“It is good to have
an end to journey toward,
but it is the journey
that matters in the end.”
Ursula K. LeGuin
Ursula K. LeGuin
It’s too easy to wait until we get really unwell to do something about how well we live:
A great reminder – um, if only I could remember where I read it (apologies to the author).
After a couple of brief train trips, at speed, in Italy and France, I thought we’d lost our minds deciding to (mostly) train it around Switzerland, Portugal and Spain for 10 weeks.
But after an ‘initiation of fire’ in Tokyo’s efficient maze of subways and metro lines, we were well-prepared for our train adventures in Europe. And now we are huge fans…
Here’s five great reasons to take the train – and five tips on doing it stress-free. All aboard!
On past Europe adventures, we’ve always hired a car and hit the road. Taking a train around Europe just seemed like too much trouble. Who wants to be tied to train schedules and stuck with booking seats, dragging baggage off and on trains – and up and down stairs?
In fact, it’s super convenient and relaxing. This was confirmed for us when we hired a car to drive from Oporto to Estoril – when the hire car people didn’t set up our GPS to recognise the streets of Portugal (read how to fix that problem here). Give me the train anytime…
The best thing about train travel is you can both sit back and enjoy the ride. There’s always a restaurant car if you’re peckish, and the toilets are usually clean (especially on Swiss trains).
There’s no traffic, tolls or fuel stops and you arrive at your destination ready for the next adventure.
It seems expensive to go by train, especially because you pay for your ticket, then you can pay up to €25 (for domestic travel) to reserve your seat for each trip.
But compared to the cost of hiring a car, insurance, fuel, tolls and a GPS – and finding your way around when the GPS has a hissy fit or the fuse blows – then train travel is a pretty good deal.
We had the ‘select pass’ which lets you travel in 2-4 bordering countries of your choice, for a specific number of ‘travel days’. Read all about it here.
Knowing you have to be mobile and flexible is a great incentive for lightening your load. So you pack what you’d like to take, and then you take half of it out. There is nothing better than streamlining your stuff (this from me, your classic over-packer) and feeling an incredible lightness of being.
At first, train travel can be daunting. You’re in unfamiliar territory, you don’t speak the language and, when you arrive at your destination, you have to find your hotel. It helps to have a decent street map (see tips below) and to leave the station at the right exit!
But after you’ve been doing it a few times, you really get into the swing of it – and even enjoy the process.
Ignorance may be bliss, but not when you jump on the train, find a great seat – and discover it belongs to someone else. You end up standing uncomfortably near the doors, wondering what to do next…
While the guards were friendly and helpful to us two crazy Aussies, we made sure to reserve seats for our next trip each time we arrived at a destination. You can reserve your Eurail seats up to three months in advance, which is my ‘note to self’ for next time!
Before the train leaves the station, always complete the travel details on your Euro-pass, with your name, passport number and (most importantly) the date you’re travelling.
Yes, the guards will check it… carefully. No, never change a date or the information. We saw someone caught out and it wasn’t pretty. It would be hard to swift talk these guards (who have heard it all) when you speak the language, let alone when you don’t. As the hapless couple found to their peril (and a dent in their travel funds).
The biggest thing I noticed on our train travels was the ridiculous amount of luggage people had with them. I swear some of them were moving house.
The size and weight of their bags made every entry and exit a drama – and I was so glad we travelled light.
It meant we were flexible and mobile – and our backs didn’t cave in with all the lifting.
It’s surprising how little you need – especially in Europe where the women have turned flats and loafers into high fashion.
If you want to spot the touristes femmes, look for women hobbling across the cobblestones in killer heels, while the locals are striding out in their stylish flats looking supremely elegant.
After peering at the black & white maps our travel agent printed off for us, we decided there are two types of maps you’ll need:
We only got caught out once in Portugal, when we weren’t prepared for a huge line-up to get onto the train. We missed it and had to wait almost two hours for the next train. Cheap lesson – and we weren’t caught out again. It’s not unusual to see people rushing to their carriage, dragging massive bags, but that’s more like hell than a holiday!
There will always be train-travel skeptics, but we absolutely loved the whole adventure. So don’t be put off – but do travel light and be prepared. Then sit back and enjoy the ride…
Some travellers come to Japan just to catch a glimpse of the iconic Mt Fuji – but many leave disappointed.
A local tells us she only reveals herself one or two days of every week so, to the Japanese, Mt Fuji is a beautiful and shy Shinto goddess.
