Travel tips from someone who doesn’t travel very much for good reason.

I thought I would join in with Friday Reflections this week and give my top 11 (weird number but why not?) travel tips.

1. You will get sick. Deal with it. Pack drugs. Though make sure they’re not the kind that gets you into trouble.

Is this just me? So far on every overseas trip I have ended up getting a case of plague. On my very first trip out of the country, I ended up sitting next to a woman who had sneakily snuck her particularly diabolical case of influenza/black death onto the plane under the cover of what must have been about 800 doses of very strong cold and flu meds. Sadly they wore off about three hours into the flight and I was stuck next to this sniveling snot machine for another five until we hit Singapore. While I rushed out of that aircraft as soon as I could to shower and spray myself with antibacterial lotion, the damage was done. A week later, while I was in my friend’s flat in Japan, the cold hit. And then we went to China and I nearly died. The cold turned into one hell of a chest infection. Beijing at the tail-end of Winter was not the brightest idea I’d had at that time.

I was coughing up black shit for months after I got back to Australia.

And lets not forget that time I got honest-to-God DYSENTERY during a trip to Perth a few years ago. That was one fucking well-earned hemorrhoid.

2. Slow walkers are EVERYWHERE. Try not to kill them.

Bloody tourists. Sure, it’s fine when you’re one of those lucky sods who has the time (and money) to amble about a city for weeks at your leisure but for the rest of us, sometimes we only have a day, maybe two, in one particular place before being dragged away on a bus or needing to catch a plane to the next destination. We need to get places quickly and make smart use of our time and nothing pisses us off more than Slow Walkers taking up an entire footpath while they shuffle along. No amount of polite coughing gets their attention. Fuck, I don’t think a full-blown asthma attack would so much as garner a head-turn.

I have felt the rage. Seethed with it. Cheated death by walking out onto a busy road in order to get around groups of Slow Walkers.

3. Eat the damned food. And pack Immodium.

The whole idea of travel is to see and experience new things. In my opinion, those experiences include eating the food of the country you’re in. Now, I am not suggesting you go and eat scorpions off a stick or drink snake venom wine, but at least try something different. Don’t be That Guy who calls out from the back of a tour bus in the middle of Xian, China “Hey, were is the nearest McDonalds?!” (Yes, we had that guy at the back of the tour bus while we were in Xian, China.) That being said, if you’ve got a sensitive gut (like I totally do at random times), always pack some tummy meds. Nothing screws up a holiday like being stuck in the shitter for hours on end.

4. NEVER play “Pot Luck” in exotic places. And DEFINITELY pack Immodium.

Ok, imagine this, if you will. You’re in a foreign country. You wander into a restaurant that is in the very non-touristy area of a city. You sit down and your friend mentions something about the kanji for “beef” in Japanese is similar to that of Chinese. You blithely smile and nod because you’re tired and “hangry” and over everything and just need food.

Let’s just say I don’t think it was beef.

5. Don’t buy books at the airport. You’ll have to carry them.

Look… I’m a bibliophile. I love my books. When there are a couple hours to spare at an airport and I can’t find anything better to do, I will invariably end up in the newsagent/bookshop. And I will buy, at the absolute least, three books – and I can guarantee they won’t be 100-page novellas. These will be new large format editions that take up at least 6kg of my 7kg carry-on weight limit. And because I love my books, I will not read them and discard them. OH, NO. My babies come with me.

I carried no less than four giant books with me everywhere last time I was out of the country. Don’t do that. Buy a Kindle. Or download a reading app on your phone or tablet.

6. Don’t give street vendors your name. Ever. Just don’t.

Tourist traps are everywhere. And where there’s a tourist trap, there’s a gauntlet of street vendors plying their trade in souvenirs and keepsakes. Don’t give them the promise that you’ll be back to take a closer look at their stuff because you know you won’t. Don’t try to be kind. Keep your eyes down and plow straight on through. I made this mistake when visiting the Great Wall of China. It was the slightly less popular area of the wall, but still teaming with people selling the odd “genuine” fur-lined, Mongol cap and colourful kites. Like the sap I was, I gave a particular vendor my name because she said that she would put something I had a passing interest in away for me. I can’t even remember what it was but the sound that came at me when I returned from my walk on the Wall is ingrained into my brain for life. The entire line of vendors knew my name.

“Erreeeeeeeeeen! Erreeeeeeeeeeeeeen! Come here, Erreeeeeeeeeeeeen! I have many good things for you, Erreeeeeeeeen!”

FML.

