Sunday, 21 November 2010

November 17, 2010 Disney Epcot

Today we went Epcot and we planned to meet some of Daddy's friends there. Daddy's friend was named Chris and his wife Carol and they have 2 children, a 10 year old boy named Shane and a 13 year old girl named Kelly.

While waiting for Daddy's friends we went on our first ride which was in a huge golf ball. The ride was called Spaceship Earth. In it you go to the past to see how people communicated with each other.

After the ride, Daddy friends finally found us. We headed off to go to a ride called Sorin. In Sorin, you sit in a chair that moves up like a ski lift in front of a big screen and you feel like you're soring. In the movie, at one time you go through a field of orange trees and you can actually smell the oranges!

After that, we went to another ride called Living with the Land. In it, you could see a greenhouse. It has lots of pumpkins, squash, cocoa trees, and herbs in it.

The last ride was very fun called Journey to Imagination and it was my favorite . There's a dragon called Figment who takes you through his house. His house is upside down!

I had some fun with my new friends.

Antonia

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Disney World Magic Kingdom Tuesday

Yesterday was the first day at Disney. I lost my Disney pass and it wasn't a very good day for Grandpa either because he hit is knee very hard trying to get us some ice cream. It was bleeding very bad and we had to go to first aid. We went on a dumbo ride. We went on a space ride that was exactly like the dumbo ride. In the morning we went to Disney Quest. We made a roller coaster and rode on it.

Today I went to on three hyper good rides at Disney World Magic Kingdom. Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, and Space Mountain. Splash Mountain was the scariest because you're on a boat and at the end they throw you over a 52 foot waterfall. After that we went to a water park named Blizzard Beach. Daddy lost part of his sun glasses again. I loved going down the big slide that you have to have 4 people in the boat. The wave pool is very wavy and the water was quite cold.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Maths

I hate maths,
I hate maths,
I hate maths
more than having baths.
When it comes to maths
there are no more
laughs,
horrible,
horrible maths!


Friday Nov 12, 2010

Today I got up at 4:30am in American. That is 10:30am in France where I live. I woke Grandma up at 5:30am because she said I could. We ate oatmeal for breakfast while it was still dark. When the stores opened, I went clothes shopping with Grandma.

After lunch, I went to a man called Mike Gravel's house with daddy. Last time I met him, he was gabbling on about my shoulder blades. Today he was doing the same thing... I made friends with his neighbor's daughter called Sophia. After that we went to another of daddy's friends house for dinner named Simson. He has a daughter that's 13 and a twin boys who are my age. I watched Narnia with them.

Thursday Nov 11th 2010

Today daddy and I and mummy got up at 3:30am so daddy and I could go to America. Are first plane took 1 hour and 20 minutes to get to London. Then we waited in the airport at London for 2 hours. We took another 8 hour plane ride to get to American from there. We got to Washington at 2:30pm local time which is 8:30pm at home. We drove to my grandparents house that took about 1 hour and a half. We ate dinner and by then I had stayed up about 24 hours. I was so tired!

Friday, 29 October 2010

Comparing the cost of cruise ships to other types of sea travel

Mike and I decided on a whim that we were going to get around the world without taking any planes.  Since it was a whim, we're figuring out the economic viability after the fact!  This is the second post on my series of cost comparisons, the first tries to decide if cruise ship journeys are reasonably priced once you factor in accommodation as well as transport.  This one compares cruises with other forms of sea transport.

One of the things I've realized as I've experimented with different ways of traveling over the years is that what works best and costs least for a single backpacker isn't always the best option for families.  As far as getting around by boat is concerned, I mentioned here that I thought freighters would prove more expensive for us than cruise ships.  I've now gleaned one data point that confirms that.  I was quoted the cost of a freighter passage at 112 US dollars per person per day.  The cost for our family would then be 335 USD per day.  The problem for families here, is that the cost is per person, and it seems children pay full fare.

On a direct comparison cruising is quite a bit cheaper for a family.  Our Pacific cruise costs 105 USD per day for one adult (but 60 USD for a child, 270 USD for the family).  For a single traveler, things are different.  Unless they can find a partner to share their cabin, they will end up  pretty much paying for two people to get a cabin by themselves.  At over 200 USD per day the cost of a cruise then becomes much greater than the cost of a freighter. Of course famillies with more children can also find themselves in difficulties with cruise ships.  Unless the ship offers cabins big enough to fit the whole family, the children may end up paying an adult fare.

In any case, the difference between freighter travel and cruiser travel is not vast.  When you take into account the fact that cruises may take more circuitous routes and charge for extras, a freighter ship can be a viable option for anyone.  As a family we also want to factor in our interest in the places the cruiser is going to, and the entertainment and social opportunities on cruise ships versus freighters, especially for a child. 

What about the other options for ship travel?  Surprisingly, overnight passenger ferry services with cabin accommodation (where they're available) are in the same price range as cruises or freighters, though they vary quite a bit. The possibility of getting a job on a ship and being paid to travel can be pretty much ruled out for families.  It is possible to charter a boat to go somewhere, but it's extremely expensive, so, only an economically viable option for very large families, I imagine!

As for sailing your own boat, that's a whole different story.  We've ruled this out because it would mean: first, selling our house to buy a boat, and second, spending months or years learning to sail it.  But it's interesting that you do find quite a few families taking their boats long distance.  I would be curious for data points on day to day expenses for that kind of trip, if anyone has any?  I would guess they're probably quite low, but dependent on how long you want to spend in ports?  

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

B2 visa interview day

They say the USA is the hardest of all countries to get a visa for.  They just might be right.  Tomorrow morning, I will be up at 4 am, braving transport strikes, petrol shortages and alleged increased terror alerts to travel 600 km across France, so that the US embassy in Paris can interview me. To decide if I would make an acceptable visitor to their country for a period of 6 months and 4 days.  I have a bad feeling about the 4 days.

They've asked me to leave my cell phone and netbook at home, but to bring half my filing cabinet and something with which to entertain myself while I wait...  The mind of the 21st century human boggles... do they not understand that I keep all my books, games and important papers on the netbook I'm not supposed to bring??? (Yeah, I know, I know, it's more that they don't care!) 

Still, at least it's an adventure.  Stay posted!

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It's Tuesday evening and the SNCF have made up their minds that both my trains tomorrow will be canceled due to strike action.  But they also sent me a nice little email telling me I could be reimbursed or travel on any train that's going in the right general direction.  There is one other train that would get me to Paris just about in time.  So rather than cancel my appointment, I'm going to take the risk of arriving late.  I don't have a definitive plan for getting back yet - it's a case of coming back earlier than I would like, or the next day.  I'm inclining towards coming back early.

********************************


9am, Wednesday morning - I'm on the TGV that should make it to Paris just about in time, but now we are having 'technical problems', and can't possibly get into Paris much before 10:00.  I prefer being early to being late, but there is not much I can do about it except gaze out of the window and wait for the fields to turn into Paris.  I probably shouldn't have brought my netbook because now I still have to detour via left luggage to drop it off.  In fact, I should probably have postponed my appointment.  I just have a whole series of non-optimal choices going here, and the only way it's going to work out is if someone wants to cut me some slack.  The US Embassy?

********************************

About lunchtime, Wednesday - I don't know when exactly, since I left all my electronics at Gare de Lyon.  It's just as well I did.  They really, really mean it about the laptops, but they couldn't really care less what time people show up.  The so-called 'appointments' are just traffic calming measures, to keep arrivals spread out.  I think we are not used to this concept in France, because as I stood waiting in the second security line, 45 minutes late, the couple behind me were stressing out about their appointment that was supposed to be in 10 minutes!

There are 4 separate layers of security and preliminary paper-checking to get through to get into the US consulate, and 2 stages of dealing with paperwork and interviewing once there, so I've waited in a lot of lines, and jumped through a lot of hoops.  Still, after all that, I feel almost as if I've been rubber-stamped.  Rubber-stamped repeatedly all over, perhaps, but rubber-stamped nonetheless.  Everyone was quite pleasant and polite, though you can feel that they have the system very well set up, and there is next to no leeway for the person being 'processed' to take any initiatives at all!  After scanning me, questioning me and fingerprinting me, the last staff member to get her hands on me told me I could have a ten-year, multi-entry visa, with length of each stay to be settled at the port of entry, and I would get it in about 4 days.  But, she warned, if Mike ever thinks of really moving back to the US, he'll have to apply for a different visa for me.  So I didn't say 'wow, I though you'd stopped doing those 10-year visas', I did say 'thank you, goodbye', and I left.

