Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Productivity Bar

it makes sense...

it makes sense...

Random Observation/Comment #204: This soul searching business is wearing me out.  I’ve written and thought so much about each subject methodically, yet I can’t make a solid decision.  Every damn methodical and calculated approach has been used, but I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anywhere (Where you goin’? – Nowhere).  If I really had a passion for this thing (whatever this thing is), shouldn’t the answer be obvious?  Maybe I just want to always continue soul-searching as an excuse to travel and prolong my final decision.  Can I have a career in soul searching?

I’ve come to the conclusion that my twisted version of productivity and efficiency sets an invisible bar for my happiness.  It has only happened recently, but I feel like the energy has been sucked from the marrow of my bones and all my muscles just mush with no will to do what I know I must.

This requires some background on my methods of productivity. When I was taking my large course-load at Cooper, I always found that there was one class that fell into a downward spiral of neglect.  This class would actually act as my cushion and motivation to do other work because the assignments were so dreadful that I rather quickly do all the other stuff and leave this one for last.  In most cases, it was some type of physics class or a class that involved the less hands-on projects and more of the abstract hand-waving that I would probably never realistically use.

Anyway, this odd method worked extremely well in the mindset and cluttered life of deadlines from a year ago, but the past few months has seemingly foiled my plans.  I’ve changed to a different structure that requires a different approach.  Some work still gets pushed aside while others are finished first, but the choice of the hindered subject seems to edge towards the path of most resistance, which incidentally is the much more important path.  As hobbies have suffered in the past, I now find these flickers of enjoyment to be essential in my life.

In no way is this vacation lacking all the ingredients for happiness, but something pecks – nay, it tickles – at my brain to the point where it’s passed the line of “haha” and tip-toed towards “blahahaha I feel like my insides are going to explode from uncontrollable laughter. Continue and I will kick you in the face.”  I’ve become slightly annoyed at myself that I don’t meet the deadlines I set even though I have full days with only a handful of tasks.  This wave of laziness from the summer weather and random distractions just mucks with my mind.  I’m befuddled at how little I get done and then I fall deeper into completing tasks for volume instead of necessity.

That bar was set so high, and now I’m degraded to lower it slowly without any apparent consequence.  It’s, as if, I’m falling into a lull of mindless activities – and, hopefully, it’s just a lull.  Even this blog slipped and just floated into a background obligation.  It seems I’ve manifested problems where they shouldn’t exist.  I thought my search was supposed to be simpler.

~See Lemons Defragment

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Writing for You or Writing for Me?

Confusion

Confusion

Random Observation/Comment #203: I seem to make more interesting observations and comments in my twitter feed.  They are definitely more succinct and directly relate to my everyday life.  I’m tempted to remove this section, but I really like how I’m keeping track of the posts with the comment numbers.

Ever since I’ve started writing, I’ve been trying to cling on to some type of purpose behind my entries for sanity and time efficiency reasons.  After a little more than a year, I’ve found that I have no idea what I’m actually writing about.  I’ve veered off topic so many times that it just jumbles between traveling and careers and just randomness.  And, even though there are multiple cases where I’ve tried desperately to find some coordination and path, I simply just forgot about the nice structure one arbitrary day and reverted to writing what comes to mind about my current situations.

It was on such a day (the ones where you feel like your memory has been wiped) that I bombarded myself with a slew of questions: Do I really want to write about the little details of my crazy adventures, or do I want to share my opinion and impressions about each place I’ve visited to help others make a choice?  Would people rather read about my version of a Wikipedia article on each city I’ve visited, or should I just write some ridiculous story?  Is the advice I draw from my experiences the value or are the experiences themselves more entertaining?  Should I make my conclusions or should I leave it open to interpretation?  Am I slowly becoming more humanities and losing track of my engineering straight-forwardness?

I found that these questions flooded my mind for one particular underlying reason.  I subconsciously felt that my writing was no longer for myself, but rather to please an audience of eyes.  Even though I may never see their faces or see un-typed responses, I have created my own stage.  It’s the stage in where you look out and you’re blinded by the spotlight.  It’s basically the spewing of some type of information to silhouettes.  I’d be happy thinking this way if I felt this was the purpose I wanted to portray, but I’m torn about the idea of “selling out.”  It’s not like I’m making money off of writing any of this – I’m really just trying to find myself and share these experiences with those who are interested.  But, the idea of shaping my personal reward and gratification on the basis of an invisible crowd just makes me feel slightly mad.

