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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Are We Nearly There Yet?

Day 30 in the blog post a day in May challenge and something of an unplanned first

IT has taken 30 days but for the first time, sat down to tap away at the laptop without any idea of where today’s post is actually going to take us.

A few have ended up bearing little relation to the plan having sort of wandered off and never came back to the intended route, while several only had a rough outline sketched out before gathering their own momentum and taking shape as they emerged.

Which is sort of the plan for this, if anything fancies popping up…

Nope, got nothing.

It is something of a cliche for column writers to resort to the writer’s block, can’t think of anything to write option as a way of filling space – subbed enough of them over the years to spot exactly what they were doing.

Either it is true and they were just saving themselves the trouble of finding something to write about or they know exactly where they were going and were throwing in the fake humility, ‘hey, look what I’ve come up with’ revelation to round things off.

Always tried to avoid it but this is something of the first option, with a touch of the second while hoping the revelation will appear from somewhere. If it does, there’ll be no fake humility – will let you know all about it.

This monthly plan has been pretty well worked out, mainly steering away from the schedule when something better popped up, had not done the necessary preparation (well, listening to music) or had just run out of time or motivation to do the intended subject justice.

Had the first 20 days pencilled in before the off and when things did change, it was a simple case of shifting them around, stretching those 20 days out towards the full month.

There’s a couple of travel and overlanding pieces which have been hanging around, moved about, never got written – bizarre places to sleep and the things that become second nature on the road – and did not get fitted back in the schedule.

We will see them again one day. Maybe. Together with the very long list of possible travel articles which has been sitting on my laptop for ages, from which a lot of this month’s pieces have been culled.

Biggest problem with a lot of that list was working out what the original idea behind it was when it first went on the list.

Eventually, we got down to just three days left and two of them were inked in from a while back on the only day they could be done – yesterday’s live blog on the A-Z iPad on the only night with enough time to do it and tomorrow’s closing piece, which clearly could not be written any other time.

Which just left the space in between.

Still working on that one.

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I to I Am The Resurrection

Day 29 of the blog post a day in May with something a bit different – the A-Z iPod Challenge written and posted live

I – Cheatahs
Interesting start – 41 seconds of largely fuzzy noise. Not even enough time to think of something interesting to write, let alone write it.

I Ain’t Got No Home – Billy Bragg
As my musical tastes completed their trip from indie guitar jangle to Americana, the Big Nosed Boy from Barking completed the same trip with his Tooth & Nail album.

He’s been pretty much a constant in my life for 30-odd years and (when we get there, possibly in several years) one of his songs will have the rare distinction of a blog post all of its own.

Not his best era but he did coin the best definition of Americana – “Country music for people who like The Smiths.”

I Ain’t Tha 1 – NWA
Added to the collection when Straight Outta Compton was part of a bout of adding supposedly classic albums. Several failed to live up to the billing, but this is always pretty welcome when it pops up. Even with my limited rap knowledge.

I Ain’t The Same – Alabama Shakes
Never really looked ahead to see what was coming on this section of the iPod, just knew it was a load of tracks beginning with I.

One of those bands who got talked up a lot for a while and downloaded this pretty much unheard. Much of it has remained that way. It’s perfectly OK, just….

I Almost Fell – Axxa/Abraxas
Nope, absolutely no idea what this is doing here. But this is pretty good, sort of psychy, vaguely California-type sound (although quick check on Wikipedia reveals he is from near Atlanta.

Ooh, Michael Palin’s on the TV. Sadly, on The One Show, not travelling.

I Almost Killed You – Billy Bragg
Told you he was pretty much a constant. This was when he was emerging from the part of his career when our paths had sort of diverged.

Not among his best, but that’s a pretty long list and what’s on it could make a lengthy debate – The Saturday Boy, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, Tank Park Salute… this could run and run.

I Always Fell Apart – Sharon Van Etten
Had an end-of-year ritual since first really started buying music, scouring the music papers and magazines’ best of lists to see what had been missed.

It inevitably ended in an armful of CDs or a load of downloads, not all of which got as much attention as they deserved, purely due to a lack of time – it’s sort of what this A-Z idea was about to dig out some overlooked stuff.

Sharon Van Etten has made the end-of-year shoppings spree more than once and falls very much in that last paragraph.

I Always Knew – The Vaccines
Yeah, it’s OK but… Am away watching baseball the weekend of Glastonbury so will have limited chance to roll out the phrase indie landfill. Will do it now.

I Am A Rock – Red House Painters
Finally a song long enough to think of something to write… if only wasn’t trying to work out how they have produced a cover about twice as long as the original. That’s Mark Kozelek for you.

Red House Painters are littered through my iPod, courtesy of raiding the music collection of the friend who gave me a home on return from my first bout of travelling.

