Where It All Began

I never wanted to travel because ‘different’ terrified me: different food, different people, different customs. Somehow I said ‘yes’ to a trip to China with a friend of my sister. When I arrived in Beijing, I understood just how much I took the English language for granted. In seconds, a carefully planned trip to the Summer Palace fell to pieces, because I couldn’t clear the first hurdle – buying a train ticket. Everything was written in Chinese. There were no translations and no English speaking staff. If it weren’t for a friendly young Chinese woman who noticed the dismayed looks on our face and asked, in English, if we needed help, I’m not sure how our day would have ended.

There was more. Chinese cuisine bore no resemblance to my normal order sweet and sour pork with fried rice from the local restaurant back home. I saw beggars for the first time in my life, rolling themselves through the streets on homemade wheelie boards, useless limbs wrapped around their necks. In Shanghai, armed police strode into McDonald’s, stood silently, rifles in hand, then left just as silently.

I arrived in Xian several days later, to the sound of music playing from the town square’s speakers. The song was not some patriotic tune spurring on the nation, nor the music people practiced tai-chi to as the sun rose. This woeful tune was the theme song from the movie “The Bangkok Hilton”- set on repeat. My senses were on overload. I returned to the hotel and curled up on the floor of my room, tears streaming down my face, silently praying for someone to get me out of China.

The geographical and cultural enormity of the journey totally overwhelmed me, but once I returned home and had time to process where I had been, the sights I had visited and the things I had learnt, I realized just how much this experience had meant to me. Something inside had awakened. I knew I could love travel.

Over the following years I saw cherry blossom season in Japan, the sun rise over Angkor Wat and nightmare road crossings in Vietnam. I longed to see more, but there were not always friends who shared my desire to see them. At the end of my life I didn’t want to say ‘I never visited that country because no-one would go with me.’ I may have been shy, absolutely terrified and a born panicker, but I knew I had to learn to travel by myself or live with the consequences. And I was more scared of that.

I planned my first solo trip as a return to Japan because I figured it would be easier to start somewhere I’d been before. I started a blog (Escape from Me) to record my feelings, plans and eventually my experiences. The blog was a god-send. Simply because I was sharing my travel with others, I was no longer alone and the whole experience of travelling solo seemed less intimidating. I knew I was finally getting the hang of solo travel when I found myself walking into a small, non-English speaking Izakaya, ordering curry rice and a beer and eating it at the counter with the locals without panicking.

I stayed open to the challenge. A friend packed up her life to travel the world with her husband with their first stop being Grand Cayman Island. She invited me to visit – half way across the world and I accepted. The trip to a sun-soaked, hurricane-prone island in the Caribbean, full of iguanas and turtles, was going to challenge me in all sorts of ways (not least of all because I hated iguanas, turtles and the beach).

There would be plane connections to make in London and the United States so apart from new destinations to explore on my own, there were a host of imagined catastrophes to get through. But, with my trusty blog on my side, I made it. I swam with dolphins, screamed at iguanas, held a turtle (but couldn’t force myself to eat one) and learnt to snorkel. I had never felt so free.

And I haven’t stopped travelling since. With each new trip, I found that my blog pushed me even further. Last year found me in Poland for the first time, armed with a headful of researched history, eager to find my roots. I walked the streets of Warsaw and saw bullet holes still lining the walls of buildings. I met family I had only ever heard about and we had ‘half’ conversations – they in Polish, I in English. I drank vodka. Lots of vodka. And ‘different’ didn’t seem so bad after all.

And although I have only just begun to uncover my family history, I already know and understand so much more for having made the journey.

An Interview With….First Time Travellers

I am extra excited to be talking to my first interviewees who happen to be my sister and brother in-law and are just about to embark on their first ever overseas trip.  I can remember my first trip, which came out of the blue, and the excitement (panic) of not knowing what to expect, and can only imagine how excited they are!

You guys are about to embark on you first international trip ever!  You must be really excited!

Yes.  Very, very excited.  We had resigned ourselves to the fact that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for years to come!

Your trip came about very unexpectedly, which, thinking about it, was the same way in which my first trip happened.   Given you’ve never travelled outside of Australia, how did you decide which countries to visit?

We wanted to go somewhere that felt far away but wasn’t too far.  We didn’t want to spend 20 hours on a plane for our first overseas trip so our trip is made up of stopovers and when we found out one of the stopovers to Vietnam was in Singapore, we decided to extend our stay there (as a certain sister of mine who will remain nameless has been hassling us to go to Singapore and just happens to be there at the same time AND for New Years Eve – how could we not!).  We wanted to go somewhere for  a long time that wasn’t too expensive and was within our budget.  We had watched Top Gear – the Vietnam Special years ago and since then, it had been on my To Go List.  Finally, we wanted a range of city hustle and bustle, culture, landscapes and relaxation, so Vietnam was our place!

You are visiting Ho Chin Minh City, Hanoi and Hoi An – how did you decide which cities in Vietnam to visit?

That was tricky.  I started wanting to add more places like Phu Quoc Island and Sapa but we would have been racing around and spending so much of our time travelling and we didn’t want that (so they are on our ‘next time list’).  We had heard so many wonderful things about Hoi An and we felt it would have a nice mix of culture and relaxation.  Hanoi, being a major city would be a good place to start and it happened to be closer to Halong Bay, where we are doing a one night cruise after a three hour drive, so we thought we would be able to see more this way.  Ho Chi Minh city had been recommended but we chose it more because it was part of a stopover, so thought why not stay for a couple of nights.

How have you found the process of planning and getting documentation in place?  And what resources have you used to do so?

