As we plan our next major trip, this time to the Balkans in Eastern Europe and with two young children, I am thinking back at the adventures my wife I shared and notably the backpack trip we took with our daughter Wynter to Asia when she was 6 months old…What we packed for each trip, what camera gear I brought and how the experiences were different.
Before I get to our journey with Wynter I thought I’d start at the beginning and talk about the trip that started it all for us. Before the children. Two years around our world.
Ten minutes alone in a pyramid. We were in the dark inside the burial tomb by ourselves when they shut off the generator as the staff went for lunch. Amidst thousands of tourists, it was our pyramid for a few minutes.
Walking through the valley in Petra as we first saw the treasury. One of the most amazing sites in the world.
Having my uncle fly to Kenya and go on a Safari with us in the Masai Mara. Watching the masaii walk alone in the distance in their red clothes in the parks where the lions run loose, and having a masaii teenager with a spear guard our tent that was surrounded by bramble bushes for security.
Hiking up to the top of Machu Picchu to watch the sunrise through the the clouds.
Spending time in Goma in the Congo. I can’t really put it into words.
Biking down the worlds most dangerous road in Bolivia.
Bike and wine tour in Mendoza Argentina. Two of my favourite things, bikes and wines…it can be done!
We rented a driver to take us to a few locations in Rwanda to visit churches as they were left after a genocide attack. A very emotional day and country for us.
The sunrise in Ait Benadoought in Morocco. The coolest kasbah (and where they shot parts of the Gladiator movie).
Watching the clouds send sun rays atop Mount Sinai…weird that actually happens.
7 days on the coast of southern Madagascar in a small bungalow listening to the waves and the most perfect aqua blue water. A million dollar vacation for 30 dollars a day, food and room.
Seeing the large glacier El Calafate in Patagonia in Argentina. I can’t describe how incredibly huge it was.
4 days backcountry camping and hiking in Torres Del Paine in Patagonia in Chile. In fact we hiked and camped about 20 days in Patagonia and it was such a special adventure for Colleen and I. My wife is real trooper!
The vista in Rio de Janiero from from the Christ the Redeemer statue. Rio is probably the most eclectic looking city scape on the planet. Plus we got to see the Guinness Book of World Records’ tallest man there…we can up to about his belly button!
The silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia. We wiggled around through tunnels which were virtually crawl spaces in a very primitive mine. It made us truly aware of what hard work and a hard life is like.
Getting married with family and friends in Costa Rica. Enough said.
Of course every day offered a new and exciting story but these come to mind.
Where it began
When I first met my future wife nearly seven years ago I had internally decided to settle down and travel less and start a family. That didn’t quite happen!
The year I met my wife I had just returned from a four week trip spent mostly in my truck driving through the western United States, finding myself. I camped here and there, slept in Death Valley, rode my bike in Moab, caught a mariners ball games, got locked up in Alcatraz in San Fran, walked the strip in Vegas, hiked the Grand Canyon, had a fire in Yosemite, met Smokey the bear in Yellowstone, explored Bodie, found where the wine flowed like beer in Aspen, drifted through Wyoming, grew a nice healthy beard, froze my ass off in Jacksons hole, picked up a few hitchhikers, drove my truck through a large Sequoia (got my canopy wedged in it), swam in Seaside Oregon, and took a lot of pictures. When I got home, still very single, I realized that I wished I had someone to share this with. It was the perfect family vacation I had just finished with a Toyota pick-up.
Meeting my wife was purely chance, we came from different worlds, she had a job, I didn’t. She was smart, I didn’t have a job. She was a lawyer, some of my friends had lawyers. She was from a farm town, I knew farms were where milk came from and I liked milk. I was raised in Fort McMurray where life was very different then in farm life near Edmonton. I was a bartender for many years, she heard stories about bartenders. She loved to travel, I loved to travel. She wanted a family, I wanted a family. I think those last two underlying traits were huge for us, and still remain some of our strongest bonds.
