Travel Tips : Sprawl and Sweep


This is all of our travel gear (more or less), packed up and ready to go hiking from Jogjakarta, Indonesia. This is how I like to see everything, accounted for and tidy.

We had a reservation for a much smaller room and got lucky!

We have stayed in a lot of hostels, hotels, campsites, side-of-the-roads, and air-bnbs. From all that time traveling, we’ve lost hardly a fraction of our gear. The notable exception to this was in Australia where we stayed for a month and violated one of our two main rules. That rule is sprawl. We don’t do it whenever we can avoid it. We’re natural sprawlers, myself more than Natalie, but it’s dangerous when you travel. Everything should be kept in a neat pile or two, or, even better, in the bag. We’ve fared the best when we take out only what we need and then keep it piled on top of the open backpacks. Especially when the room is large and inviting like this one in Vietnam, it can be so easy to let all our stuff sprawl out.

An off season deal that we found at the edge of Jogja, right near Prambanan.

It’s especially important not to spread stuff out when there are lots of nooks and crannies like this huge room we found in Indonesia. Lots of places for things to hide under make it that much easier to lose important pieces of gear. It’s ok to spread out temporarily of course, when we’re working with our gear or packing it ready for a hike, everything comes out, gets checked, and gets put back in. This sort of short operation is ok because things don’t sneak away and get forgotten three days later when its time to move again.



The easiest room to sweep, ever. A hostel in Taipei, Taiwan.

Why is not allowing sprawl so important? Because of our second trick – the sweep. Typically when doing a final check, many people resort to a list. They tick off each item, making sure it’s accounted for. When the list is all checked, everything is safe and packed and they have peace of mind. This works super well for a few pack-ups. I do it when I’m going camping as a matter of course. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for us on the road. We tried it briefly, in Mexico, and found it entirely too cumbersome. Checking off a list makes it hard to pack fast and go, and either we have to take out all our things to check them, or ‘check them out’ as we take them out, then check them back in later. It’s a hassle and we didn’t have the time.

Another easy room to check – Hong Kong.

Instead what we do is call a sweep every time we leave somewhere. This means we pack our bags as best we can, and then we go and check in corners, under tables, behind beds, and in the bathroom, for any and all items that have scurried to a back corner. We do a specific check for vital items like passports and some electronics, but outside of those, we don’t tick off by name. Since we made sure not to sprawl out terribly much, the sweep tactic catches the rare items that have escaped and puts them back in the bag. This has worked astoundingly well for us, except when we’ve let ourselves spread our gear all over the place.

All neat on the train. Is there a bag over our heads? It’s probably not coming with us.

The one part of travel this hasn’t worked super well for is trains. We usually are leaving them in a bit of a rush because we don’t know the route, recognize the stops, or understand the language, so our destination comes as a bit of a surprise. Our number one loss location is the overhead rack in trains, followed by the under-seat. We don’t seem to have the same issue in buses or airplanes, but we’ve lost more than one bag full of food, or a shirt, or some other goodie, to the rails. Luckily no catastrophes because we always make sure our main bags are with us, but any additional plastic or paper bags are fair game for the train gods.



How not to hostel

Part of our 8-bed hostel room in Prague.

Let’s file this one under bad hostel etiquette: yelling at the other people in the room to stop making any noise at 8 am. On the one hand, it is 8 am and anyone who was out partying last night wants to sleep in longer. On the other hand, we had to hear you come in late last night and we’ve got places to be.

We’ll call this person “Dude” and in an effort to acknowledge that dickery such as his occurs every population, leave his nationality out. We’ve known since Dude checked in that he has a problem with morning noise, since Stoytcho and I have been up early every morning to explore Prague and found him groaning and growling at any hint of noise. Even when we talk in whispers and pack up quietly, we hear him tossing in his bunk huffing and muttering angrily.

This morning we’re checking out to head to Linz, Austria, and we’re not the only ones up – more than half of the room is awake and preparing to leave, from pulling on clothes to packing away food and water for the day. This proves too much for Dude, whose chorus of groans escalates into a crescendo before he jerks his bed’s curtain open. “This is a hostel! How can you make so much noise? We are supposed to be a community and people are trying to sleep here!” he hisses furiously.

