Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hitchhiking Romania

I am a millionaire!

At least in Romania, where about $34 will get you 1,000,000 Lei. Of course, thanks to inflation, this isn't really worth much. Romania is in the process of revaluing it's currency (AKA, dropping the last 4 zeros off of all the money) and all the prices are listed in both the old and new versions. I kind of like the old version, though, because I feel like I have a lot of cash.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI'm in northern Romania to see some monasteries.  Painted ones that are unique to the area and that made it onto UNESCO's World Heritage List.

Unfortunately, seeing them would not be as easy as I'd thought. 

Hiding from the rain that has flooded most of central Romania in a rented room in Gora Humoruli (a tiny town that is the closest bit of civilization to the monasteries) I realized I could have planned this a bit better.

And by that I mean I should have done some planning.

Problem #1: The Language Barrier

I came to Romania thinking that language would not be a problem.  I am comfortable using three lingua francas (English, Spanish and Russian), and, if someone I met knew none of these, I knew that Romanian was a Romance language.  Because I know Spanish, I am, to some extent, able to understand Portuguese and Italian, so I thought that I would be able to get the gist of something said in Romanian.


At both bus and train stations, I met attendants who spoke none of the languages I did and who became agitated and rude the second they realized that I didn't know Romanian.  As they waved me away in a torrent of words so that they could attend to the people behind me, I realized that Romanian is just close enough to Spanish to be familiar while still being completely impenetrable.  Hearing it, I was thinking: "okay, I feel like this should make sense to me, but I don't understand a goddamn word you're saying."

Problem #2: Transportation

Since I couldn't get any information out of any of the attendants about travel options, I finally had to find a bus to Gora Humoruli by looking at signs in bus windows.  When I finally found one, I was ripped off by the driver.  I gave him 100,000 Lei for a 45,000 ticket, and in return he gave me a 5,000 Lei coin and communicated through gestures said he would give me the change when he had it. Simple enough; happens all the time.

When we arrived at Gora Humorului and I asked for my change (using Russian, since he seemed to be getting the gist from that), he waved me off and acted as if he didn't understand me. The money was a pittance, but it still annoyed me.

In the town itself, I realized that there was no identifiable public transportation.  Mostly, what I saw were horse drawn carts.  Unable to communicate and unable to find how to get around, making it to the monasteries suddenly seemed impossible.  I felt angry, isolated and vulnerable. I know I like to think of myself as this great traveler, but sometimes reality likes to sit me down and smack me in the face.

With the rain coming down, and little idea what to do, I started searching for a place to sleep.

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Salvation came from a woman named Maria, a sweet woman in her 50s who had a sign in the window of her tiny house that simply said "Room".

She answered the door and, it turned out, had learned some Russian in grade school.  She invited me inside, her watery-eyed, thirty-year daughter sitting at the table and staring at me the way that girl from the exorcist probably would, and we negotiated a price.
A few hours later, we were chatting about her childhood, her pushing bread and coffee at me from her meager stores. as we sat at her table and talked a bit. Every once in a while, her husband would appear, an old man who kept his hands in front of him as if he was constantly offering you something. She would say something to him in Romanian, and then he would disappear.

After a while, we got to the reason I was in Romania.  No, she said, there were no buses to the monasteries.
But, she went on when she saw my crestfallen face, I could hitchhike.

My First Ever Hitchhike

I'd never hitchhiked, before, and I'll admit I was a little nervous as I set out down the dirt road towards the monasteries with a three hard-boiled eggs, two bananas, a few slices of bread and a bottle of water in my satchel.  Images of of being stabbed to death and my mother's horrified face circled in my head as I stuck out my hand at the first car that came by.

I was surprised when it immediately stopped.  The driver, a slightly balding man in his late 20s, didn't speak English, Russian or Spanish, but understood where I wanted to go.  As we silently trundled down the road, I wondered if it was proper to pay for the ride, and debated how much I should give and how I should do it.  He dropped me off 100 meters from one of the monasteries, refused the money that I tried handing him with a smile and drove off.

That really brightened my day. I had resigned myself to the fact that most Romanians were rude, and here was this stranger, paying me a kindness.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comHumor

I could see one of the monastariesfrescos on the wall and watching the Sunday service being conducted. Orthodox services are interesting to me: people are expected to stand, and there were no pews. High-backed carved wooden chairs lined the walls for the older attendees, but to be honest, all the attendees were older, none younger than fifty. They sat hunched in the chairs while a priest, unseen behind a wooden wall adorned with icons, chanted in Latin in a call-and-response with another priest who stood on my side of the wooden wall, chanting back. The elderly people walked around the interior of the church, kissing icons and crossing themselves. I felt a little sad that there were no younger people there, that religion was simply relegated to the old.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comThe monastary, which was next door, was amazing. Called Humor (Gora Humorului means "the mouth of Humor"), it was built in 1530. Small, round, with a pointed roof and enclosed within a protective wall, what landed it--and the other nearby monestaries--on UNESCO's list are the paintings on its exterior walls. I could see how the paintings had weathered over the years, those near the top and under the eve of the roof being better preserved than those near the bottom that were exposed to centuries of rain. Most of the paintings at the very bottom had faded past recognition.

