Friday, November 8, 2013

Less and longer: a few words of wisdom on traveling right

So you’ve saved and budgeted for your trip and now it’s finally time to plan your itinerary. Six months of travel time stretches out before you like a magic carpet. So many opportunities to explore exotic locales! So much time to explore all those places on your bucket list!

Ahh, your bucket list… How many boxes will you be able to check? You have six months. Why not do the Inca Trail, explore Patagonia, go shark diving in South Africa, eat dumplings in China, climb Mount Kilimanjaro, go to a full moon party in Thailand and find yourself at an Indian ashram? Hell, you should probably throw in an Italian cooking class and a camel riding in Morocco for good measure. It all sounds great. Until, of course, you hit the brick wall of reality.

Inside a hellish bus for a heinous ride through Nepal
Travel can be hard, frustrating and draining. You start to think about that into your second day into a thirty-hour bus ride in Nepal where the space between the seats was apparently designed to be perfect for two-year-olds and there’s a box of meat rotting in the back. Or when you arrive in your fourth Tanzanian town and every single local is trying to cheat you for forty times the proper cost of accommodation. Or maybe when you get violently sick in the middle of the wilderness with no hospital (or road) for days. These are the times when you start to appreciate two magic words: less and longer.

Less really is more. Don’t stack your itinerary. It’s far better to spend two months than two weeks in any given country on your list. And in that country it’s far better to spend two weeks rather than two days in any given city or destination.

By doubling down on particular places you kill two birds with one stone. First, because you’re in one place for a long time you’ll find that perfect beach bungalow owned by the local mayor’s family and get invited to a massive wedding party where you make friends for life. If you were only there for two days you’d probably be at that guesthouse with decent but outdated reviews from Lonely Planet that now has a cockroach infestation.

Second, you minimize your exposure to the bane of all travelers: logistics. You don’t spend half of your time in country on a local bus. You don’t discover that your fourteenth taxi driver rifled through your bags. You don’t loose you luggage on an avoidable regional airline flight. You've taken six months off, use that time wisely: with less and longer you'll interact more with locals, enhance the quality of your experience and maintain very healthy levels of personal relaxation.

Basically, you’ve taken the work out of the travel. By staying longer in each place you actually get a feel for the local life there instead of blazing through in a series of photoflashes. As you get ready to plan your trip, doing a country a month would be a good rule of thumb. You may not check as many boxes but you’ll learn a lot more about yourself, a lot more about the country you’re visiting and a lot more about the true meaning of fun!

Co-posted on

Monday, November 4, 2013

Finding mind-blowing coffee in the most unusual places

If I had to pick one thing that makes Ethiopia one of the most unique traveling experiences, I would say it's all in the small Coffea arabica beans. I'm not one of those coffee crazed people who needs coffee to function but I do enjoy a fantastic cup of coffee every once in a while. The great thing about Ethiopia is that I found fabulous coffee everywhere. Instead of my usual three cups of tea a day habit, I started drinking coffee at least three times a day while visiting the former Abyssinia empire. Being completely surrounded by the wonderful frankincense, freshly roasted and freshly ground coffee smells made it impossible to refuse a cuppa. Cafes felt like magnets and we'd often find ourselves walking in and ordering macchiatos almost involuntarily. Even while we were trekking for a few weeks in the northern highlands of Ethiopia where there is absolutely no running water or electricity whatsoever, we found light, medium and dark roasts and still enjoyed coffee before and after almost every meal.

Good with our Sumatran breakfast but not the best coffee ever
I knew I wasn't going to drink good coffee either in Sri Lanka or in Maldives but I was genuinely excited about Sumatran coffee. I was actually quite disappointed with the coffee there and the best one I was able to find was an Illy roast served at a small cafe at Lake Toba. Everything else paled in comparison to Ethiopia's delightful coffee so I stuck to fresh coconut water instead.

Not the fanciest roasting equipment but it works!
I had not lost all hope on good coffee as I knew we'd spend all of September up in the Bay Area and I had heard very good things about new cafes that were doing exceptionally well. I decided to check them out and first went to Blue Bottle Coffee in Downtown San Francisco - the cafe is very hipster and they have all the chemistry experiments set up to brew what many people say is amazing coffee. Amazing in San Francisco comes with a price so Eliot and I ended up paying $9 for two iced coffees. I anxiously waited for my order and I grabbed the tall, skinny glass full of ice and coffee. I took my first sip and did not like it at all. Wait, what? My taste buds must have clearly been wrong. Everyone here seemed to love the coffee and even at 3pm, there was a line of at least 15 people going out the door and wrapping around one of the street corners. I took my second sip and I sighed. I sighed out of disappointment because my iced coffee just wasn't that good. For the price, it was actually bad. I have to admit I only had one of their drinks so I can't speak for the rest but I do not get what all the hype is about with Blue Bottle Coffee.

Later that week I decided to give San Francisco's hip and trendy coffee scene another shot. This time I went to Four Barrel Coffee in the mission and I decided to stay away from the iced coffee and just get their cup of coffee. For $2.50, I received a freshly brewed cup of coffee and didn't add any milk or sugar to it. Four Barrel Coffee roasts its own beans so I was hopeful that my coffee would be delightful. Again, pretty big disappointment with my first two sips. It wasn't the worst coffee I've ever had but it just wasn't spectacular - I left half of it behind and didn't even finish my cup. Four Barrel Coffee had a full house that day and it was 4pm. Everyone there seemed to love their drink except me.

Is exceptional coffee just that hard to find? Or is my particular and biased taste towards Ethiopian coffee ruining my coffee drinking experience now that I'm back in the US?

Colorado and amazing coffee, who would've guessed?
The answers seem to be maybe for the first one and thankfully no to the second question. Just was I mentally preparing for giving up on most cafe's, I happened to run into an amazing micro roaster and cafe in Leadville, Colorado out all places.

City on a Hill is one of the few cafes in this small mountain town. They pride themselves on roasting their own coffee and on serving great cappuccinos. I was a little skeptical based on my Bay Area experiences but decided to give it a go anyway. And my oh my was I glad I did! Finally! A fantastic cup of coffee! There was no bitterness whatsoever to my drink and it was neither too wet or too dry. Although the taste wasn't exactly like the coffee in Ethiopia, the quality was insanely high and I have a feeling it all had to do with the care City on a Hill takes when roasting their green coffee beans, just as Ethiopians care so much about taking 45 minutes aside to make a few cups of coffee from scratch. If you ever find yourself in the Leadville area, a trip to this coffee oasis will be worth the stop (hours and directions are here:

Can non-export quality coffee beans still make good coffee just like they do in Ethiopia? Can you still get just "meh" coffee even if the beans are high, export quality?Is the secret to fabulous coffee in the roasting? I think it is, and I think I'm onto something...

Smell that heavenly goodness!