Seven years ago I found myself wondering what lay ahead for me. I had spent a great portion of my 20′s traveling around. I had spent all my money on travel, always making just enough to go on another trip. Wandering Europe a few times, exploring much of Asia from China to Burma to India, and driving North America many times trying to catch ball games and meeting others at all the hostels, ha ha. I felt seasoned. I had been to a few parts of the world, and I knew that I had to be with someone who wanted to see the rest with me. What was next to come was more than I had ever anticipated.
About a year into our relationship Colleen, my future wife, mentioned to me that she needed (not wanted, but needed) to take a few years off work and travel the world. Two years away, eh? I had just spent roughly 8 years doing this and she wanted to go away for a few more. Just as my career was taking off she wanted to go away for two years, can you believe it? Sure, sounds good! I guess I’ll settle down in a few more years.
We decided to embark on a trip that both of us had never taken before, to places we both had never been. Colleen had traveled to many places as well, Europe and Asia amongst them but almost immediately Africa and South America were decided on, and to this day I can’t tell you how great that decision was. Colleen and I wanted to see a few specific countries in both continents but when it came to a plan we had none except a departure date. That is one of the greatest things I love about my wife. She loves as much as I do to just follow an instinct and go a direction that calls out to you. In fact many sidetracks on our trip really describe that trait of ours.
Traveling as we all know can be stressful, be it planning a resort vacation or two years with a backpack, it takes some toll on the body and mind. Our two years did this to us. Not just the many kilometers of walking each day, finding a room to sleep in, finding a place to eat, sitting in crowded buses, using the bathroom almost anywhere, and then sleeping in what usually looked like a soft taco for a bed (hopefully in a place with either a heater or a fan, depending on the country…and yes, that was a lot to ask in many places), but also the wear and tear on the mind that happens after a few years. Most of our days revolved around getting to a bus, waiting on the side of a road for a ride, hairy rides to a town we know little about and then getting off hungry and somewhat lost. As much as I love and need that adventure it wears you down, day after day. Now add a second person to the mix. We were hungry at different times and viewed traveling differently when we left Canada. We had to work at travelling together sacrificing viewpoints, arguing over how we spent our limited money and letting down some barriers. It wasn’t easy.
We had a few bad days and a few real tests to our relationship. We both laugh in hindsight about a huge fight we had in Uganda which was a turning point in our life together. I still can’t remember (I’m sure Colleen can, ha ha) what we fought about, but we nearly ended it altogether in a town near the border of Rwanda. Imagine a bad fight here in Canada at the Starbucks and then think about the same one in a 8×8 cell called a hotel in east central Africa which is about a 15 hour bus ride (I use the word ride loosely, more like white knuckle adventure) to a major city. It really makes you work things out and realize that a relationship takes work. It’s stressful enough being away for such a long period of time, each day living out of a bag and always in search of your next two day home but after two years we truly knew each other, and what made each other happy and sad. It couldn’t have been a better life experience to share with someone you love.
What to pack?
Ask my wife about how much I hate carrying things. I hate bringing a lot of stuff, and I chose the word hate carefully here. When I was 21 and did a two month Europe trip with a friend, I overpacked. I look at the pictures of my bag…an Outbound Travel Pack…the kind of bag that has another bag on it…which causes you to slouch because it’s a terrible fit, has too much capacity (so you fill it up) and makes you look like you’ll be in traction after the day is done. In my brief experience with it, it was the worst backpack ever! A ridiculous bag that they say serves as both luggage and a backpack. I have news for you, that type of bag doesn’t do either well and my advice is to just take luggage and a day pack if that’s your plan. Most places in the world you can literally have a rolling bag and drop it off before you “backpack” anywhere. I learned some valuable lessons from that trip…how to sniff out a pub and a party in any country and what not to pack. I probably wore two pairs of shorts and an ugly pair of pants for the majority of the trip and recycled two or three shirts. I wasn’t attending any gala’s so the suits weren’t necessary. Which is why I hate bringing too much stuff- I just lug it around and never use it.
