English needed?


I blame the French. More specifically, the Frenchman who lost his temper with a 12 year old boy in Montdidier. In 1988. My attempt to put a year's worth of French lessons into practice had caused the octogenarian to rant and rage at me and then the sky, all in a language I didn't understand. Clearly I'd cause offense, although how remains a mystery. I suspect it was the charge of 60 British schoolchildren up the high street asking where the swimming pool is in rudimentary Franglais that tipped him over the edge, the poor bastard.

I'm not great with second languages. I'll make a stab at learning basic greetings before traveling somewhere new, but anymore than a few words is a struggle, but I'll take comfort in the fact that I make an effort rather than assume others will take up the slack and be able to speak English. I'm ignorant, but not as ignorant as some, which makes me clever by comparison. Go me.

It was while reading David's post about learning a second language that got me thinking about this topic - where in the world will a traveller really struggle if they can only speak English?

There may be several reasons:

- the country / region / city in question is rarely visited by English-speaking visitors, or there are few ex-pats - there may be no be tourism or trade that forces locals to speak a language other than their own

- there's no common history between the country and other English-speaking territories

- it's a cultural issue; locals and/or the country as a whole is wary of visitors, or perhaps there's little tolerance for pandering to outsiders

Is English is a truly global language, or are there vast swathes of the globe where you'll  struggle to get by? Which countries don't speak it? Which countries prefer not to? And is there anywhere that learning the basics is a must before you arrive? What do you think? Leave a comment or thought below...



By Paul Smith

Camera tips


Here are 10 top tips that – whether you are a budding Frans Lanting or just a casual holiday snapper – round-the-world photographers of all levels might want to bear in mind.


1. Invest in the best camera you can afford for your RTW. This is going to be the trip of a lifetime and you will be expecting some fantastic images out of the amazing experiences that lie ahead.


2. Don’t take more photographic paraphernalia than you are prepared to carry. You might want to invest in a full-size pro SLR, a set of lenses, plus a tripod but you have a lot of miles ahead of you. If you begin to get lazy about humping it all around then, no matter how good your kit, it is not going to be shooting many Pullitzers sitting in the hotel room!


3. If you are going for a point-and-shoot consider that a really tough expedition type – water-proof, shock-proof – camera could be a worthwhile investment. I used the Pentax Optio WP as a spare backup video and stills camera for several fairly tough expeditions...and it was still going strong after my precious Nikon fell in a Mexican river.


4. A major advantage of the post-film era is in not having to carry a great pack of spare rolls. However, most travellers at some point run out of juice and space. Take more batteries and memory cards than you think you will need and back them up regularly. Rather than one 16gig card (which might get broken/lost/corrupted) take several smaller cards.


5. A flickr account can be a good way to showcase your images while you are still on the road. A lot of people don’t realise either that for a reasonably small upgrade to Flickr Pro you can upload an unlimited number of hi-res images (list them as private so that only you can see them). A great online backup.


6. Even in this day-and-age few cameras are always infallible in fully-automatic mode. Before you leave home familiarise yourself fully on your camera’s manual settings and try not to let your camera dictate all your shots completely.


7. If you are travelling with serious bulky SLR kit then get a bag that at least does a reasonable job of being surreptitious. A shoulder bag is usually better than a backpack since you can access equipment easier. National Geographic make fantastic canvas shoulder bags (the largest of which is big enough to hold laptop, two bodies, 3 lenses, hard-drive, Dictaphone...) and doesn’t necessarily appear at first glance as if it is loaded with thousands of pounds worth of equipment...especially if you cut off the Nat Geo badge.


8. Use a roll-top canoeist type bag and equipment while one the move over water. (If your RTW has Bangkok as one of the early stopovers take an opportunity to buy the bag – good quality and just a few dollars – at one of the many shops along Khao San Road).


9. A lightweight tripod can be worth its weight in gold if you want to get more artistic. You suddenly realise a world of potential for long-exposure, slow-synch, time-lapse and fast-forward video if you carry even the simplest of tripods.