The art was theoretically Byzantine, but it definitely had a style of its own. What the artist had done, which I had never seen in other religious art, was break the walls into rectangles, almost like a giant comic book, each frame holding a different saint or scene from the bible. Inside, nuns wearing habits chanted in Latin to a congregation of the elderly, who stood and crossed themselves.

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Image hosted by Photobucket.comI hitchhiked back. Once again, the first car that passed me stopped, and although there were four people in the little car, they moved to make room for me. The rain had given way to a beautiful summer afternoon, and pressed against the window I was treated to open fields with grazing horses, Romanian houses with roofs tiled in wood or covered in tin, and past freely-wandering cows and chickens. When we arrived back in Gura Humorului, everyone but the driver got out. The man sitting beside me handed the driver 10,000 Lei, so I thought that was expected of me, too. I handed the driver the money, but he looked confused. Finally, though, he just kept it and drove off.

I hiked across town and down another road that I knew led to another monastery. This time a Romanian couple in a motor home picked me up. They had been living in Germany for 25 years they told me in English, and had come back to see their home country for the first time in a quarter-century.
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They dropped me off at Voronet, a monastery built in 1488. Larger than Humor and crowded with worshippers, Voronet is famous for the color of blue that is the background of all its exterior paintings. Apparently this shade of blue is found only at Voronet ("being unique in the world like Rubens' red and Veroneses's green" said my guidebook) and they're having trouble restoring the faded murals because they don't know how to reproduce the paint. Dominating the western wall of this monastery was a painting of The Last Judgement: it was the book of Revelations in graphic novel form, including the rising of the Leviathan, the battle between good and evil, and all the people of the world being judged by God, compressed into one, huge painting. One thing I saw in the painting that I'd seen in no other Last Judgements: God sitting on a scroll unfurled by angels, the scroll obviously representing the heavens. What was on this scroll, though, were representations of the Zodiac: Pisces and Sagittarius and Cancer and so on. I hadn't known these symbols to ever be included in a Christian painting before.

I could barely see the interior of the monastery because it was packed with worshippers. Most were kneeling and crossing themselves, taking up every square inch of floor space, crowding into the tiny stone rooms and kneeling three abreast in the tiny stone archways, listening to a man chanting from a place I couldn't see. It was all I could do to duck my head in, and when I did, I got a couple of angry looks from those who were kneeling there. I wanted to take a photo of this carpet of people pressed into this ancient monetary, but I thought someone would probably throw something at me, so I left.

Once again, I hitchhiked back into town, being picked up by a Romanian man who just nodded at me as I got in and then flew down the road, leaning on the horn whenever a pedestrian got too close to his car.  The man didn't ask for payment and I didn't offer. Actually, we didn't say a word to each other the whole ten-minute trip. We shook hands when I got out of the car, and he immediately took off. I was really happy about all this successful hitchhiking. It seems that in Romania it's just customary to pick up anyone who wants a ride, provided they're headed your way.

I assume that without regular buses to move people around, those with cars just fill in the void.  Sad that I couldn't see something similar happening in America.  It's a shame that paranoia prevents us from doing that. What was once common has been legislated and media-fear inundated almost out of existence.  Don't pick someone up! They'll rob you or rape you! And maybe so, but it's unlikely. More likely to get robbed or raped just walking down the street. To Romanians, it seems that if someone needs a lift, why not give it to them? I like that. It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to hitchhike around the rest of the country, but I've also been programmed to fear getting robbed or raped and so, despite everything I just said, was too leery to trust it. A couple miles down a country road into town in daylight is one thing, but anything else and I could hear my mother yelling at me.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Slovakia: Big Ass Castle

For 2,000 years, fortified settlements stood on a hill above the city now known as Spisske Podhradie.

A linguistic lesson: "Spisske" is the name for the region in Slovakia. "Pod", the same in Russian and Ukrainian, means "under". "Hrad", I learned quickly, is the Slovakian word for castle ("Zamok" in Ukranian and Russian; sometimes the langauges don't line up at all). So, shifting "Hrad" to the locative case, you have a town that means it's in Spisske reason and it's under a castle. A big ass castle. You couldn't possibly name this town in relation to anything else because every view from this town is dominated by that enormous castle on the hill.

