The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Solo Travel

Ah yes, solo travel, that thing I never shut up about.  Whoever you are and wherever you’re from, at some point you will find yourself out there on the road alone.  Whether it be a business trip, a visit to the parents, or simply a desire to just get away from all – at some point, everybody must brave the long, dusty road alone.

Let’s look at some of the benefits, pitfalls and general nastiness of solo travel.


THE GOOD:

1. Solo travel is cheaper.

If you’re like me, you will probably find you can travel much cheaper alone. I’m not very picky and don’t mind cheaper things. I can happily eat the cheapest street food without being bothered by the questionable quality of it. If I’m on my own I seldom go to restaurants, I usually just grab some bread or fruit from the local market.

When travelling with other people there is always someone who wants to go to a proper restaurant, someone who is vegan, or someone who wants meat, etc. Unless you are travelling with a person of similar tolerance who is happy to eat basic cheap food, you’re inevitably going to end up spending a lot more than you want to or need to.

I also don’t mind staying in accommodation of questionable safety or hygiene, or in an undesirable location. I don’t mind walking two kilometres instead of getting a taxi. I don’t mind doing a 20-hour train ride in 3rd class on a wooden bench. It’s very seldom I meet other travellers who are happy to sacrifice their comfort to the level I do just to save a few dollars – but those few dollars here and there add up to a lot over the long run.

2. You become more independent and brave.

brave

One of the main psychological reasons that everyone should travel alone is overcoming the fear of being out of your comfort zone. This may seem unnecessary if you have no desire to ever live anywhere other than your hometown, but there are still so many aspects of life that are potentially improved by this experience.

Confidence can be greatly increased simply by becoming aware of what you are able to endure and learning how well you react to certain situations. Your ability to socialise, think quick, make decisions, trust yourself – all these things benefit from the lessons learnt through travelling alone.

“Wandering is the activity of the child, the passion of the genius; it is the discovery of the self, the discovery of the outside world, and the learning of how the self is both at one with and separate from the outside world.” (Roman Payne)

When travelling with other people you tend to adapt and limit yourself, to what they want to do. You project upon them the things that scare you and instead of overcoming them you succumb to them because you believe those you are with would succumb to the same. You don’t test each other, rather limit each other, through a shared belief – or doubt – in each other’s abilities.

When alone you have no choice but to face challenges and frame challenges within your worldview and come to your own conclusions about what you can endure – without any outside noise to obscure your vision.

3. You can follow your own itinerary.

coffee

Travelling alone means never having to do anything other than exactly what you want to do, right then, at that moment.

You can change your mind at will, leave when you want or stay indefinitely. You can sit and watch TV in the local pub all day if it pleases you, or do a marathon visit to ten museums. You can make friends with some strangers and if they decide to do something that doesn’t interest you, you can abandon them with no excuses or guilt.

You have nobody to answer to, nobody to please, nobody to burden. Just you. Alone. In the big, big world.

4. You are more likely to meet people and make new friends.

There’s nothing better than arriving at a new destination with a bunch of mates, dumping your stuff in the hotel room and hitting the beach with a few beers.

But how often do you make the effort to meet other people in this situation, especially locals? Sure, you may have a brief chat with a guy at a local store or another traveller at the bar, but you don’t really develop strong connections because you are always distracted by the ease of conversation with those you feel comfortable with.

The fear of being alone can be an incredible motivator – especially for naturally shy people – to break through the mental constraints you have trapped yourself in and burrow into the reality of a completely foreign world.

5. Reality gets put in PERSPECTIVE.

beggar

This is dependant on where you come from, but let’s assume you’re a spoilt brat like me – because really, at the end of the day, most of us are.

I grew up in South Africa so for me third world poverty was something I was relatively accustomed to from a young age. However, moving to London in my early twenties and living there for ten years clouded my worldly immunity and made me soft to the rough edges of reality. Convenience and comfort can quickly change from things you appreciate to things you expect, and it doesn’t take long to forget your privilege.

Fast forward to the hot and dusty streets of some impoverished nation – amputee beggars grasping at your legs for change, war-deformed children plaguing your dreams, over-population, rampant pollution, nations bankrupt by corruption!  You will return to your hometown with a sparkling new appreciation of law, order and even the most basic of conveniences.

 



THE BAD:

1. In the event of accident or sickness, you’re alone.

This is the real clincher, the one thing that can overshadow all the positive of travelling alone. Nothing sucks more than being sick, miles from home and feeling like you might just die here in this hotel room and nobody would even know.

But you won’t. You will live on. You will survive. Today will be your independence day!

People, in general, are actually very quick to help the sick and injured and it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever find yourself in a position where you are suffering alone and without help. (Do get travel insurance though. For real, that shit’s important.)

2. You will be judged and/or targeted.

sadface

As a man travelling alone you may well be seen as some kind of weird social outcast or friendless loser, but fear not – a confident attitude, clear loud voice and good arsenal of politically incorrect jokes will quickly have you surrounded by a veritable gaggle of other unsavoury characters such as yourself.

Make sure you are well moulded into the group before attempting to drop your best pick-up lines on any fair maidens in the vicinity, as the only thing that will judge your loneliness more than the male of the species, is surely the female. Unless you have some mad good game, there are few things more creepy than a solo male traveller hitting on every girl in the hostel.

As a solo female traveller, you have an entirely different bag of challenges to overcome. A common one is trying to decipher whether a guy is being genuinely friendly or just wants to sleep with you (just to clarify, if he’s not gay then it’s the latter).

On a more serious note though, solo female travellers have to deal with a laundry list of problems so long that I could write an entire website about it, let alone a blog. Men with less than savoury intentions are more likely to target a woman on her own, and even in a safe space like a backpacker hostel or hotel, not everyone is an innocent tourist.

It’s a sad fact, but for women travelling alone life can sometimes be very tough. It varies greatly by country but for the most part even just trying to get a tuk-tuk or taxi can mean possible harassment, or at worst facing real potential danger.

 

3. Lack of confirmable knowledge.

alcohol better

Without anyone to question or get advice from, you must research everything yourself and rely on your own ability to make the best choices. Basic travel advice is always available from books, other travellers or the info desk.  However, some things you don’t want to ask strangers about – like why your poo is green, is porn illegal in this country, or whether that girl is actually hot or you’re just drunk.