Now, I'm sitting on a nice chair I found by a pond, in the beautiful, sunlit, jardin des Tuileries, and feeling, actually, a little bit ... sad...  I'm going to be leaving home for quite a long time.

****************************

Thursday - of course, the hard part was always going to be getting back to Grenoble, but the SNCF have pulled out all the stops they can to make things work.  I went to the Louvre for a little while, thanks to my pre-paid ticket, then headed back to Gare de Lyon, hoping to catch the very last TGV of this strike day.  It was running at 16:38, 3 hours earlier than the canceled train I had booked on. SNCF solved everyone's problems by just hitching an extra train to the end of the regular, pre-booked 16:38 for all the overflow passengers.  I got home last night at 8 pm, having had nothing to eat since I got up at 4 am, except a croissant and a small croque-monsieur.  I went straight to bed and slept for nearly 12 hours.  Hmmm... I hope I'm not getting too old for all these adventures already!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Maharashtra, revisited.

Falls at Ellora, 2007

I had found Maharashtra so interesting the first time round, I was really happy to return in October 2007, with Antonia and my friend Julia.  We waved goodbye to friends and family in Thane on the day after my brother's wedding and set off for the station with a plan and a lot of confidence that we knew how to operate in India!

We had pre-booked a train to a station about an hour from Aurangabad on our India Rail passes, and we had another, much later connecting train booked to get us in to Aurangabad slightly after midnight.  But if all went well, we planned to beat the rail system and travel by car!  At our connecting station, we wandered outside and were immediately accosted by drivers.  We mentioned the possibility of going to Aurangabad and they mentioned some rather high prices, so we told them we would wait for our train.  Then we wandered off to look at a shrine.  We were waiting all right, but not for a train. After a few minutes, some better prices manifested themselves, and soon we were ready to talk cars.  The second one we were shown was not too rusty, so we were off.

Figure at Ajanta, 2007

For some reason, we were absolutely ecstatic at the whole adventure of clattering down dusty beat-up roads through Maharashtra. Our driver had amazing skill at slamming on the brakes then skidding and swerving round the worst pot-holes and we were loving it.  Maharashtra was still beautiful and after a while there was an equally beautiful sunset.  At this point we realised that we were going to be driving in the dark for a while, and we wondered if the headlights worked. The pothole avoidance became a lot more erratic, but the villages were lit up, and full of people.  It was the last night of Dussehra (or Navaratri) and people were partying.  But nothing like the party we found when we got to Aurangabad!  It was not very easy to get through the streets, but that was just as well, because we didn't quite know where we were going.  I rather suspect I was the only one, including the driver, who had been to Aurangabad before.  I eventually managed to get us to within 200m of the hotel from sheer memory, but by then, I decided I was lost.  The driver asked a partygoer, who had the pleasure of pointing at the clearly visible sign just up the road!  We were delighted to arrive, and only a little disappointed to learn that the hotel kitchen was closed for partying too.  Fortunately, someone found us some left-overs from lunch and we made do with that.

Bibi Qi Maqbara, Aurangabad, 2007


It is really the easiest thing to hire a car to take you wherever you want, and we spent the next couple of days at Ellora and Ajanta without a guide.  We even got a car to take us from Aurangabad to Ajanta, wait for us then take us on to Jalgaon, for our not so fabulous train-catching experience at 2am.  On these trips, we got to see so much more, and for so much longer than the first time I went, when our lovely guide had his own schedule and ideas about how much we would want to see.  We also got to spend a lot more time chatting with Indian tourists than when we had a guide.  Or perhaps there were just more of them around in the holiday season, or the combination of their interest in our kid and Julia's interest in their clothes made contact easier!!  Ajanta had been really smartened up, but it still has it's cute little cafeteria where you can get daal and chapatis.  Somehow it reminds me of the Pont du Gard which had similarly rustic visitor's facilities in a similar landscape, until somebody decided to add a visitor center bigger than the aqueduct itself!  Fortunately, that can't happen at Ajanta.  There is such a lot of it.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Maharashtra, first view of rural India

I am in the process of transferring travel stuff from my old travel site to this blog. This is my travelogue from my first trip to India with Mike in 2000, and this was practically my first ever experience of India.  I think I spent most of it observing very carefully from behind the windows of a car  Things couldn't have been more different when I went back, 7 years later, but that's the next post.

________________________________________

Unlike most places, Maharashtra really does looks like a patchwork quilt from the air. and when you land at Aurangabad you can tell you've come to provincial India. The tiny airport has a nice garden, a single runway (a bit bigger than the garden) and a baggage conveyor so old and small that you really might as well pick up your bags directly as they come off the plane. Still the formalities must be observed.

We were taken to our hotel by a genuine Indian Ambassador instead of the fancy modern cars they have in Delhi and Katmandu. The hotel was also old-fashioned in a pleasant kind of way. It had beautiful gardens, a spacious restaurant and public area and clean rooms but the ensemble was reminiscent of one of the very earliest Bond movies and some of it could do with a lick of paint.

From the air we had not been able to see any villages and the next day I discovered why. Most of the newer homes these days are little box-shaped houses built of bricks and they're almost always sheltered by trees. They're often very brightly painted but unfortunately the paint is usually very dirty. This might not be because it's particularly old, the mud and damp of the Monsoon and dryness and dust of the Indian summer can apparently finish off most paint within a year. A few houses are built in an older style, these have a low stone wall with a single opening and a tall sloping thatch roof that reaches almost to the ground. They blend in nicely with their surroundings but I'm sure the locals can't wait to move into the newer but uglier buildings just as soon as they can afford to do so. In either type of house the animals live under low tents of thatched grass or more probably sugar cane leaves, and the people have an outdoor front room area, walled and roofed with woven plants. People usually have only one room indoors, but in any case most of their activities seem to take place in the outdoor room.

The only large buildings you ever see in the villages are temples or mosques, some of which are very impressive. You also see a lot of smaller Hindu shrines. Lower down the housing scale are the tiny tents of the sugar cane workers, who travel from field to field during harvest time. These look just like the smallest kind of western bivouac tents except that they are made from thatched sugar cane leaves. The sugar cane workers live in these temporary settlements for the four months of the harvest, before returning to their villages. We also saw tents belonging to nomadic peoples, of similar size and shape but this time made from modern waste: plastic, old bits of tarpaulin and fabric. These people, we were told, travel around taking what work they can, often road-building, and these are the only homes they have.

We had a lot of opportunity to observe road-building during our travels though not many opportunities to experience fully built roads. The work is very hard and damaging to the worker's health. The task of beating large stones down into smaller ones with a mallet is usually carried out by women. It produces a lot of dust which is very bad for the lungs. The different sizes of stone are then laid on the road and a very thin layer of tar is trickled over them to keep them in place. Men are usually employed to dig the trenches for underground telephone cables. Everywhere we went in India we saw miles of empty trenches along the roads which we were told were for this purpose. These are dug with pick axes and spades, but as a matter of fact I only once saw a few men working on them.

Maharashtra is a fairly dry area, where the hills only turn green for a very small part of the year and that wasn't when we where there. I suppose the land must be quite fertile because many kinds of crops are grown and there seems to be enough water, at least in winter. When we visited the sugar cane and cotton were being harvested, and we constantly passed carts, usually drawn by bullocks with brightly painted horns. We were told that they are painted at an annual festival to celebrate their marriage to the yoke. In the morning the carts were mostly empty, but in the afternoon they were loaded with mounds of cotton or stacks of sugar cane. Sometimes the women and children of the family were perched on top of this huge pile as well.

The working women in this region often wear their saris in a style called Kaccha which is more practical for movement. The sari is pulled between the legs to make something like a pair of trousers or shorts depending on how high it is pulled. Most of the carts are heading for one of the government weighing stations of which we passed several - here the farmers bring their harvest to be weighed and receive a fixed payment from the government. The cotton in the weighing areas forms huge white mountains. It looks like a cross between a quarry and a salt mountain.

Horsemen mural (Jaipur)

I thought Aurangabad would be a nice little city of just about the right size to explore on foot. Actually you don't wander around Indian cities on foot if you value your life, limbs or lungs, at least not in your first week, but Aurangabad is still a nice little city. It seems to have a ridiculous number of gates both old and new as well as the ruins of an old wall. As you drive around you keep passing through gates of various styles and the result is that you never really know if you are inside or outside. As far as sights are concerned, people come to Aurangabad because it is the nearest large town to Ajanta and Ellora, but it has a few things of its own and it mainly comes across historically as being a city of declines and downfalls.

