When it comes to adventures, the only thing you can really count on is the unexpected. You go on an ordinary high school field trip and get bitten by an irradiated spider, giving you special powers. You’re running for shelter from a tornado, and the next thing you know, your house is dropping on a witch. You’re starting a typical day with the family, and flesh-eating zombies overrun the planet. We’ve all been there.
Rich and I have been planning our great train trip through Central and Eastern Europe for a year. We’ve talked about it ad nauseam (just ask any of our friends) and corresponded with people all over the world. I’ve been blogging about it for months. Rich has researched every kind of app, gadget, and gear known to Google-kind. Our first hiccup was having to postpone our original June 1 departure date to attend my brother’s wedding. (It took place last Saturday, on a sun-drenched beach in Oregon, and they seem blissfully happy, thanks for asking.) Rich and I were supposed to return to Seville this week and head to the train station a few days later.
Rich has been complaining about pain in his right leg for some months. At first, I responded in my usual compassionate way by telling him to man up and walk it out. When it became clear it was more than just a pulled muscle, we started visiting doctors and physical therapists, first in Spain, then in California. A battery of tests has (gracias a Dios) eliminated all the big scary stuff, but we still haven’t identified the problem. All we really know is that his leg hurts abominably whenever he walks more than 15 minutes; the good news is that he can swim, bike, and do pretty much everything else in perfect comfort.
Hmmm. Do we think he’s having second thoughts about the trip?
He assures me that he’s as eager as ever, and judging by the wistful glances he gives our suitcases whenever he’s in the attic, I believe him.
Our medical team said he could go on the trip now, as long as he took heavy-duty pain meds and promised not to walk much or lift anything.
Our Sherpa in the Himalayas. (Note the flip flops.)
Doesn’t that sound delightful? Me playing Sherpa, hauling our bags on and off trains and dragging them up endless flights of stairs, while Rich stares off into space in a drug-induced stupor, repeatedly asking me where we are now and how long he has to wait for his next pain pill. To add to the fun, there would be the constant worry that this unidentified problem would suddenly flare up into something much, much worse, most likely in some obscure Transylvanian village where there’s only a 95-year-old doctor named Igor and no train out until the following week.
Call us crazy, but we’ve decided that we’d better stick around California long enough to get a diagnosis – and, with luck, an effective treatment plan. Rich feels he will enjoy the train trip more if he has full use of both legs and all his mental faculties. Go figure.
So we have rebooked our flight to Spain for the end of July and hope to head off on our train trip the first week of August. However, if we’ve learned anything from all this, it’s that plans are written in pencil, not carved in stone. If our trip gets derailed again – due to, say, alien invasion, a meteor hurtling towards Earth, or an invitation to visit Sweden to pick up a Nobel Prize in Literature for Dancing in the Fountain – we’re standing by to come up with Plan C. One thing you can count on: you’ll get all the latest updates on this blog.
When I was a journalist in Ohio, I was often astonished by the incredibly indiscreet things people would blurt out for the record. For instance, I was once interviewing a friend for a piece called “What Women Think Men Should Know About Sex,” and she told me, “Men know nothing about pleasing a woman.” I could never view her husband quite the same way after that.
How did I get people to open up? Usually by simply taking out a tape recorder or flipping open a notebook. My penetrating investigative technique usually entailed a starter question such as “What made you take up juggling?” or “How many hours a day do you practice the violin?” Half an hour later I was privy to every known fact relating to their career, their best friend’s extramarital affair, their dog’s embarrassing struggles with incontinence, and how they would improve things if they ruled the world. I would frequently end an interview by backing out the door, saying for the fifth time, “Well, that certainly covers it! Thanks for your time!” Some would then follow me to my car, saying breathlessly, “And another thing that happened when I was sixteen…”
So for our upcoming train trip through Central and Eastern Europe, I’m not too worried about getting people to open up a little and say diverting things that I can report back to you on this blog. But I did wonder if it might be interesting to come up with a question or two that I’d slip into all my conversations, so that later I could do some sort of comparison.
I was still mulling this over when I heard a podcast from NPR about young Andrew Forsthoefel who, out of work and seeking a project, decided to walk from his Pennsylvania home to New Orleans and on to the Pacific Coast, interviewing people along the way. He started out asking everyone a thoughtful question about life transitions that essentially elicited blank stares. Then he hit on a new approach: “If you could go back in time and give your 23-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?” He got marvelous responses – funny, touching, sad, inspiring, filled with self-compassion. “I would tell myself not to be so afraid,” a lot of them said.
