27 November 2014

One year ago today

One year ago today I landed back in London.

11 August 2014


Thanks to a thread on Facebook (thanks, John) The Beards have re-entered my conciousness.  Two songs which will be forever China.

5 August 2014

For those considering travelling...

19 July 2014

The gates to hell (video)

Sorting out pictures will take longer, but a few videos to give you an idea of what it's like. For those really interested I'm sure YouTube has something far better for you.

The gates of hell (part 2)

What feels like a lifetime ago, although it's just under 14 months, I went to the gates of hell. Whilst I still need to sort out my photos from the place, along with most of my photos, there is an interesting piece in yesterday's Guardian about it::

Which is based on something from National Geographic:

I find it interesting that the article talks about visiting Turkmenistan for thrill seeking:
Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated countries in the world, yet its fledgling tourism industry hopes to capitalise on crater as an attraction for thrillseekers. Because it’s not fenced off, visitors can stand right on the edge of the crater, despite the safety hazards.
You can indeed stand right at the edge of the crater, but as thrills go it's not a big one - it is however well worth seeing; there is something impressive about a big whole in the ground which has been burning for 4 decades.
I'd also not recommend Turkmenistan for thrill seeking in general, there are many better places around the planet for that and Turkmenistan is far more interesting from a cultural perspective. The country has been isolated for so long due to the despot who ran the country for years; the new regime is less crazy, but that is a comparative. The country is still ran my mad men and it has a horrendous human rights record (second only to North Korea - another place I want to go - to the point it is often referred to as "the North Korea of Central Asia"). That said, it is a place I'd like to return to and see more of - hopefully seeing some of the things missed due to the fun in crossing the Caspian.

My only complaint about the article, and it isn't really a compliant, is that it just doesn't convey how hot it is at the edge of the crater. This picture gives you and idea, but even then it doesn't really do it justice.

To be fair to both National Geographic - a magazine I'm on-record as liking - and The Guardian, it must be hard to adequately convey what a 30m deep, 69m wide, crater that has been on fire for 40 years is like. I can't do it, although I'm not a journalist. "Hot" will just have to do.

Test your backups (part 2)

One other factor to consider when using a subscription based backup service...

If you let your subscription lapse then you will almost certainly lose your backups. This won't affect your primary data (i.e. what you are backing-up) and it shouldn't affect any local backup (e.g. to a USB disk), but any data which depends upon that subscription (e.g. data stored off-site, probably in the cloud) will be lost.

CrashPlan users can find information here about data retention at the end of your subscription, the TL;DR version of which is "you've probably got about 2 weeks grace, but don't chance it". Other backup systems are likely to publish similar information.

If you use a subscription backup service now would be a good time to check the subscription expiry date, top-up if needed and set a reminder in your calendar about the future expiry date.

This post was brought to you by bitter experience - thankfully not mine.

18 July 2014

Test your backups

Back in December I wrote about data backups and how important it is to test them - an untested backup is essentially useless.

Tonight I have performed a test of my backups, restoring a few files from CrashPlan. It really doesn't take very long to test that:

  1. Your data is being backed-up - check that data you have recently created (e.g. images you've recently edited, CDs you've just encoded) is in your backups;
  2. Your data is can be restored from backup - restore a sample of data from the backup; a few dozen files to make sure that they restore and are as expected (e.g. the MP3 file plays, the image opens, etc.).

Now would be an excellent time to test your backups.  If you don't have then, CrashPlan is recommended by many.

I'm already #1, so why try harder

I knew my Reporting Theft in Cusco post returned second in Google's results for "reporting theft in Cusco", ahead of the likes of Lonely Planet, which is why I updated the article; an attempt to pay forwards the help I had received.

It turns out that Google's top ranked article for "report passport theft in cusco" is....

... almost certainly a mistake and one I'm sure will be corrected soon. Until then, I hope you'll excuse me whilst I smile quietly to myself and go write a "losing your passport for beginners" post and continue to pay it forward.

14 July 2014

FairPlay Language School

As inspired by my recent update the the Reporting Theft in Cusco entry, a few words about FairPlay language school....

One of the things I wanted from my time in South America was to learn a little Spanish, where to give me a start I used a language school.  I'd wanted to use some of my time in Central Asia to learn the basics of Spanish, but that was wildly optimistic - with overlanding all you can focus on is what is there, which is part of the joy.

