A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.
~ Lao Tzu
Amusingly enough, I've had a few requests to write a little about my day-to-day life on the road - that is, to shed some light on what it is I fill my time with when I'm not riding camels or flying in tiny planes over the Peruvian desert.
It's actually proven to be a challenging task. I don't know if there's ever been one day the same as another. There are a thousand variables, including where I'm staying, if I'm traveling that day, if there's an internet connection, if there's electricity, if it's a weekend or a weekday, if it's raining...
For the sake of discussion, I'll try to outline a very basic day - like a random day in the middle of a five to six day stay in one spot. For example, I spent ten days in Santiago, Chile. The first and last days of the visit are obviously spent in transit. It's the days in between I'll try to outline (loosely).
Here we go:
If I'm not up already, my trusty Timex Ironman watch wakes me up without fail - which is semi-to-fully surprising. I was talking about this to a friend the other day - in most cases I'm sleeping in crowded dorm rooms with some weird-ass people who tend to snore like buzz saws. I have a set of earplugs which are invaluable if the apnea assault becomes unbearable. The other problem is that there's activity in most dorms at all hours - people coming in and out, turning on lights, rustling plastic bags, snorting cocaine... whatever. But, through it all, without fail, my system still reacts to the chirping alarm of the Timex. Probably a Pavlovian experiment in there somewhere.
The first order of business each morning is taking a shower. Sometimes it doesn't happen for a variety of reasons, but I'm a lot happier when it does. As a rule, I try to get up earlier than everyone else (usually 7:00-7:30 will suffice) to ensure I have a semi-clean/dry floor, and some hot/warm water. If you wait until 8:30 or 9:00 you can pretty much forget about either. And trust me; some of the bathroom floors are already gross enough when dry. Imagine what it's like after four or five people go through, and the shower is right near the toilet. Yeah.
Once in a while (2.4% of the time) I'll find a shower that's tall enough for me. It's a pleasant surprise. In the majority of the cases, my back gets an early morning work out by hunching over to wash my hair. You know, there are some weird showers in the world. The strangest are the ones with the plastic heaters at the end of the pipe. It took me a few tries to figure these contraptions out. Sometimes you have to flip a switch on the wall to turn them on; sometimes you have to push something on the unit itself. Nothing like messing around with an electric heater while underneath running water. And, in most cases with these types, the lower the water pressure and the warmer the water. Naturally.
Once I've found some decent smelling clothes from my bag, I do a quick inventory to make sure nothing's been stolen during the night. In most cases I sleep with my camera and wallet with me - and in some cases my laptop bag as well. I try to secure them by wrapping their straps around the bed frame near my head and shoulders. In many cases I'll sleep in my clothes (due to the fact of not trusting the cleanliness of the sheets), in which case I'll just leave my wallet in my pocket.
I also spend a few minutes locking up my stuff. I pretty much won't stay at a place unless it has lockers for personal stuff. I carry a padlock with me, as 93% of the time the "lockers" are sans any sort of locking mechanism. If by chance I land somewhere without a locker, I'll leave my laptop bag with the front desk and ask for a receipt and their name. Now, I realize this really doesn't do much, but by the look on their faces, it scares them just enough to keep an eye on it.
If it's my first day in a new place, I'll usually spend some time at the front desk, peppering the attendant for some information about restaurants, maps and anything else which may be useful. Again, it all depends on how long I'm staying, and what I'm doing. For example, I stayed in a great hostel in Santiago. They had a travel center, 24 hour reception, lots of maps on the walls and postings for things to do each night. They even sold soda and beer for fairly cheap, had a good laundry service, free WiFi, a TV room, a kitchen and plenty of space to stretch out on couches. They even had a pretty cool house dog.
There are some pretty crappy places too. Sometimes they have very little in the way of travel help or recommendations. In some cases they are flat out rude. Plus, you also have to worry about getting bad advice from hostel folk who are just looking for commissions or are flat out dumb (which happens quite often).
In most cases I'm in a town of enough size that my guide book has a map and some recommendations. Again, if it's my first day, I'll usually set out in the general direction of a tourist information office in hopes of getting a map and/or some information on public transportation, any special deals (like day passes or weekly passes) and even festivals or concerts that are happening while I'm in town.
Once outside, I usually set about finding some breakfast. In some hostels, "breakfast" is included. You can pretty much dismiss this as a benefit of any hostel. In most cases "breakfast" is little more than a crusty roll and a glass of Tang-esque orange drink or coffee. In most cases I'll skip it entirely and find something cheap - usually consisting of some pastry of some sort, along with a Coke Zero.
The rest of the day is fairly fluid. It truly depends on what's going on, how I'm feeling, what the weather is like, etc. If I'm in a place like Cairo, I'll spend the better part of the day just walking around - maybe going to the Egyptian museum, maybe hitting a movie, maybe walking along the Nile, etc. In most cases during the first couple of days I'll try to see as much as I can on foot. Sometimes I'll jump on city's "red bus tour". Pretty much every large city has a double-decker hop-on-hop-off bus company that does loops of the city, stopping at the major landmarks. Sometimes these are expensive though. Again, it just depends. If a city has a good public transportation system (e.g. a good metro/subway), I'll just mark a few things on the map and do my best to hit them. This can be pretty fun. Figuring out buses, taxis and even boats is a challenge, but entertaining as well. Plus you'll see a lot of the real people. I like to hang out in parks, walk through cemataries, have a drink at an outdoor café... all good spots to the locals going about their business.
