Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The dilemmas of packing for a holiday

Why is it that the most frustrating part about organising a holiday or trip abroad is the packing? There are so many things you need to consider: What to take? What will the weather be like? Who will I be meeting? What is appropriate to wear?

The trip I'm currently packing will take in seven countries, three continents and two extremes in weather, so I understand what a nightmare it can be. What I have learnt over the years, however, is that unless you are travelling with your own personal bag carrier, less is definitely more! So here are my best tips and hints for what you really need to pack for a holiday.

General tips and hints
Clothes: When it comes to clothes choose natural fabrics like cotton which breathe or microfibres which don't wrinkle. Also try to keep your clothing in the same colour scheme in case you have to layer up for warmth. What's more, by mixing and matching you'll fool everyone into thinking you have more clothes than you really do.

Shoes: For women, a pair of sandals and comfy espadrilles or wedges will cover all dressing needs from casual to evening. For men, a good pair of leather rubber-soled shoes can easily make the transition from day to night. I'd also recommend bringing a good pair of solid walking shoes as well as a pair of flip-flops/thongs for wearing in showers in case you end up staying in a scummy dive.

Underwear: When it comes to underwear my rule of thumb is to take enough for one week, or for the length of the trip plus two days, whichever is shortest. Again, ensure your underwear is made from natural fabrics – there's nothing worse than getting prickly heat on holiday!

Towel: Unless you're staying in hotels and resorts for the duration of your trip, it pays to pack a towel. Whatever you do, don't get sucked into buying one of those chamois towels or one that resembles a hand towel. I can tell you from experience that it won't dry your hair, it won't cover your modesty, and, if you're in a cold climate, you'll freeze before you dry yourself!

Packing: I can't explain it, but somehow bags seem to hold more if you roll your clothes rather than fold them. It also helps minimise creases. Try it, I guarantee it works!

Backpacking tips
If you're travelling with all your earthly possessions on your back then the key is to keep everything to a minimum. Bear in mind that you can easily, and cheaply, replace worn out items along the way at local markets. Also, while jeans may be a wardrobe staple at home when you're backpacking you'll quickly discover they're hot to wear, heavy to carry and slow to dry. So you might want to reconsider taking the old faithfuls.

When it comes to packing your backpack, place the lighter items at the bottom and the heavier ones on top. Your backpack will feel lighter this way as the pack rests on your lower back. It's also wise to place the things you use the most on top. Dirty clothes are perfect to pack at the bottom of a backpack.

My essential packing list
  • 2 pairs of trousers/skirts
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 5 T-shirts (mix of short sleeve and singlet)
  • 1 long sleeve shirt
  • A dress (one that can make the transition from day to night)
  • A sweater or fleece
  • Waterproof wind-breaker
  • Pajamas/sleepwear
  • Walking shoes/boots
  • Sandals or other light shoes
  • Thongs/flip flops
  • Swimmers
  • Bras (sports and regular)
  • Underwear
  • Bandana/scarf
  • Socks
  • Sarong
  • Towel
  • Hat
  • Sunscreen

    Well, it's back to packing for me. Happy travels!

    An edited version of this article is on MSN NZ Travel
    Image sourced from FreeFoto.com
  • Thursday, April 24, 2008

    ANZAC Day: Tears in Tobruk

    Tomorrow in Australia it is ANZAC Day. Without a doubt, it is Australia's defining national holiday. Marked by dawn services, parades and ceremonies held around the nation, it is a day of full of honour and respect that celebrates the true-blue Aussie spirit of our country's fallen heroes.

    What is Anzac Day?
    Held on April 25 each year, ANZAC Day marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during World War I. It was on this day in 1915, when Australian and New Zealand troops faced the supreme test of courage landing in the dark under heavy fire in Gallipoli, Turkey. Through their bravery the legend of the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) was forged; the spirit of which endures to this day. Although ANZAC Day began as a commemoration of Gallipoli, with the coming of the Second World War it was broadened to honour the lives of Australians lost in this war too. Today, commemorative services are held at dawn – the time of the original landing – right around the nation.

    The Rats of Tobruk
    While many Australians make the pilgrimage to Gallipoli in Turkey to mark ANZAC Day, with my grandfather one of the last remaining Rats of Tobruk, last year I decided to travel to Colonel Gadaffi's Libya to pay my respects.

    Like Gallipoli, Tobruk is a name that means much in the war annals of Australia's short history. Yet for many Australians it's a place we know exists but is so far from our shores that it's nigh impossible to imagine much less visit.

