmers markets, pick up whatever is delicious and cheap, and prepare your own meals. In most towns, no matter where in the world, you will be able to find some kind of general foods store that will sell anything from fruit to vegetables to bulk bags of rice, pasta, beans, and bread. While it may be cumbersome to carry a big bag of rice in your backpack as you move from location to location, buy smaller quantities of these staples, or leave behind whatever you can't carry with you (some other hungry backpacker will be eternally grateful to find leftover bags of fruit or beans in the hostel kitchen's cupboard). No matter what, buying and preparing your own meals will cut down on food costs significantly, and will leave you with the ability to proudly say that you're living off of a total of $10-$20 a day in Paris. This way, too, you'll have more money budgeted for the occasional special meal, where you can really enjoy the local cuisine and indulge yourself in a nice meal or night out trying the local bar scene without feeling like you're bleeding out of your wallet.

Dinner in Romania: canned beans, lentils, pasta, and marinara sauce = $2.50 per serving

Dinner in Romania: canned beans, lentils, pasta, and marinara sauce = $2.50 per serving

Breakfast in Croatia: bread, banana, peanut butter = $.70 cents per serving

Breakfast in Croatia: bread, banana, peanut butter = $.70 cents per serving

Extras (visas, gear)

Many countries will require foreign travelers to buy visas in order to enter, and while some visas cost $30, others can go up to $100 or more. Be sure you add in visa expenses into your budget, or even the purchase of a passport if you haven't applied for one yet).

Additionally, consider everything you may have to buy for the trip:

Do you need a backpack?
Boots and/or shoes?
Do you have all the clothes and toiletries necessary?
What about camping supplies if you're going camping?

Consider these as well so the price of preparation doesn't catch you off guard.

Once you have all of these numbers, add them up, and there is your budget. Congrats! Throw in your plane tickets, and maybe an extra hundreds dollars or so for additional expenses (it's better to be over-prepared than under, I am a firm believer in this), and pat yourself on the back.

Not so scary, right? 

But How Do I Save?

The number one thing I recommend for people when trying to save for a trip is just to cut the junk out. The "junk" being everything not absolutely necessary.

  • Perhaps this means forgoing your daily $2 cup of coffee. (That $2 is a night in a hostel in Kathmandu).

  • Or not going out to eat once (or several) times a week. (That $20 meal is a bus ride from Uganda to Nairobi).

  • If you really want to see stark changes, sell your tv and just use Netflix - or even get rid of Netflix. That costs money, too. (or do what I do and just use a family member's plan... sorry not sorry)

  • Get rid of all the clothing you don't wear, unnecessary household trinkets, unopened gifts in the back of your closet, and sell them all at a garage sale or on eBay.

  • Ride your bike or take public transportation instead of wasting gas in your car on local errands.

  • Forego the expensive foodstuffs you may like to splurge on at the grocery store, such as fancy new products or $7 kale chips. Stick to cheap produce and staple items. You'll be surprised at how much you save by only buying and eating what's absolutely necessary.

  • On top of selling the clothes you don't wear, avoid buying anything new and unnecessary. Saving for traveling is about considering how that money could be used elsewhere. (I mean, I know that sweater is only $30, but $30 is almost four days in Tanzania; think on a global, end-goal scale).

  • Open a savings account specifically for travel savings so you don't tamper/drain it.

  • Prepare at home your own weekly lunches so you're not tempted to buy sandwiches while at work or school. Same goes for coffee: invest in a thermos and brew your own stuff.

  • When you do go out to the bars or a restaurant, really save drinks for special occasions. And when you do, stick to just one or two of whatever is cheap. When you feel yourself wanting to go for that third $12 cocktail, say no and instead deposit that $12 into your travel fund. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

  • Lastly, get a part-time job. Even working a few hours here and there as a waiter or dog-walker or babysitter adds up. Of course this just is not feasible for many people as they may already be working full-time or too much, but if you find yourself lazing around on weekends or having wide-open days during the week, get busy. You'll be surprised at how quickly your travel goals approach.

With all these in mind, I'm not saying it's not important to be comfortable and enjoy the interim between trips. If all you do is sit in your house eating peanut butter sandwiches because you're afraid of spending money and it's impacting you negatively, then that's simply not worth it. But by eliminating trivialities and focusing on the end goal (that $100 pair of jeans is the equivalent of a week of backpacking up volcanos in Guatemala), then you should find yourself feeling excited and empowered by the money that's pouring back into your pockets; money that will leave you with incredible experiences soon enough.

Now. I'll see you on those volcanoes.

Top Highlights of South Africa

1. Go on safari in Kruger National Park. There are a number of safaris geared for budget travelers where travelers on any budget can find some tour geared towards their needs. While Kruger may be more built-up with dazzling campsites and resorts than other safari parks on the continent it's for good reason; the amount of wildlife in the area raises your chances of seeing the Big 5 (lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, and rhino), as well as other animals that are even harder to spot (such as cheetah, hyenas, or African wild dogs). I always recommend at least two full days on safari, but even on a time-constrained trip, a simple day in Kruger gives you a good chance to see some extraordinary animals.

2. Go backpacking, hiking, and rock climbing in the Drakensberg Mountains in the North and the Fynbos on the Western Cape. The Drakensberg ("Dragon Mountains" in Afrikaans) are famous for their glorious peaks, thick pine forests, trails that snake along riversides, and of course, world-class rock climbing. Down in the Fynbos, you'll be mesmerized by the flora that's unique to only that region of the world, with nearly 6,500 plant species here being endemic (not found anywhere else except for this small corner of South Africa). Known for its exceptional beauty and rolling hills painted with wildflowers, it's a backpacker's heaven.

3. Go surfing along the coast. Jeffreys Bay is the most popular spot for surfing, as it hosts some of the world's most renowned surfing competitions, but it’s pretty packed with tourists and noise; often times in JBay I felt like I was walking through downtown Jersey Shore. However, just up the coast to the East from JBay is the hidden gem Tshani, where there is a small backpackers hostel/campsite called Mdumbi. Mdumbi is serene, isolated, really breathtakingly beautiful, and probably my favorite spot in all of South Africa. It's a homey spot to pitch a tent, have a braai, and go surfing without bumping elbows with partiers, tourists, and a thousand other surfers competing for the same wave. Also, Mdumbi often has massive campfires on the beach, which hey, that's pretty fun. (PS- I accidentally lost my glasses in a fire there once, so if you happen to find a blue pair of glasses in the sands, you may just be my hero).

4. Visit Cape Town. Marvel at how colorful it is, how friendly and proud the locals are, how big the music and food scene is (especially along Long Street, which has so many artisanal coffee roasters and thrift shops you’ll think you’re in San Francisco). Enjoy the sidewalk cafes on the harbor, the sweeping view from the summit of Table Mountain, and the lively nightlife.

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5. Road trip along the Garden Route and Western Cape. You’ll feel like you’re driving along California’s Big Sur as you snake along roads that hug the dropping cliffs that form the Cape, leading to hidden beaches, rolling vineyard, and charming wine towns adorned with stone churches, pastel-painted houses, and cobblestone lanes. (And if you’re more of an adrenaline junky, here's your chance to go cage diving with great white sharks in Mossel Bay.)

6. Kayak (or raft) down the Orange River as it snakes along the Namibian Border. Of course it’s a haul to get up there, but you’ll feel like you’re in another world as you drop into orange canyons, topaz rapids, and camp underneath the stars in an amphitheater of red desert walls. It’s spectacular. It’s uncomfortable. It’s weird. It’s like Mars. It’s isolated. It’s something else.

