Obtaining visas – a chore or pure excitement as it takes you one step closer to your travels?

As we all seek to explore some of the most far-flung places, we have to increasingly check the visa requirements for our next destination. It goes without saying that for both of us we are very lucky. The British and Australian passports are two really good ones to have, meaning in a lot of instances visas can be obtained on arrival or better still, are not needed or are free.

Our Passports to travel!

For our most recent trip we not only researched the visa requirements for our adventure using various websites, but also by visiting the various embassy pages and via the Real Russia pages. We had plenty of pages left in our passport – phew what a relief as we were going to need a few visas!

For me, I’ve always enjoyed dropping my passport off at a consulate or embassy. In my experience the task provides you with the first glimpse of what to expect when you reach your final destination.

I remember back in 2005 when I was heading off to India, I trotted down to the embassy on Aldwych (this process and application procedure have long since been superseded). I duly queued for an hour before the allotted opening time and no sooner had the doors opened, the bun fight began. I think it’s fair to say India isn’t the most organised of places, and the slight chaos that greeted me as the embassy opened was good preparation of what awaited in India!

On another occasion I obtained my Ethiopian visa from the embassy in London and the quietly spoken ladies processed it without delay. The building was a little old fashioned, but none of that matters as long as the service you receive is good. Again, the embassy was a reflection of the place – I would later find the same gentle, softly spoken ladies in Ethiopia.

Sometimes it’s not possible to obtain visas before you go. We experienced this with our Myanmar visas. As soon as we arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, we headed out in search of the Myanmar embassy. No one quite knew were it was, but our taxi driver kept stopping and asking and eventually found it. Once inside the gates the polite and helpful embassy staff greeted us. The serene atmosphere inside the grounds and attitude of the staff were truly a reflection of the Myanmar people – polite, gentle and kind. We duly returned three days later (this time I directed the taxi from the back seat!) only to be given back our passports with some tourist information!

Above all one thing is for sure for us. When we get to an embassy to pick up our passports its a race to flick through the pages with excitement and see the new stamp. Our passports really are our one of our most prized possessions, and for us obtaining visas is all part of the excitement of travel!

– Natalie

The bare essentials – packing for backpacking!

It’s something that is a cross between a chore and fun. A bit of a challenge as you seek to ‘break’ your own last ‘lightest weight’ record. The necessity of packing ahead of any trip is something that we can’t escape. For some it helps the rising crescendo of pre-trip excitement, for others it’s the last hurdle before departure.

All set and ready to go!

All set and ready to go!

Now we’ve all heard the rule of thumb: lay everything out and halve it. But how many of us do it? Ironically I find it much easier to pack for longer trips. With a long trip you accept that you will need to do washing en route (often a tricky task and when you hand over ALL of your clothes whilst hoping the passers by don’t realise you are stood in your pajamas, you pray to the Clothing Gods that your diminishing supply of socks will all come back). With a short trip you can attempt to raid your underwear draw and stretch it so you have enough pairs of pants to last for the whole trip. Whatever your style of packing, I think there are a few ‘must takes’ for every trip.

Washing line, sink plug, water bottle carrier, packing cells, multi country adapter, carabena and the best travel item ever - my buff!

Washing line, sink plug, water bottle carrier, packing cells, multi country adapter, carabinas and the best travel item ever – my buff!

For me my must takes are practical. For others they are luxury items. For example the hair straighteners don’t make my list, but I know from the questions I get asked at work they are important to some people.  They are not very practical when you are bush camping in the middle of nowhere though!  Some people have lists, others throw in what they remember at the time. For us, it’s a bit of a mixture of both.  To a certain extent it depends on where we are going, but most of the below go with me on any big (and often small!!) trip.  So here we go with my backpacking paraphernalia:

Buff – These multi wear headscarves are the best invention ever!  For me I wear mine as a scarf or a hat, or over my mouth when its dusty but above all I use it to cover my face when I’m on planes.  The modern version of an eye mask as it is so multifunctional.  Well worth the investment

Scarf for ladies (but a sarong can double for this too) – I bought a couple in Morocco that now go everywhere. Particularly good for ladies to throw over their shoulders, head or wherever necessary to cover up a bit more

Dean wearing his buff and me wearing my scarf.

