My packing routine

My packing routine

Everyone really knows by now. I love traveling – so much so that I have even opened a blog and made a profession out of it. Each year, I spend around 4 to 5 months on the move, on a combination of long and short trips. I have a countless number of suitcases, backpacks, daypacks, carry-on bags, trolleys and what not, of various sizes and different quality.

With all the traveling I do, I should have become a pro at packing by now, and have a consolidated packing routine. But guess what? If there is one thing that I truly, wholeheartedly hate about traveling is having to pack. I am terrible at it. I am poorly organized, so I always end up forgetting something. And I often end up carrying much more than I actually need – in proper unsuccessful backpacker style.

To find out why I think of myself as an unsuccessful  backpacker, read my post “How to be an unsuccessful backpacker.”

travel list

I still remain an unsuccessful backpacker

Picking the best travel bag

One thing I have learned, though. And that is that, regardless of the length of my trip, having the best travel bag – one that perfectly suits the kind of trip I am going on – is a key factor when packing. I mean quality stuff here – and I do invest my money when it comes to good quality travel gear, because I know I need something reliable.

With all the travel bags I have, I pretty much carry a suitcase if I know I am traveling comfortably and someone else is going to carry it for me. This hasn’t happened very often in the last few years – actually, last time I did carry a suitcase was during my press trip to Indonesia.

I generally prefer backpacks, and I have a few of them actually. Backpacks don’t fit nearly as much stuff as suitcases, so I am forced to travel more lightly. But they match my kind of trip much better. Imagine me walking the tiny alleys of the Old City Varanasi, in India, trying to dodge the crowds, dogs, cows, cow poo, people on bikes and scooters, and garbage with a suitcase. It would have been impossible. I was glad I could move swiftly.

I also have a good selection of carry-ons. If I am traveling for a weekend or even for a week, I travel carry-on only and pack something that fits in the overhead compartment on the plane. I just can’t stand waiting endlessly for my bags to arrive and this way I can just get out of the plane and make my way to town. I have a fantastic travel bag that I can wear as a backpack, so that if I have to run through the terminals for connecting flights I can do that easily – much much better than having a trolley. I realized this when my sister and I were coming back from Mexico and we almost missed one of our connecting flights, and I could run much faster than she could, as I had a backpack!

A nice carry on bag is the perfect item for a short trip

A nice carry on bag is the perfect item for a short trip

My packing routine

So, picking the right kind of travel bag is pretty much the only thing I do right when it comes to packing. I have tried to overcome my hatred for packing in many ways, some of which have been working well so far. In an attempt to learn to pack more lightly, my packing routine now involves making an incredibly detailed list of what I may need – I even have it written down on a blog post, actually. Who knows that someone else may learn from my (err, let’s call it) experience.

To read more of my packing tips, check my post “My Ultimate Packing List.”

Except, at times I am so busy with work that I don’t even have time to write that list. So for example I am traveling to go to Israel and Jordan in 3 days and I have noted down nothing, and needless to say I haven’t even started thinking about what I should carry, or looked at what the weather may be like in the region. In fact, I am in a slight panic. Perhaps I should stop writing this post and actually write my packing list.

Anyways, back to my packing routine now. So… once I have my list down, I take every item I need and put everything in my living room. The table, chairs, coffee table and couch all get covered with every single item I think I may need.

Not exactly a pro at packing

Not exactly a pro at packing

That’s when I start panicking a bit more – because woaaa that is a lot of stuff, do I really need all of that? So I call my mom begging her to please come by and take a look at all my stuff and help me pick. Yes, I said that: I do call my mom for stuff like this. But don’t worry. My mom curbs my “italianity” by telling me off and saying she has better stuff to do – i.e. reading a book, filing her nails, petting the cats. You know, that sort of urgent stuff.

If my sister comes by my place, I beg her to please take a look. She’s usually a bit more willing – perhaps because she shares my passion for travel; and she even takes the initiative to tell me to drop a thing or two.

I then proceed to color match the outfit: I find that if I have stuff that can be easily matched, I end up carrying less. And this way, I start eliminating a good amount of items that go back in my closet. Then I start selecting shoes – I always wear the heaviest ones on my flight (usually my hiking shoes); the toiletries – which are the heaviest item on the backpack; and the pharmacy – which I always carry because I worry I may get sick (and I have asthma, and I may meet someone who needs assistance, and you never really know do you?).

