Why Nepal will need the travel community

It is with heavy hearts and great sadness we have watched the tragedy of the Nepal earthquake unfold. All too often natural disasters strike countries that lack the infrastructure, equipment and resources to deal with them.

The earthquake has killed thousands and destroyed the majority of historic UNESCO listed buildings not to mention the numerous people unaccounted for at the foot of Everest. Over the next few weeks news crews from around the world will be flying into Nepal, there will be blanket news coverage, but then what? All too quickly the world will forget about Nepal as the next disaster strikes, or the latest cash crisis hits the EU.

Much of Patan Durbar Square now lays in ruins...

Much of Patan Durbar Square now lays in ruins…

Over the years Natalie and I have witnessed first hand the devastating flow on effect these disaster can have on local communities. I had been in Bali six weeks before the bombings in 2002 and when I returned two years later I found the streets deserted, people who had so heavily relied upon tourism struggling to make ends meet. Natalie was in Koh Pi Pi shortly after the tsunami of 2005, and last year we spent time on the Filipino Island of Malapascua only months after Typhoon Haiyan had ripped through the community (in fact our dive centre had only regained electricity the week before we arrived). For those who follow our blog you will also be aware of our push for people to return to Egypt now the country has settled down.

Ask anyone who has visited Nepal and they will tell you what an amazing place it is. The stunning Himalayan Mountain range towering over the bustling and vibrant Kathmandu Valley. Filled with amazing architecture and incredibly friendly and fascinating people. So what, as the travel community, can we do?

Happier times, Natalie and one of the locals in Bhaktapur

Happier times, Natalie and one of the locals in Bhaktapur

Already there have been some amazing initiatives. Intrepid Travel have set up a Nepal Earthquake Appeal through their Intrepid Foundation as have a number of tour operators who specialise in the area. Most importantly, the travel community cannot forget about Nepal. In the months and years to follow, the country and the people will need us more than ever. The country relies heavily upon tourism, and more than any tin rattle, or petition signing, by encouraging visitors to continue to visit is one of the best ways to help Nepal overcome this tragedy. The country will need tourists more than ever and by not cancelling your travel plans or for those of us who have visited, continuing to promote Nepal to our friends, the travel community can have a positive impact in rebuilding Nepal.

Sadly however, in the meantime we can only hope and pray for the families of the missing and the lost…

– Dean

Click here to see the comparison of just how much of Nepal’s historic buildings have been destroyed.


Flying long-haul? What do we take with us to pass the time?

We’ve all been there.  You check-in at the airport and you are staring a 16-hour day time flight right between the eyes.  Ok so this is probably our longest day-time stint (on the way back from the Philippines) but even 12 hours during the day can feel like a long time.  This was the situation we were in when we flew to Cuba.  We had chosen to fly with a budget airline – more down to flight times rather than budget – and as soon as I sat down on the plane and they didn’t have personal screens in the seats, I was grateful for the bag of goodies I had brought with me to keep us entertained.  So what’s on our long haul must pack list?

1. Decent headphones!  With or without screens in the back of your seat these are a must.  Some airlines provide pretty average headphones while some budget airlines will sell you a pair, but when you are seated near two screaming 18 month old twins for 12 hours (yes this happened) you will be grateful for them.  Film or no film – they are a necessity!  I inherited a pair of noise cancelling earphones from Dean and they are now the perfect flying accessory.

2. iPod / iPhone / iPad or critically, music!  If the film selection fails you or you just want to switch off, this is your best bet. Pre make a chill out playlist, or perhaps get into the mood of your final destination with a location specific playlist. If music is not your thing, you can always download four seasons of Game of Thrones!

3. A good book / Kindle – this is always on my packing list, but to be honest the flying conditions have to be perfect for me to read.  The slightest bump and it goes back in my bag!  A good backup though for when you get tired of your music selection.

4. A set of travel Connect Four or Uno cards.  Whenever Dean and I travel (not just fly) we have these in our bags and the dual continues!  Normally one of us gets on a winning streak – annoying the other. (Currently it is me!)

A fun and competitive way to pass the time


5. Water.  I usually take an empty bottle through security with me.  The best airports tend to have water fountains for you to top up your bottle.  Some airlines such as Korean Air give you a bottle as you board – a great piece of service.  At any rate, having a bottle in the back of the seat keeps you hydrated (and makes you go to the loo so is a good chance to walk around!)

6. Head ache tablets – I’m not sure if it’s the stress of flying (yes for all my air miles I’m not the greatest fan), dehydration or flight conditions, but I often end up with a headache.  Some easily accessible tablets are a must for me.

7. Snacks!  For our recent Cuba flight I had everything from cereal bars to boiled sweets.  Everything in moderation, but they pass the time during the hours that drag.

