Thursday, October 7, 2010


I came home from a regular night out in New York. The NYC couchsurfers go to a place in the village called "Solas" on Thursdays. $4 mojitos, margaritas, sangria, and sex on the beach, being sipped by about 50-60 couchsurfers upstairs with masking-tape-and-sharpie-nametags from a few dozen countries.

Around 1am my friend, Barry, dropped me off after the straight shot up 1st Ave to Harlem. It's surprisingly easy to drive from 14th St. to 118th St after midnight during the week. The lights are synchronized, and the only other traffic is cabs. They drive like cabs, but when it's just them, they aren't quite as aggravating.

So I walked up to my apartment, let myself in, scanned my mail, dropped my keys, and plugged my phone into my speakers for a little music. I put on Jamie Cullum's Catching Tales album, without thinking about it much, then wandered over to the fridge to pull out my massive Costco tub of hummus from inside and my sack of pita bread from the top.

Then I started listening to the music. That album was the first one I downloaded while traveling. I spent the first year or so without any of my own music. I didn't have my iPod. I'd decided I wanted to listen to the world around me, and the cheap FM radio I'd brought with me. The radio didn't work out that great for various reasons (chief among them the fact that when I most wanted to listen was on buses between cities... where there weren't any radio stations). So by the time I got to Croatia, I decided to download a couple things to my little laptop. Jamie Cullum's Catching Tales was the first thing I got.

And there I was, hearing that music again. Only I wasn't in my apartment in Spanish Harlem. I was in Sarajevo, in an uber-sketchy 5 euro hostel room I had to myself, despite the fact that there were twelve beds there. They were stacked in threes-- a top bunk, a middle bunk, and a bottom bunk. It was Halloween, and I had a party to go to, and no costume. My laptop was on and playing "Photograph" by Jamie Cullum. And while the laundry I'd done in the sink was drying across on the elastic line I'd strung between two bunks, I spotted the container of toilet paper rolls on the busted shelf above the busted sink. Voila, halloween costume.

And then I remembered that I was not in the Balkans, but leaning wistfully against my fridge in New York, with hummus dripping down my bread onto my hand.

It's a lot like having been in a wonderful relationship that's ended. After a while, you move on. You're doing your new thing. You've changed a bit. You're happy with the new you. But every once in a while one of those songs you used to listen to comes on, and it takes a little bit out of you. For that minute or so, all you want is to be back then, they way things were, for just a little while.

Acting in New York is a dream. And things are going pretty well so far. I'm going to auditions. I'm acting in a student film. I just had a free class with a great Shakespeare coach. I've got a deal on a new set of headshots. I've just been invited to be a regular blogger with Life here is working out.

But sometimes all I want is to be back on the road again. The way I had been, the way it used to be.

So, as a side project, I'm starting to do the next best thing. Writing about my travels. Several people over the years have told me I should write a book. I think I'm going to. I've batted a query letter around for a while, and now I'm putting together a book proposal to send to agents.

My basic premise will be a bit like this blog. Mostly stories of my travels, with a few helpful tips and hints thrown in. My goal is not just to tell my story, but to inspire other people to travel. Not just little tours of western Europe. I mean big travel. Wander with penguins travel. Hitchhike Tanzania travel. Get stranded on Caribbean island and volunteer at a hospital travel.

I will say that I'm not planning on making a guidebook-- there are people who have been backpacking for decades who have already written guidebooks. Saying I could do one better I think would be presuming a bit much. What I have that's unique are my stories, perspective, and personal experience.

But that's just my idea. What's yours? I'm interested in feedback here. If you're still reading this blog, you probably know my story well enough to have an idea. What kind of book would you most be interested in buying, given the trip I have to draw from?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Travel Tip: Stay Safe at Night

This is a something I get asked about a great deal. How do you stay safe in a strange place? the answers seem like common sense to those who already know them, so often when you ask, you get not very helpful answers like "just... don't be stupid." So I'm going to try to break things down a bit. If you live in a city, some of this is going to be pretty familiar to you already.

First, the basics. You are not in as much danger as you probably think you are. I've heard inexperienced travelers tell me a lot of ridiculous horror stories of shooting, kidnappings, and random killings of tourists. This is very unlikely to happen to you in the vast majority of places you will visit. The places where it does happen are the ones that are very hard to travel to, and where you probably don't want to be right now anyway. Like Baghdad or Mogadishu. I can guarantee you that if you come to Beijing, you are not going to be stuffed into an unmarked car by people looking to harvest your organs. I hope you're laughing, but somebody I talked to was seriously concerned about this possibility.

What you are in danger of are scams (which I'll cover in another post) and theft. Possibly via mugging, depending on the area. Also, women, I hate to say it, but you are more likely to be targeted, not just for theft, but for unwanted sexual attention. However, in most places you are not in any greater danger than you would be in your home city. So don't panic.

The places where you are in the most danger are in very very packed crowds (as in you are literally squeezing through people) and at night. Since you're probably going to be traveling through more nights than crowds, I'm going to focus on how to keep safe at night.

The basics, you probably already know:
-Walking alone is not ideal. Walking drunk is not ideal. Walking alone and drunk is just dumb. Don't do it.
-Act like you know where you are going, even if you don't
-Be aware of your surroundings- don't look at the ground all the time or talk on your cell phone
-Look relaxed but alert-- panicky people look like they're good targets because they probably don't know the area, and might be carrying valuables.
-Don't access an ATM at night. It makes it obvious that you're carrying cash when you walk away.
-Stick to well-lit areas with some people walking around, and give generous distance to dark, shadowy hiding places
-Don't pull out or show anything of great value (i.e. cameras, jewelry, money belts, or iPods)
-If you are confronted and told to hand over your valuables, don't argue or act like a hero, hand it over.

Now, here are a few slightly less well known ideas I liked to use to stay safe.

If you don't know where you are and don't know how to make it look like you know where you are, pick a random point a couple blocks distant, and walk to it, purposefully. Once you get to it, choose another and do the same thing. Keep doing this until you find a well-lit populated place of business where you can pull out a map or get directions without problems.

Plan ahead of time when you're going to need a map. If you have to pull out a map, make sure it's folded down to the part you need so that you can pull it out and have it in one hand without unfolding. Basically, make it look like it's something other than a map. Ideally, you'll have already done this before walking out into the street.

Use reflections. Shop windows, car mirrors, and anything glass are all your friends, because they can give you a view of what's going on behind you, without you twisting and turning. If you still have sunglasses on your person, you can pretend to inspect the lenses-- the curved lens is a great way to see what's behind you.

If you suspect that someone is following you, walk all the way around a city block until you're going the same direction you were originally. If they're still behind you, they are following you. Step inside a shop, hotel lobby, or any open, lit building with someone working inside, and tell the person that you are being followed.

If you keep a wallet in your pocket, keep it in the front pocket. If you must keep it in the back, tie a couple rubber bands around it so that you can more easily feel if someone tries to slip it out.

If you are in a place where mugging is reported to be common, carry a second wallet with a small amount of cash and some expired cards inside it. If you are mugged, throw this wallet to the ground and run, if you can.

Finally, use the city around you. The vast majority of people wherever you are is trustworthy and hates thieves and criminals more than they could ever hate you, regardless of your demographic. The vast majority of the city is your friend, and criminals are running scared of being caught by your friend. This is something that will help you stay calm if you're caught in a situation that feels unsafe.

I hope that helps. Safe travels!