There is soooo much information out there it is hard to find the good information.  It takes a lot of time to sift through and not just read one or two reviews, but many and then make a personal choice about that place.  I have listened to others that have travelled about their troubles and successes so I took all that on board.  I have used Agoda and Trip Advisor a lot to check accommodations and reviews.  I have looked at Smart Traveller as well.  We were recommended to use Vietnam Visa Corp for our Visa on Arrival and so far they have been very helpful and responsive.  The airlines and accommodations we have chosen have been very responsive and helpful and so willing to help.  So far it has been a good process.  I have ended up in a few panics as there is so much to think about and as you go more information pops up and you can feel a little overwhelmed, especially if you are planning your own trip like we are.  If it all works out I will feel very proud though!

And you’ve done most of the research yourselves?

I have listened to a lot of other people’s suggestions and have found things myself also.  My husband, Michael and I came up with a list of things we wanted from our trip so that really helped to guide me in my planning.  I found it so valuable reading all the positive and negative information as this helped me in my selection.  Reading the negative reviews quite often left me thinking that sometimes we can expect too much from other countries, so I have decided not to have any preconceived ideas of what to expect.  As long as we have our health and each other and keep in contact with loved ones at home, then we will work it out!

Have you come across anything you weren’t expecting in planning for your trip?

Just the assumption that everyone has done it before.  As a first time traveller there has been so many websites that do not really spell things out so this has added so much time.  I think that each travel provider should have a ‘first time traveller section’ which tells you everything like a 3 year old!  You end up wasting so many hours researching and trying to get every little detail you may need to know!

Have you researched Vietnam much?

Not as much as we should I suppose.  I read up about the Vietnam war but still don’t feel like I know as much as I should, I have read Lonely Planet’s guide and have really gone with other people’s knowledge.  I did read up about scams – some of those are eye openers hence our decision to organise hotel transfers from the airport instead of taking taxis.  Some of the taxi drivers can be in cahoots with scammers and tell you that your hotel has moved or is full, then they take you to a ‘pop up’ hotel that looks and is called the same name but is definitely not what you have booked or paid for and they add all these made up charges!  Glad I read about that one!

What are you expecting?

The unexpected.  I am expecting to be blown away.  I am already feeling a sense of how blessed and lucky we are to have been given the opportunities that we have.  I am expecting to feel crowded as I like my space, but this is all part of the experience!  I am trying not to build up any expectations – I just want to experience where we are and be part of it all.  This is why Michael has not wanted to know much about where and what we are doing.  he doesn’t want any preconceived ideas or expectations.

And what about language barriers?  How are you expecting to deal with those?

We have translation programs on our phones and I believe that our hotels have some English speakers too.  I have taught many children who have no English so I know what can help to describe and show people what I mean.  It will be so valuable being on the other side, when I am the minority and experience what it is like.  I hope it will help me in my teaching as well.

What do you envision of Singapore?

I expect amazement.  We have made our Singapore part of our holiday jam packed so I think it will be full on, exciting and busy.  I am really looking forward to it!  I am so happy that for my first overseas experience, I will be near someone who has done it before – my security blanket!

What are you looking forward to the most on your travels?

Learning, landscapes, experiencing other cultures and having a long holiday!  I think New Years in Singapore will be a highlight!

Do you have any concerns/worries/anxieties about any part of your trip?

Yes, but I keep reminding myself that we can work out any problem and with all the technology these days, I don’t see how we would find anything too difficult.  I am trying not to focus on this otherwise it could stop me from experiencing the moment.

What’s the best piece of travel advice you have received/heard?

Educate yourself about the place you are going – pros/cons and make an informed decision.  You will get what you pay for (in terms of accommodation and tours), so if you don’t want to spend much, then don’t expect the best.  Spend time researching prices and then you know what a good middle ground is.

Well, as if you haven’t heard enough travel advice from me, here’s my favourite for Ho Chi Minh city – have a stiff drink before you head out to attempt crossing the streets!

I’d love to speak to you again when you return to see how it all went – can I have a chat to you then?

Why not!  There will be photos….

Packing Priorities

It’s considered the most painful part of a trip for some, but with a few travels under my belt, I’m getting better at it.  Here’s a few things I pack for all my trips:

Passport and Flight Details

Lets face it.  You aren’t going anywhere unless you have these things on you.  Make sure your passport is valid – obviously well before you are due to leave – you need at least six months validity on your passport to enter most countries.  Make sure you have checked in before getting to the airport, either via computer or your mobile phone.

Camera

Of course I always pack my camera.  But I also have a second battery and lots of additional cards.  It’s amazing how many shots you can take in a day while you are travelling and the last thing you want is for your battery/card to fail at an important moment!

Immodium

It doesn’t matter which country I am visiting, I always pack Immodium and I choose the chewable tablets, which saves you having to locate water, particularly in Asian countries.  You just don’t want an upset stomach to ruin your trip and you usually can’t choose when it hits you.  Imagine this…a train trip across China, carriages swaying from side to side and trying to balance yourself over a squat toilet……hmmmm.

Scarf

I choose a large sized scarf to take with me on my trips because scarves are so versatile.  You can curl them up to use as a pillow while travelling, for covering up your head and shoulders for temple visits, to keep yourself warm (especially on air conditioned planes and buses) and best of all they can add a bit of style to a plain t-shirt.

Spare Clothes

Some will think this is overkill, but I’ve now had two occasions when my luggage has not arrived at the airport with me and it usually takes a full day to catch up with you.  I always pack a small plastic bag with a change of underwear and a spare t-shirt with a mini deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste, to carry with me on the plane.  This way, when your luggage goes missing – you can at least head out the next day feeling a little fresh.  And trust me, it’s no fun trying to find replacement underwear in Vietnam.

An Empty Box

WTF?  If you are planning on buying souvenirs, I find a good thing to take is a small sturdy box.  That way, you can have some protection for those precious little items without worrying about them rattling around in your suitcase.  And if you don’t use it, it doesn’t matter cause you can still pack other stuff in it.

