The Travel Bug – Phil’s story

Imagine the romance. I was just a kid. The alarm goes off at 4am, we catch the first train out of Derby, we take breakfast at St Pancras, pick up the boat train at Victoria, it’s still early when we hit Dover harbour and board the cross channel ferry to Calais; it’s a steam engine from Calais until Amiens where the electric line takes over and whisks us to Paris. Five hours or so to go see the Eiffel Tower and other stuff, the Metro to Austerlitz, and then, just awesome, the overnight train all the way to the Spanish border. I peep through the curtain as France races by. Bells at crossings, glimpses of stations – “Perpignan, Perpignan” , he calls, ringing his bell to wake people up. Early morning mist in the fields. Port Bou is the border station, deep in the mountains. Off the train, through customs, armed guards, the first time this child has ever seen a real gun. I hold Mum’s hand because I have to. I’m scared. Out of the Pyrenees, out into baking sun. This is the Spain of the early 1960s, nobody speaks English, nothing is familiar. I don’t know this food, they speak a different language. The sun burns my skin. It shines every day, all day. I am 6 years old.

So like Michaela, I was lucky too. We were a Derby family; Derby is and was a railway town, my Dad got subsidised rail travel, and so we had foreign holidays long before it was widespread, we saw the Costa Brava when nobody spoke English and before tourism had arrived. And so, as a kid, 2 of my 52 weeks a year were very special. My love of travel was born; moreover, the romance of rail travel has never left me: just standing on the platform of a station still sets me alive. Watching a great city disappear, or appear, still has that tingle factor, so many years later. I will never lose it. I love it.

And then life took over. I brought up a family, I built a business. Life took over, the travel bug went dormant. I almost forgot it all. After a while I did some city breaks, rekindled some of those desires, and somewhere inside something was stirring. The travel bug was dormant but alive, just waiting to be fed.

And then I met Michaela.

She reawakened everything, she saw, found and resurrected everything that was good about me, including my travel bug. She cast off all of the shields which life had me hiding behind, she brought the real me back into the world. And life began again.

And off we went, to discover the world, to find every culture, to discover, to experience, to unearth, to learn. Just seven years on, we’ve visited 29 countries, had a million experiences, eaten new foods, found different cultures, made new friends, met great people. You’re never too old. Really, you’re not. Your spirit doesn’t age, no matter what.

Michaela had done some backpacking, I hadn’t. My spirit was still alive enough to want to try it. And, like the train to Spain in the 60s, my magic moment arrived, one day in Malta, when every last sense was awakened, every dream and ambition given relevance. Backpacks on, we boarded the ferry to Gozo across the tarmac; trucks, cars, buses, motor bikes, people, animals… and us, climbing on board amidst the chaos, T-shirts and shorts, backpacks, hiking boots, no idea where we were sleeping tonight, simply walking on to the boat as every type of vehicle ascended the ramp alongside us. And I knew this was for me. This is proper, this is real. This is where I want to be. I suddenly felt alive, I suddenly felt complete, possibly more alive than I had ever felt in my life. And I knew this is where I want to be.

Life had begun again.

The Travel Bug – Michaela’s story

I knew I wanted to travel, way back when I was 16. I had already had holidays in the Med since I was 5 but one holiday in 1981 and one event in particular on that holiday told me right there and then that one day I wanted to see the world and its people…….

And so it was one cold February day that I took a flight from Birmingham to Monastir, Tunisia with my Mum and Nan, us 3 girls alone for what was initially a sun holiday which turned into a discovery of a culture little known to us. Of course we did the tourist thing, the pool, the beach, a trip here and there but it was soon evident that this country was more than that. The Sahara desert, troglodytes, lush oases, date palms, donkeys, camels, such biblical scenes which until now I had only seen in old films. Ladies dressed head to toe in black, faces covered, their men dressed in full length robes a few paces ahead of them. Battered up old buses with goats and chickens amongst the passengers. The mosques with the muezzin making the call to prayer from the minaret, a spine-tingling sound which I love to this day. The colourful souks, the spices, the bartering, a new sight, a new sound around every corner.

