Friday, October 26, 2007

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

There are many suggestions in guide books about 'what to bring' when going on a trip.

You'll always need something from home whether it's 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years.

Although I have read certain parts of the guidebook that lists these sorts of things and I did go through the list METICULOUSlY when we left Korea, there are few items that they don't tend to mention in the book that I've learned are pretty useful, you guessed it, the hard way.

Zip Lock bags - these things are indispensible, albeit not industructable but hey, they're cheap enough that you can carry about 50 of them with you!

They're great for toiletry items and allow you to catagorize so you not always confused every time you have to unpack your bag. I have all my shower stuff in one, my face stuff in another, my 'feminine products' in another, my hair products in another.

(And yes, for those of you who are rolling your eyes at the amount of products I'm carry, I'll kindly ask you to refrain as I travel with someone who rolls them at me on a daily basis)

Number one reason they're great? They keep things dry. And if you've ever moved your whole life around every couple of days in a humid climate where things tend NOT to dry, you'll understand the lifesaver that a dry-keeper-item is.

Granola bars or, as my nephew calls them, 'noalies' - hunger is not a good thing. It's even worse when it kick starts the stomach juices and then leaves you with terrible pains the next time you actually have a proper meal.

Finding food that doesn't upset your stomach here is difficult enough without having to worry that you've screwed it up yourself by going too long between meals.

Granola bars are filling, easy on the stomach and easy to carry. Our digestive lives have changed dramatically since we started carrying these around.

I'm sure nuts or some type of whole wheat crackers would do wonders as well but anything processed, sugary or sweet will not give you sustainable energy, not help your digestion and not assist you in fitting into the only clothes you have on your back.

(There are some more delicate items that perhaps guidebooks don't want to mention as then they would have to EXPLAIN why they would be needed. For the sake of future travellers, I'm throwing this WAY TO MUCH INFO out there)

Toilet paper - I read a quote from writer PJ O'Rourke said something along the lines of travelling in SE Asia requires a lot of trips to the bathroom.

That pretty much sums it up. You get to the point where numerous bowel movements in one day does not phase you, unless they are occuring at a food posioning rate of once every 10 minutes for 8 hours (been there, done that, thank you).

In these countries, you will find some place have the paper but even in Korea I karted it around as well because you just..never..know.

If you're at a loss, you will find a small hose, similar to a garden hose, attached the wall. Water will come out and you can 'clean' yourself that way but frankly, even when in the bathroom, I'm STILL not sure how they do it without getting their pants all wet.

Carry the paper. Just do it.

Rash ointment - I'm not talking about the hayfever, allergic kind. I'm talking about the diaper kind. Yes, I know, perhaps revealing a bit more information then you'd need but let me spell it out a little bit more.

In most cities, you walk around A LOT. You want to see everything so of course this makes sense. In hot climates, the cities are usually the hotest. Doing the math of:

Walking many distances + hot hot weather = SWEAT.

If you multiply the SWEAT by the distance between your thighs this will = very uncomfortable.

Hence, the ointment. Walk around Bangkok in 35 degrees celcius and you'll know what I mean.

There's more to be learnt I'm sure. And perhaps these were lessons best learnt on your own.

But hey, anything I can do to help prevent other people's sort guts, wet pants or chaffed legs, I'm happy to do it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

5 Years

5 years ago today I land at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, with a pack on my back, a money belt around my neck and killer jet lag.

4 months of planning and 20 days away from D, I was ready to take on the world. Well, at least the Western European part.

It was the beginning of this life I now have come to inhabit as a nomad, a traveller, a bum, a itchy feet person.

I remember being that person, working in a job i didn't love, spending way to much money in an overpriced city, angry and argumentative, jaded, a bit bitter and overall, lost.

Not really that far off from most people in their early 20s, disolutioned with life after school, not quite sure what is meant to happen next and if this, this 'life' is really, all there is.

I want to go back to my struggling early 20s self and just tell her that it will all be okay, it will change, it will get better.

And it has, because, for the most part, I made a promise that I would never let myself be trapped again. I would never continue doing something because 'everyone else was' or 'it was what you're supposed to do' if it wasn't something that I wanted to do.

