Most Travel Advice is Useless

The internet is full of questions about travel and, having visited or lived in 62 countries or so, I regularly receive many such questions myself:

  • What is the best place to visit in Germany?
  • When is a good time to visit Spain?
  • What do you recommend to see in Israel?
  • Is it better to go to Cluj or to Brașov?
  • Is Colombia safe?
  • How many days do I need for Vilnius?
  • How much money do I need for one month in Europe?
  • Is Scotland worth it?

I refuse to answer such generic questions. More importantly, I suggest that you never pose them. Because travel advice is personal, like relationship advice or like financial advice. Its value depends on the goals, ideas, wishes, limitations, expectations of the individual traveler.

It’s impossible to give good travel advice to people without knowing them. The advice which I might give about hiking in Chapada Diamantina in Brazil might be wonderful for Joe, but terrifying to Anita. Some people think that 35 degrees heat or more is a requirement for enjoying a place, while others (like me) prefer to go in winter when you are the only visitor and the locals will have time for a chat. I hate masses of people, particularly when there is no compelling reason for everyone to be there, but others want to go to Oktoberfest, inexplicably.

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I know some really quiet spots.

I would need to know if you prefer nature or cities, how many kilometers you can walk, if you prefer medieval architecture or communist brutalism, if you prefer to be among people or not, if you speak the language, how much time you have and how much money you want to spend.

Whenever I read questions like “We will be in Germany for one week. What do you recommend us to see?”, I also wonder why people even bother to go to a place if they have no idea about it. Is it only to check it off a list? How sad.

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I might send you to towns where nobody lives anymore.

Having said that, of course I am going to continue giving unsolicited advice on this blog. But keep in mind that it’s my blog and that my idea of traveling is doing it slowly, preparing well, getting to know people and trying to understand a country. With those of you who think similarly or are curious to try it out, I am happy to exchange advice. Not surprisingly to master travelers, this will be far less about places than about methods and strategies, for example on traveling with little money, on adventure or on making friends in new places.

If you are the kind of person who is after yet more Instagraph photos, this is probably the wrong blog for you. Anyway, in that case, you don’t need to leave the house at all, because you can do everything on Photoshop. That would also be better for the environment. – All others, please keep the questions coming, but tell me more about yourself and what you want to get out of a trip! Otherwise, I won’t be able to help you, and I might send you into some mountain range from where you will never find the way back.

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Be prepared to end up at the cemetery when you ask me for directions.

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Posted in Life, Photography, Travel | 2 Comments

Animals of Calgary

I haven’t been to the Calgary Zoo yet, because I am always a bit wary of watching animals locked up in cages. But then, I have seen so many wild animals walking around the city that I am beginning to wonder if the zoo might have an open-door policy.

One day, as I got up early, I saw a monstrous moose by the side of the road.

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I don’t know if they are really dangerous, but the sheer size makes them appear quite intimidating. I was definitely happy that it was having breakfast and was thus less interested in me.

By the way, if anyone can explain the difference between a moose and an elk, I would be thankful. Not that I will be able to remember it, probably.

Much more numerous and definitely not dangerous are the deer.

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Some of them even work in agriculture.

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Other animals are just passing through, like the Canada geese. I was surprised to see them migrating south only in January, but they are an amazing sight (and sound), flying in large formations.

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A particular phenomenon are white rabbits. They are all over town, and the story of their origin is quite peculiar. A few years ago, there was a magicians’ conference in Calgary. They performed tricks upon public demand and, as clichés are persistent, most people wanted the wizards to pull a white rabbit out of a hat. After a week, there were thousands of white rabbits roaming the streets.

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Of course there are also plenty of squirrels.

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Already on my first day in Calgary, walking in Nose Hill Park, I saw coyotes. A bit of a scary sight, at least for me, because I had never met them before and didn’t know how they would react. It turned out that they kept their distance.

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Many people have warned me of coyotes, advising me to take baseball bats, hockey sticks or rifles with me as I go for walks. I never do that, of course, because most times, I even forget my glasses, my phone and my hat.

Also, it seems that fear of coyotes is more due to cultural heritage than realistically warranted, similar to the wolf in Europe. In Native American cultures, the coyote was an ambivalent creature, a trickster on the one hand, but also a hero or the creator’s sidekick. Anglo-Americans depicted the coyote as untrustworthy and cowardly, an image which seems to have stuck.

