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Entries in travel (9)


Minimalist Travel

Eight years ago, as I was preparing for my first trip across the Atlantic, I bought a large beige Samsonite suitcase. I packed several kilos of batteries, cables and adapters, 12 books and 22 full changes of clothing. This turned out to be quite sufficient for the three weeks I was to spend in the United States. While having pretty much my entire wardrobe and library at my disposal every second of the trip did bring me considerable happiness, it also had its drawbacks. Even before taking off, I had to distract the check-in girl with loud tongue-clicking noises while she weighed the suitcase just to avoid overweight fees sufficient to compromise my long-term financial stability. Lugging around that much stuff made every hotel change not unlike moving apartments. I was also disheartened to find out that, for all practical purposes, wheeled suitcases become entirely un-wheeled as soon as the floor isn't perfectly flat, i.e. the second you step outside the airport.

Despite these gripes, I still own that suitcase. Four years ago I filled it with every piece of clothing I had worn since puberty, plus every utensil in my kitchen, shut the lid and moved to Switzerland carrying little else. On shorter trips though, I quickly switched to a hiking backpack, although at first without packing significantly less. It made the wheels problem disappear and motivated me to stay reasonably fit. However, from trip to trip I became increasingly disinclined to carry, well, much of anything.

Yesterday I packed for two weeks in New York, Boston and Paris, and here's everything I'm taking:

So basically five sets of underwear, two pairs of trousers, two long-sleeved t-shirts, two dress shirts, one suit jacket and an embarrassingly bright Scooby-Doo tie. (There's a formal event planned.) A couple cameras, memory cards, hard drive, spare batteries. Cell phone, iPad, and laptop. (A very small laptop.) That's it.

All of these fit comfortably in a Deuter Futura 28 backpack with room to spare. This mid-sized hiking daypack is very comfortable to wear, even fully loaded when it's hot and damp, and also fits perfectly under the seat of most airliners. I'm also carrying a ScotteVest tropical jacket, for additional capacity, although it is at present largely empty.

Obviously I'll have to hit the cleaners a couple times per week, and I won't impress anyone with my incredibly varied and creative wardrobe, but on the other hand I'll never have to wait for bags at the airport, nor store luggage at the hotel and make detours to get it back, nor indeed lose any time at all in the morning trying to decide what to wear. All things considered, it makes for a much more comfortable trip.


Swedish Lapland – What's in the bag?

Today is packing day for my next trip: a weeklong walk along Kungsleden in Swedish Lapland with my friend Rolando. We're both out there to take serious pictures, and of course we need to carry clothes, shelter and food, for ten days away from electricity and cell towers. Getting enough gear for serious pictures to fit inside a backpack along with all the things one needs in the wild just to stay dry, warm and fed is always a challenge. Here's what we'll end up carrying.

Rolando's photo gear:

  • Canon EOS7D
  • 2 Batteries
  • 40GB of CF cards
  • Tamron 11-18
  • Sigma 30/1.4
  • Canon SD860IS pocket camera

My photo gear:
  • 5DMk2 w/ RRS L-Plate
  • 4 Batteries
  • 44GB of CF cards
  • 24/1.4 (stand-in for my 16-35 which is getting repaired)
  • 50/1.4
  • 70-300 DO
  • Gitzo 1530 (center column removed)
  • Canon SD3500IS pocket camera

While we're both self-sufficient as far as photo gear is concerned, it's nice that we're both using Canon gear and can thus exchange batteries, memory cards and lenses if the need arises.


  • Tent
  • Stove, pot, two gas canisters
  • First aid kit
  • Sleeping bag, liner, sleeping pad
  • Water bottles (cheap plastic disposable ones — they're lighter than Nalgene)
  • Three-season hiking clothes (sun, rain and cold all expected)
  • Towel, knife, spork, headlamp, compass, cell-phone, iPod

This comes to a 13kg pack before food and water. Certainly not lightweight hiking territory, but we've carried much worse. We'll see how it goes.


Göteborg by night

No matter how many times you've heard that Scandinavia is an expensive place, there is no dampening the shock that comes while ordering lunch at Copenhagen airport, when a smiling Bjorn Borg-lookalike asks you for 27 euros and 45 cents in return for white wine in a plastic glass and a very small cardboard box of Thai red curry.

