Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan ferry ride: a never ending story

Scurvy!!! That’s it!

I’ve been racking my brain for ten minutes trying to remember what disease one gets when one is stuck at sea for months on end. Finally I remember: it’s scurvy. If I’m not mistaken, scurvy is an awful, skin and muscle eating condition caused by lack of vitamins from fresh food. I think I have it. Or, at the very least, I’m starting to develop some symptoms.

I’m not normally a hypochondriac, but considering the fact that we ended up waiting 8 hours to board the ferry in Baku, 20 hours sailing to Aktau and, up to now, spent 72 hours just off the port city’s shore whilst someone or other gives us the go-ahead to dock, I’d say a little over-reacting is perhaps justified. I may or may not have scurvy. I certainly have hunger, although that’s probably not nearly as dramatic, especially if you consider I have healthy Georgian-khachapuri-loaded reserves.

I have not eaten a piece of fruit or vegetable in 4 days. We hadn’t even boarded the ship by the time we’d scoffed the last of those delectable tuna sandwiches. For lunch today, we had crackers topped with meat paste and a dollop of mayonnaise.

Now tell me this doesn’t look delicious?

Hmm...tasty and SO nutritious too!

Hmm…tasty and SO nutritious too!

Remember all those stray cats who kept us company at the Baku port car park? Well, if they were here, I may just start salivating at the sight of them.

Hmm....protein...

Hmm….protein…

But I regress. You’re probably curious to know how our scramble for visas in Baku worked out, right? Well, it certainly wasn’t an easy affair. It all got especially stressful on the first day, when we turned up bright and early at the Turkmenistan Embassy only to be informed that this particularly obtuse country no longer wants foreigners transiting through with their own vehicles. This was supposed to be our next destination, a very simple 5-day transit which would have seen us reach the central Uzbekistan desert area.

At the time, this news was deflating, yet after we quickly researched a re-route, we finally recognized the silver lining. Our only other option was to change course and take the ferry headed to Kazakhstan instead. Entering this far north may add 1,000km to our journey, yet it would also take us past the southern fringes of Lake Aral, one of the Stan’s foremost attractions and a poignant symbol of just how devastating man can be. But more on that later.

By the end of our second day in Baku we had applied for the Uzbekistan and the Kazakhstan visa. Both embassies were closing down for the Nowruz festivities; however they guaranteed we’d still be at least able to pick up our visas in 7 days. This would leave us with barely a day to spare on our Azerbaijan permit but there was literally nothing we could do. While we were at it (because we obviously didn’t have enough on our plates) we also decided to dash to the Tajikistani Embassy, adding yet another nerve-wrecking wait to our list of neurosis.

The next four days were a mix of relaxed sightseeing and persistent update calls to a guy called Ismail, a local ‘fixer’ who helps foreigners get tickets for the ferry crossing. You see, the getting of the visas was only half the problem. The other issue, which was not to be underrated, was the fact that although we may well get all our visas in time, there may not be a ship to Aktau in time.

The prevalent feelings we had were extreme frustration and utter helplessness. We may or may not end up in a very bad bind. We may or may not just scrape through. The worst part? NONE of it was up to us. We were at the mercy of the powers that be. I detest being at the mercy of powers with stamps!

So we decided to say STUFF IT! And we enjoyed a few fantastic days with our brilliant couchsurfing, host Andrew. If we were going to end up stuck in Azerbaijani purgatory till the end of time, we wanted to at least have some lovely memories of the country saved up.

Andrew is an absolute gem and we got on so well from the first moment we met him that it soon felt like we were just hanging out with a long-time friend. He took us on a guided tour of Baku’s historic centre…

We manage to see more than embassy offices...cool!!

We manage to see more than embassy offices…cool!!

And even on a day trip to the quaint mountain village of Ismail… (I mean seriously, some people don’t even go to that much trouble for visiting relatives!!!)

Ahhhh the serenity

Ahhhh the serenity

We have some super fun nights at home, smoking shisha and drinking copious amounts of wine. Even our African giraffe drinking game makes an appearance!

The giraffe never fails to impress :)

The giraffe never fails to impress :)

Before we know it, the festivities are all over and with a short phonecall on Monday morning jolts us back to reality: our visas are ready. By Monday night, we are the proud holders of what will forever be known as the ‘Baku Visa Holy Trifecta’

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All we needed to do then, was get the hell out of town. As we rushed back to Andrew’s house form the last embassy we made frantic calls to Ismail.

