Wrapping up Ottawa

I woke up this morning at 5am in a bit of a panic. It was one of those sudden bursts of fright that seems to strike in the night.

Basically, I was thinking of all of the things I need to do before our trip along with a number of what ifs and potential travel disasters. After I came to my senses, I drifted back to sleep and had a dream about travelling to China via Turkey. Weird.

But yes, this is my last day in Ottawa and staring at my fully packed bags on the floor I’m really hoping they are actually fully packed. The control freak in me may unpack it all and check one last time.

Signing off from Ottawa.

My marriage may be over by December

About three weeks ago, two grumpy bears left Ottawa.

Their paws had recently been filled with a round of rabies and Japanese encephalitis shots at a combined and somewhat unexpected total of roughly $800 for only a single round of vaccines (read here for more on our travel medicine). A long day of work possibly combined with vaccination symptoms meant for much grumbling between these two as they realized they hadn’t done any packing before leaving for Toronto.

Four months travelling with my spouse. I do hope my marriage survives.

At least, that’s the joke I tell my friends. In preparing for this trip, I’ve spoken to several people about travelling with their significant other. Over drinks in Ottawa, one German friend told me in his extremely high falsetto voice (Ed. A needless, yet defining detail for those who know him) that he really did not know his wife until they took the 36-hour bus from Berlin to Moscow.

Another close friend had many a tale of travelling through Southeast Asia with his now-ex girlfriend. One of my favourite lines in a lengthy email he wrote me about Vietnam was describing the town of Dalat:

We went to Dalat. It’s a mountain town. I didn’t really dig it, but I couldn’t stand [name removed] at that point, so that had something to do with it.

Travelling is most definitely a test on a relationship. By putting a couple in a period of high stress it really shows how close you actually are. Not sure how things are with your partner? Go on a complicated trip (not just a beach somewhere) and you’ll get a better idea of how tight those bonds really are.

At least, that was the case with me. We were visiting friends in Collioure, France, which required a long day crisscrossing Europe. We flew to Amsterdam, then to Barcelona, where we went into the Catalan-speaking city and jumped on a train not knowing if it went to Madrid or France. The train then dropped us off at a dark and eery station in France where we had to buy tickets.

This long day was a bit of a test for us, especially once we got to Barcelona. However, we naturally fell into a process that has served us well in future trips. Both of us are aware that a trip can be a period of high stress and it is the job of one person to recognize and take over the reigns when the other becomes flustered. At the same time, the other person must have enough trust to let this happen. All easy to say here, but it’s a lot more difficult when you’re lost looking for a hotel in Athens, for example.

But returning to our trip to Collioure. It was such a long day and I really had no ear, nor patience, for the garbled Catalan coming through the train speaker announcing unknown cities that I only hoped were closer and closer to France. Finally, we disembarked at the French station. I was exhausted and I couldn’t think or speak in French. Sara told me to sit down, relax, and, in some of the best French I’ve heard her speak, chatted with the ticket agent and an hour or so later we were at our final destination, happy and eating a delicious feast of spaghetti our friends had made.

Looking back, it seems like a simple thing, but add on a pound of jetlag and a pinch of unease in a foreign country, and having a reliable partner or a partner you know you can rely on makes a world of difference.

That was the day I knew I would marry my wife.

“How do you actually leave for four months?”

Cat in the sunlight

Everything seemed to line up. We even found a reliable sublet to look after our place and our cat Audrey.

And that’s that.

When you tell people that you’re planning a four-month trip, the obvious question arises: How can you possibly travel for four months? What about, er, jobs and stuff?

If I’m with my wife, I usually defer the answer to her: Sara’s employer generously granted her a leave of absence. However, inevitably, the question turns to me. With a shrug of the shoulders, my response:

“It’s simple. I quit my job.”

Now I’m not going to launch into an angry diatribe stating how despite my immeasurable talents, I’ve become disillusioned with a profession I should have understood beforehand (step forward Kai Nagata). Yawn.

But I will say I’ve now been given an opportunity to go in a new direction. The far east to be precise.