On the less exciting side, there are several tasks I'll fill a day with if given the opportunity:
Most hostels have kitchens where you can bring in your own food to cook. Now, I didn't do this when I was in the US while I lived in a house with a real kitchen of my own. However, sometimes I'll buy the occasional sandwich bread and corresponding ham or turkey for a couple of cheap sandwiches. Yogurt is also nice to have close by if I'm staying in one place for a while.
Most of the time, though, eating consists of grabbing a quick sandwich from a deli, finding some bread at a bakery, eating some fruit in the park, or (gasp!) going to McDonalds. Not necessarily proud, but as I've written before, it's safe, cheap and clean (for the most part).
It's easy to spend a bit of time sorting out money. Every country has a different exchange rate, and a different currency. By the time I hit London, I'll have been to 29 countries in six months. I usually get on http://finance.yahoo.com to find out the latest exchange rate before I cross the border.
It's amazing how long you can really go without doing laundry. In most cases, a decent hostel will have a laundry service available for a small fee. This is an absolute blessing. I have some laundry detergent and a sink-stopper, but why go through all that mess when it costs two or three bucks you can have someone wash, dry and fold a bag full of clothes? It's a no-brainer. I'll drop it off at the reception in the morning, and by the time I get back in the afternoon, there it is, magically lying on my bed. It's one of those little pleasures.
90% of the time, they are pretty easy. Most are issued right at the border with little hassle. There are others though, that are a complete pain in the ass. Going to a place like Brazil requires you to show up and apply, pay, and then wait for a visa. Same goes for China and a few others. I've read up on Russia, and it looks like the worst one yet. Anyway, depending on what you have to do, this can take pretty much a whole day - finding your way to the consulate, filling out forms, standing in line, going back four days later to collect your passport, etc.
Grocery stores & Malls
Being a good and faithful marketer, I always try to do two things when in a new country (part of this I owe to you Dahlbeck) - first, I try to get into a supermarket. You can learn a lot about a culture by checking out how people shop every day. How do they market toothpaste or milk? Did you know most milk in South America isn't refrigerated? Me either. Second, I try to get into a shopping mall. This is partially because they are usually good places to find movie theaters. But, they are also great people-watching venues, and give insights into fashion, electronics and food that you may not see elsewhere. It's also a lot of fun to compare city to city and country to country.
Surfin' the Web
I use the internet for pretty much everything: Banking, maps, news and email. CNN.com and ESPN.com are sanity savers. As is my new favorite site, AskANinja.com. Catching up on people's blogs also help my mental state. I also pretty much book all my travel plans through the web. You can get a wealth of information about all the different options, including timetables and prices, and in many cases, you can buy the tickets right then and there. Now, I can rarely print anything, but if I have it in an email account, it's golden.
I spend a good bit of time online. I'm blessed to have a bunch of people email me every day, and I do my best to get back to them. Many times it's days or even weeks later, but like everything else, it takes time, especially to respond properly - not the one line "hey thanks."
To be honest, a lot of my time is spent doing this - writing. Early on, I made the decision to keep a personal journal for myself - one in which I'll record highlights of every single day on the trip. I'll then convert the applicable parts of it into what you're reading now. The problem is, posting stuff to the Web takes time. I like to write, but it takes a while to get it to a point where I'm happy with it.
Then come the pictures. First, I have to figure out which pictures I want to go with which stories. Then, I have to convert them all into a web-friendly file size. My camera takes images at six mega pixels, meaning each photo is a little over a megabyte (For those of you who don't often deal with such things, just know they're way too big to post to the Website). Once that's done, I then upload them to the website, using built in tools from the site itself. Next, I upload the text of the story I've just finished. Finally, I insert each image and position them into the page appropriately. All said and done, with writing time included, it probably takes three to five hours per entry.
Now, the final pieces of this are dependant on getting a wireless signal so I can use my laptop, or finding a relatively inexpensive internet café with a semi-fast internet connection. The former is the preferred method. My machine already has all the software I need on it. If I use an internet café, I then have to download the appropriate tools (for you geeks out there - the Java console isn't standard on many machines I've been around. Taking the time to download it - if they let you - to every new machine really blows), which takes more time.
I have had a chance to do some reading on this trip. I've made it through several books already, and always end up having 3-4 in my possession at any given time. It's amazing how fast you can get through 2-3 books while you're spending a night in an airport, or on a bus.
So there you have it. Glamorous, I know. It takes a while to get used to, but once you do, it's actually a pretty good way to live. Sometimes my biggest worry of the day is whether or not I'm going to wear the same pair of pants for the 5th day in a row. I can live with that.