2016: Reflections on a year of worldwide travel

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Machu Picchu

Happy Christmas!

One year ago today we were excited and eagerly awaiting the dawn of 2016, our year off work and year away from our everyday lives to travel the world… our aim was to visit many of the countries which we had previously only dreamed of… to be amazed and inspired by some of the ‘wonders of the world’; to gain new experiences by trying different types of travel, new activities, different types of food and meeting people from a range of countries and cultures.

We have now finished all of our travelling for this year and are spending Christmas in the UK with our families.

For anyone new to our blog we travelled around the world from January to mid June (travelling west and visiting the Pacific, New Zealand, Australia, SE Asia, Japan and Sri Lanka); had two months based in England (from where we visited Santorini, did a 6 country European road trip and had a week in Norfolk); then spent 4.5 months travelling through Central America and South America, from Mexico to Brazil. 

 

As we sat on our last plane journey home to London last week we reflected on our year, how we feel and what we have learned…

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El Salvador sun set

This year has given us an amazing opportunity to visit so many new places. Some have surprised us and exceeded our expectations while others, to be honest, have been slightly disappointing…

We have been humbled by the hard working ethics of so many of the people we’ve met. Particularly in South East Asia and Central America where families stick together and work hard to feed and clothe their families. We have been so fortunate to be able to travel yet many local people in Asia have barely been out of the town or village in which they were born.

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Angkor Wat

In one year we have scratched the surface of the world and while there are several countries we would love to return to, there are very few if any specific places. For example catching those first glimpses of Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat were incredible and have given us just two of many precious lifelong memories. But rather than trying to repeat these magical experiences we would like to delve deeper to spend time exploring more of some of the countries we’ve been to. For example, one week in Tokyo was nowhere near enough… we would love to return to see Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and more of Japan.

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Bali rice terraces

We stayed in a range of accommodations including: home stays, hostels, 1, 2, 3 and 4 star hotels, apartments and AirBnB’s. And a cruise liner. The home-stays and AirBnB’s gave us the best experiences of local life. One of the most memorable was our stay with a lovely family in Ubud, Bali where the grandma cooked our traditional Indonesian breakfast each morning, the wife looked after our room and the husband took us out in his car for a day where he enthusiastically showed us the ‘inner’ Bali with its beautiful green rice terraces and majestic volcanoes.

But in most budget places there was usually something which made the experience less comfortable, from cold showers to no AC to beds with scratchy blankets and no sheets. So from time to time it was also good to stay in a hotel for a bit more luxury. This was easier to do in SE Asia where you could get a 4* hotel for around £35 per night. While hotels are comfortable however, they are all essentially the same and usually without any quirky, unique or memorable features…

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Mr Goo in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Where possible we preferred to support local businesses such as small hotels and local tour guides. Our friend Mr Goo who took us trekking in Thailand, the brilliant Mike who guided us to Machu Picchu, Lee our Angkor Wat tuk tuk driver and Grober who drove us around the Bolivian Salt Flats. These people depend on tourists and travellers for their livelihoods and we rather our money goes to them than some fat cat booking agency who takes a huge chunk of commission. This is where scouring TripAdvisor is a very handy thing to do…

Many of the communities in which we’ve stayed have had their lives touched or even destroyed by natural and man-made disasters. The south coast of Sri Lanka is still recovering from the terrible effects of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. The people of Cambodia lived through the horrific Pol Pot regime. Earthquakes have destroyed cities and towns around the ‘Pacific Rim of Fire’ including Christchurch and Yogyakarta (Indonesia).  Guatemala and Central America have suffered horrific mudslides and the Philippines has more than its fair share of deadly typhoons.

People we’ve met have lived through such tragic circumstances which again has been humbling and made us become more appreciative of the relatively easy lives we’ve had as a result of the good fortune of being born in the UK.

These are a few statistics:

Countries visited: 40

Plane trips: 45

Boat trips: 54

Cars rented: 6

Mopeds rented: 6

Number of accommodations stayed in: 116

 

Here are some questions and answers:

You travelled to 40 countries! Wasn’t that hard work? How did you get time to see anything at all? Did you spend all of your time ‘in transit’?

Travelling ‘at pace’ has been exhausting… yes. We were getting tired towards the end of the trip and were both glad to spend five days relaxing in Ilha Grande before making our way home. We could have easily stayed there for at least a couple of weeks, hiking in the rainforest and beach hopping… but our overall plan was to make the most of this amazing 12 month opportunity and spend our time visiting a few highlights of the world. For personal and work reasons this was the optimum time for us to take on such a trip.