So my dilemma is that I’m stuck in this middle state between committing to an audience-based blog or a personal one.   I honestly fear both to their extremities.  I’ve definitely enjoyed writing in this free-flowingly manner to some fictional reader (or just another voice in my head).  However, my deepest reflections are still maintained in something separate and I’m reluctant to pull these confused moments into my posted writings.  I could write about topics that can easily gain trends and try to increase my viewers, but would I begin to lose my personality?  To put it a different way, am I more happy writing about my life so I could relive it or so I could share it and have others (possibly) benefit?  One I have some level of certainty and the other is in the shadow – somehow I just don’t know which is which.

Let’s try again: How do I explain this blog? Why do I continue if I’m starting to feel an invisible obligation that begins to interfere with my real world?  Each document has become my canvas to paint the confusions and battle the multitude of plausible views to – with any luck – come to a respectable decision or conclusion about my own character.  The interesting part is that I depend on it to work out the problems that are created by this same solution.  It makes me wonder if these problems would stop arising if I just didn’t write about them.  Hell – why not just stop thinking all-together?

~See Lemons Write for We?

PS – As I read back, it seems the painting on this canvas most closely resembles modern art.

Traveling Han-Style (Solo) vs Wingman’d

traveling alone? then who took the picture?

traveling alone? then who took the picture?

Random Observation/Comment #202: I consider myself a quiet guy with a lot to say.  It requires a bit of prying, but it’s quite easy to get me on some weird topic rant.  Since I try to gain a little bit of knowledge in everything, I’m sure it won’t take a long time of searching to find something we have in common or something we can just debate about.  With this being said, I guess I play more of a responsive role as a travel partner.  I walk around making observations and enjoy the new environment with open senses, but I’ll put in my two cents when the time arises.  There’s this side of me that gets lost within the moment and feels the need to be secluded, but another one that wants to talk about what I’m seeing and express those sporadic jokes that run through my head (instead of just taking a picture of it to laugh about it later).  I write this entry to answer a question that has been bugging me: Should I fly solo or look for a travel buddy?

I know some people who absolutely hate traveling by themselves.  They feel unsafe in an unfamiliar city and they feel so empty and quiet without a wall to bounce off some ideas.  I, on the other hand, love the solidarity.  I love walking at my own pace and seeing things that interest me.  I feel no need to follow someone else’s schedule and there’s a degree of freedom that brings everything together.  Plus, if I am in a social-type of mood, I can always meet new people at a hostel and jabber away about career ideas and similar topics of conversation with a new perspective.  There’s something about meeting a stranger that adds adrenaline to the equation.  After the first hour of going through the regular chit-chat introductions, there’s just an open slate of questions to keep a conversation rolling into different topics.

If I traveled with a best friend, we would definitely have these sorts of conversations with some inside jokes included, but your best friend’s image in your mind does not become tainted or boosted with any exchange of words.  The words don’t pass through a judgmental barrier, which is great between friends, but a little anti-climatic with my surroundings.  I guess the amount of new things you can learn about a friend (or the new things you want to learn without ruining a friendship) arrive a happy medium that should not be disturbed.  There are many cases where long road trips stuck in a car with someone for 15 hours at a time will drive one of the people crazy – especially if it’s just two people, sometimes you just run out of things to say.  Then you get this awkward silence and glowing evil vibe that makes everything uncomfortable.  There’s always the possibility of strengthening a friendship, but always that danger of mucking it up.  However, in the traveling situation, what are the chances that the person you meet half way around the world would become your best friend?  I’m open to the possibility, but the reputation you exude doesn’t make a difference – what matters more is your character.  I guess you could technically just lie about everything.  That wouldn’t be a bad social experiment…

Anyway, I’ve avoided traveling with someone I know really well to reduce the chance of messing up the relationship that already exists.  The solo traveling is probably not as safe, but it’s definitely much more flexible.  So, my quirky personal interests and weird walking habits have made me choose a solo-traveling solution?  I started to think it was the better choice until I actually found someone I like traveling with.  Maybe I just never gave it a chance or had the opportunity arise, but traveling with Natasha has actually been quite fun.  She enjoys the same activities as I do and we explore each city fulfilling our own role.  The conversations come in small waves, and in between, we just observe and make commentary where necessary.

