Tuesday, 24 July 2012

How to Learn Spanish for Free!

I learnt Spanish in six months, without one lesson, with no previous knowledge (“tacos” and “hola” excluded, obviously) and without spending a penny/cent. How did I do it? Here are my simple steps to becoming fluent in Spanish.

1)      The Basics. Familiarisation is the first item on the agenda. I joked about tacos, but actually you probably know hundreds of Spanish words. Try to list them. Jot them down when you think of them. Every Spanish dictionary, learning pack or other resource starts with a pronunciation guide, so get practicing. Spanish is an easy language when it comes to pronunciation as there are only 5 vowel sounds (unlike our 26 or so) and very simple rules. So once you’ve learnt the rules, you’ll never come across a word you can’t say and you’ll always know which syllable to emphasise. The first beginners’ mistake is to speak quietly in your English accent if you’re unsure of something. Don’t do this. Be loud and proud from the beginning. Put on your best Antonio Banderas (or Selma Hayek for the ladies) voice and start throwing it around like [insert amusing Spanish-related metaphor here]. If people can hear you clearly and see that you’re trying, they are more likely to give good feedback and to speak back to you in Spanish. Every English-speaker knows that annoying paradox that we are the worst in the world at learning languages and yet when we try to learn, everyone wants to practice their English with us instead. Well, for starters, don’t mumble. Give it your all. The trick to learning a language (or learning anything for that matter) is to commit yourself to it, 100%! Watch some Spanish movies (there’re some really good ones!), take a look at a native copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude or anything you can get your hands on. See if you can see any patterns already. Check out the free language learning resources available to you. The BBC website has loads, including my favourite by far, Mi Vida Loca! MiVida Loca is an interactive, online drama show where you play a character and take part in the action. You unwittingly get caught up in a chain of events that involve a plot to destroy the Spanish wildlife, a kidnapping, the subsequent rescue attempt and even a little potential romance. By the time you reach the end you’ll have gone from complete beginner to seasoned Spaniard.

2)      Vocab. Now you’re ready for the meat of the pie. Vocabulary and grammar (see point 3). Vocab is everyone’s problem. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how much you know about language in general, you’re never going to be able to speak one without it (vocab, that is). This means a lot of work, and a lot of time. You’re never going to be able to learn it all overnight, so this is where the mixture will separate and those who really want to learn will rise to the top of the bowl. So how do you learn vocab? Write, write, write. Write down everything! Everything you hear. Everything you see. Though, remember, it’s no good on a piece of paper alone. You’ll have revise often, re-writing, speaking aloud, categorising the words to make mental links, testing yourself to make sure they’re there for real and there to stay. Push yourself but don’t over-push yourself. Try to learn too many words in one day and they’ll go straight out the other ear. It’s a good idea to learn a certain number of words every day or so (probably not more than 50) and then come back to them the next day after a good night’s sleep and see if there’s any you couldn’t remember. Then go over what you know at the end of every week and then every month. You’re your own teacher now so you’ll need to come up with your own ways to stay motivated. Don’t be ashamed to play games. Plus there’s always the flash cards thing.

3)      Grammar. This should be learnt alongside the vocab. Like all great partnerships, one is useless without the other. A great website, and the one I used, is www.studyspanish.com/tutorial.htm. You can also find it by Googling “Spanish Grammar”. It’s the first result these days. This has free lessons with clear explanations and examples, with units ranging from the very basic to the very advanced. As you work through these you will no doubt experiment and start to put your own sentences together. If you can’t think of the word you need, it means you need to give yourself a vocab lesson. Whereas if you have the words but aren’t sure how to put the sentence together, that means it’s time for the next grammar lesson. It’s a delicate balance but you’ll get it just fine, I’m sure.

4)      Identify your weaknesses (and strengths). Like I said, you’re your own teacher and so it’s also your job to keep tabs on your own learning. Everyone is different and what worked for me (above) may not work for you. It’s never been so important to listen to yourself. Be aware of what you need to work on and plan your lessons accordingly.

5)      Go there! If I’m honest the real secret to my success (besides dogged determination) was that I was in Latin America for six months. Back home in an English-speaking country, you’re never going to be exposed to any foreign languages. No matter how hard you try you’ll be forgetting it faster than you can learn it (kind of a depressing thought and maybe a little hyperbolic. Certainly don’t stop trying on my account). What I’m getting at is, you need to be in a Spanish speaking country to get the most out of your learning. Once there you will be consistently challenging yourself. Every day’s tasks will be a test and every stranger can be a teacher. Soon you’ll be thinking and dreaming in Spanish. Be curious. Ask questions. Socialise. And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of speaking English and hanging out with only the expat community. There are many Spanish immersion programs that can get you out there, give you a kick up the arse and the confidence to stay on your own accord. The language schools are also a great place to meet people, make friends and get involved in the local scene. Remember to be aware of the regional differences between the Spanish spoken in different countries.

