Monday, 30 August 2010

Travelling hardships - part of the fun or too much?

Backpacking and travelling generally on a budget carries with it many sacrifices and compromises. Not least comfort. To be totally comfortable in travel, or accommodation or even food, and try and stick to a budget for 18months that equates to around $50 a day, its just not possible. So what gives? Well there is always a tension between cost, comfort and time. If we need to move fast, it costs; if we want to live in plush comfort it is gonna cost. And of course the other side of the equation is that if we want to be frugal then we are going to be in slow transport and cheap accommodation.

I guess the question is if it feel like sacrifice, whats the point? We are in a fortunate position (and thanks be to God for it) where funds are not the limiting factor for us to undertake this trip. By this I mean that we don't have unlimited funds but we have more funds than we need to undertake the trip. We have met many people who are right on the limit and for them spending more means cutting the time they will travel and maybe the destinations they can go. For us this is not the case - Japan, Tibet, Business class to New Zealand and Antarctica are testimony to that! For others it is therefore a matter of trip survival that they must budget, but if this is not the case for us then whats the story?

Living on a budget means that you end up eatig local food, travelling in the most local fashion that is possible, making more friends to pool costs and pass your time taking in the atmosphere of where ever you are, rather than doing things that cost money. Is this a good thing?? I think that it depends. Some people reading this are probably thinking that its obvious, doing things cheaply is a good thing and the only way to travel. Hostels and couch surfing are the centre of many peoples budget experience, and many would say that this is the only way to travel. Others would say that we are mad, why would you on purpose share dorm rooms with people, eat and drink on the streets, and pass night after night on buses and trains? Even more why would you do this when you have a choice!! Fair comments from both sides.

This is why it is a real question for me. We have travelled for 16months, and I would say we have travelled cheaply and wisely. We have not compromised a huge amount but in some places and at some times, it has got too much. Every so often I particularly have felt like I need some comfort. I am shocked that it was me that felt this first. Urvi has been a complete budget warrior, she has been happy with the cheapest hostel and the cheapest food. I have wanted to fly to places and she has set me straight, and in the end we have taken the bus etc. Her point of view is that we should be true to what this trip is about, and in the main this trip is about discovering and challenging. Doing things the cheapest way means finding our own solutions to things, and this is a good thing. I still maintain it is a bind sometimes but I guess I will look back at this time and think that it is worth it. There are more stories because of this approach. We would not have gone to the the 4000 thousand islands in Laos if we weren't doing things on the budget, we would not have travelled and seen South America by land in the way that we did if we were splashing out. We would not have cooked while trekking in Patagonia if we were wanting comfort, and most of of all there are many people, life changing people who we would just not have met if we were checking into hotels each night.

Comfort and 5 stars have their place but the trip would not have had the rich texture that it does if we had gone comfort class. I am proud that we as people had this choice and than we have been able to move in all these circles. 56th floor penthouse or 8 bed dorm, 2nd class 24hour bus or A380 suite. We have been able to do it all.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Murder on the night train to Aswan, a bugs tale

We had not taken a long distance train in quite a while (for an overnight train - since India) and so I particularly was looking forward to the train rides in Egypt. Rumor was that they were pretty good value and comfortable and the first short hop that we did from Alexandria to Cairo was exactly that. Feeling confident we got our night tickets for Aswan, only 13 hours, it was a short ride down the country. Due to the attacks on tourists a few years back people are not allowed to travel on the day trains. There are ways are it but in any case we opted to save the nights accommodation and go for the night train.

Problems hit from the start, the cabin we were given was an old style coupe, like something out of harry potter! The seats did not recline and all 6 seats were full. So yup sitting up all 13 hours. Ok not a big deal. But then... It soon became apparent the cabin was overbooked! We sat down and found out that our seats were already taken. Not double booked by people but by a collection of bugs and mites!! Urvi started itching and then I started! We were wriggling and giggling all night and all the morning. I think that it may well have been the worst journey we have had on the whole trip. It took a whole 2 days for the itching to recede and worse our bags had carried some of the critters along with them, so for at least 3 days we had to quarantine the bags!

Really it was horrible but maybe this is what travelling is all about...??

Thursday, 26 August 2010

How hot can you take?!!!

OK, so I am talking about the weather. Since we planned our route going essentially eastward, we have been broiling in the summers of South East Asia, Chilling in the South American summer and now have entered the oven of the Middle Eastern/North African summer.

