Musings

Health and SafetyMusingsPlanning

Solo travel

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I’ve gotten many reactions when I tell people that I roam the globe alone.

But there is resistance all around. I’ve been called all the adjectives that lie between brave and foolish and there is of course, the constant nagging from the family that safety is of utmost importance. Not forgetting cost, because single travellers pay much more, for room, food and transport.

Going solo isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I had a taste of it while spending some study time in Germany many years ago and found that being alone gave me a freedom that I couldn’t explore outside the quotidian confines of daily life. It also suits my introverted yet suspicious nature and for someone who can get socially-anxious in big groups after a while. It was never fear that prevented me from doing it solo; I’d wanted to venture out on my own long before I wanted to be shackled by other travellers whose interests didn’t match mine; neither did I want to feel obligated to those who wanted to meet for meals all the time.

I managed somehow, without hitchhiking and with some strict penny pinching.

For the longest time, I’ve travelled alone. I still do, although not always resolutely so. The excitement of it is always countered by the intensity of emotions that can assail you in the chaotic mess of an airport or even the sudden bouts of loneliness that can hit after going without company for a while.

The addition of several travel companions came much later, years after I’d been on my own for years. To say the adjustment was disconcerting is to put it mildly. Then again, costs are shared, meals are far more interesting (now you can order a spread of the local fare and share) and car rental is thankfully not too daunting especially when a second driver is absolutely necessary.

Yet what keeps me going alone is the anticipation of encounters that I know I would never get had I gone with travel companions. I’ve gotten into talks with restaurant owners and other strangers who’d shown me acts of kindness, all incidentally so, I’ve had help rendered to me when I thought I only had myself to rely on and the list goes on. Each one of them had been in itself, a life lesson that taught me more about people than I ever could had I been cocooned in a group of friends.

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AsiaDestinationsMusingsSoutheast AsiaThailand

Facing fears

whatisstoppingyou

On a recent abseiling course, there was a moment of awkwardness when we were all asked to introduce ourselves and why we wanted to learn how to abseil. When it came to my turn, I couldn’t even plead insanity, only that I was interested in adventure and that I was tentatively taking baby steps to wade into doing things that I’d only recently begun to crave.

Then people started talking, and it amazed me how many of them actually signed up to abseil to conquer their fear of heights. In essence, it was to do the very thing they were afraid of, in a controlled environment where there was a smaller chance of screwing up. And then I realised I was, in effect, doing the same thing, if not for abseiling, at least for the impulsively-planned scuba dive trip to Thailand at the end of next month.

I hadn’t forgotten the first instance of utter panic that overwhelmed me when the water enveloped my head during a Bali dive trip in the last quarter of last year. Momentary loss of self-control, coupled with a fear of sinking and drowning even with the regulator bitten down hard between my teeth–they’re all nasty feelings I’d rather not experience again, except I think I must, just so that this particular demon gets exorcised by its very own watery sword.

In the meantime, I’ve surreptitiously googled ‘panic attacks’ a few times as soon as I’d confirmed my flights and hotel, even though cerebral knowledge helps little when push comes to shove under water. This time, I’ve signed up to do the Nitrox course and pray that I’ll get a patient, hand-holding instructor.

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DestinationsEuropeIcelandItineraryMusingsPlanningScandinavia

Around the ring road

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Barely five months after last year’s adventures in the north, I find myself packing my bags again and heading towards Copenhagen and then onto Iceland to conquer the deep-seated fear of driving on the other side of the road. Apart from wanting to savour the elemental beauty of Iceland, of course, this time armed with a smattering of Icelandic vocabulary and grammar and an unsatiated hunger for seafood (and Icelandic Fish and Chips).

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With the memories of Svalbard and the arctic still in technicolor, it’s hard not to be gripped with the sheer excitement of returning to snow and ice and well, extreme living – except that I’m looking at more civilisation this time around. The trip isn’t a solo one this time and with a travel companion (TC), mental adjustments are always needed. Navigating through the dynamics of travelling with someone else can, after all, be nearly as tricky as going through the cobbled streets of any quaint European old town.

