Behind the scene: planning for serendipity
It's been a while since the last post. Unfinished posts piled up inside a locked closet. Amalfi coast, northern Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Iceland, to name a few. Some day I might come back to them. But for now I am looking forward to a place that is probably not on anyone's radar. Mine included.
The trip will start with friends' beautiful wedding in Thessaloniki, Greece. From there, I'll make my way north over land to Skopje, Macedonia, connecting westbound into Prizren, Kosovo. By some combination of buses, walking, hitching, I will make an attempt to find a donkey ride across the mountain range, possibly hitting up small towns of Dragash and/or Brod. Back to Prizren to an overnighter bus to Belgrade, Serbia for a quick stop. Then I will skip out of the Balkans and make my way to Berlin to meet friends.
I get quite a few questions on how I plan trips like this. The Internet, I usually say. Because the point of a trip like this is to wander, there is a fine balance between making sure all the logistics line up and going with the flow. I'm more the latter type. But I do plan. You can never be too sure if you will find Internet along the way so it's always good to have key information ready ahead of time. Here's what I do.
1. Identity port of entry / exit.
2. Google map the area in between. Zoom in & out. Look at town names, images from different areas. If there are any town of interest, write them down.
3. Scan the same space with Google Earth or satellite view. Sometimes you'll find blue spots that signifies some kind of pristine beach or lake or other water body. Write down the names. Topography of the region (derived from photos in the area or the actual elevation data itself) also informs many things like climate, travel condition, etc.
4. Search other people's vacation photos. Go to Flickr or Google image search and type the names collected. These sites will rank most relevant (high quality) images in the search result so you can really see a crowd sourced version of each towns or areas. Narrow down the list here. Some folks will also describe the shots. That's always a treat.
5. From here I generally go to NatGeo, OutSide, NYTimes travel sites and see if they have written anything about my point of interest. If it's a city, I'll go to Anthony Bourdain site to see if he's eaten anything cool there or this one architecture site (blanking on the name at the moment) that has a great crowd sourced collection of modern buildings worldwide. I'll open my Evernote and write down stuff I might want to do.
6. Back to Google map. It's important to know where to stay along the way, especially if you are relying on mass transit to get around. Here I will mark down places I might want to check out, then search for hostels. The search result from Google map for hostels or any place to stay is never comprehensive, so it is important to cross reference this with other sites like tripsdvisor, hostel world or even lonely planet. Depending on how rural the area is, sometimes there will be nothing. WikiTravel is a good spot to check if that area does show up and someone's been there. Thorn tree (?) I think is the lonely planet chat board, sometimes contain pretty good info on how to get around and where to stay in a few off the beaten path areas.
7. Plan for one night in a known spot. This is a tip I love most for when I'm staying somewhere for multiple days. I'll book my first night stay ahead of time. When I arrive I will walk all over town to get the lay of the land, and maybe find a spot more local that's not available on the Internet to move to instead. This obviously only works when you are not dropping in on a hot spot at high season. I did this when I went to Jericoacoara in the northern coast of Brazil and found the loveliest little guest house run by this not-tech-savvy-at-all bohemian Italian lady. Score.
8. Transit. Type in "how to get from x to y" in google. It's pretty simple. The result varies tho. You could end up with a very neatly displayed bus or train schedule or you could land on some gypsy blog post that tells you to grab the van on the corner of the market and wait till its full. Either way this is very important to know -- especially if no one speaks your language in that area. Write down the name of the companies that operate these transportation and a few sentences in native language how to ask for direction (plus little responses like left, right, straight, behind, over there, etc). Don't book anything if you can help it.
9. Packing list. By now I will have an idea of where I might want to go. This tells me what I need to pack. Or rather, how little can I get away with packing. Flagging out laundromat spot can be helpful here. As is bringing a tiny supply of detergent. Either works. Bring rope. Definitely bring flip flops for showering, sleeping bag (even when the plan calls for hostels and not camping), tiny toilet paper roll (not just for your butt, I guarantee), twisties, light torch, knife, and proper charging adapters. I sometimes bring a little bag of American candy to give people I photograph. This isn't always a good practice if the locals don't have means to get proper dental hygiene, but you can decide.
10. Buy the entry / exit flight separately from all other travels in between -- and do this way in advanced. This is important, especially when I don't have unlimited vacation days. You don't want to tie any spontaneous decisions in between with your key flights, ever. Booking them on the same itinerary can be very problematic when you do want to make last minute changes.
11. Pre-book as little as possible. Let the notes you just made be a menu. And don't be afraid to throw everything out at the last minute and go with where the wind takes you. The world is much more warm and welcoming than you think ;-).
UPDATE: I did end up throwing the entire Balkans planning out the window and flew to a quiet island in the Aegean Sea instead? Why? Why not? The warmth of the Mediterranean was way too intoxicating to retreat up the mountains, maybe.