The Wrong Trousers

THE journey of a thousand miles, said ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (cheers Google), begins with one step.

Not sure he foresaw that step taking place at a bus step next to a petrol station in a Gloucester suburb, particularly by someone sweltering in a hoodie that was never going to fit into his overstretched bags and wearing the wrong trousers due to a bit of a packing cock-up.

Starting point

But that’s how my next adventure, of considerably more than a thousand miles, started in rising temperatures completely unsuited to wearing or carrying the hoodie and a fleece-lined jacket.

Both will have a part to play – even if only as a handy pillow when camping – in the seven months ahead as we meander our way around South America.

As will the unintended jeans.

A few days ago, they had been confined to a bag in a rapidly filling storage unit before being rescued from their fate – at least temporarily – when my best jeans had been set aside to travel in and the spare pair pulled from the storage pile had proved to be far too big after my weight loss and spent half their time soaking up puddles.

Thought they had been part of the last trip to the storage unit – right up until getting changed before heading off to catch the 444 National Express to Heathrow and realising they were the ones which had been neatly packed away and the intended pair were starting their hibernation alongside most of my earthly possessions in that storage unit.

Fully armed for an 11-hour flight

But if that’s the biggest packing nightmare of this whole trip, so be it – being very careful on that, given the strain being shown by my shoulder bag until a trip to a Quito market to get a lightweight extra bag to ease some of the congestion (a life changer in Africa) and a total repack before climbing on board the truck will do,

These jeans will do. They are smart enough (if you don’t look at the frayed bits at the bottom that have been constantly trod on), comfortable enough and not too big to be totally out of sync with my current waist size.

There are shorts aplenty crammed in the rucksack, just might be worth holding off on them until some of the bruises decorating my legs in a lovely range of colours have had time to fade.

No idea how most of them got there and, bar one right on my left knee, they don’t even hurt if you touch them, but the legacy of several days clearing and cleaning my flat and transporting its contents to storage.

Sliding the final wardrobe through the door and into almost the ideal remaining space was like the finale to the perfect game of Tetris, rewriting the top score and crossing off the final major item on my to-do list before the off.

Which is not far off. This is being written in a rather swish lounge, courtesy of my bank, which may help the jeans fit a bit more snugly and the boarding gate is due to appear in the next few minutes. For what appears to be one of the last two flights out of Heathrow this evening.

The to-do list is all but empty, one late issue about an onward travel document at the airport sorted – will elaborate on that and a possible amendment to the route in later posts – and it is time for the off.

Next stop Quito. Well Bogota, for a few hours, but you get my drift.

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I Am The Resurrection to I Found A Way

A FORMER colleague took a risk this week with an article on signs with grammatical errors.

Focusing mainly on missing apostrophes – and ignoring the erroneous A in the name of my home village in a sign opposite the office – it really is poking the bear.

Readers do not need much excuse to point out errors or call an article’s news worthiness into question, so putting your head above your parapet and highlighting any grammatical faux pas is asking for criticism of any mistake, imagined or not.

Once received a letter listing 10 errors in an article (among many others, the writer explained). Had to resist the temptation to write back and explain he was wrong on all but one of them and could easily have made a longer list of errors from his letter.

Was not as slow pointing out errors – grammatical or factual – in my years as a sub, but then that was my job. Until a couple of weeks ago.

That job included stewardship of the office style guide – we did not have a physical one like the ones waved at me by subs as a young reporter, but a series of weekly emails running through common errors (how to refer to a councillor tops the list), spelling issues and settling debates.

Often two options are both right but the house style is to stick to one for the sake of consistency.

It may come as a surprise, but this blog has its own style guide, tucked away in a corner of my mind. Which has the advantage of being endlessly flexible so when the need arrives, the rules can be bent to suit the needs of the blog.

Which it really needs to be for this stretch of the A-Z journey through my iPod.

One of the simple rules is to avoid the first person wherever possible. It will come as a shock to a couple of ex-colleagues whose (lengthy) pieces were littered with I this, I that. Gave up counting in one opening paragraph when it reached double figures, all of which were subbed out.

Have broken that rule a couple of times in posts but they were personal tributes. It would have been odd to write them any other way.