‘Yes, maybe boat…no, maybe no boat’ aaarrggghhh we just couldn’t get a straight answer either way so we only had one option: pack the bikes and head to port. Clear OUT of Azerbaijani customs and then simply wait for a ferry to take us to Kazakhstan. Today, tomorrow, whenever…

As we reached the ticket office at port we received what was essentially the first bit of bloody good news in days. Not only was there a ship going ‘soon soon’, but it was the Barda, a Croatian built freighter ship which is barely 2 years old and is considered the jewel of ferries in this neck of the woods. Sailing on her, as opposed to the decrepit Soviet-era death-tanks I’ve been reading about for weeks, was going to be a much safer bet. The Caspian Sea is said to be treacherous at times, the sea bed hosting quite a few sunken freighters already.

As you know by now, we ended up waiting 8 very loooong hours at port before we were allowed to board. I was so deliriously tired that I even thought the cabin was rather charming, although that was a wee bit before I spotted the unsavoury stains on my mattress.

Not toooo bad...from a distance

Not toooo bad…from a distance

On second thoughts...hmmmm

On second thoughts…hmmmm

I’m glad to have had a sleeping bag protecting my skin from touching the mattress, lest I catch something. We were exhausted beyond words, but happy to be finally indoors and out of the skin-splitting winds of the harbour. The ship was barely swaying and I fell asleep within seconds. An hour or so later we were woken up by the sound of the engine roaring to life, when then anchor is retracted it makes me jump out of bed.

I have a fitful night’s sleep and, because our cabin was windowless, we awake with pounding headaches. We sleepily get up and go outside to get a breath of air and are greeted by the most glorious sunny day we’d seen in weeks.

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We take our maps and guidebooks and spend the day on deck researching the north-western Uzbekistan area we’ll be spending the next two weeks in. We soaked up the sun and fresh air like it was the best thing in life. It truly is.

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The most glorious part of the whole day comes right at the end. The sun setting over the horizon of the Caspian is simply breathtaking.

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So now I’m ready to explain to you how we got from that gorgeous picture…to scurvy!

Our sailing day went by without a hitch, yet it wasn’t until half way through the next day (when we’d been anchored off the shores of Aktau for 12 hours) that I seriously started to lose my marbles. We had arrived, but we really hadn’t. We couldn’t see Aktau, but buggered if we could get this (by now) shit-hole of a freighter to move an inch toward it. Apparently, we were awaiting clearance to approach and disembark, something which I’d read could take anything from one to five days. Considering our run of luck recently, you can just imagine how optimistic I was feeling about us getting the shorter end of the waiting-stick.

Our ‘charming’ cabin started leaking smelly, festering water from the TOILET about half way through our sailing day. After 24 hours, it seemed the entire ship was enveloped by an utterly enchanting fishy-toilety-aroma. My gag reflexes were in full function mode, the only positive thing being that it was killing my appetite. Considering we only had enough crackers and tuna cans to last us one more day, a little panic set in.

Another 24 hours of smelly-hell followed without even a hint of movement. We tried everything to keep ourselves busy. I exercised on deck, read a bit, snoozed lots and from the late afternoon we turned in to watch episodes of Downton Abbey on our laptop. Thank heavens for the in-house entertainment!

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By the time we got to our third day floating in no man’s land I was completely slept out. We were so well rested and relaxed that we resemble two comatose zombies. There wass absolutely no sign of the famed clearance and that charming aroma had penetrated every item of clothing we owned. I swear to whomever…if I hadn’t had Pixie with me I would have jumped right over and swam to land on my own.

Fiiiinally, just as we’re approaching our 4th waiting day, the ship receives clearance to approach. Only problem is that by now it’s just past midnight. The ship roars to life yet again and literally sprints towards the port of Aktau. A flurry of activity arises on board and we are instructed to pack all our belongings.

My response, aimed at Chris, is one of slight alarm:

‘Are you telling me that after making us wait for almost 4 full days…they’re going to make us disembark in the middle of the night?’