8. A light fleece to wear backwards if the air con is set to sub freezing temperatures.

9. A Buff or Head Scarf. Great to block out unwanted light from the Cabin if you are trying to catch up on sleep. They can wrap around your head in different ways and a scarf can act like an extra pillow.

Buffs are extremely versatile and handy for blocking out cabin light

Buffs are extremely versatile and handy for blocking out cabin light

If, like me, you are blessed (ha ha) with a husband who sleeps on flights, then you might find you don’t get round to using some of these.  However they are all things that will come in handy at some point during your holiday.

Above all I like to sit by the aisle then I can walk-around and stretch my legs.  Flying really does feel more like a marathon than a sprint sometimes.  As we all know it’s a means to an end and one that is worth every piece of the boredom along the way.

–  Natalie

Cuba’s heart beats to the rhythm of Salsa

Cuba and music.  The two go together like rum and coke.  We knew we would love the music and dancing vibe… but we didn’t realise quite how much.

I have danced for about 15 years, never specifically salsa, but thanks to my last dance partner Rob I can get by with a good lead.  Dean had decided that if ever there was a time to learn, then Cuba would be it.  So off we went with great expectations and sometimes these can be a bad thing.  However in Cuba you can expect the world with the dancing and music scene, and you most certainly will not be disappointed.

The local professionals in Santa Clara. Oh and check out the dude in red!

The local professionals in Santa Clara. Oh and check out the dude in red!

Our first introduction came during a late afternoon stroll around Santa Clara . We stumbled across a band playing in the main plaza.  The word stumble is probably a bit inaccurate really…… the band were creating quite a spectacle, which the salsa loving locals fully embraced and the square broke out into dance (Imagine a Cuban flash mob).  Later that night the party shifted to the bandstand where a huge ensemble provided the entertainment. I spent all evening watching feet, working out how to make my steps look as good as those of the locals’.

We quickly learned this was just the beginning. Every city had its focal points, but sometimes the better music was just the impromptu affairs. In Trinidad there was a lovely little square where four men sat playing with a guitar, a set of drums and random other percussion. In Holguin the weekly Saturday street party literally got us dancing in the streets.

The beautiful musical city of Trinidad

The beautiful musical city of Trinidad

For me, the real musical highlight was Trinidad – a city that prides itself on the music scene.  On a very hot and humid day we turned a corner to hear graceful tunes playing from Casa De Trova – a famed music hall.  We looked at each other, and didn’t even have to say, ‘shall we go in’ – the decision was made.  We spent a couple of mornings just listening to the band, and I even made friends with the band front man.  Twice my age, he had more than twice as many salsa steps as me and I took great pleasure in following him around the stage.  I think we got almost more claps than the professional teachers who were there…. Although I’m sure the claps were aimed in a, ‘oh she’s having a go’ way.

Arguably my favourite night in Cuba came when we went to the Casa Musica in Trinidad – if you only do one thing in Trinidad, then this should be it.  At the top of a staired-terrace, the setting was perfect.  Bands play day and night, and we set up camp on the front row.  There were some simply AMAZING dancers there.  During the evening we were joined by a Swiss lady who was learning to Salsa in town.  She was very good by all accounts, and urged me to approach someone for a dance.  I picked my song (and my strapping 6 foot Cuban) and not-so-confidently walked up and asked him to dance.  In the ballroom world it is not the done thing.  In the Cuban world anything goes!  A couple of dances later and I felt proud of myself!  Dancing under the moonlight at the Casa Muscia in Trinidad was something I will never forget.

In Baracoa we were treated to the dancing front man.  With what looked like a tight-permed mullet, this all singing, all dancing Casanova could certainly move!  He asked me for a Bachata, and made a beeline for me every time we were there.  They played in a couple of different bars, each of them just as good.  I’ve never danced at the same time as someone singing before, but I recommend it!

Not to be outdone Dean decided this was his chance to shine too, and shine he did.  In Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba we took some salsa lessons.  123, 567 – he mastered it!  Our challenge now is to keep it up.  When no one was looking we would have a twirl, or when walking past a bar we would pick out the beat.

Plenty of places to learn a few new moves

Plenty of places to learn a few new moves

Our biggest bit of advice for Cuba is to keep your ears open and go with the music flow.  More or less every lunch or drink stop was guided by where the music was playing.  We might only have caught the end of a set but in some cases it was so good we had to have a second Pina Colada to wait for them to start again!  Generally speaking after a session the basket came round, and if you wanted you could buy CDs.  We bought a couple from our favourite bands, however everywhere else we put a few coins in the pot.  I saw some people refuse, but for us it was a very small price to pay for the incredible entertainment and enjoyment it provided.

