Get a Hobby! World Travel
Author: Kyla Sterling
“Once you cross the walls of the Medina, you honestly feel like you're stepping into a tale from the 1,001 Nights...and you're usually not far off … My goal is to hit all 7 continents before age 35.”
This month, I contacted Cursor Wrathwind, Gaidin of Val Cueran, for an interview. Cursor Gaidin is a *very* well-traveled member of the site, and he agreed to answer a few questions for us!
Cursor Gaidin, you’ve posted quite a lot about your travels around the boards, and it seems like you’ve always got a big trip coming up. You’re American by birth - when did you take your first trip out of the US? (And why?)
If I recall correctly, the very first time would have been when I was 16 years old (summer of 2005). It was on a family vacation--an extended family vacation, not just me, my parents and my sister. We're talking several aunts, uncles and cousins as well. Since then, it's become almost a tradition, every 4-5 years, for the extended family to go on some sort of cruise. That first one was to the Caribbean...thanks to a storm at the time, the original itinerary we had reserved (to Mexico, Belize and the Cayman Islands) was unsafe, so we ended up in the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Sint Maarten instead. Not quite as exciting in my opinion, but still my first foray into foreign lands.
Is that when you got bitten by the travel bug, or did that happen later? What made you decide to travel more?
That cruise may have been my first trip abroad, but it was the second--my first trip to Spain just one year later--that really sealed the deal. There was just a feeling I got in Spain, a sense of belonging, of wonder and enchantment, of an enormously kindled curiosity that nowhere I had been in the US had ever awoken in me. Having always been fascinated by history and literature definitely played its role, but it was that total impact of being in Spain that made me decide that this was for me. I've never looked back.
So, in just under eleven years, how many countries have you visited? Have you visited any more than once?
Depends on how you count. If you asked me, I'd likely reply that I've been in 15 countries in addition to the US. In no particular order: Spain, Portugal, the UK, Canada, the Bahamas, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Italy, the Vatican, San Marino, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Morocco and Colombia. But as I mentioned, I've been in Dutch Sint Maarten, which technically is part of the Netherlands, though I find it hard to say I've been "in" the Netherlands. I've also been to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and Gibraltar, which has a complicated status. That number will be at 19 by mid-July though. In terms of multiple visits, just 5 countries. Spain 4 times (including the years I lived there), Italy three times, and two times each for Portugal, the Vatican and Canada.
And now, if I recall correctly, you live outside the United States – you fell in love with Spain and made it your forever home. Will you tell us what spurred the decision?
Actually, since the very end of 2014 I've lived in the US. But that is most definitely temporary--once I finish out this contract and get my paperwork filed with the Italian Consulate in Boston to get my EU passport, I'm out of here--likely never to return. As far as what spurred it, there were several factors. The simple version comes down to a woman--I met and started dating this wonderful Spanish woman named Carla when I was studying abroad in Madrid during college and decided to pursue my Master's in Spain mainly to be with her. Even though the relationship didn't work out (we're still quite close, however), I stayed in Spain for three years and intend to go back as an EU citizen ASAP (following a year in Saudi Arabia because that presents an opportunity for me to save a frankly ridiculously amount of money to start my Spanish life with first). Beyond that, though...I just don't belong in America. I've never really felt truly at home here, even in Boston, and honestly really dislike living in the US. That's completely different in Spain--I say without hesitation that Madrid is my home because that is quite simply the place where I truly feel a sense of belonging, a simple yet undeniable knowledge that "this is right. This is where I was meant to be." Culturally, politically, linguistically...I'm much more European than American, so it's an easy call. I don't see it as going away or trying to make a life abroad--it's going home.
It’s wonderful that something I think of a hobby has led to such an exciting life change for you! But for our other Tower hobbyists, who may not be looking for a permanent move, I’ve got some different questions! Where did you go on the last trip you took?
Over President's Day [February 12-14] weekend (the coldest of the year), I drove up to Quebec City in Canada for a few days to experience their famous Winter Carnival. Holy hell was it cold though... -40 degrees, both Fahrenheit AND centigrade.
And out of so many to choose from, what's your favorite place you've visited?
Madrid, hands down. But that's almost a cheap answer because it's my home. I really do love Madrid though and will say it's the greatest city on earth. Other than that, I have to answer with three places. Prague is without a doubt the most beautiful city I've ever been to (and excellent, dirt cheap beer certainly helps as well ). For atmosphere, it would be Marrakech. Morocco in general was phenomenal, but Marrakech just breathes intrigue and adventure...once you cross the walls of the Medina, you honestly feel like you're stepping into a tale from the 1,001 Nights...and you're usually not far off. Cartagena de Indias in Colombia is the third, a city that is also achingly beautiful, full of the nicest people (and most gorgeous women) you can imagine and a sort of vibrancy, energy and joie de vivre that only Madrid can surpass. The 30 mile, arduous hike through the jungle to reach the "Lost City" was also pretty awe-inspiring.