And so it is that at almost precisely 2am on Saturday, the 29th March 2014, we enter Kazakhstan in the dead of night.

photo 13

Never mind that the port customs office won’t open until 9am…

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From Georgia to Azerbaijan on frayed nerves

‘You should be able to board the ferry to Kazakhstan in about 20 minutes’ said the friendly port guard in Baku. Just a wee while later, while I’m hopping on the spot trying keep my nipples from freezing right off, I resign myself to the fact that 20-Azerbaijani minutes are pretty much equivalent to 20-Italian minutes. It’s been over six hours and from where I’m jogging it doesn’t look like we’re anywhere near ready to board. Bugger. The port car park is eerily empty albeit for a few vehicles belonging to the port staff. There’s a small tribe of feral cats loitering about, no doubt smelling our near endless stash of tuna and cheese sandwiches we’ve packed. When we bought the ferry tickets earlier, the office lady told us to pack ‘much food, the ferry ride can take anywhere from 30 hours to three days’. We’d also read other traveller’s reports of the ordeal which a simple 350km ride across the Caspian can turn into. There are those who waited three full days at this car park before boarding, and those who were stuck on the ship once in Aktau port, on the Kazakhstani side, waiting for landing clearance. So far, six hours doesn’t sound all that bad; but I’m not about to start feeding 25 cats, just in case.

Head here at peak overland travel season, between June and August, and this place is said to be a buzzying frenzy of activity, with both camper-loads of adventurous foreigners, and Lada-loads of locals, making a bee line for this most infamous ferry ride across the Caspian. We had hoped travelling off-season would expedite proceedings, but perhaps we were a little optimistic.

Still, we’re not complaining. It was just a 10 days ago that we were starting to worry we’d NEVER be able to cross the Caspian at all.

It started with a stamp….

Our stroke of ghastly luck started way back in Tbilisi two weeks ago, when I realized, just a few days before leaving Georgia for Azerbaijan, that my Italian passport would soon be running out of pages. I’d make it to Tajikistan, but then I’d get stuck there page-less. Assuming this to be a rather pesky position to find myself in, I decide to make a dash to the Italian Embassy in Tbilisi to request an urgent passport replacement. Just a single day later I was indeed the proud holder of a brand new passport, yet I had also received a less-welcomed CANCELLED stamp in the one I handed in. The one with a still very VALID Azerbaijani visa. Once I spotted the stamp, I was gobsmacked and speechless, something which, I assure you, happens very seldom. Whilst the Italian consul tried to downplay his colossal cock-up, his Azerbaijani counterpart was far less forthcoming.

‘There is no way you will be able to cross the border with that visa’ he said, once I’d run to his office enquiring as to the likelihood of border issues. ‘You’ll have to get a new one.’

A late-night emergency discussion between Chris and I resulted in our decision to try our luck. We only had three days left on our Georgian motorbike permits and had no time or inclination to extent our stay so that I could pay another $100 for another brand new visa. I was ready to plead, beg and even cry if necessary (this archaic tactic still works a treat in most countries outside Europe) and, alternatively, simply set up camp outside the border post till they relented and stamped me in. I also stashed a USD20 bill in my pocket in case none of those tricks worked.

Travel hint # 375: No matter what sort of ‘problems’ you think you may encounter at a cross-country border, it’s always worthwhile to attempt to cross it regardless. No matter what laws dictate in a country, border posts are a world onto themselves. The guy with the stamp will decide if he will let you in or not. I’ve seen travellers be refused entry for just being rude and rubbing the guard off the wrong way, even though all was in legal order. Once this happens, there is NOTHING you can do, except backtrack and try another border. I reasoned, therefore, that if a guard can refuse you entry even if all your paperwork is fine (but he doesn’t like you), then there HAS to be a chance that if he takes a liking to you, he’ll stamp you in even if your papers look a little dodgy. Obviously I was aiming for the latter!

For the first time in 18 months, I wore mascara and a little lipstick, thinking that at this stage, it couldn’t possibly hurt.

Farewell Georgia…

There were many worries which should have consumed my thoughts as we rode away from Tbilisi, yet the only thing I could think about was how incredibly amazing it felt to be back on the bike again. I had my usual frayed nerves as I hopped on Pixie’s saddle, worried that after our 3-month winter layover I’d forgotten how to ride. Yet as I revved up the throttle and rode the first tentative metres it felt so comfortable and natural to be on two wheels again. The sun was resplendent, the country roads amazingly picturesque and for the first two hours I could not wipe the smile off my face, even though the mascara was making my eyes annoyingly itchy.