There have been attacks by coyotes on humans, but usually on small children. And many more humans get killed by dogs, other humans or cars.

One night, as I came home, there was a coyote hanging around the rubbish bins. I was startled at first, but the coyote seemed neither aggressive nor scared. It gave me time to take out my camera and then slowly walked away.

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And then there are lions, watching over the city at sunset,

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and watching over me every night.

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Posted in Canada, Photography | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Brexit Poetry

Everybody knows the line “no man is an island”, but nobody knows that when John Donne wrote Devotions upon Emergent Occasions in 1624, he actually warned of Brexit.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

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I am not a big fan of John Donne, I should add. When I was in prison in Iran, I was given one book in English: John Donne’s Selected Poems. It was a nice gesture by one of the interrogators, but I am simply not a big fan of medieval poetry. Lying on the concrete floor, fighting insects and fear, listening to the screams in neighboring cells, still rooting for a revolution from whose ranks I had been plucked, I was not in the mood for romantic poetry.

I was in prison for one week, but I only got to page 5 or 6. And I would have had plenty of time, believe me. The light was on for 24 hours a day, too, which is quite a nice service for readers. But Evin prison should get some tomes of John Steinbeck, Alexandre Dumas or Thomas Mann, the kind of books one only finds time to read on internet-free islands, aircraft carriers and during incarceration.

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Posted in Books, Iran, Politics, UK | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

“Wild”, not a hiking movie

It’s winter and I am in a big city, so I felt like watching a movie about the outdoors and about hiking in anticipation of the coming summer. Wild, the story of Cheryl Strayed’s hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, promised to be such a film.

Disappointingly though, there is not much about hiking and the nature along the trail beyond what you already saw in the trailer. In the film, the walk is interspersed with flashbacks to a life of misery, drugs, affairs, death and confusing flashbacks within flashbacks. These bits and bobs of personal drama, completely irrelevant to the hike, didn’t manage to arouse any interest. Nor did the many scenes of Reese Witherspoon in the shower, I should add. All of this was rather annoying because it cut up what I had believed was the actual story. But maybe I had gotten that wrong.

Sure, there were a few mountains and sunsets, but for a 94-day hike depressingly little of it. In the end, I didn’t quite get how Cheryl had covered more than 1,000 miles, for I hardly saw her hiking. Maybe she hitchhiked most of it.

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I also didn’t like how the film made it appear as if everyone going on a long hike has psychological issues. Not everybody going on a long hike is trying to overcome some trauma. A lot of us just enjoy being outdoors. We like the slow change of scenery, the surprise encounters on the way, being close to nature, the sense of achievement.

The only two good pieces of advice about hiking were (1) to carry as little as possible (but you already learned that from my hiking adventures) and (2) to have packages sent to you, using the poste restante service of post offices on the way. That’s something I hadn’t thought of yet, and I may utilize that on longer hikes in the future. Be prepared for me begging for chocolate and cigars!

But, to leave on a positive note, the music was good.

Trying to come up with better recommendations, I realize that hiking simply may not be suited for movies. Weit is the only one I can think of, but that’s in German. You are better off with books like Into the Wild (there is a movie version, but I haven’t seen it yet), A Time of Gifts or Walking the Woods and the Water.

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Posted in Films, Music, USA | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Shaped by Gender Discrimination

I had gotten up early on Sunday morning. I was all energetic and fired up. I had put a motivational cassette tape into the walkman. I was ready to run, to lift weights, to punch the bag, to push-up and to sweat.

But when I got to the gym, they told me it’s for women only.

I kept walking around the neighborhood in Calgary, quite a workout in itself, but faced the same problem at each gym I attempted to visit: women only. GoodLife, Curves and many others apply this apartheid-like policy.

Slightly fed up, I decided to join the next club that would not discriminate against men. It was a Papa John’s.

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And thus, with a quest for fitness, began my path to fatness.

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Posted in Canada, Feminism, Food, Health, Sports | Tagged | 15 Comments

A Lonely Walk in the Snow

Humans who are cold can’t really be beautiful. Nature can.

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It looks like the perfect day for a long walk, with the sun shining from above and being reflected by the snow on the ground. So much light, and so few people to share it with. Because it is what they confusingly call a weekday, which seems to prevent them from walking, enjoying, almost from living.

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I am usually quite happy to be alone, but today, I wouldn’t mind sharing the walk with a special person. The day would be even brighter, the walk brisker, the conversation more interesting, the heart beating faster, the smile wider, if she was here.

