Monday, 29 May 2017

Travel book review: The Excursionist by JD Sumner


In an age of idealised travellers' lives played out on Instagram, The Excursionist is an antidote to pristine selfies and hot dog legs set against a backdrop of turquoise seas. It is a novel that taps into many of the realities of modern-day travel, despite being a work of fiction. The idea of ticking off countries and the desire to join the Travelers' Century Club, where members have bagged 100 nations, is something many people can identify with. Travelling today has become a competitive pastime for many and the protagonist of The Excursionist, Jack Kaganagh has bought into it.

Over the course of ticking off countries numbering 98, 99 and 100, all of which fall in the Coronation Islands, he seems to have missed much of the pleasure that can be derived from travelling. Instead, he seems to be spending his holiday enduring the couple piling on the PDA at the pool, the need to pay extortionate prices for excursions and the combined irritation of gnat bites and sunburn. This results in a darkly comic tale, which only gets more morose as the truth about his absent former fiancee comes to light.

Much of the pleasure of reading The Excursionist comes from recognising the situations that Kaganagh finds himself in. After all, anyone who has travelled extensively has had the need to develop a strategy against being sold items they neither need nor want. And sitting alone at dinnertime in a restaurant is all too familiar for solo travellers and those who globetrot in a pair contemplate with dread. The absence of Kay, the aforementioned ex-fiancee, is felt keenly from the start, with a description of the role she used to perform:

"Kay used to take care of all form filling. She used to fill in every embarkation and disembarkation form, visa application, customer-satisfaction survey or any of those other forms you have to fill in at check-in. I had to make do with putting down 'Radio ventriloquist' as my 'Occupation', 'Graceland' as my 'Address' and 'Unlikely' as an answer to 'Sex'."

After all, as you travel more and more with a loved-one, you both fall into step and each take care of specific areas of a trip. It becomes an unspoken expectation that the organisation of the itinerary and important documents will be the responsibility of one party, while the other researches the destination and picks out well-reviewed restaurants that must be visited during the course of the holiday. What JD Sumner does in The Excursionist is make the reader think about these little acts that seem so natural and wonder how we would cope should our regular travel partner suddenly no longer be there.

What I will take away from the book is an important reminder never to lose the real point of visiting a new place. That is to experience its culture and celebrate its uniqueness without getting caught up in the idea of ticking it off just for the sake of it. Kaganagh is in the enviable situation of being able to travel in luxury with no expense spared, but this provides a certain amount of separation between himself and the countries he visits. Anyone looking to get a real sense of The Coronation Islands will not find it here. Instead, they will be presented with a cautionary tale about getting caught up in the trappings of travel and not enjoying the ride.

The Excursionist by JD Sumner is out now.

A review copy of The Excursionist was received free of charge.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

World Travel Market 2016 - a first timer's experience

At the end of day one of WTM 2016


After two long days exploring everything that World Travel Market 2016 had to offer, I'm on a delayed train back up to Newcastle. Not only that, but I am somewhat weighed down by all the swag I have collected. Shiny brochures highlighting must-visit destinations, maps with suggested itineraries, glossy magazines, pens, pin badges and plenty of business cards all enclosed within branded cloth bags.

What I am mainly returning up north with, however, is a mind full of this incredible experience. From the people I met and may work with in the future to the knowledge gained through attending sessions on everything from responsible tourism to targeted social media campaigns. And the most lasting impression of WTM will for me be one of intense colour.


Representatives from Nicaragua


The whole world is there, with countries erecting huge and elaborate stands, featuring the most recognisable and enchanting elements of their culture. There are representatives bedecked in traditional dress, local speciality foods being served and artisans crafting UNESCO World Heritage Sites out of sand or painstakingly hammering metal studs into decorative wooden boxes.



Konark Sun Temple realised in sand by Sudarsan Pattnaik


As a first-timer to WTM I didn't quite know what to expect and the scale is certainly overwhelming. It took me two whole days to cover both halls - Europe and the rest of the world - between attending talks, award ceremonies and panel discussions. Part of the problem is getting distracted by everything around you as you go.

