Boarding Area

There’s a small cottage industry of avid travelers exploiting loyalty and frequent flier programs to earn maximum free “miles.” The best moderated forum I’ve found for their tricks, tips, and hacks on how best to fly free, or almost free, is a group of bloggers called Boarding Area. They all share great stuff but I am particularly fond of Gary Leff’s blog, View from the Wing. He specializes in maximizing miles for free trips.

-- KK  

Sample Excerpts:

Here’s what I believe to be the current 10 best credit card signup bonuses on offer: 1 Chase Sapphire Preferred offers no fee the first year, 40,000 points after $3000 in spend within 3 months, no foreign currency conversion fees, double points on travel and dining, points transfers to United, Hyatt, Southwest, Amtrak, British Airways, Korean Airlines, Marriott Priority Club, and Ritz-Carlton. Probably the best all-around credit card, and with a great signup bonus. There was for a few days a similar offer with just $2000 rather than $3000 as the required spending, but that was pulled rather quickly.

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Six tips for folks just getting started with miles and points. The basics are:

  • Start with a goal, that motivates you and also helps your choice of program. Nothing worse than finding out you want to go to French Polynesia, but United miles only let you get there flying to New Zealand first.
  • Never pass up miles, always sign up for frequent flyer programs even when it’s not your primary program. The miles add up eventually. Lots of programs become easily manageable at a site likeAwardWallet.com.



Couchsurfing * Airbnb

I travel a lot. I hope to never book a hotel room again. I stay in people’s homes, arranged either by couchsurfing or Airbnb.

While I was traveling through Europe as a student I got tired of staying with other American travelers in hostels. I was looking for a more authentic and local experience so I began to stay in homes through Couchsurf.com. Over the years I’ve stayed in about 25 homes. Once you sign up you can search for locations and hosts with similar philosophy, interests, and traveling tendencies. There is no payment for sleeping on whatever couch/bed/futon is provided. To show my gratitude I make it a rule to cook a meal for my hosts. I’ve also reciprocated the generosity by hosting couchsurfers in my homes. CS runs on trust, interests and positive reviews. Since there is no payment, the main reason to join is to meet like-minded people who have stories and camaraderie to share. As long as you have a detailed profile, you will attract and find people with similar interests. Being a female traveler has never been an issue since I normally travel with a friend, or I choose to stay with primarily female hosts. I have met some of my best travel companions and friends through CS. You can find couchsurfing all over the world now.

Now that I am working I can also use Airbnb. Airbnb offers an elegant interface and large database of ordinary to extraordinary places to stay all around the world, at a reasonable price. The service they offer is the curation of unique places, as well as increased security. Part of why some people will stay in an Airbnb and not a couch on CS is because Airbnb treats security as its primary financial and legal liability. Airbnb offers a 24-hour hotline, secure payment platform, identity verification, verified photographers and profile reviews. They also show whether you have mutual friends with the host, which makes me more inclined to stay with them. I’ve discovered some unbelievably beautiful and unique places that I otherwise would never have had access to at a price lower than a conventional hotel, almost by two or three fold ($50 vs. $100-150).

Both CouchSurfing and Airbnb offer “local experiences” and a more affordable way to travel. However, CS requires more of a commitment to engage with your host (share stories, eat a meal together) in exchange for free board vs. Airbnb, which requires payment yet is more luxurious and less personal. Think of it as the difference between getting a ride in a taxi (Airbnb), vs. from a rideshare (Couchsurf). In the cab you sit in the back and you don’t need to talk to the driver if you don’t want to, while the rideshare is more intimate so you sit up front and chat.

When deciding which service I want to use, I always ask myself: Do I want surprise or security? CS always surprises me with interesting people and stories, while Airbnb offers local luxury at an affordable price.

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Kreuzberg, Berlin. From $120

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Kreuzberg, Berlin. From $63

-- Ting Kelly  



Hello! USA

Over the years, I’ve hosted a dozen different newly arrived immigrants in my residences. Some came from Eastern Europe, some from Africa, some from Asia, with different experiences of modernity. But all these bewildered immigrants were FOB — fresh off the boat, and overwhelmed. They didn’t know all the thousands of tiny but critical every-day bits of knowledge it takes to survive in the US. Like how to write a personal check (an almost unique American system), how to get a credit card, how to file a tax return, what to bring to a party, how to rent a place, how to apply for a job, how to get a SS#, how to properly greet people, how to decipher a drug prescription, and so on. These are all things that you know but you don’t even know you know.

