Sunday, June 28, 2015

Entertaining Kids During Long Term Travel

Throughout a nine-month long journey around the world, you are bound to have some downtime. How do you best help your children manage that time in a way that helps them to be engaged with wherever you happen to be?
Here are a few tips that helped keep a lid on mutinous thoughts over the course of those 275 days.

Although we had a laptop with us, it was not intended to be the go-to device for keeping the kids out of our hair while we figured out how to get to wherever we were going next. Just like at home, we would have the odd movie night, and part of the joy of finding one dollar DVD's in Damascus is in wondering just what exactly it is you will be watching that night. Didn't plan on watching The Incredibles in Spanish? We'll get over it. We're in Damascus. Let's make masks instead.

One of the stipulations we had in planning our trip was that we wanted to see things that were decidedly not North American, so while we did go to Italy, Greece, and Turkey, we were also in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, India, and Southeast Asia (I'm sure there's a lot of argument about where the line between 'very much like North America' and 'very little like North America' could be drawn; we could easily and rightfully say that Italy has very little in common with our home town - but let's just go with ease of existence and leave it at that for now). Our thinking in going to some of these countries was that we were not there to entertain ourselves so much as we were there to learn, and to see and experience.
As such, on those long train rides in India, if we weren't sleeping or talking about what we had done that day, we would spend a lot of time with our own thoughts, looking out through the barred windows, and seeing India for what it was. From the slums on the outskirts of Delhi, to the beautiful countryside between cities, we saw a lot of India in seventy-six days. We saw a lot because we weren't texting, or playing games on our phones (uh, actually, we didn't have a phone of any kind with was 2008). It seemed to me to be counter-productive to be in India, and playing a two dollar game on a small screen. We could do that anywhere.

All that being said, there is only so much thoughtful gazing one can do on a twenty hour train ride from Jaipur to Amritsar. So...
Bring books. Yes, books are heavy, but a couple well-loved books will go a long way to making that all-day bus ride or overnight train ride a little more palatable for everyone.

Who knew it would take twelve hours to do the three hundred kilometres between Gokarna and Hospet, India? Many budget hotels have a leave one/take one policy, so if you're done with something, you can leave it and grab another book that catches your eye. As well, in India and parts of Southeast Asia, books are far cheaper than what you might be used to if you're coming from Canada or the US, so it's a little easier to justify buying a book or two. Of course, this may lead to your wife buying several travel books and stuffing them in your bag while you're not looking.

A drawing pad and a pencil. Again, more stacks of paper, but good not only for sketching and idle doodling, you can play all sorts of games together after breakfast and before you go for a dip in the Arabian Sea.

Travelling by bus in Turkey comes with a lot of perks, like bus stewards serving you cups of Turka Cola and little cakes on plastic plates. If you've thought ahead a little and saved business cards from every carpet shop your parents took you to (or were tricked into entering), a styrofoam cup and a a little clear plastic can be engineered into a pretty cool flying contraption. Giving them the chance to learn to entertain themselves is invaluable.

One thing I wish we would have done a lot more of, was let the kids lead the way. Let your children have the guidebook and make the decisions about how the day will go, and have him explain the Battle of Thermopylae to their younger brother.

Just a few seconds after I took this picture, one of the museum guards was walking up behind them, I think with the intention of telling him to keep their hands off the exhibits. When he recognized that they were talking about the battle and not goofing around, he let them be. He kept an eye on them, but he allowed them to learn and discover at their own pace, in their own way.
That's part of the beauty of long term travel, having the time to spend a little more time than might otherwise be necessary. If they've got a notebook and your kids want to sit and sketch hieroglyphs for half an hour, so be it.

Including your children in your future plans is another way to ensure smooth transitions from one city to another. Hanging out in Jerash for four hours was not quite long enough for our oldest, who let us know it. However, knowing we were going to be at Petra in a few days made it easier to let it go. Being part of the plans gives them some ownership, and the ability and opportunity to anticipate is a big part of travel just as much for children as it is for adults. It's a lot easier to tolerate the scam bus from Thailand to Siem Reap if you know that Angkor is at the other end of that miserable (but now laughable) mini-journey.

