Monday, August 31, 2015

Staying Fit While Travelling

I've seen a number of articles about how to stay fit while you travel, but I think if you're travelling, staying fit is the least of your worries. On the other hand, if you're a tourist sitting on a beach somewhere, then you might want to give it some consideration.
Before we left home on our two hundred and seventy-five day trip around the world, we were a reasonably fit family, and I think a big part of staying fit on the road is having already established healthy habits. You can very easily develop some good habits while you travel, but you can also very easily entrench the bad ones.
Here are my thoughts on the subject.
First of all, it's all relative. What does "fit" mean to you? That opens up a whole other can of worms, but by and large, let's say that by "fit," we are also considering your health. Generally speaking, if you're fit, you're healthy. And if you're healthy, you're fit. That's how we'll approach this.
Fit also looks different on different people. So we're not talking how you look, but how you feel. And how you respond to the rigours of travel, both physical and mental.
If your response to a missed train is a bout of screaming and stomping your feet, or if climbing a flight of stairs makes you wheeze, you should probably take some time to consider how that will impact your travel plans.

For my family and me, staying fit was less of an issue than making sure we were getting enough calories. We weren't running marathons or doing cycling tours, but we walked an awful lot, carrying all our stuff in a single backpack each. At the end of the day, we were hungry. And at the beginning of each day, we needed a good meal to help us stay energized.


Travelling encourages you to do a lot of walking. You could take a taxi or other mode of mechanized transportation, but if you don't have to, don't. Walk. See the sights on the way to the site. Meet local people, stop and talk, get to know your surroundings. It will do wonders for your psyche and help you shed some unnecessary pounds, if you have any. Walking is simply one of the best exercises ever 'invented,' and comes will all sorts of excellent side effects. Being fit has the potential added benefit of allowing you to experience a place a little more fully. So if you need to walk the five hundred steps up to the top of St. Peter's, or the nine hundred steps up to The Monastery at Petra,




 you can do it without over-exerting and maybe hurting yourself. If you can't now climb a few sets of stairs comfortably, start preparing for your travel dreams today, or be realistic about what you'll be able to accomplish. Or both.
We did a number of hikes, like in the Vikos Gorge in Greece, that demanded a fair bit of physical literacy, as they say.


You could also carry your kids' backpacks when they get tired. Or carry your kids...we tried to avoid that as much as possible. We tossed the frisbee with locals on the beach in Gokarna, India. Walked from the Ephesus site back to the nearby town of Selcuk, Turkey. Walk, walk, walk.
We stayed in apartments throughout Europe, and in addition to giving you more space, you also have your own kitchen in which to prepare meals. You will likely cook with less salt and less fat than what you will find in a restaurant meal, and you will save a ton of money. If you're travelling with your children, have them help prepare the food and make it a family affair and teachable moment. That being said, there were times when we just couldn't resist.


One thing we really cut down on was snacking. Mid day snacking, late night snacking, bad food snacking. This is not to say we didn't have a bag of chips here and there, but we significantly curtailed our bad-calorie input. Bad calories have a tendency to weigh you down physically and mentally, so the more you can avoid them, the better off you will feel. Being on the road with a food hangover, be it when your bus blows a tire in the middle of India or you're climbing those never-ending stairs to the cupola in Florence, is no fun at all.




Having a more active day will often result in a less active night. And getting a good night's sleep is critical to being your best self in any circumstances. Travelling with children certainly encourages good sleep habits, as you will be home earlier in the evening, and less likely to be dragging yourself out of a bar at 7 a.m. on Khao San Road.


If you want to be a little more hard-core, you could always do pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, rudimentary squats, or search out a gym, but we found that our overall fitness level was never better than it was in the middle of that trip. Much of that was due to walking and climbing everywhere, hauling our own backpacks, eating and sleeping well, and being together as a family. No other workout required (being with my family was not a workout! It added to the overall sense of well-being).

