<![CDATA[Solo travel, made easy - Blog]]>Sat, 07 Dec 2019 22:13:19 +0000Weebly<![CDATA[How to meet people when you're on the road]]>Wed, 27 Mar 2019 19:49:44 GMThttp://workingontheroad.com/blog/how-to-meet-people-when-youre-on-the-road
PictureJoin a group, take a day trip, or do an activity. Doing the Death Road, Bolivia (I'm on the far right).

I heard a story the other day about a highly decorated U.S. Army Ranger who was badly injured in Panama in the early 1990s. Lou Olivera was one of a number of Rangers who parachuted in on a mission to secure an airfield in Panama as part of the wider objective to establish a democratic government in the country.
I heard Lou’s incredible story from someone who knew him well. I met them in a local café a few weeks ago.
Why is this relevant?
Solo travellers often worry that they will feel lonely and isolated when they travel, and I get a lot of questions about this. How do I meet people? How do I avoid loneliness and feeling homesick?

The answer is to keep an open mind and not be afraid to talk to people, wherever you may be. I met my new friend in my local café one afternoon when we were both sitting at the same long table with our laptops and coffee cups. We had both been going there for a few days and struck up a conversation about it. ‘So, here again? Another day of tapping away on the laptop?’
There are times when I feel lonely or homesick, of course there are. But they are few and far between. I make sure they are by being open to talking to people or starting up a conversation when it feels natural to. It doesn’t always work. People who you thought were open to a chat may not be, so you laugh or shrug it off and go back to sipping your coffee and reading your book (or writing your travel website!). But when it does, you may end up with a friend for life.

Friends I've made on the road

With Pete and Hen in Atlanta, Georgia.
I met my friend Pete when we were sharing a dorm room in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We had a ball spending our days at Angkor Wat taking in the temples and chilling out with a drink in the evenings with the others from our hostel. We’re still good friends, and he has since introduced me to one of his mates who is now my rock as we are both newbie Europeans in a busy American city.
I met Gaby in another hostel dorm, this time in Laos. I had just arrived, tired and hungry, and dumped my things in the room asking in passing if anyone wanted to join me for lunch at the next-door riverside bar. Gaby came along and we ended up spending three weeks travelling through Laos together.
I met Andrew while we were both travelling in South America. We were at the top of a church tower in Quito, Ecuador, when I wanted someone to take a photo of me with the incredible backdrop of the hilly city. I asked him if he’d take one and we got to chatting… We travelled through Bolivia, Panama, and Costa Rica together. Three years on and we are still in touch even when we are on opposite sides of the world.

And so I find myself sitting in a café hearing Lou’s story. And I've made a new friend.

At the top of Quito's national basilica, Ecuador.
If you are travelling solo, don’t be afraid to open yourself up to a conversation wherever you may be. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship, it could just be an interesting one-off chat. It may be nothing at all. But you’ll never know unless you try.

Happy travelling!
<![CDATA[Elephant tourism and how to avoid supporting cruel practices]]>Tue, 12 Mar 2019 14:17:55 GMThttp://workingontheroad.com/blog/elephant-tourism-and-how-to-avoid-supporting-cruel-practicesPictureThe day I met Soi in Pai, Thailand
Ever since I was a little girl, I have adored elephants. Such intelligent creatures and so human-like in their emotions and social values. I had seen them in the wild in Tanzania and experienced the amazing work that the David Sheldrick Foundation does with orphaned elephants in Kenya, and that only deepened that love and pull towards getting to know more about them and protect them.

It’s taken me a while to write about my experiences with elephant camps in Thailand and Sri Lanka as I am emotional every time I think about it. But it needs to be written to help get the word out about how to approach elephant tourism, particularly in less industrialised countries, and to help people understand the plight of these magnificent animals.

Elephants from Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage penned into a small space in the river for no apparent reason. Adults nudge babies into the centre to better protect them.
I had been travelling for a few months through Southeast Asia and ended up in a small town in the mountains of Thailand called Pai, just north of Chiang Mai. It’s a popular spot for digital nomads like me and is more known as a hippie town, but its popularity has grown fast amongst travellers. I needed a place to drop my backpack, rest for a while, and catch up with some work. I rented a bungalow surrounded by rice paddies and a scooter to get around with and enjoyed a slower pace of life. 
The day I met Soi
On one of my scooter rides, and on the advice of a fellow traveller, I found an elephant camp just outside town that had two elephants and, most importantly, did not allow riding. What started as an afternoon having fun helping an elephant bathe in the river quickly developed into a deep, life-changing love and affection. 
Soi (her name means necklace in Thai) is a female elephant, enjoying an early retirement from the logging industry. She spends her days splashing about in the river and munching on bamboo and bananas, humouring us humans who want to spend a little of our time in their presence. She took to me as quickly as I took to her and let me stroke her trunk within seconds of meeting her. 
After a few visits she would press her trunk against me looking for me to stroke the more sensitive underside, one that they won’t often let humans touch. She was also happy for me to introduce her to all her new visitors who would stop by to feed her and say hello. It was an incredible feeling to know that she was slowly building a relationship with me. If I stayed for long enough, perhaps I could have a fraction of the connection she had with her own handler (mahout), who she clearly adored. 

