Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Big Trip

If you're new to this blog, you may see me mentioning "The Big Trip" here and there, without explaining too much about what that entailed. While I've posted a lot of stuff about specific places from that trip, I've posted little about the whole thing, other than this very brief post back in 2014. (Time keeps on moving, I'll tell you that much for free.)

Today, I'm going to fix that, and tell you all about the trip that quite literally changed my life. You could also just go here, or here, or jump right in and buy my books if you're a fan of travel books that actually look like travel. You know, colour and history and faraway places, that sort of thing. There are a lot of books, but this handy guide will direct you to the one(s) most suitable for you.

A visual overview of The Big Trip

The Big Trip

Back in the early 2000s, my wife Laura came home from work one day and said, "I need to do something different." She had been teaching for almost ten years at that point, and was worried that she might spend her whole career in a classroom. I was a stay-at-home dad and freelance artist. I was not worried about similar prospects as a stay-at-home dad, but what did I know? Ideas started getting tossed around, and some time off with a bit of travel thrown in the mix was the one that kind of stuck.

In 2003, she started on a deferred salary plan at work. This meant that she'd work four years at a reduced salary, and then get the fifth year off while receiving that same reduced salary. Win-win for raising children and exercising free will. As we thought more about where we'd like to travel, that travel component of the year off grew from three months to a full eight months, thinking that this way we could have some students rent our home while we were away.

In 2006, we went to see Max at Great Canadian Travel to discuss our intentions and our interests, and from that he gave us both a bare bones plan to work from, and the confidence that such a thing could indeed be done. Max gave us a rough route through the countries that we were intent on seeing, plus some he thought we would also enjoy. At that point, the heavy lifting began on my end: research, research, research.* Nearly a full-time job, as now Max had us being gone eight-and-a-half months. "In fact, can you leave earlier? Let's go at the end of July!" he said. Nine months. 

Our initial plans included Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, India, and Thailand. By the time July 29th of 2007 rolled around, we'd added Cambodia and Vietnam (and while in India, but for some heated political protests we would have gone to Nepal as well). We were nervous, but ready. Our flight out of Winnipeg left just after midnight on the 30th, and that was it. We wouldn't be home until some time in May of 2008. It was our good fortune that our kids were in grades five and seven for that year, which I think is right in the middle of a bubble of time that makes for good extended family travel. 

Our plan was to move relatively slowly, not trying to fit in every conceivable site in the area in which we happened to find ourselves. 

A rough outline

We Started in Rome - August

The patio of our fifth floor apartment in Rome
I have fondness for Rome for this simple reason: it's where we started this whole thing. One week in The City of Echoes allowed us to get our bearings, and continue as travellers. Barely ten nights in, we had one of our most memorable moments about an hour north of Rome in the small town of Sacrofano (two nights): a meal in a piazza with brand new friends. One week in the village of Monticchiello gave us time to explore a little bit of Tuscany before landing in Florence for another six nights. Our stays in Rome, Monticchiello, and Florence were in comfortable apartments allowing us to spread out a bit, make our own meals, and kind of pretend that we were actual inhabitants. We had considered Venice next, but Max convinced us that Venice in August may not provide the view of Italy that we were looking for, so instead we went south: a quick stop in Sulmona (home of Confetti), another at Tenuta San Francesco, and then four nights in a wonderful trulli just south of Alberobello. From there, we did a day trip to Matera and Grotti di Castellana. Southern Italy is definitely much lower key than the cities of Rome and Florence, so it was a nice change of pace. It also put us in close proximity to Brindisi and the ferry that would transport us to our next destination. [We had a rental car between Rome and Florence, and picked up another leaving Florence, which we dropped at Brindisi Airport. Our accommodations in Rome, Sacrofano, Monticchiello, and Florence were all arranged from home. Sulmona was a drive-up; Tenuta San Francesco we found thanks to a wonderful guy at the Best Western in Barletta; and the trulli was arranged via email sometime after Florence.]

