Saturday, January 27, 2007

Where to go in Australia?

We've got some decisions to make about where we'll visit in Oz, and already we've adjusted our original plans (as they say a plan is worthless - it's the planning that counts). Let's start with the banale (and work our way up to tedious): Australia is BIG. In fact it's 7,682,300 sq km. Ireland by comparison has a surface area of 70,280 sq km. Getting the calculator out (I did say 'tedious') that makes Oz 109.3 times bigger than Ireland. And I still haven't been to Co. Offaly here in Ireland.

So we're not going to get to see every part. In fact we're not going to see most parts. But that's OK as a significant percentage of those 7.6 million square kilometers is probably about as interesting as Co. Offaly.

We'll spend 4 weeks in Sydney (either renting or house-swapping), and hopefully catch up with great friends from our time in Stuttgart, Garry and Ludi. This will be followed by 4 weeks weighing heavily on the hospitality of our friends Simon and Leah in Brisbane (who will hopefully get over the trauma and still be our friends at the end of it), and 4 weeks on the road North of Brisbane, probably to Cairns but perhaps even to Darwin (I had not idea he was still alive!). We hope to fly to Melbourne for a few day to see some Oz/Italian friends (Francesca and Jamie) living there - probably flying from Brisbane.

Simon in Brisbane used to live in Sydney and has given me a load of ideas about what to do and where to go in both of those cities.

If anyone reading this has any ideas about places that we absolutely must see in or around any of those cities, please do leave a comment.

The Travel Instinct

We wanted kids, and now we want to travel. Pretty much everyone instinctively feels the need to do the former (and many of us obey that instinct), but only for some is the urge to travel strongly felt. When I heard guests on the recent RTE Radio1 conversation with two travelling mothers, I felt part of their tribe. I wonder whether the travel bug can be explained in Darwinian terms.

(I know that most people venture beyond their own borders these days, but there are differences between wanting to get out from underneath grey Irish skies for two weeks a year, and wanting to really see other parts of the world. Those with the latter in mind are most definitely in the minority. But as a sidebar, it's quite interesting to see that from an evolutionary point of view, despite the amount of time we've populated the northern latitudes, we've never taken to the cold and darkness.)

The problem is that while it might make sense for a population to support a bunch of curious explorers (who will find new resources and lands to cope with increasing populations), most evolutionary biologists don't believe that natural selection operates on groups - just individuals. And curiosity kills more than the cat: In theory, natural selection should have operated against these risk-takers.

But nonetheless the urge is there, and the reasons have got to be, in base, Darwinian. So here's my layman's take on how natural selection, operating on the individual, could create pressure in favour of exploration:

If a tribe is running out of resources and doomed to die out, the explorers are the ones who are most likely to survive by moving on and finding a new base that is likely to support the hunter-gatherer requirements. If they explore as a group of mixed sex, and establish a new settlement, then the genes for exploration are going to form the basis of the entire future tribe's genotype. In other words it'll have such a strong foothold in the population that even allowing for evolutionary pressure against exploration (curiosity killing the cat) it will survive in some percentage in the population. At least it will survive long enough so that when that new tribe finds that resources are running out, the remaining explorers in the population will be the ones to venture out and establish a new population. So to summarize, new populations were more likely to be spawned by adventurers.

If any of this is true, it's interesting to think about what the current state of affairs might be. There is no longer any hunter-gather activity, or spawning of new populations but then again exploration and travel is less likely to kill you. At least - I hope so!!?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Slow Travel

On a similar theme to the Overland to Oz posting, I came across this interesting article on Slow Travel.

This is one of the really hard things about living on a small island on the edge of civilization. You're not going anywhere easily without boarding a plane. I really love travelling by train and if we were based in the UK the channel tunnel would certainly be the way to go for me. According to some, the train is about to make a big comeback. I hope tunnelling technology is too! How far are we away from Wales?

Insurance says my kids are too young. Oh and I'm too old.

I've started to look around at Irish travel insurance options, before we buy the tickets so that cancellation of same is covered. I've looked as VHI, AIB, AA, ETravelInsure, USIT, JustCover, and GetCover so far. There are many more out there and I'll keep trying. But the problem is that they all offer the same thing! The prices do vary of course, but there isn't a single product out there that covers what I'm looking for.

If I want to cover the family, then I can only stay away for maximum 90 days at a time (what happens after that? Do we suddenly transform at the end of the third month into a bunch of walking insurance liabilities?)

If I want a long-stay, then the kids have a lot of growing up to do. They have to become over 18 in most cases. There is even one policy that excludes all but 18-35 year olds. Oh my god - I'm separated from the kids by the yawning abyss of an entire insurance category!!!!

