Home for Christmas

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas! Yes. I know it’s been, err… a while, but let’s not get bogged down with that. Oddly, though I am still living in London, I’m writing from my real home – Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Ahhhh… is there anything that says “Home for Christmas” like snow blowing across a highway with nary a turn sight?

Getting here at all, let alone in time for the holidays, was nothing short of a Christmas Miracle given the tragi-comedy that played itself out at Heathrow Airport over the last week. For those of you living under a rock: five inches of wet snow fell in an admittedly short space of time last Saturday morning and paralyzed Heathrow to such an extent that:

  1. Flights were cancelled for days on end and thousands, or more likely tens of thousands of people had their holiday plans ruined.
  2. Every day the newspapers were filled with pictures of people who’d been sleeping on the floor in the airport for two or three or four nights in a row, along with tales of woe about missed weddings and honeymoons, Christmas plans in tatters, and one particularly poignant story about a terminally ill little boy who missed his flight to Lapland to go see real reindeer. (Maybe he should have gone to Covent Garden, where they had real rein deer AND women in elf costumes…)
  3. The Prime Minister offered to send in troops to help clear the runways and get the planes moving.
  4. Colin Matthews, the man who heads up BAA (the company that runs Heathrow) and whose name will, I hope, become synonymous with indefensible and blatant incompetence for years to come, decided it might be politic to give up his yearly bonus for 2010.
  5. And, FIVE DAYS after a moderate snow fall that brought virtually every aspect of the English transport system – air, trains, and roads – to its knees, it was still very very unclear whether my flight would leave on time, or at all. (As an aside – Toronto’s Pearson Airport can apparently clear a runway of snow in FIFTEEN MINUTES. Yes, they get a lot more practice but honestly, Heathrow is one of the busiest, most important airports in the world. They really need to up their game.)

But miraculously, I arrived on Wednesday to find things at Heathrow lurching back towards normality enough that I only had to wait outside the terminal building in a tent for about an hour, and eventually got checked in and boarded and took off almost as if the airport knew what it was about.

Camp Heathrow…. waiting to be let into Terminal 3. They were only allowing people to enter in batches. And only if you had a confirmed flight that was actually scheduled to depart. And only within about two hours of your departure time. Then again, they did give out tea and warm bacon sandwiches and Snickers bars to people waiting. They may not have snow plows, but they have catering.

And so I made it back to Winnipeg, a mere nineteen hours and six times zones after I left the house, and then spent the next day driving for eight hours to Saskatoon, and then went to bed very early feeling every-so-slightly ragged around the edges, and then woke up at three o’clock in the morning, which turns out to be an excellent time to get a lot of Christmas present wrapping done.

And how is life in London? Well, it’s good and bad. I still feel very unsettled – work has turned out to be… challenging (to put it mildly), but I’m on to a second round of interviews for another job which is very good. Home (now in North London) is serviceable but just doesn’t really feel like home, which is not great. But I get to move back to the big, happy house in Brixton in February, which is very great. I’m hashing quite a bit, which is good and fun, but I’m not doing a lot of proper running, which is bad. And you may have noticed I haven’t exactly been blogging my face off. It’s just been very easy to let the effort and weight of simply existing in the city in these dark, damp, cold winter months to consume all my energy. (I was shocked to realize during my long drive over the frozen prairie yesterday, that it gets dark at least an hour earlier in London than it does in Saskatchewan. I leave work at 4:30pm in London, and it’s already pitch black. Charming.)

I guess what I’m saying is that the last few months have been sort of a grind. The weather, the darkness, the job uncertainty, it’s all robbed me of motivation to do much of anything. So I’ve recently come to two conclusions:

  1. I have to get out and run more. I’ve just found a running club that turns out to do a Tuesday evening track workout at a park about ten minutes from my current digs (Hands up everyone who knew there was a 400-metre track and well-appointed clubhouse with changing rooms at Finsbury Park… yeah, me too.). And they do a Wednesday evening group run at Hampstead Heath. So that’s definitely on the agenda, along with a race registration of some kind for the spring. Maybe not a full marathon just yet, but something to get me a bit more focused.
  2. I want to start blogging properly again (pause for delirious cheering and deafening applause….). It was always my intention to blog in London but like I said, the motivation has been lacking. It’s now clear that I simply have to force myself to do it, and I think I’ll feel better for it. There are things I’d like to tell you about life over there – quirky stuff, funny stuff, annoying stuff, interesting stuff, helpful stuff… just… stuff. And it may even be nice to continue to have somewhere to get out the demons that crop up too.

So that’s the plan. Run more, blog more, and just try to wake up a bit. However, having said that, I also don’t think that Go See Run Eat Drink is the place for this new plan. The trip – the planning, the execution, the aftermath – it’s all ancient history already. (I can barely fathom that This Time Last Year I was “celebrating” Christmas in the pouring rain on the Serengeti.) So while I plan for the blogging to continue, it’s not going to be here. I’m going to try and spend some time over the holidays getting a few new posts in the bag, and trying a new space on for size. I can promise you that the blogging won’t be as prolific as it was when I was travelling, (especially near the end, when it seemed I could write two thousand words about lint), but I will give it an honest effort, and you’re welcome to nudge me if I let things slide.

So Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and watch this space for further news…

Festive me, with Rob H’s Longer Hair Experiment still underway…

Pic of Pics: Plymouth

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Me and the fambly, on the water taxi in Plymouth. (To mollify Rob H, and to show everyone that I'm still hanging in there with the Longer Hair Experiment.)

And, for those not plugged into the Twitter feed, I GOT THE JOB. I'm now working full time, and have just finished Day 3. It's good, and busy, and frustrating (already) and yet all feels eerily familiar. If I had time to catch my breath I might be able to blog about it, but I'm suddenly too busy working, searching for a long term flat, and generally trying to remember how to function when 8-10 hours a day is taken up with... work. It's been a looooooong time.

Hanging in there

Thursday, September 23, 2010

(Insert obligatory apology for long long long break between blog posts here.)

First things first – I’m still in London. Well actually that’s not strictly true. As I write this I’m just outside Reading, on a train to Plymouth for a few days visiting with family. So while I am not, strictly speaking, in London right now, I am still very much more in London than I would be if I were in, say, Winnipeg, if you get my drift.

Oooh. She does not look happy about having her picture taken.

The original plan, for those who remember it from way back in July, was to hang around for six weeks trying to see if the crazy idea of moving over here and finding a job is actually feasible. That is to say, if I could reasonably expect to find enough work to survive without ending up sleeping under a bench in Paddington Station or stocking shelves in a Tesco Express. However, as the days passed it became clear that six weeks is a ridiculously short amount of time in which to restart a career that’s been dormant for a year, on a new continent. It seems that even I – world traveler, insanely popular blogger, and possessor of a now almost infinite supply of anecdotes on which to dine out – even I cannot expect to land on my feet in such a short amount of time in such a big city.

So I’ve extended the plan. I rebooked my return flight for November 1st, and am hoping fervently that I’ll get to rebook one more time and change that flight into the first leg of a trip home for Christmas. (Never mind that the change fees for two rebookings will mean that it would have been cheaper for me to get a one way ticket. We are not thinking about that. Nor are we thinking about the ever-dwindling savings account. Not thinking about that at all. Nope.)

Extending my stay in London meant that I had to find new accommodations, which was not a bad thing at all. You may have detected, in my last few posts, a certain lack of enthusiasm for the neighbourhood and flat where I spent my first six weeks. Willesden Junction was a hard place to love, and living in one tiny, stuffy, somewhat rundown room there only added to the general sense of desperation that attended my days. Yes, it’s true that the decidedly “efficient” size of the flat meant that you could fry an egg from bed, but I knew it was time for a change.

I ended up finding a place that is so perfect I could hardly have managed better if I’d been ordering from a menu. I’ve got a beautiful big bedroom in a shared house in Brixton, which is south of the Thames. (Note to those who only know Brixton from riots and unrest in the eighties – it’s WAY different now. Cleaner, safer, happier and just nicer.) The house is a three story Victorian inhabited by three other people, and it’s all clean white walls and dark wood floors and book cases and comfy furniture.

The gigantic kitchen, looking out onto the tiny but perfect back garden

There’s a washer and dryer, dishwasher, TV, DVD player, and wifi, and my housemates are friendly and welcoming and smart and play Scrabble and do crosswords and are interesting and fun. And to top it all off, it’s actually significantly cheaper that Willesden Junction. Go figure.

My bedroom. It’s about a third bigger than the WJ flat. (In fact, when I finally found a reasonable pub in WJ, there was a projection screen tv on one wall, and I swear that screen was bigger than the WJ flat. And I’m not even exaggerating this time.)

