Month: June 2014

How To Save Money For Travel

Everyone makes choices in terms of how they choose to spend their money. I am usually choosing to spend it on travel.

Cambodia. Siem Reap. North Gate entrance to Angkor Thom.

By now, this is somewhat of a habit; I’m used to these trade-offs and don’t even really think about them anymore. To an outsider though I know it can seem a bit of a mystery. “I spend all the money in my paycheck, how can I save any?”

Simply put: stop spending money without thinking.

Everyone has a list of things they are unthinkingly spending money on. The idea is to examine each of these things and decide if that really is how you want to spending it, or if spending it on… say…. a flight to Southeast Asia is more interesting to you.

These are the things I’ve been able to examine, and cut, from my own budget:

  • No cable TV. I gave up cable tv a few years ago, and have never looked back. I bought an antenna to watch local news, and have Netflix and Amazon Prime for my streaming needs. I don’t miss it at all. This represents at least $100/month.
  • No landline phone. I had one installed when I first moved into my apartment, but cancelled it a couple years ago. Savings: $30/month.
  • Brown bag lunch to work every day but one day a week. This saves $150/month.
  • I don’t buy coffee drinks every day, I make it at home before I leave. $100/month.
  • I go out for few big restaurant dinners; I do get takeout once a week and do occasionally have dinner out with friends, but it’s not as often as most folks in San Francisco. This probably saves ~ $200/month.
  • No DVDs. Ever. I don’t buy them. I also buy little new music, listen to Pandora or Spotify instead. I buy few new books, usually only ones related to upcoming trips. New clothes only if I really need them. This probably saves  $200/month as well.

So what does that total to? $9360 a year.  Yep, I checked the math. There are probably a few things I’m not listing here that I’m not even thinking of cause I don’t regularly spend money on them, so I bet you could stretch this to $10,000 if you really tried. You save that, and you’re going to be going on a couple (or three!) nice trips every year.

Angkor Thom, Cambodia

It’s all about your priorities. It really is. Do you really want to travel? If you do, you can make it happen. I was doing an international trip (and a couple of domestic ones) every year when I was making less than $30k. It was rough, don’t get me wrong. I was eating beans and rice and shopping at the discount grocery store, but it’s possible.

One of the best ways to get started I think is to decide how much money per month you’re going to save, let’s say $250/month to get you started. Cancel cable, or the landline, or whatever else you have to do, then set up your direct deposit to put $250 into a savings account every month. That way, you don’t ever see the money, and it’s not there in your checking account tempting you.

Do that for a while, then cancel something else. Cut down on going to the movies, stop shopping as a way to spend your weekend or hang out with your friends. Start bringing your lunch to work. Crank the savings up to $500/month and keep going.

Cambodia. Siem Reap.  Tuk-tuk ride through Angkor Thom.

You should still have treats, don’t get me wrong. Get lunch with your coworkers every Friday. Get takeout sometimes. Go out for happy hour. But make these choices consciously, knowing what the trade-off is.

Then book that flight to Bangkok.

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North to Adventure!

Longyearbyen

I’m leaving today for a very exciting trip to Svalbard, Norway — north of the Arctic circle, to travel around the islands and hopefully, hopefully see a polar bear in the wild. Bonus points for walrus, beluga and NARWAL! As you can see in the image above, I will not be seeing any night.

When I land in Longyearbyen, I will be north of the Arctic circle in the same year that I’ve traveled south of the Antarctic circle. I’d be crowing about my achievement, except now I know (at least) three others doing the same! Two are working on the expedition ships, and another is a passenger like me who’s traveling to the North Pole this summer.

North and South

I will definitely be posting as much as I can to instagram so please keep an eye out for that.

Polar Photography Tips

Or, why I’m so cavalier with my gear and how it sometimes bites me in the ass.

1. Condensation is a function of dew point, not a matter of temperature change, so the humidity is what matters, not the cold.  In the polar regions, unless its actively raining it’s probably going to be pretty dry, both inside and outside the ship. Therefore going to the trouble of putting your camera and lenses in ziploc bags before bringing them inside is probably not going to be necessary; I’ve always just left them in a closed-up camera bag for an hour or so and I’ve never had a problem with condensation.

