Month: February 2018

Let’s talk about Carnaval!

Carnaval! This word is a special one, it immediately transports us in a magical place where we imagine ourselves letting go of so much of the social pressure that usually constricts us, where we can go as wild as nature intended and let go of some steam.

In a Latin American context, Carnaval usually means Rio, with Christ wearing a party hat and opening his arms up to give us his blessing for the madness about to go down. Well if you think that the Carnaval is only celebrated in Rio, you couldn’t be more wrong.

(Just) a little background

Carnaval is celebrated all over Latin America. Yes, Brazil gets particularly into it but it is not even in Rio that Carnaval is most important, it is in Salvador (more up north). Outside of Brazil, neighbouring countries such as Uruguay and Paraguay also get pretty into it but really, in February, you’ll find Carnaval celebrations everywhere on the continent.

There is some debate apparently on the origins of Carnaval, whether it was brought by the Christians or an expression of the cultures of local indigenous tribes and the large slave population on the continent. What is for certain however is that celebrations vary and that it has now become more than any one culture’s expression.

Brazil

In Brazil, my experience of Carnival is that it revolves around 2 things: huge street parties/festivals and samba parades.

Samba parades

The different school of a town will compete for the title of the best samba school and the amount of efforts to prepare the parade is simply mindblowing. I am not sure if the rules of the competition are always the same but in Florianopolis, here are the main ones:

  1. You need at least 900 dancers in your parade
  2. Parades last 1h10, anything longer and you start losing points
  3. You need a theme for your whole parade (the winner in 2018 chose the history of… Basil… Yes, the herb. So it can really be anything!)

Here you can find the parade of the winner of the Florianopolis parade 2017.

As far as I saw, you also must have 3 huge parade floats but I’m not sure it is a rule. Anyway, the majority of people in the parade don’t dance much, it’s like any club you’ll find around the world, a few people dance the night away, hips bouncing, arms flying while the majority just shakes their body from one side to the next. One reason for that is the fact some school struggle to get their 900 people and recruit anyone from the community on the day of the parade. So if you are a lucky foreigner with a local contact, you can get into the parade fairly easily and for free. All you will have to do is mimic your comrades and fit into the costume while lip singing on the song created for your school’s parade. Easy!

Street parties

Nothing you haven’t seen at your local street party here. The military police does the security so we have soldiers just like in Europe and alcohol flows generously. The main theme for costumes seem to be for guys to dress like girls and and girls to dress like sexy-whatever (nurse, angel, devil, etc.). The music is different as there are a large quantity of official Carnaval songs that are played over and over but you will also probably hear some Brazilian Funk. Nop, nothing like the Funk you know, forget about James Brown, Tower of Power or the likes, this is electronic music, inappropriate lyrics and an engaging beat. Sounds familiar? Yes, it is a locally-flavoured commercial music.

Uruguay

Now if you are the shy type, the kind that likes juice over beer and watching over doing, you’ll enjoy the Carnaval in Urugay much more. It is more artistic, much more diverse and a lot less inebriated-party intensive. While there are also samba parades (called Desfiles de Tambores), they involve a lot less dancers and a large crowd of enthusiastic drummers, you will find a series of shows available as well. From musical satires about the past year’s events, to dancing competition, singing competitions, there are more than 7 categories I think for artists to compete and offer the public quite a show.

Montevideo, the capital, is where the most activities take place but other cities in the country also celebrate it in a smaller fashion.

Other famous Carnaval destinations

The North of Argentina also offers an apparently famous carnaval in Humahuaca where devils roam the streets, asking people for gift in exchange for good luck in the coming years. In Oruro, Bolivia, the otherwise dull town apparently rises to the occasion and transforms itself in a colorful parade of elaborated costumes with endless festivities. Anywhere you will be on the Latin American continent on a February, there will be an unforgettable Carnaval experience nearby.