10. Even if not travelling with a laptop consider investing in a portable harddrive (or iPod with lots of hard-drive space) so that you can backup all your precious images. Losing all those breath-taking shots on month 11 of a year-long trip could take some getting over!




by Mark Eveleigh

RTW photography tips

As the Eagles sang: ‘In a New York minute, everything can change.’ You have to react faster in city photography than you do in almost any other area. Alert pros know that you habitually walk down the street with your camera exposure set to F8 if you want to be ready for anything. The city is often a very ‘contrasty’ place of light and shade so more important still you have your finger on the dial so that at an instant’s notice you can be ready to shoot at whatever crops up with balanced exposure. Things are less complex with a point-and-shoot but the start-up time is usually far slower so try not to be caught with your camera switched off and a 5 second delay to get past before you can push the button. More than anywhere else security too is a preoccupation in the city so try not to use expensive looking camera bags and pouches that can just advertise what a great victim you would make.  

Most of the world’s jungles are invariably safer than their corresponding cities and your greatest enemy is likely to be the all-pervading, electronics-rotting humidity of the rainforest. A roll-top canoer’s bag can be the best bet to keep your camera in overnight and carry a good supply of silica gel sachet to soak up any moisture (you can dry them in a frying pan!). A good substitute for silica gel is simple rice: wrap it up in a (dry) bandana and stick it in a zip-lock bag and it will draw the moisture out of your equipment.  

Whether you are trekking in jungle or mountains the biggest problem is maintaining the agility to move around quickly and get into position for shots. At the end of a long, hard trek you can often look back and picture – with invariably haunting clarity – all the missed photo opportunities. I spent years stoically carrying my own kit and refusing to hand anything over to a porter: finally I realised that all I was doing was cheating some impoverished local of a good day’s wages and cheating myself of the opportunity to duck and dive and get my shots.

Few people the days will think that you are stealing their soul but shooting a close-up portrait is certainly a very private and personal thing and should never be done without asking the express permission of people involved. In traditional communities you can break down boundaries very quickly by shooting snapshots of children (or your travelling companions) and then showing them...get a few laughs and before you know it everyone will want their photo taken. Thankfully the wonderful invention of the delete button means that you can keep shooting those rigid passport-type poses until you manage to get a smile and your subject’s natural character is revealed. If you promise to send copies of images to local people you should always do so: bear in mind that, especially for old people in remote communities, this might be the only photograph they have ever had taken.

The overwhelming preoccupation of wildlife photographers the world over used to be how to get the biggest, fastest lens available. If you weren’t forking out USD20,000 on a 800mm telephoto you would never be considered one of the ‘big boys.’ If you are keen on shooting birdlife by all means continue with this outlook but for wildlife in most African parks you no longer need such equipment. It’s not the size that counts, but what you do with it, and even with a 200 or 300mm lens you will often find yourself too close. In most African parks that see regular visitors wildlife is so well habituated to human onlookers that it is frequently more of a pre-occupation how to get far enough back to get that shot of lion showing more of its environment...and less of its teeth.



by Mark Eveleigh

When not to photograph

David Whitley debates whether sometimes we should put the camera down and just enjoy the moment without playing photographer

In any major tourist destination, you’ll end up running what I call the photography gauntlet. I’d hate to think how much time the human race has wasted waiting for other people to take pictures. The etiquette of such situations is a bit of a grey area. When someone is standing at one side of the path, with the photographer at the other, everybody has to stop and stand around like a plum until the snapshot session is finished.

But when does it become OK to think: “Sod this,” and just stride across, probably getting your unwanted head into the photo? Who should be patient – is it the people trying to get the picture or everyone else?

At times, I think we can be too obsessive about taking pictures. Yes, it’s nice to have them as mementos a few years down the line, but nobody ever says their favourite part of the trip was taking photos. Show me someone who says taking loads of photos of the Sydney Opera House was their favourite part of a trip to Australia and I’ll show you a big, fat liar.

Sometimes the desire to capture the moment can prevent us from actually enjoying it. This is particularly true of safaris or whale-watching tours. It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at everything through a viewfinder. The constant urge to get the right shot stops you watching – getting the elephant into shot becomes more important than watching what it’s doing. Taking photos becomes a task, the whole enterprise measured as a success or failure by how good the resulting pictures are. Put the camera down, and it’s a relief not to have to measure the success of the outing. You can just enjoy it as an observer, watching the nuances and interactions, without the need to obsessively capture scenes.

