The current situation in world travel.

There is an ever-growing disconnect between what guide books and travel companies are selling and what tourists end up buying. The hardships and harsh realities of our world effect everything, including the wonders of the world at large. Overpopulation and over-tourism have had impacts (both good and bad) on many cultural areas in the world.

The pressure to keep a tourist attractions pristine versus the pressure of the outside world pushing in around them is a hard thing for many countries to content with. If you travel enough, and by travel I mean non-itinerary non-package travel, you can’t help but notice the downward shift in status to many areas in the last several decades. It’s a sad fact of life on a planet with an ever-increasing population.

The way you think it is.

You come up out of the metro, look at your tourist map you acquired from the hotel (or a thousand other places), fix your view uphill at the Parthenon, and start walking. You turn a corner here, and a corner there, and by complete surprise you round another and run into ruins. White columns stand sturdy in the morning sun telling you of a time when Athens was a mighty city-State. You walk briskly down the little street and peer into the gated area, outlining the space that was once Hadrian’s Library. You read the sign, take a few snaps, and sigh.

Ruins in downtown Athens. BROWNELL, May 2019.
Ruins found in downtown Athens. May 2019.

The way it is a lot of the time.

You come out of your hotel in the stark light of day (because you got there in the middle of the night, having taken the cheapest flight you could get) and are greeted by a rundown, graffiti covered alleyway that leads to the Main Street. You push on, swearing softly to yourself that you need to start making better hotel choices, and realize that this street isn’t just the local paint spot. You turn the corner and the breakdown of society continues on, completely robbing the next street of any value. You bust out of of this gauntlet of urban decay, hoping to find the central square by the metro in better states. When you reach the Main Street, the traffic is so congested that you just walk between the car. The locals give you that annoyed tourist look, but you kind of don’t care at this point, because the touts in the square have already seen you and are ready to try and sell you bunches of crap you don’t want. You sigh, realizing you only have three more days of this, and keep trudging toward the graffiti-covered sign arrowing your way toward the Parthenon.

A side street in Athens, Greece. BROWNELL, May 2019

A random street in Athens, Greece. May, 2019.

The idea behind over-tourism.

The idea of over-tourism has been around for a considerable amount of time. Places like Athens, Rome, and Venice have long been complaining about the problems that it brings with it.

To be honest, I don’t think that there’s a fix for it. With ever-increasing populations of people that have the ability and the means to go abroad the situation can really do nothing but get worse. What one can do is adjust to new realities.

The first suggestion is about timing. I mentioned it a couple times in the last post about being at the venue before it opened to get in without crowds. The majority of the tourists these days travel in an organized group; bus trips, cruise ships adventures, day tour groups, and the like. These groups have almost universally predictable schedules. They appear between 9-10 in the morning, and retire about 4 in the afternoon. Working on either side of this time block will help the single or couples traveling independently to have a better experience.

Second suggestion is also about timing. I tend to travel on the shoulder season. This is especially true in Western Europe, as it reduces prices considerably. The mass of the population travels during warm season or cold season (beach or ski season). There are sometimes limited hours or limited options in lodging during the shoulder season, but the lack of crowds more than makes up for that. I’m completely convinced of this.

Below are two pictures to sumerize what a difference 2 hours can make at a major attraction. (While in Madrid, I planned wrong and literally left because of the huge lines at the Palace. I returned the next day and had a very nice experience.)

Steps up to the Parthenon at the opening of the day. BROWNELL, May 2019
The steps to the Parthenon just after the 8:00 opening. May, 2019
Steps up to the Parthenon a couple hours after opening. BROWNELL, May 2019.
The steps up to the Parthenon, a couple hours after opening. The crowds did not get less from this point on. May 2019

Things you were told never to do that are now perfectly acceptable.

