The Traveller’s Shortlist


Our ability to travel great distances economically is one of the wonderful gifts of the modern era. Past generations have been able to tour ‘the world and elsewhere’ but it was either prohibitively expensive, slow going, or both. The very concept of overseas travel was solely the domain of the rich and idle – the first Qantas flight to London in 1938 cost £400 (about two years on the minimum wage) and took 10 days, with 37 stops. And that was one way.

Commencing March 24th Qantas now offers a non-stop fare between London and Perth – a seventeen hour flight – with prices starting from about $2000 return.

Rewinding 20 years and barely relevant but I’m reminded of that time a work mentor called me into his office and said, “Young fella, no matter how great the job, or how good your boss and workmates are, make sure you always have one of these in your top drawer.” He paused for effect before sliding open his desk and showing me the contents. I leaned over with some trepidation, half expecting to see a gun – or at least a set of nunchucks. To my relief the drawer was empty, with the exception of a neat, thin CV.

I nodded sagely and wandered off, but to be honest then largely disregarded his advice. The concept did stick with me though and has come in handy – over time I have developed my own version; that is, one must always have a travel shortlist ready to go in their top drawer. Or it could be the bottom drawer, just so no-one stumbles across it by accident and discovers that you’ve got plans to cruise to Siberia, hunt elephants, or hitchhike across Syria.

Let’s make one thing clear, this isn’t about having a ‘bucket list’ – that’s for things to do before you die. You can still have one of those stored away as well, but the shortlist is a little more immediate – it’s places you look at and think “I want to go there NOW!”
In actual fact my shortlist is a spreadsheet, but you get the jist. The main point is, when you can travel anywhere in the world with such ease and comfort, it’s about always being ready.

The rules

As a concept, a travel shortlist has to tick a few boxes – a bit like travelling itself – and always be a fluid thing. Once a place has been visited it can drop off the list and be replaced by the next place on the list from below, that way you always have the right number of destinations in your travel consciousness. I’ve always found five to be a manageable number – anything more is a bit much to stay on top of, and fewer is far too restrictive.

Next up, there must be a good reason for each place to be on the list. For me, ideally it’s a place I’ve never been, but beyond that anything goes. I’ve visited places on a whim just because some distant relative went there in 1969 and hasn’t stopped raving about it since.

So does this all just sound like a case of traveller’s greed? Maybe, after all, the best trip is often the one you plan while on the plane home from your last one. Either way, come over here for a moment and check out what I’ve got in my top drawer. No it’s nothing creepy, and yes, you should have one too – it’s my travel shortlist revealed.

#5 Cuba and Mexico

Why?

Two potentially very different destinations granted, but there’s a reason I’ve bunched them together, their close proximity aside. It was April 2009, and fresh from hitting the ‘click to book’ button about 20 times for an a-w-e-s-o-m-e trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula – with a side trip to Cuba – I had just finished congratulating myself on my wise choice of flights and accommodation when the news hit. Yes, the dreaded swine flu was quickly spreading across Mexico.

“Surely it will pass with a strong puff of Pacific breeze” I thought. 

But no, it settled in for the long haul, and surrounding countries, Cuba included, swiftly closed off their borders to all incoming flights and other vessels. A few weeks later I gave up, the trip was cancelled and refunds received from everyone involved; Air Cubana, Aeromexico, even the Hotel San Jose, in downtown Merida.

Oh wait, no, there was one single company remaining who refused to provide a refund.

Qantas.

Apparently because the World Health Organisation hadn’t declared a zombie apocalypse on a Thursday afternoon with albino pigs flying across the tarmac at Tullamarine, it was therefore ‘against their policy’. Go figure.

Go for: Jungle ruins, Aztec history, street music, beaches and the colonial architecture and retro-culture of the region.

#4 Greece

Why?

Greece just seems to have occupied some sort of euro-bermuda triangle type of space in my travel plans over the last 30-odd years. I’ve visited most of the countries that surround it, I’ve flown over it, heard tales about it, but never managed to actually see it with my own eyes. A mythical nation I’m still not convinced actually exists.
How will the Acropolis of Athens compare with the Roman Forum? Do the beaches of Mykonos trump those of Mauritius or the Seychelles? And will the touts be more persistent than their counterparts in Delhi?

Flights are generally cheap from my usual base – the UK – so my conclusion? The excuses don’t cut it any more.

Go for: Sun, sea, island hopping, calamari, homemade ouzo, real tzatziki, white washed villages, and to breathe in some true ancient history.

#3 Ireland

Why?

Firstly there’s my name. Green. And Ireland’s meant to be pretty green – they call it the Emerald Isle after all.

OK that’s stupid.

The real reason I want to see Ireland is because my father was from there. Well Northern Ireland actually, which, well getting those two mixed up in the wrong company could end badly for you. And besides, I’ve heard Northern Ireland is pretty dire anyway, so Ireland – the republic – it is. I might even have time between pubs for a bit of genealogy.

Go for: Castles, country drives, quaint towns, Guinness, and of course, the ‘Craic’. Oh how the Irish do love a chat and to tell a story.

#2 Sri Lanka

Why?

I’ve wanted to go to Sri Lanka for years. Even more so since the advent of Instagram. Yes I’m sick of seeing people’s photos of palm-lined beaches, colonial ruins crumbling with charm, elephants that deliver guests across crystal-blue waters to tiny island resorts, and trees that seem to produce mango lassies without human intervention.
Seriously, if I know 100 people I reckon 90 of them have either been to Sri Lanka in the past five years, or will be visiting Sri Lanka in the very near future – probably this year in fact.

