Jul 7, 2009

To tour or not to tour?

The definition of purgatory is going on an organised tour, as the Flashpacker once presumed…

Postcard Tuscany

Plans eh? Who needs them? I feel sorry for my poor friends that make concrete plans, I always agree to be a part of the fun then bug out at the 11th hour. Spontaneity seems more exciting, it means that I am always pleasantly surprised and rarely let down by grand expectations.

This goes for travel too.

The Flashpacker is an independent traveller and very proud of it. He likes to leave an open road ahead of him, plans really piss him off. Regimented travel is travel not worth doing. And it’s the places you visit that you never planned to that are always the most memorable.

My dear Mother Christine has just spent a month with me in London. As we were planning her trip I was surprised to find that she had sent an email with my name on a ticket to Italy called ‘Tuscan Treats’; an 8 day tour of Tuscany.

I replied with a panic: ‘Mother dearest, im not sure I would enjoy a tour, cant we just rent a car and wing it?’. This seemed like a logical reply; this way we wouldn’t have to make friends with strangers, would save money, wouldn’t be dragged around by a demented tour guide and could pick and choose our accommodation

But bless her, she had already paid for it.

Christine: hardened tour battler

In the run up to the trip I didn’t do much to learn about the area. I guess I was having some sort of denial about going on a tour. Christine sensed this and ordered me to read up on Tuscan culture (yes Mother). She also reassured me that this was no ordinary tour, it was a small group with a small bus that get inside old Roman cities and could drop us right at the door of our hotel.

And with one last attempt at denial I went out till 3am the night before we flew out, catching two hours sleep before rising to catch our 8am flight. But this was no ordinary night out, it was a full blown , apple schnapps experiment in madness. Suffice to say, travelling is always more difficult with a hangover and I should really know this by now...

On arrival at Pisa Airport we found there were no trains or buses to Florence. When I queued to ask what was going on, the information woman shrugged her shoulders and laughed. Welcome to Italy. I headed for the bus company and was confronted by a young American woman screaming at the staff.

I was angry too, but my India training kicked in and I relaxed into ‘be the cow’ mode (a form of relaxing meditation I perfected in India when everything was going wrong and nothing made any logical sense. Basically imagine a cow chewing slowly, eyes half open…mmm relaxing.) I told her to calm down and that we were all in the same boat. Bad idea: she turned so purple in the face with anger and directed her tirade on me.

So much for being the cow, 5 minutes later I was accusing a disabled woman of queue jumping...

Phallic Florence

We finally made it Florence to meet our group. This was another stressful moment. What would they all be like? My preconceptions were running wild and I imagined the group would most likely consist of an American couple that are allergic to everything and would make the restaurant experience hellish, an Australian couple that thought they knew everything and always had a better story than yours, and a Japanese couple that pretended to be fluent in English but couldn’t speak a word of it, that got lost all the time and kept us waiting.

How wrong I was. There was an American couple, Steve and Annie from Loomis CA. California was a good start, everyone in California is nice, and they didn’t disappoint. There was an Australian called Eugene, a salt of the earth Aussie builder with Eastern European roots. And finally a Canadian couple called Amanda and Allaine who were younger than the others; they looked like they had just walked off a music video shoot rather than your average tourers (hi guys!).

Cool tour

At dinner we met our tour guide for the next 8 days, Gian Paolo. He was every stereotype of an Italian; flowing hair, great tan and a cruisey demeanour. Though fluent in English he had that fantasic Italian English accent that sounded like a latin version of Borat, and at our first dinner together after dispensing with the formalities of our trip over several glasses of white, he opined the problems of our greedy western societies with a flourish of hand gestures and head throws. I could tell I was going to enjoy this tour.

So many nice knockers in Tuscany

“Tuscan Treats’ is organised by Back Roads touring, a company that specialises in smaller groups that take the ‘back roads’ (insert rude joke here). The advantage of this is that you don’t feel like you’re a small part of a bovine collective by being herded in and out of tourist traps and the group gets to decide where and what to do. Perfect for me, we don’t need to commit to a plan!

Hey, get out of my shot!

Tuscany is simply fantastic. No matter where you look, you cant take a bad photo. From Roman forts to fields of sunflowers, it invades the all the senses with colours, landscape, history, culture and of course, food and wine.

The Tuscan 'Ills'

The tour includes breakfast and dinner, you have to look after yourself for lunch. Not that we needed to eat lunch, Gian Paolo saw to it that dinner would be so ample it lasted at least 24 hours later. Were talking about two pasta starters, followed by a massive bit of meat and topped off with elaborate Italian desert, all the while accompanied by gallons of local wines.

Walking the Chinque Terre, note sweat

The schedule though was predictably hectic, a fact that annoyed me at the beginning as I don’t like getting up at 630am when im on holiday. But in hindsight a necessity as the mornings where the coolest part of the day and it was the only way to beat the throngs of ‘big bus’ tourers to our destinations.