Still, I want to feel the cold that insists on getting past all the thick layers of thermal wear and the delicious coziness that settles in front of a fireplace after a day out in the open. I want it to become my only thought, my only obsession. I want to stand as an insignificant speck on an outcropping of rock as the landscape harshly whispers its secrets into my frozen ears.

Here I come again.

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DestinationsMusings

Shifts and re-thinks

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The first days after returning are always hard (I got back a few days ago after spending an abysmal time in the plane); perhaps it’s what many people jokingly mean when they talk about having a holiday to recover from their holiday. It’s more than physical tiredness; it’s a narrative of my own life that I’ve always needed to revise each time. I’ve noticed some sort of cognitive shift that always happens each time I return after some time away; there’s always a sense of overwhelming tiredness and jet-lag (that could be combated using Melatonin). More than time difference, there’s also a cultural re-think and reshaping that the mind’s got to wrap itself around that is almost akin to adjusting to culture shock in the country that you live in.

It’s not always pleasant, questioning things you already know and things that you don’t, but it’s a cycle that unfailingly repeats itself. As pertinent as these questions are, they do more than make me twitch. Poke a little further, and I risk tumbling down into darker brooding in the supposed merry days before Christmas and the New Year. Pushing the answered doubts away and life sort of rights itself, and returns to a more-or-less even keel, and sails once again off from the rocky reef that lies a few feet away. Whose bluff am I calling sometimes? Just the day after I collapsed in bed, I started looking out for possible routes and flight prices for the next trip which is yet unplanned while lingering over the precious photos of Iceland that are now stored on my hard drive.

Putting yourself out into the unknown and going off uncharted treks (and that is perhaps how tourists and travellers differ most fundamentally) is harder work than I thought – and this hasn’t changed since I started doing this 10 or so years ago. But it’s stalwart and honest, and keeps my questioning going on. I don’t think I could – or want to – be any different, minus the damned plane journey.

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DestinationsItineraryMusingsPlanning

Going north and taking stock

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Amidst visions of grandeur of volunteering in remote places like the Arctic Fox Station in Iceland and getting carried away with potential archaeological excavations in Scandinavia or Israel, I think I should consider myself incredibly fortunate that I can even make such trips up north a reality.

For a while, dominating my thoughts were the wilderness of British Columbia, or the French part of Canada – certainly a handy way of practicing my elementary French – until the flight times and prices caused this detour to Europe once again. Taking stock, much has changed since my first foray into pre-Euro Europe in 2001; my subsequent jaunts there are at best a bunch of mixed experiences but all unforgettable. The call of Europe, so to speak, has not stopped a decade later. The trips just simply got more complicated, with more variables and routes to play around while keeping prices in check.

The thin Lonely Planet Iceland is indicative enough of my latest obsession. Tired of yearning for the experience of the Northern Lights and the surreal landscapes, I’m fairly determined that this itch has to be scratched permanently at the end of this year. Clearly most accessible from Europe or north America, planning this trip means couching this week-long excursion within the confines of places like Germany or the UK – a trip within a trip, giving enough cause to peek at the possibility of Canada and the Eastern Seaboard of the US.

…Or perhaps Iceland – Germany – Switzerland. Throw in things and places which I’ve not seen. The number of contemporary art museums to visit. The cheese to buy! Chocolate to get fat on! Mountains! Snow, skiing! Christmas Markets when the sun doesn’t shine enough! Glühwein and sausages! Fast train journeys.

Travel planning is so exciting this way, and it’s surprisingly, not an ironic statement to how travel planning is approached in my case. We just don’t have world enough and time, or so goes my philosophy which grates on some people. With each trip more ambitious than its previous one, perhaps a Kenyan Safari or a meditative Tibetan Hike or a Bhutanese stint might not be too far away in the future.

Perhaps the travel companion (TC) of long ago would be interested in coming and splitting the travel costs. Bombarding him with details, possibilities and prices is evil but so much fun.