And what do I wear on the plane?

Well that depends where I’m going, but generally get a comfortable pair of pants, a t-shirt and shoes that can slip on and off easily.  I wear waterproof mascara, so that there’s no smudges after a snooze.  I always take my scarf on the plane with me.  And if it’s daytime when I arrive after a long flight – I quite like a hat so that I can cover up my ‘plane hair’ and still feel a little stylish.

Expo-se

I don’t know about you, but there’s been a few times now (thinking Japan and Grand Cayman in particular), when I’ve gone to a travel agent to grab some brochures about a prospective destination, only to be told ‘yeah sorry, we don’t really have anything for that destination’.  Which stuns me, because I thought it was their job to provide stuff like this, and if they couldn’t, then at least offer to obtain what you’re looking forward.  But whatever…

There is an exception to this rule and it’s called visiting a travel expo.  No shortage of travel brochures here!  I was told by several travel agents that not a lot of Australians travel to Japan (???).  But when I attended an expo before my first trip to the land of the rising sun, there was a whole booth dedicated to Japan and – lo and behold – an expert that gave us some great pieces of advice – one of which was that you need to spend at least two nights in Takayama (FYI – we did take this advice and were extremely grateful we did!).

And, don’t forget you can usually pick up some great deals too.  I just paid a deposit for one of my upcoming trips and was delighted to find myself the recipient of an ‘expo discount’ – which gave me a saving of about $300!  The expo was held today and given that it covers ‘the area’ of one of my upcoming trips (ah, these secrets are killing me!), off I went to grab myself as many brochures as I could carry.

Travel expos are a great way to find out information about your upcoming travel destination. Aside from the brochures (and we all know he with the most brochures wins!), there are experts on hand to give you information, hints and tips, theatrette presentations on different topics and, let’s not forget, most importantly, special deals and discounts.  And it’s not just a room full of travel agents – there are stalls for different airlines, luggage specialists, tour companies, car hire companies, insurance companies and banking products.  It’s a great way to find out what’s out there, and what suits you and your way of travelling.

I’ve now got a host of glossy pics to pour over with a good cuppa so I can make sure that I’m including a host of fabulous sights and experiences on my trip.

Round Up

Here’s a bit of a round up of my travels – what I liked, what I didn’t, what worked well, what I’d do differently next time and just other general bits and pieces.

London

London in late June (early summer) is light.  It’s light at around 3.30/4.00am in the morning until around 10pm at night.  I found this a little difficult to get used to, especially coming from winter in Australia.  My advice if you like your sleep, make sure your windows are closed, blinds pulled down and perhaps invest in some earplugs and an eye mask.

Find a Waitrose, M&S or local fruit stall to stock up on fresh fruit.  Pret a Manger is a great cheap place to find breakfast or a sandwich and they are everywhere.

The underground was really easy to use.  I would suggest getting an Oyster card before you arrive in London.

I would definitely stay at the Rydges Hotel Kensington again.  It wasn’t really walking distance to all the action, but it was a few underground stops away and there was definitely enough in the area to not need to be.  It was close to the underground, supermarkets, plenty of restaurants etc.  I ate at the Hotel restaurant, the Jam Cupboard and was really impressed with the meal.  And of course, Kensington Palace and Hyde Park were just down the road.

There are people out late on the streets, but a lot of stuff doesn’t open til later in the morning.  So use it to sleep in or explore the streets while its quiet or go for a walk through Hyde Park.

Grand Cayman Island

The Caribbean Ocean is stunning.  However, it is very salty.  It played havoc with my hair, hats and clothes.  My suggestions would be to travel with a small container of hair treatment or at least wash your hair after every beach visit.  Rinse anything that you wear into or around the water so that the salt doesn’t ruin it.  Don’t pack overly good clothes.  Make sure it’s beach friendly, because truly that is where you will spend half of your time.  I reckon I didn’t use 1/4 of the clothes I packed for this very reason.

Sunscreen is a MUST.  I can’t stress this enough.  Even coming from Australia, the sun was so bitey.  Please be careful or you will end up very, very burnt.  And make sure you drink enough water.  Dehydration can happen rapidly.

Take an underwater camera, disposable or otherwise.  Schools of fish, stingrays and starfish can all be found in stunning clear water less than 1/2 meter deep.  So even if you aren’t into snorkelling or scuba diving, you can be assured to see sealife somewhere!

This is the place for water sports.  And because the waters are so calm and warm, it’s the best place to give them a try for the first time too.  Snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, scuba diving – just give it a bash.

Despite the fact that Cayman is not huge, it is not really that easy to get from one part of the island to the other.  A lot of the attractions are spread across different parts of the island.  My advice would be to either hire a car, or if you want to hit up numerous attractions pick up a tour.  Generally the tours visit the same locations, so choose between what you will see on the tour and what you can get to by local bus or taxi easily.

I would definitely stay along 7-Mile beach again.  A self-contained room, like what you’ll find at Sunshine Suites is perfect.  That way you can prepare the majority of your meals and then just splash out on the odd one.  There are some great value buffet meals around – like XQ’s and the Marriott’s Buckaneer’s feast.  But don’t forget to try some local specialties.

New York

If you are happy with a not so close up snapshot of the Statue of Liberty, just catch the free Staten Island Ferry.  If you want a better close up, I would suggest taking one of the paid ferries, which travel closer to the statue.  Of course, if you actually want to access Ellis Island and climb the statue, then that’s another option again.

The museums are huge.  Central Park is huge.  A lot of the time, you will need to decide whether you have time to dedicate a whole day or whether you want to fit more into your day.  I chose to do a little of each thing, rather than one or two things, but that’s just me.

New York is an easy city to walk around.  I walked most places, but I found that cabs were affordable and used them on occasions such as late at night or for further trips.  Bring good walking shoes.

