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!


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.


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.


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!

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!

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!