To Climb the Highest Mountain in Africa

Mount Kilimanjaro.

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The highest mountain on the African continent, and one of the world's Seven Summits.

With its peak residing at a soaring altitude of 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro has beckoned thousands of trekkers to attempt to reach its summit, surrounded by a amphitheaters of glacier, monstrous rock, and oceans of clouds thousands of feet below where the summit looms. 

Routes

The climb up Kilimanjaro can take anywhere between five to nine days, depending on the route you choose to take. Deciding on the right route can either make or break your climb, depending on how much time you allow yourself to acclimatize to the altitude (the #1 reason why people turn around on the mountain isn't because it's a difficult hike, but because they ascended too quickly and became sick from the altitude).

Each route varies, depending on rate of ascent, scenery, crowds, and, of course, price. The run down for each route follows:

Marangu
Duration: 5 days
Crowds: Extremely high (most popular route)
Scenery: Considered least scenic route
Accommodation: Sleeping huts
Recommended for: No one, honestly. The quick ascent, crowds, and packed sleeping huts make this an unsuccessful and unenjoyable route, despite it being the cheapest choice.

Machame
Duration: 6-7 days
Crowds: High
Scenery: Extremely scenic with varying landscape
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: Budget travelers who are confident in their ability to have long days at rapidly increasing high altitude

Lemosho
Duration: 8-9 days
Crowds: Low until route joins with Machame
Scenery: Considered overall most beautiful
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to spend ample time enjoying the views, generally low crowds, and is hellbent on reaching the summit (highest success rate)

Shira
Duration: 7-8 days
Crowds: Low
Scenery: Varied and beautiful
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: People who want to do Lemosho but don't have the time. It's essentially the same route as Lemosho except you begin the trek at 11,000 ft, which causes the rate of success (and risk of altitude sickness) to increase significantly.

Rongai
Duration: 6-7
Crowds: Low
Scenery: Vastly different from other routes (it's the only path that begins in the north)
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: People climbing in the rainy season, or people who want a similar climb to Marangu (long uphill slog) but want to avoid the crowds and prefer remoteness.

Finding the Right Company
(and paying the right price)

Like most mountains of this magnitude, to climb Kilimanjaro you'll need to go with a licensed guide, porter, and pay a park entrance fee. However, because Kilimanjaro is not a technical mountain and a staggering 50,000 people attempt the mountain each year, there is a large amount of bootleg "companies" aimed towards budget travelers that offer attractively cheap prices. But the thing with Kilimanjaro -- as with any guide or company anywhere in the world -- is this simple truth:

You get what you pay for.

When you are spending over a week climbing one of the tallest peaks in the world, you will want to fork over extra money to ensure that you have a safe climb. When you find a company that has an attractive, low price, get in touch with them and ask them some very important questions, such as:

  • How many times has the guide(s) summitted the mountain?

  • Does he have a license (and can you see it)?

  • What kind of food should you expect? How will your meals be prepared? How do they keep the food fresh? Are they willing to accommodate to any dietary restrictions?

  • Will drinking water be provided, or will you be required to carry your own water purification system (such as iodine or a SteriPEN)?

  • What camping gear will they provide? What's the quality of the tent? What about the sleeping mattresses (if you're not carrying your own)? A good company will have strong, functional equipment.

  • How is their safety record? Do they know how to care for a client who may become sick with altitude? Do they know what to look for? (Altitude sickness is more common than you may think; read about it more here).

If they seem to skirt certain questions, are unsure of specifics, or are more interested in signing you up instead of answering all your inquiries in detail, odds are they're more interested in grabbing clients rather than ensuring a safe and successful climb.

Picking a Budget Company

You can either hunt for budget companies online (but again, be extremely vigilant about frauds and ask the questions I listed above), or you can wait until you arrive in Tanzania to do the hunting, depending on how comfortable and lenient with time you are.

Fly into Tanzania's Arusha Kilimanjaro airport (JRO) and spend a few days visiting tour operators in Arusha to talk to guides in person and compare prices. You can also take the cheap two-hour bus from Arusha to Moshi (the town at the base of Kilimanjaro) to speak to operators there. Either way, it will only take you a few days to pick a company out, as Tanzania's tourism industry thrives on climbers, so advertisements and operators will practically be flinging themselves at you.

In the end, expect to pay between $1,000 and $2,000 for a safe budget climb. 

While it's possible to go under $1,000 if you do the Marangu or Machame route, tips will most likely bring your Kilimanjaro experience to over a grand. 

And although, like I said, it is important to pay for what you want to get, there are some ways to keep the cost down, such as carrying your own sleeping bag and sleeping pad as opposed to renting them, bringing your own durable (and broken in!) hiking boots, and opting for a company that safely cuts costs by not carrying extra luxuries: such as a dining tent, private toilet, or chairs.

A budget climb up Machame route meant no communal dining tent; instead, the four of us on the climb piled into one sleeping tent to eat our dinners and breakfasts

A budget climb up Machame route meant no communal dining tent; instead, the four of us on the climb piled into one sleeping tent to eat our dinners and breakfasts

What Can I do to Help Raise My Odds of Reaching the Summit?

Unlike the other Seven Summits, Kilimanjaro is not a technical mountain; meaning that there aren't any ropes, any rock or ice climbing, or any need for past mountaineering experience. Simply, Kilimanjaro is a multi-day trek. 

So why the low success rate of only 45% ? Even as low as 27% on the 5-day routes, such as Marangu, which happens to be the most popular?

There is no need for a climber to have any skills to climb Kilimanjaro, so tourists of any age, health, and fitness flood through the Kilimanjaro gates every year with hardly any training or concept of the danger they're putting themselves into. While Kili isn't technically challenging, it still holds an estimated 3-7 deaths per year due to altitude sickness and unfit tourists underestimating the strength that it takes to climb thousands of feet for hours on end.

The best way to ensure a safe, successful, and enjoyable summit is to train. In the months leading up to your climb, focus on working out 3-4 days a week. When I was training for my climb, my favorite strengthening workouts consisted of several hours on the stair master during the busy work week, and then taking a day on the weekend to go for a hike where I'd carry a backpack with weights in it (anywhere between 10 to 20 pounds). The key to enjoying an uphill slog trek, such as Kilimanjaro, is to be fit enough to not feel shaky and out of breath within a few hours, or even minutes. A successful climb coincides greatly with how much you enjoy it, because if you feel physically unwell, then you're going to become physically unwell, leaving you more susceptible to the effects of high altitude backpacking. Preparing for Kilimanjaro doesn't have to be back-breaking, but you want to depart knowing that your physical capabilities won't limit your chances to summit; after all, you paid a lot of money to get to East Africa and to attempt this magnificent peak. Every day training is putting more odds for a summit in your favor.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a right of passage for any backpacker, trekker, or person with a love of getting up close and personal with one of the most iconic peaks in the world. While the crowds can be deterring, the mountain makes up for it in its sheer magnitude and beauty, whether you make it to the summit or not.

Walk on.

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To read more about the super-specifics of climbing Kilimanjaro, and to learn more about each of the routes, visit the website Ultimate Kilimanjaro.

Guide to Packing

When packing, there are three main considerations: 

    1. What luggage am I bringing? 
    2. What are my absolute must-haves (for any trip)? 
    3. What do I need to bring that's unique to this trip? 

Let's start with #1. 

What Luggage am I Bringing? 

