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Entries about armchair travel

Travel Envy

One of those "the grass is always greener" moments

sunny 14 °C

I used to travel quite a bit (as this blog attests). From 2001 until 2008 I spent a significant portion of my time on the road, away from my Toronto home. As an example, in 2006, I spent 215 days of 365 possible (58.9%) of my time outside of Canada.

Mostly that was for work, but I would often during that time be planning leisure trips. In 2002, I spent a good six months planning for my 2 months sabbatical in South America. Reading travel books, figuring out visas, planning routes, getting shots, researching and booking transport and hotels. After that, and up until I moved to the UK, I seemed to constantly be planning a new, upcoming trip. Whether it be to Costa Rica, Tanzania or Japan.

One of the biggest logistical challenges I faced was when I was planning for the Paris to Hong Kong trip in 2005. I was working at the time on a project that saw me jetting between Montreal, San Francisco and Paris. Obviously I needed my passport to perform all that travel. At the same time, I was trying to get visas arranged for Belarus, Russia, China and Mongolia. All of them required my passport as well.

In a feat of logistical planning brilliance (and paying for some expedited service), I managed to get all the visas and still be able to meet all my work travel requirements - arranging to pick up the Chinese visa when I was in San Francisco, arranging the Belarus and Mongolian visas from their Parisian embassies, and Russian visa in Toronto (as the Russians said I needed to get it from my home country in closest to where I lived).


During that time, more and more I would think to myself that the travel was so temporary. Even when I was staying in a place for months on end, there was always that apartment back in Toronto that I knew I would eventually return to. It started to dawn on me that what I was really yearning for was an opportunity to immerse myself in a place, to cut the ties to Toronto and take the brave, bold step of living abroad.

I was envious of those who lived abroad. They got to immerse themselves in a culture. It was like constantly travelling.

Even as far back as 2005, while I was running around trying to arrange those visas, was I already thinking of that next step.

I think it would be fun to live in a foreign country. As I travel from place to place to place, I am always on the lookout for places that I think I could live in. Maybe some day I'll actually pull the trigger and move some place for a year or two, but for now, it's just dreaming.

From Paris, The Liveable

A year or two? Naive young man. 4 years on in London, and no thoughts of heading back to Toronto yet.

So my wanderlust and constant travel planning has disappeared, replaced by the getting on with life in a new land.

The past few days here in London, I have been arranging dental appointments, arranging for a pick up of a parcel and shuffling around some investments in my various pensions (have managed to pick up 4 different pension accounts in my 4 years in the UK). I have no thoughts of upcoming trips in my head, save for a quick day-trip to Munich for work at the end of October, and vague thoughts about needing to plan a winter ski trip.

Yesterday, I came in the office early, and found a co-worker standing at the photocopier, looking perplexed.

"You're in early," I said.

"Oh, yeah," he replied, punching at the buttons on the machine. "I have been arranging visa appointments. I am dropping off my passport to the Russian embassy today, and just got off the phone booking an appointment for my US visa. It's not until the end of the month. I could have squeezed it in the week after next, but I'll probably only get my passport back from the Russian embassy on the Monday, maybe Tuesday, and I need to fly to Malaysia on the Thursday. Didn't want to take the chance that I wouldn't have the passport, or that the Americans still had it while I needed to be boarding a plane to Malaysia."

I laughed. "Reminds me of the time I was arranging for my Paris to Hong Kong trip," I said, and told the story of my logistical triumph above.

After I ended my story, my coworker cursed. "Can't get this scanner to work. It won't let me enter an email address to send," he said.

"Strange," I replied. "It was working yesterday, because I scanned my pension document and mailed it to myself."

"Technology," he said, shrugging, and walked off down the hall to use one of the other photocopiers in the building. I walked off to my desk.

Then I stopped.

Moscow, Kuala Lumpur, New York. These are the places that my coworker is going. Getting flights, booking hotels, arranging visas. All the things I used to do. What have I done this week? Pension, dentist, deliveries!

Right at that moment, I missed it. That adventure and excitement. I wanted to be planning a trip somewhere. Flying off to exotic lands. I wasn't. I wasn't going anywhere.


The feeling faded as the day wore on. A short burst of travel envy, that passed as I thought about my life and where I am now. Living abroad, the "constant travel" that I was envious of back when I was travelling. It sure looks like fun, but it can be awfully tiring. And I know if I was doing it now, I'd probably be looking at those who had moved there with a touch of envy.

The grass is always greener, isn't it. Even if you have lived on that lawn before.