I am becoming better at packing, I promise!

I am becoming better at packing, I promise!

When I eventually begin to actually stuff my backpack, I look like a nut. I play loud music – preferably some Gogol Bordello. I go back and forth placing items on my backpack, moon walking around. For each couple of items I get in the backpack, I take a break (this is hard job, you know) and go back to my MacBook to check my email or get on Facebook. I could lie and say it’s for work or urgent matters but the truth is that I simply need a distraction and a diversion from packing.

Eventually, I go back to packing, and everything comes together almost nicely. And once packing is over, I can finally relax with a much needed glass of red wine.

What’s your secret to packing efficiently?

This article is written in partnership with Eagle Creek. 

Top 10 Tips For Hiking In Tibet

Top 10 Tips For Hiking In Tibet

Hiking in Tibet is a fantastic experience – all adventure lovers should plan to do it at least once in their life!

Meet Agness and Cez – travel duo of eTramping.com who have been traveling the world and blogging about it since 2011. They managed to visit Tibet back in 2013 and today they are sharing their top 10 tips and advice for getting the most out of a Tibetan adventure. I am keen to visit Tibet, as it’s meant to be one of the most beautiful and remote places on earth, so I’ll need to be armed with some top tips for trekking in Tibet – so here they are!

Meet Agness and Cez

Meet Agness and Cez: aren’t they gorgeous?

Top 10 Tips For Hiking In Tibet


Tibet. Just saying the name aloud conjures up images and feelings of remote beauty, spectacular vistas, snowcapped mountains, friendly, smiling faces, and cold temperatures! It’s a plateau of mystic spiritualism and dramatic landscapes, and a visit here will live long in the memory.

Tibet

Dreaming of these amazing views – need to go hiking in Tibet!

For us, it is simply the most beautiful place we have ever seen, but it took careful preparation and planning to get there. However, leaving aside for a moment the visa logistics, we put together a bite-sized tip list for hiking in Tibet, an incredible part of the world. Don’t forget your mittens!

#1 Cardio, cardio, cardio

Now don’t get us wrong, we’re sure that even a two-packs-a-day smoker can still have an awesome time, but it’s just that we wouldn’t advise it. If one struggles to climb a set of stairs, this is off limits! Our number one piece of advice for hiking in Tibet is to ensure to be physically able to, so as not to risk life and limb in the roof of the world!

#2 Get a guide

Having a good guide book is a great idea, but having an actual guide (or going on a guided tour) is even better! You really don’t want to hike this alone (in fact, I never recommend hiking alone and you can ready why here). Utilize local knowledge and get all the vital information such as when to go, where to go, how to go and even what to wear! Tibet Vista is a good tour operator specialized on adventure tours of Tibet and can help making hiking in Tibet an unforgettable experience.

For more tips on how to pack efficiently, check out this post.

trekking in Tibet

Hiking in Tibet: More breathtaking views – who wants to go?

They’ll be able to show the best sights to see and what routes to take while keeping safe at the same time. We highly recommend it, especially when going on a more challenging hike.

#3 Suit up

Having the right equipment is essential when hiking in Tibet. We don’t advise to be even thinking about climbing that mountain wearing only flip-flops and board shorts – just because one has just flown in from India doesn’t mean that s/he can keep the same clothes! Invest in some decent trekking gear, including solid, waterproof boots, pants, and jacket, and walking poles are an extremely good idea.

#4 Acclimatize!

It’s impossible to boast the world’s highest mountain unless one is pretty high up! One of the biggest dangers in hiking in Tibet is the altitude, and altitude sickness is a very real and life-threatening danger. Whenever trekking at any height (which will happen in Tibet) it is necessary to ascend gradually and acclimatize to the pressure, and watch out for any kind of nausea or feeling unwell.

Tibet

Hiking in Tibet at high altitudes requires acclimatizing

Take things easy, rest often and don’t push yourself too hard. It’s far too risky, so stay at a comfortable pace!

#5 Pack the right kind of food

Going with a tour guide (which we highly recommended) means having all the necessary food arrangements taken care of. However it doesn’t hurt to have some prior knowledge of what should be packed when hiking in Tibet. Although one might not get what they are used to, dried fruits, chocolate and noodles can be perfect for snacking. And don’t forget the water, which will be needed to ensure it is safe to drink.

