The Three Week OKCupid Date Across Europe

Clara Bensen shares the story of how she met a guy on OKCupid and decided to go with him for a three week travel adventure across Europe. The catch? They would wear the same clothing during the entire trip and bring no luggage:

Our no-luggage journey began with the buzzing protest energy of Istanbul and from there it zigzagged wildly across the European continent. There were no plans. With no stuff, moving to the next destination was as simple as getting out of bed and pointing to a dot on the map. We jumped from city to city using almost every mode of transportation on earth: an old train along the Turkish coast, a giant ferry across the Aegean, a cramped bus through the Balkans, a series of hitches through Croatia, a flight to Edinburgh, and a pair of bikes in London. From baristas and dancers to investment bankers and Cambridge professors, we wandered the streets with guides who were as varied as the urban landscapes we were moving through.

Looks like they survived and bonded (though it’s not clear from the story whether Jeff and Clara are still dating):

We ended our journey after eight countries, 3,500 miles and 21 days in the same clothes. Our romantic relationship intact, Jeff and I boarded the Heathrow return flight as closer friends than ever (despite the questionable state of our undergarments). Materially speaking I was as empty-handed as the day we started, but I actually carried a great deal back home across the Atlantic. Traveling with no luggage and no plans was much more than a minimalist lesson in living well with less. It was an intense, in-your-face invitation to the unknown. There’s a truly magnificent side to the unknown, but we aren’t taught how to welcome it, let alone explore the breadth of its possibilities.

Did our luggage-less dance with uncertainty lead to some kind of travel nirvana? Yes and no. We careered through time and space at a fiendish pace and experienced all the blood, sweat and exhaustion that might be expected. At the same time, we were vividly present in the midst of a disorienting cloud of city grids, metro stops and incomprehensible dialects that shape-shifted with every border crossing. We were alive. And every so often the intensity was punctuated with time-crushing moments that were so staggeringly beautiful and strange that even now I’m not sure they occurred at all.

Still. A very cool story.

A Hotel Room With 140 Characters

I can’t decide whether this idea for a “140 Character Hotel” is genius (or ridiculous):

The first “Twitter experience hotel” (aka Sol Wave House) was introduced this summer in Majorca, Spain, where guests can ping requests to a “Twitter concierge” using hashtags like #fillmyfridge; flirt from poolside Bali beds by tweeting numbers printed atop the beds, like “How’s it going #balibed10?”; and sip cocktails while checking their smartphones for a live feed of virtual conversations bubbling up from every corner of the hotel.

Meliá Hotels International, which owns more than 350 properties, including Sol Wave House, is pioneering the concept amid the still rising popularity of smartphones and social networking. The Internet is in more pockets today than ever before. In July the International Data Corporation, a research group, said the worldwide smartphone market experienced 52.3 percent year-over-year growth. (In the United States, 56 percent of adults own a smartphone, up from 35 percent in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project surveys.)

That sandbox includes a Twitter concierge that guests can instruct via tweet to “Get the Cava on ice” followed by “1 bottle, 4 glasses to the solarium,” as one visitor did last month. There are images of mustaches on mirrors in the rooms, encouraging guests to tweet goofy selfies. And on Friday afternoons at the height of the season, the concierge uses a pool party hashtag (#twitterpoolparty) to summon sun worshipers.

On second thought: the few times I’ve stayed in hotels and had a negative experience, tweeting something publicly was the fastest way to get an amicable resolution.

This is an actual line used in the Times article: “For the foreseeable future, though, the Twitter hotel is #heretostay.”

The Weirdest Game to Be Seen at Expo 2017 in Kazakhstan

The New York Times profiles the city of Astana, Kazakhstan. In the article, we learn about the national sport of the country called kokpar (which is equestrian in nature, but… played with a carcass of a headless goat). Also known as buzkashi:

Recently, on the outskirts of the city at a stadium slick with rain and mud, the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, an equestrian sport, was in full swing.

Mr. Nazarbayev’s capital seemed a world away. Kokpar, known as buzkashi in Afghanistan, is a tough version of that gentlemanly game, polo. Instead of playing from the back of a horse with wooden mallets and a ball, riders use their bare hands and lean to pick up a headless sheep or goat from the ground. They then race to the goal clutching the dead animal.

Instead of goal posts, large caldrons, a bit like inflatable backyard swimming pools, serve as goals. Riders score by heaving the dead animal over the rim of the goal.

