Author Archives: tomt

V!VA's Ultimate Gift Giving Guide

The nice thing about traveling during the holidays, or at least shortly before it, is that the folks back home are easy to please. Some fifty cent piece of cloth that you got from a scary looking lady at the market is bound to delight some loved one with its authenticity and ethnic-ness.

However, if you are a hard-core traveler, figuring out what gifts you want is a bit more complicated. Every ounce is weight that needs to be lugged around, explained at customs, and eventually pawned off in exchange for needed medical supplies. Here at V!VA, we decided to tackle this problem head on. Our crack team of expert travel writers engaged in a careful study, surveying travelers in the field and utilizing a carefully  constructed, scientific website poll. Eventually, a fine database of the best budget holiday items you can pester your friends for emerged.

The database was given to me, but I lost it in a high stakes game of beer-pong to a writer from a rival company. So, in the finest tradition of travel writing, I just pulled out my own Christmas wish list, which I will pass off as the company’s recommendations.

  1. A knife. Whether slicing cheese or removing a frost-bitten toe – this is the ultimate travel accessory. My advice—keep it simple, but make sure it has a corkscrew.

  2. Lycra - It's lightweight, travels well and is festive any time of the year.

    A travel pillow. Ever decide that the best way to prepare for a 12 hour bus trip that leaves at 6:00 a.m. is to drink until 5:00 a.m.? When you do, you won’t regret having a travel pillow with you. (You might regret giving your phone number to the person of non-descript gender with a lycra fetish, but that is your business. [We miss you, Emma])

  3. A water purifier – There are pumps, water bottles, and even disposable straws that do a great job of keeping your water safe. It is a great way to ensure that you see more than just the toilet stalls of a nation. (But keep your eyes open in Morocco – they have great ones.)

  4. A headlamp –Perfect for those third world blackouts. They are also handy for when you are trying not to wake up the person of non-descript gender while you search through their lycra for your underwear.

  5. Waterproof containers— The modern traveler might well have an assortment of portable electronic goods. Most MP3 players, book-readers and smart-phones offer some kind of waterproof carrying container. The best part is that they are also alcohol and body fluid proof.

  6. A pack towel—Microfiber towels are lightweight, absorb lots of water, and are useful in all kinds of situations. My favorite – wet tee-shirt contests.

  7. A book reader—Sick of lugging around all those fantastic V!VA guidebooks? Keep your eyes open for our new e-chapters, soon to be available for purchase on-line.(Use all that space for a bottle or two of wine instead.)

  8. A good first aid kit – This way, you don’t have to pawn off Aunt Matilda’s hand-knit scarf.

Responsible Travel: Leave No Trace

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in the outdoors has undoubted heard the saying “Take only photographs, leave only foot prints”.  This saying goes to the heart of something that is both a movement and an ethic: Leave No Trace (LNT).

LNT began as an effort by the National Park Service, Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management back in the 1970s.  At the time, the prevailing ethic was woodcraft.  Supposedly, using natural resources in the backcountry was an effective counterbalance to the encroachment of technology.  To be sure, woodcraft is a great hobby, but researchers soon realized that such activity, even by those who meant well, was hurting the land.

Over time, the ethic shifted to one of having a minimum impact on the land.  People were encouraged to leave wild places in much the same way as they found them. 

Climbing in Cotopaxi National Park - One of South America's Great Wildernesses.

1)      Plan Ahead and Prepare. People who plan ahead and prepare make the right choices.  They bring the proper equipment and avoid situations where they need to need to impact nature. 

2)      Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces. We all know about this.  Stick to the trail and camp in designated sites.  If you can, hike on rock surfaces.   If you need to travel over a less developed area, then spread out.  Don’t create a new trail.

3)      Dispose of Waste Properly. This is sometimes described as “Pack it in. Pack it out.”  This includes food waste, like fruit peels or cheese rinds, which are unsightly and may deter animals from natural food sources.  Bury human waste, as well as soap or detergent in a 6-8 inch hole, and pack out your toilet paper (Ziplock bags are great for this.) 

4)      Leave what you find.  Rocks, plants, leaves and archeological remains all have a place.  Leaving things also allows others to share in the joy and sense of discovery that you are lucky enough to enjoy.  (Obviously, litter is something of an exception to this principle.)

5)      Minimize the Use and Impact of Fire. Use only wood that has fallen from the tree and scatter your ashes so that no one can tell there has been a fire there.

6)      Respect Wildlife. The best part about seeing wildlife is that they are wild.  Keep it that way.  A good general rule of thumb is to keep about 25 yards away from animals – at a minimum.  However, if they show signs of being aware of you (that includes aggression or moving away from you), give them more distance.

7)      Be considerate.  This is the big one.  Think of how you want to enjoy nature and be sure that you let other people have the same experience. 

Most of us come to the outdoors because we love it and care for it.  The best gift we can give to natural place is nothing.  For more information about Leave No Trace, please visit the Center for Outdoor Ethics Webpage.