Dean wearing his buff and me wearing my scarf.

Travel skirt
– I have one trusty skirt (if you have ever travelled with me you will know exactly which one!).  It covers my knees, is super lightweight and dries easily and packs into nothing.  Great to dress up or dress down.

Packing cells –  The modern day carrier bags!  We each have a set of three – one for tops, one for bottoms and another for undies.  They keep everything together and so your bag doesn’t quite explode to the same extent when you stop.  Before I invested in these I used to use different colour carrier bags so I knew what I was pulling out!

Multi country adapter: One adapter works in most places.

Small sewing kit – Running repairs will be necessary on any trip when you have limited clothes to wear.  My tip – pick up a sewing kit from the hotel if you splurge one night!

Sink plug – whilst the travel ones are not quite perfect, they are good enough to keep enough water in the sink to do some washing. Handy to wash the three-day old socks out!

Peg-free washing line – This handy piece of elastic hangs between bushes, showers and anything you can improvise with. Just DON’T hang it off the sprinkler system!

Sleeping bag liner – sometimes in the nicest looking place outdoors, you find the bed sheets a bit suspect indoors. Always handy to have in case you don’t trust the sheets or just need a bit of extra warmth. To all those people at work who ask me if they can hire sleeping bags… this is essential!

Sarong – doubles up as beach towel, skirt for a night out and drying tool when your real towel is in the wash

The sarong in action during a break in diving

The sarong in action during a break between dives

Travel towel
– These are an acquired taste, but once you are used to them they are handy and take up less space than your conventional towel

Havaianas / waterproof flip-flops – A must for a lazy day pair of shoes and to wear in the shower

Water bottle carrier – I bought a simple small fabric bottle carrier in Peru and its proved invaluable. Great when you need to take water with you but don’t want a bag

Carabinas – Great for hanging off the front of your bag in case you need to ‘dangle’ anything backpacker style! The simple answer to packing when you are running late (or have too much stuff!)

Small Handbag / Man bag – This might seem like a luxury item, but I have a small handbag that I keep all my electrical chargers and cords in.  Then if I have a night out I empty them all out and use the bag!

Small head torch – hands free lighting is handy. You might look like you are going down a mine, but you don’t have to wear it on your head. You will be grateful for it when navigating to and in and out of a long drop toilet in a snowstorm via the light of the moon (I speak from experience!)

Tiny hairbrush – I would actually argue you could leave this one out really…

Waterproof jacket – not only good as a waterproof layer, they also act as a wind breaker and help keep you warm as part of a layering system. Layers, layers, layers…. The key to warmth!

Down jacket for cold climates – These keep you so toasty and warm, are light weight and  pack down to next to nothing.  Fantastic inventions!

Warmth at a fraction of the space

Warmth at a fraction of the space

In amongst all of this I usually take about four tops and four pairs of bottoms of varying sleeve and leg length. Before every big trip at least one person has asked how I pack for so long. In truth it’s simple – get the above items in and the rest is easy. Above all, we all like to buy souvenirs en route, so isn’t forgetting something important? If only as an excuse to go shopping on holiday!

Happy Packing!

–       Natalie

P.S I don’t have a weight record as such, but if you think this list is long, before the last trip I went away prepared for -30 degrees with 12.5kg of luggage. Not bad going! Don’t ask what I came back with…

Chapter Nine: Treasures of Myanmar – The Road to Mandalay

One country that is on all the ‘Top Destinations of 2014’ lists and a country that is literally buzzing within traveller circles is Myanmar. Having only reopened to tourism about four years ago and with tourist numbers soaring, now is the time to visit. With that in mind, and wanting to visit Myanmar before tourism gets too commercial, it was one destination that had really excited us in the planning phase of this trip.

A few important things to note, firstly credit cards are not accepted almost anywhere in Myanmar, (with a very few exceptions) international ATM cards are only accepted by cash machines in a few places outside the capital of Yangon, (thankfully this is on the increase though), and entrances for historical and cultural sites must be paid in either local currency or US Dollars, and US Dollars must be pristine, almost as if they had just been printed. This certainly means you must have a good grip on your finances and adds another important dimension to trip planning throughout the country.

