Pre-trip ramblings

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
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Trip End Mar 21, 2008


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Flag of Canada  , Ontario,
Thursday, October 5, 2006

February 6, 2006

If a random sample of our colleagues and acquaintances was representative of the wider population, then Jane and I would be among very few to venture further than a week in Jamaica or a skiing weekend for our travelling experiences. That's why it is encouraging to visit websites like this one and discover that there are hundreds of people who not only do more than lie on a beach, but make their travels a part of their lifestyle.

Taking a year off from the comforts of home to rough it in euphemistically-titled "developing" countries seems like a drastic thing to do. Undoubtedly there are associated sacrifices but it will be worth it.

Sure, we could have saved the cash and put it towards something sensible like a house or retirement planning or a future child's education. And sure, one's late 20s and early 30s are prime years for building a career. However, no one has ever said, lying on their deathbed, "I wish I had worked more". Without wishing to get too philosophical, life is more about experiences than survival and accumulation.

We are still a long way from leaving (October '06), but there is still a lot to do.

From hashing out itineraries, to deciphering visa requirements from various countries, to purchasing suitably sensible travel clothes, to making arrangements for the care of our possessions while we are away, our 'to-do' list never seems to get any smaller.

At this stage, we are a bit caught up in the planning, so we haven't really thought too much about the excitement of travelling. That will surely come closer to the time we leave.

March 31 - T-200 days

With such a long way still to go, it seems somewhat premature to start a countdown. On the other hand, things have a way of creeping up on you. On the other other hand, a watched pot never boils. While these truisms battle it out hand-to-hand, I'll quietly sneak in my 6.5-month-update. There are two countdowns, the actual days remaining (204 as of March 31) and work days remaining (122 for Jim).

So, we have booked our ticket, a Round The Worlder (it's not actually called that, but it should be) with the OneWorld Alliance. I was kind of hoping for one with the Star Alliance because I have points with them, but they couldn't accommodate our complicated itinerary. OneWorld seems pretty good though (Qantas, Singapore, American, etc), and we should generate a few points this way. The ticket flies us from Toronto to Wellington on October 21. The rest of the dates are changeable.

We fly from Wellington to Sydney, go by bus up to Cairns, then fly back down to Sydney. From Sydney we fly to Tokyo, from Tokyo to Bangkok and from Bangkok to Mumbai. A few months later we fly out of Delhi to Nairobi. Not quite that easy, as no one really flies from Delhi to Nairobi, so we have to go via London and Cairo, of all places. Mission.

A couple months of down-to-basics (I was going to say 'back-to-basics' but I've never really been there) volunteering in Tanzania, before flying from Nairobi to Cairo. Then it's all overland from Cairo to England, via the Middle East, Europe and Morocco. After a year to the day (hopefully), we'll be back here in Toronto. Yikes - not looking forward to that too much. It's 15 flights, 23 countries and once around the world in one year.

What else? Well, there are quite a few vaccinations required when you're traipsing through the Third World. Are we still allowed to call it that? Or is it Countries With Delayed Prosperity? Or Differently Abled Nations? Anyway, our doctor has been busy jabbing us with small doses of Yellow Fever, Rabies (easier than getting a crazed dog to do it), Tetanus, Hepatitis, Typhoid and so on. I'm starting to feel like a pin cushion. I've been calling our doctor by his first name. Some people seem to have this thing about calling doctors "Doctor", but he calls me Jim so I'll call him John (that's his name). He's a little eccentric, which worries me a bit given his easy access to disease-carrying needles, but so far he seems to have put the right things in the right places.

Visas were looking like a hassle but it appears that most can be obtained at the border. I'm a little worried about the Syrian visa. Everywhere I've read says you have to get it before you leave your home country. Our situation is that we leave Canada more than six months before we get to Syria, by which time our visa would have expired. So I phoned the Syrian Embassy in Ottawa and the chap said "don't worry about it, just explain your situation when you get there and they will give you a visa. And don't forget to visit my cousin's carpet shop in Damascus."