Find the Carnaval that suits you

So if you’re dreaming of going to Carnaval or if you always thought this was not something for you, do take the time to look past Rio de Janeiro. Do a little research, figure out your options and go have a great time. It is a very rich cultural experience, you will learn more about the local culture, its mixed origins and how they collided to create the beautiful celebration you are witnessing. Carnaval can be almost anything that you’d like, small or huge, quiet or mad, artistic or alcoholic and so many options in between!

The art of packing to travel: or how to get rid of half the things you want to pack

As all travelers know, whether for work or pleasure, packing always brings joy and happiness to our beautiful souls…

There are many different ways to pack your bags, whether you’re the last minute procrastinator, the one-week-in-advance packer, the ziploc bag fanatic, the throw-it-all-in-there or the neat folder, we all usually have our unique way of doing our bags.

Now I don’t mean to give specific advice for business travelers or small trip voyagers here. While my main point does apply to these types or trips, you can usually afford to overpack for these. Here, I want to talk to the folks who, like me, have a turtle as a spirit animal and plan to go on a trip that will last a few months, in remote places of the world they have never been.

Less is More

First rule of the game is that everything you pack, you will have to carry. As a rule of thumb, you should be able to carry all your stuff for at least one hour, because chances are, you will have to. Sure you’ll travel by bus, plane and there is usually even a very basic local public transportation system everywhere but in times where you just couldn’t resist sleeping in this cute little jungle lodge in the rainforest, you won’t have a choice.

Forget about style and fashion, forget about not wearing the same clothes 2 days in a row. Being practical should be your main focus so bring clothes you like to wear a lot. Don’t bring 5 shorts, 5 pants and 20 shirts and tops, you’ll always find a place to wash your clothes. I go with 10 days worth of clothes. It´s just enough to be able to change clothes or wear something appropriate to the weather while cleaning your other clothes or waiting out to be back in civilisation to do so. Also consider that a lot of places around the world are so hot that what you would wear in 10 days in Europe, you wear in 5 there. Finally, research the weather conditions, you simply don´t want to carry a coat with you if all you´ll ever get is 20-30 degrees celsius.

Gadgets

Beware of gadgets, they seem super cool when packing but they end up weighing a lot, for a very, very limited use. Take a hammock for example. It seems super cool cause you’re taking a long vacation and what’s a vacation without a hammock, right? Well, chances are, everywhere you could use a hammock, there will already be one (except if you plan to do a lot of camping) so ditch it. It weighs more than a kilo and takes precious space. It will bring you more discomfort than comfort.

Powerbanks are another easy trap. Don’t bring 3kg worth of them, you’ll find electricity to charge your phone in most places and if not, chances are you won’t be able to use it anyway. It´s also worth remembering that without 3G and wifi, your phone battery actually lasts very long so if you´re worried about being able to take pictures, don´t be. One powerbank that gives you a couple extra charges should be all you ever need.

Water-proofing

You don’t want to end up in a situation where all your stuffs are wet cause you got caught in a lightning storm and ended drenched in 5 minutes. Plus if you have electronics, you can’t afford not to be able to protect your bag from water, mud, sand or whatever else the weather might throw at you. So bring a bunch of plastic bags and trashbags you can mobilise quickly to protect your stuff and always pack a full set of clothes in a plastic bag. That way, you’ll always have something clean and dry to wear. For electronics, passport and other precious item, I recommend buying a drybag, like the ones used in diving and sailing, it will guarantee there won’t be a tiny hole in your plastic bag you missed or anything of the sort and your stuff is well protected.

Backpacks nowadays usually have a built-in rain cover that you can envelope your bag in, get one of those, it’s also handy at airports and where your luggage gets transported by other people to protect it and keep it clean.

To bring or not to bring a whole pharmacy

You should at the very least have a basic first aid kit – some desinfectant, bandages, and a survival blanket. If you’re gonna travel in another continent, you should also plan a healthy dose of anti-diarrhea pills, trust me, you´ll need them eventually… Also, do check if you need some specific medicine such as anti-malaria pills. It will depend on your destinations. Everything else, I don’t recommend you bring, you’ll find it there if you need, medicine is not that rare around the world, and usually easily accessible with a European wallet.