The Aurangabad caves demonstrate how Hinduism gradually displaced Buddhism in India in the carved scene where Ganesh has taken the central position, with the Buddha off to one side worshipping him. The Bibi Ki Maqbara tomb was built in the last days of the Mughal empire and though modelled on the Taj Mahal, it's smaller, cheaper and covered with stucco instead of marble inlay. The town is very pretty in a brightly colourful sort of way. Magenta and scarlet flowering trees are everywhere. The tiny buildings are painted in every available colour, some fresh, some dirty. The space is tightly divided between the various occupants and each one has chosen his own colour randomly, with psychedelic results. At intervals, the colours break down into dust, ruin and raw concrete. And there is the constant cacophony of people, horns, motors, animals and blaring music, in perfect accordance with the visual scene.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The cost of cruising as a means of transport

Some people are curious about the cost of the apparently outrageous luxury of crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2.  I think if we were going around on freighter ships, people would just assume it was affordable, because it's less fancy.  I'm pretty sure they would be mistaken, and that it actually costs more for a family of three.  Maybe we'll find out eventually.

Here, I'm going to compare cruises to flights and see whether they work out very expensive or ... not so much.  For a start, we got the cheapest cabin we could lay our hands on, from the least expensive travel agent we could find.  That means all three of us in an inside cabin for seven nights.  For our Pacific crossing, which lasts 25 days, we've splashed out on a porthole!  So, the cheapest QM2 crossing we could find for our dates was priced at 3270 US dollars for the three of us.

How does that compares to a plane flight?  On Travelocity, I found a flight leaving on our embarkation date, on low-cost airline Air Lingus.  It would get us all from London Heathrow, to JFK in New York for 1752 USD.  We don't normally get such a good price when we fly to the US, because we don't usually leave from London.  But since the QM2 is sailing from Southampton, I was trying to get something as comparable as possible.

So, no surprises, getting to the US by plane is cheaper than going by boat, but is that all we have to take into consideration?  We're also getting 7 nights full board in a floating hotel, with miscellaneous entertainments included.  I'm sure they'll want to get extra money out of us for various things, starting with alcohol and tips, so it's hard to estimate the real cost of the stay at this stage.  But the starting cost of our hotel room, restaurant meals and entertainment for those 7 days is 217 USD per day for three people.  Not exactly dirt cheap, but not outrageous either.  Bed and breakfast followed by two restaurant meals can easily set the three of us back that much anywhere in Europe.

On our Pacific cruise, we do even better, though I suspect conditions may be less luxurious and the pressure to spend may be higher.  You can't buy a flight from Los Angeles to Sydney for the 30th October 2011 yet, but on 15 September, we could pay 2237 USD.  Our cruise costs 6736 USD, which means our board and lodging clocks in at 180 USD a day, for a slightly nicer room than on the QM2.  And we get taken to see a bunch of places on the way.

If you factor in transport, accommodation and entertainment, cruising seems reasonably priced.  It's still an extravagance for us, in that our budget for most of the trip doesn't run to hotel accommodation and restaurant meals.  But I think it's going to average out OK. 

NB: cruise prices seem to be like flight prices, they're variable according to date, demand and supplier.  So all the figures given above are really just an indication of the price differences other people might find at any given time.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

100 Things Packing List

I decided to base my packing list for our indefinitely long journey on Dave Bruno's 100 Things Challenge.  I've always loved the idea of having only 100 possessions, and this is the perfect opportunity.  Once these 100 things have been set aside, I know everything else has to go: it gets sold, given away, lent or put in storage.  Now, having said that, quantity of possessions probably isn't such a big issue for travelers as volume or weight, and in our case, neither is a massive issue.  We're planning to avoid planes and stay in most places for several weeks.  So this is really just my little game.  I don't expect Mike will be joining me.  I don't know if I'll even have the stamina to write down everything he brings with him, though it would be interesting - and of course, it would help to prevent things getting lost!

A lot of my packing list has been honed over the years of traveling in all kinds of places but I'm planning to try a few new things as well.  This packing list is meant to include the possibility of looking smart in urban environments as well as trekking in the jungle, not doing laundry more than once a week, and coping with a range of temperatures.  This is not exactly what I took with me when I went to India!

Bags and carriers

1. Wallet - with attachment so it fits on a belt.
2. Satchel bag - suitable for urban life, holds portable office stuff and slides into daypack for easier carrying.
3. Large wallet - was meant as a pencil case, holds most of the smaller electronics stuff.
4. Daypack - this was designed as a camera backpack, it has no waist straps, but I love it anyway.  I've done a lot of pretty serious day hiking with it, so I haven't been too hampered by the weight-bearing issues.
5. Soft-sided suitcase - has straps, so it can be carried as a backpack, for short distances anyway.
6. Cloth shopping/beach bag - useful for shopping, carrying your laundry or taking your stuff to the pool or beach.
7. Duffel bag for the outdoors stuff - what works for me is to share the suitcase with Antonia, and let everyone's outdoor stuff overflow into a duffel bag.
8. Stuff bag - for keeping underwear in, and stop it getting mixed up with everything else.
9. Lunch box - holds food, fragile items, and can double as a plate and bowl in an emergency.

A 10th of the items used already, and it's just bags!  Am I crazy?  Well, I might be, but I really do use all these things, they mostly pack into each other and don't weigh very much.

Wardrobe list

10. Underwear - enough for a week. These live in the stuff bag.
11. Socks - also enough for a week These live in the stuff bag.
12. Bras - various styles, and also enough for a week.  These live in the stuff bag.
13. Swimsuit - or bikini, I haven't made up my mind yet.  But only one of the two.
14. Blue jeans - I know everyone says leave these out.  I would substitute if I were going mainly to very warm, non-Western places.
15. Black trousers - smart casual, not as heavy as the jeans, suitable for town or hiking.
16. Dress trousers, black.
17. Sports trousers - these are more for exercise or hiking and need to be quick drying.
18. Black long sleeved top
19. Other-colored long sleeved top - I use these as light sweaters as well, I like to keep them pretty neutral.
20. Other-colored long sleeved top
21. Short sleeved black tee-shirt
22. Other short sleeved tee-shirt - colored, patterned or whatever
23. Tank top - one fairly smart or pretty top
24. Tank top - one casual, patterned top
25. Tank top - plain black
26. Long-sleeved shirt - mine is a light-colored, Indian shirt from a salwar kameez, with the hem raised to hip level
27. Long-sleeved shirt - more of a rugged, keep the sun off, trekking shirt with button front.
28. Sweater - neutral and barely heavier than a long-sleeved top.
29. Sweater - thicker, and allowed to be interesting.
30. Shawl - works better for an extra layer, can look smart and can double as a blanket.  Or even a bag!  I know, I've tried it.
31. Suede jacket - only because I'm going places where I'm likely to need a light but more urban-style coat
32. Raincoat - this Gore-tex jacket actually packs up very small, now that its fleece has worn out and been thrown away.
33. Travel vest - Scottevest travel vest.  This is a new experiment, so I'll have to let you know how it works out.
34. Cocktail dress/tunic - mine is actually the top from my favorite Indian salwaar kameez.  It's a very modern style from Mumbai and machine-washable.  But I'm planning to wear it with western pants.
35. Evening dress - well, I'm going to need one, and I've got one that suits me packs small and doesn't crease, so in it goes.
36. Scarf - belongs with the Indian cocktail 'dress', and like all Indian scarves is broad enough to work as a light shawl, but apart from being a prettyfier, it's great for keeping mosquitoes off, or keeping hair from being windswept.
37. Leggings or tights - thermal underwear, really, for cold nights.
38. Pyjamas - ideally, both top and bottom could double as day wear in a pinch.
39. Belt
40. Walking shoes - best available compromise between being suitable for hiking and urban life.
41. Walking sandals - as above.  What I hate is when I go in water with them, and they take ages to dry, but I don't feel like hauling plastic shoes right now, so I'll put up with it.
42. Ballerinas - this is my new experiment in prettier, indoor shoe wear, with the minimum sacrifice of space.

My entire wardrobe is really not much bigger than this, although it has been a struggle finding shoe solutions that worked without taking up too much space or weight.

Toiletries and first aid

43. Toothbrush
44. Comb
45. Nail scissors
46. Tweezers - this is also an important first aid tool for removing ticks, splinters, ...
47. Magnifying mirror
48. Razor
49. Hair ties

I've had some fun miniaturizing, with the result that all the above fits in my wallet!