Driving in Athens

September 12

Let me just say right now that I have never driven in Athens (and as you all know if you've been reading along, I have still never driven in Athens, but being in the front passenger seat is still pretty darn close), but it is an experience like none 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 each of other, and no one seems to get too worked up about things. Unless you don't anticipate a green light. It starts innocently enough, just a little blurt of a horn to let you know the light is now green, but wait more than a second, then all hell breaks loose. Horns start blaring, people holler, bikes and scooters fly by.
There are no pretences in Greek driving. If you need to get somewhere, even if it's across three lanes of bumper to bumper traffic, you go somewhere. If someone needs to get across three lanes of traffic, well, he/she must have a pretty good reason so you let him/her do it. 
The nutty thing for the uninitiated is that there are very few overhead signs letting you know what the major routes are, and street sign placement is not an organized science. Many are placed on the side of a building at a street corner. No building on that corner? Wait till the next corner, maybe you'll get lucky. When you do find one, which after some practice in locating them you usually do, it may not include the English lettering along with the greek. And if it does, it may not be spelled them same as on your map. It's like code-breaking at 50 miles an hour in a confined space with no coffee break, someone sitting right beside you bemoaning the fact that he has no idea where you are, where you have been, or where you are going, or else he's shouting 'Turn here!!' without mentioning which direction 'here' is.
On the way into the city on the big highway, Laura tried to pass an army truck full of army guys in the back. Some joker in the fast lane doing 150 came flying out of nowhere to give Laura a blast of his horn and Laura jumped back in to our lane rather awkwardly behind the truck full of army guys. They all had a big grin on their face and they all seemed to be looking at me. My return glare made it clear 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.
We got lost more than a few times in trying to find our way to the Europcar office downtown. With the help of a guy at a gas station (who showed us on the route on the map, then when he saw us still standing in the middle of his parking lot a few minutes later staring at the map, he came over and said, "okay, forget the map, you go this way, turn right then go until….." etc. He then got to work filling up something and almost got run over by someone else!), we managed to miraculously (I do not use that word lightly) make our way to within one block of Syngrou Avenue, where I asked a newsstand guy where we were now. This time when he pointed, it was a very direct point, not a vague towards the moon kind of point like the elderly couple near Megalopoli. One block, he says. Brilliant.
We made it on to Syngrou, flew by the Europcar office, turned at the next block and found ourselves at dead end. I got out and ran to the office and the guy told me I can park it anywhere on the street. There was no room on the street, but that was a minor detail. We unloaded most of our bags with our friends (who had been following us through all of this), and tried to get back to the office. Not easy. We got back on to Syngrou only to find out you can't do a u-turn. We obeyed the law for about 2 kilometres (we are Canadians, after all) then did our u-turn. Then went the wrong way. Then found our way from another way, then arrive at Europcar and parked in the middle of a crosswalk. Finally, we were in Athens.

After 20 minutes of paperwork, and a call to our apartment guy, and I drove off with John and the bags while everyone else walked. We got there on our first crack. John double parked (like 40 percent of the other unoccupied cars in Athens), and I ran over to find Liana and Penny waiting for me. I apologized profusely for being late, they smiled considerately and brought me up to the apartment, and it is fantastic. Bright, clean, balcony, bathtub, and a washing machine. It's perfect. I mean, really nice.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

How to Smuggle Your Knife into the Vatican Museum

After all the walking around we did yesterday, it was decided that we should figure out this transportation thing quickly or we'd wear ourselves out before Rome was done with us. We managed to get ourselves lost walking down to the central train station, but the good thing about getting lost in Rome is that it is just so darn fun. There's something interesting to see literally everywhere - down the street, across the street, in the trees...