Bury an aircraft carrier on the top of a hill 2/3rds up the keel. The width and height to the deck would be the perimeter of this castle's wall, the superstructure would be the size of the keep and the turret. That's how big this castle is.

Carrie and I had meant to be on the top of Poland, hiking through the Tatras from the Slovakian side, over the border and to the top of a mountain called Kysy. Dark clouds swirling around the mountains, obscuring the peaks sent us on a day trip south. And instead we found ourselves at the top of the turret of one of the largest in all of Europe and the largest in Central Europe, a UNESCO treasure that has never been militarily taken.

At the bottom of the hill was a beautiful cemetary. Slovakians have th tradition of marking graves not just with a headstone, but a slab of stone the length and width of the coffin. Many of these slabs were hollow in the middle, filled with earth and used as planters, many with beautiful flowers in bloom.

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The castle, as seen from the town's cemetery (notice the planter in front of the grave behind the cross)

From the cemetery, we started our assault on the castle. I couldn't imagine charging up that steep hill in armor while arrows rained down from the hundreds of arrow slits carved into those beige walls. Any messenger carrying a declaration of war would probably stop halfway up, hands on his knees and panting, before going back down and telling the commander that it wasn't worth it.

Tourists and not archers now covered the walls, walking their immense length and soaking in the enormity of it. Built starting in the 13th century by the Hungarians, it had been steadily enlarged for the next four centuries until an accidental fire burned down everything but the mortared stone in 1780. We walked through the entrances of three separate walls in our constant uphill plunge to the oldest structures: the keep and the turret: the outer one had a courtyard so large you could put a mall into it (or a lot of livestock and frightened villagers), a wooden one being constructed by carpenters (probably to regulate tourist flow), and the inner one to the keep.

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The castle keep

Once inside the inner one, Carrie and I both looked at an indentation in the wall and, with climber's instincts, both started walking towards it without saying anything to each other. Looking at it, there was probably once a ladder there, but we simply climbed the uneven stone to the top of the inner wall. There, we saw that there was a tiled area over the arch that admited us through the wall, and walking over to it, found a slit that ran over the arch, one we hadn't even noticed walking through it. It was proabably used to shoot arrows or drop oil onto attacking soldiers. Not only was it cool to be somewhere where most people didn't go (because most people don't climb UNESCO treasures), but the views were spectacular. Now, before anyone gets into a huff, it wasn't like these walls were crumbling. They had withstood 6 centuries. They easily withstood us.

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A view from the keep

The only views more spectacular than on the inner wall were those from the top of the turret. The stone steps leading up the narrow, winding stair had been polished smooth by centuries of soles and were slippery.

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Carrie, on the way up the turret

Using a chain to assist, we got to the top, where we had a clear, 360 degree view of the Slovakian countryside We could see farmland, the wheat sprouting in brown rectangles, villages, thin black roads with tiny cars racing down them, patches of forest on undulating hills. We could no doubt easily see an approaching army.

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A view from the turret

Following the stairs back down, we went even lower, into a dungeon holding a smattering of torture items, including Spanish boots, stocks, a primitive rack and a "torture table", where metal bands held prisoners down while they were whipped or worse. Also on display were some of the weapons used to defend the castle: cannons, mortars, armor and very large stone balls. The stone balls were rolled down the hill at an attacking army.

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Getting tortured on the torture table

Just walking the breadth of the castle defeated us, so we retired back to the quiet little town in the Tatras that we were staying at: Tantranska Lominice.

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Me, being me (although the photo was Carrie's idea)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Deals: 30% off Lonely Planet Pick and Mix Chapters!

When I first started traveling, I voiced several times my wish that I could just buy only the sections of a guidebook that I needed instead of lugging the whole thing around.  It was suggested that I just razor out the parts I wouldn't need.  To me, though, cutting up a book felt sacrilegious.

And then the Lonely Planet gods (hey, I do hear people referring to their Lonely Planet as their "bible") answered my prayers with their "Pick and Mix Chapters".

Basically, you choose the chapters you want, pay and download the PDF files of that chapter.

At this point, lazy people just print the whole chapter.  My advice is to read through it and only print the pages you need.  For example, I never need the restaurant and accommodations pages because I usually book a hostel through HostelBookers by looking at the ratings and then eat at what every is in the area of the hostel, or whatever happens to be around when I get hungry.

By only printing the pages you need, you save a lot of weight (and can throw away pages on the road as you go from city to city).  I would say that this also saves trees, but I am guilty of photocopying the printed pages so that they are double sided, thereby cutting the amount of pages I have to carry in half.