#6 Sunblock and sunglasses

It’s incredible how often this one gets overlooked! Sunlight at these high altitudes can be devastating to the skin, so make sure to put sunblock on exposed areas when hiking in Tibet. And don’t forget the sunglasses – the glare of bright sunlight off the white snow is painfully blinding!

tibet

Sunglasses are of the utmost importance when hiking in Tibet!

#7 Get a decent tent

It is necessary to have somewhere to bed down for the night when hiking in Tibet, so it is better to get a good tent and sleeping bag, and make sure the tent is fit for extreme conditions, so that one used to go to Glastonbury isn’t going to cut it. Sleeping bags should be all-weather too. Remember it gets cold up there!

#8 Yaks Baby!

Yaks are cool. These gentle beasts will help transport gear through rocky mountain passes like nobody’s business. When planning a lengthy trek, consider investing in a friendly, hairy companion – it definitely helps when hiking in Tibet!

#9 Be prepared for anything

It’s virtually impossible to predict what’s going to happen when setting foot outside the front door, and this is certainly the case when one is hiking in Tibet, much of an alien land! It is better to make sure to be packing a good first aid kit and a flashlight. Consider purchasing aGPS locator too, in case of getting into real difficulty – as emergency services can find you easily.

#10 Have fun!

Don’t forget that camera because it’s simply unthinkable not to take some amazing pictures to remember that trip of a lifetime: we surely made some friends for life when we went hiking in Tibet – so open up to an amazing experience and soak it all in!

Tibet

Hiking in Tibet will be an incredible adventure

With a little bit of careful preparation and planning, hiking in Tibet is one of the most memorable travel experiences one could ever hope to have, but remember to stay safe and comfortable at all times. Believe us – it’s an unforgettable journey to this wild land, an essential destination one shouldn’t miss. Once one has trekked Tibet – he’ll never be the same again!

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Discover everything you need to know about hiking in Tibet - via @clautavani

20 expert tips for traveling around South East Asia

20 expert tips for traveling around South East Asia

When I first visited South East Asia last October during a trip to Indonesia, I felt overwhelmed, for it looked and felt completely different from anywhere else I had been before. It took me a second trip to visit the rest of the region to fully enjoy it, and I eventually fell in love with it. Traveling across South East Asia takes some skills, but a few tips here and there can help to plan and enjoy the trip. So, here’s my top tips for hassle free travel in South East Asia.

places to visit in Vietnam

Traveling around South East Asia is challenging – but fun.

Read before going

Part of the reason for the cultural shock I experienced when I first visited South East Asia is that I didn’t know anything about it. I had read nothing about the country I would be visiting, knew nothing about its culture, its way of life and I didn’t know anything about its people. Do some readings before going – whether on travel guides, travel blogs, government websites and magazines. This helps prepare and know what to expect.

Find out about the needed visas and their fees

Different countries in South East Asia have different visa requirements, and the visas have different costs depending on the passport one may hold. For example, Vietnam grants free 15 days visas to Italian passport holders. Vietnam visas can be obtained online before traveling. Cambodia on the other hand has a fee that should be paid. In this case, knowing the price of the visa will help to avoid the regular border scams.

Make sure to also check if there is any specific requirement for the passport. I was demanded to pay an extra $30 USD at the border, because my passport only had two free pages and the minimum required was supposedly three. I knew that this was not the case (I had done my homework!) and managed to argue my way out of this scam.

Vietnam is gorgeous - but it is better to go prepared!

Vietnam is gorgeous – but it is better to go prepared!

Make a scan copy of the passport and other travel documents and send it via email

I am distracted, I admit it. I once almost lost my passport in Nicaragua, and the best part of it is that I did so when I was making a copy of it, just in case I’d lose it. Thankfully I was able to retrieve it as I knew exactly where I had left it, but I panicked a bit. I have also met other travelers who had their bag snatched in Phnom Penh, with anything that was in it including their passport.

I generally keep my passport in a safe, and when moving from place to place keep important travel documents in money belts. To be on the safe side in case all precautions fail, I always scan my passport and send a copy to my email, as this will make the process of getting a new one much easier. I also carry a few spare passport photos. They will come handy for visas!

places to visit in Vietnam

Vespas are cute, but long distances are better covered by plane

Plan to cover the longer distances by plane

Traffic in South East Asia is terrible, and unless getting a sleeper bus, traveling can be really uncomfortable and tiring, with shuttle buses that are packed to the brim with people and their luggage, and the driving totally mad (honking is the rule here, for whatever reason). It is way better to cover longer distances by plane, especially as it is easy to get cheap flights.

