At the moment, I’m a place called Manang on the Annapurna Circuit in the Nepalese Himalayas. I hiked for six days to get here; it takes about 15-20 days to do the complete Circuit which involves hiking over the Thorung La Pass which at 5400 metres, it perhaps the world’s highest. It has snowed pretty heavily over the past couple of days which means that the pass is impassable for the next few days, which doesn’t really matter because Manang is pretty damn special. Manang is at 3500 metres and is in a valley surrounded by 5000-7000 metre mountains. The Annapurna Circuit is a cultural trek, which makes it pretty easy as there are guest houses in Nepalese villages each night of the trek. And I have been enjoying the apple crumble! Many of the trekkers I have met treat the Circuit as an endurance test, but I think I will take my time and explore the mountains a little more as I have all the time in the world.
I have spent the past week in Rishikesh in the state of Uttrakhand in Northern India. It is relaxed and chilled here, a backpacker backwater of the 1960s hippy trail. The town is surrounded by mountains on either side with the clear and fast-running Ganges slithering between it connected by two wobbly suspension bridges.
The dominant theme here is Yoga and spiritually along with the convenient interpretation of these pursuits by glassy-eyed, naval gazing Westerners young enough to know better. Still, when in Rome, do as the locals, so I have been indulging in some of the local Pancake Therapy. I have found the pancakes on this side of the Ganges much better than the ones on the other side. And as a seeker of truth, I know there are many more pancakes to sample, and I have yet to find my pancake Guru. If the pancake is made at sunrise, dipped in the Ganges, stretched and chanted at, and mixed with special lassie, then it is well on the way to reaching the zenith of pancake nirvana.
Yesterday (after a pancake) I did my first ever Yoga class with a charming young glassy-eyed yoga instructor. I went to the 6 PM class, but there was no one else there, it was just me and the slinky, smiley, skinny, instructor. Admittedly as a yoga nubile, I did find it a challenging, especially the breathing bit, and I almost passed out. I had spent the previous day trying to book the Kafka express train online and as a consequence had smoked two packets of cheap Indian cigarettes. But after an hour or so of hard stretching, breathing, peddling and chanting I emerged enlightened by the experience, so much so that I walked the 3 Kilometers downstream to the second suspension bridge to seek another pancake.
Budget Travel: London
Independent travel (or backpacking) is undertaken by many thousands of people each year, and for the majority of travelers in Europe and elsewhere, London will possibly be included as an exciting stop-off at some stage (I’ll be there soon!). However, many independent travelers dread the possibility that London will drain your wallet due to how expensive the city can be, especially if you are unaware of the transport options.
London’s transportation system is vast and extremely efficient, but some modes of transport do come at a hefty cost. The famous London cabs, for instance, are renowned for being very expensive, especially if you get one into Central London from one of the airports (see the Daily Mail). So, what are the budget transport options when arriving in London?
Use the underground tube!
If you are arriving at London’s main airport, Heathrow, then a straightforward and inexpensive way to get into town is via the underground tube. Trains go directly to Kings Cross and other stations in Central London and operate throughout the day and night. Tickets are affordable and day tickets allow unlimited travel around London (and here is a map if the underground)
Get the bus.
Buses are the least expensive form of transport and operate from the airports. They are also a good way to see the London scenery, including the infamous traffic jams (be warned!).
You can hire a car at the airport
Car hire may be seen as a luxury for independent travel, but is possibly the most cost-effective way to travel across the UK. At Gatwick Airport, at both the north and south terminals, there are valets that will conveniently pick hire cars up for you (see: Parking4Less ).
I have been away for almost one month and after a few cluttered days in Kolkata, I am now in one of the most intense and colourful cities anywhere in the world; Varanasi on the Ganges. This is my fifth trip to India and my third time in Varanasi. I first came here circa 1993, and I am now retracing many of the steps I took during that initial life-altering introduction to India (including reading the same hippy-trail books!)
During my first trip to Varanasi, I recall running around in the morning desperately searching for a decent coffee that wasn’t instant Nescafe brown Ganges puke. And, yes, I did the same thing yesterday. There are nice looking espresso machines here, but many of the cafe owners just use them to heat the milk or water and then place a spoon of instant coffee in the concoction (thus I have been getting killer headaches from coffee withdrawal, a uniquely Melbourne problem perhaps).
