Philosophy in 7 Sentences by Douglas Groothuis

 

[3 minute read]

Final Verdict – 3/5 – Light read and decent introductory text

We are exposed to philosophy on a daily basis – a quote overheard at a cocktail party, a moving soliloquy in a movie, a friend’s insightful opinion, or simply when lying in bed and pondering on the purpose of your life.  Philosophical thinking is all around us, is unavoidable, and impacts us profoundly.  During times of strife or when confronted with a challenging issue we can either give in or search for answers using logic and reasoning.  This is philosophy at its best – helping us act in a way which hopefully betters our present situation.  The etymological origins of the word ‘philosophy’ come from Greek roots where ‘philo’ means love and ‘sophos’ means wisdom.  Philosophy is literally the love of wisdom.  Ergo, only a fool can dislike philosophy.

A more clinical definition of philosophy is “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.”  Wow.  That’s a pretty broad scope of study!  I would like to add some more flavourful context to this definition and take it one step further.  You see, I view philosophy as sitting at the top of the knowledge or human consciousness pyramid.  Under philosophy comes science, theology and all the other branches of knowledge.  Why?  Refer to the definition again.  Literally everything can fall under the domain of philosophy.  That’s what I love about it – we’re all philosophers in some way (whether practical or theoretical).  Anyway, that’s just my philosophy.  Get the jist?

So if philosophy is a practical and ubiquitous subject matter which is ever-present in everything we do then why bother to read about it and where does the book “Philosophy in 7 Sentences” come into play?  Well, to answer the first question – philosophical thought is by its very nature open-ended so I would argue that the journey into it is more important than the destination (which is almost always unknown).  This short, easy-to-read, introductory book contains a solid selection of quotes from well-known philosophers, their personal biographies, as well as Groothuis’ breakdown and discussion of the quotes.  Speaking of whom, Douglas Groothuis is a professor of philosophy in the USA and is also a Christian – which lends an interesting (and very light) theological flavour to his discussions.

His book is essentially a great diving board into philosophy for those – such as myself – who are beginners when it comes to structured philosophical thought and don’t necessarily want to jump into a book which is ominously difficult or time-consuming.  My favourite of the seven quotes in this book is by Blaise Pascal – “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”  I like it because it explains so much of the folly which we persist engaging in as fallible human beings (love, investing, big decisions in life).  Let me know which is your favourite quote and why.

Haiti is Open for Tourism!

[7 minute read]

Before continuing I want you to take note of the first thing which comes to mind when you think of Haiti.

Did images of palm-lined Caribbean beaches come to mind?  Perhaps you thought of the friendly locals of African descent who call it home?  Perchance you visualized a mysterious voodoo ceremony?  Or maybe the Creole language – part French, part African – stirred some memory?  Did you consider the tourism and business potential of this largely undeveloped yet aspirational nation?

I am willing to bet that you thought of none of that stuff.  You see, it’s only every so often that we hear about this small island nation in the news.  And it’s always when something has gone terribly wrong.  Natural disasters – earthquakes, cyclones, and floods.  Poverty.  Thousands dead.  Diseases spreading.  Cholera.  Malaria.  Displaced peoples, homeless, jobless, and hopeless.  Children without parents.  Food shortages.  No clean water.  Desperately in need of your help and donations.  We have been conditioned to view this poor nation with sympathy towards their (immense) current problems and apathy to everything else: their history, culture, language, politics, and – most importantly – tourism.  Yes, tourism.  But more on that later on.  You see, the media and international aid organisations have basically relegated the entire country to a permanent humanitarian disaster with no apparent solution in sight.  It sure makes it sound like a risky and dangerous place to visit, right?

 

Well, I won’t blame you if that’s what you thought.  Because I had the exact same worries before I just said ‘fuck it’ and decided to put Haiti on my itinerary.

 

Here I’m exploring the Citadelle Laferrière which is a stunning and unexpected sight in northern Haiti, located on top of the mountain Bonnet a L’Eveque, approximately 27 km south of the city of Cap-Haïtien
My local guide, Edlin Florvil (blue top), is showing me around the bustling markets of Cap-Haïtien
Enjoying a beer with Joanie Lefebvre in one a sea-side restaurant in the southern town of Jacmel
Boiling a chopped-up Jackfruit with a local girl from an orphanage in the town of Jacmel

 

Now, some of Haiti’s early history for more context:

The Caribbean island of Hispaniola (100 km east of Cuba) was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492.  The following year Spanish settlement began which notably included the introduction of sugar cane and the enslavement of the indigenous Taino peoples.  In 1496 Santo Domingo was founded (the capital city of present-day Dominican Republic) which was the first permanent European settlement in the Americas.  By 1517 it is believed that only 14,000 of the indigenous Taino peoples remained (down from approximately 750,000).  As the local labour population dwindled, African slaves were brought in to keep up the production of cane molasses and sugar.  A 1574 census counted 1,000 Spaniards and 12,000 African slaves on Hispaniola.

 

It was in 1665 that French colonization of the island officially began (having unofficially begun several decades earlier by French buccaneers).  This was roughly around the time when Spain was busy reaping the bloody rewards of their successful conquests of the Americas – such as gold, silver, sugar, cocoa, and tobacco.  As such, Spain’s interests in Hispaniola were waning and so they officially ceded the western third of the island to the French in the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick.  The French part of the island was promptly named Saint-Domingue, after the Spanish side’s Santo Domingo.  Over the next century or so the French continued with the proven and highly lucrative business of importing African slaves in order to increase sugar exports to Europe.  Then, in 1791, inspired by the recent French revolution of 1789, the plantation slaves organised a resistance movement which eventually succeeded by them gaining unofficial independence from the French on January 1st, 1804.

 

As one can imagine, the French did not take this significant and embarrassing loss lightly.  In addition, Haiti’s neighbours in the USA did not look upon their emancipation favourably as it greatly threatened the status quo of their domestic slave economy.  If Haiti wanted to keep its independence it would be made to pay for it – with blood or with debt.  As it turned out, in July 1825, the president of France agreed to a treaty with Haiti which would make their independence official.  The terms of the treaty were finalised at 150 million francs – during which time Haiti was surrounded by French naval ships threatening invasion if negotiations did not go the right way.  This great debt burden as well as the alienation from neighbouring economies would keep Haiti’s own economy from developing for the next century. Despite this, what the Haitians had achieved in their freedom was unprecedented in modern history and is to be lauded.

 

End of history lesson (check out the more modern history – it’s pretty wild).

 

In June 2016 I crossed the border into Haiti by bus from the Dominican Republic side – very much against the well-intentioned but mal-informed advice given to me from locals I met in the DR.  You see, the Dominicans who were telling me I’d get mugged (or worse) had never actually stepped foot in Haiti before.  Regardless of this, I still had the prudence to keep my plans secret from my parents who would have undoubtedly worried unnecessarily.  I spent the next week exploring Haiti by first starting in Cap-Haïtien, going down to Jacmel, and finishing in the capital Port-Au-Prince.  Yes, I witnessed a lot of poverty, trash, and general listlessness but I also saw the beauty of its nature and the industriousness and generosity of its people.  And yes, I definitely experienced discomfort in the sub-par accommodations and while travelling by bus but the overall cultural experiences far outweighed those minor incidents.  There are two sides to every coin and you will never fully experience that unless you go to a place to see it for yourself.  Plain and simple.  So as it turned out the naysayers were totally wrong.  Nothing bad happened to me and in fact I had a great time.  The weather was great, the food was cheap, there were many things to see, and the culture was fascinating.