I was literally salivating at the mere sound of Pixie’s roading engine. She felt sturdy and eager to go. The taste of freedom seemed to have affected her as well.

We could not have picked a more glorious day for a bike ride.

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We’ve had a brilliant time in Tbilisi over winter. Considering we picked the country blind, simply going on the fact that it is the last country on our route which would allow us to stay for an extended period of time, we felt like we’d won the lottery. We toured the country extensively before stopping. By the time we left Tbilisi we’d spent over 5 months in Georgia alone, almost a whole third of our trip so far.

Aside Germany and Australia, Georgia is the country I’ve spent most time in during my near decade-long travel stint. It’d really no wonder I also felt a pang in my heart as we drove towards the border. I’ve loved everything about Georgia: the wilderness, people, culture, cuisine…everything. If you’re ever on the lookout for an off-the-beaten path and incredibly stunning country to visit, you could do no better that to visit the real pearl of the Caucasus.

All of these pleasant thoughts evaporated in mid-air the moment we reached the border with Azerbaijan. Even the road sign seemed intent on reminding me of possible trouble ahead.

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Now might be a good time to mention that I had also decided to quit smoking on the day we drove out of Tbilisi, although as I approached the guards that seemed a rather silly decision to have made. Having tried to quit twice before, I was painfully aware of how thoughts of smoking have the tendency to take over one’s life for the first few weeks. My genius plan this time was to simply add my stop-smoking hurdle on top of all the other crap I was going to have to worry about for the next month or so. If I could relegate this ‘worry’ to the back of the line, knowing how hectic our time will be from now on, I may have an easier time quitting. Well, I thought it was rather genius anyway…

We manage to clear out of Georgia in just a few minutes and reach the Azerbaijan custom post with bright, friendly smiles. Luckily, they are returned in kind. There were about a dozen guards standing idly by and they were all soon taken by our bikes and our journey. Not wanting to rush this ‘meet & greet’ session, we laughed and chatted for what seemed like an eternity, before one of them decided it may be a good idea to have a look at our passports.

As I took out both of my Italian passports, I decided on the spot to go the nonchalant route, acting as if it was perfectly normal to have a visa in a cancelled passport and a brand new, visa-less one.

‘So, here is my Azerbaijan visa in this passport and here is my new passport’ I declared as I smiled (I may have batted my eyelids just a little) and continued chatting to the other guards. Within less than a minute he returns with an entry stamp in my passport, hands them both back to me and continues talking to Chris about motorbike engines. I can’t believe my luck.

As soon as we’re free to ride onwards and finally into the country, we stop for a celebratory coffee at a roadside restaurant. I also celebrate with a cigarette, not yet finding the courage to call it quits. Within minutes the bikes are surrounded by men and we’re asked to pose for countless photos, which of course we obligingly do. The restaurant owner refuses to take money for our coffees, something which is repeated every single time we stop in the next three days. Our first impression of the country are, so far, flawless.

Back to bushcamping…

Our days in Baku were never going to be relaxing and this we knew from the start. Our short, 2-week visa would make the obtaining of three visas (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) a rather hurried affair, so in order to arrive in the capital rested and relaxed, we headed to the area of Qobustan for what promised to be a couple of days of blissful desert camping. The guide book we’d read did not disappoint. After months of city living we were itching to be lost in nature again.

Qobustan nature reserve is just 60km south of Baku, where you’ll find old Roman rock carvings (this is said to be the most eastern point the Roman Empire ever ventured to), mesmerizing mud volcanoes and endless desert plains which are just a buzz to ride through on bikes.

This is our playground for the next two days.

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The scramble for visas…

Riding into Baku on what was supposed to be a quiet Sunday morning was a shock to the system. The traffic was just insane and my patience was dearly tested, possibly more due to the fact that this was my first day as a non-smoker. Finally!

We find our couchsurfing host with relative ease and, after securing parking in the underground garage of a neighbour, take to making our Monday embassy-visit itinerary with military style precision. The Uzbekistan visa requires the most waiting time (one full week), so we planned to apply for this first and foremost. Then will come Turkmenistan and, finally Tajikistan, which is said to be the easiest of all to get. With just 12 days left on our visa, it was going to be a tight squeeze, but definitely doable.

Enter the most revered celebration in the country: Nowruz Bayram, otherwise known as the Persian New Year. A time when EVERYTHING (and I do mean EVERYTHING) closes down in Azerbaijan for an entire week.

