About Visiting Hong Kong

As we’ve rhapsodized about before, we love having friends the world over as a result of living and working abroad. Last week was one of China’s Golden Week holidays–a time when holidays coincide to allow an entire week off from work. We called up a friend (okay, we didn’t even do that, we just used Facebook messenger to get in touch) who lives in Hong Kong, a mere 30 miles away. This is a pal we met while working in Russia. She now resides in Hong Kong, and it seemed like the Golden Week might allow us the chance to get together. As it happened, though, she already had travel plans. So when she went on vacation to Japan, she set us up for the week in her lovely studio apartment.

#HongKong #MyView #RandTravels

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This meant we had a chance to explore Asia’s world city in a whole different manner than we’d have done if we stayed in a hotel.

Here’s the funny thing–after a week there, neither of us were blown away. We’d expected a place significantly different from Shenzhen. Don’t get me wrong; in Hong Kong you’re less likely to see a toddler popping a squat beside the road, but I did witness a kid taking a leak into a bottle his mom was holding while we visited a children’s science museum. There are signs posted all over the city forbidding spitting and littering, as well as stipulating mandatory fines for those behaviors. Indeed, before arriving in China, I’d heard horror stories about mainland Chinese people constantly spitting everywhere–and that maybe true of second tier cities, but I’ve only seen a few people hock up loogies during the seven weeks I’ve been in Shenzhen. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s not a big problem I’ve encountered. Now, was HK cleaner? Maybe somewhat, but there was still plenty of grunge. In actuality, there are parts of Shenzhen which are cleaner (as well as dirtier, to be fair). Shenzhen shines in some respects, and even compares well to its much more famous neighbor. Let’s take the subway system, for example. SZ’s is nicer–cleaner, larger, better illuminated. While HK has a truly admirable network of public transportation, the electric buses in SZ are much quieter and represent a significant contribution to Shenzhen’s urban environment.

One of our friends here described Hong Kong as “China with a veneer of money,” if I recall his turn of phrase correctly. That’s accurate, although not everyplace in HK is wealthy. Regardless, HK represents a more picturesque place to spend time in than Shenzhen, with stunning cityscapes visible from Victoria Peak and Victoria Harbor.

It’s a big city, so there’s a ton of people. And with tons of people come huge crowds. Sometimes I wanted nothing more than to get away from the crowds. But then, that’s the same in Shenzhen. Now and again, popular places just get too packed for comfort.

We made a day trip to Repulse Bay, and found ourselves on a nice beach with pleasant scenery. It was relatively uncrowded, although there were bunches of people, often Filipinas enjoying themselves very loudly, occupying all the patches of shade. That was fine with us, as getting some sun is part of the reason we like going to the beach, but getting a tan is anathema to most folks occupying this neck of the woods. It was interesting watching the people and groups. There was a church conducting baptisms and singing praise and worship tunes. There was a 60 year old American man and his brother with a gorgeous 25 year old woman of Asian lineage (she was probably American, too, going by her accent) popping the cork out of a bottle of champagne. There were myriad women dressed up and striking poses while their spouses or friends snapped pictures, each doing their best to look like a model. And it must be said, the water was perfect for swimming.

During our days exploring via the cheap and fabulous Star Ferry, the famously creaky double decker trams, and also on buses and our own feet, we covered quite a bit of territory. For the most part, we took in all the touristy things on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, while skipping Lantau Island, since we can get there easily enough another time. One day we walked more than 7 miles, and others we covered 5 plus. That was tiring, since Hong Kong Island is something like San Francisco in the sense that it is very hilly. In fact, there are even a series of outdoor escalators to help make life easier. The sidewalks are also there one minute, and all but gone another, depending on where you happen to wander, which makes life interesting.