I'm happy that I've lived by this simple principle. But it's important to relfect on the anniversaries on such things so that you don't lose sight on why you started in the first place.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

13 Weeks

As you may have read, we are no longer in Australia and have arrived in the magical Thailand.

We had heard nothing but great thing about this place, something that always then makes me apprehensive about going somewhere because it then has to live up to it's hype.

For the most part, it has. And I'm continuing to learn so much not about places of this world but how to BE a traveller.

There are so many things that influence your experience in a destination. I think I've rambled on about this before but I feel it so much more now as I'm living it, day by day, in the moment of the journey.

I can't help but compare Thailand to Malaysia simply because it was the first SE Asia county I went to.

There are pros and cons to both.

It's easier to feel isolated on an island in Malaysia. You could actually see Malaysians on holiday, in the same resorts as you. In Thailand, the islands (the 3 we have been on anyway) are so developed, you're not sure whether or not your in Bangkok or London. And the only Thai I've seen have been working in the tourism industry.

It's easier to eat in Thailand. I have had beautiful breakfasts in Thailand, with eggs and bacon and HASH BROWNS and tea. I have had gorgeous soups and beef dishes, and curries and salads and the list could go on and on.

In Malaysia, we spent the entire time on one island as if prisoners in a war camp, planning when to go and eat dinner so that we wouldn't have to wait 2 HOURS for the meal to be ready. I'm serious 2 HOURS and no one was in the restaurant. (KAPAS ISLAND IS WAY TO CRAZY FOR FOOD! DAY TRIP ONLY!!!!) Don't get me wrong, the variety was a nice change from Korea but upon reflection, we did struggle for food at times.

In Thailand, there always seems something to barter for, someone's always yelling 'taxi taxi' or 'cheap massage, good for you, good for your skin'. It's all about 'closing a deal' because, from what I've seen, I'm not sure there is any other industry to be in.

In Malaysia, we were left alone, never really hearing from people unless we sought them out. Asked for a taxi, enquired about the snorkelling trip.

In Thailand, they have GREAT BEACH BARS. In Malaysia, they make you feel a little like a criminal if you order a beer, although it was available on every island we stayed.

In Thailand, everything seems easy, orchestrated. You want to go from an island to the mainland, you book the ticket and are ferried, literally, from where you're staying, right to the dock of the destination. Car, bus, ferry. All with enough down time to be sure you have enough time to spend money on food at the designated stops along the way. They even have a color coded sticker system to help you know when you get off the ferry!

In Malaysia, you figure a lot of things out on your own.

But even as I write about all these things, I know in my heart that they are just descriptions about places, just details about destinations.

What would my reactions be if I had come to Thailand first? Arrived here after 14 months of hard work and (sometimes) heartache, looking to relax for a month?

Malaysia got a month outta me. Because of time constraints, Thailand will just barely get two weeks.

And what about my state of mind? 13 weeks ago when we began, I was ready to be on HOLIDAY!!! The little things didn't matter because I WAS NOT WORKING!!

Now after 91 days of finding somewhere to sleep, finding somewhere to eat, lugging my bag, unpacking my bag, repacking my bag, finding the bus, finding the train, finding the strength to feel comfortable in a new place, my patience has waned.

Is this fair to Thailand? Probably not.

If I had arrived after 13 weeks in Malaysia, would I have been as mystified and easy going as I am now? Probably not.

But that is the life a traveller. The decisions you make about the places you stay and during which part of your trip will always affect the memories you have of the destination, regardless of how amazing that place is, or more importantly, how amazing a guide book says it is.

Don't get me wrong, we are having an amazing time. And YES we are aware that we are not working an ergo should not be complaining about the differences between the beaches in Thailand and Malaysia. Even I I type that, I'D want to punch myself in the face.

But any life has challenges, even the ones in which you are not working. And I'm merely writing a bit about one of the challenges about doing a trip of this length. So please don't send me hate mail. Or try to poke my eyes out with a fork because I'm nit picking paradise.

It's just all these comparisons and experiences brings me to the burning questions that has been circling in my mind for weeks now - how can anyone possibly give solid travel advice?

I suppose it's a bit like writing a hard new story. You can list just the facts but the order that you choose to display them and the questions you ask your sources are already showing your bias.

Guess you really can't believe everything you read.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Goodbye Oz and NZ

Thank you for all your western food.