6)      Keep it up! Finally, don’t let it all go to waste. The longer you learn Spanish for, the longer it will cement in your head and stay with you. You never know when you might need it again. If you must come home, try to get involved in the Spanish-speaking community where you live, even if it’s just going for tacos every now and then.

¡Buena Suerte!

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Thursday, 19 July 2012

I've Been through the Desert on a Horse with No Name - Part 3

As I crashed down onto the creaky motel bed I felt a million worlds away from the Californian coast, where I’d been staying for almost two weeks and which I'd left behind me only two days before. (Little did I know that it would be a year until I’d stop anywhere for that long again).

I lay face up on the bed, almost paralysed with fatigue and listening to the endless freight trains go screaming by in the New Mexico night. Like wailing banshees, the sound seems to get under your skin, into your head.

Then silence.

Just the desert winds. And the thoughts in my head. I wondered if I could go on like this; riding incessantly for months, taking in so much, on the back of a motorcycle, alone. After everything I wrote yesterday, I’m already starting to crave company. I have friends out here in the States – we were all together in Japan – and I find my mind bending more and more towards them, wherever they are on the other side of this desert.

I’m in Gallup. This motel cost me $20 (an offer I wouldn’t find again for a very long time…which says everything about Gallup that you need to know for the moment).


This morning I broke camp at 11 after a terrible night’s sleep and got fuel and breakfast at the Iron Horse Saloon (I’d seen it the night before and the name had wrung some distant bell in my memory. Some old biker had once recommended it to me, but who?)(It wasn’t until I reached the east Coast that I came across the Iron Horse Saloon at Ormond Beach and all became clear.)

On the TV above the bar, Fox News told us that Mexico was planning to sue the state of Arizona for their new immigration law. The barmaid was nice enough but it was too early in the morning for a racist spill. I heard a guy say “we need to get Obama out! He’s not doin’ anythin’ good for this country” to a round of consent.

I took the 64 up to Mather’s Point through the scorched plains. When I got to the Grand Canyon I had to admit that my crazy friend from last night had a point. Despite all my cynicism about tourist attractions, the Canyon really was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. As with all such things, the initial shock soon wears off as your understanding of the world changes a little to include this amazing new thing, but I never could have got it without seeing it for myself. I mean, when somebody says “oh, there’s a canyon in America that’s over a mile deep” that’s just words. But when you get there and stand on the edge and look into the abyss, it finally becomes real – something these words, or a Google image, could never replicate.

I walked some of the Rim Trail then sat and contemplated it from a precarious ledge that jutted out,  with nothing beneath it for hundreds of feet, and seemed to stare out to the other side. Some things are just worth $12.

The 180 to Flagstaff is an impressive road. The Kaibab forest gives way to the even greater Coconing Forest, where great, ancient firs tower high on either side of the road, which twists and turns towards a patch of mountains. At first the bends took me off guard as I’d gotten used to roads that ran straight as a needle for hundreds of miles, but soon I was taking great pleasure in the experience of throwing myself into the rolling bends. (Months later, in Canada, I would have this conversation with fellow motorcyclist and author, Ted Bishop, who admitted the same phenomenon in his book, Riding with Rilke. He told me he actually thought he’d forgotten how to lean the bike and turn a corner. It’s one of those things you have to do to understand.)

The road reaches an elevation of 8046 (feet above sea-level, I suppose) which explained the welcome cool air.

Shortly after Flagstaff, old 66 more or less disappears for good (little stretches of it curl all the way to Chicago) and you’re forced back onto the 40. By now the landscape had flattened out completely into sandy yellow plains stretching out to the horizon. I’d heard about this modern day ghost town called Two Guns but had just about given up on finding it out here in the open expanse when I saw an exit for it.

