Monthly Archives: May 2014

Around the world with hand luggage only

Around the world with hand luggage only

K and I with our luggage (backpacks) at Doncaster station

When I tell people that we’re going hand luggage only for our 6-month round the world trip, a lot of them visibly boggle. I think everyone imagines the list of things they have, use and love and tries to cram the whole lot into a handbag. Except, of course, packing for a long trip isn’t like that.

Why we’re going hand luggage only

  1. It’s cheaper – no baggage fees.
  2. We’ll be more mobile – we can run for a bus or walk to a hotel
  3. It’s really not that hard – have to do laundry at some point, right?

After 15 years of travelling on budget airlines, I could teach a degree course in packing light and getting away with more than you’re strictly allowed. Most of my trips have been between the place I share with K (wherever that is!) and my parents’ home in Switzerland. As a result, most of the holiday packing rules didn’t apply, so I could experiment more freely. I’ve learned that you can travel indefinitely on the stuff you’d take for a week. 

Most travellers and bloggers who list their luggage don’t seem to include perishables on their list, which I find unhelpful, particularly if you’re trying to get everything through the 10 x 100ml airport security bottleneck. Here’s everything I had in Iceland, details below. Or if you’d like to compare, you can see what I took on our last US trip in 2011.

Clutter of personal items spread out on the floor, everything I've packed for this trip

Clothes – zip-off trousers (2); thermal leggings; capri leggings; vest tops (2); thermal base layer; jersey dresses (2); bras (5); underwear (9); socks (3); swimsuit; bikini; fleece; no coat; sandals; hiking ‘shandals'; running shoes; head kerchief; ‘rain tent’ poncho; no umbrella

Gifts well, I’m not going to list them all out, but everything hidden in the orange carrier bag is staying in Charlotte. That’s the new baby effect!

Liquids –  deodorant; eczema cream (2); toothpaste; nail varnish (2); nail varnish remover; sun cream; Euceta bug bite cream

Other toiletries – disposable razors (2); tweezers; nail scissors; soap; Lush solid shampoo (in a yoghurt pot); electronic toothbrush (plus charger and spare heads); cotton pads; cotton buds; hair brush; hair ties (2); ‘first aid kit’ (ibuprofen, paracetamol, cocodemol, plasters, K meds) (don’t worry, we’ll buy mosquito nets, anti-malarials and bug spray before we need them); vitamins (6 months supply); Moon Cup; sanitary towels (about 5?)

Tech – laptop (plus adapter, kettle lead, mouse, headphones and pouch for all these wires); Kindle (plus cable); phone (plus travel sim); camera (plus a charging cable, 2 spare batteries, their charger, and some spare SD cards); Fitbit pedometer (plus charging cable); European to US plug adapters (2)

Eating and drinking – water pouch (500ml); plastic knives (2); plastic spoons (4 because I loved the folding ones that come free in Skyr in Iceland); at least one bar of chocolate and usually something like trail mix or granola bars; instant coffee packets (one-cup size, nicked from a hotel) (about 3?); sugar packets (about 3?); usually a banana, apple, peanut butter (in liquids bag for flying) or some other random food we didn’t quite finish up

Misc – reservation print outs; notecards (plus clip) (2); pens (2); swimming goggles; spare glasses; sunglasses; inflatable neck pillow; inflatable back support; mini sewing kit; little box of costume jewellery; money belt; wallet; passport; driving licence; some cash; padlock (plus cable) for luggage or lockers; travel towel; ear plugs; business cards

Knitting stuff – 2.5mm sock DPNs in carrying tube; pouch of interchangeables with cables; crochet hooks (2); darning needle; stitch markers (about 5?); needle size guide; yarn bought in Iceland (2)

Bags – 44L Cabin Zero bag; 12L Mountain Warehouse daypack; cotton Sperm Whale WhaleBag handbag; mesh laundry bag with zip; drawstring laundry bag for dirty stuff; assortment of plastic bags

I’ve tried to list every single thing I’m currently carrying. I don’t know how much the bag weighs (I suppose I could find out) but it’s been cleared onto 3 flights so far with no problems. Most of the things on the list are pretty small, and some stray back and forth between my bag and K’s. On our first day in Iceland, I walked about 10km with the bag, and it was fine, and in Boston we both ran for the train with our luggage. I was so glad we could, as both times saved us at least one taxi, and a bunch of money.