    Some 1500km east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, Tobruk was the scene of one of the most ferocious sieges of the 20th century when more than 24,000 Allied troops (including 14,270 Australian soldiers) were surrounded by German and Italian soldiers. The 9th Division, of which my grandfather belonged, was ordered to hold Tobruk for eight weeks to await supplies and reinforcements.

    In what turned out to be the longest siege in Allied military history, the largely Australian force, dubbed the 'Rats of Tobruk' by a German radio announcer, held out from April 10 until December 10, 1941 – lasting an astounding 240 days. The cost to the Australian forces, however, was devastating with 650 dead, 1597 wounded, including my grandfather, and 917 captured.

    As part of my ANZAC Day journey, I attended a small informal dawn service at Tobruk's Commonwealth War Cemetery and delivered a speech written by my grandfather who on that very same day presented it at a ceremony back home in Australia. You can read about my experiences in the article I wrote, Tears in Tobruk, for Ninemsn.

    Sadly, my grandfather passed away before I was able to see him again and tell him about my trip. So in his honour and in honour of all those who have lost their lives in any war, no matter which side, I offer the words of Laurence Binyon from his poem For the Fallen:

    They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them.

    In loving memory of my grandfather Private John Joseph Alman; may your spirit and that of the Anzacs live on.

    Wednesday, April 23, 2008

    Crikey! An audience with Bindi

    As if my schedule wasn't already hectic enough with trying to organise my trip away and finishing off a number of articles before I leave (not to mention completing the paper I am co-authoring for the conference in Jamaica!), I've just managed to score an interview with Bindi Irwin which I am trying to squeeze in next week before I leave.

    I have to admit I'm pretty excited about snagging an interview with the pint-sized star of Australia Zoo. Not only is she the daughter of Australia's infamous crocodile hunter, Steve (CRIKEY) Irwin, but at nine years of age she has her own TV show, clothing line, fitness video and doll and has even appeared on Letterman. That's more than I can say I've done in my 39 years! What's more, this will probably be the closest I'll ever get to doing a celebrity interview. (That is, unless you count Troy Cassar-Daley whom I interviewed for the Toowoomba Chronicle back in 1999 while I was still in university. Mind you, he has won 14 Golden Guitar's – that's six more than Keith Urban!)

    Anyway, I will be interviewing Bindi early next week by telephone (Shame! I am sure my nieces and nephews would have loved a personalised photograph) and the article will be going up later in the year on Ninemsn's Travel Australia website.

    If you were able to have a one on one with Bindi, what would you ask her?

    Wednesday, April 16, 2008

    Character of the Week: Diver Dan

    Since I will be spending so much of this year on the road with work I've decided to institute a new regular segment for my blog called Character of the Week where I can highlight and learn more about some of the many interesting people I meet along the way. With just over two weeks now before I leave, I thought for my inaugural post I would introduce my travelling partner, Dan Hammett. A very dear friend from my time living in Cape Town, Dan will be accompanying me for the first leg of my 10 week round-world odyssey taking in part of Tanzania and Kenya. While I actively encourage solo travel – especially for women travellers – it's always nice to be able to share your travelling experiences with someone, so I am very excited that Dan will be joining me. Before we meet up, though, I thought it wise to ask him a few questions. Here are Dan's answers:

    Name: Dan Hammett [Shouldn't that now be Dr. Dan? Though, going by the photograph you've provided below, perhaps Diver Dan would be a more fitting title? For anyone who doesn't know Diver Dan is the name David Wenham's character in the popular Australian television show SeaChange, who, oddly enough, Dan also resembles... Maybe it's just the red hair? Kim]

    Occupation: Academic (Research Fellow in African Geography, University of Edinburgh)

    Why did you decide to join me on this trip?
    A number of reasons: I haven't travelled in East Africa before so it was an opportunity to see a part of the world that I have read about but never been to myself. It was also a great chance to catch up with a good friend I've not seen in a while! On a slightly different level, I'm also intrigued to see what the reality of researching and writing a travel guidebook is like [Perhaps you should read my previous post! Kim]. Guidebooks have become such an integral (and for many, essential) aspect of the travel/tourist experience but seem to be taken for granted. So I'm also looking forward to understanding more about how these books are compiled from a personal interest perspective but also on an academic level in terms of Africa and the tourist gaze.