And although there are certainly many more things that one can do, this is my last bit of advice, courtesy of Max Johnson who helped us in our planning. For any extended bit of travel, take time out for the odd holiday. We put in place several stops along the way that included relaxing beaches. If nothing else, if no one is having any fun, there was always a new beach just around the corner (although we did have one two-and-half month stretch with no beaches...) to recharge, and read those books that your wife hid in your backpack.

Chios Beach on Chios Island in Greece

Kudle Beach on the Arabian Sea, Gokarna, India

Learn more about our travels here, and find our books, herehere, and here.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Most Magnificent Things

We happened upon Chittorgarh quite by accident. A train reservation clerk who was maybe new to his job? A computer glitch? Or was it just plain old fate?
Whatever it was that conspired to get us to Chittorgarh bright and early that January morning, to you I say, Thank you.

Here's our story of Chittorgarh. Be patient, there are many pictures to come.

     Given our past experiences in getting on trains, Matthew is understandably nervous, but more contented as we arrive at Bandra Terminus over an hour early. Still, he is Mr. Chit Chat until the train arrives, with wide eyes darting back and forth across the platform, scanning the horizon for any sign. He is visibly relieved when the train pulls up well ahead of departure time. He is visibly annoyed when they tell us we must wait for them to finish cleaning the train before we can get on. We sit with our bags, taking turns checking out the many food stalls up and down the length of the platform. Men come by and stick large sheets of paper on the outside walls of the train car, beside each door. It’s a computer printout listing all the passengers by name for each particular car along with the seat number assigned to them. We are thrilled to see our names listed on the side of a train car in India, like we are now written into history. We are in a class 3A car, meaning three levels of bunks, six people in each berth, air conditioned. These were the only seats available when we reserved them in Aurangabad. 
     As soon as the car is ready for us, we jump on and get to our seats and make ourselves comfortable. We chain our backpacks together underneath one of the seats, keeping out anything we may need for our overnight journey. It’s not long before the train pulls away. As we will be arriving in Udaipur very early in the morning, I ask the man who comes by checking our tickets what time he expects we will be there. He give me a solemn look and says, No Udaipur. This, Ajmer. 
     Now, I’m not a complete idiot. I can see that the ticket reads Ajmer so a little explanation is in order. 

Some seat tickets are held back until all other remaining seats are filled, then made available at a much higher cost (I assume they are most often bought by tourists or businessmen who don’t mind paying a premium for making last minute decisions). Also of note, you must buy these particular tickets for the entire distance that train runs, no matter where you choose to get off along the way. When we bought the tickets and it said Ajmer as our destination, the ticket seller explained the nature of the ticket, and told us that we would be able to get off at Udaipur.
     I continue with my story.
     Yes, I understand that this train goes to Ajmer, I say, but when will we pass through Udaipur? This earns me an even more grave look from ticket man, No Udaipur. Ajmer. He handed back our tickets and moved on to the next compartment. Silence. For the sake of our younger readers, I will just let you imagine the contents of the thought bubble above my head.
     The Indian businessman sitting with us says, Not to worry, this train stops in Chittorgarh and from there it is only two or three hours by bus to Udaipur. We get out our travel guide and look up Chittorgarh, and the first line reads: Chittorgarh contains the greatest fort in Rajasthan and is well worth reshuffling an itinerary for. That sounds promising. Our itinerary is already shuffled, so Chittorgarh it is.
     We arrive very early in the morning, before sunrise. The alarm watch wakes me, I wake Laura, we wake the boys. We all wipe the sleep out of our eyes, and use the bathroom before the train stops in the station. Standing in the aisle with our packs on our backs waiting for the train to come to a complete stop, it looks like we are ready to jump out of a plane.
     We make a soft landing on the Chittorgarh platform and into the waiting arms of a friendly rickshaw driver. We exchange pleasantries as he does his best to sell us on his abilities as a driver and a guide. As dawn begins to break, he walks us over to the station desk where we stow our bags for the morning, then walk out into town. 
     After a quick breakfast we jump into the rickshaw which sputters away, back and forth we go up the hill through seven large gated archways. Speeding along in the open-air rickshaw, the crisp morning air stings our faces just a little bit, just enough to let us know that there is something ahead, something out there worth the chill.
     Our driver, whose name I cannot remember, stops at a small temple, and we begin to explore this unknown place.