New York is a noisy city.  Earplugs did not work for me.  Get yourself good and tired during the day and then have a few glasses of wine before bed, perhaps go to bed with the TV on snooze and hopefully that will give you a few good hours before daylight.

I found it easy to eat relatively healthy in New York.  There are plenty of shops such as Pret a Manger, Fresh & Co, Hale & Hearty where you can get fresh salads, sandwiches and fruit and they are open all day serving breakfast through to dinners.

New York is literally the city that never sleeps, but the city doesn’t sleep in either, so if you are into getting out there and seeing all the sights you can stuff into your visit, plan on some long, long days.  There are people out on the streets until late at night, and you can dine at any time of the day.

I wouldn’t stay here any less than 4 nights next time.  I stayed at the Affinia Manhattan in Midtown, across the road from Madison Square Gardens and a 10-15 minute walk from Times Square.  I felt this was a perfect location.  The hotel, whilst old, had been recently renovated.  The rooms were large and funky, if not still showing some signs of age.  Niles Restaurant had great meals and hotel guests were entitled to a 20% discount on dining in.  There were a load of restaurants around the area in any case.

Seattle

I stayed in Belltown and I don’t reckon I could have chosen a better place.  Walking distance to the Space Needle/EMP, Pike Place Market, the shopping district and the waterfront, loads and loads of restaurants and bars to choose from – what more could you want.  Seattle is an easy city to walk around, and its such a pretty place, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want to.

Get out and visit Mt Rainier – it’s worth it.  I chose Mt Rainier over Yosemite, as Mt Rainier is only a 2hour trip each way.  I chose Evergreen Escapes and although I probably paid a little more, the service and quality of the day was well and truly worth it.

Things don’t get going that early in the morning, so go for a walk around the markets, sleep in or do breakfast somewhere nice.

I wouldn’t stay here any less than 4 nights next time.  And I would definitely stay at the Ace Hotel again (I had a private room, but you can book otherwise).  The free breakfast was awesome.  The place smelt so clean and fresh and the staff were awesome.  The bed was the most comfortable I stayed in the whole time I was away.  FYI – Ace also have a hotel in New York.

San Francisco

San Francisco is not really an easy city to walk around.  A lot of the streets are actually at a 45 degree angle.  Obviously if that’s what you’re into, then go for it.

There are homeless people everywhere, as with all cities, but I didn’t feel threatened anywhere else.   I didn’t do my research thoroughly enough and ended up on the edge of Tenderloin (well I knew there were homeless people around, but just not quite the extent).  In saying that, Macys, Saks Fifth Avenue, the Hilton and the Westin were all about two blocks away and they weren’t immune either.  I probably would have felt more comfortable staying in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, seeing as that’s where I spent most of my time. There’s loads of restaurants here and most of the tourist attractions are here or leave from here.  Because I didn’t feel safe here by myself, I would suggest the city sightseeing buses or guided tours with hotel pickup/dropoff.

I chose to stay at the Best Western Hotel California.   The vegan restaurant at the hotel, Millenium was fabulous.  Don’t let the fact that its vegan put you off – the meals are so hearty that you probably won’t even notice.  But I wouldn’t stay here again.

If you want to go to Alcatraz, book in advance if possible.

Pack warm.  Even in ‘summer’.  July (summer) is the foggiest month.  I would say it was more akin to winter in Perth.

Singapore

Let’s face it, I don’t think there’s many parts of Singapore that you could go wrong for accommodation.  But that said, I like indulging in everything that Singapore has to offer.  The only thing that would determine my accommodation is this – if you want to relax by the water, have kids or want to indulge in water sports – head to Sentosa.  If you are keen for shopping – stay on Orchard Road.  If you are into luxury – head to Marina Bay.  If you like Museums and great food, perhaps head for Chinatown or the Raffles area.  If you want a quieter, greener area, try around Cuscaden Road.  Keep in mind, nowhere on the island is more than a 10-20 minute taxi ride and Singapore’s MRT system is fantastic.  So you really can’t go wrong.

There is always something new to do in Singapore.  Keep an eye out on www.yoursingapore.com, www.timeoutsingapore.com or even just make sure you pick up the tourist brochures at the airport like Where and you will find out all you need to know about where to go and what to do.  I can recommend any tours by Tour East (www.toureast.net), especially the Night Safari with dinner, which I find to be the best value.

Singapore is not just about tourist attractions though, so if like me, you had no idea how much history Singapore had particularly in relation to World War II, make sure you check out Fort Siloso (on Sentosa), Changi Prison & Chapel, Fort Canning or the Old Ford Factory for starters.

Culture vultures will not want to miss the Chinatown Heritage Museum and the Peranakan Museum.  There are also numerous walking tours through Chinatown and Little India.  And for art lovers – you must stop by SAM or the Art Science Museum.  But sometimes, the best thing about Singapore is that even if you just stroll around the streets, you will get a really good picture of the country, its food and its people.  And don’t be afraid to try anything here – the food is amazing.

Again, things don’t get going until around 10/11am in the morning, so use the time to enjoy brunch, sleep in or just explore the streets or Botanic Gardens while it’s quiet.

Hotel 1929’s terrace rooms are the best.  That said, I would only chose one of these if I were by myself or with a boyfriend etc, simply because the rooms are on the small side and the toilet is situated in with the shower, surrounded by glass.  The hotel itself is in a great location, the staff were amazing.  Free wifi, good coffee, free breakfast, free cookies and drinks.  Well worth the price, which was much less than a lot of the other big name hotels

Don’t bother with a transfer here, just grab a cab from outside the airport.

