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  • LONELY PLANET: ROADS LESS TRAVELLED

TRAVEL TIPS COLOMBIA

Okay, so you’re headed to Colombia. Here are a few handy travel tips to keep in mind:

Don’t forget to pack a few extra: Earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. I consider myself a world-class bedbug; I can generally fall asleep facedown on tile on a train platform, but Colombia tested even my powers of somnolence. In Medellin, the booms of construction and the cacophony of rush-hour start painfully early, and in towns like Barranquilla during Carnaval, you can forget about getting more than 3 hours of sleep per night. Makeshift turntables and basement bands pop up on every corner during the festival, and competing reggaeton and salsa blasts at you from opposite sides until 5AM, kicking in again at 7AM. Most towns I slept in featured a vegetable salesman who roamed the streets at dawn with a megaphone, screaming at you to buy his avocadoes at liquidation prices.

If you only have 24-48 hours in Colombia, you must visit: Medellin. The name has long stricken fear into the hearts of travellers, but the dark metropolis of cocaine capos in the 1980s is experiencing a Renaissance of art and culture in the wake of waning drug violence in Colombia. Botero statues bedizen packed urban parks, impromptu concerts with pulsing Latin beats ricochet off the plazas teeming with young hipsters. Colourful street art, trendy shops, and modern architecture abound. The sparkling metro leads you to 23rd century sky-gondolas which rise up the steep sides of the valley to colourful suburbs, previously the home of the worst of the worst cocaine mafia assassins. It is not the safest place in the world, but Medellin is coming out of its cocaine coma, and witnessing a city reawakening is a travel experience not to be missed.

If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: It is a dance, baby. It is a balanced cumbia between you and the seller. So keep it fun, keep it light, keep it flirty. Pitch them a price 40 percent below what they offer and then whoop and spin when they counter. Pretend to walk away and then curve back when they catcall. Eventually you’ll come together at a price in the middle and hey, even if you don’t, you got a free dance!

The one food I totally loved was: Bandeja Paisa in Antioquia. This typical dish of the Paisa region is a heavy, hearty, rich collusion of rice, beans, chorizo, ground beef, pork shavings, avocado, arepa and plantain, topped with a fried egg. It is huevos rancheros on steroids, people, and it will add 50 percent thickness to your arteries in 12 minutes flat. Good luck finishing the entire plate, and better luck not craving one again tomorrow.

And the one food I will pass on in the future is: Hormigas culonas. In Barichara, they are a local specialty, freshest in April or May after the harvest. Not a harvest of plants mind you, but a march of, literally, “big-ass Colombian ants.” Fried, dried, and kept in preserve jars for sale all year round, the gigantic insects have their wings and pincers plucked to make them more palatable and to spare the diner oral lacerations. But believe me, they still have an earthy, crunchy aftertaste of dirt. Bon appetit!

I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: Dancing in the Carnaval in Barranquilla! Travellers flock to Rio for the world’s largest Fat Tuesday celebration, but the party in Colombia’s Caribbean port city ranks second in size and provides a swirling, twirling sea of colour and chaos for the intrepid traveller. But don’t just sit in the stands and watch the world go by, join a float troupe or cumbia group and thrust yourself into the heart of the action! Myriad processions conga through town for three straight days in front of crowds of 100,000+ screaming revellers. Your feet will be barking, but your soul will soar as you help give life to the biggest most raucous fiesta you’ve ever seen.

But as an independent traveler in Colombia, the one thing I would avoid is: Travelling solo to the south of Colombia and the borders with Venezuela and the Amazon. Leftist guerrilla and paramilitary activity has certainly been quelled since the crackdown of President Uribe, but rebel danger still lurks off the beaten path in Colombia. And even in government-controlled areas, the military can be heavy-handed in its treatment of locals and travellers alike. Medellin and Cali may be safer than any time in the recent past, and the Caribbean Coast still feels lazily tranquil, but there are patches of violence that spring up in the hinterlands from time to time. Be aware of recent flare-ups and check your government’s travel warnings website for current danger zones.

I was really surprised by: How safe I felt in Colombia, and how few foreign travellers I saw there. It seems like a contradiction with my previous answer, but the route I travelled between Medellin, Bucaramanga, the Andes, Valledupar and the Caribbean Coast took me to not one location in which I felt intimidated or tense. The Colombians are naturally energetic, inviting, and exceedingly warm, and the country has so very much to offer in terms of geology, wildlife, culture, history and charm. In the two weeks before I reached the Caribbean Coast, I saw a total of three foreign travellers; it felt as though Colombia were laying herself at my feet and I was unworthy of the offering. I can understand the reticence of travellers to put themselves in danger, but the moderated risk of visiting Colombia is undoubtedly well worth it.

