Constant State of Motion

How I avoided the USD$25 bus fare to the Reykjavik Airport

Customer service agents can theoretically spend close to forty hours a week begrudgingly helping the general public with their asinine problems, such as unidentified charges on a cell phone bill or (even worse) collecting complaints from customers because they received a skim latte at their local Drive-Thru Starbucks, rather than the iced double shot breve they ordered.

If this is what you do for a living, you are thrilled at the thought of a vacation to a remote island paradise somewhere that requires talking to absolutely no one.

Travelling, however, is a bit different, and the saying “a stranger is just your best friend you haven’t met yet” couldn’t ring more true. By talking to people at hostels, airports, hikes, coffee shoppes, or any outlet of social energy not only allows you to jump out of your comfort zone, but you meet people, sometimes really freaking cool people.

Such was the case when I arrived, cold, wet and jet-lagged with a sprinkle of pissed off at the HI Reykjavik – Downtown. A guy my age and his girlfriend were hiking the Icelandic Wilderness for seventeen days, and we’re staying in my room. It’s strange for me to play nice with Americans, for most of them are loud and obnoxious with no concept of being guests in a foreign country. No wonder they return from Paris with the tag line “they were so rude!” Imagine if you were at your job and someone approached the desk/counter/phone call and started speaking exclusively in French. Then, when you couldn’t understand what they were saying, they impatiently starting raising their voice and infantilizing you by gesturing and miming in such a way that indicated you must be illiterate. You’d be pretty rude too…

Off the soapbox.

Any American couple that decides to hike Iceland MUST be pretty cool, not to mention they were eating curry: one of my favorite things of all time, and she was a lawyer that drove a Prius. If you’ve met me, these are my people. So we chatted over the next couple of days, and eventually realized that we had similar flight times. They also had the luxury of a current drivers license, and had a rental car. I threw out the possibility of sharing the ride to the airport later that afternoon, and they had room!

Such is the nature of travel. If you have a spare package of pasta that isn’t travelling with you, put it in the free food bin. Heck, I’ve given a spare iPod charger to someone who had everything stolen except her iPhone. She needed that thing more than I did. So these guys had a spare seat (and I mean one spare seat), and they were generous enough to share.

The moral of the story is MEET PEOPLE!! However, contingent with the goal of this blog, it is also how you can avoid the high costs of transportation and lodging. In Asia, we once roomed with an Indonesian businessman and an ex-army soldier to keep the costs of lodging down, not to mention, the Indonesians bargained hard. If you make it a point to meet people, your time passes faster, you learn about other cultures and ways of life, and in the midst, you can travel lighter and cheaper by buddying up and saving on expenses. So share that ride, that pasta you made too much of, and strike up conversation with someone, you never know…

A big thanks to Jamie and Ted for the ride, and the laughs! Drink more gin, and don’t eat the cucumber.

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Dinner in Reykjavik, Iceland

So call me a hypocrite. This blog is supposed to be about how to travel for long periods of time by disdaining the things you cannot have on account of a strict budget. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when I can finagle a way to eat for free, or transport for free, or trade things I have for things I need: it’s a way of life, and I don’t mind at all that I live day to day unsure about where to eat or sleep.

The other side of the coin, however, is the Anthony gourmand, the guy who loves Moët and Benedict on Sunday’s with a hangover, the guy who can have a Scotch conversation, or who feels absolutely comfortable discussing the personal and corporate payoff of a new VLJ.

At any rate. I decided to have one splurge while here in Reykjavik, so I sought out the best restaurant in the city, and walked in at 7:30P without a reservation.

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Incredible Nordic motif paired with impeccable service, and some of best food I have ever had. Why on earth would you pair chicken with peanuts and cayenne? It was delicious! How about rare seared Minke Whale with a puddle of soy-ginger-scallion sauce? Unbelievable!

I inquired briefly about the degustation menu with the request that I at least get to try the whale. My server was quick to the punch to assure me that whale is part of the tasting, and it was 8 courses total. Sign me up.