Oh, and now that I am done expounding on guidebooks, how about I get around to the deal: 30% off Lonely Planet Pick&Mix Chapters!

Click Here: To Save 30% off Lonely Planet Pick and Mix Chapters

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Soviet Skydiving

"So one option is to do it tandem. You get strapped to an instructor and jump from really high, so there's a lot of free fall. But it's $200."
"The other option?"

"A four hour class, and you jump out of the plane by yourself."

"The class will be in Russian?"

"Yeah. Well, it might be in Ukrainian."

"How much?"

"Thirty dollars."

"Let's do it."

Catch a bus from the capitol of Kyiv. Ride it an hour to the concrete village of Borodyanka. From there, catch a taxi to the largest airfield in Ukraine.

Military tourism was supposed to be a moneymaker. In 2002, to bolster its budget, the Ukrainian army invited the world to come and play with its toys. Few foreigners arrived to pay $400 to drive a tank or $50 to to lob a grenade, but the Soviet Union's assembly line system of throwing soldiers out of airplanes turned out to be easy and cheap enough to tempt thrill-seeking Ukrainian youth.

And the occasional American one.

Diana and I were late.

Eighty-two people (I counted) were encircling a short, middle-aged woman with dyed red hair whose hands emphatically underlined her crisp, loud Russian. Her name was Olga Alexandrovna, our jump instructor for the day and the inverse image of the gruff and surly soldier who I imagined would teach us.

She was standing in front of a rusted airplane door that was missing its airplane, holding up the worn canvas sack of a Soviet surplus parachute, and showing us a frighteningly frayed strap with a metal clip at its end.

"This will be hooked into a wire on the plane," she said, "and it will deploy your parachute after you jump."

Someone asked how old the parachute was.

"Thirty two years-old," she said.

The group, nearly all of them younger than the parachute, glanced at one another.

It's not the fall that kills you, it's the geriatric silk.
She then held up a smaller canvas pack, once blue but now faded to gray. "This is your backup parachute," she said. "You only paid for the main parachute. If this deploys, you have to pay a 50 hrivna fine."

People chuckled.

"I'm serious," she said.

People frowned. Fifty hrivna was only $6 to an American, but it wasn't cheap to a Ukrainian.

The backup parachute was not the only possible fine. Although Olga had grown up under communism, she well understood the capitalist mantra of economic incentives. If you landed in a wheat field instead of the designated landing zone, it was 70 hrivna. If you landed in the woods and tore your parachute, you had to pay for the repair. If you landed on someone's house, you paid for the damage.

Olga told us what to do when we were 2,400 feet up and falling: count three seconds. Feel the parachute engage. Make sure the parachute is okay. Disarm the altimeter that wants to release the backup at 900 feet.

If you don't, pay the fine.

Disarming an altimeter sounded complicated, but I soon learned that it only required tugging out a piece of string that connected two loops of wire together.

That was it.

Pull out the string.

Life hanging by a thread now had a way-too-literal meaning.

As we took turns jumping through the door, arms crossed, feet together, it all seemed easy and simple and I felt very, very confident. That waned when Olga began telling us how to avoid running into each other.

It's not the fall that kills you, it's the other skydivers.

Worry started to worm.

Ten of us were going to jump one right after the other, and the possibility of a midair collision was frighteningly real.

Olga started going through the possible scenarios: if someone is coming in on your right, pull down on the left control cable to spin out of their way. If they're coming from your left, do the opposite.
If you're going directly at one another, spread your arms and legs to try to catch onto them or their parachute cords, push them back, and then turn out of the way. Only don't turn out of the way if you're less than 600 feet off the ground because landing while spinning might break your legs.

Push another person? In mid-air?

Jesus good lord gravy.

Olga kept going.

Now, she said, when can you self-deploy the back up parachute? Even with the altimeter disengaged, we learned that there was a red metal handle that we could yank out to release the backup parachute. And if we dropped that red metal handle, which apparently was an expensive red metal handle, there would be a fine.

This was probably the most important part, but two hours of heavy concentration and a rising panic was throttling my Russian.

Something about failing something.

Something about something a hole something.

Something about three something somethings.

I am going to die.

Diana listed it for me later: If your parachute fails to completely open, pull the back up. If there is a hole in your parachute larger than three feet wide, pull the back up. If more than three of the strings attaching you to the parachute are broken, pull the back up.

Olga kept going:

If you land in the woods, protect your face with your arms as you hit the trees. If you see that you are about to land in a lake, unhook your harness while in midair and jump out of it right as you are about to hit the water. If you are about to land on the roof of a building and one step or jump will clear you, good. If not, attach one of your cords to something on the roof as quickly as possible.

"What if we can't?" asked a girl.

"Make sure you do," said Olga.

