Thursday, August 27, 2009

How to Have a Rotten Time in Athens

Only have a couple of days in the ancient city? Follow our guide to making the most of a short stay.

Day One:
1) Observe the madcap Greek police in action.
In June 2007, a video posted on youtube showed authorities at the Omonia subway station ordering two young men to take turns smacking each other in the face. The two had been arrested for mugging an elderly woman. In the video, a police officer in a stylish black t-shirt and trendy jeans, jabs each of the detainees with a long stick to encourage them to hit each other. Four officers were suspended and charged with brutality. What rascals!

2) Contemplate the awesome power of a forest fire.
Through the summer of 2007, a series of infernos broke out across Greece. During the fourth week of July, 100 fires a day broke out. In total, about 1160 square miles of agricultural and farmland were destroyed. While some of the fires were believed to have been caused by environmental factors -- such as a summer heat wave with temperatures over 105 degrees -- others were not. Greek police announced the capture of three arsonists. Greece's ruling political party insinuated that the main opposition party may have been involved. Sing-alongs welcome.

3) Cheer wildly at a volleyball game in picturesque Peania.
In March 2007, a 22-year-old fan was stabbed and then beaten by other fans following a women's game in Peania, which is about 20 miles from Athens. A total of 18 fans were arrested with 12 of them charged with felonies. Go team go!

4) Evening is free

Day Two:

1) Experience an earthquake
Greece frequently experiences quakes and tremors and has an occasional whopper. In September 1999, a quake killed 143 people, injured 1,600, left 50,000 homeless, and damaged or destroyed 53,000 buildings in the Athens area. The preliminary damage was estimated at $655 million. Shake, rattle, roll.

2) Thrill to the sights, sounds, and smells of a workers' strike.
Like workers in other European countries, the Greeks enjoy a good employment strike. The U.S. State Department says that strikes are generally orderly, but they can get exciting, particularly in Athens. "There have been recent incidents…in which unruly protestors engaged in aggressive confrontations with police, often in areas frequented by tourists. Riot control procedures often include the use of tear gas." Bring it on…

3) Take in a rocket-propelled grenade attack.
Apparently, strikers aren't the only disgruntled Greeks. Some domestic radical groups act out locally against both domestic and foreign targets. In January 2007, a group called the Revolutionary Struggle fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the U.S. Embassy. There was minor damage, and no injuries. Cool, man, cool.

4) Evening is free.

Estimate the Cost of a Long Trip

If you're planning a long trip in today's economy, you've got less room for error than you used to. Returning home with big surprises on your credit card isn't an option.

This article will help you develop a rough idea of what your trip is going to cost -- and if you can afford it -- before you fork over any cash. In addition, we've created an easy-to-use calculation spreadsheet to simplify the process even further.

Destinations and accommodations are two of the biggest factors that affect the cost of a trip. For airfare, we'll use estimates based on currently available fares.


Travel in the developing world is substantially cheaper than the Western world. A week in Hanoi with a hostel dorm room, food and drink can run you as little as $140 a week. That's about $10 a night for the room and about $10 a day for a couple of meals and drinks from street vendors. An inexpensive room in Melbourne, Australia, plus food can run three times as much. Europe, Canada, South Africa, the U.K., New Zealand -- they're all pricey.

But if heading West is your goal, all is not lost. Be sure check the currency exchange rates before you go.


Hostels aren't just for kids anymore. On a recent trip, we stayed at hostels in five different countries. This cut our accommodation costs by at least half. Most hostels were decent. A few were stellar. A couple were barely bearable. Check out our review of hostels and guest houses.

We're not big on staying in dorm rooms, so we always forked out for a single. In a Hanoi hostel, our single room bumped our bill weekly room and board to about $200 a week, which is still much cheaper than Australia.

Naturally, if you want to spend $500 a night, you can do that anywhere in the world -- even in a small beachside town in Vietnam.

Flights, Travel Insurance, and Contingency

The cheapest way to fly is to find a special on one of the sites that

The cheapest way to fly is to find a special on one of the sites that specializes in long term travel, like Airtreks or Airbrokers. Often these outfits use lesser-known airlines, so get all this information upfront before you hand over a credit card. If you've got more to spend or a travel agent you like, check out around-the-world fares on Oneworld or Star Alliance. Get estimates from a few of these companies and then play them against a local travel agent.

For the purpose of this article, we'll assume airfare for a low-cost trip focusing on developing countries at about $3,000. We'll add another 15 percent for traveler's insurance, which will include medical insurance, trip interruption, and evacuation in case of emergency for four months of travel.

At this point, you should have a subtotal for room, board, flight, and insurance. Then add another 20 percent for contingency (in-country travel, entertainment, and miscellaneous items). If this is your first time on an extended trip, you may need to purchase gear, such as a backpack, and other items that could add another $600.

Then enter your numbers into our budget-estimation spreadsheet.

Click here to see sample budgets.

May the numbers be with you.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bungee Jumping, River-Boarding, and Other Active Overseas Activities

I wake at 8:00 a.m. and my stomach is churning like a blender filled with margaritas. I am in Storms River, South Africa, and about to go bungee jumping for the first time. A driver takes me to the Bloukrans Bridge jump site, which is about 710 feet high.