Some of my greener travel companions have asked how India changed since I was first here some 20 years ago, but I’m not sure. It depends on what century you reference (as I ride to the train on a peddle driven rickshaw, book the train ticket on a shiny new Samsung Tablet, and have an intense conversation with a young Bengali on whether the Queen stole the Star of India diamond, whilst watching thousands of muddy people throw idols of the god of learning and knowledge in the Ganges in a religious fervor).
And the past three nights I have been sitting on the pissy-smelling concrete rooftop of the hotel where I have been staying with a charming young architect from Poland calls Tomesz. We can see the misty Ganges with wooden boats beneath us, chanting and chimes as the soundtrack and the menacing sound of the Varanasi roads as the base . We have been drinking exactly three cans of beer between us which we got from a secretive establishment about 1 kilometer walk away called “chilled beer”. I am sort of glad that the Indian masses (and I mean masses) haven’t discovered alcohol because it must be easier to land a jumbo at Heathrow than control a vehicle on a Varanasi road.
The perspectives gained in India are always hard to communicate. Especially to those from countries such as my own that can never be anything other than Modern.
Today I am on a train to Khajuraho to see some temple porn!
There are (hopefully) number of good reasons to take an extended sabbatical or ‘gap year’, perhaps not just once, but during key junctures in your life. Gap years are usually about the process of coming of age, of getting out there and experiencing the world before starting University or a career. They help individuals develop self-sufficiency, independence, decision-making and maturity. Plus you get to see a good chunk of the world which is probably good for everyone as it helps build undertakings between individuals and cultures.
But there are also good arguments for taking ‘gap years’ at other periods of your life. A gap year or ‘sabbatical’ can be a means of ‘book-ending` certain chapters of your life; of taking some time to develop new perspectives on what has passed and what is yet to come. There is a skill that is often lost in the day-to-day demands of mouse-wheel Modernity and this is the ability to contextualise and navigate oneself within the great mountains and valleys of life. Context appears to be the great deficit of the emerging information economy and unfortunately, reductiveness, superficiality and banality are moving at frightening speed. A year isn’t such a long time in the great scheme of things, and hopefully through doing something different for a year, new insights, choices, creativity, and abilities will emerge. At least this is what I tell myself!
1. Time is your most valuable asset
There is a parochialism that has enveloped day-to-day life, but this parochialism isn’t geographical, but temporal. It is the ”parochialism of the present”. Millions of people are now trapped in the loud and raucous NOW, primarily driven by the hysterical and trivial demands of cheap communication devices (I am making an incursion here). This NOW can stretch for many years, until one day you may realise that every day looks the same as the past day and the view may from the hill up the road was possibly better. In other words, significance is contextual and layered and the Modern world has many iron cages of insignificance (and some of them digital).
A sabbatical is time to do new things, to clearly re-think your goals and aspirations, and these don’t just come to you in the form of a lazy text message, you have to look for them.
2. Do a project that you have always wanted to do
Independent long-term travel is one option for a sabbatical year, but there are, of course, many others (as travel may not be for everyone). There is volunteer or paid work in various parts of the world where one can learn new skills and develop new perspectives. But it is important to plan sometime in advance and be flexible enough to let the plan or project develop along the way. The project might be writing a book, learning a sport, or building a tree-house. Depending on what you plan to do, taking a sabbatical year is a fairly demanding endeavor as it may take up to a year to organise (and tie-up the mouse wheel), a year to actually do it, and then a year to readjust when you come back (and I haven’t figured out the last bit yet, but maybe this is the whole point!).
There are options available to take time of work (unpaid leave) and return to the same job, but I not sure this is a good idea (unless of course, you own your own business or work for your self in some capacity in which you have to ability to take your hard-earned perspectives and use them to shape you immediate surroundings). It may be a better idea to start something new when you return based on what you have learned.
3. Travel now, it is better than later
Travel is all about engaging the ‘big picture” and given my understanding of the past century, I don’t think that the present geo-political and economic arrangements will last. Even if you didn’t study it at university or school, history didn’t end. History isn’t politically correct, it’s not about shopping, it isn’t black and white, and it is bigger than you. The world is fairly peaceful and we are in a golden age of air travel and now has never been a better time to see the world (as it may not be possible in 10-20 years time). When I first started travelling in the early 1990s, huge parts of the world were inaccessible due to divergent political ideologies, economic expense, or lack of infrastructure for travelers (like hotels and roads!). The 21st Century may not be that different to the 20th, at least in terms of the great ebbs and flows of humanity occasional fracturing into misunderstanding and conflict. There are already signs of this occurring and history has never unraveled in a polite and orderly manner. The most important ingredient for independent travel is peace and hopefully through building bridges with other cultures, you aid in this process in a small but meaningful way.
