Sure, sure, it’s a week since we nursed New Years Eve hangovers and I’ve been back at work for several days and most blogs did their look back at 2010 last week and all the rest of it, but I’m finally ready to take a look back at 2010 in Back in a Bit and examine the year in travel that was.

It’s been quite a year for this little blog, with a significant increase in readership and new voices being heard. This blog started thanks to Scott Bridges and while his trip got cut short, Scott still managed to blog his fascinating trips through India and Iran. While he has penned numerous great posts, my favourite is probably the brilliant Pongal fluorescent cow Festival:pongal

“As Spykey and I toured the Mysore Maharajah’s Palace the other day our guide told us that it was illuminated by an insane 90,000 light globes every Sunday evening. Spewing that we were not going to be here on a Sunday we asked if it was ever lit up at any other time. “Only at Pongal,” he said; “but hang on – Pongal is this week!”

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Sitting down later at an Internet cafe to do some Googling I discovered that Pongal is a harvest festival celebrated by Tamils around the world, and with South India being prime Tamil territory there was going to be a Pongal celebration in Mysore. And it seems that cows are a central feature of Pongal, with fluoro yellow cows popping up all over town as 14 January approached.

And once we saw our first specimen the fluoro cow floodgates seemed to open, with yellow cows suddenly appearing everywhere, nonchalantly blocking traffic all over town. Most of them were yellow but now and again we saw green and blue varieties; some of them also had horns painted bright primary colours to match their fetching coats.”

Closely followed by The Christopher Pyne Unicorn Hunt.

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While our Slide Night series has dropped off lately (what, you seriously don’t have an amazing little travel photo and story you’d like to share?), we have checked out the madness of Marrakech’s market and how pretty it looks when a volcano melts your runners.

Kevin O’Fairchellaigh wrote his way around the world, in a series of wonderful posts, including a heated attack against travellers who love their cameras and a lovely look at the Passive Aggressive Book Club being conducted between him and his travel partner.

But it was his examination on The Many Wankers of the Backpacker Rainbow that was the most viewed post on Back in a Bit all year by a couple of hundred clicks. And if you’re a regular in hostels, it will ring very true for you:

Now it would be remiss of me to suggest that only foreign travelers are wankers. In fact, if I’ve learned nothing else from travel it’s that wankerism is a worldwide problem in need of a worldwide solution. Like global warming. Or hipsters.

But while being a ‘nothing as a second language’ traveller has probably left me experience and money poorer, it’s also provided me with an excellent invisible wanker forcefield, enabling me to pass off any local wankerism as merely ‘cultural misunderstanding’. But back to the wankers at hand (pun intended).

The first group I like to call Matthew McCoughnabees, largely because of their penchant for shirtlessness. I’m ok with shirtless near a body of water. I’m even ok with shirtless on an outdoor excursion if things get a bit hot (though I reserve the right to laugh when you get malaria). I’m NOT ok with shirtless when you’re hanging out in the communal lounge where I’m forced to eat my breakfast.

The second most read article is hilarious in two respects. One, it is an amusing Kafkaesque tale of attempting to enter Azerbaijan. Two, it seems to have become a bit of a cult hit in Azerbaijan, with several thousand clicks coming from the country and a variety of hilarious comments underneath the story, both sympathising with Richard Normans tale and various Azeris explaining how hard it is for the to enter Western countries! Read it here:

The staff at the desk watch me fill in the visa application form- and attach two passport photos to it- and I present the documents and the necessary cash.

“I am sorry, no visas”. Fark.

“Why not?”

“From today we are not issuing visas on arrival to foreigners unless they have written authorisation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a letter of invitation.” Double fark.

“Did you inform anyone of this? The airline was told that visas would be issued on arrival.”

At this point the Immigration staff lose the ability to speak English. Fortunately I’m not alone- there at least a dozen of us in the hall, all being told the same thing. There’s a Russian speaker and four Azeri speakers amongst us although they can’t get any more information than I can.

The Immigration staff take our passports and allow us to collect our checked luggage, then escort us the the airport’s transit hall. They leave us there and disappear, passports and all.

About two hours later, one of them wanders over and asks us for our passports.

Another hour later, someone tells us we have a choice: buy a ticket out of the country or be deported (at the airline’s expense) back to where our flights originated. I ask if Ukraine will even let me back in- I had a single-entry visa and I’d already left the country. They lose the ability to speak English again. And Russian. And Azeri.

Our Gentlemen of Leisure, Rafiq Copeland, spent most of the year living in the UK, came back to Oz briefly, and now has headed off to Kenya (yes, it is a hard life for some). Two UK pieces in particular come to mind, starting with the day that Rafiq indulged in a traditional UK pastime:

“Recently I was invited pheasant hunting by Bill, a former South West chairman of the National Farmers Union. Bill is a six foot four gangly baritone, a sort of West Country Ian McKellen, and when he invites you pheasant hunting you say yes. I said yes… When we arrived at ‘the hunt’ I very quickly realised two things. I was about thirty years younger than anyone else, and I was extremely underdressed. The standard kit consisted of khaki wellingtons, long green socks tied up with red tassels worn outside of the boots, tweed plus fours, a tweed hunting jacket, a tweed vest, tweed tie and a tweed flat cap. There was a lot of tweed.”