Finding the right luggage for traveling is crucial. You want something that's roomy enough for trips where you may be carrying extra bulk, but you also don't want something that will be too heavy and cumbersome for occasions where you're carrying it for significant portions of time. Most travelers find that they need two kinds of luggage: a large backpack for carrying your clothing and gear, and one small daypack for essentials that you want on you at all times. When picking out your luggage backpack, I recommend shooting for anything between 60 to 80 liters in size. While it's easy to compress a backpack if you don't use up all 80 liters, it's much harder to stretch it and force everything to fit into a small pack that simply doesn't have enough space.

When you're picking out your backpack, shop around, and try things on. Don't buy something blindly online without having tested it out first. Head to your local outdoors store (such as REI or Eastern Mountain Sports) and work with a specialist who will find the backpack that's most formfitting, comfortable, and viable for you. 

As for the daypack, you want enough room so that it can fit anything you would need on a flight, in transit, or in any situation where you're out an about. A good test for a proper daypack is that is has compartments for pens, wallet, papers and documents (such as your passport), and room for a book or two, a rain jacket, sunglasses, a small toiletries/first aid kit, and a pocket for a water bottle or two. If you think you'll be carrying a laptop with you on your travels, look for a daypack with an internal laptop pocket. If you're carrying a DSLR camera, look for camera backpacks that can safely hold your camera gear, while still having ample room for necessary documents, transit necessities, and day items. Typically, daypacks run between 20 and 40 liters, and can also be tested and purchased at your outdoors retail store. 

On a road trip through Eastern Europe, I decided to bring a duffle instead of a backpack because it would be easier for living out of a car

On a road trip through Eastern Europe, I decided to bring a duffle instead of a backpack because it would be easier for living out of a car

What Are My Absolute Must-Have's? 

No matter where you go or what you're doing, 99% of the time, you will have to pack the same constant necessities. These include: 

    •    Toiletries (including: toothbrush, eye mask/ear plugs for sleeping, hair ties if necessary, just one small bottle each of toothpaste, shampoo, and soap -- remember, you can purchase these things abroad if you run out) 
    •    A converter if you're traveling abroad and power outlets are different from your own. It's worth investing in a universal converter so you don't have ten different ones for ten different countries. These can usually be purchased online. 
    •    Medications & copies of prescriptions. Along with medications, be sure to bring a broad spectrum antibiotic (which can be given to you from your travel doctor), as well as staples such as Ibuprofen, Tylenol, and Dramamine (if you get motionsick) 
    •    Guidebook and a small phrasebook.  
    •    Headlamp with spare batteries. 
    •    Nalgene water bottle.
    •    Sunglasses and glasses (with your prescription, in case you lose your glasses) 
    •    Pack towel 
    •    Rain jacket 
    •    Rain cover for your backpack 
    •    Rubber sandals for communal hostel showers
    •    Sleeping bag and sleeping bag liner. The liner can be washed, which will make you feel cleaner throughout your trip, and it can also be used in places where it's too hot to sleep in your sleeping bag, or you don't want to sleep in the provided sheets. 
    •    Laundry bag 
    •    Basic First Aid Kit 

Optional (but recommended): 

    •    Headphones (and a spare pair, in case yours are broken or lost) 
    •    eReader and Book 
    •    Notebook & pens 
    •    Plastic bags for items that may be wet or muddy
    •    Deck of cards 
    •    Sunhat 
    •    Bandana 

Insider Tip: Using your shampoo or body wash is a great substitute for washing clothes, so ditch bringing laundry detergent. Pack along a clothes line and pins for drying, too. 


What Do I Need to Bring That's Unique to This Trip? 

When deciding what clothing, shoes, and gear you should bring on your trip, consider your trip's location, climate, activities, and culture. The best way to get an idea for what kinds of clothes to bring is by looking through a Lonely Planet guidebook on the region you're traveling to. In every Lonely Planet, there is always a section devoted to telling you about what clothing is culturally acceptable or unacceptable, as well as also giving you a month-by-month look at what climate is generally like in certain regions at certain times of year. For example: you may be traveling to the Sahara Desert in August, but you'll also want to bring a warm sweater and hat because it can drop to freezing temperatures in the desert at night. In another case, you may be traveling to northern Norway in January, which requires a serious amount of extreme cold-weather appropriate clothing. If you're going trekking in Nepal, you'll want a mix of both cold-weather clothing and even warm weather clothing, such as hiking shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, as it can get surprisingly hot and humid in the Himalayan trekking regions. 

Once you've picked up your guidebook or have turned to Google and you have an idea of what kinds of weather you'll be facing, you'll want to find clothing that's as versatile (and, again, culturally appropriate) as possible. Especially for long-term trips where you may be traveling to multiple countries and will have to pack for a variety of climates, you're going to really want to snoop around your outdoors retail store to find clothing that's as lightweight, durable, and compactible as possible. 

Here are some tips for packing light and versatile: 

    •    Bulky fleece jackets should be replaced with synthetic down coats that were designed to compress to save the most space as possible. 
    •    Clunky sweatshirts should be replaced with lightweight (but just as warm) alternatives, such as SmartWool and/or Patagonia pullovers and zip-ups that are well-fitting and designed to easily be packed away. 
    •    Jeans are not only cumbersome and inefficient with their size, but are difficult to wash and dry efficiently when on the road. Swap them out for comfortable lightweight pants that are easy to travel in, hike in, and explore in. 
    •    Dresses and skirts are excellent for formal occassions, for hot locations, or for when you just feel like dressing up. Just be sure that you're well aware of the cultural expectations regarding dresses and skirts. Do they need to at least cover your knees? Do they need to cover your ankles? Can they be spagetti-strap style, or will you need to cover your shoulders, or your chest, or both? The same rules apply when deciding on bringing shorts and tank-tops. Cultural awareness needs to be acknowledged when packing.
    •    Only bring a handful of underwear and socks. Remember, you can (and should!) do laundry on the go, whether you pay for it to be done, or whether you do it in a hostel sink. You shouldn't bring a month's worth of these things, as they can take up a significant amount of room, and are easy to clean and quickly dry. So just pack a bare minimum (I usually bring a week's worth). 
    •    Find the right shoes. Usually a pair of supportive hiking boots are efficient for most traveling, hiking, and walking you'll be doing, and rubber sandals are good for swimming and showering. Some people opt for bringing along a third pair of every-day shoes, such as Toms or Converse, that are subtler than hiking boots and are nice for casual days where you aren't carrying a heavy backpack. 
    •    Don't go shirt crazy. It's easy to find yourself wanting to pack a shirt for every occasion, but you'll find just how little you actually need. Instead of bringing your whole wardrobe, pick out three or four shirts and stick to that. Something for cooler weather, something for warmer weather, and anything that can be layered.  
   •    Finally: use compression sacks! Everyone has their own method of organizing their backpacks, but using compression sacks to organize clothing allows more space in the backpack for extra gear, such as bulky hiking boots or a sleeping bag or tent equipment. 

Insider Tip: When women are traveling to more conservative regions, it's always a good idea to bring along a shaul or scarf if you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to be considerably covered up (such as visiting a mosque). 

In Defense of the Tourist with the Knapsack and the Guidebook

The thing about tourists,

is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them and if you’re one of those people who consistently finds yourself mocking tourists who are in absolutely no way causing you any harm, then you need to cut it out, now.

Living in New York and San Francisco, I deal with a fair share of tourists. Constantly. They whirl around the subways, they clunk into me on the sidewalks with their backpacks and cameras, they cruise down Park Ave and the Embarcadero in those infamous giant red buses. They’re easy to spot, as they usually are wearing tennis shoes, have a backpack stuffed with guidebooks and rain jackets, and they’re hiding in a corner of Grand Central trying to decipher a map. En yet, I’ve noticed that this bizarre disdain for these innocent travelers (note: innocent) has become more and more prevalent, as almost every single time I’m walking with a local and we spot someone who is clearly a traveler, the person I’m with will scoff and practically spit the word under their breath, “tourist.”