Do ask your doctor before you leave but don’t necessarily follow all their instructions, they usually don’t have travel experience and they don’t think practically, they think in terms of risk-management of another level than what you need. Mine gave me so much pills I don’t even know what a third of them do anymore and so I carry this dead weight that does take a lot of space…

 

Finally

So to conclude, go ahead and prepare a first load for your bag, try to think conservatively already. Once that’s done, put it all on your bed and ask yourself about each item: “would I use it weekly or would I need it urgently in a specific situation?” If the answer is: ¨no¨, ditch it! Understand that such travels bring a certain dose of discomfort and unfamiliarity.

You´ll have less choice of clothing, you won´t have your full make-up kit to look as gorgeous as you usually do but that´s ok. The beautiful places you´ll feel the need to add your face too will make you look better than any make-up and locals will find you attractive just because you are exotic to them. Think of this as an opportunity to live more simply, without conditioner, creams, without the social pressure of looking on your A-game at all times. Trust me, you can do it and you will probably be more happy for it.

With all these principles in mind, you should be able to efficiently pack a bag that hopefully still leaves you with some extra space. Extra space is important because you will buy things along the way, things you forgot to bring, didn’t think of, or just souvenirs you wanna bring back.

Have a grand old journey!

 

Don’t wait for me Argentina! (but I’ll be back)

What I discovered about Argentina

Let’s talk about food (always!!!!!)

Kingdom of slowly, very cooked meat (asado), Argentina is not what I expected. So carnivorous that they could make a fierce Balkan man feel insecure, their appetite for meat is as enormous as their use of GMO in the vegetables they produce. Here, if hungry, people think meat before anything else (if anything else) and vegetables usually end up in your plate more as decoration than actual food to eat…

There’s a very economical reason for that too. Meat is kinda cheaper than vegetables… At least, it is much cheaper than what we would pay for it in Europe. You can therefore carelessly indulge in a full-meat diet and not have to suffer the consequences when looking at your bank statement.

It is also fairly safe to say that the slow food/organic movement, save for the more wealthy neighbourhoods, has not made its way here. What matters is that food looks good and tastes good, not whether chemicals made it so or not.

Drink-wise, well, there is mate. Argentinians are crazy about it, they drink it more than water, at all times of the day, while shopping, walking in the streets or just about any activity you can think of. Mate is a sort of tea that you drink with a metal straw in a special cup that you filled up almost all the way to the top with the tea, hot water is inserted in small quantities at a time so you´ll always see the mate drinker holding a thermos with him/her. It is highly social as you usually pass it around until the thermos is empty.

Mine is bigger than yours… or is it?

Argentina is huge, like 8th-biggest-country-in-the-world huge. You’ll easily spent 20h in a bus trying to get somewhere and after you’d make it to Moscow from London, you’d still be in the bus here trying to reach the edge of the world. Check that world map in your toilets if you don’t believe me, bathe in the reassurance that my previous statement is some ignominous fake news, then go ahead and throw that map in the toilet… Our western-centred map are just that, western-centred. They use the Mercator projection of the world (check this video and prepare to be mindblown) and it makes it look much smaller than it is (and that applies to the whole Latin American and African continents). Flying is therefore the less-budget friendly but way faster way of traveling to places, and the only viable option if you are traveling to Argentina for a couple weeks and want to see some of Patagonia (although the north is really worth it too). For example, just going to the Igazu gigantic waterfalls takes about 18 hours from Buenos Aires (but 2 hours by plane).

Let’s talk culture

However, there seems to be a rather uniform culture across the land, whether you’re in the mountains of Patagonia, on the coast around Buenos Aires or in the wine region around Mendoza. Only the north west, closer to Bolivia has a stronger identity. The reason for that is actually another unexpected thing about Argentina… It doesn’t really have any natives anymore… Think USA and you’ll get a fairly good idea of how it is here. Original Indigenous folks of various tribes make up for less than 10% of the population, plus an extra 10-15% of mixed Spanish/Indians and you get a country where most people come from Europe (Germany, Italy and Spain on top of the list). The newer waves of migrants are Asians, predominently Chinese (and Trump doesn’t like…) so you’ll find Chinese supermarkets and restaurants just like at home.