Don’t exchange currency at the airport, and always count the exact change

For whatever reason, exchanging currency at the airport costs way more than doing it at any other place in the city. Furthermore, it is not uncommon that even in banks tellers who exchange the money “forget” to give the whole amount expected. Always count the money on the spot, and demand the whole amount if anything is missing.

Having some spare cash will help when buying souvenirs - cards are often not accepted!

Having some spare cash will help when buying souvenirs – cards are often not accepted!

Always carry more than one debit and credit card

Sometimes banks block cards, or ATMs won’t accept one. Cards can get lost, stolen and even de-magnetized with all the traveling. In the early days of my traveling career, I was so afraid to get my cards stolen that I only carried one, and found out when I tried to withdraw cash that it wasn’t working. I was lucky enough to be able to get some cash through an alternative service, which however involved a long process.

Since then, I always make sure to carry several cards, keeping them separate so that they don’t get de-magnetized and in different places, in case one of them gets stolen. I generally carry one on me, one on my day pack and one on my backpack, carefully hidden.

Carry some spare cash

I generally carry a decent amount of US dollars wherever I travel, keeping it in different places. I prefer US dollars as they are widely accepted. In case of emergency, having some cash will mean that I can easily get a meal, a bed and at least local transportation, and call my family to wire me some money until I can sort things out.

Buying tours locally is much cheaper

Buying tours locally is much cheaper

Don’t book tours in advance – they cost much less locally

I expected tours to be a bit cheaper when bought locally, but in South East Asia the difference can be of up to 4 times less. I have been on a tour of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam where people who bought the package online, from home, paid something like $160 USD and those who bought then locally paid only $40 USD.

Don’t be afraid not to find a tour or not to have time to arrange everything locally: anything is possible in South East Asia, a tour will always pop up, and local operators will play their magic to find a suitable solution – and there will be considerable savings. Here’s more tips on how to budget for South East Asia. 

places to visit in Vietnam

Try to walk around there with a trolley – impossible!

Pack light and use a backpack

Traveling in South East Asia can be truly uncomfortable and having the right travel gear is a requirement: shuttle buses often don’t have a trunk and place the bags in between seats; lots of budget accommodation don’t have elevators and it may well be necessary to carry the bags all the way to the top floor; and when doing boat trips as those of Ha Long Bay it is often necessary to carry bags on and off the boat.

All of this is much easier when carrying travel backpacks rather than suitcases, and even better if backpacks are packed light. Picking the right backpacking gear is a key factor when traveling in Asia. I have two backpacks and they are both comfortable and have proved excellent for active travelers like myself. One is this one and the other is this one. Besides, it is so cheap to shop in South East Asia that if a pair of pants break, it is easy to replace them! One thing I always carry though is a pair of good hiking boots, as I always end up hiking. And since they are too heavy on the backpack, I normally wear them on flights.

Opt for solid toiletries

Knowing what to pack for South East Asia is essential. Solid shampoo properly placed in a tin, solid conditioner and a bar of good soap instead of shower gel are way lighter than their liquid equivalents, and occupy less room in the backpack. There’s even solid sunscreen and solid insect repellent. Solid toiletries help to pack lighter and can also be packed in a carry on. A good solid shampoo and conditioner last for up to 4 months, even on hair as long as mine. I call that value for money!

Always carry a toilet roll in the daypack

I have learned from many years of traveling that, especially in developing countries, toilets don’t necessarily come with toilet paper. I normally pack up a toilet roll in a sandwich bag, and keep it in my daypack. It comes really handy especially during long bus journeys.

Do carry prescriptions medicines

It is quite common to get sick when traveling. Crowded buses and trains and even planes are known to be excellent vehicles for viruses. That is how I got my laryngitis in Vietnam and lost my voice for a few days (which according to my sister wasn’t necessarily a bad thing). But in a place where not many people speak good English, it is hard to explain what one needs when feeling sick. I was surely thankful that I had all prescription drugs with me. I normally carry a little bit of everything, just in case.