I even have a desk and a small comfy couch. Bliss.

So things on the home front are much improved. Things on the work front have improved too. I actually worked! For money! For a whole week! In two different places! I was asked to fill in at the last minute and ended up working days at one theatre and evenings at another. It made for a really busy week, but it’s a real foot-in-the-door, and I can already tell that it’s earned me not just a few extra pounds to keep the wolf from the door, but, more importantly, some more good contacts that may already be bearing fruit. Things are looking up.

My first day of work necessitated a very very early start, which meant I was walking across the Thames from Embankment (my favourite tube station) while the sun was rising over London. Yup. That’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. Even with all its frustrations, this city is still magic.

I’m impatient for the big break, but I also know I need to be careful and patient. I had drinks this weekend with a friend from the business in Canada, and a local guy who’s been a huge help in getting me connected with a lot of useful people. They were both really impressed with how far I’ve come in such a short time, and cautioned against getting nervous and taking a job that won’t be right in the long run. They think the best thing would be to get short term work in a lot of different places, which will help get me known around town, and give me experience with as many different theatres and people as possible. What I need to be wary of is ending up in a long term, full time job that takes me out of circulation and tucks me away somewhere there’s no chance of meeting new people and advancing my cause. (Like running the stage at St. Snortleby School for Girls, Slough Branch. Steady work, I’m sure, but just kill me now…) In some ways it seems counter-intuitive to reject permanent work in favour of something riskier, but I think it may make sense for the long run.

So that’s the report from the 11:06 to Plymouth. And I have to say that it’s really really nice to be traveling by train again. A proper train, that is, not a tube train. I’m very much over the whole Underground system. It’s true that it’s generally efficient, except on weekends when random closures for “planned engineering works” can shut down significant chunks of the system, which adds a frustrating level of complication to any journey. And except when there’s a tube strike that leaves one with a 45 minutes walk from Euston Station to the south bank. Or when there’s an unexplained cancellation of service resulting in everyone being ejected from the train at Queens’ Park at midnight on Saturday, leaving one walking all the way to Harrow Road only to turn in the WRONG direction on that road and spend another ten minutes walking back the way one has just come, then realize one’s mistake, causing one to stomp impatiently across the street and wait ages for a bus and get home around 2 am. For instance.

Like I said, it’s still nice to be on a proper train again.

Bucolic but unfocused view from the train. Those little white dots are sheep!

Late-breaking news: This afternoon I’m going back to a scenery shop I visited a few weeks ago to talk to the boss man about an actual job to do actual, full time paid work. It would be short term, but that’s perfect for me right now. Cross all your fingers for me!

Strike One

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Too long again, I know. It seems the blogging habit just hasn’t carried over into my post-traveling life. That said, there are a few things to report on.

I had a job interview on Friday – my first real chance at a real job. Up to that point I’d simply been trying to meet as many people as possible in the hopes that eventually something would cross someone’s desk and they might think, “Hmmmm… I wonder if that Canadian woman is still knocking about?” But Friday? Friday was a real interview for a Production Management job with a small company opening a show in late October and then touring 5 different UK venues. It sounded like an interesting gig, the pay was enough to keep me going, and it might have been the foot-in-the-door that I’ve been hoping for. Of course astute GGSRED readers will already suspect, due to my subtle use of phrases like “might have been”, that I did NOT get the job.

Honestly, I was a bit surprised by this. I thought the interview went really really well – I think I asked more questions than they did, and found myself getting a bit excited about finally diving back into work again. Of course there were one or two stumbling blocks. I could tell they were nervous that I don’t have a real web of professional connections here yet, because small companies usually need to draw on every possible resource to get a show running. And there was a question about whether I’d still be here in the new year and into the spring, when they are planning to remount the show for some important festival and tour dates. Ultimately they said this was the reason for their decision – I simply couldn’t guarantee that I’d still be here. Never mind that there’s no guarantee that whoever they did hire won’t jump ship if something better comes along. And also never mind that it would have been simple for me to stretch the truth a bit on this point, something a couple of people have already said I should have done. But I didn’t, and they picked someone else, and I have to tell you that it’s kind of knocked me on my ass.

So it’s been an off few days. Naturally, I’m feeling down about things, and that’s coloured my whole attitude, making me focus on all the things that aren’t working. Yes, I’ve met a lot of people, but that’s slowing down. Also, even though I’m meeting new people at new theatres and production companies, it’s starting to feel a bit like I’m listening to a broken record. Everyone is friendly and helpful, but I keep hearing the same names over and over again, and it feels like I might already have almost reached to the edges of this particular web. If I haven’t already met someone, then I’m waiting for a response to an email or phonecall to them, or waiting to get contact information for them from someone else. There’s a short list of people and theatres that I haven’t tapped yet, but that’s getting smaller. Oh, and it’s now clear that I won’t be getting an interview for the Olympics position that I applied for before I left Canada. Most importantly, no one has yet said those magic four words to me: “When can you start?”

Add to this a growing dissatisfaction with the glories of Willesden Junction, and you’ve got a somewhat toxic mix. The neighbourhood is just sad. Even the local pub is kind of grubby and cheerless, and you know when you can’t find a convivial pub within walking distance in London then you’ve been exceptionally unlucky or unwise in your choice of location. I’m starting to regret my decision to stay at the tiny flat for another three weeks, but at the same time I really didn’t want to deal with the hassle of finding somewhere new, packing up, and moving. Yes, it’s poorly located, expensive and tiny, but I guess now it’s home. In fact, I’ve lived here for more consecutive days than anywhere else since I sold my house all that long time ago. But it does suck the life out of me a bit, and sometimes have to remind myself that in less than an hour I could be just about anywhere in London. LONDON! I really do need to snap out of it and at least enjoy being in the city.

Then again, to get anywhere requires enduring the tube, which has it’s own stuffy and sweaty brand of cheerlessness. Especially when the escalators in particularly deep stations stop working. Or when there’s a signal failure on the Bakerloo Line on top of a planned closure of the entire Circle Line… not that this scenario happened to me on Saturday night.

At least if I do stay the odds of me ending up in a nicer neighbourhood than Willesden Junstion are so close to 100% that it would be difficult to slip a slice of Tesco Value Pack Streaky Bacon between the two (and I can tell you from experience that Tesco Value Pack Streaky Bacon slices are so thin you could read the Daily Telegraph crossword through one).

This is NOT Willesden Junction. This is the sculpture gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, to which I escaped this afternoon. You can tell it’s not Willesden Junction because it’s not full of shuttered shop fronts, internet cafés for making cheap international phone calls, and dollar stores.

And on the positive side (which is a side I’ve had to force myself to remember in the last few days) I still have a solid application in at a great theatre in the West End, and expect to hear something about that this week. And there’s a chance of something at a busy production company, and a faint hint of something else that was really nothing more than an almost-whispered maybe. I know I need to just keep at it, but I do feel like time is running out. My return flight to Winnipeg is on Sept. 13, and if something reasonably solid and encouraging doesn’t happen in the next three weeks, then I’m not sure I can justify changing that flight to a later date and hanging on for a few weeks or months more.

That’s life in London these days, sorry I didn’t choose a cheerier time to finally get another blog post up. At least I can report that I’m now starting to look the right way when crossing the street. This is after I literally ran in front of a bus – double-decker, of course – while on a Hash just after I arrived. I’m getting used to glancing over my right shoulder when I cross the street, but I still get an odd tingling down my whole left side when I’m crossing while looking the “wrong” way. It’s like my body is bracing for the impact it can’t accept is NOT coming.

I’m also starting to get a bit more comfortable with the quirks of language. For instance I say tube (as in London Underground Train), CV (resumé), flat (apartment) and mash (-ed potates). Words I can’t yet say without feeling like a complete fraud? Trousers, as in pants. But this is one I really need to get over because here “pants” means underwear, which means you don’t want to go around casually commenting on people’s pants. Also: quid (pound sterling), spanner (wrench), boot (trunk of car), mate (friend), cheers (thanks) and chemist (drug store). And did you know that in England a “grill” has nothing to do with a BBQ, or with applying intense heat or flame to the underside of food? Nope. Here, a grill is the broiler element in the oven, or anything that applies intense heat from above. It’s upside-down world, I tell ya.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The first report from London

Friday, August 6, 2010

Life in London is… good, I think. My tiny short-let flat has turned out to be reasonable, though it’s smaller than it looked in the pictures (All in a chorus now: “I really thought it would be bigger!”). It’s also more run down and grubbier than would be ideal, but it’s certainly not the worst I’ve seen. After a few trips to the Poundstretcher/Dollar Store I was able to supplement the supplied amenities to a point where the place is now functional. (Still, could they not give me more than one bowl? Or a toilet seat that’s actually attached to the toilet bowl?). I was amazed at how much better I felt after I was able to convince the Russian cleaning lady in the stairwell outside my door to allow me five minutes of quality time with her vacuum cleaner. At least now I know that the layer of grunge that’s accumulated since then is all mine. And really, how can you complain too much about a place where leaving the bathroom door open allows you to watch TV while showering?

