Clock is ticking now, 23 days to go till the next adventure and the next new country. Or two. Kuala Lumpur with its stunning sights and extraordinary street food is followed by the World’s oldest tropical rain forest as we head to Taman Negara to see the natural beauty and take the forest canopy walk through the treetops. Then on to the East coast, winding up at Mersing and the ferry over to paradise, or rather Tioman Island; and finally the last leg down to Singapore to lap up another culture. 23 days till we hit the skies…
It might be different when we eventually retire and have endless time available, but for holidays of limited duration you do need to be organised to make the most of freedom. You have to start out with a plan, even if you don’t stick to it. Of course, some things such as flights, ferries etc, are fixed and need to be planned in advance, but for the rest of the trip, you need some sensible planning to sort out distances, timescales and the like. With no plan, you’d end up wandering aimlessly and miss out on the best places.
Freedom comes from changing that plan. Somewhere turns out to be not as good as you expected, so you move on. You get enchanted half way to your next destination, so you stop off for a bit. En route from Ioannina to Volos, we detoured to Papigko in the Vikos Gorge, and fell immediately in love with that gorgeous place. Park the car, find a room, enjoy. You can only do that if you’ve had the courage to go backpacking.
But you need to plan your trip properly beforehand, work out your distances, get a proper handle on timescales, book the fixtures like ferries etc, research transport options. Create a list of places you want to see, things you want to do, the route you want to follow. If hiring a car, you only need to pre-book with a big operator if you want a one-way hire; if you’re hiring for odd days, or returning the car to your start point, then a local operator will be much, much cheaper than the likes of Hertz or Avis. Don’t overlook the joy of public transport though, using trains, trams and buses quickly makes you feel like a local and quickly gives you opportunities to meet people and seek that advice on where to eat, where to sleep, etc.
Don’t plan to do too much, leave yourself space; you don’t want to come home feeling like you never settled anywhere and were constantly on the move. And so the moral is: plan well, before you go. And then enjoy not sticking to the plan. Seize every moment.
We get some funny responses when we tell people what we do on holiday. I’d be a rich man if I had a fiver for every time someone says, “Oh I’d absolutely love to do that, but the wife would never have it”. Yeah right. You see, yes we’re a certain age: closing in on retirement I suppose you could say, but the freedom of backpacking is for us among the best thrills that life has to offer. There’s more on this on our “about” page, but our aims are to find the soul of places, find the real character of a place and its people, joining them in their own habitat, knowing all the time that virtually every penny we spend, certainly as much as we possibly can, goes directly into the local economy and not to international operators.
We got together as a couple in 2011; married in 2013, and set off to find new experiences, seize every moment, say yes now, get out of our comfort zone. Michaela had some backpacker experience, Greek islands only, I had none. It helped that one of us knew the drill, though we quickly found that arrival on an island by ferry is only an introduction, as on those occasions you can guarantee to be met by room hawkers, but it’s a different experience pulling into a one horse town in deepest Albania where no one has a word of English and start looking for a room. Never mind unwinding, once you’ve entered a town, hunted around for a bed, tackled the first challenges of your holiday, you have put significant barriers between yourself and your ordinary life back at home. You’ve unwound without trying.
Basically, if you don’t get met by hawkers, go find a map, get your bearings. Find where the bars are concentrated. Where there’s bars there’s rooms. If nothing is obvious, go in a bar or cafe and ask; chances are they’ll have a “cousin” who has “beautiful rooms”. Be relaxed: something always turns up, it always works out. You might need to be resourceful, you might even need to be clever, but it all helps to put ordinary life behind you. Once in, you’ll talk to your new landlord, find out where the locals eat, where they drink, tell them you want to experience their country properly. We are yet to go anywhere where this doesn’t work. People are good, you know. They want to help you, they want you to enjoy their country. Tell them you want to experience the real country and they will give you every assistance. People enjoy doing it, they like that you want to. People are good.
