Monthly Archives: January 2012

Health, Heat, Hygiene, Horror stories……… by Mrs B

Now that’s done H, what can I worry about beginning with I?? Because yes folks, I am a worrier, mainly about the children (sorry Mr B). So our Big Trip gives me one almighty chance to WORRY!!! I am so laid back in many other ways (“maybe too laid back” my husband shouts from downstairs as he empties the dishwasher again….) but when it comes to travelling with the kids there seems so much scope for worrying: what to pack, what to amuse them, what to take to teach them, what to take to protect them from the sun, from bugs, from getting sick…. the list is endless. And yes, I do have a list, a Big List (I find it helps).

Apparently scientists agree that females of all ages tend to worry more and have more intense worries than males. Women also tend to perceive more risk in situations and grow more anxious than men. Research suggests that “women are more likely than men to believe that past experiences accurately forecast the future”.

So is this just my natural ‘maternal’ worry instinct kicking in? Am I remembering events in the past or stories I’ve been told and imagining them all happening to us on our travels? Try telling that to Mr B who just thinks I am slightly mad and should be more optimistic. He tries to reassure me by reiterating that all will be fine and WE DON’T NEED TO TAKE MUCH STUFF!! But (and this is a big but) he is a BOY! Girls just need more stuff!

Ok, I have had my hair cut short so that I don’t need a hair dryer or straighteners, have accepted that we can only take two (yes, just two) pairs of shoes and I know that I have a limited amount of space in my rucksack but now comes the tricky part…. what stuff do I take?? This is the challenge. I worry that one crucial thing will be missing, one little thing that could have made the trip just a little bit easier or better in some way. This is when the Big List becomes very useful (and therapeutic). I will let you know if it works in practice, when I come to pack everything on the Big List into my ‘not so big’ rucksack…

Don’t get me wrong, despite all the worrying, I am very, very, very excited about our fantastic trip and can’t wait until we are all finally packed and at the airport. I am hoping that most of my worrying will have been done by then (fingers crossed surreptitiously).

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Take only photographs, insect repellent, heels and a laptop, leave only footprints?

In precisely one month – 13th February – we Beers will be setting foot into one of the most harsh environments known to humankind. We will be straining from every sinew yet staying loose and agile, awareness turned up to 11, breathing hard, thinking fast, processing environmental data, reacting to the melee and yet – somehow – reaching ahead. (Think Tom Cruise in future pre-cognition mode Minority Report.)  We’ll be looking out for each other, sensitised to every potential threat, feeding off body language, sounds, sights and smells. Total focus: total commitment. Take no prisoners, show no mercy. We will be pumped, hyped, drilled and zoned in. We will be ready. Our preparations for this mission? We are meditating for hours on end. We have scale models and stop watches. We are visualising the experience and riding through it in our minds: like crack sports folk before their record breaking bobsleigh run we are programming our muscles with the memories so that nothing takes our eyes off the prize.

We will be checking in to fly long haul from Heathrow Terminal 3.

Although I may (rightly) be accused of dramatising the wonders of modern air travel, there are some things to be wary of are there not?  Whilst you ponder your own mental list, I’ll share one thing I’ve become aware of in the hope of assisting your future travels. I, of course, refer to (at least) one of our party undergoing a weird transformation in termini that does not yet have a fully documented descriptive term. I don’t think it’s the kind of medical condition that would trouble our physician chums. If it’s okay with you, I’ll loosely label it as airport mode. Here’s what to look out for:

  1. A far away look in the eyes/thousand metre stare
  2. Turning on a sixpence and accelerating in an unexplained direction (oft accompanied with a militaristic “With me!”).
  3. Total loss of listening, yet fully functional hearing.
  4. Refusal to follow basic well meaning instruction (from officials and airline staff but mostly from family members).
  5. Lots and lots of rushing.

Fortunately, the rest of the party are primed to be looking for the signs of this phenomenon and know what to do. This piece we have off pat. Within seconds of airport mode onset, we roll our eyes and prepare for argument. Whilst we are rank amateurs now, we’ll surely be really good at this – arguing – by the time we have completed the trip and will be able to tell fireside/hospital bed tales about how it varies by airport/country/bus station/platform. If you listen carefully, you can hear it crying out for a dedicated study. [Cups hand to ear and raises “shh” finger to mouth. Several seconds pass…] Actually, shall we just agree there’s no known cure and leave it be, okay?

