Thursday, April 14, 2022

Why Do I Paint Sports Figures?

This is a super long read for this era of quick sound bites and talking points, but if you want to understand why I like to paint sporty stuff, this will give you a good idea.




There aren't many things I'd rather be doing than playing sports. Basketball, football, and hockey are among my favourite things to do in my spare time. I am actually up for any kind of physical challenge - the more challenging the better. (Unless it involves water. Or sharks. Water and sharks are my no-go zones.) Even lately, I've been reading and thinking about a trip to the Cinque Terre in Italy, and I find myself salivating looking at all the hiking paths in 3D in Google Maps. Sweating my rear end off on those trails, particularly the ones that go straight up, would be the highlight of a trip there. I can feel a bit of a rush building, even from just imagining the thrill I'd get from running those old stone steps next to the water's edge up into those hills. But I am getting ahead of myself.


Autographed by the Rocket himself

I played ice hockey as a kid, starting when I was four or five years old. The folks in charge would put a big log at centre ice to divide the rink so that two games could be played at once. I think mostly because parents couldn't wait for us to skate the entire length of the ice. I played until I was about twelve or thirteen, but I had a rink right across the back lane from my house so I could go skating whenever I wanted, which was often.

I got home from school one day when I was around 12 or so, and my mom asked me to turn the tv on. "Switch through the channels. Can you guess what's different?" Well, cable tv for one thing, but pretty quickly, I discovered what was different was Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers. Free time on days above zero degrees had me out on our gravel driveway, trying to dunk on our eight-and-a-half-foot hoop, emulating Dr. J as best I could. For a little while, I needed a log of wood intended for our wood stove to jump off of, but eventually I could do it on my own. 

My buddy Darren R and I played sports pretty much around the clock during summer holidays. We'd go throw a ball around before lunch, get together again after lunch, and then play 21 before going in for supper. We did this for probably five consecutive summers. One day, Darren and I were throwing the ball out on my front street. A neighbour lady came out and told us that her son had moved out, but left behind a whole bunch of Sports Illustrated magazines. Would we be interested in taking them? I still have a couple of them. 

My gym teacher in high school got mad at my friend Shawn and I because all we wanted to do was play basketball during our free time in gym class.


Back row, centre


My high school intramural flag football team was called Black Death, a likely indicator as to the type of music I would be listening to a short time later. Throughout high school, Darren and I would constantly be looking for people to play football with, and very often ended up having an epic Sunday afternoon game on the field at Fort la Reine School, just a couple hundred yards from my house. Michael C, Sheldon G, Ronnie D, John F, Peter O, Kelly B, Steve C and a few others were regulars, a few more coming out on occasion. As long as there were three of us, we had a game. Cornerback, Quarterback, Receiver we called it. We just rotated through, and after several years of this, became more than proficient at each position. 

I was ROY for my high school basketball team, and in grade 12, led the team in scoring and rebounding, playing a quasi shooting guard/power forward position. The gym was always open in those days, so if there was no class in there, I was there, shooting around. Lunchtime, after school. Otherwise I was dunking (without the aid of a log) on our still eight and a half foot hoop.

I played a tonne of basketball at Frank Kennedy gym once I started going to university. We had an intramural team for our residence, University College, for a few years, just not a whole lot of basketball players, unfortunately. At the end of my third year of university, I started hitting the weight room, and found a groove quickly. We'd often go play basketball in the afternoon, follow that up with some time in the weight room, and immediately race back to res for a marathon supper at the Great Hall. In those days, suppers had unlimited seconds, and I made full use of that loophole. Night times were spent down in the basement of our residence, in a room that had seemingly no other function than to be the perfect size for ball hockey. Lots of floor rivalries were built in that room.

The following year found an unusually high number of tall, slender athletic first year students living in University College. Their speed was the foundation of success for our dominant run in intramural football. The mortar was the arm I'd spent all those years working on with Darren, honing the complex technique of getting that ball downfield in a perfect harmony of power and finesse. All that time in the gym and the extra thirty pounds I put on since high school meant that there was no limit to what we could do on the field.

From the outside, throwing a football might seem like a simple thing. And it is, until you need to do it on the run, or need to get it to hit a spot as quickly and as accurately as possible before the defence can react. Or you need to hit a swift, six-foot, eighteen-year-old sixty yards downfield without him breaking stride. Or get the ball back across the field when you're running in the opposite direction. You need to be able to throw short and you need to be able to throw long. You need to be able to fire it downfield on a rope so that it arrives immediately, or send it sailing high so it drops in on your receiver as if coming straight down from the heavens. All of these things and more require that your throwing technique is flawless, and this is where simplicity exits the equation. Hours and hours of practice, which in the late 70s and early 80s meant just playing with your friends, every single day, every single breath. When you couldn't get the ball to do what you wanted it to do, you tried harder the next play, and the play after that, for years on end. Every throw was a building block in the pursuit of perfection.


Listen to your younger self, kids.


Being a visual learner, I spent a lot of days watching CFL and NFL games. I remember the last couple years of Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach’s careers, but it was the 80s I remember the most. Dan Fouts, Doug Williams, Dan Marino, John Elway, Warren Moon, Randell Cunningham. What did all these guys have in common? They could throw that ball. Hard. I watched them as often as I could, and would stay up late so that I could watch the sports highlights on the evening news. I'd watch the games on the weekends, and whatever day the CFL decided to have their games on that year. Joe Barnes and Sonny Wade, Dieter Brock and Tom Clements. I watched and I watched, and then I put into practice what I saw during those games and on those highlights.

I watched how the feet were planted and angled, how the weight shifted from one foot to the other, the hips twisted, and up the spine that twist was magnified by the shoulders that whipped the arm forward, culminating in a final flick of the wrist as the ball was released. I remember the feeling of the ball coming out of my hand, rolling off my fingertips so perfectly, and then watching it fly. When it all came together, there was a certain effortlessness in getting the ball to where it needed to be. Those moments were pure magic. Today, this is what science would call “flow,” the countless hours of a young life spent perfecting a craft to the point where you didn’t have to think anymore, your body just did as you needed it to, as you wanted it to, as you imagined it could if anything were possible.

Fast forward to the intramural days of university, and those early years of watching and learning, practicing and playing, came together with the new size and strength I'd gained over the previous year or two. Now there was a consistency that came with that effortlessness that meant I could put the ball almost anywhere on the field I wanted to. The other teams simply hadn't seen this kind of thing done before. They wouldn't cover past thirty or forty yards down field because they hadn't seen someone throw the ball that far before. They didn't know how to cover guys who were a few inches taller that could also run a lot faster than they could, so guys were always open. It got to the point where we'd huddle, and I'd just randomly pick two guys to go long. Every time. When the defence figured it out, our receivers would run faster, and I'd throw it further.