So over the years I’ve handed new visitors the most current edition of this book. It’s the best of a number of American cultural survival books. It requires good English comprehension (not as much as some of the other guides); if the new arrival does not read English well, you can use this book as your guide to convey to them the invisible systems in the US. Often immigrants will pick up this kind of info from older immigrants of their same background — if there are any nearby — but that friendly info is not always correct or the best.

I’ve often thought a version of this book, slightly modified, would be great for teenagers about to head off on their own. That kind of guide would seem obvious to most of us, since it would be full of stuff that “everyone knows.” Meaning we weren’t explicitly taught it. But mastering the complexity of modern life should be taught and is taught pretty well in Hello! USA.

America is a nation built on the incoming flow of immigrants. There will be more coming. This is a good tool if you have the occasion to help a new arrival.

-- KK  

Hello! USA
Judy Priven, Anne P. Copeland
2011, 244 pages
$22

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Choosing Legal Assistance. Tell the truth whenever any immigration officer interviews you or you are filling out a government form. If you are having any immigration problems, an attorney may be able to help you, as long as you have told the truth; if you have not told the truth, your problem may be more difficult to solve. You may even be deported without the right to return.

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hello-usa3sm

Write the amount both in numbers and in words. Draw a line after the words to fill the space, so no one can change your writing. (In this example, the “bank routing number” is pre-printed in the bottom left-hand corner (00112378945). Your bank “account number” is next (0230181934). The last few digits (1101) refer to this specific check.)

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What to Do If a Police Officer Stops Your Car

  • When you see the flashing lights behind you, stop your car on the side of the road as soon as it is safe.
  • Do not get out of your car. Wait for the officer to come to your car. Then lower your window.
  • The police officer will ask to see your drivers’ license and your automobile registration.
  • Let the officer tell you why you were stopped.
  • Cooperate and be courteous.
  • Do not try to pay your fine in cash to the policeman. If he misunderstands you, he may think you are trying to bribe him which is against the law. Pay all fines by mail or to the clerk of a court.

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Garage Sales. In the warm months, you will see signs advertising “garage sales” (also called “moving sales,” “yard sales,” “tag sales,” or “barn sales”). People put out (in their garage, or yard, or barn) housewares, toys, clothes, and appliances that they no longer need or want. The prices are usually very low. The quality will range from excellent to awful. Sometimes several families or a church will join together to hold one of these sales – then the selection is large. These are sometimes called “flea markets.”

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hello-usa2sm

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Gifts for Special Occasions

Wedding and bridal shower.
Many couples make a list of the gifts they want; then they “register” the list at a store. Ask the couple if they are “registered.” Then go to the store with the list and choose something to send. See Chapter 12 for more details about registries.

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Being “On Time”

Parties at home: Do not come even a few minutes early for any party at a home; often, the host or hostess will still be getting ready.

Appointments: Come at the exact time. Many Americans do not like to be kept waiting. In fact, if you are more than 20 minutes late, the person may not wait any longer for you.




Hack Your Own Adventure Tours

Packaged adventure tours can be fun and useful. A guided hut-to-hut walk in the Italian Alps, or a bicycle tour around the villages of Rajasthan, or a kayaking cruise between Caribbean islands are fantastic journeys that can be hard to program yourself. A good adventure tour agency knows how to smoothly sequence events like this, and on higher-price tours you may get a guide as well.

But I prefer to create my own adventure tours, because I can save many thousands of dollars that way. I use the commercial adventure tour itineraries as a basis for my own travels, and then modify them as needed. The way I figure it, if they can move a dozen people along the route, I should be able to do it with one or two. The most reputable agencies publish their itineraries online in great detail as a sales incentive. But to complete many of the routes they are selling requires private transportation or special accommodations. You might need a pick-up or delivery at a trail-head, or a jeep to reach a village, or even a plane flight, etc. This is where many budget travelers stop. It took me many years to realize that in most places in the world today — even developing nations — it is not hard, or very expensive, to arrange private transportation or expert help. And with the internet, these arrangements can be made beforehand. I’ve pre-arranged jeeps, vans, buses, and boats. The simple rule of thumb is: if a US-based tour agency can pre-arrange it, you can too, and at a great savings.

