A Travellerspoint blog

Wales

How Many “Countries” Have I “Been” To?

Answering the second hardest question for a traveller

sunny 22 °C

I am an obsessive counter. Those of you who only know me through my blog might think me a right brain, creative type because I write. In reality though, I am probably more left brain, drawn to logic and maths, despite my inability to do simple sums in my head. This left brain logically streak combined with a touch of anal retentiveness leads me to want to count and categorize all that I see and do.

Combine this counting obsession with a love of travel, and you might not be surprised to learn that I have spreadsheets that track all manner of facts and figures about my various travels. I have spreadsheets that track and summarize where I worked and vacationed back to 2000, a list of dates of validity for the US work visas I have had, a spreadsheet and graph that tracks my time in the UK, dates and costs of hotel stays at a number of major chains, spreadsheets of dates and distances flown on all airlines and a recently created spreadsheet of every train trip I have taken since January 1, 2009 (88 trips totalling more than 127 hours and counting).

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The majority of these spreadsheets and lists started out for practical purposes. The tracking of where I was working was for tax purposes, tracking how much I worked in each country and what that meant to the amount of income tax owed to various governments. The airline and hotel spreadsheets were to track my progress in their various rewards programs towards elite status and ensure I was being credited all the points I was due. The graph of time spent in the UK is to understand if I am going to meet the requirements to apply for “indefinite leave to remain” in the United Kingdom come 2013 when my current visa expires. The train trips… well, that one has no practical purpose except for my own pleasure.

Over time I have continued to track and maintain all these various lists even though I don’t require most of them any more. Again, I blame my anal-retentive streak for this, plus the fact that I actually consider it fun to play with Microsoft Excel. Despite owning a Macbook, this love of the spreadsheet most likely makes me the suited PC in those “I’m a Mac… and I’m a PC” ads.

With all this obsessive counting, you would think it would be easy for me to answer a question oft posed when one finds out I like to travel.

“How many countries have you been to?”

Ummm…

The answer is between 25 and 35 depending on what you mean by “been to.”

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What does it mean to have “been to” a country? I’ve spent time in airports in Brazil and Belize, but never cleared customs or saw the outside of the airport, so do those count? Similarly, I spent an hour in a plane as it sat on the tarmac in Venezuela. I took the train across Poland and Belarus, saw the countryside passing by through my window, but I didn’t get off at a station in either of those countries. Can I really say I’ve been to Poland or Belarus? I have a stamp in my passport for Poland and a transit visa from Belarus, but other than the customs officials who boarded the train to give me that stamp, I haven’t met a Polish person in Poland or a Belarusian in Belarus yet.

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Some frequent travellers have come up with definitions that they use when determining if they have “been” to a country. Some say you have to have slept in a place or at least done a number two in the local toilets. That would leave me striking Monaco off my list, as I spent a day there watching the Grand Prix, but neither spent the night nor sat on the porcelain throne while there.

Personally, I only count those countries where I have cleared customs (if they have such a thing), exited the train station, bus depot or airport and have either spent the night or done something of note. So Monaco counts because I watched the Grand Prix, which is of note, but Poland, Belarus, Brazil, Venezuela and Belize don’t count.

Right, so now we have a definition (or at least I have a definition) for having been to a country, what’s the answer to the question of how many countries I’ve been to?

Ummm… The answer is between 25 and 30, depending on what you mean by “country.”

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My recent visit to Wales highlights this problem with counting. What is a country? It seems a simple answer, but its not. Wales is part of the United Kingdom, one of four component countries in the union, the others being England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. So, in having been to England and Wales, have I visited one country called the United Kingdom or two countries called England and Wales? The more nationalistic of the Welsh would no doubt tell you they are a separate country. Wales does have their own parliament now, but most major decisions are still made by the UK Parliament back in Westminster, London.

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Also on my potential list of countries visited are also Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia and Zanzibar, all places that are part of a larger country (China for the first two, Tanzania for the last) but that practice some manner of self-government.

There are even explorer clubs (like the Travellers Century Club, as an example) that one can join once you have visited enough countries. Some of these clubs will define places like Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland in Canada or Hawaii in the USA as being separate countries for the purposes of counting even though they are in no way self-governed. They are considered countries simply because they are islands and thus harder to get to. Some places even consider Trinidad and Tobago as two separate countries for the purposes of counting.