There is an axiom that I learned many years ago. You never discuss politics or religion while drinking. Truer words have never been spoken. Well, up until a couple years ago, anyway.With the over-population of the tourist world, and the advent of global media, some of the rules have loosened. I’ve had some fabulous political conversations in bars, religious conversations in churches, and tourist conversation with taxi drivers. People in other places aren’t immune to the global situation, and can be genuinely curious about the reality of situations in other parts of the world (as opposed to the distorted views presented by the media).

My suggestion, just go into these conversations gently and honestly. You’ll find them extremely rewarding. (I had a fantastic conversation about Geopolitics with the guy at the front desk of my hotel. It was fact based and timely. He had come to Athens from one of the islands, and had insights that I wasn’t going to hear on any tv network.)

Thoughts.

Okay, I realize that sections of this were an over-dramatization of the realities of life. I also realize that I’ve kind of been picking on Athens, and not spreading the joy around Europe. Most European cities have these problems, to one degree or another. Not only Europe, but north and South America as well.

There’s no real fix for the issues that present themselves, other than limiting the amount of tourism (which some cities and countries are already looking at) or cutting the global population back down to realistic numbers (which probably isn’t going to happen). The days of undiscovered ruins and un-crowded archeological sites are a thing of the past. My best advice is to study the place you want to go, and go when it seems that other people aren’t going. Off-peak traveling, and end of day museums stops may help you have a better travel experience.

*****To be fair*****

I have to say that I loved Athens. Once I looked past all the graffiti and people doing drugs in alleyways, there was a host of things to do and experiences to be had. The food and beer scene was excellent. Their ruins and museums are well-kept, and world-class. And the people, once you stop to talk with them, are warm and engaging. Try and look part the problems, and see the true essence of a place. It will help you have a better time. Just sayin…..

Kilts, Cabers, and Klans.

Though I admit at the outset of this post that I only travelled across town, and it is a small town, I like to find new experiences in unexpected places. And, I would classify new experiences as one of the primary reasons for travel. So, here we go …

Yesterday, in the midst of cold weather and overcast skies, I joined friends for a trip to the local Scottish Festival. And, even though I’m not Scottish, (all of the family crest research episodes have come back as English) I did have a very good time.

The 57th Scottish Gathering and Highland Games was held in Salado, Texas, from 9 through 11 November. As a casual observer, I’d say the event could be broken down into about four distinct activities, which seemed to offer something interesting for every person who stopped.

First, there was an area in which representatives from each of the recognized klans were all located. I found this area definitely interesting. Many of the klan’s booth areas hosted historical information with maps and individual klan tartan colors. Others showed historic swords and items that their individual klan produced (think whiskey). All of the different representatives were happy to sit and tell stories and provide information.

Second, there was your standard craft fair area with numerous tents selling every end of Scottish oriented paraphernalia. There were t-shirts, kilts, crafts, jewelry, books, swords, knifes, and the like. I enjoyed this area quite well, and made several turns around the tents.

Third section, I would classify as entertainment. This was broken into two different sections; the dancing and the bagpipes. The dancing section consisted of competitions between groups of young men and women performing traditional dances, and was quite entertaining. The second section was the band competition. Performing groups consisted of drum and bagpipe, and ranged from school band groups to adult performance groups. The band area collected most of the spectators and everyone was obviously entertained.

The fourth section, and collector of most all the remaining spectators, was the area where the Highland Games were contested. Sturdy men and women decked out in klan colored kilts and fashionable competition t-shirts competed in the various events. I stayed to watch sections of the bail toss, the hammer throw, and the caber toss. It was spirited and enjoyable to be sure.

Though the weather wasn’t the best, it didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of anyone that showed up. The center of small town Salado was full and parking was definitely at a premium. I parked toward the end of town, by the local craft beer brewery, Barrow Brewing Company. After a solid turn around the festival, I walked back to the brewery for a beer and some heat. It will sound bad, but 45 degrees in Texas is damned cold! I like the summer heat of the desert much more than the winter cold of the high desert plans.