I’ll spare you the course-by-course play-by-play for your sanity (and mine), but I can confidently say, I walked out of the restaurant USD$66 poorer, but fully satisfied that I had made an excellent decision to spend a bit of money on a great meat out in Reykjavik.

In line with the goal of this blog, I will mention briefly a couple of ways I saved money on this endeavor. First, in my ten years of waiting tables at a high-end French Bistro, I met more service industry professionals than I can count, and I almost always sent a little something to the table as an added bonus to the meal just for being in the business. In Iceland, I (ignorantly) figured that service industry professionals were (decidedly) removed from the trends in culinary and hospitality. I was wrong. As soon as I shared a bit of what I do with my server, he had stories to tell and advice to give, which is awesome, because I learned promptly that Iceland is a burgeoning market for food, wine, and hospitality. They have a sommelier association, as well as competitions, tastings and events.

This piqued my interest, and after more questions and conversation, I was sipping on a complimentary glass of Graham’s 30year, which I was perfectly happy paying for, and didn’t realize was on the house until settling my bill and being surprised with the “sommelier discount…”

The years of paying it forward had payed off. I was sure to leave my email address with the server, because if he is ever near the United States or various places in Europe where I know people in the industry, I’ll be sure to see that he is taken care of similarly.

So in the end, even on my swank meal in Reykjavik, a city known for the high costs of everything – especially food – I was able to land a little discount through genuine conversation with someone who shared interest in good food and great wine.

Another free breakfast in Reykjavik, Iceland

So here I sit, with the wonderful taste of nutella and graham cracker titillating my tastebuds, warm coffee in hand as I peer out to the chilly Icelandic morning. Sure, I had to trot in a tee shirt and basketball shorts to the small makeshift house behind the hostel (the kitchen) in that chilly morning air, but the best part of my breakfast is that its FREE.

I walked past the others in the lobby, enjoying muesli and bagels and cappuccinos, but I am not a European on two weeks holiday with a fistful of euros to throw around, so here I sit, without the distraction of children or whine of an espresso machine, with my coffee and my breakfast in sheer, unadulterated, paid-nothing-for-it bliss.

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Remaining true to my mission, this is yet another example of how to avoid the incredible costs of “vacation,” as opposed to “travel.” I will arrive in London later today, where a £5 pint of beer is waiting, but when you are in London with friends, pints of beer are key, in Iceland, you splurge on things other than bagels and cappuccino; like my dinner last night…

…to be continued.

How to save MONEY on souvenirs.

Paint a quick picture in your head for me. Grandma goes to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for a week to play a bit of bocce with her girlfriends, maybe enjoy a glass or two of White Zinfandel on the patio of her hotel. For her this is bliss, and probably well-deserved after dealing with the hell of raising three or four children in the sixties and the early seventies, let’s be real.

However, one small thing we forgot about her excursion is her unrelenting aversion to souvenirs! Small, plasticky toys and trinkets that sway or move or otherwise glisten or are stuffed with PVC pellets, the only real thing they have in common is their absolute uselessness. You smile, accept them with gratitude, of course, and quickly retire them to a shelf to collect dust.

The souvenirs you do keep are the ones that inarguably cost the person a pretty penny. Unlike the Beanie Baby, these things rest in curios – and to a budget traveller, that sort of thing is not only a monetary nightmare in and of itself, but transporting (or shipping) these sorts of nostalgia home is nail-biting, and spendthrift.

So how do you collect (or send home) souvenirs to capture and share your adventures with friends and family while keeping it classy?

Postcards.

Call me a Luddite, but there is something old-fashioned and downright cool about having a postcard from Borneo on your refrigerator. As long as you avoid the ridiculous examples and write a heartfelt little anecdote on the back, a postcard is the ultimate souvenir. The time it takes to pick one out, write your message, and stand in line at a foreign post office only costs you the value of your time (which, because you’re travelling, is cheap – lets be honest), and can really brighten the day of the recipient. And because it’s paper, there is no obligation, it doesn’t collect dust, and if they want to get rid of it after a month or so, there’s the trash; it’s not a beach towel you’re embarrassed to use, or a stupid hat you’re ashamed to throw away, and it costs pennies.