Eventually, our magnificent run came to an end, in the playoffs of our third year together? Maybe it was our second. Looking back, it felt like decades. But apathy had set in, and we had trouble getting enough guys to the games. Each team fielded seven players, but you were required to have a minimum of six players on the field or you would forfeit the game. We would regularly begin a game with only six guys, and be up by a couple touchdowns at half-time when our seventh player would show up. In the semi-finals that year, we only had five guys when it was time for kick-off. The referees said we would forfeit unless the other team would allow us to play with our reduced roster. Our opponents couldn't even look us in the face as the muttered something about rules being rules. We tried to cajole the into playing, but they knew what would be in store for them if they allowed us on the field, and we were forced to forfeit. And that was the end of an era. Our era.

Eventually, I started playing pick up basketball at Bison East on Friday afternoons. Those were good games, and that's where I really learned how to play against big, strong, tough opponents. A lot of hours were spent in that gym.

Even after finishing university, I'd still show up to play there when I could. Eventually, the guys I knew had all left, and university was feeling like a different kind of place. I did find some of them on the court at St. Ignatius, which by the early 90s felt like it had become the court to play on at the time. I could even walk there from my apartment on Woodrow, so I was there a lot.

In the late 80s, I played a half year of tackle football for The Rods after a friend heard they were short players. And after university, I worked for an idiot painter who played for a senior men's tackle football team. He invited me out, and I played two years with that team. It was for players who were too old (over 22) to play junior football, but included guys who were well into their thirties and beyond, I think, although at that time, someone ten years older than me might as well have been fifty. Anyway, we played the city's junior teams, and also the UofM Bisons' team. Let me tell you, that was a lot of fun.

Around 1991, some of the guys I knew from my university residence asked me to join their men's league team. I did that for two or three years before everyone started going their separate ways.

Laura and I moved to St. Boniface right after getting married in the summer of 1992. I found some courts across Provencher Blvd. at Holy Cross School and Provencher School, and spent a bit of time shooting around that summer. In 1993, I found a bunch of guys at Provencher school. One of them had brought out his grade 12 friends to play against the junior high team he was coaching. Nobody knew who I was, but they said I could play with the junior high kids. I huddled together with them before we started. They were nervous, and a bit scared about how badly they were going to lose. "We are not losing this game," I growled. 

From all of the activity I'd had for all those years, I knew how my body worked, and much like throwing a football, a good vertical jump required both an understanding of the mechanics of jumping, and a fundamental desire to practice those mechanics over and over again until it was simply a natural expression of movement. Having spent a lot of time on an actual basketball court (and not just a gravel driveway jumping off a log) in an era when Michael Jordan was coming of age (in the NBA) meant that there was a lot of focus on dunking, and I spent a lot of time figuring out how to jump higher and higher. At my best I might have had close to a forty inch vertical, but likely close to three feet at any time from the later 80s and into the 90s and beyond. The summer of 1993 was no exception. And the court we were playing on was attached to an elementary school. The hoops might have been nine feet high. I'd played a lot on these hoops the previous summer, and I knew what I was capable of on a nine foot hoop. Dr. J, remember.

Barely two minutes into the game, our team got a rebound which was quickly outletted to me, and I had a fast break with only one defender back. For whatever reason, I think mostly because he was inexperienced, but also unaware of what I was about to do, this defender continued to back in closer to the hoop. I knew exactly how far away I could jump from and still get to the hoop. And that was when I was there by myself, just practicing, fooling around. In game time, with the hopes and dreams of a half dozen junior high boys riding on these things, the adrenalin was already pumping, and I wasn't letting anyone down. As my defender backed in, I could feel the rush. I left the ground about eight or ten from the hoop, sailed past his shoulder, and hammered that ball home. "He just jumped right over me..." he said to his friends. My teammates exploded with screams of pure joy. The game was on. My favourite part of that story is that I am still friends with a couple of the high school guys who were there that day. We played hours and hours and hours of basketball the rest of that summer and throughout 1994.

In 1995, Laura and I moved to Lord Roberts. Through a job I had at the time, I heard about some pickup basketball happening at a high school in Fort Garry. Some of the guys playing pick up also played in a touch football league, and after seeing me play basketball the first few weeks, asked if I'd be interested in coming to play football with them. Would I?!

That was a run of three or four years in the A-Division of touch football with the Ratz. I played against guys like James Murphy, and a few times with guys like Joe Poplawski, Willard Reaves, Darren Yewchyn. One or two of those years, we were champs.

The Ratz disbanded in the late 90s, and a few of the players got together on a new team known as the Nationals. When that team died, I got a phone call from another team, and the following year was playing on two different teams in different leagues. 

Also in the later 90s (1996 or 1997?), the mom of a young artist friend in my neighbourhood worked at the local high school, and could get us gym time once a week in the evening. Chris and his young friends and I would show up every Tuesday to play ball hockey. In the summer when the school was closed, we were playing outdoors on whatever surface we could find. The tennis courts in Riverview, the crappy asphalt in the fenced-in area beside the library, the wonderful fresh and new asphalt at Our Lady of Victory School across Osborne. We'd play for hours and hours. That seven-hour Saturday is the stuff of legends.

One winter, when our numbers were down, I brought out my old university friends. Then my new football friends. But somehow we always managed to play. Occasionally there'd be a night when it was just Chris and I, so we figured out a way to play one on one hockey so we wouldn't waste the night. For a couple years, we were playing two nights a week. We made up our own league, tallied points, I wrote articles (imagine that) for our weekly Sporting News. 


You may think this is not worth reading, but I beg to differ.


In 1998 or so, I bumped into an old university friend, from the Bison East days. A few weeks later, he called saying that they needed some bodies for their city men's league team. Right on. We had a few really good years, winning the second division in 2001, and following that up with a tournament win in Grand Forks against Deek's Pizza. I will never forget that team name. That summer, I buggered up my knee playing basketball with some teenagers outside at Lord Roberts Community Centre during my youngest kid's soccer windup. I hobbled through the rest of the football season, winning the MVP of the league and leading the league in interceptions at age 35. 

That fall, our basketball team moved up to Division 1, where we struggled with the bigger bodies and more physical, faster play. It took its toll, and in February, I tore up my ankle pretty badly. When I was 25, it might have been a few weeks off, and then slowly back to work. But this year, coupled with an already bad knee, chasing two young kids around home, and my age I guess, the healing process took months. I never fully recovered from that injury, and it was a few years before I really felt like I was over it.

Even with less emphasis on basketball, football and hockey did continue, pretty much right up until we left on our world trip in 2007. Interestingly enough, it was several months into that trip where I realized how much better my knees felt when I got up in the morning. Or when I had to jog across a busy street. When we returned home, football season was just getting started, and I got right back into it. Chris had started playing ball hockey at Robert A. Steen in Wolseley, and so I joined him there on Tuesday nights the next fall. I managed to worm my way into a basketball group that included a couple of church friends, and I found that my knees and ankles were up to the task.