If you’re a bad decision maker like me it can get very tiring constantly making mistakes, but then again – it is the best way to learn! At the end of the day we’re all clueless anyway so sometimes you’re better off alone.

4. Some things are more expensive.

money

If you do feel the need for some privacy (which I guarantee you will at some point), then renting a private room is significantly more expensive when you’re alone. Similarly, getting a taxi or any form of private transport will cost you at least double. Even eating at a restaurant can cost more when things like a bowl of rice could be shared.

If you have access to a kitchen, cooking for one usually ends up costing almost as much as cooking for two. If cash machines charge a flat rate to draw money, you can take turns drawing money for each other and save on charges. However, in the long run, I think this cost will be offset by the savings you can make from solo travel.

5. Nobody to share the experience with.

lonely sunset

This one is pretty self-explanatory. A beautiful sunset, while still enjoyable to watch alone, can be greatly improved with some company. Going out to enjoy the night-life can often be difficult to the point of down-right miserable if you have nobody to share it with. Life-changing experiences are often easier to understand when conveyed into words and bounced off the consciousness of someone else.

But in this day-and-age of social media – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat – are you ever really alone? Just upload that perfect snap, check-in to some exotic country or post a status of how much fun you’re having and watch the likes rolling in – you’ve never felt more surrounded by friends!

Until your battery dies and the digital sun sets on your sad, lonely existence.


THE UGLY:

1. You. You are the ugly. Because you are travelling alone and don’t need to impress anyone, so after awhile basic hygiene and grooming fall to the way-side and you turn into a wookie.

 

For more travel bits and pieces check out : Travel Tips

Budget Travel: A Note on Haggling

market

It’s important to note that budget travel, especially when haggling, does not mean getting the cheapest possible deal on everything.  Saving money is the aim, but saving money at the expense of someone else is not.

The aim of a budget traveller should not only be to save money but at the same time, promote the economy of the country.  And although it may seem counter-intuitive, going somewhere and just spending loads of money is actually not productive to the overall economy either.

It needs balance.

shop

Haggling

Let’s take tuk-tuks for example since they are prevalent in almost any travel story.  Tuk-tuks (or rickshaws, moto-taxis, jeepneys, etc) almost never advertise their price.  They know their customers come from all walks of life and a rich person might happily pay $10 for a ride that should cost $3.  However, due to the nature of haggling, some people might try to get a ride for $2 or even $1.  If it’s a quiet day, the driver might accept that just to make some money.

This doesn’t mean you should try to get a ride for $1 that should cost $3.  This is not productive to the local economy.  While he might take you at that price, he’s losing money and you’re giving travellers a bad name.  At the same time, it’s equally as bad if people are all paying $10.  If all tuk-tuk drivers are earning far more than they should, locals in other businesses will quit their jobs and all start buying tuk-tuks. The result?  WAY more tuk-tuk’s than required and not enough business for any of them.

For any economic system to work, the price must be right. Not too high, not too low.

tuk-tuk
Tuk-tuks: Everything else blurs in comparison

So what is budget travelling?  It’s about knowing what the price should be and aiming for that.  Of course in certain situations, supply and demand will affect your bargaining power.  A shortage of tuk-tuks and influx of customers might mean you’ll have to pay more but this is where the responsibility of the driver comes in.  He might make a quick buck overcharging you but in the long run, he’s not doing himself any favours.  Unsatisfied customers will find other means of transport and he’ll put himself out of business.

Sustainable Saving

When you are looking for ways to save money while travelling, don’t do it at the expense of the local community.  You wouldn’t go to a hostel and try haggling on the price.  If it’s £5 a night it’s £5 a night, no question.  But you can save money on accommodation without ripping anyone off – by housesitting, Couchsurfing or camping.  Even sleeping in a hammock on a beach or in an abandoned building is fine – as long as you don’t make a mess or upset anyone.

hammock
I wouldn’t have pitched it so high up over rocks, but hey – yolo!

You can also save money on things like transport by hitch-hiking.  This is not costing anyone anything – the person giving you a lift is usually going that way anyway.  It’s still nice to offer them something, especially if they’re going out their way.  Nine times out of ten they won’t accept it because they genuinely just wanted to help you.

hitch hike
Arm wanted to see the world.

Pay it Forward

Haggling, or bargaining, is great.  It’s part of the travel experience and an important aspect of the economy, even if it is unregulated.  However, it shouldn’t be seen as a way to get something as cheap as possible.  The people you are buying from work long hours to provide these goods or services.  One-off tourists have no interest in the future of a country’s economy, but for travellers, this might be a place you end up living or working in the future.  If people can’t put their kids through school, next time you visit, crime could be worse or the quality of services deteriorated.

Spending that little bit extra is not just an investment in them and their country, it could also be an investment in your own future.

They didn’t teach you this at school kids, but this is how you invest money!

Read more on  : Travel Tips

Travel Smart : Safe Banking on the Road

Smart banking while on the road doesn’t just mean looking over your shoulder at the ATM.  There are a number of other concerns and problems that may occur when you aren’t within the safe borders of your home country.

 

cash
Don’t forget your mini-globe!

Inform your Bank before leaving.

Card fraud is more common than ever these days and, as a result, banks are getting more and more paranoid.  If suddenly, out of the blue, your debit card is used to draw £500 from an ATM in Vladivostok, alarm bells are going to ring.  More often than not, if your bank doesn’t know why this is happening, they’ll instantly block your card.

Always let your bank know where you are going, and for how long.

gone
Actual note

Make a note of your details

Use an online program like Google Drive, or a secure password app on your phone, to keep a note of your sort code, account number AND the three-digit security code on the back of your card.  This way if you lose your card, at least you can still book accommodation online (or if worse comes to worst, a flight home!)

Personally, I memorise these details, but a secure online backup isn’t a bad idea.

locked phone
“How did you crack your phone screen?” ” Don’t ask..”

Ask for a backup Debit Card

Losing a debit card while travelling can mean the difference between eating or not.  If you’ve done point two above, you should still be able to book accommodation, but there are few places where food can be bought with anything other than cash.

Most banks will give you a second debit card that you can keep securely at your hostel.  This means that if you lose your card while abroad, you won’t need to wait for a new card to arrive at Barbados Hostel in Vladivostok (a real place), especially after it inevitably ends up at Vladivostok Hostel in Barbados (hopefully not a real place.)