Overall

Whilst there’s lots of conjecture over what works and what doesn’t when trying to combat jet lag, what worked for me was a) following the time clock of the city I arrived in (ie. even if you are tired, make yourself go out for dinner or even just sit on a city sightseeing bus and go to sleep when the sun goes down) and b) try Jet Ease (or No Jet Lag), they may be called something different in your country, but I found this homeopathic remedy to work a treat.

Book transfers.  I know you can catch taxis, but I prefer to know that I don’t have to bothered thinking about where I’m going and how I’m going to get there after a long flight.

I booked a lot of tickets on line which saved time queuing up.

When you are budgeting, make sure you include for tipping – I found this added incredibly to my bills in Cayman and the US.

Everyone will tell you this – but don’t over pack.  You won’t use it all.  And if there’s something  you need while you are there, if you need it bad enough, you can buy it.

Buy a second battery for your camera.  I take lots of photos and the best investment I made was in a second battery.  I find there are lots of days where I spend all day snapping away and not having to worry that I’m running out of battery is a relief.  Obviously make sure you have lots of spare cards if you are also this way inclined.

My best flights were with Emirates, Jet Blue and Singapore Airlines.  I was surprised that you had to buy food on the six hour Virgin flight from New York to Seattle.

Order a low fat meal for the flight home!

Any questions?  Please drop me a line and I’ll be more than happy to share my point of view!

License to Sightsee

I’m going to be on Grand Cayman Island for two weeks and I really have no plans for what I’m going to do.  But I thought, who knows if I might want to hire a rental car and take a drive around the Island to do some sightseeing.  And that would require an international drivers license.

So how do I go about that?

Well, quite easily apparently.  A quick Google search led me to the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) of Australia.  All you had to do it appears, was complete a short form and post it along with a copy of your current drivers license, a passport photo and your processing fee.

And voila, about a week later, I am now the proud holder of an international drivers license!

I wish I had more to tell you, but it was really that easy.  Of course, actually driving in another country will obviously be a different kettle of fish…

Do I Travel Alone or Do I Travel at All?

Someone recently said to me that they would never want to travel by themselves.

That would have been me a year or so ago.

But when I realised how much I loved travelling and how much more travelling I wanted to do and that if I wanted to keep travelling, I couldn’t afford to wait for other people to come with me all the time, I had to make a decision.

Do I give up the dream of travelling except when others can trek along with me and later regret that I didn’t get to see all the places I wanted to or do I learn to travel by myself and make sure there’s no regrets?

It wasn’t an easy decision to make for someone like me.  I panic and worry about everything.  I’m quite shy until I know people and I’m super self-conscious.  I’m probably over-untrusting and over-cautious.  I’m not good at meeting people.  I’m not very good at pushing myself to get out there….basically there are over a million reasons why someone like me would never choose to travel alone.  So what was I going to do?

Well I guess that it helped that my friends Katie and Yoshi decided to travel the world and I knew if I wanted to see them in the next few years, I was going to have to get up enough confidence to meet up with them somewhere by myself.  But really, I just knew there were places I wanted to see, and I knew I would be so disappointed in myself if I didn’t at least try to overcome my fears and do one trip by myself.  So I just had to pick a destination and give it a try and see how I would go!

It was easy to pick the destination – I LOVED Japan when I visited previously and knew I definitely wanted to go back.  Getting the courage up to actually make the decision and go for it was a different story.  Thankfully I had a personal trainer at the time, who had changed my life and made me realise that if you want something all you had to do, was put the steps in place to achieve it.  So I had formulated the goal and I knew where I wanted to go.

Next was getting up the courage and taking the leap of faith to achieve the goal.  Luckily, my sister and brother in law provided those!  I had the brochures, I had the dream – and now spread open in front of me at their kitchen table, was the right price.  Along with their encouragement, there didn’t seem to be any reason not to jump.

So I did.  And even though I panicked right up to the end, it was probably the most exhilarating trip I have ever done.  It was 100% up to me what I made of the trip.  If I didn’t achieve what I wanted – my fault.  If I changed the itinerary – my fault.  If I didn’t take a chance – my fault.  And honestly, I probably made the most of this trip out of all the trips I had done.

I now knew that I could go anywhere.  And not only that, but it’s opened a whole new world up to me.  Because even though I’ve never wanted to travel outside of Asia, I have a new awakening to travel anywhere and everywhere I can.

So all I can say to anyone contemplating travelling alone – is just do it.  Yes it will be scary.  Yes there will be situations where you don’t have anyone to bounce off and freak out.  But it will be such a release.  And I found that I actually step further out of my comfort zone than normal.  Of course you can always join a tour group so that you aren’t totally travelling alone, or if, unlike me, you are the chatty type you can always make friends with other travellers.  You can do day tours so you aren’t always by yourself and don’t always have to arrange your own transport.  You can arrange transfers or organise local guides to accompany you.  There’s so many ways to travel.

And even though when people ask me ‘oh who are you going with?’ and I answer ‘no-one’ – like the crazy woman who lives with 20 cats, please, don’t ever let the fear of travelling alone, stop you from travelling at all.

Anticipating Jetlag

It’s 8pm and I’ve just woken up in one of the world’s great cities and I’m ready for breakfast.  Surely in London – the largest urban zone in the European Union – you can  find breakfast no matter what time of the day or night.  I pull back the thick curtains in my hotel room to reveal a dark, tree-lined  street.  It seems I’m suffering from desynchronosis, more commonly known as  jetlag.

According to the Medical Dictionary, jetlag is a physiological condition that  results from alterations to the body’s circadian rhythms.  Symptoms include fatigue, sleepiness, digestive upsets, impaired judgment,  memory lapses and irritability.  Jetlag can be more severe when travelling in an easterly direction and  roughly has a recovery rate of one day per time zone crossed.  As I have flown from Sydney to London – from east to west – I have traversed  ten standard time zones.  At this rate my holiday will be over before my jetlag is cured. 