And for the next few paragraphs, will have to break that rule again or this post will become impossible as it takes in the very long run of songs beginning with I (by far the most common opening word of this entire, expanding journey).

This section takes us from a second outing for The Stone Roses’ debut album finale to First Aid Kit.

There has been, seemingly inevitable at the moment, a fair amount of The Beatles with I Am The Walrus (twice) and I Feel Fine (three times) as well as, less inevitably, a blast of The Stones, although this was a rather different version of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – bereft of chorus – by Cat Power.

The Clash popped up once with I Fought The Law, but with two different versions by Joe Strummer, while there were welcome visits from the Arctic Monkeys ( I Bet You… can probably work that one out), Sun Kil Moon (I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love), Idlewild (I Don’t Have The Map), The House of Love (I Don’t Know Why I Love You) and Altered Images (I Could Be Happy).

There was (probably, it was a while ago, been a bit busy) screaming along to I Bleed by Pixies, who provided a very welcome soundtrack in session on the radio while cleaning my flat ahead of moving out. Very jealous of anyone seeing them in-store at Spillers in Cardiff.

As a believer in coyotes and time as an abstract, always great to hear I Believe by REM from Life’s Rich Pageant – probably edging ahead of long-time favourite Reckoning as my favourite REM album.

They have featured quite heavily as my musical intake has embraced the ability to raid the whole of Apple’s library since the decision was finally made about whether to upgrade my iPod for travelling.

The trusted Classic will add overlanding around South America to Africa on its list of places visited but this time merely as a back-up to a new Touch with instant access to a huge selection of music new and old (been adding a load of vintage stuff ahead of departure).

It is not perfect. Much prefer the wheel control than everything having to be touchscreen digital, the battery life seems shorter and it does not give updates on tracks in the collection – or exactly how many hundreds of I songs we have to wade through – but getting used to it.

And have plenty of time to do just that over the next 31 weeks as the A-Z journey goes into hibernation while travelling.

It became clear very quickly in Africa that keeping the A-Z going alongside blogging from on the road was too much to ask – I blog because I am travelling, not the other way round (to break the rules one more time).

The travel pieces (starting tomorrow from Heathrow. Probably) may well take a diversion into what is soundtracking the trip, but the A-Z is taking a few months off.

This time by design, not just because I have put it off. Again.

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Best Laid Plans…

IT has been a week of anniversaries

Purely by coincidence, the last few days have been full of Facebook memories revolving around travel – to such an extent, it has become something of a tradition to wish a friend happy birthday specifically from some other part of the world (it will be a few weeks late this year, but we’ll get there…).

Seven years ago, flew home from New York (having had far too little sleep and with a slightly sore head after a night that ended with an Aussie in Greenwich Village probably closer to dawn than was wise) – the first flight of the trip having headed there from London and followed that with a road trip around the eastern US.

Five years ago spent this week sweltering in Charleston at a wedding (while sweating out the previous night’s rehearsal dinner).

And four years ago, climbed off a big yellow truck for the final time as 10 months on the road in Africa came to an end in Cairo.

It was an odd sensation adjusting back to normal life and as the minor frustrations and occasional deprivations of living on and around an overland truck fade, what you remember is the countless good times and enjoyable aspects of that life.

To such an extent you start to think about doing it again – and one month from today, will climb back on another big yellow truck in Quito and take up residence for seven months in a large circle around South America.

So one month out, what state are the preparations in?

To be honest, it’s all a bit of a concern – everything is pretty much on schedule.

Guaranteed that, having written that sentence, something is about to go horribly wrong but as it stands, things are on track. Even having spent this afternoon ignoring some of today’s intended list in favour of watching rugby and cricket.

Have been able to have a couple of weekends largely ignoring the to-do list, helped by using the days off work which have needed taking before my last day in the office.

Most of this lot needs packing – the sofa faces a less dignified fate. And yes, that is a bobble hat

What does remain on that list for the next few weeks is backloaded from then – the first few days finishing off compiling and packing up anything needed for the following seven months, the remaining time largely devoted to moving out of my flat and putting my life into storage.

That to-do list is broken down with jobs allocated for pretty much every day (with little spare time built in for watching cricket, rugby or the remaining episodes of Stranger Things – need to squeeze that one in before the list reaches ‘Cancel Netflix).