The view from my window… Ahh, Willesden Junction, thy charms are uncountable.

I’ve been here a week now and have settled in fairly well. The job hunt – my main focus – has been up and down. The first few days were great, mostly because I had several meetings set up before I arrived, the first one on Friday afternoon when I was fresh off the plane and still befuddled with jetlag. Everyone has been polite, friendly, helpful and encouraging; they seem to think that my resumé is good, and agree that I’m approaching this the right way and meeting the right people. And they gave me more names of people to reach out to, and ideas of how to proceed. But it’s also become clear that I’ll really need to pay some dues here – meet the right people and learn the ropes – before I can really be functional and therefore attractive to an employer. I think my best bet is to try and connect with some overworked freelancers who might be looking for assistance, but there’s been nothing on that front so far.

So now I’m in a bit of a lull. I’ve made it through all the meetings I arranged before I arrived, and am now in the process of making contact with the people and companies I learned about in those meetings. That’s been a predictable mixture of unreturned emails, impenetrable voicemail systems and friendly people who would be happy to meet with me but are about to leave on three weeks of holidays. After the initial rush of arriving and getting all that positive feedback things have slowed down a lot, and that’s making it hard to stay positive. I know it’s still early, but it’s hard not to want it all to happen instantly.

In the mean time I’ve been running, wandering around a few areas to try and find where I might want to live, and spending a bit of time being a tourist. What can I say? Old habits die hard, and that’s why I’ve been on three different walking tours since I arrived. I mentioned them back when I hit London last June, but they’re so good I’m mentioning them again: London Walks are fantastic. The guides are incredibly knowledgeable, fun, and friendly and I always come away feeling that was two hours well spent. Also, the selection of walks is incredible – about ten different ones on offer each day. And they all start and end at a tube station, and are utterly reliable – I’ve never shown up and been disappointed. All that for just £8. (Or £6 if you invest £2 in a discount card, which I did.)

Part of Regent's Canal, which I saw on the “Little Venice” walk on Wednesday. The canal also runs through my neighbourhood. It’s much less picturesque there – more backsides of industrial yards and graffiti and fewer million pound flats - but there’s still an even, open towpath alongside the canal which is an excellent place for a run, and only five minutes from my door.

But back to the work situation, or lack thereof, which is what this whole business is mostly about. Here’s a quote from an episode of the original UK version of “The Office”, which I watched last night on the computer. These words resounded in my head like a gong when I heard them:

“It’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb, than half way up one you don’t.”

Or is it? That’s the question these days. I knew when I decided to leave my job and travel that I’d be starting over when the trip was finished. But what I pictured at the time was fetching up in some large, convivial Canadian city - maybe Montréal or Vancouver - with a new, exciting, well-paying job and a cache of money to set myself up in reasonably high style. Instead I’ve landed in a pocket-sized worn out studio in an unloved corner of northwest London with a whole lot of resumés in the “Sent” box of my Gmail, and a cache of money that’s dwindling daily. Sometimes this “I’ll regret it if I don’t give it a try” business wears a bit.

What I’m starting to realize is that I need to figure out how far I’m willing to go to make this work. And I’m not just talking about how much money I can afford to spend supporting myself while I’m looking for work. I’m also talking about quality-of-life kind of things like:
  • How small a flat could I be happy living in? The room I’m in now is about 10’ 6” x 12’, and I’m pretty sure that’s too small. But how big is big enough? (I think that answer might be “Big enough that you don’t have to fold the bed up every day”.)
  • How far outside the centre of the city am I willing to go to live somewhere nice? Conversely, how tiny/grungy/sad a place would I put up with in order to be close?
  • Or, am I willing to share a flat? Is having more space, better amenities and a nicer location more important than having complete privacy? It’s pretty common here, even among actual grown-up people, but it’s been a long long time since I lived with roommates. Is it something I need to consider?
  • And on the work front: How far down the ladder am I willing to go? Would I take work outside theatre to support myself while trying to break in? Actors do this all the time, but I think I’d really struggle with it.
  • Or if I stay I’m able to get work in theatre, how long can I be happy in an entry-level job, and how long will I have to “pay my dues” before I really feel like I’m doing what I came to do?
  • And, fundamentally, is this the right thing for me? For my career? For my life? If I spend a year or two or five here in London, what does that mean for my career when I eventually go back to Canada?

I haven’t come to any conclusions yet, but these are the questions I struggle with in between crafting friendly, engaging emails to anyone who might help me get a foot in the door, trawling endless real estate listings, and walking to, waiting for, or sitting on tube trains. (Which is a whole other post. Or possibly a whole other blog.) I’ll try to keep writing about my progress, and to tell you some of the funny, quirky things I’ve already noticed about living in London, because there are a lot. Like why can’t I find any cream for my coffee? There seems to be nothing in between whole milk and pouring cream. And why do I have to flick a switch on the wall behind the stove to power the whole thing up before turning on the individual burners? Should I call a licensed electrician to disconnect the power to the stove when I’m finished, just to be extra cautious?

And now, let me leave you with these profound words, which I’ve already heard so often they now echo in my dreams:

“This is a Bakerloo line train to Elephant & Castle. Please, mind the gap between the train and the platform.”


"London Calling"

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hey, remember me? Sorry for the long break, but if you haven’t realized it yet, things have pretty much wound down here at GSRED. However, that doesn’t mean things are winding down for my life. Au contraire! In fact, all kinds of interesting stuff is happening, so I thought I should share a little update on what’s been on my mind most since I got back those many weeks ago: What happens next?

I’ve investigated a few different work possibilities, but the one thing that kept cropping up in my mind was… London. I’ve talked before about wanting to work on the London Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies, but my keenness for that project is related only partly to the Olympics. It’s also partly just about the idea of living in London. Add to this the fact that nothing particularly exciting has popped up on the Canadian job front, and the obvious advantage that there will never be a time when I’m so uniquely well-positioned to pack up my (now meager) belongings and try out life in another country. So I’m going to give it a whirl.

Most of you will not be surprised to learn that I have A PLAN. I’ve already spent the last several weeks spamming almost everyone I know trying to drum up some contacts in theatre in London. Finally, some of those leads are paying off and I’ve made a several connections with people who sound like they’ll help point me in the right direction. However, all this would be accomplished much more simply if I were actually in London. So, I’m going to London. I’m flying out on July 29 with a ticket whose return date is set for Sept. 13, but can be changed for a reasonable fee to any other date within a 12 month period. If all goes swimmingly and I find a good job and just want to stay and get on with things, I can change my return date to the Christmas holidays. On the other hand if the whole notion turns out to be hopeless waste of time and money I can turn tail and run back to Winnipeg after a few weeks.

Then again, why would I want to leave?

I’ve manage to find a place to stay while I’m there, though that was a bit of a saga in itself. Suffice it to say that if someone on Craiglist is offering a one bedroom flat a five minute walk from Charing Cross Station with a full kitchen, wifi, washer/dryer, and satellite tv for £35/night, the phrase “If it seems to good to be true, it probably is” should spring inevitably to mind. I asked a friend in London to go check it out and he reported that the people at the building say they do not rent through agents and a one bedroom flat goes for £171/night. This discrepancy, coupled with the fact that the agent wanted me to advance 60% of the total cost of the rental as a bank transfer to an account in his name (not even the name of a rental agency!), set off alarm bells so loud that the neighbours were complaining.

And so I find myself with a three week reservation with Shortlet-London.com, who require a mere £60 deposit (payable by Paypal), and who are offering properties whose combination of price, size, location and facilities enjoy a much closer relationship with to reality. Here are a few shots they sent of my London pad:

Full kitchen, including one square foot of eating space.

Ahhh… the old fold-down futon couch/bed. And I thought those days were behind me.

Not shown is the bathroom, window, wardrobe, dresser, tv and wifi (for a reasonable £5/week) – all the mod cons. The flat is right on the border between tube zones two and three in an area that is, shall we say, not exactly Chelsea. But it’s probably the kind of neighbourhood I might actually be able to afford to live in so I might as well get used to it. I’m not saying I’m going to end up in a cold water bedsit in Zone 37 (somewhere on the outskirts of Glasgow), but there are real limits to where I can reasonably expect to end up. It’s probably a good thing that I’m not going to be in the fabulous flat minutes from Trafalgar Square; spending a month there would probably give me a decidedly skewed idea of what life in London would be like. It’s probably also a good thing that I just spent a year making myself comfortable almost anywhere, including tiny, crappy hotel rooms. All I really have to make sure of is that I end up with something better than the Baronie.