7. If they’re still smiling when you walk away, you got DONE. Learn to haggle.

If you are game enough to browse for keepsakes of your trip at any sort of outside store or market, you will have to haggle. You could be a wuss, like me, and just hand over ridiculously large amounts of money for a small ancient, yet surprisingly plasticy-feeling artifact, but that’s no fun really. Regardless of what they might say, if they’re still prepared to sell to you at the highest price you’re saying you will go, they are still making a big profit. Trust me, you are not ruining that person’s day if they are glaring at you as you make off with your goods.

8. Stay in hostels. You find the best people in them.

If you’re light on cash flow, this might be the only option for you anyway, but if you have the choice, I totally recommend hostels as a place to lay your head for the evening – or continue partying, depending on your choice of hostel. You don’t have to do it all the time but do it at least once. Apart from saving a shitload of money, you get to meet people – people who encourage you to go out and do stuff. Explore a city a little deeper. Actually eat that scorpion-on-a-stick.

And sometimes you may find yourself rooming in a hostel in the middle of Old Town, Edinburgh, with two young men from Australia and New Zealand respectively who gleefully announce at five o’clock in the evening that it’s “Beer o’clock!” and vanish down to the Grassmarket for the rest of the day, only to return at some time in the wee hours and very drunkenly navigate their way onto the top bunks while alternately trying not to talk too loud or throw up and then fall into such a state of unconsciousness that you feel compelled to check for a pulse on one of them the following morning before you leave for your day of sight-seeing and then come back to an empty-but-for-a-bucket-of-vomit room in the afternoon…

NOT THAT THIS HAS EVER HAPPENED TO ME.

9. Choose the path less traveled. Avoid tourist traps.

The best advice we ever got while in China was to avoid Shaolin at all costs. The lovely staff at the hostel in Pingyao warned off the area after overhearing a conversation my friend and I were having about going there. Instead we were handed a big brochure about Chengdu. What’s special about Chengdu?

Lemme give you a hint:

Yep. ALL THE PANDAS.
Yep. ALL THE PANDAS.

Chengdu is still a big city and fairly touristy, but I reckon we chose the better option. An awesome time was had by all. So if a local warns you off somewhere, pay attention. They might have a good alternative. Though be safe, make sure you research any suggestion thoroughly before actually going – you don’t want to end up the victim of some nefarious crime ring.

10. You will inevitably fight with your travel companion(s). Don your big girl/boy panties.

Look, it’s going to happen. Weeks on end with the same person, sharing each others very personal spaces, enduring massive culture shock, the stress of traveling, getting used to each others REALLY FUCKING ANNOYING habits… Yep. It’s just a matter of time. What is important is that you get it out of your system and then get over it. Sometimes you just need to quit whatever plans you made and do something else. Sometimes you need to take a break from each other.

Sometimes all the situation needs is for some weird and slightly sleazy European to attach himself to you and start asking you all sorts of personal questions to make you forget whatever pithy argument you were in the middle of giving/getting the silent treatment for and instead haul arse to the train station to take shelter there while you wait the four hours for your train back to London…

(This may or may not have happened to us.)

11. JUST TRAVEL.

Go. See the world. See things. Take it all in. Don’t wait for a more convenient time. Do it while you’re young and stupid enough to enjoy being in mild levels of danger and getting drunk at five o’clock and eating stuff that will give you the runny shits for a week and staying up all night talking philosophy to people you just met.

Write Tribe

The Short-but-Epic Trip to USA for DragonCon 2014! (Part 4 – Day 1 of DragonCon 2014)

So Friday, the 29th of August (bloody hell that seems like a long time ago now) was the first official day of DragonCon 2014. I was all a-twitterpated and excited to get started on my first real con experience. However there was one minor problem…

I was fighting a losing battle against the dreaded Travel Lurgy. The cold which had remained hidden until the moment I sat my arse down in that first plane out of Melbourne, reared it’s ugly, snotty head in a proper manner. I had gone from a tickly throat and a bit of a cough to starting to feel claggy and unwell. Really unwell.

John was doing his best for me, as per usual – loading me up with medication we thought would help but what we thought might have just been a coughy thing turned out to be an actual cold thing. It wasn’t bad at that stage, I could deal with it. If it didn’t get any worse, I would be just fine with that.

When it came to costumes for the day, it was decided that Friday would be Firefly Day. Unfortunately, in my forgetful and somewhat panicky blondeness, I had left my costume neatly folded on top of my dresser – IN MELBOURNE. Not much help to me there, was it? I’d gotten dressed in civvies at that point, quite prepared to be the tagalong friend who carries everyone’s stuff (aka The Handler) and just enjoy the sights. Well, my mate Tracy wasn’t having any of that and in her preparedness, offered me a choice of Indian saris to wear so I could play Inara. Watching everyone else get dressed up made me maybe a tiny bit jealous (and foolish) over having no costume so I let Tracy wrap me up in a gorgeous black and gold number.