For a little perspective, 710 feet is the equivalent of two Statues of Liberty stacked on top of each other. Or put another way, I'm going to take an elevator halfway up the Empire State Building and then jump out of one of the windows.

I get weighed and strapped into a strappy chest harness. To get to the jump platform, I totter along a chain-link metal catwalk. I can see through the links to the rocks and boulders that drop away to a thread of river 700-feet below up. The catwalk flexes underfoot with each step. I've taken meditation before, so I attempt to calm my mind and follow my breathing. A soothing image comes to me: I am home in my bed hugging my night-night.

The walkway ends on an open concrete platform where techno music is booming. The other bungee jumpers are hopping in time to the music. I become quiet and pace around focusing on the lines and stains on the concrete slab floor. I'll be jumping second. My hands start to shake, so I put them in my pockets.

The first person is called to the edge of the platform and jumps without much fanfare. I'm called to the platform. The attendants tell me to sit. They bind up my ankles with a padded collar that attaches to the bungee cord, which is about as thick as a sink pipe.

The whole apparatus is so clumsy that I can't walk, so the attendants walk me to the edge of the platform. One of them puts his hand under my chin to prevent me from looking down. I look straight out and can feel tears in my eyes. My breathing is shallow; I think it may have stopped altogether. The attendants try to talk to me.

"Mr. Ross, where you from?"
"Nice. You have good rugby team, hey?" they laugh, referring to the fact that the U.S. team just got creamed by the South Africans team two nights ago in the World Cup.
My eyes are open but I can't see anything. 
"We gonna count to three, then do a nice swan dive for us, arms out, hey?"
"Whatever you say."
The attendants start counting.
"One, two, three. Jump!"
They push me forward and I scream, "Mommy!"

In bungee jumping your body can accelerate from zero to ninety miles per hour in about five seconds. A $200,000 Lamborghini goes from zero to ninety in about eight seconds. I'm used to driving a Honda Civic, which goes from zero to ninety in about eight minutes.

As I'm falling, I feel like I'm on a plane that has hit an air pocket and is plunging 70 stories. I also feel as if someone has grabbed my stomach and they're trying to pull it out through my ears. Gradually, the collars tighten around my ankles and I stop falling. I open my eyes as I bounce back up towards the sky.

I actually enjoyed the experience and I jumped two more times. If you're interested in adventure sports or just want to break up the sight-seeing on your next trip, here are some links to get you started.

Bungee jumping where I went in South Africa

Bungee jumping in Macau, New Zealand, and other spots.

River boarding (white-water rafting without a raft) in New Zealand.

For windsurfing and kitesurfing abroad see Vela or Club Mistral.

This company offers exercise bootcamps in Kenya and Greece, see Wildfitness.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

How to Use a Squat Toilet

Squat toilets range from gleaming porcelain models in international airports to holes in the floor that empty into a pig sty on the ground below. Some have toilet paper, others an old magazine, and others no visible means of wiping.
To avoid embarrassment and messing up your Tevas, here are several links, to, um, get you going.

Graphic and funny

Solo Travel: Pros, Cons, Tips

A friend was recently planning a trip to Southeast Asia and his travel partner bailed. Then a second partner started to waffle. I suggested he skip the nonsense and take the trip himself. But traveling solo can be a scary proposition. Here's a look at the pros and how to deal with the cons.
1) You can do what you want, when you want.
You can be spontaneous, a spendthrift, and a cheapskate, as your mood and budget dictate.
2) You don't need to worry about matching someone else's vacation schedule.
How many people do you know can take off for two weeks or two months? Of those, who has got the money to do so?
3) You'll meet more people and lose fewer friends.
- Traveling solo will force you to interact with strangers and strangers will also be comfortable approaching you -- for better or worse.)
- For a long trip, you have to pick your travel companions carefully.
That friend who is fun at parties might not be fun 24-hours-a-day or after a 10-hour red-eye. They may kvetch, have weird food allergies, or worry constantly about their house-sitter and sick cats.
1) Loneliness and all its parts.
- It's part of the experience and will come and go. Just let it happen. But, as a solo traveler, you will meet more people, particularly locals, than you would with a traveling companion.
- Some Web sites can help you find a travel companion. I've never tried this, but it's free and worth a look. I performed a quick search for men and women going to Asia and found a bunch. Some were looking for only platonic partners , others were open to a little romance.

- Dining alone: eat at the bar or at an outdoor café as opposed to a fancy restaurant where you'll be at an empty table for two, bring a book or other hobby. For more tips.
2) Safety Concerns
- If you read enough travel literature, particularly government travel sites, you'll never leave the country. Use common sense and check out basic tips at the following sites.
- Women traveling solo need to be more careful
3) Single Supplement:
Some hotels, hostels, and tours may charge additional fees -- up to 100 percent -- to solo travelers. At hostels, I just paid the fee -- it was worth it to have my own room. If you're tight on cash, you can stay in a dorm, which charges by the bed. Some tours will match you with a roommate -- ask.