As for keeping up with the Cubans, I don’t think I ever looked quite as good, but I certainly gave it a good shot!  No one will ever judge you or stop from trying in Cuba – so even if you only know some wedding dancing moves, get up there, have a go and join the fiesta!

– Natalie

Going Our Separate Ways

Wow what an amazing year we have had! It feels like only yesterday we arrived back home after our pic overland adventure from London to Melbourne. So in honour of being backa year we have reposted our blog from our arrival back into London in 2014!


What an amazing journey the last five months have been. From London to Beijing then back to Delhi all overland by train, then some incredible memories through Myanmar, Australia and the Philippines. Sadly however all good things must come to an end.

For ‘The Smart Way Round’ that means it is now time for Natalie and I to go our separate ways.

Wait a minute, didn’t we just celebrate our first wedding anniversary living it large around London? We certainly did, going our separate ways simply refers to heading back to work. For Natalie that means back down to Somerset to start work again in the office for Oasis Overland, while for me, I fly out to Munich to take my first group of Guests around Central Europe for Trafalgar Travel.

Now I know what you are thinking, both working for travel companies and Dean running around Europe having an awesome time, that doesn’t really sound like work does it?! After five months together 24/7 it will certainly not be easy and getting back into a structured routine will take some time.

With us back in Europe The Smart Way Round is also going to change a little. We will be dropping back to one blog a week now, we still have some great stories to share about the London to Melbourne adventure, and Natalie will be posting a summary of all the statistics relating to our journey, but work kind of gets in the way right? We will also be sharing stories from Europe and introducing a new category of our blog called ‘Hometown Tourist’ sniffing out all the cool, quirky and different things to do around London. So really this is not the end of The Smart Way Round but only the beginning!

Exploring new places in London

Exploring new places in London

Thanks again for everyone’s support, comments and love over the last five months, because of you The Smart Way Round has grown bigger than we could have possibly imagined.

– Dean

Would you like ham with your cheese sandwich?

When you think of Cuba you think of old cars, cigars, beaches, rum…. I could go on.  The one thing it isn’t famous for is its culinary experiences.  Since 1962 Cubans have been entitled to a Libreta de Abastecimiento (“Supplies booklet”).  This acts as a modern day ration book and the Government sets out what people pay for produce and how much they are allowed.  Prior to 1991, even children’s toys were rationed in this way.  Thankfully for the children of Cuba this is no longer the case.

As a traveller in Cuba, you don’t have to stick to such allocations; however those looking for a McDonald’s destination should go elsewhere. As much as I love McDonalds (everyone has a guilty secret) I would be dead against them setting up in Cuba.  The only amendment to that is there is one branch (just one) in Cuba.  It is situated within the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay and serves as an outlet for the US forces based there.  For those not in the military, the whole area is firmly out of bounds – more about that another time.

Fresh fruit, yum!

Fresh fruit, yum!

So food.  What can you expect?  Breakfast tends to include the mandatory bread (white fluffy only) and eggs.  Sometimes juice is available and if you are really lucky, fruit.  Pineapple, guava or papaya were the fruits of the day whilst we were there, but on rare occasions we also found banana and pineapple.  Lunches, its fair to say, are a simple affair.  One day you can have ham and cheese sandwiches, maybe the next just cheese sandwiches.  If you are lucky you might find some espagetti napolitana (spaghetti in tomato sauce) or even a ham and cheese pizza.  Then you go back to ham and cheese sandwiches.  Quite often a restaurant may have a large menu but in reality all they really have are these four combinations. Get the picture?  You have to hope you like ham, or cheese or both!

Banana chips, a staple of most meals

Banana chips, a staple of most meals

In the evening one of the best places to eat is at your Casa Particular – home stays.  They are easy to arrange and the casa ladies are only too happy to cook you a home cooked meal (in exchange for about US$7).  Normally you will be treated to a feast of soup, fried plantain (my personal favourite) bean rice, and then a wide array of fish, or some basic grilled (often a little tough) meat.  If you were really lucky you could be offered ‘flan’ (a kind of crème caramel) for pudding.  Restaurants often offered a good choice of fish and shell fish.  If it swims (or crawls) in the sea then as a diver I’m on my soapbox and not an eater, but Dean, by all accounts, had some lovely lobster along the way.  Food doesn’t vary that much across the country, although in Baracoa (one of the eastern most cities) things are mixed up a bit and you get a wonderful coconut sauce with meat and fish.

The meals in the home stays are normally very tasty and huge

The meals in the home stays are normally very tasty and huge

On one of our favourite evenings Dean and I wondered out and ate al fresco with the locals.  It was a Saturday night in Holguin and the street fiesta was in full swing (a weekly affair).  There were more pigs on spit roasts than I could count on my hands and feet together, and everyone was in a joyous mood.  We queued up, picked out fancy-laced restaurant and set about ordering.  Pig, chicken, banana chips and bean rice – all with change from a couple of dollars.  Granted the chicken looked a little (there was blood!) undercooked for me, so I dutifully donated it to my husband who is (thankfully) still alive to tell the tale!  The meal was beautiful though and a wonderful experience.

