A look back at going around the world

When is a bus not a bus?

Posted on October 26, 2012

Here’s a tip from the Global Traveller’s Almanac of the Bloody Obvious: if you tell a taxi driver where you want to go but he turns around and asks if you want to go somewhere that sounds only a little bit like where you actually want to go, chances are, they are not the same place.


For the next leg of our trip to the pampas town of San Antonio de Areco, we needed to catch an early morning bus. But first we had to get a taxi to the bus station. Twenty minutes after being picked up in San Telmo and driving across downtown Buenos Aires, which, like us, seemed peaceful and not yet fully awake in the early morning light, we were dropped off at our destination. After compensating for the cheapness of the taxi fare by over-tipping the driver, we took our bags and ambled toward the entrance, relaxed and grateful that we had left early and that, for once, we did not have to rush. After admiring the delicate steel and glass façade we traipsed across the cobble stoned floor of the lobby, taking in the charming, multi-coloured pendant lamps and check-in desks that looked to have come straight from the pages of a glossy, luxury travel magazine.


What a station!


We had heard that bus travel in Argentina was unlike anywhere else, but this really was something else. It is true that the station seemed relatively small, given the amount of traffic it was supposed to handle, but we brushed this thought aside and put it down to an incredibly high level efficiency. The fact that we had never seen such efficiency in any transport building, ever, did not mean that it could not exist here.


The departure and arrivals board also seemed quite limited in the range of destinations it showed and we struggled to find any departures that corresponded with the one shown on our pre-bought tickets.


And then the proverbial penny dropped. In fact, it didn’t so much drop as plummet with sickening swiftness: in my experience, bus stations are generally characterised by at least a few of the vehicles to which the name alludes and not the luxurious, super-fast, catamaran type ferry boats that we could see bobbing gently in the water behind the check-in desks.


The first thing that the subsequent adrenalin rush did was to flash me back to ten minutes before and the first ten seconds of our early morning taxi ride. The sequence that now played out in my mind’s eye with tragic slowness and clarity was of the taxi driver turning around and frowning in response to a request, in the best 8-day-old Spanish we could muster, to be taken to the “Estacion bus”. The driver had frowned and rubbed his stubbled chin, clearly unsure of what we meant and probably more than a little irritated at having to deal with gormless foreigners at the end of a long, hard night shift. I looked to my wife for help in providing an alternative translation, but the only word that we could keep producing, in an amazing array of accented versions was “bus”.


Eventually, he seemed to catch our meaning and smiled a big, toothy grin before nodding vigorously and uttering that single word that I now saw emblazoned all around us, including on the side of the craft that bobbed in the water and which would clearly not be taking us to San Antonio de Areco: “Buquebus”.


What sort of a bus is this?


We walked as quickly as dignity would allow back the way we came, returning to the taxi rank and, with no small amount of trepidation, hailed another taxi. After a further 5 minute ride, 3 minutes of which were spent making sure that we were definitely, absolutely, without question, going to the bus station, we arrived at the “Estacion Retiro”, a brutal hulk of a building that had about as much charm and presence as a broken boot.


But what it did have, in beautiful and absolute abundance, were buses.


We had just crossed the city, missed out on taking a boat to Uruguay and found the Retiro at the second attempt. But if we were to locate our bus at one of the hundreds of the platforms in the station, we still had to decipher the endless departure boards and jostle our way through a sea of travellers heading off to all corners of the country.


Spot the difference…


In our haste to make the bus, I failed to adequately judge the force needed to slow the luggage trolley, which I admit, I may have been pushing faster than is sensible without safety restraints or a roll bar installed. The result was that, on arriving at the bus, within which I could see the driver performing his final checks, I very nearly knee-capped the luggage attendant. Only after handing over substantially more than the usual gratuity by way of compensation, did we board the bus and fall into our seats, losing our balance as the bus reversed out of the platform.


It had been close, but we had made it, and it wasn’t even 7 am.


Finding somewhere to eat in Buenos Aires: supermarkets, restaurants and the Don

Posted on October 19, 2012

After spending three months revising our itinerary, researching our destinations and figuring out whether or not we should take that one-size-fits-all plug, (we didn’t and did not regret it – despite much advice to the contrary, all the basins and sinks we encountered came complete with their own plug), our bags were finally packed and we were ready for the adventure of a lifetime.


Cue orchestra with dramatic soundtrack, cue heart rending scenes of our departure, cue nervous smiles all round. Was it going to be everything we thought it was? Had we prepared properly? Did we pack enough socks?