There are many different schools across all of South America (it is common for travellers to try and learn a little of the language - if nothing else in some countries you need to have some Spanish (Bolivia, for example) as otherwise you won't get around) and I used FairPlay in Cusco, based on a recommendation from Gil who had also used them.

FairPlay isn't just a language school, it's also an NGO which helps locals. In its own words:
FairPlay is a not-for-profit organisation that was founded in September 2006 and helps disadvantaged people in Cusco build stable, prosperous futures for themselves. We provide high quality services to travelers and volunteers, including Spanish tuition, facilitating volunteer placements and homestays, while helping local people to help themselves. 
We do this by offering free and comprehensive training through our NGO to determined, talented Cusceneans who could not otherwise afford the education they need to get a properly paid job. 
We then provide these people with employment so that they can put their new skills to use and earn a living wage for themselves and their families. These previously marginalized people earn money, but they also earn the respect of their communities and a new place in society.  
(Source: http://www.fairplay-peru.org/en/Volunteers/Live__Learn/The_FairPlay_Idea/)

I really like that in learning something and do something which benefits me, I am doing something which benefits those who live where I am visiting.

The teaching itself is in Spanish, where learning a language being taught in that language (where you don't speak that language) is interesting. It is made more interesting in that my teacher didn't speak English, but that is part of the immersive experience - it is hard work (very hard work in places, leaving me feel like I'd done a few rounds with Tyson), but it works.

I originally booked 2 weeks of lessons (4 hours a day, 2 of grammar and 2 of practical), but this turned into 3 - in part as I was making (slow and painful) progress and didn't want to stop and in part because I'd got the time (see passport saga for details).

It took me 3 weeks to do most of what should have taken 2, where this is no reflection on the school or teachers, but simply my ability to learn languages. For as easy as I find it to learn technology, I find it hard to learn languages.

The school left me with enough Spanish (language and confidence to use the language) to mostly get-by in Spanish for the rest of my time in South America, as long as people spoke slowly (different countries within South America speak at very different speeds - Peru, especially in Cusco, have a nice and slow place - not so in Chile, for example) and didn't want to discuss anything complex.
It may not sound like much, but being able to go to the bus station in La Paz, discuss what you need and buy a ticket in fluent enough Spanish is a great feeling, especially when you arrived in the country with essentially no Spanish.

The school works well with those who arrive with some Spanish (Rosie, a fellow inhabitant at Mama Carmen's, arrived with A-level Spanish and was off to (and is now at) Cambridge to study languages - not a beginner by any measure) and can cater lessons to your needs. Working within their volunteering program is another great way to learn, if you've got the wherewithal to work with kids - I don't.

The social side of the school - salsa lessons (yes, I tried; yes, I have two left feet; yes, I really enjoyed it) and the cooking lessons - makes for a very friendly atmosphere (I've stayed in hostels with worse atmospheres) and a nice vibe to the place.

The home-stays are great - it is the chance to live with locals for a while, eat proper Peruvian food (which I lucked-out on, as Mama Carmen is a brilliant cook), use the language and see a side of Cusco beyond the hostel & the usual sites. Again, in doing this you help others and you help yourself.  It also gave me something I'd not had for a long time - the chance to be static.

I struggled to learn any more Spanish after leaving the school, which in part was due to being surround by English everywhere I went in South America (it is the defacto language in every hostel) and in part through laziness - none of us like studying what we know we are bad at / struggle with.

Many months later and I'm back in London and I still have some of what I was taught in the school - I recently went to a Bomba Estereo gig and was able to talk a little with the ticket staff in Spanish and understand a few of the lyrics.

If you are looking to study Spanish whilst in Peru I highly recommend FairPlay - it is a good school and they do good.

13 July 2014

I didn't write this...

... but like many travellers, I could have - although not quiet as well.


Well worth a read.

18 June 2014

Olympus OM-D E-M5

A friend of mine asked me about my travel camera, an Olympus OM-D E-M5, as he is looking at buying one. Cue me going through the blog to pull out some of the images I've uploaded and what I've said about the it before.

It's a brilliant camera and *almost* the perfect travel camera.  I say almost - it needs a built-in GPS sensor to geo-tag photos to make it perfect.  A GPS would have reduced battery life and Olympus had to make a trade - I just wish they'd put one in and let the user choose when to enable it.
Not having GPS tagged pictures makes for looking what you've shot and wishing you knew exactly where they were taken - see the other pictures from the salt flats for details (day 1, day 2, day 3 and the sunrise of day 4).