Enquire with your bank about getting a second card.

two cards
Try get a Mastercard and Visa if you can

Get a Card with No Fees

New online UK bank Starling is offering new accounts with NO FEES on any transactions or withdrawals while abroad, in any country.  Another good travel card option includes Travelex Cash Passport, a card that can be pre-loaded with foreign currency. Monzo seemed promising when they came out last year, but now have a huge waiting list and don’t appear to offer anything better than the Starling Card.

A no-fees travel card can save you tons of cash!

starling
Does your online banking app have an uber-cool green circle? Not likely…

Register with Online Banking

With no access to a bank branch, often online banking can be your only connection to your bank while overseas.  Sometimes setting up online banking requires a text notification, so if your local phone number is not working while abroad, you may have trouble setting it up.

Ensure this is all done and working before you leave.

phone
Where’s your banking app mate? Sort it out!

 

For more excellent travel tips check out: Travel Tips

 

New NO FEES Travel Card (UK only)

Starling bank is a new ‘online only’ UK bank offering debit cards that charge NO FEES for withdrawals or transactions, anywhere in the world!

They work with all ATM’s just the same as any other debit card, but don’t charge the usual 3-5%  per transaction that most other banks do!*

It’s the perfect card for frequent travellers.

starling

NO MORE ATM WOES

I know when I travel, drawing cash is one of the most annoying things.  Mainly because you need to plan ahead – if you are out one night and run out of money, you can’t just go and grab £10 out of the ATM.  Even though it’s advertised as only charging you a percentage, there is usually minimum charge of £2 – £3. 

So when drawing cash, you have to draw enough for at least a few weeks to make it worthwhile – the more the better.  But then you have a huge wad of cash on you, so you need to immediately head back to your hotel or hostel and put it in a safe place.

ONLINE APP

 

The Starling online app is also far more intuitive than most banking apps, providing you with accurate descriptions of purchases, correct retailer details, currency conversions and even spending patterns.

All it takes is three minutes to download the app and apply for a new account.  No need to go into a branch, since they don’t have any branches!

starling

Furthermore, if your card gets lost or stolen, you can instantly disable it from the app – no need to call your bank!  The app is secured with a PIN or fingerprint security, so if you lose your phone it’s still secure. The only issue is you will need to get another phone and download the app before you can do any online banking, but your debit card will still work.

JUST LIKE ANY OTHER BANK

Every account comes with the standard sort code and account number, so they can be used for online purchases, direct debits and EFT payments just like any other bank – but with no extra charges!

Currently, they are only issuing Mastercard debit cards, but I would imagine they will start doing Visa soon.  Either way, this shouldn’t be an issue, as in my experience Mastercard and Visa are equally prevalent around the world.

Click HERE to sign up now.

 


*Some ATM’s will still charge their built-in transaction fees if run by an independent company, but this is unavoidable no matter what bank you are with.

(Disclaimer: I am not a qualified financial advisor. This is an independent report about a product of Starling Bank, with whom I have no affiliation, and is published for information purposes only.)

Agra: India’s Holy (Cash) Cow

taj mahal

Agra, also known as ‘that place where the Taj Mahal is’ is, quite literally, that place where the Taj Mahal is. It also features the incredible Agra Fort which I didn’t go to because, like everyone else, I only went to Agra for the Taj.

taj mahal
One of those Taj hand pics

Marble Mausoleum

I must say, though, that unlike most tourist traps, the Taj Mahal is actually worth the time and money (Rs1000 entrance – about £11). It is a well pimped-out palace of note, made almost entirely of white marble. Imagine the number of kitchen counters they could have made with all that marble? Every Indian shanty from Kolkata to Kochi could be decked out with blinding white, glittering surfaces ready to smash any piece of crockery placed down too heavily. But no, instead, the good old Shah Jahan built the world’s grandest gravestone, because that’s really all it is – a big-ass tomb for the Shah and his wife. Nobody ever even lived there.

Taj mahal in agra
Me, very excited about the giant tomb

Room with a View

Another great thing about Agra is that property conglomerates haven’t bought all the surrounding land and built 5-star hotels, so you can still get a £5 hotel room with a view of the Taj! Imagine you could get a hotel in Paris with a view of the Eiffel tower for £5? Imagine how terrible that hotel would have to be? Can you imagine it? Well, that’s how the cheap hotels in Agra are. But hey, for one or two nights, who cares? It’s just somewhere to sleep. And get bedbugs.

Room with awful wallpaper in agra
How’s that freakin wallpaper? Awful. So, so awful.
Taj mahal in agra
Not the worst view at breakfast

No Unicorns at the Taj Mahal

The security at the Taj is pretty damn tight, to say the least. They didn’t even let me take in my latex unicorn mask. I mean, seriously? I know it’s terrifying and mildly disturbing that a 35-year-old man carries around a latex unicorn mask, but what am I going to do with it? It’s not even flammable, it would just melt into an even more terrifying blob of bubbling goo. Books too, they don’t like you taking in books. Or food. Basically, just take your phone and wallet. If, however, you do decide to take your latex animal mask or a dog-eared copy of ‘50 Shades of Grey’, they do have locker facilities to leave your illegals in.

panorama of the taj in agra
Panoramotastic!

Picture Perfect

Once inside you will not be disappointed. The Taj Mahal is one of the few places I’ve visited that somehow makes good photo opportunities possible, despite a massive throng of tourists. We managed to take the prerequisite seven thousand photos of the palace from every different angle, and one or two didn’t even have a single other tourist in! It truly is an Instagram junkie’s heaven.

hand pulling thing at taj mahal in agra
Instagram Crack!

Super Secret Photo Hack!

If you do go to the Taj, make sure to visit one of the relatively deserted side temples so you can get an awesome arch-framed photo like the one below.

I mean, come on, how pro does that look?

amazing instagram worthy taj photo in agra
Look – I’m even meditating. Everyone loves meditating!

Any More to Agra?

As I mentioned above, other than the Taj and Agra Fort, there isn’t much more to Agra. We did, however, have a day to kill before our night bus the following day so we went to explore the ‘Taj Nature Walk’. This I do not recommend. It’s not so much a nature walk as a dry, run down park that made me think of the Pripyat amusement park in Chernobyl. Bonus points for finding the terrifying ‘zoo’ full of plastic animals that I can only imagine were placed there after all the real animals died of boredom from having to live in this park.

terrible park in agra
The fear is real!