 

This beautiful natural pool called Bassin Bleu is a short 2-3 hour hike from Jacmel. It was well worth the views on the way back down to the town.
Enjoying a local Prestige beer (there is only a single brand in Haiti) with my Air bnb hosts / guides from Cap-Haïtien – Edlin and Joz
Cap-Haïtien street markets. Fresh, cheap, and delicious fruits and vegetables are on sale every day.
I was shown around Port-Au-Prince by the industrious Clemson Saint-fleur who was my Couchsurfing host and de-facto guide.

 

While there I definitely saw the potential in developing a local tourism business to cater to foreigners due to the lack of readily available services and basic information.  In fact, I see tourism as one of the best ways that locals can take matters into their own hands to combat unemployment, lack of opportunities, and the overall low standards of living.  As mentioned at the start of this article, many tourists visiting the Caribbean region (e.g. Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica) have strong misconceptions about Haiti and so simply decide to exclude it from their itineraries as it appears to be too dangerous or difficult to visit.  My initial impressions were not dissimilar.  In my case I just decided to ‘wing it’ and do a self-guided tour which turned out to be awesome as you can see from the above photos.  My Couch Surfing host from Port-Au-Prince, Clemson Saint-fleur, was a great guide around his local area and is now working to boost tourism to his home country through his organisation, Nomad Ayiti.  If some of the above history or photos piqued your interest and you’re considering adding Haiti to your to-visit list in the near future then I can highly recommend that you contact Nomad Ayiti and see how they can make your stay more enriching and pleasant, catered to your needs.

Likewise, feel free to contact me with any questions you have.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

[5 minute read]

Final Verdict – 5/5 – Must read

Much has been written on the perennial question, “What is the meaning of life?”  What makes this book by Viktor Frankl such a unique and rich addition to the existing discourse are the tragic circumstances which enabled its creation.  Frankl was an accomplished Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who had a successful track record of treating patients with suicidal tendencies.  In 1937, at age 32, Frankl opened his own practice in Vienna.  As such, he would have had intimate knowledge and extensive experience with how people grappled with issues relating to (lack of) happiness and success in their troubled lives.

But first, some more background behind the events which led to the creation of this book.  In September 1942 Frankl, his wife, and parents were all transported to Nazi Theresienstadt Ghetto.  In October 1944 Frankl and his wife were then transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Only a week after their arrival, Frankl was removed to the Kaufering camp where he spent five months working as a labourer.  He was then moved to the Yurkheim camp where he worked as a physician until his liberation in May 1945 by US soldiers.  Upon his release Frankl discovered that he was the only survivor.  Shortly thereafter he wrote and published Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946.

The book is split into two short, easy-to-read parts.  The first deals with Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps while the second outlines his psychiatric treatment methodology which he calls ‘logotherapy.’  I was greatly impressed by Frankl’s practical, humble, and clear writing style which conveyed his experiences in a touching and impactful manner.  I honestly couldn’t put the first part of the book down.  It is here that Frankl dispenses generous servings of wisdom on the matter of the meaning of life as seen through his real experiences of being a prisoner.  I’ve never seen such poignant observations of the human condition before.  The second part of the book is also worth mentioning.  It is here that Frankl breaks down a solutions-focused psychiatric approach to mental healing rather than the traditional problem-focused approach.  There are some fantastic and practical take-aways from this part of the book for those suffering from bad habits and seemingly hopeless frames of mind which are holding them back.

By writing Man’s Search for Meaning I believe that Frankl performed a sort of self-diagnosis of his indescribably horrific experiences – his personal way of coming to terms with what happened in Nazi Germany.  He recounts the terrors he was subjected to in a detached and surgical manner, almost as if seeing them through that mental haze which blocks consciousness from memories which are best left forgotten.  It really blew me away that even under the permanent conditions of suffering inside the concentration camps that the one freedom the prisoners had was how they chose to react to their situation.  Frankl emphasized that this freedom could never be taken away from us as individuals.

Personally, the most amazing insight this little book gifted me was that it put into words what I should have realized all along regarding happiness.  Hint: it is very true but not apparent at all.  Namely, that happiness simply ensues.  What’s more is that it can ensue even under the most unimaginably harsh and brutal living conditions as those he faced in the concentration camps.  As Frankl explained in his book, the prisoners which were consciously on the path towards greater meaning and understanding in their lives – despite and because of the tremendous suffering they were going through – were the ones who were most likely to survive the ordeal.  So don’t go about chasing happiness because you can never possibly find it.  Rather, it will find you through the meaning you have chosen to assign to your life.

The Four Little Toucans

[3 minute read]

 

It was 5:45am when my phone alarm went off.  I woke up feeling refreshed, well-rested and with absolutely no idea what day of the week it was.  What’s more, it felt so good and so right that I had no desire or care in the world to know what day it was.  It simply didn’t matter.  That’s how tranquil the place was.  That’s how deep in ‘the zone’ I was.

A few minutes later and I was up.  The sun had already begun its slow ascent over the fields of bananas, plantains, and coffee at Finca Siempre Verde, bathing them in the coming glow of daylight.  Located in the southern mountains of Costa Rica this family-run organic farm was remote and exactly what I needed after 3 months on the road as a backpacker.  They had no Wi-Fi, no television, and very limited phone coverage.  While some people might baulk at this, I absolutely loved it.

The road leading to the finca

Every day I would help out for roughly 5 hours around the property and in return would receive three hearty, organic, and delicious meals from Jenny as well as a warm bed for the night.  Replanting crops, cooking with Yuca, conducting my first Yoga class with the other volunteers, constructing and lacquering picture frames with Marcos, as well as building a mosaic were some of the activities I helped out with during my stay.  And all of this in just a short week!

Learning how to make Yuca-patties. Delish!

I had woken up extra-early that day in order to go for a jog before breakfast and commencing the day’s activities.  But before I could run nature called.  So I made the obligatory stop at the compostable toilet.  Sitting down on the wooden throne I was rewarded with an uninterrupted view of the forest right before me.  As I did my business I wasn’t aware that I was about to experience one of the most special moments of my trip.  Pardon the pun, but nature called again.

This time, it came in the form of four small Toucans which all flew into the frame I was quietly contemplating.  They perched on the branches of the tree which was right in front of me, both surprising and delighting me in equal measure.  It was my first ever wild Toucan sighting!  And at such close proximity I was simply left gobsmacked.  They must not have noticed my stinky silhouette sitting on the loo because for the following ten minutes they continued to jump around, socialize and enjoy the first rays of daylight before literally nose-diving and gliding serenely away.

The entire time I was fully entranced by their totally natural behaviour.  I had a massive grin across my face and my eyes must have grown and sparkled with amazement like in the Japanese cartoons.  I didn’t even dare to wipe my bum during the special spectacle out of fear of revealing myself and ruining the moment.  A little later, after jogging down the dirt road and up the grassy hill near the farm, accompanied by Marcos and Jenny’s crazy but gorgeous dog as my only companion I felt a deep love for nature and all its mysterious wonders.

Sunset over Cangrejo National Park and Finca Siempre Verde

I had come into this volunteering experience seeking to simply recharge my batteries before the next round of rapid backpacking but left with so much more.  And it was from sources I could have never expected.  Maybe that is what is at the heart of a good adventure.

Essential Travelling Phrases in 3 Easy Steps (Spanish Edition)

[5 minute read]

Don’t be a donkey! Learn to speak some basics! (Salkantay Trek, Peru)

 

If you’re planning to travel in a foreign-language country any time soon then this article is for you.  I’ve used Spanish here but you can re-create the tables below with the language(s) of interest to you.