To roll back a little there is the topic of packing stuff for a big trip. What to take, what to leave behind?

At an outdoors shop – one where they actually know what they are talking about – t’other day we met a worldly wise traveller-cum-shop-assistant who intoned wise words:

“Put half of what you’ve packed back in the cupboard. Then work out your budget and double it”

He’s right of course. Yet as I sit here surveying our spare bed which is fairly groaning under the weight of things we’re taking I am beginning to wonder. Clearly, there are “non negotiables”. We can agree on them can’t we? Apparently not. So we have to get to first principles in this short space. So I’m going to claim several “Givens” here: valid passports, visas, driving licences, jabs, all relevant institutions notified or appropriately ignored.

In the (rapidly advancing) short years since I started wandering off British shores, things have changed. Where one would need wads of funny looking bank notes from the get go, one can now expect to rock up to the hole in a foreign wall and saunter off moments later with heaps of local beer tokens or simply use a card to pay for the beer directly. Today’s key component to a spot of travel is nominally 85.60 by 53.98 millimetres, brightly coloured and logo’d: it’s plastic fantastic.  Recent news has seen that the scandalous charges for doing this are to be outlawed by UK banks. Not soon enough for our family trip so we’ve had to obtain the right travel plastic.

So surely then, that’s pretty much all we need? [Slips card into shirt pocket with a theatrical wink.] Haha, you very funny. We’ll need summit t’read stoopid. [Reveal from trouser pocket a Kobo eReader.] Lighter than carrying a pile of books, doesn’t lose your page when you nod off and also carries other documents: pdf files of itineraries etcetera. (As an aside, imagine my delight at downloading a copy of HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy to an eReader. This after all was the novel that invented the notion of an eBook – the ‘guide of the title – and the interweb too. Seemed a neatly circular act with a splendid bit of technology. Shameless plug: http://calibre-ebook.com/ a splendid piece of free software to manage your eBooks. So good, it’s worth donating.)

Card? Check. eBooks? Check. Next comes the ubiquitous web: how to stay online? Whoa there fella. Stay online?! Isn’t the point of a sabbatical to get away from all this digital malarkey? Well, er, no. I am of the opinion that the connectivity piece will bring benefits.

Righteous uses for the lapdog:

  • Skyping Granny Pat
  • Blogging (instead of a travel journal)
  • Storing, posting, annotating & editing photos/video
  • Making & tracking bookings
  • Digital postcards
  • Playing mindless games when you are fed up with your fellow travellers

Some time ago I bought a Dell Inspiron Mini and it’s fit for purpose still.

Evil uses for the lapdog:

  • Facebook updates* a la “Oh we had dinner on the beach tonight under the stars…”
  • “…with Miss World,”
  • “and the Pope, which was nice although he thought the roasted swan was greasy, but I thought it was just fine.”
  • “And the locals are simply devine: they don’t seem to mind being poor at all.”
  • Playing mindless games when you should be having fun with your fellow travellers
  • Diarising every bloody grain of sand you see. (Although you’ll be the judge of that eh?)

* Facebook updates are NOT your diary people”: spread the word. Since you are still reading this then I take it you are pretty determined to find out what we’re up to and/or quite seriously at a loose end.

We don’t tweet, we won’t tweet.

We have a phone for emergencies, a pocket camera with a zoom lens and HD video trickery aboard. They say camera sales are down 40% because people are using their phone cameras. It’s certainly not because cameras are no good: our new one  – a Pentax RZ18 – cost a faintly ridiculous £110 and it’s superb. Then there are Nintendos, iPod shuffles and what not. All of these mean – natch – that we have batteries. It follows then that we have battery chargers and travel plugs. Half of my backpack is going to be digitised bricks and wire.

That said… there are no hair straighteners, no hair driers… praise be: ’tis a miracle! Mrs B is a whizz in the getting ready routine.