Food in South East Asia is delicious

Food in South East Asia is delicious

Eat local food

Food in South East Asia is good and cheap pretty much anywhere. Even after a month there, I didn’t miss Western food at all, because local cuisine is so tasty. The best places to eat are actually on the street, as I have learned in Bangkok. Wherever there is a good amount of people eating (and possibly even a line), a mixture of locals and travelers, and even women and children, is bound to have good food which is tasty, cheap and more importantly completely safe to eat.

Learn to cross the street

I thought I had learned how to cross the street when I was a child, but once I arrived in South East Asia I realized that any good pedestrian behavior was useless. Traffic in this region is unprecedented. There’s lots of cars, and millions of scooters. The key to crossing the street is to – literally – never stop to look. Nobody will stop to let pedestrians walk by, but they will swing their way around them.

Ask to use the taxi meter

Taxi drivers often try to set a flat rate, but the price they suggest is generally higher than the one passengers should expect to pay otherwise. For example, when I arrived in Hanoi, the driver suggested a flat rate of 400000 Vietnamese Dong to take me to my hotel. I paid 360000 with the meter. In Saigon, the driver suggested a flat rate of 300000 to take me from the airport to the backpackers area, but I had read beforehand that it shouldn’t cost more than 150000. I demanded to pay by the meter and ended up paying only 120000.

Bring ear plugs

Traffic never stops in South East Asia, and people have a real passion for honking: they honk to get others out of their way; they honk to get the traffic moving; they honk just to say they are driving by. Personally, I can’t stand the noise of traffic when I am trying to sleep so I was really glad I had carried a pair of ear plugs to wear at night – at least I could get some decent sleep.

South East Asia has a special light!

South East Asia has a special light!

Don’t necessarily trust online reviews

It often happened to me that tour operators, hotels and restaurants that have glowing reviews were a total disappointments. I asked myself how it was possible that such poor services had incredible reviews. It is quite simple: those reviews are often fake. A hint into knowing that the 5 stars reviews are fake is when the reviewer has only left that one review. Do check who is leaving the review before trusting it. Furthermore, be advised that hotels, restaurants and tour operators can (and will) pay to remove bad reviews and get good ones.

Carry a travel towel

Hostels tend to skimp on towels, or guests have to pay to rent one. A travel towel is a good solution, as it is extremely light and it dries quickly, and it can also be used as a beach towel.

Wear flip flops in showers

I often see people walking around barefoot in hostels, including to go to the toilet. I may be a neat freak but I would rather avoid getting athletes’ foot or other sort of skin issues. Getting in the shower with flip flops is a good way to protect against nasty stuff.

People in Asia love to have their picture taken

People in Asia love to have their picture taken

Ask permission to take photos

People in South East Asia love to pose for pictures, so much so that whenever they saw me taking a photo they would actually stop me and ask me to take one of them too. A few also asked me to be in the picture, actually! Regardless of that, I find that asking for permission to take a photo, even if it is just with an iPhone, is always polite and appreciated – and I did so with a huge smile!

Do you have more tips to share? Let me know so in the comments!

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Discover all the tips to prepare for a trip to South East Asia - via @clautavani

Seven ways to justify weight gain when traveling

Seven ways to justify weight gain when traveling

One thing I hardly get is why people bother reading articles on the latest diet followed by a seemingly well known celebrity; or about the new fitness routine that is used by another even more famous one; and articles which suggest easy work-outs to follow when time is limited, for example when traveling. I even less get those who spend big money to go to all inclusive resorts to then do the exact same things they do at home, like diet, follow a strict schedule of yoga, pilates, massages, manicures (I actually bite my nails, and although I know it is gross, there is hardly anything that I can do to stop myself).

I am also quite weary of blog posts that target the other end of the traveling chain – the budget backpackers traveling on a shoestring and hippies wanna-be – that state what, to me, is the obvious: carrying a heavy backpack is a good workout. Perhaps, the issue I have with that is that to me it is not a workout at all, something done with a clear purpose in mind, but rather a hellish task best followed when trying to score the cheapest room in Panama City, possibly under the blistering sun, when the heat and humidity make it all the more strenuous.