That’s it, I’m in.

Go for: Beaches, more jungle ruins, friendly locals, sub-continental culture without the crush, coastal train journeys, cricket, freshly chargrilled prawns, and a bucket of ice-cold Lion Lager.

#1 France

Why?

OK so by now you’ll realise this whole list is a sham. France? Haven’t I been to France like, a billion times?

Yes I have. One billion and one if you count that time I went to Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar, which is technically part of La République, even if it is 9,200km away from the French mainland.

But something about France has captured my spirit. When I go there, it feels like home, and when I leave, I find myself turning around to take one last look, or at least until next time.

As a self-professed Francophile, I source and eat as much cheese, baguette and Côtes du Rhône as my stomach will take, torture myself scouring French property websites, and torture others with my awful language skills.

In a lot of ways my love of France is the reason I even have this travel shortlist, comprising of all the other places I want to go, should go, but just haven’t reached. Just as my mind is ready to embrace another destination, or my finger hovers over the button screaming ‘book now!’, I’m suddenly reminded of spring in Paris, a warm but gentle breeze carrying me as I wander along the Jardin des Tuileries, or a slow canal boat on La Dordogne, or even a chilly night, watching the sunset over the Massif Central mountains, glass of red in hand.

Suddenly the plan breaks down (again), and unfamiliar territories either fall by the wayside, or fall somewhere onto this list.

C’est La Vie.

How I spent a year with Airbnb


Several years ago I was invited to a client ‘do’ at a winery two hours from home. To be honest I was 50-50 about driving all the way up there to spend a sober afternoon with a bunch of people I didn’t know, but I’m glad I did. My unexpected key take-away? Clarity.

I parked and walked towards the entrance, and a couple of ‘meet and greet’ types looked me up and down, smiled and tentatively enquired, “Derek?”.

“That’s right” I replied, shook several pairs of strange hands, and so the day unfolded; light snacks, a few (small) sips of wine, industry discussion and a couple of speeches.

But to be honest I couldn’t wait to take my epiphany home with me. Here I was among clients and industry peers – people I had completed dozens of projects for over the last 5 years – and I’d never physically met any of them. A mental check of my client list told me there were others in the same boat. It wasn’t like it was personal, we weren’t deliberately avoiding each other, it was because it was just ‘business’. We were all professionals, we knew how to plan a job, allocate and complete tasks, and we didn’t need to be in the same room to do it – ever apparently. Without noticing it I had become part of the ‘remote’ workforce, otherwise known as the ‘pyjama army’.

The possibilities were endless.

Gap year – yes, it’s a thing

A few people I met along the journey have marvelled at the concept of a Gap Year, openly suggesting that I was either rich, stupid, or brave, but actually I’m none of these. The idea came to me not long after the client-do-epiphany, when I read (well, skimmed) a life-changing book by a guy named Anthony Ferris called “The Four Hour Work Week”. I had already concluded that it was a monumental pile of wank, and the only people who would ever try to buy into such a concept were delusional morons looking to get rich without having to actually work, or trust fund drop-outs with zero responsibilities (beyond perhaps an email address), and no worthwhile relationships outside their Instagram account.

The same goes for many self-help books really. Some might offer inspiration, but to the average person with every crevice of their life packed full like expanding foam filler in a piece of piping, they’re pretty much useless. From watching TV I, like most of us, had accepted the notion that money, a big house and a flashy car were the only tangible outcomes of a ‘successful’ life, but I’ve learned over time that each of us are capable of revisiting this version of ‘success’ and measuring it (if we really need to) against more personal goals.

And so with that in mind, I gave my life over to Airbnb for one whole calendar year. The plan was to hit almost 30 countries across 3 continents – yes it was going to be expensive – and give new meaning to the word ‘remote’, earning while I was roaming.
12 months and dozens of apartments, villas and country farmhouses later, with my perspective and bank balance well and truly running off in opposite directions, I reflected on the cities I’d seen, hosts I’d met, and stairs I’d climbed. From those experiences I created my own Airbnb awards, the “Airbees”. Grab some popcorn
and enjoy!

Best view

Given this is often the most important factor in the decision making process, so it turned out to be the hardest category to pick a winner. The glowing red hills of Sedona, Arizona or the fabulous Bosporus Strait that separates European Turkey from Asian Turkey? Ultimately it was the naturally pure, perfect view of the fjord from the balcony of our apartment in Flam, Norway that swayed me.

Most helpful host

‘Jane’ our host in the Rhone region of Southern France, gave us a little handcrafted guide to the region’s towns, castles, markets and restaurants. Along with a bottle of red and some Trappist ales – which she and her partner Bernd helped us drink – and backed up with daily sticky-notes, this information proved the perfect way for us to plan and enjoy our week.

Best kitchen

Having a kitchen is a great chance to save some money on the road. Eating out every day does become a drag believe it or not, and considering a bowl of soup can set you back $35 in an average Norwegian eatery, cooking ‘in’ provides some relief for both stomach and wallet. Stefan, our host in Bergen, was a chef, and owner of a popular local restaurant. His kitchen didn’t disappoint, from the stainless steel bench tops to the Global knives.

I could live here forever

Spring in Paris is a wonderful thing. Our corner apartment in the Marais was a charming third floor ‘walk up’, two blocks from the Seine, and Notre Dame. Sun streamed in the classic Hausmann windows in every room, and our view down each busy street was of neighbourhood shops; boulangerie, boucherie and chocolatier. I left a small part of my heart in that place.