This means everything in Argentina feels very… well… familiar. Western. Spanish priests and French immigrants brought in wine-making, Germans seem to have inspired a vibrant beer culture (although nobody seems to need the Germans for that anymore, micro-brew is the new hype) and people eat at similar times than Spanish people: that is way too late… European cars are everywhere, places and streets have names of immigrants who “discovered” them or settled there and so you regularly wonder why you’re walking down the avenue “Otto Bermberg” or hiking up to “lake Schmoll” next to the “Swiss Colony”.

This of course leads to a very interesing mix of cultures, like drinking Italian Fernet Branco with American Coca Cola. It also means that you’ll find a pizza place more easily than an empanada fast food joint. Don’t expect a cultural discovery like you would get in more indigeneous Bolivia or Peru but that doesn’t mean you won’t love it!

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme the money!

Economically and socially, Argentina is quite something, no wonder Ernesto Guevara said “Che” (“Hey” in Argentinian) so many times it became his name… In a similar fashion to most of the continent, you better be born in the right family here… Inflation is so high (about 20% per year) it is apparently useless to save money, shops rarely accept credit cards but when they do, it is usually with offers to pay in “up to 18 times without fees”. Salaries are renegociated every 6 months and so is your rent…

Probably the glue that keeps it all together, the public welfare system can be considered generous, education is free and you have a decent access to free medical care as well as state subsidies. It explains why, contrary to neighboring Chile for example, the informal economy is not overgrown, and you don’t see so many people in the streets selling everything and anything. The new government seems intended on applying the same old neoliberal policies that increase inequalities and break solidarity mechanisms everywhere though so this might change rapidly.

In that sense, a tourist only here for a couple weeks would probably miss that aspect of Argentina altogether, feeling like it is a modern, developed nation like the USA or Western Europe. Talking to young locals though, it is definitely a situation that limits their future prospects and encourages short-term decision-making and quite the complicated way to go about life.

Still trying to recover from the financial crisis of the early 2000s and the subsequent IMF-inspired sanctions on the country’s social system, currency controls are high here. Foreign money influx are highly regulated and making a bank transfer from abroad is apparently super complicated and requires quite some paperwork. ATMs also have limits on how much you can withdraw at a time and charge a hefty fee to foreign cardholders. It makes traveling slightly more complicated as walking around with hundreds of dollars or euros in cash is not super safe…

Things are expensive too, and high taxes on imports make anything foreign equal Norwegian prices (aouch indeed). This is apparently changing slowly under the new (neo)liberal government as some of the protectionnist measures of the past seem ridiculous given the lack of national industries to protect (like with computers and phones) but for now, buy your cool e-gadgets in the US or Asia instead. The average Argentinian (wealthy enough to travel ndlr) has therefore developed the habits of bringing home everything and anything they can, from clothing to computers and the likes, because it is a lot cheaper.

Pepper spray or not?

There is no major insecurity in Argentina however, especially compared to Brazil, where simply walking with a recent smartphone is apparently enough to get mugged. Here, while you need to be the proper amount of careful, you shouldn’t have to worry about taxi drivers mugging you, militias kidnapping you or any of this sort of things the continent can sometimes be famous for (do tell that to your parents, it’s a worthy argument to make!

 

So Argentina is definitely a country full of charms, Patagonia is a wonderful place to get lost in mountains, hike and camp and forget about the world. Wines here are delicious and food is tasty enough (I´m French so that´s a compliment). It´s not a budget holiday and you´ll need a sizeable transport budget to see more than one place but I have enjoyed Argentina very much and I am sure you will too.

Fighting the bank’s rip-off: traveling with limited fees

Facts

  1. Most banks charge hefty fees for using your credit card abroad, in another currency
  2. By the time you get charged by your bank, changes in values between currencies can add to the bill
  3. Withdrawing abroad usually involves an additional fee from the local bank or ATM companies
  4. In the Eurozone, none of these things happen (+1 for the EU)
  5. Walking around with a boatload of cash is never a good idea, especially abroad
  6. What I am about to share sadly is not yet available everywhere in the world…

So how to overcome this?