    What are you most looking forward to?
    Apart from your company [Ah shucks. Thanks Dan, I'm blushing. Kim] I'd have to say hanging out in a different country and enjoying something of a road trip in the process. I'm also looking forward to doing a day or two's scuba diving from Zanzibar – in some warm water for a change!

    What's the best piece of travel advice you’ve been given?
    Never travel with anything you're not prepared to lose. Adapt to the pace of life at the destination and never make too many plans so that if (when) delays happen it's easy to sit back and not get stressed about it. Remember to pack a toothbrush and spare essential clothes in your carry-on. I forgot to do this twice, both times my checked-in bags were delayed. Dress appropriately not only for the weather but the culture, you'll get a lot less hassle and unwanted attention, and in some instances find local people a lot more willing to help you out as you are viewed as showing respect to their culture and customs. Perhaps the most important advice – leave only smiles and footprints, take only photographs and memories.

    Twisting the question a bit, the worst bit I'm given every time I travel (and which I consistently ignore) is from the travel nurse to 'avoid street food'. In my experience, street food is usually the safest, cheapest and tastiest food you can get – particularly if you avoid meat – as you can see it cooked in front of you, see if it is fresh and hot and hasn't been sat around for hours, and how it's prepared.

    What's your favourite destination and why?
    My immediate answer would be Cape Town [You stole my answer! Kim] because I've spent so much time there over the years it feels like a second home. I have so many wonderful memories of the place, people, friends, and experiences I've had there: sun downers at Camps Bay, the penguins in Simon's Town, diving with sharks and on wrecks off the peninsula, watching Super 12 rugby at Newlands, seeing dolphins playing in the surf at Noordhoek beach, braaiing and chilling with a tremendous group of friends, working in Khayaleitsha and the Cape Flats, running in Cecila Forest with friends and the dogs. I could carry on.

    I also love Toronto (for the people and the food) and Prague (for the architecture and the beer). But the other destination close to my heart would be Bolivia – stunning natural scenery, wonderful climbing opportunities, and incredible Spanish colonial architecture. Being there during major riots against the then-president in 2003 and getting stuck in El Alto, the sprawling impoverished area surrounding La Paz, certainly shaped my experiences of the country. I hope never to forget what it felt like to jump into the back of a dumper truck and ride through the streets of El Alto as the protests were in full swing, nor hearing a group of locals laughing at me when I ducked to the ground as a smoke bomb went off nearby.

    Where else is on your 'top places to go list'?
    I've got three trips in mind, whether they happen or not is another matter! First, is a trip to Antarctica to see the penguin colonies and indulge my love of wildlife photography. Second, is a slightly crazy notion to cycle across Vietnam. My third plan isn't so much to visit a specific place, but just to lob a dart into a world map and head to wherever it takes me (fingers crossed it doesn't land up in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean).

    Is there anything you try to do wherever you travel?
    The two things I make an effort to do whenever I'm in a new place are to find some live music and to find somewhere to eat that is off the beaten-track. There's an incredible range of talented musicians that you'll never hear on commercial radio stations and I don’t think you can beat the vibe of a local jazz bar (Ungelt in Prague or any of a number of venues in Harlem, New York (e.g. Lennox Lounge on 125th), rock or ska night (Independent Armchair in Cape Town, Sneaky Dees or the Silver Dollar in Toronto). With food, to be honest I'm a bit of a foodie and adore the variety of ingredients and styles of cooking around the world. I'm always on the lookout for places that are full of locals and empty of tourists, it's usually a sign of very good local food.

    Finally, since we are going to be spending a large amount of time together, do you have any strange travelling quirks that I should be aware of?
    Not that I can think of, unless you count normal quirks such as sleep walking or the urge to be spontaneous and suddenly decide to do random things.

    Thanks Dan. I look forward to catching up with you in person soon!

    Sunday, April 13, 2008

    The question on everyone's lips: do travel writers go to hell?

    This is the question posed by Thomas Kohnstamm in his soon-to-be-released book Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism published by Random House. The book hasn't even hit the shelves and it is already causing a furore; most notably in the hallways of his ex-employer Lonely Planet.

    A Stanford graduate with an MA in Latin American Studies, Thomas was offered an assignment updating Lonely Planet's guidebook to Brazil. With little forethought, he quickly traded in the drudgery of his corporate Wall Street job and set off on a sex, drug and alcohol fuelled journey around the country. The resulting book, which Thomas himself describes as a "chronicle [of] events that took [him] from bourgeoisie working stiff with a repressed travel habit to a full-time mercenary travel hack, with all the good, bad, and surreal shit that it entails", is a virtual kiss-and-tell expose that has rocked the guidebook industry.