Pleasant surprise

Sometimes you pick a place more for location than anything else, as was the case on an almost unplanned stop in the port town of Split, Croatia. Our host Vana met us and walked us through a maze of streets to an apartment which she had completely undersold in her listing. Sure, the photos of the interior looked cute and clean enough, but what they didn’t reveal was the sunny balcony with a magnificent view of the town and port. Coupled with a cool neighbourhood bar/restaurant with an outdoor chef roasting all kinds of meats, and a back-side beach with a great cafe, Split became the Croatian highlight rather than the afterthought.

Bizarre experience

Vitto, our jovial host in Stockholm just couldn’t help himself. His sunny loft apartment had great views, but it all looked like he’d just stuffed some clothes in a suitcase and bolted to his ‘other’ apartment downstairs, leaving unwashed laundry and his kid’s mouldy science experiments on display. “Hallo?” he’d call as he entered by key – without knocking – each time he needed something different that he’d forgotten; a shirt, some shoes, his sunglasses. Er, privacy? He did leave beer in the fridge though, with instructions for us to help ourselves. Being Sweden it was light beer (anything stronger must come from an official liquor seller) but hey, beggars can’t be choosers – and Australians are all beggars in Scandinavia!

Well this is dodgy!

Kraków Poland, and a locked door stood between us and our apartment. While we waited for a code via SMS, we were greeted by a cheerful, but very drunk young man who came far too close for my liking, and leered at my wife and daughter whilst spraying out some gibberish in Polish. Think John Belushi in the Blues Brothers: “How much for the women?” I stood between them and pointed out to the fellow that it was 9 o’clock in the morning and he’d best be on his way. He looked only slightly disappointed, but thankfully trudged off.

Next time, spend the extra

A wise man once advised me that one of the keys to financial happiness was to avoid the cheapest and most expensive items, but instead to buy the best quality you could comfortably afford. Why, oh why did I stray from the path Uncle John? New York has thousands of apartments, and making a decision  can be complicated. Four minutes into our Manhattan month and I realised I’d made a big mistake. The apartment wasn’t too bad, despite the plastic wrap over the windows and bad wallpaper, but the ‘other’ apartment, albeit hideously expensive, was magnificent.

Volunteering overseas – a (mostly) helpful guide


A little known fact about myself (until now I guess) is that for the past four years I have worked in 
a volunteer capacity for an NGO in South East Asia as Communications Co-ordinator and Volunteer Manager, with the last two years also serving on the board. The organisation’s name and that I have chosen to do this are not important for now, this article isn’t about me…

It’s about the volunteer of the future

They see the happy but under-nourished faces and squalid surrounds on Facebook, read about corrupt governments and hopelessly under-resourced services in the news. They want to help.

So what’s the answer? The answer is: do lots of research, then donate money direct.

But what if our volunteer of the future still wants to go over there and ‘do some good’, fulfilling an inner desire to transcend the guilt they feel living their comparatively cosy lives?

The answer is still: do the research by identifying an organisation with a particular need that resonates – one with moderate administration and overheads – and donate money direct.

But what if our volunteer of the future is the stubborn type who insists on jumping on a plane and going over there? Sending money is too quick, easy and disconnected. There’s no lingering feeling of satisfaction – or Instagramable moments. They want to get their hands dirty; dig, lift and carry, really see the fruits of their labour making a difference.

Without meaning to sound like a broken record, the answer is still – donate direct. That organisation they’ve identified? Out in the back blocks, installing solar panels or fresh water systems? They’re just seeing the carefully crafted message that’s being beamed out – a busy organisation using funds wisely for the benefit of disadvantaged people on the ground in country X. It’s a necessary communication tool, but I can tell you now that the reality is nowhere near as glamorous – 95% of the time working as part of an NGO is spent worrying about money. Fundraising, juggling resources, and looking for solutions to logistical challenges like staffing, ethics, and compliance with the ‘requirements’ of local officials. Our volunteer of the future will only see rock stars and celebrities breaking ground on a new well or delivering medicine. Not that I’m complaining, after all, actor Robert Pattinson of Twilight and Harry Potter fame was largely responsible for the establishment of one of our most important programs.

Let’s assume our volunteer of the future is still not dissuaded. They’re going! OK. So let’s continue carefully with some insider tips for anyone thinking of adding the experience of volunteering overseas to their CV (and karmic credits!)

It’s not all doom and gloom – if you do your research and communicate with organisations in advance

Thousands of Australians volunteer overseas every year. Almost all embark on their personal journey with the best intentions, and many will undertake tasks or complete projects where their efforts and the outcomes are of great benefit to the local organisation and country. Once you have found a few organisations that may be suitable based on your skills, you should reach out to them, find out their real needs, as well as look for red flags.

Choose an organisation wisely

These will generally either
 be government based – with a longer, more thorough and
 official process – or secular or non-secular non-government organisations (NGOs). With the latter, your experience may
 be generally anything from highly organised, to a self-guided process, sometimes through uncharted waters. Remember if you choose non-secular (founded by a religious organisation), there is a possibility some, or much of your money will go towards the administration of a large (wealthy) church network. Research really is the key. If research and preparation isn’t your strength, then volunteering overseas may not be for you. Generally the larger the organisation the more likely they will be able to utilise non-professionals or the unskilled, but smaller NGOs will waste their time and valuable resources trying to keep you occupied and yes, in many cases just trying to keep you happy.