Fintech has the solution!

Fin… What? Nop, it is not Finnish banking, nor a company using fishes to transport your money. Fintech is how new technologies and companies operating in the world of finance and banking are categorised. A lot is happening on that field, mostly to make banks richer and leave us still pretty poor but there are a few interesting things out there, especially when it comes to international traveling and limiting the cost of banking operations, in a trip, savings matter!

New credit cards providers who don’t charge fees on international transactions

Over is the time where you could only get a credit card from your bank, after a lengthy process comparable to that of the state bureaucracy. Now, all it takes is about 10 minutes and an internet connection and you can create an account and order a Mastercard debit card for free. Sounds like even a better deal than what your bank is offering? Yes it is, and there’s more!

I only use 2 of these providers but I have heard of others too so don’t hesitate to do a quick comparative search on your DuckDuckGo/Lilo/Ecosia browser (and do some good to your privacy, the world or the planet while you’re at it):

Both work slightly differently and I won’t go into details here but here are the main features that should make you want to go for it:

  • Free account and Mastercard debit card,
  • Zero fees on payments, irrelevant of the currency,
  • Zero or small fee on withdrawals
  • Transactions are processed instantaneously and appear on the app,
  • An app that allows you to control everything you need (block card, change pin, transfers, payments/withdrawal limits etc.).
  • They can also offer travel insurance that is usually cheaper that what you would get elsewhere and have a few other side services worth checking out.

New money transfer services with limited fees

  • Azimo: to get cash out without using an ATM

You all probably know Western Union, if only by name. Well if you ever had to use it, you know it is very, very expensive. Luckily, new companies are changing the landscape, offering much cheaper options to collect money in cash abroad. I know of only one but there must be others or there will be, times, they are a changin’! This is a great tool to circumvent the ATM machine and its (usually) higher transaction cost, plus in countries like Argentinia, where there are limits on how much you can take out of an ATM machine, it gets really useful to save some cash. Depending on what methods of payments you use and the country you are in, it can take as little as 30 minutes before you can go pick up your money.

How it works:

  1. Create an account on the app,
  2. Connect it to a credit card (or you can pay by money transfers, it is longer to process),
  3. Choose a country, look at the available options for picking up your money,
  4. Make a payment and go pick up the cash at the pre-defined location.
  5. At the time of this article, it costs 2,99euros per transaction, irrelevant of the amount sent.
  6. It is also worth noting that they do not use the most updated exchange rates so you can pay an additional, small hidden fee there.

This one does not allow to pick up cash but it is (usually) much cheaper that what your bank would charge you to make a transfer abroad. This can come in handy if you have a friend in the country that could withdraw cash for you or to pay for some services that do not offer credit card payments. They also introduced a ¨borderless account¨ that apparently permanently solves your problem with inter-currency fees but I have not tried it so I won´t comment on it.

That´s all folks!

There are probably a few more services available out there, or new ones that will be created in the near future so do spend some time researching if you are embarking on a long trip or are a frequent traveler. While this services are great, you should still always have a stash of dollars or euros somewhere for emergencies. With these options though, you will already have saved quite a bit of money, safeguarded your savings account for the next trip and made your life easier while traveling, and who doesn’t like spending more on fun than on banks?

Feel free to comment and add services and share around so we all participate in the banking revolution that destroys borders and frees the flow of people all throughout our beautiful world.

Living a zero-waste lifestyle is impossible. Here is why you should try.

¨Like whatttt? What do you mean? Ain’t most of this damn blog you are making me read about living zero-waste? What kind of Ponzi scheme are you working on, you, hoodlum!¨

Perfectly legitimate questions, but hold your horses and let me explain.

A bit of theory(-ish)

The people that coined the terminology about ¨zero-waste¨ follow the same idea as the people that talk about ¨degrowth¨: they want to be thought-provoking, they want you to rethink how you see life. Zero-waste ideology is as much as about going back to the good old days of being a happy caveman as the degrowth movement, that is not at all… And anybody that tells you differently is probably the type of person that sees the title of a Buzzfeed article and takes it at face-value: a sympathiser of fake news and half-informed rants.