And what's does the future hold for you? Any firm plans? Bucket list trips?
The immediate future includes a trip to Ireland and Scotland with my younger sister at the end of May, and a trip to Brazil (with side trips to Argentina and Paraguay) at the end of June and beginning of July. Tickets are already booked. As far as specifics, in Ireland we'll see Dublin, Galway, the Aran Islands and Cork, along with Edinburgh and Inverness in Scotland. In Brazil I'll be principally in Sao Paulo, with a trip to Rio and a jaunt down to Iguazu Falls (including crossing the Argentine and Paraguayan borders for a few days) fleshing out the itinerary. As far as the bucket list trips...literally everywhere. There is nowhere I don't want to go. But, let's leave aside obvious and common answers like say Japan or Australia and focus on some more unusual destinations high on my wish list. A lot of people (including my friends and family) think I'm crazy for this, but Iran is a must for me. I'll likely get that done in 2017. Between the thousands of years of history spanning the Persian Empire and the path of Alexander the Great, there is the tremendous poetic history and the radiance of cities like Shiraz and Esfahan calling to me. Of course, the lure of the forbidden fruit does add some spice to it, but that's mainly an afterthought. Georgia...I saw a photo of Tbilisi (the capital) once while browsing the internet and was instantly enchanted. The more I read about it, and the wider country with its gorgeous mountain scenery, the more I knew I had to go. The South Pole...my goal is to hit all 7 continents before age 35 (only Australia and Antarctica still remain), but I don't want to half-ass Antarctica. Full ski from the coast to the pole and back trips are probably way out of my price range for the foreseeable future, not to mention too time consuming, but I think a ski the last degree trip is doable for me. Sadly, that has to be in the Antarctic summer, so I have no chance of joining the 300 Club (Google it). Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I just really want to make the jump off of that bridge.
Do you have any fun ways to keep track your travels? I’ve seen pictures circulating of a “map of the world” tattoo where each country visited gets colored in. And when I travel, I try to pick up a fridge magnet showing where I’ve been. Are there any souvenirs you *always* make sure to buy?
There's only one souvenir I ALWAYS buy, which is the country's flag. And I mean full size--no pennants or backpack patches for me! It's gotten me really into vexillology as a result, and I'm at the point where I can identify on sight every national flag on the planet (the three best, in my opinion anyway, are Kazakhstan, Swaziland and Dominica). If there are some really unique cultural items, I often buy them as well. For example, I bought a djellaba (traditional Moroccan robe) in Rabat and will likely get a kilt (a real, quality one...not a cheap souvenir version) in my clan tartan from Scotland. I've also considered some way of tracking my travels with tattoos, but haven't landed on a manner just yet.
Are there any experiences you try to make sure you always have? Always visiting a restaurant or museum, say?
Not really. I tend to avoid restaurants for the most part, but I'll get to that below. And my experience is that few museums are worth the price or time investment (a few, like the British Museum, being notable exceptions). I DO always visit important historical/cultural sights if I can, and it's not a trip without tying one on with locals in a pub somewhere. If I can time it so that I'm present during a festival (such as Carnaval in Brazil or the Sanfermines in Pamplona), I always do that. But that can't always be managed (in case you're wondering, I did run with the bulls. Twice).
How about the money part? Traveling can be very expensive, especially inter-continental - do you have any tips and tricks for keeping it affordable for our members?