When yet another football team fell apart in 2015 or so, with me closing in on age 50, that was the end of the touch football career. I said to my youngest kid, "If this had been ten years ago, I would have had quite a few calls asking me to join teams. Yeah, well, this year, no one called."

Ball hockey had pretty much wrapped up at that point too, but I was still playing basketball weekly until Covid shut us down.

I still have my hoop out back on my garage and play there on my own pretty regularly. The high flying dunking days are long past, and I'm not quite as keen to see if I can grab that rim anymore. My vertical leap seems more like a low, slow broad jump these days than anything else, more a measurement of distance rather than height. But to this day, I still have dreams of playing basketball on a court all by myself, where I’m running from one end of the court to the other, dunking the ball, turning around and doing it again. The dream is accompanied by a nearly magical feeling of being able to jump as high as I want to, like there’s some kind of invisible force pushing me upward, as though I’m weightless. The feeling I had in my youth.




My favourite thing about this image was the shadow of the hoop on his arm.

When Michael Jordan retired the first time, in 1993, I was sad to think that I wouldn't get to see him play live. Basketball had to this point given me such a sense of fulfilment, a sense of joy, and Michael Jordan to me seemed like the physical embodiment of all of that in my life up to this point in time. Sure, he was probably the most recognized athlete in the world that year, but my interest in him went far, far deeper. He was a manifestation of excellence, an athletic excellence that I'd been chasing since I was a kid. What he could do on the court was the result of the hard work and effort and practice that came before his time in the sun. Creating an oversized drawing of him doing the things that I liked the most was a natural expression of my artistic skills and my athletic dreams. 


And that is what I celebrate with my sports paintings and drawings. I find that physical expression inspiring and empowering, and now also a reminder of what I was capable of as a younger person, whether it was on the court, on the field, or the rink (well, ball hockey gym). I celebrate what sport has meant to me for over forty years, the joy of being with friends, of competing, all the stuff that comes as part of being on a team.




Even a little bit of the simple pageantry: the uniforms, the colour, the equipment. The lights of a Monday night game. How sometimes you can see the entire stadium reflected in a player’s helmet. The way players used to look at half time when jerseys would be so encrusted with dirt you could barely see their number. The sweat, the fatigue, the perseverance. All of it.


The basement gym

So now, turning 56 this year, what’s left in the athletic tank? I will tell you this, being down in that basement, surrounded by many of the players of my younger days, listening to the music I did when I was twenty years old (and let’s be honest, the music I still listen to all the time), I am fired up to be in my best physical condition for as long as I can.

A couple years ago, we were in Bologna, and one of the things to do there is climb to the top of Asinelli Tower to get a great view over the city. This tower is 97 metres high, with 498 steps to the top.

I asked the young guy taking tickets what his fastest time to the top was. Five minutes, he said.

Challenge accepted.




Unfortunately, a family of four with two young kids got in line before us. I had to wait for them to huff and puff up to the first landing before they stepped out of the way, then darted past them and raced up the rest of the stairs. Five minutes and twenty five seconds. (I would’ve done it if it weren’t for those meddling kids!)





Monday, March 7, 2022

The World's Coolest Human

A prerequisite to reading this article is reading the Esquire article that inspired it, here.
As mentioned in other outlets, I have no intention of making fun of Idris Alba (or anyone who has gotten covid for that matter). It's about how we dress up celebrity in some kind of cloak of invincibility and infallibility in order to sell magazines, and our own writing, I guess.
The inaugural issue of DESPAIR, available at select locations, and at a most unfortunate time in Earth's history.
Also note, there is some salty language that appears here along with the salty Greek waters. If you are one to be impaired by such words, you have been warned. Article titles are based on the original magazine, so if they make no sense to you, that is why.
Enjoy the read, and remember there is a comments section below wherein we can carry on the conversation.


















Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Visiting the Pyramids

It was fourteen years ago today that we were visiting the Pyramids of Giza.
A few funny moments on that day:
We hired a driver to take us on a tour of the nearby pyramids, including Dashur and Saqqara, and for whatever reason, he decided he would bring his neighbour to do the driving. He seemed pretty excited to introduce him to us. We stopped at the bank so that I could get some cash. At the time, it was right around five Egyptian pounds to the Canadian dollar. I made a point of carefully counting my pounds so that I was sure that I got out what I punched in…before I took my card out of the machine. "Make a hiss or a whooshing sound out loud," I wrote on the blog that evening. "That is the sound my card makes as it disappears into the slot." Getting my card back involved waking a bank employee from his early morning siesta and convincing him that having my card back on my person was a matter of some importance.
Fifteen minutes later, it was amazing to my nose that the smog of Cairo followed us confidently out into the countryside. Eventually, we came to realize that the smog dissipated rapidly once a window was rolled down. Windows stayed open for the remainder of the drive.
Not only had civilization crept up on the Pyramids of Giza by 2007, the corporate world had crept into Egypt as well. But with money to be made on hungry tourists, anxious for a taste of home, the corporate world is as the corporate world does.
It's interesting to look at Google Maps now to see how much more developed the area around the pyramids is these days. 
Later that night, the four of us were stuffed into a berth on the overnight train to Luxor. Within minutes, everyone was asleep, while I wrote about our day of chasing bank cards and ancient marvels.
All in all, December 6, 2007 was a good day.

Our first approach on the Sphinx, and the Pyramids beyond.

View from the Pizza Hut
The View from the Pizza Hut across the street.


If you're interested in more of our travels, scroll through the blog, or check out our books.
Stories of our travels through Europe and the Middle East (including Egypt) are found in Today I Ate Cow Stomach.
Our three months in India make for an exhaustingly beautiful read, in The Happy Accident.
Our sometimes weary sojourns throughout Southeast Asia, as well as the preparations for an art show based on our travels are written about in Distant Early Warning.






Sunday, November 28, 2021

Driving in Athens - A Story

Special edition Greece cover of our book of travels

An excerpt from Today I Ate Cow Stomach:

Let me just say right now that driving in Athens (and as you all know if you've been reading along, I have never driven in Athens, but being in the front passenger seat is still pretty darn close) is an experience like no other. It has its similarities to Rome, but like a comparison between the two countries, Athens driving seems a little rougher around the edges, a bit more frenetic, maybe even a bit more dangerous. But not really. Somehow it all works itself out, everyone seems to take care of each other, and no one gets too worked up about things. Unless you don't anticipate a green light, then all hell breaks loose.
There are no pretenses in Greek driving. If you need to get somewhere, you go. If someone needs to get across three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, well, they must have a pretty good reason, so you let them squeeze through.

