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Tales of a Luggage-Less Traveler

By Jonathan Yevin
May 16, 2006
060518_newsletter_yevin
Jonathan Yevin
How one man hitched rides from Ecuador to Mexico with nothing but the stinky clothes on his back

One of the best things about traveling is that you get to leave your home and all the stuff that drags you down. Well, most of it anyway. (Do you really need to pack that second pair of jeans? The reversible parka that's spent its entire shelf life on the shelf?) I decided to challenge myself: I just completed a month-long, bag-free trip through Central America. I ran the full length with nothing but the clothes I was wearing: cargo pants, maroon T-shirt, and gray fleece tied at the waist. On my person was an American passport, a Visa credit card, about $50, a toothbrush, a tiny Canon digital camera with extra battery, a Ziploc bag of vitamins, and a copy of The Kite Runner, whose chapters I tore off as I read them.

Begging for toothpaste, it turns out, is a great way to make new friends.

"Travel light and you can sing in the robber's face," the ancient Roman poet Juvenal claimed. By going luggage-less, I had peace of mind, knowing I wouldn't easily fall victim to theft, damage, or loss. As a result, I was able to hitch rides from the driver of an 18-wheeler truck (Panama to Nicaragua), two Polish land speculators in a Land Rover (Nicaragua to Honduras), and a French woman driving a pickup truck loaded with fresh honey to her home in Chiapas.

With public transportation, I never had to pay extra for bags (a common practice in Latin America) or tip a bellhop. On the beautiful colonial island of Flores, where red retrofitted motorcycle taxis whisk one to and fro for fifty cents, I zipped over to the airstrip on a whim and boarded a domestic flight to Guatemala City about five minutes before it took off. I didn't freak out when the border ferry to Mexico (a canoe, truth be told) had room for barely one more passenger.

Ease of transportation is a primary benefit of the luggage-less voyage; I could find rides anywhere. I witnessed a mafia hit in a Salvadoran fruit market with three local surfers, and jumped in their car à la The Dukes of Hazzard (try pulling that sort of slick getaway maneuver with a 5,000 cubic inch internal-frame backpack). In Tikal, the site of Mayan jungle pyramids--the tallest structures in the western hemisphere until the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886--I managed to find an Iranian tour group heading back on the road toward Belize, and they were generous enough to share a seat on their air-conditioned bus. Something tells me my fortunes might have been different had I been loitering in that parking lot with a suitcase.

Yes, my lack of luggage did raise suspicions, among travelers and government officials alike. Border crossings were particularly interesting. Unsurprisingly, immigration agents were annoyed, as they clearly missed the opportunity to rummage through my bags in search of weapons or smuggled Rambo bubble gum. What about washing clothes? An amused agent asked, "vas a recorrer mi tierra desnudo?" ("You gonna run around my country naked?") A valid point.

To anyone who would emulate this daring mode of travel, be advised: you will stink. Especially if you feel compelled to play basketball in the early afternoon sun in Costa Rica's colorful Caribbean port of Limón. I would recommend a second pair of socks; you can streamline by putting one in each pocket. Sweaty T-shirts and boxer briefs doubling as swim trunks can be dried in transit by hanging them from a car window (assuming the vehicle has windows).

Body odor notwithstanding, I was free to walk anywhere at any time and to completely improvise and revise my itinerary in liberating fits of spontaneity. All of which brought me into more intimate interaction with the people and places I came to visit.

Next time, though, I might bring deodorant.

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More on Da Vinci Destinations