We need to talk about this arrogance.

Why do people hate tourists so much? What is so wrong and shameful about someone who wants to see a new city, park, country? We as a Western society have come to loathe tourists to such an extent that we go amusingly far out of our way to avoid looking like one, whether abroad or even in our home cities. God forbid we carry a backpack. God forbid we wear comfortable walking shoes (even if we’re walking 15 miles on pavement and cobblestone that day). God forbid we ask someone for directions. And, god forbid, we are ever caught dead with a guidebook in our hands.

I’m very proud of where I’m from (NYC), and I’m very proud of where I live now (SF). I think it’s wonderful that people will put a year (or more)’s worth of savings into flying halfway across the globe to come visit the places where I’ve grown up. Therefore, I accept and understand that walking through Times Square on a Saturday afternoon will be busy with people whose necks are craned down at maps or up at the shimmering buildings; I accept this because it’s some peoples’ dreams to see this, as it may be my dream to see their city, and so I owe them the same patience as I would want for myself. Not to mention that NYC is massive and SF is famous for its hills; why would I make fun of them for wearing the clothes that will make them most comfortable to explore (as long as the clothing is not offensive)? I know I would not want to be uncomfortable when walking the hills of Rio de Janeiro; why would I want them to be uncomfortable when walking the hills of SF, just so that they blend in and save me the half second of growling “tourist”?

I know, acknowledge, and understand that some tourists and a lot of tourism can be problematic; but that’s not what I’m addressing here. I’m talking about the strange fear we have of “looking like a tourist,” and the unwarranted disdain towards a tourist we spot on the other side of the street who’s simply minding their own business. It’s hurtful, unnecessary, and pretentious. Cut it out.

TL;DR: stop treating tourists like their curiosity is a heinous crime just because they dress a certain way and like to see a city on top of a big red bus. You’re not any better than them.

Eastern Europe, notes from the road

For seven weeks this summer, I rented a car and did a 4,200 miles road trip from Sofia, Bulgaria through 15 countries.
Throughout the trip, I tried to write about certain places and experiences in little excerpts. Here are some of them.

Bulgaria to Montenegro//
I arrived in Montenegro after 12 hours of driving through the slot canyons and switchbacks of remote Serbia; we paused only for espressos and to eat sandwiches by a mosquito-ladden riverside. In Montenegro I found myself most evenings sitting barefoot on the windowsill of my room, where just below my dangling legs the emerald waves of the Bay of Kotor lapped up on the whitewashed walls. I sat for hours on end eating from a bag of warm cherries that I had purchased earlier that day in the castle’s farmers’ market. The hills of the Balkans smell of mint and lavender, occasionally heavy woodsmoke, and the scent perfumed the air as we spent one evening watching the sunset from the top of a surrounding craggy peak. We spent nights walking along the pier, gazing up at the glowing, golden fortress illuminated on the steep black mountains.

Montenegro to Dubrovnik//
After a stunning drive along the careening bay of Kotor, along with a hitchhiking australian in the backseat, we arrived in Dubrovnik. It felt more like a movie set than a historical landmark, with its towering golden walls, steep cobblestone alleys strung with white cotton sheets flapping lazily in the warm Adriatic breeze, echoing church bells, steep drops from viewpoints into the clear waters of the sea. To save money, we’d been dining on pb&j sandwiches — feeling much like children all over again — and have had an ongoing competition to find the best lunch spot (Dubrovnik’s was pretty good, in the shade of olive trees on a castle wall built in the 13th century). We set up camp down the peninsula from the old city, where our natural alarm clock each morning was the unbearable heat of the rising sun through the tent’s nylon, but we found refuge in the evenings on the rocky shore down a shaded path from camp. On our final morning, we stopped to pick up pastries from a local shop; mine was coated with powdered sugar and oozing with thick, warm jam made from the cherries picked in the dalmatian hills. Overwhelming sweetness, lips stained cherry red.

Dubrovnik to Bosnia//
The road rose from the coast and steadily snaked through fields of dry shrubs, sand, and dust, past abandoned buildings, empty factories, crumbling stone walls, thin donkeys pawing the hot ground. The air stifling enough to suffocate inside of our small, cramped car. The city of Mostar felt war-torn, with its homes riddled with bullets, gaping holes in the sides of buildings, tank shells being sold at the crafts market to make ‘something good’ of a recent war. Our hostel here was empty, hospital-like with neon lights, and about a twenty minute walk to the stari most — the famous old bridge — which was destroyed in the war, rebuilt, and now stands in the midst of mosques and citrus trees. I remember hearing the call to prayer as we approached the bridge for the first time under a mauve sky. We had dinner one night next to a group of Austrian men who told Eric that he should go to this small town in croatia where the women outnumber men 9 to 1. They gestured to me and told me to cover my ears.

Bosnia back to Croatia//
A quiet, short ferry ride took us to the gem that is Mljet Island, where we camped at a completely empty site under the tangled shade of olive trees (although I was consistently pestered by the campsite’s abundance of horse flies). Down a dusty road we found an isolated cove in an inlet hugged by an ampitheater of pine trees. Here we swam in the warm Adriatic waters in the golden afternoon light; the sand white and sun-bleached; andrew bird and iron & wine playing from the speakers. We filled ourselves to the brim with grilled vegetables painted with olive oil, sea salt, roasted garlic and thick bread, with a spectacularly blue backdrop cradling the island’s shore and small villages. One evening we ran to a clearing to catch a sunset unlike anything I’d ever seen; the air thick with ocean and the perfume of wildflowers and fig trees.

Mljet to Plitvice//
We’d been making frequent pitstops at roadside fruit stands, buying bags upon bags of peaches, cherries, apples and sweet peppers warmed from the sun. By the time we arrived in Plitvice from Mljet we’d eaten all six of the peaches we’d picked up that morning, savoring their ripe juices as they flowed down our cheeks and splattered onto our laps and feet. For the first time in weeks we felt relief from the heat as we curved higher into the northern Croatian hills, setting up camp in the shade of pine trees in thick, plump grass. Plitvice consisted of miles upon miles of winding trails and boardwalks, snaking through countless cascading waterfalls, topaz-colored pools speckled with lily-pads that held neon-blue dragonflies. 

Plitvice to Slovenia//
Ljubljana felt as if it was picked straight out of a fairytale, where all the wonderful parts of Europe (the castles, the pastel-colored houses, the sidewalk cafes, the bridges and town squares studded with medieval statues) were condensed into one small remarkably pleasant city. We made our way from there to Lake Bled, which had a surprisingly dense tourism industry. The shores of the lake were blanketed with hotels and casinos, and the narrow streets clogged with tour buses. Overwhelmed, we spent most of our time here high in the neighboring national park, where we had a lunch of canned beans in a meadow where cows came to investigate their visitors, and ended up sitting with peeled oranges on the shore of a much quieter, yet much grander lake. The roads were often crowded with herds of cows making their way slowly home. One night we went for a walk, and I paused to pick lilac-colored flowers, and we sat in a field of tangled grass to watch the clouds settle on the granite peaks of the alps.