It's a great idea to be organised in advance, but try and remain flexible at the same time, as the enormity of WTM means plans will change. My approach, which seemed to work fairly well, was as follows:
  • Decide on the sessions you most want to attend and work your networking around these
  • Get your bearings as quickly as possible, so you can make it to talks efficiently
  • Smile at everyone you encounter and be ready to stop and chat
  • Hand out masses of business cards and request them in return
  • Visit the stands of places you have been to, as well as those you hope to visit in the future, as this can lead to passionate conversations and great opportunities
  • When you're flagging, seek out one of the stands offering free coffee - Costa Rica and Italy are both good bets - take the weight off and plan your next move.
  • Be systematic about covering ground, so that you've at least wandered the entirety of both halls. Start at one end and when you need to stop to go to a talk, take note of where you are and return to that point at the next available opportunity.

A well-earned coffee at the Costa Rica stand

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Mystery from Amman solved over Facebook


There are lots of things not to like about the social media age, but this is one of the things I love...
I took this photo of some Arabic writing painted onto a wall in Amman, Jordan and promised myself that I'd find out what it meant. Knowing my friend Natali has been learning the language, I asked for her help on Facebook. She enlisted the help of another Arabic speaker and within an hour of posting, I had a translation.

This is what it says:
The winds blow as our ship moves, we are the winds and we are the sea and the ships, he who goes after something with his will, finds it even if demons and constraints fight him, so aim at the highest of things and you get it, the wind blows the way the ships want it to.
- Translated by Lara El Mouallem

I'm so pleased to get the translation, as it's such a beautiful sentiment and expresses how I feel about travelling so perfectly. Amman was such a lovely, colourful and friendly city, which I would recommend to anyone wishing to explore a corner of the Middle East.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Top tips for surviving La Tomatina



August is upon us, which can only mean one thing for the intrepid traveller looking to tick a major festival off their bucket list - La Tomatina. While this crazy Spanish festival in the small town of Buñol is incredible fun, it's worth working out all the logistics in advance to ensure you have the best possible time.

I'm aware that I sound like somebody's mother (possibly yours), but do the planning in advance and you'll have a much more relaxing time when you get there. After attending in 2015, these are my top tips for La Tomatina.

Don't take valuables with you

This is the most important piece of advice of all, as I have heard lots of reports of people having things stolen at La Tomatina and even some experience of my own. While standing in the crowd just out of the scrum where participants were trying to topple the ham, I saw an American guy who had been getting involved come out and put his hands in his pockets. "My wallet and phone are gone. They've taken my wallet and phone" was his shocked response. This was before a single tomato had even been thrown.

Later on, during the fight, I felt the GoPro that was strapped to my head being grabbed. Luckily, I managed to get it back, but it was pretty touch and go.

My advice is to take as little with you as possible. For me that meant no phone, no purse and no camera. I just had a few euros tucked into my bra to buy something to eat and drink. I brought the GoPro with me for work, but if you can avoid it all the better. Either attach a camera to yourself securely or opt for an old one that won't be expensive to replace, if capturing the moment for prosperity is important to you.


Take a tour

That leads me onto my next piece of advice. Taking a tour is a really great idea for La Tomatina, as it means that you don't have to worry about getting yourself to and from Buñol or take any extra money, train or bus tickets with you. It's also really handy to be able to leave items on the bus to keep them safe.

Choices in terms of tour operators are plentiful, but it depends on what you want to get out of it. Some companies, such as Busabout and Fanatics offer multi-day trips if you are looking to make new friends and explore more of Spain as part of a group. We went with Festivals All Around, as they do a single-day tour from Valencia, allowing us to plan the rest of our trip ourselves.

All of the tour companies seem to offer the basics, such as transport to and from Buñol, entry into the festival (it is now ticketed to restrict numbers), a T-shirt and some booze. It's a good idea to compare what's on offer and prices to get a deal you think will suit your needs.