As Natalie had mentioned in her Hot Air Ballooning Blog, our first destination was the so called Jewel in the Tourism crown on Myanmar, Bagan. The Bagan Archaeological Zone consists of over 2,200 red brick stupas and temples scattered over the country side. Clive our balloon pilot had told us that originally there was an estimated 6,000 but over the centuries many had been destroyed, looted or damaged from earthquakes and invaders. Covering an area of 42 square kilometres for most of your explorations you can be excused for thinking you were the only people there. Most visitors head to Ananda, Sulamani, Shwesandaw and Dhammayangyi. However we liked the smaller complexes of temples. Bunched together these small red brick pagoda made you feel like Indiana Jones searching for buried treasure or uncovering a new site  for the first time. In fact the whole Bagan region felt like it belonged in some Hollywood adventure movie.

Some of Bagan's Pagoda soaring over the landscape

Some of Bagan’s Pagoda soaring over the landscape

Unlike the rest of Asia, the rickshaw has not really taken off in Myanmar, meaning the easiest way to explore Bagan was by something called an E-bike. Not quite a push bike and not quite a scooter, these bikes had pedals (which you only used if the bike ran out of juice) and ran on a small battery reaching an estimated top speed of about 15 kmh. Though not designed for it they are great for off roading and all throughout Bagan you could hear the hum of the electric bike followed by the rattle and shake of said bike being taken some-place it was not meant to go.

Natalie modelling our 'off road' E-bike

Natalie modelling our ‘off road’ E-bike

Each day in Bagan culminated in finding an elevated vantage point for sunset. The best time to view the temples is early morning and the two hours before sunset. As the sun dips in the sky the temples and pagoda light up a fiery red colour, a striking contrast to the green surrounding them and the brilliant blue skies. Everyone in Bagan has the same idea though, which means there is little hope to find a secluded temple top to watch the sun go down, but regardless watching the sun drop behind the hills silhouetting the many temples is one of Myanmar’s must do experiences.

One of our favourite temples in Bagan

One of our favourite temples in Bagan

Sunset over the temples

Sunset over the temples

We also made the half day journey out to visit Mount Popa. An extinct volcano with a monastery complex on top, Mt Popa was a great way to break up visiting all the temples around Bagan. There is a catch though, and that is the 777 steps you must walk up barefoot to the summit. Throughout Myanmar, whenever you visit a religious site it is shoes off, regardless of how hot, sandy dusty, muddy or covered in bird droppings that site is, tradition states you must remove your shoes. Needless to say our ‘Western Feet’ have at times protested and are looking forward to reaching Australia for some much needed love and attention!

From Bagan it was then off to Mandalay, one of Myanmar’s many former capital cities. Unlike Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Road to Mandalay’, we chose to take a boat. Public transport in Myanmar is not really set up for tourism but set up to cater for the locals. Most intercity transportation is either in rather uncomfortable pickup trucks where as many people as possible are rammed in tightly together or overnight coaches that depart and arrive at particularly inconvenient times, as one local said, ‘Myanmar people would never miss a day of work to travel intercity, they prefer to do it at night, oh, and the buses don’t overheat as much!’.

So the boat seemed to be our logical choice. An 11 hour journey, we were excited to see some of the rural life along the river. We were met by a stunning sunrise just after the boat departed but that was about as good as it got. Before we knew it the weather closed in and the majority of the day we were subjected to a huge down pour. As we approached Mandalay in the late afternoon it felt like the rain was getting worse, or perhaps it was because we knew we would soon be getting off. We trudged off the boat into the back of a pickup truck for the short drive to our chosen guesthouse, soaking wet we arrived, and despite the horrible weather we were surprisingly happy as it was the first real full day of rain we had experienced in months.

Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city and certainly had a big city feel after the relative quietness of Bagan. Almost dead flat it was easy to explore on push bike and were introduced to some of the country’s different road rules. Firstly they drive right hand drive cars on the right hand side of the road, not easy when you are overtaking, and secondly, Mandalay had hardly any traffic lights. Four way intersections were a free for all, you approach, look around and if you think you can go, you go, to be honest, even if you don’t think you can, you go! We visited a number of famous monasteries and temples, including the most famous, the Mahamuni Paya complex. Here males dab gold leaf onto a huge statue of Buddha giving it a lumpy look. Various religious sites or inner most sanctums are off limits to females, so Natalie dispatched me with numerous cameras and phones to snap the photos we have. We also visited the ‘Gold Pounders’ of Mandalay. These muscle bound locals smack small leather books filled with sheets of gold for up to six hours to produce wafer thin gold leaf for people to apply on various Buddha images and religious icons throughout the country. Certainly a hard way to make a living. Never have we seen so much gold everywhere as we have in Myanmar!

Monks applying gold leaf to the image of Buddha in Mandalay

Monks applying gold leaf to the image of Buddha in Mandalay

The Gold Pounders in action

The Gold Pounders in action

Our second day was spent visiting the various sites around outer Mandalay, including a famous monastery in the Amarapura district. Here the 1000 monks inhabiting the monastery all line up at 11:00 to receive their rice and fruit. The main walkway is chock full of tourists on either side and as the monks silently march in single file down to the dining hall all you can hear is the beeping and clicking of cameras. In fact many tourists were angrily barking at each other and muscling each other to get the best vantage point! While interesting Natalie and I could not help but feel sorry for the monks, it was almost like being in a Buddhist zoo, with the monks being put on show or paraded for the tourists to take their photos. While I enjoyed the experience of seeing the inner workings of a Monastery, next time I think I would avoid it.

We also visited the neighbourhood of Sagaing a lovely green hilly area dotted with numerous golden Stupa and the small ancient village of Inwa. We finished the day off with sunset over the famous U-Bein bridge, the longest teak wood bridge in the world and one of the symbols of Myanmar.

Natalie in the botanical gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin

Natalie in the botanic gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin

To break up our time in Mandalay we also spent a day out in the colonial village of Pyin Oo Lwin. Set up by the British as an escape from Mandalay’s stifling heat, it is now famous for arguably the best manicured botanic gardens in South East Asia. The gardens were beautiful, but the highlights were firstly seeing a huge motorcade of chanting monks and nuns driving down the main street ahead of a truck relocating a huge image of Buddha. People were singing, clapping and waving flags as the image trundled past. Secondly, the journey back to Mandalay was a real highlight. We jumped into a share taxi and headed out to an enormous military base. We drove past barracks and parade grounds, saw soldiers marching and doing martial arts and had a real feeling of should we be here? We arrived out to a small monastery attached to the base where an elderly monk came out and apologised for running late, did we mind waiting for him? Of course not.

After about half an hour he came out with two novice monks, both only about five or six years old. While the senior monk jumped in the front seat the two boys sat in the back with us. They were loads of fun, one we were told was very naughty, but they were as fascinated with us as we with them. This was particularly the case when the cameras came out, taking selfies on the iPhone they loved the fact they could see themselves. At one point as the taxi was flying down the hill the boys were making car noises and Natalie threw in the sound of screeching tyres and brakes and the boys thought this was hilarious.  Arriving back to Mandalay we said goodbye to our new friends and considered ourselves so lucky to have shared the taxi with them. This was a much more real experience than the touristy ‘zoo’ we had experienced the day before, sometimes when you travel you just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Our taxi buddies posing for a selfie

Our taxi buddies posing for a selfie

Our final day in Mandalay was filled with a boat ride to the village of Mingun to see their various pagoda, including the ruins of what would have been the world’s largest pagoda, and a final run around Mandalay to visit a few last sites we wanted to see.

The stunning white pagoda in Mingun

The stunning white pagoda in Mingun

Myanmar is known as the ‘Golden Land’ and it is easy to see why. With stunning gold gilded pagoda dotting the landscape and some of the friendliest people anywhere in the world it truly is a special place and we were so glad we visited now before that mass influx of tourism and tourism money changes the cities but also the people. Our first half of our journey had been incredible and we had a feeling the second half was going to be just as amazing.