It seems it went wrong when I blatantly disregarded one of the golden rules  for avoiding jetlag.  “Upon arrival adapt to the local time. Under no circumstances attempt a  daytime nap,” the Better Health website says.  After arriving in London from Sydney at 6am, I did a spot of sightseeing until I could check in to the hotel at 2pm.  Once in the room I had a shower, drew the curtains and lay down on the bed  for a few minutes.  But before I could say “Welcome to England” I was fast asleep.  Six hours later a knock on the door has woken me.

“Guest services, may I come in,” a woman says from outside my room.  “Hello madam, oh sorry… I see you are sleeping, I’m from housekeeping,  would you like the turn down service?” the lady whose badge reads Jekesa says.  Confused, I wonder why would I need the bedspread turned down and a chocolate  left on the pillow when I’m about to go for breakfast.  “Madam, it is not 8am, it’s 8pm,” Jekesa says after seeing my puzzled  face.  Like most B&Bs, this establishment only serves breakfast – and that is  not until 7am.

I peer out the curtain again into the darkness.  Am I brave enough to wander this sprawling capital of England in the middle  of the night to fulfil my craving for eggs on toast?  Is it sensible to meander the streets alone, with a map in hand in the  dark?  Probably not.

I decide to sit tight and wait until morning.  I switch on the television and watch re-runs of Coronation Street.  This is not how I imagined my holiday when I was doing my research on the Visit Britain website.  It rolls on to 2am and I’m still awake.  Several hours later, when I hear the cook arrive and enter the kitchen  downstairs, I decide to put my head down for a quick nap.

And that is a whole other story.

by Leah McLennan

Seeing as all of my trips have been to destinations throughout Asia which are more or less on the same time line as my own country, the one thing I haven’t come across yet, is the phenomenon known as jetlag.  I’ve heard numerous stories like the one above, travellers spending hours and hours unable to sleep or get back into a proper routine.  So I started thinking – what exactly is jetlag, what are all the effects and how, if at all possible, can you avoid it?

And luckily for me, searching jetlag on the internet leads you to a wealth of information on the subject.

What is it?

Jetlag is a physical reaction to a rapid change in time zones.  It affects most travellers, including seasoned fliers like flight attendants and pilots.  It’s a combination of fatigue and other symptoms caused by travelling abruptly across different time zones.

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms include disorientation, irritability, fatigue, swollen limbs and eyes, headaches, cold-like symptoms, impaired judgement and decision making, memory lapses, apathy and irregular bowels.

Dehydration, unfamiliar foods, cramped spaces, recycled air, lack of sleep, uncomfortable clothes, continual low-level noise, connections that disrupt sleep and other factors all add to the misery of jetlag.  If you live by a regular schedule (up at 7 am, in bed by 10 pm every night), watch out.  Jetlag hits those with rigid body clocks the hardest.  Oh great!

A general rule of thumb to keep in mind before any long trip is the 1:1 ratio: allow yourself one day to recover for every hour of time difference that you experience.  I’m not quite sure how this will make for an enjoyable holiday when you only have a short time at your destination, so I’m very keen to find out how to try and beat this monster.  Fortunately it seems that whilst there is no cure for jetlag, its effects can be reduced with careful planning.

Does Flying East or West make a Difference?

Your circadian rhythm is less confused if you travel westward.  This is because travelling west ‘prolongs’ the body clock’s experience of its normal day-night cycle.  Travelling eastwards, however, runs in direct opposition to the body clock.  If you suffer badly from jetlag, it may be worthwhile considering a westerly travel route if possible.

How to Manage Jetlag

  • Treat your body well before you fly – exercise, sleep well, stay hydrated and sober.  Don’t get on a long-haul flight with a hangover.
  • Some travellers like to exercise before they go to the airport – this can help you sleep better on the plane.  Once you’re at the airport, avoid the escalators and moving sidewalks.  Instead, walk and take the stairs on the way to your check-in area and gate connections.
  • Three or four days before you leave, start to stay up a little later than usual, and sleep in a little longer.
  • Wear two watches, one set to the current time, and one to the time at your destination  This can help you prepare yourself mentally for the coming time change.
  • During the flight stay hydrated by drinking plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated fluids.
  • Get up out of your seat at regular intervals to walk and stretch.  Do exercises like toe raises, isometric exercises, stomach crunches and shoulder shrugs right in your seat.  This keeps your blood flowing and prevents it from pooling at your extremities, a common phenomenon in pressurized cabins.
  • Get up to wash your face, brush your teeth or just stand up for several minutes.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing that breathes.
  • Bring a neck pillow, eye mask, ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Avoid snug footwear as it is quite possible that your feet will swell in transit.
  • Try the homeopathic remedy “No-Jet-Lag”.  The company claims the chewable tablets address all jet lag symptoms, and offers testimonials from flight attendants and other frequent fliers.
  • A bag of dried cherries is another natural remedy that some travellers use.  In 2007, the New York Times reported that dried cherries, which contain melatonin, may help alleviate jet lag.
  • Use sleeping pills, antihistamines and motion sickness pills to induce sleep.
  • Light therapy has become a popular treatment for jet lag.  There’s even a light therapy app for smartphones, Jet Lag Fighter, which recommends when to seek and avoid light based on your travel dates and destination.
  • Try the “jet lag diet” which is described below.  The military tested the diet and concluded that it is bunk.  Nonetheless, Ronald and Nancy Reagan used it during their White House days, and some travellers still do.
  • Restrict your diet to foods that are easily digested, like those that are relatively high in fibre but not too rich.  If you’re trying to stay awake in order to get your body in step with the local time zone, caffeine can be useful — but don’t go overboard.  While it might seem tempting to guzzle several cups of coffee when your eyelids begin to droop, you could end up wide awake at 1 am.  Be sure to implement all dietary changes in moderation.
  • Arrive early afternoon and plan a half day of touring, then dinner at the local dinnertime.  Fight the urge to rest after the flight because that does not allow the body clock to reset.   Don’t drink coffee and only have 1 bottle of wine with dinner.
  • Lots of juice.  Try to check into the hotel and take a 1-1/2-hr. nap — no more.  Then get up, and take a walking tour.
  • Change the time on your watch upon take off.
  • NO FOOD OR ALCOHOL on the plane — eat before you get on and only drink water.