Accordingly, perhaps the most satisfying thing about traveling is meeting new people, some of whom may become life-long friends. Sure, you may not see them that often, but still, there is a wonderful travel-narrative there with a few sparks to light it. It is the connections between people that is the most important.
An everyday discipline that I have had for the past 27 years (ouch) is keeping a daily ”travel diary”. I started this arduous task way-back in 1988 during Australia’s bi-centenary year. This first diary was a Christmas gift from my sister, embellished with pictures of koalas, kangaroos, gum-nuts, and celebratory bi-centenary images of Governor Phillip triumphantly raising flags at Sydney Cove. Through my first diary, I started describing nights out on the booze, difficult friendships, and grand aspirations of seeing the world.
And the next year I had embarked on a voyage to conquer new lands. This was my first time out of Australia and like many Australians of the period, I thought it would be the only time!
When I triumphantly returned from a year in Europe and the US, I enrolled in a humanities degree at La Trobe University in Melbourne. And this is when all the trouble began. The diaries became another journey; the rich world of the humanities is both an internal and external journey.
Although I have never re-read my journals, I do recall that during my early years of education, they were rambling monsters with all sorts of treatises and manifestos, jaded letters, and tortured-observations, stapled to every other page. What a splendid time that was!
Then came are all those years of travel; of long summers in Asia, of study and road trips in the US, of good times in Kreuzberg in Berlin and late night drunken visits to chicken shops in Dalston in London. There was Hanoi, Mumbai and Ko Phan Ghan, Kathmandu, Vientiane, Hampi, Harlem, and Hoi Ann. And all those damn universities; UNSW, RMIT, Melbourne, King’s, Virginia, VU, and UCSC, each with their idiosyncratic style and ways to engage (or not engage) with the world.
But over the past few years, the diaries have become pedestrian (take this as a sign), concerning setting practical goals and writing about day-to-day administrative shite. And they started to take up a lot of room, in more ways than one, thus, it is time to move towards a minimalist future.
I see the process of diary writing as similar to physical work-out, it is a workout for the soul. And just as it is possible to notice those who have never been to a gym (sorry about that), you may also notice those who have never kept a diary nor traveled in their youth. They may look good on the outside but have few healthy perspectives developed from the inside.
Anyhow, after much deliberation, I decided to burn the f**kers; to set the diaries on fire and destroy that journey; to start at ”year zero” just like New Zealand with a new flag! Now I can be historically pure and arrive anywhere from nowhere like a contextually-challenging snake on a plane (there are no snakes in New Zealand).
But being a historian (and a digital one) I just could not do it (well, not completely). So I painstakingly digitised all the diaries before I burnt them (it took many weeks, and now my arm hurts). They were scanned and photographed (according to one of the many standards) and are now safely encrypted and stored on a cloud drive protected by an inactive account manager. So, if I don’t reply to the ‘are you still alive’ email sent by this particular service every six months, they will never see the light of day. This makes me very happy!
So, I won’t keep a daily diary any longer (at least, not in this form). That work is now done, and the fruits of that labour will forever carry me on my travels. Burn!
There are many travel blogs with informative posts about packing for long periods of travel (for one year or more). Many of the blog posts convey a hard-earned wisdom however the authors often fail to mention that they are getting paid to promote the products and destinations that they are describing. So always read travel blogs critically and I am not going to mention any product names here.
This is what I have decided to take on my one-year journey in 2015 (and I do hope it helps in your travel planning as it has with mine). There are a few basic things I have left off this list because I hardly know you and don’t want you to know everything!
All this weighs about 10KGS. If you wear some of it, you can probably get it down to 7kgs, which is the cabin allowance for most airlines.
Take a small, good-quality backpack (and I mean small, imagine what you will need and then half it). I have always traveled light, with packs of about 35 litres. If your pack is 40 litres or less, it means that it doesn’t have to be checked in at airports, and it is easy to take on packed buses and trains, etc. If you plan to travel day-to-day over lots of distance, you will appreciate a small, good quality pack. I bought a locally made Australian travel-pack that opens like a suitcase and will fit everything I need for a year. Also, if you need a day-pack just buy a small fold-up one that you can stuff in your backpack. And, packing cubes are a good idea to organise your clothes.