– Dean


From Russia With Love

I first came to Russia eleven years ago. Since then I have been lucky enough to return on several occasions with work. When the initial planning of this adventure began the inevitable question and discussion arose between us and several friends who had visited Russia as well. Which city do you prefer, St Petersburg or Moscow?

Since I first visited Russia this had always been a pretty simple question for me, the answer was Moscow, without a shadow of a doubt. However, on this visit, the answer is not so clear cut. A lot of water has passed under the Neva and Volga rivers since I was last here, and a lot has changed.

It would be fair to say that St Petersburg wowed Natalie. The architecture is stunning, from the St Peter and Paul’s Fortress, St Isaacs Cathedral and the Church of Spilt Blood and all culminating at the Palace square with the Winter Palace, it is obvious the city was built with a plan in mind rather than built generation upon generation like so many cities around Europe.

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Every building was once a palace built for another noble family wanting to be as close the Czars as possible. Every street, every corner, there is another amazing building waiting to wow you. There are so many similarities with other Central and Eastern European cities yet also so many differences.

According to the current edition of the Lonely Planet Trans Siberian guide book, the city is looking the best it ever has, and to be honest I have to agree. The first thing I noticed was how clean the city was. You struggled to find even a cigarette butt on the ground which is incredible in itself considering how many people still smoke over here. The metro is spotless so are all the streets, also quite incredible considering the lack of rubbish bins everywhere.

The next thing I noticed that had changed so much was the amount of ‘Latin’ signs everywhere. Cyrillic can be tricky at the best of times, (I clearly remember taking one of my tour groups in completely the opposite direction to the one I wanted to go in on the Moscow Metro one day because I had misread the direction I wanted!), but now the Metro stops are all labelled in Latin, and even some announcements are made in English. The difficulties that once existed for non-Russian speakers seem to have dissolved away, in fact in some sense St Petersburg felt very European.  Perhaps that is why for so many people who visit Russia, St Petersburg is their favourite city.  It is not only beautiful, but it feels familiar and you are no longer too far out of your comfort zone.

Maybe that is why I always preferred Moscow.

Today we caught the fast train or Sapan train from St Petersburg to Moscow, and there were almost more English announcements than Russian, and all the messages on the carriage electronic info boards were in Latin and not Cyrillic, another sign of the times.

Moscow couldn’t be more different than St Petersburg. As the train rolls in you see row after row of former communist apartment blocks, many desperately in need of some love and attention. Arriving into Leningradsky Station those differences become more apparent. That dull grey architecture hits you as you exit from the station, the vibe feels different as well. Moscow definitely has that big city feel and its citizens that big city mentality, but what else would you expect from a city with a population of eleven and a half million?

However, while St Petersburg has all the palaces and the Hermitage (one of the world’s largest museums), Moscow has the Kremlin and Red Square and for me this is why Moscow wins. The Kremlin/Red Square area is quite simply, breathtaking.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

I think my fascination with Red Square comes from growing up in the days when the Cold War was petering out. My main memories and all I ever remembered of Russia, were the military parades on May Day that were beamed on TV all over the world. The troops marching, the tanks, missiles, here was the Soviet Union in all its military glory. All the history in that square – the powerful figures who have graced the steps and are buried in the walls of the Kremlin, not to mention the preserved figure of Lenin (if it’s still really him).

Moscow appeals to the history nerd in me, and as depressing as it looks, I also love the former communist architecture and Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’.

I’m really looking forward to revisiting some of the sights around Moscow over the next few days before we board the Trans-Siberian, and as much as I loved St Petersburg, I think Moscow will always be my favourite, but the gap is getting smaller! This of course will lead to many discussions between the two of us and with our friends on our return, but I guess that’s the beauty of travelling, different things appeal to different people, maybe I’m just a communist at heart…..

Do you prefer one city over the other? If so leave a comment below and let us know your preference.

–          Dean

Best Laid Plans

This was supposed to be the easy part. London to Warsaw, a couple of train changes and a nice easy introduction to training across the world, the perfect introduction to get us back into that travelling mindset.

Well, Day One of our adventure was more a baptism of fire than a nice leisurely break into solo travelling again.