(Note to London-mad travelling friends and relative: Yes, if I end up staying I will try to get a flat with enough room for a spare bed. But honestly, it is gob-smackingly expensive over there. I’d love to see you all, but be prepared to get comfy in a hammock slung over the kitchen sink, or, more likely, be presented with a lovingly compiled list of cheap hotels and short-term rental flats in the area. I’m just sayin’.)

Besides trawling Craiglist and sending thousands of emails, I’ve also been spending some quality time over at my storage space since I got back to Winnipeg. My goal was to go through most of the boxes, do a bit of an inventory, and repack some items that I could have shipped overseas on short notice. I want to make sure it would be easy to ship just the things I’d really want or need – favourite kitchen knives and utensils, cool weather clothing, artwork - things that would make a place feel like home. This is in the hope that I could avoid either having to come back to sort things out later, or simply having to ship everything over at great expense. Mostly, I want to avoid opening a series of boxes in a too-small flat and uncovering the kind of things that get thrown in at random when you’re hurriedly packing your entire house up on a tight timeline. (“Really? I kept a worn ziploc baggie of twist ties and asparagus elastics? And I just had it shipped 4,000 miles? Fantastic. And thank God I’ve got that twelve pound bench vise. That’ll come in handy when I set up a little workshop in the space between the bathroom sink and the shower stall…”)

You may have detected a note of anxiety about money in this post so far, and I’d be lying it I said that wasn’t a concern. Yes, I just spent $64,000 travelling around the world, and yes, I left a good chunk of money to come home to. But I really didn’t envision having to spend a large percentage of that nest egg on a potential wild goose chase to London. So I’m stressed about money - about how much I have now, how much I might be able to earn if I actually do get a job, and how much it would cost me to live in London. But Karen pointed out something that really helped settle my mind on this issue: I’m not throwing this money away. I’m using it to try and chart the course of my career and life for the foreseeable future. I need to consider this an investment in my future (to use an annoying cliché). (Want some more annoying language? How about this: I need to embrace this change in my life paradigm.) If it doesn’t work out, then in retrospect it may seem like a foolish extravagance, but right now this feels like the kind of thing I’ll regret not doing.

So after a mere 59 days on home soil, I’ll soon be packing a (slightly bigger) bag and bracing myself for another new adventure. It all feels very déjà vu – it seems that not so long ago I was doing the rounds of lunch and coffee and dinner dates saying good bye to people and gathering all the best wishes I could. Now it’s a bit different – much less fanfare, and a whole lot more uncertainty. Last time there was a more-or-less definite schedule – I was pretty sure I’d be back within the year. This time it’s a trifle more open-ended: somewhere between three weeks and forever. All I can say is: stay tuned.

And finally (because there hasn’t been a picture of me for a while, and Rob H is probably getting twitchy) here’s a shot of me at Lake Winnipeg, where I spent a day lounging around my friend Judy’s cottage, pier and deck. Thanks Judy!

Ahhh… a perfect summer day at the lake. Not show: G&Ts that came later.

Five weeks later, a few Top Fives

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I’ve been back for 37 days, and I wish there was more to say. I’ve got a lot on my mind but none of it is about the trip, it’s all about looking forward and that doesn’t seem like part of it, you know? The trip has faded way into the background, and my enthusiasm for the blog has faded with it. These days “Write blog post” has fallen way down on my list of priorities to somewhere after “Clip toenails” and before “Surf the web for Franklin Mint commemorative figurines of FIFA 2010 World Cup stars”. It’s just not on my radar screen.

Luckily I started these lists ages ago, and recently found new interest in fleshing them out. Everyone always asks about my favourite this or that, so here are a few thoughts on that subject. Ask me again in a few months and it would probably all be different.

(Note: the items in each list are presented in chronological order, rather than trying to rank them. And there are lots of links so you can dive back into old posts to read about stuff on the lists. Maybe this will ease the blog separation anxiety some of you were complaining about.)

Favourite Big Cities:

  1. London, England – It’s familiar – Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace – even if you’ve never been there, it’s like you know it already. It’s just foreign enough to be interesting, but still accessible. No weird alphabet, no strange national costume, no deep-fried bugs, just that business of driving on the wrong side of the road and the charming habit of using the word “whilst” without a trace of irony. It’s also got the British Museum, double-decker buses, Roman ruins, West End shows and a proper transit system. And so much has happened there you can turn almost any corner and be confronted with a random bit of history that in Canada would occasion at least an Interpretive Centre and a small gift shop, but in London barely rates a small blue plaque. It’s big enough that you could spend your whole life there and never discover all its secrets. Of all the cities I visited, it’s the one I’d most like to try living in.
  2. Paris, France – It’s big too, and has the same amount and depth of history as London. And it’s cosmopolitan (way more than I am), and has great food, and I can (sort of) speak the language, which makes it much more comfortable. Also, the French have something like four hundred kinds of cheese, which alone would give Paris a place on this list. I could almost live there too, but I just don’t have the wardrobe for it.
  3. Venice, Italy – Venice was just perfect. It was the first place I went that turned out to be exactly like I thought it would be. Quiet, but also bustling and vibrant, and built on a totally human scale – no concrete high rises, no strip malls, no cars, no smog, no parking lots. Just people living in a postcard, eating great food, and taking bus boats or taxi boats or (if they’ve had a particularly bad day) ambulance boats. You should go before it sinks completely.
  4. Hong Kong – Again, it’s big enough to have everything: museums, great restaurants, galleries, theatres, shopping. It’s exotically Asian, but still has a lot of Englishness, which makes it very easy to get around and quite comfortable. And it’s got a great metro and those clever Octopus cards.
  5. Tokyo, Japan – Another huge metropolis, with all the amenities you could want, and some you didn’t even know existed (adjustable front- and rear-spraying buttocks cleansing, anyone?). Tokyo loses points for its bizarrely complicated metro system, but gains by being another of those properly exotic Asian cities that’s also safe, clean and easy to negotiate. And the sushi. Ahhh, the sushi.

Venice. As I’ve said before, it’s really like that

Favourite Small-ish Cities, towns, etc..

  1. York, England – It’s got great medieval walls, and the city inside them is preserved really well. It’s got York Minster, my second favourite cathedral, and those tipsy Tudor style buildings and tiny covered alleys charmingly called “snickleways”, and a zillion pubs. Plus you can run a five kilometer route that takes you around the whole circuit of the walls.

    The tipsy buildings of York

  2. Oban, Scotland – Tiny, charming, and they make nice whisky there. I also saw the latest Harry Potter movie in Oban, so it holds a special place in my heart. And I met Tommy and Deborah there, who really made my day, and Stevie, perhaps the funniest bus driver in Scotland.
  3. Christiania, Copenhagen, Denmark – Any residents would bristle at me including Christiania in a list of “towns” since they consider it the Free State of Christiania. The gates have a sign on them as you’re leaving that says “Now entering the European Union”. All that aside, I just really liked the vibe there. It’s not just about Pusher Street and the chance to smoke up on any number of mind-altering substances. I liked wandering through the residential areas and seeing the houses, some of which seemed to have been made out of scraps but turned into something really interesting and inviting-looking. There were also long, leafy paths that were great for running.
  4. Bruges, Belgium – If you’re looking for chocolate, beer or french fries, look no further. And really, what else does anyone need to look for?
  5. Granada, Spain – It’s got Alhambra, which is excellent sight, and a cool Arab quarter full of typically twisty streets. The food was great and there is still at least one bar in Granada serving free tapas with every drink.
  6. Luang Prabang, LaosIt was the first place I went in Southeast Asia that looked like I wanted it to look. Perhaps because it’s a major tourist destination it was much cleaner and tidier than most of the rest of SEA. It was cheap (not Thailand cheap, but still cheap), and full of photogenic young monks in saffron robes. The night market was fun and extensive, and the fruit shakes were great. Just stock up on ziploc bags if you’re going to be there at New Year’s.