Looking for elephant volunteering opportunities 
I couldn’t stay in Thailand forever, so I began to research opportunities to volunteer with rescued elephants and eventually discovered a US-based organisation that runs volunteering programmes in Sri Lanka. I applied for a two-week stay and was quickly accepted and eventually assigned to an elephant camp in the town of Kegalle. I was very excited as I would spend my birthday amongst these majestic giants; what better way to celebrate than by shovelling elephant poo and lugging around bamboo for their dinner? 

Just before I was due to fly out to Sri Lanka, I began to investigate the camp itself a little more. I was horrified to find out that they make a lot of their money – allegedly to support their rescue programme and provide food and care for the elephants – by offering elephant rides to tourists. Furious, I wrote to the organisation’s headquarters demanding to withdraw from the programme and get a full refund on the basis that none of this information was available earlier on. They tried to argue their case, even making the point that the elephants are trained for riding, which only horrified me more. After a lot of wrangling and emailing, I finally
succeeded in getting my money back.

After my initial protests, the organization had offered me a spot at an alternative camp at Pinnawala, not far from Kegalle, that did not offer tourist elephant rides. But my research found that other tourists who had visited had found that while riding was not allowed, the conditions in which the animals were kept were not ideal either. I was determined to raise awareness of how the elephants were treated and looked after so I decided to visit Pinnawala to see for myself just how things were there.

What’s Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage really like? 
I arrived around bath time, just as the elephants marched down the hill to the river. I quickly bought my ticket and kept my reasons for being there to myself. I wandered off to watch the elephant procession.  

There’s something about watching a herd of elephants amble along, knowing they’re on their way for some R&R and for a splash around. Even the oldest matriarch can act like a juvenile again when in the water! For a moment it brought the smile back to my face. There were 28 elephants in total on their way to the river, ranging in age from the older matriarch to young babies. 