I haven't told the folks at work yet that I'm leaving (hope none of them stumble across this site, but then they'd have their own questions to answer, I guess). My plan is to give two weeks notice, towards the end of September. The way I look at it, if it was in the company's grand plan to fire me in October, they wouldn't tell me now either, so it works both ways.

There are some things I won't miss. Work, for example. Not that it's a bad job, in fact it's quite a good one, but I'm not as motivated to excel as I was, say, a year ago. Now that I know this trip is coming up, I'm not going to bust a gut for a promotion or put in a lot of extra hours. I won't be sad to take a break from the whole office culture either. Seeing the same people every day, some of whom I like and some of whom I don't, hearing "it's Friday!" as a response to "how are you?" every week, watching corporate drones kidding themselves that they are making a difference in the world, etc. I have 19 vacation days this year to take between May 1 and October 21 (our leaving date), which will speed things up a little. I plan to take most of them on Fridays to play cricket. That's 19 days out of 117 work days (17% for the mathematicians)

At some point, you have to think that there is more to life than trudging off downtown with thousands of other joyless automatons to peck away at a keyboard and talk in jargon all day, then fight your way onto the subway just to get home again. Add the stresses of kids and a mortgage to that mix (which, fortunately, we don't have yet) and it's an almost Hobbes-ian existence. Compare this repetitive grind to strolling through a Turkish bazaar, riding a train in India, living in a Tanzanian village, hiking in a New Zealand national park or lounging on a Thai beach, and it really puts things in perspective. Of course, travelling has its own stresses and pitfalls, but they are the sort of stresses and pitfalls that you dream of and that make for great experiences.

I will also not miss Canadian winters. We're right at the end of one right now, but the fag-end seems to drag on forever. Those conspiring weather-people try to fool you by saying March 21 is the start of spring and they tease you with a couple of days of sunshine, but you know it will be May before we start getting real spring weather. Then you blink and summer is gone and it's time for six more months of winter. On our trip we shall be following the sun, except for a brief 'winterlude' in Japan and the odd chilly night in Nepal. I should be careful what I wish for, as 46 degrees in the Middle Eastern shade may have me longing for a crisp winter's morning in Toronto.

Finally, strange as it may sound for someone embarking on a trip around the world, I'm not a huge fan of travelling. By travelling, I mean the bits between the locations - trains, buses, planes, etc. After you've done one 18-hour bus ride, it's nice to have a wee break of, say, a month before doing another. No such luxury when you have 23 countries to cover.

I'm very fortunate to be taking this adventure with my wife, Jane. She is no slouch when it comes to travelling, having already racked up a good 20+ countries herself. She is great at the administrative side of the planning - visas, documents, etc - leaving me to dream up interesting destinations. And, of course, she is great company; a perfect travel companion. You hear horror stories of relationships breaking on the road up under the stress of 24/7 companionship. However, after six wonderful years of cohabitation, including one and a bit of marriage, I think Jane and I know each other's foibles and, with some ground rules before we leave, we'll get along just fine.

We have plenty of money saved up for contingencies and for when we return. Fortunately, we're not blowing our whole stack on this trip because that would mean starting over when we return. Then again, I may have completely underestimated the cost of the trip and we may come back skint. Whatever - you can always earn more money.

So, not too much left to do for the next couple of months. There will be a little spike during the summer when we have to apply for visas and then a minor rush at the end when we clean house, sort out finances, buy railpasses, cancel bills, photocopy important documents, and so on. I'm just hoping that work keeps me somewhat distracted and that the summer is an enjoyable one.

April 4 - Today's debate: Kilimanjaro vs Meru

Mt. Kilimanjaro is an African icon and it may seem silly to spend two months in Tanzania without climbing the great 5895 metre high mountain. However, there are a couple of factors counting against it. The first is the cost. Rising national park entry fees and tour costs mean that we're looking at around US$1000 each for a 7 day climb. The second is the fact that only around 50% of climbers actually make it to the top. This is due to altitude sickness, the likelihood of which has nothing to do with fitness, rather your physiological makeup. Add those two together, and it would be a real shame to blow $2000+ to climb half way up a mountain. I'd feel like Hugh Grant, as the man who went up a mountain and came down a hill.