50. Female hygiene products
51. Deodorant
52. Laundry powder - for machine washes
53. Toothpaste - I'm planning to experiment with tooth powder
54. Shampoo/conditioner - I'm planning to experiment with bar shampoo
55. Pain reliever
56. Anti-histamine
57. Water purification tabs - for replenishments when hiking
58. Plasters - Compeeds are the best for blisters, we also need some for small cuts and scrapes
59. Antibiotic wash/cream - for those small cuts and scrapes
60. Handkerchief/tissues - for the tears that go with the small cuts and scrapes
61. Insect repellent - frankly, I'm not convinced it works.  Barrier methods are more effective, anytime.
62. Sunscreen - I'm planning to experiment with the dry, stick kind

My new experiment is to try to find dry versions of all the products that are usually runny and tending to escape from their over-sized containers.

Outdoor stuff

63. Wet suit - I know, this is an outrageous extravagance.  How can I justify it, and why don't I just rent one?  The reason is that I like swimming in lakes, rivers and seas, but I'm a yellow chicken when it comes to cold water.  I use my wetsuit as a substitute swimsuit.  And they don't happen to have wetsuit rentals beside any old lake you come across.
64. Water bottle
65. Flashlight - the wind up kind.  One less battery to worry about.
66. Thermos
67. Extra cup for the thermos
68. Magnifying glass - I really do use it all the time.
69. Binoculars
70. Knife - Opinel, a locally produced knife.  It will remind me of home.
71. Compass
72. Sunglasses - next time I have glasses made, I'm splashing out and getting the kind where the lenses darken.
73. Hat - broad-brimmed, serious sun prevention hat.
74. Towel - large enough to preserve modesty, but no larger!  It will have to double as a picnic blanket, I think.

We expect to rent tents, sleeping bags, and so on, on occasion.



Electronics

75. Asus Eee PC netbook - I've had it for about 2 years, and I'm completely delighted with it.  Having said that, I need to buy the bigger battery for it, and I do have a time share in the object we're calling the portable desktop, for when I need to work with Photoshop or other graphics things.  I hope that time is going to be long enough.
76. Garmin Oregon 550T gps
77. Sony Walkman - wth favorite music and Chinese lessons
78. Canon digital SLR camera + 1 telephoto zoom lens + polarizing filter + card and battery - I count this as one item because it's usually all together.  Mike tends to haul a wide angle around so I can swap if needed.
79. Macro filter for the camera
80. Spare camera card - I decided to keep it down to two cards to encourage myself to process the photos.
81. Camera battery charger with spare battery
82. Generalised battery charger - mostly used for the gps.  Ideally, it's power supply would be replaced by a flatter packing one.
83. Set of spare batteries for the gps
84. Camera card to computer device - I'm looking for a smaller one
85. Camera cleaning pen
86. Telephone - I hate phones.  Therefore I'm looking to buy a tiny, contract-free one that charges off the usb port on those rare occasions when I need it.

Papers


87. Notebook - I use very small ones that fit in my wallet
88. Field book - this is a sketchbook in which I draw and write
89. Origami paper
90. Full pencil case - yes, if I counted each pencil individually, I would fail the 100 things challenge.  But I do share with Antonia.
91. Tiny watercolor set.
92. Portable filer - this might be a cardboard or plastic sheet system, for the temporary paperwork, tickets and so on that we'll inevitably acquire.
93. Visiting cards - for people we meet.
94. Passports - I'm counting them both as one.  At least I don't have three, like Antonia.
95. Driver's licence, and international licence.
96. ATM cards - also all counted as one
97. Donor card with medical info such as blood group on it
98. Eyeglasses - one day to be sun/eye glasses

That's 98 things!  For the last two, I can carry any two additional items, a book perhaps?

Sunday, 17 October 2010

In Praise of Planning

How much travel planning people want, need or feel able to provide themselves with varies immensely.  We expect it to be hard work getting our sedentary lives shut down or put on hold, but aren't we as free as the air once that's sorted?  Well it depends.... I will admit up front that I have been accused of over-planning, usually by people whose trip requirements were longer than the Mississippi and rarer than a hotel room in Haifa during Sukkot. 

On the other hand, the only trip I didn't plan at all was a bit of a disaster.  That was the one where I found out just how rare hotel rooms are in Haifa, not to mention the rest of Israel, during Sukkot.  You see, it was no idle metaphor.  Every day of that trip, we embarked on the grueling search for somewhere to sleep that hadn't been booked up weeks ago. Then we went to see something for half an hour.  We didn't know what we wanted to see so we ended up working blindly through the sites on our archaeology pass.  That was the only trip I've ever taken where we walked out of a literal flea-pit and into a five star hotel that cost ten times more than our intended budget.  Actually, it turns out lots of people's travel blogs read similarly, so I guess this kind of misadventure is popular, whereas planning isn't?

Too bad, I'm about to make the case for the underdog.  Check out the universal advantages of planning:

  • The best value for money places tend to go first, and if you've planned ahead, they'll be going to you. 
  • You'll have the opportunity to find out where the best value for money places are.  They're usually a short distance from anywhere you've actually heard of, so you're not likely to happen on them by accident.
  • If you're at all attached to the idea of some specific facility or going somewhere really popular, you increase your chances of actually acheiving your goal.
  • There are more interesting things in life than walking down a street full of hotels looking for a room, and if you plan, you will be doing them
  • There are also more interesting things in life than wondering where to go from breakfast to lunch, and looking for that place from lunch to teatime.
  • You won't turn up somewhere you always wanted to visit half an hour before closing time, or worse, on the wrong day. 
  • You will allocate enough time for the things you want to do, because you will have an idea of the practicalities involved.
  • You may find out that the first thing you thought of doing isn't really what you want to do at all. Then you get to change up front, a thing that might not be possible, if you already got started.

I have a couple of more personal reasons for favoring planning, that don't fit neatly in a bullet point.  They won't apply to everyone, but they're worth bearing in mind:
  1. When you're young, free and single, you can backpack around the world, bumping into people you like, changing direction, lingering in places, or moving on quickly, hampered only by your minuscule budget.  Later on, when you have grown-up responsibilities and no desire to stay at home for 20 years, things will inevitably be different.  In this post, I had some fun pretending that Antonia and I were free-living, independent spirits on a girlfriends trip.  Needless to say, that's all a big fat lie.  When radically interdependent people (aka a family) start traveling together, impromptu excursions by one or other of the members require the most planning of all.  It seems better to just admit that, and move on.

  2. Permanent travel isn't the same as a vacation, there is usually stuff people would like to get done on the go - work, education, a writing project...  Cruising around the Internetz, I discovered the concept of bucket lists - a list of things you would like to do and acheive in your life, and why not, in your travels. This seemed like a good and fun idea, so I started jotting down things like 'see the Statue of Liberty'. and 'learn to ride a horse (despite being deeply allergic to the beasts)'.

    After a little while of this, I started to remember some of my productivity goals - art and writing projects I would like to get done on the trip, not to mention books I'd like to read.  Looking at this list, it seems ambitious, but the whole idea is to challenge yourself, isn't it?  Finally, for some reason, I decided that success in my travel roles and responsibilities should be included in the list.  When I did that, I noticed that first, I am apparently responsible for making sure everyone else can meet their productivity goals, as well as all the infrastructure and management of the trip whether it's done in a planned way or not; and second, my duties look potentially time-consuming. 

    I decided that the least I could do for myself was manage these responsibilities in a way that had the least impact on my other goals.  In practice, that means this: if the US embassy approves my visa application in two weeks, the first thing I do is make all the bookings for the US trip.  Three-quarters of the accounting and nine-tenths of keeping a roof with WIFI connection over our heads will be taken care of in one fell swoop.  Once that's done, I'll have nothing much left to worry about except being in the moment, dreaming of Oceania and getting on with my projects.

    (I'll post my bucket list soon).

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Around the World in 80 Days

Mike and I just finished watching the BBC series, Michael Palin's Around the World in 80 Days, and now Mike's too scared to go!!!  Ha, ha, not really...  But it's always interesting to see the experiences of a fellow land and sea-based circumnavigator, even if the trip did take place back in the '80s.

The first thing that struck me about Palin's 80 Days was that the budget is a bit different from ours.  The tailor of Palin's banker is richer than the tailor of our banker! (translate into Latin, please).  To convince ourselves that the cost of taking the Orient Express, as Palin does, is astronomical, we looked it up.  If people think sailing transatlantic on the Queen Mary II is extravagant, all I can say is, it's less than a third the price of this!  The BBC should print the trip budget!

Mike got more uptight about the obvious intense string-pulling by the BBC to make everything work.  Particularly when they persuaded a freight captain to bump two of his crewmen off the ship and fly them from Chennai to Singapore (at the BBC's expense, I imagine), so that Palin and cameraman could get on board. I was already dubious about the possibility of getting onto freight ships at all, without a lot of planning and forethought. I was more amused that they pulled out a motor launch to zoom him from one ship to another in Singapore harbour, but left him to thumb a lift from a lorry driver in Felixstowe.   I think we were both losing sight of the point of the exercise, which was to make television.