I came off the freeway and there it was: “2 Guns”…a real ghost town! I parked up in the middle of the street, because there was no way anyone else was coming through here anytime soon. I took a look around. There were a few buildings, half built then deserted, then trashed. A gas station that had been torn apart, the floor littered with broken glass, truck tires, pieces of the plaster-board wall, empty, upturned cabinets. Under the desert sun I took a stroll up the dust track. There was even a swimming pool, empty of water, full of shit and covered in graffiti. It would have made a nice skate bowl, I thought, and I’m sure at one time it did. This might explain the graffiti and the damage. But who had been here? I looked around the desert. Hundreds of miles with nothing on the horizon but plains of dust. Kids from the reservation or some nearby AZ city must’ve driven up here, perhaps. Whoever they were, there was no sign of them now.
I took shelter from the sun in one of the buildings. Huge holes torn out of the walls blazed white and made everything inside difficult to see. Boards and broken glass crunched underfoot. Buckled sheets of tin echoed out into the desert.

Still, the 40 didn’t seem like a bad place to put a gas station, especially this section – there certainly wasn’t any competition. So what happened? Why did they just stop building? Whatever the case, I guess I’d never find out. I got back on the bike and rode off.

(Okay, just wikipedia’d it. Two Guns was originally Canyon Diablo, a notorious railroad stop that began life as the end of the road. When a bridge was found to be too small for the canyon, the building of the railroad was delayed by several months. In this time a town sprang up, but with no lawmen around, it quickly became a lawless place – a stopping point for outlaws, prostitutes and the like. Its main street – named "Hell Street" instead – soon consisted of two eateries, a grocery store, a dry goods store, an 14 saloons, 10 gambling houses and 4 brothels. There were also tents, temporary shelters and “shotgun houses”. The first marshal was sworn in at 3pm and buried 8pm the same day. Five more followed. None lasted more than a month. All died by violent means. Within the decade the makeshift cemetery had 35 graves – all gunfighters and the like. Herman Wolfe, a trading post owner, was the first to die of natural means and his grave (no. 36) can still be seen. Obviously I missed that. Wow! Now that’s Wild West! The town soon fell into decline and boasted little more than a Navajo trading post until the building of Route 66 when Two Guns was born. However, as we know, Two Guns soon suffered the same fate. I guess it’s a fated spot…the middle of the desert.)

I came off the 40 again at Winslow, AZ to get my photo taken (badly) at the “Standin’ on a Corner…” Corner. It was just too bright. A team of workmen on the crossroads were constantly sweeping and blowing the sand out of the street. I was starting to feel weak, so when I got to Holbrook I stopped for some much needed food and water in Joe and Angies. They have a giant mural on their outside wall depicting a map of Route 66, but then, so do a lot of places on 66.

“The Mother Road”

“America’s Main Street”

Anyhow, they do some fine Mexican food. I was so hungry I devoured the complimentary basket of tortilla chips, despite the hot sauce burning hell out of my mouth. I pounded ice-cold water after water, followed by a delicious meal of enchiladas…and a pot sour cream to cool off my tongue afterwards.

In a gas station I saw a sign for Native American dancing…tonight, so I asked the attendant about it. Turned out it was in a little park just across the street so I decided to stay and watch it.

I was the footwork that interested me. The shawls fanned out in the wind to the intoxicating beat of the drums. The dancers cast long shadows across the grass as the sun set behind the trees. A girl of 17 danced a beautiful healing dance. An old guy dressed in the traditional Northern dress, covered with feathers and skins, performed a warrior’s dance. Then they all formed a circle and all the onlookers joined in a friendship dance.

It was about this time that I decided to make a move.

I rode in the darkness for a hundred miles until I reached Gallup. A cold wind would hit sporadically, sending chills through my body. The night sky came down over the great expanse like the lid of a tired eye. I knew the desert was still out there. I just couldn’t see it. If I thought the desert could be lonely and desolate by day, I hadn’t begun to comprehend what it would feel like by night.

I arrived just before midnight and rode down the mainstreet looking for a cheap motel. All the places seemed to be owned by Natives and I found one as cheap as 20 bucks. So that’s where I stayed, eating my first Sonic (I was in New Mexico now).

…I lay face up on the bed, almost paralysed with fatigue and listening to the endless freight trains go screaming by in the New Mexico night. Like wailing banshees, the sound seems to get under your skin, into your head.

Then silence.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Ireland Travel Guide! (Formerly “Top 5 Places in Ireland!” but just couldn’t narrow it down.)

In the immortal words of Jim Morrison…“The West is the Best.”

As some of you may know, I just got back from my first trip to Ireland…and loved it. In the end we hired a car and toured the whole island. And behold…I bring you my Ireland Travel Guide, with all the best bits and none of the filler…Not that Ireland has a lot of “filler”. It’s pretty much all “best bits”. Also, it’s for a clockwise trip. If you want to go anti-clockwise, read it from the bottom or something. Anyhow,…enjoy!