There’s a few appointments to go – osteopath, travel clinic for malaria tablets (not as critical as Africa, but better safe than sorry given my ability to be bitten by the lone small, buzzy thing within miles) and one last jab – a couple of leaving dos and even a gym schedule pencilled in.

As well as being better prepared for this trip due to knowledge after Africa, will arrive in Quito in better physical shape. The weight loss has hit – and seemingly levelled out at – seven and a half stone and probably fitter than… well, let’s just say it is a long time.

Could be fitter and the physical demands of the Inca Trail loom large, but the balance between excitement and fear has tipped slightly towards the former. Most of the time.

The pesky calf muscle which derailed a plan to get running and cut down the miles walking in preparation seems to have mended, with just the odd twinge now the ban on me hitting the treadmill is over.

With running limited, walking has ramped up – literally on the treadmill, gradually increasing the incline over 20 minutes – with a few longer strolls proving the lengthy times needed are achievable. Even ignoring lifts in favour of the stairs.

The gradients and altitude of the Andes are harder to replicate.

So physically things are, pretty much, ready to go and the schedule for moving out in place, what concerns remain? The things which, bar having left enough time to move out and clean my flat, keep me awake.

This lot is going in those bags off to the right. Or I’m wearing it

First is totally out of my control and boils down to which country’s economy can implode the most in the next couple of weeks. And that’s anyone’s guess.

The go-to currency for this trip is US dollars, both in the local payment which will form the group kitty to pay for our everyday expenses (you know, the important stuff like food) and spending money for changing at borders or, in the case of starting point Ecuador, the actual currency.

It all adds up to a pretty decent-sized lump sum to be sorted out before the off, which makes it the perfect time for the pound to plummet against the dollar.

Thankfully, not as much as against the euro and – good news time – there’s been sign of life today and the prospect of an improved rate for buying bulk. It’s a question of which country does something to damage its currency first and how long my nerve holds.

All this adds up to another reason to avoid spending any more money on kit, however strong the temptation.

Have spent several years advising people not to over pack, but one look at the piles of stuff waiting to be crammed into my rucksack and shoulder bag suggests that advice has not necessarily been taken on board.

Yesterday’s attempt to organise it better has eased my mind a bit, but it is going to take some cramming in.

Whatever the weather, suggest going to be wearing or carrying a hoodie or a new waterproof jacket – complete with a fleece lining – on the trip from Gloucester to Quito (via Heathrow and Bogota).

It could get pretty sweaty.

But if that’s what is keeping me awake, then that’s fine – certainly beats any work anxiety which is starting to fade away as we enter my final couple of weeks in the office.

Just two more papers to see off, followed by two weeks working through that to-do list.

It’s all getting mighty real.

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Cien Dias

FIVE years ago, wrote a post 100 days from heading out to Gibraltar for the Trans Africa journey.

And having decided to do the same before heading to South America, first decision was when to actually write it – 100 days from flying out to Quito or from the start of the trip itself?

The decision to go with the latter was partly down to it being a bit neater, a landmark shared by the entire group who will make their own way out to the Ecuadorian capital, and partly due to the 100 days falling on a Sunday.

Bit easier to find the time to write on a Sunday afternoon than a Wednesday night after the delights of getting a paper out and hitting the gym (the ideal post-deadline release of stress). At least that’s the theory.

So where are the preparations as the countdown hits the landmark?

Five years ago, the 100 Days post (spent ages delaying writing by coming up with a different title to distinguish them – while sat watching sport, that may have been a bigger delay) mentioned a feeling of being in limbo.

Not only is the long list of things to do still expanding before real dents are made in it…. but normal life has been skewed slightly.

100 Days, July 2014

There are shades of that this time round again. It’s just been flipped slightly.

Yes, there is slightly a sense of limbo, of life being skewed, waiting for and dominated by what lies ahead. But there’s not the feeling of the unknown this time around.

Not that South America is in any way familiar. Overlanding is, but journeying around this part of the world poses a lot of different challenges to what awaited us in Africa.

But there are two major differences this time round.

First, have a lot of the kit or at least a pretty good idea of what is needed and, secondly, planning is a lot easier with a bit of experience.