Our first leg was a short hop from the small city of Nantes, on the French Atlantic coast, to London. If you are starting an Around The World Trip from Europe, you will probably find that the most cost effective tickets all have jolly old London as their start and end points.


This was good news for us as we were able to catch up with a few of our best friends from the “old” days and feed off the good vibes that only really good friends who think that you’ve lost your mind, but still love you anyway, can give.


The bad news was that four days later we felt like we had had enough and were ready to come home. But I am getting ahead of myself.


Arriving in Buenos Aires was…fine. After checking in to our apartment and unpacking our bags, our first stop was to the local supermarket. It was huge. Maybe it was the jetlag, maybe it was the unfamiliar brands, or maybe it had something to do with the fact that I suffer from some form of hypoglycaemia, and if I don’t eat, a devil appears on my shoulder and I get a little psychotic. Whatever the reason, when we got to the cash register with a mountain of stuff, I honestly felt like we still had nothing to eat.

And first on our list of action packed things to do…grocery shopping.

And then our credit card didn’t work.


Under the glare of twenty unimpressed, Argentinian pairs of eyes, we fumbled and bickered as we tried to find the cash that was stashed away in some secret, so-we-don’t-get-fleeced-if-we-get-mugged-but-now-everyone-has-seen-it-anyway-place. We went back to our apartment and unpacked (again). It was already the end of our first day and we felt we had seen nothing.


But the next two days only got worse:


  1. Oscar was hammered by the jet lag. Tired and cranky, he pretty much refused to walk and had to be carried, leaving me tired and cranky with the added bonus of an aching back;
  2. By the time we get out the door in the mornings, it was so late that we were already thinking about where to picnic for lunch. But before we could do that, we needed to get a few things that we had forgotten to buy from the supermarket. The result: the whole morning was spent thinking about food;
  3. We were there in the middle of one of the worst heat waves in recent times, so that made it all so much easier;
  4. Even if we wanted to pack it in and go to a decent restaurant for dinner we couldn’t because they generally only opened at 8.30pm, long after Oscar had gone to bed. (At this point, we were still in McDonalds denial – yeah, yeah we are going to parent hell, but when we get there we can all meet up and have a Big Mac and fries).When we did find one that was both recommended and open earlier (Don Ernesto in San Telmo), the food was diabolical and the staff were busy beating the crap out of each other in the kitchen.

Don Ernesto – it’s 8.00pm and the place is packed….

It all came to a head on the third day when we visited Recoleta cemetery. I ended up with Oscar asleep on my lap whilst Caro toured the historic alleyways on her own. When Oscar did wake up, it was time for the cemetery to close. And I didn’t even get to see Evita’s mausoleum.

Oscar takes a nap in Recoleta

Realising that we needed to go back to the supermarket to stock up, but being on the other side of town,  we decided to look for one close by and were almost delirious with joy when we found a Carrefour, a supermarket chain that we recognised from France. Surely here we would find our grocery nirvana!


Nope. I am pretty sure that if you know where to go in BA you can find great produce but all I can tell you is that it isn’t at the Carrefour. With Caro being a vegetarian, things started to look desperate. In addition, because of the crazy import taxes, anything that was not made locally seemed hideously overpriced: something as banal as Gouda cheese looked like it was going to have to be paid for in instalments.

There is good produce, you just have to look hard.

Over a home-cooked dinner that, if you removed the stress, was probably not half bad, we sat down and had a family meeting. It was not going well and if we didn’t do something, it was going to be the shortest trip around the world in history.


As always, the truth was simple and the solution equally so: We just needed to slow down…a lot. So we did.


As boring as it sounds, we drew up a meal plan and factored in our differing dietary requirements as well as what we could keep and take with us, given our relatively short stays in each place. We asked around and found out where to get produce that didn’t look like toxic sludge. Finally, we shredded our list of things to see and do and replaced it with a much smaller one that made ample allowance for the time needed to forage.


And it worked. Now that we no longer had to worry about where or when the next meal was going to be, we were able to start enjoying ourselves. The transformation was incredible.


Between a tour of the city’s graffiti, a day trip to Tigre, an unforgettable tour of Palacio Barolo and a day’s cycling around Puerto Madero and the Reserva Ecologica, we had a blast. Oscar’s jetlag wore off and we even managed to go back to Recoleta a second time. We spent hours walking its small streets where Oscar took some of the best photographs of the trip. We had so much fun, we didn’t even have time to visit Evita’s mausoleum.

One of Oscar’s snaps at Recoleta – he improvised a soft focus by rubbing his thumb on the lens!