I’d like to note at this point that neither of us knew what the hell we were doing. Thanks to the Font of All Wisdom on Random Shit, aka Google, we managed to figure out how to put on a sari. So we wrapped and folded and wrapped and folded and pinned, pinned, pinned, and wrapped and folded some more until I looked like… well, me. In a sari. I was the blondest Inara you could imagine. I was also buggered if I needed to go to the toilet at any stage. There were pins everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. They connected the sari to my pants, my tank top, to itself. It was almost scary sitting down for fear of popping one and ending up with a pin ending up somewhere it ought not be.

So, I was Inara (chubby blonde version), then we had John who was Wash and Tracy and Grant who were Kayley and Jayne respectively. Naturally Kayley and Jayne have the biggest following in that show so Tracy and Grant got a load of attention. A couple people asked to take their pictures and then belatedly realised John and I were part of the group and called us in for a group shot when they recognised who we were playing.

Renlish.com - Firefly Friday
John, me, Tracy and Grant.

Yeah, we don’t fit the mold – but it’s still loads of fun.

And thus began my first foray into cosplay and conventions.

The first panel of the day was this guy:

Renlish.com - Patrick Stewart
His thinking face, maybe? I dunno.

That’s THE Sir Patrick Stewart there, folks. Sorry for the fuzziness. My camera couldn’t quite handle the lighting situation but… I was in the same room as one of my favourite classic actors. I was a little bit in awe. (Actually, a lot in awe. And it wouldn’t be the first time that’d happen too.) He is such a great speaker. So engaging and witty and absolutely adorable. Of course he was peppered with the usual questions about X-Men and Star Trek and it was great listening to him tell his stories. The hour-long panel went by so quickly.

Speaking of panels – there is one common thing that links them all.

THE QUEUING.

God in Heaven. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. Lines for panels went around the block and double-backed on themselves to head back around the other way. Queues snaked up the middle of buildings for several floors. People were milling everywhere.

Lining up to get into Sir Pat’s (we’re totally on casual name basis now) panel was an exercise in patience and sheer force of will. We had lucked out when we arrived and joined the line when it was just a few hundred strong. From where we stood, we watched what seemed like thousands walk past us to find the end of the line and it was like that for a good hour. I won’t mention the incident where one of the volunteers tried to get the small group of us in our area to move off because we weren’t standing in the right spot – even though we’d been told to stay there. Pigs would fly if we were going to join the end of the line at that point, not with the several hundreds/thousands who had tacked themselves on in all the time we’d been waiting. Needless to say, we scared the poor lass who, to be honest, was only doing what she was told as well. But she came through and made arrangements for us to stay where we were.

Oy. So, lesson learned. Turn up at least 90 minutes early to have a better chance of securing a place in the queue.

With that panel done, our next appointment was in another hotel to see a Firefly panel. This was pretty much the whole reason we dressed up.

We saw this guy:

Renlish.com - Adam Baldwin
A terrible picture of Adam Baldwin and panel moderator.

Adam Baldwin of Jayne Cobb, Firefly fame.

He’s a funny bugger too. He really took over that panel. Sadly Ron Glass (who was Shepherd Book in the show) was a late-comer to the panel, having been “caught in traffic” (I can imagine) and much quieter than Adam, though he had his moments as well. Grant was totally geeking out at this point. Adam is his hero from that particular show.

There was an amusing moment before the panel started where an Indian couple actually asked if I was in costume or not. Tracy confirmed that I was and they were impressed at the good job we’d done. We laughed and said there were pins everywhere and there would have been no chance of me putting it on by myself, to which they replied that Idian women grow up dressing in saris and still need the help of many hands and many pins to make it work. We felt rather proud of ourselves after that.

The last event of the day before we were totally wrecked and needed to eat was the Doctor Horrible Sing-a-long. John is a massive fan of Dr Horrible. I’d only ever seen a couple of episodes as they were being posted up online years ago. It was fun seeing the whole thing together in that environment.

The Short-but-Epic Trip to USA for DragonCon 2014! (Part 1 – LAX SUCKS!)

I’m back!

Actually, I’ve been back a week already but I’ve needed all that time to simply get over the delayed jetlag that has claimed my soul upon my return to be able to even think straight about what I did last week, let alone write about it.

So.

The USA.