The government of Canada has recognized Quebec as a “nation within Canada,” so I could probably throw that on my list as well. There is also a website I found where the owner counted his visit to the United Nations building in Geneva as a separate country, as the UN issues stamps, have ambassadors to it and officially the property isn’t Switzerland but is “International Territory.” I’ve been in the UN in New York, similarly a patch of international territory in the USA.

So, what do I personally count? I’ll include Hong Kong because it is very separate and distinct from China, but won’t include Inner Mongolia and Zanzibar as individual countries. Trinidad and Tobago are one on my list, and Newfoundland is part of Canada, as is Quebec (for now). Wales and England I’ll count as separate countries, but my visit to the United Nations in New York City, I’ll just count that as a trip to America.

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Some of these distinctions are kind of fuzzy, I will admit. I’m not even sure I’m really comfortable in calling Wales a separate country from the UK. But what the heck, this is just a blog and I am only really counting for fun, so let’s call it so. Cymru is on my list.

So, how many countries have I been to?

With all those caveats, 27…

Though that number includes Canada and England, both of which I have lived in. Some country counters claim you can’t count the country you live in on your list of countries to which you’ve travelled. Then again, I visited England when I lived in Canada, and have visited Canada since moving to England, so perhaps I am safe in counting both.

Whew, this counting is harder than those math problems that start with “Bob boarded a train in Pennsylvania at 4:45 PM heading for New York at 103 mph. Jan boarded a train in New York headed for Pennsylvania at 5:03 PM, travelling at 125 mph.”

Oh, there is one more wrinkle that I haven’t personally come across yet, though if Quebec decides to leave Canada I would face. How do you count the countries you’ve been to if that country splits, merges or otherwise changes form after you’ve been there? For example, people who visited Czechoslovakia back when it exists, do they count 1 country from Czechoslovakia or 2 for the Czech Republic and Solvakia?

Now my brain is hurting.

Ah, sod it. Next time I hear the question…

“So, you like to travel. How many countries have you been to?”

…I think I will deflect the question, paraphrase Churchill and reply with, “Did you know it is improper to end a sentence with a proposition. That is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

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Me in a place I haven't really been. Minsk.

Posted by GregW 14:23 Archived in Wales Tagged armchair_travel Comments (3)

Red Dragon

Visiting the Welsh Capital

sunny 24 °C

I am trying to do at least one weekend away every month while I am living here in London, at least while being abroad is still a new and exciting thing. Eventually the novelty will wear off and I will spend my time shut in my flat bemoaning the weather and the state of the trains, like most Brits. For now I’m taking advantage of living in Europe and getting to see the place.

Originally when I was envisioning these weekend city breaks, I pictured myself jetting off to exotic locations in Europe like Riga, Copenhagen or Bratislava. Due to the rather unfortunate state of the British Pound as compared to other currencies nowadays, I’ve readjusted my sites to include more local destinations as well. Given that I’ve just returned last month from Monaco, which was the most expensive trip I ever took, at least on a cost per day basis, this month I decided on a short stint away in pound-friendly Cardiff, Wales.

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Cardiff is the capital of Wales, which is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Wales, or Cyrmu in the Welsh language, is on the western side of the island of Great Britain. Cardiff is in the south of Wales on the Bristol Channel which separates Wales from South-West England. The symbol of Wales is a big, red dragon, and as I wandered around Cardiff I saw red dragons everywhere.

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The city is quite cosmopolitan. It used to be quite the coal mining town, but now you are more likely to find artists and actors in Cardiff than miners. Wales has a history of song and singers, and The Wales Millennium Centre, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff International Arena and St. David’s Hall all provide places for local and visiting acts to play. It is also home to a few television broadcasters, including BBC Wales who produce both Doctor Who and Torchwood at their Cardiff studios.

