Instatravel

“No addiction is good.” – Jose Mujica

There’s no doubt social media and various websites like Airbnb and Google Flights are changing travel, it’s just not quite clear exactly how. Every time you connect to Instagram you’re bombarded with images of happy people visiting exotic locations around the world, and feel a little bit jealous/bad about yourself. Even Airbnb makes something like staying with a stranger, something that used to rarely happen organically, completely commonplace. This weekend, for example, I’m staying with a couple at the foot of the Colima Volcano in Southern Jalisco, Mexico, and I venture to say this experience would never happen without the aid of the internet. I’ll probably take a few pictures while I’m there. I’ll probably write a few blogs.

The question is: Is this a good thing?

hashtaguear

Airport, CDMX.

Travel these days is becoming more in the hands of the people. Instead of getting in a cab, you get in an Uber, and average Jane/Joe takes you where you want to go. Instead of staying in a hotel, Average Jane/Joe rents out their spare room. I have no doubt this peer to peer system will soon extend to even more areas, though my feeble brain is incapable of forecasting where. Airbnb already has Airbnb “experiences,” where Average Jane/Joe takes you on a tour of their town, or teaches you to dance, or cooks you a fabulous risotto dinner, all for a reasonable fee.

One place I don’t think it will ever extend is to the realm of air travel.

“Hi, my name is Billy, and welcome to Uber JET. I have exactly 12 hours experience in the cockpit. Buckle up.”

But then again, what do I know? Maybe one day buying a plane won’t be that much more expensive than buying a car, more people will have their pilot’s license, and this will actually be an option.

With things like Facebook and Instagram, vicarious travel has also become much more accessible, if not unavoidable. Every time you open Instagram you’re transported, sometimes against your will, to places like Thailand, or Paris, or Thailand, and come to think of it, usually Thailand. Telling the world about your trip has become much easier, to the point where everyone is telling everyone else about their trips, all of the time. You go to Paris, take 50 pictures, and all of them go on Facebook and Instagram. You friend does the same thing, but with Rome, and her friend the same thing with Malta, and her friend the same thing with Madrid, and her friend the same thing, again with Paris. It’s a never-ending web of travel images, and suddenly, even though you’ve never been to the Great Wall, you’ve seen 6,000 pictures of it, and it no longer feels as exotic. Maybe it makes you want to travel less. Maybe it makes you go insane. I don’t know how this is affecting us.

mark wetzler ordinary nomad northern chile hitchhiking

Let me take a selfie. Somewhere in Northern Chile.

In the end, the most special travel experiences are still the ones that arise organically. You meet someone in a cafe and they tell you about some dilapidated castle five miles out of town you simply must see (followed by an exchange of telephone numbers and medium-term romance), or you meet someone at a bar and they invite you to a party the next day. The reason these organic experiences are more special is because they’re not based on some kind of algorithm or criteria. There are more mystical forces at work, like attraction, mood, and even luck, like the possibility of overhearing a conversation in a cafe. Just as apps like Tinder and Bumble have cheapened dating, the overuse of websites like Airbnb, as well as posting all your experiences on Instagram, cheapens travel. The mystique of travel remains, but I dare say not nearly as much so for the traveler who travels to then post pictures on Instagram. Not that this is a new phenomenon. People have always traveled to brag about their travels, even when it was just inviting the neighbors over for a slide show. But showing a slide to your neighbors isn’t quite the same as posting a picture on the internet for everyone to see.

menos face mas book

Menos Feis, mas Book. Santiago de Chile.

In the end, travel can’t change for you if you don’t let it. Instagram and Facebook can enhance your travel experience when used in moderation (maybe), or cheapen or even ruin it if used ad nauseam. Just try one thing: When you wake up, don’t let checking Facebook or Instagram or Twitter be the first thing you do. Get out of bed, stretch, and say the word “hashtag” a few times out loud. Then, for everything you say that morning, precede it with, “Hashtag.”

“Hashtag, how are you doing this morning?”

“Hashtag, fine.”

“Hashtag, you getting ready for work?”

“Hashtag, you had breakfast yet?”

etc.

You’ll social media blues will be cured in no time, and you’ll be back on the path to reality.