Happy Travels!

Read more about my adventures in India here:  Splash Roll Stumble: India

Need somewhere cheap to stay? Stay India

 

panorama of the taj
The Taj makes for great panoramas

5 Fun Ways to Die in Vang Vieng

vang vieng sign
vang vieng river
Vang Vieng River

Disclaimer

Ok, so I know Vang Vieng got a lot of bad press a few years ago because of some deaths, but the local government has actually sorted it out a lot, and it’s (relatively) safe now.  This means that when tubing down the river you can no longer do 20-meter high, unsecured ziplines after five shots of tequila, or triple backflips off the crazy slide into the one-meter deep water.  So if you do still manage to die, it would be entirely your own, idiotic, fault.

With that said, let’s see if we can still find some fun ways to off-yourself in the party capital of Laos!

tubing vang vieng
Tubing in Vang Vieng is (surprisingly) still popular
Vang Vieng: River bars galore

Alcohol poisoning

Back in 2010 before young travellers started treating Vang Vieng like a euthanasia clinic, all the bars tried to outdo each other by having an hour of free drinks at the same time. Realizing this simply split the clientele up and didn’t really supply anyone with enough decent business, they agreed to each have an individual one-hour time slot.  This tradition lives on today and as a result, you can drink for four straight hours, every night, completely free – if you know in which order to visit the bars! This becomes considerably more difficult after bar number two, but I think I managed it once. Or not. Who knows? Not me.

Funny bar vests. They never get old
alcohol better
(Alcohol better)

Get lost in a cave.

Up by Blue Lagoon 3 (or whichever number they’ve decided to call it today), deep in the jungle you’ll find a tiny hole that leads into a huge, pitch black cave that is entirely unguided, unlit and unmanaged in any way.  It’s just a big, long, black hole in the mountain – old school vibes.

Blue Lagoon 3
Blue Lagoon 3

Within this ‘Indiana Jones’ style death trap you can enjoy getting completely and utterly lost by forgetting a twist or turn on the way back out and running out of battery on your shitty iPhone 5.  I do not recommend this. I hyperventilated a lot.

Cave
Cave entrance

Overdose

Personally, of course, I would never touch drugs because they’re bad mmmkay, but I’ve heard from a friend of a friend that apparently there may be one or two things and thangs floating about old V-V.  I’m not sure how true this is but it was strange that the items on the back of my restaurant menu read like a Nirvana b-sides album.

Maybe ‘opium’ is just a type of pizza. Who knows?? (I do. It’s not).

menu
“Menu”

Break your neck playing basketball

The only remaining danger along the tubing route is an awesome wooden basketball court, which in practice would be entirely safe if it weren’t for an overhead sprinkler system which rains down on the court all day.  Admittedly, this keeps you nice and cool in the 40-degree Celsius weather, but also keeps the court as slippery as a naughty nuns noony – resulting in, at best whiplash, and at worst, a fatal head injury.

river bar
One of many river bars

Dying of starvation while trying to find “Blue Lagoon 2”

Just give up, it doesn’t exist, and the first free drinks hour is starting soon!

bluelagoon
Not blue lagoon 2

 

Disclaimer 2:  The information in this article is satirical and the writer takes no responsibility for injury or death resulting from partaking in or re-enacting any activities described.  Like, seriously guys, sort your lives out.

vangvieng
The surrounding natural beauty is stunning. Just don’t fall off that scooter!

 

Read more about Laos here: Laos

Cycling France, and falling in love with travel

How travel changed my life

This is the story of my first ever cycle tour in 2002. I was 19 years old and broke, but desperately wanted to see the world.

My friend Sean and I

A friend and I bought two second-hand mountain bikes for €40 each and planned to cycle from Paris to Rome. Neither of us had ever cycled further than 1 or 2 miles – to school and such.  We spent about two months working in London to save up a few hundred pounds, a large section of which went on the Eurostar ticket to Paris.

Putting a rack on the mountain bike
Day 1, Paris

Remember Mapbooks?

This was before mobile phones and GPS. Our only guidance was a map book and a compass. We got lost often, and it was awesome.  Eventually, we stopped using the map book for guidance and simply cycled into the wild.  We only looked back on it occasionally to track the route we had come.

Into the wild

Survival Food

We bought a tent, roll mats and a gas stove. In four weeks cycling we never once paid for accommodation and spent about €1 a day on food. Oats for breakfast, spaghetti for dinner.  We drank only water and black coffee, and invented some strange lunch options too, like bulk cheap croissants wrapped in budget salami.  I can still taste it…

Too much equipment!

No bike, no problem

Unfortunately, halfway to Rome, one bike was stolen while we slept on the beach in Cannes. Unable to afford a new one, we sold the other and continued on foot, hitch-hiking.  We crossed into Italy and walked for almost eight hours the first day without catching a single lift.

Sleeping outdoors on the French Riviera

After spending two nights sleeping at a truck stop and still with no luck, we asked a police officer if he could help.  He instructed us to hitch-hike on the freeway, and then promptly arrested us for doing so.  We had no money for a fine or bribe, so eventually, he let us go.

Hitching after the bike was stolen.

Penniless but free, we eventually caught a lift to Genoa, and continued from there by hopping trains to Pisa, Venice and Florence, sleeping in stations and on beaches.

Sleeping in a train station

Discover Life

That trip was the single greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It not only made me fall in love with cycling and travel, but it defined everything that I am as a person today. It imbued within me a confidence to achieve any goal I desire, to never give up, to see the beauty in the world and all the possibilities in life.

Cycle touring is not about the bike or the equipment. Travel is not about the route or the destination.

It’s about you.

Get out there and discover yourself.


 

The stunning temples of Hampi, India

Hampi

Hidden Gem of India

Hampi is a surprisingly unknown place in India considering how amazing it is. I had briefly heard of it before going but not to a large degree, and I hadn’t seen many pictures of it. All I knew is that it had some old temples.


 

Well, I’m very glad I decided to go in the end because I very almost skipped it, which would have been a great loss. Ancient ruins and temples continue for miles over a huge area amongst beautiful surrounding scenery. The town itself is very small and quite rural, but across the river, a more developed town has sprung up with a number of modern restaurants and guesthouses aimed at tourists. In fact, we were told the government is planning to relocate the local villagers to new residences across the river and bulldozing the town in order to preserve the Unesco Heritage status of the ruins. Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable, and understandably some of the villagers who have lived there for decades are against it, but at the same time most of them earn a living from the tourism and therefore maintaining it would likely be in their best interests.

