Friday, March 31, 2006

So long Brisbane and reflections on the first month

March 29th, 2006:

I had been trying to decide over the last number of days on what to next. The original plan was to popup the coast to Cairns and go scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, but it is still a disaster area up there and the tour operators in Brisbane were saying that the locals up there would need more time to get things back in action after Hurricane Larry.

After getting local/travelers opinions about Ayers Rock, the majority feel that it HAS to be done and that its best to do it as part of an overnight bush walk. However, due to Cairns being in the North and Ayers Rock being in the center, it makes most sense to do it on the way to / from Cairns, so Ayers rock is also on hold.

Next up on possible destinations was Melbourne but the recent Commonwealth Games and the F1 this weekend, along with a big AFL football game have all conspired to to make it expensive, hard to find accommodation and busy. I wouldn't mind seeing an F1 race, but there's no hurry: I'll catch one some other time. I'd only be in the city for four or five days and I wouldn't want to get a bad impression of the place when in reality it was only especially busy/expensive for this weekend.

Therefore I'm now sitting on a plane to Sydney. Naturally, during check-in, I was "randomly" picked for the chemical explosives analysis test, but that was to be expected by now. It was a little bit disconcerting sitting on the plane initially: I was sitting two rows behind an emergency exit and after we all had sat down, a maintenance guy come onboard to fix the emergency door. The top quarter of the inside of the door was coming loose(!) so he proceeded to try to screw it back together, but failed and so we took off minutes later with the emergency door being held together by masking tape! I presume the more important outside of the door is ok as we are, at the moment, over 30,000 feet and the plane hasn't gone pop yet...


Well, its been a month (is that all?!) since I left so now would be an opportune time to reflect on how things are going.

Time has lost nearly all meaning
I started noticing this after the first week of travelling. There are now, at most, two days of the week: Sunday and non-Sunday. Even at that, the only reason I might notice a Sunday is if I intend to go shopping and, as that rarely happens, there is usually just one day of the week: "today".
At home each day of the week evoked different feelings depending on "The Routine" I had, for example, work Monday - Fridays and different evenings during the week had different regular events scheduled. Now, every day is roughly the equivalent of Saturday, so having different names for the days is nearly meaningless.
Also, time during the day has lost most of its significance. In "The Routine", I always woke at a certain time every day, went to work at the same time, had lunch at the same time, etc. Now, I think I have a watch but I don't know exactly where it is: I haven't used it since Bangkok (my first destination). The only "time" I notice the time is if I have to get up at a certain hour to meet an organized tour and then I just set the alarm on the PDA. Otherwise, I have a meal when I'm hungry and goto sleep when I'm tired.
It is great, for now, but when I was in Perth seeing business people going about their day to the beat of their routines, I did find that a small part of me missed the structure of a routine. So, its great for now but I don't see myself staying in this boundary-less lifestyle for ever and I'm also acutely aware of the one way my bank account is going...
Its also hard to believe that its only been a month/four-weeks since starting this journey. So much has happened that it feels more like three months has passed which adds to the feeling that time has nearly lost all meaning.

The gadgets and tools have been mostly useful
I had brought a number of different tools on the trip and they have performed with varying degrees of usefulness:

PDA (Dell Axim X30): Indispensable. If I lost it, or it was stolen, I would straight away buy another one. As a music and video player, Internet browser and email (when wireless internet is available), electronic book reader (there's 80+ books on it), currency converter and for viewing pictures taken by the camera the pocket computer has performed flawlessly.
All of the blog entries were written using the PDA. I was unsure how the typing would go (imagine holding a mini keyboard in one hand and using a stick with the other hand to tap on each letter), but its working out well enough.
I would be happier if it was more rugged (so that I wouldn't need to be careful about not dropping it) and was cheaper to replace, but otherwise its great.

Camera (Canon Powershot A620): I'm very happy the quality of the pictures produced by this camera. You can see the results in my photo gallery and keep in mind that those pictures have had their megapixel size slashed to less than a third. The camera has easy to use controls, has a flip out and tilt screen so that you can put the camera into odd positions and still see what the lens sees. The easy to find AA batteries are also a bonus and they last a long time. I would prefer if it was smaller/flatter as it just about fits in my jeans pocket but I certainly wouldn't forget it was it was in the pocket (unlike the PDA which I would forget about).