Go down into Buñol town as early as possible

While there was an abundance of sangria on offer when we disembarked the bus in Buñol, we had a quick cup and then headed down the road to the centre of town quite early on. This proved to be a great move, as we could scope out a good spot and see the pre-fight shenanigans, which were already underway.

Traditionally, the tomato fight starts when the ham is toppled off the greasy pole that is set up in the town square. In reality, the fight begins at 11am regardless of whether the ham is still in place or not. It's a good job really, as those trying to bring it down in 2015 never quite managed to organise themselves into the structure required to reach the ham.




Don't drink too much

There are a whole load of reasons why drinking too much at La Tomatina is a bad idea. For a start, you want to be as in control of yourself as possible. It gets really squashed in the streets, so you want to be able to keep yourself upright. Secondly, it would be a shame not to remember this incredible experience. Thirdly, and most importantly, there are no public toilet facilities down in the town. Pee at the last portaloo you see before going into the battle area and don't expect to come back out until it's all over.

Buy cheap, enclosed shoes you don't care about

The decision of what to wear on my feet for La Tomatina was something I agonised about at length. I generally take a pair of flip flops and some walking shoes on my travels, which between them cover most eventualities. The problem with La Tomatina was that I thought enclosed shoes were a must, ruling out my flip flops, and didn't really want to stain my nice North Face walking shoes for the rest of their usable life.

So, once in Spain, we set off in search of one of those small shops that sells everything. Here we found pair of pumps for about €5 that could get as much smashed tomato on them as they liked without any worries. This approach had the added benefit of not having to fit them in my luggage. Win-win.




To goggle or not to goggle, that is the question

We each had a pair of goggles to wear at La Tomatina, but quite soon found they steamed up, so we took them off. As a result, we got plenty of tomato in ours eyes and found that a gungey yellow substance kept coming out of them for a few days. I'm not sure what the ideal solution is to this, but you may want to weigh up the options.

Know what to expect

The streets of Buñol are narrow and everyone is packed in tightly, so expect to be squashed. There are banners placed over the roads to indicate where the trucks loaded with tomatoes are due to stop and it's a good idea to be positioned near one of these in order to get first dibs on the ammunition. The fight lasts for one hour, but it's amazing how quickly it goes. The chances are La Tomatina will be like nothing you have ever experience before, so embrace it and have fun.

Allow yourself to be hosed down by the friendly locals

It's wonderful to see how the locals really embrace the crazy people who come to their town each year to throw tomatoes at each other. Many of them keep a safe distance and watch the drama unfold from their balconies. Others take to the streets after the battle has ended and help with the clear up operation. Many stand with hosepipes and will help to rinse you down. While this won't get you completely clean, it will help to get much of the excess tomato pulp off you.

Sit a while in the sun

Once you've been hosed down, find somewhere to sit in the sun and dry off. We opted for a lovely spot up by the castle. Not only did this make us a lot more attractive prospect for getting back on the bus, but it also gave us some time to reflect on the crazy experience we'd just had. We still got back to the bus in time for the return journey to Valencia.



Check out the footage I shot in this video on my company blog here

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The well-fed pescatarian loves festival food

The music may be the headline act of this summer's festivals, but the food also deserves an honourable mention. After all, it's the army of food trucks that keeps us going through the muddy times and the late night munchies, filling our festival experiences with flavour.

Anyone who has read my bucket list will know that going to Glastonbury has been high on it for a long time and this year it was finally achieved. One of the (many) fantastic things about the mother of all British festivals is the variety of food on offer.

Here is a selection of the well-fed pescatarian's top eats from Glasto. Look out for these fab vendors at other festivals throughout the summer. ¡Buen provecho!

Burritos



Burritos are a great festival food for pescatarians, because they are so tasty, really fill you up and aren't too hard to eat if there's nowhere to sit down. For me, it's all about the extras - the guacamole, sour cream, cheese and jalapenos - which really make it a fab festival meal. You can even wrap 'em up and throw them in your bag if you're planning on camping out at a stage for the duration.

There were several Jumping Bean Burrito stalls at Glastonbury, including one up at the GlastoLatino stage, which seemed appropriate. The nachos were a great pick-me-up after a bit of salsa dancing on the Thursday night too.