#RepulseBay

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#VictoriaHarbour #HongKong #StarFerry #Skyline #Cityscape #HK #myhongkong #China

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#thetravelingzoo says "hello" from #hongkong #365 #lifewithkids #travel

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Some things we enjoyed seeing included Hong Kong Park, nearby the hugely popular Victoria Peak Tram (pro tip–go before 9:00 am), and the Zoological Park, which had a lot of monkeys who were very animated–except the humongous orangutans, who were more interested in lounging around with head coverings they’d fashioned from leaves than anything else. We found some of the temples, including Man Mo (which is in the process of being refurbished, by the way) interesting. Man Mo, for example, is named for two gods–the god of literature and the god of war. The customs observed by worshippers inside are very similar to those we observed when we visited a local Buddhist temple in Shenzhen (incense being burned, respect being paid, food and drink sacrifices being offered).

Lots of #steps lead toward #VictoriaHarbour

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Here’s something we learned about traveling to HK from SZ–it’s necessary to fill out an immigration card when leaving China (yes, HK is part of China, but it’s treated as if it isn’t), and there weren’t any signs or forms to indicate that. So if you’re waiting in line to leave China and there aren’t any immigration forms at hand, go to an immigration officer and get some. It’ll save 10 or 15 minutes and the necessity to step out of the queue, because they want the forms all filled out before you get to the desk. Hong Kong wants forms, too, and they give you a little 1-inch square piece of paper with a stamp on it you’ve got to keep, too, so that’s a slight annoyance, ’cause man, it’d be easy to lose.

Make friends, visit them, or at least visit their apartments. Build some good relationships with fine people and enjoy their hospitality when the opportunity arises. It is something which helps develop and expand horizons, and it also can provide entirely new options for exploring the world.

 

 

 

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Alpine Russia

This post is a bit late. A few months late, in fact, as I’d intended to write it and post it almost as soon as returning from our trip. But life intervened, and it’s been hard to find the time.

Spring break for my school fell during the last week of March, and Jenia and our little family were finally able to travel–something we have very much missed doing throughout most of our time in Kazan, due to having a new baby, passport hassles, and the like. We didn’t schedule an international trip, however; we opted to go somewhere within the vast country of Russia–somewhere little known outside the realm of the former USSR, but which was once a thriving vacation destination during the USSR’s existence: Kislovodsk, a place situated in the Caucasus.

The only thing I remember hearing about the Caucasus before moving to Russia involved Chechnya and people dying. There might have been knives involved, but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, what with separatists and gunfire, things I’m sure I remember, the Caucasus seemed a good place to avoid, not unlike, say, Afghanistan, a place about which, as far as I can remember, I’ve never heard any good news.

Russians, however, take a different view. The Caucasus ridge runs through the southernmost extremity of Russia, with Sochi and the Black Sea basically on the western end of the ridge, and the Caspian Sea on the eastern end. Just over the dramatic mountains lie Georgia and Azerbaijan. This region has long been a true destination for Russians seeking a retreat. In fact, there are four towns (pitifully small ones, with populations hardly over 100,000 people) clustered quite closely together which are known for their resorts–with Kislovodsk being first and foremost, and it even bears the slogan “Resort City” plastered on signs at the entrance to town. Kislovodsk is noted for its mineral springs, the waters of which offer a number of medicinal properties, if you believe it.

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A map from ABC News’s website.

We spent our time in Kislovodsk in an Air BnB-sourced apartment (which was great, even though a cat fell through the ceiling one day). We explored the town, finding it quite run down except for the city center, but with all its hills and the expansive Kurortny Park lined by some beautiful sanitariums (not like insane asylums, by the way–maybe I’ll write about them later), still pretty. It was also delightfully inexpensive. We took a train to nearby Piatigorsk one day, a town which figures prominently in Russian literature. Piatigorsk is a bit less run down and more populous, and with its own springs and parks, a nice place to visit.

However, it took a vehicle tour with Caucasus Voyage Club for me to realize the true extent of the area’s diversity–according to our tour guide and driver for our day trip, a wonderful guy named Rasheed, there are no less than 35 totally different languages spoken in the Caucasus.

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Another map from newroute.ru. Kislovodsk is near Piatigorsk.