The best way to fit in and not draw too much attention to yourself is to: Wear pants and leave the fanny pack at home! It sounds ridiculous, but for the blasting heat and ludicrous humidity, Latin Americans are a people that generally wear long pants. And they can pick the tourists out from a kilometre off by the pleated shorts, baseball hat, bum bag and sneakers. Try dressing as the Colombians dress: jeans or slacks, t-shirt or buttoned shirt, no backpacks or belt bags. Medellin, Cali and Bogota offer some trendy shops with swanky fashion you will be keen to collect anyway. Drape yourself in local duds and be that much closer to blending when you break in your rudimentary Spanish on the bus.

When it comes to getting around, I recommend: The inter-city bus services. There is no better place to connect with the locals, live like they live, and get the straight skinny on where to go than on a two hour bus-ride with your new Colombian friends. Vendors hop on the vehicle to sell tasty snacks at each stop, the driver is cranking the latest salsa CD while singing along, and the ranchers sitting next to you are more than proud to brag a bit about their village. A bit of Spanish will come in handy, but lacking that, share an orange slice with the kids in front and get ready for a ride.

A good place to get basics (bottled water, toothpaste, a snack, stamps, phone cards) is: The home-spun mercado stores on the corner of any small town. Named anything from Mini-super (mini super mart) to Tienda Veronica (Veronica’s Shop), the mom-and-pop establishments are usually painted with a neon shellac, run by three generations of a single family, and feature a TV over the counter blasting Colombian soap operas. They sell anything from chocolate pops to panties to machetes, and if they don’t have it they can point you in the right direction with a smile and a “Suerte!” (Good luck!).

And it’s always nice to say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘how much?’ in the native tongue. And that is:

Please – POR FAVOR
Thank You / Thank You Very Much / 1000 Thanks – GRACIAS / MUCHAS GRACIAS / MIL GRACIAS
How Much – ¿CUÁNTO CUESTA?

TRAVEL TIPS CAMBODIA

Don’t forget to pack a few extra: ounces of adventurous spirit.

If you only have 24-48 hours in Cambodia, you must visit: a local market for a bite to eat. You have not experienced Cambodia until the scent of prahok — thermonuclear fish paste — makes you more nostalgic than nauseous.

If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: turning an apoplectic shade of beetroot over a vendor’s refusal to knock off an extra ten cents is not only extremely unseemly, but insalubrious to boot: do you really want to raise your blood pressure in this heat?

The one food I totally loved was: dried fish fillets. Packed with extra energy to get you through the hard slogs.

The one food I will pass on in the future is: dried fish heads. It is hard to care about “extra energy” when your lunch won’t stop staring at you.

I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: traipsing through the remote jungles of Cambodia’s west with no more than a guide and ten billion leeches for company. Stunning scenery, and hereafter, when you call the tax department a “pack of bloodsuckers”, you’ll be speaking with authority.

As an independent traveller in Cambodia, the one thing I would avoid is: package tours. This goes for every country on earth, but especially Cambodia.

I was really surprised by: how incredibly cheerful everyone seemed to be - and how locals fit an entire barnyard on a Honda Dream.

The best way to fit in and not draw attention to yourself is: not being a six-foot white girl with tattoos (like me).

When it comes to getting around, I recommend: not hiring a driver/boat captain/norry operator who answers all of your questions with “Yah yah”. This is actually Khmer for “I have no idea what you’re on about, but hey! Let’s go!”

A good place to get basics is: in the capital, Phnom Penh, or more touristy towns like Siem Reap. That said, bottled water is available at all fine shacks and roadstalls across the country.

It’s always nice to say “please”, “thank you” and “how much” in the native tongue: alas, my dullard’s tongue only got as far as “orkhun” (“thank you”), but I did learn that a goofy smile, a lot of polite bowing and endearing ineptitude go a long way.

TRAVEL TIPS ISRAEL AND THE WEST BANK

Okay, so you’re headed to Israel and the West Bank. Here are a few handy travel tips to keep in mind:

Don’t forget to pack a few extra: toys or trinkets for home-stay host kids. The bangles I gave the little girls of my Bedouin host family went down a treat.

If you only have 24-48 hours in Israel and the West Bank, you must visit: The Negev Desert in Israel and Hebron in the West Bank: two unlikely highlights, but my biggest discoveries on this trip.

If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: Smile. Haggling’s part of life throughout the region, but it’s always friendly. And it appears to be even more crucial if you are planning on picking up a goat at a Bedouin livestock market.

The one food I totally loved was: Hummus. It is more than a food; it is the biggest bond (although they might not realize it) between Israelis and Palestinians.