It will take some time and googling to arrange all the parts of an adventure tour, but the payoff is that you can replicate the same tour for about 1/5th the cost of the glossy professional version. So now I page through the adventure travel sites discovering all kinds of nifty tours I would have never thought about doing. Unlike the unconnected places in a guide book, there’s a logical flow to an itinerary, and because of their high prices, these agencies will hone and optimize a trip for peak experiences. A key thing: pay attention to the time of year they run a tour, which is again highly optimized. Still I wind up modifying them in some way for my own use. I usually chop off the leisurely entry in a big city and head directly to the adventure (see my Laser-back travel advice).

Adventure Tour Agencies

Some famous adventure travel companies specialize in highly-refined premium tours around the world, but they may be low on actual adventures. For instance I find National Geographic Expeditions’ trips (better than their Adventure trips) involve more car and plane travel than suits me, but occasionally they’ll have a nice gem worth replicating. Wilderness Travel gets you walking or kayaking a bit more, but still cover more miles in vehicles than I want, but I have used their itineraries a few times with great success.

Geoex offers pretty cool offbeat trips I’ve not seen elsewhere, but they also have plenty that are too mileage-hungry to count as an adventure. AsiaTranspacific specializes in Asian trips, a few of which stay close to the bone. For Africa and animals I look to Africa Adventure; they have a really good season chart for best times of year and parks for wildlife viewing. I like Zegrahm for inspiration. They do real off-the road adventures, including trips one might describe as “expeditions” which is more my kind of adventure travel.

But of all the tour sites, the one that has provided me with the most appealing itineraries is Journeys International. They emphasize in getting you to walk, hike, bike and kayak and this is really the way to go anywhere. Almost any one of their itineraries would yield a fantastic adventure.

Remember, I have no personal experience with the tours given by any of these outfits. I only use their freely published routes. All these tours are super expensive if you buy them but I would bet they would be really fun and generally well done. I recommend them here only as models to assemble your own.

If you have a favorite adventure tour agency (especially if it is not mentioned here) that you’ve used in any way, leave a comment.

-- KK  

Sample Excerpts:

From Journeys International

big-bhutan




Work Your Way Around the World

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It’s many a graduate’s dream — pay your way as you travel around the world. I lived the dream myself when I was younger, so I know it is possible. Since then I’ve been tracking this subject faithfully, and have read through scores of books and websites offering how-to advice on the dream. They won’t hurt, but this fantastic book — now in its 14th edition! — is really the only one that will give you much help before you leave.

Most of these kind of books are a bunch of hand-waving generalities, or out of date particulars; this one is very specific and very current. It is massively researched, with tons of incoming gossip on where the easily-gotten jobs are this year, and what to do about paperwork and visas in that particular place, and how to land the job, and what you should expect, and letters from those who just did it. It’s all very helpful, practical and inspiring. But don’t get your hopes too high. There are really only two kinds of dependable quick jobs to be found “around the world”: 1) In the service industry in Europe — working at hotels, resorts, bars, camps for other tourists; and 2) teaching English in Asia. For most kids, that’ll be enough. There are hundreds of exceptions to these two, and this book will do its best to point you to them, but they are far fewer, and more dependent on chance. But even that skill — cultivating chance — is tackled with great intelligence in this meaty book, which I can’t recommend too much.

The author Susan Griffith is very prolific and at the center of a number of other related ongoing books, also recommended. Teaching English Abroad, Your Gap Year, and Summer Jobs Worldwide.

-- KK  

Work Your Way Around The World
15th Edition
Susan Griffith
2012, 416 pages
$18

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

It is extremely difficult for anyone whose mother tongue is English to starve in an inhabited place, since there are always people who will pay good money to watch you display a talent as basic as talking.