I am pretty macho about heat, both in terms of food and climate and I reckon I take any temperature. Food wise I proved my credentials, by polishing of South Americas hottest curry. This ‘vindaloo’ in La Paz had over 30 chilies in one portion, it was mind blowingly spicy and with loads of rice and lots of moral support from the friends who put me up to this challenge I did it, and got the t shirt!

Weatherwise the heat that we are tramping around in right now is getting to be too much! We entered Mexico, and Cuba and it was kind of balmy, probably around 33ish. Canada and the US was fine, not really a major issue, but then we landed in Jordan, and more significantly we got to Wadi Rum, and boy oh boy! Ya I know its the desert, so what did we expect... 44 or so in the day, and no shade anywhere, the wind blew the hot air around like a fan assisted oven and slowly but surely we were both being roasted like two plump chickens. My glasses were hot on my face and walking on the sand was a form of torture. This was super hot!Urvi was actually pretty good about it all, but we both have really felt the heat. Trying to live on a budget is not easy, when AC seems a must but adds to the costs!

This heat wave we are wandering around in had not gone away, and I don't think it will until we fly into Ethiopia. The day temperature has not dropped below 40 it seems, and worse still the night temperatures have been in the 30s.

Seriously these are times to really be sensible about your travel plans and be really conscious about how much water you drink. I would never bother about this too much but in the last month I have really seen what hot is, and without the luxury of air conditioning everywhere you go, the heat soon gets to you.

Roll on the Southern African Spring...

Friday, 20 August 2010

Dahab, its not old it doesn't have pyramids, but it is diving heaven

Our first steps into Africa were actually splashes into the waters of the Red Sea. And all I can say is Wow. The Red Sea (named due to the sunbathed pink/red landscape that surrounds the coast) should be called the clear blue sea, because thats exactly what it is. The waters off the coast are just so clear that you hardly feel like you are in the salty waters of the ocean.

Dahab may not have pyramids, or have been on Rameses II list of temple sites, but boy does it have the best diving and swimming around.

The books talk about Dahab being a hippy backpacker chill out location, and in some ways it is, but with this description I was sceptical about spending any major time there. We initially decided on having a couple of days detoxing from Jordan, and then move on to Egypt proper. However within hours of lounging in a beach front restaurant (at 2am by the way!) we were hooked. Dahab had us. It only got better a few days later when we started diving there. Going with an outfit called Sea Dancer, the diving is simply outstanding. There are of course better dive sites all round the world, with better challenges, more fish, more whales, more of anything, but for the developing novice, dahab is awesome. The diving is very accessible (no long boat rides out), its super rewarding (an outstanding array of fish and other life, all close by), and its ‘easy’ (warm water, clear water, calm water).

We loved it so much that not only did we stay for over a week, but I think that I would like to come back yearly to further develop my diving. Its the perfect place to progress this new found lifetime hobby (cheers Urvi!). There are a couple of sites that I would love to dive that I missed out on, including the Thistlegorm, which is a 1940s ship wreck, so I can see this being the first visit of many!

Why was Dahab such a welcome surprise? I guess this is really about the relaxed and easy atmosphere here. There is lots of great food, and being here for more that a couple of days you soon start to feel like a local! For me the dive centre and the instructor I did my Advanced Diver course with (Kal) really made it a great short break within the trip.

I have been feeling for a while that the trip has been tough, and these few days really helped to recharge the mind and the body! Sorry Jordan, but after 2 weeks going stir crazy in Amman, we needed a nice change and boy was Dahab the change we needed!!!

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

7 out of 7, we have done it!

Finally with our bright new passports in hand we stepped of the ferry that took us from Aqaba, Jordan to Nuweiba, Egypt. With our first step off the ferry, we had completed the mission! We had entered each of the worlds 7 continents.

Whichever way you cut the world into continents (some say there are 5, some 6 and others 7) we have now set foot on each and every one of them. The biggest achievement was of course getting to Antarctica, but being in Africa is no less of a feat. I think now we can truly say we have travelled the world. Of course there is such a lot to see and experience but the continents are now our new friends and we will go back to each one with some fond memories to recall and talk about!

Friday, 13 August 2010

Ramadan Experiences - Mall Style

As I mentioned before we have been stuck in Amman waiting for our passports for a few weeks, and during this time Ramadan has also started. There is definitely a routine and rhythm to the holy month, that you have to get used to, in order to survive, enjoy and also be respectful to others.