There are very few overhead signs letting you know what the major routes are, and street sign placement is not an organized science. Many (very small) signs are stuck on the side of a building at a street corner. No building on that corner? Wait until the next one, maybe you'll get lucky. And when you do find one, it may not include English lettering along with the Greek. And if it does, it may not be spelled the same as on your map. It's like code-breaking at fifty kilometres an hour in a confined space with no coffee break, and your chief code-breaker is bemoaning the fact that they have no idea where you are, where you have been, or where you're going. Or he's shouting, "Turn here!" without mentioning which direction here is.

On the freeway heading into the city, Laura tried to pass an army truck that had a full load of army guys in the open back. Some joker in the fast lane doing one fifty came flying out of nowhere to give Laura a blast of his horn. Our car leaped back into our lane right behind the army truck, and all the army guys had big grins on their faces, and they all seemed to be looking at me. My return glare told them that if I had half as many weapons of mass destruction strapped to my body as they did, we'd already be where we were trying to get to.

This is not driving in Athens, this is fun, easy-going driving just outside of Patras, our first comfortable and enjoyable moments of being in Greece. Look at that sky.

Once actually in the city of Athens, it was now incumbent upon us to return our rental car to the Europcar office ASAP so we could get to our apartment rental on time. A nearby gas station attendant showed us on our map how to get there. We stood in the middle of his lot still staring at the map for a few minutes, turning it around more than once. He came back and said, "Okay, forget map. You go this way, turn right and then go until..." He then went back to work, kneeling down and filling a large gas can and was almost run over by some kid in a fancy car. He gave us a look of relief, and we figured it best to leave him be so that he could focus on staying alive. A few blocks later, I got out and asked a newsstand guy where Syngrou Avenue was. He pointed, and not a vague, towards-the-moon kind of point but a very direct point. "One block," he said. Brilliant.

Everyone in every one of those apartments has a car or two that all seem to be out and about on the streets of Athens.

Once on Sygrou, the car, of its own accord I'm certain, proceeded to fly right by the Europcar office, turned at the next block, and stopped when confronted with a dead end. I ran back to the Europcar office where office guy told me I could park the car anywhere on the street. I eyed the street suspiciously as there was no room out front but that was a minor detail for the moment. Back in the car, we pulled out on to Syngrou only to find that a u-turn is not allowed. We obeyed the law for about a kilometre (we are Canadians, after all), then relented and pulled a u-ey. Emboldened, we went the wrong way down a one-way street, circled the block once more for good measure, then parked on top of a crosswalk right beside the Europcar office.

Finally, we were in Athens.

Our hostess was waiting patiently at the front door of the apartment building. I apologized profusely for being late, but she waved that all away with a smile. She brought us up to the apartment to show us around. It was fantastic. Bright, clean, full kitchen, balcony, bathtub. When I saw the washing machine, I pretended a bug flew in my eye.

    - end

Living room of our apartment

The apartment was right on the corner of Eftichidou and Spirou Mirkouri, with Ciao Italia right beside us, which served up great pizza.
A version of this story can also be found in Today I Ate Cow Stomach


Today I Ate Cow Stomach, the stories of our travels through Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, available here. It's chock full of hundreds of full colour photographs and original artworks.

Driving in Athens available here, or from me if you act quickly! This is the mostly picture-free black and white text edition of our travels, from Italy to Thailand, nine months of family travel. If you're not a fan of photos getting in the way of your reading, this is the edition for you.




Saturday, November 27, 2021

An Afternoon in Hanoi

"Everyone seems content to have a nap, but not being much of a napper and feeling a little bit fidgety, I take off on my own to explore some of Hanoi's lesser known alleys.
A lifetime's worth of discovery awaits down these little lanes, some so choked with motorbikes it's almost impossible to pass. There is an authenticity very reminiscent of Jodhpur here that could easily be missed without this time to simply observe. Tarps and awnings protect storefronts from rain and any debris that might be coming from balconies overhead. Perhaps the sunshine too, but I wouldn't know about that. [It was overcast the entire time we were in Hanoi.] Families sit on tiny plastic stools outside their shop or home, enjoying a meal and some conversation. At an intersection, an elderly woman sits on her stool, in a position that in minutes would leave me without circulation in my legs. She seems content to sit out her day like this, watching. I wonder if she sees the same things that I do, if I see anything that she does, but I am content to watch her do her watching. It's a beautiful, tiny moment among among a thousand others happening on this street right now. I wonder what it would look like if the sun were to come out, and the streets weren't always covered with a fine layer of wet dust. Normally, one might call 'wet dust' mud, but really, this is wet dust."
- an excerpt from Distant Early Warning, the Southeast Asia portion of the big trip.

The woman on the stool



Photographic prints, posters, and framed art prints now 25-30% off at Redbubble with the code CYBER5 until November 30.

Get this framed at Redbubble here.
And more.

Learn more about the books here and here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

A Warm Story for a Cold Night

Whenever the we get that first bitterly cold night of the year, I am reminded of our time in Chiang Mai, in April.

The first part of that April was spent in Laos, in towns with exotic sounding names like Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. There was a two-day boat ride along the Mekong River with an overnight stop in Pak Beng, the second day ending in Huay Xai. A rickety little ferry took us across the river into Chiang Khong, Thailand, the next morning. It had been warm all of April, getting warmer as the days passed. By the time our bus from Chiang Khong pulled into Chiang Mai in the early evening, the temperature was well into the thirties.
Our hotel that first night lacked a few important ingredients, namely walls and sheets and pillows that made any attempt to avoid replicating the air temperature outside. And without air conditioning in the room, there was no escape from the heat that seemed to be increasing into the night.
The following morning we secured a new room at a hotel just around the corner from the heat sink. A cool mist of water sprayed out from under the eaves of the hotel, and we often found ourselves passing back and forth through that mist several times before entering the hotel, where several cases of glass bottles filled with cold water awaited us. "Please take some up to your room!" read a sign above the bottles. Rooms were equipped with air conditioning that was more than up to the task, along with mid-sized fridges to store a great many bottles.
After a couple hours of early-morning wandering on that second day, we came back to the hotel just to check the temperature. Our laptop informed us that in Chiang Mai, it was 45 degrees this day. The forecast? 45 degrees for the next four days. The overnight temperatures would occasionally plummet below 35. Needless to say, Chiang Mai's slurpee machines got a workout that week from four Manitobans in particular.
Once the sun rose above the level of the trees, say by around 9:30 in the morning, it gathered you in a molten embrace whenever you dared leave the safety of shade or the confines of a 7-11. The early hours of the day were spent visiting temples and collecting the life-giving slurpee, before Laura and one or both of the kids would give up and head back to the hotel to be treated like asparagus in the produce section, often leaping upwards to catch as much of the spray as possible before it evaporated. The reward for an early return to the hotel was as many bottles of cold water as you could carry up to the room, doing your utmost to drink as much as possible without needing to have the beautiful elixir pumped from your stomach to avoid a medical emergency.
It was during these afternoons that all my days of outdoor summer basketball came to the fore, providing a force field of sorts from the soaring temperatures. There was no question it was hot, hotter than I'd ever experienced, but with the occasional scamper to the shade and the consistent application of the Manitoban's favourite tonic, it was not life-threatening.
It was on one of these solitary afternoon sojourns, caked in a lava of a sweat made of a mixture of syrupy sugar and bodily salts exiting in generous fashion from every (and I mean every) pore, that I came across this gentleman. He sat in the shade made by the small canopy of his tuk tuk, staring at nothing on the ground before him as though he were simply pondering the benefits of life inside an active volcano, and how that made you oblivious to the feral, diabolical heat of a day like this.
And then he lit up a smoke.
It was coffee break.
Coffee Break
Graphite on Yupo paper
9 by 12"
$500