So what about getting round the world in 80 days?  Apart from doing it for a bet, it doesn't seem like a great idea.  Poor old Palin looked exhausted by the time he made London (that's what scared Mike), and he only spent about half a dozen days seeing places. I think we'll do the opposite, and see how long we can take!  But if you must rush, it occurs to me that you can reach Beijing from London comfortably in a couple of weeks with the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian trains.  Was this still the inaccessible Soviet Union when they made this series?

I suppose we're now going to have to watch Palin's 80 Days Revisited, not to mention read the Jules Verne original.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Lost in Louisiana, Part 6

I am in the process of transferring travel stuff from my old travel site to this blog. This is the trip where I got culture shock in the USA. Hope it doesn't make too many Americans laugh at me too much!
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On our last day in New Orleans we took the car and drove out to see a few of the old plantations. As we first left the city we drove over a new highway that was raised on stilts above the water, rather like a bridge but too long to be called a bridge. After we left the water we drove through thick uninhabited woods. It was a particularly beautiful road and large, modern and brand new in appearance. When we had to leave it, it was a different matter altogether. The road that led to Oak Alley plantation was often only one track wide and it was hard to believe that it could possibly lead anywhere. Strung along it were a few cabin style homes.


The first thing we saw when we reached the plantation was the steamboat in the picture above. At first we thought this was part of the plantations accessory attractions but we soon discovered that it is a tourist cruise ship on the Mississippi. For a price, you can book a room on this ship and visit various sites up and down the Mississippi for a price. Oak Alley plantation is actually most famous for the the very ancient oak trees in the other picture. We were told that the origins of the alley are unknown but they precede the existence of the plantation or of any major habitation in the area. In the days when the plantations were active the whole of the land along the Mississippi was divided into thin strips on both sides, each of which was a different owner's plantation. Many of the plantation owners were first generation immigrants from the European upper classes. They found life in Louisiana hard. There was the constant risk of flooding when the Mississippi rose over its levees (earth walls intended to restrain it), incredibly hot summers and a number of diseases that were fatal at the time. For the most part they attempted to recreate the lives they had had in Europe, importing furniture and objets d'art when they could and socialising with their nearest neighbours.

Oak Alley still has fairly large grounds which we wandered through freely, but to visit the house we had to wait and go with a group. We were shown round by an extremely prim southern lady in a long skirt and white blouse, who had a tendency to look askance at anyone who did not behave as if they were in class at school while she was speaking. Among the more interesting features of the house were the absence of an indoor kitchen, the spare bedroom shared between guests and the sick or dying, and the fly catcher used at the dining table.


When the plantation system came to an end it was largely replaced by the oil industry and strange metal chimneys and vats line most of the river now. We had decided to visit one more plantation on our way back to New Orleans, but as we drove up and down the river side all we could see was oil and more oil. Eventually, we decided to inspect a clump of trees more closely, and there, in tiny grounds, completely dwarfed by the surrounding industrial buildings was what remained of the plantation. When the land had been sold to an oil company, the owners required the buildings to be preserved, and this they were, though minimally. Of course, many plantations have been lost completely. The interesting features of this plantation are the two water cisterns that flank the building and that support the internal running water system. A few of the cabins once inhabited by slaves have also been preserved, and the poverty of their existence is evident.
We only had time to see two plantations on this trip, but we felt we were starting to get the hang of what all the others would be like anyway. We were actually surprised by the lack of historical information available to the people who arranged the visits, as though, although the houses were preserved, little or no research was being done into their past. At this point we had to return to New Orleans, because we had managed to get a reservation at the famous K-Paul's restaurant, but only at the cost of having dinner as early as 5.30 in the afternoon. The food was again excellent, and we were actually glad to get to bed early, since we had to leave for the airport at about 5.00 the following morning.

Lost in Louisiana, Part 5

I am in the process of transferring travel stuff from my old travel site to this blog. This is the trip where I got culture shock in the USA. Hope it doesn't make too many Americans laugh at me too much!
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On our fifth day we picked up a hire car and went to visit the Baratria reserve, a bayou. I have always wanted to see a bayou, since I saw the Walt Disney film the Rescuers as a child. Now, I stood in front of a signpost, which described bayous as gloomy, spooky and mist-filled and tried to put this together with the bright, sparkling emerald coloured scene before my eyes.
 
The nature reserve is a bit smaller that I had expected but carefully arranged to be educational. In fact, unlike European nature reserves, it is so serious that there is nothing on sale to eat or drink, so it was lucky we had brought something with us. The wooden boardwalks form marked trails which keep you away from the wildlife and prevent you getting your feet wet. You begin on fairly dry land, where there are the barely visible remains of a native American settlement. As you go lower and lower the ground around you gets wetter until eventually the trees give way to more or less open water.
We saw several alligators, though all of them were extremely small, like the one in the photo below. We also saw insects and birds, and, thanks to the sharp eyes of a ranger, one rather poisonous snake.

After we had exhausted the walking possibilities of the place we thought we would try some of the canoe trails they have marked out, but it took us a while to discover where we would find canoes. Eventually we set off driving down the road and some miles from the reserve we reached an isolated cafe and canoe rental place. Arrangements for canoeing are actually quite complicated. Having made contact with these guys, we had to wait until they were ready to drive a canoe to the reserve for us and launch it, and when we had finished canoeing, one of us had to drive back to get them to come and fetch their boat back! It has to be said that the reserve only allows for a couple of hours canoing at most. Although several trails are marked out, the majority have become overgrown and would be impossible to use without a machete and serious determination. After a couple of hours we had explored all of the reserve that was possible and seen a few larger alligators and we were ready to call it a day. The waterways were much more exposed than the path, and we were starting to get a bit sunburned.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Hauts Plateaux du Vercors


We may not have started our travels but we did get away for a full-day autumn hike in the Vercors.   We had lunch in front of a view slightly wilder than this one, while I wondered how much Yosemite will look like this.  The wilder part of the Vercors plateau is a maze of interconnecting paths, but they're quite will signposted, though you can't always be sure what the signs mean.  We had set off with no real plan, so we followed interesting seeming signs at random.  First, we went to the 45th parallel.


It has a nice sculpture (which is just a bit south of the actual parallel, according to our gps).  On the globe, just over France, there is a label saying "Vous etes ici", for those who are really lost, I suppose.  If you follow the parallel around, you find yourself in Yellowstone.  Maybe we'll be able to make a little collection of 45th parallel monuments if they happen to have one in Yellowstone also.  Just beside the parallel monument there is a memorial to a resistance group who had a camp here in 1942.  Somebody had placed toadstools on it, where you would normally expect to see flowers.  

After the parallel we decided to follow signs to Grotte Barnier, especially as it turned out that Mike had a flashlight.  The way these signs work is a bit special: there is a whole network of posts, each of which has a name label at the top, and some pointers to other places at the bottom.  The pointers take you to the post with that label, so there is a post labeled '45th parallel', some 25 m from the monument we saw, and another post labeled 'Grotte Barnier'.  When we got to this post there was manifestly no 'grotte' in the immediate vicinity.  So we got out the map, and discovered that it was up a path, somewhere off to the right.  We went, we searched, we found no cave.  Just as we were about to give up, we remembered that Mike has an internet connection with his new phone, so we looked up 'Grotte Barnier' and, hey presto, right there in the middle of the mountains, we had a photo of what we were looking for, and detailed instructions of how to get there!


We still might have had a hard time finding the cave, but Antonia, who has the sharpest eyes of the team, suddenly spotted it from the path.  It was really small, but at the back there is a small spring.  Actually, what we found was a mud 'dam' some 10 metres in, holding back water deep enough to cover our shoes.

The interesting thing is that when I took a closer look at the website we found, one of its important purposes is to cover possible supplies of water in the Vercors.  This is always a problem on the plateau for people who are taking longer than day hikes as there is no permanent, completely reliable supply. The site we found records the Grotte Barnier spring as being completely dry on 15 August 2008.  In early October 2010, after a fairly wet season, we could not even get near the back of the cave!

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Got-Done List

This is a daily record of what actually got done to prepare for our trip.
  • Shuffled the trip in a way that we could pick up Antonia's friend, and which also gets me out of changing the Yellowstone reservation.
  • Checked and noted the post office's offers for dealing with post in our situation.  To get all our mail forwarded to a single address such as a parent would cost 100E a year, which is reasonable.  We are also trying to limit our mail, by canceling things we don't need or getting them sent electronically.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

This is a daily record of what actually got done to prepare for our trip.