I noticed that AIB's url includes the words travel-cover.inabox. Small enough box there lads. And very boxy as well.

Now I know that right policy is out there, but based on the fact that we don't seem to fit into anybody's box (ahem) I'm expecting absurd premia. We shall see. Is this another example of the small Irish insurance market doing exactly what they want?

I'll be back.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Oh the Irony!

I forgot to mention in my last post about something that cropped up during out conversation with the principal of the school. If I'm going to support Nina and Sara's Irish language education while we're away, I'm going to have to hit the books myself.

So basically I've been breaking my arse trying to learn Chinese over the last year or more, and Letizia has been studying Spanish. And it turns out that in order to leave Ireland and travel around the world I'm going to have to learn Irish all over again!!

Ah well - maybe I was only waiting for an excuse. Aoife - if you're out there: Heeeeelp!!!!

Taking the Kids out of School

My wife and I met the new principal of my daughters' school to inform them of our plans. Any concerns that we had about being met with an inflexible, bureaucratic response were immediately removed. "Can I come too?" was her first reaction to our description of our travel plans. She was very enthusiastic about our idea, and full of advice on how to best manage the girls' education, and very keen on our idea of the girls staying in touch with their classes by blogging.

To cap it all, we really knew we were doing the right thing when we heard the principal telling us that the girls would be learning a whole lot more out there on the road than they would in the classroom!

Of course I walked myself into the job of putting together the school's new website! :-)

Music: A Theme

I'm haunted by four chords. The opening chords of Planet Telex by Radiohead. I remember the first time I heard them - I was listening on headphones and effect was instantaneous: my chest swelled, my eyes watered and my eyes darted around the room looking for something solid to counteract the movement of the music. It makes me want to run.

When I hear the theme music to Mise Éire, composed by Seán Ó Ríada based on an air called Roisín Dubh, I feel a strong and strange combination of sadness and optimism. (I had occasion to hear that air played on the uilleann pipes by Tomas Ó Canainn - friend and biographer of the late Ó Ríada, and by coincidence my fellow student of Chinese here in Cork).

The gentle melody of one section of Carmina Burana (no - not the Old Spice ad, a song called In Trutina) seems to me so perfect that it can repair the worst of moods.

There is something biological about music, something that we share as a species. I remember wondering aloud (probably in a pub) a long time ago whether the human brain had a music faculty in the same way that we have a language faculty. According to many, we most certainly do, but I've never read a theory on why this should exist, from a Darwinian point of view (maybe if I paid $30 I could!)

So my third (and one would hope final) theme for this trip will be music. We'll try to hear - and perhaps even record and upload - as many different forms of music as we come across in our travels.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

RTE Radio 1: The Big Adventure (contd)

The episode of this show that I mentioned in a previous blog entry aired on Monday last. The two women being interviewed were Christine Breen and Geraldine Osbourne. My wife has already read Christine's account of her family's nine-month trip around the world, and found it full of useful advice (even if the trip we plan would be reasonably different in nature). Geraldine Osbourne took her young family to live in Nunavut, a vast but sparsely populated region in the North East of Canada.

I found myself nodding and smiling a lot during the show. There's a lot in common in terms of the motivation to do a trip like this. Even if I don't know these families, and probably have had a very different life and upbringing to them, I felt like we belonged to the same tribe. The interest in travel is either there or it's not.

Christine's view on what the experience did for her family was encouragingly close to what I hope the trip will do for mine. She described the family as a travelling bubble, and said that during that time they started to see each other more as people than as parent/child. I'm aiming to chill out enough so that my kids don't have to put up with me managing them so much - but mamma and daddy are still the boss, kids!

Geraldine's view on the effects of the trip on the family were also positive, but perhaps more darkly observed thanks to the fact that some of her kids were teenagers at the time and that she was also putting up with 3 months of total darkness at a time. Her overall view was that this was an experience that the kids would always look back on and come to appreciate even more in retrospect than during the time itself.

Geraldine confirmed one of the effects on the kids that we had hoped for - something that motivates my wife and me a great deal: They get to see how big and varied the world is, how much there is going on, how many different ways there are too live. Living in Ireland in 2007 , I can tell you that this is a big deal. I want my girls to get some perspective, and not get caught up in the drama of little town life to the extent that they close their minds to everything else.

The presenter Manchán Magan very kindly included questions about schooling which I had mentioned to him in previous email conversations. In the case of Christine Breen, she 'got away with' taking her kids out of school - confirming our opinion that much comes down to the way the school management chooses to view the matter. We'll be speaking to the management of our daughters' school in the next week or so, and I'll be sure to post on the outcome.