Read between the lines scribbled out by the media

The evils of third world charities, orphanages in particular, are well documented – mostly by up and coming media personalities rejected by Foreign Correspondent but still trying to make a name for themselves, or Australian-based desk jockeys juniors who’ve been assigned a ‘hot topic’ by editorial. While it’s true that the moral compass of some charitable organisations are skewed, many legitimate and worthwhile organisations have suffered from a tightening in donations from wealthy countries like Australia, due to potentially being tarred with the same broad media ‘brush of fear’.

Don’t be attracted by the appeal of orphanages

The best way to determine whether an orphanage is ‘legit’ or not is to find out if they allow visitors. An orphanage that meets world child-safe standards will rarely open their doors to the public, and certainly not without each visitor being vetted via a police check and/or working with children certificate. I know, sounds like a bit of a dead end if you are focused on helping kids, but it doesn’t mean you can’t donate educational supplies, buy school clothes, or even better, sponsor academic pathways through high school and university.

Don’t pay ‘voluntourism’ middlemen or placement agencies

Apart from the fact that there is no guarantee you will be helping an official, regulated charity, your money – in some cases several thousand dollars for a one to three week volunteering placement – might not reach the organisation you have chosen.

Leave personal agendas at home

I’ve dealt with scores of volunteers who have informed me (upfront, from afar) the particular way they intend to help, but then go cold once they realise they won’t be digging wells or dancing with children. Almost all NGOs already have well planned systems, processes and programs in place. Foreign assistance, even though it’s coming from a first world country with a quality education and privileged existence, doesn’t immediately qualify as helpful. In many cases the organisation will spend more time finding you things to do, than you will being truly useful. Remember this analogy while weighing up the options – the Salvos, St Vinnies, The Brotherhood and similar organisations waste millions of dollars each year in Australia disposing of junk dumped in charity bins and outside ‘op shops’, most of it left by people who thought that leaving something for charity was better than leaving nothing. Wrong – they would have much preferred financial donations.

Offer useful skills

As part of the process, ask yourself: am I an engineer? Am I an architect or building contractor? A teacher with TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) experience? Do I have fundraising experience? Experience in renewables? Am I a financial controller or accountant? If you answered no to all of these, then your volunteering effort may not be helpful, especially to a smaller organisation with limited resources.

Don’t take a local’s job

Some organisations are keen to raise their exposure and hope for ‘follow on’ donations and assistance as an outcome from each volunteer they accept. Volunteers returning home are messengers to family, friends and a potential broader support base for some NGOs. This may cause them to accept more foreign volunteers than they really need, pushing locals out of roles that ideally they should be doing in-house, learning and developing skills that will benefit the country long term for years after you have left.

Pay your own way

Relatively speaking you are coming to country X having travelled from a wealthy, secure upbringing and stable lifestyle – you do not need a charity to house and feed you! Those resources are far better off staying in the organisation and benefitting local programs. Accommodation and food in many developing countries is cheap, and you will be pouring your money directly into the local economy.

Don’t set up systems that won’t (or can’t) be maintained after you’ve left

If you have some fantastic admin, IT or promotional ideas that can benefit an NGO greatly, then setting them up on the ground may benefit the organisation and their team. Still, once the excitement of your brainwave subsides, you need to make sure that you know how (and who) will run the systems in the future. Think sustainably – staff in a foreign NGO may be unprepared or unsure, and every initiative you implement must be able to be utilised and grown by the locals after you have left. A training plan and rollout schedule should be the first bullet point you write.

Dedicate some real time

Less than 2-3 months is generally unhelpful. If you are thinking of a three week holiday with a bit of volunteering squeezed in the middle somewhere, that’s what’s known as ‘voluntourism’ – you’d be better off donating your airfare and going to Ko Samui like everyone else. If you still think you can help, once again, do your research and find an organisation with needs that match your skills, and commit to three months minimum, preferably six months or more. In my organisation it takes at least a month to get a feel for the place, remember staff names, and understand who is who or does what.

Don’t arrive empty handed

Ask the organisation if they need anything before you travel. Apart from fundraising among friends and family, there are so many other activities you can undertake in advance to gather sponsors and donations. For example, if the NGO you’re helping are education focused, how about organising a book or laptop drive via local schools or community organisations?

The final word?

Just donate direct…

The stop-over tipping point – Against the clock in Buenos Aires

 

Long haul flying can often involve multiple stops, or worst still, an unwanted airport layover. Depending on your destination or the continents you’re trying to connect, these are sometimes unavoidable – but is there a way to still win?

We all know the drill. You pour all your hard earned into the airline coffers months in advance, yet to get from point A to point B, there’s an inexplicable and annoying stop-over in point C. Usually it means getting off the plane, hanging around in a boring airport lounge with not enough chairs and crappy wi-fi for a couple of hours, before re-embarking, and fighting once again for space in the overhead compartments with those inconsiderate jerks in row 25. In some cases you will need to change flights for your onward sector, or if you’re doing a codeshare, even embark on a stress-inducing change in airlines or terminals.

Recently I had to deal with a total of eight (that’s e-i-g-h-t) flights on a return trip to South America, with all but one of the stop-overs ranging from 90 minutes, to a tantalising four hours. The names rolled off the page like stones on the classic Gringo Trail; Lima, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Cusco. The final stop-over? Seven hours and 50 minutes. As I studied my itinerary and re-read the fineprint from the various airlines involved, I started to think about the stop-over tipping point. Seven hours and fifty minutes? There obviously wouldn’t be time for any kind of social immersion, but dammit, surely this would leave enough of a gap for at least a flying visit or kitschy city tour? Armed with this new determination, I resolved that I would, at whatever the expense, find a way to squeeze some joy and maybe even an ounce of culture out of my unplanned Buenos Aires break.