Phone (Sony Ericsson T700i): useful in case of emergencies but otherwise I've used it fewer than five times in the last month.

Card Reader (unknown brand). Again, indispensable. I use this at Internet cafes. I take the memory card out of the camera and using the card reader attached to the computer I can read the images from the card and upload them to the photo gallery.

GPS Satellite Navigation (Dell Bluetooth GPS). This, so far IS dispensable. Due to me not driving anywhere, it only gets used sparingly. Typically, when I arrive at a new location I take a satellite fix of where the accommodation is so that if I get lost I can get it to direct me back. I haven't gotten lost yet, but its a comfort to have it anyway.

Multitool (Leatherman Juice CS4): unlike the GPS so far, I would be lost without my multitool. A multitool is a glorified penknife, containing more tools than the usual Swiss Army knife. My multitool gets regular usage, although the smaller Leatherman Micra which is small enough to have on a key chain might be more practical.

Plug adapter (Mitsubishi... something): all of my electronic gadgets would be dead without it. You'll spot this little beauty at airports and it looks completely different to every other power adapter: its a small green cylinder and is sadly more expensive than its competitors. However, it claims to be useful in 150+ different countries and so far it hasn't let me down.

One thing I should have brought, but it never occurred to me, is a small pile of business-type cards with my email address. You could easily spot the old pros among the traveling posse handing out their cards at the end of a tour/hostel-stay, whereas the rest of us had to rely on pens and paper which was messy.

I've stayed in a variety of accommodation over the month, ranging from four Euro a night rooms where you could see through the walls and floors to expensive beachfront bungalows. Here is what I have found:

Hotels (70-100 a night on average): Convenient the first night or two that you arrive into a strange city as you can be assured of a certain level of quality (depending on the star rating). However, they are comparatively expensive and you have to organize your day to a degree around the hotels schedule. So, for example, if the base price for a room includes breakfast you might as well avail of it as you have already paid for it, but breakfast is often only available during certain hours so you'll have to get up relatively early to avail of it. Also the hotel would prefer that you didn't spend all day in your room as housekeeping will want to get in there to make sure you’re not trashing the place. I have also found hotels to be business/family-holiday orientated and its harder to meet fellow travelers. Lastly, the vast majority of hotel rooms do not provide cooking facilities in the room so you'll be eating out a lot which is in itself a big financial drain. Hotels are, however, useful as a base, giving you time to take a look at cheaper hostels in the area.

Serviced apartments (70-100 AUD a night on average): Similar to hotels, serviced apartments are relatively expensive as a form on accommodation, costing about the same as a hotel room (depending on what you go for). However, an apartment does include cooking facilities which can save a lot money and gives you the freedom to cook what you want rather than being tied to a hotel's or restaurant's menu. They also tend not to have intrusive housekeeping staff and so I would prefer an apartment to a hotel room.

Hostels (15-45 AUD a night on average): Before starting travelling I had the impression that hostels were dirty, insecure and noisy. Some are but using the above hotel-as-a-base-approach, I've been able to vet a place before moving in and so have had no major problems. I did find the hostel dorms to have good and bad features: sometimes the people sharing the dorms would be great company but I found the lack of privacy to be intrusive so these days I pay a bit extra for a private room (current private room is 35 AUD) so that takes care of the lack of privacy issue. Hostels, also, are unbeatable for meeting fellow travelers and the last (for example) provided laundry services, kitchens so you could fend you yourself, internet access, big screen TV room, internet access, swimming pool, sauna, jacuzzi, pool table, basketball court, table tennis, subsidized bar, restaurant, and helpful staff for organizing tours, things to do etc. I do have a face mask, ear blockers for reducing light & noise just in case but rarely do I need them.

Overall its been a great success so far. My arrival into Sydney will mark the end of the main jumping-from-place-to-place phase as I intend to try base myself in Sydney. Fingers are crossed that it will work out aok!