GETTING AROUND We envisioned a 10-night trip in mid-June, with round-trip airfare to Paris, connection to London by train or plane, connection to Edinburgh by train or plane, and then a flight back to Paris. Getting to and from Paris: Here are the lowest round-trip fares we found: $918 (multiple carriers) from New York City; $1,221 (American) from Chicago; $1,303 (American) from Atlanta; $1,215 (multiple carriers) from Los Angeles; $1,299 (Northwest) from Seattle. Getting to London: We'd recommend making the hour-and-a-half flight from Paris Charles de Gaulle to London Luton on a low-cost carrier such as EasyJet. We found a one-way rate of $27 (21 euros). Alternatively, you could opt for the Chunnel, a high-speed Eurostar train crossing under the English Channel in two hours and 40 minutes. It departs from London's Waterloo Station and arrives in Paris's Gare du Nord, both centrally located. We found a one-way ticket for $192 (£149). Getting to Edinburgh: It's an hour-and-a-half flight from London Gatwick on EasyJet starting at $30 (£16). Alternatively, hop on the National Rail for a four-hour journey from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverly, both downtown stations. Rates start at $24 (£12.50). Getting back to Paris: Edinburgh to Paris is not as common a route and isn't serviced by EasyJet or RyanAir. We did find a one-way flight on British Airways for $229 (£125), including taxes and fees. WHERE TO SLEEP PARIS Hôtel du Champ de Mars: Expect a quaint, vaguely 1970s vibe and midsize rooms at this underpriced charmer in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. The hotel is around the corner from rue Cler, a colorful, bustling street crammed with little shops-a plus in a district with a less-than-vibrant street life. Doubles from $100 (79 euros). 7 rue du Champ de Mars, 01/45-51-52-30, hotel-du-champ-de-mars.com Hôtel Étoile Péreire: Discreetly swank, and a 15-minute stroll from the Arc de Triomphe. All 26 rooms are individually decorated to evoke a certain design era (art deco, Rm. 409) or place (India, Rm. 306). Quiet is assured: Rooms with upholstered walls open to an airy courtyard, with the exception of Rm. 101, which is soundproof but doesn't open to the outdoors. Doubles from $151 (119 euros). 146 boulevard Péreire, 01/42-67-60-00, etoilepereire.com LONDON Vancouver Studios: The large but simple rooms are self-contained apartments, with full kitchens and antique-style decor, but the real draw is the secluded, leafy garden out back--a fountain-filled oasis away from the bustle of the streets nearby. Friendly staff, doubles from $170 (£90). 30 Prince's Sq., 20/7243-1270, vancouverstudios.co.uk The Jenkins Hotel: Comfy, traditional B&B in a Georgian town house with a low-key, friendly vibe; large, if overly floral bedrooms; and an affable owner who'll happily help with tips on London. Doubles from $160 (£85). 45 Cartwright Gardens, 20/7387-2067, jenkinshotel.demon.co.uk SCOTLAND Ibis Edinburgh Centre: Near the luminous Tron Church, the Ibis brags bright, well-kept rooms with satellite TV, and the upper floors have heart-swelling views over the rooftops. Doubles from $94 (£60). 6 Hunter Sq., 131/240-7000, ibishotel.com The Steading, Roslin: A red-stone converted farmhouse nearby Rosslyn Chapel with spacious, pastel-colored bedrooms on the ground floor. Doubles from $125 (£70), includes a hearty Scottish breakfast. Roslin, Midlothian EH25 9PU, 131/440-1608, roslin.org.uk/start.htm RELATED ARTICLES Paris Snap Guide My Paris Is Better Than Yours New Museums in Paris London Snap Guide Learning to Love London Trip Coach: Tracing Roots in Scotland Edinburgh's Budget Charms

Da Vinci Code Trivia, Games, and Resources

DA VINCI CODE BY THE NUMBERS 125 million dollars were spent on the film adaptation 60.5 million copies of the novel are in circulation 7.3 million people glimpsed the Mona Lisa up-close in 2005 118,151 visitors to Rosslyn Chapel in 2005, up from 37,199 in 2003 1,000 abandoned copies of the novel have been found onboard trains by Eurostar staff 300 crew members were present daily at the Louvre during the filming of the movie 44 different translations worldwide 1 copyright infringement lawsuit filed against Dan Brown's publisher by the authors of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail; Judge Peter Smith embeds a "Smithy Code" within his ruling in favor of Brown ONLINE RESOURCES & GAMES VisitDaVinciCode.com: A team effort from the tourism boards of Britain, Scotland and France, the site is beautifully designed, but light on information. There's an interactive map with some sightseeing suggestions, links to their partners--Eurostar, Novotel Hotels, Gray Line, Paris Visions, City Rama--and the option to register for special offers. WalkingTheDaVinciCode.com: Peter Caine is one of the masterminds behind the tour company Paris Walks, and he's written a highly detailed and informative pocket-size book, Walking the Da Vinci Code in Paris: Decoding the City and the Book. Its website lets you download an audio version of the book's Tour 1 for free. SoDarkTheConofMan.com: The movie's official website offers downloadable video and soundtrack clips, content for cell phones, and merchandise for sale. DanBrown.com: The tweed blazer-toting author's site has an excerpt from the book, snippets from positive reviews, video and radio clips, a reader's guide for book groups, a partial bibliography of sources Brown consulted, and answers to common questions. RandomHouse.com: Dan Brown's publisher has set up two games: Da Vinci Web Quest and Uncover the Code, in which you decipher codes hidden in the book jacket. Quest.Eurostar.com: Register to play EuroStar's Quest for a chance at prices of up to $200,000.

