Saturday, May 24, 2008

Always Talk to Strangers

There is a tempation when travelling to focus sights rather than people. Yet I've found time and time again that some of my best and most memorable experiences come when we manage to stop ticking off museums and buildings and spend some time absorbing the local culture. There are some amazing people in this world.

The other morning we had breakfast outside our hostel. The tables were full, so we sat down next to Steven, an English teacher from the US. Soon we were engrossed in conversation about his travels in the Middle East. He's spent time in Oman, Yemen, and other countries and now lives in Turkey. He had tons of interesting insights into Islamic culture. Lots of time passed, and it was close to lunch time before we finally left the hostel. We cut our sıghtseeıng short but in the end it was worth it. There are only so many mosques you can see in a day anyway.

Every time we've stopped long enough to talk to somebody, we've found ourselves enriched by learning a little bit more about the world around us. Our travel agent told us about the history of Turkey: about Ataturk and how the Turkish republic was founded. She gave us her views on fundamentalist Islam. "I am a Muslim", she said, "but I don't pray, I don't wear a scarf, and I can't read the Koran. For me, it is a cultural thing." It's a perspective we never hear in Canada.

We've found the same with fellow travelers. In Turkey we've been staying in family run Pensions. These are basically large houses that have been opened up to travelers, and they are a completely different experience from a hotel. The best ones really feel like you are staying in somebody's home and eating in their dining room, and they are a great place to meet people. We ran into some fantastic fellow travellers in Bergama and Selchuk. When you are in an out of the way Pension in the middle of Turkey the likelyhood that you'll have something in common with your fellow travellers is pretty high. They've all passed through the same travel filter.

A ide-effect of all of this is a lot of late nights. When you meet amazing people and find easy connections based on shared experiences and outlooks it's hard not to talk late into the night. Even though we exchange email addresses, in the vast majority of cases we will never cross paths again. We treasure these moments with our fellow travellers, and we love the cups of tea with the Turkish shopkeepers. And then we head off for the next adventure.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Travel Blog Challenges

Technology has allowed us to do some remarkable things while we travel. Here I sit, at a cheap hotel in Istanbul, writing a blog entry that will hopefully be read either by my friends at home, or maybe by me in my old age when I am no longer able to travel. One could argue whether this is in itself a good thing (after all, I could be out seeing the city), but it is something I enjoy doing.

Unfortunately the type of things I am doing are becoming increasingly challenging largely due to the very design decisions that are supposed to make computers easier to use.

Generally when we design a computer interface we try to avoid asking the user any questions if the computer itself can determine the answer. Hopefully the result of this is that your Grandma doesn't have to phone you up to ask whether she should install the latest security update to the operating system. As a counterpart to this we bury the complex parts of the system deep down where a novice user won't accidentally stumble into them and do harm.

The unfortunate counterpoint is that sometimes the computer makes the wrong decision on your behalf. And when you are travelling, the computer almost always makes the wrong decision for anything to do with language. The consequences are really annoying.

The first problem you run into on a foreign computer is the keyboard layout. Every country has a different keyboard and it can be an incredible hassle to search an entire keyboard looking for the @ key. To make matters worse many computers will have a physical US keyboard that is mapped to their local language. Generally every punctuation mark is in a completely new location and you have to explore the keyboard until you find it. Luckily there is sometimes a handy little menu in the bottom right to change the keyboard layout, but unfortunately there is some arcane magic needed to make it show up, and you have to reset the layout every time you open an new program.

The second problem is the language itself. In Turkey, most machines are, not suprisingly, in Turkish. You can change the language if you burrow far enough into the inards of Windows. Unfortunately, all of this stuff is in Turkish. Do I select Denemit Massasi from Baslat, or do I select Yaziki fe Fakslar? The only thing I know is that I haven't been able to find the language setting yet.

The third problem is that even if you change the language on the keyboard and the computer, you might still run into a web-page (Google for example) that tries to be too clever and gives you a local language version even when you try to get into the English version. Google's mail used to do this even when you log into a Canadian email address, but they seem to have fixed this recently.

The final problem is simply one of software. Uploading photos for example, doesn't work very well if you don't have the right software. And downloading the software is a hassle when all the confirmation dialogs are in another language, the link is slow, and the computer may be locked down.

I've made matters even worse for myself by creating a home page ( which has some content on it that need to be updated with a bit of JavaScript code and some snooping around on Google Maps. I'm sure I'll get better at it, but right now each time I do it I'm amazed that the whole mess holds together.