Breakfast is early and although hostels do still provide breakfast but its meagre. Shops and other places (non food related) will open late and generally close up before the Iftar (the evening meal taken after the sun sets). Most tourist related spots stay open but close early. Food stores will be open during the day, but restaurants and eating stalls will be closed in the main. More importantly whether we like it or not it is disrespectful to be out and about in public with a sandwich and bags of crisps in your hand! Water is a tough one, because most locals will not drink during the day, however for people not used to the Middle Eastern heat, water is a must. So we have been buying water during our days.

If you want to eat in the day the only places you can buy meals are the more foreigner orientated locations, so McDonalds and Subway will happily serve you. Again its going to be more expensive and not that easy to find. We have therefore bumbled our way through the afternoon meal, sometimes finding a local place that will serve meals to tourists and cheeky locals sneaking a snack in the day and sometimes not eating anything.

However all in all, we have found it is essentially best to eat light, drink lots and then save up for the evening meal. Most people break fast at home, so when the clocks approach 7pm, the streets empty, EVERYTHING shuts, and restaurants may or may not be ready and open. There are some famous and popular places where people like to eat outside and there you see huge picnic/catering set ups where people all eat together. However a word of warning - When it comes to Iftar outside, it is like taking part in a motor race, people get to the restaurants early, order early and are ready on the start line with their food for the lights to go green, at which point they chow down in a cloud or falafels! If you want to eat at this time you have to follow the same routine, otherwise wait until 8:30 before venturing out. Its funny but for tourists Ramadan may mean an hour extra of fasting!!

For me it has been nice to follow some, if not all, the routines of Ramadan. We have eaten less during this month for sure, and going out in the evening, when the town come to life, people eat, drink coffees, play games and shop, it is nice to feel that you are taking part in something local and authentic.

The funniest experience was a day when we decided we wanted to break out of the routine. We were going stir crazy at the hostel, and thought we would head to mall and camp in Starbucks, for some coffee and wifi.

As most will know, when the going gets tough, Urvi and Anand get to the Mall! We have done it before and it just works for us, every so often to window gaze, sip mochas and sun bath in the incessant air conditioning. However this day we got to the mall at 1300, and found that EVERYTHING was still closed. What we forgot that not only was it Ramadan but it was also Friday. The shops and eateries were all closed, Starbucks - Shut.

OK no problem, we decided to combine the 2 things that were open at the time, the Cinema and the large (and pretty grand) supermarket. The store was full of upmarket Ammanites shopping for the Iftar meal. We also picked up noodles and other stuff, and then decided to go to the cinema. We therefore also got the usual M&Ms and Chips and drinks etc. Shopping bags in hand we got into the cinema and as it was mid afternoon on a Friday the place was empty, well apart from us and 2 others.

We smuggled all the food in, and chomped through all our snacks, being careful to only rustle or slurp when there was an action scene and lots of noise!! It was a sight, stuck in the back corner of the cinema, with contraband food! Too much.

We got out of our food frenzied movie, and decided to check out if Starbucks was now open, the stores were open and so we thought we had a good chance. Nope, Starbucks - Still closed.

We walked around a bit and by 1700 we realised that the shops were now closing up again, by 1800 all the stores in the mall were shut, and apart from the few cleaners and us, the place was deserted. Everyone who had stayed had made their way to the food court. I felt like Tom Hanks in Terminal! As we walked around people smiled at us quizzically, as if to ask what are you still doing here! All alone with nothing but empty shops around us was a weird feeling, still we had the AC on!

At 1930 we also made our way to the food court and decided to order dinner, the place was packed it was the most bizarre sight! Everyone had ordered and were staring at the KFC, Pizza hut, Quiznos and McDonalds trays they had in front of them. There was not a seat in sight, and we walked though the maze of people with everyone staring as if we had descended from another planet. The mall speakers blasted out the verses from the qua’ ran and everyone was off eating. Its only after the breaking of the fast that people entered a state of normality and at that point the mall was a buzz, the coffee shops were rocking and the shops were alive. Starbucks was still closed...

We gave up our mission for the frappuchino and ended up at another coffee shop, and at 2300 when Urvi proclaimed she was tired, we exited our home for the day, the city mall in Amman, just as it was getting super busy! Midnight is the time to be at a mall during Ramadan in the Middle East, its like mid day on a Saturday in London.