Another photogenic monk in Luang Prabang

Least Favourite Destinations:

  1. Bushmills, Northern Ireland. Yes, it has the famous distillery, and the Giant’s Causeway, but the town itself has… nothing. Two nights and I was ready to walk out if necessary.
  2. Drogheda, Ireland. When the main attraction in your town is a shrunken head, perhaps it’s time to consider relocating.
  3. Naples, Italy. I’m sorry, but it’s a pit. The main square outside the train station – Piazza Garibaldi – is a veritable festival of idling buses, haphazardly parked cars, and overflowing dumpsters. If Naples has a good side, it is very well hidden. At least the pizza was good.
  4. Nairobi, Kenya. It had lovely giraffes, though they were, technically, out of town. It also had a scam I almost fell for and the dodgiest cab ride of my life. Any place where everyone warns you not to go be out after dark is not a place I need to revisit.
  5. Huay Xai, Laos. I spent three days in Huay Xai with a head cold, awaiting the next departure of the Gibbon Experience. It could have been the booby prize on a particularly vindictive Japanese game show.

Main Street, Huay Xai, Laos. All it’s missing is a dog asleep in the middle of the road.

A Few (but certainly not all) Favourite Experiences:

  1. Walking out of the train station in Venice, Italy, and being confronted with the Grand Canal for the first time. I couldn’t believe it’s actually like that. It was like every image in my head of Venice. Magic.
  2. Going for a hamam at the oldest bath Turkish bath in Istanbul. I don’t think I’ve ever been that clean. And it was made that much better by being there with friends, and having those same friends to go for dinner and beer with after.
  3. Whitewater rafting at the source of the Nile River in Uganda. I signed up on a whim, and had a really excellent day. Again, because of the people. The only downside was a sunburn on the top of my legs that could probably have been seen from space.
  4. Swimming to the edge of Victoria Falls on Livingstone Island, Zambia. When people ask about favourite moments, this is always the first one I pull out. It was one of those days when your face starts to hurt from smiling so much.
  5. Cruising the Ganges River, India. I was nervous about this, but it turned out to be two of the most relaxing days I had all year. The boats were tiny but comfortable, and at regular intervals the kitchen boat would cruise up and give us fresh, hot chai, or some amazing meal. There was nothing to do but snooze, read, blog, chat, and watch India go by.

My gang in the raft, Uganda

A Few (but again, not all) Favourite Sights:

  1. Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. It’s just the most museum-y museum I’ve seen. Not all shiny and modern and full of interactive whatnots. Small enough to see it all, and eclectic enough to please just about anyone with a brain. And the architecture is all Victorian and full of vaulted ceilings and balconies and long hallways and stuff. It was great.
  2. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Sagrada Familia restored my soul after the whole Barcelona Wallet Abandonment Debacle. It was just what I needed.
  3. Wild animals on the Serengeti, Tanzania. The best part was seeing them all in their natural habitat, which meant they were all mixed up together: giraffes and gazelles and wildebeest and warthogs all just hanging out, doing their thing. It was soooo not a zoo.
  4. The Ancient City of Petra, Jordan. Petra was one of the places I had in my sights when the whole idea of the trip was still just a vague notion. Walking through the Siq and coming out to see the Treasury building for the first time was another of those unforgettable moments.
  5. Preah Kahn, Ancient City of Angkor, Cambodia. Of all the sites at Angkor it was certainly my favourite, far exceeding the famous, crowded and (in my humble opinion) over-sold Angkor Wat. It was mostly deserted, eminently explorable, and very Indiana Jones.

Inside Sagrada Familia

Hashes Fondly Remembered:

  1. Setting a trail in front of Buckingham Palace, London HHH. I’d only been in town for a week, but an odd set of circumstances ended with me pushing through the crowds of gawking tourists with a chunk of chalk in my hand a mission. It was brilliant.
  2. The Bog Hash, Dublin HHH. What a great gang, and what a riotously fun run. It was also the first and only time I ever hashed through thigh-deep peat-stained bog water.
  3. Full Moon Pub Crawl, Copenhagen HHH. I can’t remember how many pubs we went to, which I think is a sign of an excellent evening.
  4. Hashing the Great Wall of China, Beijing HHH. Definitely a highlight. I can’t believe I almost skipped this whole experience because I was tired and didn’t feel like making the effort. Yes, it was cold, but I hashed the freakin’ GREAT WALL OF CHINA. ‘Nuf said.
  5. The Dead Brain Cell HHH, Tokyo. I’m not sure if you even heard about this one, but it ended with champagne, and yes, a few dead brain cells.

A wild section of the Great Wall of China. Thank you Beijing Hash House Harriers

Memorable Meals:

  1. Every meal with Freddie, Sesimbra, Portugal. Seafood, seafood and more seafood, along with gallons of red, white, rosé and port to go with, and side order of excellent company.
  2. First taste of real Italian pizza, Padua, Italy. A randomly chosen restaurant in between the hotel and the train station. A well-earned hunger. And a pizza menu with enough choices to be boggling. The cover charge for the breadsticks was cheeky, but the pizza was perfect.
  3. Walnut Ravioli, Siena, Italy. It wasn’t stuffed with walnut, it was served with a sort of creamy walnut sauce. Amazing. Everything at that restaurant was amazing, even the “splee sauce”. I never learned what it was, but it was nice spread on bread.
  4. The Green Papaya Restaurant, Hanoi, Vietnam. It was like being on the Food Network. Everything was drizzled or artisinal or heirloom. Beef carpaccio, seafood gallete, and a frozen yogurt to die for. Three full courses and two large beers, and the whole bill was only about $45.
  5. Conveyor belt sushi, Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan. I just kept going back. I know it wasn’t the freshest or highest quality sushi by a wide margin, but I loved having the chance to try anything that looked interesting without first having to pick it off an incomprehensible menu or bust out the Japanese phrasebook.

Conveyor belt sushi, the video

Top Five Weird Foods:
  1. Sheet o' meat, Macau. It was really tasty: juicy, sweet and salty, sticky, meaty. And damn, it would have been great with beer.
  2. Chicken heart kebabs, Laos. I would have gone back for seconds if I hadn’t been so full of dried squid and other Lao delicacies.
  3. Eggs-on-a-stick, Thailand. They were EGGS. On a STICK. And they’d been scrambled inside the shell. And did I mention they were EGGS ON A STICK?
  4. Chocolate covered bacon, USA. Sheer genius.
  5. Deep fried Twinkies, USA. Again, inspired. It elevates the Twinkie (which, let’s face it, could use a lot of help) into something… more. I’m not saying it’s on par with a sticky toffee pudding or a Paris macaron, but it’s light years ahead of a naked Twinkie.

The egg-on-a-stick man

Bottom Five Weird Foods:

  1. Pig ears, Spain. Deep fried cartilage, thinly disguised with gallons of olive oil and a bit of spice. Too fingernaily for my tastes.
  2. Mopane Worms, Zambia. A bit like liver, a bit like dirt. A lot like I didn’t want to eat any more.
  3. Durian, Hong Kong. It doesn’t taste as bad as it smells, but that would be impossible.
  4. Chow Guai Vegetable Jelly, Thailand. Black, death-flavoured jello.
  5. Salak fruit, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The texture was nice enough, but the flavour was like buying a banana, throwing away the fruit, and eating the peel.

Leftover mopane worms anyone?

Five Things I never expected to do:

  1. Camp on a beach in Scotland. Thank you Edinburgh Hash House Harriers (in general) and Nigel and Margaret (in particular).
  2. Surf in Northern Ireland. Of all the places to try surfing… Northern Ireland? Also unexpected: spraining my thumb while attempting to surf in Northern Ireland. (Well I don’t know for sure it was sprained because I never had it checked out by a medical professional, but I was certainly left-handed for a while.)
  3. Sleep off a hangover in a park in Vladimir, Russia. I have not had a sip of vodka since then. No sir, not me.
  4. Almost fall for a street scam in Nairobi, Kenya. I’m glad Laurie’s spidey-senses were tingling on that day, because I was oblivious.
  5. Jump off a cliff, twice, in Livingstone, Zambia. Once was apparently not enough to convince me that I really, really don’t like freefall.

A never-before-seen picture of Pam’s Feet! Gullane beach, Scotland.

And those are my thoughts for now. I can’t promise when (or even if) there will be another post, but keep checking back every week or so. You never know.

Go See Run Eat Drink... Pay

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I know this post has been a long time coming, but once again I have to say that this is partly because there were a lot of numbers to crunch, and partly because I’m less and less inclined to settle in for hours of blog writing when I’ve got a new job to find and a new life to design. The end is nigh, people.

On to the numbers, but first a word on where all they all came from. Anyone who knows me won’t be surprised to learn that I was keeping careful records for the whole trip. I tried to write down everything I bought so I knew where my money was going. (This is not a new habit for me, it’s one I’ve cultivated for a few years now and also one I highly recommend.) Those numbers went into a spreadsheet for each currency or region. I tended to start a new file whenever the previous got so large and unwieldy that opening, saving and otherwise manipulating it caused my tiny computer to grind to a halt and caused me to contemplate tossing it, and all its spreadsheets, from the nearest balcony.