Best places to go in Ireland:

Co. Dublin

Dublin – Though I usually try not to advocate the practice of going to capital cities and then saying you’ve been to the country (no-one would do it for DC so stop doing it for London!), I will have to make an exception for Dublin, partly on the grounds that a ridiculously high percentage of Ireland’s population live there, and partly because it’s just an awesome city. In the daytime, be sure to hang out at the Trinity College campus and my favourite art gallery in the world, the RHA Gallery. By night, you can’t miss Temple Bar, or (if you don’t want to feel like you could just as easily be in Thailand) the area immediate across Dame Street and following the R114 (it changes too many times to call it by any other name). Also, I recommend reading James Joyce's Dubliners while your here. It's extra rewarding.

Co. Wicklow

Wicklow Mountains National Park – This incredible region of Ireland is made even more so (incredible, that is) by its close proximity to the capital. Within a matter of minutes you can be out of the city traffic and in one of the most desolate landscapes on the planet. Even in the rain, the wild, unspoilt moors retain their beauty and are worth a visit on character alone. Though they don’t hold up against the dramatic vistas of the West (coming up) that’s why I say do it first (hence clockwise).

Co. Waterford

Bunmahon – The first of a string of picturesque seaside towns and villages, Bunmahon is known for its wildlife and its surfing.

Co. Cork

Youghal – This little seaside town welcomes you to Cork with a long stretch of sandy beach.

Cobh – Pronounced “Cove”, this historic port town remains much more scenic and remote than its industrial counterpart. Cobh is perhaps most famous as the last point of call of the ill-fated Titanic, and as such has a sombre tone, with the dark, menacing church on the hill and the eerily quiet seafront.

Cork – Many people come to Cork expecting it to be beautiful. They are very wrong, and are no-doubt mistaking it with the county of which it is part. The city of Cork is ugly, industrial and run-down. That being said, it is home to some of Ireland’s best music and many a great pub.

Kinsale – Back to the coast now for Ireland’s gourmet capital. This Cork seaside town is home to far more than its fair share of Ireland’s best restaurants and has rightly earnt itself the title of Ireland’s Fine Food City.

Bantry Peninsula – Just when you’re thinking that all the rumours about Ireland are just that, rumours, and that you’ve seen nothing hugely astounding yet, you hit the South West. Suddenly you’re surrounded by the most beautiful scenery in the world and you’re forced to admit that it really is as amazing as people say, and, in that case, that the people really are friendly here and maybe the Guinness really does taste better. This is Western Cork and is where the tourists got their ideas about Cork. Bantry is the smallest of four peninsulas, but this, along with its remote location, means there are nothing but white (local) roads. A trip to the tip is an adventure in itself.

Beara Peninsula – My personal favourite of the scenic peninsulas, Beara has everything the others do (dramatic mountain ranges, jaw-droppingly beautiful sea-views, miles of winding lanes to explore, etc) but is also relatively untouched by tourism. Hint…All the best photos of Ireland come from Beara.

Co. Kerry

Iveragh Peninsula – Better known as the “Ring of Kerry”, which falls mostly on the peninsula, Iveragh is the Classic…the Big Daddy of the Irish peninsulas. Here you will find all of Ireland’s most sought after tourist destinations. Everyone who makes it to the West Coast heads for Kerry, and with good reason.

Killarney National Park – This is the other (inland) section on the Ring of Kerry. Killarney town is famous for its horse drawn carriages and its ridiculous number of accommodation options (remember, competition = cheap) but is nothing on the National Park that lies outside. Impossible to describe in words, this incredible scenery has to be seen to be believed.

Dingle Peninsula – This, most northerly of the peninsulas is home to a large Gaeltacht (Irish Gaelic speaking) community, Ireland’s dramatic most westerly point, and a collection of exceptional beaches and hidden coves whose soft, white sand and clear, blue waters will have you thinking you stepped into the Caribbean…except without the tourists…and, it has to be said, the water is f’ing freezing!

Dingle – No, this isn’t a typo. Dingle is the principle town on the peninsula and deserves a section all to itself. This sleepy, typical Irish fishing village doubles as an enclave for expats and travellers from all over the world. The town comes alive every evening, with as many restaurants, pubs and live music venues as there are (colourful) houses.

Co. Limerick

Shannon – The Shannon River, as opposed to the town or the airport, is Ireland’s longest and is quite a spectacle. Limerick, Ireland’s second largest city, also lies smack bang on it.