Yep…that would be this week.

Now far be it from me to criticize how a country celebrates its new year, but do you reckon an entire nation should stop for a WHOLE WEEK??! Hey take a day off and go hard on the vodka, knock yourself out…but to close down every single office, every single bank and every single EMBASSY in the capital city is just downright ridiculous! Urgh, think we stuffed up here just a little…

Yes I admit this is a rather rudimentary mistake to make. Some would say this is as travel rookie as can be. I spent years as a tour guide constantly ensuring that whenever I had official work to do in a city, our visit day would never fall on a Sunday or public holiday. Yet with Chris this habit has gone out the window, mostly due to the fact that we travel so slowly. Should our plans be put on hold for a day or two of local holiday, it normally never bothers us. On the contrary! On a tight schedule, however, it deals a hard blow. We have exactly three working days at our disposal to secure three visas; one of which takes a week to process.

Fark, I need a cigarette!

( to be continued)

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Travel with a cause: right or con?

If you were to add a social cause or a humanitarian aid project to your vagabonding venture, you could pretty much avoid any kind of criticism from ever reaching you. Mention your noble cause first and foremost and the only thing you will get are numerous pats on the back. To someone who has fallen for this trap and then suffered a painful bout of realistic enlightenment, this is a rather hard truth to swallow.

I’ve seen the sort of detrimental effect foreign aid has had on developing countries and I have, rather unwittingly, contributed. Africa springs to mind. Not only has aid there allowed the progression of a totally dependent generation of beggars and grabbers; it has also single-handedly altered the very fabric of nomadic societies and helped the disintegration of self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Yet heaven forbid you were to criticize foreign aid: you’d be labelled the most cold-hearted person on the planet.

But there is one, even more insidious industry which doesn’t get much scrutiny at all: the whole sustainable tourism world.

From the eco-lodge, to the socially-responsible tour, rubbish-recycle project and conservation excursion; the environmentally friendly tourism industry is a gazillion-dollar money-maker nowadays. Almost every lodge, jungle safari, volunteer organization and tour operator you’ll encounter, will advertise their product or services under the banner of ‘eco-friendliness’. Their intent is to lure environmentally conscious individuals who appreciate earth’s biodiversity and feel a certain kind of responsibility towards local populations. They exploit people’s weak-spot (guilt) and with fervent ardour reel ‘em in hook, line and sinker.

Travellers are often urged to ‘take only pictures and leave only footprints’, this being the most widespread credo in some of the world’s most remote and exotic places. If you want to admire them though, you’ll have to use up about 700 litres of petrol if said place is 10,000kms away. This includes whatever planes, trains or automobiles you’ll need to get there. That impenetrable jungle will need to be accessed via an intricate road and trail network which, incidentally, will also be abused by poachers. Plots will be deforested to house both guests and local employees, not to forget water-treatment plants and sanitation facilities. After all, your chosen lodge may only allow 1,000 visitors a year…but that’s still a thousand people who have to crap somewhere!

When two million people invade the woods, for every step they take they will leave multiple footprints, even if all they see is ONE. If you have trekked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, you will have noticed existing trails transformed into deep ruts with numerous ‘shortcuts’ contributing to massive erosion and damage of vegetation. Build your eco-lodge as green as you like…guests will still eat, defecate, produce rubbish and exploit local resources, all so that a tourist can swing himself between tree-tops on steel cables like Tarzan.

This whole duplicitous business is called “greenwashing”; whereby consumerism and profiteering are masqueraded as environmental welfare. Ecological tourism is, in my humble opinion, one of the biggest ruses of the 21st century. When push comes to shove, the only genuine environmentally friendly lodge is the one that’s never built…and the one YOU can never visit.

I once had an argument with the owner of an eco-lodge in a small coastal town of the Sinai peninsula, who was desperately trying to convince Chris and I that his volunteer-based backpackers lodge was worthy of its USD50 a night price tag. According to him, due to the fact that they grew their own veggies (the volunteers tended the gardens) and powered the camp by solar panels, it meant that his lodge was not only environmentally friendly, but also benefitted the community. Oh how lucky for them!