Sunset Panorama

We arrived without any of this information and as a result, ended up booking and paying upfront for two nights in a room at a small, run-down guesthouse on the rural village side. I thought it was a bit odd they wanted us to pay for both nights upfront and only realised why after crossing the river. They knew we would move once seeing the amazing views and beautiful guesthouses available across the river, in what is colloquially referred to as ‘Hippie Island’ (although it is not, in fact, an island).


View of the River

Boat Politics

At the time we went there was only a small boat service to take people across the river but apparently, a bridge is being built in preparation for when the village is relocated. The boat service is really annoying because there are two boats and according to the driver each can only take passengers in one direction. They will also only go once they have reached 20 passengers, so many times we found ourselves waiting for ages for our boat to leave, while the other boat came across and dropped off passengers a number of times and each time went back empty.


Walk to the River Boat

On top of this, the boat guys are very proficient at ripping tourists off, in a number of ways which I’ll cover later. At the end of the day, it’s still very cheap, but it’s the principle of the matter.  More importantly, it’s sad to see people who were once probably self-sufficient and unconcerned with making a quick buck, reduced to money-hunger and morally-bankrupt because of the encroachment of capitalist-fuelled tourism. This is in no way unique to Hampi, or India, but for some reason, it felt more apparent here. I think a recent and sudden burst of tourism has affected the area and people in a way that still needs to find a constructive and beneficial balance for all involved.


Baby on Board

We had arrived at 7 am on an overnight bus from Goa, so after dropping off our bags we went for some breakfast at a small street-side cafe and met a lovely Slovenian couple who were travelling with their 2-year-old. We chatted for quite awhile about travelling, India, babies and Miha’s freelance work as a video producer. Their baby had been quite sick for days so they hadn’t managed to leave their guesthouse or do any sightseeing. Being about the same age as us, I was impressed – but not at all envious – that they didn’t let their child stop them living their lives as they desired. You could tell Miha’s poor wife was feeling the pressure though, but fortunately when we saw them again the next day their child was already feeling better.


Ancient Water Temple

Lazy Lunch

After breakfast, we explored some of the nearby temples by foot before catching the boat across to hippie island and discovering the beauty that is there. Although to be fair, we actually only discovered the comfortable mattresses inside of a restaurant built on bamboo stilts overlooking a rice paddy because we were both so exhausted from the bus journey we promptly fell asleep as soon as we had eaten lunch. Luckily we awoke in time to catch the last boat back! Once back we decided to climb the rocks behind our guesthouse and were rewarded with a stunning sunset over the temples of Hampi.

Hampi Sunset
Sunset Yoga

Cycling and Swimming

We awoke quite late the next day and after a quick traditional breakfast of idli and puri we crossed the river, hired some 100 rupee mountain bikes and cycled off to find Sampar lake. Along the way, we bumped into Rutger, a Dutch guy we had met on the bus who followed us on his scooter and joined us at the lake. We went on a brief but quite fun bamboo-boat ride and swam in the (apparently) crocodile-infested lake. Afterwards, we cycled back to town and enjoyed sun-downers at one of the beautiful riverside resorts.

bamboo boat
Bamboo boat sailing!

Even though we arrived at the boat jetty before the last cut-off time of 5:30 pm (along with a number of other tourists), the boat guy purposely disappeared for about 20 minutes and then came back and told us we’d have to pay 50 rupees now because it was too late. We all protested but soon realised that unless we were going to swim across, we didn’t have any choice but to pay him. What made it even more annoying was that another boat carrying locals did three crossings during this time, with lots of empty seats each time, but wouldn’t let any of us on “because we were foreigners”. I imagine they have some agreement to do this and share the profits.

bicycle
Cycling Hampi

Ancient Temples

We decided to wake up early the next day, view some more of the temples before it got too hot and then return before midday to check out. A short walk over the hill from our guesthouse we discovered a massive ruined complex the size of a small airport, consisting of a large temple on one side made up of a few smaller buildings and a huge pillared courtyard that stretched over a few hundred metres. This led on to a few more temples and ended down by the riverside at a temple with the famous ‘stone chariot’ – which is, as the name suggests, a chariot made out of stone.

By 11 am we were tired and it was hot, so we started heading back and stopped for tea and idli at a small food stall. While there a cheeky monkey came out of nowhere and stole one of our idli cakes right off our plate! We also saw another monkey that must have been attacked – it had all his gums missing, exposing his teeth and skull and looking like something out of a horror movie. It was quite sad although somehow the monkey didn’t seem too bothered.


Rock Diving

Escape the Heat

Once packed and checked-out we crossed the river for the final time and left our bags at the bus collection point. Then we rented a scooter and drove to a swimming spot somebody had told us about a few kilometres upriver. We spent a few hours there swimming and jumping off rocks. There were some Indian guys hanging around there who claimed to own the land and annoyingly kept bugging us to buy their snacks or drinks, with the unspoken threat of kicking us out if we didn’t. I highly doubt they really own the land, but I bought some over-priced crisps anyway to placate them.

Beautiful Rice paddies in Hippie Island

We had our sleeper bus back to Goa booked for 7 pm that evening, so we quickly took the scooter back and watched one last beautiful sunset over the rice paddies before getting on a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus.  This turned out to be a rather insane drive hanging off the back while squashed in with four other people and our bags balanced precariously on the roof.  Along the way, the driver had to swerve to avoid cows sleeping in the road and the usual head-on traffic – and that was before we even go to our actual bus!

Just another day in India….

Surviving Long-term Solo Travel

long-term solo travel

When people think of going off on a long-term trip to an exotic foreign country on their own, the majority of things they worry about aren’t actually the things you need to worry about.  Crime and sickness are big ones, and yet out of the 40+ countries I’ve been to I’ve been sick and scammed more often in London than anywhere else.  In this guide, we’ll look at some tips to survive long-term solo travel.