And the one food I will pass on in the future is: Chicken. If I was not vegetarian already, my chicken slaughterhouse experience would have converted me pronto.

I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: a night out at a Palestinian nightclub. Only for night-owls, though. Things don’t heat up until well after midnight.

But as an independent traveller in Israel and the West Bank, the one thing I would avoid is: travelling through military checkpoints. Sadly, at the moment, they’re impossible to avoid.

I was really surprised by: the openness of people. I have always known that Middle Eastern folk are friendly, but I was amazed by the extent of their hospitality. Israelis, Palestinians, Bedouins, settlers, soldiers …I was welcomed equally by them all.

The best way to fit in and not draw too much attention to yourself is to: throw out your pre-conceived opinions and keep an open mind. Encourage people to talk about their life and beliefs, and simply listen.

When it comes to getting around, I recommend: buses, both Israeli and Palestinian. They are cheap, remarkably reliable (if you can only find the bus stop) and a good way to strike up conversations with the locals.

A good place to get basics (bottled water, toothpaste, a snack, stamps, phone cards) is: almost anywhere. You will always stumble across a little hole-in-the-wall shop, open all hours and vending everything you might need. Except, perhaps, in the very depths of the desert.

And it’s always nice to say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘how much?’ in the native tongue. And that is: in Hebrew: ‘bevakasha,’ ‘toda’ and ‘cama?’; In Arabic ‘min fadlak/fadlik’, ‘chokran’, ‘qaddaysh?’

TRAVEL TIPS LAOS

Okay, so you’re headed to Laos. Here are a few handy travel tips to keep in mind:

Don’t forget to pack a few extra: warm clothes, this may be the tropics but it can get surprisingly chilly in the hill country.
If you only have 24-48 hours in Laos, you must visit: a temple and sit by a river

If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: do it gently, this is not a hard bargaining country.

The one food I totally loved was: khao niaw – sticky rice

And the one food I will pass on in the future is: anything wild - Laotian wildlife has enough trouble surviving without us eating it.

I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: eating with your fingers - chopsticks are for the Chinese, knives and forks for westerners.

But as an independent traveler in Laos, the one thing I would avoid is: turning the monks into tourist attractions, they’re too polite to complain.

I was really surprised by: how mobile phones worked everywhere

The best way to fit in and not draw too much attention to yourself is to: slow down!

When it comes to getting around, I recommend: the riverboats

A good place to get basics (bottled water, toothpaste, a snack, stamps, phone cards) is: 7-Eleven, no seriously there are lots of what we’d call convenience stores.

And it’s always nice to say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘how much?’ in the native tongue. And that is:

Please – kalunaa
Thank you – khawp jai
How much – thao dai?

TRAVEL TIPS MOROCCO

Okay, so you’re headed to Morocco. Here are a few handy travel tips to keep in mind:

Don’t forget to pack a few extra: pairs of thick socks, long underwear, and warm woollens if you are travelling in winter. In summer, you will need far less clothing. Any time of year, pack a couple of small gifts from your home country to offer to the locals who help you along the way. Moroccan hospitality is legendary, and you will want to return the favour.

If you only have 24-48 hours in Morocco, you must visit: the Fez medina instead of Marrakech for an instant hit of a culture unspoiled by tourism.

If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: smiles go a long way in Morocco. Even if you initially get into an argument over the price, expect to shake hands by the end and plan sit down for mint tea and warm wishes before you leave the shop.

The one food I totally loved was: freshly grilled sheep's liver. Before it was grilled, it had been wrapped in crépine (the fat lining from a goat's stomach) – a delicacy used by the world's great chefs. I had never tasted such succulent – or fresh – livers in my entire life.

And the one food I will pass on in the future is: nothing. Moroccan food is one of the world's great culinary traditions, and damn! do they know how to cook. But I'd probably skip stewed goat's head the second time around.

I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: spending a night in a Berber family home. There is no faster way to grasp the local culture in the Atlas Mountains.

OR

visiting the local hammam (Moroccan bathhouse) – and I stress local – where residents who have no indoor plumbing go to bathe. You will feel out of place at first and won't know what to do, but if you bring your own savon noir (black soap), bathing trunks, towel and hammam glove (a coarse scrubbing mitt), the hammam attendant will show you what to do. And definitely get the gommage (scrub down) and massage by the onsite attendant.

But as an independent traveller in Morocco, the one thing I would avoid is: too many days in Marrakech. While the city is a must-see for first-timers, expect to get hassled by taxi drivers and salespeople.

I was really surprised by: the depth of colour everywhere you look in Morocco. Even in the desert, where the land is a thousand shades of grey and beige, the nomads wrap themselves in richly colour garments and lay their tents with gorgeous rugs.