We were lucky enough to be invited into a family home for a meal in the village of Sahaline, what an experience that was, a brief insight into their life and customs. We were welcomed into their home through a wooden door which led from the dusty street into a bedroom, a large iron bed where apparently “all” of the children slept. Here cologne was tipped onto our hands for us to wipe through our hair before 2 glassfuls of Tunisian tea, thick red, strong and incredibly sweet, brewed in a clay pot over an open flame, not particularly nice but accepted so as not to offend. The second glassful with peanuts floating on top no easier to drink (these people just wouldn’t understand the nut allergies of the Western world, although I don’t think they existed back then!). Medicine taken, a brief tour of the house, a central courtyard, with rooms off each side, dark, basic, few furnishings, apart from one room, the parents bedroom. Fabrics and throws in rich colours, gold and reds, heavy wooden furniture, so opulent and in stark contrast to the rest of this modest house. We sat cross legged on the floor of the courtyard, a huge metal bowl was put down before us, a mound of cous cous, some sort of meat loaf, hot chilli sauce, we were all expected to eat from the same bowl, the food was delicious! We were also expected to drink from the same water jug, try telling these people that we shouldn’t drink their water!! We chatted, our Arabic non-existent but their second language being French made conversation possible. We learnt to belly dance with the daughter whilst Grandma sat in the corner of the courtyard doing the washing in a metal bowl which looked just like the one we had eaten from!! Such an amazing experience but although contributory, yet still this wasn’t that single event that sparked my desire to travel…

Sahaline had not adapted to mass tourism at that time, maybe things are different now, but then it was real Tunisia with local people going about their daily lives, watching this was fascinating. Even their way of shopping was alien to us, tiny shops which just looked like a hole in the wall displayed their produce on the dusty street but it was the butchers which caught my attention. An open window, a slab of marble in front, a dead sheep hanging above it, limp & lifeless, throat cut and dripping its blood onto the dusty street. Flies buzzing around the wound, the butcher, grubby and wielding a knife, a basket of live chickens at his feet. A man in robes rode up on a bike and pointed at the chickens. The butcher grabbed one, causing a commotion, clucking and feathers flying, no escape for this one as in one swift movement its neck was wrung, wrapped in newspaper and handed to the man on the bike. I stared in amazement at what I had just seen, a far cry from a trip to the butchers in the sanitised suburbs of Birmingham. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, the man placed the chicken under his arm and rode off, the chicken still twitching forcing the man to flap his arm as if he was trying to fly. This scene has stayed with me for the last 37 years, it still makes me smile as I know that at that moment, the wanderlust within me was awakened.

Sweet and sour

Hey everyone, you know this feeling. Being back in your own home is fantastic: your own bed, your own shower, your … well… home. But being back at work sucks. Being too far from the next trip sucks. So let’s start getting excited. What’s next? Padstow early October, a weekend in Geneva early November, then a 3-week Mexico trip in December. Easy to get excited about Mexico…

Malaysia & Singapore in summary

Having spent time in four very different locations it’s not really appropriate to give blanket opinions, but these notes might help you if this region is on your list…

People

We’ll start with people. Malays are an extremely polite, well mannered race who seem universally kind and helpful. As we said in the blog, it’s hard to imagine them ever losing their temper; they are calm and content people with impeccable manners, the worst you will encounter is a quiet one. They ooze respect. Singaporeans are similar, though as city dwellers they are, understandably, slightly less engaging, but they have an extra, alluring side. Strict rules abound in Singapore, and it’s hard not to be pleasantly amused by their obedient nature; the metro system is full of messages about polite behaviour and respectful conduct, and everyone obeys. The city is impeccably clean; nobody drops litter, and smokers stand and smoke in designated areas rather than walk along smoking; dropping butts is an offence. It all makes it a rather nice place to be. Our advice is to make sure you are doubly aware of all of the rules, fines for infringement are heavy. The politeness extends to shopkeepers and even stallholders, this is definitely not the hard sell of Morocco or India.