The first considerations for the traveller who’s found their stop-over tipping point and decided to take the local plunge are the logistics – flight delays, customs queues, baggage issues, transport hold-ups – at any point something could go wrong and screw up the whole plan. You also need to make sure your flight rules allow you to leave the airport. This is not an automatic and requires a real fleshing out with local airline representatives and airport customs, as there’s a fair chance that neither will really know the answer. As you might need to make some arrangements in advance, it’s critical this situation is understood before you arrive, so that you can head straight for your pre-booked transport of choice. In my case, it was a personal taxi driver named Pablo. I’d already passed through Buenos Aires International a couple of weeks earlier and completed a thorough “reccy”, so I was familiar with its layout (smaller than expected), busy-ness factor (not very)  and proximity to the city (45 minutes), and was able to hire him with confidence, starting from mid-afternoon through until late evening.

Exiting the terminal at speed, Pablo and I quickly connect as I leave my luggage with the airline, and with more trust than I would usually employ in these situations, allow him to lead me straight to an ATM where I withdraw the required amount of Argentinian Pesos for us to enjoy a big afternoon and wild night. Well sort of.

“Woohoo! Vamos Pablo!” I proclaim as he zips through the airport carpark and heads for the freeway, clearly in no way unaware of our time restraints and looking forward to the challenge of showing me the best of his town post-haste.

We settle quickly into the ‘getting to know you’ phase as the suburbs whiz by, and Pablo explains a bit about his life, his family, and of course his soccer team, San Lorenzo de Almagro. By the time we approach downtown, we have exchanged enough stories about the three most important topics in Argentina – sport, love and politics – to feel comfortable about being buddies for what remains of the day and night, albeit with a firm financial arrangement in place.

Downtown/Centro

With wide boulevards and a sea of buildings, you could be forgiven for mistaking the centre of Buenos Aires for Manhattan. The spirit of Eva Peron is everywhere in this city, but most visible in the form of a massive sculpture on the side of the Building of the Ministry of Health. We stop off for photos at the 71 metre tall Obelisk of Buenos Aires, followed by the Plaza De Mayo, with the Catedral Metropolitana, and impressive Atardecer en el Congreso de la Nación Argentina (National Congress) nearby. I’m already regretting that I wasn’t able to wangle a few days or even a week here, but my decision to at least challenge life’s terms and conditions and leave the airport has been confirmed as a good one.

Monserrat/San Nicholas

A few twists and turns from Avenida 9 De Julio, the main thoroughfare that splits Buenos Aires, and we’re in a neighbourhood with a distinctive Parisian feel. The backstreets reveal cafes and bistros straight out of the third arrondissement, and the avenues boast Haussmann-inspired architecture and buildings such as the 17th century Cabildo – Buenos Aires’ oldest according to Pablo – and Palacio Barolo, the home of some 300,000 light bulbs. Pablo informs me that 100 years ago this was the tallest building in South America, and its powers of illumination allowed it to serve as a lighthouse to ships entering the Rio de la Plata Estuary. Architect Mario Pilanti apparently designed the tower so that it’s light could be seen from the top of another of  his creations, the Palacio Salvo in Montevideo, Uruguay, over 200kms away.

Palermo

It’s too late for coffee and too early for dinner, but Pablo declares it’s always a good time to plunge into the Greenwich Village-esque streets of Palermo, a vibrant, trendy ‘burb full of restaurants, bars and boutique shopping. We squeeze into a parking space barely the size of Pablo’s beaten up Peugeot and spend an hour wandering the streets trying to look as cool and chic as the rest of the crowd. A man runs past screaming “Ladrón!” which Pablo translates for me: “thief!” “Never leave anything on your table when you are at one of the outdoor cafes” he warns me with a shake of the head which suggests that in his view, each party is equally to blame for the poor fellow’s loss.

Parks and Gardens

There’s some stunning greenery in Buenos Aires, and Pablo expertly designs a route that enables us to take in the Parque 3 de Febrero, the Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays (Botanical Gardens), Plaza Francia, the Japanese Garden and finally a stroll along the old docks – Juana Manuela Gorriti –  from which we get a great view of ‘New’ Buenos Aires across the Rio Darsena Sur. What strikes me as amazing isn’t so much the range and quality of the statues, monuments and modern art installations that adorn each space, its the runners! Apparently it’s the new thing in this town, and everyone’s doing it. Development of running paths can barely keep up with the opening of sneaker shops and sales of cross-trainers.

La Boca

As dusk settles, Pablo turns off the main road into a series of tree-lined streets with colourful houses and few people, and perhaps sensing that our tour to date has been as safe as it has been informative, he locks the doors and starts to tell me a little about the old Italian barrio of La Boca. Popular with tourists during the day but off-limits at night, Pablo’s caution is apparent in the way he slowly approaches each traffic light without ever coming to a complete stop (because of car-jackings) and orders me to hide my camera from view. No visit to La Boca is complete without a drive-by of the famous La Bombonera stadium, home of Boca Juniors football team, the launching point for the career of Argentina’s favourite son, Maradona – a Shane Warne-like idol who can apparently do no wrong in the eyes of millions of adoring fans.