For the next 8 days, whilst listening to the same Latin Kings CD over and over, I sat up the back of the bus to admire the awesome Tuscan countryside. And as Gian Paolo MC'd from the front, we saw the 'ills' (hills), a 'wheel' (well) and everything according to him was 'ultra' (awesome).

'Volare, oh oh oh oh...Cantare, oh oh oh oh'

The tour had its ups and downs, its never easy making a group of people happy, but they were insignificant to where we were and what we were doing. And, as our tour guide insisted on our first night together, we made a few changes to our schedule to suit or needs.

The best thing about the tour for me wasn’t the tour itself, rather the other people on it. It made me realise how easy it can be to be insular and never meet people from outside your own bubble. And as the week went on we all opened up a little more each day to let each other get a little closer. Suspicion became intrigue, preconception became admiration and complete strangers became friends.

Just the six of us (minus me)

And when our week was done and it was time to say goodbye, I have to admit I felt sad to leave everyone. I couldn’t help escape the feeling that it was a week we shared together that we would all probably never share again, unless someone else is paying for it all.

But all great things come to an end.

Jun 24, 2009

How to cull Facebook friends

Do it at your own risk, as the Flashpacker found out…

Love it or hate it, Facebook indulges our voyeuristic fascination in the lives of others. Thanks to up to the minute photos, birthday reminders and pointless status updates we can keep involved in our friends lives with minimal effort. ‘Damien never forgets a birthday…’ seems an apt next update.

Four friends went into this Whopper

Recently in the US, Burger King had a special offer of one free whopper for every 10 friends you burn. Keeping with the theme of grilling, burning and flaming your friends (mmm…Whopper) it was a brilliant piece of marketing, and in only a few days thousands of users where friendless. Even if Burger King wasnt serious about honouring the deal, the notion seriously threatened to undermine Facebooks' social networking iron grip, so they shut it down.

The Whopper deal is long gone, but it got me thinking about which friends I would gleefully cull in the pursuit of a free Whopper? This got me skipping through my friends list adding tentative red crosses for possible Whopper points. What I found was a basket case of people I didn’t really know and shouldn’t continue to know either.

After enough time your friends list begins to clutter with people from random meetings in strange places to agreeing to be friends with the neighbour’s cat (it felt like a great idea at the time).

And after years of being subjected to vampire attacks, ‘which hair straightener are you?’ surveys and offers to join groups ‘against using live dogs as shark bait’ by people you don’t know or shouldn’t know, most users arrive at the same point: should I cull my friends list?

A typical Vampire attacker

For the most part FB friends are genuine bunch from all walks of life, some new, some old and some that you never thought you would see again. They don’t deserve to be traded for a burger. But if FB disintegrated tomorrow would you bother to stay in touch with all the friends on your list?

Culling the friend list is a coming of age for any Facebook user. But to cull successfully you have to want to do it, don’t do it if you haven’t got the nerve for the impending backlash. Dejected friends will write to you and complain, some will whine to shared friends (which makes it awkward when you all meet), others will simply never talk to you again.

But lets get real, its your life… Seinfeld screaming ‘ive got enough friends’ springs to mind here. Put on a brave face and get ready to burn that whopper..I mean friends list.

First on the firing line are ex’s, their friends and family. We all have a romantic notion that ex’s will be friends for life, but there's something terrifying about seeing them tagged in a wedding dress/suit years on. Your ex would never send you that photo, you just happen upon it one night with a belly full of booze and its like going back in time. That goes for their Mother and their friends too…best to avoid them.

A picture of the ex you should never see

My first cull was my ex’s and their inner circles. An ex of 5 years wrote to me saying how disappointed she was. Another ex from high school called me ‘weak’. It was like breaking up all over again.

Probably the worst friends to keep are your workmates. The workplace thrives on gossip and innuendo and arriving home drunk at 4am to post links of monkeys peeing into other monkey’s mouths offers others intimate access to your dark side. Your real friends loved that video too, but it does'nt bode well for professional self esteem come business time.

Tuesday 4AM: Damien was tagged in an album

There are plenty of known examples of why work mates shouldn’t mix on FB, but one that stands out for me is a friend from work who accidentally invited half the office to a rave he had organised and on the general invite he wrote that he didn’t want anyone from work to know he organises raves. This is just the sort of thing that can come back to bite your ass.

Then comes the randoms, people who are friends of friends, semi-love interests and people who meet you once and they track you down. A friend of a friend I deleted called our shared friends and said I was an ‘arrogant fuck’. Ouch.

Whataya mean you dont wanna be my friend?

Try not to get too over excited on the cull, its nice to keep some random types around just to keep it real. I’m friends with a plant that posts pictures of itself photoshopped in front of the world’s greatest tourist attractions. The plant wears different bows in each photo and regularly ask its friends for feedback and comments about its latest look. Genius.