Having traveled through more than a dozen countries and countless terrible sleeping situations, I’ll have none of his accusations. “We’re all on different schedules and some of us get up early. We try not to make noise, but we’re not going to change our plans for you.” He shot back with another retort, and I pointed out that more than half the people in the room were already up. “Look, I can give you earplugs if you want them, but otherwise deal with it. I countered. Rebuked, Dude let out a hiss and yanked his curtain shut again, muttering profanity under his breath.

I would’ve liked to have defused the situation a little less bluntly, but dealing with discomforts like this one are a part of hostel life and you have to adapt. If you get cold easily, you carry an extra blanket or you ask the hostel for one. If you must have tea in the morning, you carry tea. If you can’t sleep with noises, you bring earplugs. And if you can’t adapt, you probably shouldn’t stay in hostels.

There are definitely best practices when hosteling, such as not carrying on conversations late at night or early in the morning, throwing things, fighting over the temperature or whether the window should be closed or open. You should work to make it a liveable space for everyone, sharing outlets to charge phones or computers and trying to keep it clean, because you are a community. Sometimes there will be disagreements or someone will do something that bothers you. In that case, it’s okay to politely ask if they’ll stop doing it. But getting upset and yelling about it is pointless and seriously not cool, Dude.

After all that unpleasantness, here’s a bumblebee.

7 tips to make the most of a short stay


Every week a new city stretches before us. We’ve spent a few weeks in some (Sydney..) and a few days in other (Panama, Riga..) but on average we spend about 3-5 days in any given city. That’s not a great deal of time to see everything, but we’ve worked out our system pretty well, and we’d like to share what works for us.

Walking along the Danube in Budapest.
    • Pick a few must-see destinations. We know we’re not going to see everything. Letting go of the feeling that we must see it all is the key to enjoying what we do see. We usually explore the area around the hostel the first night, and for the remaining days we mark down 2-4 areas we’d like to visit around the city, usually concentrated around busy market-type areas, attractions, and food. We mark down our must-sees if we have any. In most cases we try to set aside a day or two for outdoorsy adventures, like a hike nearby. How do we pick where to go? High concentrations of things to do, and recommendations online or from hostels. Traveling has changed with the advent of the internet, and there’s no reason to not take advantage of collective knowledge.
A highly recommended budget restaurant for crepes in Tallinn. It did not disappoint.
      • Walk, walk all day long. We find we get the most out of a city when we walk as much as we can. We arrive in an area of interest and spend anywhere from a few hours to a whole day just wandering around. If we’ve planned super well, our areas of interest are connected or very near to each other and we can usually metro out to the farthest point and spend the day walking back. If we’ve chosen parts of the city that are pretty far apart, we definitely try to take the metro between them. Otherwise, walking. It’s great. Plus, it keeps us nice and somewhat trim so we can eat all the local food with a little less guilt!
Spur of the moment decision to donate and paint a brick in Prague.
  • Wake up early. This one is not my favorite, but it works. Getting out the hostel at 8 am and getting out at 10pm are vastly different experiences. We’ve, unfortunately for my late-sleeping self, found that as early as possible is best. In hot cities it’s going to be cool, in popular areas it’ll be less crowded. It works out pretty well with walking most of the time as well – by the time we’re flagging it’s either breakfast or lunch depending on when we left. Despite the early wake up, I’m left feeling way more satisfied at the end of an early day than a late one. We just accomplish so much more.
Busy tourist areas offer fun experience like being surrounded by bubbles!
  • Poke around in vibrant areas. We normally pick where we want to go based on the density of interesting things. If a spot has a few cafes, several landmarks, a market, and some event for the day, that’s a jackpot. Not only will there be all those advertised things, but there will also be at least a handful of unannounced delights. This picture of a joyous Natalie holding a hedgehog came about because I said “Hey, that guy’s selling comic books” – which led us into a urban art space full of activities in St.Petersburg. For food, if you haven’t picked a place already, follow your nose.
They had a meet-a-hedgehog event in St.Petersburg!
    • Bring snacks. We always have snacks on hand. Hunger has been the #1 source of discontent on our travels – it makes everything else worse, and is so readily cured. It’s not that there won’t be food – there’s almost always food somewhere nearby. But often there’s no food right where we are, or we happen to have wandered into a district way beyond our budget, or we don’t feel like bread and fried meat again. The snacks are a life saver.  It’s 100% better if they’re local snacks, foods native to the country we’re in or picked up to-go from a local shop.
Sicilian breaded and fried bread stuffed with mozzarella and tomato sauce, in Prague.
  • Take water. This one is pretty self explanatory, but paradoxically more important in the developed world than in other areas. When there’s no clean running water, vendors sell bottles of water everywhere for very cheap, so it’s ok to buy as you go. In places where there’s clean water in every house bottled water is very expensive, and very often there are fewer water fountains than is healthy for an all-day walking tour.
This is a veggie burger in Tallinn made of sweet potatoes. It was very, very good.
  • Rest. Resting is absolutely vital and for me at least, transit does not count. I need real, solid, head on pillow time to be at my best. It’s not just for keeping up a good mood, it’s also for avoiding the sick. Traveling across so many different areas and interacting with so many people is a great way to encounter lots of different germs. Less sleep means more sick, means less seeing cool stuff.
Nothing like a nap in the sun.