Street food pop up restaurants Cuban style

Street food pop up restaurants Cuban style

Above all eating in Cuba is never going to make you fat!  The food is wholesome, healthy and fills a gap.  You will struggle to find the array of snacks we are used to in the western world (remember we are not talking about in the resorts here – I don’t know what they have but I suspect it’s an artificial home away from home) but there is something really lovely about that.  Who needs Walkers crisps or branded Coca Cola?  When in Rome do as the Romans.  Choices are limited, but embrace them and remember not to overdose on the ham and cheese sarnies…

– Natalie

5 Things You Need To Know Before Visiting Cuba

Cuba is a dream destination for many people. Stuck in a strange mix of the 1950’s and 2000’s the country is sure to enthral you. However being isolated from the rest of the world for so long has presented the country with many challenges and a better understanding of what to expect with help you fully appreciate how unique Cuba is.

1. Currency

Cuba has two currencies, one for the locals and one for the tourists. However it is not as simple as that. For certain commodities locals have to use the tourist currency and depending on how local you go tourists may need the local currency. The local money is called the ‘Moneda Nacional’ or abbreviated as the MN. The tourist currency is called the ‘Cuban Convertible Peso’ generally referred to as the CUC (pronounced say-oo-say). Generally speaking the exchange rate is 25 MN to one CUC. It is only when you start comparing between the two do you realise that there is no real conformity when it comes to price comparisons. There is talk that as Cuba opens up more and closer ties with the west are established one currency is likely to disappear and the locals fear it will be the MN.

Posters in the windows of banks help you to get the right currency

Posters in the windows of banks help you to get the right currency

2. Accommodation

Hotel accommodation is government controlled in most instances, expensive for the services provided and overall pretty basic. A far better option is to stay in a ‘Casa Particular’ or private homestay. Rooms are normally very clean if a bit small, far cheaper than the hotels (at around 35 CUC plus or minus) and for a few pesos extra will provide a decent breakfast or a huge home cooked three course dinner. We know where we would rather see the money going.

Relaxing in our Casa

3. Food

Cuba has had to learn to be relatively self sufficient which means outside of Havana choice can be quite limited. Breakfast is normally eggs a mixture of fruits (normally a combination of pineapple, papaya and guava) juice and coffee. Lunch across the entire country consists of ham and cheese sandwiches or pasta with Tomato sauce. Even when a menu looks like it has a wide variety expect the waiter to cringe and sadly inform you they only have the above lunch options! Dinner is normally pork or chicken and occasionally beef served with beans and rice. If you are a fish lover rejoice! The biggest choice you have is with fish. Shell fish is also incredibly cheap with a whole lobster costing only around $10-12 USD!

When it comes to drinking bottled water can be expensive and in some towns scarce (such as Baracoa), but beer is cheap and rum is almost cheaper than water. They make their own soft drinks in Cuba so your Cuba Libre, or rum and Coke, will be rum and the local cola. Fresh juices can also be quite hard to stumble across, quite surprising considering the tropical location. But if everyone is Downing a Havana Club there is no need for much else.

4. Transportation

Transportation across Cuba can be tricky. While the distances are not great road conditions can be pretty poor, even some of the new roads. Car hire is expensive and parking in larger towns can be problematic and intercity buses run on a very limited timetable, often once daily or once every two days. Train travel is even less reliable, in fact the only train we saw in two weeks was stationary in Santiago and didn’t look like it was going anywhere in a hurry. In many instances if there is enough of you hiring a taxi to drive you from one city to another may actually work out to be the most time and cost effective option.

5. The People

The people are the highlight of Cuba and their heart beats to the rhythm of Salsa! They are super friendly and incredibly giving, something that people around the world who have very little always seem to be. We never felt threatened, bothered or harassed during our time there and people generally just wanted to know where you were from and what you were doing in Cuba. You can almost guarantee a great evening out in a local music hall, a friendly chat in a city park or square, even the souvenir hawkers and taxi drivers will normally only ask onece and when given a friendly refusal will smile and wish you a pleasant day! Where else but in Cuba!

Armed with this little bit of knowledge and some pre trip preparation Cuba will dazzle you. It is hard not to get caught up in its unique blend of Spanish, Caribbean and Africa culture. Over the next few weeks we will be expanding on these topics, but in the meant time, ‘ Viva Cuba Libre!’

–  Dean

Cuba: The Land the Internet Forgot

The one thing everyone who travels to Cuba mentions is that it feels like stepping back in time. While that is certainly the case with the old cars and the colonial style architecture, the biggest difference to modern life is the lack of Internet and wifi.And that is not a bad thing.