Nothing to Lose

I’ve (touch wood) never been a victim of crime in a foreign country, except in Monaco when I was much younger and my video camera got stolen from the train platform.  Actually, once in France someone tried to steal my wallet but it had so little money in it they said sorry and gave it back.  And one time while growing up in South Africa someone tried to steal my car but it was such a piece of crap they couldn’t get it started and gave up.  Moral of the story – having nothing worth stealing is the best way to not get robbed.


Happy alone

Loneliness is another big one, and it’s something I was most worried about the first time I went travelling on my own.  How wrong I was to worry – within two hours of being off the plane I was out partying with a big new group of friends, some of whom I’m still in contact with to this day.  For the next six months, I didn’t spend a single day alone unless I specifically chose to.  Of course, this may vary depending on where you are – if you’re cycling across the Australian outback you might find yourself conversing with lizards after awhile!

The point is – you have nothing to fear but fear itself.  Developing a certain level of confidence while travelling is imperative to having a successful time and enjoying yourself.   It’s far better than constantly looking over your shoulder and missing out on making good friends because you don’t trust anyone.

So here are some pointers to get you off on the right foot…


SHIT HAPPENS, accept it.

Things will go wrong. Flights will be missed. Bedbugs will happen. Phones will be lost. No amount of planning can account for every possibility, and in fact, over-planning can simply complicate things and also take the fun out of it. With long-term solo travel, you need to have a certain amount of lee-way and be ready to adapt to any situation.

In Thailand, I had an 11 pm train that was delayed for 5 hours!  I was in a tiny village so there was nothing to do and nowhere to go other than waiting on the platform.  I made friends with some other people there, we got chatting, they shared some of their beers, and in no time it was 4 am and the train was there.

In Berlin, I missed my flight home because I didn’t realise how far away the airport was. It was the last flight that day, but through a friend of a friend, I got hold of a lovely couple who let me stay the night at their place!

One time in Zurich every plane was grounded due to snow and all the hotels were full.  So my girlfriend and I, along with another stranded traveller, built some beds out of a left-over Christmas display and ended up having a fun night.

Zurich Airport
Zurich Airport

In Kampot, Cambodia, I got back to my hostel too late and they had locked everything up, so I explored a nearby construction site and found a mattress on the second floor that provided a more-than-adequate bed for the night – I didn’t even get a single mosquito bite!

A few days later on a ferry back to the mainland from an island, the engine broke down and we were diverted to another island. Rather than wait on the boat for them to fix the engine I went to explore the island, ended up spending three days there and had one of the best times of my life. Everything happens for a reason.

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time you just might find… you get what you need.”

Fear of things going wrong holds people back immensely in life, but reflect on your past I’m sure you’ll find that all those things you were afraid of happening, probably didn’t…. and the things that DID go wrong, you couldn’t possibly have predicted.   Just roll with it.


DON’T STRESS, assess.

99% of the time whatever goes wrong is not that serious and even if it is, stressing won’t help. Staying calm will help you think clearly and assess your situation.  Sometimes, if it is really serious, staying calm can mean the difference between life and death! (Okay, I’ve never had that happen to me but I guess if you’re lost in the desert with no water it could be applicable).

If you lose money or your phone, it’s gone – don’t even waste 5 minutes getting upset about it.  Rather think how you’re going to rectify the situation. When I broke my phone in a tiny village in Thailand I just went without a phone for a week, and you know what? I didn’t even miss it!  Back in civilisation, I bought a cheap replacement phone from 7-Eleven for £12 that got me along fine for the next few months.

Tuk-tuk

In Sri Lanka, I accidentally gave a tuk-tuk driver the equivalent of £40 instead of £4 (which may not seem a lot but a long-term solo travel budget is often as low as £10 a day). So I just tightened my budget the next few days and made up the loss.

When arriving for the first time in India the airport had no ATM’s and I had no local currency! There was also no wifi so I couldn’t even google an ATM, but a friendly parking attendant kindly took me on his motorbike to an ATM a few kilometres away. Things have a way of working out, and staying calm will ease that process.

These aren’t even serious problems. In Vietnam, I saw a guy who had been hit in the face with a machete simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time – save your stress for when that happens (he was fine in the end).


TRUST EVERYONE, but trust your instincts more.

The vast majority of people only want to make friends, help you, or are simply curious. Yes, in certain busy tourist areas there are those who are always trying to sell you something, but these people become easy to spot and ignore. However every now and again a seemingly innocuous encounter with a friendly local or fellow traveller can turn sour, and if it doesn’t feel right – get out of there! In a recent trip to Istanbul, I was travelling alone and was invited to a club by a local. He seemed very friendly and we were getting along but something didn’t feel right, so I politely said goodbye and left.

istanbul bars
Istanbul bars

I later found out I had been sucked into a common scam where they take you somewhere, serve you some drinks and then give you a huge bill at the end with loads of stuff you didn’t order. If you don’t pay, the bouncers drag you to an ATM and force you to draw out all your cash. However, stuff like this is rare (well, location dependent) and I still maintain a belief of innocent until proven guilty. I’ve made a huge number of friends and received an endless amount of help through trusting people in every country I’ve been too. Sometimes the scariest looking people have turned out to be the warmest and kindest, so don’t judge a book by its cover!


BE REALISTIC, but don’t be ripped off.

The best thing about travelling cheap is that wherever you stay, whatever food you eat or whatever transport you take, you know that it’s not going to be 5-star. Even if it’s really bad, it didn’t cost much so it’s no big loss. If your 50p noodle soup doesn’t taste good, well it was 50p – what did you expect? Wifi slow in your £4 hostel? You’re in a tiny village in a 3rd world country, it’s amazing they even have wifi!

Long-term solo travel teaches you the need to be realistic. I recently checked into a cheap motel in India, and the owner said the rooms are usually 700 rupees but he’ll give me one for 500 because I’m alone. I was very grateful. Just after, another couple came in saying they are on a tight budget and need a cheap room: he offered them a discount at 600 rupees, but the women took a look and complained there is no TV! Really, you expect a TV in a £7 hotel room?

But if there was no TV in a £50 hotel room – now that’s going to annoy me. The only times I’m upset or disappointed travelling is when it involves something expensive. There is nothing worse than deciding to spend a little bit extra on something to spoil yourself, only to find it’s nothing like advertised. So yes, every now again it’s nice to spend a bit more – but do your research, because the most expensive things are usually the biggest rip-offs!


ORIENTATE YOURSELF, or embrace getting lost.