The best way to fit in and not draw too much attention to yourself is to: dress like the locals. Pick up a jelaba, and learn how to fold back the pointy hood.

When it comes to getting around, I recommend: taking your time above all else. When taking a grand taxi, buy the two front seats, which in the Western world are actually one bucket seat. Think vintage-1980s, chug-chug diesel Mercedes cars. Normally they put two bodies into a seat designed for one, and it gets cramped as hell. Plus you have better views sitting alone in front.

A good place to get basics (bottled water, toothpaste, a snack, stamps, phone cards) is: any épicerie (grocery store). They sell everything from savon noir and hammam gloves to basic supplies you may have forgotten. Don't be shy: Moroccans are a friendly bunch. If you speak no French or Arabic, plan to point at things you want.

And it’s always nice to say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘how much?’ in the native tongue. And that is:

Please = 'Afak
Thank you = Shukran!
How much? = Combien? (in French, which is always acceptable.)
Hello = As-salam ʿleykum, or more casually Salam!

*But most important is Insha'Allah! which means God willing. It gets you in with the locals like nothing else.

TRAVEL TIPS MEXICO

Okay, so you’re headed to Mexico. Here are a few handy travel tips to keep in mind:

Don’t forget to pack a few extra: Warm clothes. The peaks of the Sierra Madre can get mighty cold at night, even in the dead of summer, so bring a few extra layers just in case a harsh wind blows in.

If you only have 24-48 hours in Mexico, you must visit: Oteviachi Uno Eco-Lodge, near San Rafael. It is a bit of schlep to get there from Chihuahua – half-day on the Chepe train, then a bus, then a 4-wheel drive for the last dirt stretch to the overlook. But perched on a precarious 2,000-metre drop to the base of the Copper Canyon, Oteviachi is a tranquil sentinel at one of the most breathtaking vistas in the Americas. Meditative and reflective, Oteviachi is a green lodge with a tiny bio-footprint, a Mexican and American venture whose proceeds benefit the ejido (communal land) which supports a handful of local Raramuri. Sustainable tourism, jaw-dropping views, and hikes the rest of the world has not yet discovered make Oteviachi a Mexican Shangri-La.

If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: Bartering is standard in much of the world, and it can be an enjoyable dance between vendor and customer, a virtual buying of time to get to know the seller you are dealing with. But keep in mind the average annual salary of a Mexican citizen is $11,000 US. In the remote corners of the Sierra Madre, it is considerably less, especially in Raramuri regions where subsistence farming and tourist trinket sales keep indigenous families alive. So when you are haggling with that Rarumuri woman for a handwoven needle basket in Divisadero, keep in perspective that the basket likely took a week to make, and $5 more or less is not going to break your bank.

The one food I totally loved was: Chile relleno. Colour me a Mexican food aficionado, and be advised the town in which I live – Tucson, Arizona – is one hour from the border. That being said, the chile rellenos (stuffed chile peppers) I had in the North of Mexico were to die for. Huge green flavourful chillies filled with ground beef, onion, tomato and cheese and dipped in flour and egg batter, then fried. Bienvenidos a paradiso.

And the one food I will pass on in the future is: Saladitos. It sounds like you are ordering a tasty little salad, refreshing in the Mexican heat, but instead you are tortured with a hideous handful of rock-hard dried plums covered in salt. I found it challenging to not dry-heave when consuming them. There may be a Mexican grandmother somewhere that can make them taste delicious, but I never met her.

I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: An Easter celebration at a Raramuri village in the Copper Canyon. Based on Catholic passion plays taught by Galician missionaries in the 1600s, the Raramuri Easter has melded into a strange ritual of indigenous fertility rites, wrestling, and body-painting with the characters from Jesus’ Passion as bit players. The village splits into two groups, Romans versus the Devils, while violins and drums accompany the all-night, trance-dance, fuelled by a powerful concoction of tesguino, or sacred corn beer. As dawn breaks, the wrestling begins, until a wooden Judas is ritually bludgeoned with sticks and the balance is struck between the opposing forces in each of us for another year. The growing season begins, Jesus is resurrected, and life returns to the Copper Canyon. Just like Easter at Grandma’s!

But as an independent traveller in Mexico, the one thing I would avoid is: Asking too many questions about the drug cartels and the violent turf war escalating near the border. The Sierra Madres are ground zero for marijuana and opium production: the inhospitable craggy canyons are perfect for hiding fields of contraband, and local thugs will do anything to assure the industry continues to flourish. Meanwhile, violent cartels from the bigger bergs battle each other and the government for control of the vast empire of drugs flowing north of the border as money and arms flow back south. The violence in the north seems largely directed at those involved in or affecting the trade – reporters, judges, policemen, middlemen – and not at travellers. But being snoopy will scare off the locals, close doors, and attract unwanted attention from the kind of people travellers should best avoid; a weather eye on one’s back is always good counsel for those travelling solo in a land where some choose to live by desperate means.