This is how the day was supposed to pan out. After farewell champagnes with Natalie’s parents we caught the Eurostar to Brussels. In Brussels, granted, it was a short turnaround of twenty minutes, but then it was the German ICE train straight to Frankfurt and forty-five minutes to then board our overnight sleeper train to Warsaw.

Everything started well, we said goodbye to Natalie’s folks and passed immigration and security with plenty of time for the Eurostar. We had learnt our lesson from our honeymoon where we cut timings very very fine to make our train. The Eurostar pulled out on time and everything was going great, our adventure had begun, all the planning, the reading and researching was finally a reality.

Then we were thrown one of those travelling curve-balls that everyone experiences at one time or another. All your planning, all your research goes out the window and your travel experience kicks in.

We arrived at Brussels Midi station and had what we thought was an easy two platform changeover to the ICE train. However, when we got there the information boards were flashing red wording in both French and Flemish. While not fluent in either one of these languages, the translation was easy – ‘Leaves From Another Station’.

What?! This can’t be! We managed to track down a local attendant who told us to find the German train information desk. Running through the station, watching the minutes tick down until our departure we finally managed to find the Deutsche Bahn info desk to be told there was a problem with the train and now we had to catch a local train to Liege and hopefully a connection to Frankfurt from there.

We raced to the platform and jumped on the train to Liege (literally) as the doors closed and the train pulled out. The next hour and ten minutes seemed to drag on, we poured over possibilities, would we make Frankfurt in time for the sleeper train, could we meet it somewhere else or worst case scenario what to do if we missed it.

Upon arrival into Liege the conductor informed everyone that the ICE train would be departing from an adjoining platform, and would begin from Liege to Frankfurt. We had made it! Or so we thought.

We boarded what turned out to be our scheduled train, rail problems between Brussels and Liege had caused the rescheduling last minute, but now the train was departing over an hour late, and due to arrive into Frankfurt six minutes after our sleeper train was due to depart. I managed to hunt down the conductor and in my best German explained the situation – we just could not afford to miss that train. ‘Oh you will be fine’, he replied, ‘I think they will wait for you’.

Frantically doing some calculations

Frantically doing some calculations

As we hurtled through the night at over three hundred kilometres an hour watching the minutes tick by we became more and more nervous we would miss the train. Another visit to the conductor and this time less reassurance than my previous visit did nothing to calm our nerves.
As we pulled into Frankfurt station the conductors voice blared out over the speaker system, ‘Those passengers going to Warsaw your train departs from Platform 1 and is waiting for you, please hurry’.

Now this is where there is a little blurring between fact and fiction. I like to imagine that mad dash for the train to be like a scene from an action movie. The doors popped open and Natalie and I bolted out the carriage, down the stairs and through the tunnel accessing the platforms. 15, 14,…..4,3,2 and finally Platform 1. In front us now looked like what was the world’s largest stair case.

We scampered up as quick as we could to see the train slowly beginning to move, a conductor leaning out our carriage entrance calling for us to run. As we came up alongside the open carriage door, the train picking up pace, we threw first our day packs and then our rucksacks to the conductor. First Natalie, then I were dragged onto the train. Lying there exhausted, panting and out of breath, we looked up to the smiling conductor who slapped us on the back and thrust a bottle of vodka into our hands.

Sadly however that’s not exactly what happened. We ran down the access platform the stairs and finally made it to our carriage, literally we jumped on, the doors closed and we were met with the disdainful look of the female conductor, who muttering something in Russian under her breath, showed us to our sleeper cabin. We collapsed in a heap onto the bottom bunk and just looked at each other, we couldn’t believe we had somehow made that train. Surely the entire four months were not going to be like this.

A stressful Day One to our adventure, but a timely reminder that it doesn’t matter how well prepared you are, how much research you have done, things change at a moment’s notice, and it is these experiences we will never forget and can laugh about later on.

Exhausted, but happy to be on the train

Exhausted, but happy to be on the train

However, I really do hope we don’t have to run for any more trains!


‘See You later’ Oasis Overland!

Its all becoming really real!  I remember talking to my boss months and months ago, about taking a sabbatical, and it felt like forever away!

