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.

Can Airbnb learn from the mistakes of ebay?

In 2001 I saw a roadside billboard for eBay, an apparent ‘online auction’ website that claimed it was connecting sellers of junk with buyers of junk across the world.

Even with a firmly established career in ‘tech’, the sound of my loud scoff at the idea of this kind of concept succeeding echoed in our car for what seemed like an eternity. We sold that car eventually but the new owners probably still get it when they hit a pot hole.

But as a hoarder and collector of everything from coins to sea shells, I was still intrigued, and within a couple of years found myself trading with the best of them – sending stamps to Sweden, magazines to Mexico, and records to Romania. It wasn’t only a bit of extra cash on the side – it was fun – and over the years I slowly reduced my pile of personal rubble while saving enough to actually visit some of the exotic places I was exporting my trash to.

Over time however, eBay gradually eroded the essence of their online garage sale concept, the very elements that had made transacting enjoyable and even personable – I’m still connected to hundreds of like-minded collectors and fossickers across the world. Within a short period of time we saw; the loss of feedback for sellers, the hiding of auction winner identities, a never-ending toying with listing formats, an overhaul of item categories, promoted items in search results, the introduction of the compulsory use of PayPal, and the significant upping of listing and sale fees.

All these changes favoured the modern breed of eBay seller; ‘stores’ peddling new goods, mostly cheap rubbish, and operating e-retail businesses, resulting in a reduction of the grassroots swell of the now disillusioned low quantity and casual sellers. The old-timers either threw their hands in the air and gave up, or slowly backed away, their activity levels dropping to an all-time low.

So what’s all this got to do with Airbnb?

Well you might recall I mentioned I travel a bit? And I work in tech? Yes, I love Airbnb almost as much as I used to love eBay. The site has opened up accommodation opportunities to countries, regions and neighbourhoods that were previously unavailable, either because there were no official lodgings in the area, or the ones that did exist were exorbitantly priced and lacking quality, flexibility, and general homeliness.. When you add in the fact the Airbnb hosts are like your own personal in-country concierge, the benefits of being able to hand-pick the style, location and price of your accommodation are a winning combination.

In terms of the technology and operational structure of the two, the similarities are striking. Each was developed in a garage by a sole brainiac with a vision. They provide an online, secure forum for the owner of a product to offer it to a buyer of the product. Each party to the transaction has the chance to communicate/negotiate with, and get to know the other. Both services became wildly popular in a short period of time with the general population, but less so with the industry establishments, crashing old-school business traditions and catching complacent, under-resourced and bewildered governments napping. As a result each has run into its fair share of legal hassle and controversy.

I’ve used Airbnb since 2010, but in the last 2 years have noticed an increase in the number of hosts who are merely rental property managers, time-poor ‘just show me the money’ types, the equivalent of eBay ‘stores’, with little vested interest in the property, the neighbours and surrounds, or their client. Using Airbnb, once you’ve clicked the ‘book’ button, your payment for the  total accommodation cost is taken from your credit card and immediately goes into ‘escrow’ – held and controlled by Airbnb – even if your trip is months away. If you have a problem and need to change your travel plans, retrieving your money is difficult, and will depend on the booking conditions and attitude of the host. With rental property managers, the chances of being able to cancel or alter your booking are slim, and your money is as good as gone if you don’t arrive at your accommodation on check-in day.

All of my great experiences over the years have been with owner-hosts – I just love the meet and greet opportunity, personal stories, recommendations and occasionally even a coffee or glass of wine.

So what next for Airbnb – how can they avoid eBay’s pitfalls?

I would list my predicted “top 10 initiatives Airbnb might try and implement in order to sell out” if I weren’t afraid the company might read them and decide some of them were great ideas. Suffice to say they all involve some degree of either focussing on business owners over individuals, further depersonalisation, fee increases, market over saturation, and just general greed. All of these will inevitably contribute to the recent crackdown on Airbnb lettings by tenant associations, body corporates and governments.

Airbnb’s contribution to the decline of housing affordability and the ethics of its operations deserve expanded discussion in a separate article, in the meantime it seems to me that the service can stay on the right side of the moral argument by sticking to the fundamentals; putting people before profit, partnering with small-time hosts around the world, and just maintaining the element of fun.

Who moved my adventure – has the internet ruined travel?

Like many Australians, my twenties were a time when I undertook a tour of duty as an overseas traveller, diligently exploring ‘the world and elsewhere’.