A DIY Da Vinci Code Tour

Paris, France | London, England | Roslin, Scotland Spoiler Alert: If anyone still isn't aware of the best seller's plot, be warned that certain details are about to be revealed PARIS, FRANCE PLACE VENDôME: Chapter 1 begins here with an urgent, middle-of-the-night phone call that rouses Langdon, who is staying at the legendary Hotel Ritz on Harvard's tab. "Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed." Take Note: Place Vendôme was built for the Sun King, Louis XIV, and the gilded face of Apollo with sun beams radiating from his head adorns the window balustrades. The Ritz opened in 1898, and has hosted the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin, and Princess Diana. BT Tip: Forget the Ritz's overpriced Da Vinci Code package (one night, breakfast, Ritz agenda, embroidered Ritz bathrobe and illustrated copy of the novel from $853/670 euros). Instead, scope out the lobby and public spaces, and splurge on a Lemon Charlie cocktail at their famed Bar Hemingway, $30 (23 euros). Hotel Ritz, 15, place Vendôme, 011-33/43-16-3030, metro stop: Opéra SAINT-SULPICE: Silas, the self-flagellating albino monk, pays a late-night visit to this parish church in search of the keystone supposedly buried beneath the Rose Line at the base of the obelisk. ("Slicing along the main altar itself the line looked to Silas like a slash wound across a beautiful face."). He breaks the stone floor tiles in frenzied anticipation only to discover he's been duped, and then impulsively murders Sister Sandrine with a giant candlestick. Take Note: In the novel, Brown claims that Saint-Sulpice was built on the ruins of an ancient temple to the Egyptian god Isis. The church, now beset by tourists, has tacked up messages to set the record straight: The site was never a pagan temple; the brass line running north-south and up the face of the obelisk doesn't correlate with the prime meridian traced through the Paris Observatory; and the letters P and S in the round windows at both ends of the transept allude to Peter and Sulpice, the church's patron saints--not to the Priory of Sion. Well before The Da Vinci Code, Saint-Sulpice was famous for its organ, which continues to shine in concert. The baptisms of the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire and the wedding of Victor Hugo all took place here. Place Saint-Sulpice, 011-33/46-33-2178, free admission, metro stop: Saint-Sulpice LOUVRE: Much of the drama unfurls in the Grand Gallery, where desperate curator Jacques Saunière rips a Caravaggio canvas from the wall to set off the museum alarm and where, about a hundred pages later, Langdon and Sophie gape at the sight of a message scrawled in blood across the Mona Lisa's face. Sophie then finds a key marked P.S. behind Da Vinci's Madonna of the Rocks and threatens to jab her knee through the painting to deter an armed security guard. The Louvre neatly opens and closes the book; its final page finds Langdon by a miniature pyramid that points up at a inverted pyramid, "a breathtaking V-shaped contour of glass." Take Note: Brown begins with a mini art-history lesson on the Mona Lisa--"painted on poplar wood panel, her ethereal, mist-filled atmosphere was attributed to Da Vinci's mastery of the sfumato style, in which forms appear to evaporate into one another"--and then takes a more controversial stance. "Langdon nodded, 'Gentleman, not only does the face of Mona Lisa look androgynous, but her name is an anagram of the divine union of male and female [Amon L'isa]. And that, my friends, is Da Vinci's little secret, and the reason for Mona Lisa's knowing smile.'" The painting is ostensibly a portrait of "La Gioconda," the young Florentine wife of Francesco del Giocondo, and, as Brown notes, it was Da Vinci's favorite. The gallery's other Da Vinci blockbusters include John the Baptist and The Virgin and St. Anne. While the novel doesn't name a specific Caravaggio, the enormous painting The Death of the Virgin seems likely to have appealed to Saunière (and Brown) since its lifelike, rustic depiction scandalized the church. BT Tip: The Louvre and most national museums and monuments are free on the first Sunday of the month and on July 14. Tickets are good for admission throughout the day, but arrive early--just before the museum opens at 9 a.m.