Despite all these challenges its still fun to be able to keep in touch with friends, and so I still end up typing rambling posts late at night in Istanbul. Playing with JavaScript in Turkey also brings me back to my roots; I've had a 25 year love affair with technology and I am still excited by new developments. Email and blogs sure beats the days of $6.00 a minute phone calls and one month postal service.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Long Live the Queen

The Netherlands, like many European countries, still has a monarchy. I've always thought the idea of a Queen or King pretty old-fashioned, yet as we talked to various people I realized that monarchies remain popular and that there are actually some pretty good reasons for keeping a weakened form of royalty around.

Politics in Canada (and even more so in the United States) is always overshadowed by the next election. Because the election cycle is so short this encourages some frightful short-term thinking. Politicians have little incentive to embark on a 20 year program of reform when they could easily be out of a job in 2 years. The temptation is to put off difficult problems until the next election and to score cheap popularity even if the long-term consequences are bad.

Monarchies work on longer cycles. Queens and Kings are often in office for decades so they see the consequences of their decisions. As a result, they provide a current of long-term stability in the chaos of ever-changing governments.

Modern monarchies are limited to diplomatic roles, but the ongoing popularity of monarchies reminds me of a broader idea Peter Gabriel presented at the TED conference few years ago. Maybe we need a branch of government that has a long term outlook to balance short term politicians. In Canada the senate could fill this role if we made some reforms.

Elected politicians are good at seeing the value of cutting down a forest and selling the trees. We need a balancing body that sees the value of saving a forest for our grandchildren. In a world with 6 billion people and an environment on the brink of destruction, it is time to experiment with some longer term leadership.

The Value of Family

Lara and I just spent most of the last week visiting relatives in the Netherlands.
It was a treat to spend a week soaking up another culture and meeting such a wide variety of wonderful people. I really have no family in Canada outside my parents, so for me the whole experience of visiting aunts, uncles, and cousins is something new and somewhat unusual.

What I found most interesting about my family is that there is an immediate degree of intimacy simply because we are related. Yet at the same time, anything that we have in common beyond some shared genes is simply an accident. This doesn't happen with the other people in our lives. We choose our friends among people who share our outlook and interests. Family stretches us socially in a way that our friends do not.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Flights to Obscure Places

After a longer than anticipated stop in Calgary (which included the best snowboarding season ever), Lara and I are on the road again as of early May. This time we are off for a year on a trip that will take us from Holland to Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, caving in China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and finally six months in various parts of Africa. Because we are going for so long our schedule is flexible. That way we can spend more time in places we like and adjust to changing political conditions.

The first adjustment we had to make happened even before we left Calgary. We had intended to start the trip in China and head overland to Kyrgyszstan through Xinjiang province in Western China. Unfortunately because of all the political unrest China has effectively closed the country to independent travel. You need hotel reservations for every night in the country and visas are limited to 30 days. This is fine for an organized tour, but makes backpacking rather difficult. A nice man at the Chinese embassy denied us our visa request and told us to try again after the olypmics.

As a result we decided to start our trip in Kyrgyszstan instead (after visiting Lara's family in Toronto). All Central Asian countries require a Visa and Kyrgyszstan is the only one where you can get it at the airport so it is a logical starting point. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that Toronto-Bishkek (Kyrgyszstan) is not a major travel route so we decided to book the flight ourselves as seperate legs. This turned out to be a pretty interesting experience in do-it-yourself travel booking.

I started by researching which airlines fly into Bishkek. We found out that there are direct flights to Bishkek from Istanbul on Turkish Air. The Turkish Visa is available at the airport, so that isn't a problem. Istanbul is also easily reachable from Amsterdam, and there are direct flights from Toronto to Amsterdam. Since I have family in the Netherlands that seemed like a great way to go.

We found out that websites like and don't show flights on discount airlines (think Westjet), so we researched discount airlines and found a cheap charter from Toronto to Amsterdam and another cheap charter from Amsterdam to Turkey. Simply by typing "Discount Airlines" into Google we saved about $1000.00.

Just as I was about to book the first flights Erin Lynch, my friend in China managed to get us an invitation letter to go caving in China. As a result we could now get a 30 day Chinese Visa without hotel bookings. We couldn't really carry our caving gear through a month of travelling, but I was able to find a company that could ship our caving gear to China for about $300. As a result, we can now do our China caving trip even though we won't be able to do the sightseeing we had originally planned.

Luckily we didn't have to change our plans much. All we need to do is time our entry into Kyrgyszstan so that we don't overstay our welcome before heading out to China. And of course we now need to figure out how to get from Bishkek to Chengdu, China. Our research shows that it is possible via Urumqi China, but we'll have to book the tickets in Bishkek since there aren't reliable online bookings for some of the airlines we want to use.

Who knew that an adventure would need so much paperwork! And we haven't even started to get all the required Central Asian visas yet.