I loved this question, and while I was considering stealing it, I tried it out various friends. They all said, “Yeah, great question.” Full stop. Blank stares. Vigorous prodding would elicit a short response, but it was clearly not opening up the kind of floodgates that would make them follow me out to my car to share more.
Last week, while having dinner with my sister and her family, I went around the table asking each person what they had been doing when they were 24, the age Forsthoefel was during the latter part of the project. Each time, their face would soften and a nostalgic gleam would warm their eyes— even the 27-year-old, who wasn’t looking back all that far. And they’d speak with fond amusement about early jobs, young loves, dumb mistakes… A treasure trove of revelations that mattered. I figured I might be on to something.
A few days later, I ran across a book called 4,000 Questions for Getting to Know Anyone and Everyone. Expecting the usual “What’s your favorite ice cream?” and “Where do you want to be five years from now?” I was pleasantly surprised by the breadth and depth of queries such as “What do you really wish your parents would have told you when you were still a kid?” and “Are any illegal acts justified under certain circumstances?” My favorite was “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” I know what mine would be: What’s the best question to ask people on the upcoming train journey?
Since I haven’t (so far as I am aware) received any specific direction from the Almighty in this matter, let me put the question to you:
What question do YOU think I should ask the people I meet on our train journey?
And by the way, what were you doing when you were 24?
Don’t you just hate getting stranded in crocodile-infested waters? Me too. Like the time in Belize, when our flat-bed boat – more of a motorized raft, really – kept getting its propeller tangled in the weeds. “Run to the front of the boat,” our captain would shout, and our little group would rush forward until the prow dipped and the propeller cleared. Unfortunately, lowering the prow allowed water to flood the deck – and all our luggage. “Run to the back of the boat,” the captain would then shout. And we’d all race the other way until the luggage was high and dry. In minutes, the propeller would snag on the weeds once more, and the seesaw would begin again…
As much fun as this was, it inevitably led to a complete breakdown (of the boat, although the captain wasn’t far behind) in the middle of the river. A large, well-fed crocodile sunning himself on the shore lifted his head and began regarding us with professional interest.
“Get ready to swim for it,” Rich whispered to me.
“Are you insane? We can’t outswim a crocodile,” I hissed back.
“We don’t have to. We just have to outswim the other people on this boat.”
Good point. Luckily, this potentially Darwinian situation had a happy ending for everyone (except the crocodile) when a speedboat came along and took us to safety. But as Rich always reminds me, it pays to get in shape before a trip and to make sure you stay fit while you’re on the road.
Pool in Varna, Bulgaria
Since most of the places we stay (see A Flophouse for Nightcrawlers) are unlikely to feature a gym, we walk a lot, and we’ve found other ways to stay in shape during long journeys.
Rich, whose favorite form of exercise in doing laps, was delighted to discover the Swimmers Guide, a website listing public pools in more than 100 countries, with details about length and access. It covers most of the larger cities we’ll visit this summer (see The Next Big Adventure on my home page), so he’s definitely packing his swim suit and goggles.
The 7-minute workout from hell
When there is no pool, he’s planning to follow the Fit for Fifty exercise program, based on the system developed to keep the Royal Canadian Air Force in fighting trim. Best features: it requires no equipment and takes just 11 minutes a day.
For days when 11 minutes sounds like too much, there’s a 7-minute “scientific” workout that was recently published in the New York Times. I liked the sound of all that efficiency – until I read the intensity made this workout “about an 8 on a discomfort scale of 1 to 10.” Ouch! I’d rather budget the extra four minutes.
Actually, I like my exercise even more leisurely, so I often turn to exercise videos on YouTube. And there are an endless number of them. For instance, eFit has a whole series of 30-minute Pilates videos, from beginners to those with such alarming titles as “Ab Attack” and “Butt Blaster.”
And there’s every form of yoga you can think of, from the gentle “Flexibility and Range of Motion Beginner Yoga” with Tara Stiles to Power Yoga with Rodney Yee. Yes, the same Rodney Yee we all worked out to in the nineties; at 57, he is still looking so buff it’s hard to believe he’s not PhotoShopped.