I really believe that travelling light doesn’t have to mean being deprived en route. If I’d brought more luggage, it would probably mostly be clothes, and let’s face it no one really looks at me much at the moment!

Visiting a children’s museum

Visiting a children’s museum

On Sunday, we took our rental car and headed west out of Boston. We went to Concord, to see Louisa May Alcott’s house, visit Thoreau’s Walden Pond (more on those later) and see the Discovery Museum at Acton.

The Discovery Museum is aimed at kids, and I remember visiting it about 20 years ago, when I was a kid. I had really strong memories of the place (I think we stayed nearby and probably went as often as my mum could stand) so I was glad to see it hadn’t changed much.

A cheerful multi-coloured building housing the children's Discovery Centre in Acton, MA

I remembered lots of the exhibits. It’s all really hands on – properly hands on, in fact. Most hands-on exhibits encourage you to press a couple of buttons, and watch what lights up. At the Discovery Centre, they want you to think and explore. There are lots of magnets, from tiny ones to enormously powerful ones, lenses and heat sensitive cameras, suction, water and all sorts of cool stuff. They encourage you to try to figure out what does what and why.

The picture below is of the cloud vortex. It’s a very mild whirlwind (whirlbreeze?) in a box. It’s tall enough for an adult to stand up in (I did!) and to play with the air current. It’s surprisingly easy to disrupt the whirl, and entertaining to try and get it started again. I’m not sure what I learned, but I had a lot of fun!

Air vortex in a glass case

The Discovery Center is aimed at children, and I wasn’t entirely sure they’d let us in without any. They did, and I was glad about that. They even said I could take pictures (I did ask) and it was pretty empty. We got there early, and once kids did start to arrive, they all wooshed off into a magic show.

I can understand why parents would be wary of two strangers wondering around a kid’s museum and taking pictures, so I tried to be careful. It’s also usually really dull going round a kid’s exhibit if you’ve got more advanced reasoning and hand-eye coordination, but the Discovery Center was really good. K enjoyed it, too, and I think we may have spent longer playing– I mean ‘experimenting’ with the apparatus than any of the kids did.

Boston

Boston

We were so on the go in Boston that I haven’t posted anything for a week. Instead, you’re going to get a couple of mega posts.

Skyscrapers of the Boston skyline from the sea

Boston!

So, we got in from Iceland and headed pretty much straight to bed, as we’d been up since 6 and someone had slipped 5 extra hours into the day. The next day we went for an amble round Cambridge, MA, which is the part of Boston that’s home to Harvard and MIT. The Natural History Museum there has an amazing collection of glass flowers, created by hand in the 19th century as a teaching tool. All the plants in the photo below are made of glass.

Looks like a palm frond in a glass case but is actually a realistic model made of glass

When I was a kid, my parents worked for a company based in Massachusetts. We spent one summer in Boston. By coincidence, a couple of my school friends are living in or near the city so it was a real trip down memory lane. It was absolutely lovely. One friend came out to watch the Boston Breakers lose to the Chicago Red Stars, and the other introduced us to a great Ethiopian restaurant in Back Bay.

One of the Boston Breakers with football in mid flight

The game was at Harvard Stadium, which is a sort of concrete amphitheatre. The whole area is very pretty to walk through, particularly with all the trees blossoming in spring.

Harvard Stadium, a concrete amphitheatre

Boston was founded in the 17th century, making it one of the oldest cities in the USA. It’s got lots of historic old buildings in it. Coming from Europe, it’s odd to see really historic founding-of-the-nation buildings made of red brick and it’s also odd to see them nestled among towering skyscrapers.

Small brick building (Boston's Old State House) surrounded by glass skyscrapers

We were told a couple of times that Boston is ‘about as English as the US gets’. I imagine that’s true, with the red brick and the New England bit and the War of Independence museums (oh wait…). It’s certainly a very walkable city, with good public transport. With a compact city centre and plenty to see from the street, it is more like London than San Diego.