Oh and Starbucks never did open!

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Less than 3 months to go...

The countdown timer has really started now, we have less than 3 months just 90 days to go before this marathon trip is over. We end and begin at the same time. Take stock of the past and plan the future. Feel happy and sad all at once.

Being on the trip has often felt like living a parallel life, one that is often like a dream, but magically real. Who knows exactly how we will feel when we finally set down our Bergaus bags for the last time and ask if the hostel has WIFI for the last time. I know that there will be totally mixed emotions. The trip has been a total roller coaster for many reasons, we have experienced many many great things and a few things that have changed our outlook on the world totally, and indeed what this world looks like fundamentally. Would I change anything I have done on this trip, a few things yes. Do I regret no, definitely not.

Somebody said (or maybe I heard it in a movie) that one should make something of each day you are given, and end each day with a memory rather than a regret. End with a positive and not sadness. I think we be sure that on day 467, we have had more than 467 memories and are truly thankful for every one.

The countdown is on, we have 91 days left, and I just hope that we have the mental and physical energy to ensure we have more memories and no regrets...

Encamped in Amman

As some of you may know we have travelled so much and accumulated so many stamps in our passports that we were faced with the conundrum of how to get new ones made. This is seemingly only a major issue if you have a UK passport, as for whatever reason they don’t have a system of adding pages into the existing document - as the US do. In fact, I think this is the only reason why I would want US citizenship!

Anyhow, due to the need to consolidate the UK foreign office has decided that it would make all overseas applicants for Passports send them to area based centres. To cut a long story short this meant that we had to either travel back to the UK and get our passports made, or send the application off to Paris and get the office there to process it and send us the new docs back. We went with the latter option.

BIT OF ADVICE - When planning an extended trip like this GET A NEW PASSPORT WHATEVER. The only exception to this rule is if you have literally just renewed your passport. Otherwise just get a new one. This might sound like a waste of passport pages but if you think that you will fill up the 20 remaining pages in your current passport, then its better to waste those rather than pause your trip and spend more money while en route.

What this did mean is that we had to camp in Amman for a few weeks, while waiting for the UK bureaucratic machine to do its thing! We actually had quite a lot of fun during this time. Despite Ramadan starting we did a tour of most of the new eateries in the town (of which there were quite a few!) and after the 3rd night eating in a fancy restaurant, we had a reality check and then started enjoying in the local, cheaper favourites!

All in all, it was a head ache to be in Amman for a longer time. The city is not a place you can really spend weeks in without having something specific to work on, but still it was nice to have no agenda for a while, and I could cite many other worse places to be encamped in! And the FCO finished up the job in 3 weeks and we were on our way sooner than expected.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Wadi Rum, Bedouin camps and the Arabian Nights

From the heat and awe of Petra we moved on to the full on open desert and dreamscapes of Wadi Rum. If you want to really feel the harshness and the beauty of the Arabian desert then this is the place for you. Just thinking about it and typing this blog is making me feel super thirsty. The desert of Wadi Rum is super super hot. I think (and I know I have said this before!!) this is the hottest place I have ever been to. The temp would be at least 45c and there was no air conditioning or even fan to speak of. Indeed a fan would have been no use at all, as it would have blown the hot air right into us!

We stayed at a camp called Bedouin desert camp. It is run by a local guy of bedouin ancestry, called Abaid. The set up is simple, tents for sleeping in the night and boiling yourself during the day, a covered area for eating and a camp fire for the night.

The days were too tough, the only way to survive in the heat is to follow the natural rhythm of the nature. Wake early and do what you can in the cooler morning. Have a major major siesta in the day until the sun fall low enough that shadows are cast from the rocks, allowing you to move about. Be active in the evening and once the sun sets take in the cool breeze that the night affords you. Sit by the camp fire and just stare into its mesmerizing flames. They take you wherever you want to go.

We rode camels through the desert, were flung around on a jeep as we careered through the sand, and revisited many stunning sites, many of which were used in the famous movie Lawrence of Arabia.

The rocks in Wadi Rum are what make it special. There are many stunning sand dunes but the rocks really do rock! The formations make the rocks look as if they are giant ice creams, just melting away in the heat of the day. The sides run almost like a smoothy and give rise to smooth and soft curves all over. It is tremendous, and despite the heat, and dust, and lack of water anywhere, you just don’t care. You are hypnotized again by the beauty of nature.

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