Case and point:

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In the most expensive country I have ever visited, this little guy cost me USD$1, and to send it another USD$1.32 to send for a friend back home.

So if you are interested in saving money, but still want to satisfy the people at home and want a small piece of your travels, send more postcards! They cost next to nothing, no lugging them around, and they are incredibly personalized: and NOT tacky like those stupid license plate keychains…

Reykjavik on the CHEAP

I am constantly asked by countless people what the secret is. “How do you travel so much!?’ Where is the money coming from?!” So, to answer everyone’s questions and be able to share a bit about how I do it with the rest of would-be or current travelers out there, I have decided to start sharing my secrets!

I arrived in Iceland yesterday, and although I have found myself in one of the most astonishingly beautiful places in the world, I have also learned quickly that everything here is impossibly expensive. How expensive you ask? For example, I wanted to purchase chicken breasts yesterday for some chicken curry (my go-to cheap eat), and the cost for 4 regular sized boneless, skinless breasts: USD$20. Pair that with about USD$20 for the rice, the sauce, some frozen veggies and a bottle of tonic for my gin, and suddenly, it is the most expensive chicken curry I can possibly imagine.

With my go-to cheap eat out the window, I had to improvise dramatically.

Before I begin, let me say a couple of things: if you find yourself in Naples, dodging traffic and mobsters, PAY THE €20 for the pizza! Pizza in Naples is why you travel to Naples, so the €20 is ABSOLUTELY WORTH IT! Iceland however? You don’t come here for a gustatory delight to tickle your tastebuds into a culinary memory that lasts a lifetime, so suddenly, you pay the €20 to whale watch, or go trekking, but when it comes to food: eat to live.

So heres how I did it:

First, everything is imported and incredibly expensive, so if you are going to buy something, it is better to buy it locally. I started in the Airport Duty free shoppe. The Iceland Gin is distilled and bottled on the island, and cost me only USD$9.36, which the cashier squawked was a deal, because apparently in liquor stores in town (where the bottle is subject to incredible taxes), the same bottle costs around USD$38.60. Same for the energy bars, my cost was USD$3.30 as compared to USD$4.95 in the grocery store. So, upon arrival, I have already fought jet-lag and secured alcohol at a cost savings of about USD$32.54.

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The bus ticket into town was an unavoidable expense of about USD$25. But rather than take a taxi into the center, I decided to walk. Yep, it was raining and blowing and about 38°F. Cost savings? Most likely at least USD$10.

I am staying at the Hostelling International Reykjavik Downtown, which I highly recommend to make your stay in Iceland as cheap as possible. Sure, the daily room rate is about USD$33/night, but if you bypass the option to buy breakfast, this hostel has payed for itself already.

How so? Well, when travelling on the cheap, one thing you learn very quickly is how to make the most of the “FREE FOOD Bins” in Hostel Kitchens. I have donated to these countless times as a way to pay-it-forward, but also to rid me of any guilt when appropriately raiding them to find ingredients, or in some cases whole meals for absolutely nothing. This hostel has the most comprehensive store of free food bins I have ever seen, which makes my goal of eating on the cheap much easier to realize. For example, this morning for breakfast? Coffee with cream, sugar and bit of Nesquik, graham crackers and the Dutch version of Nutella. Cost? USD$0, savings? About USD$20. Deliciousness factor? 1000.

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The supermarket chain here is called BONUS!, which I love, because it is very similar to an ALDI, which also means cheap amazingness. To prepare for at least two lunches and two dinners, I purchased bowtie pasta, generic pasta sauce and some canned meatballs. Eat to live, remember. Total cost? USD$4.41, which makes my cost per meal at about USD$1.10. Add to that, additionally, that the hostel kitchen offers free fresh garlic, AND there are cheese tortellini in the free food bin, paired with a spice rack that marvels Thomas Kellers kitchen, and I was eating very comfortably and deliciously for my USD$1.10. Cost savings as opposed to eating at a restaurant? Well, I saw plates of pasta advertised for about 2295 Kròna each, or USD$13.75. You do the math.

