On a train to nowhere
September 2002 - Returning
home from work the other evening I found myself in the all too
familiar position of standing on an overcrowded 20.07 from Kings
Cross, St. Pancreas to St. Neots. I had over an hour's journey
ahead of me and so my thoughts began to wander. I noticed a tired-looking
elderly man opposite me, he must have been in his late sixties,
and he was wearing exactly the same suit and tie as me. I may
have ridden this same train with him several times but not noticed
him until just now. I was just wondering how many years he must
have spent commuting when the realisation came to me that this
spent old-man could easily be me in 30 years time.
With this in mind I calculated that given I commute around 3
hours a day, for 5 days a week and 47 weeks a year, I actually
spend around 30 continuous days and nights a year travelling on
trains. Ten days of these alone are on the London Underground!
Slightly traumatised I pursued this line of thought still further.
I started work after university at age 23, and if I continue working
until I retire at 65, with 5 weeks holiday a year, I worked out
that I am trading 38 years of my productive life to my boss (3
years of which I'll be spending on the train) in return for only
4 years to myself. Better make those four count then!
Now don't misunderstand me. I enjoy working and the people I
work with are terrific, some I hope will be friends for life.
It's just that there are times you see your future standing far
too clearly in front of you and can't help thinking stop this
train, I want to get off.
Decision to leave
October 2002 - This month
I turned 30. I also decided to begin planning my exit from the
UK, and to keep a record of my progress for an online travel journal.
Why now? The last time I went travelling around the world was
four years ago but I can only hold off the wanderlust for so long
with two-week long holidays. To go where? The last multi-continent
journey I made took me predominantly through South America, where
I took in Brazil, Argentina and Columbia, followed by a time in
Japan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Of all these places Malaysia impressed
me most and I promised myself I would one day return to South-East
Asia. Also, for the reasons I explain below I have wanted to visit
Australia and New Zealand. Since I can combine all these places
easily with a round the world ticket, and take in the South Pacific
as well, the choice was not difficult.
The series of events that led to my decision to go travelling
this time around was by no means straightforward and sort of just
happened as a result of my inability to stop myself.
During the last year I have been looking into the possibility
of moving and starting a business in Spain. I know the countly
and its customs well enough and I have a number of family and
friends there that I could call upon. The only problem was that
starting a profitable business is tough enough under the best
of circumstances and in Spain there will be the added complexity
of learning the Spanish Language. I have been learning Spanish
in England, however it is going to take a year living in Spain
to really get to grips with the language. This will probably rule
out any more exotic holidays for a good few years and so there
is only one thing for it. Take one more year out travelling now
while I still can.
Researching the Tickets
November 2002 - I put aside
the whole of today to search for cheap flight tickets at several
flight discount stores in London. A brief search on the Internet
had provided me with four candidates; STA Travel, Travelbag, Bridge
the World and Trailfinders, which I visited in that order.
All were fairly helpful and each gave me much the same advice.
I learned that for the route I was planning to take I had two
options; I could buy a Round The World (RTW) ticket which included
a large number of airlines, including Quantas, and thus more routes,
or else I could buy a ticket called 'The Great Escapade' which
used fewer airlines, fewer routes but was a lot cheaper. This
ticket uses Virgin Airlines, Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines,
and a few smaller players, like the Asian carrier Silk Air.
The main downside to the Great Escapade ticket seemed to be that
because is doesn't include Quantas, the possible entry and exit
routes for Australia are limited to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne,
or Perth, and it doesn't include internal flights once inside
Australia. I decided I could live with this, especially since,
as Katy at STA tipped me, internal flights in Oz have come down
in price a lot since Virgin started its Australian budget airline
And so I reserved my first flights to Singapore and Malaysia
for the 23rd January 2003, and agreed with Katy that I would return
at a later date with a clearer idea of my route and dates so we
could book and pay for the flights. I left the office with a distinct
feeling that my plans were stepping closer to reality.
Thirty Days Notice
9 December 2002 - When you
remove all the minor details there are only three steps anyone
needs to do to take time out travelling; one, quit your job, two,
buy your tickets, and three, get on the plane. Today I did the
first of these, I handed in my notice at work today, so no turning
back now! My last day at work will be Friday 17 January, which
will give me under a week to tie up any loose ends before I fly
out. I might be cutting it a bit short but I should just manage
to get everything done in time. I shall be sad to say goodbye
to many of the people I have worked with over the last three years,
but I hope to keep in touch.
My next step will be to buy the tickets…
10 December 2002 - Recently
I have discovered that the first question people ask me when I
tell them that I'm trading a secure job and my own home for a
reckless year of travelling, is why?
Its very tempting to come up with some kind of profound or politically
correct reason, like I want to meet a countries people and understand
their culture, or to witness parts of the world before their ecology
is entirely destroyed. However, the truth is that the closest
many travellers get to a countries culture is an organised dance
put on for tourists, and any beautiful landscape that doesn't
now have t-shirt stands built on it are so full of holidaymakers
that you feel like you are in package-holiday hell. Even if you
get off the beaten track to somewhere you think is unspoilt, there
will always be some veteran backpacker around to tell you how
its not like how it used to be when he visited it ten years ago.
So why do I want to travel? I suppose I've not yet become a complete
cynic and I still believe there are a lot of amazing places
worth visiting, and I will certainly try to find them. Even if I might not the first
person to visit these places, it will still be the first time that I would have visited them.
Furthermore, the journey alone is an important part of the experience, since
the self-confidence and self-awareness one gets from such a journey
lasts long after returning.