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According to many travelers like Emma-Louise Parkes, the Albuferia area is the place to head:

I arrived at Faro Airport in June, and went straight to Albuferia. A job-hunter here will be like a kid in a sweet shop. By 12.15pm I was in the resort, by 12.30pm I had found somewhere to stay and had been offered at least four jobs by the evening, one of which I started at 6pm. All the English workers were really friendly individuals and were a goldmine of information. Jobs-wise, I was offered bar work, touting, waitressing, cleaning, packing ice cubes into bags, karaoke singing, nannying for an English bar owner, timeshare tout, nightclub dancer… I’m sure there were more. Touts can earn £16 a night with all the drink they can stomach while waitresses can expect a little less for working 10am-1pm and 6pm-10pm. Attractive females (like myself!) will be head-hunted by lively bars, whereas British men are seen by the locals as trouble and are usually kept behind bars (serving bars that is) and in cellars.

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Taiwan

The hiring policy is virtually universal in Taiwan: almost anyone with a BA can land a job. The country remains a magnet for English teachers of all backgrounds. Hundreds of private language institutes or buhsibans continue to teach young children, cram high school students for university entrance examinations and generally service the seemingly insatiable demand for English conversation and English tuition.

Many well-established language schools are prepared to sponsor foreign teachers for a resident visa, provided the teacher is willing to work for at least a year. Only teachers with a university degree are eligible. Many people arrive on spec to look for work. It is usually easy to find a buhsiban willing to hire you but not so easy to find a good one. If possible, try to sit in on one or two classes before signing a contact. (If a school is unwilling to permit this, it doesn’t bode well.) The majority of schools pay NT$500-$600 (roughly $19-$21.50) per hour.




Vacation Rentals By Owner

Traveling with my family, I prefer staying in houses to sterile hotel rooms. Eating out gets tired after a few nights, and I like to have a full kitchen to make a home-cooked meal. If we’re visiting a city where friends live, we’ll cook a meal and have them over. It’s more comfortable and feels homier.

VRBO.com is an excellent means of finding reasonably priced accommodations, in the U.S. and abroad, that are often larger and more comfortable than hotel rooms, at a lower price. I’ve used it to find great short-term vacation rentals in California, Michigan and Florida. Making arrangements with the homeowners or property managers is easily handled through e-mail, and a deposit is usually required. You do have to clean up after yourself a little more than you would in a hotel room, but the savings and access to a city’s residential neighborhoods rather than its commercial districts make it a worthwhile exchange.

-- J. V.  



The Geek Atlas

I am always looking for offbeat educational places to visit on my travels. The Geek Atlas has rounded up 128 great candidates from around the world. The Atlas calls them “places where science and technology come alive.” I think of these destinations as places that make you think. The possibilities run the gamut from birthplaces of famous inventors and scientists (yawn) to really cool tours of working technological systems (a nuclear power plant, a dam turbine, a solar furnace) to a spectrum of interesting but little known museums, to just cool places like the prime meridian. A lot of these destinations are in the US and UK, but a fair number hail elsewhere. In addition to a description of a destination, author Graham-Cumming writes up a page explaining the key concept behind each spot. I’ve visited a dozen of these science hot spots and they are well worth a short detour, or in some cases a trip just for the purpose. You could probably fill another volume of brainy tourist traps missed by this book: I predict a sequel.

-- KK  

The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive
John Graham-Cumming
2009, 542 pages
$20

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:
geekatlas2.jpg

Solucar PS10 Power Station, Sanlucar la Mayor, Spain

The tower is at the center of a field of heliostats (mirrors that track the movement of the Sun) that focus the bright Spanish sunlight onto a receiver near the tower’s top. The reflected sunlight is so intense that water vapor and dust in the air glow white. All that’s needed to complete the scene is a maniacal James Bond villain atop the tower.

This tower is at the center of the Solucar PS10 power station. At the top of the tower is a solar receiver that is heated by sunlight to create saturated steam at 257°C. The steam is then used to drive a turbine that generates electricity. Make sure you’re wearing sunglasses when you look up to the top; the tower’s brilliant white glow is very intense.

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Taipei 101, Taipei, Taiwan
The 660-Tonne Golden Ball

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The Taipei 101 is the tallest occupied building in the world, with 101 floors overlooking Taipei’s business district. But Taipei is prone to both typhoons and earthquakes, so the skyscraper contains a 660-tonne, gold-colored pendulum near the top to prevent the building from swaying and vibrating. It is the largest and heaviest such pendulum in the world.