My point is simple-pack light and buy something when you’re there if you need it. Bring the basics (or the important items) as the rest is filler and nearly every trip you’ll end up cursing how much you brought anyway. Also, bring items you don’t care if you throw out if you decide you overpacked. For Africa it was a tough pack job. We left in late fall and our trip started in cold London, then we went to rainy Spain, Morocco where it was very cold as it was winter, Egypt and Jordan where the nights were cold and the days warm, east Africa for the part of the rainy season and it was scalding hot in the day, and then Madagascar where it was insanely hot most days. We had to pack for cool evenings, some rain and not a truly hot day most often until we went south. Not only that, in many places on our trip, supplies were in short demand…my wife still talks about how she couldn’t find anywhere to buy shampoo for 3 weeks when we ran out. For a week long trip it is easy to pack clothes for each day if you like (even many changes), but for multi-month trips you have to give it some thought. You’ll learn to despise lugging a heavy bag as you trod around looking for a hotel or a bus stop or whatever.
So we packed:
-running shoes and sandals (a must)
-a waterproof Columbia jacket shell
- sweaters (max 2)
-a toque each (winter cap for the yanks, lol)
-shorts (both surf and khaki shorts) and one pair of pants. I had those shorts that zipped off the legs. It sounds nerdy, and maybe it was but they looked like normal shorts, and looked like nerdy pants. And they were awfully convenient. The pants should not be jeans, they are heavy and they will never dry overnight in your room or in a place without clothes dryers once wet.
-good socks and underwear. good socks are really important. I’m a guy, what’s underwear? But watching my wife run around Casablanca trying to find comfortable underwear you did not have to purchase from a roadside stall that come in one size, I can appreciate that you want to bring enough. And wicking socks are impossible to find in Africa!
-a small emergency pack, band-aids, polysporin, needle and thread (you’d be surprised how often you need it), a few safety pins, elastics, anti-diarrhea pills and the like.
-water purifier. We didn’t bring it but bought it from any small hut in Africa. We used it a lot!
-Swiss army knife…the ranger before I lost it, then I bought the Craftsmen. Also, buy a chain and a clip to attach it to your belt look then stuff it in the pocket. My first knife slipped out in a bus ride…fool me once!
-Duct tape. My wife scoffed at me at first but when we ran out she was sad. It even held together a pair of hiking boots that the bottoms were falling off!
-Sunscreen. Not everyplace is Maui with an ABC around the corner.
-Ipod – I had the old school one, pretty valuable tool.
-money belt..yea…just stuff it in your underwear when you travel.
-visa and mastercard (carry both). But some places you can’t use them at all. Madagascar was cash only for most of it away from Tana, but you can pull money out in some towns with it. Rwanda…also cash only -you have to stand in line at the one bank that gives you money against a credit card in Kigali. We carried cash for the entire three weeks on us in Rwanda….yikes!
-travellers cheques. I wouldn’t bother again….you can if you want to…but after two years, we never used them. IMO, useless
-one book. you can swap as you go. My wife begs to differ on this…she would tell you several books when you are going somewhere with not many travellers to swap with. Especially if you are going to places that are too dangerous to go out after dark with no electricity at night and there are no TV’s. A little nintendo game boy is good too.
- electricity converter
-headlamp. Comes in useful for nighttime bathroom breaks, buses, when there is no electricity.
-photocopies of both sets of all documents you have with you (and have a copy with someone at home too)
-lonely planet. we tried the rough guide, not nearly as good, but to tell you the truth we used the lonely planet less than I thought and maybe, just maybe, used the hotel recommendations a dozen times in the time we were away. There is always a toute or a website that has a better place to stay and eat, and often things had changed from the book by the time we got there. The problem with guide books, although right sometimes can be very inaccurate or your experience can be nothing like the one written.
-scarf – Colleen covered her head through most of Jordan and Egypt.
What I brought for Camera Equipment
I’ve said this on a few occasions but I’m being honest when I say it. I don’t travel to take photos I travel to see the world. Photos don’t control my day, I’m not pushy and I’m not waiting all day to take picture. I carry a camera with me and if I see something I take a photo of it. Sure, I missed out on taking some spectacular imagery, but I can live with that. I remember some amazing moments and that’s enough for me.