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So, by being smart with my purchasing, raiding the free food bins, and making small sacrifices, I have managed to save at least USD$100.00, which is a great little store of cash for a Pint in London with Maddie Johns, or to splurge on a typical Icelandic meal of whale meat or fermented shark…

…to be continued.

Stirfry!

There is a fragile gap between the collegiate diet of Redbull and Ramen and the all-grown-up, gotta-feed-the-kids routine that most of us find ourselves in around this age. I think. At any rate, I’m trying to effectively navigate that dilemma while in a foreign country and while saving as much money as possible to further my travels down the road. So as an addendum to the ever-evasive cheap meal, I tried a stir fry.

Simplicity is key. I used two white onions, the cheapest I could find, one-half kilo of tenderized beef steak, rice, and a sachet of teriyaki sauce (I’m not THAT talented).

Sautéed the meat and the onions until they were brown, added the sauce, added the rice. Viola.

Meat: NZ$6.27
Rice: NZ$1.06
Onions: NZ$.70
Teriyaki Sauce: NZ$2.09

TOTAL = NZ$10.12

Divided by 3, because it was shared dinner for three people, and the per plate cost was NZ$3.37. That’s a whopping US$2.76 for dinner.

Score.

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Tortas Fritas!

What is there to do on a rainy day on a tropical island when you are living with seven Argentineans? Apparently the answer is Tortas Fritas, which is the fried biscuit/cookie that is served as a middle breakfast alongside a Yerba Maté. The process is simple, and rest assured there wasn’t a recipe to be found.

First, you add flour, milk and oil to a bit of flour.

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Then, you mix with your hands to make a solid, firm dough. Lay it on the counter and roll it thin with more flour.

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Once the dough is thin enough, you cut it into the desired shape. Circles are common, as are rectangles.

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The entire time, they were assuring me that it was not the traditional “Tortas” because we weren’t using animal fat. Gotcha guys. After allowing the cutout dough to rest in the refrigerator, the dough is ready to be fried.

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After they are removed from the oil and left to drain, they are either sprinkled with salt for a savory middle breakfast meal, or with sugar for something sweet with homemade Dulce de Leche after dinner…

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These little guys are irresistibly delicious! I had a couple with coffee, then with jam, then just because they were sitting around! If you are serious about making these at home, you can click here for about.com’srecipe.

Gertrude’s Saddle

We checked into Milford Sound Lodge, which was quite literally a mountain lodge in the middle of nowhere. You have to tug open the big heavy door that you can imagine is crusted with snow and ice in the winter, make your way to the reception amid the timber pillars supporting the ceiling, and check in with cash-in-hand only. There is a small ‘General Store’ selling things like carabiners, climbing rope and energy gels. ‘Personal lubricant’ and condoms were on sale also, but you’d have to literally blow of the dust to see the price: people that arrive here are not looking to conquer anything in the bedroom – its Milford sound: home to some of the most native, inimitable landscapes this side of the Indian Ocean, arguably the world.

The forecast calls for 22°C with sunshine all morning, which is the perfect weather for our chosen route in the morning: Gertrude’s Saddle, which our lodge ‘brochure’ (a 20weight piece of laser jet paper printed last week) warns “Good Weather Walk Only,” and “High Avalanche Risk in Winter and Spring.”

The trailhead warns that the route is for fit and experienced trampersonly, and that navigation and alpine skills are required. They weren’t lying. You travel along a riverbed for about 800 meters before making a scramble up 45° of granite and schist for more than a kilometer. Once the trail plateaus, you are standing beside an alpine lake with crystal clear waters that are bone-chillingly cold. The next 500 meters is straight up a rock face with help from an imbedded cable. Hand by hand you clench the cold, rough cable and brace on your tip-toes, swaying side to side trying to ascend with any fortitudinous pace. It’s like fully exerting yourself amid air that is thinning more and more every step you take while only moving about a meter every 15 seconds. As you crest the summit amid the heat of the sun baking your face (no other skin is exposed), the view down the other side is breathtaking. It is a sheer drop, hundreds of meters straight to a valley, with a river seemingly minuscule winding it’s way to the ocean. The air is crisp and cool, small patches of grass are doing everything they can to survive amid the boulders and rock, and everywhere you look, the only view is down.