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AsiaDestinationsItineraryJapanMusingsPlanning

Impulse

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For years now, I’ve talked about Japan as my personal fetish, the last, unexplored frontier that I don’t quite dare broach for reasons that were never quite so articulated. I knew that I’d be lost in translation, despite the successful trips that millions of non-Japanese have pulled off without knowing the language and the highly regulated etiquette that earn most gaijin -foreigners – the term “barbarians”. Tokyo itself sounds intimidating and the names of cities just sound the same to me, but I swore that I would plan for myself an ambitious, north-south tour of epic proportions that stretched from the national parks of Hokkaido to the memorial sites of Hiroshima/Nagasaki, to the fair isle of Okinawa.

But I’ve never done this before. By this, I mean, buy an air ticket for 11-12 days worth of travel in Japan beginning exactly a week later, still completely unplanned. Suddenly panicked by the impending holiday rush and seduced by fairly reasonably off-peak prices, I finally got my return ticket to Tokyo (Narita). It was quite good fun however, to get the reactions of those whom I told I booked a flight and was leaving a week later.

When the initial euphoria of cheap tickets and the first rush of exhilaration of going away again wore off, I realised I had absolutely no idea what else to do – is a Rail Pass necessary? Do I take the bus? Where do I stay and just how much will that cost?! The grandiose North-South plan is clearly in shreds, seeing as Hokkaido (sharing the same latitude as some Russian cities) hibernates under freezing wintry conditions and cherry blossoms aren’t quite out yet. I find myself now stuck in the midst of the most conventional route beginning Tokyo and ending in Kyoto with tons of day trips in between and a glaring 2-day gap that’s yet to be filled.

But thank god for the tons of information surrounding Japan, most of which come from equally clueless non-Japanese speaking tourists. I’ve had lots of online help.

For train connections and times: Hyperdia
General planning, random questions: Japan Guide

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DestinationsMusingsPlanning

Archaeological digs and travel

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I always thought that, in the distant future when I make millions, the funds could be used for silly and idling activities at spas and shopping trips befitting some grand old dame. And then, I thought perhaps I could use that money to study again – be it for a PhD, or another postgraduate degree (though heaven knows just what), or do a complete turnaround and get into the bio-sciences like an overgrown child.

Or, as I recently found out, dedicate time and money to archaeological digs (though it’s not as though I’ve already stashed away millions in secret offshore account), a long-forgotten teenage dream spurred on by the romanticism of the Indiana Jones franchise and colourful picture books of the 1990s. Like some phoenix rising from archaeological ashes, the excavations would let me try out something I’ve just never done before.

It’s a possibility that hadn’t crossed my mind before.

I stumbled across websites offering projects who badly need volunteers to help do stuff ranging from picking herbs in a Norwegian Viking museum in the Lofoten islands that lie pretty much at the end of the world, to excavating in the Holy Land for Iron-Age/bronze-Age artefacts, or looking up the Celt and indigenous peoples in Scotland – terribly exciting things that make me just moist thinking about holding a brush or doing outdoor farmer’s work for a short period of time. In fact, I’m so primed by it that I’m wondering if my next tour should actually be dedicated to such a thing instead of the usual sightseeing stuff.

An Archaeological dig general website which gives the best digs and projects of 2011:

1. AIA Fieldwork Opportunities Online
2. Archaeology Digs at About.com
3. Past Horizons
4. Archaeological Digs with Earthwatch
5. Biblical Archaeology Society
6. Archaeologyfieldwork.com
7. Passport in Time
8. ShovelBums

Research and fieldwork however, wouldn’t be the fun and freedom that you’ll get from a typical vacation, unless you’re inclined towards academia. You’d be hunkered down in a place, sometimes in questionable conditions for weeks or even months, contributing to a field that pretty much survives on grants and the goodwill of sponsors.

Then again, I imagine the sort of experience you’d get would be incomparable.

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DestinationsEuropeGermanyMusingsWestern Europe

The Road Out

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A fond farewell in the form of sugared strawberries to the host signals that it is time for me to leave Hamburg. But not before I took a ride around the neighbourhood in that bicycle that’s been the most solid thing I’ve ever ridden.