Each team plays four riders on horses, and the scrum of horses and riders pushing, colliding and surging around the goal with whips cracking creates a rough and violent contact sport.

Kazakhs in traditional dress at the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, similar to polo, in Astana.

Kazakhs in traditional dress at the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, similar to polo, in Astana.

“It’s a kind of cruel game playing with a dead sheep, but in our country it’s normal,” said Marat Baytugelov, a retired player, who was watching from the stands as the home team routed the players from Tajikistan. (In the old days, villagers would cluster on hilltops to get a better view.) “The most difficult thing is getting the goal. You have to have strong arms, strong stamina, and you must ride the horse well.”

The animal carcass, he added, cannot be just any weight. Heft is mandatory. It must weigh at least 30 kilograms, or 66 pounds.

The Central Asian tournament was organized as a prelude to Expo 2017, when Astana will be the host city. Kokpar is expected to be a star attraction, at least for the Central Asian crowd, and even for fans farther afield.

Wikipedia adds that Kazakhstan had a commission in the 1950s to set the rules of the sport:

  1. There are two teams with 10 participants in each
  2. Only 4 players a team are allowed to play on a field at a given time
  3. Teams are allowed to substitute players or their horses
  4. Game is played on a field of 200 meters long and 80 meters wide
  5. Two kazans – big goals with a diameter of 3.6 meters and 1.5 meter high are placed on opposite sides of a field
  6. A goal is scored each time a kokpar (goat carcass) is placed in an opponent’s kazan.
  7. A kokpar is brought to the field center after scoring a goal

You learn something new every day.

Hyder, Alaska: The Only U.S. City That’s Secretly Canadian

This is a bizarre story in Bloomberg on the small town of Hyder, Alaska which is, in secret, effectively Canadian. The town takes Canadian dollars in stores, gets electricity sourced from Canada, and even uses a Canadian area code:

• Hyder, population 87, is Alaska’s easternmost town, a tiny town surrounded by lofty, glacier-covered peaks at the corner of the Alaska Panhandle. The town boomed in the early 20th century when gold and silver were discovered nearby, but is now so small that residents bill it as “Alaska’s friendliest ghost town.” The ferry to Ketchikan, the nearest Alaskan city, stopped running more than a decade ago.

• What’s interesting about the residents of Hyder is that their only neighbors for miles and miles in any direction are the good people of Stewart, just ten minutes away—but across the border into British Columbia. Stewart, as if you didn’t know, is internationally famous as “Canada’s most northerly ice-free port!” (Remember, the vast majority of Canada is a frigid, uninhabitable wasteland of no interest to anyone, even Canadians.)

• As a result of its geographic isolation, Hyder functions as America’s only de facto outpost of Canada. All businesses (except the post office) price stuff in Canadian dollars, and take “Victoria Day” and “Boxing Day” off every year. Clocks are set to British Columbia time, the electricity comes from a B.C. utility, and the nearest police are Mounties. It’s the only place in Alaska not to use the state’s 907 area code—even Hyder’s phone numbers have joined in the open treason, and begin with a Canadian code, 250. Kids can be taught at home or bundled off to boarding school in Ketchikan, but many parents choose the dubious indoctrination of the Canadian public school system instead, especially up to the sixth grade.

There’s no way to prove that this is the only store in America that takes Canadian dollars, but is this the only city in America with a Canadian area code? If you know, sound off in the comments!

Traveling Around the World For Free with Google+

Twenty-eight year old Michael Lee Johnson, hailing from England, writes about his experience of traveling around the world relying only on one social network: Google+. The catch? He wanted to do it for free:

On July 26th (just over a month ago), I asked the question; Is it possible to travel across the world for FREE using nothing but +Google+  and a whole lot of hugs? 

Why? Because I wanted to show the world that #GooglePlusIsNotAGhostTown and why this platform is different than all of the others. I was just sick and tired of all those news articles and people saying that nobody uses this platform. That nobody is here. 

If nobody is here… Who am I? Who are you? And who the hell is nobody? 

It is now September 6th and so far I have been to London, Paris, Amsterdam, Harderwijk, Emsdetten, Munster, Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Milan, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Athens, courtesy of Google+ users from one side of the world to the other. 