Slovenia to Austria//
After Bled we drove into Austria, where we stayed in a strange bunker-style hostel on the outskirts of Vienna as heavy gray storm clouds rolled in. On the night we arrived, we met up with a girl, Kristina (whom we last saw in Vienna a year and a half ago during a bitter winter), at a wine bar in a quiet neighborhood in a Vienna suburb. We drank cool white wine, ate thick pumpernickel bread, inhaled the cigarette smoke from local Viennese men watching a football match in the back corner of the bar, and chatted as the cool drizzle outside eventually came to a brief stop. We ended up wandering the pastel-colored streets of another nearby town, where Kristina found us chocolate gelato which we ate fondly as we gazed towards the Vienna skyline from the highest point of a grassy park in a clearing of weeping willow trees.

Vienna to Prague//
The drive from Austria to the Czech Republic was strange, as immediately over the Czech border we were bombarded with massive billboards advertising show girls, erotic shops, dinosaur-themed amusement parks, and tacky medieval-themed restaurants where you could watch fake jousting while eating dried fried chicken. Our hostel in Prague was in an unassuming part of town, but I swear to you that I will never forget the moment that I stepped into the Old Town Square for the first time. It was bathed in rich golden light from the setting sun, and I couldn’t help but turn in circles, overwhelmed by the majesty that is Prague. Words like marvelous and magical and majestic come to mind when I think of Prague. Even St. Nicholas’ Church brought me to tears; only the second time in my life a manmade structure has done so. We spent most of our days in Prague walking aimlessly, eating pastries coated in burnt sugar and almonds, sipping beers in the shadows of the castle, listening to a violinist on the Charles Bridge as the sun sunk into the spired horizon.

Prague to Poland//
We stayed in a small apartment above a restaurant in the peaceful Jewish Quarter of Krakow. Krakow was surprisingly pleasant, with its lively bar scene, colorful restaurants boasting mostly Israeli and Jewish cuisines, musical squares and shaded parks. We spent one day driving to Auschwitz, where we realized upon arrival that it’s necessary to book a tour in advance (which we did not), so we ended up on a 2-hour Italian tour. I crashed the car into a wall here, too. I was happy to leave.

Poland to Slovakia//
From the plains of Poland we winded into the high mountains of Slovakia, greeted by alpine lodges, remote roads, beckoning peaks shimmering with layers of snow. Our guesthouse here overlooked a meadow pinpricked with grazing horses in a clearing of thick pine forest. We spent our days driving to castles and wandered their ruins with to-go espresso cups, and took walks through the silent forests, never passing another soul. Each night it stormed, rain coming down in heavy sheets, and we sat in our room drinking lemony tea I’d bought in Prague and played Slovakian scrabble (which was a challenge, but we figured it out).

Slovakia to Hungary//
Back out of the mountains to the wheat fields of Hungary, rising into the gray buildings that comprise of Budapest. After spending a morning doing the obligatory walk to the main churches, we came to a pathetic yet amusingly honest conclusion that can only come after five weeks in Europe: we were burnt out on churches. We took a break from gothic architecture to spend the afternoon soaking in the famous thermal baths that run from the hot waters underneath Budapest. Under a gray, misting sky, we sat in the steaming pools up to our chins, laughing, people watching, feeling the mineral-rich waters soothe our skin. The next day was Eric’s birthday, where I surprised him with a 9-course wine tasting in a 13th century cellar under a castle in the Old City. We spent almost three hours there, and afterwards enjoyed cake on the steps of a statue in the castle’s main square. In the fading light we walked back to our hostel, pausing for water at a Cat Cafe; because, hell, you have to do it once.

Hungary to Romania//
The scariest part of the whole trip had been driving in Romania; the drivers were aggressive, selfish, pushing us almost off the road too many times to count. Happily we arrived in Transylvania, where we spent several days hopping from town to town, admiring medieval villages with their brightly colored lopsided houses, black gothic churches, and of course Bran Castle, which Dracula supposedly haunts (although I found it to be quite charming and not at all menacing). On an evening in Brasov after drinks and chips, we found a free movie playing in the town’s main square; the following morning we set off to climb high into mountains to stay at a small farm guesthouse, where we read our novels, listened to the cow bells out in the pasture, woke to the sound of rain on the tin-roof and the smell of coffee brewing on the stove, ate heaps of pasta overlooking the craggy granite cliffs. On the sunny evenings after dinner, we’d climb a nearby hill to see the sun set over the vibrant green hills, thatched roofs of the farmhouses, and the towering blue mountains streaked with snow and wispy, orange clouds. Every path, meadow, fence, road, hill here was blanketed in thick, unbelievably bright wildflowers, in colors so rich you’d think someone spilled paint on them. We waded through their tangled beauty, their smells staying ever present on our clothes — the scent of melted sugar cubes, maple honey, vanilla and crisp green apples.

After Romania, we arrived back in Sofia, where in a matter of 12 hours we returned the car, got a nominal amount of sleep, then immediately got on a bus the next morning to knock out the last three countries before the trip came to a close: Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Because our car insurance didn't cover these three places, we decided to bus it: upwards of eight hours every two days moving from country to country, attempting to check off some of the smallest countries in the world.

These countries were starkly similar yet different in their own quirky ways; Macedonia had an obvious obsession with bridges and statues; Albania was dotted with tens of thousands of anti-nuclear concrete domes leftover from when it was still hiding in the shadows of its communist period; Kosovo had an amusing obsession with all things American and Bill Clinton (and yes, there is a statue of Bill Clinton on Bill Klinton Avenue next to the Hillary Shop).

Without a doubt, I left thinking that perhaps far Eastern Europe is the strangest, most unassuming, and most misunderstood corner of the world.

Father and daughter ride their bike across a bridge in Skopje, Macedonia

Father and daughter ride their bike across a bridge in Skopje, Macedonia

The Vegan Backpacker Masterpost

Probably the most common question I get next to "how do you afford to travel?" is:

"How do you stay vegan when you travel?"

The answer is, simply. 

The ironic thing is that if I weren't looking to pinch pennies for every trip I take, it may actually be a bit harder to be vegan abroad; after all, it's hard enough already going out to eat in the U.S., let alone Eritrea or Uruguay. Saving money as a backpacker usually involves cooking and preparing my own food instead of eating out at restaurant after restaurant. This allows me to save money while also being very much in control of what I'm eating.

What About Missing out on Cultural Experiences?

I've heard from close friends that they find it amusing that now I almost exclusively eat my own cooked/prepared food when I'm traveling, because before I went vegan I was the person who always eagerly stepped up to try the local delicacies: scorpion and snake on a stick, fried spiders, live grubs, sheep brain, straight goat blood (still warm from the jugular), deep fried guinea pig, llama tartar, putrified shark and puffin... to be honest, the list could go on for awhile. I also thoroughly enjoyed the more westernized cuisines, such as buttery croissants and oozing eclairs in Paris, or seafood platters the size of a small car along the Mediterranean, or cheese fondues with a full-fat cappuccino in the Swiss Alps. Initially when I went vegan back in 2013, I was concerned that suddenly I'd feel deprived without trying all these different kinds of food around the globe, but all it took was a solid perspective shift for me. The devastating environmental impact of eating animal products, not to mention the inexcusable cruelty, does not magically disappear while on vacation. While I do think that one of the best ways to experience a culture is through their cuisines, I hold myself to the mindset that ethics don't bend for a momentary meal; and plus, you'd be surprised how many cuisines around the world are mostly plant-based, or can be made plant-based.