Despite graphically describing all the ways we could die in the pursuit of a cheap, three minute thrill, Olga said we should worry less about those and more about the most dangerous part of skydiving: landing.

It's not the fall that kills you, it really is the oh-so-sudden stop.

Diana and I had opted to spend the previous night in Kyiv, staying with an American friend named Peter. We had invited him to go skydiving with us, only to have him say that he wasn't interested. After we returned, he explained: "Yeah, everyone I know has hurt something when they landed."

"And why didn't you tell me this before?"

"I didn't want to worry you."

Next to the airplane door were three plywood platforms built at different heights, the lowest about three feet off the ground and the highest at about seven. We spent the next hour jumping off of them. Falling came naturally to me, but others freaked out with mid-air yelps, landing with their feet apart or not tucking their arms as they rolled. Olga kept sending them back up onto the platform, an nfinite conveyor belt of frightened, flailing lemmings.

We were well into our fourth hour of instruction, and the landing wasn't even the end of it. We even had to learn how to pack up the parachutes after we reached the ground, correctly wrapping the cords so that they wouldn't tangle and rolling up the parachute in such a way that it could easily be repacked later.

Not doing so would earn a fine.

Finally, when I was sure we were about to learn how to start raising silkworms and
weaving parachute cloth, Olga told us to go to the airfield.


I was the second in line to jump.

Inside the sheet metal airplane, deafened by the engines, sitting packed five to a side on two narrow benches, we waited. Our parachutes were clipped into wires overhead. The jumpmaster had pulled the pin that activated each of our altimeters. Below us, the world was rectangles of brown and green.

An opened door. A blast of cold.

It became real.

The jumpmaster nodded at the man ahead of me, who we'll call Sergei. Sergei stood up, stood at the door, looked out at forever. I blinked. He was gone.

Trying not to hesitate, I stood and moved to the door, feeling off balance with the wind and vibration, put my left foot on the threshold as I'd been taught, crossed my arms--left over right--as I'd been taught, and there was the world, so very far below.

The jumpmaster put his hand on my back.

"Pashol!" he yelled.

I jumped.


Maybe he was used to people not jumping. Maybe he thought I needed a push.

His push had spun me.

I was terrified. Deafened in a frigid fury of wind and turbines, I was twisting, rotating, falling backwards. My psyche was screaming. My feet were flailing. I had no control. I waited, prayed, for my parachute to open, but it didn't.

It's not the fall that...

I whipped around and everything ended.

I looked up. My parachute was open, but the cords were twisted around one another. Not good. Do I pull the back up? Do I risk the fine? I started slowly spinning, the cords unwinding themselves.

Then the world made sense again.

There was peace, and there was more. An undefined feeling, somewhat the antithesis of fear. I was slowly drifting, bathed in beauty, seeing what birds see. I was floating backwards from the plane, watching eight other parachutes make a line of cotton drops against the sky. I looked up and saw the control handles, pulled the left one, felt myself turn in that direction.

Am I okay? Yes, I'm okay.

I reached down and tugged the string.

It was calming up there, gorgeous, quiet. There was much thoughtless awe before I remembered that I was supposed to be controlling my descent.

I wasn't sure where to land, noticed that Sergei and I were drifting in a different direction than the other eight. I tried to guess where I was supposed to touch down, but what once seemed like a massive drop zone was hard to find in the patches of color below. I just knew that I wasn't headed towards water or trees or buildings or a wheat field and that was good enough.

I pulled out my camera and took a couple pictures of the other parachutes and a few of myself. I did it quickly, wanting to have the pictures but also not wanting to waste time on them, wanting instead to openly appreciate, rawly experience, ego-lessly breathe.

I gave myself that for a few seconds, and then a few more seconds, and then a few seconds more before sighing. Using the controls, I followed Sergei towards the ground. The world approached slowly as I tucked my legs into a sitting position, feet together and flat. I was falling so gently that I imagined it would be like drifting onto pillows.

Crunch. Ow.

I rolled, landing on my side, hearing angry protest from my ankles.

I gingerly stood up and walked backwards to get out from under the falling silk.

I was supposed to pack up and wait, but everything that had built up inside of me, the fear and the joy and the worry and the awe, it wanted out. I threw back my head, spread my arms and howled.

Nearby, Sergei answered my call with the same.



In the end, Diana almost hit a tree. Others nearly landed on cows. One skydiver was so excited about the view that he forgot to disengage his back up, floating down under both parachutes. His girlfriend landed in a wheat field.

Both paid their fines.

Diana and I caught a cab and a bus and a subway.

I smiled all day.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Deals: 11% off Your Purchase at

Ah, batteries.  Always need 'em, whether it's for my digital camera, netbook or Real Doll.  Nah, just kidding.  Real Dolls don't use batteries!  They plug into the wall, just like a real woman! 

