Thursday, January 31, 2008

A change is as good as a holiday

If the old saying “a change is as good as a holiday” holds true, then my life has now become one big holiday. Since the end of last year, not only have I moved out of Sydney, but I’ve pretty much been living the life of a vagabond. So, everyday has brought about a new change. Luckily because of my work and all my years spent on the road I have become very flexible when it comes to change; all I need is my laptop and an internet connection and I’m away.

While my plan is to eventually make a home for myself in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, until I work out exactly where that will be I’ve decided to house sit. So for the last week, I have been hiding out in a lovely house in Ewingsdale, a semi rural region just a few kilometres outside of Byron Bay.

My first official stint as a house sitter went very smoothly… well, apart from an unfortunate incident with a chicken roost - I somehow managed to lock myself in the roost and the chickens out… Yes, you read that correctly. I locked myself in a chicken roost. Apparently while I may be able to navigate my way solo around the world with my eyes closed, it seems my skills don’t quite stretch to collecting eggs from a chicken roost without a major incident!

Yes, I know, it is hilarious – I’m still laughing about it now myself! Though, it may not have been so funny if I hadn’t managed to get myself out, as I was pretty much out in the middle of nowhere, so could have been stuck in there for days!

It all began so innocently on my second day at the house when I went out to the chicken pen to collect the eggs from the roost. What I didn’t realise was that I was supposed to use a latch that was on the inside of the roost to hook onto the door to keep it ajar. Hence, before I had a chance to think the door had closed and locked itself behind me.

Trying not to panic, I attempted to push my fingers through the appropriately named chicken wire to see if I could reach the outside latch. But as it turned out my fingers were not quite as long or as thin as I had previously thought. I then searched desperately for a stick or bit of wood that I could use to shove through the mesh to no avail. Meanwhile the chickens gathered around outside the roost watching me scratching about in the dirt – quite ironic really. But the strange way they cocked their heads and looked at me with that curious, deadpan stare made me think they were really laughing at me on the inside.

In the end, with only four raw eggs and no tools on hand, I decided that the only way I was going to get out was to do a MacGyver. Looking around the roost, the only thing I could see that might be useful was the metal latch on the inside of the door (yes, the same latch that I was meant to have used to prevent the door from slamming shut behind me in the first place). It was longer and thinner than my fingers - perfect.

Fortunately, with a bit of effort, I was able to stretch the metal enough so that it broke fee. I then pushed it through the fence and used it to knock up the outside latch and let myself out. Mind you, it only just reached and I thought for sure I was going to accidentally drop it.

OK, so I was pretty stupid for getting myself locked in there in the first place. But I am obviously much more resourceful than I thought – MacGyver would be proud!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Where's great in 2008?

With the New Year well and truly under way, it seems every website, newspaper, magazine and publisher from The New York Times to Lonely Planet has released a list of the newest, hottest and best Travel Destinations for 2008.

Instead of adding to the plethora of "it lists", I've decided it would be much more interesting to share my travel itinerary for the coming year. To date, I have two major trips planned:

Trip one: Around the world in 46 days (or thereabouts)
South Africa: A holiday just wouldn’t be a holiday for me if it didn’t include a stopover in South Africa! Considering I have averaged around five months there each year since the beginning of 2000, I suppose it's only natural that I will be back again for another week at the end of May. Look out Cape Town, here I come!

Kenya: From South Africa it is then on to Nairobi at the beginning of June for the first of two overseas weddings that I will be attending this year. With plenty of old friends on hand, I look forward to a real celebration. I also have some work to do in Kenya, so will stay for around two weeks.

London: This will only be a quick few days stopover in mid-June, but I am keen to unearth the many layers of this great city. Last time I was in London was back in the northern hemisphere winter of 2002/2003 and I left pretty quickly because I couldn’t stand the lack of sunshine, freezing cold, and continuously miserable rainy days. So hopefully this time, as I am going mid-summer, I will see the city in a whole new light.

Jamaica: I unfortunately have to go to Kingston for a conference at the beginning of July – shame! Along with my co-author, I will be presenting a paper examining Bono's (Product)Red at the 2008 ACS Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference at the University of West Indies. I am so excited about this, as not only have I always wanted to visit Jamaica, but with Cuba just a stone’s throw away I am hoping to make a side trip there too...I wonder if Fidel is up for an interview?

USA: On the way back from Jamaica I will be making flying visits of Miami, San Francisco and LA.

Trip two: Road trip USA
For my next adventure I’m then heading back to the US in October to be bridesmaid for a very dear friend at her wedding in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Since I’ve always seen myself as a bit of a Thelma, I thought I’d take the opportunity to drive from LA through the desert to Santa Fe stopping via Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Monument Valley.

All I need now is to find a Louise.... Come to think of it, I'm much more like the hard-nosed Louise, so if anyone believes they have what it takes to be Thelma, let me know!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Seven top tips for solo women travellers

Travelling solo is one of the most extraordinary and rewarding experiences you'll ever have. But, it can also be quite daunting, and doing so as a woman often complicates matters even further.

From being groped walking through a park in Athens to being harassed by gun-toting border officials in Transdniestr and propositioned for sex in the Ukraine, I’m well aware of the pitfalls of travelling solo as a woman. Frustrating as it is, women continue to face more challenging situations when travelling than men do. But don’t let that stop you. Simply by taking a few precautions you can make your trip easier. So to help you out here are my seven top tips for women travellers.