--for a jump-start on the crowds. Culture vultures should consider purchasing the Paris Pass, which grants entry to more than 70 museums and sights as well as free public transportation within zones one, two and three; one-day, $50 (39 euros); three-day, $126 (99 euros); five-day, $177 (139 euros). Audio Tour: The Louvre has rolled out its own 50-minute audio tours, "Step Inside the Da Vinci Code," narrated by the novel's tough-as-nails police captain, Bezu Fache (actor Jean Reno). Commentary on 30 major works is mixed with bits of movie dialogue and music. The $13 price tag is less than the cost of Classic Walks and other private tours. Tours can be rented at the museum, but we'd suggest purchasing them in advance online through iTunes or Audible.com--then you can download them onto a portable MP3 player before you go or just listen from your living room. $11 (8.50 euros) museum admission; free for those under 18, with ID, louvre.fr; metro stop: Palais-Royal CHÂTEAU VILLETTE: Sophie and Langdon flee Paris in a stolen armored truck and head twenty-five minutes northwest to the "sprawling 185-acre estate of Château Villette," the home of British expat Sir Leigh Teabing. Sophie and Langdon settle on a divan in the antiques-laden drawing room. ("The air inside smelled antediluvian, regal somehow, with traces of pipe tobacco, tea leaves, cooking sherry, and the earthen aroma of stone architecture.") Pacing in front of the fireplace, Teabing schools Sophie in the true identity of the Holy Grail and offers controversial interpretations of the roots of Christianity and of the figure to Jesus's right in Da Vinci's The Last Supper. Take Note: François Mansart, the celebrated architect of Louis XIV, designed the château in 1668 for the Count of Aufflay. Its grounds include gardens fashioned by André Le Nôtre (also responsible for those at nearby Versailles) and two lakes, and earned the moniker La Petite Versailles. You Only Live Once: The 18-bedroom château is now privately owned, and its Da Vinci Code Tour can be booked at an obscenely expensive price. A five-night stay including lunch at Hotel Ritz, one dinner at top Paris restaurants such as 1728 or Hotel George V, a visit to the Louvre's Grand Gallery, a Da Vinci Code walk, visit to Saint Sulpice, group discussion and video presentation, gourmet meals at the château, taxes, services, and tour transportation is $4,500 per person. Getting There: Transportation from Paris is provided for those staying at the château; there's no public transportation available. The château has been so overwhelmed by requests for public tours that they now only offer them for groups of more than 15 at the whopping rate of $192 (150 euros) per person. Big Screen Stand-In: Burghley House in Lincolnshire, England, plays the part of Château Villette in Ron Howard's film. villette@frenchvacation.com, frenchvacation.com/villette.htm Guided Walking Tour: Paris Walks' two-hour Da Vinci Code Tour includes expert commentary on the Louvre pyramids, the site of the execution of the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, the hunt for the Holy Grail, and other places mentioned in the best-selling book. Meet at metro stop Mabillon, 011-33/48-09-2140, pariswalking/DaVinciCode; $15.40 (12 euros) MORE SIGHTS: Sophie and Langdon purchase train tickets to Lille at the train station Gare Saint-Lazare (108 rue Saint-Lazare) in an attempt to throw off their pursuers; they flee along the grand, tree-lined boulevard Champs-Élysées toward the American Embassy; and make their way along the Allée de Longchamp--a prostitute pick-up spot by night--to enter the park Bois de Boulogne. LONDON, ENGLAND TEMPLE CHURCH: Sophie and Langdon make yet another hasty getaway, this time from the London airport by limo, and with Teabing in tow. They speed along Fleet Street towards the Church. As Brown tells it, "Temple Church had been so named in honor of Solomon's Temple, from which the Knights Templar had extracted their own title, as well as the Sangreal documents that gave them all their influence in Rome. Tales abounded of knights performing strange, secretive rituals within the Temple Church's unusual sanctuary." The trio hopes to find an absent orb on one of the 10 knights' tombs. Take Note: The church was, in fact, built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century and is known for its "Round," an unusual circular nave instead of the traditional cruciform layout. Temple Church maintains that the site was modeled after Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre. Teabing sees the shape as a tribute to the sun and further evidence of paganism, quipping "they might as well have resurrected Stonehenge in downtown London." The Da Vinci Code and the Secrets of the Temple: The Master of the Temple, Robin