Co. Clare

Lehinch – This small but frequently visited seaside town is one of the gateways to the Cliffs of Moher. The beach is amazing and, rain or shine, you’ll see surfers out on the waves.

Cliffs of Moher – One of Ireland’s most dramatic and recognisable spots, these cliffs are home to tens of thousands of birds, including the puffin (who you may remember from the Guinness posters). From the top you can see…well a lot (most of the things in this travel guide).

Doolin – Picture your dream Irish village, complete with country cottage, and Doolin is it. It is home to great “Trad” Folk music, arts and crafts shops, and some nice Irish pubs. The whole place smells of straw and wet fields and everything Irish.

The Burren – Another of Ireland’s National parks. This one stands out from the rest with its large stretches of jagged rock. It was once fertile land but was over-farmed into the desolate landscape you now see there. Actually, it’s still fairly pretty.

Co. Galway

Galway – Like Cork but nice to look at, Galway definitely takes my “Coolest City” Award (sorry Dublin). Galway is an easily walkable University city where the pubs stay open ‘til 4 in the morning every day of the week. It encapsulates everything that is good about Ireland, has a large Gaelic speaking population of its own and really knows how to celebrate being Irish. It is also just a stone’s throw from some of the most beautiful parts of the country…and the world.

Spiddal – Another Gaeltacht town just outside of Galway. Spiddal has a great beach and plenty of nearby forests.

Connemara – This region of County Galway is characterised by loughs (lakes), mountains and most importantly a poor and troubled history. Until relatively recently, Connemara was decades behind the rest of the British Isles, both in terms of agriculture and levels of wealth and poverty. The landscape seems to embody the hard Connemara life and the sadness of the past. The hotspots are the Maamturk Mountains and the 12 Bens (or Pins, depending on who you ask, or what map you’re looking at). The R344 runs between the two and is arguably the best road to take to see the region at its best. There’s also Ballynahinch, home to some of Ireland’s best beaches, including the nation’s only coral beach. Not to mention Clifden, the “Sky Road”, Connemara National Park and the “Connemara Giant” in Recess. The Giant is the most Irish attraction there is! A nearby sign says “Late 20th c. antiquity” and his own plaque confesses that he was “Built in 1999. By Joyce’s Craft Shop. For No Apparent Reason” (except of course to get people into their shop). In the same vein as the Blarney Stone, rumours have even begun to circulate that kissing the Giant’s hand will give you the give of wisdom. My favourite is another nearby sign that reads “On this site…in 1897…nothing happened”. On the way out of Connemara you pass through the interesting towns of Letterfrack and Leenane, the latter of which sits on the bank of Ireland’s only fjord, the beautiful Killary Harbour.

Co. Mayo

Achill Island – Way out in the middle of nowhere, this long island is home to the “Deserted Village” (the eerie remains of a famine village) and Croaghaun (a set of cliffs even higher than Moher), which you can walk up to from a picturesque beach near the tip of the Island.

North Mayo Coast – Though it’s hard to get there, and rarely heard of in the guide books, this area of exceptional natural beauty is Ireland’s little secret (I highly doubt enough people are going to read this for me to ruin it).

Co. Sligo

Sligo - …is the childhood home of Kian from Westlife. Don’t know why that’s relevant. The county is also a surfing hotspot.

Co. Donegal

Donegal – This county town is heralded by some as the most beautiful place on earth. It’s not, but the castle is pretty cool I suppose.

Glenveagh National Park – Now this is beautiful! The most northerly of Ireland’s National Parks, Glenveagh is situated in a remote and rarely visited part of the country, which only adds to its charm. One is reminded of Scotland, up here.

Letterkenny – For anything close to nightlife in County Donegal you’ll have to go to Letterkenny, the biggest town in the region.

Malin Head – The northernmost point of Ireland.

Co. Derry

Derry/Londonderry – Into Northern Ireland now and speaking of troubled pasts, nowhere’s had it harder than Derry. The city is divided along the river into catholic and protestant halves. Both sides contain fascinating murals that tell their story of “the troubles”, and the historic walled city is full of cool shops, cafes and pubs to suit all tastes. With the new Friendship Bridge and its upcoming status as the first UK City of Culture (2013…it would be ’13 wouldn’t it), Derry is looking like one to watch. The best hostel in Derry has to be Derry City Independent Hostel!

Co. Antrim

Giant’s Causeway – Needs no introduction. It’s a beach made of naturally formed hexagonal slabs of rock. Definitely worth a look.