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Ho’okipa Beach, Maui, Hawaii

Where has been your favourite place?

 

It’s difficult to compare like for like but having given this some serious consideration we both agree that Hawaii is our favourite place in the world! We were lucky to visit Oahu and Kauai on a previous holiday in 2012.  We then spent two weeks visiting Maui and Hawaii’s ‘Big Island’ at the beginning of our 2016 trip. Hawaii has Western comforts, a tropical climate which is warm but not too humid, stunning scenery and beaches and a laid back atmosphere. Over two separate trips we’ve averaged a week on each of four Hawaiian islands so there is still more to explore…

Our top 5 destinations: Hawaii, Guatemala, Australia, Japan and Moorea

Hawaii: as mentioned above, we would both love visit Hawaii again.

Guatemala: of Central America we enjoyed Costa Rica for its rich wildlife and Panama which was an easy place to travel through. However we were particularly fond of Guatemala for the culture of cities such as Antigua and Panajachel, the warmth and friendliness of local people.

Australia: we spent longer in less expensive countries in order to maximise our budget… Australia is more expensive than many of the countries we visited so we only spent 9 days there just to take in Sydney and Cairns (to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef). We would love to return to Aus in the future and do an Aussie road trip for a couple of months.

Japan: Again, due to the high costs of Japan we had just one week in Tokyo. Japan was definitely the most functional, organised and also one of the most friendly countries we visited. Every time we went anywhere in Tokyo, the Japanese public were willing to help and assist.

With its dramatic emerald peaks, turquoise seas and swim-off-the-beach coral reefs we both have a soft spot for Moorea. However this heart shaped French Polynesian island just off the coast of Tahiti is so small we explored most of it during our four days there so probably wouldn’t visit again.

If you could repeat the trip would you do things differently next time?

Other than a few tweaks here and there we have been more than happy with the route we took and the way we travelled throughout our trip. Small tweaks would be things like: less time in San Pedro de Atacama and more time in Ilha Grande. While researching can give you a good idea you don’t always know what a place is like until you get there. We were stuck in San Pedro as a result of winging it and not pre-planning… all of the buses departing for Salta, our next destination were full so we had to stay there.

We’ve met many wonderful people while travelling and found that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to travel and no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to produce a travel blog.

How did you get the time off work?

Laura is fortunate to work for the UK Government which has a career break policy. Laura was able to take 12 months off and will be returning to her job in January 2017. Chris resigned from his role and after a recent phone interview is hoping to start a new position in January.

What did your families think about you travelling?

We are the ‘middle generation’… Our families have been fully supportive and we have kept in contact with them throughout the year using Skype, FaceTime, FaceBook, Instagram, email and WhatsApp. This blog has also kept everyone updated with our adventures. And we had a couple of family holidays when we went back to the UK for two months from mid June to mid August.

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Family holiday to Santorini in June 2016

 

What did you do with your home while you were away?

We had already ‘downsized’ i.e. we sold our larger house over three years ago and moved into a smaller property. We reduced most of our material possessions to live a fairly minimal but comfortable lifestyle. Our four adult twenty-something children (Laura’s son and daughter & Chris’s two daughters) looked after our home while we were away.

If you had another ‘Adult Gap Year’ in the future would you do the trip in a similar style?

Yes… we both prefer a bit of pace while travelling and don’t like to spend too long in one place. We would be more selective where we build in our longer breaks next time. In our view, doing some research and homework on each destination pays off. This enables you to find decent tour guides before they get booked up, book cheaper flights in advance and find the best accommodation (in terms of price and location) before they get booked.

In the future rather than the ‘high level’ view we would probably spent longer, say a month or two in each country and absorb the culture more fully.

Did you experience language barriers?

Yes, more so in Central America and South America and less so in Asia. We can both speak a little French (from what we remember from school) but that is all… We are always in awe of anyone who is fluent in two or more languages…

We had less language issues in South East Asia where our virtually non-existent foreign language skills were not really a problem. Anyone who works in a tourist related job i.e. tuk tuk drivers, B & B owners, cafe and restaurant workers and tour guides could almost always speak some English.

