Round the world in 30 days: The new alternative to a gap year
Circling the globe in 30 days is hardly a relaxing proposition. But even Simon Calder was stopped in his tracks by the wonders he found on a whistlestop tour of the world
Saturday 06 January 2007
"You'll be buggered, then." That was the instant conclusion of the (female) immigration officer at Christchurch airport. It was Day 11 of my Gap Month, and I had just flown in from Sydney. For many British travellers, a month is barely enough to see the South Island of New Zealand, let alone the whole country. When I told the frontier official that I proposed to experience both halves of her country in three days, rather than according NZ the touristic respect it deserves, she had demanded to know what planet I was on. And my explanation of a month-long circumnavigation provoked her crisp analysis. She was wrong. Taking a Gap Month and circling the globe leaves you exhilarated and inspired - but rarely, er, tired.
Day 1, for instance, was effortlessly rewarding: ski to sea in a single afternoon. Traffic permitting, you can go from slushing around in the foothills of Dubai's newly acquired snow dome to splashing around in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf in 10 minutes flat.
Beach (South America, Day 22, Montevideo) to beach (North Africa, Day 23, Casablanca) proved more onerous: a dreadful 12-hour overnight flight from the Uruguayan capital, followed by a two-hour delay for the Morocco connection. But that is about as bad as it gets on a Gap Month. Almost everything else is very good indeed.
Travel, like youth, is wasted on the young - as anyone whose journey has intersected with the traditional Gap Year circuit will realise. Exhibit A is the Khao San Road in Bangkok (Day 5): full of young Brits idling their way around the world in a vague, unsteady and easterly direction. This is where the immovable backpacker objective of spending as little cash as possible collides with an irresistible appetite for banana pancakes, Bob Marley and beer; indeed, in the aftermath of last Saturday's bomb attacks in the Thai capital, some of our fellow citizens were reportedly too drunk to notice the carnage around them.
I conceived the Gap Month as a reaction to the profligacy of travellers who have plenty of time to revel in the best the world can offer, but lack the funds or forethought to make the most of it. Sure, there is a growing trend for people in their 30s, 40s and 50s to indulge in a career break. But those with work and family responsibilities who wish to take a life-break can hope to escape for no more than one month. Happily, you can pack a year's worth of adventures into a single month. High-intensity travel it may be, but that does not mean a Gap Month should comprise a series of meaningless, superficial encounters. Indeed, my prescription is quite the opposite: I wanted to see or do something memorable for each of the 31 days in November.
You may be reciting "Thirty days hath..." to double-check my arithmetic. But going eastwards around the globe from 1 to 30 November you see 31 sunrises, thanks to the International Date Line. It is also, conveniently, the direction to choose to minimise air travel: the route I took involved 60 hours in the air, and would have taken at least 10 per cent longer in the opposite direction because of the effects of the jet stream in slowing westbound aircraft.
I chose November because it is the optimum month for long-haul travel: the lowest of seasons in the northern hemisphere, late spring in the southern half of the globe, and with no school holidays to distort travel patterns, fill seats and beds or push up air fares.
The price was high enough already. You can buy a basic round-the-world ticket for less than £1,000. I paid a shade over £2,400. Why the difference? Because I knew this would be an unrepeatable experience, and wanted to minimise the flying and distil the best the world could offer in a month. The time of year also meant it was a good plan to stay south of the Equator for as long as possible. And I wanted to avoid connecting flights at almost any cost, if necessary paying extra for going direct. I have no interest in the twilight world of transit lounges. The exception, of course, is Singapore (Day 7), where changing planes proved a holiday in itself.
None of the airline alliances comes close to offering a truly global product; indeed, this week Star Alliance faces a South American void caused by the loss of its Brazilian member, Varig. Oneworld offered the best fit, using airlines such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and Iberia. But buying a couple of Asian short-cuts; adding alluring stopovers such as Tahiti (Day 14, Take 2, thanks to the International Date Line); and a criminally expensive short hop within Argentina (Bariloche to Buenos Aires, Day 19, £205) pushed the bill for air travel alone to an average of £80 a day - even when, as in India, I stayed put for 72 hours.