Step 1. Learn the following key phrases:

1 Where is…? / At what time is it? Dónde está…? / A qué hora es?
2 How much does it cost? / How much is it? Cuánto cuesta? / Cuánto es?
3 Thank you / You’re welcome Gracias / De nada
4 I would like this / that Me gustería esto / eso
5 The bill (at restaurant) La cuenta
6 Please / Yes / No Por favour / Sí / No
7 Hello / Goodbye Hola / Ciao or Adiós
8 How are you? / How’s it going? Como estás? / Qué tal?
9 I’m from Australia Soy de Australia
10 I’m going to… Voy a…
11 I don’t speak Spanish / Do you speak English? No hablo español / Hablas Ingles?
12 I’m sorry / Excuse me (to get attention) / Pardon me Lo siento / Disculpe / Perdón

Step 2. Learn these 3 key verbs and their 3 basic tenses:

Verb

English – Spanish

Present Tense

 

Past Tense

 

Future Tense
To be (PLACE – Position, Location, Actions, Conditions, Emotions)   Estar Estoy – I am

Estás – You are

Está – He/She/It is

Estamos – We are

Están – They are

Estuve – I was

Estuviste – You were

Estuvo – He/She/It was

Estuvimos – We were

Estuvieron – They were

Estaré – I will be

Estarás – You will be

Estará – He/She/It will be

Estaremos – We will be

Estarán – They will be

To be (DOCTOR – Descriptions, Occupations, Characteristics, Time, Origin, Relationship) Ser Soy – I am

Eres – You are

Es – He/She/It is

Somos – We are

Son – They are

Fui – I was

Fuiste – You were

Fue – He/She/It was

Fuimos – We were

Fueron – They were

Seré – I will be

Serás – You will be

Será – He/She/It will be

Seremos – We will be

Serán – They will be

To go – Ir Voy – I go, I am going

Vas – You are going

Va – He/She/It goes

Vamos – We are going

Van – They are going

Fui – I went

Fuiste – You went

Fue – He/She/It went

Fuimos – We went

Fueron – They went

Iré – I will go

Irás – You will go

Irá – He/She/It will go

Iremos – We will go

Irán – They will go

Step 3. Motivation is key!

But why should you even bother to learn all of the above?

Most people overseas can speak English, right?

Being able to speak even a smattering of a foreign language can do wonders for your overall travel experience.  You will get more smiles, positive responses, better deals, experiences, and respect from locals than you would otherwise.  This is a virtuous cycle which should enthuse you to learn more and more.  And with absolutely zero downside to knowing a foreign language – apart from having to exert a bit of mental effort – why not give it a go before your next trip?  You’ll be amazed at the doors it will unlock.

Further Recommendations:

So you’ve made it past the 3 steps and are keen to learn more of the language?  Fantastic!

Here are some more ideas and resources which have helped me (besides having conversations, which is the best way to learn!):

  • Duolingo (Excellent app; Requires Wi-Fi connection)
  • Dictionary (Preferably offline app or e-book)
  • Verb tables (Preferably offline app or e-book)
  • Songs (Sing along to your favourites by checking the lyrics)
  • Manual translations (Anything at all! Just pick a sentence and translate it to English)
  • Movies (Watch a foreign film with English subtitles)
  • Children’s novels (Pick one and attempt to read it – translate it on the fly as best you can)
  • Video games (Play it in the foreign language – it will force you to learn it)
  • Most importantly, adopt a mindset where you DO NOT FEAR making mistakes! Trust me, you will make many mistakes when first applying what you (assumed you) learned perfectly.

Buena suerte, amigos!

Backpacker’s Guide to Packing Your Backpack

[5 minute read]

View of Volcan Fuego from Volcan Acatenango (27th July, 2016)

If you’re stuck wondering what to pack for your upcoming trip around the world then this short guide will give you a good starting point (you can thank me later when it helps you out).  Remember, this is only a basic guide and does not cover specialised trips (such as mountaineering, bouldering, surfing, bicycling, or extended camping expeditions).  Either way it should give you some new ideas.

Let’s begin by viewing our main backpacks as being made up of eight compartments.  Each one serves a critical purpose which should not be overlooked.

TOP OF BACKPACK
No. Compartment Main Purpose Sum 100%
1 Empty space Things you pick up on the way, gifts, etc. 15%
2 Tupperware, cutlery Store food for day trips, left-overs, etc. 5%
3 Socks, underwear, bras, towel About 7-10 days’ worth of clothing is recommended 15%
4 Shirts, skirts, shorts, pants About 7-10 days’ worth of clothing is recommended 20%
5 Activity clothes Rain-jacket, sun-proof clothes, swim-wear, etc. 20%
6 Fancy clothes Dress, collared shirt, pants, etc. 10%
7 Toiletries, cosmetics Toothbrush, floss, hairbrush, nail-clippers, etc. 5%
8 2nd pair of shoes, flip flops Hiking shoes, joggers, going-out shoes, etc. 10%
BOTTOM OF BACKPACK

The main body of the backpack which comprises over half of the available space should be for your clothing (i.e. Compartments 3, 4, 5, and 6).  The rest is for important ancillary items including the recommendation to leave about 15% as empty space (trust me).  After your first packing attempt if your backpack is bulging, full or does not contain the recommended empty space then I highly recommend you pull and lay everything out and make some sacrifices.

Sacrifice questions:

  • Am I only travelling during summer? If yes, then why am I bringing that nice jacket, sweater, pants, and all those socks (i.e. will I realistically ever use them)?
  • Will I be travelling during winter? If yes, then can I substitute some of those thick sweaters, jackets, and pants for thinner and lighter undergarments such as thermals?
  • Will I be doing serious hiking or going out to many nice venues? If no and no then you can leave behind those heavy hiking boots and fancy dress shoes, for starters.
  • Will I be cooking or eating out most of the time? If you’re not big on eating healthy – which is ultimately what this comes down to, in my opinion – then you won’t need Compartment 2 (besides, it’s very easy to pick this stuff up on the road when you will eventually start cooking your own delicious, tasty and healthy food – trust me on this J).

Now, you may have noticed that I’ve left out one very critical item from the backpack – the medicine bag!  Your medicine bag should contain aspirin, pain-relief, and cold-&-flu tablets, band aids, disinfectant, wraps, bandages, and any other special medications you may require.

Why did I leave it out?  Simply because I believe it belongs in your day-pack, not your backpack.

This time we’ll view the day-pack as being made up of 4 compartments.

TOP OF DAY-PACK
No. Compartment Main Purpose Sum 100%
1 Empty space For your jacket, hat, gloves, packed lunch, etc. 50%
2 Miscellaneous Passport, spare cash, sunglasses, drink bottle etc. 10%
3 Electronics Laptops, tablets, cables, chargers, etc. 25%
4 Medicine Bag Must be in the day-pack for cases of emergencies 15%
BOTTOM OF DAY-PACK

Your electronics, valuables, and medicine bag should be in your day-pack because it should always be by your side.  Remember that your main backpack is going to get thrown around and beaten up during transit and will not be with you all the time.  When going on day trips, you can simply leave your electronics and valuables in a locker in your hostel room (or bring them with you if you don’t feel comfortable with the level of security in the hostel).

Final recommendations:

  • Choose a backpack which will reflect the type of trip you’ll be doing. If you’re going trekking and will be doing a lot of camping then you’ll need a technical backpack with enough straps and trappings from which to secure your tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, and walking poles on the outside of the pack;
  • Remember to buy a waterproof backpack cover if you expect rain on your trip. This cover also helps keep your backpack clean and in one piece from all the wear and tear it will experience during transit (but check the durability of the material before doing this);
  • All of the recommendations in the article can be applied to any size backpack (50L right up to the 100L+ technical packs). Personally I would not recommend going below a 50L backpack unless you have trouble carrying heavy weights or just like going lean and mean;

I really hope this has been helpful and I’m excited for your upcoming trip!