- 1, 40 Litre backpack (travel pack)
- 1 fold-up day pack
- 2 packing cubes
- A cable lock to lock your bag to posts when you are on trains or buses (ie. when you go for a piss).
- A small lock for the zipper (if you think this is necessary)
The footwear you take largely depends on what you are planning to do on your travels. I am planning to do a lot of hiking, so I bought some reasonably presentable, low-rise leather hiking shoes. Hiking shoes (and trainers and runners etc.) are as ugly as hell, so look for ones that won’t make you appear like an Aussie Bogan. If you have presentable shoes, you will be able to wear them in clubs and restaurants, etc. And if you aren’t planning on doing a lot of hiking, just take some good quality walking shoes (and leave the smelly runners at home)! Also, take a pair of quality sandals. If the climate is hot where you are going, your will probably be wearing sandals most of the time. So two pairs of shoes maximum: a pair of sandals and a pair of leather walking or hiking boots. Also, two pairs of bamboo hiking socks should do the trick (or lightweight merino). And buy socks along the way when you need to.
- 1 Sandals
- 1 low-rise leather hiking boots (or walking boots)
- 2 pairs bamboo hiking socks
Clothes: Top layer (warn feather down jacket + rain jacket)
Again, this depends on where you are going. I am planning to go trekking in both the Himalayas and Patagonia and will be visiting Europe in April, so it is important to have a good warm jacket as well as a waterproof rain jacket. Regarding warmth, a light-weight down puffer jacket will do the trick (at around 500 grams). Again these things are pretty damn ugly and make you look like a bouncer at a shite night-club, but there are a few brands around that are slightly presentable (so are also versatile). The great advantage of these jackets is that they are super warm, and they come with a stuff-sack that takes up little room in your pack (but please buy a black one without a shite sports logo on the front). And remember, puffer jackets aren’t waterproof so you will need a good waterproof jacket as well (this is a must as it rains and you will otherwise get cold and wet).
- 1 down puffer jacket
- 1 waterproof lightweight rain jacket (buy a good one, don’t skimp here, and they only weigh about 400 grams).
Clothes: Mid-layer (jumper)
Quality travel clothes tend to be very expensive, often for no apparent reason. There are lots of ugly fleeces around in all sorts of hideous colours, made out of bizarre plastic materials, that can cost anything up to $300. It may be better to buy a good quality jumper from a fashion store than getting ‘fleeced’ at a travel store (but admittedly some fleeces are OK, and again buy a black or dark coloured one without sports branding and one that doesn’t weigh much).
- 1 warm jumper or fleece (zip up is good)
Clothes: Base layer (shirts)
The shirts you take aren’t as important as the other stuff you take, as you can always buy good quality shirts while you are on the road. A couple of everyday shirts and a couple of dress shirts should be enough for the majority of social situations. linen shirts are great in hot climates, and Merino tee shirts are suitable for trekking in cooler climates. You can always buy cheaper tee shirts on the way.
- 2 linen dress/casual shirts
- 1 Marino tee shirt
- 1 synthetic base-layer
Clothes: (shorts and trousers)
You will need at least two pairs of trousers and two pairs of shorts for an extended, independent journey. Don’t take jeans as they are too heavy and please, no ugly cotton tan cargo shorts! Walking and hiking trousers and shorts are perfect. They are light, robust, don’t wrinkle, and have ‘secret’ pockets. They aren’t particular warn, but you can always take a pair of lightweight Marino long-johns for hiking.
- 2 pairs of travel pants
- 2 pairs of lightweight travel shorts
- 1 pair Marino long-johns
There are a whole bunch of technology options for the 21st Century independent traveler. But this needs to be considered in a discerning and ‘minimalist’ way. The context of your travels is the World and the people in it, and only a fool would spend all their time staring at a 6-inch mobile screen while they are traveling (like they do at home). Still, there are some practical advantages of packing some good tech. Don’t take a lap-top as they are heavy, unnecessary, distracting and (hopefully) they will get stolen. Most things you need to do while traveling can be done with a smartphone or tablet (booking hotels, flights, email, etc.). And regarding reading, don’t take printed books (or read your eBooks on your back-lit tablet), but take an eBook reader (some have free 3G that works pretty much anywhere in the world, and they don’t need to be charged for up to 6 weeks). This is what I recommend.
- A 8 inch tablet with Wi Fi (you won’t need a 3G/4G Connection as you can pair it with a smartphone…maybe someone elses!)