2. You’d be surprised how wet your gear can get with no ill effects. I’ve shot in drizzle countless times and never had any problem with anything getting fogged up or shorting out. That being said, it’s good to have some kind of rain cover with you at all times in case it starts really coming down. Sometimes, a ziploc bag with a holes cut for the camera strap is enough. Sometimes you want one of these rain covers. When it’s just spitting, you can get by with adding a lens hood and keeping a chamois handy to dry off the front element and the barrel of the lens.

Wandering Albatross in the snow

3. Bring backups. There are no camera stores on the Antarctic peninsula. I rarely keep my lenses in any kind of bags or cases (aside from the camera bag itself), and while I was reorganizing gear in my camera bag one day, one of my lenses rolled off the bed and hit the floor. The filter cracked and the filter ring was so bent by the impact that I could not get it off. Good thing I had a backup – I just tossed that lens into a drawer, grabbed the backup and I was good to go. Once I got home I took it in to a camera store and they got the filter off. The front element was fine; the filter took the impact… which is why every one of your lenses should have a filter on it, especially on a boat.

4. On a moving ship, an image-stabilized lens is a lifesaver. My recent trip to Antarctica is the first time I’ve really shot with one, and I was amazed at how sharp some images were – even of birds flying behind the ship.

Giant Petrel

5. Don’t be afraid to change lenses. Yes, every once in a while why you’re doing that some bits of dust are going to blow in and get on your sensor. It happens. Just don’t be that guy on my recent trip who only ever seemed to have his 100-400mm on his camera. You will miss shots that way. You’ve paid all this money to get there, now you’re missing shots cause you don’t want to change lenses. It’s a cryin’ shame. At one point, one of these long-lens guys commented; “I just gotta wait til that iceberg is a little further away!”

6. Bring sensor cleaners.  When you get a bit of dust in there on your sensor after changing lenses, you can use one of these swabs to clean off the dust. They work like a charm and are easy to pack.

7. Bring some really thin gloves, eg: liners like these, and slightly heavier gloves like these: both enabled me to tweak controls on my camera with gloves on, which was essential. I really found I rarely needed more than one of these on anyway – it was not as cold as I’d expected.

8. Stay out on deck.  I spent hours on deck just watching the landscape roll by, and it enabled me to get a lot of great shots I would not have gotten otherwise. When you spy that great iceberg from the lounge, its too late. By the same token, carry your camera with you to meals. It can be a bit of a drag in a crowded dining room, but when they spot that whale it’s great not to have to run down to your room to grab your gear.

Iceberg

9. Bring two camera bags. To Antarctica I brought a backpack (and dry bags) for our shore excursions because you need to have two hands free to get in and out of the zodiac. At the last minute I decided to bring my regular shoulder bag too. I was so glad I did — it’s so lightweight and easy to have at your side all the time while on board.

10. Look at your pictures (especially to check for spots on the sensor), but don’t really edit during the trip. You want to take enough of a look to figure out if you screwed something up, or have some setting wonky on your camera, but you don’t want to get so deep into editing that you miss additional photo opportunities while you’re doing that. There’s gonna be plenty of time to edit once you get home.

11. The last zodiac is the best zodiac. On most of our landings, I was one of the last people back to the ship.  Given how changeable the weather is down there, you really never know what is going to happen. One day on South Georgia, as I was slowly making my way back to the landing site, the sun started to come out, and sea turned a light turquoise blue. It was gorgeous. The expedition team literally had to chase me into a zodiac so we could leave for the next location. But the pictures I got in those last few minutes are great.

South Georgia. St. Andrews.

 

Packing 101: Make Your Own Amenity Kit

One of the things that people love about flying business or first class, aside from the gigantic seats and free-flowing liquor, is that the airlines fuss over them. Give them freebies. Think of all the little necessities. Like an amenity kit.

Well, you can so this too. A bit of planning, a few minutes in the drugstore, and you can make your own amenity kit that will make flying that little bit easier.

The real benefit these little kits give you, aside from the goodies inside, is a convenient place to put them so you know exactly where to find the thing you need, so that you don’t have to rummage around for 10 minutes trying to find your gum or whatever. I keep mine in my under-seat bag just so I get at anything I want even when we’re trapped in our seats by takeoff or landing.

I use a small orange mesh bag primarily cause the color makes it easy to find inside a larger dark bag, and the mesh makes it easier to find things inside in a potentially dark airplane cabin.