One of the sights I remember is the Make Way for Ducklings statue in the Boston Public Garden (right next to Boston Common). We had to go check it out, and found a pretty good veggie burger at Uburger on the way.

The Make Way for Ducklings statue: a brass mother duck followed by a line of brass ducklings

The ducklings heads are all shiny because every toddler that comes past pets them and/or sits on them. Super cute.

We did explore a few other museums, including the Mapparium and the MIT Museum, but K has covered those, so I’ll move on! K’s other post on Boston is here: Boston Days 1-2.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

While we’re travelling, I’m reading less and also trying to read more books set in the area where I am, so #109 The Day Of The Jackal by Frederick Fosyth is probably the last Big Read book I’ll read for a while.

Published in 1971, and set in the early ’60s, The Day of the Jackal is a thriller. A sinister group want to overthrow the French government, and to do so they’re going to hire The Jackal, an expert assassin.

A matter of style
Jackal is a classic airport thriller. It’s fairly chunky (358 pages) but not so thick as to be intimidating. It’s a very detailed fantasy, a careful working out of a fictitious political drama. It’s also a police procedural, as the main body of the story follows a detective who has been tasked with tracking down the killer.

The novel is divided into three sections: ‘Anatomy of a plot’, ‘Anatomy of a manhunt’ and ‘Anatomy of a kill’. The sections get shorter and shorter as the tension picks up. The novel shows both sides of the chase, what the plotters are planning first, then when the police get wind of it and start to hunt them down, and then how it all unravels. It’s easy to read and rattles along pretty well. I did get bogged down in the descriptions of the weapons and some of the details of the work on both sides.

Fact or fiction?
Set in France in the 1960s, Jackal features both real people and fictional characters. And they interact. I don’t like this. It sets my teeth on edge, and I spent the entire book trying to figure out which bits were real and which were fiction. I imagine that the audience at the time would have had less trouble.

Also, as the book was set several years before it was written, and is based around a plot to assassinate a real person, early readers would definitely have known the outcome before the book opened. In case later readers are in any doubt, Forsyth drops a spoiler in part way through. I feel this removes a lot of the tension. If you’re reading this book, it’s not to find out whether the assassination plot succeeds or fails, but to watch it unfold. And that, unfortunately, dragged. Perhaps it’s just a little dated. I did find it interesting watching the police struggle without the instantaneous communications and large databases we now take for granted, but that was about it.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Beer in Iceland

Beer in Iceland

A bottle of Gull beer next to a Kindle

I only tried two beers in Iceland. For various reasons (including cost) we didn’t eat out very often. You can only buy alcohol in a state-owned liquor store, and we never passed one at a convenient moment. Plus, a beer cost ISK800-990, which is about £5, so buying one was a bit of an investment! Prices for beer and food at the airport are actually cheaper than in town. In the departures/arrivals lounge (through security) you can buy a wide range of bottled beers for ISK800 each, so it’s a nice way to round off your trip. There are quite a few beers brewed in Iceland, so have a bit of a hunt if  you like the stuff!

Viking
A completely ordinary lager. It’s a pleasant drink, great for a hot summer’s day, with a bit of fizz. It’s the sort of beer you could drink like water, which may or may not be a good thing! Seems to be the default beer, but there are a lot of imports around, too, so be specific if you want to try a local brew.

Gull
Another lager, but one with a bit more to it. According to the bottle, it’s “brewed in the tradition of the German Münchner Helles method”, which explains its malty taste. I enjoyed it, and would recommend it over Viking as it actually has a bit of flavour.

The Blue Lagoon and other thermal baths

The Blue Lagoon and other thermal baths

K and E in the milky, pale blue waters of the Blue Lagoon

I love to swim, or bathe, or play in the sea, and Iceland has over 700 thermal baths and swimming pools, for a population of around 300,000. We managed to hit six in nine days; a good score I think! You can find out more about thermal pools in Reykjavik on the council website.

Apart from the Blue Lagoon, each pool charged about ISK500 (£2.60). They’re all heated and most have at least a lane pool, a ‘hot pot’ (hot baths usually around 38C and a hot one of 40-42C) and a steam room or sauna. Icelanders mostly seem to come to sit in the hot pots with friends and chat. It’s a lovely way to end a day which has been cold, wet or involved lots of walking.