    Thomas' story has only just broken in the news here in Australia today with the headlines of Adelaide's Sunday Mail claiming Lonely Planet hit by author fraud. You can read an excerpt of Thomas' book here and for other editorials see Sydney's The Daily Telegraph and The New York Observer. While I am yet to read the book so can't comment on it, I learned a very similar lesson myself on my first assignment for Lonely Planet. No, there was no sex and drugs involved and I certainly did all my research on the ground myself, but I too discovered the hard way that being a guidebook author is not as easy, fun or as glamorous as it sounds; especially when you are a green author thrown in the deep end.

    In early 2000 I was contracted by Lonely Planet to update the second edition of their Romania & Moldova guide. Straight out of university and eager to prove my worth as a writer I accepted the assignment despite the fact that I had never been to either country and didn't speak the language (mind you, I quickly learned enough of the language to get the information I needed). Looking back now it was probably a very foolish decision, but this was my big break, and, after all, this was Lonely Planet. Who wouldn't have accepted the job?! So with little more than a quick wave good-bye, I set off on what I was told should have been a seven week research trip that would take every corner of both countries (the only part I didn't cover was Bucharest which the original author updated herself). But in actual fact, it took me nine weeks and what little research money I was given quickly ran out.

    Being green and wanting to make sure that I did a good job, including following Lonely Planet's strict policy of no freebies to the 'T', I made numerous mistakes that cost me both time and money. For example, I caught a ski lift all the way up to the top of the Carpathian Mountains to check out a chalet that was listed in the guide, only to discover that the lift didn't even stop at the chalet so I had to trudge halfway back down the mountain in knee deep snow to reach it, twisting my ankle in the process, and that the chalet was in fact empty and I should have gotten the information from the central reservations office in the town at the base of the mountain. I also foolishly thought that being a guidebook author meant that I should only take public transport (Lonely Planet had a rep to protect after all), so I wasted huge amounts of time bussing and training my way around a country where you often felt it would've been quicker to have gotten out and walked! On one particular occasion a bus trip I did took six hours to cover a distance of less than 200 kilometres, a distance which at home would have taken around two hours, and thus ate up almost an entire day of my research.

    By the time I stumbled into the town of Cluj Napoca on the eastern edge of Transylvania, I was both physically and emotionally spent. I was already into the seventh week of research and still had a significant chunk of the country to cover. Making matters worse I'd completely run out of money. In desperation I called my family back home in Australia to beg for a loan, but it was the Easter weekend and everyone was away. I then tried my bank to see if I could raise my credit limit, but they turned me down flat despite having offered to raise the limit a couple of months earlier! Not knowing what to do, I did the only thing I could and blindly continued on with my research wandering around the city in a complete daze collecting information in my well-worn notebook.

    Unlike Thomas who claims he dealt Ecstasy to keep afloat after he ran out of money, I fortunately happened upon a local English-speaking travel agent who took pity on me. Mind you, I looked completely disheveled and my clothes stunk from weeks of hand washing in hotel bathrooms, so I'm surprised he even took me seriously. Yet after I broke down and told him about my situation, he offered to help me out and hired me a car on the understanding that (fingers-crossed) I would pay him back once the money had come through from my family. So instead of spending the weekend begging for food and money as I had presumed I would be doing, in what became the highlight of my research trip I ended up having a wonderful time driving up through the Maramures region of Romania. Thankfully, by the time I returned three days later, my family had indeed come through for me, transferring money into my account after receiving my frantic phone and email messages and I immediately paid back the travel agent. To this day I remain indebted to him. If it wasn't for his kindness and understanding perhaps I might have resorted to some of the more dubious methods of research Thomas employed.

    To be honest, after I returned home I never thought I'd ever work on another guidebook. In fact, I swore off them. That was, until Lonely Planet came knocking again. Though, this time I was offered the chance to co-author the first edition of their city guide to Athens with long time LP author David Willett. Four weeks researching the shops, hotels, restaurants and nightlife in the soon-to-be Olympic city with the opportunity to do a little island hopping proved way too tempting and so within a matter of months I was off again. From Greece, I then moved on to several sub-Saharan African guides (my area of speciality) before being offered the opportunity to return to Romania. Oddly enough, this time Lonely Planet budgeted the same amount of time and money for me to cover one small chapter out of the Eastern Europe guide as they had for me to research the entire country guide! So there was definitely no running out of money and time. In fact, I was able to slow down and enjoy the country and the experience. What's more, I was able to return to Cluj and personally thank the travel agent.