I left Canada with two bodies and two lenses. Never in my life had I thought I would take that much equipment on a trip and I could only do it for three and a half months before I had to send most of it home…again, I hated lugging it around. I brought to start:
F5 body (tank)
d70 body (this was nearly 5 years ago)
17-35 2.8 (one f the best lenses ever)
80-200 2.8 (tank)
a few memory cards
60 rolls of film (again…WTF)
the ipod was a 60gb for storage
I really am glad I brought the film camera, and although I’m still paying for the scanning and developing, it made sense. As much as I love digital, if that body breaks in southern Rwanda for instance, I may as well leave it on the side of the road. No one will be able to repair and fix it. But you might be able to find someone to repair a film camera.
I ended up sending half my gear home-the digital body and the 80-200 lens after our safari in Kenya. Carrying an extra body, and such an ugly large lens made me feel like such a tourist (sorry, there’s nothing wrong with it) and an obvious target to steal from. So I decided to keep the film body and the versatile and smaller 17-35 lens. I sent home film only once and carried the rest in my bag. Not a smart idea as next time, if there is a next time, for that length of a trip I’d DHL it home at regular intervals. Ask me about what heat does to negatives? Very vintage effect.
What did we learn?
Pack light! We sent home shipments of keepsakes when we bought anything. Sure it got back to Canada about the same time we did but it’s easier than carrying it.
When you hit a major city and you want to head away on a side trip for a few days or weeks, put half your stuff in storage. We would find the nicest hotel in town and leave it with them until we came back. Sometimes they assume you are staying with them and it’s secure and usually no charge at all. Shifty, eh?
Burn multiple copies of discs of your images, carry one and send one home. Then once copy #1 gets home, you can send the second copy too. About 90% of the copies #1 I sent home made it.
When your wife is hungry don’t argue, just get her food. I’ll leave it at that.
Don’t dress like you are a tourist. If you look like you’ve been around and have no money you get hassled less as the touts will bother the people getting off a tour bus wearing a shirt with the name of the last city they were in before they will bother you. And fanny packs are prime for stealing!
Don’t bring anything that you’d hate to lose, you may lose it and although (luckily) we never had anyone attempt to rob us I would have handed everything over without hesitation. My wife was all that I needed to keep at the end of the day.
Respect the people. We have it soooooooooooooooo good here. I really feel like I was born rich and fortunate and when I spoke to people I wanted to hear about them and learn about their lives. I wasn’t talking to people to take their portrait, I was listening to their story.
Learn some local language, even just “room” “hello” or “thank you”. I don’t think I was being goofy when I tried them out it , they appreciated it usually. But sometimes they answered back in better english that mine!
Take a few minutes every once and a while and just absorb and appreciate where you are. You will never be in that place at this time in your life ever again. This is an experience which can never be repeated, and should be lived fully.
Don’t expect the rooms and food to be like home, you’re not home!
Don’t get offended when your wife says your beard smells like a wet dog. It my gift to grow a beard. It’s just too bad it smells.
Dangers and Annoyances
We feel very fortunate that nothing major happened to us along our trip. There is no question that although we tried our very best to be cautious and wise, we still found ourselves in positions that we should have avoided sometimes without options.
I never like to “diss” a city and tell someone that they should avoid it, but I can honestly say that Nairobi is a place I’d never choose to go again. We were there on three occasions during our trip but it certainly has a strange vibe. Many books warn you against walking at night and I still remember being warned that you just don’t do it. So with that warning we never left our hostel (which was gated and guarded) after dusk. It was such a strange feeling to feel locked up. After we flew in from Saudi Arabia to Nairobi while driving in the taxi from the airport to the hostel I pulled out one of my cameras while we we stopped. The driver locked all the doors, started sweating, and told me to put it away immediately. Of course I did and he continued to explain that it’s not safe to show things like that, and we were endangered all of us… this is a city where people get their arms cut off for their watch if their arm is out of their car window at a red light. This is supposed to one of the major hubs of Africa yet some of the main roads were still dirt in the downtown. I’ll be honest…we loved that about it. It had a really rustic feel about it, and did not feel like a capital city to us as tourists. We walked from our hostel to the downtown on a few occasions and actually explored parts of it. It was really interesting and I’m glad I experienced parts of it, but I’d never go back. It’s like when I broke my ankle this year, glad I know what it’s like, never want to do it again.