Especially if drawing up lengthy (frequently updated) to-do lists is pretty much the first thing you did after booking.

Which is pretty much the state of where we are at this landmark in preparations – the lists are drawn, plans are made and… well, sort of waiting to crack on with it.

Much of the preparations have been split into four distinct sections – three of them weeks off spaced out before leaving work at the end of August, followed by the two weeks between then and heading out of the country, the second half of which will be largely given over to moving out of my flat and putting stuff into storage.

There’s a few things to do and arrangements to be made in between those chunks of time, but at the moment it is all a bit quiet. All on schedule.

Which is all a bit worrying.

The growing pile of kit

Much of the major kit is bought or surviving from Africa, a new camera the largest new addition and – having taken a step up from the simple options which have served me well (at least before breaking) in the past – really need to work out how it works. At least the simple bits.

There is a load of kit sat on the old TV unit in the corner of my front room (makes a difference from dust) which is having the odd bits added every time it catches my eye. More will be added as the battle between want and need plays out.

And then there’s the clothes list.

There is a danger working and living so close to a couple of outdoor clothing and activity shops which have developed a magnetic draw.

Been trying to put off going too deep into the clothes buying preparations which are largely pencilled in for a week off next month, but did weaken with a few bargains online which have shown up one major issue.

Am getting smaller.

Travelling down the west coast of Africa, managed to lose four inches off my waist, forcing a hasty shopping trip in Cape Town to find trousers that stayed up.

Having shed seven stone – with a more conscious effort this time round, having put it all and more back on since the African overlanding weight loss programme – and can fit comfortably into those Cape Town trousers.

With the plan to keep the weight loss and fitness regime going – right calf, hopefully, allowing – until the off, there needs to be a certain touch of the last minute about clothes shopping so that it actually fits.

There are also two big differences to Africa which need to be taken into account ahead of finalising the kit and packing – climate and the fact it has to all come on a flight with me.

There was wet weather (Morocco, talking about you) and cold spells in Africa, but not some of the extremes which need to be considered in South America – the word minus does crop up at times.

So that adds a few layers to my clothing choices which all have to come with me.

Hitching a ride – no cheating with kit on the truck this time around

Five years ago, was able to drop off a few of the larger items – sleeping bag, airbed and mosquito tent mainly – with Oasis and they headed out on the truck before making the return journey with assorted other items picked up along the way.

That is not an option this time around. The mosquito tent is a non starter, but the sleeping bag, airbed and everything else has to squeeze into my rucksack and shoulder bag. Already working out what will be worn on the flight to save room (new walking boots which need breaking in for starters).

It also means a new section on the to-buy list – Quito.

One of the great realisations from Africa – which should not really come as any surprise if you think about it – is you can buy most of this stuff on the road. So a weekend in Quito has a few items inked on to the shopping list, most notably a rug. And toilet rolls.

There’s plenty of time before then – nearly 100 days, if anyone has not been paying attention – and preparations will gradually ramp up, especially come that July week off.

Until then, there’s Inca Trail videos to be watched (with equal parts excitement and dread), walking boots to be broken in (once clearance has been given to push that pesky calf muscle ) and outdoor travel shops to be avoided.

And more lists to be updated.

  • Before my fellow pedants point out what is missing from the title of this entry, it is 100 days to Spanish. Bit longer than that to Portuguese (Cem Dias), Dutch (Honderd Dagan) and a bit of French (Cent Jours). Worryingly, had to look up all but one of them – going to be a long seven months.
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385 Yards

Day 31 of the blog post a day in May challenge. Need a drink

THERE is a strange feeling which happens sometime around 5pm every Wednesday (much later than that and things have gone a bit wrong).

As the final pages of that week’s papers are waved off, the pent-up drive which has pushed me through the last couple of days as the clock ticks down – seemingly much faster than the pages to do list – just drains away.

There is a sudden feeling of lightness as the blinkers come off and the focus on the job in hand is unfastened and it is time to stop, look around and relax. For a little while.

Energised and ready to take on the world, it is generally straight off to the gym to make the most of this fresh momentum and sweat out any remaining frustrations.

Not sure if it is the quest for that feeling or the need to be that focused, but have always worked better with deadlines.