The owner of this particular lodge stressed that we’d never be able to drive Matilda further than the car park; because she would pollute the beach. This place was full of hippy, dreamy 20 year olds who were under the illusion that their paid holiday was benefiting a needy community and the environment. Had I felt argumentative, I would have told the owner that the building of his establishment had polluted the beach infinitely more than Matilda’s tyre marks ever could. I would have added that so far, solar panels produce more harmful emissions in their manufacture than they can ever hope to minimize; and I would have also pointed out that while he hired 5 local youngsters, the un-eco Hilton up the road hired 250 and bought veggies from local farmers. If he would have let me continue, I would have commented that his insistence on guest-work was a blatant and deplorable attempt at wage avoidance, and that his prices were not only extortionate, they were downright ridiculous.

Please, tell me that you wish to minimize the impact on the environment whilst lining your pockets, but do not sit there and tell me we’re doing the environment a flamin’ favour. Human beings have been polluting this planet since homo-erectus rubbed two sticks together and came face-to-face with our ancestral Zippo. We could certainly limit future damage, but even if we all magically ceased to breathe today, Mother Earth will still require eons to recover from her injuries.

Travelling with and for a cause is certainly a worthwhile venture, yet judging one’s worth as a human being due to his/her lack of humanitarian goals is one of the most self-righteous errors anyone can make.

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Travel…life’s ultimate therapist

The day I crossed this mountain on the bike...was the day I learnt I could do ANYTHING

The day I crossed this mountain on the bike…was the day I learnt I could do ANYTHING

Far be it for me to judge why anyone wants to travel; whenever I hear of someone setting off on a journey, my instinctive reaction is to simply hail a quiet hallelujah and wish them a heartfelt bon voyage. I strongly believe that our world’s greatest problems stem from cultural ignorance, which in turn leads to intolerance and, eventually, conflict. And conflict I despise. Travel is the one tried-and-tested way to combat this primordial human sin, hence my fervent belief that if more people took to the open road, the world would indeed be a better and more peaceful place for us all to live in.

However, after a recent email from a girlfriend, who lamented the demise of a messy relationship (yes, I urged her to book a 6-week holiday to get over the pain); I started to contemplate travel as the multi-faceted remedy it really is…for all sorts of ails.

I’ve personally used a journey as a form of escapism, after a messy break-up, with phenomenally great results. In case you’re wondering, this was way before Eat, Pray, Love was ever published! For this kind of personal dramas it proved to be so effective that I repeated the procedure twice more over the following two years. After the third post-breakup trip, I got the sneaking suspicion I was seeking out hopeless relationships and biding my time until they crashed and burned just so I could get on another plane. Eventually, I skipped the tragic boyfriends altogether and just started travelling indefinitely. That proved to be the wisest decision I could have made for my well-being. :)

Truth be told, there are actually countless reasons why people travel, and quite a few of them have absolutely nothing to do with learning about new cultures, visiting impressive sites or collecting souvenirs. Most of them are, in fact, quite introspective…some people travel because of the incredibly beneficial effects it has on their heart and soul. All of these reasons are, in my view, perfectly valid.

Following are just a few examples of everything else vagabonding can be for you.

**Just be warned…although the effects of using travel as a ‘remedy’ are outstandingly effective, this does not mean that they are long lasting. At the end of the day, a happy long-term traveller will only endure the trials and tribulations of continuous journeying if he/she is out there for no reason other than an ardent passion for travel itself.**

The Escape Artist

When it comes to escaping all sorts of unpleasant situations, Houdini had nothing on travel. Getting away from the grind of daily life, or taking a momentary pause in an otherwise overbearing personal, family or work conundrum can have an incredibly invigorating effect. However, I would rate this as the most temporary of all effects.

Escaping is not changing; taking a break from problems will not solve them, although it may clear your head enough so that you find a way to do so upon your return home. But let’s be honest, there are some people who really have no options for change; those who are looking after infirm parents or children for example. If you find yourself in an unchangeable spot, you need not despair. A regular dose of escapism can really do wonders for the soul, no matter how long it lasts. Countless research has shown that the therapeutic effects of a trip are the same whether one travels for three days or three weeks; the imperative thing here is not to make your escape last longer, but rather to do it more often.

The Great Revealer

Travel has a sneaky way of forcing you to confront your inner-most fears, unhealthy habits and short-comings. It can also reveal your strengths and aptitudes in a relatively short amount of time. This can be confronting, yet in reality no one’s ever died from a little bout of soul searching to tell you the truth.