Griffith-Jones, has published a book by that name, and he gives free talks on Fridays, 1 - 2 p.m. Inner Temple Lane off Fleet St., templechurch.com, 011-44/20-7353-3470, free admission; tube stops: Temple, Blackfriars, or Chancery Lane ST. JAMES'S PARK: The Teacher arranges a meeting with his overly rash accomplice Rémy at this petite royal park for a toast of lethal cognac. He waits for Rémy inside a limo on a foggy morning: "Gazing across the sloping lawns, past the duck pond and the delicate silhouettes of the weeping willows, the Teacher could see the spires of the building that housed the knight's tomb--the real reason he told Rémy to come to this spot." Take Note: Westminster, Buckingham, and St. James's palaces surround the 52-acre public park. Once used for deer hunting by Henry VIII, it's now overrun by fowl--ducks, geese, and pelicans--and hosts royal celebrations.Middle Temple Lane, royalparks.gov.uk, tube stop: St. James's Park or Westminster WESTMINSTER ABBEY: Sophie and Langdon arrive at the abbey and make a beeline for the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton, the knight interred by Alexander Pope, as referenced in a cryptic message from Saunière. "Crossing the massive nave on a diagonal, Langdon and Sophie remained silent as the elaborate sepulcher revealed itself in tantalizing increments...a black marble sarcophagus...a reclining statue of Newton...two winged boys...a huge pyramid...and...an enormous orb." A scrawled message instructs them to head to the Chapter House, where Sophie and Langdon find themselves trapped at gunpoint in a dead-end. Take Note: The enormous, labyrinthine abbey got its start as a Benedictine monastery, and every coronation has been held here since that of William the Conqueror on Christmas Day 1066. Its alleys and niches house the tombs of blue bloods, including Queen Elizabeth I, enshrined in a canopied sarcophagus. The octagonal Chapter House has huge, glorious stained-glass windows and a vaulted ceiling. Monks met here daily until the King's Great Council began using it for their assemblies in 1257. Da Vinci Code Facts & Fiction Lecture: The Master of the Temple and the Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey speak about the abbey's role in the novel as part of an evening program with music, a self-guided tour, and wine and canapés in the College Garden. Advance reservations recommended, contact gwen.shaw@westminster-abbey.org; June 5 and July 27 at 6 p.m., $47 (£25). Big Screen Stand-In: The scenes at Westminster Abbey were actually filmed at the Lincoln Cathedral in Lincolnshire. $19 (£10) abbey admission, south side of Parliament Sq., 011-20/7654-4900, westminster-abbey.org; tube stop: Westminster MORE SIGHTS: Sophie and Langdon make a brief stop at King's College's Research Institute in Systematic Theology, where a database search reveals a key clue; Silas checks into Opus Dei's London headquarters at 5 Orme Court; the National Gallery displays Da Vinci's second--and more pious--version of Madonna of the Rocks, while the original hangs at the Louvre. ROSLIN, SCOTLAND ROSSLYN CHAPEL: Sophie and Langdon's hunt for the Holy Grail culminates at Rosslyn, about seven miles south of Edinburgh. "Gazing up at the stark edifice framed against a cloud-swept sky, Langdon felt like Alice falling headlong into the rabbit hole. This must be a dream. And yet he knew the text of Saunière's final message could not have been more clear." Take Note: Originally named Roslin--a nod to the Rose Line, according to Brown--the chapel was built by the Templars in 1446 and dedicated to St. Matthew. (True to form, Brown also claims that the chapel is on the site of an ancient Mithraic temple and that there's a massive vault below.) Symbolic carvings cover the arched ceiling and every wall, column, and cranny. In response to the upsurge of public interest, the chapel has developed an exhibition on the regalia, amulets, and artifacts of the Masons, Templars, and Rosicrucians as well as Celts and Gypsies. Getting There: By car, take the Straiton Junction A701 from the Edinburgh bypass to Penucuik/Peebles and then follow A701 three miles to the sign for Roslin Village, where signs will point you to the chapel resting on a bluff. An economy-size manual car rental from the Edinburgh airport starts at $48 per day; an automatic at $71. By bus, you can take either Lothian bus 15A or First Group bus 62. Bus tickets from $1.90 (£1). Roslin, Midlothian, $13 (£7) chapel admission, rosslynchapel.org.uk

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