The ironic thing, looking back now, is that those first three days seemed to drag on forever, but when we recalibrated and decided to slow down, the time just flew. Forget about eat, pray love – all our problems seemed to be solved with just the eat part (and a little bit of love).


Now that we had found our groove, it was time to head inland to the pampas. It was time to visit the land of the gaucho.


Posted on October 12, 2012

“It is far easier for a fully laden camel to pass through the eye of a needle…”


Now that we had decided on our route and sold almost all of our worldly possessions to finance our trip, you would have thought that with less stuff to choose from, it should have been easier to decide what to take. And you would be wrong.


It went something like this:


I sat back to imagine what it would be like on our trip. In my mind’s eye the three of us, hand in hand, were merrily skipping and dancing along an exotic country path, taking snaps of each other and perhaps stopping momentarily to observe some wonder of nature at work before pressing on to the big-sky country that lay ahead.


I paused to make notes: Items required for skipping and dancing along one number country path: t-shirt, shorts, sandals, underwear (optional), and camera (for those snaps). Oh, and maybe a bit of sunscreen, too, for that big sky. So far, so good, Huckleberry Finn could have fit more stuff into a handkerchief tied to a stick.


But somewhere, somehow, something went wrong. I started to think practically. It wasn’t going to always be sunny skies after all was it? In my picture, the big sky darkened, rain fell and the exotic country path soon turned to mud. Then, after reading in the Lonely Planet guide about a freak cold snap that happened in 1917, the picture in my mind got worse. The mud froze over and the three of us sat huddling together for warmth in a ditch on the side of the muddy path before being rescued. Naturally, we were then whisked off to the ambassador’s residence for a champagne reception to toast our survival.


My note taking continued: Items now required: full wet weather gear, trekking boots, ice axe, survival blanket, kerosene stove, one of those really nifty multi-tool thingy’s (because you never know, it could come in handy, like in Touching the Void….), GPS tracking device, thermal underwear (definitely not optional), tuxedo and dress shoes. And that’s just what our 3 year old would need.


All of a sudden that handkerchief tied to a stick didn’t seem like it was going to cope. We would need proper luggage.


I started by hesitantly bringing religion into the equation, and now it seems that I am going to have to bring sex into it as well. We all know that men and women are different, but what I hadn’t appreciated was how different we were when it came to choosing luggage.


It could be that because, for the most part, men grow up wearing pants with pockets and women grow up wearing dresses or pants with no pockets, that women become accustomed to the concept of luggage much earlier than men do. It becomes a part of their lives much sooner and so, in the case of the handbag at least, it has come to form a central part of the way they dress and communicate their taste and status. The evidence for this is a multi-billion dollar industry that, at its apex, sees luggage as an art form.


The Mouawad’s 1001 Nights Diamond Purse, at $3.8 million it is the most expensive handbag on earth. But will it hold that ice axe?


I thought that I saw luggage much more pragmatically. I saw it as a tool and a necessary inconvenience. I didn’t want a work of haute couture, I just wanted something that was sensible and cost effective. But then I discovered the world of rucksacks.


I think that it would be fair to say that the rucksack is to a man what a handbag is to a woman: not so much a container to keep things in, but a means of telling the world who you are and what you believe in and where you are headed. Quality workmanship, fine materials and colour coordination all find their way equally into both. But where as few men are in need of somewhere to keep their lipstick, the rucksack excels in selling you the idea that you, yes you sir, are an adventurer!


These rucksack makers know their stuff. I was not browsing the catalogues for long before terms such as “ballistic materials” and “ripstop weave” jumped out at me and had me convinced that with this piece of equipment on my back, any peril could be dispatched with ease. The backpack was not just something you carried stuff in, it was an ally, a companion and above all, a protector. And it wasn’t even that expensive.


What every man, I mean boy, wants from a backpack.


I won’t embarrass myself further by revealing how long I spent comparing carrying capacities or denier counts (a bit like thread count, but the militarised version) or how long I agonised over that question that has vexed countless travellers before: to go with wheels, or not go with wheels?


I will instead, leave it to the experts out there who are found easily enough (just type “how to pack a suitcase” into Google) and who have done all this before, many more times than me. They can do a much better job of setting the record straight about which bag is best, what should be packed in it and how it should be packed (for example, did you know that rounded corners on a backpack are, according to some, the work of the devil? Very inefficient for packing, apparently).


In the end, we opted for one bag with wheels and one without, mainly because we decided that only one of us should do the schlepping so that the other one could be free to keep hold of the 3 year old (who also had his own backpack). That worked pretty well for all of us, my hernia included.