Legs Pointed Skyward

Today I taught my English class in the upscale neighborhood of Providencia, three hours of intense one on one English instruction, nurturing the finest minds from Guadalajara, and then afterward went to the park. I went to the park to work out. Lately I’ve been going three times a week and doing bench, sit-ups, pull-ups, and usually one wildcard exercise like wrist curls.  My workouts last approximately five minutes. Today was special though, because there was a guy there working out, and upon arriving I said to him, “Hey, do you know how to do these exercises? I don’t know if I’m doing them properly.”

“More or less,” he said.

It turned out he was basically a personal trainer. Or at least he became my personal trainer for the next 30 minutes. His name was Frank, and when he said his name with a distinct American/Non-Mexican accent, I asked him if he spoke English.

“More or less,” he said.

He taught me how to do various exercises, like deadlifts, with perfect form, and stressed that good form was much more important than how many reps you could do and with how much weight.

“I’m a perfectionist, Frank,” I said, “So I understand the desire for good form. Why do you think I asked you if you knew how to do these?”

Frank helped me add several new exercises to my repertoire, like hanging from a beam. I’ve never been one to just hang from a beam — I usually can’t resist the urge to try to pull myself upward — but it turns out it’s fairly agreeable. It stretches you out. It felt good on my wrist. And Frank claimed it was a good way to build grip strength and strength in general.

On the way to my English class I made another wonderful discovery: An upscale grocery store. I went in hoping they’d have mate, and they did have mate, two wonderful Argentinian brands — Cruz de Malta and Rosamonte — that are guaranteed to send my brain into the stratosphere over the next few weeks — but they also had something even better (roughly the same): Vichy Catalan. If you don’t know what Vichy Catalan is, I feel sorry for you, but I don’t blame you. Vichy Catalan is sparkling water. It comes from Catalunya. It tastes roughly like sulfur, and I’m obsessed with it. The only problem is in Spain it costs about a euro a liter and here it costs $3.50 cents for a half liter. Still, I bought one. I brought it to my English class and said to my student, “Prepare for massive life changes.” My student hated it, which I was hoping for, since it meant more for me. And so now, for as long as I stay in Guadalajara, I’ll reward myself on any occasion possible with the finest mineral Spain has to offer, since now I know exactly where to get it.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Guadalajara. How long I’m staying here. This morning I woke up in foul spirits and upon exiting my room immediately stepped on a paralyzed cockroach and the resulting sound sounded like a bubble on a sheet of bubble wrap popping. Why do I say “paralyzed?” Because when cockroaches come into contact with fumigation chemicals they become paralyzed, lying on their back, feet pointing to the sky, waiting to be disposed of. I’d seen them like this before and always thought they were dead. But today the owner of my house set me straight. When this happened I thought, “OK, no more. I’m getting the hell out of Guadalajara.” But then on the way to class I had a sort of epiphany. I could’ve left today, I could’ve just said to hell with everything, and been instantly “free,” but I would’ve felt bad and probably questioned the decision. Or I could do something I’m not used to. I could give the decision some more time, and not rush it. So that’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m pretty sure I’m going to leave GDL soon (which will be great for this blog), but I’m going to take Semana Santa (Easter), and getting out of the city for a few days, to think about it. If I come back and still want to leave, then peace out, GDL.

But who knows. Maybe I’ll want to stay here and work out with Frank. And drink mate. And on very, very special occasions, buy a cool, refreshing, slightly sulfuric bottle of Vichy Catalan.

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Plastic Bag Nation

Plastic Bag Nation

I like to make observations when I go to countries. I like to think I’m an observant guy. Of course, it’s also hard not to make observations. Even if you were walking around with your eyes closed it’d be difficult to not make observations.

One thing I’ve noticed about Mexico is how prominent plastic bags are. This is plastic bag country. Plastilandia. Plastic Bag Nation. It’s not uncommon to see someone at a corner shop buying the following items: eggs, fruit, meat, and maybe something else like Coca Cola. The eggs are put in their own plastic bag, the fruit in its own bag, and all of this is put inside one bigger plastic bag. This is Plastic Bag Nation.

When you go to a grocery store you have to fight with the bagger to not get a plastic bag. “I don’t need a bag,” you say. They start to put your stuff in a plastic bag anyway. “Sorry, I won’t be needing a bag,” you say again. They look at you like you might’ve recently hit your head or don’t understand the concept of plastic bags. And then you walk down the street carrying your avocado and your onion in your hand.