Have weened myself off most vices merely by stubbing them out and quitting, but the deadline fix is one that has been missing less by choice than by circumstances.

First morning printing was replaced by printing the night before publication and then we went weekly rather than daily.

Those two hours first thing in the morning were the best of the day, beaten only by the rush to get sports editions out as close as possible to the final whistle. It is what really swung me from writing to the production of newspapers (look ’em up online kids, you’ll be amazed).

And am experiencing signs of that deadline feeling as the end of this month-long blogging challenge looms into view, just a few hundred more words out of around 34,000 over the course of 31 days.

We’ve covered a lot of ground through music, travel, overlanding, random subjects as they popped up and a couple of fillers because, deadline looming, sometimes you’ve got to just go with what you’ve got. Or what you can summon out of nothing.

Having read some of them over the last few days, the early ones seem a long time ago and pretty happy with a few of them. Not all of them, some of them just didn’t work as planned, but some came out better than thought when first wrote them.

Ironically, several of the ones written off the cuff seem to have fared better than ones which were planned out in advance. There’s a lesson there, more on that later.

So what have we learned over the last month of daily posts? Where does the Travel Marmot go from here? And, the most common question over the past few weeks, what on earth prompted this daft idea?

There is no clear answer, certainly to the last question.

The simple answer is that saw somewhere online about a few bloggers doing something similar (parts of the internet really should come with a health warning) and it seemed like something worth doing.

With work throwing up some potential long days in June and the following months losing time to increasing South America trip preparations before the off in September, May seemed the most logical month.

Could have thought of it before the start of February.

But as the days, weeks and thousands of words have progressed, think a couple of underlying reasons emerged – starting with proving something to myself.

Had some grand plans for this blog when it first started with half a mind to try to make a bit of money out of it – a plan which lasted about as long as it took to do a bit of research and discover how much work (that wasn’t writing or free travel) was needed to make anything approaching a living.

So while it quickly became just for fun and veered off down the musical rabbit hole that has taken over between bouts of travelling (cheers Will), still always had some intentions to turn it into something more than it was.

More regular posts, more travel tales and advice, more readers (well, hopefully), more bells and whistles to jazz up the website and more social media (would anybody follow a Travel Marmot Facebook page or Twitter feed? Hey, could even get down with the kids on Instagram).

Which is why the list of writing ideas and jobs to do on the site sat largely untouched and posts became sporadic with occasional bursts of activity before lengthy waits for the next post.

You should have seen some of the posts which were written in my head and never made it onto the site. Some of them were great.

And those posts were nothing compared with the entire collection of potential books or scripts which have been tossed around in my head. Some of them, especially in my younger days, even made it down on paper.

There’s an awful lot of book outlines and first few chapters been sketched out, only to be discarded or set to one side and never picked up again.

Over the closing stretches of the Trans Africa and days immediately afterwards, made a fair few notes about an insider’s view of overlanding book – raided them for a few of the pieces in the last month.

Grand plans but real life got in the way.

So somewhere in my mind, this was proving things to myself.

Could this website become something close to that original plan, written to a schedule which could not just be put off until tomorrow? And did my outside work persona have the discipline to write as required to finally write that book?

Sort of got some answers. Just need to settle on the idea that will bring it all together (in both cases).

And there was more than that, something touched on in an earlier post which only really became apparent as we went on – while writing that piece in some way.

This was a way of finding my voice again, rediscovering that rhythm of writing.

Strange as it may seem, while it became a long undertaking and there were nights when really could have done with forgetting the whole thing towards the end, the actual writing became easier.

Instead of over-thinking it and second guessing myself, sticking to some of the constraints of writing or editing at work, settling into my style began to flow and when it clicked, suggest that was the best writing of the last month.

It has happened before when writing regularly – compare the later posts from past journeys with the perfectly passable but less relaxed pieces from the early days – so there’s the lesson.

And also the answer for what next for Travel Marmot.

Give me a little bit of a break, but aim to be pretty regular over the coming months – there’s a landmark needs marking in just over a week – and then as required (and when WiFi allows) in South America.

We’ll see where it takes us.

  • Bit of a self indulgence but this post doesn’t lend itself naturally to any pictures, so to break up a large wad of text that’s a selection of a few personal favourites.
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