     With our feet on the ground, the sun now feels warm, and anything in it's view radiates a welcoming embrace for the road-weary traveller. Meera Temple is small, but decorated with delicate carvings over much of its surface.

     Nearby Vijay Stambha is our next stop, and is more than worth the price of admission (which, incidentally, was free) on its own. Built in the mid-1400's, it stands 120 feet high, and the upper floor, nine stories up, is accessible only by a tiny, tiny staircase, as space is at a bit of a premium. Navigating my 6'2" frame up, and later down, that stairwell was no easy feat, and even months later I was having dreams of getting myself stuck in a similar, but more sinister, set of stairs.
     The inside of this tower has carvings all over, along with a bit of rather elementary graffiti, from the bottom all the way to the top, from where we can see all across this impressive place, perhaps the largest fort in all of India.

    Our driver takes us around from place to place in his rickshaw, telling us as much as he knows about the fort’s fascinating history, and apologizes for his English, explaining that he normally acts as a Hindi guide. Chittorgarh Fort is an imposing place with walls thirteen kilometres in circumference, complete and intact, sitting at the top of a six hundred foot hill on the east side of the town of Chittorgarh. Our guide takes us out an enormous door on the east side of the fort where we have spectacular views over the countryside, and of the massive fort walls.

     Inside the fort are numerous temples, palaces, and of course, monkeys. There is even a school in the fort as there are around four thousand people living in the town within the walls. 

Nearby, a man makes a whistling sound and a number of monkeys gather. They follow him in silence as he casually tosses bits of food to them all. 

It’s a magnificent morning and we feel quite fortunate to have stumbled across this place that we hadn’t even heard about until  fifteen hours ago. Being so early in the morning, there are very few people here, probably because they got on the ‘right’ train out of Mumbai. A real pity, because this place is brilliant.

     The kids have a wonderful time exploring everything, and now have memories of this incredible place because somehow (and I'm not blaming anyone here!), we got on the wrong train leaving Mumbai the previous afternoon.

     After three hours of uninterrupted bliss, we make our way back down the hill, back through those seven large gateways who along with our guide, are among the only witnesses to our morning visit to the fort. 

     No stinging faces now as the sun is high in the sky, the air getting thicker by the minute, but in that lovely India way that makes you feel like you're being held by the country itself.

Here's my painting titled The Wrong Train, a door from one of the temples inside the fort.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Free Book??

Well, progress is as progress does.
You can now follow me on Twitter at or on Facebook at
If you're bored stiff and need something to keep you awake, or maybe put you to sleep, you can keep reading this blog.

And if all that weren't enough, there's still the website,

Oh, almost forgot, I'm now on Goodreads as well, so you can check me out here,
There you can read some of my book reviews, read some excerpts from my book, and if you're in desperate need of free stuff, sign up for the book giveaway for a chance to get my book for free. For real! I even pay the shipping; at least, that's what Goodreads tells me.

Speaking of books, if you didn't catch it above, my book, The Great Year - India Edition is now available. You can get it in two versions, the Budget Traveller version or the Midrange Traveller version. The books are identical in content but the Midrange uses higher quality printing.
Watch the book trailer here (it really is a must see, I think someone said that):

and learn more about the book here:

Now after all that excitement, before you rush off to buy the Budget version, if you live in or around Winnipeg, I'm here to tell you that my publisher is having a sale right now, so I can get books at a bit of a discount. 
So I'm going to order as many Midrange Traveller books as they can fit in a box that's big enough to fit all the orders I get in the next four days. Normally the book is $34.99 plus shipping (which is about ten bucks for one book), but if you act now (and by now, I mean before Monday) you can get the book for $33.00, shipping included! That's a 25.5% savings! Any more savings than that and I would run out of exclamation points on my keyboard!!::... See? It's already happened. 