The world has become so connected that you can tour almost anywhere without even leaving the comfort of your own home. Google, Facebook and travel blogs have made the world and information regarding it, so much more accessible. Museums have virtual online tours and the first thing many travellers now ask their accommodation for is the wifi password.

Travelling through Cuba is like a collision between the 1950's and the 2000's

Travelling through Cuba is like a collision between the 1950’s and the 2000’s

While Cuba has Internet, to get online generally requires lining up in front of the government  run telecommunications company (which can take hours) to use their terminals or slow dial up in some of the hotels.  The expensive Spanish hotel chains normally have wifi (if a little slow) and the town of Baracoa actually has wifi is some public spaces (but it is hard to access, you need an access card and we are told it is incredibly slow). However overall access is very limited, government controlled and not cheap at around six US dollars an hour. Instead of wasting time and frustrating ourselves we embarked on a two week Internet blackout and have to say we quite enjoyed it.

The various forms of social media are one of the lifebloods of any travel blog and going ‘cold turkey’ took a day or two to adjust. However once we broke free of the shackles of constantly needing to be online, travelling around Cuba reminded us of what travel once was in the rest of the world. Hotel receptions, restaurants and bars were filled with something quite often missing in modern times… Conversation.

Locals and tourists lining up to get online

Locals and tourists lining up to get online

Travellers swapping stories about what they had achieved or engaged in conversation with locals about where they were from. A totally different experience to entering a hotel and seeing zombie like travellers illuminated in a ghostly light emanating from their phone or tablet. Couples (including ourselves) sat in restaurants discussing the day’s events or tomorrows plans rather than staring blankly at their phones.

Hotel / hostel bars and common areas used to be a great place to meet other travellers, swap hints, tips and travel war stories but travel has changed significantly over the past decade and we seem to have lost a little of that. This is not us standing on our soap box, we are just as guilty as anyone else (Dean more so than Natalie). It also meant people spent more time exploring or engaging with the locals rather than trying to connect or skyping loved ones back home.

Travelling without Internet access was a liberating experience, especially for bloggers! There was no rush to write or post anything and no deadlines to meet, something we found quite stressful at times last year. Instead we wandered, explored, sat in parks and watched the world go by. There was no pressure to post our favourite photos or share our latest insight into the country. It is as if Cuba still offers an age of innocence to travellers, an age when travel was about travel and not how many likes you could get on Facebook.

If you have never done so, try it next time you go away.  Disconnect, forget (if you can) that Facebook, Twitter, email and the internet exist and you quickly realise just how much we rely on being accessible. Cuba is going to change a great deal over the next few years as America looks to forge closer ties and without doubt one of the biggest and most rapid changes will be internet access. While that is a fantastic thing for the people of Cuba, for travellers we believe it will be a sad day. It will be just one of the quirky and charming differences of Cuba destined to be resigned to the pages of history…

– N&D

The Legend of Lalo Bravo

One of the great things about travelling is some of the characters you meet along the way. People from your adventures linger in your mind long after you return home, and a rare select few may even pass into travel folk law or legend status.

Such is the legend that is Lalo Bravo.

However before we meet the lead character we must Quentin Tarantino our story back to the day before…

It was our final day in Santiago de Chile. The last rays of afternoon sun were falling across our picturesque square as my friend Todd aka Pocket and I were enjoying a few glasses of red. Tonight we would  board an overnight local bus down to the mountain resort of Pucón.

Ahhh Chilean Red!

Ahhh Chilean Red!

Before we knew it we were engaged in conversation (in Spanish) with an elderly gentleman who proceeded to tell us how he was a former soldier in Pinochet’s dictatorship and all the nationalities he had killed during his years of service. When we told him we were Australian he looked off into nowhere, his eyes glazed over and me muttered almost remorsefully ‘I never did kill an Australian’.

Wow look at the time! We paid the bill, respectfully bade our farewells, scampered back to the hostel and headed off to catch our overnight bus. If this chance meeting was anything to go by Chile was going to be interesting. Pucón here we come!

You never know who you will meet in the leafy squares of Santiago

You never know who you will meet in the leafy squares of Santiago

For those of you who have never caught a bus around South America believe me they are an experience. In fact they could be subject of a blog all by themselves! One thing was quite common though, most would play incredibly loud Hollywood action movies. You could almost guarantee it would be Sly Stallone, Steven Seagal or perhaps Wesley Snipes serenading you to sleep each night.

So after a fitful semi-nights sleep we pulled into Pucón just as the sun started to break over the mountains. There waiting for his unsuspecting victims was Lalo Bravo.