Salar de Uyuni

Backpackers jump to stay fit – or so they say

In fact, for as careful to what I eat and drink and how much I exercise when I am at home, a variety of reasons lead me to be the opposite when I travel. When home, I am the one person to follow as a model of a moderate life. I eat lots of fruits and vegetables, drink plenty of water, avoid carbonated drinks and only have the odd glass of red wine or small bottle of icy cold beer (great after a hike, to refill my body with all the salts and minerals I lost through sweat); I walk around, train in the swimming pool, hike, bike and generally stay active. The only one thing I do not do, and will never do, is jogging. I really can’t see the point of running, unless I am in a rush! But, to be extra clear: I am almost a health freak, so much so that my family thinks I have a slight obsession.

death road bolivia

Biking is a GREAT way to keep fit. I confess even I biked the Death Road in Bolivia!

But, as soon as I get on a plane that takes me away from home, I indulge. So much so than whenever I get back home I have to start again on my kind-of strict routine to shed the few kilos that happily sit on my belly post-trip. And if, after my first long term trip, I could actually find a benefit for the pain I felt after the surgery to remove my tonsils (I cried from the pain, and was unable to eat solid food for 2 over two weeks) in shedding the extra weight that I carried back from South America, the second time around I have had to actually find a more traditional way of getting back in shape.

I used the word “indulge” with reason. Because I can pin point all the things I do wrong when I travel, that lead me to gain weight and lose shape. Yet, I keep doing them – because they are fun, they are relaxing, and they are part of the experience of traveling. And the best is that, even though I have figured out what I do wrong, I have no intention to change it. In fact, not only I will keep having fun when I travel, but I have also put together a list of excuses to justify the weight I gain when I travel (and no, I do not mean the souvenirs which I buy). Feel free to mix and match them to justify your belly in front of surprised stares.

Seven ways to justify weight gain when traveling

Eating local food is part of the cultural experience of travel (it is, isn’t it?)

I insist that a great deal of the culture of a country is found in its food, in the local produce and national dishes. So obviously if I spend 3 weeks in Mexico I will do my best to learn about the culture of the country by trying all the local specialties – quesadillas, pozole, Oaxacan cheese, enchiladas, tacos, tlayudas… name it. And while I’m at it, let me add a margarita to that. You know, after all tequila and mezcal are typically Mexican, right?

Eating a good asado at Mercado del Puerto of Montevideo IS a cultural experience

Eating a good asado at Mercado del Puerto of Montevideo IS a cultural experience

I am poor (or “I could not be bothered to eat healthy food”)

I like backpacking, and I generally try to stretch my budget and I like street food and local eateries. It’s not even so much for the food (which actually tastes better and fresher, because constantly prepared rather than being preserved for who knows how long), or the prices which are way more convenient. I just like the scene, the atmosphere. I enjoy the mixture of locals who look a bit puzzled when seeing me, and of other travelers who feel like I have just broken into their best kept secret. But street food, aside from being tasty, is also oily and packed in carbs. Mind you, there are some nice street food and market stalls that do sell healthier options – corn on the cob, fresh fruit, smoothies etc. But then I see the plantains chips or the rice and beans and I opt for that. Just because.

Mmm... street food

Is there anything better than street food in Mexico?

I can’t find the right om tune (or, I don’t do yoga)

In a world where people support their wanderlust by teaching English and yoga, or practice their yoga wherever they are – either independently or by signing up for yoga classes, which are so very common all over Central America – I can’t be bothered to wake up at dawn to hear someone say that I should breathe out my inner stress. I can’t take new age music. Give me some gypsy punk and I will dance to it. Take me on a hike, take me biking, rafting, kayaking, snorkeling, whatever – and give me a beer when we arrive.

I didn't travel alone to Argentina

Why should I yoga it, when I can raft it?

I can swim (and need a pool for that)

In Europe, every city, village, resort has a pool. A good size pool. A paradise for swimmers. I can subscribe for a month, or a year. Or just pay a daily fee and enjoy a great workout. Now, try to find a pool in a developing country. Try to explain to the receptionist of a hostel in Copan Ruinas that has gladly found out that there is a pool in town which you can use that a 12 meters one is really tiny to you, that all a swimmer can do there is flip. I have a 25 meters minimum rule, and I won’t break it. Ever.

_JY_7940

You run. You yoga. I swim.

I can’t run without running shoes (or better, I can’t run. At all)

In an ideal world, people should wear the appropriate shoes to match the kind of training they intend to do. My sister, who is as much of a fitness fanatics as I am, is into running. She owns some 5 pairs of different shoes, each for a different kind of performance. She has even explained how they are different from one another. You see, all I need to swim is a swimming suit, a pair of good goggles and a swimming cup.