Anyway, do look at degrowth, it is fabulous as an ideology! (impartial? Nop, but again who truly ever is…).

Living Zero-waste is about ¨Living-Zero-Unrecyclable/Unreusable-Waste¨

Zero non-recyclable waste

Back to the matter at hand though. Living Zero-waste is about ¨Living-Zero-Unrecyclable/Unreusable-Waste¨ and that is what the famous jars that the most prominent advocates advertise to show their exemplary behaviors. Living zero-waste has a lot to do with shifting from plastic-based containers, packaging, bags and what not and using tree-based or sand-based alternatives (yes, glass is made of sand). If you belong to least extremists of the group, it is technically acceptable to use cardboard plates and cups that you throw away after one meal, it’s still a problem but less of a problem and a step in the right direction so yay, you!

There is a certain need to change your daily habits and behaviors too

But you also need to change a bit

Simply replacing non-recyclable items by recyclable ones is not what the zero-waste lifestyle is about though. There is a certain need to change your daily habits and behaviors too, and this is where this movement joins partly the ideology of the Degrowth bunch. Because as long as you are producing a ridiculous amount of waste, recyclable or not, you are putting a strain on natural resources and requiring a lot of (often non-green) energy to recycle all your trash. In that sense, less is more, and buy adopting this lifestyle, you should realise that you don’t need to buy stuff all the time, that there is a lot of DIY you can do that is simple, fun and makes a tremendous difference both on the planet and on the lives of people living in it.

You become a more conscious consumer, a supporter of less multinational, big-profit-making companies, you stop buying your immediate, affordable satisfaction at the expense of human dignity in other countries. Also, you become necessarily more mindful of the cost (human, ecological, social) of the cheap products you buy, produced in countries far away where regulations and social structures allow for more slavery-type of labor, for more use of weird, potentially dangerous chemicals that would be ban in your country, etc. You become a more enlightened and respectful world citizen and that can only help bring the best out of globalisation, for a brighter future for all. Doesn’t it sound much better for everyone?

So what are you waiting for?

Then give it a try, use more tupperwares, keep a fork, a knife and a spoon in that cool bag of yours so you don’t use so many disposable ones everytime you go to lunch. Or how about taking 10min and making some laundry liquid with your kids? You’ll see, it’s crazy simple.

Phase 2: To live zero waste or not

Hello fellow adventurers,

We are in for quite the unknown adventure, stepping into unchartered territories as we progress through the dangerous journey of living a more eco-conscious life.

This post could be interpreted as an admission of defeat, as a dent into the shinning armour of the protector of nature. However, this would be the most negative perception of what I am about to say. I personally prefer to believe that as we set a new trend, start a movement  of people following a new alternative lifestyle, it is normal that some limitation apply but that in the future, it will become possible to achieve our goal.

What I am trying to say in a cryptic way is that, well… You can’t live a true zero-waste life now. If you are living in a city, integrated in society, you are bound to find moments when there are no alternatives to making waste. Your light bulb blew up, you are traveling in an airplane and they bring you food on a nice disposable tray, before you can say anything, the waiter in the bar brings you a cocktail with a straw and a little umbrella, etc.

You just can’t fight on all fronts. It would take too much time or mean too many sacrifices. The thing is, it’s completely ok. Hell, if everyone would lower their waste production to the minimum, it would already make such a tremendous difference. What matters is to make efforts, where possible, to act. No effort is too small because one after another, it will amount to a lot. There will be ups and downs, times where you push your limits and times where you regress to past behaviours. I’ll admit I still occasionally do my shopping in a supermarket when I am pressed by time. As often said, it is not the end goal that matters so much, it is to embark in the journey. So keep your eyes on the prize and work progressively to achieve your objectives. Know to celebrate your successful efforts and be forgiving of your failures. This transition is not something that can happen quickly so don’t expect it too, don’t lose your hope and motivation.

So long,

Marty Jeeper

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