If you happen by a Scottish Festival, I say stop in and take a look around. I think you will find something enjoyable as you make your way through it. Wether it be the people, the scenery, or the spectacle, there is a little something for everyone.

One end of the klan representatives area.

One of the bands warming up before competition time.

the tossing of the caber.

Wether it’s down the street of on another continent, I say get out there and see what there is to see. Enjoy the ride!

Going Home.

Having come back to America from the Middle East, there was a requirement to head back home and see mom and dad. I utilized the initial couple weeks being back in the USA to handle the things that need to be handle after a year abroad. There was finding an apartment, rifling through loads of mail, miscellaneous doctor visits and the like. Having the necessary items in the bag, it was time to leave Texas for the unwelcoming fall weather in upstate New York.

I decided to fly, as opposed to driving, because I had a bunch of AA frequent flyer miles that were about to expire. I bought the remaining needed miles and ended up with a completely reasonable plane ticket. After that, I shopped around until I found a decent rate on a rental car. It ended up being booked from Hertz through Travelocity. Parking my truck at the long term in Austin is cheap. And, I also stay at the same motel in Potsdam every time, Northern Family Motel. It has great rates and is owned by a high school friend.

Being back in my hometown after a significant time has been an interesting affair. Spending time with mom and dad is great. They have been enjoying the time. After that, the stay has turned into a scavenger hunt of tracking down friends I haven’t seen in some time and catching up.

Small town food hasn’t changed, and I have been making my way through all of the small town hotspots. I think I’m gaining weight! The food in small town America is sturdy and sticks to your bones. Its meat and potatoes, washed down with beer around this place.

Small town America in the fall is as far removed from the deserts of the Middle East as one can possibly be. 100 degree sunny days of uniform brown have been replaced by 40 degree rainy days of half-emptied trees of dulled fall leaves. Brown sand handed off to green grass. The chatter of numerous languages replaced by quiet conversations in one language.

I always enjoy being up in the New York Adirondack mountains, but I must admit that the hotter Texas weather is more to my liking. I’m sure that my thermostat will adjust after some time. For now, I’m just going to wear warm clothes and complain. I can’t complain for long though, there are still more people to track down before I have to go get back on a plane.

Making my way through O’Hare airport in Chicago.

The heavy-duty breakfast. It sticks to you ribs.

There is no pizza better than East Coast pizza. Its just a fact, but I might be a little bias.

Now, get out there and explore the roads you already know well. You will enjoy the ride. Go. Enjoy.

Excited by Airbnb!

With my tenure in the Middle East coming to a close, I have set my mind on new adventures. My current musing have me, in my mind’s eye, backpacking around Europe. A Europe of the summer type of event. This, as we all know, is not the cheap time to be in Europe. Normally, I would consider the shoulder season, unless there is a specific date range that I need to be in a specific country for. Shoulder season is the better time to be in the land of the Euro. The prices are cheaper, the crowds are less, and the weather is still pretty nice. Current planning still has me heading back across the Atlantic in the spring shoulder season. That will allow me to cover some ground before prices start to climb. After the prices start to climb, I have been researching options to keep the overall cost down to a reasonable extravagance.

This research has led me to become extremely curious about Airbnb. I have heard a lot about Airbnb over the last couple years but have never tried them out. I tend to just find low cost hotels and consider that good enough. I’m not a hosteler. I’m too old for that experience. So, it’s usually hotels.

I was reading a good piece on keeping things within budget from light-travels.co. It is a great blog, full of good advice, and a breeze to read. In a section regarding maximizing your travel money, Carly (the blog’s author) was a great proponent of Airbnb, as their pricing for stays of more than a couple days was a good cost savings. This article led me to their website. Since then, I have spent many hours on their site typing in different cities and date ranges to see what is on offer. I am continuously amazed by the difference in pricing they offer compared to even low-grade hotels in the same cities.