Yes, I am on the picky side when it comes to choosing the right pair of goggles. But if I really really want to swim (which I do all the time), I use whatever I can find. I really really do not want to run. Running isn’t my thing when I am home, so why on earth would I do that when I am meant to be having fun? So, the excuse of not having the right pair of shoes is really handy. One would not expect anybody to jog wearing their hiking shoes, right? And someone who travels light isn’t expected to carry around 3 or 4 different pairs of shoes, surely?

Rock a Republic red suede stilettos

Nobody would be expected to run in this shoes, right?

I have finally learned to pack light

Except, who am I kidding? I manage to cram 18 kg of weight in a 65 liters backpack, which becomes so bulky and heavy that I bend under its weight, to the point that other backpackers have nicknamed me Turtle Tavani, because if, for whatever reason, I fall flat on my back, I may never be able to stand up again. One may think that all that weight is good exercise. Except when my backpack is so heavy (possibly because filled with bottles of mezcal and wine which I bought at a local mezcal factory in Mexico or at a winery in Argentina – get back to my point on the cultural experience of food when traveling), I refuse to walk and rely on buses and taxis to get wherever I have to go.

the turtle

You may call me Turtle Tavani

I suddenly became sociable

I am a bit of a hermit. I travel alone, I can spend days at end without communicating to anybody aside for the strict necessities. But then there are times when I like hanging out with other people, and that usually involves eating and/or drinking. So, when I get to a new hostel and find out a bunch of other backpackers are going out for drinks or for a meal, I don’t question. I forget about my latest resolution to never drink alcohol again while traveling (or ever) and just go, promising myself to only have one beer and knowing I am likely to have more than that (hangover attached). Besides, I am from Sardinia and in my culture it is rude to refuse a drink.

Mojito time

This is not drinking. This is being sociable. Really.

There are some travelers who manage to actually shed a pound or two when traveling. I actually lost a whopping two kilos my first time in Peru out of not eating for being too busy exploring the amazing place; and eating rotten tacos in Mexico has also proved to be an efficient way of not gaining any weight – but I do recommend to make sure that you have a private room with a private bathroom for at least two days after that.

My overall policy is to relax and enjoy my trip: I travel to have a good time, so I can see no reason to be as tough on myself as I would be on a daily basis.

The fabulous blogging couple Nomadic Boys, on the other hand, know how to keep fit when traveling.

Do you gain weight when you travel? How do you justify that?

The day I fell in love with Nicaragua

The day I fell in love with Nicaragua

I really did not have great expectations on Nicaragua. I hardly knew anybody who had been there before me, and those few persons were not particularly enthusiastic about it. For whatever reason, I had the impression it was a characterless country. I remember asking them: “Was Nicaragua cool?” And their answer was: “It is not really that great”. I certainly did not mean it to be the highlight of my backpacking trip through Central America. But it turned out to be.

The beaches near San Juan del Sur are gorgeous - photo courtesy of Alessandro Abis

The beaches near San Juan del Sur are gorgeous – photo courtesy of Alessandro Abis

Truth be told, before visiting Nicaragua I did not know much about it. My knowledge was limited to the fact that it is the second poorest country in the Americas and that it had once been under the influence of the United States, that got seriously involved with it to the point of being sued to the International Court of Justice for breaking its obligations under customary international law. Even though I used to be a human rights lawyer, I knew nothing about its current political situation and its human rights issues.

So, when I arrived in Nicaragua, I figured all there was to do there would be going to some beach, try to surf if I had the guts to do so, and just chill out till I continued on to Costa Rica. Soon enough, my plans were all cancelled and I had to reconsider all my misconceptions. I fell in love with Nicaragua on a long lasting affair that has brought me to visit it two more times after my first one, and to hope I can go again.

Isla de Ometepe, volcano Maderas

Isla de Ometepe, volcano Maderas

Yes, I had a really good time in Nicaragua. I found the country to be incredible: gorgeous beaches, beautiful colonial cities, lakes and volcanoes, diverse wildlife and all of this at unbeatable prices. I managed to do so many things in Nicaragua, that I had never done before – such as volcano boarding. But most of all, I fell in love with its history of resistance and revolution, and with its proud people, who chin up and never give up despite all the difficulties that life presents them with and always have a smile on their face. Yes: for as poor as Nicaragua is, I found its people to be happy. And that happiness was contagious. It made me reconsider many aspects of my life, and put back into the right perspective what I thought were some majour problems I was facing.