Perfectly welcome visitors and Kozelek went on to soundtrack much of my Trans Africa trip with his wonderful Benji album (which manages to mention his role as the bassist in the band in Almost Famous).

I Am A Rock – Simon & Garfunkel
A friend once got very upset because none of his colleagues were old enough to know who Simon & Garfunkel were. Which is a sad reflection on both the ageing process and the education system – they should be among the music people are taught about compulsorily.

I Am A Wanderer – Steve Earle
Told you had wandered off into Americana. No idea where picked this one up from but looks like sometime after Earle had been playing a recovering drug addict in The Wire – the greatest TV series of them all (no debate on this one).

Just checked this is actually working and appears some people are actually reading it (or one person is clicking on it a lot). Hi, whoever it is. Not watching the football?

I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumprint Scar – Fleet Foxes
Remember buying this album, no recollection of listening to this but almost certainly did. Prefer their early stuff which is much better, controversial view, than Father John Misty.

I Am Columbus – Guided By Voices
It’s all been a bit gentle up to now, time to crank it up. One of those bands was aware of for ages but was never familiar with. Like it, but does sound rather like a Sugar B side.

I Am Fire – The Afghan Whigs
Have to pick my words carefully, given the high esteem The Afghan Whigs are held in by at least one person who might be reading this. Never quite got them to that extent – one of those bands you enjoy when you hear, but rarely seek out. Ducks for cover…

I Am Gonna Watch You Sleep – Hamell On Trial
Bought this album on the strength of a track on an Uncut magazine sampler which still pops up occasionally when wandering through old playlists. The album not so much.

I Am Goodbye – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
The Prince wandered in to my collection in the same raid on a friend’s collection as Red House Painters (we had no TV or internet).

Also one of the subjects of the overheard line: “Want to come back to mine and listen to some miserable music?” Remarkably, she did.

I Am Here – Savages
Sort of shied away from Savages because kept being told would really like them – sort of the musical equivalent of being told to clean your bedroom – so came to them late. This backs up the feeling that should have listened earlier (my bedroom is tidy, but could do with a vacuum, thanks for asking).

I Am Home – Massive Attack
Wow, been doing this an hour and struggling to shake the feeling that really should have looked at what was coming up in the A-Z before trying this.

It does happen sometimes on this journey, you get a load of album tracks, stuff cribbed from compilations or have just not listened to. Other times it is just loads of tracks which bring back a load of memories.

I Am Not A Game – Ty Segall & White Fence
Fits in the much-touted category, bought unheard and largely remains that day. His stuff does pop up from time to time and feel he suffers from Ryan Adams syndrome (not that one), bit too prolific for his own good sometimes.

Got over-excited for a minute then, the comment icon flashed. Just checked it, take it nobody is posting comments in Russian on an old post about travelling?

I Am Still What I Meant To Be – Will Oldham
Refer you to the comment under his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy moniker. Otherwise going to start repeating myself.

What’s happening in the football?

I Am The Cosmos – Chris Bell
Just had to look him up as had no idea (this one’s another from an Uncut CD when it was my regular source of music reading).

He was in Big Star with Alex Chilton – could probably have worked that out from listening to this -for which we owe him huge thanks. If only for being a huge influence on Teenage Fanclub.

I Am The Mob – Catatonia
Just a couple more – been doing this long enough, getting hungry and, having just checked, not sure can stomach back-to-back Beatles (work it out).

There was a time when living in Cardiff when it seemed illegal for any pub not to go more than 10 minutes without playing Catatonia, the Manics or the Stereophonics. Believe me, we did a lot of research on that.

Used to wander past Cerys Matthews a lot by our house. Chances are one of us was going to Chapter or The Cameo Club (it would have been her going to the Cameo).

I Am The Past – Eleanor Friedberger
Another in the Sharon Van Etten end-of-year list purchases. Sounds a bit like Thea Gilmore.

One more track, just the first outing for it as it’s more than eight minutes long. Gives you some time to work it out.

I Am The Resurrection – The Stone Roses
It has just taken me about four goes to spell resurrection… time to wrap this up.

Am a member of a closed Facebook group which features a load of music fans – some of them music journos and the odd member of bands you might have half heard of -who basically post a load of tracks, sparking debates and sending us off down memory lane and voyages of discovery.

Been quiet in there for a while before indulging my Fontaines DC obsession the other day.

One member ranted against The Stone Roses to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of their debut album. Get where he was coming from and while never a huge fan, still think it was a really good record if sounding a little dated.

And to the last strains of John Squire’s guitar, thanks for following this live effort (just checked, people have actually been reading, remarkably) or catching up later.

Normal service will be resumed next time.

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