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I took a Cross-Country train from Birmingham to Cardiff on Friday night. Cross-Country is the name of the brand, not just a description of the route of the train, by the way. Speaking of the state of the trains in Britain (which I was, four paragraphs ago), I think Cross-Country must have the most cramped train carriages I’ve been on since arriving here. My knees were pressed firmly against the back of seat in front of me, and I’m not exactly a giant among men. I arrived in Cardiff after two hours of sitting with my knees banging off the hard plastic seatback, and I was ready for a drink. Luckily the sun was out and the patios were open.

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After my drink, I did a quick tour around the area of the town hall called Cathay’s Park.

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The next day, I headed down to the shore of Cardiff Bay. The area has been redeveloped in recent years, turning what used to be a working dock into a centre of leisure and shopping.

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It’s also home to the Welsh Assembly, known as the Senedd, pronounced sen-eth. The dd in Welsh is pronounced like the English th sound, but it seems to me a little softer and run on. It is also sometimes represented as ff in English. Cardiff in Welsh is Caerdydd – Car-dith. Welsh words are often long, and because of the use of what are constants in the English language to represent vowels and other sounds, it often looks like they have randomly drawn letters to put on the signs. W is the most used vowel, making an “oo” sound. Bus in Welsh is bws, said “boos” like it rhymes with moose. I would make a joke about the Welsh language here, but Mark Twain is a much better writer than I am, so I’ll let him do it. “Names are not always what they seem. The common Welsh name BZJXXLLWCP is pronounced Jackson.”

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The Senedd building is beautiful. The mostly glass building is open for visitors, so I took a tour around. There weren’t many tourists there that day, just myself and a woman from Australia who now lives in Sheffield. Because of the low number of visitors, one of the women working at the information desk actually took us around the building on a guided tour, including going down into the debating chamber, known as the Siambr.

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The building is meant to be as open as possible to give the public the ability to view the assembly at work. It is also very environmentally friendly, with geothermic heating and cooling and lots of natural light. There is a giant mirror that hangs above the debating chamber, filtering light down into the chamber from three stories above.

Most of the chamber is made with local wood and stone, but the roof is made of Canadian wood, both because it is easier to mould into the swooping shape and also because the amount of wood required was quite significant.

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After visiting the Assembly Building, I grabbed some lunch. First I tried Subway Sandwiches, but halfway through the creation of my six-inch BMT on wheat, the fire alarm rang, and we were evacuated. I abandoned my sandwich and instead bought a prawn-mayo sandwich at Tescos.

After lunch, I headed around the bay. There is a famous church on the shore of the bay called the Norwegian Church. As a popular and busy port, Cardiff always had lots of international visitors. The Norwegian merchant fleet was quite large, and used Cardiff as a base of operations.

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Norwegians still visit, as can be evidenced by this video of a Norwegian marching band. They were there to serenade the church with the popular Norwegian song about a New York disco club named after a beach in Brazil.

At the Copa… Copacabana! The hottest club north of Havana.

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The bay is now enclosed by a dam and causeway. Boats entering the bay have to go through a lock to get from the level of the Bristol Channel up to the level of Cardiff Bay.

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The other side of the bay is a place called Penarth. It’s nice near the bay...

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...but quickly becomes suburbs. I have nothing against suburbs; they just aren’t very interesting to visit as a tourist. I did find this place though.

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Frankly I always thought a royal court would be more glamorous.

There was a few more things I took photos of along the way.

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Arriving back in the town centre of Cardiff, I went to check out the castle. The castle’s keep dates back to 1091, but has had lots of work over the years. The interior of the outer walls includes a few other buildings, including a Victorian mansion but with a medieval theme.

The Norman Keep:

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The Victorian Mansion:

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From the Grounds:

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Saturday evening was the FIM British Speedway Grand Prix, which is a dirt bike racing event. The event was held at Millennium Stadium, so I thought about going just to see the inside of the stadium in action, but decided against it upon learning that the cheapest tickets were £29. The event was very popular, though, especially with Polish people. Walking around on Saturday afternoon and early evening, the Polish flag was more often displayed than the Welsh banner or the Union Jack.

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Millennium Stadium is nice, and was right by my hotel.

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It was a long walk right round the bay, and I was tired from the walk, the sun and frankly the beer the night before, so I decided to grab a quick dinner and call it an early night. About 10 o’clock I was in my hotel room watching the BBC when the fire alarm in the building went off. I had to evacuate a building for the second time in one day.