In an age before ‘glamping’ and ‘flash-packing’, this was a common rite of passage – thousands of us travelled either solo or in hastily assembled teams, descending en mass on the museums, cathedrals, and pubs of the ‘old’ world. Whether the time was spent kicking the dust along a gringo trail, or singing along to TV theme-songs with a bus load of hung-over antipodeans, we returned with a sense of fulfilment, satisfied in our new found wisdom and worldliness. I didn’t always know where I was going, what it would be like or what I would do when I got there, but I looked forward to unlocking the mystery, step by step, mile by mile, and meeting the challenges presented by less-than-honourable taxi drivers, cockroach infested bathrooms and dodgy curries head on.

Country Château or Parisian room with a view?

Country Château, or…

... or Parisian "room with a view"?

… a Parisian “room with a view”?

Recently, with these fond memories and my swiftly advancing years foremost in my mind, I was lucky enough to be able to return for another dose.

In preparation for this freshly named ‘mature aged gap year’, I pondered a common discussion point among frequent travellers: which is more fun, the planning or the doing? I find enjoyment in both, but in this age of the internet, between Airbnb, Tripadvisor and Google Streets, the element of surprise, the ‘go with flow’ spontaneous moments, and yes, the complete screw ups that we endured at the time but look back on with such fondness, are gone. There is now no need to fly with a tardy airline, eat at restaurants that rate poorly, or stay at a hotel with bedbugs. Every apartment, cafe and museum has been scrutinised, reviewed and rated to within 5 points of Pi, removing the element of doubt and anything potentially distasteful in the unknown.

Does the apartment have lightning fast Wi-Fi? How’s the hotel breakfast? Is that café the one with the Australian barista? No need to wonder, just read the reviews.

If, after all my online research I’m still not sure if the place is in a dodgy part of town, opposite a bus depot, or undergoing construction, I can just check Google streets. Hell, I can even wander the block and pick the café with the best ambience from 10,000 miles away!

So, once you’ve studied and absorbed all the available information, you could be forgiven for feeling a tad let down, perhaps even that you’ve already been there, or at least experienced 50% of the journey. So why still go?

We go because, no matter how many reviews we read, images we look at, or virtual strolls we take, nothing compares to stepping out of a taxi, or hauling our bags up the final flight of stairs from the underground rail, the sensation of sun, smog and rain stinging our face, and finally breathing in the smell of adventure, once again.

Some observations from the mother of all lands

 

It’s not you, it’s me

So who among us is guilty of trying to return to a certain time, place or ‘feel’, in an attempt to recreate a special moment?

In recent years I’ve had underwhelming re-acquaintances with Montreal, Kuala Lumpur, Orlando and Dubai to name a few, all of which took the gloss off my original memories of those cities. Actually I don’t think I could ever have been less impressed by Dubai.

Yet the UK (and London in particular) never disappoints. I can’t quite employ such superlatives such as ‘warmth’ and ‘comfort’ – its too bloody cold here for that – but there is always something magical about a how-long-will-it-last British summer, the smell of lubricant and engine oil as the gears of the Tube’s escalators turn endlessly, an ‘iffy’ kebab on the way home following a sneaky pint, and the sight of rubbish blowing across pedestrian crossings on any given High Street.

It just feels like coming home.

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A paddle in ‘The Serpentine’ at Hyde Park

A golden age of travel

Modern travel is a gift, so easily taken for granted, yet clearly an opportunity to be cherished and valued.

Think about it.

If you agree with accepted scientific opinion that we are thousands of years into an ‘organised’ human civilisation – since caves and trees made way to houses, farming and governance – then we of the 21st century really are just a minute speck on the timeline of human life. Halfway along that timeline, a visit to the neighbours’ tar pit was as far as most people would ever manage; it wasn’t that long ago when horse and carriage was the only means of transport when legs and feet wouldn’t cut it, and boat’s were for the gentry.

Stonehenge
“Nobody knows… who they were, or… what they were doing”

So consider the current era of affordable inter-continental airfare, bullet trains, and buses with toilets. Marry the means with even minimal desire and we can journey to the farthest reaches of the planet within a day or two, not withstanding flight delays, stubborn donkeys and the odd dodgy prawn pizza.

There may well be a day when humans travel to Alpha Centauri in the blink of an eye, and in turn, those travellers will look back at our time and scoff at our poverty, waste, carbon consumption and general lack of evolution. Hard to argue when you consider so many of us think Today Tonight is news, Big Brother is quality entertainment, and Tony Abbot should be Prime Minister.

Yet here we all are on this very day, presiding over the greatest advancements in our species’ history.

Until, of course, tomorrow becomes the ‘present’.

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We know this local street art is not BANKSY – it hasn’t been defaced.