Monticchiello apartment

The patio at our trulli house

Greece - September

It's an overnight ferry from Brindisi, Italy, to Patras, Greece. Here we picked up a rental car and immediately drove to Astros, on the other side of the Peloponnese. One week here gave us the opportunity to visit Epidaurus, Acrocorinth, Monemvasia, and more, from our home base at our Astros apartment. We managed to spend a couple of those days at the nearby beach, our first dip in the Mediterranean. Lots of driving and lots of great food that week. The gyro was quite the discovery. At the end of the week, we drove to the Athens airport to meet some friends from home, and then drove west together to Delphi, then north to Kastraki where we spent three days exploring spectacular Meteora. One night stays in Monodendri and Vikos followed - the days involved a lot of hiking around and into the Vikos Gorge. One night in Nafpaktos before taking the plunge into Athens for a six-night stay in another great apartment.

Athens apartment

After that, it was time to take our first holiday - two weeks on the island of Chios, for some quality beach time and general relaxation.

Limnos Beach, all to ourselves for almost three weeks

A few days into our stay, we found out by pure chance (this was the one location after Italy, for the rest of the trip, for which our families had contact info, as I had made the reservation before we left home) that my wife's father passed away, so she flew home to be with her family for a week. The kids and I soldiered on, and arrangements were made to extend our stay at the house rental. Laura returned, we had a few more days with Limnos Beach all to ourselves, and then it was time for another ferry. [Again, Chios house arranged before the trip; Astros via email a week or so ahead of time, found on VRBO; Meteora via email a few days in advance, Nafpaktos and Delphi (actually Galaxidi) stays were drive-ups.]

Turkey - October

The ferry from Chios to Çesme was not even an hour, and just like that, we're in a new country. After clearing customs and paying our 45 euro entry, it was a quick walk over to the bus station. We explained where we wanted to go, but I also understood, through some advance internet study, that we needed a bus that would take us to a particular station in Izmir, because we were carrying on to Selçuk. The bus (like all buses in Turkey) was comfortable and (unlike all buses in Turkey) only half full. Bus terminals in Turkey are like large airports, big and confusing for someone who is unfamiliar with such scale. Fortunately, a man who drove a mini-bus between Izmir and Selçuk found us, and also fortunate, his family owned a hotel in Selçuk too. Two nights here gave us plenty of time to visit Ephesus, and to practice what was quickly becoming one of my favourite pastimes: exploring the food offerings in a new country. It also introduced us to Turkey's national pastime, carpet selling. I say that as a joke, but the number of hours spent in Selçuk carpet shops is not something I will ever brag about. Be polite, be firm, but don't be coerced to stay, either by guilt or by non-stop chatter (and we experienced both and more), and listen to a shopkeeper's spiel. 

The bus from Selçuk to Bodrum (I cannot believe I haven't told this story somewhere! I'll fix that soon) was an adventure, mind you a fun one to talk about later. Two nights in Bodrum because a well-known guidebook told us that the Underwater Archeology Museum was one of the greatest museums in all of Europe. Well, our favourite time in the city was a couple friendly chats with Ilhami, a young man who worked a fruit stall near the waterfront. Then an overnight bus, with three stewards taking care of us (and the two or three other passengers(!)), to Antalya. Four nights at the Sabah Pansiyon in Antalya to visit a great museum, further our food experience, and explore one of the great sites of the world. 