I have to say, this has me very excited. I even changed my way of thinking about the trip to incorporate more week-long Airbnb locations, as opposed to 2 and 3-day hotel stays. I’m hoping that this will extend out my available travel time by keeping the cost down. I will definitely be letting everyone know how things are going once I get out on the backpacking trail. Until then, I’m just super excited about looking at the website and seeing what the available options are.

Hopefully, this gets you thinking about ways you can stretch your travel budget. Travel doesn’t have to be overly expensive. It just tends to end up that way via the path of least resistance. If you look around for options, they are usually there for you. Definitely look around before you just book that all-inclusive vacation package. A little research will save you some money.

Now get out there. Go vacation and stuff.

Just Say Yes.

This post isn’t really a travel post. It’s more of a mindset post. It’s about how you end up doing the things you end up doing.

Generally, I find that my friends fall into one of two broad categories. There are people that take the chances, go do the things they want, and generally have a good time. Then, there are those that are set back more, always justifying why they shouldn’t do something, and are generally sedentary. I have a lot of people in this second group that will say things like: “I can’t believe you did that.”, “I thought about doing that, but…”, “I don’t know how you do those things or go to those places?”, and a host of others. In my distinct opinion, they all boil down to meaning the same thing. When the opportunity came along, for whatever reason, they said no. It’s as simple as that.

I admit that I’ve done a few crazy things in my lifetime. How this happens to me, and why I am never at a loss for a story in a bar can be summed up pretty easily. When the universe offers me a new/stupid/crazy/exciting opportunity, as a general rule, I say yes.

It’s that simple. When I stumble across things that look intriguing, I decide if I can pull it off or not, and I say yes. By pull it off, I don’t mean succeed at it. I have failed in multiple different things, after repeated attempts to do them. (Sometimes, I learn slow.) I have made numerous bad decisions, but I have also made many, many more good decisions. Repeated attempts to learn to surf, maybe a bad decision. Trying to climb Mt. Rainier and failing badly every time, maybe a bad decision. Running with the bulls, awesome idea.  Riding the motorcycle to Sturgis, awesome idea. Heading down to Machu Picchu, awesome idea. And so on, and so on, and so on.

I find that most people say no, by default. They almost don’t even know they are doing it. They rationalize away their decisions, “with maybe next year”, or “it’s not financially a good idea right now.” All the rationalizations people use are simply ways of saying no. I think it’s somehow a learned response these days. Society has trained people to hold off, or to prioritize things so they are better for society. I tend to see things as what’s best for me? What new adventure can I have? What’s exciting that can be accomplished? Not being open to the idea of saying yes to things as they are presented to you, will just end up putting you in a position where less new things are presented to you. Or, that my view of the universe.

I check myself after saying no, and ask why not? It forces me to keep the idea of saying yes, in the present. I have made myself relearn a couple of important lessons over the years. I usually do the relearning once I am in the middle of the next grand idea. Those two lessons are as follows. One, Time is not the same as money. Time is life, and you only have a certain amount of it. Two, if you’re only worried about the money, don’t. the money will come back, but the time never will. Both are true, whether or not you buy into the ideas.

This is another one of those posts that was supposed to be happier in its tone than it came out. Odd? So, look at what you want to do, and say yes. It’s that simple, say yes. Don’t just dismiss ideas as not obtainable. You can have all the adventures you want to have. You do all the things you want to do. Some things will require more work than others, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. Seriously, one day I’m gonna learn to surf! It will happen. I may be 80 and on a long board, in the kiddy waves section, but it will happen. When Chance offers you a choice, SAY YES. (Seriously, that’s how I ended up working in the Middle East.)

Topside after my first dive. Great Barrier Reef. 2015. Definitely, a good yes idea!

Now get out there. Live your own adventure. Say yes to life. You’re gonna die at the end. Don’t die with things still unaccomplished.

Petra, the Almost Grand Tour.

I stayed the night in Wadi Mousa, so I could be in Petra when they open. Getting in before the tour buses arrive with day-trippers helps me see it they way they show it on the Travel Channel.