I learned a lot of 20th century Russian history from Rasheed, as well, as he detailed the spread of communism, “The red virus,” throughout Russia and the toll it took on the once-wealthy region. While Jenia was aware of the brutal treatment of the area’s ethnic groups under the hand of the communists, it was new to me. Rasheed told of the disenfranchisement of the locals to communists from the north, the theft of their properties, and their resistance against their unjust rulers. The might of the Red Army was against them, though, and the locals could not win. Interestingly, when Hitler’s forces swept through the area with orders not to harm anyone unless they were met with resistance, things improved for the locals. The wartime occupiers were actually better masters than those whose country they belonged to. Of course, after the German army withdrew, Stalin made sure to exact revenge for the locals’ cooperation with the invaders. People were rounded up and herded onto trains bound for Kazakhstan, where, if they didn’t die on the way or after arrival, they spent 17 years. After the tremendous tragedy of Stalin’s death, they returned to their country, and things have been more or less normal since then.

Rasheed, wearing a long beard, looks every bit the typical Muslim man, and so he is. He’s nice, open, and friendly. As we learned from him, 60 percent of the population of Kislovodsk is ethnically Russian, which corresponds with the Orthodox church, and the other 40 percent are Muslim, as corresponds with their ethnicities. “How are Muslims treated?” Jenia asked at one point. “I know it was not easy to be involved in a mosque for a while here,” referring to a time of heavy suspicion in Russia toward Muslim people about 10 years ago. Rasheed mentioned under-cover intelligence men in the area, but was not angry about their presence. He said that the climate has changed now, and it’s not bad.

Our tour took us over the Caucasus ridge, where the towering twin peaks of Elbrus were concealed in the dramatic clouds, and where water runs from one side downward to the Black Sea, and from the other to the Caspian Sea; we continued past the Sintina Temple, the earliest Christian monastery in the area, established in the tenth century, along a sparkling shallow river, to the tiny ski-resort town of Dombay and its cable car up the towering mountain I thought was also called Dombay, but which it turns out is actually known as Mount Mussa Achitara. Sunlight had vanquished the gray clouds by the time we arrived, and there was a perfect, deep blue sky. There wasn’t much to Dombay other than the ski slopes–but wow. That mountain, and those slopes. What a place. We only ascended about two thirds of the mountain’s height (2,277 meters), as we didn’t feel like taking the toddler and baby on a chairlift, which was the mode of transportation from there to the top (3,200 meters), but nonetheless, the views were like something from the Swiss Alps. There was a peculiar little hotel that looks as though it just arrived from outer space. There were men with with yaks (wanna photo with ’em? Only a hundred rubles). There was pine cone jelly and sunglasses and hats for sale. The walkways were slippery and covered with snow and ice. It was a giant lawsuit waiting to happen, but it was fantastic. We ate some delicious, fresh bread in a restaurant, then went outside and frolicked as best we could with a baby in a carrier and a toddler in tow. We managed to get sunburned, too, although the temperature was right at freezing.

On our ride home, Rasheed put the pedal down a little bit, not needing to explain so much about the countryside. Speaking of which, we had marvelous views from the ridge when we crested it again–this time Elbrus revealed just how much taller it stood than the surrounding mountains–and at 18, 510 feet/5,642 meters, it is an imposing sight indeed. A little trivia for you–Europe’s tallest peak is the tenth highest in the world, and a dormant volcano, too.

Once again, I’ve discovered that the reality of a place can be drastically different from what we hear about on the news. While it’s true that Rasheed did have a knife (it’s a tradition! And we got to hold it!), there was no blood spilled, nobody shot, and nary a separatist in sight; the Caucasus turned out to be wonderful. While I’m not ready to go to Afghanistan to see if things are really crummy there or not, I’d venture to say that any trip to the resort town of Kislovodsk would be well worth it, and I’d happily go back.

Aya-Falla-What?