Exploring the theatre at Termessos, north of Antalya

Overnight bus again to Goreme where we visited the Goreme Open Air Museum, the International UFO Museum, and did our first (of very, very few) organized tour. A seven-hour bus trip to Ankara where we visited the fabulous Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, and also had the best dates I've ever had, before or since, from the bulk section on the front steps of a small grocery store. One night in Ankara and then another day-bus to Istanbul for a relaxing and fun-filled two-week stay. There is loads to see and do in Istanbul that I won't list here, but it was certainly fun to be in such a great city for an extended period, in a fabulous little two-bedroom apartment. Becoming a regular at the local grocery store, walking over the Galata Bridge nearly every day, visiting the most amazing mosques, eating kebab after kebab after kebab, just a fabulous time. From Istanbul, we arranged our train trip to Syria - what would end up being a 36-hour trip to Aleppo. [Selçuk, Bodrum, and Ankara hotels were essentially walk-ups; Antalya and Istanbul were finalized over the course of many emails sent from hotel computers or our laptop when there was wifi. We arrived in Antalya not entirely certain they would have a room for us.]

Syria - November

After a not-nearly-as-bad-as-it-sounds 36-hour train trip, we had three nights in Aleppo, and this is where it began to feel like we were really somewhere different from home - physically, practically, visually, emotionally. It had been getting a gradually different to this point, and certainly Turkey was new to us, but Syria was the whole package of different, but all in a good way. We ended up in Hama for five nights, mostly because we all got a little bit sick from a bad shwarma at the Hama bus station. But from here, we got to see a couple more truly amazing places in Palmyra and Apamea

Setting sun at Apamea

Then a six-day (day/night, whatever - if something is a stay of three days or nights, it all means we spent three nights in that location) in Damascus. That was probably a bit too long, but we don't mind lingering, and we enjoy all the great food we get to sample in these new places. 

Quick note about Visas

Because we were out of Canada for a while, we couldn't get our visas ahead of time. We got our Turkish visa at the port in Cesme when we arrived there; the Syrian visas we arranged at the Syrian Embassy in Istanbul; Jordan and Egypt were arranged at the border upon arrival. India was one that worried us as we'd heard some stories, but that was easily sorted in Cairo before we left Egypt. Thailand doesn't require a visa, just an entry stamp to acknowledge our arrival. The Cambodian visa was arranged at the border, and almost involved fisticuffs. Our Phnom Penh hotel organized our Vietnamese visa for a minimal cost. And finally, our expensive Laosian visa was purchased at the Vientiane airport on arrival.

Jordan - November

Entry into Jordan from Damascus was by taxi to Amman, then immediately on a bus to Madaba for four days. If you're curious about that trip and how to smuggle cigarettes into Jordan, here's an aside. Lots to see and do here, including a worthwhile day-trip to Jerash. We had a private car and driver take us along the King's Highway to Petra. We spent a night there and made quick plans for an overnight in the Wadi Rum with a New Zealand family we'd met in Damascus, and had dinner with in Madaba. Then it was back to Petra for three more nights, giving us loads of time to explore at Petra. Worth every day and more. An early and very smokey bus took us to Aqaba, and then a very expensive ferry to Nuwieba, Egypt.

Collecting sand at Petra, the Monastery in the background

Egypt - December

We arranged a mini-bus to Dahab with some guys we met while waiting at the ferry terminal in Aqaba. We ended up staying at the same 'hotel' as them for six nights. Yes, six! Dahab has a way of swallowing you up, and making your forget about some of the plans you had while there. Lots of snorkelling by the swimming members of this family, and lots of pretty awesome food, including many milkshakes at Al Capone's on the waterfront, and loads of koshary at The Koshary Place. Three nights in Cairo. Three nights in Luxor, one at the Shady Hotel (longish story) and two at Happyland (I'd go back for their breakfasts alone), before returning to Cairo for a very casual five days. Mostly eating great food and exploring Cairo's juice scene. Then it was on to Trivandrum, India, or so we thought.