So what makes up the bulk of stuff burdening our spare bed? Clothes – including some headgear for us pale skinned Beers, yours truly in particular – and well, weird stuff:

  • Waterproof rucksack liner
  • travel towels
  • wet wipes
  • ponchos
  • swimming goggles
  • sun-block
  • flip flops
  • sun glasses
  • completely ridiculous wear-beneath-your-clothing travel wallet

The heels hinted at in the title are a running joke – almost a pun there people, stay sharp – and we’re limited to a pair of walking shoes and a.n.other pair each. I shall have to leave the sling backs at home and decline those invites to the ambassadors residence for dinner. Presently we are – like a house of indoor extreme hiking nerds – all wearing our new shoes around the place to ensure they fit.

(This reminds me of a friend who practised for the Antarctic by getting togged up and taking her camera gear into the local Waitrose walk-in back-room freezer. Whilst she had store management approval, the message was not entirely successfully cascaded to the shop floor. There is a Saturday-boy in Wantage whose dreams are forever traumatised by fridge yetis.)

Of course, it is easy to read yourself into never packing. There is much advice available. So imagine my reaction to receiving the Lonely Planet Best Ever Travel Tips for Christmas. Then reverse that reaction when reading it. What an excellent little book. If only it had been given as an eBook so we didn’t have to bloody carry it.

I think it is time to avoid packing now and do something meaningless instead, like writing a 1500 word blog entry until it’s too late. I mean, c’mon: were we to put loads of effort into getting all this preamble juuust so where would all the last minute panic be?

Right, now where did I put that inflatable neck pillow…..

Your mission: comment/get in touch with your “non negotatibles” for travel. What is a must have bit of kit for you when you are overseas?

Hugs

Beers

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What price travel advice? Advice is free. Luckily.

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

Aldous Huxley

If I had a dollar for every “helpful” armchair travel comment – that’s “helpful” in theatrically exaggerated air quotes – offered, I’d be, er, several dollars better off prior to our departure in February for a lap of the globe. No big deal, you say aloud: human nature. People simply offering their opinions. Yessss, but… It’s the nature of the “helpfulness” that has become oddly specific, ever fascinating, really rather amusing and thus the subject of this missive. Keep the advice coming folks.

I’m genuinely flattered that people are taking an interest in our travels and – as you might imagine – happy to share our plans with the curious. Every time I do this I feel a little more relaxed, as it sounds like a better and better idea. After all, it’s just a series of back-to-back holidays. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Ah. Hmmm. The answer is – apparently – heaps. Heaps and heaps. There  are moments when it seems our plan for fun, horizon broadening, mind expanding travel are – according to the advisor de jour – akin to engaging on a quest for certain familial doom. [Cut to courtroom scene] “And I put it to you ladies and gentlemen of the jury that THIS MAN is guilty, m’lud, of taking his family on a reckless quest that could only ever end badly. He can’t say that no-one warned him… they’d read something sensational in the Daily Mail about someone’s leg getting severed buying an ice cream in Kota Kinabalu and told him all about it without hardly any massive exaggeration/error.” Luckily, the same “very helpful” armchair travel advisors are keen to pre-warn of booby-traps that await us at every turn. Bless them.

Now is the moment where I thank everyone for their two cents. (Stop heckling about how ungrateful he is at the back.) We have doubtless had some quite brilliant insights/tips from some seriously switched on travellers, ex-natives, residents, corporate road warriors and global gypsies who have not only got the T-shirt but in one case, written several books on it. Thankyou-thankyou-thankyou. (I like to think you know who you are.) Actively, we have sought advice from many sources. Passively we are constantly receiving input from the never-left-town adventurer.

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”

John Le Carre

If one were to rely on TripAdvisor, the blogosphere, (heaven forfend) the media and good ol’ historical print then would anyone travel? It’s a jungle out there dammit. You’d have to be out of your mind to pop to the shops, let alone swap continents. Imagine all the hideous traps awaiting the traveller: from evil criminal minds to venomous creatures to tropical tempests. They are ALL out to get you. ALL. OF. THEM. Clearly I am writing this from the broom cupboard with the door barricaded from the inside: you can never be too safe. Praise be for wireless as I can now be terrified via my browser without actually going anywhere.