Many skyscrapers contain such devices, called tuned mass dampers, for the same purpose, but the Taipei 101 pendulum is unusual because it is on public view. It hangs between the 87th and 91st floors, and there are public viewing areas on the 88th and 89th floors. It’s even visible from the restaurant and bar. Two other tuned mass dampers, located in the building’s pinnacle are not on display and are tiny by comparison: they weigh only 6 tonnes each.

The ball is made of forty-one 12.5-centimeter steel plates welded together for a total size of 5.5 meters. It is attached to the building by eight steel cables, each capable of supporting the ball’s entire weight. In normal use the ball can move up to 35 centimeters in any direction and cuts building vibration by 40%. In a major typhoon, the ball is designed to move up to 1.5 meters; hydraulic bumpers below the ball absorb its energy and prevent it from moving too far.

When the building sways in one direction, the ball opposes the movement by swinging the opposite way. The movement of the ball pushes (and pulls) on the hydraulic bumpers and causes them to heat up, absorbing the energy from the motion of the building. The pendulum is tuned by adjusting the length of the cables holding it. By changing the period of the pendulum (the time it takes to swing back and forth), it can be tuned to match the motion of the building.

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Nevada Test Site, NV

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At the Nevada Test Site, more than 1,000 nuclear explosions were set off between 1951 and 1992. The site contains over 3,600 square kilometers of dry lake beds and mountains, about 100 kilometers northwest of Las Vegas. Once a month, the U.S. Department of Energy provides a free, day-long tour of the Nevada Test Site’s bomb craters, ground zeros, and test paraphernalia.

The tour covers around 400 kilometers of the nuclear explosion-pockmarked landscape: of the 1,021 nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site, only 126 occurred above ground; the rest were underground tests that left the site cratered. The largest crater of all, the Sedan Crater, is the highlight of the tour. It’s almost 400 meters wide and 100 meters deep.




World Party

All the world is a party; you just have to know where to look. My favorite “big happys” are traditional religious festivals, which can’t be beat for color, intensity and otherness. This Rough Guide serves as a good guide to some of the world’s most interesting celebrations. Besides the famous (Mardi Gras, Kuhm Mela), and the infamous (full moon in Hat Rin, Thailand, Love Parade in Berlin), it also lists a hundred smaller lesser known, but still incredible festivals. It’s crammed with color photos, history, reviews, and tips. You could map out a pretty good journey trying to keep up with the possibilities here.

-- KK  

World Party: The Rough Guide to the World’s Best Festivals
Rough Guides
2006, 400 pages
$30

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Maherero Day
Where: Okahandja, Namibia
When: August
How long: 1 day

This very local festival is unique to the Herero people of Okahandja, a quaint little provincial town that’s around an hour’s drive north of the Namibian capital, Windhoek. The Herero are cattle farmers whose history is littered with bloody conflicts, both with their tribal rivals, the Nama, and with German colonialists who almost wiped them out in the twentieth century. On Maherero Day, the clans don traditional dress and parade through town in military style to honour their war dead, starting from the cemetery at the graves of two great chiefs, Kahimunua and Nikodemus, both felled by German bullets. It’s the women’s costumes that make the day a remarkable occasion – they wear elaborate dresses based on a style introduced by German missionaries in the 1800s, with long-sleeved jackets and bodices over voluminous, crinoline-like skirts. Topping off each ensemble is a huge cloth headdress shaped like cow horns, a symbol of wealth in traditional Herero society.

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Participating in Holi is not always your choice to make, especially in the north, where it’s hard to avoid being dragged into the festivities at every street corner. If you’d rather stay clean, then remaining indoors and watching the powder-slinging from the window might be a better option – Holi also involves a number of performances, parades and other pageantry that you can watch from a distance, wherever you are in the country.

Everyone gets involved, showering passers by with multi-coloured powders

Insider info: Coloured powder is available at all marketplaces, but be careful what you buy – many colours contain toxic chemicals and dyes, which are harmful to both the people using them and to the environment, seeping into the soil and the underground water table. In Delhi, the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, on Janpath, and the stalls at Dilli Haat sell natural coloured powders made from flower petals and sandalwood. The Bombay Store and Spencers Hyper Mart, in Mumbai and Pune (Maharashtra) respectively, also cater to a safe and natural Holi.