So, to recap: if you want a book at the low low price of $33.00 and you live in or near the city, shoot me an email, (or send me a tweet, or message me on Facebook (you can try and contact me at Goodreads but I have no idea how the message system works there, so don't try that)), and I will put you down for a Midrange Traveller copy. 
Shipping takes close to two weeks so I will respond to let you know I received your order, and again when the book comes in.

And remember, you can now reach me here:

This has been a very word heavy post, so, pictures!

A two page spread from the book.

Note: All imagery is footnoted in a photo glossary at the back of the book.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What Does it Take?

I'm biking home yesterday, and I stop at a light (Grant and Harrow, for all you Winnipeggers).
I have a bike lane, so I pull up to thefront. First three cars, the drivers are all texting. First car? A mom texting, kid in a car seat in the back, looking at an iPad.
Are that many people still doing that? Is it getting worse?

Saw a couple women today pushing strollers absent-mindedly, while looking intently at their phones. Kids are going to be messed up if parents look at their phones more than their infant child.

Unrelated to texting, but today in a car park, I pass a car where a parent is dealing with stuff in the hatch while their child introduces their car doors to the car beside them. Parent didn't even look up.

Not sure why I'm so irritable today. I think seeing so many people texting in three thousand pound vehicles while I'm on a bike put me in a sour state of mind.

Maybe one of these days I'll have to join the crowd and get a smart phone so I'll have another reason to go for a drive.

What are the other 10% thinking, I wonder?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Pecha Kucha Presentation

Back in December, I gave a talk at Pecha Kucha night at the Park Theatre in Winnipeg. If you are unfamiliar with Pecha Kucha, it's a format where ten or twelve people are invited to speak, usually around a given theme. An individual can have twenty slides to go along with their talk, and their talk can only be six minutes and forty seconds long, so twenty seconds per slide. The talk can focus on the content of the images, or not; follow the imagery, or not. But once you start, don't stop. You've only got 400 seconds.

It was a little nerve-wracking, with the spotlights shining down, standing up on stage above the audience, but it was a great experience.
Here's the talk I gave.

A number of years ago when our kids Jonas and Matthew were very little, my wife Laura and I had an inkling that things wouldn't always be this way, that these little boys wouldn't always want to hold our hands when we crossed the street, wouldn't always ask for another story, and correct me whenever I fell asleep and muttered something incomprehensible.

A few years later when our kids were older we decided to do something a little bit different. We knew full well that pushing into our 40s, our good health was not something we could or should take for granted, and that if we waited until retirement to do the kind of travelling we really wanted to do, well, who knows? Both of our fathers developed conditions that eventually made it impossible for them to travel more than a few blocks from home.

So what we decided to do was take a year off and just go. Away, far from here. The only real stipulation was that we wanted to see something that was decidedly not North American. And we wanted to do it as a family.
A bit of Europe, then the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia.

Now this was a bit of a stretch for me as I was a stay at home dad and freelance artist, two things that in combination can quickly turn you into a bit of a recluse. I stuck to home, fed the boys, played lots of ball hockey, and drew pictures like these. The kind of drawings that you fuss over for hours and hours
But I eventually came to realize that this trip was something that couldn't be passed up. To travel as a family, sure, lots of cool places, yup, and as an artist, boy, what an opportunity to build the reference library of all reference libraries. 

Seeing as we'd be staying in budget hotels (at best) the entire trip, I checked out what the Lonely Planet guidebook considered a budget hotel in Winnipeg. Well, the first one listed in the Lonely Planet was the Royal Albert….
Now the benefit of staying at the Royal Albert is one, that you're right in the middle of the action, so you're going to see the city at work. And two you are unlikely to get lost in the comforts of the Royal Albert and are much more likely to get out and see the city.

From our usually crappy but comfortable and friendly hotel we ventured out and saw some pretty awesome things, and my sons managed to pick up a tiny souvenir from just about every one of them.

Sometimes we splurged, like spending 12 dollars a night for our hotel in Agra that from the rooftop had a rather captivating view of the Taj Mahal.  Sometimes we had to spend a little more and venture a little further to see a place like Termessos, north of Antalya Turkey

People often ask what was my favourite place, and for simple eye popping splendour, I'd have to say Angkor in Cambodia. Our kids had the time of their lives exploring all the nooks and crannies of the temples, and it was a place that reminded me of our place in the Earth's natural environment. 