An Argentine feast

Time is ticking away, and conscious that I still need to eat a famous Argentinian steak washed down with a bottle of classic red before we head back to the airport, Pablo directs his treasured taxi into the Recoleta area, home of some of his favourite, most authentic restaurants. The smoke of roasting meat mingles with cigar fumes to creates a sweet-smelling atmosphere that is as stimulating as it is slightly concerning, and our noses lead us to Pablo’s first suggestion, El Sanjuanino; apparently home to some superb steaks and Buenos Aires best empanadas.

The place is packed. Pablo shakes hands with the Maestro de, which apart from being encouraging, makes me feel slightly important, but alas doesn’t result in us finding a table – it’s a one hour wait. Next up is Restaurante Fervour, where the story is the same, and so it goes with Pablo’s next two choices. With just over two and a half hours left until my flight departs, we’re going to have to at least head point our search towards the airport.

“Wait – I know a place! I cannot believe I didn’t think of it before” Pablo exclaims with excitement. Back to his battered French chariot we head, and onto the freeway, airport bound.

“Its expensive, but now I think you have not enough time” says Pablo as his foot presses the accelerator. “It’s a place for the best meat in Buenos Aires!”

Expecting some lean-to backyard joint with meat hanging from hooks and gauchos playing horseshoes on a dusty pitch, I’m surprised when we eventually pull into a parking lot set against a row of trees and green lawns, with a large building beyond, modern in a retro-ranch kind of way. With an exterior resembling the set of the Masterchef Kitchen, El Mangrullo is cavernous, featuring white table cloths, dim lighting, and highly polished timber set across split-levels. Waiting staff dressed better than I am come and go as we stand at the entrance trying to get someone’s attention. Yep, this place is fancy.

Once again Pablo impresses with his ability to find and have a quick, knowing conversation with the person in charge. A firm handshake later, and we’re set up in a warm booth, flicking through a menu for each of wine, meat, and sides. Pablo declines to dine with me – he will eat with his family late tonight. I object, but apparently this is normal, and expected of him, so I don’t push.

The choices are infinite, and not wanting to waste any more time, I order a local specialty from ‘The Grill’, Ojo de bife – rib-eye medium rare. Add in some hand-cut fries and steamed string beans (for the health factor) and I suddenly realise I’m starving – my last meal was some kind of stale cheese roll on the flight from Lima about nine hours ago. Warm, soft pumpkin muffins appear while we wait, which go better than you would think with a big glass of Malbec – a dark Argentine Red. The steaming hot steak arrives and is presented like I’m meeting Argentine royalty, with the lesser lights – the sides – trailing behind. The South American reputation for quality red meat is legendary and with both my curiosity and stomach now thoroughly satisfied, it’s time to stumble back to Pablo’s waiting vehicle, and quickly trek back to the airport.

To be honest I’m slightly more than tipsy, and almost forget to pay my new chum in the rush, but with the business part of the night out of the way, with a hug, a pat on the back and a promise to return, we part like old friends.

It’s late and the airport is quiet. With such a big city you’d expect a 24 hour crush, but according to Pablo it’s not as busy as one might think; “What comes after Buenos Aires? Look at the map, there’s nothing, nowhere else to go”. Maybe that explains it. Security is quick and before I know it, I’m sitting outside my departure gate waiting for the call. Easing back into my chair and allowing myself a self-congratulatory moment after such a successful hit and run mission, I suddenly hear my name over the PA; “Would passenger Derek Green please present to Gate 31 – your flight is waiting to depart”. Oh crap, it must be the booze and the fact that I’m digesting half a cow, but I’ve somehow lost track of time – it’s all become a bit tighter than I thought!

As the flight departs and my seat reclines, through a wine-induced numbness I reflect on an afternoon and evening which had everything – culture, cuisine and crime – and drift off, well pleased that I have squeezed every ounce out of this stop-over’s hours and minutes.

So what’s your stop-over tipping point?

A tale of the tortoise and the hare on the Inca Trail


By Derek Green

If you were expecting this to be the re-telling of an ancient Incan legend with some kind of wise, yet strangely impossible to adopt moral message, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. Now that’s out of the way nice and early, I can forge ahead and tell you a modern tale of the tortoise and hare, set to the backdrop of the breath-taking Andes, featuring one of the world’s most popular ‘bucket list’ items – the Inca Trail.

Thousands of people undertake this trek each year, with the ‘classic’ trail involving a 45 km hike over four days, arriving at the impressive ancient citadel of Machu Picchu on the final morning. Recently I was one of them as part of group featuring eleven trekkers, two local guides, two chefs, and a team of fifteen porters.

Day one: What’s so hard about this?

The team meets at 5am in the Plaza Regocijo in Cusco, the historical capital of the Incan Empire and most common launching point for an Inca Trail mission. We sluggishly board the ‘Oxygen Bus’, which is exactly what it sounds like, a bus with drop-down oxygen masks for anyone who might be struggling with their own ‘airbags’. Cusco is above 11,000 feet, and I wonder how anyone who feels the need to suck in some O2 already is going to cope when we’re exerting ourselves at 14,000 feet. Needless to say we all view the masks with a mixture of amusement and barely contained contempt, and focus on the 3 hour bus trip to our starting point – Kilometre 82. It’s also a chance for me to assess and label the rest of the team My Kitchen Rules style; there’s the Adelaide newly-weds, the might-be-wed-one-day-if-he-ever-pulls-his-finger-out couple from Manchester, the American sisters, the ‘besties’ from London, and the American uncle and niece, travelling with the sisters who are also family. I’m clearly the odd one out, but hey, doing the math I’d say the chances of me getting my own tent are looking ‘sweet as’.