And yes, the picture to the right really is a sex doll.


It just so happens that currently has a special going:

So if you've been debating over whether to pick up a spare battery for whatever electronic toy your flashpacking self is taking with you on your next trip, now'd be the time to man up and buy yourself a Real Doll.  Wait!  I mean...


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Deducting Your Travel on Your Taxes: Overview

NOTE: I am not a tax professional.  Although I do deduct my travel as a part of travel-based media producing business, I am not licenced or authorized to give tax advice.  

The Idea:

Question: Let's say no one was willing to pay money to hear Lady Gaga's music (not too far fetched: although I like listening to her, I'd stop if it required cash), but she was given the opportunity to perform for for free for 30,000 people. Would she do it? Of course she would, because she loves to sing. No matter how much music stars may gripe about money, there was a time when every single one of them was willing to perform for free. But even if Lady Gaga is not getting paid to do the thing she absolutely loves, she's not working.

It's the same when you're traveling. You love to travel. And maybe you love to write stories about your travel or blog about it. Maybe you love to take pictures and show them to anyone who cares to look. Or maybe you shoot video while on the road and then edit edit it later into movies. You know what you're doing? You're working, even if you're not making a dime.

And that means you can turn your travel into a profit-driven business.  You might be able to make quite a lot of money on it, but even if you never turn a profit, the tax deductions alone make it worth it. 
Now, before we talk about the specifics, let's talk about both the benefits and the legality of this.

The Benefits:

Firstly, if you have enough money to travel but not enough to disregard its costs, you're probably in the 20-25% tax bracket. Because every dollar you deduct comes from your highest tax bracket, you'll likely be getting $0.25 of that dollar back. If you're deducting your travel, that means you'll be saving 20-25% off your travel expenses. Your $3000 Christmas trip? It now only cost you $2,250. Oh, and the camera you bought for the trip, the new backpack and the clothes? All now 25% off as well.

If you travel a lot or spend a lot traveling, this can be worth thousands of dollars to you.

The Legality:

"Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury." -Judge Learned Hand (Helvering v. Gregory, 1935)

Firstly, this is not a matter of trying to scam the government. If you travel purely for pleasure and produce nothing but memories, than this is not for you.

But if you're someone who spends time make sure your pictures are properly composed and exposed, if you're someone who spends hours editing your videos when you get home, or if you're someone that re-reads a travel blog post four times before publishing it, then you are a media-producing artist.  And if you are willing to turn your media-making into a profit-driven business, than you deserve to deduct your travel from your income.

Now, it doesn't matter if you actually make money. It doesn't matter if you spent $5,000 traveling and only earned $10 from the resulting photographs.  The IRS can't penalize you for sucking at your business. And it understands that you may invest and loose money for years before you turn a profit because that is what start-up businesses do. It can't penalize you for failure, either. If you spent five years traveling to compile enough stories to write a book that is rejected by a dozen publishers before you finally give up, you are still entitled to deduct every dollar you spent researching that book. That is the beauty of American entrepreneurship.

All this needs on your part is a little organization and a fundamental shift in the way you view your travel. You're not wasting time, you're trying to make a profit.  It doesn't matter that you're having fun. In fact, it's awesome that you love your job!

Oh and, before you start worrying about the paperwork, don't. The IRS has done an amazing job of keeping tax forms simple for a small business person like yourself. You won't have to incorporate your business or register it. You will not have to save receipts for your meals and entertainment. The Schedule C-EZ tax form is only a page long, and if you file electronically, you won't even have to bother with that.

The key thing to note is that if you are willing to try and make a profit from your travel, you'll save a ton of money off your travel even if you fail. 

Sunday, April 4, 2010

How to: Get a Cheap International Mobile Phone

\Finding a quad-band international phone under $300 used to be impossible.  Now, though, Roam Mobility is offering them for as low as $99, (and they are even offering a 10% coupon off the Sightseer Package with Coupon Code B9FUS).

Why so cheap?  Because they want you to also use their calling plans, which are ridiculously expensive.  While it's true that their international rates are cheaper than other American cell phone companies, their in-country rates are damn near abusive.  I checked their rates for Ukraine (since I'm there once a year) and while it would cost me $0.10 a minute to call another Ukrainian mobile phone using a Ukrainian SIM card (available on almost every street corner), Roam Mobility charges $2.70 a minute to call another Ukrainian mobile phone using their SIM card!

And while some people might want to use the Roam Mobility plan to call internationally, it's still far cheaper to buy a calling card or use Skype while abroad.