I have stayed at multiple peoples houses, in hotels and bed & breakfasts. Travelled across countries via cars, buses and trains. Met lots of awesome people, made new friends, visited multiple Google offices and had an absolutely AMAZING TIME in the process. I have experienced humanity for what it truly is. Thoughtful. Caring. Hospitable. Amazing. – That doesn’t mean I haven’t had problems… I have had plenty of problems, but overall, the experience has been life changing.

As an introvert, he claims that it’s hard for him to reach out to people and ask for help. So this is an experience:

So far I have spent about 10 euros on food and water in the past 5 weeks. I have eaten 3/4/5x per day. People have cooked for me. Taken me to restaurants. Bought me food on the street and taken me out for drinks. Introduced me to their friends and family, and made me feel at home. Showed me around their cities and gone out of their way. They have been there for me. They have trusted me in their homes. They have written all sorts of nice things about me. 

Google+ came through. The people. The place. My life has been turned upside down. As of writing this message my follower count is growing at nearly 1000 users per day. I am getting lots of lovely messages and a fair few horrible messages. (You can’t please everyone). – That’s life.

Pretty cool, if you ask me.

Traversing Provence by Foot

In a blog post titled “Pilgrims in Provence,” Matt Goulding realizes his dream of vising Provence, France.

My first dreams of Provence came as a teenager, when I stumbled across a picture of a local market in one of my mom’s glossy magazines. The village was tiny and cobblestoned, dappled with a gentle light so perfect it looked like it had been painted onto the page. Everything in that picture seemed impossibly vivid: the Technicolor tomatoes and eggplants, the farmers with dirt still crusted on their fingers, the cafe on the side of the plaza with the chalkboard menu listing untold treasures du jour.

That picture drove me wild with wanderlust. I wanted to be there to smell those tomatoes, to pepper those farmers with questions, to wander back to a small country house with nothing but a dog-eared journal and an armful of ingredients. I’ve been carrying those images around in my head for the better part of two decades, waiting for the day when I could transpose them on to reality.

All of this sounds warm and fuzzy and ripe for disappointment, but the great majority of Provencal cliches exist primarily because it is exactly that fairy-tale region you imagine it to be. To paraphrase Bourdain, it’s what Martha Stewart sees when she closes her eyes.

Having spent some time in Provence (mostly in Avignon) a few years ago, this description is apt:

Avignon is the kind of town that brings Provence’s virtues into sharp focus: the old part of town, circumscribed by an ancient city wall, is home to leafy avenues, a sprawling central market housing the building blocks for historic feasts, and the types of cafés you’d sacrifice unspeakable things to have in your neighborhood back home.

On navigation:

No, your best friends in this mysterious new world are the maps you procure from the local Tabacs shops (or from excitable outdoorsmen in Avignon) and the colored lines that mark the trails at every turn: red and white for the GR 6, our path for much of our time in the Luberon, red and yellow for the long-distance GRP trail, and so on. It takes a bit of getting used to, but soon you learn that an x means you’re going the wrong way, that a 90-degree angle indicates an imminent turn, and that the absence of any color at all for more than, say, 100 meters means you’ve gone rogue.

A convincing paragraph on why it’s better to travel on foot than by car/bus:

Maybe it’s the rosé talking, but there is something undeniably magical about approaching a town on foot. You are invariably greeted by a host of intense, deeply conflicting emotions: elation (over the fact that you won’t be sleeping under a rock tonight), exhaustion (because you haven’t exercised this much in many years), hunger (because that pack is heavy and bread and cheese and sparkling wine only go so far) and, above all, wonder (at just how beautiful and poetic it can be to watch a town towering on the horizon grow closer and closer until the road between you and it has disappeared entirely).

A wonderful essay. Highly recommend reading the whole thing.

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(hat tip: @legalnomads/@MikeAchim)

 

Eric Schmidt’s Daughter on North Korea

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s daughter Sophie has posted a lengthy account with photos of their recent trip to North Korea. Some highlights from a post titled “It might not get weirder than this”:

  • The English-language customs form for North Korea requires declaration of “killing device” and “publishings of all kinds.”
  • None of the buildings visited by the delegation was heated, despite the cold. Sophie writes: “They’re proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.”
  • The delegation had two official minders always present with them (“2, so one can mind the other”) and no interaction with North Koreans not vetted by officials.
  • Eric Schmidt’s “reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open.”
  • The group could make international calls on rented cell phones but had no data service.