Bushmills – Right next to the Giant’s Causeway is Bushmills, which is home to the very reasonably priced Whisky distillery of the same name. I’m a huge fan over Bushmills and I’ll take it over Jameson any day of the week. (The Jameson distillery’s in Dublin, if you must know.) Plus they have a restaurant serving good, cheap Irish grub.

Ballymoney – As a motorcyclist, this otherwise unimpressive town was an important stop for me. Ballymoney houses the graves and memorialsfor the Dunlop brothers, Joey and Robert, two fantastic riders who both died on the back of a cycle.

Glens of Antrim – Probably the best shot Northern Ireland has at what you might call scenery, the coast road and the glens themselves are quite attractive, I suppose. It's no County Kerry though.

Co. Down

Belfast – Finally we get to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. This city could not be more of a cross between a British and an Irish city. There’s loads to do, from the Botanical Gardens and museums to the Titanic Quarter – where the Titanic was built and first docked – not to mention an epic nightlife!

So that’s that then.

Enjoy your trip, and feel free to subscribe to Notes fromthe Road for more travel ideas, tips and stories.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Travelling Alone Vs. with Companions: The Pros & Cons!

“Do I go it alone, or bring a friend?”

This is a big question for a lot of people. Sure, being independent and travelling solo has a certain romance about it, but is it worth the loneliness that might come? This post is here to help you decide which is best for you. When you're done reading, try the game/quiz I made at the bottom. Remember to let me know what you came out as...I'm curious.

Travelling Alone – Pros

For me, there’s no beating the greater freedom that comes from travelling alone. You can do what you want, go where you want, when you want, and however you want to. When you’ve had a big night and you want some down time, to write your journal, think, or simply sleep it off in bed all day, there’s nobody to stop you.

There’s no compromising for people with different or more expensive tastes either. Everybody has a preferred style of travel and this can differ enormously, even between good friends with tonnes in common. Travelling alone means that you don’t miss anything that you really wanted to see or, likewise, that you don’t get held back when your itching to move on. This makes for a more satisfying and fulfilling travel experience.

Also, there’s no-one to blame but yourself when things go wrong, as they inevitably will when travelling. When you only have to take care of one person – yourself – the problem is always smaller and more easily fixed. Without anyone to answer to when you make a mistake, and no-one else around making mistakes, you’ll be in for a blame and argument free trip.

And let’s not forget the age old argument; when you’re with a friend you just don’t put in the same amount of effort to meet new people. For many, travelling is about trying something totally new, branching out from your normal life at home. So, though it may seem a daunting prospect at first, leaving the friends at home can sometimes be much more rewarding. You’ll soon meet plenty of likeminded solo travellers who’ll keep you from getting bored or lonely.

Travelling Alone – Cons

However, it has to be said, there will be unescapable periods of loneliness and boredom, for example, on a 36 hour bus, or when you say goodbye to one group of new friends and have yet to meet the next. You will need to have your own way to cope with this.

Another, and probably the biggest, fault in travelling alone is that you might be having all these wonderful new experiences, but what are they without someone to share it with? You may constantly find yourself thinking; ‘Wow, this would be so great if so-and-so were here. I’ll have to come back with them some day and do it properly.” Avoid this kind of thinking. If you’re going to travel alone you need to forget others back home and throw yourself head first into the moment.

Tips for Travelling Alone

·         Avoid spending long periods of time in big cities and nightlife hotspots where you don’t know anyone. Paradoxically, there’s nothing that’ll make you feel more lonely than when you’re surrounded by people.

·         I hate to have to do this as it’s totally against my principles but…women, take care. I was once hitchhiking through the dark hours in Argentina and was trying to catch a ride at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. Trucks kept pulling over to give me a ride, then seeing me and racing off. It wasn’t until later that I started to see hookers doing the rounds of the truckers’ cabs. Suffice to say, if I was a women, things could have gotten pretty messy. Travelling alone as a women also limits your choice of destination. For example, good luck with some of the countries in the Middle East.

·         Couchsurf! It’s a great way to meet new, local people and experience the destination from the point of view of someone who lives there. You’ll also go places and do things that would never have found their way into the guidebooks.

·         Pub Crawls and other organised hostel activities are a great way to experience the nightlife and make friends while you do it. Even the most reclusive cats loosen up after a few drinks.

·         Choose hostels based on social value. “Party hostels” are becoming more and more common and usually come with their own bar, etc. Though they can detract your attention away from the destination you came for, there’s no denying that they can be fun and are a good place to meet people, rather than budget hotels or guest houses. Just make sure you don’t hop from one “Irish pub” to the next and forget you were ever in Cusco or La Paz.