     At the train station, the patient lady at the tourist info booth tells us that we can find a bus map 'out in the centre.' We walk around out in the centre for ten minutes, looking for a sign that said ATAC, Rome's public transport company. What seemed so endearing yesterday, the dearth of public signage, is now a curse. Nothing. 
     We ask at a magazine shop, Parle Inglese? 'A bit.' Where would we find the ATAC office so we can get a bus map? 'Outside and to the left,' he says proudly, and off we go before he can say another word. We head outside, spirits lifting on this bright and sunny Rome morning. We're doing it, I'm thinking to myself. We turn left and find exactly nothing. Maybe he meant the other left. Nope. A few more minutes of befuddled wandering before we go back inside, and Laura asks someone at an official looking desk where we might find this most important map. 'Any newspaper or magazine seller will have one,' they say. Hmmm. At the nearest magazine shop, I find exactly what I'm looking for on the left side of the rack. I hand my euros over to the familiar looking retailer who eyes me kind of strangely.
     Our booklet contains a remarkably comprehensive and intimidating bus guide, as well as a handy metro map which shows us that the nearest metro stop is right outside the station, beside the ATAC office. On our way to the bus stop, I frown in that direction, just as some guy jumps out of his chair to ask if we need any help. No thanks, I mutter, forgetting the blue skies for the moment, we're just going to catch a bus. To the Vatican! Laura shouts gleefully. 'It's right there! Go, GO!' he says, his arms flailing in a 'get moving' sort of fashion. We jump on the bus just before the doors close and have our tickets stamped (Matthew is free) in a self serve machine. No one checks that we have done so, but failure to stamp them could result in a fine of up to 500 euros. We will continue to stamp them as required.


     In a shady spot near St. Peter's Square, we eat some lunch (assembled from parts purchased at our neighbourhood bakery) and watch all the goings on. Tourists travel in large packs, small groups, as individuals, so much activity that this is nearly an event unto itself.
     The lineup for the Vatican Museum is minimal today, so we get in pretty quickly, so quickly in fact, that Laura's still packing our lunch knife away, a knife sharp enough to cut tomatoes so thin your in-laws will never come back. Then we see security, and the bag screeners that look like they're on loan from a major airport. Laura quickly tries to stuff the knife in my bag. I'm thinking, put it in the kids bag, for crying out loud, not mine!
     We decide to come clean and tell the security guy hanging out by the door that we have a knife that we used for our lunch, you know, to cut cheese and such. 'What kind of knife is it?' he asks with a pleasant smile. Uh, a cheese-cutting type knife. 'Let me have a look,' he says, still Mr. Casual. Laura pulls out the serrated cheese killer, and security guy does this very audible inhaling whistle. 'Better check that,' he says, pointing to the bag check desk. 
     Bag check guy is uninterested in us, even as I walk toward him with a knife in my hand. 'Security first,' he says, and waves us away. I stuff the knife deep inside one of our bags and throw them on the rollers of the bag screener, sending them through along with a little prayer. The guy watching the x-ray TV calls Laura over and asks her to explain purpose of the long, sharp-looking item. She opens the bag in question and starts to pull things out, but that is not the bag I put the knife in. I start to suggest that maybe it is the stiff backing of the very sturdy day pack, but TV man puts his hand up in a sort of 'back off' gesture. He calls over a couple of co-workers, and the three of them come to the conclusion that it is probably the hair brush. Yeah, that's it, the hair brush, I say, with a nervous laugh as I quickly gather up our other bag, you know, the one with the KNIFE in it, and we do an innocent-as-possible jog over to Bag Check. We wait for a few minutes before the clerk looks up and says, a bit impatiently, 'You can't check that here, this machine is broken. You have to go upstairs.' I was tempted to say, We have a knife! but I held my tongue.
     Up the long escalators, then we see the Baggage Check desk, beyond the ticket booth. We pay our way in, 42 euros (no freebies here), and walk with purpose over to bag check, relieved to finally be rid of this albatross. The man smiles brilliantly and waves us on by, like he's doing us a favour. 'It's okay,' he says, 'you can take that in!'

     Stunned, we walk into the Vatican Museum with our very sharp knife.