The People’s Guide to Mexico

I love works that are renewed and improved. Carl Franz and Lorena Havens have been exploring the hinterlands of Mexico and reporting back their travel suggestions in amusing detail since their first edition of this book in 1972. For four decades this venerable guidebook has been the best manual for visiting Mexico, getting better with each edition. It has just been released in its 14th. Franz and Havens are not going to be much help in keeping you up to date with the best hotel in the usual tourist destinations (your standard Lonely Planet-ish guide will handle that). Where The People’s Guide transcends the usual guidebook is in its devotion to the blue highways and backlands, the off beat places and indigenous living.

This guide is best for those driving around Mexico in a vehicle, camping in its many parks, exploring its meandering dirt roads, hanging out on undeveloped beaches, sampling native foods and immersing yourself into the culture of our neighbor as much as possible. It’s chock full of all the advice you’d expect from a couple who have been noodling around Mexico every year for thirty five years: how to live off the land, keep on the right side of the law, shop for strange and exotic foods, survive, educate yourself in local customs, and remain healthy and sane. It’s a fat 700-page book with lots of great stories, and endless good counsel. (They run a supplementary website for updated tips.)

A lot of this lore is universal travel wisdom (the less money you spend the more fun you have). In fact The People’s Guide to Mexico is one of the best travel guides I’ve ever seen to anywhere in the world. You could easily transfer many of their tips to traveling in Asia or Africa, and the rest of Latin America. But the bulk of it is very particular to Mexico. Every page yields golden nuggets of fine advice for every part of a very large Mexico. I find myself reading whole chapters for the pure enjoyment of being in the presence of great, gifted guides teaching me useful stuff I didn’t know.

The Mexico/US borders is one the most abrupt borders in the world. There’s almost no where else on earth where you can travel so far in so few miles as crossing this imaginary line. This trip has the additional benefit of being guided by this amazing encyclopedia of practical tips and insights. You’d be a fool not to take it with you.

It’s the operating manual for people in Mexico.

-- KK  

The People’s Guide to Mexico
14th edition
Carl Franz, Lorena Havens
2012, 768 pages
$18

Available from Amazon

People's Guide to Mexico website

Sample Excerpts:

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Building a palapa

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I climbed over other passengers and cargo to the cab of the truck, determined to check our speed.

“Hey,” I yelled back to Lorena, “It’s really not so bad after all. We’re only doing 90 to 100 kilometers an hour. That’s fast but not so dangerous.” I took another peek through the rear window; a curve was coming up and we were slowing to 70. i was just about to turn and work my way back when I noticed a small “MPH” beneath the speedometer needle.

MPH! I felt the blood drain from my face and go roaring through my ears and down to my feet. Seventy into a curve! One hundred on the straightaway!

“Let me off! Let me off!” I screamed, pounding the roof of the cab with my fists. I got a glimpse of the driver’s startled face turned toward the rear of the truck.

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Many common driving hazards and annoyances found in the U.S. are also in Mexico, though usually in a slightly altered form.

In the U.S., the omnipresent teenager hunched birdlike behind the wheel of his 400-hp candy-colored, air-foiled Supercar, passes you dangerously close at 140 mph as he calmly munches a DoubleBurger and squeezes an annoying pimple.

In Mexico, he’s still the same basic teenager, apparently oblivious to other traffic and mesmerized by the blaring radio and the dangling ornaments that festoon mirrors and knobs. But there is one difference: He’s behind the wheel of a hurtling semi-truckload of sugarcane. And he’s passing you on a blind mountain curve. You glance over, afraid to imagine what is about to happen. He grins, flashes a peace sign and cuts you off as he swerves to miss an oncoming bus.

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Low-flying buzzards are a very real hazard, as are piles of drying corn, beans and chili peppers placed on the hot pavement by enterprising farmers who prefer the smooth road surface to the dusty shoulder.

As you fly around a curve and find yourself unexpectedly in the middle of small village, it seems that everyone suddenly leaps up and crosses the street, forcing you to brake madly. Pigs that haven’t moved from gooey wallows for a week lurch frantically to their feet and stumble in front of the car, followed by reckless children beating them with twigs.

These are relatively minor hazards that you’ll soon become used to. For really serious trouble, nothing compares to other drivers.