That smile vanished pretty quickly. It was soon obvious that the elephants feared the handlers. It was clear in their eyes and in their behaviour. I spent two hours observing them in the river. One of the younger keepers was a bit too liberal with the bullhook and I watched him and another keeper throwing sticks at the elephants when they weren’t doing what they wanted them to and they couldn’t be bothered to go and round them up. His voice was not authoritative and none of them seemed to have any relationship with any of the elephants. 
The matriarch, with her chain around her neck, being 'controlled' under threat of the bullhook. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka.
The matriarch’s keeper used the bullhook a lot and although she was the only elephant chained, she was chained for a while, nonetheless. Chaining may be necessary at times. Elephants are huge animals and are still wild. A rampaging elephant can cause a lot of damage and potentially kill people and livestock. But chaining an elephant when it is in the water robs it of the ability to rest its joints and cool off in the heat in a way that allows it to do so comfortably. And there is more than one way to chain an elephant. When they are in their stockades or feeding stations they still need some room to move around and one chain should be sufficient, if it is ever needed. Two – one on the front leg and another on the back leg with no give as I witnessed at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage – is a crueler way to do it.
Young elephants chained at their feeding stations. They also have a chain on their front leg. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka.
The bullhook
Let me dispel some myths about the bullhook, a long, spear-like instrument with a hook on the end, which is used to jab at an elephant’s most sensitive spot, the toe. Ostensibly it is used to protect humans and other elephants from those who are either too boisterous or too aggressive. There were a lot of posters about bullhooks around the sanctuary site and they offered a more one-sided view of the need for it.
You do not need to hurt an animal for it to listen to you. You need to build trust. I thought back to Soi and her mahout. Never once did I hear him say a harsh word to her. Never once did I see fear in her eyes. But all I saw was fear in the expressions of these poor elephants down by the river.
Sign at the orphanage justifying use of the bullhook. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka.
What was it like at the orphanage? 
There, they were all chained to their feeding stations. Two short chains, one on the front and one on the back leg. The local representative who I had been corresponding with had been adamant that the babies are not chained. Absolutely not true – that is not what I saw. 
I spent a bit of time talking to one of the assistant keepers who spoke good English. You could tell he cared about the animals. He confirmed that they are all chained in the evening, babies included. I’m always told this is for their protection, but some better-built stockades should negate the need for that, irrespective of the amount of space they have. 
He also told me that the ratio of elephant to keeper is 1:1, but this is not what I saw by the river. I asked him about the bullhook. He gave me the same story about protection and told me that it’s part of a carrot and stick approach to keeping the elephants in line as they are still half-wild. I mentioned what I’d seen at the river and the behaviour of the keepers there and he told me that the previous year they had fired someone for being a little too fast and free with using it.
He was much more affectionate with the animals, and in particular with the young elephant he was trying to treat as we talked; he had had his tail bitten by another elephant and needed to get some medicine on it. The little one was having none of it though. To him, being manhandled for treatment was the same as being controlled in any other way and it took two men in the end to spray the syringe-full of medicine onto his injured tail. 
I left feeling utterly dejected. I was glad that I had managed to avoid supporting such practices by volunteering with the organisation, but I had hoped that some of what I had read about the treatment of the animals may have been untrue or an exaggeration. Sadly, it was not.
Young, seven-year-old male elephant chained on the front and back legs while eating. The chains are short and do not allow him to move. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka.
What can be done?
Ultimately, these orphaned and rescued elephants do need to go somewhere and be fed and looked after. What I thought was missing from the sanctuary was some sort of balanced education around the gentle nature of these giants, their human-like traits, the importance of socialising to them, and why being comfortable in the water is so necessary for the wellbeing of the animals. There should be more information on the effects of using elephants for tourist rides, how training for this takes place and why it is detrimental to the animal, and why using chains and bullhooks is likely to do more harm than good. There are sanctuaries that manage to have happy animals without any cruel practices, so it is not without precedent. 
What can you do? 
First and foremost, please, NEVER EVER RIDE AN ELEPHANT. Know that it you choose to ride an elephant, it has most likely been abused to tame it and break its spirit. Using bullhooks, beating, even starvation, humans will break an elephant and make it accept a heavy basket on its back without objection, on one of the boniest parts of its spine. They will add to that the weight of Western tourists – often overweight tourists – and make the elephants walk on roads, where it hurts and burns the soles of their feet. 
Imagine walking barefoot on hot tarmac, during the middle of the afternoon in the humid tropics, with an adult on your back and you begin to get a sense of how it must feel. 
Do your research before visiting any animal sanctuary to make sure you are not inadvertently supporting inhumane practices or involuntarily leading to animals being harmed. If you’re unsure, don’t do it. I have learned my lesson the hard way and while I do still have reservations about zoos, sanctuaries, safari parks, etc., if it is the only place where an animal can be looked after when it can’t do it alone in the wild, then as long as it is treated well, I am ok with it. 
Happy travelling.
Look out for signs or information that confirm no riding takes place. Pai, Thailand.
<![CDATA[An A to Z of the USA]]>Tue, 06 Nov 2018 19:55:12 GMThttp://workingontheroad.com/blog/an-a-to-z-of-the-usa
I have been in the US now for a few months, and have also been here before on shorter trips. But as with any relocation to another country, temporary or otherwise, there are a few challenges to overcome and more than a few moments of confusion, hilarity, and frustration. I’ve seen plenty of articles around how Americans experience life in the UK (and I agree with most of what they say even when they are pointing out the ridiculous!), so here are my thoughts on life from the other side. To make it a little more interesting and easy to read, it’s an A to Z of my experiences so far… It’s meant to be funny and informational should you be heading this side of the pond anytime soon, but mostly it’s my off-the-cuff thoughts as a newbie in the US. Let me know if you agree, disagree, or if I’ve missed anything!
Americans are some of the most patriotic people I’ve ever met. As well as the anthem, the flag is a big part of life for many and they are all over – I counted over 500 while on a road trip in Florida before giving up. To show your respect if the anthem starts up, stop whatever you’re doing and face the flag until it’s over. Then it’s business as usual.  
Big yellow school buses
Every morning and mid-afternoon you feel like you have stepped into a movie - there are so many bright yellow school buses around. Beware if you are driving; if they stop to let off kids, you must stop too whatever side of the road you are on.
My experience is largely from around Georgia where they absolutely love their dogs. Even Paris doesn’t have this many pooches around and they come in all shapes and sizes, not just pocket-sized ones! And, unlike Paris, you don’t have to watch where you step; owners are very responsible and clean up after their dogs.
Street art, Nashville, Tennessee
Driving is generally pretty easy here. The signage is great and the lanes are clearly marked.  A few things to keep in mind:
  • There are speed limits, but nowhere near as many cameras as there are in the UK. Police are everywhere though, so don’t be too tempted to speed.
  • There is an outer lane on the higway (aka motorway) but drivers overtake you from all lanes. I’ve also seen more than one instance of wild veering across four lanes to get from the far left onto an exit ramp.