1. Dress appropriately
Leave the revealing clothing at home! Clothing that is fashionable and appropriate for us to wear at home may project a provocative image in another culture. Some cultures find it an offensive or even enticement, for women to wear short skirts, shorts or even bathing suits. If you're unsure, take your cues from the local women who set the standard for what attire is acceptable. Also, you might want to consider wearing a wedding ring. While I haven't tried this yet myself (mind you, I'd often wished I had!), many woman travellers have found that a ring can quickly deflect unwanted attention.

2. Carry a personal safety device
Avoid walking around on deserted streets after dark – even if you are with a companion. If you can't, then carry a small flashlight or other personal safety device in your hand. Even a simple whistle may cause just enough of a distraction to give you a chance to escape an unpleasant situation.

3. Exude confidence
When travelling alone (or even with a group) act confident and adopt a no nonsense attitude. Walk with purpose and look like you know where you're going – even if you don't! That way, you'll be less of a target for hustlers who prey on disoriented tourists. Also try to avoid looking at maps while you're in the street. Study your route before hand, or find one of those wallet-sized maps which you can discreetly refer to if necessary.

4. Stick with a group
It is unlikely that you will be approached or harassed if you're in the company of other people. So try to sit or stand next to other women or family groups in restaurants, on trains or buses, and in other public places.

5. Watch your back
If you are being followed duck into a nearby shop and wait until the person has passed. If a situation of harassment escalates, making a scene can sometimes be effective as many societies place a high premium on respecting social norms. Learn to say the phrase, “Go away!” in the local language and use it firmly. If all else fails, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

6. Lose the handbag
Unless you want to impress the young fashionistas of Paris or Milan - lose the handbag. It is not uncommon for a would-be thief to cut the straps of a handbag and then disappear into a thick sea of bodies with all your valuables. The best way to avoid this is to wear a money belt. However, constantly reaching under your shirt for money draws attention to it and tends to defeat the purpose. So carry enough money in a small, easily accessible money pouch or purse that will cover all incidental daily expenses.

7. Use common sense
Using common sense is perhaps the single best tip for staying safe and having a good time while you're travelling alone. This includes the usual recommendations: don't walk around late at night, don't drink with strange men, don't ride in empty compartments on trains, and don't compromise safety to save a few bucks on a hotel or transportation.

The key is to maintain awareness while not becoming overly paranoid. After all, travelling is meant to be fun!

An edited version of this article is on MSN NZ Travel

Saturday, January 5, 2008

What are you waiting for?

It's the New Year and, like everyone else, I've been taking stock of the last year and making some resolutions for the year ahead. The usual line ups for me are: get fit, lose weight and stop falling for foreign men. Though, this year it has been my career that has taken out top honours on my resolution list (mind you, I do still need to break the foreign men habit!).

Sitting around drinking with a group of friends just before the New Year was tolled in, one of my friends posed the question: If you could do any job in the world, what would it be?

My mind went blank. I couldn’t think of any other job I’d rather be doing apart from what I currently do; travel writing. So when it came turn for my answer I simply said “I want to be a better version of me”, for which I was booed mercilessly and told to come up with a real answer.

Eventually conceding, I added that I wouldn’t mind being a singer. After all, I hear Britney Spears’ job might soon be free. Though, considering I’m tone-deaf and wouldn’t know a melody if I stumbled over one, I think Britney is safe… well, at least from me for now.

Fortunately for Britney and music lovers everywhere, what I realised that night was, I like who I am: a tone-deaf travel writer who likes nothing better than belting out her favourite song (current fav: Gwen Stefani’s What you waiting for?) at the top of her lungs while driving down an open highway in search of her next adventure.

You might think I'm a little crazy, after all, who wouldn’t want to be a travel writer – right? You get paid to jetset around the world, stay at all the nicest places, sample the local cuisine and suss out the newest attractions. What's not to like?

Sadly, reality doesn't live up to the hype – travel writing is not as glamorous as it seems. It’s tiring, it’s lonely, and, unless you are Bill Bryson or one of his cohorts, it doesn’t pay particularly well. And while being a travel writer you may have the freedom of being able to live wherever you want (visas permitting of course), it also means you often, as in my case, lose your sense of home (more on that in a later post).

For years I have been struggling with my identity as a writer – even going so far as to out rightly reject the "travel writer" tag in a desperate attempt to “settle down”. So for me the realisation that I liked what I did was an epiphany. As it turns out, I really am WILD ABOUT TRAVEL + WRITING!

The thing is, in the past when I have been covering a country, a city or an area for work, especially when I've been working on a guidebook, it has always been about getting the facts - where's the best place to try local cuisine? what's the newest and hottest night spot? what bus do you need to get from city A to city B? - not about the fascinating experinces I've had, the interesting people I've met or the amazing things I've seen. These stories, like the time I met a Transylvanian Count and had dinner with him in his castle in Romania, have been filed away in compartment in my memory labeled "Must Tell Someone Someday". But life is short, and if I don't start sharing them soon they will be lost forever.

My New Years' resolution, thus, is not only to be a better version of me - to be a better travel writer - but to share my passion and my experiences with others. To help me achieve this goal I have started this blog where I will keep you all up-to-date with where I am and what I am doing (even if it is just sitting at my desk and writing up my latest project) and share with you all the millions of wondrous experiences I have as traveller as well as my best tips and hints for anyone who wants to follow my route.

So if I am not "writing something worth reading" this year, I'll be "doing something worth writing about". After all I'm not getting any younger, and as my girl Gwen and I have warbled together on numerous occassions (granted she had no idea!), what am I waiting for?

Happy New Year!