Monday, January 21, 2008

Gearing Up

The well-traveled Black Hole and Black Hole Too bags by Patagonia.

I've been hearing rumors that the weather in Moscow is going to be something like 20 or 30 degrees below zero. I've also heard that it's basically just fucking cold there. Frigid cold and lots of snow, basically the Apocalypse in White.

Thinking that I would be ill-prepared in my t-shirt and shorts, I ventured down to the local REI to see what was available and see how much I would need to spend as I "geared up" for this winter adventure.

I'm happy to report that I've pretty much got it covered.

About ten years ago, my friends and I were on this "outdoor adventure" kick. We were going to be the new Tenzig Norgays of the world. No wilderness was too wild and no mountain too high for our sights. We spent the next couple of years slowly piecing together our arsenal of tools and clothing to conquer just about any obstacle.

As luck would have it, the wildest our adventure ever got was the Kalalau Trail on Kaua'i - where I would find myself stranded at the two mile mark at Hanakapiai due to exhaustion, dementia and a pack that was just too loaded to be of use. Later, I would find myself at the summit of Mount Olomana on O'ahu at sunset with an absolute gorgeous 360 degree view of the island below - without a flashlight. Which meant slowly crawling down the 1,643 foot mountain with the flash from a pocket camera. To prove that I was capable of operating in cold, icy conditions, I made my way to the summit of Bradbury Mountain in Maine right after the ice storm of January 1997 (elevation 400 feet).

Perhaps those were not true demonstrations of my outdoor prowess.

Anyway... as I browsed through the aisles at REI, I realized that I already owned just about everything I'm going to need for this trip to Moscow. I've got the Patagonia Capilene underwear, the Capilene mid-layer, Columbia wind jacket, Arcteryx fleece vest and Columbia shell. Pair that with Patagonia shell pants, Smart Wool socks, Vasque boots, L.L. Bean Gaitors, Outdoor Research cap and North Face windstopper gloves. Maybe add on a pair of mitts and a balaclava, and I'm pretty much ready to go.

Of course, those don't address my wardrobe needs for dinner at a nice restaurant and clubbing afterwards with the ladies, but I hear that fur coats are cheap in Russia...

Guide To Nowhere

My selection of guidebooks: Lonely Planet Moscow, Insight Moscow, Knopf Mapguides Moscow, Michelin Paris, Rick Steves' Paris and The Little Black Book of Paris.

The problem with travel for me is that I absolutely hate doing all the planning. Why can't my personal assistant just take care of it for me and I can sit back, relax and be comfortable in the knowledge that someone else is doing all the hard work for me? Live would be so much better. When it comes to booking travel, I'm horrendously late about doing it. I put it off and off, until I reach the point that I absolutely have to make it happen. Then, it's a mad scramble but, miraculously, it always comes together - even if there is only just a few hours to spare.

Every year, my parents invite me to come along on one of their worldwide excursions. The locales they visit are exotic places like Morocco, Spain and other distant points in Europe and the Mediterranean. It's hard to say no - especially since a tour with them means that my pocket stays full. But they're of an older generation that enjoys traveling in groups. They like to have a group of friends as travel companions, and groups mean itineraries - and intineraries that include bus tours and crowds of other tourists are not that appealing to me.

When I visit a new city, I like to go and just hang. Cruise the streets and see the people. Try to get a feel what it would be like to live there. Of course, there are times when living like the locals isn't necessarily in the best interests of personal health - like the 2001 EDSA II Revolution in Manila, or the 1999 7.2 Richter Earthquake in Manila, or the simmering eruption of Taal Volcano in Legazpi City that same year, or the terrorist bombings in Manila in 2000. Hmmm, perhaps there's a reason why I haven't been back to the Philippines in seven years.

Anyway, I enjoy just checking things out. Without a strict itinerary of "must sees." Sure, I've made the time to journey to the St. Louis Museum of Art, or the MoMA, and I've gone to long lengths to visit Tokyo Disneyland and Chichen Itza. But what I really want to do is just cruise around and do not much in particular.

And travel guide books seem to just suck at helping you do just that.

Lately, I've been prepping (not too seriously, mind you) for a trip to Moscow and Paris. A trip whose flight booking will have me departing Dulles in Virginia with stops in Frankfurt, Warsaw, Moscow, Copenhagen and finally Paris. From there, it's back to Frankfurt before returning to Dulles. In other words, I get a cheap, whirlwind tour of Europe on the way to Moscow and Paris. Maybe there will be some cool things to see at the airports.

My friends are planning the trip to Moscow, which works fine for me since I hate to plan. I just arrive, check into my hotel and they're taking care of the rest. Mindless. I kind of like that sometimes.

Paris is different. I'm on my own. I will have to seek out my own adventure. Many friends have stated that I "must see" The Louvre. Frankly, going to a very large museum that costs a bit of money and may be overrun with tourists smashing to see the Mona Lisa does not sound appealing to me. Modigliani? Yes. Ethnographic art from the South Pacific? Yes. But, do I want to go through the hassle? I'm tending on the "no" side of the equation.

I want to wander the streets, drink coffee and eat baguettes while smoking cigarettes (I can start) in a sidewalk cafe, speak atrocious French to Parisian women who might find that endearingly attractive, tour the markets, but it seems that the guidebooks I've sourced are more concerned with telling me about the history of the city and all the "must see" places to see.

What I want to know about both cities is where to stay and where to eat. Guide books are terrible at this. The Insight City Guide to Moscow gives great insight on the neighborhood attractions but places to stay and eat are minimal. It's irritating. The notion of lugging this 1-2 pound book around the world that doesn't tell me where to eat is just puzzling.

It's a poundage game with me since I'm too cheap to buy a roll-on for my computer case and insist on my nine-year-old Tenba shoulder bag. Every ounce weighs on me and I'm careful with what I bring - especially since I'm expecting to bring home more than I left with. So far, on an ounce to info ratio, the Knopf Mapguide Moscow is the best bargain. Just a slim, lightweight book with maps of Moscow and little tidbits on places to visit in each area. Minimal. Light. I likey.

The Little Black Book of Paris is also a small, compact book that's wire bound to make it easy to hold open to the right page. The descriptions are concise and it looks to be a decent book. To be honest, I bought it because it just looks sexy. Leather bound with a black band to hold it closed. Nice. It will probably be the book I end up taking with me.

But all of this thinking is just too tiring for me. Perhaps I should hire a personal assistant.

Or maybe I can find a French girl who will pity this wayward traveller and tour him around her town...