But let’s not pretend every night is a luxury seafront apartment for 25 euros. It does happen, but don’t expect it everywhere, it’s not like that. Our phrase is, travel like you’ve been there before. What does that mean, you ask. Well, at home, you have a friend or relative whose house is not too tidy, you go in your pub and you no longer notice the less than perfect deco, you no longer see the bins you walk past to get to the shops. So familiarity breeds comfortable acceptance, and that’s what we mean. Travel like you’ve been there before, don’t be sniffy about imperfection, accept that it’s part of where you are and love the good things. Don’t let one single bad thing cloud your opinion of a place; you can always find a better room if you like a place, if you have to.
You know, those fabulous rooms at 25 euros do exist too, you’ll find them. And then get out and do the real business and get amongst the people; eat their food, drink their beers, learn their culture, learn their history, understand what makes them what they are. You’ll find good people, not least the one inside yourself.
We’ve missed a trip this year; unfortunately a death in the close family meant we had to cancel a much anticipated June trip to Matera and Puglia in Italy, meaning it’s now 4 months since La Palma, and still another 5 weeks till Malaysia. So the foodie substitute for travelling and discovering new foods was World Cup dinners – we brought the world to our home instead of the other way round, researching and creating meals from one of the countries competing in the World Cup most nights of the tournament. It meant we created dishes we would never otherwise have considered, from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Serbia, Iran, Egypt, with a bit of Spain and Portugal thrown in. And the odd bottle of Bordeaux to honour the eventual winners. Was great fun and seriously enhanced our repertoire. Any excuse for new food experiences!
This is a rarity amongst English summers; many weeks now of reliably hot, dry weather, and a long time since we in the south saw any significant rain. So we rounded off our New Forest weekend with a few more strolls on the dry heathland, and a wander through pine forests, saw three species of deer, squirrels, and untold numbers of the famous New Forest ponies. Bird wise, without even trying too hard we listed tree creeper, spotted flycatcher, snipe, linnet and mistle thrush amongst sightings, the weekend regularly punctuated with those lazy moments, laying with the hot sun on our faces, the air around us full of the buzz and hum of summer insects as we took on another layer of tan.
The Queen’s Head at Burley and The Railway Hotel at Ringwood rounded off the pub count, together with return visits to The Fish Inn and White Hart, the latter was where we stayed. The Fish is a great place for a riverside pint, The Railway has great beers and a sun trap garden, and you can’t help but be impressed by the business acumen of The Inn On The Furlong.
Travelling the World is wonderful, but decent English weekends with good beers are great to fit in between World trips.
The hot summer continues, fabulous for our weekend in Ringwood. A 6-mile walk around the outskirts and along the banks of the River Avon on Saturday, then all day Sunday wandering around the open heathland expanses of the forest, based around the picturesque village of Burley. Pub wise Saturday we ticked off The Inn On The Furlong, The Original White Hart, The Fish Inn and The Star, where we ate from the Thai menu. The chef, we’re told, regularly gets summoned back to Thailand to cook for the Thai royal family; never mind whether it’s true or not, it’s a good story. Better than the food actually, which is ok but nothing special. The beer is good, Ringwood charming, the weather fantastic.
Because we love it. Food is a huge part of travel – is there anything better than finding where the locals eat, finding the bars the locals go to, losing yourself in the atmosphere? No, there isn’t. Apart from maybe just being there, where the locals speak no English, we don’t speak their lingo, the menu has no translation. Fantastic. The beer and wine sending you to sleep as the waves crash ashore, waking to the call of the muezzin, fetching breakfast from the bakers. Watching that guy strum his guitar, feeling the tingle as their music washes over you and fills your soul, wishing you had the talent to join in. Finding another bar, even better than the first one. Wondering when the phrase “comfort zone” had a meaning.
We’re not kids. But we’re backpackers. We don’t have to do it, but we do. Arrive with no bed, find those bars, find those places, love this life. You don’t have to be brave, you just have to want to learn. You don’t have to seek comfort, you just have to know what you want. And travel like you’ve been there before.
Hungry? Yeah. For food, people, beer, wine, experience, something new. You can’t be too old, you can only be too afraid.