  • There are roundabouts, but not many drivers signal when using them.  
  • You can turn right on a red light if there is no traffic and that keeps things moving. Watch out for the ‘no turn on red’ which comes up occasionally.
  • Avoid driving in rush hour if you can, the highways turn into big parking lots.
  • Oh, and everywhere, even Starbucks, has a drive-thru (sic).
I’ve been surprised to see how little awareness there is of the need for environmental protection. It’s not a Trump thing, the previous administration was very pro-environment, but compared to what we are used to the recycling facilities are limited, single-use plastics and styrofoam are everywhere (even in big hotel chains), and there is little information about energy efficiency or reducing consumption. 
A walk through the forest, Georgia
Fast food
If you’re looking for fast food, you’re in the right place! Fast, often fried, food is a big thing here – it’s convenient and very easy to find. It is possible to find healthier food options on the go, but you do have to look for them. Restaurants will always have healthier options and dishes typically come with a salad as a starter. You may want to ask for the dressing on the side if, like me, you prefer dressing on your salad rather than salad with your dressing – but I’m a self-confessed fussy eater. As for food portions, what you hear is largely right – they are very generous. Most of us will be able to get two meals out of any restaurant portion so ask for a box to take your leftovers home. It will probably be styrofoam though.  
A sore topic of debate for my American friends and me. I don’t get the need to carry a gun, but I’ve learned not to question the constitutional right to bear arms, regardless of whether it’s as old as the country itself or that times (and guns) have changed. Georgia may have an ‘open carry’ law, but unlike in the movies you don’t see people walking around carrying a gun and it is a safe place to be. If guns are your thing though, or you've always wanted to give it a go in a controlled environment, there are plenty of indoor shooting ranges for you to try. I've been a couple of times and really enjoyed it. I even managed to hit the target most of the time! 
A very typical southern style of bar, filled with country music, and two-step and line dancing. I ended up in the biggest one in the country on a night out in Fort Worth, Texas, where they even had their own indoor mini rodeo! Can’t get more Texas than that. Hilarious fun and worth going for the people watching if you don't like country music.
On the way to Nashville, Music City and music capital of the USA.
 Always carry some form of ID, as you will be asked for it no matter how old you look. I thought they were joking when they asked me to show ID in the supermarket when I was buying a bottle of wine. And no, it wasn’t a way of complimenting me - they wouldn’t sell me the wine until I showed ID! You don't have to carry your passport around though, a driver's licence will do.
Tone down the sarcastic British humour, it’s not used half as much here! A few will get it, but it will be lost on most.
Kennedy Space Centre
If you make it to Florida, this is a must-see. Experience the thundering, shuddering take-off of the Apollo 8, see the launch pads of rockets past and future, and lose yourself in a 3-D film of the earth from space. I aimed to spend a couple of hours here and left after six!
The space shuttle Atlantis, Kennedy Space Centre, Florida
There is a huge Latino culture here. Everywhere you go - in the south anyway - you hear Spanish spoken all around and Spanish language options are available for almost everything. In Miami, it felt like native Spanish speakers outnumbered English speakers and more often than not people are bilingual.
There is a palpable sense of respect for those who have served or who are still active in the military, and it is humbling. On hearing that someone is on active duty or has retired, people will thank them for their service, a phrase that is heard frequently. Companies also show their respect by offering benefits and discounts to military personnel and veterans. 
National Parks
I have barely scratched the surface with this one, but the ones that I have been to in Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida are stunning. The Smoky Mountains and Everglades are just a small part of the country’s incredible outdoors that I’ve been lucky enough to explore. Any chance you get to visit one, grab it with both hands and you won’t be disappointed. 
Americans are very friendly and will chat to you anywhere, any time. And they are so, so polite! For someone who is a bit of a chatterbox, I love their friendliness and outgoing nature and it makes me feel a lot less self-conscious (and weird!) when I start randomly chatting to someone in the cafe queue.
I’ve been here during presidential election debates and recently been through the midterms. While people can feel very strongly about their political views and turning on the TV means you are bombarded by debating pundits, in day-to-day life you are unlikely to come across anyone looking for a political discussion. All the same, I’m steering well clear of this one! 
Shooter's view of the road along which President Kennedy's motorcade travelled (he was shot just to the right of this view). The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas
Q-Tip (and other random words)
They speak English, but not as we know it! I’ve had plenty of funny looks when they have no idea what I’m talking about and I feel like the foreigner that I am when I ask someone to repeat what they said for the fourth time (and I still don’t get it!). But I’m slowly learning to say tuh-may-toe.
I’ve counted as many churches as flags, especially here in the south. Religion is a big thing and people aren’t afraid to talk about their faith. Another topic that can get people very excited, and one that they do engage in conversation in.
Looking for a good way to spend five hours on a Monday, Thursday, Saturday or Sunday? Look out for football – college, NFL, little league…it can be hard to get away from if it’s not your thing. Baseball, basketball, ice hockey, and even soccer (football to the rest of the world) are hugely popular though and catching a game is great fun. Look out for 'tailgating' options too, where you get to drink and snack in the run-up to kick-off. Similar to our picnic in the park or on the grass, but in the car park.
Catching an Atlanta United game with 70,000 other fans
There are plenty of public transit options, but many still prefer their cars. Metro systems are considered unsafe by many (largely because they don’t use them but in reality they are no more or less safe than any major public transport system). I hear that there are major investments in rail coming though so perhaps things will change…
For those of us who grew up with American TV shows and movies, U-haul trucks always seem to make an appearance, usually either at the beginning or at the end. And they not only really do exist, they are frequently spotted on roads and highways. I always imagine that whoever is in them is heading off to an exciting fresh start in a different state...just like in the movies!
America, land of the car. And truck. And monster truck (with such names as Titan, Silverado, and Ram). Without wheels you can’t get very far, so get your international driving permit before heading over. You see more and more cyclists around but it is still a recreational thing rather than a way to commute, so provisions for cyclists still have some way to go.
There are plenty of hiking and walking trails, but without a car you are a little more limited in getting around unless you are in the city centre. Outside of that, the infrastucture for pedestrians is not as widespread and primarily designed with cars in mind. I have often found myself cursing when pavements (or should that be sidewalks?) randomly end with no warning. If you are planning on walking, be careful! 
I did walk around Nashville though!
X-tra large
Cars, food portions, buildings, roads. Supersized America.  Revel in the big-ness that is this country, you don't see it anywhere else.
Heard from morning till night, hey y'all is a very southern greeting. Short for 'you all', y'all is used by everyone in almost any context. Join in and use it every so often and they’ll love you!
Ok, slightly random. But Atlanta is where they film the hit TV series The Walking Dead, so if that’s your thing then there’s plenty to see!
Downtown Atlanta at dusk with a view of my favourite building, known as the Pencil
I hope you've enjoyed a whistlestop tour of US life. Happy travelling and have a great day y’all
<![CDATA[Office of the day]]>Tue, 06 Nov 2018 19:31:10 GMThttp://workingontheroad.com/blog/office-of-the-day1382767