Will somone please explain to me why I can go ten years without
ever seeing a dentist or having any problems with my teeth, but
just before I go travelling (and will therefore no longer have
access to dental care) suddenly I start getting tooth ache and
I need three fillings?
I had my first dental appointment in a decade this month and
needed lots of expensive work doing. The problem is that ever
since I had my fillings several other teeth have worryingly begun
to ache. Hopefully it will pass. I must remember to check my travel
insurance covers dental care.
December 14 - Rather than
max out my credit card on travel guidebooks, I visited the library
and maxed out my library card limit instead. The plan is to read
them and commit to memory the most useful parts rather than buy
a bunch of books and drag them around the world.
The only downside to this idea is that many of the books are
five or more years old and apart from three that are Lonely Planet
and Rough Guides, they are mostly aimed at the holidaymaker, not
the backpacker, and so are only of limited use.
However, there's other better strategies for getting more up-to-date
information when I'm travelling without having to break my back
carrying a dozen guides; browse the latest guides in airport shopping
areas, use the internet, and of course my favourite, asking to
look at fellow travellers books. The latter also works as a good
ice-breaker and will also provide me with my main source of up-to-date
information; swapping tips with fellow travellers who are travelling
in the opposite direction.
Of course, any route planning I do at this stage is doomed from
the moment I land because the best laid plans conceived from the
comfort of ones home have the habit of being abandoned when on
the road. Which is, after all, as it should be.
December 16 - One of the best
things about planning a long journey is being able to get tips
from people who have just returned from travelling themselves,
or else live in one of the places you are visiting. By chance
this week I was able to do both since Jeremy, a family friend
who normally lives in Spain but knows the South Pacific Islands
well, and Tom, a friend of a friend who lives in Singapore, were
both visiting London.
Two of my work mates were having a night out to celebrate leaving
(one to travel Indochina with his wife and another to start an
MBA in Paris), so I invited Jeremy over to join us. We had a good
chat and he was able to point out a few good islands worth visiting
off of Figi, and Tahiti, but the best tip was of a Fijian diving
club resort which two of his friends own. When I'm down that way
I must remember to look them up (cheers Jeremy). Soon after that
the Champaign began to flow and if Jeremy had any other golden
tips then they were lost on me at that point I'm afraid.
A few days later I met in a small gathering with Tom, together
with two other friends Bola (who introduced me to Tom in the first
place), and a friendly guy from Ireland called John, I think.
Tom was great and we hit it off straight away. He works for Reuters
and has lived in Singapore for several years, and so was able
to give me real flavour of what to expect. We agreed to meet up
when I get out there so I expect we'll hear more of Tom later.
I really wanted to stay longer and talk more but I had to leave
to catch the last fast train home. Reluctantly I dragged myself
away, rode the Tube and sprinted all the way to St Pancreas station,
only to find the train stationary but the doors locked shut. Like
an idiot I pushed the door button when at the same moment the
train slowly began its departure dead on time. The following train
was scheduled for an hour later but ended up half an hour late.
I spent the time waiting on the station platform, imagining how
wonderful it will be to never have to take the West Anglia Great
Northern train ever again.
Buying the Tickets
December 17 - I couldn't leave
it any later than today, or else I would have lost my reservation
to leave on the 23rd January. And so I am now the slightly poorer owner of a book
of non-refundable round-the-world flight tickets. Only one step
left, the one onto the plane.
11 January 2003 - I have recently
come upon a neat solution to the common problem of whether to
take a optical film camera, a digital camera, a digital video
camera or all three. At first this may not seem a big problem,
and for most two week holidays its not, but if you are going to
be away for several months and think you may want to email or
upload pictures to a website you are left in a bit of a bind.
A 35mm optical camera has the advantage that it is easy to get
more film and so take as many pictures as you like. But it has
the disadvantage that you cannot email or upload images while
on the road.
A digital camera seems like a great idea as you can see the images
your taking straight away and can be uploaded of emailed from
a net café. However, it has two, often overlooked, disadvantages.
First, the images are stored on a memory card which only hold
a few high resolution pictures and then needs to be emptied before
it can be used again, but who wants to spend a day in a net cafe
uploading 128mb? Second, not all net cafes will alow you to connect
your camera to their PCs which means you can either buy several
memory cards at around £60 a pop, or lose the pictures you've
taken to free up space for new ones.
There is the possibility of using a digital video camera since
not only can they take reasonable quality movies but they can
take stills too (albeit low-resolution). However, carrying such
expensive kit with you is going to make you a target every time
you use take it out of your bag.
So what we want is something that combines the best features
of the above; is cheap and simple to take pictures, has no storage
limit, stores in a digital format, and is cheap enough that no-one
is going to steal it. The answer? Use an optical camera but when
developing pay that little extra to get the pictures put onto
a CD. Most photographic developers offer this these days, and
it has the added advantage that CDs are lighter and smaller to
send home than prints.
17 January 2003 - I left work
today and I won't be back for a year. I like the sound of that.
With only five days till my flight the final countdown has begun
and the list of outstanding things I need to do before I go is
steadily shrinking. My backpack is already packed and I have arranged
my finances and other responsiblities so that they will manage
themeselves in my absence. The small-talk is over and the good-byes
have been said.
I seems remarkable that it was only three months ago that I concieved
of this journey. I suppose that, originally, the reason I chose
to go was because I have always wanted to travel around the world,
simply "because its there". But during my planning I've realised
there's a more fundamental reason I need to do this.
The last three years I have found myself getting into a rut at
work, and I have reached a crossroads in my career. I've found
myself questioning if there's any future in me working for a boss
or even living in England. What I really need is some time to
come to some descisions.
Maybe I'll find some answers on the road.