Ten Travel Tips for the Thrifty Traveller

[20 minute read]

 The philosophies behind travel and thrift need not be at odds with each other.  To use some (perhaps exaggerated) examples, being a money-conscious traveller does not mean you’ll need to:

  • Sleep in 20-bed dorms, camp out, or Couchsurf every single night;
  • Eat 2-minute noodles, drink instant coffee, or skip lunch every day;
  • Busk for money on the streets with a ukulele, juggling, or doing backflips;
  • Only take the cheapest buses, do self-guided tours, or visit the free attractions;
  • Avoid quality restaurants, drinking at fancy bars, or smoking the odd Cuban cigar.

Many of the above-mentioned ideas will certainly appeal to some travellers.  However, many others will shudder to even seriously consider some of them.  Whichever camp you’re in I am not asking you to completely change.  Rather, the key take-away has to do with having a willingness to be flexible from time to time.  Even if you are a ‘higher-class’ kind of traveller don’t completely rule out the value of cultural experiences such as Couchsurfing, taking Chicken* buses, or eating from local street vendors.

*A really cheap and fun way to get around Central America

Remember that nobody ever lists ‘travel’ as a strategy under their savings plan.  Saving money is what you’re supposed to do while at home.  When travelling you will spend money.  How much you are willing to spend, and what you expect to get for it, are the critical questions you need to ask before and during your travels.

Now that we’ve discussed the crucial difference between travel thriftiness (getting the experiences you want for less while not sacrificing your standards) and outright saving, let’s jump into the list of ideas.

(1) Destination Flexibility

This is the very first question you should ask yourself.  Which region will give me better value for money – Scandinavia or South-East Asia?  Which country would I prefer my wallet to get into the ring with – Thailand or Switzerland?  For the thrifty traveller the answers are obvious.  For those with their hearts already set on a particular destination – keep on reading!

(2) Departure Flexibility

Check when the cheapest return (or one-way) flights are available before lodging that request for vacation (or resignation letter) to your boss.  I have found the ‘monthly fare view’ on Skyscanner.com absolutely fantastic for identifying the cheapest dates to fly.  If you’re not sure of your destination but have a region in mind (such as South America) I have found the ‘map fare view’ on Kayak.com really useful as a starting point.

Bonus Thrift Points: Combining the above two methods forms a solid base for your thrifty trip but it’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for last-minute deals and specials on packaged trips.

(3) Don’t Neglect The Basics

There are two sides to the thrift equation.  One has to do with finding the best ‘bang for your buck’.  The other has to do with proper preparation to avoid costly mistakes and uncomfortable situations.

(a) Passport and money card expiration dates

Many countries will not allow you to enter if your passport has less than 6 months remaining until it expires.  Furthermore, your government does not care that you have a flight to catch in 2 days’ time – it will charge you very dearly for a new, expedited passport.  And if you find yourself half-way around the world with an expired credit card you might just be in a spot of trouble.  Check expiration dates well in advance!

(b) Adequate time for vaccinations

Some vaccinations – such as the one for Cholera – require a return trip to the doctor for the second injection a week after the first.  Leaving your vaccinations until the very last moment may mean missing some (or all!) of them or paying for injections you don’t really need due to inadequate time to do your own research.  Also, if you don’t have your proof of vaccination certificate with you certain countries can deny you entry at the border – including your home country upon your return!  Not to mention the possibility of catching a deadly disease you could have prevented.

(c) Multiple sources of funds

Relying on a single source for all of your monetary needs during your trip – such as a debit card – is a foolish move for a multitude of reasons: potential loss, breakage, expiration, security-based limitations, theft, or incompatibility with local merchants.  The solution is simple: the best card you can get your hands on (i.e. zero account fees, zero foreign transaction / exchange fees, and zero ATM cash advance / withdrawal fees) will be your primary card.  If it happens to be a VISA-branded card then your secondary card should be a MasterCard and should be stored in your main bag (not in your wallet!).  In addition, having a cash reserve of about $200 US dollars for emergencies and special situations is a smart move (make sure to have plenty of small denominations in $1’s and $5’s, not just $20 bills!).

(d) Tourist Visas and Entry Requirements

It goes without saying that thorough research and preparation will help avoid massive embarrassment, disappointment and stress at airports and borders.  Trust me, I’ve been there.  Some countries require you to purchase a Tourist Visa at their border with absolutely perfect, fresh US dollar bills.  Others require prior online payment and the presentation of a printed receipt.  Others will need a blank page in your passport well ahead of your departure date to stick your Tourist Visa inside.  Certain border agents will interrogate you, give you a hard time, and might require proof of funds, employment, or vaccination.  Others will let you in with barely a single question.  Do your own up-to-date research as rules, prices, stay durations, and penalties change often and without notice!

(e) Travel Insurance

If you can’t afford it then you can’t afford to travel!  Did you know that some employers include travel insurance as a perk for their employees or might offer you a discounted rate?  If you’re a student you should check with your university or their travel company to see if they have any special offers.  Also, some credit cards come with conditions which may make you eligible for ‘free’ travel insurance if you purchase your flights with that credit card.  If you have exhausted these options and need to purchase travel insurance online, make sure you carefully read the medical section (which is ultimately the only thing that really matters!).  You may be surprised to learn precisely under what conditions the insurance company will and will not cover you.

(f) Proof of exit at entry

Yeah, this one really sucks big time.  And yet the fact is that certain countries will deny you entry at their border if you cannot provide proof of an exit ticket (or return ticket to your home country).  This point can cause many problems for long-term, open-itinerary travellers such as backpackers who don’t know where they’ll be tomorrow let alone when and how they’ll exit the country.  One way of getting around it is to create and print off a fake exit ticket (at your own risk).  The other way is usually to buy the cheapest online bus ticket you can find out of the country and present that to border agents.  Do your research on this and good luck!

(4) Off Season

Going in the off season is a fantastic strategy to visit the really popular destinations for a decent discount.  You can find off-season deal hunters snowboarding in the slush, hiking through 100 km/hr winds, surfing in freezing conditions, and perhaps enjoying a beer in Munich when it’s not Oktoberfest.  In some places it certainly makes sense to do this while in others the savings may not make up for the crappy experience.  It all comes down to you!

(5) Does it Take Two to Tango?

Many articles have been written and opinions shared on the merits and downsides to travelling in a group.  Usually the bottom line is: significant differences in tastes, preferences, and expectations = NOT GOOD for everyone’s overall experience.  The thrifty part of this equation has the same conclusion: significant differences in budgets, spending habits, and standards = NOT GOOD for everyone’s overall experience (and certain people’s bank accounts).  A detailed discussion with your travel bud(s) needs to be had well before committing to travelling in a group.

(6) Accommodation Options

(a) Hotel, Hostel, Bed & Breakfast, or Air B&B?

Whichever one you prefer, silly!  Many travellers forget that all of these paid accommodation options share one thing in common: they all have a bed and a bathroom.  The key question which the thrifty traveller remembers to ask is: “do I expect that a doubling of the price will result in a doubling of my enjoyment and experience?”  Often the answer will be a “no” and so the best-value option should always be selected from the bunch.

(b) Couchsurfing.com

It is difficult to define the Couchsurfing community but if you join up and try it you will meet a lot of warm and open-minded people who share common interests of travelling, cultural exchange, and who often speak or are learning a foreign language.  Of course, it goes without saying that thriftiness is a big part of the Couchsurfing ethos.