I was really surprised by: The existence of 60,000 Mennonites in the heart of Mexico’s untamed north. Anabaptist pacifists who fled Holland for Russia to Canada, this group of Mennonites migrated to Mexico in the 1920s, continuing their search for religious and political freedom. They live a simple and austere life on the ranches and farmlands of the plains of Cuauhtemoc, growing grains and corn, raising cattle for meat, milk and cheese. Their work ethic is intense, their lives simple yet severe, and in great contrast with the colourful Chihuahuan culture which surrounds them. Perhaps now more than ever, it is a fascinating time to witness their lifestyle in transition, as they struggle with the prevalence of technology, the dominant Mexican culture, and the drug-war violence that is erupting around them.

The best way to fit in and not draw too much attention to yourself is to: Sport the local duds – jeans, boots, and a baseball or cowboy hat. The number one thing that identifies travellers is their clothes (obviously until you open your mouth the Mexicans do not realize you do not speak Spanish – and even if you do, by the end of the first sentence they know you are not from Mexico). So blend in better by donning some jeans, a t-shirt or buttoned shirt, and the local headgear. The Mexican sun is fiendishly unkind, so protect your head with a baseball hat like the kids or a white straw cowboy hat like their dads. Or a black felt one if you are feeling ornery.

When it comes to getting around, I recommend: The Copper Canyon Railway (CHP or Chepe for short). The world-famous train line passes from Los Mochis, Sinaloa, on the Pacific Ocean, across the wild Sierra Madre mountains to Chihuahua in the east, with cars leaving from either side and passing in the middle each day. Chugging 673 kilometres through 86 tunnels and over 37 bridges, it spans some of the most majestic and forbidding territory in Mexico, past the Copper Canyon, deeper and wider in points than America’s Grand Canyon, and home to the fiercely independent and unique Raramuri indigenous tribe. Some considered it unbuildable, and its track is still hailed as a modern feat of engineering. But perhaps most endearing is the Chepe’s nostalgic feel: the period-dressed porters, the well-apportioned train cars, and the rustic bordertown feel of the wild-west high desert towns it steams through.

A good place to get basics (bottled water, toothpaste, a snack, stamps, phone cards) is: The home-spun general stores on the corner of any small town. Named anything from Mini-super (mini super mart) to Tienda Veronica (Veronica’s Shop), the mom-and-pop establishments are usually painted with a day-glo veneer, now faded, run by three generations of an extended family, and feature a TV over the counter blasting Mexican soap operas (telenovelas). They sell anything from chocolate pops to panties to machetes, and if they don’t have it they can point you in the right direction with a smile and a “Suerte!” (Goodl uck!).

And it’s always nice to say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘how much?’ in the native tongue. And that is:

SPANISH / español
Please – POR FAVOR
Thank You / Thank You Very Much / 1000 Thanks – GRACIAS / MUCHAS GRACIAS / MIL GRACIAS
How Much – ¿CUÁNTO CUESTA?

RARAMURI (TARAHUMARA)
Please – Pe risensi / Pe risénsia / Pericó
Thank You – Matétera-bá / Natérara-bá
How Much – ¿Chu quipu?

TRAVEL TIPS SPAIN

Okay, so you’re headed to Spain. Here are a few handy travel tips to keep in mind:

Don’t forget to pack a few extra: White shirts and pants! No one wants to look like a Knight in White Satin, but the festivals of Spain, particularly in the north, almost always feature a dress code of white pants, a long-sleeve white shirt, and a red kerchief. From the bull-runs of Allariz to the wine-throwing rites of La Rioja, your dapper white duds will help you revel seamlessly with the locals (but do not expect they will still be white when you are done).

If you only have 24-48 hours in Spain, you must visit: A traditional small-town bullrun. Basque Pamplona is famous the world-over for its maniacal 7-day San Fermines festival, but smaller bergs throughout Spain host their own scaled-down versions of the primal rite: a facing of fears in a very public forum. As 362-kilogram bulls surge down a twisting labyrinth of cobblestones, sometimes roped, sometimes free, charging runners at will in a chaotic dance of man versus beast. While corridos (bull-fights) are more savage, the scales tipped heavily towards the dominating matadors, in encierros (bullruns) the animals have the advantage, and the runners bolt for dear life. Survive to see the finish, and the town plaza erupts in a cathartic celebration of death-dodged with an all-night, sangria-soaked fiesta.