Dress codes

A shawl over the shoulders and covered knees are enough in most temples, though some of the more important ones need a headscarf for the ladies. Away from the temples, shorts are OK everywhere and female vest tops don’t raise eyebrows or cause offence. Even when we stopped at a remote Hindu temple in travelling outfits, we were welcomed into the outer areas without hesitation. Remember though, the people here exude respect and it’s obviously important that visitors follow suit. Be at your most polite.

Transport

Malaysia’s roads are of good quality, even across country, and signposting is accurate and easy to follow. One way car hires though are a little scarce due to the limited number of accepted drop off points. Public transport in both KL and Singapore is first class: clean, extensive, cheap and efficient and as easy to use as anywhere we’ve been. In both cities, buy a prepaid card for the best value, then top up as necessary, it’s far better than joining the long queues at ticket booths. Singapore’s streets are badly congested and progress can be slow, particularly on rainy days. Our advice is to use the metro as much as you can and keep taxi use to a minimum. Walking in Singapore is OK, though humid, KL is generally not so pedestrian friendly.

Money

Throughout Malaysia, all of the essentials were cheap: food, soft drinks, fresh juices, tea and coffee, petrol, and car hire, is all considerably cheaper than at home. All of our driving was done on £12 worth of petrol and not on any occasion anywhere did a meal cost over £10 for the two of us, often less. Beer costs more than dinner. Some items such as guided walks and ferry crossings are slightly disproportionate though you still wouldn’t call them expensive. For Singapore, start allowing a multiplier for everything, especially alcohol and anything around the more touristy areas like the Quays. £22 for 2 beers is steep anywhere. Malaysia, even KL, is cheap; Singapore isn’t. ATMs have English text options in both countries and are very straightforward; and a good tip is to change Malaysian money into Singapore dollars at or just before the border crossing, rates are reasonable and you don’t get ripped off (we used a money change bureau at Johor Baru bus station). You will need cash outside of the main conurbations; cards are though expected, let alone accepted, in the cities.

Food

Now this is a tricky one, again due to our disparate locations. Malay food was initially delicious; KL, and Kampung Baru in particular, offers fabulous and authentic street food at great value. The devil seems to be in the detail; a coconut based curry will be an aftertaste rather than dominant, spice combinations are both delicate and exciting at the same time. The dishes can be extremely spicy but remain tasty; we’re not talking the Vindaloo type of curry which destroys your taste buds, these are dishes which get better as you eat them, not worse. Malays love moist chewy textures, like rice pounded with coconut milk until a lovely chewy consistency, then quickly dipped in deep fry to give a crispy coating. Bloody lovely!

However, there then came a big “but”. As we moved to the more remote areas of Taman Negara and Tioman, everything became hugely more repetitive, it’s basically a noodle dish or a rice dish three times a day, with omelettes and pancakes pretty much the only viable alternatives. No matter what you choose, the ingredients stay the same and only the sauce changes, and some of those changes are rather subtle. We were therefore very grateful for the fresh fish on Tioman, as even the outstandingly good dishes like sambal are, at the end of the day, still a rice dish. It’s fair to say we grew a bit sick of “rice or noodles” by the end of it, and the unbelievable choices presented in Singapore came as a welcome relief. But do remember the good comments at the start of this paragraph; it’s good food, it’s just that you can have too much of a good thing, too often.

Alcohol

We’ve covered this in a previous post. Best advice is, make Singapore your last call, you can make up for lost time there!

Health

As ever, we took risks, and this time, unusually, we both had a bout of tummy rot. But then, we were in remote places and ate with the locals as much as we could; we took iced drinks in those remote areas, which we all know is risky, so we probably only have ourselves to blame for that one. The humidity is extreme, hence the concession for iced drinks, and, on Tioman in particular, the biting sand flies were rife. We recommend immodium, very lightweight clothing and the most powerful insect repellent you can find!

And finally

It’s been brilliant, and probably the most varied trip we’ve ever done in terms of content. The two city breaks were great, with Singapore an outstanding destination which needs a lot longer than the two days we gave it. We both want to return. The jungle experience was magnificent, quite different from anywhere else we’ve been; and Tioman truly is a paradise island and a beautiful location. It rained a bit too much, but hey. Make sure you avoid the monsoon season, the timing of which differs across the peninsula.

Final word? We’re going home too soon.