Adjusting to the new time zone

The internal body clock of a jetlagged traveller is out of sync with the new time zone and is still operating on ‘home time’.  Different bodily processes adjust to the new time zone at different speeds, which adds to the confusion. Depending on the individual, the body needs anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to acclimatise to the new time zone.

Suggestions on adjusting to your new time zone include:

  • Expose yourself to daylight or, if this is not possible, bright light to help ‘reset’ your body clock.
  • Drink caffeinated drinks in moderation during the day.
  • Try to mimic your usual bedtime routine.
  • Use relaxation techniques.

A Battle Plan for Jet Lag

1. Understand that the direction you are traveling makes a difference.

Determine whether you are traveling east or west.  Most people have an internal body clock that makes it harder for them to travel east.  If you’re traveling east and want to adapt to the new time, you will have to wake up earlier and go to bed earlier than you normally would.  This is known as advancing your body clock.  If you’re traveling west, you’ll have to adapt to the new time by waking up later than usual and going to bed later than usual, delaying your body clock.

2. Schedule when to expose yourself to light and when to avoid it.

It takes about a day to shift one time zone.  To do it faster, you must regulate your exposure to light — both natural and artificial — and darkness.  Experts say that since light is the primary environmental cue telling your body’s clock when to sleep and when to wake, controlling jetlag is fundamentally about controlling light and darkness.

With that in mind, if you are traveling east, you must expose yourself to light early, advancing your body clock so that it will be in sync with the new time zone.

If traveling west, you should expose yourself to light at dusk and the early part of the evening, delaying your body clock so that it will be in sync with the new time zone.  Let’s say that at 7 pm you board a plane in New York that is scheduled to arrive in London at 7 am local time (when it’s 2 am in New York).  You’re traveling east, which means you need to advance your internal clock toward London time.  To do that, avoid any kind of light during the flight because the exposure will delay your body clock rather than advance it.  An obvious way to accomplish this is to wear sunglasses in the plane.

Typically, when travellers arrive in London at 7 am they attempt to get on the new time zone right away which is exactly the wrong thing to do because your internal clock is still set to New York time, and trying to adjust too quickly will only exhaust you.  You need to do is to ease yourself into the new time zone by consciously manipulating your exposure to light.  So keep those sunglasses on.

If you are able to sleep during the flight, even better.

Now, if you were to take a morning flight instead of an evening flight to London from New York, you would want to expose yourself to light throughout the flight (no need for sunglasses), as well as when you land in London, soaking up as much sun as possible all day.

3. Survive the first night by eating right and preparing the hotel room for a good night’s sleep.

Whatever you do on your first day, remember that the things capable of upsetting your body when you’re at home can be even more troublesome when traveling.   Some of us know that alcohol may help when it comes to falling asleep but that it can interrupt later stages of sleep, which would only exacerbate jetlag.  Large or spicy meals should also be avoided in the evening at your destination because the body is not as efficient at metabolizing food at that time.

At night (and for each night of your London trip) about an hour or so before bed, keep the lights in your room as dim as possible.  Close blinds or curtains and cover any light from a clock, computer, television, even your smartphone, because light can make you more alert and reset your internal clock to the wrong time, making you think the day has begun.

9 Tips for Overcoming Jet Lag

For the traveller who doesn’t want to miss a minute of sightseeing, jetlag is a nuisance.  However, you don’t have to waste part of your trip readjusting if you are willing to eat and drink according to a formula devised by Dr. Charles F. Ehret.  He found that you can greatly reduce or even eliminate entirely the symptoms of jetlag if you use his diet to reset your internal clock in advance of your departure.

‘Tens of thousands’ of people have tried his anti jetlag diet and nearly all have found it to be highly effective.  The plan combines a number of synchronizers of body rhythms, in a way that he says enables the body to make abrupt shifts in its natural cycles.  This includes caffeine and related chemicals, size and contents of meals, alcohol, light, exercise and social factors.

The number of time zones you plan to cross determines how many days in advance of your departure you should follow his scheme.  The system, which basically alternates feast and fast and ends with a high protein breakfast, goes like this:

  1. Determine when breakfast time will be at your destination.
  2. Starting four days before the day you are to arrive, drink no coffee, tea, caffeinated soft drinks or alcohol except between 3 and 5 pm.  Eat all meals at the regular times.
  3. The first day is a feast day: Eat a hearty high-protein breakfast and lunch (eggs, cheese, meats, high-protein cereal, cooked dried beans or peas) and a high carbohydrate dinner (pasta, pancakes, potatoes, rice, bread, sweet dessert) that contains no high-protein food.
  4. On day two, follow a modified fast: Eat light meals of salads, thin soups, fruits and juices.  Keep carbohydrates, fats and calories to a minimum.
  5. On day three, repeat the feast day.
  6. On day four (departure day), repeat the fast day.  If you are traveling eastward, consume caffeinated beverages (if you drink them at all) only between the hours of 6 and 11 pm.  If you are traveling westward, consume caffeinated drinks only in the morning.  Drink no alcoholic beverages on the plane.
  7. Break your ”fast” by having a high-protein breakfast at the predetermined breakfast time in your destination city. Dr. Ehret suggests ordering a special meal before your departure or asking the flight attendant to save your dinner or, failing that, bring along an appropriate breakfast.  Before breakfast, sleep if you can, but no later than that preset time.  After breakfast, stay awake and active.  Leave your reading light on.  You might try some isometric exercises in the aisle or lavatory or in your seat.  Eat the rest of your meals that day according to mealtimes at your destination.  If possible, eat with other people (don’t call room service and eat alone in your room) since social interaction stimulates wakefulness.