Ejofallajokull, which sounds like aya-falla-yo-kull. Or something like that. You’ll remember it. It’s the name of the big volcano that halted air traffic over Iceland for what seemed like forever in 2010. That’s when Iceland got a lot of press. Yeah, well, anyway, we’ve been there now. We’ve seen Eja-falla-whatsit and gotten a whirlwind tour of a fair portion of southern Iceland. It’s a pretty cool place.

You know us. You know we like to maximize our travels and explore new places as much as possible. So naturally, on the way home from the UAE for the summer, we booked ourselves a layover in someplace we hadn’t been before.

National Park

If you haven’t been to Iceland, which is attracting a growing number of tourists, you might like to check it out. Courtesy of Icelandair’s attempts to promote the country with stopovers on the way to other destinations, there are some interesting deals available allowing you to have a look around Reykjavik fairly cheaply and easily.

The country is showing up on the silver screen and the ones in your living room with increasing frequency.  Its intriguing landscape served as alien planets in the films Prometheus and Interstellar, and if you watched the Ben Stiller version of Walter Mitty, you saw it take a starring role, as well.

We found Iceland to be sort of Europe light, regardless of whether the country considers itself part of Europe or not (it does). Everyone we encountered was fluent in English (yes, yes, we mostly met people in the hospitality and tourism industry, but not exclusively), while that might not be the case in, say, Italy, or France. It’s also easy to get around without needing to worry about changing money. Credit cards are accepted everywhere, quite literally, to the extent that we didn’t even make an ATM withdrawal once. Right. We were there four full days, buying food from supermarkets, picking up the odd souvenir, and so forth, and we never had Icelandic cash in our hands.

The island is an absolutely fascinating place to visit. The landscape is otherworldly. It’s often beautiful, and surprisingly delicate. The Suderlandsvegur, highway 1, departs Reykjavik and goes south. Before long, there is a hillside rising up on the right hand side of the road. It has a phrase carved into it. The words were, it turns out, put there by a boy scout troop having fun some 50 years ago, and the vegetation they destroyed hasn’t recovered yet. This might give you an idea of the difficulty that Icelanders face when it comes to farming the unfriendly soil. If not, consider that the waterfall called Skogarfoss is named for a forest (“skogar” means forest, “foss” means waterfall). Even though there is no forest there, because the original Norse settlers chopped the trees down to make room for their animals to graze, some 1100 years ago. The trees have never really returned.

For most of its years as a nation, Iceland has been extraordinarily poor. Only after WWII did the island start to develop into a reasonable economy. Now, standards of living are high. Costs of living are, too, with food being very expensive (much of it being imported, of course), as well as most everything else. Heating and electricity, at least, are affordable. It costs one guy, a tour guide we had, about the price of a large pizza to heat his home for a month. It’s so cheap because water is heated naturally geothermally (Is that a word? Autocorrect doesn’t think so) and stored in huge tanks for the city. This is completely renewable and sustainable. Electricity is also generated through entirely sustainable means.

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There are places we’ve visited that we agree we’d love to live. Iceland isn’t one of them. The weather is too oppressive. It’s not severely cold–surprisingly, temperatures hover in the middle-50’s F much of the year, and don’t go very far below freezing most of the winter–but the thick, grey clouds hang claustrophobically low, and visibility is often minimal. “The tallest mountain in Iceland is right over there, across the water,” said a buddy who was showing us around one afternoon. “But you can’t see it now.” Indeed, I’d have never suspected. When the clouds finally parted on the last day of our trip, what a sight we were treated to. The view across the bay was nice. The scenery was extraordinary, in fact. We’d love to go back and spend more time in Iceland, getting farther beyond Reykjavik than we did, but we’d never live there.

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Ejafallajo…right, the volcano, anyway, probably helped Iceland to emerge into the consciousness of the average person in the States. Hollywood continues to explore the place, and I’d recommend that you do, too. Despite not being a place I’d like to spend years, it’s fascinating, and I’d love to have more time there.