Amenity Kit

Here’s what I take:

– A small pen. Anytime you fly overseas, you’re going to have to fill out a customs form (if not other things) on arrival. If you have a pen handy, you never have to borrow one off your seatmate or worse, wait until you land to fill it out.

– Lip balm. To be honest, the only two things I really need to fly are a book and some lip balm. Flying is dehydrating, so I always end up with chapped lips.

-Face cleaner.  Flying long haul always makes me feel grubby. I used to bring along a tiny bottle of regular face cleaner, but that has the added complication of being a dreaded liquid, as well as then requiring water and then drying your face on stiff rough hand towels. So I recently came across small face cleaner wipes and they really do a good job of cleaning your face without leaving you feeling sticky.

 

Face cleaner

-Antibacterial gel – you saw that report that came out about how dirty seat back pockets are. Eeeeuw. Get a tiny bottle. I usually just leave it in this main bag without separating it with my other liquids; they’ve yet to catch me and seize it but your mileage may vary.

-Toothbrush/toothpaste. You can buy cheap foldable toothbrushes online which I like cause they fit in a small bag (and protect the bristles from getting stuff caught in them). I bought about 6 of these the last time I stocked up. For toothpaste, I always have a few “almost finished” mini-tubes from prior trips that I bring along in my amenity kit so that I’m not carrying the whole thing and then can toss it when done.

-Ear plugs. Ear plugs. Ear plugs. Do not travel with out them. Several of them in fact, so that if you lose a pair or two you’re still okay. From the roar of a jet engine to that baby that won’t stop screaming to that unexpected all-night wedding party happening outside your Indian hotel…. you get the idea. Just buy them in bulk. Ever since I found the incredibly garish hot pink ones, those are the one’s I’ve bought. They’re much easier to locate in the folds of the sheets when they’ve popped out of your ears.

-Eye mask. The first time I went to very northern Europe in midsummer I just happened to bring along a thin, cheap eyemask that I had gotten in an amenity kit from a previous trip to Asia. It was a lifesaver. I used it every night and would have been lost with out it. It was hard enough to buy headache medicine in Russia, I cannot imagine trying to mime “eye mask” to the lady at the chemists. My favorite style is the kind that has a bumped-out eye area that makes it so that you can comfortably open your eyes with it on. I usually keep it in a pocket on the carrying case for my noise-cancelling headphones intead of in the mesh bag itself. A little container of lotion oozed out a bit once and got all over it; that was not pretty.

Eye mask

-Medicines: depending on where you’re going this could just be a few Advil; on a longer flight where you want to get some sleep this could include Benadryl (my secret weapon sleeping pill), real sleeping pills, immodium, pepto bismol, heartburn medicine, migraine medicine, etc. Just a couple pills of each in a small pill box can be a lifesaver.

-Face moisturizer: I usually pack whatever free sample I have so sometimes decant something into a smaller screw-top container.

-Sunscreen: If you’re landing somewhere especially sunny, it’s a good idea to pack some so that you can apply it after your pre-arrival face washing is done. I often use free samples for this too — any SPF 20 will do, you just need to get something on there.

– Hand cream: Usually the richer the better, my hands get so dry and messed up when I fly that it’s always a relief to get some lotion on there.

-Emery board: For whatever reason every single time I fly I manage to tear an edge of a nail, or get it caught on something, then spend the next 10 hours getting more and more irritated by that little snag. Solution? An emery board (or part of one). At some hotel recently they had a package of cotton balls and such that included a little miniature one. Perfect for flying.

Other things to consider adding: Gum if you have air pressure issues in your ears. Mints. An energy bar. A tiny bottle of hot sauce (if you need to spice up that airline meal), floss (get the dentist to give you those tiny disks of Glide the next time you get your teeth cleaned).

Once you have this kit put together, all you need to do when packing is figure out what needs to be replaced or refilled. It’s always there in your little mesh bag, ready to go.

Bonus carry on items:

Water bottle: Airports are increasingly likely to have stations where you can fill up your own water bottle with filtered water on the other side of security. This is great if you don’t want to spend $3.50 on a bottle of water.

Noise-canceling headphones: I’m somewhat torn on these. I have the large over-ear ones, and while you can’t really sleep in them, they do a good job of blocking out some of the white noise engine roar and make it a lot easier to understand the conversation happening in the inflight movies (I’m also somewhat hard of hearing, so normally miss a lot of this with all the background noise on the plane).