Which of course constrasts pretty greatly with the day that he got involved in another very traditional UK hobby:

“I got into a fistfight in a kebab shop in Northumberland.

I was up near the Scottish border working on a telly show that was shooting in the town of Alnwick (which is inexplicably pronounced Annick). Anlwick is conventionally described as a ‘charming little town’, but I hesitate to use this description as is not in the least bit expressive. It is hard to avoid. Towns such as Alnwick seem made to be described that way. The words picturesque, scenic and quaint also spring to mind without adding further nuance. ‘Well preserved medieval market town’? Perhaps.

But the truth is if I were to give a really accurate description of Alnwick based on my experience the words ‘hotbed of white supremacy’ would almost certainly be included.”

The rather charming sounding Northumberland Gazette emailed Crikey after that post, asking if they could re-run it. Never saw a copy, so I wonder if it happened…?

NorwayOther great reads from the year include Paul Johannessen’s two parter on living in whaling nations. First up in Norway, land of the long cold winter:

Steep mountains close in around so many towns, and the deep dark winters keep you focussed on only your immediate world. Everywhere else slips away behind miles of mountains in one direction, or over cold seas in the other. No matter how long I live there I don’t think I will ever manage a whole winter without a dip into depression. But that is where Norway impresses me –mental health is catered for by the health system — in dramatically different ways to Australia, and Japan. If you feel depressed tell your doctor. You’ll get paid leave from work, and if needed, a trip to a mental health clinic in another town to help you get away and re-evaluate things.

Second, Japan, a country of white lies, whale meat and weirdness:

This is the ultimate irony in Japan. You work till you drop, and everyone is raised to respect the work ethic, but in working so hard more and more people sacrifice starting a family because they have to work so much. This in itself means that there aren’t enough workers to care for the oldies who will soon make up 35% of the population. So by respecting the post war Japanese way of life, the Japanese have kind of guaranteed the demise of that same Japanese way of life. And possibly screwed themselves in the process — with a current debt at 200% of GDP. Hope the excesses of the eighties were worth it guys!

Allan Soutaris headed off for a sweaty fun filled ride in Cambodia. Which quickly turned into visiting child drug users in slums:

At one stage I counted ten young street children injecting heroin in the alley around me. Monks slowly walked by on their morning alms. For a Westerner it was an unexpected juxtaposition.

Kids in SowetoRebecca Arnold went walking through the African township of Soweto on foot:

Arriving in South Africa just three days after the chaos and excitement of the World Cup final, an air of exhilaration still lingered. A lone Spaniard greeted me at Johannesburg airport with a long blow of his plastic vuvuzela — whose ear-splitting blast had been until then, for me at least, only heard on television — and a great cry of “Viva España!” from the balcony above.

Our first stop was Soweto, that most famous township. Avoiding the the bus tours full of gawking tourists, my good friend Alana and I opted to gawk in a different way: on an eight hour walking tour. We wanted a chance to see Soweto and meet the people who lived there and hopefully understand a bit of this place which has played a fairly significant role in the formation of the nation.

Nicola Heath went surfing in Cornwall.

As a child I was inculcated in the belief that English beaches were crap. Sunless, sandless, full of pebbles, and surf as flat as a tack. Australian beaches were always superior.

Driving along the headland above Saunton Sands in North Devon, I can see I’ve been misled.

Dave Keetch missed a train and ended up meeting a wonderful Moroccan family:

The romantically-minded would consider the following sequence of events as a twist of fate; that somehow it was cosmically predetermined that we would find ourselves nibbling from a boiled sheep head in the lounge room of the Moroccan family with whom we were staying with during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. And all because we missed catching a train by thirty seconds. The truth is, independent travel is the sum of these micro events — the flow on effect of every minor decision. The beauty of independent travel is willingly being at the mercy of the chaos of life, a chaos usually stifled by the orderly structure in our nine-to-five lives. Tomorrow can be anything you want it to be when you’re perpetually on the fly.

And helping us to end the year — and I have a suspicion she might be around quite a lot in this new one — is Jay Martin, an Aussie living in Poland, offering up An Expat Opinion. As her introductory post reads:

The first song on the CD my husband puts on happens to be Paul Kelly’s Leaps and Bounds. “I’m high on the bridge, looking over the hill, to the MCG…”, he sings the opening line. And I’m surprised to find tears pricking my eyes.

As I write this it’s 13 outside my apartment in Warsaw, Poland. Minus, that is. It hit 25 last night. Minus. When I tell people here that the top temperature in Canberra in winter is about 7 or 8, they always ask, “is that minus?” I used to think that was odd. Until I moved here.

There are plenty more wonderful tales and trips in the Back in a Bit archives, these are just the ones that popped out at me instantly. Oh, and I’m always interested in more Back in a Bit writers. What I can’t give you in money, I can give in exposure, Crikey subscriptions and blog link love. So if you’re heading off on a big trip — or knows someone who is — please drop me a line. And may your 2011 be full of thrilling adventures.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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