My top tip is to take your towel with you. The system is slightly different than in most other countries. You leave everything in your locker but your swim suit and towel, walk to the showers to have a wash (without swim suit, as signs in five languages explain) then leave your towel in a rack and go on to the pool. On your return, you shower again (if you want) and dry off completely before going back to your locker. It keeps the locker room dry, which is great. There’s free soap on tap, so no need to worry about that, either.

Laugardalslaug
A lovely place to spend a sunny day. There’s a 25m lengths pool, a kid’s pool with slides and a large hot pot as well as saunas and steam rooms. Plenty of space, even when it’s busy. This one is quite close to Reykjavik city centre, near the sea.

Asvallalaug
A bit outside the town/suburb of Harfnarfjordur, Asvallalaug is a brand new pool complex. It’s mostly indoors, with only a few hot pots outside. It’s got an Olympic size 50m pool and space for kids to play. When we went, we had the main pool to ourselves: utter bliss.

The Blue Lagoon
Apparently 80% of visitors to Iceland go to the Blue Lagoon, and I can see why. It’s gorgeous and surprising, it’s a pleasant way to relax for a couple of hours, and it’s near the airport. It’s also EUR35 (£28) per person, so it’s far and away the most expensive pool. The splendor is man-made, created by the waste heat from a geothermal power station, but that doesn’t make it less enjoyable. I’m not sure I’d go again though, and I’d definitely want to wait for a sunny day.

The Blue Lagoon waters, a pale milky blue

Sundhollin
Right in the centre of town, near Hallgrímskirkja. The hot pots are outdoors while the lane pool is inside. This is an older pool, and not quite as nice as some of the others, but it’s easy to get to. It’s also a popular spot for tourists, so if you want to chat in your own language to strangers, or not be the only newbie in the locker room, it’s a good choice.

Vesturbæjarlaug
A bit to the west of the city centre, this is another good local pool. The lane area, the kids play pool and the hot pots are all outside. There are plenty of hot pot spaces, with temperatures from 37-42C. It’s a nice pool, but a bit out of the way for us.

Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach
At the water’s edge, near the Pearl (Perlan). The hot water from a single long hot pot drains into the sea, making the water in an artificial, sandy bay slightly warmer. It’s a fun place to visit. Run in for a dip, or just sit in the warm and watch the locals swim with neoprene gloves, bootees and woolly hats.

Geothermal beach in Reykjavik

Reading Iceland

Reading Iceland

House of Evidence by Viktor Arnar Inglfósson
An Icelandic crime drama translated into English, I picked up House of Evidence because it was free, but really enjoyed it. Published in 1998 but set in 1973, the novel centres on the murder of a father and son. The murders are almost identical – but 30 years apart. As the book dives backwards into the father’s life, it covers the growth of Reykjavik from about 1900 to 1973. The history is pertinent, not intrusive. For a foreigner it’s ideal. The story moves along at a good clip. It’s a police procedural and not too gory. Being set in the ’70s, it talks about the early days of forensics and the limits the police are facing in their work, which is also interesting.

Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss
A lecturer in 19th century English literature, Sarah Moss moved to Iceland to take a post at Haskoli Islands, the main university in Iceland. In Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland she combines the story of her year, the troubles and joys she, her husband and two young sons faces, with the deeper things she learned about Iceland. I found it fascinating. As a foreigner, Moss struggles with and is interested in the things that baffle and interest other visitors. The book gave me lots of insights, and K has probably ‘read’ most of it now, either through looking over my shoulder at key points or from me quoting it en route. ‘The book says…’ is probably my most repeated phrase from Iceland. Moss accepted her job as the 2008 financial collapse unfurled. Towards the end of the book, it becomes clear that her year there was a particularly strange one for Iceland, so if you read the book before you go, ignore her bleak descriptions of the supermarkets – we found everything we wanted, from avocados to chocolate cereal.

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss
I thought Cold Earth was set in Iceland when I started it, but it’s not: it’s set in Greenland. However, the landscape and chill of summer really rang true with what I saw in Iceland, and it was well worth a read, so I’m including it anyway. A group of young archaeologists head off to spend the summer digging at a remote settlement in Iceland. Their sporadic contact with home indicates that a pandemic is developing. Has the world ended while they’ve been away? And if so, will they ever get home?