That being said, some of my favorite vegan meals have been abroad: couscous in a heavy vegetable stew, called tagine, in Morocco; falafel gyros stuffed with tahini sauce and paprika fries in Turkey and Greece; heaps of grilled vegetables drizzled with olive oil, garlic, toasted bread, and sea salt in practically every seaside country along the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts; plates piled high with gallo pinto (rice and beans stewed together with fresh herbs and spices), sweet plantains, and fresh salads in Costa Rica; avocado smoothies and yuca fries dipped in mouth-wateringly flavorful sauces in West Africa; dark chocolate roasted with hazelnuts in Switzerland; vegan wienerschnitzel in Austria and dairy-free gelato in Rome; all the curries and matars and naans and samosas and chutneys in India and Nepal; fresh, steaming vegetable dumplings in bustling Shanghai markets. 

It's a whole other part of the world -- and part of traveling -- to get to know.

What About Offending People Who Offer You Food?

An extremely valid concern for vegan or vegetarian travelers is what to do in the situation when a local offers you some sort of food that isn't vegan. This is where a gray area arrises.

Let's use an example of when I ended up at a family's home in rural northern Nepal, in a village somewhere along the border to Tibet. I had recently transitioned to vegan, and wasn't sure what to do when I heard some rummaging in the kitchen, and the mother of the house suddenly appeared in front of me with a big, heaping bowl of something. Something with hunks of bone, cheese, and what I'm sure was roped intestine floating in a thick brown stew. Not to mention a cup of Tibetan butter tea filled to the brim. (Butter tea is made from three ingredients: tea leaves, salt, and butter from a yak).

Now, my extent of the Tibetan language is hello and goodbye, so any attempt I made to communicate that animal products would upset my stomach wasn't exactly translating. In a perfect world, I'd know how to communicate that meat and dairy makes me sick (because at that point I really was concerned that my body would react poorly to having a sudden huge intake of what I'd ridded from my diet three months prior), but that didn't seem to be in the cards. 

And she was kneeling there, smiling and eager, and so I accepted it, and I drank it all, slurped it all, make plenty of delicious! moaning sounds and belly-rubs, and was grateful.

And that's it.

There will be plenty of occasions while traveling where I can politely decline a meal because I can't eat what's being offered to me and there is no offense taken (usually when there's ample communication and they understand that you truly may get sick), but there are also occasions (particularly during home-stays) where someone has truly and earnestly cooked something for me, and to decline it would be disrespectful beyond anything you or I could imagine. Sometimes you'll be in a position where you have to accept food that's offered, and I encourage you to be gracious, courteous, and to never forget the privilege it is for someone to provide nourishment for you; even if it's not the nourishment you're used to getting.

(Also, yes, for those of you wondering: I did get sick from the butter tea and intestine stew. But now it's a story to tell, and no one was offended in the process).

Favorite Vegan Traveler Meals and Tips
  • When it comes to breakfast, most hostels will offer some kind of complimentary fare that will consist mostly of non-vegan foods, but there are always a few gems. Scope out the breads, peanut butter, jams and marmalades, fruit, vegetables, and margarine. You may even get lucky and find Heinz baked beans (vegan) or oatmeal (ask if it was made with milk or water) at hostels that offer a more full English breakfast. However, even at the most bare-bones breakfasts, you are guaranteed to find bread and jam at the very least. (And honestly, you're better off eating that than instant-eggs and canned sausages, anyway). 
  • If your hostel does not offer breakfast, some favorite backpacker breakfasts of mine are: banana and peanut butter on bread/toast, fruit salads, instant oatmeal bought at a grocery store with a handful of nuts or dried fruits, apples and pears, cereal with almond or soy milk, or leftovers from what I made the night before (note: cold pasta, stir fries, and pizza tastes awesome the next morning straight out of the fridge)
  • Before leaving on your trip, consider stocking up on a dozen or so hearty and nutritious granola bars that can fill in for a meal or snack when no vegan options are available, such as Cliff bars, Pro Meal bars, or Luna Bars. That way, you can at least guarantee you'll never be hungry.
  • For lunch, a bag of bread, jam, and peanut butter offers a whole week’s worth of lunches for barely a dollar each. And when PB&J sandwiches get tiring, other quick and awesomely cheap lunch ideas are: bean salad (buy canned beans and veggies – such as kidney beans, chickpeas, green beans, corn, peas, canneli beans, mushrooms, and whatever else you find, drain the liquid from the cans, and mix whichever veggies & beans you want together with a splash or two of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, or tomato sauce), veggie sandwiches (slice some sweet peppers, cucumber, onions, tomatoes, and lettuce, and throw them on two mustard-slathered pieces of bread, and voila- also the perk of this is that mustard can go for a few days with refrigeration and stay edible, as opposed to hummus or condiments from animal products which need refrigeration)
  • For dinner, some more ideas are: pasta with tomato sauce, and to bulk it up, throw in a can or two of veggies or beans (I personally like peas, mushrooms, and chickpeas in my backpacker pastas); rice with lentils/beans/veg; stir fry; stews and soups (grab some veggie broth, veggies, beans, grains such as barley, and cheap spices to make a hearty few meals); curries; veggie ramen; veggie hot-dogs, which are surprisingly common to find and quick to prepare; if there’s an oven or you’re cooking over an open flame, take advantage and make roasted veggies by mixing them with olive oil and salt, or wrap up veggies, corn, and potatoes in tin foil to roast over a fire.
  • If you’re going to be staying somewhere with a freezer, use that opportunity to buy frozen veggies to add to your dinner for a variation from canned veggies (more nutritional content in frozen veg)
  • If you’re in a region where avocados are everywhere, take advantage and make guacamole, or smashed avocado sandwiches/toast with salt and pepper. If you want to get fancy, throw in chopped onions, tomato, and lettuce. 
  • In bigger Western cities, it’s common now to find plant milks at big supermarkets (such as rice or soy milk); look out for that if you have a hankering for cereal and you have a place to refrigerate the milk.
  • Learn how to say vegetarian/vegan, milk, cheese, butter, egg, and no in the local language, or at the very least, write them down and keep them on you! If you’re eating out and are unsure if something contains animal products, you’ll be able to ask. 
  • If you have a fridge and you find hummus at the local market, stock up on that and make some hummus veggie sandwiches. 
  • Snacks that can endure long travel days without spoiling or bruising: apples, pears and bananas as long as they're a bit underripe, carrots/peppers/cucumbers, pretzels (check for whey in the ingredients), dark chocolate (usually 75% cacao or more is vegan but check anyway), granola bars, nuts and dried fruits, potato chips, pickles (I may be weird about that but I love pickles and they last forever)

AND FINALLYwww.HapyCow.net is an excellent resource for finding vegan and vegetarian restaurants (or at least restaurants that offer veg options) in most cities around the world.

Happy carrot munching and globe trotting!

To See the Northern Lights

It was my final night in the Arctic.

We hiked for two miles through heavy snow under the bent limbs of silver trees. At around midnight, we reached a high clearing, where we only paused to catch our breath and readjust our snowshoes, all the while making quiet, solemn jokes to lighten the mood. Because of the cloud coverage the night before and the seemingly heavy clouds we were having that night as well, it seemed that our chances of seeing the Northern Lights were quickly fading. I'd emptied my pockets to spontaneously fly 4,000 miles to spend just shy of a week in Sweden's Abisko National Park, high above the Arctic Circle where the sun never rose, with the ambitious hopes of seeing the Earth's spectacular natural light show. The aurora borealis has held a rather significant hold on my heart since I was about 11 years old and I became mesmerized with surreal photographs of the Northern Lights in a National Geographic magazine. 

Fast forward to January, 2015, and there I was. Under heavy gray clouds, we paused. Looked at each other, wondering whether to go on or turn around.

But then, out of the corner of my eye,
I saw that the clouds had cleared.

I always told my family that if there was one thing on this planet I had to do before I die, it's see the Northern Lights.