Happy efficient travels!

Bialowieza Forest

A plaque at the entrance to Bialowieza National Forest.

Bialowieza, the last old-growth forest in Europe, is the real reason we’re in Poland. About a month ago, when we were deciding between visiting Chernobyl in Ukraine and Bialowieza, we heard that the Polish government had green-lighted some logging in the forest. We figured, ‘Well, time to see it before it’s gone.” It’s not like Chernobyl is going anywhere soon.

A tree on one of the Nordic Ski Tracks.
Moss and lichens growing on a low roof in town.

We caught a train from Warsaw to Hajnowka, and a bus from there to Bialowieza, the eponymous town on the park’s east side. From here, we ended up doing two hikes: one along the Nordic tracks on the East side of the town, and the Bialowieza National Park Nature Tour for Scientists. The former winds confusingly through state forest (where the logging is taking place), while the latter takes you into the actual national park and requires a hefty 550 zloty fee (~$161 USD) for the guide. Overall, both hikes were nice, with two caveats: an absolute boatload of mosquitos, and a fairly ‘touristy’ feel to the National Park hike—you’re walking a well-worn path, occasionally past another tour group. It’s not like hiking open and free in the wilderness.

Resident wildlife.
Logging in the state forest, along the Nordic Ski Tracks.
A logged clearing in the state forest.
Untouched fallen trees in the National Park.

That said, the park does have an impressive array of mosses and fungi. Because they don’t remove dead and fallen trees, there’s plenty of material to support the growth of saprophytes, in turn hosting tiny insects and insect predators like spiders. You might catch glimpses of animals from afar, so bring the camera with the nice zoom lens. And you may even see wild boar if the population has recovered by the time you arrive—we saw none, because most were wiped out by swine flu a couple of years ago. Our guide reported that summer, you could smell the rotting boar carcasses every time you got near the forest. But that’s the course of nature for you.

The trail of an animal through the morning dew in a field near the forest.
Late afternoon in the fields.

A few tips for when you go:

  • You could easily stay in Hajnowka and hike from there if you’re not so interested in the national park. The town was adorable and untouristy, and we found their tourism information center to be super helpful – they’re open 9-5 Monday-Saturday, and 9-1 Sunday.
  • We stayed at Dwor Na Otulinie in Bialowieza and loved it because it’s on the outskirts of town, nearer to the forest. The hosts are lovely folks and they’ve got a mini-kitchen downstairs to prepare meals for yourself.
  • We tried a handful of restaurants in the town and found Bar Biesiada Jolanta Żłobin to be hands-down the best for cheap food, even compared to the ‘supposed best’ Bar Leśna Dziupla. It’s partly because they have amazing pierogi (though I suppose you could order something else), partly because they have these delicious sodas under the brand Vilnele, and partly because the cook/barman/waiter at Biesiada looks a bit like an overweight Harrison Ford. He speaks almost no English, so arm yourself with Google Translate.
  • There are mosquitos. Not just mosquitos, singular at a time, but whole swarms of them that will relentlessly follow you as you hike. Try early on to make peace with the fact that you’re going to lose some blood.

Some more photos of Bialowieza:

Bar Biesiada’s counter, where they also sell fried jelly donuts.
A brown puffball grows in the grass.
This is a woodpecker, but you probably couldn’t tell because we didn’t bring a DSLR with us.
King of the hill: insects climb on a mushroom in the National Park.
Mushrooms on a log.
A monument to those killed in the forest during the World War.
Yellow coral fungi on the forest floor.
Little snails, probably the most common animals you’ll see in the forest.
This is what a hazelnut looks like.
An orb weaver (Agriope); our guide was excited about this because she had never seen them in this part of the park before.
Another snail, snailing along.
And sunset.