Travel has shown me to have an aptitude for languages, for example, even though I’d always maintained to be totally useless at learning them. It also proved to me that although I am hot blooded over small, tedious matters; I am surprisingly cool, calm and collected in times of real crisis.

Travel can reveal to you if you have a tendency to be overly-critical (of yourself and others) yet it can also show you to be an ingenious and lateral thinker. The reason travel does this, I believe, is because it gets you away from your home, your family and your friends. Getting away from an established life allows you to discover your true self, and potentials, away from the expectations of others. Travel can seriously redefine how you see yourself and gifts you innumerable chances to actively change the things you don’t like. This is the reason I maintain everyone should, at least ONCE in their life, travel alone.

The Amazing Healer

Travel can really heal all sorts of emotional hurts, for all kinds of reasons. First of all I believe it does this because travel has a wonderful way to slow down time. Time is what heals you…travel is what gifts you more of it.

When you do the same thing day in and day out, the days, weeks and months seem to blend into one confusing blur of fleeting time; breaking away from routine and discovering new places has the priceless advantage of making just a single week feel  incredibly long.

Secondly, getting away from the ‘scene of the crime’ can be immensely therapeutic. I went on my first African safari about a year after my father passed away. When I returned to Sydney and took to driving to work on the first day, I realized that one of the reasons I cried every day for the first months, was because I was driving past the hospital where he had been treated on a daily basis. I didn’t even recognize this at the time, (I simply assumed I would or should be crying nonetheless), yet when I returned from my trip I became aware of the unnecessary negative effects and simply changed my route to work. Between the healing and escaping effects, my trip worked on various counts as a precious healer. While it may be true that even a short stint of travel can cost more than a pack of Xanax; when it comes to healthy anti-depressants I dare say journeying is much better than popping a pill.

The Comfort-bubble Buster

Nothing like a good dose of jumping-in-the-deep-end of the pool to wake you up from a groggy existence!

Pushing your boundaries and comfort levels, no matter how near or far, has an incredibly satisfying and awakening effect on your soul. Overcoming challenges, scaring yourself half to death and achieving something you never knew you could, is the equivalent of a decade worth of therapy for your self-esteem. Tried and tested this one, so don’t even bother arguing. JUST.DO.IT.

The Phase Breaker

Want to find a monumental way to separate important stages in your life? Go travel! Whether in between schools, jobs or marriages, a trip can have wonderful renewing effects on your subconscious mind. It allows your soul to wipe the slate clean, deal with whatever emotional baggage you may still be holding and then gives you good dose of regenerated energy to face a new beginning.

Yes…travel can also be a marvellous spring cleaner.

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Georgia…a contemplative pause

The aroma of vanilla, cinnamon and chocolate wafts through the living room, and as I lean back on my recliner, waiting for an enormous batch of Nigella Lawson’s really chocolatey chocolate-chip cookies to bake, I check my emails on my laptop and find one from an obviously concerned friend.

‘Hey Laura’ the email read’ Just wanted to check in on you guys and see how you are going? Are you OK being still for a few weeks…are you bored yet? Are you suffering travelling withdrawal symptoms at all?’

I have a chuckle to myself and turn to Chris to reiterate the message.  He’s lying on the lounge with a cup of coffee in one hand, a book in the other and an incredibly relaxed expression on his face. He seems rather comfy under his chenille blanket. He smiles; I take that as a resounding no.

Nope. Can’t see any signs of suffering from where I’m sitting.

My friend’s reaction and anxiety is not all that surprising. When I first mentioned on FB that Chris and I were about to stop in a rental apartment in Georgia for three months, I did get a few comments from people who feared how we might cope with the sudden change of pace. Yet what many don’t realize, is that change of pace is exactly what long-term travellers thrive on the most. Variety is indeed what we appreciate, above and beyond all else. You can get me to do anything for a certain amount of time…but god only help you if you try to make me do it forever.

Sometimes, when you’ve been riding a motorbike, camping, cooking on a tiny petrol stove and freezing your butt peeing in the bush for over a year…you may need a break. Twelve weeks’ worth of ‘break’ to be exact.