Sara and I have been talking about this trip off and on for years. Much of it was largely “wouldn’t it be nice” type of talk. “Oh we should do this and this…” with a sad sigh that it wasn’t possible. Although our talk became more serious at the beginning of this year, it really wasn’t until Sara got her leave approved in May/June that this trip become a reality (as soon as Sara got leave we immediately bought the plane ticket).

And now, two-and-a-half weeks before we go, the ball really is rolling.

I must say, it was really awkward at my workplace having this exciting life event coming up and not being able to talk about it. As a gesture of good faith, and because I couldn’t hold back any longer, I gave my boss a month notice of my resignation, which is why this press release came when it did.

So, in returning to the initial question, Sara and I found ourselves in a position where we felt we had to act (the saying “…or get of the pot” comes to mind). We have always talked about going on a major trip and here we were with no kids or mortgage. Also, we had the financial means (we’ve been saving for a long time) and it just so happened that a relative was moving to Ottawa to go to school who was looking for a place to stay. Ergo, we could split the rent with our sublet and also have someone to look after the house and our cat (pictured above).

In other words, everything seemed to line up. It’s not a stupid “Generation Y” thing as one individual passive-aggressively blabbered on about. It was an opportunity we couldn’t refuse.

And so, I will be looking for a job in January. Do let me know if you have one available. I promise, this trip is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. 🙂

Got the Chinese visa, now what?

An assortment of travel books.

The many travel books we're using.

Yesterday was a pretty exciting day. We finally picked up our Chinese visa. It was a fairly straightforward process: On Tuesday, after waiting in a hot line for an hour, we dropped off our forms and two 2x2inch photos and four days later, we returned, paid the pleasant official $100 and I picked up both our passports. Done.

Given that we’re looking to spend a considerable amount of time in China, I was pretty relieved to actually have the official visa in my passport. Throughout the week, we joked that if China turned us down our new focus would be India for a month. But with it now official, India will have to wait until our next trip.

Planning a four-month adventure has been (and will be) a test of my planning and logistics skills. Designing an itinerary for this trek is an amazing challenge. When we first started talking about going on this trip we looked at a map and tried to figure out where we wanted to visit. I must admit, many of the names and places were completely foreign to me, save the major capitals. Many areas are still confusing such as the multitude of islands and beaches in Thailand.

However, we started with a clear goal in mind: in four months we would travel from Shanghai to Sydney. What sort of scenic route we took to travel this distance was yet to be determined.

There are many packaged group tours for China and Southeast Asia. Such groups are clearly organized and they can usually guarantee that you’ll safely see all of the sights you probably wanted to see in the first place.

However, we weren’t really looking for structure and I really didn’t want to pay someone to tour me around for a long period of time. You’re also never too sure of what kind of group of people you’ll be forced to spend your time with. I’m not entirely opposed to organized tours, I often find they’re a great way to be introduced to a city, but we wanted more flexibility. With that said, I’ve always found organized tour guidebooks and materials to be a handy resource for planning a trek as they follow a pretty tried-and-true travel route.

So with an emphasis on flexibility, the plan is to book as little as possible and see where we end up. Now that doesn’t mean we don’t have a route planned, but as it stands, the only hotel we actually have booked is in Shanghai where we are slated to spend five nights.

From Shanghai, the route is as follows:

China:
Beijing, Pingyao (Well preserved ancient city), Xi’an (Terracotta Warriors), Chengdu (Pandas!), Guilin/Yangshoe (Gorgeous scenery)

Vietnam:
Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue?, Hoi An (For tailor-made suits), Nha Trang (beaches), Saigon, Mekong Delta (maybe)

Cambodia:
Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Thailand
Bangkok, beaches

At this point we will fly to Australia. I’m really not sure how or from where, but I’m looking for the cheapest way possible. Right now it seems my best option is flying AirAsia from Malaysia to the Gold Coast in Australia where I want to see the Great Barrier Reef.

After touring Queensland, we’ll head south to visit family in Newcastle then on to Sydney where our trip comes to an end.

Shanghai to Sydney in four months. No problem.

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If you have any suggestions about places to go (or to avoid), stay, eat or flyiing AirAsia, please please please let me know! Thanks.