Slavery to the camera becomes worst on a group tour. The more people in the group, the longer you have to wait while everyone takes a picture of everything. It gets even worse if you’ve got the sort of simpletons in the group who are so insistent that everyone has to be bezzie mates forever that every stop has to be marked by a group photo.

Group photos are awful. No-one really wants to be in them, and the rictus grins have to be maintained for seemingly hours as exactly the same photo is taken with twenty cameras. This is bad enough once, but when it’s done at every stop you just want to run away and hide behind a tree.

There’s nothing wrong with photography as a hobby, and I understand that some people get great pleasure from taking photos. But the rest of us who are doing it because we feel we ought to? Perhaps it’s time to think before we snap.



Good guidebooks


David Whitley looks at how to select the right guide book – and find whether the author knows what he or she is talking about

Different guide book brands have different strengths but guide books within the same series can vary wildly in quality. Even books within the same series to neighbouring parts of the world can be infuriatingly inconsistent.

There are a few general rules for picking the right one, however. The first thing to bear in mind is what you want it for. If you’re a free-wheeling type who is happy to take things as they come, then it’s not going to matter all that much – you’re barely going to dip into it. Some people, however, are always clutching the book and referring to it.

For the latter, the more specific a guidebook is, the more useful it is likely to be. If you’re spending a long time in Sydney, for example, a Sydney guide book is going to lead you to more interesting places than an Australia guide book. Similarly, you can’t expect a South East Asia or South America guide book to cover any one place in particularly helpful detail.

I find the way that most people buy guide books astonishing. They pick the brand they know, then get the book that best covers the area they’re going to within that brand’s collection. Even if the only one available is a general guide to the region and another brand has a far more detailed guide to the specific country. This is, almost always, a daft approach.

Another thing to consider is when the information in the book was researched. Nobody ever seems to look at this. Again, they’ll just pick the brand they know. But even if you love Lonely Planet, surely a Frommer’s or a Rough Guide published in 2011 is going to be better than an LP published in 2008? Given that the information is actually researched roughly a year before publication, is it any wonder that you see hordes of idiots wandering around Asia, complaining that their Lonely Planet has got the prices wrong?

Some details – such as prices and bus times – are always likely to change. NEVER take them as gospel in a guide book. You’ll also find that hotels refurbish and restaurants close down – you can’t blame the book for that. But it is often possible to tell whether the author knows what he or she is talking about. Some, it has to be said, get lazy with updating from edition to edition.

The first place to look is online reviews on sites such as Amazon. Star ratings aren’t particularly reliable, as people will often give a zero for bizarre things such as late delivery or not having enough pictures of a particular temple, but it’s a start.

Secondly, have a look at what other books the author has written, and what articles they have written, via a web search. Are they consistently on the same countries? Can they legitimately be regarded as an expert on certain parts of the world, or do they just flit about writing about whatever they get the job for?

Finally, once you’ve actually got the book, you can test it with a few things. Do the sports teams actually play in the stadiums the author says they do, or have they moved to a new home and no-one’s bothered to check? How well is the current music scene covered – do they suggest bands you’ve never heard of but are currently big in the destination, or just list someone who had an international hit twenty years ago?

Then there’s the history. Anyone can do the old history – the formation of the country, what happened in the Second World War etc – but a well-researched guide has detail on what has happened recently. What have been the big changes of the last couple of years? What are the current political hot potatoes?

There’s also a final check to see whether the book you’ve got is a duffer or not. Flick through to see if any bars and restaurants are listed as hidden gems, local favourites or best-kept secrets. If you find a couple, check them out to see if the descriptions hold true, or they’re just one of the least touristy bars/ restaurants in an strip full of touristy bars/ restaurants. If the latter, the author clearly hasn’t bothered to check further afield and has just thought: “This’ll do”.


Can you think of any other signs of a good – or bad – guide book? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.