Days 2, 3 and 4 were all spent in Mumbai, mainly because Cathay Pacific - the only Oneworld partner flying from India's largest city to Thailand - does not have daily flights. Yet each day proved priceless. One was spent in total immersion in this magnificent city of dirt and dreams, exploring my way from the Gateway of India (where I bought the Gap Month hat, 100 rupees) via the museum that stands as a shrine to Mahatma Gandhi to the genial mayhem of Chowpatty Beach at sunset. The next involved an encounter with a doctor. Not that I was ill - just intrigued to meet Dr Madan Kataria, the founder of laughter yoga, a form of therapy that helps citizens cope with the stress of daily life in a city of more than 15 million people. The godfather of giggling puts a smile on your face. And the final day of my Indian sojourn was spent at Film City, where Hollywood collides with Bombay to create Bollywood. This is a production line for the Masala movie, roughly translated as "a concoction of spicy hot bits", but don't expect anything too risqué - just some great love stories. Close on 1,000 full-length features are turned (or churned) out in India every year. In the strange conglomeration of Nissen huts, studio sets and open fields that lies on the outskirts of Mumbai, I even performed a little myself, but only because my Gap Month was spent in the company of a crew from BBC One's Holiday programme; you can see the results for the next four weeks, starting on Wednesday at 7pm.
Backpackers I met along the way were generally scornful of the endeavour: the tone was "You can't get to know a place properly if you spend only a day or two there". I say that's tosh. The quicker your trip, the more intense and rewarding the experience - because it has to be. Anyway, how many of us tourists can genuinely understand the complexities of life in India even after a month or a year there? The Gap Monther devours plenty of newspapers, which give at least a glimpse into daily life in a destination. *
* "I am a Hindu female, 33, 5'4", Very Fair, Architect. Looking for a Hindu match, 33-39, preferably Architect/Banker." That was one of many such personal ads in the Indian Express of Mumbai on 4 November. The course of true love among middle-class locals appears to hinge on 1) religion; 2) skin tone; and 3) occupation. Later, in the Northern Territory News in Darwin (Day 9) an innovative feature in which readers text the editor included the following advice to out-of-state motorists: "P*** off bk to your own states & leave us real Territorians 2 enjoy."
Day 5 dawned in the dismal departure lounge of Mumbai airport, but thankfully the sun set that Saturday as I sipped a Vertigo cocktail at an open-air café of the same name in Bangkok - 650 feet up. The bar atop the Banyan Tree Hotel is officially the "highest alfresco city hotel restaurant in the world".
In between, I enjoyed the one upgrade to business class on the whole trip (gentlemen, wear a tie, as well as a smile, at check-in); rediscovered my youth by picking up an International Student Identity Card for under £3 on the Khao San Road; visited a 16th-century Buddhist temple; and revelled in a massage. Strangely, the last two coincided.
Wat Pho, the oldest and most vast temple in the Thai capital, is a labyrinth of 35 structures - one of which is the 150-feet-long reclining Buddha that signifies his passing into Nirvana. Another is a monastic massage parlour where the Gap Month traveller soon passes into an approximation of Nirvana, as the therapist soothes away the stresses and strains of travel. Not that jet lag is a problem if you plan well; with an average of only two hours per day in the air, I was wide awake enough to appreciate it all. Only two hops were remotely long-haul: the first flight, from Heathrow to Dubai, and the overnight Atlantic crossing. Most were much shorter, such as the 80-minute Day 6 flight from Bangkok south to the port of Krabi - launchpad for another kind of Nirvana, the trip across the Andaman Sea to Koh Phi Phi.
Until this point, the Gap Month had been a high-velocity sequence of cities and skyscrapers. But even within the confines of 720 hours, you can afford to ease off the pace and take a slow boat to serenity - which, I discovered, is still under reconstruction.