29 different currencies displayed for all to see at my Welcome Home Party

What I’ve been doing for the last week is going through all these spreadsheets, making sure that they included everything they should, making them all look the same, and making sure they all added up approximately correctly. I also spent a lot of time categorizing things so I could tell how much I’d spent on food, travel, accommodations, etc… Here are my categories:

  • Go: Airfares, visas and visa service fees, rail passes, inter-city buses, taxis, local buses, metro tickets, rickshaws, boda-bodas, cycle rickshaws and any other thing related to getting from Point A to Point B that separated me from a small or large bit of my money. I assigned the cost of airfare to the destination to which the plane delivered me, except for the two trans-oceanic flights, which I put under “Whole Trip” costs. This category also includes the costs of the Intrepid, Dragoman and Imaginative Traveller tours I did in Russia, Africa, the Middle East, India/Nepal and China.
  • See: Admission fees (for museums, galleries, temples, churches, cathedrals, etc…) walking tours, audioguides, trusty LP guide books, shows, movies, and activities like hot air ballooning, Tea Ceremony, lion walking, etc.
  • Run: Food and drink supplies bought for long runs leading up to the marathon in Athens, and Hash Cash – the fee paid to run with each different hash group (mostly to cover the cost of beer). These fees ranged from free-for-visitors to £1.00 in London up to a high of about $12.00 CDN in Singapore.
  • Eat: Food of all kinds: Steve’s Weird, Pam’s Normal and everything in between. Bought in restaurants, from street vendors, in grocery stores and in markets.
  • Drink: Beer, mostly. Also cheap wine in boxes. And that disastrous affair with vodka in Russia
  • Sleep: Hostels, hotels, hostals, pensiones, guesthouses etc…
  • Talk: Cell phone SIM cards, cell phone air time, the cell phone internet USB thingy in the UK, internet cafés and wifi internet charges
  • Live: A large category – toothpaste, shampoo, and other toiletries, pay-for-use public toilets, laundry, new clothes, postage, books, newspapers, haircuts, small bits of gear, blah blah blah
  • Give: Souvenirs and gifts sent home to others, or bought for myself. Also: baksheesh, tips and bribes of all kinds.

I separated out some expenses that I thought really applied to the trip as a whole. That’s where those ocean-crossing airfares went, along with the cost of the new computer, new camera and iPhone, and the big chunk of cash I lost along with my wallet in Barcelona.

Also, a word about currency exchange rates, and that word is: “Ugh”. They fluctuate all the time, so I just picked one rate for each currency that was something close to what the real rate was when I arrived and left it at that. There’s a huge margin of error here, but too bad.

So how does it all shake down? Well, it seems that travelling the world for 351 days cost me about $64,000, or $182.00 per day. I suspect that’s pretty high, and that many hardier backpacker types could do it for much less. To them I say: “Go ahead. Be my guest. And have fun with your dehydrated cup-o-noodles and your twelve-bed dorm rooms and your dodgey, smelly, glacially slow intercity buses. If you’re looking for me I’ll be over at the bar having a drink and waiting for them to call my flight.”

Here’s a look at my big tally-up spreadsheet:

The red numbers are the three highest in each column, the green are the lowest. Ooohhh… conditional formatting! (Sorry these numbers are so tiny and fuzzy, but that’s what happens when you try to cram 424 numbers into 600 pixels. Click here to see the Google spreadsheet, which is still a Work In Progress.)

And what do we learn from these numbers? Surprisingly, Russia turned out to be the most expensive place overall. This is partly because of the cost of getting there, and partly because I was on an Intrepid Tour, which adds substantially to the cost of visiting. Also, I was only there for a short time so that expensive airfare was only averaged over ten days. Denmark clocks in as second most expensive, again partly because the airfare from St Petersburg was not cheap, and I didn’t stay long. Also, as I mentioned when I blogged from there, Denmark is freakin’ expensive. And it turns out that Japan was expensive, just like everyone says. It’s number three on the overall list, and number one for both food and accommodations.

As for the cheap spots? My numbers are skewed; Singapore and the U.S.A top the list, entirely because I stayed with friends who gave me a free bed and fed me (Uganda, which also falls into the “generous friends” category, was fourth cheapest). Third on the list is the perennial favourite of cheapskate travelers the world over: Thailand. It really is cheap. I remember thinking that when I was there – that even when I tried to indulge myself, I still couldn’t manage to spend more than about $10 on a meal, and the hotel room (once I moved out of the fancy place) was ridiculously cheap.

A caution to anyone who might be tempted to use these numbers to budget their own trip: Your mileage will certainly vary because every choice I made every day had an impact on the bottom line, and everyone makes different choices. The fact that Hong Kong was relatively cheap for mean doesn’t mean it would be for everyone. And I spent more money in Greece than many people might, but I was being more self-indulgent there than in other places. Oh, and speaking of self-indulgent – look at all that red in the VACATION row! Top three for Eat, Drink, Sleep, Live and Give. What can I say? I was a good vacation. And I’m still not going to tell you where I went.

Other random thoughts and caveats:

  • It’s really not possible to feed yourself as a tourist in Malawi on 63 cents a day, although I suspect many Malawians might. That number is so low because I was eating all my meals with the big orange Dragoman truck, which was part of the cost of the tour. That 63 cents per day was the average cost of me buying cold drinks and snacks outside the food provided by the tour.
  • Similarly, do not plan to travel to Thailand for a mere 55 cents per day. I was already in the region and took a cheap (but comfortable and air-conditioned) minibus across the border from Laos, so the “GO” part of Thailand was misleadingly cheap.
  • Seeing things in Zambia was expensive, but included some really cool big ticket items: walking with lions, riding in a helicopter over Victoria Falls, the gorge swing and other adrenalin activities and, of course, the swim and breakfast at Livingstone Island at the edge of the falls. All expensive, but mostly worth it. (Similarly, Turkey included the hot air ballooning, and Belgium included a guided tour of WWI battlefields.)
  • Macau is unfairly tarred as the most expensive place to eat, but that’s because I was only there for a day and I went for a really nice dinner. Please don’t skip Macau because you think it’s over-priced.

And that’s what it all cost. Go ahead and ask me specific questions in the comments, but I’m not going to get into any blow-by-blow stuff. I deliberately decided not to give you the country-by-country, day-by-day costs because:

  1. That’s a bit personal, thank you very much, even for someone whose life has been on public display for a year.
  2. It is a LOT of numbers. No really. A LOT. Did I mention there were eleven spreadsheets?
  3. No one would get any further than about Day 6 because it’s so boring to go through that their eyes would start bleeding within minutes.

The paper wallet. Still hanging on.

And now, a few fun numbers that don’t have dollar signs attached:

  • 351 days on the road
  • 33 countries visited
  • 158 different beds slept in
  • 72 city maps fruitlessly consulted and roundly cursed
  • 29 different hash trails run with 27 different hashes in 21 countries
  • 24 flights composed of 37 flight segments on 17 different carriers
  • 23 languages misunderstood
  • 17 guide books consulted, abbreviated, mangled and discarded (15 LP, 1 Rough Guide, and 1 other)
  • 29 currencies gushing in an endless stream from 1 paper wallet that’s seen better days
  • 17 metro systems navigated
  • 21 overnight journeys by train, bus, plane and ferry
  • 38 Weird Foods sampled
  • 12,861 photos taken, which is an average of 37 per day
  • 1 trip of a lifetime

Oh, and also for the record, I swam in the Atlantic off the southwest English and Northern Irish coasts, and in “the Med, the Red and the Dead”, the Indian Ocean, Lake Malawi, the Zambezi River (Victoria Falls!), and the Nile.

And how am I doing these days? Pretty well, thanks for asking. I had a nice visit with my sister and family in Calgary, I’m on version 973 of my resumé, and I’m slowly devising a plan for the next few months that I’m both excited and nervous about, so I think that must mean I’m on the right track. My sum-it-all-up blog post is not even a vague spark in the back of my mind yet, but some day I’m sure my random impressions will coalesce into the grand finale we’re all hoping for. Yup. Any day now. Yessiree.

More aimless thoughts on being home

Friday, June 11, 2010

It’s been eleven days since I got back to Canada, so there must be something to say. It feels strange to leave it so long between blog posts, but we’ve all got to get used to the idea that it’s not going to last forever, and there honestly doesn’t seem to be much to say. It’s time we started weaning ourselves off this thing. I know I owe you a post about how much the whole adventure cost, but I need some quiet time to sort through the eleven different spreadsheets involved. (Yes eleven. When I tried to do all countries in one it made my computer run slower than an Egyptian overnight train.)