Well as tends to happen, my last day of work at Oasis Overland came round really quickly.  I went down to my desk and the ladies in the office had done a great job of decorating it all including ‘Happy Travels’ bunting and various different posters.


Happy Travels!

We particularly liked the advice from Ceris, “Remember, Vodka Keeps you Warm”….. It did have an asterisk with an advisory warning… so we will try and remember to take the advice in moderation!!  At some point we are hoping to have a tipple with a random Russian in our train compartment.  Neither of us are that fond of Vodka, but we will have to learn!


Top Tip from Oasis!

The last day was really good fun, with morning brownie and afternoon choccies!  Thank you very much to everyone for giving me a good send off and even bigger thanks to my boss Chris for allowing me to take five months off!

The trip is all becoming very real… now I must go and pack otherwise I will have nothing to wear!

– Natalie

The Rehabilitation of a Four-Letter Word

Over the last 14 months there has been one dirty four-letter word that has been used more than most in our home. It has caused stress, distress, the occasional heated discussion, (not an argument), late night emergency phone calls, and two last minute mad dashes to Australia. Love it or hate it, every international relationship and adventurous traveller will have to utter it sooner rather than later.

That word is… VISA!

The word ‘Visa’ can elicit many different responses, and over the last year we have experienced them all.  This post is in no way meant to be a rant, but trust me, if David Cameron was reading this blog the tone would be totally different.

‘Visa’ became a regular part of our vocabulary after we got engaged in November 2011. We knew that to get married in England I would have to obtain my settlement visas.  Not one, but two visas, laying our relationship wide open for someone to go over with a fine toothcomb. The bonus of applying for my first visa was it gave us an opportunity to return to Australia to visit family and friends.

But then we submitted the application, and the waiting began. Waiting is the worst part of the whole visa process, particularly for one as important as a settlement visa. The longer you wait, the more self doubt and negative thoughts start to creep into your mind. It was close to two months before the UK Fiancé Visa was granted, and not before Natalie had booked last minute flights to return to Australia over Christmas, (Little did we know the visa was approved the same day we booked her flights out).

However this was only half of the process.  As soon as we were married we had to apply for the next visa. If you think planning a wedding is stressful try doing it when also trying to gather everything required for your visa application. In fact I was printing my application at 7am the morning of the wedding!! The Monday after the wedding we spent at the Home Office applying for and being granted my right to remain. So it was off on honeymoon we went safe in the knowledge that we wouldn’t have to think about that dirty little four-letter word for the next two and a half years, or so we thought.

Our Passports

Then planning for the big trip began, and that word resurfaced again. Since the wedding it was almost uttered with distaste and hatred every time we mentioned it

This time things were different, this time the mere mention of the word elicited a totally different response. Visas were talked about with almost a reverence, an excitement that once again our passports would look cool.  Russia, Mongolia, China, and India all requiring visas, however it was something to look forward too. Every time we received an email confirming that our passports were ready for collection, there were hugs and high fives, another one ticked off the list, travel plans finally confirmed, and excitement levels continued to build, the rehabilitation had begun.

There is something incredibly gratifying about receiving your passport back from an embassy with a new visa in it. It does not matter whether it is your settlement visa or a tourist visa you still get quite tingly when you open up to that page and see it there, shiny and new.

That is because the visa is like a promise.

A visa promises new experiences, new cultures, new adventures, and new beginnings. Many travellers are put off visiting a destination because of the need to obtain a visa. It is easy to be disheartened by the amount of paperwork, supporting documentation and standing in queues. Many people question is it all worth it, or perhaps file it under the too hard basket. To be honest this had probably happened to us over the last twelve months. To put it simply we had just forgotten the promise.

Every visa we have obtained in the last few weeks has made our big trip feel more real, that air of expectation ever increasing. The word visa no longer has the negative connotations of the previous year and the mention of the word certainly doesn’t create the sense of dread we had experienced.

When we cross over the border into Russia in two weeks time we will proudly hand over our passports, in two weeks time the promise of the visa will turn into the reality of the adventures that lay ahead. In two weeks time the rehabilitation of that four-letter word will be complete.