Tuesday, November 16, 2021

How to Plan an Extended Trip

Have you been wondering about whether or not you should do some long term travel? Thinking about whether you could plan it on your own? The answer to both of those questions is a hearty yes. Anyone who ever asks me if it was worth it, I tell them it was the coolest thing I've ever done in my life.

My experience with long trips is limited to one: The Big Trip.

But it was a big trip - nine months long, through Europe, the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia, with my wife and two kids, way back in 2007 and 2008.

All that planning for The Big Trip translates to today, as it was still almost entirely internet and guidebooks then. And the internet certainly hasn't gone anywhere in the intervening years. All the recent trips have been planned using the same methods or techniques or whatever I've learned a lot from all of this, nothing particularly earth shattering, but stuff that might not be completely clear the first time you try to figure it out.

The few years prior to 2020 we did trips (from central Canada) to Spain, Morocco, Italy, and Germany/France. Flying out of Winnipeg as opposed to Toronto or Montreal adds an additional hurdle in terms of time and money (maybe that's two hurdles), which just gives me a little more of a push to make sure things go well - i.e. more planning.

The one big difference from planning The Big Trip is that now it's more difficult to find individual hotels via their actual websites. None of the little places are paying Google to show up at the front of the line, or maybe don't have the tools and know-how to get their sites noticed. This is kind of annoying as it is usually cheaper and better for the hotel if you can book directly.

Topics Covered

  • Interests
  • Where to Go
  • Accommodations
  • Getting Around
  • Attractions
  • Packing
  • Travelling with Kids
  • Flights
  • Costs
  • Insurance 
  • Fellow Travellers
  • You can't do it all ahead of time


Interests

First and foremost, it's important to understand the kind of traveller you are. We are quite fond of the old centres of European cities.

Lots of small and less small pedestrian alleys in Seville

Lots of pedestrian avenues, limited or no traffic at all. Think Venice as the ideal here. We love seeing old churches, inside and out. How they are snuggled right into the community, how many of them there are, the architectural elements, and the art inside. Often there is art in there I've never seen before, and that's always a fun discovery.


Random church-like building in Rome

Views from old hill towns, towns that rest on the edge of a cliff, towns that sit along a river or beside the sea. Towns that have everything you need in walking distance


View of Volissos, on Chios Island, Greece

Museums, art especially, but antiquities as well (especially if those antiquities belong in the country of said museum…). Warm weather. Not crazy hot, just not cold, and preferably no snow when I'm travelling. I get plenty of snow at home, I don't need to fly somewhere for more of it. 

Do you like to drive? We'll occasionally get a car, but often we'll use trains and the odd bus to get around. That can be limiting at times, but also freeing when you're not worried about where to park the car. We also like to take things pretty slowly and get to know a place, so spending a week in Venice sits just fine with us. We rarely blow in and out of a major centre in a single day. 

Are you a food person? Is trying new foods and new restaurants every night important? Do you like cooking your own food just as much, or more? Would you like to have an apartment with a kitchen? How does your stomach react to new or different foods?

How mobile are you? It's important to have an awareness of your physical capability so that you are not caught off guard. Lots of Europe has lots of steps and is not particularly adapted to a traveller who is not able to manage a little bit of physicality. We walk a tonne, so to this point that hasn't been an issue. But every now and then I see a hike, one that would not have seemed remotely dangerous ten years ago, and I think, yikes, not sure I want to do that one...

Are you looking for adventure? Climbing mountains or leaping off of them? Parasailing instead of lying on the beach? Our idea of adventure is a good strenuous hike, we'll do a lot of that, but not much beyond that. (If you think hiking is dull, check out this site; we haven't done any of these, but I'm adding some to the list.)

Where to Go

How do you even know where you want to go? Hopefully having a good overview of your interests will  be a starting point, now it's time to study. But this is like school work for the most interesting class you ever had. Get guide books from the library. I am easily swayed by photos, so a guidebook with pictures is what I like. The DK books have lots of illustrations and cutouts of various churches/palaces/whatevers. Guidebooks are also a lot more enjoyable to read lying in bed before you go to sleep.

Get on the internet and do some basic searches: Top 10 things in (country/city); best places for food lovers; world's best hikes (I just happened upon this site a few weeks ago. I've never used it, but it looks comprehensive and interesting. Here are some examples for the Cinque Terre in Italy); most beautiful towns in France/Italy/Spain (there is actually an association!). Once you do a few of those, you will find yourself gravitating towards certain countries. If you have a certain city in mind, you can search "Day trips from [city]". The results will likely be filled with loads of ideas, and will start filling up your hope chest pretty quickly. I've found that Tripadvisor is a good resource for restaurants, and use it mostly for that. It's also a good place for reviews on just about anything.

Generally speaking, I will be thinking of a place I want to go to, and start there. For our Spain trip, original thoughts of course included Barcelona, but after some study we knew we wanted to spend a lot of time in the Andalucia region too. Seville and Granada were a definite yes. We could fly into Madrid for a reasonable price, and Toledo was between Madrid and Seville; a quick study of Toledo meant that Toledo was added to the list. 

Alley in Toledo, Spain

Cordoba. Ronda, too. Okay, we only have two weeks. Now look at a map of Spain and locate all of these places, and then Barcelona. At one point, an unbelievable price for flights to Madrid flashed on my screen, and the tickets were purchased. And no matter how hard I tried, I could not fit Barcelona into our plans. Yes, I could've removed a day from Seville and Granada, and cut Cordoba, but that also meant more time travelling. Granada was an absolute must, but is notoriously difficult (relatively speaking) to get in and out of for a city that hosts the most visited site in all of Spain. And even omitting Barcelona, we still only spent a day and a bit in Madrid.

Time will likely be your worst enemy. Just get over that and concentrate on all the fun you will be having (as opposed to what you will miss out on, sniff).

How to add Barcelona? Well, we wanted to spend four nights in Seville. Barcelona is a one-week city for us, but we would've had to trim that to four days maybe. We might have taken a day from Toledo, but after being there, there's no way I'd do it on just an single overnight stay.