Doorway at Karnak, Luxor

View from the Pizza Hut in Giza

India - December, January, February

In general, India has other plans for you. Once you are comfortable with that fact, you will be fine. Our reservations from Cairo to Trivandrum were cancelled, which resulted in a lot of running from desk to desk at the airport seeking out flights to anywhere in India. Who knew that if you could afford to pay business class fares there will always be a seat for you? At any rate, we ended up flying to Delhi, overnighting there, then flying to Trivandrum the next morning. Our plans for India began in Alleppey, with a one week stay at Palmy Lake Resorts (not a resort, but a homestay - little, comfortable cabins on someone's property) which we had already booked. We had a pretty organized itinerary for India that involved starting in the south, which is called the "easy entry" to India. We thought it best to stick to our plan. Overnight train ride to Gokarna where we spent two glorious weeks on the Arabian Sea over Christmas and New Year's. Restaurants were cheap and plentiful, be we gravitated to two: Pai Restaurant on the main drag (a dirt road), and Mahalaxmi, with it's perfectly perfect rooftop patio close enough to the sea that you could see and hear the waves coming in while we enjoyed our breakfast. Most of our time outside of these restaurants were spent at Kudle Beach. Interesting tidbit: Gokarna was recommended to us by a British couple that we met on the Wadi Rum trip in Jordan. They had spent a fair bit of time in India over the previous years, and when we told them that we were going to spend some time in Goa, they said, "If you want to see Goa like it was twenty years ago, maybe try Gokarna." We did, and we loved it. And we ran into them on our second day there at the Pai Restaurant, and spent some time with them on the beach over the next week or so. Nothing planned, we had no idea where they were staying, no contact info, just bumping into each other around town or at the beach.

Kudle Beach, a short walk from Gokarna

Pai Restaurant in Gokarna

Long bus ride to Hospet, followed by a short but crazy-crowded bus trip to Hampi, staying for three nights. Hampi is amazing, I'll leave it at that. Train from Hampi, booked through Rahul's Guest House (a great cheap place with guess what? Fabulous breakfast), to Hyderabad. This was supposed to just be a quick stop before immediately heading to Aurangabad. Unfortunately, there were no trains out that way for three days, so three nights in Hyderabad. Fine enough, although we did not go see Golconda Fort, much to the chagrin of a Tasmanian we met on the train a few days later. Overnight train from Hyderabad to Auranagad. Booked into Hotel Indradeep by a scammer driver who told us our original choice, the Shree Maya, was fully booked. He actually took us there, but front desk guy tells us they are full. We go back to Shree Maya because we'd read about their breakfasts, and meet the manager. He tells us they are not full. Hmm. Back to Indradeep for a lot of drama that I won't get into here, grab our belongings, give menacing looks, and walk back to the Shree Maya. Ellora Caves and Bibi Qa Maqbara are the highlights in Aurangabad. One night here, then another overnight train to Mumbai, for three days.

We took the wrong train, another over-nighter, out of Mumbai, ending up in Chittorgarh, a blessing in disguise, then a bus to Udaipur that very afternoon. Five nights at Nukkad Guest House, then a bus to Jodhpur for two nights, overnight bus to Jaisalmer for four nights. Overnight train to Jaipur for three nights at Hotel Pearl Palace. Three nights in Amritsar at the gurudwara by the Golden Temple. Overnight train to Agra, for three nights at Hotel Kamal. One day we did a day trip to Fatehpur Sikri, an absolute must. (Note that Hotel Kamal in particular was nowhere near as fancy as their website suggests. Perfectly fine for sure, but they were chosen by their rates, which were under $20 a night.)

A Day in the Life of the Taj Mahal
Right outside the front door of Hotel Kamal

 Five days in Khajuraho, feeling like we were starting to slow down, physically and emotionally. It was so relaxing to be there, the food at the Agrasen Restaurant so amazing, it was tough to leave.