So what’s been happening? Well, I had an excellent Welcome Home party last weekend. If you were in Winnipeg and didn’t come then you’re a big loser (Craig, Dorothy, I’m talking to you…). Not only did you miss a great party, endless rounds of “What was your favourite country?” and a chance to see my one hundred trillion dollar bill, you also missed the chocolate covered bacon!

The chocolate covered bacon salute!

And there was cake! I even got to pick it out myself! It had writing AND balloons! And it was chocolate! (And apparently I’ve reverted to age 4!)

Just like when I left town last year, I was reminded of how many great friends I have in Winnipeg, and I wondered how I ever managed to leave. I spent the whole evening bouncing around trying to spend time with everyone and mostly failing. By midnight, with rain falling outside, a hardy few of us remained in the living room while I blathered about geckos and tried to answer weird questions like “Where was the worst toilet?” (Mount Sinai. Though there was a train toilet in France that ran a close second. It was missing the critical flappy bit that covered the hole to the tracks, hence the updraft from the moving train caused anything that was intended to fall down to instead be sprayed upwards at an alarming velocity and coat every surface in the cubicle. On second thought, maybe that one was the worst…)

And just to prove what great friends I have, how about this for a cool Welcome Home present?

It’s a box of locally acquired Weird Food! There’s dried squid, canned jackfruit, pickled lotus root, green snack cakes, dried mango, apple sticks and, best of all: “chewy milk candy with purple yam and gelatinous mutant coconut” GELATINOUS MUTANT COCONUT!!! FiF, you rock!

All that Weird Food reminds me of the funniest comment of the week, which came from Karen. On my first day back, as she and Steve were getting ready to make supper, she called out to me from the kitchen, “Is there anything you don’t eat?” Then there was a pause, and then a defeated, “Never mind.” Heh.

I spent most of my time in Winnipeg in a whirlwind of lunches, afternoon coffees and suppers, trying to see everyone I wanted to before I packed up AGAIN. It was great, but felt rushed at times. Why the rush? Well, I’m currently engaged in my Triumphant Return Tour of Western Canada (TRToWC), and I felt like my family in other provinces might appreciate seeing me in the flesh some time before Labour Day. As easy as it would have been to continue lounging in Steve and Karen’s spare room, I knew I really should get on with it.

I had a surprisingly difficult time packing for the TRToWC. I’m so used to carrying the bare minimum of clothing that being presented with three suitcases worth of choice was frankly overwhelming. And how is it that I managed, suddenly, to be the custodian of four pairs of running shoes in various states of wear ranging from brand new to shocking? Luckily, any clothing from storage that’s worn below the waist was immediately taken out of the running, as were a few shirts that had a bit too much gaposis in the frontal region. Still, I was left with a dizzying array of t shirts and running clothing, and more socks than I’ve seen in one place in months. I’m now traveling with the Aeronaut and a whole other suitcase, and though I feel a bit sheepish about this considering my zealous defense of one bag travel, I can’t deny that it’s intoxicating having such choice. (Oooooh, lots of big words in that last sentence. And I didn’t even use a thesaurus!)

And now I’m in Moose Jaw, which hopelessly devoted GSRED readers will remember as the first stop in last spring’s Western Canadian Farewell Tour. It was a nice drive, and it’s great to be back in control of my own travel schedule, no longer subject to the iron-clad timetable of Japan Rail, or forced to arrive three hours before takeoff. Many people find driving on the prairies boring, but I love it. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true: there’s nothing to get in the way of the view.

Aaahhh! Now THAT’S a view! (Even if it is Regina…)

I’m also spending a bunch of time sending emails about possible job opportunities, or at least it feels like it. In reality there are only two or three avenues that I’m seriously pursuing, and they all seem to be the kind of thing that requires a few tentative inquiries and a lot of waiting. I need to keep reminding myself that it’s still very early and maybe it’s a bit much to expect to land on a Monday and have the rest of my life figured out by the end of the week. It’s just that I’ve spent the last few years with a pretty clear plan, so it’s disorienting to be facing such uncertainty. I know, I know, everyone tells me I should just relax and spend some time “processing” everything I saw and did in the last year, but what does that even mean? I have no idea. All I know is that right now the burning question is “What happens next?”

Home again, home again, jiggety jog

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I’ve been back for five days now and my thoughts are still scattered, not because I’m overwhelmed with the enormity of what I’ve done or anything so grand and arrogant as that. It’s more that my days are full of small, busy, pleasant tasks that occupy me enough that I don’t spend a lot of time sitting around contemplating Deep and Meaningful Things. Consequently this post is simply a random collection of thoughts from the last week, but you should really be used to that by now.

It was great to get back and be greeted by Karen and Steve, who met me at the airport and stood up and cheered and waved their arms and rang cowbells in the morgue-like arrival hall when I emerged from US Customs. Thanks guys!

My triumphant (weary) return

Yep, Karen and Steve have been great – offering their spare room, wifi password and kitchen, even if their stupid gas oven is stupid and their stupid smoke detector is even stupider. Here’s a tip: when preparing to cook two pounds of bacon, first remove the battery from the smoke detector in the hallway. Or as an alternative, use the smoke detector as a signal of when to remove the trays of bacon from the oven. I like to call this the Mom Method. (Hi Mom! Love you!)

Why was I cooking two pounds of bacon? (Aside from the fact that two pounds of bacon is an inherently good thing in and of itself.) Well Karen and Steve are generously throwing me a Welcome Home party tonight and we decided that it would be necessary to have some kind of Weird Food to offer. Unfortunately the stock of pig ears, mopane worms and black jelly was shockingly low at the local Superstore, so we decided chocolate covered bacon would be challenging enough to be in the right spirit, and easy to prepare (it does only have two ingredients after all). So that’s why I was cooking up a mess o’ bacon, which Karen and I spent a happy morning dipping in melted dark chocolate wafers. The result was, I think, the apotheosis of the chocolate covered bacon form, and far surpasses the Santa Cruz Boardwalk variety. The differences are many. First we bought maple-smoked bacon, and cooked it to chewy perfection, as opposed to the American variety which was at the overcooked crumbly charcoal stage. Also we chose dark chocolate instead of milk, and after dipping we scraped off some of the excess coating to achieve the perfect chocolate-to-bacon ratio. And we left a small bit of bacon exposed at one end of each strip, which we dubbed the “Bacon Handle” and has the effect of being a convenient place to grab, and shows off the fact that there really is bacon in there. And when we taste-tested the cooled pieces later this morning? Well, let’s just say that chocolate covered bacon has rocketed to the top of Karen’s list of favourite things, and with good reason.

Karen’s Vanna White impression, showing off one of three trays of chocolate covered bacon

Besides experimenting in the kitchen, I’ve been letting lots of people buy me lunch. Apparently I’m going to be dining out on my adventures for a long while. It’s been really nice to connect with friends I haven’t seen in a while, though I’m already getting a bit tired of the questions. “What’s it like to be back?” “What was your favourite place?” “How are you adjusting? Isn’t it culture shock?” “Are you finally going to wear some different clothes?” “Are you contagious? If I stand too close will I catch anything?” Blah, blah, blah. The answers, in short are:

  1. Nice. Boring. Good. Weird. Normal. Exactly the same as when I left.
  2. Seriously? I went to 123 different cities, towns or discrete geographic locations. You want me to pick ONE PLACE?
  3. Just fine, thanks. No.
  4. Yes. Thank GOD.
  5. I’ll let you know, the test results aren’t back yet.

Being back has been strange and not. For instance, I thought it would be odd to drive again after a year but there wasn’t a even a moment of hesitation or awkwardness when I got behind the wheel. It was like no time had passed since I’d last stepped on the accelerator; the weird thing was actually how NOT weird it was. I drove downtown and had to cruise past my old workplace while I was looking for parking. (Note: It turns out that looking for parking is one of the things I did not miss at all, and I didn’t even realize it.) Driving in that neighbourhood was weird because it was sooooo familiar. I guess I got used to everything being new and different all the time, so it was shocking to round a corner and see a view that was so deeply etched into my brain that I felt like I could have driven it with my eyes closed. (I didn’t.)

Already the trip seems a bit remote, and when I think back to the early parts it’s kind of like a dream. I’ll be talking to someone, relating stories about the traveling and remember something startling like the fact that I walked with lions in Africa, and I can’t believe it’s possible I could have forgotten something like that. And that leads to the story about swimming at the edge of Victoria Falls or hot air ballooning over Turkey, and I start to feel a bit arrogant or something. I sense that for the rest of my life I’m going to be able to pull out a travel-related anecdote on just about any subject imaginable. “Ah yes, the bi-metallic question. Fascinating. That reminds of a strange thing that happened to me in Mto Wa Mbu. Oh, you don’t know it? Charming little town in Tanzania. Grow a lot of bananas there. Anyways as I was saying, there I was in Mto Wa Mbu…” It’s all a bit traveler-than-thou, if you know what I mean. I apologize in advance for this, and you should all feel free to yawn pointedly if I get too tedious.