Petra opens at 0600. After I had breakfast and checked out of the hotel, it was 0715 before I made it back inside the gate. Even that late, I could tell I was still ahead of the game. Most of the ‘camel ride mister’, ‘you need guide mister’, ‘you want to go to High Place’ people weren’t out for the morning yet. It made for a quiet walk in.

I stopped and got the obligatory selfie in the Indiana Jones gap in front of the Treasury. This time it was sans other people. (It was the only picture I wanted, and represented the whole trip. It just is what it is.)

Okay, I actually took half a dozen. But, who’s counting?

From this point, the rest of the place was new to explore. There was the Street of Facades, the Theater, the Colonnade, the Temples of the Kings, and the Basilica. There was a bunch of other stuff too, but I don’t remember the names.

They say that most tourists don’t go any farther than the Treasury, and then they head back out. That’s sad. There is so much to see that you need to go deep into it and look around. From the Basilica hill you can get good pictures of several things that are too big to do up close. This is especially true of the Great Temple, which is a multi-terraced affair.

I made it almost all the way to the Monastery. I turned back from the heat and steepness of the trail. Sorry Travis, I almost got pictures. That being said, the Middle of the complex rests in an open area between two sandstone formations. It holds the bulk of the stuff to see, and offers the best picture taking. Do yourself the service of at least going in that far.

Mission complete. I made my tour of the Canyon of the Crescent Moon and returned out before the heat of the day really got brutal. (Okay, I know it’s not a crescent moon, but I couldn’t resist the Indian Jones reference,)

Now, to kill 5 hours somehow, until my bus heads north to Amman.

As a side note, you can catch a taxi straight to Petra from the airport. They have it listed with a standard rate on the taxi stand board out front on the arrivals level.

Now, only 3 hours left to kill.

I found a quite spot in the back of the museum that nobody was using for a bit. Only 2 hours to go now.

And … I’m in a bus! There was a little bit of In-Sha-Allah in this last part, but that’s what makes life interesting.

Now, get out there. Do stuff!

Work and Play.

Its been a little while since I’ve been here. Work has been a bit like work lately, and summer in the desert has been brutally hot the last several weeks. So, I’ve been just trudging through life.

One of the things about traveling for work and adventure is that, at the end of the day, there is work to be done. A lot of strings you will read only talk about the cool things going on and skip over the everyday drudgery of life. I’m guilty of this as well. I like hitting the high points. Mostly, because they’re high points. Everybody loves cool stuff. The rest of the time, its work and the daily grind.

It has been this way here, since I got back from Thailand. I pretty much just put my head down and settled into my desk for a while. A couple days ago I decided it was time to take a day. Not a vacation day or a sick day, but a me day.

At the start of my Me Day, I started writing a new chapter of a story. The last story wasn’t holding my interest, so I shelved it for a bit. The writing was good! It came right out of my head like nothing.

After the writing and a pot of coffee, I was out the door. I walked out the front gate of the building and found a ready cab. Cabbie saw me and swung right over to the curb. It took goggle maps and a little hand language to get him to understand I wanted the Harley Davidson dealer on the north side of the city. We got on the same page, he turned around and we headed north.

Fortunately for me, the cab driver was hungry. We no more than got to the dealership and he asked if I wanted him to wait. I said yes, since the shop is in the industrial area. Several hundred dollars later and we were headed south. Traffic was kind of light and the drive was good both ways. Just a nice morning to be out in the city.

The afternoon consisted of a couple movies from the iTunes Store and a large takeout shawarma from the shop next to the apartment. I tried to stay up to watch Shark Week on Discovery, which doesn’t come on until 2300 here, but decided against it.

All in all, a good day off. Every now and again you need to stop and look around. That way you don’t miss what’s going on. Even here, in the middle of the desert.

Quiet traffic out on the mean streets of Kuwait.

Now, get out there. Go do stuff.