Not that expensive, in my experience. Inter-continental from, say, North America to Europe can be pricey, but is often cheaper than you think. For example, I once found a fare from Boston to Tokyo (with a 90 minute layover in Hong Kong) on an excellent airline for only $750, roundtrip. My rule of thumb is that, if everything else combined (lodging, food, transport, entertainment) costs more than the flight, you're probably doing it wrong. Unless you got a really cheap flight. As far as some tricks for finding cheaper flights...there's the usual stuff like fly on weekdays blah blah blah, but I'll say pages like Google's ITA Matrix, Kayak, Hipmunk and apps like Hopper are very useful for seeing reasonable prices for a given route and predicting what the best moment to book is. Messing around with the point of sale and the currency can also save sometimes (Google lets you do this), as airlines are often less expensive when you pay in their home currency. Sometimes, just changing the TLD of the same website can save you money...I once found the exact same flight for 50 euros less on the Portuguese version of Kayak than on Spain's. Lodging...screw hotels. Just...don't. Airbnb is one of the greatest things for travelers. Pricey in the US, but often extraordinarily cheap elsewhere (especially Europe) and you typically get nicer digs than in a hotel anyway. And if all else fails, there's the dreaded youth hostel (I'd say be under 30 for this though), which if you pick the right one (for example, I'll highly recommend Mamallena in Cartagena) can be great and cheap. You mentioned restaurants before...don't eat there. Unless you have the help of a trusted local (not a guide, who often gets a commission to take you somewhere specific), you're likely going to end up in someplace overpriced, not very authentic and low quality. Self-catering (so make sure that Airbnb or hostel has a kitchen!) is the best, as most grocery stores abroad are cheap. If you don't feel like cooking, street-food is the way to go--it's what the locals do and it's usually tasty, cheap and very authentic. Case in point, in Morocco, I was able to get a meal at a Djemma El Fna (large square) stall that included fresh bread, soup, a tagine, a liter bottle of water and Moroccan mint tea (the best) for the equivalent of about $5, including a tip. And it was the best meal I had in the country. Countries with favorable conversion rates (Morocco, Czech Republic, Colombia...especially Colombia) are also your friend. Walk or use public transportation. Unless the city is really dangerous or it's really late, never take a taxi. Even ones that won't outright rob you at gunpoint will often cheat you. Especially in Europe, with generally great public systems, there's no need for it. Finally, if you're shopping, do it where the locals do. Get off those main tourist drags...that's like only browsing Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive. Even a few streets over you'll usually find the same goods much, MUCH cheaper. Oh, and in many places, know how to haggle and do so AGGRESSIVELY. That's especially true in North Africa and the Middle East.
If someone here on the site wanted to start racking up the frequent-flyer miles, how would you recommend starting? Doing a really big trip – several places over a few weeks - or a small one, just across the border for a long weekend?
Well, it really depends on their finances, how much time off they have and if there are other considerations (i.e. children, medical conditions). Even assuming all those are no object, it depends on your personal objective. You really want a slice of the local life, to interact with locals and see what a place is genuinely like "off camera?" Smaller trip, spending more time in one place. More interested in seeing interesting sights, trying exotic food, hearing new music and what have you? Grand tour. That being said, learning the ropes of a region (i.e. Western or Eastern Europe, North Africa, Latin America) in one place first before doing a larger circuit can definitely help.
Do you have a preferred travel method? (Trains or planes or automobiles?)
Planes are usually both cheapest and fastest. Especially in Europe with companies like Ryanair and Easyjet. Intercity in the same country, I usually prefer bus. Often only an hour or two longer than train and for less than half the price. Sometimes you can get good train deals though, but that requires careful planning.
Before you go off on another adventure, do you tend to do a lot of research - guidebooks, hotel planning, language tapes - or do you prefer to wing it, or some combination?
The answer is yes and no. I always check the Wikitravel page for the country and specific city I'm visiting. Some locales around the world are a bit sparse, but it's truly an excellent (and free!) resource. I also am personally lucky enough to enjoy a fairly global network of friends, so it's a rare place indeed I couldn't message one of them and ask for a local perspective. I also find just going to YouTube and typing in "location travel tips/travel guide/top 10" helpful. In my research though, I tend to focus mainly on how to get around in the country/city, any visa requirements/laws I should be aware of, meds I might need (e.g. antimalarials) and at least a few sights I'm interested in visiting. I never buy guidebooks and my hotel planning is generally limited to "what's cheapest and has at least one review on Airbnb?" Language...I'm a bad person to ask. I'm a professional linguist and translator by trade and speak, to various degrees of fluency, five languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Russian) that cover a huge amount of territory between them. I've also always been able to pick up languages pretty easily and quickly, so just a few quick, free online lessons usually has most of my tourist needs covered to fluency. That is not going to be most people though. The honest truth is, if you speak English, you have nothing to worry about. EVERYONE speaks English, at least everyone you're likely to interact with as a tourist. For me, I'd feel horribly embarrassed speaking English in a foreign country and not be able to at least make small talk in the local tongue--hence the learning--but if that's not an issue for you, you'll be fine.
What’s the best advice you can give the would-be world traveler who reads this?
Meet and befriend locals. Single best thing you can do. Everything is easier and more fun that way. Also, just get out there and do it. It's not as expensive as you think, places aren't as dangerous as you think, etc. Be a cultural chameleon--full "when in Rome." Don't look down on or judge strange or different practices, customs, foods, festivals, religions, etc. In fact, go out and participate in them! 9 times out of 10 you'll be happy that you did.
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