This was my favorite highlight from her trip:

The Kim Il Sung University e-Library, or as I like to call it, the e-Potemkin Village…

Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in–a noisy bunch, with media in tow–not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.

Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home.

Sophia’s takeaways:

  1. Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange.
  2.  If it is January, disregard the above. It is very, very cold.
  3.  Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.

Worth reading in entirety, especially for the photos. The only thing that sucks is the formatting of the post (google sites, what the heck?).

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Also worth seeing: these photos from North Korea.

Paul Theroux’s Travel Wish List

Paul Theroux reminisces on his past travels in this piece for The New York Times. It’s a great essay in which he also considers his wish list for places to visit.

“You’ve been everywhere,” people say to me, but that’s a laugh. My wish list of places is not only long but, in many cases, blindingly obvious. Yes, I have been to Patagonia and Congo and Sikkim, but I haven’t been to the most scenic American states, never to Alaska, Montana, Idaho or the Dakotas, and I’ve had only the merest glimpse of Kansas and Iowa. I want to see them, not flying in but traveling slowly on the ground, keeping to back roads, and defying the general rule of “Never eat at a place called Mom’s, never play cards with a man called Doc …”

Nothing to me has more excitement in it than the experience of rising early in the morning in my own house and getting into my car and driving away on a long, meandering trip through North America. Not much on earth can beat it in travel for a sense of freedom — no pat-down, no passport, no airport muddle, just revving an engine and then “Eat my dust.” The long, improvisational road trip by car is quintessentially American.

This was my favorite paragraph:

The ultimate travel fantasies are, of course, unattainable. William S. Burroughs said in the 1950s, “What I want for dinner is a bass fished in Lake Huron in 1920.” In that spirit, I’d like to spend a Sunday in the West Medford of 1951, play bocce with my grandfather and eat some of my grandmother Angelina’s tortellini; I want to revisit the jolly bazaars of the Peshawar of 1973, the hopeful Nyasaland of 1964, the bike-riding China of 1980 (no private cars on the empty roads), and while I’m at it, I would like to return to the Borneo of the 1960s and again climb Mount Kinabalu.

I agree with Theroux on this count: a return journey to a place visited in the past can be a wonderful experience. A wonderful read overall.

Practical Tips for Traveling the World

Jodi Ettenberg, author of the Legal Nomads travel blog, offers some excellent travel tips in this blog post. She’s been traveling for more than four years, so she’s got some excellent tips/advice:

4. Everything else you can buy.

I didn’t believe it at first – “what if I forget to pack something!” But I’ve learned that most things can be bought abroad, from t-shirts to bras to new flip flops when a monkey throws yours over a cliff.

I like this tip about knowledgeable taxi drivers (my taxi story from my travels wasn’t nearly as pleasant):

6. Your taxi driver knows where to eat breakfast more than you do.

Swap this out for tuk-tuk driver, songthaew driver or rickshaw driver, where appropriate. When I go to a new place, I find the eldest cab driver possible and ask him where he ate breakfast.

And perhaps the best tip of all:

8. Oranges are the perfect public transportation snack.

I started bringing a bag of oranges with me for long bus rides, primarily because they quench thirst and smell delicious. I quickly learned that many Thai and Burmese busgoers sniff the peels to stave off nausea, and that kids love oranges. Really: kids LOVE oranges. So for those who want to bring something for the bus ride but rightfully worry about giving sweets to kids, oranges are your friend.

Read the rest of the tips here.

On another note: Jodi recently published The Food Traveler’s Handbook*, a guide on how to eat well (and safely) around the world (there is a strong emphasis on discovering great street food). I am about one third of the way through the book, and it is excellent so far.

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*Full disclosure: I helped Jodi with a few minor grammar edits of the book prior to publication.

The Silk Road and Carpet Making in Uzbekistan

The Wall Street Journal has a short piece on the dying art of carpet making in Uzbekistan. Profiled are the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.

This was the most fascinating bit from the story, I think:

Out of the 300 or so carpets the Samarkand workshop produces by hand each year, around 40% are private commissions. These range from ancient Persian designs to hand-drawn images sentimental to the person commissioning the carpet. One Japanese client, intent on creating one of the finest carpets in the world, has commissioned a 90-centimeter-by-55-centimeter piece at a cost of $85,000, which will take seven years to complete. It is so fine it can only be worked on an hour a day, so as not to ruin the eyesight of the weaver.

Click through to see pictures accompanying the piece.