Tired of buses and trains, we hired a car and driver to get us to Varanasi instead of some kind of bus train combo. We ended up in Varanasi for seven days, trying to figure out our last bit of time in India. Some point along the way, we decided to go to Nepal, but Nepal was doing everything to keep us away. From political strife to worker strikes, it just didn't work out. We then booked a train to Darjeeling, but that too was scuttled by runover from Nepal. Those tickets went unused, and we just ended up going to directly to Kolkata, where we planned to end up after Nepal (or Darjeeling) anyway. On the bright side, Varanasi was great, the Shanti Guest House was perfect and had, you guessed it, an amazing rooftop restaurant. The amount of time spent sitting up there with Rosa from England and Ian from Montreal felt well worth it all. Overnight train to Kolkata and a six-night stay, although I guess two of those were spent at the Sunderbans National Park as part of a tour. And then we were off to Bangkok, on a flight booked from the Shanti in Varanasi, barely a week before.

Doors of India

On our way to Bangkok; guy with taser on the right coming to say, "No photos on tarmac!"

Thailand - March

Arrival in Bangkok was smooth and easy. Grab a ticket for a taxi, stand in line and wait your turn, give your driver an address and off you go. Three nights in Bangkok on Khao San Road, sort of a backpacker's haven. Did a bit of touristy stuff, and then it was off to Cambodia, via the infamous Scam Bus. So infamous, it gets capitalized. It's an interesting story, if you like reading about crushed dreams and lost hope for humanity. Okay, it's not that bad, but man, what a day.

Cambodia - March

After that crazy day, we ended up at a hotel that was nice, but in a room too small for the four of us for a whole week. One night there, followed by a hotel search the next morning, bringing us to Family Guest House. And get this: they have this really nice rooftop patio, with a small restaurant serving up great food, including the best dragon fruit ever. Ever! Six nights at FGH, and four days exploring around Angkor. 

Angkor, maybe the coolest place in the world

Two nights in Phnom Penh, and that's it for Cambodia. Long bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City that included a fan belt breakdown. Crossing the border between Cambodia and Vietnam was about as uneventful as I could have imagined - easy, drama-free, quick.

Vietnam - March

Our early afternoon arrival in HCMC gave us plenty of time to look for a hotel, but before we found something suitable, something suitable found us. A pushy older woman with a red arm band marched us down an unseen opening in the wall of shops on a main street, into a labyrinth of windy alleys and four-storey buildings with about as much girth as a postage stamp. Four days here before it's time for another beach break in Mui Ne. I don't even know how we found out about this place. We had bought some guide books in Cairo, so it was probably through my reading in one of those. Getting from place to place along the coast is made very easy, with a government-run bus that goes from HCMC all the way to Hanoi, with several stops in between. You can buy a ticket for the whole way, and just get on and off wherever you want. You just need to ensure there's available space the day you want to get moving again. At any rate, the bus dropped us off right in front of the Hong Di Guest House. The link shows the wrong location, but judging by the photos, that's the place. They had a perfect little bungalow that was less than a hundred feet from the beach, a covered spot looking at the water where you could eat, and guess what? A great little restaurant too. I am thinking that it might have been that we were constantly so active, that anything with a calorie or two in it would have been extraordinary to our taste buds. Five days here, could probably have spent ten just as easily. Great place, great beach.

Early morning on the beach at Mui Ne

Bus to Nha Trang, have some burgers at a restaurant by the sea, then transfer to a sleeper bus, complete with individual seating that folds down into partially-reclining beds. Three days in pretty Hoi An, and then another sleeper bus (this one with no suspension!) to Hanoi, with a quick pit stop in Hue long enough to visit the Forbidden Purple City. One night at the Old Street Hotel, then two nights on a Halong Bay tour. The owner of the Old Street was kind enough to let us in on a little scam run by some tour operators, and we managed to avoid an annoying couple days. Back to Hanoi, the Old Street is fully booked, but we find the Hanoi Guest House, situated in what I called a contemporary medieval village a little north of the Quan Chuong City Gate. Four more days of walking around Hanoi, eating its fine, fine food before this time flying to a new country, Laos.