Lalo was about five foot six, relatively skinny, short black hair with a pencil thin moustache and spoke in a shrill excited high pitched voice. He was a gittery character and not to sound stereotyped he kind of reminded us of the cartoon character Speedy Gonzales.

Dazed and confused after dreams punctuated by gunfire and bad Wesley Snipes one liners he convinced us his hostel was just around the corner and it had the best rates in town. What did we have to lose? We followed Lalo as he talked a million miles an hour about all the things one could do in Pucón. As we approached his hostel he informed us the hostel was actually full but there were a couple of rooms available in his house.

As we entered his home we were greeted by a bright blue lounge covered in old vinyl records, “I have my own music tv show and sketch comedy show” he said. We later found out the majority of the show was filled with racist and derogatory sketches about the local Peruvian community! We were shown the room which was clean and reasonably large, the price was also good, a special deal because we were not in the hostel proper. If anything bunking in with Lalo was going to be an experience so we happily agreed to stay.

The lounge / broadcasting studio

The lounge / broadcasting studio

There was an Australian couple in the next room who were apparently really nice he told us, but you don’t see them very often. He was right. During our stay we only saw them once, one morning where neither of them spoke to us or each other, however we heard them every night arguing, screaming and throwing things at each other. Apparently their dream South American adventure was not working out as they had hoped!

After settling in and Lalo returned with breakfast things started to get interesting. It turned out he was also the local journalist and proceeded to show us his impressive website (the sun bursts and a solar flare circling the world until it reached Pucón was a little much we thought) and informed us there had been a spate of arson attacks in town. Now most of the historic buildings were made of wood but the fire department were pretty useless, in fact over the past several weeks he had arrived at the scene of each fire about 10-15 minutes before the fire crews had arrived!

The wooden village and the volcano that towers over the town

The wooden village and the volcano that towers that dwarves it

We patiently sat through every fire video he had “reported” on before attempting to make our escape. Tomorrow we wanted to climb the snow covered volcano of  Villarrica that towers over the town. Lalo told us to source out one company in particular, they were the best, had the highest quality equipment and he knew the guys who ran it.

“Mention my name and you will get the respect” Lalo told us. “What’s my name?” he asked, “Lalo” we replied, “No, no, no Lalo Bravo, remember my name you get the respect, now what’s my name?”, “Lalo Bravo!” we (fake) excitedly proclaimed, “That’s right! Remember my name you get the respect!”. This went on repeatedly for several minutes (yes the same sentences over and over) and reminded me of some sales team self help class where we all stood around pumping each other up and slapping each other on the back.

Convinced the mere mention of the legendary Lalo Bravo’s name throughout the town would see locals bow down in front of us, slash their prices and generally throw rose petals reverently at our feet we strolled into the town centre heads held high, first stop, the climbing company.

We discussed the plan, agreed to ascend Villarrica the following day and then we were asked where we were staying.

Chests pumped out we proudly announced, “We are staying with Lalo Bravo”.

Insert silence here and crickets being heard in the background.

“With who?”

“With, ah, umm, Lalo err Bravo?”, we were losing our nerve.


After a rather uneasy few seconds and eye contact shifting from one person to another like a western showdown the atmosphere was broken with…. laughter! What could we do? So we laughed. Ah yes local ‘celebrity’ Lalo Bravo, no discounts, no respect just the look of pity from the guys at the climbing shop. We paid up (full price) and continued to explore town safe in the knowledge we would not be dropping Lalo’s name again.

We returned back to the house and excitedly Lalo asked what we were planning to do. When we told him we were climbing the mountain, and confirmed we went to the company he recommended we were then asked did they give us a good deal. Well, kind of, we paid the advertised price. “What?! Did you mention my name?”, we informed him we had, “What name did you give him?” he asked incredulously. “Lalo Bravo”, “That’s right and you get the respect!”, he was outraged, so much so he stormed out of the house. He later told us there had been a ‘breaking story’ regarding the local mayor and an affair.

The following morning (after again not getting much sleep due to the fighting couple next door) we were picked up at the crack of dawn with the climbing team chuckling all the way to the mountain about the fact we were staying with Lalo. By now we saw the funny side and joined in, the laughs at his expense lasted all day.

A difficult climb to the top of the volcano

Upon our return we happened to walk in on the ‘filming’ of his television show, it would appear that you can broadcast anything in Chile!

After several days in Lalo’s company it was time to move on. However Lalo and that journey from Santiago was already taking on mythical status. In fact even today some seven years on anytime South America and Chile come up in conversation Pocket and I almost instinctively fall into Lalo mode. Imitating his voice, the phrase “Mention my name, you get the respect” has become the stuff of legend. Sure Machu Picchu was incredible, Foz do Iguaçu is something we will never forget, and the opportunity to visit Antarctica is a one in a lifetime chance, but South America will always be remembered for one man, the over the top, self grandizing and possible arsonist that is Lalo Bravo!