I guess that’s the best part – the random commentaries that are floating in my head devoured in the moment.  The friend is just there for you to call his/her name and point at that clever little observation.  It’s that feeling of sharing that thought directly to someone – like twittering anywhere you want.  Hmm… it’s like being able to twitter anywhere at any time without any electronic device.  It’s genius.  The only down side is that it’s only with one person, but at least you know when this person is reading your tweet and whether or not he/she is interested.  Luckily, this service provides the visual clues of interest in the topic.  Plus, it has full voice recognition capabilities and responds with a set voice as well.  Brilliant!

So, I guess the key to traveling with a wingman is to have a good wingman.  You have to share the same habits in traveling and the same interests.  For example, a museum go-er would most probably not enjoy a huge hiking scene.  Or a lazy person would not want to explore the whole city by foot.  Frugal travelers may not always agree with the traveling styles of those who want to live luxuriously on their vacation.  There’s just a long list of ground rules that must be followed or else traveling together could just mean sleeping in the same hostel (which is cool too).  I guess the best course of action is to plan the trip together and see the common interests in activities.  If you find an interesting person with a similar taste, then the trip will be that much more enjoyable.  A base familiarity at least helps remind you of home.  When you’ve been traveling as long as I have, you start to miss home. Sigh.

~See Lemons Zusammen

Join Me Backpacking in August!

Looks like planning.

Looks like planning.

Random Observation/Comment #201: Over the past 6 months, I’ve become a travel guru. I wonder if I have to wear any special attire.  In boy scouts, the badge I sew on would probably be of a guy wearing a backpack with a hiking stick.  In real life, my uniform would probably include sandals and the same badge, but with me also fighting a tiger.  I could always use that huge Europe Lonely Planet guidebook as my weapon – that’s pretty much the only use I have for it anyway.  FYI, everything in a guidebook can be found online.  I think you’re just paying for the binding.

When I first started planning, there were many – well, I guess they can’t be labeled “mistakes,” but I’ll call them “miscalculations.” It was very – what’s the word I used? – Oh yes, Anal.  The way I did it before, I basically saw everything there was to see through other people’s blogs and photographs.  I used Google Earth, Google Maps, and Street view to actually walk through the major cities to the point where I recognized the exits to the underground stations in London.  Everything about the city was mapped out in my mind before even arriving to a detail that made me wonder why I even needed to go.  It was definitely a lot of work, but it was quite comforting for me (but mostly my parents) knowing that every step was planned along the way.  Since then, I have learned a great deal about traveling and created my own refined methodology.  I’ll try to stay on topic this time and write about this travel-planning process with the results for this August.

Knowing the Givens

It’s very difficult to plan a trip without at least some major givens.  For example, it is essential to at least know: 1) Time allotted, 2) Budget, 3) General area of travel (a continent would be nice), and 4) Personal preferences of you and your travel buddies.  The last part is the most important because you will not be able to make any decisions without at least having some opinion about the place.  If you have a list of dislikes towards weather, cultures, or certain parts of the world, then it will be easier to narrow down your travel location.  If you already have a list of must-sees, than that’s even better.

In my case, I have all of August with a tight budget and the general area of Northern Europe.  I bought a Eurailpass for Germany, Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg), France, and Spain for this month so I am much restricted.  Although restriction may sound bad, it is necessary for making these tough choices.

The Eurailpass is suggested for non-EU travelers because you’ll save a lot of money and you don’t have to worry about buying and printing tickets ahead of time.  A spontaneous traveler will appreciate this freedom.  I bought a 10-day 4 country select pass for August.  This means that the two months after activation, I can use any 10 days and take any train (including ICE) for free.  Great deal for only 310 EUR considering some one-way tickets can easily cost 125EUR.