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Marlborough!

I’ve read about it in magazines, studied the climate and the geography and varietals, but there is something about standing on a ridge overlooking hundreds of rows of beautifully arranged, perfectly parallel vitis vinifera in Marlborough that is completely awe-inspiring.

My first stop was Cloudy Bay, I figured it was necessary only because it’s on wine lists everywhere back home, and it was the inimitable Lawrence Turcotte that first mentioned Cloudy Bay as the prototypical expression of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. It was okay. The Pelorus 1996 Vintage Brut was better, most likely because it is a majority Pinot Noir, and cool climate Pinot Noir (think Champagne) is fantastic for the bubbles.

I had the opportunity to visit and taste with some fantastic people and spit out some fantastic product that I would have loved to curl up in a corner with and drink by myself – but one experience I will never forget was at Lawson’s Dry Hills, a boutique outfit that is hands down the most awarded and accoladed vineyard and winery I have ever heard of. One sip of the wine and you realize why.

I walked into the shaded cellar door after a tree-lined driveway and introduced myself to Sue, who immediately mentioned that the winemaker might be available; “I’ve seen him around today, let me check!”

Two minutes later,Marcus, maybe three years my senior, glasses and a beard, emerged from the doorway, walked right up and shook my hand, introduced himself and enthusiastically encouraged us to get started. He spoke with conviction, but calm as ever – with wonderful use of expletives. I was shocked at the difference between speaking with winemakers and speaking with ‘winery representatives,’ especially the French, who are so often stuffy and speak with pretense.

Marcus walked me through the entire line, even some of the single vineyard stuff that isn’t typically offered to taste. Sip after sip, varietal after varietal was such an incredible experience! The Chardonnay was powerful, but voluptuous, with oak and spice and fruit all in perfect harmony. The Riesling was incredible! The Gewürztraminer blew me away with its tropical fruit, spice, weight and alcohol – all perfect. I could have stayed all day and talked clones and viticultural practice.

The rest of the day was incredible, and I was able to taste the likes of Seresin, which is featured on the Wine List at The Fat Duck, as well as Framingham, which according to Jancis Robinson, has the best wine she has ever tasted out of Marlborough. I bought a bottle. More to follow.

Enough about the wine: it’s off to Abel Tasman National Park, and a road trip around the South Island!

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Cheap Eats. Drinks are a Different Story…

I can have pasta anywhere, and it’s cheap. Only if you are in Tuscany and an old Italian Woman is whipping up risotto with black truffles and pecorino is the €20 plate worth it. Likewise, when you are on the road in one of the most renowned wine growing regions of the new world, it’s okay to pinch pennies on a boxed meal, as long as the wine is unlike anything you can get back home.

Burgundy is most always a sommeliers first love, and for me, there is still a special place in my heart for a Premier Cru Volnay, or a delicious Échezeaux, but like all things, I have been forced to move on. Riesling now, with it’s superb acid, brilliant balance and wonderful resin character has fallen into favor, especially in a delightful southern hemisphere summer where Sauvignon Blanc is so ubiquitous, it’s dizzying.

So when I saw a Waipara Riesling sitting on the shelf, last bottle, I scooped it to pair with my NZ$2.65 pasta bowl with mushroom and black pepper.

The nose with Riesling reminiscent, but not as aromatic as the varietal is capable of. Lychee and resin dominate. The palate is soft, almost unctuous, and sweeter than I would have thought. This is obviously not a ferment-to-dry example, but it is perfectly balanced with hefty acid. Tartrate Crystals gave a bit of texture to my final sip, which indicates the wine was not cold stabilized: even better!

Overall, it was a good expression of the varietal, but I wouldn’t put it in a tasting of some big hitters from Alsace or Germany.

2009 Rockface Waipara Riesling NZ$16 12.5%ABV
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