If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: The room to barter in Spain is slimmer than in Latin American countries. Goods and products generally have prices that are fairly fixed, although a certain amount of flirting and hemming can usually get the numbers knocked down, especially for multiple items and particularly in mom-and-pop tiny tiendas. But entrepreneurs offering services (taxis, river guides, horse rental) usually have more leeway to barter and will bend a bit if a discount is asked for nicely, now more than ever with the economic crisis and the subsequent downturn in tourism.

The one food I totally loved was: Percebes! This goose barnacle also flourishes in America and Portugal, but the percebes of the Galician coast of Spain are known internationally as the cat’s pyjamas. Resembling a cross between a dinosaur’s fingernail and a komodo dragon’s arm, the percebes cling to precarious rocks along the Coast of Death, and fetch sky-high prices at seafood markets across the country. The taste is a melange of flavourful mussels, velvet shrimp and the wanton longing of the sea; if I have not sold you yet, they are also purported to be powerful aphrodisiacs. Boil ten minutes with laurel, and serve simply. Bon appétit!

And the one food I will pass on in the future is: Nothing! In truth there is not a dish or drink in Spain I did not love, particularly the sublime seafood of the Galician coast. But there exists one lurid drink of lore, a nepenthe which polarises travellers, forcing all to love or despise it: kalimotxo. Flowing like water at the bullruns of Basque Country, kalimotxo is nothing more than a 50-50 mix of red wine and cola. The high-brow Spaniards disparage it as a brew of children, the foreigners find it too syrupy to enjoy as a spirit, and the revellers squirt it by the gallon from botas (leather canteens) across three meters into the open mouths of friends and strangers alike in a beautiful arc of cheap inebriation. It fuelled my Pamplona bullrun and the tattoo that night which followed, and for that I will forever genuflect in its sacred presence. Viva Kalimotxo!

I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: Puenting! It means “bridging” in Espanglish, and it takes regular bungee jumping and raises the stakes in a deliciously Spanish way. A cord is affixed to the OPPOSITE side of the bridge from the harnessed jumper, and upon leaping from the perfectly stable structure, said victim becomes a human pendulum, swinging wildly beneath the bridge struts like giant bait in the wind. Banned in Asturias since 1996 as too distracting to drivers, puenting flourishes in Galicia and Basque Country, and is one of the most heart-stopping adventures you can have in the Spanish north.

But as an independent traveller in Spain, the one thing I would avoid is: getting rutted in 4-star hotels, on bus tours and in the tourist track. Spain has brilliant infrastructure, incredible museums, and one of the oldest traditions of travel in Europe thanks to the Camino de Santiago, but the true Spanish experience is in small towns, sharing café liquor with old men in the plaza, bringing fresh peppers to a txoko dinner in Basque Country. So get away from the throngs in Madrid, hop a train to a small town in Asturias, and meet some locals. The next thing you know you will be bringing La Rioja red to dinner in the kitchen of a family of fishermen, and the memories you form there will eclipse all the blurry photos you take outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

I was really surprised by: The Celtic soul of Galicia. I had heard speak that this region in Northern Spain was home to ancient Celt tribes that were, according to legend, the last wave to people Ireland, but I never expected to feel like I was a stone’s throw from Galway! From the drone of the gaiteiros (pipers), to the quick wit and warmth of the Galicians, to the ancient Celtic sun and fire rituals that still manifest in the Costa da Morte’s Noche de San Juan and Finisterra rites, the beating heart of Ireland’s long lost cousins is still very alive in Northern Spain.

The best way to fit in and not draw too much attention to yourself is to: Learn some Spanish! Europeans stereotypically wield a smattering of 3-4 languages; there is no excuse for travellers to Spain to not pick up a bit of the verbiage. In addition, Spanish is easy to learn, and 21 countries list it as their national language, plus many more as a minority language, thereby opening a large portion of the globe to your linguistic comprehension. An arsenal of 20-30 phrases will open doors and ingratiate you to your hosts; there is nothing more irritating than a foreigner who won’t deign to even TRY the local tongue. Often the Spanish will likewise speak a bit of English, but if you won’t try, neither will they. A smattering of Gallego in Galicia and Euskara in Basque country will also grease the wheels of your serendipitous encounters from day to day. Pruébalo!

When it comes to getting around, I recommend: Renting a car or motorcycle! Usually I enthusiastically support taking public transport in order to meet local people, get a feel for the local rhythms, blend with the pack. But Spain has some of the best roadways in Europe, a brilliant network of highways and infrastructure that are well-marked and easy to navigate. Renting your own wheels gives you the freedom and flexibility to linger in forgotten hilltop fortresses, cruise the Cantabrian coast in search of the perfect wave, and schlep your gear to the top of wind-swept peaks to do battle with 23rd century windmills.