How do you forget something like this? I suppose by doing a hundred other things in the subsequent months.

And here’s something I’ve been waiting about a year to sample: Pam’s Normal Food! This morning after my run I got to have a boring old favourite that used to be a staple part of my diet. It's nothing special, which is the whole point – just a toasted whole wheat bagel sandwiching an egg, cheese and sliced tomato.

Ahhh…. And see that shirt? You’ve never seen that shirt before, have you? That’s an old favourite too!

It only took about a day and a half for me to start feeling a bit lost and aimless. It’s true that I’m back in Canada and my round-the-world traveling is over, but I’m still going to be living out of suitcases for the foreseeable future. Don't forget that I have no job and no house, so I'm very uprooted right now. I need to start looking for work, but I think that process is going to be a slow one, and it’s a bit discouraging that I really don’t know when or where I’ll finally have somewhere to hang my hat. I’m really starting to crave having my own space. This is partly because I went and investigated my storage locker to make sure that everything was still ok, and so I could retrieve a suitcase of clothes. Therefore the bedroom I’m camped in seems absolutely crammed with stuff and I feel a bit overwhelmed by it. Then I realized that it’s really not much stuff at all – a grand total of two suitcases and one box. It’s just that I have nowhere to put it all to keep it organized. I used to dream about passports and airline tickets and exotic locations. Now I dream about having a closet.

So that’s the state of the union five days after touchdown: essentially fine, if a bit aimless. Now has anyone seen where I put my black running socks? I’m sure they were in the second pile from the left…

Hard-earned travel tips from one who’s been there

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I know you’re all waiting for some grand summing up of my big adventure: profound insights, life-changing realizations, blah blah blah. All I can say is I’m working on it, but don’t hold your breath. Instead here’s a much more practical offering: a bunch of random tips and observations on long term travel that I think I now have the resumé to offer with a certain gravitas. In no particular order, take them as they come.


Upon entering a new hotel room in a dodgy part of the world (Africa, Asia, the Middle East) check that the hot water, heating, air conditioning, kettle, internet or other amenities work properly. It's much more likely you'll get moved to a new room if you haven't exploded all over the first one before discovering there's no hot water and the shower sprays sideways onto an electrical panel.

The smallest hotel room of the trip – Jerusalem. You are viewing a less-than-single sized bed, which took up exactly half of the room. The bathroom was about 1” wider than the toilet and you stood in the doorway to use the sink. 200 shekels per night.


Always carry the business card of your hotel or hostel, or at least write down the name so you have something to show a cab driver to get you home. If the language does not use the Roman alphabet, get someone at the front desk to write it out for you.


Carry chocolate. Or candy. Or whatever makes things better when things are bad. God help you if your comfort food is Waldorf Salad or Baked Alaska.

Sweet shop window display, Barcelona


Always have a book, or iPod, or Sudoku or other distraction, preferably more than one. Travel involves waiting. It is inevitable.


Be methodical and disciplined about packing. Have a list and check it every time, or risk leaving your last pair of clean underwear mating with the dust bunnies under your bunk bed in Bratislava.


Always carry some kind of ID. A drivers license is good for this. It's official, and has a photo, but it's not the end of the world if you lose it.


In galleries, museums and other sights always take the guided tour, especially if it's free. You may see a smaller part of the collection but you'll get a lot more out of it.

Me at Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Certainly one of my top five museums for the trip, which included a brilliant, free guided tour.


Carry a photocopy of your passport information page with you all the time so you don't have to pull out the real thing to fill out paperwork. This also helps the authorities to know what embassy to contact when they pull you out of a ditch.


Shampoo is everything. It cleans hair, bodies, clothes and dishes. What else would you need to clean? (Well, teeth I guess. Toothpaste is allowed.)

Electric on-demand hot water heater in my B&B in Bushmills, Northern Ireland. They are everywhere. Why don’t we have these in North America?


Don’t be afraid to ask for help, directions or advice. People are usually friendly and genuinely want to assist. If they aren't they can be blogged about without mercy. The flipside to this is that people who seek you out to help you should not always be trusted, it's more likely you'll be the victim of a scam if the other person approached you first.


Pockets are handy. Pockets with zips are better. Pockets with zips and snaps are better still. Pockets with zips, snaps, padlocks and armed guards are recommended for the Delhi metro.


McDonald's is not the devil. If nothing else, the bathrooms are always clean. (But some of them actually require you to punch a passcode printed on your receipt into a lock on the door. France, I'm talking to you.)

McDonalds, Nezsky Prospekt, Russia


Carry a stash of US dollars in a secure place, just in case. A couple hundred dollars should be enough, though Intrepid travel normally requires to have quick access to about $400 when in dodgier regions, in case you need to get out of the country fast. Smaller bills are better. 20s are good. If you don't have US dollars, euros are the next best.


Don't be lazy about locking things up and keeping your valuables secure. The one time you leave your moneybelt unlocked in your hotel room (even if the room itself is locked) could be the one time it's not there when you get back. Also, ALWAYS lock your bag up on overnight trains and keep small valuables close to your head while you sleep. You may feel like a geek, but it's better than being a victim.

Jess, on one of four overnight trains in China


Trust your instincts. If a street or shop or person seems dodgy just don't go there. There will always be another one.


Haggle over prices when it's culturally appropriate, but don't get obsessive about it. Remember that you may be arguing over 50 cents, which is nothing to you but could be significant to the vendor.

Carving stall at Kande Beach in Malawi. I got a very nice carved giraffe here that I carefully mailed home from Livingstone, Zambia in the middle of January. It still has not arrived, and I suspect it never will.


Don’t feel bad about taking a break from local food or culture. If you feel like you need a burger and a night of "Dancing with the Stars" in your room, do it.


Get comfortable doing laundry in the sink, but understand it has its limitations. I found it helped to think of laundry treated in this manner not as "clean" so much as "thoroughly rinsed".


Wet sink-washed clothes should be wrung out vigorously, then wrapped in a dry towel and wrung out again. They'll dry much more quickly after the towel treatment.


Eat in sometimes, especially breakfast. Sometimes not having to venture out and stomach the local pig knuckle soup at 8am is a good thing.

Then again, sometimes you need the Full Irish Breakfast, including half a pint of Guinness. Like after arriving in Amsterdam on an overnight train after waking up to discover the dining car has been replaced, in the night, with several grim sleeper cars from Poland.


Try not to stress about the cost of changing money. A percentage point here or there is minor in the scheme of things. Accept that converting currency is part of the cost of international travel and move on.


Where it's safe and reasonably priced, rent a bike. It'll let you see and do more with less effort.

Sizing up bikes in Yangshuo, China


Pack earplugs and be prepared to get comfortable sleeping with them. The same is true for eye masks.


There are a few things that turn up just about everywhere: Coca Cola, Pringles potato chips, and Oreo-ish cookies. They are the holy trinity of long term travel snacky comfort food.

Well I didn’t say they were NORMAL flavours, just that they were there…


Carry a small quick-dry towel in your daypack. They’re good for drying your hands in public bathrooms, wiping the sweat off your face, and when dampened can be used for a quick sponge bath that’s remarkably refreshing, especially useful after crawling out of the jungle following a 12km hash run.


Bookstores in the larger airports will almost always have a good selection of guidebooks.

Excellent used bookstore in Hanoi, Vietnam


When you check a bag for a flight have them stick the baggage claim tag(s) in or on your passport instead of your boarding pass. You're much less likely to lose track of your passport than your boarding pass or e-ticket printout.


Don't ask a local person “Where should I go for ramen?” Instead ask them, “Where do YOU go for ramen?” There's a big difference.


And finally: I know it's practical and probably more secure, but I'm telling you this as a friend: wearing your daypack on the front makes you look like a dork.


That’s all I’ve got right now, folks. More profound thoughts to come, if I can manage to marshal them at all. In the mean time I’m relaxing in Winnipeg getting used to being somewhere where I can read all the signs and understand every conversation around me (which turns out not be a very good thing…). It’s all bit weird but it also has its compensations, like being able to walk into a kitchen full of familiar, favourite foods, or go for a run on streets I’ve run a hundred times before, or turn on the TV and watch a hockey game. So life is good, and some day soon I’ll figure out what happens next.