Golden Circle tour by hire car

Golden Circle tour by hire car

Three of Iceland’s ‘must-see’ attractions are Gullfoss (waterfall), Geysir (the geyser which gives geysers worldwide their name) and Thingvellir (home of the world’s first parliament). Together they make up the ‘Golden Circle’, and it seems like anyone with a minibus in Reykjavik will offer you a tour. We very nearly signed up for one, until we realised that 3 days car hire would cost about £10 less than 2 tickets for a day trip. So we went independently, and think it was the right way for us to do it.

Geysir

Strokkur erupts, shooting water many meters into the air

 

Although the whole park at water spouts worldwide are named after Geysir, it’s Strokkur that’s the star of the show. It shoots tons of steaming water into the air every 5-15 minutes, making it a real pleasure to watch. We saw it errupt about 5 times while we were there, including one triple eruption.

A small bird happily forages between the steaming streams

 

There isn’t much wildlife visible in Iceland, and the birds generally fly away as soon as I get my camera out. But this one stayed put, browsing around the geysers and between the steaming thermal streams.

Gullfoss

The falls at Gullfoss, water shoots past dramatic dark cliffs

 

‘Better than Niagra’ is how Gullfoss waterfall advertises itself. I haven’t seen Niagra, but Gullfoss is spectacular. You can hear the roar and feel the spray from the car park. It’s not an experience that’s easy to describe, and again there is quite a bit of walking involved, including about 13 flights of stairs. The site is partly wheelchair accessible though, and two of the viewing platforms can be reached from a level walk from a car park (long views only though).

The falls at Gullfoss with a few tourists, showing how large they really are

Thingvellir

A view across Thingvellir, with the church small in the mid-ground

The hardest to describe. Thingvellir is the rift valley between the Atlantic and European continental plates. It’s home to Iceland’s largest lake, and was the site of the original Thing (parliament or law court) during Iceland’s early history. It’s a place of enormous significance to Icelandic people, and is still the heart of major events. Independence was declared here in 1944.

K reflected in a pool in Thingvellir

 

As a visitor, it’s a funny mix, and you really need to be ready to walk to get the most out of it. With so much history behind it, I expected more buildings and maybe a diorama or two. As it is, there are a few scattered placards telling you historical stories, which are pretty interesting. A church and about 4 houses are the only buildings apart from the visitor centre a couple of miles away.

Sky reflected in a still pool at Thingvellir

There’s nothing really to eat or drink here. Oh, and the toilets cost 200ISK per person. But it’s OK – if you’re caught short you can pay by credit card.

K peering into a narrow but long rift

Car hire in Iceland
We’ve driven all round Europe, so I didn’t really expect there to be anything noteworthy about driving in Iceland. I was wrong. Luckily, it’s May, and it was 12C yesterday. If it had been any earlier in the year, I would have thought twice about driving ourselves about.

Iceland is more than twice the size of Switzerland, with a total population equivalent to the Lausanne area. Depending on who you ask, 60-80% of the population live in Reykjavik, making the rest of the country even more sparsely populated. There are no motorways. The main roads, outside the capital, are typically one-lane-each-way, often with single lane bridges, and sometimes without road markings. There are many roads that are only for Jeep type cars, with unbridged rivers. Even on the main road, it would be really hard to see the edge of the road in a snow storm, and we were warned that icy roads can happen any time of year.

There’s a lot of gravel and/or left over grit from the winter, plus random cattle grids, both of which make the road more slippery. Plus, the weather can change in minutes, and high winds are really high. If you’re used to driving in Switzerland, or the Scottish highlands, you’ll be OK, but if you only drive in British cities, it might not be so fun!

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

I’ve just finished reading #49 Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian and it’s a beautiful book. I think it deserved to win the whole show.

When war is declared in 1939, Willie is evacuated from London and sent to stay with Mr Tom, a widower living in a country village. Mr Tom has lived alone for 40 years, and didn’t expect to start childrearing at this late stage. Willie is frightened of the countryside, and worried that Mr Tom will be as strict as his mother. And yet, one way or another, they have to learn to live together.