OR:
Walking the Camino de Santiago! The Way of St. James was the original birthplace of European travel, a peregrination of hundreds of kilometres across the Spanish countryside to the Cathedral of Santiago. A millennium of pilgrims have checked out from their normal lives for days to months to foot the meandering trail, some for enlightenment, some redemption, some salvation. For those not content with the bones of St. James, the camino continues another 85 kilometres to the Atlantic Ocean at Finisterra, where pilgrims engage in one last purification rite, burning their ripe clothes and plunging into the sea at the spot the Romans knew as the End of the World.

A good place to get basics (bottled water, toothpaste, a snack, stamps, phone cards) is: Any of the mini-markets peppered around city plazas, hotels and bus stations throughout Northern Spain. In España, tobacco shops only sell tobacco, not various asundries like in other European countries, but Spanish family-run mini-marts abound at most major intersections. For a quick snack, follow the regulars into a tapas bar for a tasty bite of local cuisine and a glass of exquisite La Rioja vino tinto (red wine).

And it’s always nice to say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘how much?’ in the native tongue. And that is:

SPANISH / español
Please – POR FAVOR
Thank You / Thank You Very Much / 1000 Thanks – GRACIAS / MUCHAS GRACIAS / MIL GRACIAS
How Much – ¿CUÁNTO CUESTA?

GALICIAN / gallego
Please – POR FAVOR
Thank You – Grazas / Graciñas
How Much – Canto custa?

BASQUE / euskara
Please – Mesedez
Thank You – Eskerrik asko
How Much – Zenbat balio du?

TRAVEL TIPS CHINA

Okay, so you’re headed to Yunnan, China. Here are a few handy travel tips to keep in mind:

Don’t forget to pack a few extra: rolls of toilet paper (you will need them in public toilets).

If you only have 24-48 hours in Yunnan, China, you must visit: Shaxi. It is a lovely preserved (but not overly slick or touristy) town on the old tea trading route that goes to Burma and Tibet. There’s an ancient stage in the equally ancient town square. It was built from 1795–1850 (Qing Dynasty).

OR

Napa Lake in Zhongdian (aka Shangri La). For months of the year (usually April to October), the lake dries up and turns into a mass expanse of grassland. Tibetan ‘yakboys’ set up makeshift wooden homes and bring their yak herds here to graze. You will be welcomed into local homes and made to drink copious amounts of yak butter tea.

If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: Be firm, polite and ready to walk away (there will be someone else selling the same thing two doors down).

The one food I totally loved was: thinly sliced, boiled pig’s heart drizzled with soy sauce and sesame seeds.

And the one food I will pass on in the future is: stir-fried chicken head - the webbed skin, the comb, the eyes...ugh.

I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: Fried female cicadas (carapace is filled with yellow flesh...the male’s have an empty carapace). Fried bees were also tasty. Both were perfect protein-enriched beer snacks).

But as an independent traveller in Yunnan, China, the one thing I would avoid is: Public toilets and leeches.

I was really surprised by: the number of China Mobile towers. There’s reception in the most remote of places. In the Dulong/Drung valley, the tower only supports 15 mobiles at any one time. If you are the 16th person to make a call, you bump someone off the network. On a more serious note, I was really touched and surprised by how friendly the locals were. They were as curious about me as I was about them. What little they had, they offered.

The best way to fit in and not draw too much attention to yourself is to: Be polite, soft spoken and patient. Chinese people get turned off and do not react well to people who lose their temper or patience. Learning a few Chinese words and phrases is a good way to break the ice.

When it comes to getting around, I recommend: taking a ‘bread van’ (minivan) from place to place. Rides are cheap and you can flag one along the way. Roads only lead from one town to another so don’t fear that you will veer off to an unknown destination. Also, these bread vans have destination signs (in Chinese).

A good place to get basics (bottled water, toothpaste, a snack, stamps, phone cards) is: a supermarket or general store. There’s usually one or three in every town. It’s pretty obvious what they are.

And it’s always nice to say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘how much?’ in the native tongue. And that is:

Hello: Ni Hao.
Thank You: Xie Xie.
Please: Qing.
How Much: Duo Shao?

TRAVEL TIPS ETHIOPIA

Okay, so you’re headed to Ethiopia. Here are a few handy travel tips to keep in mind:

Don’t forget to pack: a few scarves and wraps - perfect to shield your head from the desert heat and protect you from the highland chills.

If you only have 24-48 hours in Ethiopia: tour the hidden corners of Addis. Start out with a trip around the city's quirky, vibrant coffee shops, indulge in massages at East Africa's best spas, then hit the art galleries and chilled-out clubs.