The worst place I’ve been to in terms of plastic bags is Nicaragua. Here, not only does everything come in plastic bags, but often times once these plastic bags are used they’re immediately thrown in the street. There’s a reason for this. Back in the proverbial day, things were wrapped in plantain leaves in Nicaragua when they were sold. When you consumed whatever was inside, you simple threw the leaf in the street. No harm, minimal foul. But nowadays little comes wrapped in plantain leaves, everything comes in plastic, but this custom of throwing the wrapper on the ground has lingered. And so, if you’re on a bus in Nicaragua, it’s not uncommon to see someone eating a dish of chicken and rice out of a styrofoam container, and then to instantly throw that container out the window. Without batting an eye. Without squinting an eye. And sure, you could inwardly berate someone for doing this, or even outwardly berate them, but it’s not done with malice, in fact, it’s done with no thought at all.

Of course, the plastic bag culture is changing in many countries. It’s disappearing. In a place like Whole Foods in The States they might take you in a back room and beat you with a paddle if you were to get too many plastic bags. A lot of countries charge for plastic bags now. And more and more people bring their own bags to the grocery store, which is a good thing. In Germany people have cotton bags made from organic cotton, and these bags are expertly crafted to last several lifetimes. I know, because I’ve been using one to carry around my laptop and my personal effects for the last two months whenever I go out on the town. Hats off to German engineering.

It might change one day in Mexico. If it were to change overnight, I fear there might be a revolt. People might start stealing plastic bags. They might start making their own plastic bags. They might start wearing plastic bags. Until that revolution happens the plastic bag culture will continue. The eggs will have their home. The meat, too. At home in a never-ending sea of plastic.

 

A Cafe Called “Starbucks,” Krakow, Poland

starbucks krakow poland

Originally published on Cappuccino in Lviv! on March 26, 2015

Now listen, before I even start this review I need you think about why you hate Starbucks. Because the coffee is bad? Because everyone else hates it? Because your little kitschy shop down the street is so much more quaint and you know the barista there? Starbucks, for whatever reason, seems to be a fairly polarizing place. Some people wouldn’t be caught dead there. Some people wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere else. Me? I like to think I’m indifferent. But when I was walking through the mall today in Krakow and I saw Starbucks I thought to myself, “I’ve reviewed all these places but I haven’t even reviewed the giant itself!” I decided it was time to spend some quality time in the most famous cafe around.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight: Starbucks does not have bad coffee. Listen, its coffee might not be the best in the world, but it’s definitely not bad. You don’t get to where Starbucks is by having shitty products. Listen, I realize that marketing plays a massive role, but you have to have a decent product, too. Half the people at Starbucks are there for image purposes but there are at least a fair portion who legitimately like the coffee.

Now to the actual review.

The woman working the cash register was extremely kind and taught me how to properly say “for here” and “to go” in Polish. I think people underestimate the value of these two phrases, considering they’re involved in literally pretty much any food purchase. Listen, I realize there are more important words like thank you and hello, but these definitely rank right up there. And listen, I realize some of you may be thinking “What’s the point of learning a couple words when you’re just going to leave the country in a few days?” but listen, I love languages, and when I travel I find it fulfilling to learn as much of the language as I possibly can, regardless the circumstances.

The actual cappuccino made me realize something: Do I even have any idea what cappuccinos are supposed to be like? I’ve basically formed my opinion of what they’re supposed to be like on what I’ve been given, but I’m not sure that’s a 100% effective way to become an expert on something. Listen, trying tons of cappuccinos in different places doesn’t hurt, but I should probably do a little background research at some point as well. As for this cappuccino, it was extremely foamy. It had bubbles. Listen, I like foam as much as the next guy, but this seemed to be a bit much. This reminded me of Kredens. Listen, I’m sure the barista knows what she’s doing, but isn’t it possible that she messed my cappuccino up? Listen, I realize it’s not likely, but it could definitely happen.

Listen, I’m not here today to tell you Starbucks has the best coffee in the world, but the cappuccino I had today was definitely decent. Not great, but decent. Listen, better cafes are definitely out there, but listen, if you need a decent cup a joe in a pinch, listen, Starbucks will definitely do the job.

Cappuccino rating: 5/10

Overall experience rating: 5.1/10

Next on Cappuccino Lviv: Is Krakow the Starbucks of European cities?

 

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