What’s the first thing you do when arriving at accommodation in a new town? Get drunk at the bar! Well yes that too, but first connect to the wifi and save your location on Google Maps.  When embarking on long-term solo travel, you need to know where you are!

In Vietnam, a big group of friends and I checked into a guest house and then went out for dinner, proceeded to all get a bit drunk and as a result got separated on the walk home. One couple who were lagging behind missed the turnoff to the house and proceeded to wander around for hours looking for it before eventually sneaking into a hotel and crashing in an empty room!

In the end, it wasn’t a bad result so sometimes getting lost can be fun, but it could have been far worse!  I got lost once going home at a ski resort and for a brief moment had visions of freezing to death in the snow! Learning how to read maps properly is imperative to successful travel, and there are a few tips and tricks to help.

offline maps
Off-line Google Maps

Firstly, download offline maps of the area you are going to (or download Maps.Me which works offline). Even if you have a sim card, often in places with bad signal, downloaded maps work better. Obviously having a backup paper map is a good idea but honestly, I’ve only ever relied on my phone and it’s never been a problem.

Secondly, learn to find north – just because Google Maps on your phone is pointing north that doesn’t mean you are! And uphill doesn’t mean north either – seriously I’ve met people who thought they were going north because they were going uphill. How they even got out of bed amazes me.

Most phones these days have compasses so this is largely redundant but it’s still good general knowledge if your phone battery dies. The obvious one is the sun – if it’s 4 pm, the sun is west, if it’s 9 am the sun is east. If it’s night time, you’ll need to know what hemisphere you’re in and a few star constellations – in the north the bottom two stars of the big dipper point to Polaris which is approximately north and in the south, the southern cross is easy to spot and slightly right of true south. (In reality, this gets somewhat more detailed, so research it if you’re really interested).

If you’re in a bright city you won’t be able to see stars so another neat trick is satellite dishes – all satellite dishes in the southern hemisphere will point somewhere north, and in the northern hemisphere somewhere south – but this is not exact. For example, in the US they all point south, but in the UK they point south-east.

stars


…..and last but not least:

TAKE RISKS, or:

“become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone”.

Sleep in train stations, eat food that moves, visit a war-torn country, hit on the flight attendant, play poker with the Yakuza, drive an unlicensed £80 motorbike across Vietnam in the pitch black pouring rain with no lights, stow-away on a cruise-liner, blag your way backstage, get naked on the dance floor, tattoo yourself while drunk…… but whatever you do, don’t take the biggest risk of all – don’t die without ever having lived.


For more useful travel advice check out: Budget Travel Tips

travel tips
Budget Travel Tips

Mumbai Express

The morning of February 28, 2018, started fairly uneventfully, with a wander through a filthy slum to a train station.  Conny and I were just outside Mumbai and needed to catch a short train in and find somewhere to store my bicycle before heading north to Udaipur in time for Holi Festival the following day. After the usual attempts to scam me out of more money than was due I eventually secured tickets for the three of us onto a local Mumbai train in the luggage coach.


Once on the train, I realised neither us nor the bike actually required a ticket since it would be impossible to check tickets in this coach – it was jam-packed full of fish, vegetables, delivery boxes, small animals and various throngs of people carrying all sorts of items for sale to the 20-million inhabitants of Mumbai. How we managed to get the bicycle on was a small miracle in itself, not to mention that we had to change trains once along the way. This involved finding the exact right place to stand on the platform and then trying to crush into the luggage car against the exiting throng of people while other luggage passengers tried to crush in behind us with all their boxes and fruit carts etc.


Not Quite a Motorbike, But Okay

Around mid-day, we arrived at Dadar station in central Mumbai and immediately started the search for a decent bicycle storage location.  I was averse to just leaving it chained on the roadside for three weeks, even though I knew bike theft in India was very rare.  We wondered the streets for about an hour, ending up at a dusty car park between two run-down apartment blocks behind a police building.  There were some filthy cars and motorbikes around, looking very much like they had been there for years, and I briefly considered trying to hide the bike behind one of these.  However, after getting some advice from the local police, we were directed to a long-term motorcycle parking lot between two of the platforms which as usual in India turned out to be a lot harder to find than expected.


We walked up and down a few staircases and back-and-forth along rail over-passes before resigning to fate and asking for directions. The usual barrage of contradictory directions by confused locals ensued, and yet by some miracle, we actually managed to find it in the end!  We spoke to the guard on duty who initially seemed confused with the concept of storing a bicycle but eventually agreed to look after it for a small fee of 600 rupees. While we were there discussing things, two friendly crew members of an ambulance parked nearby offered to share their lunch with us – a common occurrence in India when almost anybody is eating.


Not Just the Wrong Platform – the Wrong Station

Having lightened my load considerably and had a filling lunch, we headed off to buy tickets for the 17-hour overnight train to Udaipur.  The first little window hole we asked instructed us we needed to go to window 26.  We wandered around for half an hour finding windows for every number except 26 until eventually inquiring at another window hole.  This one informed us we were not even at the right station and our train was actually leaving from the nearby Bandra station, so we had to take a local metro train and go three stops north.  Once there we were told we need to go a further few hundred metres to Bandra Terminus station where the mainline trains run from.  Luckily on the way, we were saved by a friendly local guy going the same way who let us share his tuk-tuk and showed us where to buy general class tickets (it was too late for seat reservations). 


By now it was ten minutes until our train so we ran off to the platform together.  Thinking that I was being clever, I abandoned the local guy who was heading to general class and jumped into a sleeper class carriage with Conny, hoping that we could find a free bed or seats for the journey.  Initially this worked well and we sat for the first few stops, but when the conductor came around, instead of telling us we were in the wrong seats he told us the part of the train we were in was not going to Udaipur and we needed to get off at the next station and move to the back carriage. I think this was just his roundabout way of telling us we need to go to general class, but at least he didn’t try to give us a fine.


Nope, Not That Station Either

With our backpacks back on our backs, we went over to the doorway to wait for the next stop.  After a short while, the train started to slow down at a station and had almost come to a complete stop when we hopped off.  As soon as we landed on the platform the train started to speed up again and someone on the platform shouted to us that it wasn’t stopping here!  I ran after the train and jumped back into one of the open doors, but by now it was moving too fast and Conny couldn’t catch it.  I looked back and saw her stuck on the platform and realised I would have to jump off again or lose her.  I hit the ground running but my feet folded under me and I body-slammed into the platform, skidding along the concrete for a few feet before coming to a stop.  I was pretty badly grazed and cut but didn’t appear to have any serious injuries, so got up and walked back to where Conny was now talking to a train official.