View from our balcony for round two of Hanoi

Laos - April

Our flight to Vientiane became a certainty after hearing the many horror stories of the 24-hour bus from Hanoi. They were enough to get us into an air-conditioned office of Lao Airlines in Phnom Penh to book flights. Two nights in warm and pretty Vientiane, three nights in warm and pretty Vang Vieng, five days in warmer and prettier Luang Prabang. A two-day trip on the slow boat along the Mekong, with an overnight stop at a tiny, tiny guesthouse at the back of a tiny, tiny grocery store in Pak Beng run by the wife of the guy who pilots the slow boat. We arrived in Huay Xai on the Lao-Thai border too late to get across and catch a bus, so we overnighted in Huay Xai, finding a really good Indian restaurant. "Do you serve breakfast?" Yes. "See you in the morning!" 

Thailand, Part II - April

Cross the river to Chiang Khong on a stick that some official generously considered a ferry. Stamp stamp into Thailand again, and walk straight to the small bus station, and off again. Chiang Mai was not terribly cooperative, weather wise. Forty-four degrees every day. 44. We limited our excursions to temples and 7-11s. One day in the extreme heat at the non-air conditioned SK hotel followed by three nights at the super duper air-conditioned Tri Gong Hotel. One of the very best places we stayed at the entire trip. $27/night. Everything about this place was well thought out and above expectations. Although, no restaurant. Not really a thing in Thailand, maybe. Not to worry, as good food options abound, as in the no longer there Mike's Burgers. Brilliant place. Long bus ride to Bangkok, and efforts to find a hotel prove aggravating, so it's back to the bus station to sleep it out. But what's this? Is that a bus leaving for Trat at 11:30 pm? Yes it is, says lovely bus lady. Overnight to Trat, arriving at three in the morning. Ugh. Jump in the back of a pick up truck with bench seats (a songthaew), over to the pier, and onto a ferry to the island of Koh Chang. Find a poster for a place that has bungalows on the water. A songthaew arrives at 11am, and off we go, along roads that mostly look like they can handle a vehicle half this size. Seven nights at the extraordinarily simple but perfect Treehouse Lodge (which closed at one point over the years, but seems to be back) on Long Beach, at the southern edge of the island. Two perfect little thatched-roof bungalows side by side, a few feet from the water, and a main lodge that had, you guessed it, a restaurant serving up perfect food.  Three more days in Bangkok at the Erawan House a couple blocks from noisy Khao San Road, and just like that, it's April 30th. And sometime shortly after midnight, 275 days after we arrived in Rome, we board a flight headed for Incheon, South Korea, then to Chicago, five-hour layover, and then Winnipeg. Three days later, it snowed. Our first snow in over a year.

One of our huts on Long Beach, Koh Chang

And that was that. The Big Trip, 275 days on the road, and around the world. 

I think at that point we thought we'd be back to travelling in a couple years or less. But with kids entering high school, and getting involved in sports, developing deeper friendships, it wasn't to be. And we let that dream slip to the background.

It was inevitable, I suppose,  that it would bubble back to the surface, but it was almost nine years later, in spring of 2017 before we left Canada again. In the meantime, I'd been creating a lot of art based on the Big Trip, and had a Big Show in 2010. I edited the blog from our trip and put together a book, three actually that were in full colour with hundreds and hundreds of photos and pics of the art.

I've spent much of my free time in lockdown planning, reading, thinking, about all the things we'd like to do when it's possible, and we look forward to getting back to that soon. Portugal, Croatia, more Spain, more Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Southern France. Eastern Europe. India maybe? It's been a while, and we are not the young pups we were back then. We'll see.

For now, I will be content with posting new things I find with regard to travel destinations on this blog, or on Facebook, adding new imagery to my website, or my Redbubble shop, and remembering and writing about some of the places we've been. 

If you're interested about a particular place mentioned here and want more information, ask away. I love to talk about travel.

*The Research - I was going to add info about my research and planning for this trip, but this post got out of hand pretty quickly. I'll post about that soon, and link to it here

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