Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 45

30 06 2008


Never get dressed in the dark


I do not consider myself to be a dandy or a slave to fashion, but I do generally take an interest in my appearance and at the very least like things to match. This is particularly true when flying. My practicality prevents me from completely sacrificing comfort for sartorial elegance, but I do believe it is important to look respectable especially when presenting oneself to immigration authorities.


During a series of flights to Malaysia that had me flying via New York and Dubai in one very long day, I had taken great care in selecting my wardrobe. I wanted apparel that would not only be comfortable for my 28 hours of non-stop travelling, but would also provide me with some degree of presentability for my examination by various security and immigration officials enroute.


Very early that morning, I got dressed, tip-toed out of my home and headed off on the journey that would entail two taxis, four airports, one train, four countries and countless time zones before I’d arrive at my next bed. I checked in at the airport, cleared security and boarded my first flight. Shortly after take-off I kicked-off my shoes to enhance comfort. I bent down to tuck them safely under the seat in front of me and recoiled in abject horror.


My socks didn’t match. One was blue and the other black. I was to travel some 10,606 miles with odd socks. I was mortified. Everyone in the aircraft was staring at my fashion faux pas. The flight attendants were muttering behind cupped hands. Other passengers were moving away from me. Would the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia even allow such a visual disgrace to set foot in their countries?  


Upon arrival at my hotel at the end of my odyssey, I discovered that my unspeakable blunder was actually twice as bad as I had at first imagined, for, in my luggage, I found a second identical pair!


Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travel Photography 101 5/18

27 06 2008

Confessions, musings and tips from a snap-happy wanderer.

Ngorongoro 2

Rush hour (Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)



Use crowds for perspective


It’s nice to get a clear shot of some famous landmark without having people all over it, but sometimes crowds of tourists provide a better photo. Don’t always attempt to photograph around the crowds or go into hysterics attempting to cut them out, instead, see if incorporating them into the image actually makes it a better shot.  A snap of the Mona Lisa is never as impressive as the postcard reproductions they sell in the gift shop…but  a photograph of 300 people photographing the Mona Lisa is!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Room With A View

26 06 2008


Who put that there?

Sometimes, the anticipation of the unknown is better than the actual discovery itself. A carefully wrapped birthday present bound with ribbon and topped with a bow is a prime example. You hold it, shake it, listen to it and feel it. Your mind spins faster than a supercomputer with every possible gift or surprise that someone could imagine. When you open the box and wade through the mountain of Styrofoam nuggets and find… a porcelain ice hockey player with a bobblehead and no teeth…you deftly hide your rampant disappointment and smile appreciatively. You then take the bubblewrap to a corner and pop each bubble to your heart’s content in a form of therapy.


But sometimes, the contents exceed your wildest expectation, the grin is genuine and your head bobs like a bobblehead for days afterward.


Arriving anywhere after dark is much like receiving a wrapped present and it’s not until the following morning when you draw back the curtains of your room that you find out what it’s like outside. Sometimes it’s a litter-strewn graffiti-decorated brick wall. But sometimes it’s like Santiago, Chile and you become the bobblehead.


The drive from the airport had been long and arduous. Construction had closed the main highway and left the detour restricted to one lane. It had been dark when we landed and although usually possessing a decent sense of direction, I didn’t have a clue where I was or where we were heading. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper and there was nothing much to see except for red taillights. After an hour we arrived at our hotel. As we were only in Santiago for a brief stopover and had booked a city tour for the following morning before returning to the airport, I must confess that for once I hadn’t done much research and really didn’t know what to expect.


We went to our room and I immediately headed for the windows. I drew back the curtains and gazed out at a vast inky darkness with a vague grid of streetlights and a scattering of home or office lights. Exhausted, we went to bed.


The next morning light shined around the curtains. I glanced at the clock and rolled out of bed. Habit propelled me to the window, although I wasn’t expecting much after the previous evening’s disappointment. I pulled back the drapes and stood there, the proverbial grinning bobblehead myself.


The entire window was filled with the Andes Mountains, close enough to touch. They were snowcapped, rugged, their base shrouded in cloud and seemed to be violently shouldering each other as if the tectonic plates were still driving and grinding them upwards. The light had a muted early morning glow that dabbed delicately at the snow line. As it was Sunday, the streets were quiet and nothing competed for attention with the natural skyline.


I stood and gazed in wonder. The Andes would be spectacular under any circumstances and serving as a backdrop to a city like Santiago would always make them special, but to draw back the curtains and see such a vista moments after rolling out of bed was completely unforgettable.


What a way to start the day!





Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Coup de Jour

25 06 2008


One if by land…      (Fiji)


As a youth, I read so many Frederick Forsyth thrillers that I long thought it would be cool to be caught in the middle of a coup. Not that I had a deathwish or wanted to streak in my undies from my hotel towards a hovering helicopter under a hail of gunfire, but the notion of lying on the plush carpet of my air-conditioned upscale hotel room, coolly sipping Perrier and eating chocolate-covered strawberries while all hell let loose outside did have more than a little appeal.


Once I began travelling, I realised that my lust for that particular brand of excitement was rather misplaced. My more practical side tended to dampen my irresponsible enthusiasm with thoughts of the cost of emergency repatriation, the struggle to replace an abandoned passport, the inconvenience and expense of losing all my luggage and possessions and the genuine risks of such danger


So you can imagine my trepidation when on two occasions I very nearly did find myself caught in coups.