Finally we arrive at the gateway to the trail, assess our gear, have our papers checked and we’re away, the hares setting the pace. With the exception of ‘Uncle Mark’, I’m giving everyone a 20 year minimum head start, so I resolve to swallow my pride and pace myself; after all it’s not a race. The majority of the morning’s path is what the locals call ‘Inca Flat’ which translates as ‘bloody hard for anyone who hasn’t spent their whole life in the Andes’. The  Cusichaca Valley parts as we gradually rise, and we’re rewarded with views of snow-capped peaks from the Incan site of Llactapata. I hadn’t realised we would come across other ruins on our way to the “City in the Sky’, and it starts to dawn on us how sophisticated and organised this ancient society was. A myriad of trails traverse the Andes to the tune of 40,000 kms across an area of 2 million kilometres ruled by the Incan Empire for much of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries as the largest empire in pre-Columbian America.

As the slopes steepen, I can see above me that the hares are in their element, and the tortoise (me) is lagging behind. I have to say I’ve never been obsessive, or even particularly keen about physical activity; I know I’m fit enough and quite capable of doing this, but the ‘doing’ part is the problem. No matter how fit you are you still need to drag yourself step by step, switch-back by switch-back up each mountain pass. There’s no landing on a magic paver and ‘advancing to go’ whilst collecting two million Peruvian Sol, you just have to slowly grind it out. Did I mention it’s not a race?

Our red-shirted porters, affectionately known as ‘The Red Army’ by our trekking company, the superb Llama Path, pass us at speed, a mighty feat considering they are carrying all of the supplies and equipment, including gas bottles, water, tents, complete kitchen facilities and food. There are no towns or shops up here, so they must carry everything we might need over the four days. According to Silvio our head guide, once they even carried a young boy! The reality is there are (mostly) well regulated weight limits for porters, and Llama Path’s reputation for treatment of its staff is legendary.

You never know what to expect on a trip like this when it comes to food and facilities, it has little bearing on the decision to commit to the trek – it’s the trauma you’ll be putting your body through that’s foremost in your mind – and our first thoughts start to turn in this direction as we head towards an impressive lunch tent expertly set up by the porters. Outside there’s a flurry of activity, as a distinguished porter in a tall chef’s hat directs traffic around a couple of large steaming pots.

We’re seated on long benches, and then it comes in waves – soup, chicken and rice, steamed vegetables, pasta, roast potatoes (huh?), rolls of cheese and baked trout, avocado and spicy salsa. It’s like we’re being served via an invisible conveyor belt connected to the back of some 5 star restaurant hidden among the bushes. Every meal either starts or ends with coca tea, an Incan favourite and apparent stimulant which helps alleviate the symptoms some of us are already experiencing at this altitude. For camp food, it’s unbelievable, and it just gets better over the next few days.

Somehow the porters have managed to pack up lunch, over-take us, and set up camp in the two and a quarter hour climb after lunch. The Red Army are more like team Ferrari. We arrive to a picture perfect scene at the quiet Ayapata campground, our tents in a neat row facing a magical mountain vista opposite.

Day two: Yes, I actually paid to do this

The rumours about “Day Two” have circulated backpackers and internet forums for years. With overly optimistic eyes fixed on the greater goal beyond, I simply assumed these rumours were true and then promptly chose to ignore them.

Ignoring truths makes no difference to the day two morning call – it still sounds at 5am. We start the day with four hours straight up. It’s a slog, even for the hares ahead (probably), and we trudge up the large stone steps until finally the mountains open up and ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ comes into view. I’m too exhausted to ask what happened to her, and keep pumping the legs, assuming whatever it was, it wasn’t something good. We’re at the highest point of the trek and my enthusiasm for the scenery evaporates like oxygen trying to reach my lungs. Seriously I’m sucking in so hard, trying to access their every spare corner, I can literally feel every single lung sponge in there doing its best for me. What wouldn’t I pay for that stupid bus to be here right now! I’m at the stage where I’m stopping to rest every 50 metres or so. Each rise above looks like it could be the final one, but the trail cruelly turns to the left or right, presenting another rise a similar distance away. And so it goes until finally, there are no more rises and I can see the hares waiting ahead in the bowl of the mountain pass. I’m close enough to hear their encouragement as it drifts with the wind; “Not far to go”, “You’re almost there” and “Come on, lunch is getting cold!” My new Mancunian friend Dave is the quickest hare of the bunch, and has a wit to match. In my current weakened state I’ve got no comeback, but it’s OK, he’s British, and over the long game he’ll be toast for a sharp tongued Australian with an exceptional knowledge of sporting history. Besides, it’s not a race.

I finally crawl the last ten metres to the sound of Gen-Y applause, and only lunch and a two hour section of downhill slopes stand between me and a wonderfully long lie down in my private tent. Except of course for my first serious visit to ‘La Baños’ – the bathroom. Cue music from Psycho…

I knew before I embarked on this trip that my mental approach would be as much a part of its success as the physical. What I didn’t realise was how much of that mental energy would be taken up negotiating the toilets of the Andes National Park service. To say that I had to ‘psych myself’ is an understatement.