Highlights

How about a pictorial post featuring some highlights from our various travels the last few years? It seems like a good idea to me. As you probably know if you read the blog thoroughly, we do talk about our travels a bit, but we’re not really travel bloggers in the sense of step-by-step, day-by-day chronicling of our journeys. That has its own appeal, but lots of people do it and probably better than we could. Instead, I offer a handful of what I think are our best instagrams capturing some curious, challenging, or memorable moments from our adventures, and a micro-snippet of a story for each one.

How you get to the train station from #Corniglia, #CinqueTerre.

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You’ve gotta be kidding me. Another staircase! AAAAAH! Italy, 2014.

#Escalators in #SiamCenter #mall, #Bangkok, #Thailand

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Maybe the coolest looking mall in the world? Even the bathrooms were awesome. You should go there, because it’s technologically amazing. Thailand, 2014.

Me hanging with some of my students in Sweihan. #UAE #desertlife

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I attended the Sweihan Camel Festival with a small busload of my students. It was phenomenally boring. We drank coffee together and sat around at one point. UAE, 2014.

#horseback #riding in #Franschhoek #southafrica #mountains

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South Africa, 2013: no better way to see the hills, or a mongoose. Thank goodness for our friend who watched the little one while we spent an hour doing this!

#Rain caused minor #floods on roadways in #AlAin #AbuDhabi, #UAE today.

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When you gotta drive following some rain. UAE, 2013.

Hangin' on the beach with the cattle in Sri Lanka.

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There were cows moving about freely, and there was trash strewn everywhere, too.

#russia #ryazan #kremlin

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Who cares about the frigid weather and icy walkways? Russia, 2012.

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You never know what you’ll encounter in Downtown Dubai. 2012.

In #Baktapur. #Nepal #BTspringBreak #Travel #Temple

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We strolled through Bhaktapur’s beautiful squares, toddler in tow. Nepal, 2015.

The little one enjoying the #WadiRum #desert a couple days ago. #Jordan #middleeast

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Turtle LOVED off-roading and exploring. Jordan, 2014.

#wadirum #jordan #travel

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LOVED, not least because there were no seat belts in the Land Cruiser!

Looking down over #Liechtenstein. Just one amazing #view. #latergram #Eurotrip #scenery #Europe

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Curvy, narrow roads, steep drop-offs, staying just ahead of bad weather. Liechtenstein, 2014.

Seeing the Himalayas–from 32,000 feet. 2015.

Close encounters of the monkey kind, descending from Swamabhunath Temple on a hilltop–Nepal, 2015.

#boylovesairports #Prague edition. #airport #Praha #blackandwhite

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The child loved snow, too, but not mittens. Czech Republic, 2014.

My view this morning #wadirum #jordan #travel #middleeast

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Getting around Wadi Rum the old-fashioned way; the baby aboard in the Boba carrier. He got used to it and didn’t mind after a little while. Jordan, 2014.

The way out of the temperature-constant caverns. France, 2014.

#romance #love #old #couple at #jardinluxembourg #paris #france #europe #travel

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Sometimes sitting on a park bench lets you witness a story. Could it be true love? France, 2014.

Leaving plastic on the seats and steering wheel of your #porsche is life #emiratistyle #uae #wtf

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Peculiar local customs. UAE, 2012.

Taking laziness to a whole new level… #uae #alain #shisha

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More peculiarity–drive-in shisha cafe. UAE, 2012.

Somebody passed out at a most unexpected time today. #lifewithatoddler #Kathmandu #nepal #travel #Thamel

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Sometimes napping just can’t wait, like here in Nepal, 2015.

What we didn't eat today #food #crazyfood #thailand #asia #udonthani #travel #instatravel

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Fancy a freshly fried snack? We didn’t. This was at the night market in northeastern Thailand with friends. 2014.

Drop Everything and Go.

Maybe you don’t know the names Ted Simon or Charley Boorman. That’s okay. I’ll tell you who the two men are. Simon rode his Triumph around the world on an incredible 4-year journey, and Boorman rode a BMW around the globe in 2004 in less than 4 months. They’re dyed in the wool motorcyclists and dedicated adventurers. They love to explore the world and both authors have made livings based on their travels.