(c) Camping & Hammocks

This option is not only for nature lovers or adventurers as camp sites can be found in big cities and certain hostels are hammock-friendly.  In the long term a good tent and an appropriate sleeping bag will pay itself off many times over.  As such, the most important question the thrifty traveller should ask is whether they will actually use their camping gear or hammock often enough on their trip to make it economically (and effort-wise carrying it around everywhere!) worthwhile.  If you’re not sure why would you consider buying one?  My advice if you’re in this boat is to first gain experience with different tent models and sleeping bags by renting them so that you can make an informed decision when and if you decide to buy your own.

(d) Vehicles

Campervans, mini-buses, station wagons, and vans are a popular way to do long-term travel with your accommodation.  This awesome option is not just for retirees and remote-location explorers but should be embraced by thrifty travellers of all ages and budgets.  Having like-minded friends along for the ride can be incredibly fun and a cheap solution – per person – to travelling through expensive countries (such as Australia, USA, Norway, Sweden, and Canada).

(e) Exotic Options

Did you know that you can sleep in monasteries?  Or that farmers can allow you to camp on their property (and might even throw in a free meal)?  Did you know that some people are travelling the world on a yacht?  Doing some research on this can certainly yield some interesting possibilities for those who are daring.

Bonus Thrift Points: Install the most popular accommodation booking apps on your smart phone and scour them for the best deals.  Keep in mind though that these booking companies act like ‘middle-men’ and often add on fees of 10-20% per night for the convenience of booking ahead.  For the more money conscious, calling or emailing a place directly or even walking around and asking for prices at receptions can yield some fantastic places to sleep at great prices.  Just remember: when bargaining for the price of a room at 10 AM you have a lot of power.  But by 10 PM it’s far too late for this strategy to work.

(7) Transportation Tips

(a) Offline Maps & Your Smartphone’s GPS

Did you know that your smartphone’s GPS system works without a SIM card and without a network to connect to?  Did you know that even if you put your smartphone on flight mode and on power saving mode your GPS will still work?  Install a reliable offline map on your phone before you leave.  MAPS.ME and Google Offline Maps are good options.  Take the time to zoom into your next destination and put flags down on the map for your accommodation, bus station, and places of interest.

Bonus Thrift Points: If you can walk to where you’re going then just do it!  Sitting at home and reading this you might scoff and say, “Yeah right buddy, that’s a sure way to get mugged!”  I disagree.  I walked everywhere around Haiti, Honduras, and Colombia without incident.  Just be careful, cautious, and confident and you’ll be fine.  By walking around town you will also get a much better feel for the place.

(b) Uber or Taxi?

First of all, for the thrifty traveller these are always the options of last resort.  If you must take a Taxi for whatever reason (i.e. if there is no Uber) always ensure the following, where possible:

  • It is an official taxi – check for Driver ID on the dashboard;
  • Know your destination and how many kilometres to it;
  • Ask locals what they would pay for your intended trip;
  • Always negotiate the price before getting in (if there is no counter);
  • Use your GPS map to ensure that the driver is indeed going the right way and is not taking you ‘the long way round’ (if there is a counter);

(c) Bus, Boat, Train, Flight, or Rental Car?

Choosing the right option here comes down to so many factors.  The bottom line though is to do your research on which mix of options are best.  Not necessarily the cheapest, but the best for your desired experiences.  Some countries and regions offer long-term train tickets which can be very cost-effective (e.g. Japan & Eurozone).  Certain car rental companies have offices in different cities and allow you to drop off your rental car at a different location.  Doing more research on these kinds of things will enable you to determine the best – or cheapest – transportation mix.

Bonus Thrift Points: Before committing to purchase a flight always check the website of the local budget airline to see if they have an even better price if you buy it directly through them.

(d) Arriving at Airports

I cannot stress enough how important it is to do your research on where you can find cheap transportation (such as buses or the subway) from the airport into town before you board your flight.  This will give you the confidence to barrel past the taxi drivers literally trying to drag you out to their cars.  Why is this important?  Because there are many people standing around at airport kiosks whose jobs depend on them not knowing where the cheap transport options are.

(e) Online Check-In

Travelling with a budget airline?  This little peculiarity catches many new-time travellers completely unaware.  If you don’t complete your check-in online before you arrive at the physical check-in desk at the airport then you can be slammed with a fee for them to “process” your boarding pass.  Rules is rules.

(8) Loss Prevention

Nobody enjoys getting scammed out of their hard-earned dollars.  The damage goes well beyond the monetary loss.  Victims of scams and theft feel like idiots, begin to distrust everyone around them, and in some cases simply cannot enjoy themselves or relax in that particular country any longer.  Let’s dive into some of the scams you’re most likely to encounter while travelling.

(a) Those tricky taxi drivers! Ok, imagine this scenario.  You’ve just arrived to a new place and you’ve taken a taxi and you’re about to pay your driver:

  • If he tells you he doesn’t have any change to break your high-denomination bill, say a $20 USD bill (and you don’t have the exact amount to pay him), don’t give in! This is the first trick they often try on inexperienced travellers;
  • If he takes your high denomination bill and starts scrutinising it carefully, holding it to the light, and tugging on it – keep a very close eye on his hands as you’re witnessing a magic trick! After some time he will look at you sorrowfully, return it to you and inform you that you gave him a fake bill.  Of course, by the end of his antics he has your real bill in his pocket and he has just returned to you the one ‘he prepared earlier’; and
  • If he gives you change to a large bill then make sure that you very carefully check the notes he returns to you! This is the second trick they often try – giving you fake change.

(b) People asking for “donations” for ‘Charity XYZ’. Just have your wits about you and be sceptical.  Not everyone walking around asking for donations is legit;

(c) People approaching you with a smile and calling you “Amigo” or “Hey Friend” and asking to shake your hand. They will eventually ask you for money, trust me;

(d) Anyone trying to give you something for ‘free’. Common examples are bracelets, cards, palm readings, toys, vouchers, etc.  If someone tries to give you something just politely decline;

(e) Exchanging money (even in what appears to be a reputable exchange desk). Always come prepared by:

  • Knowing the latest exchange rate (Google);
  • Knowing how to tell fake bills from real ones (Google & your experience);

(f) Did someone just bump into you? Check your valuables: pick-pockets, after all, are professional thieves and they are very quick with their hands;

(g) Did someone just smear you with something sticky? It’s a diversion!  While you’re busy looking around for the culprit or cleaning yourself you will likely get pickpocketed;

(h) Did someone suspiciously faint or fall in front of you? Should you go and help them?  Yes, absolutely, but not before first checking where your valuables are and having them with you.  Rushing off to help and leaving your bag unattended is the thieves’ best case scenario;

(i) Bags on night buses. I have personally met many travellers who have had their bags stolen on night buses.  It can happen anywhere in the world.  One guy fell asleep with his locked laptop bag firmly on his lap and entwined around his arms.  No way that the thieves were stealing it, right?  Well, they managed to cut a slit in the top and took his expensive laptop right from under his nose.  Literally!