And I did.

The aurora that night was so unusually spectacular that we ended up making a campfire and sat in the snow for four hours as we watched the rays of color streak across the sky. Aurora Borealis doesn’t just sit there and fade. They are exactly as you've dreamed. They dance. They literally dance. They shimmered, they rippled, they waved, they exploded. Exploded. We saw emerald greens, reds, and turquoise woven into white. At one point, and only for a few seconds, right above me was the heart of it all; the epicenter where the aurora explodes on to the earth's atmosphere, where light was radiates streaks in every direction from a center ball of light -- the eye of the aurora, locals told me, which is rare to see. Colors illuminated the sprawling lake at the base of the mountain we sat on, and they touched the jagged snowy horizon from the north to the south, west to the east. Over the fire, we boiled hot lingonberry tea, and as we sipped it out of paper cups and laid with our frozen noses pointed up towards the stars, a local man sat by me and told me, “I have been living in Lapland for almost a decade. And these lights tonight are the best I have seen in years.”

For four hours, we stayed quiet. We sat still. Listened to the fire; listened to a pack of wolves or dogs, somewhere, howling. And we watched the lights.

I can’t possibly put into words what this experience was like, and all this time later, I'm still fathoming how to describe it.

Hours later, I stumbled in an ethereal stupor back to my guesthouse, smelling of campfire smoke, my hair tangled in icy knots, sweet berry tea on my lips, and my cheeks damp and salty from frozen tears.

That night I dreamt of green; of red; of howling wolves; a ribbon painted with color, appearing before my eyes.

I still do.

 

If you want to see the Northern Lights yourself this winter, even if you're on a tight budget or schedule,
here's how I did it.

  • Tickets to Oslo from the U.S. are generally cheap in January, so use that opportunity. Once in Olso, spend a full day or two in the city getting acquainted, adjusted to the time zone, and enjoying the quiet, clean, colorful streets of the Norway capital.

  • From Oslo, take a quick flight to Narvik, a small city far above the Arctic Circle.

  • Daily trains depart from Narvik's main station to Abisko National Park, on the other side of the border, deep in Sweden's frozen tundra. The train trip is about 3 hours, but the journey is unforgettable. (Also, don't be surprised if you're the only one on the entire 8-car train).

  • In Abisko, stay at any of the hotels, but I recommend the Abisko Guesthouse. Next to a decent grocery store, small pub, a lovely 30 minute walk on a moonlit path to the main tourist center (although you can arrange car transfers if you don't want to walk), and 5-10 minutes walk to the massive Abisko lake (excellent for aurora watching). The Guesthouse is reasonably priced for its clean (and warm!) facilities, full kitchen with adjoined large common room, reception area where you can book any activity imaginable, and mostly, a fantastic staff. I really have yet to stay at a guesthouse or hostel where I've adored the staff as much as I did here.

  • Spend at least 3 nights in Abisko. This will give you three chances to see the Lights, and will give you time to get your feet on the ground. I'll be honest: Abisko is extremely disorienting. By noon, the sky is already sinking back into darkness from its steady bluish-mauve tone that it takes on between 10 AM and 2 PM, so it feels like you've wasted the day even if you've only had a cup of coffee and taken a short walk. (If you come in late January or February, you may get some sunlight reflecting on the trees as the sun almost crests the mountain horizon, but you won't actually see the sun for some time).

  • Because of this, I recommend booking plenty of activities before you arrive to be sure that your schedule is full, and to be sure they don't fill up. (Activities such as: dog sledding, snow shoeing, visiting the Sky Station, ice climbing, meeting a herd of reindeer, or even taking a day trip to Narvik or nearby Kiruna to visit the famous Ice Hotel and meet the inhabitants of Sweden's northernmost Arctic city.

  • Bring spare fully-charged camera batteries with you, as the -28*F drains batteries within an hour; and, bring your warmest gloves, hand warmers, face masks, boots, socks, and hats imaginable. The Guesthouse will supply you with heavy-duty Arctic suits to withstand the extreme temperatures, but your extremities will be at risk, and there is a very real possibility of frostbite; consider your face, hands, and feet when packing. You want to be warm and dry.

  • If you want to get photos of the Lights, don't forget your camera tripod. And practice learning how to take long exposure star photos so you can be sure to capture the landscape. (Hint: ISO 1200, f/stop 3.5, shutter speed 30 seconds, lens on manual and focused on furthest point, and if you don't have a cable release, turn your camera on a timer so when you press the shutter button you don't cause camera shake)

  • After Abisko, back track down to Oslo, and fly home. If you want to extend your wintry stay in Scandinavia, you can spend a night or two in Narvik, or explore Norway's Lofoten Islands (although they are notoriously cloudy in the winter, so be sure you get your fill of the Lights in Abikso in case you see none in Lofoten), or stop over in Stockholm; there is nothing like that city in a light snowfall with a cup of hot chocolate in your hands.

Flying into the Arctic. Narvik, Norway.

Flying into the Arctic. Narvik, Norway.

A lone house in the tundra. View from the train to Lapland. This is the sky at noon.

A lone house in the tundra. View from the train to Lapland. This is the sky at noon.

Reindeer spotted in the forest between Abisko and Narvik

Reindeer spotted in the forest between Abisko and Narvik

A dog team pulls his musher

A dog team pulls his musher

After being outside in -30*F for three minutes, everything starts to freeze

After being outside in -30*F for three minutes, everything starts to freeze

Frozen forests of Lapland

Frozen forests of Lapland



My Top 10 Must-Do's in Nepal

I've been asked to begin doing my Top Highlights for some of my favorite spots in the world; so I'm beginning with Nepal, where I spent three months and consider one of my favorite places in the world. While it's pretty impossible to narrow down the top splendors to just 10, here's a solid list for your upcoming adventure.

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1. Trek in the Everest and Annapurna regions. If you go to Nepal and don’t go backpacking from teahouse to teahouse, you will miss out on something so special and extraordinary and unique to Nepal and Nepal alone. You get up close and personal with the most famous mountains in the world. You spend your days in the wilderness, around waterfalls and wildlife and glaciers and hidden hot springs, and you spend your nights with steaming cups of hot chocolate and chai and you exchange stories with travelers from around the globe. Stay at teahouses where your bed will cost anywhere from $.50 cents to $5 a night, and eat at small houses where locals will boast menus featuring anything from fried noodles to apple pie. It’s a quirky and beautiful backcountry experience unlike anywhere else in the world that I've ever been. Some of the top treks in these regions are the Everest Base Camp Trek, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Annapurna Circuit, and Poon Hill Trek. (Any of those last three can be combined for a mega-trek, too).

2. Get your fill of the local cuisine: stuff yourself with momos (dumplings filled with anything from meat to cheese to veggies to chocolate), dal bhat (a meal consisting of steamed rice, lentil soup, vegetables, pickles, and a small yogurt or curry sauce), tongba (warm millet beer), apple pie in a teahouse (well, an attempt at apple pie), spicy chai (my favorite chai in all of Nepal is at David's Restaurant in Lakeside, Pokhara; find it on the street that the North Face Inn is on), fruit sold from the street-side vendors, mango and banana lassi, heaps fried noodles and black tea at chaat houses, and a massive post-trekking celebratory breakfast of croissants and donuts at any bakery in Kathmandu. 

3. Go paragliding over Pokhara. Enough said.

4. Spend at least one night/two days on a whitewater rafting/kayaking trip, though I recommend at least 3 nights to really feel remote and enjoy the wildlife and remote campsites. The rivers are surprisingly warm year round, and nothing beats how good freshly popped popcorn tastes when cooked over a campfire on a sandy shore of a Himalayan river, then falling asleep in your tent listening to the rapids and the wind. I mean, really.