With a typhoon sitting off the coast this week, she’s staying comfortably shrouded in clouds and misty rain. But there is plenty to see in Hakone…
Down in the valley, Lake Ashinoko is clear and sunny.
We walk around this volcanic crater lake, following part of the old Tokaido road from the Hakone Checkpoint to the Hakone Shrine.
While the Tokaido is now mostly modern highways, this stone-paved section is much like it was back in the Edo-era (1603 – 1867).
Before this heavily-policed road opened up the route between Tokyo and Kyoto, travel was extremely dangerous and roads like this were only used by samurai and bandits.
Today we’re alone on the road, until we reach one of Japan’s four great gates (torii) that marks the entrance to the Shinto Hakone Shrine.
There are three main religions in Japan – Shinto (神道), Buddhism and Christianity.
Most Japanese follow both Shinto and Buddhism traditions – getting married and consecrating their children in the Shinto way but holding traditional Buddhist funerals.
With Shinto gods protecting them during their life, and the path of enlightenment leading them into the next one, I think they’ve got a pretty workable approach to religion…
Enough about religion. One of the things we love most about Japan is the food. They do it so well, with such ceremony, it makes eating an experience in itself.
Add a sensational view and there’s that religious moment again…
Hakone (箱根) is in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, not far from Tokyo. It’s famous for hot springs, the stunning landscape and views of Mt Fuji (when she chooses to show herself).
We’re staying in a traditional hotel with a spa, called an onsen. Onsens are a big favourite in Japan. They’re super healthy and revitalising, but negotiating the bathing etiquette and searing water temperatures can be quite daunting.
And there’s the sticking point. Tattoos are associated with the underworld here in Japan, and flashing them in bathhouses is a definite no-no.
So we took our tatts back for a traditional onsen experience in the privacy of our room. And we (mostly) stuck to the rules:
Wait, I’m with the Energiser Bunny (EB).
Translation: get dressed, put on your walking shoes and head off…
Can’t you just feel the serenity?
From the old-fashioned manners to modern madness, from the understated to the wild and whacky, Tokyo is a pulsing city with a calm energy that will take you by surprise.
Arriving in Tokyo, we are immediately thrust out of our comfort zone. For a start, getting our bearings is almost impossible – and then there’s the language barrier.
Losing yourself in a strange city is all part of the adventure – and quite complicated in a city like this. But we soon discover the locals are always willing to show you the way – even if you don’t ask (looking confused is a dead giveaway, apparently).
Japanese people are helpful, respectful and always up for a laugh, so overcoming the language barrier wasn’t as hard as we thought either.
It just takes some ‘interpretive dance’ and Pictionary-style illustration skills (like explaining you’d like a fish fillet if possible, rather than a whole fish!). Being able to laugh at yourself is also quite useful!
The most astonishing thing for me is how everyone negotiates the city streets with absolute calm. It’s like a school of fish out of sync, but still not banging into each other.
We’ve been walking the city streets for two days now (yes constantly, thanks EB!) and we haven’t even been lightly bumped by anyone yet.
In the wide brown land we call home, you can’t walk down a 2m-wide footpath without being shoulder-charged (and I have the path rage to prove it!).
Meanwhile in Omoide Yokocho, also known as piss alley (now they tell me), the alleyways are lined with steamy eateries full of locals. We join them on stools at the bar, drawn in by the delicious sizzling aromas…
After taste-testing local favourites like yakisoba (Japanese fried noodles), raw fish and something on skewers, we pass a steak bar where all the patrons are standing at benches, wearing bibs and hoeing into succulent cuts.
What’s not to love about Tokyo?
You can get just about anything out of a vending machine here – even beer and spirits. Back home, the whole machine would be tossed in the back of a ute and disappear in a blink.
By 8 o’clock (which feels like midnight) we’re back in our 3.5m x 1.5m room drinking a nice Bordeaux red bought from the local 7-eleven.
Those comfort zones we stay in? Definitely over-rated, I reckon.
Have you ever eaten an eyeball? Me either. Dissecting one in biology class was enough. But I’ve done a bit of writing and read a lot of travel articles and blogs, so I thought I’d share some tips I’ve picked up along the way…
Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start your travel story. Which makes it too easy to get caught up in an (endless) checklist of your day, from the time you open your eyes to the moment you fall into bed exhausted after visiting 24 churches and museums.
Avoid starting with ‘I woke up in the morning’, because that’s kind-of obvious, right? Unless you woke up in your hotel surrounded by water after torrential rains caused flash flooding.