Narrowing Down the Location

Based on your personal preferences, your travel time, and budget, the list of locations for your vacation should start to look a little more manageable.  I personally spoke with friends that have been abroad, or who are from these countries, to get a better idea of the sights that are most famous and most “underground.”  To get this advice, I suggest going to parties and bringing up this travel aspiration.  Surprisingly, everyone loves traveling and has their own little suggestions for places to go and things to see.  The guidebooks can give you this historical background and a few good tips, but I think locals and friends with your common interests can give you a little bit more relevant advice. Plus, if these friends live in the area and have a place for you to stay, it’s a little hard to resist adding this to your itinerary.  For people traveling in Europe, you will probably be using the super-efficient railway system.  Planning your route with this based on the travel flight should also give you a good idea of what you can see.  Remember not to be too ambitious and maintain within the area to reduce time spent on overnight trains.

In my case, I felt the need for a change of scenery.  I had visited so many old European museums and German places that the thought of a sunny beach makes me want to weep in joy.  Not only has Germany weather been overcast for most of the days, but I also haven’t gone body surfing for almost two years.  Yeah, there were those times in Japan, but I didn’t count them because the waves were so boring.  I miss those summers with huge waves and constant fear of jelly fish or crabs stinging me or clipping off a toe.  Good times.  Anyway, I will spend the bulk of my time in Spain and pass through Amsterdam, Belgium, and Paris.  This was partially due to my Spanish group of friends at Hamburg passing their advice on the main attractions.  I originally planned 10 days in Spain, but it kept expanding to more cities and more must-see locations.  Now, I’m thinking 20 days will let me see San Sebastian, Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, and Ibiza.

Creating a Broad Itinerary

I used to write these itineraries in a word document, but I found that making revisions and seeing multiple overlapping itineraries were quite difficult.  The much easier solution is to keep an excel sheet with the columns: Date, Day of week, IT1: Country/City, IT1: Transportation details, IT1: Activities, IT1: Sleeping location, IT2: Country/City, IT2: (etc.).  With the time available for travel, you could just write out a few different itinerary plans and see which one works best.  To help with this decision, it is important to know exactly the length of the commute and the prices.  If you take all of your desired locations as nodes in a network, you can assign the weight to the line connecting these nodes as the travel time and then use any of the famous algorithms to solve for the best path.  Too complicated?  Just make a circle.  I would suggest flights from major airports like London Heathrow or Paris because the flights are more frequent and therefore cheaper.  Once you’re in the heart of Europe, I would suggest finding an itinerary that maintains the shortest travel times by train.

For example, if you have decided you want to see France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany and your flight is arriving and leaving from France, I would suggest a broad itinerary like: 3 days in Paris, 3 days in Amsterdam, 2 days in Berlin, 4 days in Munich, 2 days Brussels, and 1 day in Paris.  Although Brussels and Amsterdam are close to each other, it makes more sense to have a stop between Munich and Paris to reduce the travel time.  This becomes much more relevant for my particular case because a train from Hamburg to Spain takes around 16 hours. Without a stop in Paris, not only would I spend a whole day on the train (which I will probably have to do anyway), but there would also be a problem with the length of usage for the eurailpass (if the train ride is from 8AM to 4AM the next day, you will need to use two days on the eurailpass).

For my case, I will be starting in Hamburg, going through Spain for 20 days, Paris for 5 days, back to Hamburg for 2 days to get my stuff, Amsterdam for 2 days, and then London to return home.  The cities of San Sebastian, Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia make a weird rhombus on the map of Spain so it’s a little bit difficult to decide which way to go.  I decided to see San Sebastian first because it’s the closest to Hamburg and I really want to jump right into the beautiful beaches and scenery.  After 2 or 3 days there, I’ll go to Barcelona for 4 or 5 days before the locals start their vacation.  Next is Madrid for 4 or 5 days for some culture, museums, and a cheap place to stay.  Lastly is Valencia and Ibiza for some relaxing beaches and party islands for the rest of the time.  This may sound like most of the work is already done, but research on accommodations and activities can change the broad itinerary.

Where to Sleep?