The mother tongue of most Central and South American countries is Spanish and often even in tourist places, many locals speak little or no English. We found communication and reading signs, notices and menu’s much more difficult. We can now see why many people  recommend that you try to learn some basic Spanish if you are travelling for any length of time to these regions!

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Did your relationship survive ‘intact’ for an entire year of being together 24/7?

Yes! We both have different personality types which we found were magnified while travelling together full time. We’ve learned to accept that we view things differently and we’ve learned better how to manage this!

Chris enjoys travelling and taking photographs. For Laura, however, travelling is her life-long passion! Chris would say “Why go across the border to Paraguay?’ while Laura would say “Why not go to Paraguay?” And while Laura was on deck taking photos as we sailed past Cape Horn at 7 am, Chris decided to stay in bed as “its just another rock”…

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Rental car in Argentina

What type of travelling did you enjoy the most?

Fortunately while we have different personalities we both agreed that road trips are our thing! Driving through New Zealand, driving around Hawaii and Argentina and driving to Prague and back were what we enjoyed the most. We liked to be able to stop when we wanted, change our plans and have all of our stuff safely in the boot of the car… We both enjoyed our Group Travel experience with Intrepid and are keen to do similar trips (more Laura)… And we both enjoyed the cruise (more Chris)…

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Halong Bay

What have you found disappointing about travelling?

Firstly in one overriding word… plastic… we’ve discovered how polluted both land and oceans are and have seen first hand places like Halong Bay, a beautiful bay with limestone karsts rising dramatically from the sea… sea which is also littered with plastic floating around. Plastic takes hundreds if not thousands of years to decompose and we have become more switched on for the need for everyone to do their best to reduce their plastic consumption.

Animals being exploited for tourists has been another sad and often frustrating experience. We feel strongly that people should patiently observe wildlife without the need to pose with it or touch it or provide ‘food’ so they can take take their photos and videos… and selfies… On a Bora Bora island tour it was annoying to be constantly told to touch the manta ray’s (after they had just been fed from the boat). “Come on madam… touch the manta ray to feel it’s smooth skin…” Why do people need to touch a manta ray? Leave the poor thing alone…

But you went on 45 flights! That surely isn’t environmentally friendly?

OK no it isn’t… but… our usual carbon footprint is low. Laura has commuted to London by train for 10 years and mostly walks everywhere once in London; we own one car between us and we live in a newish low-energy apartment. And travelling ‘incrementally’ within one year i.e. pretty much in one continuous direction to each place has to be better than a whole series of return flights…. there/back… there/back… there/back…

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Mai tai’s in Koh Lanta, Thailand

What was your budget?

While we had a travel budget this was a kind of ‘mid level’ budget and somewhere between a backpacker budget and a standard holidaymaker budget. We were able to spend a little more on private rooms mostly with en-suite bathrooms and participate in a few ‘must do’ activities, have meals in restaurants most days but without the full two week blow-out budget one would usually have on holiday… so usually just one (or two maybe) alcoholic drinks per day.

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Indonesian rupiah

Did you find travelling for a year ‘at pace’ to be tough?

As mentioned, travelling as we have been doing has been quite exhausting at times! Moving to a new place/city/country every few days or weeks has meant constantly planning our transfers (timings, destinations, locations); organising our accommodation (number of days, location, transfer there, checking whether it is near things we want to see); organising activities, things to do and places to see… How to get across country borders? What are the currencies and exchange rates? How do we find our way around a new town or city? What are the local customs we need to be aware of? What is the tipping culture?

This is one of the advantages of group travel with a company such as Intrepid… all of the organising is done for you. Yes, we will definitely do more Intrepid trips in the future!

But while it involved a great deal of organisation our year of travel hasn’t been ‘difficult’. As we witnessed more so than ever before, millions of people lead harsh and difficult lives and have endured tragic circumstances. We have become more modest, gained a deeper appreciation for the lives we have and have become even less materialistic than we already were.

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Queue at Bolivian border

What won’t you miss about travelling?

Queuing… at airports, at borders, at mass tourist destinations… and watching for scams… and constantly trying to ensure our stuff is safe… It has been good to leave our phones and laptops lying around at home for the last week or so without having to lock them up and guard them at all times!

What’s next? I guess you haven’t yet exhausted your travel dreams then?

No way! This has only but fuelled Laura’s passion for travel… we have a few future ideas and plans which we will share in the next post…

 

 

 

 

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