Plan B is to climb Mt. Meru. Meru is Kilimanjaro's often overlooked (literally) neighbour. It stands at a not insubstantial 4565 metres and it gives great views of Kili. Climbing it is a lot more scenic than Kili, the chances of reaching the top are a lot higher, it takes less time and it is a lot cheaper. But it's not Kilimanjaro.

So, these are our two options. Jane kind of has her heart set on Kilimanjaro, for its 'been there, done that' value. No one is really impressed when you say you went to Africa and climbed Mt. Meru. Then again, the $1000 or so we would save could go a long way elsewhere. And I'd hate to not make it to the top.

If it was just a matter of spending the extra money but there was no real danger of not making the summit, I'd say 'let's go for it'. But I'd rather make it all the way up one, lesser mountain than half way up the better one.

Anyway, that's today's ponderable. I'll let you know eventually what we decide.

April 19 - Money: how much do we need?

Ah, money. Everyone worries about it but hardly anyone talks about it. Well, I don't mind, so here goes.

We've budgeted for about $22,000 (all amounts Canadian $) worth of pre-travel costs and about $20,000 worth of on-the-road costs. Pre-travel costs for both of us combined include flights ($11,000), insurance ($1000), railpasses ($2600), volunteer programmes ($5300), visas (c.$500), camera ($600), clothes and equipment ($600). Those costs are pretty fixed and, obviously, will have been paid before we leave, so are easily budgeted for.

The on-the-road costs are much more variable. We could end up well under-budget or miles over-budget. I've done quite a detailed day-by-day budget and come up with an average per-day figure for the two of us of $55. This seems low at first, but is offset by 40 days in India, 15 in Thailand, two months of pre-paid volunteering in Nepal, another two months of mainly pre-paid volunteering in Tanzania, six weeks in the cheaper countries of the Middle East and two weeks with Jane's family in Slovakia. This means that around two-thirds of our time should be spent in 'cheaper' countries.

The detailed budget is really just to give me a good idea of how much money we'll need. The actual places and time spent in them is rather flexible but this way was better than just plucking a number out of thin air.

Inter-city transport too will have been largely covered by the pre-purchased railpasses for Europe, Japan and Australia.

The expensive countries will be New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Western Europe, all of which may set us back over $100 per day for the two of us. My family will (hopefully!) put us up for free in Wellington, plus we have friends in Australia, Japan and London upon whose couches we can lay our jetlagged heads to avoid accommodation costs.

April 25 - Itinerary: how much do you plan?

Some people say, "yo dude, just get there and let your mind be free, let the wind blow you where it will". Then they usually have another toke and pass out. Their point is that you shouldn't be too structured in your itinerary, so that you can take advantage of opportunities that you didn't plan for. These people just buy one-way plane tickets from place to place as they go and often end up staying in one place for a month or more, to "get a feel for the culture, man".

Others are from the "got to have it planned out, down to the minute" school. They do all their research before leaving and know exactly how many days they will spend in each place and how much money they will spend.

Unwittingly, I think I have evolved towards the latter category. Perhaps it is the six years of working with spreadsheets and numbers for a financial firm that has battered away at my free spirit and replaced it with an analytical, balance-the-books type of mindset. I do have the spreadsheet with a day-by-day budget, but I am prepared to toss it out before we go. It's a useful planning tool, yet I don't want to become a slave to it.

Certain dates are more cast in stone than others. November 23 and 24 is the first Ashes Test (that's cricket) in Brisbane, and a friend is hopefully getting us tickets to that. Tickets go on sale on June 1 and a mad rush is anticipated, given the hype surrounding the series. Terry, our man on the ground in Australia, will be getting up at the crack of dawn to make sure he gets a load of tickets.

We start our Nepal volunteer programme on January 23, and our Tanzania volunteering on April 20, so these dates are fixed as well.