Thank you for your clean toilets.

Thank you for your interesting cities, inspiring landscapes, breathtaking views and vans down by many rivers.

I'm heading back to the beach, the place I most feel at home, reinforcing the fact that the reason I loved Splash as a child was not ONLY because I had a crush on Tom Hanks but because I was a mermaid in a past life.

Thank you for feeling so much like home.

We'll see you again soon. G'day mate.

Next stop on the crazy train: Thailand. Bring on the lemongrass and the massages. And of course the sand and the sun.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Born Free

There was a new concept D and I were introduced to when we arrived in New Zealand - freedom camping.

I'm not sure why they're so technical about it because essentially it's just free camping but perhaps people are trying to be very clever about being cheap - 'It's not about the money. It's about the freedom. You know, being free from the constraints of an expensive campervan park."

Another buzz word was our 'self contained' vehicle. Self contained meaning everything you need is contained, inside, your van. Fridge. Shower. Toilet. Bed. Shelves. Microwave. And that means, you can just park anywhere.

Anywhere? I asked the hostel guy. 'Ya dude (as many hostel guys talk) you can totally just pull up anywhere in New Zealand and just park and just know.'

This was great! The cost of the daily rental of the van was cheaper than a nights accomodation and we'd be saving money on food because we could cook every night. It seemed like the perfect solution.

There is of course the cost of the diesel to run the car. And the gas to run the stove. And the heater. Which I can tell you, in September in New Zealand, you WILL need.

And there is of course yet another term we discovered, plugging in.

Plugging in is something you can only do in campervan parks, which you play the privilege to sleep amongst other campervans, making it feel less like the wild and more like a parking lot.

Nevertheless, plugging in had it benefits. It meant you could use their toilets, which you will soon learn that HAVING the toilet in the van is a great convenience. DUMPING it is another thing altogether.

You also have access to their showers, meaning you can always have a hot shower. This lesson I learned the hard way - the water is heated from the engine so you have hot water after you've been running the engine. Showering in the morning only produces cold water. Would have been useful to know BEFORE I lathered my hair with shampoo.

More importantly, you are able to use things that are PLUGGED IN. Such as the microwave. The kettle. The heater.

That's not to say there wasn't heat when we were 'freedom camping'. There was a gas heater, that you could run, at your expense due to the gas usage, for about 2 hours at a time maximum.

Some nights, I may have as well have been in a tent. On an air mattress. Without the condensation.

But none of this, of course, put us off the whole adventure. It was more just a learning experience, one which involved a new 'discovery' about the campervan every day.

Like you really should fill up the water every day. Cause even if you're not showering, you'll use it all up in one day. Thank god we stayed by a lake the first night.

And you really need to use the water hose provided at the dump stations. As appealing as it is to simping dump your waste throw the case back in the van, you really need to ensure it's EMPTIED. ENTIRELY EMPTIED. If not, you're van will begin to smell like a fart convention...or a teenage boys room.

And there are actually some places you can't park a van, like on soft ground. Cause all those glorious things inside the van that make it feel so homey weigh a gazillion pounds, which is enough to get you stuck. Thank god for friendly Kiwis and Aussies otherwise, I'm sure I'd still be stuck by the sea.

Although they were the coldest and sometimes scariest sleeps, the best ones were in the 'freedom camping' sites. Where you couldn't hear a sound. Except your breathing. Maybe the water crashing. And occasionally the psycho killer that was coming along the gravel to kill you. Or at least, that's what it sounded like at 3am.

But I missed the desolateness. The absolute quiet. And I began to loathe the sound of the campervan parks, with their plugging in perks and hot showers. It became a place I slept solidly but without the adventure. And with a lot more screaming children at 7 in the morning.

I'm happy to be back in a city, back with the buzz and hustle of people, back to the place I feel most comfortable, amongst people but still alone.

But I'm so glad I had the freedom experience. Although not at free as we had expected, it was way more economical than staying hostels and touring around on buses with adventure seeking 20 year olds who would have only made me feel like an old woman.

And when I'm grumbling about the state of a toilets in China or wondering where I'm going to eat, I will remember that at least I don't have to dump my own waste and that there's no need to jump up from my plate to get the dishes done before all the hot water is gone.