The camera is small enough to carry anywhere, but big enough to be a "proper" camera.  It feels very good in the hand and the image quality is stunning.  The low-light images from it show more than my eye can see at the time.
It doesn't look like a pro camera - unlike my Canon 7D - if anything looks like an old camera, which is useful in some places as it may prevent, or at least reduce, questions.  It does, however, give you a lot of what you get in something like the 7D - enough that I never once questioned my decision not to take the 7D. Although I wished on many many occasions that I'd got different lenses with me - something ever single photographer will recognise. As with everything else, a trade.

In summary: if you are looking for a very good travel camera, or just a very good camera, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is worth a very serious look.

26 April 2014

A year ago today

A year ago today Daisy rolled-out of Istanbul and I started my adventures through Central Asia.  120 days of utter wonder, travelling through and experiencing some truly amazing places, meeting some awesome people and giving me more to consider than I've ever had to digest before.

120 days of living in very close quarters with a bunch of people I'd never met before - 3 of which I spent the whole 120 days with; 2 of which I spent 100 days with (Olly and Jan, the crew from Istanbul to Beijing) and some I didn't get to spend anywhere near enough time with.  To a greater or lesser extent, I'm still in some form with many of the people I shared time with.  Alas there are a few who I've fallen out of contact with - if you're reading this: Hi, drop me an e-mail.  I'll to be a little (lot) better at replying.

( Don't ask about South America yet - I'm still working on understanding Central Asia. :-) )

My change of plans has resulted in the last few months being very very different from the prior 7, but that is no bad thing - a change is as good as, and all that.  So where am I now...?

I'm back living and working in London, having just moved in to my own place a few minutes walk from my office.  I'm back doing IT security work, where I happen to be working for another large insurance company.
It took my a while to get my head around the fact that I hadn't taken a step backwards in doing this - another job which, on paper, is similar to the one I walked away from to go travelling.  A few months in to the role and I'm happy that I've not done that; although I've undone all too much of the good work I did in prep for travelling - something I'm fixing, again.

I still haven't started to make sense of what it is I've seen and done - if nothing else the 3 hour round-trip commute I had prior to my move was mentally and physically killing me, leaving me with no time or energy to do anything else - but I hope that will change now life is a little more "normal".

The next couple of months is going to be mostly rebuilding a new normality - but don't ask what that is, it'll just happen.

On the subject of asking... Many people have asked when I'll be back on the road, the answer to which is "I don't know".  I want to travel more and I have a long list of places I want to go, I just don't know when I'll do another big one.  I'm currently toying with travel options for this year - a few "small" breaks, possibly around the UK and Europe. But really, who knows.  Plans are there to be changed.

9 January 2014

A change of plans. Again.

I have had many changed of plan when it comes to travelling, some enforced on me (the passport issue) and others I've chosen (being in the UK for Christmas). Today is time for another change of plans.

When I changed my flights to allow me to spend Christmas in the UK I had every expectation of being in the UK for 6 weeks and then continuing my travels to SE Asia, with a bonus trip to Hong Kong thrown in (the route I had to take in order to move my flights to give me time in the UK – no bad thing).  When I landed I expected the same and did for the first couple of weeks.

Things change.

Having spent a few weeks in the UK there was something niggling at me, which I finally managed to work out on Boxing Day – now isn't the time for SE Asia.  As much as it absolutely was the time to go travelling in April, now is the time to be back in London for a bit – returning to The Road later in the year.

This isn't because I don’t like travelling – I do.
This isn't because I didn't enjoy what I've already done – I did.
This is because after 7 months it is time for something else, time to work out what it was I've actually seen and done, and then do some more.
(Update - nor is it for any "bad" reason. I'm not ill, for example. Thank you to all those who asked.)

So I'm back in the UK.  London, to be specific.  And, assuming I can find a sensible contract, I will be for most of the year, although it is very dependent upon what work find.

Speaking of which… if you or someone you know needs an IT Security / Information Security contractor, ideally in London – although I’ve got plenty of experience in working and living globally – then I'm more than happy to discuss what they are looking for.

Oh, and to those of you who live vicariously through my blog – now is the time to get out more. I am - just somewhere different from where I was expecting 6 weeks ago.