(j) Bags on day buses. Another method that thieves employ for daylight robbery is a diversion.  Someone causes a ruckus at the back of the bus and while you’re busy looking at the commotion your bag (between your feet or in the overhead space above you) mysteriously disappears;

(k) Fake agents. Always ask for a receipt from people selling you tours or tickets.  Even in official offices.  And especially ask for a receipt if you’re entering a ‘national park’ and someone not-so-official-looking is asking you to pay for entry;

(l) Knife-point or gun-point robbery. So you have a knife or something sharp pressed to your ribs or your stomach.  Or there’s a guy pointing a gun at you. What should you do?  Answer: always give the mugger what he wants!  Remember that your long-term health is much more important than short-term wealth.  As a side-note, if you find yourself in this situation it’s more than likely due to poor intuition and decision-making on your part rather than blind, dumb luck;

(9) Discounts and Bargaining

We all like to pay less for something that we need or want.  But not all of us have the confidence to bargain effectively.  First ask yourself why you believe you can’t?  Contrary to some people’s opinions on this you don’t need to be tough, rude, or belligerent in order to bargain effectively.  Here are some methods which the astute and thrifty traveller can employ right away.

(a) Student Card

This is the ultimate weapon of mass discounts!  If you have one of these then don’t forget to bring it and use it lavishly (even in places you think it might not work) because it will save you serious amounts of money.  Not a student any longer?  Not to worry!  Why not bring along your old student card and just ‘try your luck’?  If you’re comfortable pushing your moral boundaries even further then why not just have a fake card made (printed and laminated)?  Many of the workers who verify your student status often don’t care if you’re gaming the system a little;

(b) Power in Numbers

Put yourself in the position of a seller.  If you’re selling tours, souvenirs, accommodation, or [insert anything!] then there’s a serious psychological (and monetary!) difference between losing one customer versus losing many customers.  Remember, if you’re in a group then you have much more bargaining power!  Use it and try to get that 20 or 40% discount!  You’ll be surprised by how low they will go.  If they don’t budge then just stand up and walk away (… and see how quickly even “stubborn” minds can change);

Bonus Thrift Points: If you you’re not in a group or there’s only two of you then be proactive and enlist some more troops!  The likelihood of finding other travellers nearby who want to do the same things as you is very high.  You’ll not only save significant amounts of money on the more expensive tours but it’s a great way to make new friends and enjoy good company.

 (c) Can you beat their price?

This is the classic tactic of letting competitors fight it out.  It removes any feelings of guilt you might have (when bargaining) and is the most unassailable reason you can present to a seller when asking for a discount.  It goes something like this:

“Look, I’d love to buy this [tour, souvenir, etc.] off you but the [competitor so and so] is offering me the same one for $X!  I have a tight budget so if you can beat their price by 10% then I’ll buy it from you right now.”

You’ll get two responses to the above.  Let’s examine both.

Response 1)

“Hmmm… Alright, I can beat their price by 10% [or match it at the very least]!  You have a deal.” Success.

Response 2)

“Sorry but we are offering a higher degree of service and have better quality equipment and etc., etc., etc.…”

How you respond to the above really depends on whether you believe it’s true or not.

(d) Cash is King

There are two main ways in which you can use cash to get a discount.  Firstly, offering to pay in cash if they give you a discount of at least 10% (Pssst: if you want 10% then start by asking for 20%).  Secondly, by stating that you only have $X cash in your wallet and you’re not willing to spend a cent more.

Bonus Thrift Points: When applying the above bargaining tactics it is very important to be reasonable with the sellers you’re dealing with.  In a competitive and busy marketplace you’ll do very well and save money.  However, when there is only a single tour operator in the region or only one hostel with rooms left for the night it may not be such a good idea if you alienate or insult the seller.  So above all always negotiate respectfully.

(10) Back Home

Before you leave for your trip ask yourself the following two questions:

  • “What assets do I own which can work for me (i.e. rent out) while I’m away?”
  • “What services can I suspend (and not pay for) while I’m away?”

We all know that houses and apartments can be rented out while away to make some extra income.  But this is only feasible on long trips.  But did you know that even during short-term travel you can now tap into the rent-potential of your car, motorbike, tools, equipment, boat, trailer, or campervan?  More and more smart-phone apps enable us to create a marketplace for previously “dead assets.”

Another easy way to reduce costs while away is to call your health insurer and tell them that you’ll be travelling for ‘period X’.  They should be able to suspend your insurance payments for this period of time.  If they cannot do this then it’s perhaps time to simply cancel and look for a better provider.  Other cash-leaks such as subscriptions, memberships, and services which you will not be able to use should be scrutinised and suspended or cancelled.

Coping with the Information Glut

[7 minute read]

 

Q: Who can you trust?

In the short years following the invention of the printing press in 1440 people who could read would have quickly come to the startling realization that it was simply impossible – in their lifetime – to read all of the existing books.  Perhaps only a decade later these same people would have realized that it was now impossible to merely keep up with new books printed in a given week.  You can see where this is going.  In fact, you know where this trend has taken us.  Today you need to be a PhD student spending all of your waking hours on research in an incredibly narrow and focused field just to keep up with the latest papers and discoveries in said field.  Even that scenario may already not be achievable.

Let that sink in for a bit.

New scientific studies, socio-political developments, cultural movements, and technological breakthroughs are all forces which are shaping our history.  Because there is so much new information being generated on a daily basis, the best method we have to process it is to rely upon experts.  Experts have an extensive and verifiable degree of knowledge in a specific field and often have reputations avowed by professional organisations.  Experts are authoritative.  In fact, experts influence and advise greater authorities such as governments and businesses.  They have an incredibly high level of social responsibility.  And we all know from Spider-Man that with great responsibility comes great power.

I strongly believe that ethics underpin the podium from which experts cry their wares.  However we know all too well that they do not always behave and act ethically.  And therein lies the heart of this particular problem: we are often reliant upon their services to deal with the overwhelming amount of information out there and our perceived lack of time to process it all to an actionable outcome.  So what’s to be done?  The ‘go out and get 3 quotes’ strategy is a good way to deal with this.  But even this can sometimes take us to an uncomfortable place where a choice has to be made based on the trustworthiness and reputation of the expert in question rather than a purely rational deconstruction of the original issue which of course takes time and effort – which is why we pay the experts in first place!

Let’s take a step back now.

Throughout all stages of our lives – childhood, adolescence, and adulthood – there is a noticeable trend of conditioning we have undergone: that decrees from people in higher authority than yourself must be unquestionably fulfilled.  This has usually been enforced with means which are inherently violent in nature rather than through logical persuasion.

Disagree with your parents?  You get spanked.  Back in line!

Disagree with your peers?  You get alienated.  Back in line!

Disagree with your teachers?  You get disciplined.  Back in line!

Disagree with your family?  You get ostracised.  Back in line!

Disagree with your religion?  You get excommunicated.  Back in line!

Disagree with your colleagues?  You get ridiculed.  Back in line!

Disagree with your boss?  You get sidelined.  Back in line!

Disagree with the law?  You get incarcerated.  Back in line!

Disagree with the mob?  You get slandered.  Back in line!

Disagree with an expert?  You get trivialised.  Back in line!

Of course, people in authority aren’t necessarily experts.  But as experts fall under the umbrella of authority what I’m getting at is that we have developed a knee-jerk reaction to experts.  A large part of our being has been conditioned to fear the consequences of disagreeing with or having an opposing view to an expert.  But as information is becoming cheaper (internet and computer costs are going down) and better (more sources and transparency) the status-quo is rapidly beginning to change.

For example, why do we believe the mainstream media?  A reasonable answer might be: because media companies are composed of professional, sworn-in, and respected journalists.  But the reality is that they have an agenda which is not to consistently expose us to the undiluted facts (read: news) but rather to get our eyes to look at and click on their advertisements.  Lately their agenda has been overtly ugly.  It is has been political.  They have routinely been using their position of privilege as experts to cajole us (the masses) into voting for a political party or to believe in a social paradigm which they are both backing and have invested in monetarily and ideologically.  This is not ethical practice.  This is propaganda.