I'm hoping to get tickets to the Rugby World Cup semi-final in Paris on October 13, 2007. This one could be tricky, given that I don't have any 'leads' yet and a lot of the tickets have already been sold to clubs and package tours, etc. I'd like to avoid paying a scalper $700 for tickets, not that I'm a tight-wad or anything . . .

And then we need to be back in Toronto by October 21, which is one year to the day from when we leave. So there are certain dates that are adding some structure to our itinerary. These will be the 'route-markers' on our calendar, whatever we do between these dates is fairly negotiable.

I think it is good to get a balance between structure and flexibility. Jane and I have both travelled a bit so we know what works for us. Jane is great because she is prepared to let me make most of the decisions. Not that I'm one of these controlling male types, but it's easier when one person can steer the ship as opposed to always butting heads and having watered-down compromises. (Yikes, that's three metaphors in one sentence. Time for a lie down . . .)

May 12 - Packing: is one bag enough for two people?

I've just returned from a very nice, one week holiday, playing cricket down in Philadelphia. The weather was warm enough for me to get a nice little tan, and the cricket was good enough for me to come back with creaky bones and a few niggles going into the season proper.

Unfortunately, it was straight back into the drudgery of work, with the boss giving me some kind of serve on my first day back. Yawn. I've started calculating whether I can afford to quit work earlier than originally expected. I'll see how things go over the next couple of weeks.

Anyway, as we thought more about what to take with us, I've been thinking that we may be able to get all of our clothes into one backpack instead of two. We are packing light - one pair of shoes each (sandals), three t-shirts, etc - so I don't see the need for us both to lug around big packs. We can take a daypack each for the non-clothes items (guide books, cameras, toiletries, etc).

The advantage obviously is convenience. One less bag to lug around, to check in (and get lost by the airlines), to haul on to a bus luggage rack, to complain about, etc. The drawback perhaps is that it may get a bit overloaded, but I think we can avoid this with our light-packing strategy.

We explained our plans to our friend Peggy. She is the mother of one of our good friends and she treats Jane and I almost like her own children, given that we both have no family in Canada. I suspect that most of Peggy's travelling has been of the package tour/cruise variety with plenty of suitcases and taxi rides. When we said we were taking just one backpack, her mouth dropped and she immediately implored us to reconsider. After a couple of minutes of this, it became clear that she thought we meant just one backpack each. I told her, no, we mean one backpack between us. Then I had to go and get the smelling salts to revive her, all very awkward . . .

Jane is sceptical but open to the idea, though we'll need a practice run to see if it can be done.

May 23 - Lists, part I

Here's my list of the Top 5 Things I'll miss:

1. Warm showers

Hard to overrate these. I like to turn the water up real hot and shower until all the hot water is gone. However, recently I've started to linger a little longer, so that I get a bit of cold at the end, in anticipation of what things will be like.

One thing I've never understood is why some countries have these really awkwardly-shaped showers. In Eastern Europe, for instance, a lot of the shower heads are detached from the wall and you have to spray the water around while sitting in a little tub, without any shower curtain. This naturally makes for water all over the bathroom and a very functional and unsatisfying wash.

2. Speaking English to everyone

I don't want us to be those tourists who just march around the world barking to locals in English. It's great that we do speak English because it is so widely spoken, but a considerate traveller must make some effort to learn a few local phrases. And with 23 countries on our itinerary, it will be the equivalent of a linguistic decathlon (or two), but plenty of fun.

3. Ease and comfort of travel

Air-conditioned, punctual, cushion-seated, moderately-crowded, user-friendly buses, subways and taxis are hugely taken for granted by first-worlders.

I'm a little apprehensive about these 24-hour bus journeys I've heard about, on a wooden seat, sitting next to a chicken-toting, odourous, phlegm-hacking local, while the driver tries to beat deadline by taking hairpin bends on a fenceless mountain climb at 80 km/h, only to find out at the end that we caught the wrong bus and we are now stuck in a less-than-charming industrial town with no hotels and a reputation for xenophobia.

4. Internet access

Not that I'm addicted or anything, but it's nice to be able to keep in contact with the world, to some extent. And I want to be able to update my travelogue of course.