The first was in Kenya. I had been on safari for several weeks and was returning to Nairobi for a good wash, soft toilet paper and the ability to properly clean my ears. As we approached the city we encountered a police roadblock with a spiked chain stretched across the hot tarmac and a few heavily armed officers watching us warily. While they inspected the vehicle we learned there had been an explosion at a construction site. The president was overseas and there were immediate fears that the blast marked a coup. The army was mobilised, sensitive sites secured and a curfew imposed. I am sorry to say that I found it all rather exciting…until I remembered that my hotel was beside the radio station which would certainly be a hot spot during any uprising. My enthusiasm evaporated quicker than a punctured balloon. Fortunately, the fears amounted to nothing and I left unscathed the next evening.


The second close call was too close even for a wayward wanderer with a vivid imagination and a deranged sense of romance.


I had arrived in Fiji to news reports of a growing disagreement between the president and the leader of the military over a planned amnesty for those who had led a coup several years earlier. The military declared that any such amnesty threatened the security of the nation and they would do whatever was necessary to ensure peace and stability. The two sides lined-up nose to nose…so I resorted to extreme measures and stocked my mini-bar with bottled water and chocolate.


Over the coming days, the tension mounted. Fijian news was full of pictures of the military in full combat gear on ‘manoeuvres’ well beyond the confines of their barracks. Late one evening, there was a report of military vehicles surrounding the house of an outspoken government minister. The police were dispatched, and the armoured vehicles trundled off before they arrived. I bought potato chips and fruit.


This was getting serious.


The following day, the president was due to visit my hotel for a conference. It was obvious that the fragile causeway that linked the hotel to the mainland would be blown-up by helicopter gunships during his visit, he’d be whisked away by Ninjas and the infinity pool and breakfast buffet would be subjected to martial law.


I began to dig a trench beneath my bed and applied camo make-up to my cheeks.


The president arrived at the appointed time. He came in an impressive motorcade of two very ordinary 4WDs and had doubled his security detail to a pair of very large men wearing sulus. He made the rounds, shook a few hands, stayed for dinner and then drove back to the capital. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief and headed for the bar…or back to their bunkers.


Eighteen months later the military did stage a coup, the same president was ousted and the same head of the military took power. There was great uncertainty and moderate mayhem for a few days, but thankfully no bloodshed. The television news featured film of bedraggled tourists mobbed by journalists as they arrived home from the besieged country.


Although now well-travelled, experienced, practical, sensible and mature, I must confess that part of me watched it all with perhaps the merest twinge of jealousy and adventure-envy!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Photography 101 10/18

24 06 2008

Confessions, musings and tips from a snap-happy wanderer 

Vietnam Memorial

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC


The early bird gets the photo.


It’s always nice to have a long lie-in when on vacation, but the rewards of getting up early and heading out with your camera far outweigh the extra rest. The streets, beaches and monuments are quieter just after dawn with fewer people to clutter your compositions. The great cinematographer Jack Cardiff called twilight the “Magic Hour” because of the excellent light it provides, a light that is gentle, casts soft shadows and muted pastels. Your photos will be far more atmospheric than those taken in the glare of the midday sun and, unjostled by other tourists, you have the time to think about your shots and compose them just the way you like.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 6

23 06 2008


The lesser two-headed zebra – Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania


“Should I stay or should I go now.”


– Joe Strummer, The Clash.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Tourist vs Traveller

20 06 2008


Lake Natron, Tanzania

The difference between a tourist and traveller is not determined by cost, age, style or destination. It is based entirely on outlook and attitude. You can just as easily find a traveller in a 5-star hotel as you can a tourist in more humble accommodation. You may just as easily encounter a traveller on the beaches of the Dominican Republic or Mexico, as you will a tourist in remote China or Peru.


A traveller lives every moment of their trip. They are appreciative of every inch of new ground that they are exploring and of everything around them. They notice the faint smells of cooking, wood smoke or blossoms that gently permeate the air. They notice the struggles or joys of life for the inhabitants: the complexities of shopping for food or taking the local transit; the status of a teacher; the local icons or heroes; the approachability and honesty of the police. They glance at the local newspaper and observe the cost of living. They strive to keep a low profile and leave behind a positive impression of visitors wherever they go, and always attempt to be polite, culturally sensitive and attempt at least a few words of the local language. They sample the food, they listen to the music and they respect local customs. They haggle for souvenirs respectfully. They read before they go, they are aware of events while they are there, and continue to take an interest once at home.


A tourist simply substitutes the comforts of home for the comforts of a hotel. They don’t stray from the property or travel only within the secure confines a well-managed group. They stick only to the food they know. They take no interest in their surroundings and attempt no interaction with the local people. When it is all over, they can barely differentiate between this year’s vacation and last year’s.


Being a traveller does not mean sacrificing comfort, taking risks or forging ahead alone. You might just as easily be sleeping in a luxury hotel and travelling as part of a small group. There is nothing elitist about being a traveller. The status does not discriminate against infirmity or education or wealth, it is simply a genuine appreciation of one’s surroundings regardless of where those surroundings might be.


It is about drawing the maximum possible reward from your travels and enriching your life with exploration of new cultures, religions, languages and lifestyles.


It is what travel is all about.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008