– Dean

ps Sadly we don’t have a photo of Lalo, such is the mystery surrounding him. Lalo is still going strong (and apparently never been found guilty of arson) and Hostal Bravo is now quite highly rated, who would have thought!

What’s better than the Friday feeling….

…the going on holiday feeling!

I don’t know about you, but no matter how much you love your job you always smile a smile of relief on Friday afternoons. No alarm clocks, no telephone calls and no difficult questions.

Ive always worked hard, but with that comes a real appreciation of ‘my time’ and going home at the end of the day and relaxing. I admit I’m sometimes pretty bad at it, always with one half of my mind thinking about what tomorrow may bring, but I try.

For me ‘that Friday feeling’ is magnified by an immeasurable amount before you leave to go on your next adventure. It could be you are leaving for a long weekend, perhaps two weeks or even six months. I’m all for as long a trip as possible, but for now I have to settle for the two week option and even leaving for that amount of time gives me that warm fuzzy feeling.

Research and travel inspiration go hand in hand in the weeks leading up to your holiday

Research and travel inspiration go hand in hand leading up to your holiday (photo from previous trip)

For the weeks leading up to it you may have been reading the trusty Lonely Planet or watching any documentary going that remotely relates to you trip. The odd Google search helps with preparation not to mention the last minute panic over bug spray and sun cream (which incidentally I often forget to put on, much to Dean’s annoyance…)

Last minute packing of sunscreen and bug spray, not that I remember to use it, sorry Dean!

Last minute packing of sunscreen and bug spray, not that I remember to use it, sorry Dean!

All of a sudden your trip creeps up on you. One week of work left and panic sets in. Will you finish everything on time, will that last piece of work be done? Of course it will as you go in
early, you leave late and like every good employee, you pull out all the stops to deliver what is needed.

Now I don’t know about you but I’m partial to a bit of paper around my desk. I try to be green. I often fail. Part of the holiday preparation is to take the furniture polish in and I go on a tidying and cleaning frenzy at the end of my last day. OCD kicks in and even though I remind myself ‘I’m only going for two weeks’ I find the need to clean all those crevices that probably contain inherited dirt. This frenzy also translates to home too – our house is at its cleanest just before we go away!

Anyway with the last swipe of the duster I move the empty coffee cup in its resting position, move it again and line it up a third time (everything must be straight you know!). With that it’s time to take one last look around the office and with a sigh say to myself, ‘next time I see you it will all be over!’

Clean and clear, it is holiday time!

Clean and clear, it is holiday time!

Without looking back I pickup my things, bid my farewells (let’s be fair, most people have already gone as I have spent so long cleaning) and head for the door. The feeling of relaxation washes over me (a feeling only bettered by walking into the airport). The freedom of travel awaits. News sights, sounds and smells ahead. New friends to make. This is why we work, to experience the highs of our time off. As I walk through the door I will the holiday to last forever…..

– Natalie

All we have to do now is grab our bags and go

All we have to do now is grab our bags and go

10 Tips for the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian Railway

The Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian railways are considered to be two of the world’s longest train journeys. An epic adventure taking a minimum of one week (without getting off the train), either one is a travel experience high on many people’s bucket list. The Trans Mongolian was also the integral part of our 20,000 km overland adventure from London to Beijing and back into India last year. Since we returned home many friends and followers on social media channels have asked us for  hints we could recommend for the journey. So in no particualr order we have some inside tips on life aboard the trains.

1. Carry a Multi Functional Plastic Cup

These plastic cups saved the day on more than one occasion

These plastic cups saved the day on more than one occasion

These were without a doubt the single greatest purchases of our entire pre trip planning. Slightly bigger than a coffee mug they could be used for just about anything. From Cups of tea to boiling pot noodles or turning into a makeshift tumbler for your vodka we would have been in serious trouble without them. The secure snap on lids ensured you didn’t spill your hot snack or most importantly your vodka on the walk from the carriage urn to your cabin.  They are also light weight which is essential on any long distance backpacking adventure.  We vowed to throw them away when we’d finished with them, but we got so attached they came all the way home and Natalie now uses them for soup at work!

2. Book a Four Berth Second Class Ticket

Plenty of room in our second class cabin

Plenty of room in our second class cabin

We found the second class cabins really were the best option. You had the best of both worlds. There was a little more security for your belongings than the third class ‘dorm style’ carriages, and you also had plenty of room to yourself. Most importantly we had the chance to interact with a wide variety of different characters throughout the journey. Our cabin was like a revolving door and with each stop we eagerly awaited to see who we would meet next. We shared tea and chocolate, an even watched a slide show presentation about one man’s home village on Lake Baikal (all in Russian of course). We met a few travellers who had booked their own private cabin but felt they really missed out on what the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian is all about. Our tip, if there is two of you try and book and top and bottom bed, it just meant we had a bit more space to spread out, and you didn’t get in the way of those sharing your cabin.