5. Visit Boudhanath, the world’s largest Buddhist stupa. Located in Kathmandu and relatively untouched by the earthquake earlier this year, monks continue to make their walk around the spectacular holy site as they spin the prayer wheels underneath a canopy of prayer flags. The site in and of itself is overwhelming moving, with a mix of incense smoke and flocks of pigeons and the chanting and humming of drums and the monks.

6. See the sunrise from Sarangkot, the highest point in Pokhara. Leave your hostel at 3 AM to head to the base of the hill. There’s a viewing platform at the top, but because it is often pack with tourists (especially during the high season), I recommend making a detour on any small trail from the main path to go sit by yourself on a flower terrace away from the crowds. When I did this, it was dead quiet; just me, a thermos of black tea I carried from my hostel, a couple other people who had the same idea, and the sun’s light reflecting off the glacier massifs of Macchapucchre and the staggering peaks of Annapurna range. (Plus, Sarangkot is dotted with charming villages with a spectacular mountain backdrop that you can only see if you make the climb up).

7. Rent a motorcycle or motor-scooter in Pokhara. Use it to explore, just carry a map with you. Drive around the fields of wildflowers, hidden lakes, bat caves, and Tibetan refugee camps. It’s something like $7 per day. Just be warned that Nepal is notorious for its awful road conditions and reckless drivers; while I didn't have a problem and neither did any of my friends who did the same, just be extremely careful and diligent and avoid steep roads with switchbacks.

8. Spend a solid day or two in Bhaktapur, Kathmandu’s ancient city. Bhaktapur was one of the most damaged areas of Kathmandu, yet as of June 15 this year, the town is open for visitors and is begging for tourism. Apparently, today it resembles how it was before tourism began booming in the area, and its inhabitants have flocked back to revitalize the area. Let yourself get lost in the medieval town (it’s pretty easy to, actually, thanks to its winding streets and curved alleyways). The squares are breathtaking, and every ancient brick street is alive with buffalo and markets and shaded by towering monasteries and temples, slowly being rebuilt to their splendor. And nearby there’s Nagarkot, a small village which is famous for its sunrise views of Everest, which is now open again for visitors and could use any tourism it can get.

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9. Explore Chitwan in the south in all its humid jungle glory. Buses arrive and depart daily in Chitwan from Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Lumbini. The most popular attraction in Chitwan is the two hour elephant ride, and while I do not condone that (as it’s extremely controversial regarding their abuse, and you can play with the elephants in the river for free without exploiting/harming them), the jungle Jeep safari is a must do (I saw a leopard, rhinos, and many people see tigers!). Plus, it doesn’t hurt to end the day with an ice cold beer at sunset on the banks of the Chitwan river.

10. Look out for festivals, and align your trip with them. Holi (the festival of color) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so if you can aim to be in Nepal during that time, it's an opportunity you should jump on. I will never forget how special of an experience it was to participate in such a beautiful holiday with so much history, joy, and, of course, color.

Costa Rica

For the past two weeks I've been in Costa Rica, which was a last-minute sorta thing where one minute I was unpacking from a road trip in Eastern Europe, and the next minute I was on a plane to Central America. 

As Costa Rica is one of the most traveled to countries per capita, evidence of the tourism industry was extraordinary; national parks abound (nearly 25% of the country is protected), roadside restaurants flocked with tourbuses in every corner of the country, hotels packed, hostels in every town imaginable, and therefore, a respectably thriving economy. Of any country in Latin America I've been to before, I found that Costa Rica was the easiest to get around simply because of the amount of connections and resources available for travelers, such as tour companies for any budget or lifestyle, buses going steadily between every major tourist town, and a copious amount of other travelers. Honestly, often times it felt like you had to go far out of your way to interact with locals and find a town that wasn't flooded with tour groups and bars geared solely for the Western backpacker.

That being said, what I found uniquely special about Costa Rica was the friendliness of the locals themselves. I know it's a cliche to say how "nice" and "welcoming" locals are when talking about a country, I really, really want to point it out here. It's been a long time since I've traveled to a country where I was this pleasantly surprised to see how proud, hospitable, welcoming, and friendly Costa Ricans seemed to be. The country is doing enormously well for itself (tourism has risen 18% in the past four years, it's on the road to being the first carbon-neutral country in the world, it has 4% of the world's biodiversity, and the population has a 98% literacy rate), and Costa Ricans are obviously proud; as they should be. The joy they had and pride for their country made for an especially positive experience. 

As for my personal trip, the visit was a whirlwind, but it was wonderful; skirting through jungle rivers to catch the sunrise, standing before waterfalls and smoke-capped volcanos, endless plates of pineapple and papaya and gallo pinto (the local dish, consisting of rice and beans mixed with various herbs, spices, and fried plantains), hours upon hours of cramped vans snaking through mountain roads, waking up at 4 AM too many times to count (sometimes on purpose, sometimes because of the howler monkeys screeching from the canopy just outside the cabin door), the kind of heat that’s so heavy you can feel every hair on your body, oceanside walks under stormy skies, waiting two hours just for a minute of witnessing a sea turtle make her nest and wade back into the ocean under a heavy full moon, afternoons and mornings of rainstorms on tin roofs, the taste of warm cacao sipped out of a coconut while sitting around a fire in a small village’s home, learning about the medicinal trees of the rainforest from a shaman himself, evenings of belly-aching laughter and tables scattered with imperials and caipirinhas, watching a wild sloth climb through the roof of a restaurant (twice), plenty of “local stuff,” coffee upon coffee upon coffee, leafing through the pages of books sticky with salty ocean air as we made our way across lakes and canals to the next horizon.

I only wish I had more time there, but I guess that's an excuse to someday come back.

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an introduction of sorts...

Welcome!

I admit I never know how to begin these things or how to write about myself, but I guess I’ll start with this:
My name is Tate. I’m a traveler, photographer, and writer living on the coast of northern California, and this is my blog.

I've felt for awhile now that I need a new space to put all my thoughts, photographs, tips/advice, writing pieces, and resources about travel, so here it is, and for those of you who don’t know who I am: hello!

  • I was born and raised in New York and now I live in a small, sunny house on the coast of Northern California, on the quiet shores of San Francisco.
  • I’ve been a self-employed travel photographer for the past five years now, working for various publications and selling photos and stories as I go (including National Geographic, but I’ll make a full list eventually)
  • I've been to 57+ countries, and I hope to never slow down.
  • I’m a published author of a novel and am currently in the process of writing my second book. I also freelance writing pieces for various publications, mostly online.
  • I’m on the road to being a full-time photojournalist where I’ll be focusing on documenting international environmental conflicts and issues / violations of human rights. I’m currently studying Swahili and have hopes to learn Arabic in order to focus on regions in Africa and the Middle East.
  • I’m a passionate vegan and am often extremely outspoken about animal rights and the conflicts that surround animal agriculture, abuse, and controversies. When it comes to travel, transitioning from being a meat-eating traveler to a vegan traveler has been a unique experience, so you’ll probably hear about that a lot. (But spoiler alert: yes, you can be a vegan traveler, and yes, it is cheap and easy and worthwhile).
  • I’m madly in love with anything in the wilderness that gets adrenaline pumping, although mountaineering, ice climbing, kayaking, and backpacking hold special places in my heart.

I hope you all find something to take away from these ramblings, even if that something is something small.

Abisko, Sweden, 2015.

Abisko, Sweden, 2015.