On Getting Drunk at Festivals

Let’s face it – Latin American festivals, such as Carnival, Dia de Los Muertos or the numerous local celebrations that pepper the region are great parties. There’s dancing in the streets, wild costumes and partying for as long as you can still stand. (And it is amazing how those locals seem to manage to stand for so much longer than you.)

The snowmen of Peru's Festival of the Snows. They bring crosses up to the mountains and return with sacred blocks of ice.

Inevitably, there will be some guy who will try to convince you that you are missing the point. That these festivals have deep spiritual and societal meaning that you, in your drunken stupor, are missing. For certain festivals, he may well be right. The drunken gringo dancing and partying to all hours of Easter morning probably doesn’t get it.

However, for many festivals, the idea is, well…to get drunk and party. The question to be asked is why do so many cultures have wild, public celebrations. Do they serve a purpose? One common thread, aside from the drunken revelries, is that many festivals are associated with dates on the religious calendar. Carnival happens before Lent, and the Day of the Dead is associated with All Saints and All Souls Day. Of course, most places have festivals associated with local patron saints.

People assume that revelers are just binging before the more substantial matters. 40 days of Lent is, if you are not a tea-totalling vegetarian, a long time to go without meat or alcohol. So, you might as well have a last binge. However, anthropologists have long debated the substance of these parties. A consensus has emerged; these festivals are of greater significance than just people of limited piety getting one last good blast in before more serious matters are attended to.

Indeed, these revelries are a vital part of the religious observances. Aside from simply getting drunk (as opposed to the normal state of soberness), there is a broad array of social changes that take place. The rich are treated like they are poor while ordinary people are made kings. Cross dressing is common. Eroticism is made public and, in various symbolic ways (usually costumes), otherworldly creatures mingle with real people.

Carnival costumes in Trinidad

Carnival costumes in Trinidad

While this social inversion might seem rebellious, in fact, it points out the social norms. Seeing something out of place reminds people of what the proper place is. Once that reminder is established, the more serious religious and spiritual ceremonies reestablish the proper order.

A less dry explanation might simply be that it is fun. Having fun and enjoying yourself matters. Indeed, in countries where poverty is much more widespread, fun takes on great importance.

These festivals are public for a reason. You are, in a de-facto sort of way, invited to participate and join in the fun. The presence of foreigners joining in the party helps to solidify the social inversion. For a brief period, you are welcomed into the fold—you become a part of the family. You get to to both join in the culture, while helping to preserve it by cementing your role as outsider. More than that, however, it is a chance to have some fun, enjoy a great experience and bring home some great stories (even if you are sure never to tell anyone).

As for that guy who is insisting that you are missing the point… I recommend you smile, nod and buy him a drink. He needs it.

Sustainable Tourism: Bus Travel in Latin America

You haven’t truly experienced Latin America until you’ve spent the better part of fours crammed onto a school bus next to a man who seems to be explaining the finer aspects of the two chickens on his lap. It helps if he is speaking in a language that you have never even heard of and if, according to his friend who speaks only a bit of English, he thinks you are fat.

For the sustainable traveler, public transportation is the way to go. The benefits are abundant. By using public transportation we can help protect the environment, support the local economy, and better understand the places we are visiting. Of course, traveling around Latin America is not without its challenges. Given the lack of train service, taking the bus is about your only option. The roads are often poorly maintained, traffic laws are treated more like friendly advice and driving schools seem to specialize in stunt driving. It is a safe bet that the local drivers are more familiar with the roads than you are, so if you are going to do any distance travel, the bus is a safer option.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of buses, local or city buses and long distance carriers. The local buses are a personal favorite. The buses might not be as well maintained as in western cities, but most of the people on the bus are people going to and from work, doing their shopping and visiting friends. City buses offer an opportunity to do something that is authentic and local.

In some more developed countries, such as Argentina or Brazil – the buses are some of the finest in the Americas. They come complete with movies, food, toilets and comfortable seating. On the other hand, you could easily find yourself on a “chicken bus” – often an old school bus that services many of the poorer communities in this part of the world.

It is hard to quantify the exact environmental benefits of taking a bus in Latin America versus taking a taxi or renting a car. Each bus is likely to have very different fuel efficiencies and emissions. While emission standards are not readily at hand, there can be little doubt that bus travel is better for the planet. Given the number of people on any given bus, it seems obvious that, mile for mile, bus travel produces significantly less pollution and uses less fossil fuel driving a car.

Of course, helping the local economy is another sustainable benefit of getting around by bus. Most bus companies are owned either by local governments or local businesses. On the other hand, most car rental businesses are multinational. While you might be spending less on the bus, that money goes to help generate jobs and support local finances.

Finally, taking the bus is fun. We travel to see the world from different perspectives and ultimately expand our own. The guy with two chickens who thought I was fat – that was almost ten years ago. During that trip to Guatemala I visited Mayan ruins, got to take part in a traditional Mayan ceremony, and even won a chili eating contest. Of all the memories – there was something special about learning about chickens from a man who didn’t speak any English or Spanish on a bus rumbling its way up the to the Guatemalan highlands.