But she is in prison.

It doesn’t bother her anymore, because almost everybody she knows is there, too. Most of them wouldn’t even think of it as prison because they are allowed to go home at night. But if they ever didn’t show up the next morning at the large cage of steel, concrete and glass, each of them assigned to a different cell on a different floor in a different building, depending on their sentence, they would be in trouble soon. Same if they ever wanted to go home early. Or if they wanted to speak their mind. Trouble rarely arises, though, because these prisoners are rather docile.

I have reached the top of the hill, maybe led by a romantic wish to see her from afar, and the complex comes into full view.

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These places have evolved, it seems at first sight, yet looking more closely, it’s the same old idea as on the plantation. People in power use those without power for their own gain. Pressure and control are exercised from the top down. Whoever can’t stand the pressure will pass it on. Downward, of course, for that is the only direction. The other direction, upwards, is reserved for time and labor, transformed into profits, ever growing, but never enough.

People wear uniforms, just like in a labor camp. Different uniforms for different groups of laborers, because what is divided is so much easier to control. People don’t see that they are in the same boat if half of them wear a green uniform and the other half an orange one. Even less so if you pay some of them more and promise everyone else that they, too, can earn more if they just work harder and shut up. And in case the paltry income wasn’t enough to keep them toiling, you can promise the serfs an even paltrier pin for every five years of obedient service. And maybe a watch after 15 years. It’s so insipid, it’s insulting.

By the way, employment is not primarily the sale of work, it’s the sale of time, the sale of an irretrievable part of your life, day after day, until most of it has disappeared or you are too exhausted to enjoy it. In the process, companies get richer by exploiting labor, banks and real estate companies (and probably a few lawyers, too) get richer because you need to live in a place where you would never need to live if it wasn’t for work (similar to the owner not allowing you to move off the estate). Car companies get richer because you think you need a car to get to the place of work (like the companies in Steinbeck novels than “lend” you the tools you need for your daily job, for a fee, of course).

Punishment for non-compliance is no longer the withholding of food, but the withholding of money, rendering the perpetrator poor, homeless and destitute. But again, this rarely happens, for fear itself is enough. Ostracism also works wonders. You don’t even need to ship people to an island anymore. If you dare to quit, you will lose “friends” and prestige. And thus, people who are only at home for breakfast and one hour of TV after work invest tens of thousands of dollars into the house, which they don’t own because it really belongs to the bank. Instead of going for a walk or a run every day, people sell their time to a factory or an insurance company, then pay a gym for the privilege of being allowed to run. The saddest thing to observe is how sincerely people believe they need stuff, which until a year ago they didn’t even know existed.

Sometimes, it seems everyone has gone mad, selling their whole adult lives for mere stuff, most of it produced in China. Nobody has time to deeply reflect on this, because everybody is running back and forth, making sales calls, attending meetings, writing reports, advising, consulting and bullshitting.

But a prison with a lot of inmates is still a prison. Or maybe a madhouse.

My friend knows herself how bad the situation is. She has complained about it often enough, when she had to interrupt a dinner or a movie for a phone call, an e-mail or a spreadsheet. She is younger than me, yet she has more grey hair. She is so tired and exhausted that every Friday night, she falls asleep as if capitalist vampires have sucked her dry of all energy. She gave up her dream of being a singer in order to boost someone else’s quarterly figures, just like lawyering once squelched my writing. She probably earns a hundred times more than me, yet I have a hundred times more time, more life, more peace. Granted, she could beat me at a game of Excel.

It has gotten considerably colder, windier, icier, chillier by now. The beautiful day has turned into a proper snowstorm, as many things in life do. Pondering the situation from which my friend sees no way out, although there are so many, I want to ride down the hill into town, storm the office tower and liberate her. But instead of a lance, I only have a pen.

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The irony is, of course, that she will never have time to read this.

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Posted in Canada, Economics, Life, Love, Philosophy, Photography, Time | Tagged , , , , , , | 46 Comments

What does Canada think about Brexit?

Well, the Union Jack is already flying at half-mast here. Or two-thirds mast at best.

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Canadian businesses are quite worried, given that the UK is Canada’s third largest export market and many Canadian companies use the UK as a base for their European operations. Unless the UK still changes track, it will drop out of CETA, the free-trade agreement between Canada and the EU, in less than three months.

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Posted in Canada, Economics, Elections, Photography, Politics | Tagged , | 4 Comments