Posted by GregW 02:48 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged armchair_travel travel_philosophy Comments (0)

End of the Big Nerd Ranch, and Return of the Nerd

As an integral part of my computer geek past disappears, my computer geek future reopens!

overcast 10 °C

Kanata lays low across the landscape, a glass and steel enclave of high-tech fortresses with short, ultra-green grass and small perfectly trimmed trees. Large 4 lane roads run straight like arrows across the cornfields that separate the mirror glass buildings. Satellite dishes and PBX boxes mix into the natural landscape, like a new bred of bush, and soon become the resting place for weary birds confused by all the windows. Artificial ponds spurt water into the air outside entrances canopied by glass pyramids. Parking lots full of new, shining cars stretch out in concentric circles from the fenced compounds called "campuses" by the employees. The buildings are surrounded by small stands of trees, enclosing them in a forest-like atmosphere. The air is clean, fresh, free of the big city problems of smog or pollution. Standing at the farthest parking lot at the MicroStat Technologies "campus," facing the forest, but glancing back to see the full parking lot, and beyond that, the 5 story, black-glass building, I feel like a cowboy, standing on the edge of a new, wild frontier.

HiTech. What a fabulous word, so futuristic. We all speak a new language now, shorter and more direct then the old language my father spoke. We've eliminated the waste, replacing long words and phrases with three letter acronyms, pronounced with implied vowels. We've combined words, creating single words that used to take quadruple the syllables to say. Email, ATM, DOS, PC, HP, CNN, ESPN. It's fantastic, new, faster communication for our new faster world. Sometimes I feel like I am a pioneer of NewSpeak, just like 1984. Except no one drags you away in the middle of the night to room 101. It's all the gain without the pain. I love HiTech.

I wrote that in 1995. It was the opening two paragraphs of a novel I was working, back when I imagined myself the next Douglas Coupland. The novel (which I never finished, and re-reading now what I did complete I realize is pretty rubbish), about a software coder working at a company that created communications satellites, was heavily influenced by my experience working at Bell Northern Research in Ottawa.


Bell Northern Research was the research arm of communication equipment manufacturer Nortel (also known as Northern Telecom). Nortel was for a time one of the most valuable companies in Canada, and was a world leader in communications equipment. As internet companies became more and more valuable through the 1990s, Nortel, along with other companies that provided the underlying structure of the internet, grew in stock market valuations and in prestige. It was assumed as the internet grew exponentially, the need for the infrastructure that powered it would follow suit.

Two things smashed that vision, though. Firstly, the internet bubble burst, and the underlying need for architecture dried up. Secondly, compression algorithms continued to reduce the amount of bandwidth required to send information through the internet, which meant that telecom companies had projected much higher need for telecoms equipment than turned out actually to be needed. After 2000, Nortel started a long slow slide to oblivion, with the company now in the process of selling off all its business units and hard assets.

Back in 1992 and 1993 when I worked at the Carling Campus of Bell Northern Research in Kanata (just outside of Ottawa), the future still seemed quite bright. The campus on Carling Drive was a huge, set of connected glass buildings that let in tons of natural light, and was centred around a 7 storey atrium, topped with a glass pyramid. The buildings on campus were surrounded by nature, both man-made (including a lake) and natural (like the forested area bordering the property).

The campus had everything a young software engineer could want. A cafeteria with multiple choices for lunch. A small set of shops to fulfil your desire for munchies, drinks or the occasional pharmaceutical need like aspirin or cold remedies. Running tracks, a gym, bike racks and multiple softball fields, along with 5 different softball leagues depending on the level of competition you wanted to face.

Rents in the Ottawa area were pretty cheap, so I had a nice one-bedroom top floor apartment overlooking Crystal Bay and off into the Gatineau hills. I used to ride my bike the 30 minutes to work every morning, lock it up in the many bike racks (patrolled often by campus security), and grab a shower before heading to my cubicle. As all good software companies, we dressed casually. Jeans and t-shirts, or shorts in the hotter summer months. People who wore suits seemed like suckers to me. I felt more like an artist than a business person. Creating software was like snatching ideas from the ether and making them real. Michelangelo had marble. I had Unix and C++.

The Campus had a buzz about it as folks in the hallways discussed topics like optical technology, packet switching and asynchronous transfer mode. So many smart people, talking about smart things. Bell Northern Research – BNR. We called the campus the Big Nerd Ranch as a joke. Deep down, though, I was proud of working there. It wasn’t a nerd ranch, it was at the centre of the communications revolution that was bringing the world together. It was the heart of the global village. The campus - it felt futuristic.

That future was not to be. Not just for Nortel, but for me as well. Just a few years after I wrote the opening lines to my great (to ever be unfinished) novel, already the jobs of software engineers and computer programmers were leaving North America and heading overseas. I moved “up the value chain” and got into management consulting, concentrating instead on how technology could solve business problems, rather than creating the technology myself. Jeans and t-shirts got traded in for shirts and ties. The “art” of creating software became the “analysis” of solving business problems.