It's three hours by train from Madrid to Barcelona,  so that adds six hours more travel time, plus the packing, to and from the station to accommodations - a good chunk of one day spent travelling, likely eight to ten hours, instead of seeing and doing. Sure, we could have done it, but it was too fast for how we want to do things. If you're cool with moving at a good clip, here's a possible itinerary for all that including Barcelona:

  • Arrive Madrid (or fly into Barcelona and out of Madrid), immediately train to Barcelona
  • Three nights Barcelona
  • Train back to Madrid, then immediately to Toledo
  • Two nights Toledo
  • Train to Seville (via Madrid)
  • Three nights Seville
  • One night Ronda (drive)
  • Two nights Granada (drive)
  • Two nights Madrid (drive)
I think that's doable in two weeks for a lot of people. You could get a car for the whole trip but I don't think that would save you much time, and that's an awful lot of driving.

Anyway, am I getting off topic? What's the topic?

Part of the decision making will be built into where you choose to go. If you're going on an extended trip that includes Italy, the things you see may be in part determined by where you go after that. If the next country is Greece, as it was for us, that meant we ended our time in Italy in the south, our last day driving to Brindisi and jumping on a ferry to Patras. However, if we were going to Croatia, we might have instead gone north from Florence to Venice, where it's easier to get to Croatia by ferry. I sort of wonder why we didn't do that now?? Hmm. Italy, to Croatia, to Greece probably would have worked? But, that would've meant Venice in August, super high season there and outrageously busy. Which brings me to another point.

Hopefully if you have the time to do an extended trip, you're not doing it in the high season. That could be exhausting, dealing with that many people for that long a time. People have told us that Venice is no fun because there are just too many people. And maybe that's true in July or August. But we were there for a week at the end of March, and it was one of the best travel experiences we've ever had. Temperatures were comfortable, and the crowds very manageable. (I keep harping on this, but it's true) Because we were there for a week, we could make some easy snap decisions about things. We head over to St. Mark's to visit the church, but the lineup is crazy long. Forget that idea, go do something else. A day or two later, we were passing by St. Mark's in the afternoon and there was no lineup at all. In we went. There was no rush, no feeling like we had to get this done now because we were leaving tonight and why are there so many people visiting my church!??!

Lots of uncrowded areas in Venice

Our big trip had a natural flow to it, from Italy into Greece by ferry; Chios, Greece to Turkey. Train to Syria. Car to Jordan. Ferry to Egypt. All overland/water and relatively easy. If you can choose destinations that have that kind of flow, it can save you some of the headaches of travelling between destinations. India was a bit of an anomaly, at least in terms of getting there. We ended up flying from Cairo, which is a long flight. But going from Kolkata to Bangkok is just a three or four hour flight. Again, starting in south India and working our way north and west to Kolkata to make that transition to Bangkok a little more accessible.

Working out a manageable path is a bit like writing an essay. Or playing Tetris. Maybe a combination of both. Taking some time to plan your route thoughtfully will make your trip more manageable and enjoyable.

Accommodations

Finding a place to stay is easy these days, so you should be able to find many good options almost right up to your arrival. If you absolutely positively have to stay somewhere on a specific night or nights, book ahead a little more. A general rule of thumb is to book your first few stays well before the start of your trip. You'll be more relaxed and able to get your bearings, and you may discover some things you like and dislike that will help you make choices going forward.

When we're staying somewhere for more than a few days, I like to stay in an apartment. If 'feels' more comfortable than a hotel to my mind. That being said, there's one thing that I do like about hotels. A good hotel will have a comfortable and inviting common area for travellers to gather. So in those spaces, you are likely to strike up a good conversation with like-minded people. The more interesting of a place you are in, the more interesting that person is likely to be. This has been the case for us all over: Riad Hotel in Hama, Syria, where we met new friends from New Zealand, Australia, the UK, and the US; the Luna Hotel in Cairo; El Salaam Camp in Dahab, Egypt; several spots in India; the rooftop at Casa Perletta in Chefchaouen, Morocco, where we met a wonderful Canadian couple who were now (and are still) living in New York, and we've managed to connect a couple of times in person since; the rooftop at Hotel Santa Isabel in Toledo; Hotel Alavera de los Banos in Ronda; and more. Often these places have wonderful breakfast spreads as well, and you are bound to chat about your plans for the day over a pistachio-cream-filled croissant (Hello, Albergo Centrale, Bologna!). You might also get some good info about a place you'd missed in your research.

Our kitchen in Istanbul

When I'm looking for places to stay, it's inevitable that you'll find booking.com or airbnb at the top of any search that begins with "Hotels in…" But I will always put in the extra time to find a hotel or apartment website and book directly through them (unless their site feels a little shady, or perhaps has a payment method that seems light on security).

If you're landing in one spot for a week or more, you can often find discounts on accommodations for those longer stays. Airbnb also has a part of their site dedicated to stays of a month or longer with some places offering substantial discounts, sometimes as much as 50%. The monthly rate is not as cheap as if you were renting for a year, but it's far cheaper than a nightly hotel rate. It's worth asking through the actual website of the hotel/apartment if they offer long-stay discounts.

Our preference is to stay in the area of the city/town that has most of what we want to see. Coincidentally, the train station will also be close by, allowing you to arrive by train, walk to your hotel, and then walk to most of the things you want to see. Spending a little more to be in the centre is often worth it for the sake of saving time on the metro or bus getting to the things you want to see. I keep talking about Venice, but Venice makes for good analogies. Staying in Venice is more expensive, but there really isn't much comparison to staying outside the city and having to train in first thing in the morning, and getting the train out every evening. Late night walks along the Zattere, a late evening meal, or sitting on your terrace overlooking the city before retiring. Our apartment in Florence was just a few minutes from the Duomo, right in the centre of the city. We could head back to put our feet up if we felt like, or if we forgot something, whatever. Being close just removes a layer of unpredictability and gives you more time, and it's way more enjoyable. When you're travelling for extended periods, saving yourself little bits of time and aggravation goes a long way towards making the whole trip that much more enjoyable. Spend more time doing the things you want to do, and less time on the functional necessities of travel. Of course, this all depends on budget. Sometimes saving a few dollars here and there is worth it, and sometimes spending a few more is worth it, too.

Getting Around

Almost all of the time, within a city we are walking. Sometimes though, the city centres are just too big to walk, as in say, Paris, so the sooner you get the metro figured out, the better. 

Nothing puts you right in the middle of the action like walking. A car will get you there faster, this is true, and if that's what you want and need, have at it. You'll walk past shops, past homes, past the people, past workers, past a living city, and it's difficult to get that feel in a car. That being said, once we had our fill of walking around Rome, discovering and making use of the bus stop around the corner from our front door was a boon. 