  • Did some research and thinking around the possibility of Antonia's friend joining us during the summer holidays, where to pick him up, drop him off and where to go in between. I have some cool ideas so we'll see what works.
  • Completed the inventory for the guest bedroom, upstairs bathroom and our bedroom.  That was a tiny bit quicker than I thought, though I'm building up a massive to do list.
  • Emailed my friend who is supposed to meet us for Tasmania to see when we can have lunch and talk about it.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Got-Done List

This is a daily record of what actually got done to prepare for our trip.
  • I did the inventory and fix-up list for the guest bathroom.  Actual productive work, hurrah!
  • We chatted with a few neighbors at the village get-together about the fact that we are leaving on a long trip, so I guess that could now be considered public information!
  • I added Kamchatka to the list of places to maybe, eventually, get to.  At the moment that would be so far in the future that it is no more than a bullet point.
  • Philosophized about the nature of travel and anonymity, versus staying in one place and everyone knowing each other.

The Got-Done List

This is a daily record of what actually got done to prepare for our trip.
  •  Set up a file in Excel to receive the inventory / list of tasks that need doing.
  • Called on a storage place to find out how it works and how much it costs for a range of possibilities from storing all our stuff to only our personal possessions.  I found out that the storage facility is simple to use and a small space would be just about affordable, if we have to go that route.
  • Made a very short list of places to see in Philadelphia, although as it turns out, all three of them are outside Philadelphia, but accessible.
  • Had second thoughts about the distance education Chinese course Antonia is following, when I discovered that it's taking me ten times as long to figure out how to send in the assignments as it took her to do them.  Still, I will reserve judgment as to whether we take it on the road or not for now.
  • Antonia and I istened to Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Appalachian Spring for our arts lesson.  We also did Native American music and totem poles earlier this week.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Got-Done List

This is a daily record of what actually got done to prepare for our trip.  I kind of wish I had started this earlier, it would have been interesting to see all the work that got done.  But earlier, I didn't have to do things daily, whereas now, the heat is on.
  • Felt overwhelmed.
  • Had a meeting with Mike to try to settle what needs to be done about furniture in this house if it is to be let furnished.  The conclusion was that he strongly wishes to let the house furnished and so we need to 'refresh' some of the furniture in order to do that.  We have not reached a decision about storage of our personal stuff, what to do about the supply of wood for heating or how to arrange management of the house.
  • Made a load of to do lists, and set aside time to go over the house room by room for things that need doing and to make an inventory.
  • Worked on preparing myself mentally for seven months of life in the USA (which I may post about elsewhere).

Friday, 17 September 2010

Somewhere I'm not going...

Photo credit: this is a good photo!  I have no clue who took it first.
I am not going to the Creation Science Museum in Kentucky.  Actually, I'm a little bit disappointed about that, because I have a trainwreck fascination with the place, and besides, at our local museum you're not allowed to ride the dinosaurs.  On the other hand I don't think I could really handle it.  I'd be rolling on the floor laughing by the middle of the first room, you know the one with the dinosaur and the people living in perfect harmony.  Then I'd probably get kicked out.

Yes, I'm kind of disappointed it won't fit on the itinerary, but it doesn't matter because other people have been for me.  I'm going to start collecting their links instead.

This is the funniest and most photogenic
This one is a report on the famous invasion of the Pharynguloid horde

Hopefully, I'll find some more.

Say what you like about the Creation Museum, it is now a piece of classic Americana on a par with Mount Rushmore and beefburgers.  I think I'm going to start a series on Americana right now.  Look how I strive to get into the spirit of things!!!

6.5 months to go

How did we suddenly get from 8.5 months to 6.5 months in the space of a month?  Well, it turns out Mike's work commitments will force him to be in Philadelphia throughout May, so we are moving our boat trip a month earlier.  That means I will have to request a tourist visa for seven months instead of six, which is unusual.  We are hoping they will grant it, both in Paris and at the port in New York when I arrive.  As the wife of a US citizen, I'm probably entitled to an immigrant visa, but it seems like overkill for a seven month stay.  It cost more, the process is more complicated and as I understand it, it can take six months.

Apart from that slight concern, I'm not too unhappy to spend an extra month in Philly.  It's my least unfavorite East Coast city, and maybe I'll get to see some horseshoe crabs on the beaches of Delaware, visit the Dutch Country, and do that Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island tourist trip which I had basically given up on.

Applying for a tourist visa is a relatively complicated and expensive process.  We spent an amusing hour or so producing a standard US passport photograph.  I mostly got the online form filled out, but we're still waiting for British passports back, so I can't fill in that number yet.  I read through the very long list of crimes and misdemeanors that the powers-that-be would like me never to have committed.  Some of them I had never even heard of, but they made fairly entertaining reading.  I have an appointment for an interview in Paris, and a train ticket booked for the end of October.  I need to have with me any paperwork the interviewer chooses to wish to see, even though they won't decide what that is until I'm in the interview.  Hmmm.... 

Apart from that we are generally trying to put our affairs in order ready for departure.  This is moving forward at snail's pace, to the point where I'm feeling a bit panicky.  We seem to spend all our time dealing with immediate catastrophes.  No forward progress has been made on the house!  Truly, I'm starting to have my doubts about renting it furnished, for lots of reasons.  Some of the furniture, especially the bedroom furniture isn't as tenant friendly as it should be.  We have one futon mattress that I wouldn't share with a stranger, on a large platform, one very cheap and rickety child's bed with ricketier trundle for sleepovers and one very uncomfortable futon sofa bed.  Who is that stuff going to suit except us?  Also, we really have a huge amount of small stuff that it seems inappropriate to leave so we're probably going to have to pay for storage anyway.  There are some fairly major things that need doing before the house can be let in any way, as well as lots of minor ones. the artisans who need to do the major ones are being unresponsive as usual.  I need to start putting out feelers for potential tenants and management companies and I don't even have time for that.

Call it displacement activity if you like, but I decided that our most important paperwork and our wills, provision for our child, etc, should be in order and stored with our families, partly so we can access it, partly so they can if anything should happen to us.  Well, every time I look at that stuff, I discover a new disaster.  Tonight's disaster was the discovery that Mike had made a will before meeting me or having a child and forgotten to ever update it.  It's just one more darned thing on the to do list, and probably the most overdue for attention.  I truly believe that people's affairs should never become so complicated that they are ever out of order, but I'm about a million miles from succeeding in practicing what I believe.  In theory, a lot of good can come out of this travel scheme, if it forces us to organize a bit better, but for now, I'm just feeling overwhelmed.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Antonia's passport

Mount Rushmore seems to have been created in the same artistic spirit as the new US passport.

 The nice thing about having a blog is you have a clear record of when things happened.  If I hadn't recorded the date we went to apply for Antonia's US passport, I would never have believed it took the best part of 4 months to arrive!  OK, they did have to send it from Lyon to Paris to London to Paris to Lyon to us.  I don't know why they couldn't cut out a few of those steps, they just couldn't.

I think Mike was starting to get a little anxious about this passport and we joked about calling the consulate and crying at them:  "Oh, noes, we've been waiting for so long, we fear our daughter's identity has been stolen by terrorists!!!"  When he did call them the lady at the consulate said she was sure she would never have said it could take a few weeks, she meant months!

Anyhow the passport arrived last week and it reads a bit like an Usborne picture book of the USA.  It has different pictures on every page of things like the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore and an American Bison.  You could practically use it as a checklist of Things To See. Also, it has some dinky little quotes on each page.  I wondered if it was just for kids (or maybe just for 'foreign Americans' like Antonia, so they can have an image of the place).  But apparently it is for everyone and Mike's new passport will be like that too when he gets one.  It's a bit of a kitsch concept, and this being America, I'm not sure if it's supposed to be some form of cultural propaganda, or if they just thought it would be nice to decorate all the blank pages.  I somehow can't imagine my new French passport with the Eiffel Tower, the Pont du Gard and a picture of an old man in a beret riding a bike with baguettes strapped to the back! I rather expect it will be a lot plainer. Still, Antonia's new passport may well be a future piece of collectible Americana.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

RTW update - 8.5 months to go

GOOD NEWS #1 - Bookings
We have the first two major legs of our RTW trip reserved!  They are the boat into the USA in May, and on again to Australia in October.  It seemed like a reasonable idea to make the reservations now, as these were the only two boats that would do, and we were quite keen on the idea of getting round the world without taking a plane.  Obviously that project implies there will be more boats later on.  I am really, really happy to have a date set in rock.  There's a lot of work to do before we go and I think it will give us all a bit of psychological focus.  It also means I can start sketching out the second leg of the trip, where we're hoping to coincide with a friend in Australia or Tasmania for some of the time.