·         Dorms! This one should be a given, but you’re not going to meet anyone in your own private room.

·         Visit friends. If you don’t have any friends abroad when you first start travelling, you soon will. Take people up on their offers of a place to stay, and you can always return the favour when you get home.

·         Stay on the backpacker circuit. Being different is great and I’d never advise anyone against it. Just be prepared to not meet any other travellers out there in the great unknown. Though, saying that, if you have a specific or unusual interest, by all means go pursue it, as that’s where all your soul-mates could be.

·         Consider singles holidays. In recent years singles holidays are becoming increasingly popular and gone is the stigma that was once attached. In this modern world of internet dating and globalisation, what better way to get out there and meet new people than to travel with a group of likeminded independent travellers?

·         Pack a camera with self-timer (and one of those little adjustable tripods).

Travel Companions – Pros

For the more open-minded or laid-back traveller, having an extra set of ideas and knowledge can really open up doors to great experiences that you might not know about or try otherwise. For example, you might think of yourself as an arty person, but who’s to say that football match your sporty friend drags you to couldn’t turn out to be much more fun than a day spent in the galleries. Often, if you’re with someone, having a good time, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. Remember, two heads are better than one.

Also, logistically, travelling in a pair, a couple or a small group means saying goodbye to the dreaded single occupancy fee. If you’re likely to be staying in hotels and motels, it can be a real help to have someone extra to cut down the cost.

Travel Companions – Cons

Having to take someone else into account means less time on what you want. If you’re the kind of person with big dreams and the drive to see them through – which, let’s face it, we all are a little bit – then perhaps you’re more suited to travelling alone.

There’s also the high possibility of disagreements. Now I’m not one to say that this is necessarily a bad thing. Often arguments flag up important issues and bring them to a head so they can’t be ignored any more. However, there is such a thing as people who are just difficult. As touched on above, every friendship or relationship has a unique power balance. Travelling can sometimes be just the thing to throw that balance off. So, if you have someone really close to you at home, it might be that it’s better to leave them there rather than risking ruining what you have.

Travelling in a Couple

See the above section on travelling companions. It’s the same principle.

You might think, because you’re close, that being apart will destroy the relationship, but if you’re as close as you think you are, it’ll withstand the test and you’ll be stronger for it.

Saying that though, travelling with a partner can be very cool. It depends. See the quiz below.

Travelling with Kids

The obvious con when travelling with kids is the danger element, which can be a constant worry. You can’t do a lot of the more reckless things you might like to (though, being a parent, you’re probably okay with this already). So it can often be easier and safer to stick with more traditional destinations or types of holiday. There are also tours, where you get the benefits of a pre-organised, set itinerary and the added safety of travelling in a group, while still getting to see the world.

It is certainly rewarding and eye-opening for a child to experience these things at a young age…even if they don’t remember it later on in life. And of course if you’re a parent and you like travel, you can’t just stop doing what you enjoy because you have kids. I’ve run into some damned cool parents out there, travelling with their kids, bouncing across Guatemala in a chicken bus or doing the festivals in Canada.  

Group Travel – Pros

In addition to the obvious fun that’ll be had by going away with a group of friends, group travel makes sense economically too. Have you never heard of “group discounts”? Not to mention fuel sharing, split tolls, cheaper hotels, and so on. Plus there’s always company if you need it.

Group Travel – Cons

Group travel is better suited to a certain kind of trip. If you’re going to rent and share a massive villa in Ibiza then that’s perfect, but if you’re going to be on the move all the time, things can get complicated. Orchestrating a trip for one person is work enough, let alone for a big group. It can be a lot of work that could end up eating into your enjoyment of your trip.

For example, it’ll be hard to find accommodation for large groups, not to mention enough seats on buses, and so on. Hitchhiking, for one thing, will be out of the question. You’d have to split up, which kind of defeats the object of travelling in a group.

Travelling by car with any more than two people creates the further problem that you can’t sleep in the car if you need to and so always need somewhere to stay. This puts extra pressure on each day’s driving and adds significantly to the cost.

There’s also more potential for arguments. With each person you add, that’s one more person to please. Some people will inevitably take more leader-like roles in the group and it can be easy for others to get disappointed or moody, especially if mistakes are made, you get lost, etc.

Tips for Travelling with Others

·         Keep everyone in the loop. Communication is usually at the route of most disputes. Discuss how you feel and everyone will have a happier trip. If you need alone time, tell people...and if you can’t tell the people you’re travelling with, then you’re travelling with the wrong people.