Phi Phi was devastated two years ago when the Boxing Day tsunami slammed into its frail beaches. The waves wiped out the flimsy community of cabins and cafés, and extinguished as many as 1,000 lives. A small memorial garden has been created beside the beach by relatives of those who died. Some of the victims are remembered in photographs, faded by the tropical sun that enticed them here. The remains of a broken guitar plays a silent tribute to a loved one.
Yet travellers have short memories. The garden of remembrance was empty on both occasions I visited, because the 2006 generation of travellers were snorkelling, sunbathing or sleeping, with a few of them filling the time between visits to the 007 Bar ("You'll leave shaken, not stirred") by hiking around this promised land. In the nature of the Gap Month, though, another dawn (Day 7) meant another destination: Phuket, a couple more hours by boat to the west. (I supplemented the ubiquitous Airbus and Boeing trips with plenty of buses and trains, and did some hitching, too.)
"McDonald's looks to get big in Thailand" reported that day's Bangkok Post, citing plans to open another 50 burger bars. Thai cuisine, though, is robust enough to cope. Dining out is part of the delight of a Gap Month, tasting dozens of new flavours. Fish fresh from the Andaman Sea, lightly grilled, was on offer at Phuket Pavilions.
In November you can bank on finding accommodation on the spot rather than researching in advance; on Phi Phi I found a perfectly good room with an insect population of zero for £10 a night. But with only a month of waking in strange and wonderful surroundings (not counting the four overnight flights), you can afford to splash out on a little luxury. Which is why I found myself tucking in to a candlelit dinner at the latest boutique property in Phuket, savouring a dish served with herbs imbued with the scents borne in by the breeze from the rainforest. Not the most intensely flavoured meal of the month, but the one that provides the most exquisite memory.
Hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of miles away on Day 26, I found a matching meal at Meson El Copo: a restaurant in a suburb of the Spanish port of Algeciras, where merely listing the appetizers - sea nettles, and seafood pancakes, lightly fried and served with a twist of lemon - brings instant recall of lunch at the table of the gods.
That is the great thing about a Gap Month. Because you know it is so short (one-sixth of 1 per cent of my life so far, I calculate), you make the most of every moment. Even Paris (Day 30), which I have visited countless times, felt fresh and exciting: after an overnight train from Spain, I breakfasted on the petit déjeuner complet in the splendid surroundings of Le Dôme; found myself almost alone on the Eiffel Tower; and saw the capital from the new perspective of the passenger seat of an open-top Citroën 2CV. Tomorrow is just another day - but the Gap Monther knows it will prove different, inspiring and fulfilling.
That is so long as you make absolutely sure you reach the airport on time. On a Gap Month you cannot afford to miss flights: turn up too late at Papeete airport in Tahiti, for example, and you will be stranded on Gauguin's island for four more days. No bad thing, you might imagine, until you consider the opportunities evaporating further down the track: Easter Island, the Andes and South America's greatest capital. Just once, I arrived at the airport 15 minutes after the flight was due to leave. But this was the final departure, and happened to be from Caen in Normandy.
Rather than a plane or train straight home from Paris, I had chosen the pretty way. You can travel by train through the hazy perfection of a November afternoon in Normandy and catch a scheduled flight to Shoreham - Britain's oldest and finest airport. But a strike (or was it a signal failure? No one seemed sure) delayed the train. Fortunately, our merry band comprised the majority of passengers on the small plane home, which kindly waited.
At the end of the best trip I could ever hope for, touching down in Sussex with a handful of fellow passengers was so much better than arriving with the hordes at Heathrow. This is a way to take a life-break without breaking your life, and to pick up a lifetime's worth of memories in a month. Now it's your turn. To make the most of a Gap Month, though, don't choose February: with only 28 days, you'll be buggered.
Simon Calder paid £2,418 for a round-the-world trip booked through Travel Nation (0845 3444 225; www.travel-nation.co.uk). The Gap Month will be screened on BBC1's 'Holiday' programme at 7pm on the next four Wednesdays: 10, 17, 24 and 31 January
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