The high-protein meals, exercises and light are intended to stimulate the body’s active cycle.  The high-carbohydrate meals stimulate sleep.  The modified fasts help to deplete the liver’s store of glycogen (a main muscle fuel) and prepare the body’s clock for resetting.  Caffeine and its chemical relatives can cause your biological rhythms to shift forward or backward, depending on the time they are consumed.   And voila!

So that appears to be all the information laid out for me now and all that’s left is for me to work out exactly which of these tips I’m going to try and use to make sure my time abroad is spent how I want it to be spent – enjoying my travels – and not wandering around like a zombie!

Who I Am and How this Shapes the Way I Travel

I am a planner.  I always have been and to some extent, probably always will be.  And I’m not the only one – from one friend who lists of each days activity to its matching outfit, coordinating jewellery, shoes and hairstyle to another who has mastered the art of the ‘practice pack’.  Everyone travels differently.

I like to know what’s going on and what there is to see and do in my proposed destination.  Some tours and events only run on certain days and if you don’t plan ahead you can miss something awesome, like a 2am fire walking ceremony for the Indian celebration of Timiti or tickets to watch Motley Crue minus the crushing metalhead crowds in Singapore.  I spend a lot of time trying to look for something a bit different that gives me a glimpse into why the country and its people are they way they are.

Until you start digging, all you find are the usual array of tours and sightseeing that EVERYBODY ELSE sees!  If you persevere though, you can find some really great alternative tours that help you get a different view of the city you are visiting.  It all depends on what you like and what you think a holiday should consist of, but for me – if I can do it at home, there’s no point leaving home (ie. lying by the pool all day sounds incredibly boring to me).

I spend hours reading and scouring the internet, but I generally look at a couple of sites in particular when trying to find something to do.  Time Out is always a good website to have a look at, and is available for a lot of locations around the world – Singapore and KL’s versions are particularly good.  Time Out will tell you what exhibitions, gigs, restaurants, shops, hotels and other events to check out.

The BBC’s news website has a travel section, which often highlights interesting items of news and great photos of world events and festivals, such as Kumbh Melah, Holi and La Tomatina.

Then I also look for a tourism website – because they do generally give you a calendar of events of what’s on – and a local news site, just to see what makes the place tick.

I do a budget – I don’t always stick to it, but it gives me a rough guide of what to save.   It helps me to book all the ‘locked in’ things on my itinerary, flights, accommodation, transfers, tours etc first, then I know that whatever I can save from that point until my trip departure date, is what I have left to spend.  Usually never enough.

Unless I’m going to Japan or Singapore, I usually always book a transfer to and from the airport.  It’s the easiest and safest way to get from the airport to your hotel (and back).  And let’s face it, the last thing you want after a long flight is to deal with hagglers for a taxi at an airport or worse, get ripped off.  Of course, I am a cautious traveller as well, and for me, sometimes peace of mind doesn’t have a price.

Choosing hotels, I do a location search first just to check out who I can stalk and where all the shops are, then narrow it down by price and Trip Advisor reviews.  Some people are really, really fussy.  At the end of the day, you just want somewhere safe and clean to stay – you don’t need a palace.  Get an overall opinion of the feedback – I generally ignore any comments about how small the room is – look at the area in proximity to the stuff you want to see (you don’t want to spend all your time travelling back and forth across the city), look at the traveller photos and then make your decision.  I have seen countless reviews on hotels in red light areas, from people who seem to be absolutely disgusted with their stay in a questionable neighbourhood – but I’ve stayed in a few of them, and have had no problems whatsoever – you are obviously going to see a different side of town, but if you keep to yourself, you shouldn’t have any problems.  Having said that, I don’t like the thought of staying in hostels (though my wallet wishes I did!).  And when I’m travelling by myself, I do like to go for something a bit quirky.  And of course, some countries are more expensive for a solo traveller than others – Japan is great, the US not so much!

Then I look out for the deal and book.  Sometimes you can get a better deal direct through the hotel website, other times you get a great deal on Agoda or Expedia.  Luck of the draw.  Some hotels have chain discounts if you stay in them across a country or around the world.  Japan has some awsome Best Western Hotels, so I got myself a card a have used it to book a Best Western hotel in San Francisco.  Hopefully the points will help me towards some free accommodation for a return trip to Japan in the future.  Some hotels also give you mileage points on your frequent flyer cards for your stay (ie. I can use my stay at the Traders Hotel in Kuala Lumpur to earn miles on my Singapore Airlines Krisflyer card).  Because I intend to do a fair bit of travelling over the next few years, I’m trying to set myself up with a few different point earning options so that I can get some freebies or upgrades down the track.  My Velocity Rewards card has already landed me a free flight from New York to Seattle!

I also do a bit of research to find out what restaurants, cafes and convenience stores are located around my hotel area.  It doesn’t mean I only eat at those, I just like to know where they are.  It makes a difference when you arrive late, or have to leave early in the morning, and if you are cautious about going out by yourself for dinner at night.  And let’s face it, it’s a dream of mine to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe in every available city in the world, so I need to know where they are.

This all probably seems a bit over the top at times, but my aim at the end of the day is to create for myself the best possible experience I can have in a limited time space and being organised helps me to achieve that.  It’s not to say that I’m inflexible or that I’ll throw a hissy fit if something doesn’t go as planned, but as a single girl travelling, I just think it can’t hurt to be a bit prepared.