So get their phones, but don't use their plans.  Since they they advertise that they have "No Contracts, No Minimums and No Activation Fee!" there is nothing to stop you from buying the phone, ditching their SIM (after you use the $10 credit that comes with purchase, of course) and replacing them with SIMs in the countries that you visit.  Because they are quad band, the phones will work in almost every single country that has cellular access. 

Roam Mobility offers three phones in three packages:

 • Motorola V195 (Unlocked)
• Roam Mobility SIM Card
• $10 Calling Credit

• Motorola ROKR U9 (Unlocked)
• Motorola USB Cable
• Motorola Headphones
• Roam Mobility SIM Card
• $10 Calling Credit

• Motorola ZINE ZN5 (Unlocked)
• Roam Mobility SIM Card
• $10 Calling Credit

Interlaken Extreme

There are many kinds of natural beauty—deserts, forests, oceans—and they are as comparable as Hindus and hamsters.  Still, I can say that Interlaken, Switzerland is the most beautiful place that I have ever seen.

Imagine two crystal-clear white-blue lakes. Imagine a river winding between these two lakes. Put a city on the banks of the river. Nestle that city between two pine-covered mountains, and then behind those mountains put the permanently snow capped peaks of the Monch, the Eiger and Jungfrau. That's Interlaken, and it's that kind of beautiful.

Interlaken was an interesting mix of the pastoral and the progressive. The pastoral was embodied in the century-old cottages with huge vegetable gardens that lined its streets, the progressive in the internet cafes, youth hostels and extreme sports companies that were interspersed amongst them. The cottage about 20 meters from our party-hard youth hostel had sheep grazing in the backyard. Maybe the people that lived in those cottages wished to preserve the traditions of their ancestors. Or, perhaps it was because the only way they could afford to live in Interlaken was to grow their own food (much like my grandmother's approach to living in Miami).

Interlaken was expensive. While in Interlaken, Robynne and I spent more money in two days then we had in the past two weeks. Every thrill and beauty was available to us in Interlaken, at a price. Want to stand on the highest point in Europe reachable by train? You can, for $110. Feel like bungee jumping off a gondola strung between two mountains? $130. Feel like free falling down the face of the Eiger before parachuting onto a field at its base? $330. Or how about a scenic flight over the mountains, stopping off to have a champagne lunch on top of a glacier? $450. After a long, hard look at our budgets, Robynne and I decided our twin poisons would be paragliding and canyoning, for a total of $205 a person.

Since those activities would be the next day, we thought we would opt for a free Swiss experience: hiking in the Alps. This, we found, was anything but free. After deciding on a trail, we had to pay for the train to the trailhead. After an amazing two-hour hike past glistening glacial rivers, abandoned farmhouses and several waterfalls, we had to pay for the cable car up the mountain at the end of the trail, pay for another cable car down to a lower town on the mountain and then pay yet again for a funicular to get back to the train station that would get us back to Interlaken. Oh yeah, and then the train back to Interlaken. Our "cheap" day cost us about $40.

Still, we came back to the hostel very excited about the extreme sports we planned on partaking in the next day. That joy became waylaid when I jumped off my bunk, forgetting that my feet were still wet from showering. I slipped on the floor, slamming my right foot into a wall. Robynne took a look at the red welt now shining on my middle toe and pronounced it bruised. I went to sleep. The next morning, I awoke in pain, and Robynne took another look at my toe, which was now completely swollen and a purplish-blue color. New prognosis: broken.

Now, a broken toe is not cause for an emergency room, but it certainly grinds to a halt your X-sport planned day. Robynne gave me IB Proffen, and I propped my foot up while sitting on the lawn chairs outside the hostel. Actually, a day off in Interlaken can be just as good as a day spent sporting. We were staying at Balmer’s Herbage, consistently ranked as one of the best hostels in the world.  It has a concentration-camp style approach to beds (forty people packed into co-ed room, but plenty of women walking around in their underwear), a club in its basement (where all the soon-dressed-up women go to sweatily dance), and a huge outdoor chess set (where you can watch women sunbathe while you play).

After two hours of hobbling around the chess set (beating a Swiss guy but getting my ass royally kicked by a Russian), the pain had subsided enough I could comfortably walk, and that meant we could salvage the afternoon. Although we had time for paragliding in the late afternoon, we had already missed the canyoning trip for that day. Luckily, we had not yet paid for it, as they had a nice big sign that stated: NO REFUNDS.

I was 4,000 meters up on a mountain. I was in a harness hooked into a man with limited English named Tom. A parachute was spread out on the grass behind me. What the hell was I thinking?

Paragliding is, as the name suggests, gliding using a parachute. An OCU professor of mine once described paragliding in Interlaken as one of the most amazing experiences of his life, comparable only to backpacking the Grand Canyon. I had already backpacked the Grand Canyon, so it was time to do this.