As another example, have you thought about why we trust doctors and psychiatrists?  Have they studied many years (sometimes decades) to accumulate a professional degree of knowledge and to earn their position of authority?  Yes.  Have they built up solid, invaluable experience?  Absolutely.  But are they infallible super-humans who can always provide the best solution to our problems?  No.  They also have an agenda.  Do you know which pharmaceutical company is buying them lunch or took them to the golf course last weekend?  Do you know what year they graduated and whether they are up to date with the latest treatments and medical practices?  Again, thanks to the internet you can now arm yourself with the latest, cutting-edge facts and developments.  Knowledge of this sort used to be accessible only by the few and the privileged but today is available to the layman willing to concentrate for a bit.

And what about politicians?  Economists?  Sociologists?  Climate scientists?  History has shown us time and time again that these groups of experts – in the highest echelons of power – do not behave ethically.  As the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises once said, “The proof of a theory is in its reasoning, not in its sponsorship.”  What’s more is that the recommendations and actions from these groups of experts have ironically caused more harm than harmony and in some cases have even resulted in the exact opposite of what they prognosticated!    And so, with the glut of raw information and the explosion of expert opinions it can seem impossible to know who to trust.  This state of permanent uncertainty is one negative side effect which people can experience from our fast-paced, information-driven world.

As always, the best solution is the simplest:

Think for yourself.  But truly think!  Listen to all sides.  Do thorough research.  Take notes.  Read books.  Listen to speakers.  Watch some debates.  Be convinced.  Be offended.  Be astounded.  Chew on the fat.  Sleep on it if you have to.  But don’t just swallow it all in a single gulp!  And then examine, privately, what it was that convinced you the most.  Was it the raw, unadulterated data?  The scientific approach?  Was it a passionate speech?  Was it Socratic logic and reasoning?  Was it a powerful anecdote?  Regardless of what it was that resonated with you the most, it is your responsibility to now hold it up to the light and see whether it is opaque or full of holes.  Remember that the simplest of questions will always undermine even the most elaborate of lies.

A: Trust in yourself.

Chimborazo – Part III

Veintimilla Summit (6,225m)

 

Climbing to the top (almost) of Chimborazo and what I learned about the dangers of cold weather.

 

Tuesday Night, 22nd November 2016

 

It was 8PM.  I was kneeling over the toilet bowl in the shelter.  The last of the spaghetti from lunch came up in one big heave.  Watching the vomit swirling around I couldn’t help but feel that my dream of climbing Chimborazo had just also been flushed away.  I gargled out the taste of disappointment from my mouth and wearily trudged out of the bathroom.  Rafael, my Ecuadorian mountain guide, was standing outside with his arms crossed and a concerned look on his face.  Shaking my head, in my broken Spanish I said: “no siento bien. Mi estomago duele.”  Rafael looked devastated but optimistically he said that there was a chance I could get better.  So he walked me outside into the freezing cold air.  He taught me a simple breathing exercise which helps with altitude sickness.  I proceeded to gulp in as much air as I could and then hold it in for about thirty seconds, expel, and repeat again.  After about ten repetitions I did indeed feel much better.

 

Rafael then insisted that it was better to try to sleep in his car (in a sleeping bag on the passenger seat) for the next 2 hours rather than waiting in the shelter’s common room.  His odd recommendation actually worked.  While I didn’t fall asleep in the car, I did manage to feel well rested by 10PM when the alarm rang.  We then went back in the common room to get ready for the climb.  I was sipping on hot coca tea (from the cocaine leaf – thought to alleviate altitude effects) and munching on a cookie.  I sincerely told Rafael that I felt one hundred percent ready to go up and give it a crack.  This was the complete truth.  I had somehow miraculously acclimatized, and right on the 11th hour.

 

It’s 11PM. Rafael and I have all our gear on and are heading out.

 

Wednesday Morning, 23rd November 2016

 

That night there were 3 groups going up: myself and Rafael, Hans and his guide (Willy), and a Swiss lady climber with her “guide.”  Hans was a 24-year old Dutch guy doing his first glacier like me.  The 40-something Swiss lady was an experienced climber with (apparently) three 8000-ers under her belt. I refer to her guide in quotation marks as she was actually leading the way and setting the pace, not the other way around as is usual.  This was probably the case so that she could claim that she climbed it herself (the guide merely fulfilling local laws and requirements).  While Hans and I started at 11PM, she and her guide started at 12PM and overtook us around 4AM somewhere on the glacier.

 

That day the Swiss lady and her guide would be the only ones who reached Whymper Summit – the highest point on Chimborazo at 6,267m.  Hans and I managed to reach the second-highest peak, Veintimilla Summit (at 6,225m).  We topped it almost at the same time (7:30AM) after about 8.5 hours of climbing, with Hans and his guide getting there about 5 minutes before Rafael and myself.  I remember that around 2AM it became ridiculously cold.  Rafael said it was about -15˚ C.  My toes were freezing.  My fingers were freezing.  I don’t mean that metaphorically, but literally!  To fight off frostbite I had to continually scrunch up my toes and make fists with my hands in order to keep the blood circulating properly.  This freezing cold temperature lasted until around 6AM, when the sun’s first rays started having some sort of an effect on the air temperature.

 

Arrived freezing cold and shivering from head to toe to Veintimilla Summit at 7:35AM but the feeling of accomplishment and happiness won out. Hans (L), Willy, and I.

 

Before setting off the night before Rafael told me that after 8:00AM it is dangerous to linger and walk around on the summit for too long due to the sun melting the snow.  The glacier becomes dangerous during the day because big chunks of ice – sometimes weighing tons – can start moving around due to the loss of friction caused by higher temperatures in the day.  In addition, ice bridges (compacted snow covering crevasses) can also weaken and collapse without warning.  Not a comfortable thought.  As for avalanches, these usually occur when the weight of fresh or existing, compacted snowfall dislodges along a ridge line due to the force of gravity overcoming the friction holding it together.  This event is pretty much an insta-kill for the unfortunate mountaineer and can happen at any time – day or night.

 

So, back to the story.  As it would have taken Rafael and I roughly one hour (each way) to negotiate the crevasses in the small valley between Veintimilla and Whymper, we decided not to continue on to Whymper Peak.  The Swiss lady returned to Veintimilla around 7:45AM and she and her guide headed down.  Hans, Willy, Rafael and I headed back down the same way around 7:50AM as it was quite windy on Veintimilla and despite the morning sun, still brutally cold.  For added safety, all four of us were roped together on the way down.

 

Hans and Willy roped up behind me, with Rafael out in front leading the way down.

 

During the day the beauty of Chimborazo’s western slope (the main route we took) really stands out.  We shuffled past some gorgeous cliffs of glacial ice and small crevasses – which I had absolutely no clue were only a few feet away from our path during the night’s march.

 

Mountain slopes often appear rather flat from afar. But when you’re actually climbing it’s a completely different story.

 

It took us roughly 3.5 hours to get down.  I felt a lot of relief that I made it back to the shelter alive and well with my first glacial summit (well, nearly!) under my belt.  The experience that I gained on that mountain as an absolute mountaineering novice will stay with me for a long time to come.  A few weeks later, after attempting my second glacier in Ecuador, Cayambe, I realized that the equipment which I was given for Chimborazo was old and inadequate.  The boots were made of leather and outdated (new ones are plastic with better insulation).  I was only given a pair of outer gloves (it is standard to wear an inner pair).  I wore 5 layers of my own clothing which was inadequate for the cold (it is standard to wear a special mountain jacket which was not supplied to me).

 

The most dangerous part of the climb is here in my opinion. We had to navigate this rocky part for 2 hours in order to make it to the glacier. Rocks often fall from above and it is very easy to slip as the path is mostly rocky scree.