5. Wide range of food available

Food is one of the great reasons to travel, of course, and I'm really looking forward to the experience. But sometimes it would be nice to be able to say "hm, I think I'll have [insert one of the numerous options I currently have] tonight". Or, when recovering from a dose of the runs, being able to grab some familiar comfort food. Any inconvenience in this department will no doubt be countered by the great experience of it all.

June 1 - Ashes tickets

Got some great news today. A friend of ours, Terry, managed to get us tickets to the first two days play of the first Ashes Test in Brisbane in November.

For anyone from a non-cricket-playing country, you're probably re-reading that sentence thinking "what the?". For your benefit, the Ashes is the name given to cricket series between England and Australia, one of the oldest and fiercest rivalries in any sport, dating back to the 1870s. The name 'Ashes' was given to the contest when Australia beat England for the first time. An English newspaper published an 'obituary' for English cricket and burned some cricket equipment, put the ashes in a little jar and this became the symbol of the rivalry.

The Ashes are competed for every two years, alternating in venue between Australia and England. Last summer, England won the Ashes for the first time since 1989, which was a huge deal. The next series is in Australia, and the first of five games is in Brisbane on November 23-27 (yes, the games last five days!) Tickets went on sale yesterday and the demand was higher than for any other sporting event in Australia's history. Terry was on the internet for 7 hours, along with thousands of others, desperately competing for tickets, and he got us some. Nice job, Terry!

So, that made my day, as there were plenty of people who could not get tickets and left disappointed. Ah well.

June 7 - possibility of pre-travel travel

So it looks like we might be taking a little trip before our big trip. Jane has been invited to a couple of events in Slovakia in September that may just tempt her over there.

The first is the wedding of Kaja (pronounced 'Kaya', one of Jane's school friends) and Matt (her Aussie fiance), to be held in Bojnice Castle, perhaps the grandest of all Slovak castles.

The second is a reunion of Jane's high school class. It's been about 10 or 11 years since Jane graduated and I think she's keen to catch up with her old classmates, most of whom are barefoot and pregnant, living the Slovak dream.

Fortunately, Jane will have finished work by the start of September, meaning that she wouldn't have to take any time off. The way things are going for me, I will have quit my job by then too, or even better. I'm not getting on with my boss, so there is the possibility that I will get 'let go' before I hand in my notice. That is absolutely fine with me, as long as it comes with a decent severance package. The trick is to delay it until hopefully July or August, so I have to pace myself.

We haven't confirmed anything yet but I reckon we should give it a shot. Better than hanging around Toronto for six weeks waiting for our big trip to start. Now I've just got to survive the 46 working days I have left until then - or get that package.

June 20 - 4 month update

As of June 20, the "actual" days to go has dwindled to just over 120, which is right on four months. The much better news is that my "days left at work" countdown has accelerated at a much faster rate. Not due to some quirk in the time-space continuum (although that would be kinda cool) but because I have decided to pull the plug on my job earlier than expected. Rather than quit just before departure, I'm going to hand in my notice about two months before we leave, in mid-August.

Basically, I've had enough of work. My new boss is a pain in the arse, the work I'm doing is not particularly stimulating and I can't wait to jump off the corporate treadmill, hopefully forever. I have 15 vacation days, plus a couple of sick days, left in the kitty and I have allocated them nicely between now and the start of September. The combination of a series of vacation Fridays to play cricket and a few summer long weekends means that I only have to endure three full (five-day) weeks left before quitting. So, having taken advantage of those days off and used all the benefits I can (I've started chewing cuploads of sugar in the hope of being able to charge a root canal to the company), I shall march into the VP's office and plonk my resignation letter and two-week notice on his desk. If finances had allowed, I would have taken all my vacation in one go and resigned straight after, but that wasn't really practical.

If 'the man' realises what I'm up to, or my relationship with my boss makes things untenable, I may earn a golden handshake and a "thanks for coming". As long as I don't get fired for cause (which wouldn't happen because I haven't done anything bad).