It's Monday morning. The summer holidays are over and everyone is scurrying back to work under cooler skies and packed underground trains. I would normally be booting up the work laptop and checking the weekend’s emails. Instead, I'm sitting on a balcony letting my new reality sink in.

I've actually gone and done it. I've been talking about it for as long as anyone can remember (and I have little doubt most stopped listening a while ago). But on this Monday morning, I am booting up my new laptop, preparing to get started on writing copy for a plumbing website while soaking up the sunshine. But I really should start this story from the beginning…

For years I had been looking for a way to quit the rat race and enjoy a better pace of life. When I took a few months off work to travel across South America about 18 months ago little did I know I would find the answer. Seeing so many travellers make a success of working and travelling got me thinking even harder. I rolled a few ideas around and settled on a mix of jobs to make it work and give me the variety I enjoy.

I am now the founder and owner of my own business (a team of one with no plans whatsoever to change that) writing copy and proofreading; at the same time I am also a freelance environmental consultant, keeping my hand in in an industry I still feel passionate about.  Between these, I get enough money in to keep me on the road and enough of a challenge to keep my brain active. The rest of the day - those other hours I'm not stuck at a desk in an office anymore - I can enjoy doing all the things I've wanted to do and never had time for. Most importantly, I am about to hit the road again!

The next few weeks will be full of tying up loose ends and sorting through the years of stuff I have accumulated while living in the UK. An emotional but cathartic process, I'm looking forward to the fun memories it'll bring back and the new paths it will open up. Watch this space for what comes next - a new life on the road, working my way through whatever adventures and mischief I can find along the way.

See you soon and if you're on the road, travel safely.

*this blog was originally posted in September 2017