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After having been out in the sun all day, I will admit that my skin was pretty red and putting my head on it, I could still feel it radiating heat back to me. I wondered if perhaps the heat radiating off my sun burn might be the cause of the multiple fire alarms I had experienced, but didn’t bring it up with the fire fighters just in case they decided to arrest me for being too hot.

After spending 30 minutes outside with my fellow Holiday Inn guests, it was determined that there was no fire and we were let back in.

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After my massive walk on Saturday, I decided to take it easy on Sunday. I found out on line that there was a Canadian Consulate in Cardiff, so I wanted to see it. I’m always interested in seeing the embassies and consulates of Canada to see if they are impressive or not.

Cardiff’s was a first, in that I actually couldn’t find the consulate at all. I went to the address listed on the Department for Foreign Affairs website, but all I found was a industrial park which was home to a flooring company.

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I decided to continue walking along the road I was on, hoping that it would wind back around towards Cardiff Bay.

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It didn’t, and I wound up having to turn around and retrace my steps after walking for a couple of miles. So much for taking it easy. I did, however, check out this somewhat desolate looking beach, made up of large boulders, a strange black substance that looks like dried molten metal and tiny black disks. Hopefully the beaches materials weren’t radioactive or carcinogenic.

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The weather had been glorious Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday morning, so I can’t complain that Sunday afternoon clouded over and we had bursts of rain. I bought a book and grabbed a seat inside a local pub, sipping a pint and reading. I grabbed a quick dinner and headed back to the hotel for the 8PM showing of Top Gear, one of my favourite TV programs over here in the UK.

About 20 minutes after the show had started, the announcers were drowned out by the sounds of claxons. Another fire alarm, and I had to evacuate again. This time round the fire department was quicker to determine there was no fire and let us back in, so I only missed about 20 minutes of the show. I’m just glad that the alarms went off in the early evening and not at 3 in the morning.

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Despite not getting woken up by a fire alarm at 3 in the morning, Monday morning came around too quickly, and I was back on the train to Birmingham bright and early. After walking to the train station in the rain, I grabbed a First Great Western train to Bristol Parkway before transferring to a Cross-Country train up to Birmingham. The First Great Western train had such comfy and roomy seats compared to the Cross-Country train, I was concerned that I had perhaps accidently sat down in First Class, but I hadn’t. Cross-Country is just really cramped. It is the Ryan Air of train travel, I suppose, though they don’t charge you to use the loo.

I enjoyed my visit to Cardiff. This weak pound thing really isn’t so bad, actually. I’m getting to see a lot more of the UK so far than I probably would have otherwise, and there is still a lot of it to see. I mean, I haven’t been down to Cornwall yet or up to Scotland. Manchester is still unvisited, and I haven’t ventured over the water to see Northern Ireland. Then there are all those islands to see – Isle of Mann, Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey.

Don’t get me wrong. I still want to visit Riga, Copenhagen and Bratislava, but I also want to make sure I don’t neglect visiting the country in which I’ve chosen to live. After all, the weather is great and the trains sure are comfy and fast. At least, that’s how I feel about them now… for the most part.

I must admit that Cross-Country’s seats sure our close together. Not to mention that we were five minutes late arriving into Bristol Parkway on that First Great Western service. And the price! £39 to go from Cardiff to Birmingham? Outrageous. Why, when I was in Italy, I paid €4.40 for a similar length train journey. Finally, that rain sure was heavy on Monday morning, was it not?

I’ll make a good Brit some day. Now I just need to figure out how to complain intelligently about the luggage handling at Heathrow.

Posted by GregW 10:59 Archived in Wales Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Music and Memory

Songs that take you somewhere

sunny 23 °C

I am in Cardiff in Wales. I ventured down for the weekend from Birmingham, mostly because it looked close on the map, though I have since found out that the train from London to Cardiff is quicker than the train from Birmingham to Cardiff.

Last night I wound up having a few pints in a bar called Cuba. In the bar there was a band playing called Honey Fungus, an acoustic duo from Wales. One of the songs they broke into was Hotel California. I smiled, because back in 2002 I was in another place called Cuba listening to that exact same song.