And yet…

It’s of constant surprise how people respond to actual risk, perceive risky situations and deal with, er, what they perceive to be risk. How about an example? Let’s start in India (where I’ve spent months safely backpacking). Full of seasonal fayre we were watching the BBC TopGear team being oafish blokes (in the name of telly ratings) over when it became apparent that others in the room were regarding a visit to the Subcontient akin to a death-wish. [Cue horrified question] “You’re not going to travel by bus are you?” Feeling my brow furrow and hackles raise I chose to detach from the moment and “live” their point of view. (It wasn’t easy as my first thought in connection with bus travel is not certain death.) Sure, you can’t lie about statistics, right? I mean, the very thought?! Yes, yes, the roads are more dangerous in India. No, the average motor vehicle isn’t crammed with airbags… And yet, millions of journeys take place every day without incident across India. Many millions of people have an okay time without bothering the grim reaper.

Since you asked, no. No, the folk in question have never been to India. Before you scoff, try this on for size: they’d like to. That just about bakes my noodles. It’s a “dangerous place” they bay, inferring you must be mad. Then, in the next breath: “we should go.” Eh? They also consider unrestrained kids – mine – riding around in the back of a rickety old trailer tethered to a pensionable Volvo at speed down mud-slickened country lanes as a fun pursuit. As a rationalist, it knocks me sideways that the riskiness of the trailer ride is overlooked, whereas a trip on public transport in India strikes terror. If you are a theoretical statistician, feel free to let me know which is riskier. Though for the record, I really wanted to have a go in the trailer: it looked like a blast.

As we’re visiting India, we’ve been heavily advised. As above, numero uno was not to go on a bus. Full stop: no buses. Then don’t eat anything, natch. Prepare to be eaten alive indoors and out at night. We are – of course – girding loins at the prospect of using any loo. This is before/during/after being massively ripped off by everyone and spending twenty-seven years at passport control. Don’t go up to a Hill Station, don’t come down. I could go on.

As we move on to Singapore, we are advised that a drink in Raffles costs several million pounds, having saliva in your digestive system is punishable by death, the airport is bigger than Paris and it’s terminally hot. Can’t wait!

The fun really begins in Borneo. Apparently. This – it seems – is where opinions become exquisitely divided. Those who’ve been are enraptured and have given some great tips. Those who haven’t are either jealous or horrified. The horrified are great value to press on the topic as their view is of hacking through jungle beset by leaches, hunted by fellows with bones through their noses without a prayer of catching up on the Premiership scores whilst being gnawed at by a ravenous Komodo Dragon. (One that has popped over from Indonesia for lunch presumably.) I – for what it’s worth – am looking forward to my first leech bite: I will endure it with pride and stride forth with a leech shaped badge of honour. In reality I will most likely squeal like a girl and my daughter will roll her eyes like a grown up. (Actual travel tip from an expert: if you find a leech about your person, get it off. Don’t wait for it to finish its dinner.) As Malaysian Borneo is not entirely a tourist mecca, I am even more boyishly excited to go and view naysayers protestations as hilarious.

Australia? Curiously attracting little advice other than remembering to pack twice as much budget as you had intended. I can see my credit cards quivering from here. To my mind, the whole bitey-spiders-under-the-loo-seat warning was aching to come out, but no. Is it because Ant & Dec, Neighbours and Crocodile Dundee have made it all too familiar? I promise to savour the irony should I survive India & Borneo only to be eaten by a shark whilst I wax my surfboard on Bondi beach.

New Zealand? Little “helpful” advice offered aside from the corker: “What’s the point? It’s just like Scotland.” I shall send a postcard if I concur.

By the time we’re in Hawaii, the risk shoe is on the other foot. As a (laughable) surfer, everyone expects me to ride the giants of the North Shore. Are they MENTAL? I get terrified when the spin-drier gets hold of me on the Gower in a 4′ beach break. I expect little more than to pay homage to the real men who surf the Pacific from the safety of the beach car park. [Cut to video of baldy Welshman in Wayne’s World “We’re not worthy” mode.]

Last stop California. Home of Hollywood hype and no helpful advice at all. Don’t these people watch the movies? TV shows? It’s all laid bare in CSI so they don’t have to tell us I s’pose.

Then we fly home and flying – despite what’s easily proven otherwise – is the big comment generator. Not so much advice as doom mongering. So much so that I am wondering if being terrified should be my modus operandi. I really enjoy flying – hate aiports – and always have.

I look forward to proving Aldous Huxley right and already agree with Le Carre. I shall leave the last word to Mr Twain.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness.”

Mark Twain.

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