Also getting out of your hotel and exploring the city you will meet a lot of friendly and inviting people. They will want to share stories and ideas, ask if you are married, how much your camera cost, how much money you make.

One of the great joys of travelling throughout India was that everyone wanted a picture with us, in part because we were clearly tourists, and I think also because one of these tourists had blond hair. My favourite of those experiences came courtesy of some Indian hipsters in the city of Aurangabad, the picture in the middle. These four friends each had their photo taken with Laura and the boys, so when I walked up and asked one of them if he could take a family photo for us, he said, "Oh, no problem sir," handed my camera to his buddy, and wrapped his arms around Jonas and Matthew, smiling for the photo.

We took short holidays within our trip, as long term travel can be fatiguing if you actually want to get out and you know, do stuff. For whatever reason our holidays were usually beach holidays interspersed throughout that year- a couple weeks on a quiet Greek Island, Christmas and New Years in Gokarna on the Arabian Sea, spring break on the South China Sea coast. It was a wonderful way to recharge before heading back into a regular pattern of movement.

Given that we spent 2 weeks in Syria, I feel compelled to say that
Syria is, without a doubt, home to some of the friendliest people on the planet. We were greeted constantly by teens and seniors alike, Welcome to Syria! Hand shakes from men, quiet greetings to my wife from shy young women, a kiss from a young man who found Jonas's blond hair to be a marvel, conversations with Iranians in the Damascus souk, I could go on and on.

Syria is also home to some very impressive Roman era cities. Apamea, two kilometres of pillars along an impressive colonnade, and Palmyra where a temple is said to have existed for two thousand years before the Romans arrived.

As the trip progressed, I began to look at my photos in a new way. I recognized that some of them were just beautiful and interesting in their own right, whereas others I knew the moment I looked through the viewfinder that a certain image would make a great drawing. 

And then there were times when I was beginning to see something completely different, and I think it was opening myself up, to travel and seeing the world, that allowed me to start to see things in a new way. I also understood that if I were to try and draw everything, I'd need 50 lifetimes.

What helped move this sort of thinking forward were a number of little lessons learned along the way, like seeing people on the road to Luang Prabang in Laos, incredible scenery as we raced along the edges of small mountains, and here were these folks relaxing on the edge of the cliff outside their thatched roof homes, enjoying the beautiful view, seeing it for what it is now, not dismissing it because it's been there every day.

This trip was no doubt full of spectacular moments and wondrous images. I was amassing a vast catalogue of door photos, a representation of all that this trip was giving us. The unique nature of each door reminding me of a moment in time, a place on our travels that is still distinctly ours, but is undeniably there for everyone.

Looking with this sort of vision was not a natural thing for me, as I could quite accurately be called a glass half empty sort of guy about some things. But this trip helped me to reconnect with my more immediate surroundings and see them in a way that might not otherwise have been possible.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of long term travel is how the stress of life just kind of melts away. All the difficulties, the busyness, the obligations of home, they're all gone, and they are replaced by something entirely different. So now you're this person with no agenda, and you can simply re-envision yourself as the person you most want to be. That's sort of the ideal but there is some truth to it, if you open your heart to the world around you.

A few years before we went away, I would have thought that what we did was impossible. Two kids at home, a mortgage, jobs, we were about as entrenched as it gets. A few years after, I see it almost as a necessity. 
If you want to see the world, do it now. Don't say, "As soon as I get this or that thing done, then I will go…" There's always a million things that could get done. Do what you want first, and you'll probably find that most of those other things get done along the way.

Don't wait for that promotion, until you get married, until you have kids, the kids are older, or you're retired and think you'll have all the time in the world. All the time in the world is right now and there's a beautiful world out there waiting for you to come and find it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Found Findery

Found a really cool internet place called Findery last week.
Basically a sticky-note layered over Google Maps, allowing anyone to leave notes at virtual locations all over the world. Want to tell people about that awesome beach in that awesome town on the awesome Arabian Sea? Leave a note and a photo to tell your story.
There are loads of notes from loads of people (including me) about loads of places all over
Check it out, and start with me.