It’s fun. Different, but fun. There’s lots of similarities between Us and Them (Us being Aussies and Them being Amurrikans) but on the whole, they a nice – if interesting and slightly strange – bunch.

My trip started with an early morning run to the airport. I was stressed. I’d never had a flight with so many stop-overs before and I could think of nothing else but horror scenarios with my connections. Usually when I’d booked my own flights, I made sure there was no more than one connection to make or I was flying direct. However, that’s simply not possible when one is flying into North Carolina. And after all the horror stories I’d heard about the big and awful LAX, I was in panic mode.

Unfortunately the Manbeast had to get to work so couldn’t stay to keep me company (and calm me down) so after a quick hug and “love you” we went our separate ways.

As I checked in, the guy at the desk seemed to sense my unease (and by “sense” and “unease” I mean was he was watching me pretty much fall apart in front of him) and talked me through the whole damned thing as well gave me a little map of LAX and described exactly where I would need to go to meet my connections. That settled me somewhat. I had a good three hours between flights at LAX. I would have enough time to get lost and find my way at least once…

AND THEN THE FLIGHT WAS DELAYED BY AN HOUR AND A HALF.

It was the last thing I needed. My anxiety took over sometime during the flight and I had a cry because I am a big baby.

Renlish.com - Up and Away!
Calm. What my flights should have been like – but weren’t. (Photo from RGBSTOCK).

When we arrived in LAX (that horrible, HORRIBLE airport!) nearly 15 hours later, I was ushered into the express line into immigration and, after a lengthy conversation with a typically surly customs officer regarding internet friendships and how cool they are, I was officially let into the country!

Of course that triumph was short-lived. I had to run-run-run, collect my luggage, transfer it and then make it to the next gate to make my connection all within an hour. No small feat in such a big airport. Thankfully, I made it with about ten minutes to spare – though not without an x-ray scan AND a pat-down by a lovely TSA officer. Yeah, wearing my most comfy but metal-studded t-shirt for the trip? Not the brightest idea I’d ever had.

I will say here and now that whilst I know that people who work at airports are usually the grumpy sort because they’re dealing with Average Joe (and Decidedly-Below-Average Joe) en masse on a daily basis, the folks in American airports take grumpiness to a whole new level. I don’t ask for much but I don’t suffer fools or rudeness gladly, so when I ask for help I expect a civil reply. The grunts and glares and “this is shit you should know, lady” attitude I got were disheartening and infuriating. Anyway.

Fortunately the last connection I had to make in Detroit was much easier and, after a total of 27 hours traversing the globe – but still managing to arrive the evening of the same day and only seeing about seven hours of daylight (talk about a mind fuck) – I was in North Carolina.

And it was deliciously warm! I hadn’t noticed when I first hit fresh air on the continent. I was rushing so much in LA that the warmer temperature didn’t really even register for much of it until I realised that I was feeling a little warm in my cardigan while I was jogging to my terminal. I looked at the sky and thought “Oh, that’s right, it’s Summer here.”

London

londonsilhouettes001

I absolutely adored London.  It was big and dirty and scary.  It has the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the Churchill Museum (which I adored), the Brittish Museum (which was unfortunately filled to the brim with school kids). I loved the muffins and juice we got from the little cafe right nextdoor to the hostel we stayed in. I loved the fact that we were right across the road from Shepherds Bush station.  I even adored how people got really narky when you didn’t stand to the right on the escalators but didn’t actually say anything to you until they managed to get past and then they’d only grumble and insult you under their breath. I loved being in the shadow of Big Ben. I loved walking through Regents Park even though Allison and I were trying to find London Zoo.  I love how English people don’t know how to queue.  London is fun.

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Next stop; men’s underwear.

marksspencerminster

Allison and I were busily taking pictures of York Minster (one of the biggest Gothic cathedrals this side of the Swedish Alps) when an older lady approached us.  “Here we go,” thought I, thinking she might have had something to say about us and our cameras.

She did, but in a good way.  She was an off-duty tourguide!

“Are you visitors?” She asks.

“Yes,” says we, the Australian and American accents giving it away immediately if the cameras and fevered snapping wasn’t already a big enough clue.

“Well, I don’t usually let people in on this but there is an excellent view of the Minster from the third floor window in Marks and Spencer!”

So, obediently, we found our way to Marks and Spencer and went to the third floor, which just happened to be the men’s clothing department. Surrounded by socks and undies, we peeked out of the little window to find an awesome view, just like the lady said.

Sitting stately amongst the rooftops of the township and bathed in warm afternoon light, there was the Minster in all it’s glory.