Nice one Manchán - the show was very helpful to us. Looking forward to future episodes.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Family: A theme.

Parenting, certainly fathering, is comprised of 95% logistics and management. Only 5% of the time do you get those magic togetherness moments that remind you what it's all supposed to be about. Perhaps that's just the way of things in the 21st century. An exception to this rule is vacation time, when you're out on the road, there's nobody but family, and everyone is on the same adventure. I'm very lucky in that way - I know some folks who dread 2 weeks with the kids - with my two, we really get on during downtime.

So one of the major motivations for this trip is the chance to spend more time with my daughters. A few years ago, family holidays weren't really an option. During the downturn, while I was trying to get a company off the ground on a crap wage, there was no such thing. My wife brought the kids back to her own family in Italy during the Summer which meant that I went without seeing them for weeks on end.

Three years ago, when I moved on to a new position and money was available again, we had our first real family holiday - in Scotland - and it was magic from start to finish. I found out again what good company they were and what it felt like to be with them without having to direct them from dinner table to bath to bed, and then onto breakfast.

I'm hoping that the upcoming trip will be an experience that they will never forget - not just so they will get to see so many cool and interesting things across the world, but so that they'll get to see how cool and interesting their own family is.

So during this blog, and the trip that will form the last part of it, I will regularly post on this theme of family.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

RTE Radio 1: The Big Adventure

On Mondays, Manchán Magan hosts a show on world travel on RTE Radio 1 (Irish public service radio station). For blog readers outside of Ireland, the contents are downloadable. Manchán has been just about everywhere on the planet, from what I can see.

The show this coming Monday 15th of January includes two mothers who have brought their families on long worldwide adventures. So we're not the only nutters!! I look forward to hearing how these ladies dealt with the kind of issues we're planning for now - especially schooling and health/safety.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Passports for Kids: Part I

No - I don't mean some strange backroom deal where one buys a passport by handing over one's first-born. I mean that while up until now the kids have been on our passports, they're going to need their own if we want to avoid problems at many international borders. I was pretty sure that the Passport Office was going to make me jump through hoops when it comes to getting a passport for Nina.

The main problem is this: Nina is a Schwab - that is to say she was born in Baden-Wuertemberg in Germany (Stuttgart to be precise). Because 'German born, Irish resident 7-year-old daughter of an Irish man and an Italian woman' is not a category that one expects to find in the Passport Office manual, I fully expected this to be a purgatory of unanswered phones and emails, and redirects.

Not so.

Less than two hours after I used an online form to email my enquiry, I got a phone call back explaining exactly what I had to do - and it doesn't involve sacrifical offerings. I'm bloody impressed!

Actually - I just went back to the site to look for the form's url so that I could add it to this post. Looks like their site's fallen over. Got a nice little .Net 1.1 stack trace to admire instead.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Overland to Oz

There's no way we're going to do this - maybe in a couple of years when the kids are too old to want to travel with us anymore - but there is something very exciting about this idea of busing it to Oz. It makes perfect sense as there is half a world to see along the way. The market is now beginning to cater for those who want to see the world but while still keeping an eye on their carbon emissions. Despite Ryanair's Michael O'Leary assertions that we, the great unwashed, don't give a damn about the environment but 'only care about cheap flights', there must be an increasing number of people who really do care and are open to new ideas.

I normally quite like O'Leary's screw-you attitude, but his recent outburst (audio) on RTE showed him for the mendacious vandal he is, as a Green Party TD pointed out in response.

As in all matter ecological I confess my sins in advance - I'm not taking my daughters on a 12 week trip on a bus. But at least I know that it's wrong...

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Collapse: A Theme

There is nothing good, from an environmental point of view, from going around the world by airplane. I know this, and I acknowledge that our trip's Carbon Footprint is somewhat jackboot-shaped. I don't know whether what I have to say next makes things better or worse.

A few months ago I finished Jared Diamond's most recently published book, Collapse. It describes the success and failure of numerous human societies across time and geography, attempting to distinguish those factors, including the society's own behaviour, that decided whether the population collapsed or prospered. We will be visiting a lot of the countries that Diamond talked about - and seeing evidence of other societies that failed (the Inca for example). So I'd like to make this one of a number of themes for this trip, learning first hand about the ecological and political issues that touch the stability of our increasingly overlapping societies in each of the places we visit.

There's a whole chapter devoted to Australia in Collapse, and a section on China. I expecgt it's going to be hard to see anything except the tourist side of China, but may in Oz I'll have better luck seeing first hand some of the issues that Diamond talks about.