And we don’t need to know that you ate breakfast before setting off – unless you’re in a Mongolian yurt eating pickled sheep eyeballs.
Remember as a kid telling a story? It went from ‘and then and then and then’ to the climax – while your parents developed the art of sleeping with their eyes open.
That was then… Now your online readers are gone in the click of a mouse, so you need to hook them into your story. Here’s a clue: start with the action.
Tell me you took a long haul flight from Australia, had a six hour stopover in Beijing, did some duty free shopping, and – I’m gone.
Start with those eyeballs and you’ve got me hooked. Then I want to know what you’re doing there, how you got there, and what you’re getting up to next.
How do you find the action? First write the whole blog, then do some serious editing, pulling the action up-front, and re-crafting the piece so it all works.
Finally, wrap it all up by bringing the focus (or action) back into your ending. You started eating eyeballs, now you’re ending with another meal around a fire. Maybe you spent the day with nomadic shepherds and shared a meal with them, serenaded by the quiet bleats of sleepy sheep – no pickled eyeballs in sight.
Tell me what it’s like to be there, and tell it with all your senses. Take me there through the smells, tastes, colour and movement around you – and don’t skip over the anxiety, the fear, the loathing, because those are what make you human.
It’s also what brings your story to life. Can’t you just feel that eyeball pop between your teeth and the warm jelly stuff inside squirting down your throat? But you can’t spit out this delicacy and offend your hosts, so you anxiously try not to gag while you work up the courage to swallow it. And you’re a vegetarian.
Applying the KISS principle (keep it simple for success) to writing is my life work, I’m sure. As a writer and editor, reading ‘brain dumps’ just feels like work. Hard work.
And that’s the writer’s job, not the reader’s. And yes, it is definitely harder to write ‘short’ and keep it simple. It requires editing (read: slash and burn) and losing some parts you’re attached to because they don’t advance your story.
Earlier, I had a bit about walking out of Indira Gandhi International Airport into a wet wall of heat and being enveloped in the heavy rancid odour of rotting vegetation or something festy I didn’t want to think about. Gone. Well, it’s here, but you get my point. I stuck with the eyeballs, as you do.
Most of all, tell me a story. Talk to the locals, use interpretive dance if you have to. Find the funny side or the dark side.
Take me beyond the guide book, down the back alleys and side streets, away from the tick-off tourist sites and photo opportunities, and into your adventure.
Because travel is about living at the edge of your comfort zone. So go there, and tell me what it’s really like. You may inspire me to follow you…
We’re planning a house move at the moment, so it’s time to dust off more of those travel memories…until we can hit the road again (and not in a removalist van).
October 2008: We’ve just emerged from the clouds. Trekking the Annapurnas was both surreal and an absolute blast – and the pace was surprisingly civilized (an added bonus).
Of course, EB was hopping from one foot to the other the whole time.
We had a great group…all young-at-heart and, thank god, not out to prove they were super star trekkers.
As always, EB was the social lubricant – possibly because the rest of us were actually gasping for breath most of the time.
At one of the villages, we found some open space and challenged ‘the boys’ (sherpas and guides) to a game of cricket… with a bit of wood and a ball made of something wrapped in plastic bags and held together with string!
The only problem was that a ‘six’ required a jungle safari and sharp eyes to retrieve the ball.
On the last night, we rocked the (tea) house ’til the wee hours with our sherpas. It’s amazing what fun you can have with one drum, some dodgy whisky, and a bunch of crazy people.
One bloke in our group said ‘Louise wants to take three of you boys home for her daughters’…which guaranteed I was never short of dancing partners. We had people from the village turning up to see what was going on and joining the party…
Nepal’s scenery is spectacular, the people are delightful, and there’s something magical about sharing rickety rope-strung bridges with a passing parade of donkeys laden with goods. Oh and the food? Delicious and mostly vegetarian. What more can I say?
The contrast with Bangkok, our stopover on the way to Nepal, was another story. A huge, humid, smelly city were a tuk tuk ride is a journey to anywhere – except where you want to go.
…mostly to tailors who ‘make you suit for cheap-cheap price’ or out-of-the-way boat sheds where a business associate (aka cousin) was ready and waiting to take you on a special charter boat with bonus snake park visit.
The adventure continued at the night markets where we had fun bargaining with the locals. Lots of laughs. The market was in the red light district, and every few steps I got asked to go to a ping pong show (note to self: dress like a girl next time).
They take pole dancing to whole new levels in Bangkok… the bars are lined with poles (every couple of feet) with a very gorgeous and very bored girl (or lady-boy) on each, gyrating half-heartedly for the slavering tourists.