But after seeing an uncountable number of travellers, each with their own approach to luggage and stuff, I can honestly say that it doesn’t really matter what bag you choose or what you put in it. You will adapt to the conditions along the way and if the stuff drives you crazy, you can give it away (more on that later) or “accidentally” leave it behind you, just before being caught in that crazy, mid-summer snowstorm.


In the big scheme of things that make up the round the world trip, luggage is truly a lesser essential. There are some things, though, that can really drive you nuts, like food. But that’s for next week.

Choosing your itinerary

Posted on October 6, 2012

So now that you’ve decided to go on a trip around the world, which way do you turn when you reach the front gate? With the whole world to explore, how can you possibly narrow down the options to something that fits within your timescale, budget and adventure threshold?


In beginning to think about our own itinerary, I was amazed at the sheer number of coffee table books, DVD’s and magazine articles dedicated to the topic of “The Top X (X being any arbitrary number you can think of) places to go before you die”. Given that our trip started with an optimistic gesture, reinforced by genuine feelings of renewal and a solid dose of being fed up to the back teeth with too many obligations, a checklist of places that you have to see before you die seemed a pretty strange way to start. But maybe that’s just me.


Added to this was the feeling, which I suppose could have something to do with the sheer volume of media that we consume, that we had been there and done that, when actually we hadn’t gone very far or done very much at all other than sit on our fattening posteriors. But never the less, there was this small, nagging doubt that the trip could turn into a recycling of second-hand images and stories, with nothing new to show for months of serious carbon footprinting. And this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, wasn’t it? And surely we needed to make the most of it? And what about the seasons? And the food? And would there be good medical facilities in case we needed to get med-evac’ed from our survival adventure in the middle of a tropical rain forest – with a three year old….


It started to get a bit of hand.


We took a few deep breaths and then did the obvious: we looked at the places that we always wanted to go to, but never had the chance. To this we added places that we liked the sound of or which were just on our minds. Lastly, we added all those places that had been visited by our better travelled friends so that we could stop feeling inferior. Not surprisingly, this gave us a pretty long list. Clearly, even with a lottery sized budget, we were not going to be able to do it all and so to cut down the list we did the obvious thing: we drew up another list.


This time we things that we wanted to get out of our trip and then rated the respective destinations against each of these criteria. Looking at this second list now, it is a little difficult to fathom our thinking process in deciding upon the criteria. Items on the list range from the eminently sensible, “Standard of accommodation and transport”, to the slightly peculiar “Interesting Industry or Tradition”, to the downright bizarre, “Has Tintin been here?”.


But regardless of the method, the end result was that we managed to narrow down our list of 18 countries to 10, which seemed like good going.


We then canvassed our well travelled friends for helpful suggestions or advice. On one occasion, a friend very delicately, with what now seems like remarkable restraint, pointed out that perhaps Mali was not an ideal destination for a three year old. So, another destination cut from the list.


Justifiably proud of our efforts, and with the list reduced to 9 countries, we contacted our specialist travel agent and got the ball rolling. Only it didn’t roll very far. Let me explain: the beauty of the round-the-world ticket is that it is ridiculously cheap if you compare it to booking single flights along the same route (10% of the cost would not be an exaggeration). You also do not fly on hokey airlines in poultry class, but only on good, major airlines without any visible frill cutting or hidden extra costs (i.e. we were never sat next to the toilets and always got the same slop as everyone else). It is also surprisingly cheap and easy to make changes en-route, but there are two basic rules that your itinerary must follow to keep its economy in check:


Rule 1: Keep going from east to west (or vice-versa) around the globe without any backtracking;

Rule 2: Don’t go to Africa.


If you depart from either of these rules, your ticket to ride will very quickly become a road to nowhere. This was a problem for us as we had 4 African countries on our itinerary: Madagascar, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.


But in planning a round-the-world trip there are no problems, only opportunities! And so, armed with this new knowledge, we regrouped and revised our itinerary one more time (ok, a few more times). Finally, after checking that the respective seasons were properly aligned and making sure there were no civil wars in any of our chosen destinations, we went ahead and bought our tickets.


Our final itinerary comprised 8 countries over 9 months and of the eight that made it, only 5 came from our original list of 18. And as we were to learn later, just because a country makes it on to the itinerary doesn’t mean you end up going there, but more on that later. Our more immediate concern, with the clock ticking towards an official departure date, was getting packed!