Then you fly on to Göteborg, gather your luggage, take a bus to the city, then a tram to your hostel. The cool evening air would be a warm and soft caress on your skin if it wasn't eclipsed by punishingly cold rain. By the time you reach your hostel you're drenched to the bone and seriously questioning your lifestyle. The door is locked, so you need to call the owner, but the only thing on your mind is shelter from the rain. Beyond the window you see a warm corridor, a dark and empty front desk, and a lobby with two guests sitting in front of shiny computers. You rap quietly on the window. Nothing happens. You rap a little louder. Nothing continues to happen. The rain continues pouring. You knock as hard as you can. One of the guests, a fat guy in a sports jersey, shuffles in his chair, seems to consider turning away from facebook for a second, then obviously decides against it. You knock again, hard enough to bruise your knuckles. He shuffles once more. The girl next to him is obviously deaf. You're now shaking the entire door, mildly hoping that the hinges will snap free even if it gets you in jail. It doesn't rain in jail. The guy finally turns around and looks at you with a vague "What?" on his face. You gesture for him to get off his fat ass and walk three meters and open the fucking door. He holds your gaze for two seconds, his face a picture of immense stupidity. Then he swivels his chair back to his facebook profile. You question his morals, values and membership in the human species, curse him to the seventh generation and call on god to strike him with a severe coronary leading to slow and painful death, then whip out your cell phone to call the owner under the pouring rain. He'll be there in twenty minutes. You select a nice puddle to sit in while you wait.

At no point during any of this does it escape you that the amount of money you're spending on this memorable experience would, almost anywhere else in the world, buy you a night in a full-service hotel with a 24h reception that promises to move you from rain-drenched street to sweet linen and fluffy pillows in as little as four minutes, five tops on a busy day. But as much as you'd wish to be, you're not anywhere else: you're in Göteborg, watching continuous strings of water falling from the heavens and onto your head, meters from a warm room that is technically yours if only you can get to it.

When he eventually arrives, the owner isn't sure you really are the same two Belgian guys who booked a room at his hostel tonight. You manage to convince him. When you reach your room, the door is closed. This makes him surprisingly angry. He needs to fetch the key at his girlfriend's place or something, which should take him about thirty minutes, so he shows you to "the pool room", a combination kitchen and basement construction site with a slanted scratched broken-down excuse for a pool table. Scattered around the room lie twelve balls and two halves of a broken cue. An hour later the owner comes back and finally opens the door. He's not a bad guy really, but slow enough to be startled by continental drift. When he leaves with your travel companion to settle the bill, you take the luggage inside, unpack, remove your contacts, do a bit of reading, then, vaguely worried, go out to join them. Payment has just been delivered and he's just beginning to suggest places where you could enjoy a beer if only he'd stop talking. You've been thirsty since landing at Landvetter airport in the early evening, so you go there and get a drink. It's one in the morning.


Olympic – What worked, what didn't.

Sometimes I start writing something, and then lose interest. Luckily, I never throw anything out, so if for any reason I ever regain interest I just finish it and publish it. That's what just happened for the followup to my article about packing for Olympic National Park, which I give to you now.

As you can probably guess, I ended up making it out of the woods ok, and onto Vancouver where my talk went over very well, at least partly because I gave it in a brand new shirt after taking a couple of extended showers. All the camping and photo gear worked out fine, so there's not that much to say about that, but I did learn a few things along the way.

First, before the actual trip to Olympic, I ended up buying a couple more things in Seattle:

  • Lowepro CF card holders. I don't really need those for protection, but they help a lot with keeping cards in sequence and I got really tired of shuffling through all the cards in my pocket looking for the right one. Heartily recommended if you carry more than four cards.

  • Canon EF 100/2.8 Macro. I bought this after seeing all the wild flowers in Mount Rainier National Park. It proved really useful for the rest of the trip, but three (big) lenses is definitely my upper limit for backpacking. I'm not sure which of these I'd leave at home if I had to do the same trip again but I doubt I'd be carrying all three.

  • Bear can. This is mandatory for wilderness camping in bear country. It adds a little weight and makes packing a bit harder, but all in all it's not too much trouble. Lashed on the bottom of the backpack while hiking it's actually a very convenient place to hold all your food.

  • A third water bottle. Always useful.

While I didn't discuss food in the previous article, it has now become obvious that I'm terrible at estimating quantities for backpacking trips. I ended up buying way too much and carrying several totally unnecessary pounds on my back for four days. Definitely something to watch for in the future.

It didn't rain at all, which was pleasantly surprising. So obviously my rain jacket, rain pants, and tarp went entirely unused. If I was to do it again, I'd take only the rain jacket, so if it (unexpectedly) started raining I might be uncomfortable, but not in any danger.

I completely forgot to pack a fire starter (I usually carry a magnesium bar) so I felt very stupid when I pitched my tent right next to a perfect fire circle, surrounded by an ample supply of firewood, with no way to make any kind of flame. I briefly tried setting a few tufts of dry moss on fire by catching the sun with the 100/2.8, and, you know, it might even have worked if I had spent a lot more time at it, or if I hadn't tried it near dusk in the middle of a rather dense forest. Oh well.