Las Isletas, Nicaragua

Life is simple and fulfilling in Nicaragua

I happened to be in Balgüe, the most rural village on Ometepe Island, on Christmas day. I had arrived there the night before, and my Christmas eve had been a very low key dinner at the hostel. I have never been a big fan of Christmas, you see. I just can’t stand all the frenzy: people going crazy with the preparations; all the traffic due to shoppers who rush out to get the ultimate useless gadget to put under the Christmas tree; and the long, unbearable meals with the family and relatives. To me, it was just such a waste of time and money.

Things to do in Nicaragua

Lovely locals in Nicaragua – photo courtesy of George Kenyon

Then, I just ended up spending Christmas (well, part of it) with a random family in Balgüe. I had gone out that day for a walk in the village (no more than a few houses along the main road), and got caught in a thunderstorm. It was pouring, I had no umbrella, and the hostel was a good hike away – it would take me a good 45 minutes under the incessant rain, on an uphill path in the forest to get to the secluded Finca Magdalena. As the rain was getting stronger, I started running to find some shelter. I literally walked in the first place I found – and this happened to be a private house, where people were gathered on a covered patio and played guitars and sang along to celebrate Christmas.

I enjoy perfect sunsets when I travel alone

The wild beach of Poneloya

All I did was open the gate, wave my hand and say: “Feliz Navidad!” That’s when I realised that I was standing in someone’s house. In any other place on earth, the owners would have called the police, chased me out, yelled at me. Here, they just stared blankly at me, surprised at first, then handed me a chair so I could join the celebrations. It was a modest house, really: a bare clay pavement inside and out, no more than 2 rooms; children, dogs and chickens all running about, inside and outside. I doubt they had potable water. And I am sure they did not have any fast internet connection, a flat screen tv, a luxurious shower and any of the commodities that we seem to can’t live without at home. I doubt they had had an endless meal to celebrate their Christmas. Yet, they looked happy and they surely seemed to be having a great time in their celebrations, much more than I would do at home when eating the best delicacies that one could find on the table.

Nicaragua - photo courtesy of George Kenyon

Nicaragua – photo courtesy of George Kenyon

How could these people be so happy, even though they were so poor? I finally understood: they had each other; they could count on one another. And more than anything else, they did not fall into the materialism trap: they did not have an insatiable desire to own things, thinking that they would finally feel happy once they managed to get their hands on the latest gadget – be it a smart phone, a new pair of shoes, or a flat screen tv. And since they were not materialistic, they did not turn into selfish and excessively competitive human beings who felt envy for anybody who owned more than they did, including the stranger who had just walked through their gate; they had not lost faith in the human race, thinking that they could not trust anybody.

I am sure that they faced difficult times – times in which they wished for an easier life, for more comforts and simply a bit more money. But this did not turn them into cynical, sour and cunning people who would try to take advantage of others to make whatever little extra that may make their lives a bit easier. It was quite the opposite: they embraced life, and whatever it brought them, in a hopeful way and with a smile on their face. That very smile that had disappeared from mine, because regardless of how lucky I may be, I felt overwhelmed to make money and buy things so to prove others and – most of all – myself that I was really accomplished.

These people helped me put my life back into perspective. They helped me understand what really counts for me. Sure, there have been many times in which I wished I had more money to buy things that I feel I need in order to have a better life: a new laptop that performs better; a smartphone that doesn’t freeze any time someone calls me; a pretty dress to wear at a party. But owning things will never make me feel accomplished, because things perish, they get old, they become useless. What I am truly happy for is that I have a mother that still comes with me when I have a doctor’s appointment and I am terrified of what may happen to me; a father that thinks I am a hero because I can swim really well; and a sister that values spending time with me and is the best friend I could hope for. And I have a few, close friends that support me, whatever crazy thing I do – including jumping off a 12 meter cliff.

I am quite sure that lovely family in Nicaragua forgot about me. I don’t mind. I never even asked for their names, but I will never forget their smiles, their singing, and I will never stop thanking them for teaching me what really matters in life.

Today, when people ask me if Nicaragua is a good place to visit, I say it is – the most underrated country in Central America is gorgeous and its people are truly amazing.

Have you been to Nicaragua? Do you love it as much as I do?