There are loads of cheap hostels in major cities with incredible free tours and maps that tell you all of the major attractions.  I found that, even though I did all my research before hand, I wound up “winging-it” when I arrived because I wanted a local tour guide’s opinion.  I would often arrive to the hostel, walk around for the night to get a feel of the city, and then just go to a free tour the next day to hear some history and ask some questions about places to eat or specific museums to see.  In fact, I think it’s enough to go to Frommers [www.frommers.com] or Wikitravel [www.wikitravel.com] and look at their attractions highlights.  Full-on itineraries are available, but you’ll find that these are completely unrealistic to follow.  Walking around the city with a full path planned and exact places to look makes it seem so robotic. I rather just use my sense of direction to guide my way around the city first.  It’s interesting how getting lost and then looking at the map later after finding your way back makes you more aware of how the city fairs in size.  Anyway, I won’t make generalization because I know some people who are just terrible with directions.

Another option is to use couchsurfing.org.  This is basically a community built on a trust that backpackers and hosts will follow the rules of conduct and provide a place for someone to stay in exchange for some stories and hopes that they will grow their network to allow more couchsurfing opportunities in different countries.  It sounds sketchy, but I can attest that it’s quite safe if you do enough research on the right person and make contact with an open mind and transparent itinerary.

In my case, I know a few people in Spain, so I should be able to save some money on my trip.  To accommodate these people’s time schedules, I also needed to adjust my own itinerary accordingly.  For other cities, I used hostelworld [www.hostelworld.com] to pick the best rating and price.  Since August is peak season for travelers, I would suggest: 1) exchange your money earlier (rates go up in the summer), and 2) make bookings to your hostels earlier (to ensure you get a room).

Refining for the Final Itinerary

To reiterate, the main factors that determine your final itinerary include (but are not limited to): personal preference on weather, festivals/activities in specific places, friends’ accommodations, friends’ preferences, type of transportation (eurailpass), transportation travel times between cities, and whenever you run out of money.  The excel sheet of choices really helps.  Below is my itinerary:

Date

City Details Sleeping Railpass stuff

Sat Aug-1

Hamburg – San Sebastian 16 – 22 hrs need to take day train because eurailpass does not work otherwise Sleep on train Railpass3 (3)

Sun Aug-2

San Sebastian hostel

Mon Aug-3

San Sebastian hostel

Tue Aug-4

San Sebastian hostel

Wed Aug-5

San Sebastian – Barcelona 5 hours Barcelona hostel Railpass3 (4)

Thu Aug-6

Barcelona Barcelona hostel

Fri Aug-7

Barcelona

Sat Aug-8

Barcelona

Sun Aug-9

Barcelona

Mon Aug-10

Barcelona – Madrid 3 hours Railpass3 (5)

Tue Aug-11

Madrid

Wed Aug-12

Madrid

Thu Aug-13

Madrid

Fri Aug-14

Madrid – Valencia 3.5 hours Railpass3 (6)

Sat Aug-15

Valencia

Sun Aug-16

Valencia

Mon Aug-17

Valencia

Tue Aug-18

Valencia Take boat to Mallorca or Ibiza

Wed Aug-19

Valencia 15 hrs from Valencia to Paris, 9 hours from Barcelona to Paris – need to take 6AM train

Thu Aug-20

Valencia – Paris (Natasha will be here) Railpass3 (7)

Fri Aug-21

Paris (Natasha will be here)

Sat Aug-22

Paris (Natasha will be here)

Sun Aug-23

Paris (Natasha will be here)

Mon Aug-24

Paris

Tue Aug-25

Paris – Hamburg 8.5 hours Railpass3 (8)

Wed Aug-26

Hamburg

Thu Aug-27

Hamburg

Fri Aug-28

Hamburg – Amsterdam 5 hours Railpass3 (9)

Sat Aug-29

Amsterdam

Sun Aug-30

Amsterdam – Brussels – London EUROStar, 5.5 hrs Railpass3 (10)

Mon Aug-31

London

Tue Sep-1

London – US LHR – JFK Leave @ 3:35PM, British Airways, Arrive in JFK @ 6:10PM Plane Underground

I haven’t booked the hostels yet, but after some feedback from some friends, I can refine this itinerary some more and start making some last minute plans.  It’s important to print out the booking information and relevant maps to get to the hostel.  After that, you can pretty much wing-it.

Many of the anal planning has been left behind.  Based on the research I’ve done, I already know I’ll have an amazing time at each of these places, so I don’t think it’s necessary to list all of the specific activities (and definitely not plan the itinerary down to the hours in a day).  Damn, I was nerdy.

~See Lemons Guru-Travel