If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: when prices aren't fixed, you never really get ripped off. If the price seems too high, don't pay it! And if you decided to purchase then you must have felt that the item was worth it. Stay happy, even if someone else got the same thing for half the amount - you felt it was a bargain when you shopped. Stick with that feeling!

The one food I totally loved was: Sprice juice. It is easy to make too: Individually blend an avocado, mango and papaya. Scoop the juicy pulp into a giant glass - first the mango, then the avocado and then the papaya, for that beautiful tricolour effect. Squeeze fresh lime on top and spoon up pure, delicious energy!

And the one food I will pass on in the future is: raw meat. All across Addis, butcher stalls offer slices of the stuff with pints of beer. Loved the beer, but couldn't bring myself to swallow strips of raw cow.

I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: to make it to Hadar, the incredible excavation site, where the skeletons of several of humankind's oldest ancestors were found. It is bare, desolate and hot - but utterly fascinating, both for the eerie surroundings and the feeling of standing right at the cradle of humanity.

But as an independent traveller in Ethiopia, the one thing I would avoid is: trying to spring a surprise visit on an Afar village, it might not be appreciated. Go with a guide who has the trust of the community - he will be your key to an unforgettable stay and get you access to a world you are unlikely to see if setting off on your own.

I was really surprised: to discover a country where spiritual discovery and adventure sports are close travel companions. Some of Ethiopia's lesser-known, rock-hewn churches can only be reached through lengthy treks or bicycle rides. When you scramble, walk or ride through the escarpments of Wollo, you negotiate dizzying altitudes and pass enough churches to feel close to God. On the shores of Lake Tana, you can combine extended hikes and boat trips with visits to tucked-away monasteries; and reaching some of Tigray's churches requires real rock-climbing skill.

The best way to fit in and not draw too much attention to you is: not trying too hard to fit in. The harder you work on perfecting your Africa-look, the more you wil stand out. Forget about colourful prints, batik and wrap-around skirts: dress smart or stylish, best slightly conservatively (meaning longish skirts and trousers). And remember: the right look is less important to integration than a solid understanding of cultural values. Be as polite, reserved and friendly in your dealings with people as they will be with you - respect and courtesy mean a lot in this part of the world.

When it comes to getting around, I recommend: Ethiopia's buses. Buses are neither comfortable nor fast, but you are guaranteed an entertaining ride, including free Amharic lessons from fellow passengers and mechanics classes when the vehicle breaks down. Ethiopia's bus network is tighter than a spider's web. As if by magic, there always seems to be a bus going into the direction you want.

Good places to get basics (bottled water, toothpaste, a snack, stamps, phone cards) are: Addis Ababa's supermarkets, or the tiny shacks selling 'survival basics' in small towns. You usually find them near markets and bus stations.

And it’s always nice to say ‘thank you,’ in the native tongue: as often as you can. And that’s 'Amesegenallaw' - accompanied by a big smile.

TRAVEL TIPS KAZAKHSTAN

Okay, so you’re headed to Kazakhstan. Here are a few handy travel tips to keep in mind:

Don’t forget to pack a few extra: wet wipes & ‘gut problem’ tablets. Mutton fat & Central Asia can play havoc with a delicate western constitution.

If you only have 24-48 hours in Kazakhstan, you must visit: Almaty. It’s the Big Apple of Central Asia, let alone Kazakhstan.

If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: if it is in a bazaar, it is usually a good policy. In a Western-style shop - nyet.

The one food I totally loved was: laghman. (Noodle soup with a very generous-anything-goes-equal-opportunities-topping-employment-policy.)

And the one food I will pass on in the future is: Fat tailed sheep.

I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: Shubat or Kumiss. Camel milk or horse milk.

But as an independent traveler in Kazakhstan, the one thing I would avoid is: the taxi drivers at the Almaty airport arrival hall.

I was really surprised by: how much fun a 12-hour train ride in 35 degree Celsius heat can be.

The best way to fit in and not draw too much attention to yourself is to: rename yourself Tatiana.

When it comes to getting around, I recommend: sticking your hand out on the street - every car in Kazakhstan is a potential taxi.

A good place to get basics (bottled water, toothpaste, a snack, stamps, phone cards) is: stopping at a kiosk in a big town; at a corner shop in anyplace else. And if you have time – The Green Market in Almaty.

And it’s always nice to say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘how much?’ in the native tongue. And that is: strangely complicated to say please in Kazakh. It’s more a question of doing or not doing something. But ‘Rakhmit,’ is ‘thank you’ & ‘Qansha’ is a straightforward ‘how much’ in Kazakh. Russian is useful too: ‘Spasiba’ ‘Palzhalsta,’ & ‘Skolk Stoit.’
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