GOOD NEWS #2 - Adventures
After thinking of loads of cool things to do on the first section of our trip, then taking them all out again, on the grounds that they were impractical or expensive or whatever, we've added them all back in again.  Every single one!  Yes, we're taking boats across the oceans.  Yes, we're taking the train across the US.  Yes, we're hiring a campervan.  We even managed to fit our Grand Canyon backpack trip in again (provided we can get a permit of course).  We even managed to fit all the things in at near ideal times of year (Yosemite in May, Grand Canyon in October).  And we still managed to have five longer periods of renting houses so we can get some work done.  Mike and I have also made some headway in figuring out what that work might consist of.  See the 'View our calendar' link in the banner for the general outline.

GOOD NEWS #3 - Budget
I made a provisional cost estimate for the US part of the trip, which does include specific quotes for all the major expenses and guesstimates for costs like food.  It comes to almost exactly the same as staying at home, even including the boats, which are not the cheapest part, I must admit.  That seems like an acceptable outcome to me, since I'm hoping that one source of income or another throughout the trip will cover the cost.

GOOD NEWS #4 - Income
We happened to run into the ex-director of one of the big research centers around here and we asked him about possibilities for renting our house through the center.  They're really our best hope of renting the house furnished, which would be desirable for us.  He was really encouraging about it, and it made me feel relatively optimistic of finding our idea tenant(s). There is still quite a lot to do on getting the house ready.

GOOD NEWS #5 - Paperwork
We got our French nationality some months ago, but things do move quite slowly.  Yesterday, we completed the applications for our French ID cards and passports.  Antonia's US passport is still pending, but they assure us it's just a matter of time.  It's now imperative that Antonia and I get new UK passports, but that's more of a formality and we already have the forms done.  I just need a US visa, which I'll think about in the autumn. I will be in the US for almost exactly six months, since the second boat visits Hawaii and American Samoa, and I'm hoping it will all work out.  Still, the worst that can happen is we lose our $100 reservation fee.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

End of our holiday

Our last two days in Orkney were spent taking in a few sites and habitats we hadn't been to before. Antonia and I went and explored a burn and 'wood' near the airport. A wood on Orkney of a thin line of trees on either side of the river, where it has cut deep enough into the land to offer some shelter. We went for a couple of little walks, visited the eagle's tomb and the sights of Kirkwall. We failed to find a groatie buckie, but we've done pretty well otherwise. Antonia has done enough of her Orkney Nature Detectives book to earn a silver award. That's pretty good for a week's work, and I don't think it would have been possible if we hadn't had a strong prior interest in natural history. To get a gold award, you really need to live in Orkney, at least for a few months! Our transport between Orkney and Inverness doubles as a tour bus, so we had a last sight as we were leaving, the bus stopped at the Italian Chapel, decorated by Italian prisoners of war who were brought to construct the causeways. It is quite a moving place.

I thought as a model for our longer term trips, this trip to Orkney worked quite well. It's nice to have a house and few time pressures so you can just hang out, and even decide to stay in for a whole day. The great thing about self-catering homes is that you have all the advantages of being at home but none of the disadvantages in terms of lots of housework and administration to take care of. Mike got some work done, once he managed to get the internet fixed and I was pleased with the roadschooling aspect. We had enough time to get some traditional work done as well as the Orkney nature project which was very valuable.

Now we're on a really slow train between Inverness and Edinburgh, so we're getting to see a whole other bit of Scotland. Antonia and I have a bit more holiday with my parents, but Mike is heading back to London, then home tomorrow. We are already starting to think about what we have to do next in the way of doing our house up.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Orkney West Mainland

Proof of puffins!

There's something about wind when you're not used to it that's completely exhausting. Orkney did the wind thing on us today. It blew so hard that the weather fronts sailed over fast enough that we had everything two or three times: clouds, rain, and bright sunshine. It was just like those unbelievable weather icons that try to show every possible weather type in one picture. By the time I got home, I needed warm food, a large glass of wine and a bath, just to restore my body's reserves! Anyhow, today was our big touring day. We went to the Ring of Brodgar, the Brough of Birsay and the Broch of Gurness. The last two were places on our Orkney Explorer passes. The Ring of Brodgar is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney complex. In between all that we went and searched for Groatie Buckies or European Cowries on Aikerness Beach, but although we found just about everything else there, we drew a total blank on cowries. If you wanted periwinkles, all you have to do is put your hand down and scoop, and up they come, in every possible colour. The people staffing the Broch of Gurness told us cowries were more common in winter. Oh well! At least we found hermit crabs and shore crabs in abundance today, so that just about makes up for it.

We also spent a certain amount of the day instinctively looking for shelter. It's incredible how exposed a great flat tabletop of grass such as the Brough of Birsay can be, but fortunately, nearer the sea there are all kinds of collapsed bits. We hid in one of them for lunch, and Antonia and I hid in another while Mike leaned over a high cliff getting a really good shot of some cooperative puffins. Lucky Antonia had already seen some, because we weren't too keen on having her so near the cliff edge. I think the strangest things of our day were seeing a party of teenagers in full swimming gear walking across the Brough of Birsay causeway soaking wet through. They had clearly been swmming, but they weren't getting any drier just then, because it was raining hard and the windchill factor was intense. They looked cold. So did we, and we were in all of our warmest gear. Mike was wearing his New Zealand hat under his North Face jacket hood and his scarf wrapped around all that. I was envying the scarf. The other strange thing was a chilling tableau someone had constructed at the end of the causeway. A freshly dead decapitated swan lay spreadeagled in front of a tombstone that had been constructed from the local beach pepples. Ugghh! what were they thinking. Orkney is wild enough that there are plenty of carcasses around, especially of birds, and I can cope with that, but there's something about this 'iinstallation' that's quite freaky. I suppose the person who built it had a different view, and I know Mike finds our biology-orientated interest in dead animals a bit icky.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Orkney working day


This was really a working day, at least it was supposed to be. It was more a day for discovering that Antonia is totally disinterested in anything except natural history (and poetry), and that only in a haphazard, low-concentration kind of way. Anything that has to do with people or technology or thinking about something for more than three minutes in a row gets impolitely ignored. I suppose she did learn a few things about doing research on the internet. Mind you, I am not such a great example. We went for a short walk to Lerwick Head, and I made Mike stop the car twice: once to photograph a lapwing, and another to photograph a curlew. I have a nice collection of bird photos, but they all need cropping. Antonia did not really come into her own until about 5pm when she started collecting and drawing grasses. Mike got lots of work done today as well.

Orkney has the healthiest seaweed biodiversity of any place I have ever been to. I found several more kinds today, including some that look like mushrooms. It's certainly pretty good for birds as well.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Orkney Ancient History


We drove to Skara Brae on the West Mainland to see the major neolithic sites. As we passed Finstown, the skies cleared to a beautiful blue. The four wold heritage sites lie on a line approximately between two large freshwater lochs, and we had dazzling views of the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar as we drove through. Lucky, because we didn't really end up with time to go and seem them. We spent a while at Skara Brae. I already knew quite a bit about the site so there were few surprises. The little museum and reconstructed house were unexpected and very nice to visit. We also went to 'the finest neolithic tomb in Europe' and saw Viking graffiti along the lines of "Ineberge is the fittest woman" and a dragon.

After a very late lunch, wee returned to our local beach, the thin natural causeway between East Mainland and the near island of Deerness. On the rocky side we found only the usual things, though I did find several new species of seaweed I didn't get to yesterday. I watched the tide a bit anxiously, knowing that it was coming in, upredictably due to the uneven shoreline and the mist. The most exciting thing that happened to us was seeing one of the piractical birds, perhaps a skua, actually attacking an ordinary gull (as in David Attenborough!). The two flew low over our heads for about a minute, both crying loudly. I couldn't tell why the skua was pursuing the gull, in any case it got away. Of course, the camera had about five things that needed adjusting before it could even think about taking a picture, so I didn't stand a chance. Oh and we also found the highly decomposed carcass of a seal pup (I think). Yuck!