Occasionally we'll take a taxi to the airport, but there's often a cheap and convenient bus direct to the airport from the city centre (like in Madrid, for instance). 

In Europe, travelling between cities is quick and efficient with the country's rail system. Buses will connect most of the smaller towns, but there are some places that will require a car to reach if it's important to you. I had used Loco2 in the past, but that has rebranded as RailEurope. I was sad at first, but really, a much more fitting name. It could not be easier to use. So easy, I really don't have to explain it. 

Every country has their preferred way of travel. In India, it's the train. Slow but easy and outrageously inexpensive. 

It may not have the kind of amenities you're used to, but if you're in India, I think you'll find the trains comfortable enough. Maybe not the washrooms. No one finds those comfortable.

Lots of buses serve large and small centres, but we found it most comfortable to take the train when it was available. In Southeast Asia, buses seem to take precedent (Vietnam being the non-conformist here), but are comfortable, clean, and well-maintained. A quick search of getting from Point A to Point B in your country of choice will give you a good idea of what most people do. Generally speaking, most countries outside of Canada and the US rely far more heavily on public transportation, and it works well, and gets used a great deal.

We rented a car twice in Italy, for a two-week period in Greece, and for a single day in Turkey. If you want to drive overseas, be sure to get an international driver's license.


Attractions

One very important thing to note is the opening hours of any attraction you want to get to, and understanding their ticket procedure. Case in point #1: For visits to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, it is recommended to book your tickets up to three months in advance. Three months!! This may seem ridiculous, but if you're going to Granada, you are likely there to see the Alhambra. And while not a complete disaster, it would be a crying shame to miss it.

As spectacular as it is from the outside, the interior of the Alhambra is even moreso.

When you have confirmed your travel dates, book your tickets. The Alhambra is a bit of a special case as it also has very specific entry times to part of the site. Pay attention, and don't miss your time. Just about any reading you do about a place worth visiting will note these kinds of things, but that being said, we still met people who were trying to buy their Alhambra tickets the same day, or the day before who was very angry and had clearly never heard that the Alhambra was a popular place. Case in point #2: Make sure that the place you want to visit is open at that time of year, and on the days you're going to be there. Our trip to Morocco could only be configured in such a way so as to be leaving on a Saturday morning, flying out of Casablanca, home of the Grand Mosque, a grand mosque that is closed to visitors on Fridays. Since we wanted to spend most of our time in other cities, we only arrived in Casablanca on Friday. We hoped that maybe they would make an exception for two exceptionally wonderful people, or that maybe by some miracle they'd just happen to be open that particular Friday, but it was not to be. We got to wander around the exterior, which is pretty cool, but not the same thing. We were prepared for it, so it was not a shock. Sometimes, schedules just won't work out and that's the way it is.

In many cities, you can get special passes that allow you to take in multiple attractions for a cheaper, bundled price. Here are examples from Verona and Venice. Sometimes these passes allow you quicker access without having to wait in line. In Rome in August for instance, we bought a pass, for both Palatine Hill and the Colosseum,  at the Palatine entrance that had three people in line. Then we went to the Colosseum and walked past the long, long lineup and into the four-person line for people who already had tickets. That's a big win when you're travelling with kids.

In some places, the major attraction is just exploring, walking, wandering, and getting lost in a labyrinth of back streets and stairs that lead to the sky.

Wandering around Chefchaouen, Morocco

More Chefchaouen

A country's tourism website is a good place to start, and popular regions will have their own site that's likely far more informative. If you're looking for info, say, on the amazing Amalfi Coast, positano.com looks worth your time. It's filled with paid tour links, but at the bottom of the page you'll find loads of useful links, like how to get there from Rome, or bus schedules, when to visit, etc.


Packing

This goes without saying, but the lighter you pack, the easier it is to get around. You can always do with less while you're on the road, and will rarely find yourself saying, "Boy, I wish I had another ten or twenty pounds on my back right now!" If you really, really need something, you can likely find it wherever you are. I had an 80 litre pack for our big trip, and that was plenty big enough. I brought a couple sketch pads with me, but ditched one of them within the first week. Paper is heavy. As long as you find a place with a washing machine here and there, you'll be fine. If not, a sink and a bar of soap are a good substitute. In some countries, laundry can be done inexpensively, though it will cost you in thread count over time.

Our rule of thumb is always, Pack Light. For our short trips, three to four days of clothes is plenty, with a greater emphasis on underwear and socks. There are a few places where a humid environment is unwelcome. Ah, and good shoes too. I'll take a good pair of walking shoes and a good pair of sandals, no more.



Travelling With Kids

Travelling with your kids doesn't have to be more difficult, other than the complexity of travelling as a larger group. Of course, if you've got infants, that's another story. The biggest challenge will be in keeping your kids engaged and entertained, particularly during long bus or train rides. A good book, some simple games, and a curious mind are a good start. Having activities planned that give them something to look forward to makes for great conversation starters. Taking a long train ride is a lot more palatable when the Pyramids are at the other end. We planned a few beach holidays throughout our travels, and the success of the first of those was a great reminder of something to look forward to in the future. As well, there are just lots of spots around the world that are just cool for kids. Be it amazing sites, hiking and climbing, building sandcastles, a world of new food, zip-lining in Laos, or something as simple as drinking from ancient fountains in Rome, there are lots of things to help kids engage with their new surroundings.

Costs

This is a big one. Not a big price necessarily, but a big topic. You can travel as expensively or inexpensively as you want. What did our trip cost? Well, a lot. Or not that much. Kind of, but not really. Confusing? Maybe.

Because we were away for nine months, and over a full university year, we were able to rent out our house while we were away. This covered all costs at home, and made us a little money, too. Nothing broke down, no real problems were encountered by our renters, and they were very considerate of our furniture and home, so there were no headaches there. I'm an artist, and I did no paid work during our time away, so that was a bummer money-wise, but also great because I didn't have to think about where and how I was going to get work done; and, I could be dedicated to all the planning that needed to be done while we were on the road. My wife was a school teacher back then, and was able to capitalize on a workplace deferred salary plan: four years at 80% of her salary and then one year off while collecting that held back portion of her salary, so 80% again. It's not necessarily a given that you have to sell everything you own, your car, your house, your possessions, in order to make a long trip happen. We had those four years to prepare for this, so the bulk of our extra cash went towards the trip we knew was coming, as opposed to some vague idea of 'saving money,' and the salary deferral was like a forced savings plan. Keep in mind that no matter where you are, you are going to spend money, whether it's at home or somewhere else. Our costs over and above what we would have spent were not crazy. Of course, we couldn't have done this type of travel indefinitely, but nine months was easily doable. Between the lower income tax and the revenue from renting, we were comfortable enough. If we'd had to cover all our housing costs for a house we weren't living in, that would have been very different.

Receipt from the Al Khawale Restaurant. At the time, it was 50 Syrian pounds to our dollar. This was a sweet meal for twenty bucks, for four.