I really don’t miss the life of a coder very much. By the time I gave up coding in the late 1990s, I was pretty sick of it. It turns out it wasn’t really art, but more of a grind. Hours were incredibly long, and I started to develop a tick in my eye from all the strain of staring at computer screens endlessly. I also started to feel quite removed from the heart of the companies I was working for. IT was an enabler of the business, but it didn’t drive the business. Moving into areas where I was advising sales, marketing and customer care felt a lot more connected with the company’s goals and vision.

Given that I don’t much miss being a programmer, I was surprised that I was felt sad to read that the Nortel campus was sold this week to the Canadian Government, who are looking to house the Department of Defence on the site. While I haven’t been back to Ottawa in years, my last visit probably occurring in the 1990s, I still imagine that the campus hasn’t changed since my time there. It was – in my mind – an image of an alternate reality where people were still trying to hook up the world and provide a new, glorious connected future.


- - -

Ironically, as the location of my past life as a computer programmer ends, my future as a tech geek somewhat returns. I have changed jobs yet again (my fourth position now in the UK in the last four years. An unfortunate consequence of the ongoing near recession that we are experiencing). My new job is with a software company, where I will be doing project management. Maybe it won't be the future I quite imagined back in the mid-1990s, as like almost all software companies are development is done offshore, but I'm back in the world of high tech, this time worrying about how to roll out our software across companies with locations around the world. It is a mix and merge of responsibilities I had in my job as a software engineer and that tasks I performed in management consulting. And while I get to return to a life of wearing jeans and t-shirts to work, I won't have to stare endlessly at computer screens all day, so hopefully the tick in my eye won't return.

The future may not be what I thought it would be in the past, but it is here nonetheless, and it isn't too bad.

I've seen the future, and it will be. I've seen the future, and it works.
- Prince, The Future

Posted by GregW 02:59 Archived in Canada Tagged landscapes armchair_travel Comments (1)


A rare poetic entry...

overcast 15 °C

2005 10 30.. Plains.JPG

Dreams of train journeys across endless plains
Dreams of arrow straight roads through desert moonscapes
Dreams of watching through airplane’s small windows as we break through the clouds into sunlight
Dreams of the sea spray on our faces as the ferry approaches land
Dreams of walking through dense forest into a sunlit clearing
Dreams of the sound of rain hitting our umbrellas as we wander the streets of the future’s cities
Dreams of rolling hills snuggling dark blue lakes only visible from a remote cabin


The departures board clicks and spins through endless destinations
Shuffling destinations endlessly throughout the day, dealing a deck of places of which to dream
Dream of away


Posted by GregW 13:00 Archived in England Tagged armchair_travel Comments (0)

A Wider Field of Vision

How travel has opened my eyes and ears to what happens in the wider world.

rain 5 °C

Like most Saturday mornings, I woke up yesterday and flipped on the BBC News. The top story was the earthquake in Chile, which is now reported to have caused massive damage in Concepcion and the surrounding area and taken 300 lives.

I never visited Concepcion when I was in Chile in 2003. I took an overnight bus from Santiago to Puerto Varas in the lake district, passing through Concepcion in the middle of the night fast asleep. However, the fact that I had been to Chile - spent 6 weeks travelling to various points from the North to the South of the country - meant that I could place myself in the story. I knew what the geography of the country was, what the buildings are like, who the people were.

I've noticed since I started travelling that I do pay more attention to international news. I've always been a bit of a news junkie, in my 20s and early 30s I mostly read news about local and national issues, and skipped over international news unless it was about the USA and how that might impact the economy.

Travel, though, has made me more aware of the world, and interested in what is happening around our little globe. I now am as likely to click on the INTERNATIONAL tab of a news website to see what is happening abroad as I am to click on the LOCAL or NATIONAL news tabs. I'm always doubly interested in stories about places that I have been to - China's spat with Google or the storms battering Spain, Portugal and France - or places I've been near - though I've never been to Haiti, I have visited the Dominican Republic on the other side of the island and so watched the Haiti earthquake news intently. It is, I suppose, basic human nature. A story resonates more forcefully if you can place yourself within the narrative. By having seen places in person that appear in the news, it is easier to visualise the story in my head.

There are many ways to connect to a news story. Often you can empathise with those impacted without having ever seen the place where it occurred. Other items can help you connect to a story - emotions like anger, fear, humour or revulsion. Being able to connect to a story based on sense of place is just another way to connect, and makes reading the news a richer experience.

Posted by GregW 05:32 Archived in England Tagged armchair_travel travel_philosophy Comments (0)

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).


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?”


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

2006 04 22..N Globe.JPG

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.


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.”


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.


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.

2006 04 22..hambers.JPG

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.”

2005 10 23 M Minsk.JPG
Me in a place I haven't really been. Minsk.

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

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