Robynne was ahead of me in the takeoff queue, and I watched as she and her pilot ran down the slope. Within a few steps, the parachute behind them was filled with air and they were aloft, an updraft pulling them up into the sky.

Tom checked our harnesses and said, "okay, we go." After a few steps, awkward like those of a two year-old, I felt something pulling hard on my harness and I realized that my feet were no longer on the ground. We were up in the air, the houses that we had just stood beside receding, looking like those belonging to a model train set.

It was the kind of view you get from an airplane, only I wasn't in an airplane, simply hanging beneath a few yards of fabric. Still, I wasn't afraid. If anything, I was serene. The view was beautiful. I was finally able to see the lakes, the river, the city, the mountains in full view, all in one tableau sparkling in the afternoon sun. Soon, the rest of our group was aloft, their red and yellow parachutes looking like graceful birds floating in front of the pine-green mountains.

Tom seemed to be more excited then calm about the experience, letting out wild whoops and yelling joyously to other pilots as we passed them, destroying my tranquility. In hopes that he wouldn't get bored and set us down too soon, I let out a few half-hearted whoops myself. I took pictures of the scenery, and then Tom swung us close to Robynne and her pilot so I could photograph them, too. She looked surreal, hanging there with a grin on her face with nothing below her but air.

Maybe it was the result of too much MTV, but after about fifteen minutes of floating there and looking at the same scene, I became bored, wanting to go lower or hook around a mountain to see something else. Maybe Tom sensed my boredom because he asked "you have strong stomach?"

I said "yes," and he yanked hard on a cord.

We were suddenly whipped out, spinning in a circle nearly parallel to the ground. The g-forces shoved me back hard into my harness and we spun around and around. But when I saw that we were nearly horizontal, the parachute no longer completely filled with air, I felt a sudden surge of fear. Surely we were about to break a law of physics and pay for it with a swift plummet to our deaths. We didn't even have a backup parachute! The adrenal glands started churning and my fear and elation became one long--and this time sincere—bellow of ecstatic joy. Around and around we spun, thousands of meters above the ground, nothing but air pressure holding us aloft, both crowing until our throats were parched.

Soon, Tom brought us back to vertical.

"You stomach good?" he asked.


Tom dropped us lower, in over the city. He extended a camera on a monopod and snapped pictures of us hanging there. With a little maneuvering, he even managed to get Robynne in the background. After another ten minutes of admiring the new view, Tom brought us into another tight series of circles, spiraling us towards the ground. Over a park in the middle of the city we straightened out and, in a few quick steps, were on the ground.

On my face was a Cheshire cat grin


The next morning, we went canyoning.

Canyoning, for those who have never heard of it, has a pretty simple goal: follow a river down a canyon. But you don’t do this by boat or kayak or raft. You do this all by yourself.

Since water tends to find its way around or through things, the only obstacles one has to face in canyoning are the sudden drops. Canyoning is really pragmatic about how to deal with these: if the river flows down at an angle, you slide; if the water below is deep enough, you jump; if it is not deep enough, you rappel. If none of these work, you take a zip line down.

Canyoning requires quite a bit of gear. At the base camp, we donned wet suits, booties, life jackets, climbing harnesses and helmets. In all her gear, Robynne said she felt like a turtle.

We were driven to the top of the canyon with our two guides, a quiet Swiss I didn't catch the name of and a psychotic Australian named Bernie. Both managed to successfully act like this was the first time they had been to this particular canyon, which heightened the danger factor considerably.

Added to this was the very real danger of low water. Water that should have come up to our chests now only came up to our knees and the result was that we were jumping off cliffs into pools no longer deep enough to do it safely. Despite the danger, we jumped, slid, rappelled and forded the briskly-cold, briskly-moving water. It was an amazing, adrenaline-soaked hour, especially when I was looking off a 20-foot cliff at a pool of water only waist deep, Bernie yelling to land on my butt or I would break my legs. Robynne opted to take the zipline down on that one.

I, of course, jumped.

Despite the fact that we were haggard by the end of the trip, my body managed to find a couple hidden sources of adrenaline to deal with Bernie's driving on the way back. Hyped from the trip, he drove us at high speed down the narrow mountain roads, bouncing in the front seat in his red helmet, a maniacal grin on his face. He repeatedly slammed on the brakes and then immediately slammed on the gas, yelling "I keep getting the foot sticks mixed up!" while the other Australians in the back, gripping whatever handholds they could find yelled back "you mad bastard!"

That we arrived safely at the bottom is a miracle the Catholic Church should take note of, and I will bring it to their attention when we get to Rome.