Just lovely
I couldn’t think of any other books Magorian has written, which sort of surprised me. This is such a beautifully written novel that I feel like all the author’s books should be hits, and I should have read them all. Looking her up, it seems that she hasn’t written much, by the book-a-year standard of other authors, and also writes for younger children.

I don’t know when it was written, but it’s a clever, lovely book. It’s got a mix of happy and sad, rough and smooth. It’s engaging and interesting all the way through, and I treasured the small victories as much as the big ones. It also has an effective sense of perspective, remembering that in an individual life – particularly in an individual childhood – apparently small things, like a bike or a trip, can loom large. That learning and growing isn’t always easy, isn’t always dramatic, but it is always happening.

Let’s talk about The Issues
Given that I’ve read two Jacqueline Wilson novels recently, I’m attuned to noticing when children’s books tackle serious or traumatic issues. Goodnight Mr Tom is set during the Second World War, so it’s not surprising that it deals grief, loss and change. Coincidentally, like Secrets it also tackles child abuse and what parental love really means.

Comparing Goodnight Mr Tom to Secrets, I feel that Mr Tom has much greater depth. It’s a book that I’d be happy to read again, one that I was looking forward to reading after all these years, and one that I’d happily pass on to a child. Secrets is good, but I don’t feel that there’s as much to it. It’s shorter, simpler, and perhaps expects less from its readers. That said, I don’t think that Mr Tom has complex or archaic language in it, although it does have some historical items and situations that aren’t explained. I think it is probably almost as easily accessible as Secrets, as long as the reader isn’t put off by the extra pages.

I would guess that this is a book aimed at and recommended for older children, probably age about 10-12. Willie is nearly 9 when the book opens, but he has a different mix of adult and childlike traits, as children in the 1930s and ’40s had very different responsibilities and restrictions than they do now.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

It’s started! In Iceland!

It’s started! In Iceland!

We

K and I (both white 30 somethings) with excited and glazed 5am grins

are

Raindrops slide sideways on the window, plane wing against grass and tarmac

in

South-west tip of Iceland plus a plane wing

Iceland!
Our trip has officially started!
The only way I could be more excited is if I hadn’t had to get up at 4:30am… still a bit groggy, and we’ve been eating odd things at odd times to compensate.

We set off from K’s parents house yesterday, and after an overnight stop in an airport hotel and a 4:30 am wake-up call, we’re now comfortably ensconced in the flat in Reykjavik we rented through Airbnb. It’s gorgeous and cheaper than a hotel.

(Incidentally, at the moment, if you sign up to Airbnb using an affiliate link they give you £15 credit, and will also give me some credit, too (£15 if you travel and £44 if you host). If that sounds good, I’d be thrilled if you use my Airbnb link to sign up.)

We’d already been to 2 sights and walked 10km by the time we met up with our host. We visited Perlan (the Pearl), as it was between the Flybus stop and the flat. The viewing platform was great (free!), and the cafeteria would have given us a decently priced meal, if we’d arrived anywhere near lunch time, but sadly the Saga Museum has moved into the city centre.

Modernist building (Perlan) and modernist sculpture (The Dancers)

As we had a couple of hours before we could check in, we headed down to Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach. It’s freakin’ brilliant, and only the thought of all the other geothermal pools and springs in Iceland stopped me from buying a 10-visit pass.

Geothermal beach in Reykjavik

Nauthólsvík uses geothermally heated water to create an open-air hot pool, then lets the run off into the sea, creating a marginally warmer bay. I say marginally. It was a great way to relax. The hot showers and then the hot pool were a treat after flying, and the dip in the sea was certainly bracing.

Then on to the apartment, and now we’re off to find some food. Feels like a day and a half already!

K walking through the park between Perlan and the sea

That’s K with his luggage for the trip. He chose one that rolls, which has worked well so far. Mine has extra space, which means I’m carrying a lot of the joint stuff on my back. We’ll see how we go in a month or two.

Continuing my adventures in zoom, here’s a rather cuter creature we spotted on our walk.

Wild rabbit in grass

And now we need some dinner – or lunch – or something, I think!

See what K thinks of all this at his blog.