·         For large groups, consider limiting the amount of actual travel time involved.

·         Keep it short. Or at least start out on a trial basis. You don’t want to commit yourself to a year with someone you might not be able to travel with. It’ll only end in disaster.

In conclusion, there really is no hard and fast answer to this question. It completely depends on what type of person you are. Why not try this simple and kind of crappy game I made? (The pictures you need are below it.)
Generally I would advise people to be brave and take that first step to travelling alone. You don’t know what kind of person you are until you’ve put yourself to the test. Remember, travel will bring out the extremes in you!

Picture 1

Picture 2

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Best Bars in Varna, Bulgaria!

As some of you may know, I recently did a stint working and living in Varna, Bulgaria’s beach city. While most people may know Varna for its proximity to Sunny Beach and Golden Sands, what do you do if you’re there in the winter? When the long strip of trendy seafront bars and clubs are all boarded up like a ghost town? When it’s minus nineteen outside (that’s degrees Celsius, my American chums) not to mention a fierce wind chill coming in across the Black Sea?

You go where the locals go, that’s what!

Here’s a list of some of the best bars in Varna, by someone who has tried them all…believe me.

360 – Barely a day went by without us frequenting this Varna favourite. First point of call for trying Bulgaria’s national drink – Rakia – and the country’s most popular beers – Zagorka and Kaminitsa – this trendy establish also does food, including the best burgers I (or anyone else who’s been there) have ever tasted. Choose from the Big Burger, which omits nothing (cheese, bacon, egg, mushrooms…the list goes on), the Blue Cheese Burger, Chicken Burger, the veggie offering known as the Fermerski (Farmer’s Burger) and consisting of a giant slab of delicious goats’ cheese topped with grilled Mediterranean vegetables, and more.

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Bolla – You either love it or hate it but either way, if you’re still out and looking for a bar in the early hours of the morning, you’re going there! An underground establishment tucked neatly down a back street just off the main drag, Bolla is easily the smokiest place I’ve ever been. Unlike 360, this one stays true to its country and serves strictly Bulgarian measures – that is, a full glass of Vodka, for only 2 lv…and that’s the “small”! Catch it on the right night and the party here has been known to go on long past sunrise the next day.

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Sun Dogs – For those looking for something more relaxed than Bolla and more down to earth than 360, Sun Dogs is the place. Discovered late into my stay, it is still unclear whether this place is, as some say, a British pub, or just a nice local bar. Suffice to say, it contains elements of both in equal proportions.

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Pench’s – An extremely rare find in Varna and the last place you expect to come across on a frosty, Soviet-esque night, Pench’s frequently holds the Guinness Book of World Record’s title for most cocktails served. Their cocktail menu is deeper and heavier than the Bible (indeed, some might even call it a Bible) and contains both Bulgarian and the English translation. Literally far too many to list here, the menu is organised into chapters based on the key spirit. The widely used cliché “there’s something for everybody” couldn’t be truer of Pench’s, not to mention the plush seating and free nuts!

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Cherno More – The prestigious Cherno More Hotel has been the de facto centre of Varna for decades. What is now the Starz Bar, located on the top floor and towering over the city, was one of the only drinking establishments open during the Communist era and a regular haunt of Varna’s elite. (I know, that should be an oxymoron…in theory.) Though a little on the pricey side for Bulgaria, Starz still retains its cabaret charm and you are paying for the exceptional view of the city and the entertainment, which goes on long into the night.

See the Cherno More Hotel website.

Vintage 33 - In the basement of the same building complex is one of my personal favourites. Vintage is on the fence between bar and club and you never know what you’re going to walk in on from one night to the next – from retro swing nights to some of the best live gigs I’ve ever been to. The only thing you can be sure of is they’ll try to sell you Jameson, which appears to be their number one sponsor.

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Underground – As the name suggests, this is another below-ground establishment. However, this time the name goes deeper. “Underground” is an ethos…an ideology if you will. This is definitely the place to meet locals and it is not an uncommon sight to see the bartender drinking, on both sides of the bar. One of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, this guy speaks English and is a huge live music fan. You’ll find everything in his “joint”, from American Blues to Baltic Folk and more. To find it, however, you have to enter the gate, go around the back of what appears to be an empty, unlit building, and open a heavy, soundproofed door, at which point you’ll hear the music and descend a dark passage of stairs. Usually there’s a tiny candle lit outside to let people know it’s open, however the general rule of thumb is, if the door opens, it’s open.

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