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There is much I am going to miss in this place – the bewildering slower pace of life that I’ve been leading for the past month, the fretful weather (though gorgeous when the air is cold and the skies are blue), the beautiful scenery and its varied suburban areas.

Learning a foreign tongue for so long and for so intensive a period here has momentarily left me bereft of the usually-decent grasp of my very own mother tongue. The pictures have already told part of the story. But let this tribute sum up the rest of the tale, written in the language that I’ve come here to study.

Fast 1 Monat lautete meine Adresse Othmarschen, Uhdeweg in Hamburg. Dank der Gastfreundlichkeit meiner Gastfamilie freundete ich mich innerhalb von kurzer Zeit mit dem Leben in Hamburg an. Nach kurzer Zeit erwiesen sich die Norddeutschen meistens auch als großzügig, hilfsbereit und sympathisch.

Am nächsten Tag nach meiner Ankunft in Hamburg fing schon der Kurs im Goethe-Insitut an. In meiner Gruppe waren 5 andere Teilnehmer, die aus den Niederlanden, den USA und aus Spanien kamen. Der Unterricht war eine große Herausforderung, und die Gruppe arbeiteten intensiv zu unterschiedlichen, und aktuellen (und auch interessanten!) Themen wie “Glück”, “Lüge” und “Heimat und Identität”.

Zu diesen Themen kamen auch die wichtigsten und kompliziertesten grammatischen Teile zur Wiederholung – wie der Konjunktiv II, Verben mit Präpositionen und Präpositionen mit Genitiv. 10 neue Wörter mussten täglich auswendig gelernt werden, und nach jedem Tag verlängerte sich die Liste in unserem gemeinsamen Tagebuch, was wir im Unterricht erfolgreich durchführten.

Im Laufe des Kurses verfassten wir Briefe und Interviews, unterhielten uns viel mit einander, und wir lernten einfach über andere Kulturen und Sprachen. Der Plausch während des Unterrichts ging nach dem Unterricht weiter, und handelte von unseren persönlichen Umständen in unseren eigenen Ländern. Die von den Kursteilnehmern präsentierten kurzen Referate aus den Traditionen ihrer Kulturen, waren für uns alle neu und unbekannt.

Ein typischer Tag fing um 9 Uhr morgens mit dem Unterricht an, und war um 1330 Uhr zu Ende. Anhand des Hamburgers Goethe-Institut Kulturbüro organisierten Freizeitaktivitäten, die nach dem Unterricht stattfanden, besuchte ich in knapp einer Woche fast alles, was sehenswert war.

Am Wochenende konnte ich mit einem von meiner Gastfamilie ausgeliehenen Fahrrad auch kurze Ausflüge nach Övelgönne, Blankenese und Altona machen. Gemeinsam mit den anderen Kursteilnehmern bekam ich auch die Gelegenheit, das traditionsreiche Lübeck zu besuchen und ausführliche Kenntniss über die Hanse zu erwerben.

In der Mitte des Kurses war Deutschland plötzlich im Fußballfieber. Pünktlich zur Fußball-EM war Hamburg schon in Partylaune. Schwarz-rot-gelb bedeckte Fußballfans liefen durch die Straßen und machten eine tolle Stimmung auf dem Heiligenheistfeld. Mit der Deutschen Elf feierten zehntausende und fieberten, als die Mannschaft ihr erstes Spiel gegen Polen siegte und das zweite Spiel verlor.

In Hamburg lief für mich das volle Programm. Die Vielfalt in Hamburg kann ich nur loben, z.B, als ich im Schanzenviertel und St. Georg nach einem Café mit internationaler Küche suchte. Und vergessen darf man also nicht, dass “die sündigste Meile der Welt”, die weltberühmte Reeperbahn, auch in Hamburg ist?

Ich war trotz des wechselhaften Wetters und der gelegentlich heftigen Hausaufgaben einfach sehr froh. Ich bin erst gestern zurückgekehrt, aber träume immer noch von Hamburg.

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