Apart from the markets, Bangkok’s shopping centres are mega-huge. One Aussie shopping centre would fit on one floor, and there are seven!
Back in Nepal, and we’re hanging out in Pokara while some lovely people wash our clothes. I could get used to this!
Tonight is our end-of-trip party (another one). Tomorrow we head into the jungle to look for four-legged wild life in Chitwan, and then we’re off to India…
When EB and I were trekking in Nepal in 2008, our group hit some tough spots. But our sherpas would just smile and say ‘bistaarai, bistaarai‘ – go slowly and carefully.
That’s not bad advice as we all charge headlong into another year, armed with resolutions that usually involve losing x kilograms, spending more time with people we love, and doing more meaningful stuff with our lives (more travel springs to mind).
Bistaarai, bistaarai… go slowly, or you’ll be dumping resolutions as quickly as you made them.
Look at the losing weight scenario. It might have taken me ten years to gain those (undisclosed!) extra kilos, but I want them off in ten weeks. Talk about setting myself up for being a loser – and not in the intended way.
Long term weight loss takes time…and so does changing those stressed-out habits. It’s also pretty impossible to fit in time to hang out with the people you love, get more exercise, chill out, and get away more often, without making some space in your diary.
It’s a lot easier when you remember who controls your diary (um, you do).
Here’s some quick tips to help you slow down to an easy pace, work smarter – and have more time to keep those easy-to-make, easy-to-break New Year’s Resolutions.
Whisper it, shout it, but say it over and over: Bistaarai, bistaarai. Slowly, slowly…
First published on my Dragonfly Ink blog in January 2009
Food may be a national pastime in Singapore, but you can’t eat all day. Sometimes you have to lie down.
…or visit some of the fascinating places in and around the city.
First stop, the 150-year old Singapore Botanic Gardens. These are simply amazing – and a tribute to the passion and hard work of an army of horticulturalists and gardeners.
Open from five in the morning until midnight, the Gardens are clearly a favourite for locals and tourists alike. And with Singapore’s rules and regulations, they’re a safe place to be (see Getting into the Singapore swing).
Spread over 63 hectares, it’s a great place for a run (I wasn’t about to test that theory…) and huge enough to find a peaceful corner to hang out in or do a few tai chi moves.
And even if you’re not into plant-gazing, it’s impossible not to be blown away by the stunning tropical orchids, bromeliads, ferns and other horticultural wonders.
So if you’re ever in Singapore, make this number one on your list. But go in good walking shoes and light clothing, otherwise you’ll be like so many other tourists we saw melting in their heels and woollies (the cranked-up air conditioning in those hotels can be deceiving).
Sticking with the gardens theme, the recently-opened Gardens by the Bay is another incredible display of Singapore’s vision and determination.
Unlike the botanic gardens built around original stands of vegetation, these gardens were created from the ground up… and up.
The grove of ‘supertrees’ look extra-terrestrial and, when the vines, ferns, elkhorns and staghorns cover those enormous frames, it will be beyond surreal.
Then there’s the Flower Dome, Cloud Garden, Dragonfly Lake (I do love those dragonflies, said the dragonfly), and more. Just incredible…
But enough about plants, let’s talk about Singapore’s nightlife. Wildlife, not wild-life.
Dusk is my favourite time of the day… so dusk at the zoo? Who could resist.
Night Safari Singapore is the world’s first nocturnal zoo. It’s an open-plan zoo in a rainforest setting, and the animals get heaps of room to move in environments that emulate their natural habitat.
You’re taken on a guided tram ride through eight different geographical regions and there are also walking trails where you can get (relatively) up-close and personal with the animals.
Being eyeballed by a hyena almost my size, across a ditch I’m sure it was contemplating leaping, set the nerves in my neck fizzing.
There are tigers and lions and leopards all up and about – but no, I had to have some weird connection to a hyena. Great.
With no flash allowed and my night photography on the dodgy side, the only pic we came away with was a cheesy shot in the tram before we set off. And that’s staying in the dark, where it belongs.
Then the sun came up and the humidity maxed-out again…
In Little India I fell face-first into vegetarian culinary delights (and got enveloped in bling). At the ArtScience Museum, we absorbed the photography and Andy Warhol exhibitions. We even took the lift up 50-something floors to Marina Bay Sands’ viewing platform.
So at the end of four days in Singapore, I had to come back home for a rest. Which, it turned out, was wishful thinking. But that’s another story…