To an Australian, bush toilets seem like a pretty simple concept. You build a little hut just far enough away from your camp area, dig a big hole and drop in a small throne with a wooden seat, right? Wrong. In Peru, the squat is the favoured approach, and it’s an experience you won’t forget. My first time will live with me forever, it reminded me of one of those corporate flowcharts. Once you get past the whole “why did they do it like this?” question, it’s already too late as you realise that’s not mud you’re standing in. Too bad if you decided to wear thongs. Next, establish your true requirements and commitment level. One or two? If it’s a two, can you hang on another 3 days? Yes? Then get the hell out. No? Then you’ve got to find something sturdy to grab – a piece of wet rope, a rusty pipe – whatever’s available – hope you’re not wearing your best pants. Now make sure your balance is spot on, then finally, hold your breath and hope for the best. If you make it out unscathed, you’ll eat that 2,000 foot climb waiting in the morning for breakfast.

Day three: The case of the missing underpants

With the exception of quality footwear, I don’t need all the fancy gear when I head out into the great outdoors, but at the advice of some experienced mountaineers, I did buy three pairs of polyester/elastane underpants. OK I admit it; I splurged on some very expensive fast-drying, fancy-arsed jocks. Now on the Inca Trail, unless you’re either super-human or foolhardy, the porters carry all of your personal gear, with the exception of whatever you’ll need during the day. It’s all collected each morning, divided between the crew, and delivered with a smile to your tent door at the end of the day – an amazing service.

Except for the moment when I realise I’m two pairs of undies short. Yes, my BNWT (brand-new-with-tags) fluoro underwear is missing. Not wanting to cause a scene, I enquire around the tents to see if anyone has accidentally been allocated some undies which aren’t theirs. There’s plenty of mirth, but no luck. Reluctantly I escalate the situation to our guides. What was I thinking? Suddenly the quiet morning routine is shaken by a flurry of activity, and everyone now knows we have a potential undie thief in our midst. Except for the porters it seems. Their English is about as good as my Spanish – ‘inexistente’ – and I’m not sure they really understand what they’re looking for, but their effort and concern suggests they think it’s either a diamond ring or a small child, as no stone is left unturned.

With the camp ransacked and then hastily packed away, the path to Winay Wayna can’t wait any longer. The loss of my precious undies is not quite as painful as the series of barbs delivered by Dave, but soon the hares are too far ahead for me to hear anyway. Whatever mate, it’s not a race. I am however now left alone to lament the fact that I’m way short in the smalls department. Will my one remaining pair of awesome undies dry in time?

We descend into the cloud forest, and the terrain changes dramatically. Open mountain trails are replaced by lush tunnels of greenery, and sweet, earthy air is welcomed by parched lungs.

The ruins of Phuyupatamarca are the most impressive yet, and before we know it we’ve reached the campsite for our final night, just in time for lunch. It’s a long one as the group gleefully treads over the same dining-tent topics – Trump, Brexit, One Nation and the current state of right and left wing policy throughout the world. As a team we’re like-minded, but the conversations are still both stimulating and enlightening.

The final afternoon whizzes by as we alternate between exploring the nearby site of Winay Wayna and preparing for our early morning departure. This campsite is full as it’s the closest overnight area from which to approach Machu Picchu, packed to the brim with dozens of trekking companies and teams from all over the world, all of whom are highly motivated to be the first to arrive at the famous Sun Gate in the morning.

Day four: Glory road

We’re up at 3am. The adrenalin in the air is thicker than the forest mist. Torches out, we rush down to the national park gate like teams in the Amazing Race, knowing that we must wait until 5.30am before the checkpoint opens, the rangers stamp our tickets and let us pour through. The gate finally swings, and the hares have a real challenge on their hands as hundreds of pushy trekkers stretch their legs, swing their arms (and walking poles) and aggressively protect their space. It’s like the start of some kind of multi-national marathon as colours, flags and testosterone compete with common sense and manners. I let the mayhem subside before I up the tempo and find my stride. Knowing that this is mostly a gentle undulating grade, I’m able to breathe in this final stretch of the Inca Trail, feel the beating heart of the forest and absorb the sight of an endless sea of mountains beyond. There are hares ahead and behind, but I’m in my own zone, ambling along too fast for the slower hares, whilst in no danger of catching the faster ones. I have the trail to myself for the first time and it’s a glorious hour or so until finally I reach the Sun Gate and prepare myself for the first glimpse of the lost city itself. The magnificence of Machu Picchu unfolds across the valley below as intermittent fog obscures our view and ensures we don’t pause too long.

The team descends the final couple of kilometres and the rest of the morning is a wonderful blur, the emerald green surrounds are offset by limestone buildings, thatched roofs and human traffic jams wherever we turn. We congratulate each other, take in as much as we can and before we know it, it’s time to find the bus to the service town of Aguas Calientes for our rendezvous with the rest of the team and guides, to say our goodbyes, and sit in what turns out to be silent reflection for most of us on the train trip back to Ollantaytambo and ultimately Cusco, from where we’ll all depart; heading on, heading home, or starting fresh adventures. Drifting off as I stare out into the gloom as the train whirls by another small, barely lit town, I swear I see a man with what looks like bright blue underwear on his head, waving excitedly as we pass. Wait, was that Dave? I blink twice and look again, but he’s gone, if he ever was there. And they say you’re only meant to leave footprints behind.

So many of us had set out on this journey imagining that the glorious sight of Machu Picchu would be the crowning moment of the four days, the pinnacle of our Peruvian escapade, yet with every painful step, torturous breath, and unhappy visit to La Baños, it became clear that the journey itself was the highlight, and not the destination as we’d all assumed.

And what did become of the tortoise among all those hares? Well, it doesn’t really matter now, after all, it was never a race…