Instead of packing DEET, I trusted a rather ambitious sunscreen-cum-bug-repellent thing because it came in a very convenient small tube. This is easily the biggest traveling mistake I ever made… The thing turned out ridiculously useless: I sprayed it right on mosquitoes and they didn't even flinch. I ended the trip with more than a hundred mosquito bites, making the skin over my whole body look like an obstacle course on Mars.

Regarding photography, in four days I took about 26GB of pictures, so my 30GB of CF cards proved just enough. The limiting factor was actually battery life: I ended up with barely 20% remaining in the second battery despite trying really hard to preserve power on the last day. While live view is the best way of ensuring sharp photos, it really eats up batteries like there's no tomorrow. On longer trips I'll obviously have to live without it.

Last but not least: Olympic is beautiful. Go there. Go there now. You'll love it.


New York City, 2

I was amazed by the first 24 hours of this New York trip. Now that I'm back in Belgium, I might as well mention a couple of the moderately interesting events of the next three days.

On the subway I sat next to a perfect John Kerry-look wearing a kippah. At Brooklyn's Prospect park, a smaller version of Saddam Hussein was playing soccer against two girls. He looked about 7 years old so hopefully his mustache was fake. A few minutes later an elderly Hassidic Jew came towards me and asked, "Are you Jewish?". I said I wasn't. He had the vacant expression of those who devote their life to events that reportedly happened five thousand years ago, and his grasp on 21st century reality was obviously tenuous. Three minutes later he came back to me and asked, as if for the first time, "Are you Jewish?" I confirmed I wasn't and he walked away. Not five minutes later I noticed him edging back towards me and ran for cover. I wonder what he'd said had I said yes.

After about an hour working inside a Starbucks in Brooklyn, I got up and started packing. As I made my way for the door, one of the waitresses waved at me: "Bye Serge! Have an nice evening!" I had never been there before. Even though that was a Starbucks, no one had asked my name when I ordered. She got it off my credit card when I paid, remembered it for the next 50 minutes, and pronounced it right, just to be friendly to a client.

As I was sitting in the metro, a young woman, obviously not a tourist, sat next to me to study the system map on the train wall. During the next five minutes she asked me where we were, what stop that just was, what was the next one and what train we were on. She wouldn't tell me where she wanted to go, but her face turned increasingly confused and uncertain. At the third stop she muttered a small "damn" and crossed the platform to the train headed the other way.

As I left the subway, the guy next to me walked straight for the wall, lavishly vomited, then walked on as if he was perfectly fine and just going through his usual morning routine.

Later in the day I drifted towards Washington Square, where a rag-tag band of musicians were playing. They were maybe six acoustic guitars, four djembes and four singers, one of them with a stentorian voice and heaps of charisma. They just finished "On the road again" and launched into "Hotel California". Well I'll be damned if that wasn't the best cover of Hotel California I've ever heard. And they weren't even a band. Just a couple people with instruments who gravitated towards the Square because that's the kind of thing they do on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

As awesome as the show was, I was famished so I repaired to a Pakistani restaurant on a side street. As I emerged an hour later, the impromptu band was gone, but a bit farther down the square was a trio playing what I can only describe as atonal jazz fusion. Let me repeat that: atonal jazz fusion. On a city square. And people were watching, often with interest. (The band was good. Of course.) At some point they took a break and started talking about interesting prog-electronica bands with a couple of passersby.

I can't get it into my head that, in New York, there is nothing at all remarkable about any of these stories. That this is a city where there are plenty of bands playing everywhere, nearly all of them really good, some happening to be into atonal jazz. Bill Bryson says about the beautiful Flemish city of Bruges that he can barely believe actual people live there, see those buildings and walk those streets everyday. I feel something like that about New York. There's something unreal about this place, which makes it hard to picture people merely living there, having breakfast and then walking these streets, every single day. I wonder how long it takes for them to get used to it and stop being excited about taking a walk. I have to say that after ten years in Brussels, my excitement factor there is running pretty low. And Brussels is still a far more exciting place than, say, Bloomington, Indiana. Only last decade I saw a good street band in the Sacred Isle.

And I guess that's the main reason I love New York: things happen there. Everybody knows why New York is a great global city: most populous urban centre outside Asia, setting for Friends and Seinfeld and 30 Rock, birthplace of hip hop, punk, disco, home to the most respected journal in the world, the biggest financial hub on earth and the siege of the United Nations… you know, those little things. New York also has a number of perks that make it especially appealing to me personally. A great subway system, cheap Japanese food, polite waiters who can pronounce my name and the ability to purchase a MacBook at four in the morning are only the first that come to mind.

And yet you could remove all of that, take away all the cultural grandeur and global influence, and then turn the convenience dial all the way down to, well, "France" I guess, and New York would still be an unbelievably awesome city. Because, well, lots of interesting things happen there. And for my money's worth, that's the highest ideal a city should aim for.

More photos here.