The blue bow really suits your leaves

The benefits of a refreshed friends list are many and numerous. Its like cleaning out the fridge. No more ex’s sitting in the hard to reach part. This means you have finally put that behind you. No more randoms sending you banal surveys and pointless status updates. And finally no work mates to hassle you when you stumble in on Monday after the weekend-long rave you organised.

Facebook has become a part of our lives. Without it many of us wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves (not me obviously). So its important to treat it like life in some respects and friends are a big part of that.

True friends: cant live with em...

You will relish in the new and improved you, confident that you truly know your friends. And if like me you can count a plant as one of those you choose to keep, you can look forward to many years of colourful bows.

So after all this consideration my pre-cull figure was 627, post-cull was 398. 229 friends bit the dust. The worst thing about this dramatic decline in numbers was that 229 less people would read this blog…

May 19, 2009

Budget Airline Blues--Fark Ryanair

You'll just have to get used to it

“Anywhere in Europe for ONE Euro!” flashed the headline from the RyanAir website. Naturally, an offer like this is hard to resist, especially by the most cost conscious traveler like The Flashpacker! Like a crazed shopper bearing down on a red light special, I was greedily divulging my credit card details – this was too good to be true! Soon, I was the proud owner of two return tickets from London to Stockholm for only 2 Euros!

Does anyone remember Eurail? You know, the ONLY way to get around Europe with a backpack on a budget? Well, once upon a time on a faraway continent, airline travel was undoubtably the most expensive mode of transport for anyone contemplating a European holiday, the cheapest way to go was with a Eurail train pass, valid for 2-4 weeks, valid for travel anywhere on the majestic European rail network.

Good times Eurailing in Huppe, Bulgaria

Yeah sure, it was a great way to see the countryside and a gold mine for nostalgic, life-changing moments, but there were plenty of catches: sleep deprivation, fear of being robbed, random police searches and dodgy carriage partners just for starters. Waking up in a city that you hadn’t planned on visiting was always a surprise.

I've never been on one of these

Today however, The Flashpacker is so spoilt for choice by a network of budget airlines seemingly hell bent on drastically under-cutting the other that the roles have been reversed. Traveling by train is now exclusively the domain of the rich and mad, just like flying used to be.

But be careful what you wish for.

Sure, budget airline travel today is the ONLY way to see Europe with a backpack and a budget, but get ready for some new experiences once you press ‘buy now’.

The bottom feeder of Europes budget battlers has to be RyanAir, which began its humble service in 1985 with just one route from Waterford in the southeast of Ireland to London Gatwick. It’s now the largest budget carrier in Europe boasting an average of 30 million passengers annually and flying to over 220 European routes.

RyanAir CEO Michael O'Leary tests out the fleet

RyanAir has persistently exasperated its rivals by not only profiting during the post 9/11 downturn, it now intends on altering the face of the aviation industry entirely by forcing passengers to do the dirty work and load their own baggage. That’s right, load your own bag!

Come on dude, get loading!

The problem with budget travel is that its budget. A fact not lost on Ryanair. and there’s nothing this budget carrier wont do to try and rip out your soul if you decide to bite its 1 euro fare bait.

From the everyman-for-himself anarchy of boarding time to the army of mournful service staff whom seem to pity passengers as much as themselves for lowering themselves to this service, Ryanair doesn’t fill you with much confidence at departure. And I felt low for it.

Once on the plane, jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, passengers expect to pay 3 times more for a sandwich than the ticket. RyanAir is so no-frills that the life jackets under the seats are probably coin operated…

Priority seating

It gets worse.

When RyanAir staff aren’t too busy breaking you down to servile levels, they are attempting to warn potential new passengers about gaping holes in the company’s safety record.

Anyone know where Italy is?

On a web site specifically created to address the concerns of its members, the International Transport Worker’s Federation has highlighted the plight of disgruntled RyanAir staff by posting their grievances for all to read. From a member of the Cabin Crew came this:

"Ryanair are more concerned about sales then passenger safety. I can’t count how many emergency landings i have had due to trying to be early or on time and not working on the technical problem. I think it’s only a matter of time before some big accident occurs within the company due to no frills

And this:

Flying RyanAir is a constant danger... one day, we took off from Stansted with no portable water in the aircraft, so we didn't have water in the toilets, in the sinks, not anywhere. The engineer told us that the plane needed to takeIoff on time, and brought us another fire extinguisher, just in case "we had a fire on board". The Cabin Supervisor asked me to keep my personal water (the one I bought early that day) just in case we had an emergency. That day we did 2 flights in that condition.

And finally, if the pilot manages to land at your destination, you will be happy to learn that you have another 3 hours travel by bus to the ‘actual’ destination. Huh?

'Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking...'

When planning a trip around Europe it pays to look before you leap. Budget airline travel is now undoubtedly the cheapest and fastest mode of transport, however try to read between the lines rather than get too excited by the cheap prices as this translates into cheaper service standards.

You get what you pay for, or that’s what you will be thinking when you’re loading your own bag.