 

So what was the consequence of my encounter with the cold conditions on Chimborazo?  Well, for an entire month after the climb, the tip of one finger (on my right hand) and one toe (my left foot) were somewhat numb and insensitive.  Today, more than two months after the climb, the feeling is back to normal.  I was fortunate that the weather was “mild” when I went up otherwise it could have been something more serious such as frostnip (permanent numbness) or possibly frostbite (requiring amputation).  But I am thankful for the tough, “deep-end” experience I had because otherwise today I would not have such an immense respect and fear of the cold.  What it can do to your body if you are unprepared for it is truly devastating.  We learn the most from our mistakes after all.  Chimborazo was a brutal initiation into mountaineering but I could not have asked for more of myself as I was up to the task in the end.

Chimborazo – Part II

What I learned about altitude sickness while acclimatizing at 4,850m for my first ever glacier – Chimborazo – Ecuador’s highest peak and the furthest point on the surface of the Earth from the centre of the Earth.

 

Monday Night, 21st November 2016

 

A bus dropped me off at the Chimborazo park entrance (elevation 4,386m) just before midday.  The weather was sunny and warm with a light wind blowing.  The sky was completely clear of clouds, affording me an unobstructed view of the peak which was beckoning me in the distance ahead.  I remember feeling nervous excitement as I presented my permit and signed the paperwork at the ranger office.  At that moment there was no turning back.  I was about to attempt to climb my first glacier and had absolutely no idea what to expect.  With a peak height of 6,267m, Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador on top of its selling-point to international mountaineers as the furthest point on the surface of the Earth from the centre of the Earth.  To boot, it also has a well-earned reputation in Ecuador as being the toughest and most dangerous – 10 climbers perished in an avalanche in 1993, the worst mountaineering accident in Ecuador’s history.

 

Vicuñas were a welcome sight to the barren landscape on the way up

 

From the park entrance it was an easy 1.5 hours of sandy hiking up to the first shelter, Refugio Carrel (elevation 4,850m), where it began to get rocky (the glacier was still much further up the mountain).  I set up my tent near the shelter building and decided to make use of the remaining 2 hours of daylight by going a little higher.  I took this decision because I was simply incredibly inexperienced.  At that time I didn’t know anything about altitude sickness – the symptoms, the severe consequences, how to manage it, or how to prevent it.  I simply wanted to go a little higher for a better view of the valley and to “acclimatize” better.  In hindsight, I can now say that I was extremely naïve.  I had started the day from an elevation of 1,815m in Baños and was now standing at 4,850 and yet I still made the decision to go even higher.  Absolute insanity.  My only excuse is that I didn’t know what elevation Baños was at (again – an incredibly vital bit of information I should have checked and known if not for my sheer degree of inexperience).

 

And so, oblivious to the fact that I was actually jeopardizing instead of improving my odds of acclimatizing successfully, I grabbed my jacket and headed up higher.  I hiked past a small graveyard (honouring fallen mountaineers) and shortly reached Refugio Whymper (elevation 5,050m).  Chimborazo was first ascended in 1880 by British explorer Edward Whymper.  As such, the highest peak (at 6,267m) on the mountain is also named after the man – Whymper Summit.  The second-highest peak (at 6,225m) is called Veintimilla Summit.  Because the glacier has receded significantly over the past 20 years the ascent from Refugio Whymper was no longer safe and so I pushed on past the deserted building until I reached Condor Cocha Lagoon (elevation 5,100m).

 

Chimborazo’s southern face was glowing during sunset

 

Heading back down, I reached my tent right as the sun was setting.  At this point I felt fine and was completely unaware that I was about to experience the worst night of my trip thus far.

 

Gorgeous sunset from the furthest point on the Earth’s surface from its centre

 

After snapping the last picture of the impressive sunset I headed back into my tent.  It was around 6:30PM at this time.  The temperature was already cold and dropping quickly as I brushed my teeth and spat the minty discharge outside.  By this point you’re probably wondering why I was in a tent instead of a warm bed inside the perfectly well-equipped refuge.  This was purely on the recommendation of my guide.  Because the first night was solely for acclimatization he believed that I would be better off not being awoken at 10PM by all the other mountaineers getting up for their ascent.  He couldn’t have been more wrong.  Despite wearing thermals, all of my clothes, and being inside two sleeping bags I was still cold.  But this would only be a mild discomfort compared to the altitude sickness that would come.

 

Now it’s time to talk math.  The recommended ascension rate to avoid altitude sickness is about 500m per day.  Let’s see now.  I had left Baños (which is at 1,815m) and only several hours later reached Condor Concha Lagoon at 5,100m.  That’s a total ascension of 3,285m in half a day.  In other words, 6.5 times the recommended amount!  To break down the 3,285m more accurately though, I had ascended 2,571m (78%) by bus and the remaining 714m (22%) on foot.  Either way you slice it, my guide Rafael (with 20+ years’ experience) should have recommended more time acclimatizing.  For example, an additional night in neighbouring town Riobamba (elevation 2,700m) prior to entering the Chimborazo Park would have almost certainly prevented or reduced the severity of altitude sickness I was about to experience.

 

Tuesday Morning, 22nd November 2016

 

Speaking of which, tossing and turning around in my sleeping bags shortly after sunset I simply could not fall asleep.  It was freezing cold.  Breathing subconsciously was absolutely impossible.  Every second breath I had to force, gasping as I could not get enough oxygen.  My heart was beating a little erratically.  This was definitely not a good sign but did not give me sufficient cause for concern to seek help.  At 11PM I heard the sounds of climbers leaving the shelter and begin their ascent to the summit.

 

By this time it was too cold to even pretend to sleep and I had a headache creeping on.  By midnight I made the decision to leave my freezing tent and so I grabbed my liner and sleeping bags and headed for the shelter.  Inside, I found a spot on the wooden floor beneath the stairs and close to the toilets.  The temperature inside felt infinitely warmer and I managed to warm up.  Then BAM!  I felt like I had the hangover from hell.  Head pounding and stomach heaving, I spent the remaining hours until the morning running between my sleeping bag and the bathroom.  Altitude sickness is similar to but much worse than a hangover.  Having completely emptied the contents of my stomach, I could not even keep down water.  That night I got absolutely no sleep.

 

This small stream is completely frozen over… brrrrrr…

 

For breakfast, I managed to swallow a cookie with the help of hot coco tea from the dining room in the shelter.  Besides the ranger who made my tea, there was only one other person in the room – a lady climber who had abandoned her summit attempt that morning due to altitude sickness at 5,500m.  At this point in time I told her I was seriously considering abandoning my attempt and calling it quits (that’s how bad my night was – it had me whooped!).  I was crumping big time.  She told me not to give up and suggested that I go down lower to the park entrance to try and acclimatize again.

 

Seeing as my guide was going to meet me at the shelter at 2PM I decided to take her advice and spend the remainder of the morning at the park entrance (at elevation of 4,386m versus 4,850m in the shelter).  This turned out be a good move as I managed to doze off for a few hours on one of the benches.  Feeling much better, really hungry, and most importantly mentally determined once again to climb Chimborazo, I hiked back up to Refugio Carrel where I met my guide, Rafael.  After a delicious lunch of pasta, and a short briefing, I was in bed by 3PM with my alarm set for 10PM.  I was really hoping I would fall asleep in order to be at my strongest for the 8-hour climb which would begin at 11PM that night.  Much to my horror and disappointment, by 6PM I had mild altitude sickness symptoms again…

 

Stay tuned for Part III where I will reveal what happened next and conclude the adventure.