What will we be doing during this time? LOTS! First of all, we will both be working overtime, so that we have the chance to increase our financial cushion just a little for next year’s ventures. Then, of course, there’ll be everything else. Today, I’m baking. To be honest, I actually baked yesterday and the day before yesterday and I will probably bake tomorrow too. The oven has, as usual, kidnapped all my attention and affection. Cooking is one of my other fervent passions and baking is what I miss most when we’re on the move. Although I may be able to whip up some wicked meals on a camp-stove…pizza, lasagna and Nigella’s cookies don’t really turn out so great in pots. Urgh. Most foodies will agree that the one major kitchen item one misses when overlanding would have to be an oven.

Aside the baking I also plan to take on a 3-month fitness challenge, which I like to do every couple of years. I can actually get quite competitive with myself when it comes to exercise and love spending two hours a day getting myself in tip-top shape. Then, there will be all the mundane health checks & fix-ups which most people do at home in drips and drabs. The personal 15,000km service I call it. Complete head to toe medical checks, dental etc. We find doing all this intensely over a travel ‘pause’ to be much more feasible than trying to find random docs and specialists in different countries.

Then there’s also the cooking and the eating, the taking of hot showers, the indulging in restaurants, theatres, walks, sleep ins and day long sessions of watching movies in bed. The rewards of a sedentary pause amidst the chaos of travel are near endless.

Travel imparts some truly invaluable lessons, especially if there is a great deal of physical and emotional discomforts along the way. Let’s just say six months’ worth of 5* holidaying may not be as emotionally enlightening as 6 months wroth of overlanding…although personally, I would be more than happy to take a stint of each, thanks very much.

When it comes to enjoying our winter break, when we’ll have a chance to recuperate from the last year on the road and recharge for our mammoth Stans and China crossings come Spring time, these are just some of the priceless lessons from whence we’ll be drawing our inspiration.

Because before we know it…this too shall pass.

Appreciation

Pessimism is not one of my inherent traits, so please do take this as a simple and objective observation. We (as in human beings) are a rather ungrateful lot. It really is true that we don’t really appreciate what we have until we lose it.

Long-term travel makes you ‘lose’ everything and everyone you care about most, which in turn makes you appreciate them forever more. Overland for a few years and you shall be forever grateful for every bit of comfort you’ll ever receive. I’m not a religious person, but let me tell you that I thank whomever/whatever every single time I go out and come back to our heated, comfortable and safe apartment. It’s been a month now and the feeling of appreciation hasn’t waned…and hopefully it never will.

Enjoyment of the moment

I woke yesterday morning in a panic. I realized, all of a sudden, that I had not thrown a single thought towards the general direction of Pixie in almost four weeks. It really seems that the moment I parked up my beloved bike, and wrapped her up for the winter…I forgot all about her.

Travel has a wonderful way of instilling a carpe diem way of thinking in most long-term nomads. I’ve become so used to concentrating my efforts on whatever it is I’ll do today, that the moment I parked up my bike I literally took her out of my head for the next three months. In case you’re wondering…no, I don’t miss riding and travelling because that’s not what I have planned for today. Today I’m baking :)  From the first week of March Pixie will once again be at the top of my priorities; but today it’s Nigella’s turn.

Ping! Uh Uh Uh cokkies ready…back in a tick!

Laura Pattara travel break

Enjoyment of the little things

Having a shower and crawling into bed with freshly laundered sheets…waking up in the morning and going for a pee indoors…making a cup of coffee with a single flick of a kettle switch…getting fresh milk out of the FRIDGE…sitting on a comfy lounge….fluffy slippers…clean clothes…watching the snow fall outside whilst leaning on the heater. These are just some of the little things I luxuriate in every day. I appreciate them all with every snippet of my soul. Travel taught me that.

Transience

‘We are transient beings living a transient existence in a transient world.’ When enjoying a superlatively good period in life, it can be depressing to think of life in these terms; yet when the shit hits the fan, this may be the only thing which sees you through the dark, foggy tunnel.

Travel teaches you the true meaning of temporary, especially when you’re out there making a temporary home in a country you’re only visiting…temporarily. Do this for years and you start appreciating all you have and never once think about how long it’s going to last. That’s a totally futile exercise. Before you know it, everything will pass. So you enjoy all that you have to be grateful for today, and only think about tomorrow when you’re there.

Oh Pixie I love you to bits…but you’re not part of my plan for today;  you’re just going to have to wait a little longer. Enjoy the rest my faithful companion, ‘cos we’ll have many more kilometres to cover next year.

We wish you all an incredibly inspiring new year…may 2014 bring you a wealth of totally unpredictable and transient surprises. May you appreciate them all.

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