Making the leap and selling your stuff

Posted on October 2, 2012

So what is it that makes two reasonably intelligent and normally risk-averse adults decide to embark upon a world trip with their 3 year old son in tow?


Well, it’s a long story, but given that I don’t want to lose any of you before I’ve even started, I will just give you the rough outline of events leading up to the fact:

  • Husband decides that enough is enough, its time to close up shop and his doctor agrees;
  • Husband tells wife and wife agrees;
  • Husband spends three weeks closing a thriving business that took seven years to build;
  • Husband then sits at home not really sure what comes next;
  • Wife comes downstairs and tells husband that she has had “an idea”;
  • Husband smiles for the first time in a long time.


As you hopefully deduced, the “idea” that Caro had was to take a trip around the world. Whilst she had the courage to suggest it first, the real credit should go to her brother Nico, as it was his solo trip around the world a few months before that planted the seed in my beloved’s very fertile imagination.


The premise at first seemed relatively simple: it would be a chance for me to recover, spend time with a family that I had missed too much; as an author, Caro could work anywhere; and all Oscar needed to know was that we would be taking lots of aeroplanes and missing a year of school. Why hadn’t we thought of it earlier?


So, with the idea agreed upon, we set about working out how we were going to make it happen. Whilst deciding that you want to do a world tour can be easy, financing it may not be. Our own circumstances dictated that we had to take some big steps, including selling almost all of our worldly possessions. After all, you can’t carry a Norman Foster desk around the world with you – well you could, but that wasn’t the kind of trip we were aiming for! We also halted the construction of our new house just before it had been due to begin. Even though I had designed it for us and it was to be the crowning achievement of my career up to that point, we decided to abandon the project and to use the money for the trip instead. These may seem like big moves, but in hindsight the fact that they were made so quickly and easily is probably telling.


The day we sold our stuff will be with me forever. We posted flyers for our “open house” all around our apartment complex and placed adds in the local version of Craig’s list. Knowing the French love for brocante and in particular, the Northern nose for a good deal, we were assured of success. All that was left to do was to wait for the appointed hour and withstand the heaving masses that were sure to arrive and clean us out.


Only they didn’t. Not at all. I think it would be fair to say that second hand tombstone merchants see more passing trade than we managed on that October afternoon. What trade we did get, was mostly for small items and it became pretty hard to keep spirits high whilst haggling over reductions from 1€50 to 1€ for stuff that had seemed almost irreplaceable only days before.


But then, just as the cold wind of reality was about to extinguish our small flame of hope, an extraordinary thing happened: A very nice, well spoken and erudite young family, very much like ourselves, arrived at our doorstep and explained that they had just been on a world tour, had sold everything before they had left and so now, on their return, had absolutely nothing. Was there any chance that we could help them out and in the process possibly save them and their marriage from certain ruin at the hands of Ikea?


Two hours later, we had exchanged our knick-knacks (including the Norman Foster table) for their hard cash and certain catastrophe had transformed itself into a providential blessing. Now that we had the money and before they could change their minds, all we had to do was work out where in the world we wanted to go, and do it quickly!


Posted on October 2, 2012

Ok, so now that we have finally returned from our travels spanning 45,000 km (that’s 5,000km more than the circumference of the earth at the equator), 3 continents and about 52 supermarkets (more on the supermarkets later).


Lots of people seemed to enjoy the pictures that we posted along the way and we had hoped to accompany them with tales of high adventure, deepest insight and side-splitting comedic reflection. But we couldn’t be arsed.


Well, 8 months of travelling later we are sorry. Very, very sorry. At the time, the thought of sitting down at the end of the day to scribble in a journal came a distant second to just passing out in a heap on whatever sleeping apparatus happened to be closest to hand. But now, after basking in the afterglow of our carbon footprints, it does seem a bit if shame that we didn’t make that last little bit of effort. Besides, I hear you all ask, how hard could it have been, really, to find just a few measly minutes to transcribe for posterity the trials and tribulations of a once in a lifetime event?


So as a form of penance-cum-refusal to accept that it is all over, I have decided to have a go at putting down in words some of the more interesting stories from our trip as well as some of the key bits of experience that the Lonely Planet doesn’t give you. Hopefully, for those of you that have not already been bored into a medicated state by us and our trip, these little anecdotes will provide further motivation to make your own trip or further evidence for why the roads less travelled are, well, less travelled.


Thanks in advance for all your positive and insightful comments and questions that will help to make this a great blog worthy of your time and all the Google Adsense revenue that will hopefully come flooding in. So please join in as we head off Around the World with Ryan, Caro and Oscar….again!


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