3. Look after your Provodnista

These ladies are the lifeblood of the Russian trains. Each carriage has one or two ladies responsible for everything, from checking people’s tickets, waking them or reminding them their stop is approaching, changing over bed sheets and cleaning (which they do every day to an amazingly high standard). They are also responsible for keeping the coal heating for the carriage running and hot water in the urn for your hot drinks or noodles. They don’t get paid that much and they normally sell snacks from their cabin, anything from crisps, tea, noodles to occasionally chocolate. They work incredibly hard so help them out and buy something from them. You don’t have to do it all the time but a few purchases will see that scowl turn into a welcoming and friendly smile.

4. Eat in the Dining Cart

Natalie and our new friends Vladimir in the Dining Cart

Natalie and our new friend Vladimir in the Dining Cart

Some of our favourite evenings and train experiences came in the Dining Cart. People from all corners of the train converge for a meal or more importantly for a few drinks. We ate, drank and got to know news crews, young soldiers returning home, other travellers, train staff and friendly locals and it really is the heart of the train. Funnily enough most people we met were called Sergei! Language barriers disappear like the miles under the train, suspicious stares are replaced with swapping of Facebook accounts and after a few vodkas you will find a great improvement in your Russian!

5. Keep two sets of time

The trains run on Moscow time to try and save confusion, and every carriage has a timetable somewhere in the corridor where you can see how long each segment will take. However, the entire journey crosses around eight different time zones and can create a feeling of permanent jet lag. Our suggestion is to run two clocks, one on Moscow time (because the Dining cart etc run on it) and set a second time to your arrival destination. This will help a little, but still expect to feel a little dazed and confused.

6. Get off in Ulan Ude and catch the morning train to Ulaanbataar

The largest statue of Lenin's head in the world!

The largest statue of Lenin’s head in the world!

Many people pass straight through Ulan-Ude and for years it was off limits as it was a military manufacturing town. However it makes for a great afternoon or couple of days exploration. The town is also home to the world’s largest statue of Lenin’s head, how could you not miss that! Regarded as one of if not the most picturesque part of the entire train ride is the couple of hours from Ulan-Ude towards Mongolia. The train tracks skirt along the southern borders of the famous Lake Baikal and many people miss witnessing this by training directly from Irkutsk to Mongolia (the train takes this route in the evening if you don’t jump off). For a little extra time you are rewarded with a stunning break to the barren emptiness that is the Siberian countryside.

7. Buy food of the locals on the platforms

Support the local economy and buy food from the locals on the platforms

Support the local economy and buy food from the locals on the platforms

Just about everytime the train stops there will be elderly ladies selling some sort of food on the platforms. In some of the more isolated communities connected by the train service making ends meet can be difficult. Not only does it give you the chance to stretch your legs, and breath in some fresh air, it also gives you the opportunity to mix and mingle as well as restock your provisions. Not everything may be to your liking (we did struggle a little with the smoked fish and the caviar bread) but you are helping out the locals and you see just how important the train is to the livelihood of many Russians.

8. Have a bottle of vodka with you

Nothing gets the conversation going on the Russian trains like vodka. Offering a drink to your cabin buddies may lead to a long evening of conversation, a rowdy evening of drinking (with disapproving glares from your Provodnitsa) but most importantly it helps pass the time. Just be prepared though, it is bad manners not to finish a bottle of vodka once it is open, you have been warned!

9. Carry Wet Wipes

While the carriages have toilets and running water on board there are no shower facilities. A quick scrub down with a couple of wet wipes can make all the difference to you feeling clean and refreshed as the hours turn into days on the train. They can also be an ice breaker in your cabin by offering one to your ‘room mates’.

10. Don’t fly into / out of Russia.

Regardless of which direction you are taking the train (Moscow-Beijing/Vladivostock or vice versa) you have just completed one of the worlds last great train journeys so why give up and fly from Moscow or St Petersburg? Keep the adventure going and train into or through Europe. Overnight trains out of Moscow (via Belarus so make sure you have your visa) head to Poland and beyond. From St Petersburg trains head into Latvia and Lithuania. We actually caught the train from London across Europe into Russia. Surely that makes for a much better overland adventure story than saying you flew?!

Enjoy the adventure

Enjoy the adventure

Experiencing either of these train journeys is something you will never forget, and armed with these hints and tips, all you need to do now is find a nice long book to fill your time, we suggest perhaps ‘War and Peace’…

– Dean

If you have not seen our ‘starring’ role in the CBC short documentary on the Trans Siberian you can follow the link below.