Staying fit on the road has never been easier. And whether you’re running for a train, fleeing a mugger, chasing a mugger, or just hauling a suitcase up four flights of stairs, you’ll be glad you did.
As for escaping from crocodiles, YouTube has a video for that, too. Check out “Never Give Up (Monkey Fights with Crocodile).” A young baboon, her head trapped in the jaws of a crocodile, flails around wildly until by chance her hind claw pokes the croc’s eye, and the startled reptile lets her go. I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m just saying it’s a strategy to keep in mind if you ever find yourself in his situation. I don’t know if there is a yoga pose that can prepare you to execute this maneuver, but if there is, I’m sure it’s somewhere on YouTube, probably being demonstrated by Rodney Yee.
This post was written in response to questions I've been asked about preparing for long and varied trips. Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I haven't obtained any free or discounted services, gear or supplies in return for promoting anything on this blog. I'm just letting you know about stuff that Rich and I consider to be the most useful for our kind of travel.
“Have you seen what they’re charging for laundry here?” I said to Rich, aghast. “It’s more than we paid to buy these clothes.” We were in Hong Kong’s legendary Peninsula Hotel, splurging on two nights of luxury on a long road trip. The glamor of our surroundings, and the prices, were stunning. “I think we should just hand-wash the stuff ourselves. We’ll leave the windows open tomorrow while we’re out, and the heat will dry these things by the time we get back.”
This seemingly foolproof plan was, however, doomed to failure. While we were gone, the housekeeping staff, possibly in mute rebuke for such low-class goings on, closed all the windows and set the air-conditioner to arctic. Arriving back at our room in the early evening, we discovered our clothes were not only as sodden as ever but were now disagreeably clammy to the touch. We spent our entire last night in one of the world’s most glamorous hotels drying socks with the hair dryer.
Maintaining even basic levels of wardrobe hygiene can be challenging during long journeys. When practical, we turn the job over to the hotel’s laundry service, but we often wind up washing our clothes in the sink and drying them in the shower stall, at the window, or draped over the railing of whatever bamboo hut we’re occupying at the time. Over the years, we’ve developed three simple strategies to help with the washing and drying.
1. Buy easy-care clothes. Leave behind jeans that take three days to dry and must-iron linen shirts; pack garments that won’t wrinkle and will dry in a flash (or at least overnight). Yes, I’m talking about that ExOfficio underwear with the slogan “17 countries … 6 weeks … One pair of underwear. (OK, maybe two)” and those lightweight, rugged, wrinkle-resistant clothes you see in travel shops and catalogs. Pack a few fussier, more glamorous garments if you must, but count on these travel-savvy essentials for the long haul.
2. Bring plenty of bars of Lush shampoo. Being solid instead of liquid, it’s very lightweight, and it can wash just about anything from your socks to your hands to (I am reliably informed) your pet's hair as well as your own. I've read that hair conditioner can be used as fabric softener, but since my travel wardrobe doesn't require softener, I haven't put it to the test. (If you try it, I'd love to hear how you like it.) For longer journeys, you can renew your supply at Lush stores in most major cities around the world.
3. Pack a clothesline. Not every room comes conveniently equipped with long shower rods or horizontal bars on a sunny window. We’ve used various kinds of cord in the past, and Rich’s latest find is Coghlan’s Pegless Bungee Clothesline, which has kinks in the rope designed to hold garments in place without clothespins. We’ll let you know how it works for us.
And here’s a tip I’m definitely NOT going to implement: showering with your clothes, as suggested in this Wikihow travel article:
"Socks and underwear can easily be washed when you shower before bed - put them on the shower floor (avoiding the plughole), and agitate them with your feet as you shower. Shampoo is a mild detergent that also works on washable fabrics, and you can rinse as you step out."
I suppose to save even more time, you could just shower with your clothes on (as Cary Grant did in the famous shower scene from Charade). But I can’t feel that either your garments or your skin will benefit from any sort of combination approach. Please promise me you’ll budget the extra five minutes to wash your clothes separately from your person. Thanks, I knew I could count on your good sense.
This post was written in response to questions I've been asked about packing for long and varied trips. Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I haven't obtained any free or discounted gear or supplies in return for promoting anything on this blog. I'm just letting you know about products that Rich and I consider to be the most useful for our kind of travel.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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