    I've certainly learnt much since my first foray as a guidebook author such as don't accept impossible jobs, always allow for more time and money than you anticipate, and, most importantly, it pays to become a country or regional specialist.

    For anyone who is interested you can meet Thomas and hear more about his [mis]adventures at the Auckland Writers' & Readers' Festival in New Zealand from 15-18 May, and at the Sydney Writers' Festival in Australia which runs from 19-25 May.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008

    Australian travel writing & photographic competition

    For all the budding Australian travel writers and photographers out there, Tourism NT is calling for entries in its Share Our Story travel writing and photographic competitions. The best travel writer and photographer will each win a trip worth $2000 to the Northern Territory, with the winning entries to be published in Outdoor Australia magazine.

    This competition is open to writers and photographers Australia-wide, both amateur and professional. Stories of between 800 and 1500 words should motivate travellers to explore the NT and experience its vibrant culture, while capturing the adventurous, exotic and tranquil nature of the Territory. Photographs need to brim with creativity while capturing the charm, culture and outback lifestyle of the NT.

    Photo entries close 20 June 2008, and story entries close 22 August 2008.

    Good luck!

    Sunday, April 6, 2008

    The anticipation of travel

    Alain de Botton might argue otherwise, but I really believe that half the fun of travel is the anticipation. With only four weeks now before I leave on my version of the grand tour, here's how I try to savour the excitement in the build up to a big trip.

    Buy a calendar
    The first thing I do is get a calendar and circle my departure date. I'm not advocating that you start wishing your life away in a great countdown to take-off, but it is fun to day dream and of course very useful to be aware of how many days or weeks you have until you leave – especially if you are like me and have a million projects you need to finish before you depart!

    Make a list
    I love lists. There is nothing more self-satisfying than crossing something off a "to do" list. At the moment I’m working with one long running list (though for every item I cross off, I seem to be adding another two or three "to dos"!). A more practical solution is to have several lists – the all important "must do" list (organise passport, visas, tickets), a "things to buy" list (new camera, backpack), a "packing" list (T-shirts, underwear) and a "things to organise at home before you leave" list (redirect mail, cancel subscriptions)... Just think; I could make a list of all my "to do" lists!

    Buy a guidebook
    OK, yes, so the guidebook author is suggesting that you buy a guidebook. But I'm not just saying this to keep myself in a job - honest! Guidebooks actually offer heaps of good practical information such as when to go and how to get around which helps make travelling easy, and also provide you with a handy, easily digestible snapshot of the country's culture, history and politics. I've actually purchased three guides – the Bradt guide I am updating and two others from competing guidebook companies (it always pays to know what the opposition is up to!). Having said that, I'd never use guidebook like 'the Bible' which is a common mistake many travellers make. In fact, I'd recommend that you read it first, then leave it in the hotel room or at least hidden in your day pack.

    Learn the lingo
    If you're travelling to a country where you don't know the language, it always pays to learn the basics before you arrive. You never know, you might even be able to put a smile on the face of that surly immigration official with a simple "hello" greeting in the local language. I’m currently trying to wrap my tongue around Swahili. So far all I have managed is: Jambo (the tourist greeting for hello), Habari gani? (how is your journey?) and Karibu (you’re welcome). Though, most of those I picked up from The Lion King!

    Get cultural
    A great way to absorb yourself in the culture of the country you are about to visit is to rent a video or read a book set there. Not only will you get a better feel for the country, but if you try to locate the places mentioned in the book or movie once you've arrived it will make for a more unusual and unique way to experience the country. Since I'm also taking in Cuba on this trip I've just purchased a copy of The Essential Guide to Earnest Hemingway which features The Snows of Kilimanjaro and A Boatload for Cuba from his 1937 novel To Have and Have Not. Not particularly light reading, but by trying to see the two countries through his eyes will hopefully make for an interesting story.

    Read the local papers
    The best way to get acquainted with local politics and events is to start reading the local newspaper. Fortunately, with the rise of the Internet this is very easy to do. A quick look on line and you’ll discover that almost every newspaper around the world has their own website – even those in Tanzania such as the Daily News.

    Do you agree that half the fun of travel is the anticipation of travel? If so, how do you savour the excitement in the lead up to an overseas trip or holiday?