Crepes and galettes


You can't beat a crepe at a festival, or even a galette, as apparently that's what savoury crepes are called. It's easy to sate most of your hunger cravings in this way, as the selection of fillings on offer is immense. Over the course of the festival I indulged in both sweet and savoury options, with a sundried tomato, mozzarella and fresh basil galette going down very well. I returned to the extremely friendly girls at Happy Crepes for a white chocolate, fresh strawberry and pistachio crepe later in the festival.

Potted crayfish on toast


Probably the best thing I ate at Glastonbury was the potted crayfish on toast, which certainly saw to my seafood needs. Not only is the food served up by Crayfish Bob absolutely delicious, but it is doing a very important job for the environment here in the UK.

The American Signal crayfish was introduced to British waterways with the idea that they could be exported to the Scandinavian market. Instead, it has become a pest and is responsible for wiping out many native species. It is these American crayfish that are used in Bob's creations, helping to rid our rivers of them. It's a win-win situation for the hungry pescatarian and the environment!

Loaded wedges


The prize for the best value food at Glastonbury has to go to the wedges, as these bowls of seasoned and fried potatoes loaded with all sorts of tasty toppings were not only cheap, but plentiful and filling. A nice spicy bean concoction on top really did the trick, although cheesy wedges or an accompaniment of dips are also quite tempting.

Indian wraps


On any day of the year I would pick Indian food over any other cuisine and at festivals it's no different. I've had plenty of delicious curries from various outlets over the years, with the Patak's bus being a particular highlight, and more pakoras and samosas than you can shake a festival flag at. Having been following each other on Twitter for years, however, it was time to seek out the Chapati Man and I certainly wasn't disappointed.

Located over by the Left Field at Glasto, the Chapati Man managed to cram all of the delicious flavours of India into a tasty tasty flatbread. For the well-fed pescatarian that meant chana aloo - chickpeas and potatoes cooked in a wonderful spice mix and accompanied by raita and salad - yum!

Thai food


Those who ventured across the lake that was the West Holts arena at Glastonbury were not just rewarded with some fantastic world music acts, but also delicious food. Nothing warms you up on a soggy festival evening like a steaming plate of noodles and vegetables, which is exactly what we got from Good Thai Dins.

Liquorice

Pops and I, who have festivaled together for many years, swear by liquorice as the perfect pick-me-up between acts. Having sampled a few different vendors, we particularly like Saint Valentines, which we got a taste for at Latitude in 2014, then enjoyed at WOMAD 2015 and continued the love affair at Glastonbury this year.

Importing liquorice from all over, there's every shape, flavour and style of soft liquorice you can imagine. Producing a few sticks for Pops, which I'd clandestinely bought in advance, during our night shift stewarding for Oxfam certainly cheered him up. Look out for the Saint Valentines stalls or handy little carts at the next festival you attend.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

30 photos from 30 years of travel

Last month I turned 30 and was lucky enough to spend the actual day in the stunning Marjorelle Garden in Marrakech. Prior to going away my nearest and dearest threw me a surprise birthday party. One of the highlights of the event was the slideshow of photos put together predominantly by my dad. While the photos spanned my entire life, what became apparent was how much of it has been shaped by travel. Here are 30 of my favourites:


Namibia


England


Holding a baby crocodile in Zambia


Edinburgh


Fish River Canyon, Namibia


Pembrokeshire, Wales


Croatia


The Pyrenees


Talisker Bay, Isle of Skye


Dubrovnik


The Pyrenees


Feria de Cordoba


Victoria Falls


Costa Rica


Stone Town, Zanzibar


Namibia


Caprivi Strip, Namibia


Prague Cow Parade


Updating the Scratch Map


Vatican City


San Isidro School, Sarapiqui


Iceland


Plaza de la Corredera, Cordoba


Iceland


Wild swimming in the Pyrenees

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Iceland


Morocco the first time round


Ireland


Iceland


The Pyrenees

As well as the photos, my mum did a great job of summing up my travelling career in cake form.