Do you have any must-have carry on items you always bring on long flights?

Ode to the Antarctic Fur Seal

“Whatever you do, just don’t get bit.”

It’s not often that you hear those words, and especially not in reference to what looks for all intents and purposes like a lethargic, terminally bored seal. But, then you see the teeth. They are sharp. And apparently they are in a mouth that’s full of bacteria, not unlike a Komodo dragon. Get bit, and the deep puncture wounds will surely get infected. So don’t get bit. And don’t bother trying to run, cause they can run faster than you can. So just stare them down, make yourself big by throwing your arms out, make some noise and don’t turn your back.

“Okay, guys: Good Luck!”

That in a nutshell is your briefing on the dangers of the highly territorial and incredibly numerous Antarctic Fur Seal. You don’t expect to need to be briefed on the ways of a vicious seal. Hell, the words “vicious seal” sound like an oxymoron. But, here we are.

When we think of seals, we picture a lazy, maybe not so smart creature whose hobbies consist of napping and barking noisily at another seal who’s just stepped on them. They don’t move all that much and don’t seem very agile out of the water. They are certainly in no way frightening.

But those are not these seals.

fur seal

 

“True” seals are ones where all their spine and hip bones are in a line. They flop around or shimmy side to side to move forward and therefore can’t do so very quickly. Eared seals, like the Sea Lion or the Antarctic Fur Seal, have hip bones set up in such a way that they can get their flippers (their feet, basically) under them and use that for forward propulsion.  That’s why you don’t want to run. They’re fast.

furry

Personality-wise these are not the happy-go-lucky seals you see basking in the sun and napping all day. These seals are suspicious. They are short tempered. Some are clearly incensed that you have dared to walk across their beach and want to make sure that you know this. So they make a move on you. You will want to run, believe me. The first time a fur seal opens its mouth wide and lunges towards you, that’s your first instinct.

ANT_4639

But in order to so anything at all on these South Georgia beaches, you have to navigate your way through or around them. So you are faced with scenes like this: a veritable minefield of fur seals. Making your way across that field takes careful planning and a bit of bravado. And please don’t make the mistake of coming over one of those hillocks and surprising one. You definitely don’t want to do that.

minefield

The core of the issue, from a fur seal’s point of view, is that you should not be here at all. They want to make sure that you understand this, and leave post-haste. Even the babies get in on it – the first place we landed there was one very young pup that basically chased us up the beach, teeth bared the whole way. It was quite the introduction.

Suspicious pup
The first few days I was torn between hating their horrible attitude and determined desire to take a bite out of me, and really respecting such a badass animal. As the days went on though, it became funnier and funnier. They were so angry, so suspicious, so peeved, they were really a caricature.

Fur seal

So I made a point to try and get a picture of every time a seal gave me a dirty look. To chronicle their suspicion. Their anger. Their side-eye. It was not that difficult.

Top ten surprises about visiting Iceland

So this is what happens to me. Early on a Saturday morning, I’m messing around on the internet, and see a tweet about good deals on IcelandAir. Next thing I know, I’ve booked a week long trip. Just like that. It just happens.

In my few months of planning I booked some hotels, I made note of a few waterfalls to visit, I had a general plan in mind. I’d done my homework, but when the plane landed at Keflavik, I was in for some surprises.

  • The roads are empty. I mean really empty. I grew up in the Western US, so I know a few things about open spaces, but Iceland really amazed me: the big open vistas, driving for miles without seeing another car. It could have felt lonely and scary, but instead it felt exhilarating and exciting.

Iceland. Eyjafjallajokull.

  • Driving was really easy. I think what makes driving in new places so hard is dealing with the traffic and not knowing when you need to make a turn or what lane you need to be in, but I never had that problem there. Driving along as the waterfall comes into view, it’s pretty easy to tell when you need to turn off.
  • The horses are incredibly friendly. Every chance I got I stopped by the side of the road and went over to make friends and take their picture. No one ever came out of a farmhouse yelling at me for bothering their horses, so I’m guessing this kind of thing happens pretty regularly.

Iceland.