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Sometimes songs that you hear when you travel are bound to end up sticking in your head and always reminding you of that place.

Sometimes it is because you hear the song when you are there. For example, Two Princes by The Spin Doctors reminds me of Shawnee, Pennsylvania. I went there when I was in university for a our spring break with a bunch of friends. We were at the bottom of the ski hill (yes, there is skiing in Pennsylvania, but it's not great) getting ready to head up the hill for the day. A radio was playing from the lodge. The song Two Princes came on. At the end of the song, the DJ came on and said, "man, I love that song. I wish I could hear it again. Hey, wait a minute! I'm the DJ. I can play it again." And then he proceeded to play the song a second time. It was so bizarre that me and my friends all started laughing, and now whenever I hear that song, I am back at the bottom of the ski hill in Pennsylvania.

The Ketchup Song by Las Ketchup reminds me of Chile. I was on the Navimag ferry between Pto. Montt and Pto. Natales in Chile. One night a couple of Australian girls tried to teach me to dance the Ketchup dance to the Ketchup Song in the bar / disco of the ferry.

I had similar experiences with The Soca Boys' "Follow the Leader" during my trip to Mexico in 2001, Wonderwall during a trip to Whistler 1997, or Let's Get It Started by the Black Eyed Peas for Costa Rica 2004.

Other times, it's because of lines in the song. When I was in China, I remember humming Beautiful Day by U2 a lot to myself, mostly because it contains the lines "See the world in green and blue, see China right in front of you."

I spent a year working in New Jersey just outside of New York City. There is a ton of references to New Jersey in the song "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," originally by The Travelling Wilburys. The song is a tribute to New Jersey boy Bruce Springsteen. For me, though, the version I best like of the song is by the Canadian punk band The Headstones. Two lines in the song really stuck with me.

Now the town of Jersey City is quieting down again
I'm sitting in a gambling club called the Lion's Den

I spent a weekend in Jersey City. Like much of New Jersey close to Manhattan, it's one of those places that has two sides - the nice side of condos, restaurants and bars along the water and close to the transit hubs into the city, and the dirty, grungy side further away from the Hudson River. I took a walk through both sides of the town, and I could see more than a few places that probably had illegal gambling games going on in the back rooms.

The other lines from the song that really struck me were the lines:

I guess I'll go to Florida and get myself some sun
There ain't no more opportunity here, everything's been done

If you've spent any time in Florida away from the tourist traps, you'll find a lot of people from other places, people who seem like they just burnt out on life and somehow wound up in Florida, working lazily at menial jobs, just making enough cash to get some booze and hit the beach. Some days I really felt like joining them.

Hotel California, originally by The Eagles, actually reminds me of a few places I've been. California, obviously, when I would often find myself humming the song to myself. It also reminds me of a few actual hotels I've seen - one in Costa Rica and one in Canada. Whenever I see a hotel called "Hotel California," I can't help but start singing the song. The lines "you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave," has always stopped me from actually checking in to a place that shares the song's name, though.

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In 2002 I travelled down to Cuba for a beach holiday. Myself and some friends were staying at a resort, but we wanted to get out and see Cuba so we often wandered away from the hotel. One day we took some of the bikes from the hotel and pedalled into the town of Varadero. We pedalled around, and wound up grabbing lunch at a little beach-shack restaurant. Myself and my friends were the only non-Cubans in the place.

There was a trio of musicians called "Trio Amanecer" that was wandering from table to table entertaining the guests. They played mostly Cuban music, but when they got to our table and saw that we were definitely not native Cubans (I am white and I was with 3 Asian guys) they decided to play some foreign music, so they played Hotel California. The singer didn't speak English, so he was phonetically singing the song. Generally he did pretty well, but there were some things he messed up. After the song, I bought one of the trios CDs, which included Hotel California.

So that's what I was thinking about, standing in a bar in Cardiff, Wales. I was thinking about Cuba, and chicken grilled over an open fire, an ice cold cola and three Cubans playing an American song for a bunch of Canadians.

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Posted by GregW 15:16 Archived in Wales Tagged armchair_travel Comments (1)

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