We walked out into the broad stretches of the lagoon and had soon lost the road behind us in the mists. I wasn't too afraid that we would lose our way. Every so often, a car would rumble unseen on the road behind us. Even if there had been no road, the mounds of seaweed lay with their fronds pointing inland. Drifts of white shells had been trapped behind them, in a small triangle protected from the outgoing tide. It was still a strange feeling to be lost in the endless grey of sky, and wet sand. Every so often the sun would dominate, and light up the mists around us to a golden glow. Anywhere further south, it would have burned through in minutes. At other times, we would find ourselves in denser fog, with fine droplets blowing against our faces. The mounds of yellowish brown seaweed and the tiny coiled cones of the lugworms as our only landmarks. Antonia noticed these were of a different colour from the sand around them. We found out that the top sand is a golden brown colour, whilst only a little way down, it turns dark grey. We found that out because, despite her disdain of Neolithic houses, Antonia obviously has some ancestral instincts lurking deep within her. She discovered that she could crack the cockles open on a rock - there is one rock, it seems, in the whole lagoon. But most of the cockles were empty, and were only hard to open at all because they were held together with algae. So then she learned that she could find live ones by digging. So she dug and cracked quite happily for more than half an hour, with her hair trailing in the sand. I think she might have done quite well living at Skara Brae, though it certainly more comfortable to have warm baths and bread and jam at home.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Orkney Natural History

Antonia at work, drawing seaweed

We got down to some serious natural history work today. After a bit of maths over the Internet (which blissfully worked for about half an hour), Antonia and I went down to the beach to study seaweed and various other things. We spent the first hour generally beach hunting, and the next hour drawing and writing about all the kinds of seaweed we could. For written resources, all we have are a seashore sticker book, an Orkney nature detective book and some natural history leaflets about Orkney. It seems like nearly nothing, but it's enough.

After lunch, we dragged Mike out for a hike around Mull Head on Deerness. We really excelled ourselves on this one. It was a five kilometre hike, and it took us five hours. That's because we did some serious bird watching and also tried to get to grips with our camera. The first part went very well. We were excited to see puffins for real, and also some razorbills. I don't think we would have found them without the help of the real birdwatchers on the cliffs. The camera, we are having trouble with that. We are just about in a position to prove we have seen puffins, but not until I'm able to crop and sharpen them up in photoshop.

Cute, but not a puffin!

In the meantime, the clouds were swept away, leaving bright blue skies. Orkney is like Iceland in that when the sun is out, it glows. And this evening, Mike might have, maybe, probably fixed the Internet. I'm sure our hosts must think we're crazy caring so much about the Internet. Our usage isn't quite what people who use the Internet a little bit must expect. Leaving Mike aside, one minute I'm looking up the weather forecast, then the tide tables. Then Antonia wants to find out what insect lives in Cuckoo Spit or what a Bloody Henry starfish looks like. Next, I want a recipe for flapjacks, or to know when Skara Brae is open, or what concerts are on at the music festival. Besides that, having the Internet gets us out of lugging books around, since we can read something on Gutenberg. It's not a case of constant usage, more constantly intermittent.

Quiet day in Orkney


It's drizzling as promised, but we spent the morning hanging around inside working anyway. Our house is a typical Orkney shape in that it seems very small on the outside and quite spacious inside. It has huge windows in almost every available space from which we can watch the ducks and chickens. Last night, I saw a curlew hovering over the farm, and this morning, a flock of sparrows came down and seemed to be feeding on the red hot poker flowers that seem so popular in the gardens here.

In the afternoon, we went out, first to the beach for a little while, where we had a good time bothering the local wildlife. Antonia is armed with a seashore sticker book and a nature detective book and she is developing a more precise view of the species she finds: they are not just 'shells', but whelks, or limpets, or periwinkles... Mike and I are trying to use our new camera, but we are not very good at it yet. It has to be said that the weather isn't really doing us any favours, and we don't have a suitable macro lens for close up nature shots. At least I can now recognise an oystercatcher whenever I see it!

It stopped raining while we were at the beach and started again just as we were setting off to visit the local whisky distillery. We've been round whisky distilleries before, but I enjoyed this one. If felt quite small and intimate, and it was interesting to be able to handle the barley, peat, and casks and smell them. I didn't know this before, but all the whisky distilleries are black becase they get covered in an alcohol consuming mould. It's funny to think that there really is an 'angel' drinking the so-called angel's share (the alcohol that evaporates out of the cask), and that it's a tiny black mould. Our guide said this mould is pleasant in summer, but gets quite slimy in winter. Also, we finally got our whisky!!! They gave us a taster and we bought a few small bottles for later.

That's about it, apart from a quick drive around and a bit of shopping. We will start exploring properly tomorrow.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Long journey to Orkney

View from Horrie Farm in Orkney

In various ways, we have worked our way through the whole of Scotland: from the border to Milngavie by train, to Fort William on foot, along the Great Glen to Inverness by coach, then up to Orkney by coach and ferry. After all that walking on the West Highland Way, it feels strange to be sitting on coaches. We had great views all the way, though I have been along Loch Ness before and I find the landscapes around there too banal for my taste. This just means that it looks a lot like the lowlands of Yorkshire where I spent several years of my life. It's very nice really, and probably quite exotic to some people. I think that Mike, for example, finds this area very attractive. We wandered around Inverness a bit in the afternoon. For the last eight days we had no time to do much except walk, wash, eat and sleep. Now that we have nothing much to do I think we're torn between creativity and exhaustion. Antonia and I started thinking of art projects, and we are all thinking (not very enthusiastically) of getting back to a bit of work when we get to Orkney.

Inverness has very good restaurants and we found a nice seafood one for dinner. The food and wine were excellent, but everyone is too tired to talk, and it's pretty tedious just sitting around eating. We might have been better off in a pub, with a football match to entertain us, though I don't think I could stand another plate of chips.

We got up in time for the 7:30 coach to Orkney which took us through beautiful countryside along lochs and firths, across new causeways, where, until a couple of decades ago, we would have had to take ferry crossings. Since this coach doubles as a tour bus, we had some commentary along the way. I was struck by two hilltop monuments, created by the landlords of the areas we passed through. One was ordered by a local lord as a way of keeping his tenants employed during a famine. The story goes that he paid a day-shift to put the monument up in the day, and a night-shift to undo their work - the idea being that they were too proud to just take the money. I couldn't make out what the monument was, but it is apparently a copy of something he had seen in India.

In the other case it was the landlord who had a problem with pride. He had his tenants erect an immense statue of himself as a 'loving' memorial. From a distance, I thought it was one of those statues of Mary that you find in southern europe, and it seemed rather out of place. This earl of Sutherland was not very popular because he was at the forefront of Highland clearances. His county of Sutherland is one of the prettiest we passed through. As we reached Caithness, it really felt a little bit like the ends of the earth. Half the houses are abandoned, and not just very old ones. It is very windy today, and the sheep and cattle, like the remaining houses, have an enduring look about them. Mostly they are lying down in little huddles. There are virtually no trees, except where householders have built fences and walls to nurture them, but not all the land is pasture either. There is a lot of black moor. Off shore, we can see a few drilling rigs, which seem to be keeping the towns going, but our commentator told us that about 150 years ago the area was the centre of a herring boom, and so overpopulated that workers were housed in horrendous conditions.

The impression of delapidation increased when we reached John O'Groats ferry terminal which consists of a few squat buildings for cafes and shops and a ruinous but very over-the-top Victorian Gothic hotel. It was freezing cold, with a strong wind, and I wished I had dressed rather differently. Our ferry, when it arrived, looked so small I thought for a while we were going to have to sit outside, but no.... We were down in the hold, on basic seats that had been bolted to the floor,with our life jackets in nets along the walls. I rather thought I wouldn't be needing mine in any circumstances, as the water would be cold enough to finish me off on contact. Being a smallish boat, our ferry went up and down rather a lot, and before long, dogs and children started getting sick. I advised Antonia to look out of the windows to try to anticipate her motion, and she pulled through, though she looked a bit pale at times. Orkney was a very welcome sight, though it was a bit of a shock when we found out that the crossing we had taken was the shortest possible one. I do know there are much larger and presumably more stable ferries than this coming into Orkney, but this is the one the Inverness bus takes you to.

In fact, we had been able to see Orkney from the mainland, it is so close, but when we actually got our feet on it, it seemed very rich and green and, well, safe. It has a less desolate feel than Caithness, although all the houses are still very sober and plain. When we got to Kirkwall, we found that everything was very close and convenient. We got all our information about what to do around here, an excellent sandwich in a cafe-come-music-centre, our hire car and our shopping, and we found our farm out in the country without any trouble. The only fly in the ointment is that it is bitterly cold here at the moment. It reminds me of the first day we spent in Iceland, when I wondered if were even going to be able to get out of the car. As soon as the wind dropped, it got reasonably warm there, and I think the same will be the case with Orkney. I hope so, because I'm looking forward to just messing around on beaches and archaeological sites and taking short walks. Though, if it rains, there is a pool table here, and plenty of other things to do.