That was the last direct train to Udaipur, and as far as we knew our last chance to make it in time for Holi Festival. We tended to some of my wounds and then went with the train official to the station masters office to see if there is any other way.  After some discussions amongst themselves, they wrote down two trains for us that were going to a town called Ratlam, where they said we could get another train or bus to Udaipur.  First, however, we would need to go all the way back to Boraveli station since the platform we had jumped off on was at a tiny station and hardly any trains stopped here.  We got a metro train back to Boraveli and found a ticket counter to ask about trains to Ratlam.  I asked if we could get a refund on our previous tickets but were told we don’t need to buy new tickets, we can still use our current tickets on the Jaipur express to Ratlam.


Don’t Celebrate Just Yet

We found our platform, got some food and coffee and sat down to wait for the train to come.  Once it arrived we didn’t know where to get on and ended up in an expensive AC car so had to walk through a whole bunch of carriages to the back of the train.  General class was completely ram-packed as expected, and we couldn’t even get close to the door because of all the other people sitting in the corridor.  It looked like this train was very busy and I began to realize there is no chance we were going to get seats.  Oh well, only ten hours to Ratlam!


We wandered back aimlessly through the carriages hoping to find an empty square of floor to sit on, but without any luck. Fortunately, a nice guy in sleeper class said we can sit with him and a group of other people for a few hours until such a time as they needed to sleep.  He suggested it would be best if we got off at Vadodara station just after midnight and from there we could possibly get a bus to Udaipur in the morning.  Predictably, a ticket officer came around before Vadodara and once seeing our tickets, told us we would have to pay a fine. I argued that we had tried to get into general class but it was impossible, “There were too many people, what could we do?” I implored. Eventually, he let us off but told us we must get off at the next station, Surat, and either go to general class or find another train. This didn’t bode well for our Vadodara plans.


By the time the train reached Surat, it was almost midnight.  Most of the people in the berth were trying to sleep and we felt a bit like we were imposing, so we decided we better move anyway.  We tried again in vain to get into general class but it was even more packed now than before!  We ended up squashing into the corridor just outside with a group of other exiles who were no doubt initially upset with our invasion, but politely made space for us anyway.  Unfortunately, it was in the corridor where the toilets were located and for some reason, the entire train decided now was the time to go.  We spent the next half an hour being stepped on, cursed at and squashed past by a never-ending stream of full (and then empty) bladdered passengers.


Arrival to Ahmedabad

Typically, just half an hour before Vadodara, the ticket inspector returned. This time he was a bit more vehement in his protests that we must pay a 900 rupee fine. Unfortunately for him, the entire contents of my wallet came to just over 50 rupees, if you include the half-century-old 20 paise coin I was carrying around in the hope of one day selling for a fortune – he certainly wasn’t getting that treasure!  Upon seeing the sad state of my wallet he suddenly developed a smidgen of pity and walked off mumbling something under his breath in Hindi, no doubt about poor foreigners with no respect for the sanctity of Indian trains. He also attempted to fine the other passengers sitting around with us, but had about the same amount of luck.


Finally, just after midnight, we began to slow down and Vadodara station crept up slowly outside the windows.  We alighted amongst a throng of exiting and entering passengers and stumbled out into the dimly lit station. During the train journey I had done a quick google search and found that while there we no sleeper buses to Udaipur from Vadodara, we might be able to get a 5:30 am sleeper bus from Ahmedabad – another town only a few hours away.  While we were going to check about any trains to Ahmedabad, the nice guy from the train who had helped us earlier came up to see if we were okay.  After explaining to him our plan he shook his head and informed us there were no more trains now, but he will drive us to the local bus station where buses to Ahmedabad leave regularly all night.


We thanked him profusely as he dropped us off and he instructed us to catch the bus from platform one.  This was confirmed by the information office and after a quick toilet stop a bus soon arrived and we were on our way.  The bus was extraordinarily busy for 1 am but a nice man made space for Conny to sit and I made myself comfortable on the floor in the aisle, reading my very appropriate literature – a book called “India Calling” – while Conny dozed off.


A Much Needed Sleeper Bus

The bus ride was quicker than I expected and we were in Ahmedabad by 3 am, which gave us two and half hours to kill until our sleeper bus.  We flopped down on the floor against a pillar and ate our remaining few snacks.  We were both in surprisingly good spirits considering we had been travelling non-stop for almost 20 hours by now over nine separate journeys – instead of one!  The time passed quickly as we looked back at the day and joked about our situation, and before we knew it 5 am had struck and it was time to catch a tuk-tuk a short distance to the other bus stand where the big sleeper buses departed from.


The usual price negotiations began and we went back and forth between tuk-tuk drivers until the original driver eventually offered to take us for roughly the price we had quoted him to start with. This is a bizarre ritual that needs to be enacted every time you get a tuk-tuk, even though both of you know that in the end, he will take you for the fair price you originally asked for.


The distance ended up being a bit further than I had gauged from Google Maps and for a brief second I worried we might be late, but of course, the sleeper bus was delayed by an hour and would only leave at 6:30 am.  The office clerk who checked our tickets explained: “Bus is always late”.  Conny promptly fell asleep in the waiting room as I tried to explain to him that if they know the buses are always late then why not just advertise it as leaving an hour later?  This logic was clearly lost on him so I wandered off to find more of the sweet milky tea that is the lifeblood of India.  A few cups later and a couple of chapters of my book and lo-and-behold the 11th and (hopefully) final vehicle of our epic journey arrived. With the sun just beginning to peak over the horizon we fumbled aboard, found our tiny bus bed and both instantly passed out – sleeping without interruption for the entire five-hour journey.


As I disembarked at the Udaipur bus stand, still half asleep but feeling very victorious, I asked another English guy where he had come from.

“Mumbai” he replied.

“Oh us too,” I laughed “Took us about 28 hours and 10 different trains and buses!”

The response I got was a look of utter confusion.  It was at that moment I noticed the huge letters plastered across the side of the bus:

“MUMBAI TO UDAIPUR EXPRESS”