An important factor in all of this was that we planned for six weeks in the Middle East, two months in Southeast Asia, and almost three months in one of the least expensive countries in the world, India. Our first three months were in Italy (very pricey), Greece (not so bad), and Turkey (getting better). Our three months in India cost less than one month in Italy - for the two weeks on the Arabian Sea in Gokarna we averaged less than $25 a day. For all four of us. It was inexpensive enough that at the end of our time in India, I realized that our bank account actually grew, noticeably. It was so cheap that a two-dollar meal in Bangkok seemed an outrageous price to pay for a plate of food. And let me be clear about something: the food in India was outstanding, as it was all throughout Southeast Asia.

Rooftop at Hotel Kamal. Someone had at this point not learned to pace their lassi intake. This view as the sun set was something else.

Our most expensive hotel in the last half of our trip was $58 a night at Bentleys in Mumbai. I'm sure we could have found something for less, but we'd just endured an overnight train, arriving at eight in the morning, and we wanted to get settled quickly. Next most expensive? I think it was the Tri Gong Hotel in Chiang Mai. $27. Throughout India and Southeast Asia, it was usually costing us between $8 and $20. In Italy, accommodations cost was in the range of 75 to 90 euros, a little less in Greece, and less again in Turkey. If we'd spent the trip in Western Europe, the trip would've been six months long at best.

In Rome, Monticchiello, Florence, Alberobello, Astros, Athens, Chios, and Istanbul, we stayed in apartments. This allowed us to cook meals up at home and prepare our own lunches if we wanted. This will help keep the food budget on the right side of the ledger. Eating out in the Middle East is much more affordable, even in really good restaurants. Southeast Asia even more so. India, as mentioned above, is the gold standard in this regard. A prime example of this was New Year's Eve in Gokarna at the Pai Restaurant. This was a celebration, an evening to remember, and we ate like kings and queens (which for me, usually means lots, but this was really, really good food. We had a number of different dishes, lassis (a smooth and creamy yogurt drink), and dessert, and the grand total for this extravagance? Ten dollars for the four of us. 


The ever-popular Pai

Keep in mind that we were doing a lot of walking, climbing, hiking, moving, non-stop it seemed, until we sat down to eat, so we were always hungry, and we could pack it away. In Hanoi, three months later, we paid a visit to Pepperonis, a place that hosted a near-legendary buffet. A 35,000 dong (Vietnamese currency) all-you-can-eat buffet. Two dollars and fifty cents. It was alarming how much empty space our bodies had to store it all. I'm sure we were polite, but wow. I don't think I've ever eaten that much while still being able to move afterwards. 

Outside of flights, the rest of the trip, all nine months comes in at around $37,000 CDN. A couple rental cars, lots of attractions, lots of food, lots of trains and buses, snacks and gelati, souvenirs, audio guides, donations, taxis, books, hotels, apartments, clothes, lassis, insurance, dosas, saris, everything.

Expenses in India

Flights

We tried to limit our flying as much as possible, organizing our trip so as to make use of overland travel. 

  • Winnipeg to Rome - July
  • Cairo to Trivandrum - December
  • Kolkata to Bangkok - March
  • Hanoi to Vientiane - a gametime decision at the beginning of April
  • Bangkok to Winnipeg - May
We could have bussed from Hanoi, but we'd heard horror stories about the 24-hour bus trip. If it had been a few months earlier, I'm sure we would have taken the bus, but in month #9, we were looking for easy and simple.

The total cost for flights was right around $10,000 (and that's even with paying for business class from Egypt to Cairo, a long story not yet covered outside of the book). You've probably heard it said that the most expensive thing is just getting to your destination, and this is particularly true outside of Europe. 

Saving

This is briefly covered above, but how do you save for a very long trip? Priorities. Make it a priority and it's more likely to happen. It's not a guarantee, but you have to start somewhere. Of course, you need to be making money to save money, and maybe you'll have to do a few jobs you don't like. But the rewards are many. A lot of it is just simple stuff, the most important being spend less than you earn.

  • Eat at home. Period.
  • I don't drink or smoke. 
  • I don't go out to bars.
  • My entertainment consisted of fees for my sports teams.
  • If we needed something, we'd wait for it go on sale. 
  • No coffees on the way to work.
  • No impulse buying.
  • We were driving a fifteen-year-old minivan up to going on that trip, and prior to that it was a nearly thirty-year-old car. 
  • If something went wrong in our house, I'd fix it. Any renos that needed doing, I'd do them.
  • You can make budgets and lists and all that, but I didn't bother. I just avoided spending money unless it was necessary. Spend less than you earn, as much and as often as possible. 
Insurance

Do not forget travel insurance. We didn't even use it the time we actually needed it, because the cost of our Italian hospital excursion was only six euros, but this is a critical piece of paper. 

Fellow Travellers

You will find that one of the greatest sources of information will be fellow travellers. Make use of those common rooms at your hotel and get talking. There's a good chance you will find someone who has been where you want to go, and they can give you a bit of a lay-of-the-land from a hands-on perspective.

All At Once

An important thing to keep in mind is that you cannot plan a trip of this magnitude all ahead of time. For one, you won't be able to get all your visas at home, you'll figure it out on the road. Our short trips are well planned before we leave home, including where we want to go on any particular day, but because we stay a few days in each city usually, those days and schedules can be mixed and matched as necessary.

For an extended trip of many months or longer, you will not be able to book all your accommodations ahead of time; you won't be able to book all your trains and intercity travels; you won't book all your visits to important sites; you might not even book your flight home. You'll figure it out and book a bit ahead while on the road. You don't even want to book everything ahead of time, as that will take away a bit of the spontaneity long-term travel provides. Too many benchmarks will eventually start to feel restricting. If you get delayed, if you get sick and need to hunker down for a few days, or, most importantly, if you really like a place, you can stay longer.

As long as you have the tools and the understanding of how to do some of your booking and researching, you will be set up for a long and successful and fun trip. By the time March of 2008 rolled around, I found myself booking a flight home for the four of us. More than three thousand dollars worth of flights, at midnight, on the wifi of our guesthouse in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I'd certainly never done anything quite like that before. But I had spent the previous eight months finding places to stay, things to see, trains to book, routes to take. And every bit of planning I did made it easier to accomplish the next whatever it was that needed to be done. There is no substitute for experience.

If you have any questions about planning a trip, drop me a line. I love to talk travel.


Sketch of Toledo's cathedral, as viewed from the terrace of Hotel Santa Isabel

Interested in the stories of our Big Trip?

Europe and the Middle EastIndia and Southeast Asia. You can find more info about the books here. If these are not the most beautiful travel memoirs you've ever seen, I'll go on another trip and take better pictures. 

There's also a text-only version (with multiple covers) here!

Not sure which book is right for you? Read this!