Then I shall live a life of leisure for a month and a half, during which time I'll take care of the pre-departure preparations and enjoy not working, and journey over to Europe for a week or two. We have been invited to a wedding in Slovakia in early September. One of Jane's school friends, Kaja, who came to our wedding last year, enjoyed the castle-wedding idea so much that she and her Aussie fiance are getting married in a castle too. Jane also has a high school reunion a couple of weeks later, so she will stick around for that and I'll come back to Toronto. She will have finished the last of her three non-paid 6-week school placements by the end of August, which will enable her to take this time off.

So now I am just going through the motions at work, counting down until the next interesting event. I have 46 working days left here. However, the World Cup has started, and all the games are on while I am at work, meaning I have something to do during the day. Then I have every Friday in July off, so that month should fly by. August will be nice and warm and I have a few more days off in that month. Then I give my notice and have only two weeks left. Result! By breaking the summer down into little periods, it helps the time go faster and is better than thinking of something 120 days in the future. To be honest, I'm almost looking forward to leaving work more than going on our trip.

Mysteriously, all our visa issues seem to have been alleviated. Now that Jane is a Canadian citizen (as of April), it turns out that the only countries we need pre-issued visas for are Australia (Jane only) and India (both of us). The other countries sell visas at the border or don't even require one, so that's a lot less pre-trip hassle. We go to pick up our tickets this week - exciting!

July 4 - Lists, part II

Top 5 Things I Want To Happen To Me:

1. Be invited to a local's house for dinner
2. Sleep in an unusual place (e.g. not a bed)
3. Be dumbstruck (briefly)
4. Eat something really weird
5. Make a lifelong friend

Top 5 Questions That People Ask Us:

1. Where are you going first?

Why is the first place so interesting to people? Why don't they say "where are you going fifth?" or "where's the most exciting place you're going?" Anyway, our first stop is New Zealand.

2. Are you coming back to Toronto?
3. What are you doing with your stuff, particularly that [insert item they would rather like here]?
4. Can I have it while you're gone?
5. Why not, you tight arse?

July 18 - Man of leisure

I am now officially a 'man of leisure'. For the next 15 months, at least, I shall not be in paid employment. And that suits me right down to the ground. Heaven knows, after having been a corporate drone for the last eight years (with reasonable breaks for travel and other R&R), I am due for a break.

Not for me the lifestyles of the mortgaged and child-laden, having to put up with the daily grind, incompetent managers and long commutes. Not for me the continuation of the illusion that your paper-pushing efforts are really making any difference apart from keeping other paper-pushers employed.

On July 5, only two weeks ago but it feels a lot longer, I was finally "let go" by my company. I was compensated to the tune of three months salary, plus various extras. This, with more than a touch of good fortunte, takes me almost precisely up to the time we are due to head off. The company didn't know about the trip and they didn't realise that I was planning to give my notice in early August anyway, so I definitely came out of the whole affair in the black.

So, now I am a full-time summer-enjoyer. This demanding occupation involves rolling out of bed at a dignified hour, going to the gym, perhaps the beach or other relaxing location and then attending to a few chores and gradually working through our pre-trip "Things to Do" list.

This last activity is still somewhat time-consuming but, naturally, enjoyable. We have our flash new 'business cards' printed up, good for distributing to both existing friends and people we meet on the road.

I think it is nice to have this kind of wind-down period. It can often take a while before you feel really relaxed when on vacation and I am just starting to feel that now. We have under 50 days to go before our Slovakia/Poland trip, then another month before the big one begins.

A friend sent me a good travelogue - www.wherethehellismatt.com. Matt's schtick is that he would do a little dance at each place he went to in the world and video tape it. It sounds corny but it actually looks rather good.

July 28

Things are developing rather quickly. I have decided to add two weeks of cricket touring and Eastern Europeanising to the pre-existing two week visit to Slovakia and Poland.

Read all about it here.

October 18 - Jane's Graduation

Jane graduated with her Early Childhood Education diploma last night, which was a great accomplishment. She also won the award for Outstanding Achievement, to her great surprise. Here is the video.
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