  • The biggest hazard on the road is actually the landscape surrounding it. Most of the time the roads have only a small shoulder, and the road is often raised above the level of the land by about 2-3 feet, so there isn’t a lot of room for mistake. And I almost ran off the road a few times cause I was gawking at the landscape. It’s very distracting. You’ve been warned.

Iceland.

  • The hot water smells very much like sulphur. Most (all?) of the hot water in Iceland comes straight from the ground and into your taps. And some of that water has a high sulphur content. Maybe I’m just really sensitive to it, but at one hotel I went down to the front desk to ask if something was wrong; the girl at the desk gave me a quizzical look: It’s obvious that you get used to it and Icelanders just don’t smell it anymore.
  • Everyone, everyone speaks English. And I never felt bad about making them speak it, like I do when I visit some places. I think the rule is: the smaller the country, the happier people are to speak English. They know getting people to learn their language is gonna be an uphill battle.
Image 8: Lupines

Gorgeous pastoral scene, or the verge next to the restaurant on the beach at Vik?

  • The grocery store sold peanut butter. This I really did not expect. Most cultures find peanut butter absolutely disgusting. so it can be really hard to find outside the US and Canada. I knew that Iceland was expensive, so I’d planned on buying bread and jam at a store and pairing that with brought-from-home peanut butter to make simple on-the-go picnic lunches, but in the end it wasn’t necessary. I could have bought everything right there.
  • The desire to buy a thick Icelandic wool sweater was SO STRONG I almost couldn’t resist it. I even posted a picture to Instagram and begged people at home to talk me out of it. I live in California you see, and never ever wear the wool pullovers I have now so I definitely did not need a new one thicker than all the others. Instead I bought a wool throw from Álafoss, and that turns out to be one of my best souvenir purchases ever. The cat is in love with its vaguely horsey smell for starters, and it’s heavy enough to keep you warm on the sofa on a chilly night.

icelandic sweater

  • The one thing about Reykjavik that surprised me (aside from the shop that only sold thermal underwear) was the amount of (really quite good) street art around the city. Just off the main shopping street there is a little skate park surrounded by huge murals, and other things tucked in here and there. Someone must do a street art walking tour, it’s be a great way to see the city.

Iceland.

My final surprise? At the end of the week I was back in Reykjavik, going to the airport and thought…. “I wanna do it again! Let’s go round the other way!”. I really did not want to leave. Lots of places, by the end of a week or two you’re ready for home and your own bed but that was definitely not how I felt. I can’t wait to go back and explore the western side of the island.

Previously passed-over image: Big berg

This is a semi-regular feature I want to add to this blog. It often happens that after I’ve come back from a trip and done the first few rounds of editing of my pictures and selected the best ones for my agent, I never go back and look at the rejected images later. This is a shame. For whatever reason, sometimes a perfectly awesome or just funny and quirky image gets passed over, and then I never think to pull it out to show it to anyone. With this feature, I aim to change that.

This one got noticed before I sent the selects to my agent, but only yesterday, almost 3 months after the trip. This time the reason was that this was a day– our last among the icebergs before heading back north– that had some really weird light. It wasn’t cold, but it was cloudy and snowy and for some reason the light ended up alternately really steely or with a weird yellow cast. So the RAW image looked, for lack of a better word, like crap.

Raw RAW file

Shooting in RAW is amazing, and if your camera can support it then everything you do should be in RAW. It just gives you so much flexibility afterwards in terms of what kind of dodging and burning, color correction, horizon-straightening and white balance control you can exercise later. I don’t do much in Lightroom — usually just tinker with the exposure, white balance,  and the white/black shadow/highlight sliders. Sometimes I add a graduated neutral density filter if needed and then spotting if I had something on the sensor. If your images are going to be made into jpgs to view on the web, it can be a good idea to bump up the saturation a bit, as making it into a jpg is going to dull that down, so the end result will be closer to what you see in Lightroom. I don’t do HDR and I don’t mess with other effects. It’s really hard to control that stuff and not make your image look like someone’s overenthusiastic, ham-fisted Photoshop assignment.

Lightroom

So like I said this day had some weird light and I somehow ended up with this batch of images way warmer than they should have been so they all looked really janky. So I cooled the white balance down to something that approximated what it actually looked like that day and bumped up the contrast and voila: a nicely textured iceberg with a couple of Antarctic shags (like cormorants) on it.

Big berg