Transportation, and oh the bus rides. Colleen and I can think of a few rides rides that stick out… near Lallibella in Ethiopia, the border of Bolivia and the taxis in Cairo are 3 such rides. In all of my life and the many places I’ve been, nothing comes remotely close to the streets of Cairo, not one experience comes close to the chaos that is the driving of Cairo. I still can’t compare it to anything I’ve ever experienced. Purely awesome. It’s so insane it’s incredible. Imagine no rules and more cars than you’ve ever seen and then imagine it fast with nearly no stopping.
African bus rides though, really make you scared. Aside from one crazy bus ride in Bolivia where the young kid driving had all of us screaming in the bus (I’m pretty sure Colleen was crying and about the only think that stopped him was that he blew a tire), african bus rides take the cake. First you start off with a rickety old bus, then you add as many people as want to come on the bus and all their gear, animals and children. Then add some ill maintained roads, hairpin turns and voila! Contrast that with South America which has the best buses in the world. They play BINGO and give away bottles of wine as prizes. There is even a fellow who runs the BINGO games. And did we mention that you get cookies (complete with Dulce de Leche) and sweet, sweet coffee for breakfast? Now central america has some of the oldest buses, but we never felt as near to death like we did in Africa. We really had to choose our trips wisely in africa, and after a while I just came to terms that we have no other way around so pick the daytime routes, as night rides had the history of the majority of rolls and accidents, and just e-mail your family that you love them. Ha ha. We also tried not to arrive at the bus stop in dark of night, that’s the best we could do. I don’t want to sound like a nervous guy, we’re very comfortable when we travel, but my wife is quite blonde so we just tried to be as subtle as possible and remove as many variables to danger as we could.
Stay on the beaten path, alleys in Calgary are dangerous, just like they are in Rio or Munich or Nairobi.
If someone tells you they have a brother that owns a rug shop, be prepared to buy a rug… Fool me once!
When we were in Acapulco, Mexico we were approached to by a man to check out a resort time share, we’d get a free breakfast and a bottle of tequila if we went. We were away for so long that this was just another thing to do. If you have plenty of time, do it. It was awesome. Of course we never bought anything, we lived out of bag and sold the vehicles we owned in Canada to finance the trip. But the experience alone was priceless. We spent six hours there, met 7 different salespeople and at one point we saw a woman crying while her husband was yelling, and while the table beside them had a couple signing papers. It was business at its best! I think I saw a clown and someone spinning one of those carnival wheels as we left.
Keep a blog, or post a facebook status or e-mail where you are or headed to. It’s just a good idea in case something happens, it gives your family a place to start is something happens.
Some of the Africa we visited was generator driven at for power, so it gets really dark so know your way around. Even in the day it is a good to have a general idea of where you are going so you know if you are being taken off track.
Aside from ta few hairy walks at night, we came through unscaved. All things considered, we were very lucky.
One more thing. Passports…don’t lose them! We often hid ours in our room before we’d head out for the day or night…twice we forget them in the room, had to hitchhike back and recover them. So stupid!
To Be continued
I really feel good jotting some of this stuff down, it reminds me of how great that trip was, just as special as any I’ve ever taken but maybe more so as it was the last one we did before we we brought our children into this world. Every trip after this won’t be the same and I will write about the first trip we did with an infant a few weeks down the road…very different, but wonderful too.
Some of the pics with captions above
These are just a random sample of our days on the road. Please enjoy the shots and the stories attached to each shot. If you are interested in purchasing any of these shots or others from my travels please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my fine art website CareyBishopNash