With international travel once again opening up, I thought I’d share with you some wisdom from my dear Papa who, prior to the pandemic, was living the grey nomad dream.
1. How many countries have you been to?
I have visited 97 independent countries in total and that’s not counting places like Gibraltar or Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands. My ambition is to make it to 100. If not for the pandemic I would have got it done last year.
I’ve always wanted to visit the Ukraine, the Philippines, Kampuchea, Vietnam, Laos, Nepal, Tibet and more of the African countries.
2. What are your top 3 destinations?
I love the Scandinavian countries especially Norway where it’s green in summer and there are beautiful hikes in the fjords. Finland is also a beautiful and affordable country to visit. We were in the arctic circle in Finland and saw the midnight sun. Mum and I were like two fools standing in a field to watch the sun set and rise. At the same time we were bitten by mosquitoes! That was in Rovaniemi in Finland.
For beaches, I like Barbados where we spent about a week. It’s a small island with lovely beaches all round. Things are very affordable too and people are friendly. There’s also Turks and Caicos Islands which is a beautiful place with white sand and clear blue water.
3. What are the most overrated places?
Switzerland is a beautiful country, but I think it’s too expensive with nothing spectacular that Austria does not offer.
Another place is Iceland: unique but expensive. Lots of talk about the aurora borealis but seeing that involves lots of time in the dark freezing night, waiting for it to appear. And when it appears it’s like looking at a moving cloud – what you see in photos is not what you witness! You need special lenses and film to capture the colours, otherwise it’s just white clouds. Plus it does not appear every night, so you have to stay a few days to make sure you see it.
4. What’s the most dangerous place you’ve been to?
The incident that stands out is when we were in Rio. We had just arrived and walking to the hotel and this guy came along and snatched my phone after a small scuffle. There were police nearby but they did not hear anything. That spoilt our Brazilian holiday as we were constantly on the lookout for muggers.
When we were in Guatemala City, the hotel receptionist warned us about leaving the hotel area alone even in broad daylight. We had actually spent the day obliviously sightseeing, miles away from the hotel, before she told us in the evening.
Another dangerous place is Bogotá where there are armed military personnel at almost every corner. One day we walked up Monserrate and the route was guarded. We had to rush down before 5pm when the guards went off duty – we saw the guards leaving their posts just as we were reaching them.
Basically Central America is not a very safe place to be on your own.
Another scary event was when our cruise ship was passing the Yemen and Somali coast. Cruise ships are always careful in that area and they have guards 24/7 with a water cannon ready. We were told to close the curtains and lock the balcony doors at that time. During the cruise we were informed by some of the passengers that the Somalian pirates were chasing our ship but fortunately they weren’t fast enough as the ship was on full speed.
5. Would you recommend cruises, bus tours or self-drive holidays?
The best way to travel is do it on your own. Book your hotel and travel by public transport where possible (or hire a car). The problem with public transport is that you have to wait and there might not be any spare seats which might be a problem if it’s a long journey.
It’s best to get a hotel not too far from the stations. Most stations are in the city centre. This means you avoid parking problems and get lots of exercise by walking everywhere. That’s good if you’re not in a rush.
Cruises are good mainly for visiting many islands and places for short periods. But I definitely will not recommend cruises around Japan as the mainland has more places to see than the coastal ports. In contrast, Caribbean and South Pacific cruises are good.
Cruises can be relaxing and sometimes you can get a very cheap cruise like the one we did from Italy to Mauritius via the Suez and part of the Middle East. It came up to about $160 per day for the two of us – but it was an inside cabin, which makes me feel claustrophobic. That’s why we always choose a cabin with a balcony when we can.
On the whole we budget about $400 per day to include flights, hotels, meals, local transport and visits.
6. What are the things you always do whenever you visit a place?
I try to live like a local and do things that the locals do. So, one of my main attractions is to check out the supermarkets to see what they sell and the price. Sometimes we buy cooked food from the supermarkets – it’s cheaper than going out to restaurants, especially for dinner. In most places having lunch out is much cheaper than dinner and the menus are not much different. We are also not night owls and are generally back in the hotel by the time it gets dark.
With the meals out of the way, we walk around the city centre. In European cities it would be visiting churches and government and historic buildings. We also like to walk around the parks. Some places of interest may not be near the city centre and so taking a bus there would be the way to go. Same with visiting towns nearby. Most cities have maps and hotels provide them too. The hotel receptionists are usually helpful in suggesting places to visit.
7. Any funny stories?
As we do not speak other languages, it can get difficult or hilarious when trying to communicate with the locals. When we were in Salzburg, I went to a kebab shop. They spoke no English and I do not speak German. I wanted to know what meat was in the kebab. I started by mooing like a cow but he shook his head. Then I bleated like a sheep and he shook his head too. Then I flapped my bent arms like a chicken and he shook his head but indicated I was nearly there. Then he tugged the skin of his neck and made the sound of turkey.
Whenever I’m on my own in Europe, I get propositioned by females but they are prostitutes I guess. When we were in Belgrade, we were in a 3-star hotel where wifi was available in the public area only. So I went down from the room to the hotel lobby. An old woman came up to me and asked in broken English whether I wanted to party with her! She must have been in her 80s.
Header image: Dad and me on the island of Kizhi, Russia. Read about our visit to Moscow.