“They may be wild, but they’re damn good!” is a comment you might hear, especially about Mexican truck drivers. If good driving involves good sense, however, they must surely be among the worst. Many truckers would be disqualified from a destruction derby on ground of excessive zeal and disregard for human life.

The good news is that the average Mexican chofer (driver) is definitely getting better. Drivers are more courteous and less likely to indulge in macho grandstanding while behind the wheel of the family car. Bus drivers have also gotten the message about safety and many of them could give lessons to American drivers.

Still, it is dangerously easy for tourists to fall into the same driving habits they see demonstrated by others. When you’re breathing fumes behind a slow diesel truck in a steep mountain pass, the temptation to pass on a blind curve can be very strong. At this point, you should seriously consider what the consequences are if you don’t make it.

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Knife blade inscriptions: He Who Acts Bad Ends Bad; Life Is The Road to the Tomb; Beans Are Worth More than Happiness

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Diarrhea and Dysentery

Powdered scorpions, chia and 7Up, camomile and “dog tea,” food enzymes, acidophilus, papaya seeds, dried apricot pits: When it comes to upset stomachs, nausea, diarrhea, and disenteria, I’ve tried almost everything. As a firm believer in the value of medical plants and folk remedies, I’m sorry to announce that a dose of bismuth solution (such as Pepto-Bismol) seems to beat them all. In fact, our experience clearly shows that taking the pink stuff in moderate doses before, during, and even after traveling can dramatically reduce stomach problems.

Though it is effective, I’m no fan of bismuth’s cloying pink taste and I don’t like to pour it repeatedly into my stomach. I now take about half of an adults dosage (one tablespoon 3-4 times a day). I start my bismuth program a few days before leaving home and continue taking it once or twice a day for about a week. If my stomach shows no sign of rebellion in that time, I go to “standby” and keep the bismuth close at hand in the event of sudden turmoil.*

In Mexico, “look before you leap” isn’t just an expression, it’s a survival tip. Forget about bandits; the greatest threat to your safety comes from slippery cobblestones, uneven sidewalks, knee-high curbs, head-knocking signs, eye-poking awnings, toe-stubbing thresholds, open trenches, unexpected drop-offs and discarded construction debris.

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Keep track of your personal belongings. When Lorena and I lead tours or travel with friends, we continually pick up our companions’ stray cameras, passports, purses and room keys. Tourists routinely walk away from their suitcases, leave their credit cards at souvenir shops and their only shoes at the beach, and can’t recall which lavanderia (laundry) they left their clothes in.

A fellow we traveled with in eastern Mexico left his binoculars hanging on a chair in the restaurant of a small hotel. By the time he realized his mistake, we were hundreds of miles away and couldn’t go back. When I returned to the hotel two years later, the owner’s first words were, “I have the binoculars your friend forgot. … As a postscript, the fellow who lost and regained the binoculars returned to travel with us again. This time he left a very expensive Nikon camera in the washroom of a museum. In this case, however, the camera had vanished by the time we returned for it.




Adventure Cycling

Invisible to most drivers, there is a 26,000-mile network of long-distance bicycle trails criss-crossing the US. These mapped and designated routes offer travelers researched paths with plenty of information on nearest bike shops, profiles of difficulty, and indicated sleeping possibilities. It all started with Bikecentennial’s 1976 TransAm route, the first to cross the continental US, connecting Oregon and Virginia. Thousands still use this route, now overseen by the non-profit Adventure Cycling.

I once rode a bike across America using my own route (more adventure) but I have followed long sections of other Adventure Cycling routes. Their materials are well-worth the price; you will however have lots of companions — which many enjoy.

Adventure Cycling puts out a pretty good magazine for bicycle long-distance touring (a place to solicit travel companions), runs bike tours, has a decent catalog of touring paraphernalia, and continually pioneers new routes. The newest: the world’s longest mountain bike trail, runs 2,500 miles along the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico. For that kind of amazingly rugged off-the-road trip (which only a few have completed in full), their maps (waterproof) and guides are essential.

– KK

Adventure Cycling Association
800-721-8719

Adventure Cyclist Magazine
9 issues
included in $40 membership to Adventure Cycling Association

Cyclosource
Maps, Books, and Gear for the Adventure Cyclist
Catalog