I must admit my only exposure to Ted Simon was through the TV mini-series “The Long Way Round,” which chronicled Boorman’s trip from London to New York City with his friend Ewan McGregor. The show is, by the way, worth your time–it’s fun, funny, and will appeal to the adventurer in you, even if you don’t ride a motorcycle or understand why some of us do. Take a minute and look it up, then set some time aside to enjoy a fascinating look at the world from the point of view of a couple of motorcyclists. That said, Simon is, as it turns out, the very model of adventurousness.

But I get ahead of myself. See, I attended the Emirates Literature Festival today in Dubai, and went to a session called “Around the Globe with Charley and Ted,” during which the authors discussed some of their commonalities: how wanderlust struck, how they started their travels, managed to fund them, and so forth. Held in a ballroom at the Intercontinental hotel in Festival City, the event was pretty full. I found an open seat at the front, and enjoyed an hour of the men’s musings.

The Intercontinental at Festival City.

The Intercontinental at Festival City.

Simon’s big journey included run-ins with the law (arrested as a suspected spy, for example), romance, and the momentous discovery that people all over the world are generally nice, welcoming, and helpful. Boorman didn’t get arrested, but found much the same thing–people everywhere, and I mean everywhere, are kind and helpful.

Speaking of countries that are deemed dangerous, Boorman said, “When anything bad happens, the news makes a big deal out of it.” He mentioned 24 hour news networks and the need for them to fill up space and time. “You never see a news reporter saying, ‘I’m here, and there’s nothing happening.'” To illustrate the point, Boorman mentioned looking over rice paddies in northern Iran, in a scene that might have been Thailand, with people working and wonderful agriculture everywhere. This seems a far cry from the image that Fox and the other news networks paint of Iran, doesn’t it?

Many of us don’t realize how much what we see and hear on the news shapes our perceptions. Simon elaborated on the idea, to much the same effect. Don’t forget there are millions of people living absolutely normal lives in most of the countries that are deemed “dangerous” by those selling newspapers. In essence, the world is a safer place than it is made out to be.

Indeed, there were plenty of people who advised me against moving to the UAE–it could be unsafe, it would be hard on Jenia as a woman, and so forth–but most of these people, though meaning well, hadn’t lived here, or even been here. They were all wrong; it’s been a great place for us to live.

Simon said that many people approach him and tell him they’d love to go on a similar adventure, but they can’t, because they have a mortgage, a job, etc. His response was profound: “Drop it all and leave it because you’ll be a much more valuable person when you come back.”

In 2003, I was talking to a friend named Gwen, a woman who was practically a surrogate mom for a while there. “I’d love to go to England,” I told her. “Well, why don’t you go?” She said. I blinked my eyes a few times, processing that. It really was that simple. I could save up some money, quit my meager little job, and go see more of the world. A moment before I hadn’t considered it that clearly. It had seemed like I had shackles holding me back–commitments and stuff–but they didn’t make an ounce of difference. That was more or less the beginning of my serious international explorations.

You’ve seen my posts on here about how living and teaching abroad have changed Jenia and me for the better. At this point, I couldn’t agree more with Simon’s advice. I may not travel the world in as extreme a manner as Simon did, and I may not host a TV show or manage to ride my bike as much as Boorman does his, but in the same manner as these two men, I’ve found a way to fund my globe trotting, to indulge the travel bug and discover that the basic desires of every person on the planet are the same.

If you want to explore, you should. Don’t worry about your place in the pecking order, don’t fret over what you’ll leave behind, just go, because it will change you fundamentally. Fear of leaving the familiar behind and exchanging it for the unfamiliar, fear of dangerous countries, or fear of talking to new people may prevent us leaving our comfort zones. Don’t be afraid. Go.

Charley Boorman, happy to pose for a picture with me at today's book signing.

Charley Boorman, happy to pose for a picture with me at today’s book signing.