- A stylus pen (that doubles as a real pen)
- A Bluetooth keyboard (in its own case that can hold the tablet as well)
- A 64 Gigabyte duo flash-drive (‘duo’ means it can plug into the tablet as well as a normal computer). Pack some movies on it for those long bus or plane rides.
- A smartphone (this is optional if you take the tablet ; a cheap phone will do)
- A universal power plug adapter (very important)
- 1 plug and cord that will charge the phone, the tablet, and the eBook reader
- 1 eBook reader (in a case)
- 1 pair of headphones (some have a microphone built in that may be good for Skype calls)
- Travel Business cards (with your blog address and contact details for the wonderful people you meet along the way).
- 1 very small torch
- 1 medium size lock for hotel doors or lockers
- 1 SteriPen UV water purifier and drinking flask (yes, you will need to drink water!)
A lot of minimalist travelers don’t take cameras. I think it is a big mistake not to take a camera as you will regret it one day (I have photos from all the countries visited). If you take a smart-phone, you can always take photos using that I suppose (pretty crap ones), but please don’t ever take photos with your tablet (this should be illegal). I will take a mid-range DSLR with two versatile lenses, a micro-tripod, and a subtle camera bag (don’t take a regular camera bag as they are bulky, ugly and scream tourist!)
- 1 mid-range DLSR Camera
- 1, 18-55mm lens
- 1, 55-250mm lens
- 1 itsy bitsy tripod
- A 32 Gigabyte micro SD drive (with an adapter so it can be used as a normal SD drive). This is how I get photos off a camera to the tablet).
Getting the software right is something a 21st Century independent traveler must now do. Including installing apps on your tablet for music, blogging, books, and hotel reservations. I plan to blog weekly on my travels. I definitely won’t be using social software as I want to get away from that world to I explore richer ones. This is what I suggest regarding necessary software and apps (if you aren’t blogging you could probably just use a phone rather than take a table).
- Create a blog on a blogging platform like WordPress (I have been blogging for more than ten years now). Make sure that there are ways that people can subscribe to your blog (via email etc.).
- Download the WordPress app so that you can write blog posts off-line.
- Connect your blog to your social feeds so that when you post something, it is automatically fed into your networks.
- Download an app for booking hotels
- You will need an email app (but create a new email address if your old one gets lots of distracting crap).
- Also, subscription to services such as Scribd means that you will have access to travel books, such as the entire Lonely Planet catalogue, for a small monthly fee on one app. Books can be downloaded and read offline. I am not sure that this is a complete replacement for a printed travel book, but I am willing to give it a shot.
- Spotify (or similar). Subscribe to this so that you can store the tracks on your device and listen to them offline when you are on long bus journeys.
- You will need a VOIP (Skype) app for making phone calls. There are lots of options here, but you could put some money in your account (for calling mobile and landlines) and purchase a phone number (for $60 per year). Then your friends and family can call you directly on this number (from any phone), and if you don’t answer (highly likely), you will receive an email notification. Then you can call them back at your convenience. There is no easy solution to traveling with a phone cheaply, and I would recommend leaving your SIM at home. Buy a local SIM if you need to but VOIP (Skype) and the occasional email should be fine for most long-term independent traveling.
- SKYPE Wi-Fi app. With this app, you can log into many public WI-Fi hotspots at airports, etc. (for a fee).
- Currency exchange app (these work offline too)
- Banking app (you can figure this out)
- Travel Card app (travel debit-cards have become increasingly popular, and they can store 10 or so currencies). You will need this app to manage your card.
- Note taking software (for writing). I am going to use Microsoft OneNote and Google Docs
- Install Cloud Drives (such as Google Drive, Dropbox and OneDrive). When you manage to find a place with a decent internet collection, drop your photos and other important files into your cloud drives (do this regularly). Have backup copies of your insurance contacts, passport, vaccination, travel documents, and other important documents in there as well.
- A app for booking flights (I use Skyscanner as it is simply a search engine as opposed to a travel agent)
- And you will love this. This app from Melbourne allows you to explore how to get from place to place by any means of transport (Rio2Rome). It is good for working out routes, costs, and modes of transport.
- Also, here is a list of Android apps worth considering..
Toiletries, health, first aid.
I won’t say too much about toiletries; you can figure this out for yourself, and you can buy this stuff when you get to your destination (but a toilet bag that you can hang in the shower is useful). Also, consider a micro-fibre towel that is light weight and drys quickly (but do feel like crap). And take a basic first-aid kit with bandages and a few common tablets, but this does depends on where you are traveling to (you may need to take an operating table).