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November 14, 2011

A Few Recent Lessons From The Road

My recent trip to Mexico was something of a long-haul ordeal – thirteen hours from Singapore to London, layover of six hours in Heathrow, twelve hours flying London to Mexico City, overnight stay, then a six and a half hour bus ride to Oaxaca. On the way back things were slightly worse, six hours by […]

Waiting In Oaxaca

My recent trip to Mexico was something of a long-haul ordeal – thirteen hours from Singapore to London, layover of six hours in Heathrow, twelve hours flying London to Mexico City, overnight stay, then a six and a half hour bus ride to Oaxaca. On the way back things were slightly worse, six hours by bus back to Mexico City, staying overnight before a three hour flight to Miami, overnight again, then nine and half hours to London, wait four and half hours in Heathrow, before boarding the thirteen hour flight home to Singapore.

Of course, there are seasoned travellers (photographers, journalists, musicians, business folk) who do this sort of thing week in and week out. For me, the road is not my life. However, I have been doing quite a bit of travel in recent years and decided to put together a few insights I’ve gleaned from the road. I’ve written these out below, in no particular order. If you have any other questions about travelling with photo gear, or long haul travel in general, just let me know.

Backpacks are really good and really bad – I really like my Clik Elite Pro Express backpack. On this trip I carried it comfortably through airports, put it in the overhead of various planes and even a Mexican bus. However, I was unpleasantly reminded that aiports outside Asia often don’t have luggage trolleys in the pre-flight areas. So, I didn’t enjoy having to lug the backpack through customs in the US and Mexico, or during long layovers in London. I’ll soon be investing in a rolling camera bag for future long haul expeditions.

You can take a tripod on an international flight, at least in Asia – Check with your airline and airport on this one. That said, my experience is that you can take a tripod on board, as long as it isn’t longer than your carry on bag. When I’ve done this I’ve taken the ballhead off and put it in the bag.

Having a ready to go bag pays off – In Mexico I did most of my shooting out of a Clik Elite Impulse Sling. Every morning I loaded the bag with my camera, three lenses, five filters, a Lee filter holder kit, spare battery and three spare memory cards. There was also room for some extra clothing, medical essentials and other bits and pieces. Having a bag and list of gear you can more or less pack in your sleep makes things easier if you need to get out quickly to shoot.

You can check if your bags are on the plane – Until recently I did not know that when you get to the boarding gate, you can ask the staff to check if you bags have made it onto the plane. There’s enormous peace of mind in knowing that your bags actually did make from one side of the terminal to the other (or from the other side of the Atlantic).

Frequent Flyer programmes are so totally worth it – I think most people already know this, but just in case you don’t let me say yes, joining a programme and racking up miles is a nice idea. Some programmes give you discounts on stuff, which might be nice for some people. But, for me, frequent flyer programmes are all about lounges and upgrades. If you are stuck on a layover, free wifi, coffee and bacon sandwiches can be nice, a quiet and comfortable place to work can be even nicer and a clean shower is even nicer still. But, the occasional cabin class upgrade is the nicest of all – and, flying back from London to Singapore in First Class is about as nice as it gets!

You can shoot all day with one lens – I shot a lot of images in Mexico with my 50mm f1.4 lens. Although I mostly worked with three prime lenses (24mm f3.5 Tilt Shift, 50mm and 105mm f2) it was liberating to just go out with one lens and make it happen. In the past I’ve been guilty of carrying too much gear and confusing myself in the field (or being lazy with zoom lens). Less isn’t always more but, sometimes, using less can breed more creativity.

Jet lag can (almost) be avoided – I’m not sure if Jet Lag can be completey avoided. But, you can go a long way towards it by adjusting your rythmns well before you land. Given the choice, I’d always prefer to arrive somewhere early in the morning, stay awake all day and then go to bed at normal local time. It can also help to start eating your meals (and planning your sleep) based on your future destination, rather than just what the airline is dishing up. If that means missing meals, or sleeping while your fellow passengers gorge on in flight entertainment and snacks in the daylight, so be it.

You may as well smile – Try to connect a swag of flights on a clutch of different continents and something will go wrong. I do my best to approach every counter and every person with a smile on my face. And, I assume that occasionally, my booking will be not quite right, I won’t get the seat I want, or I will have to walk around a Mexican bus terminal looking for a photocopy machine only to realise it was futile exercise because I had presented the wrong credit card. I don’t have the most handsome or convincing smile, but it opens more doors than the alternative.

Writing a packing list is not a waste of time – I used to laugh at people who wrote packing lists. Actually, I still do, even when I do it myself. However, having a list does make it a lot easier to pack and avoid lugging too much stuff. It also means that when your bag comes down the carousel half open, as mine recently did in Miami, you can tell fairly quickly if anything is missing (thankfully, in this case, nothing was).

You will sleep better if you empty your memory cards and backup your work – The latest night we had in Oaxaca saw us coming back to the hotel around 4.30am. It was tempting to just crawl into bed. But, instead, I found the time to upload all the evening’s images onto my computer and went through the usual routine of making selections, backing up files and formatting cards ready for the next day. Sure, I would have enjoyed that extra hour’s sleep, but the next day (and the one after that) I was glad for piece of mind that the images were where they should be and ready to be worked on.

As an aside, one great approach I learnt from my friend Yves Perreault was to back all my current work onto a USB stick and carry it with me at all times. That way, even my computer and back drives were lost, stolen or damanged, I would still have a copy of most of my recent images.

Buses Rock! I got a few raised eyebrows from people over my decision to travel from Mexico City to Oaxaca by bus. Travel newbies may want to take what looks (on paper) like the fastest route, often via small airports. But, those who know about travel in South America are familiar with the continent’s excellent bus networks, which often provide a more comfortable (as well as more scenic) connection between major destinations. Planes (along with the crowded, sometimes chaotic airports that service them) are not always the best mode of transport. Sometimes, a bus, or train, or ferry will be a better (and more romantic) alternative.

You should only eat tourist food if, well, never – In Mexico I ate all sorts of street food – with no harmful effects. Of course, it pays to be vigilant and careful when choosing places to eat. In fact, the only meal that didn’t sit well was in a relatively expensive restaurant that seemed to only cater to tourists. You find these kinds of places in every major city and tourist destination. Given the choice, I would always avoid those kinds of places – they serve food that locals won’t eat, to visitors who don’t know better. Quite frankly, I’d rather go to McDonalds (which in some countries, like India, will give you a more interesting and locally “authentic” experience).

Do it your own way – Take all travel advice (especially this post) with a grain of salt. I still like to do my research before a trip; checking the travel books and websites. However, I long ago gave up on trying to see every sight the guidebooks told me was “important.” There’s few things sadder than watching a group aimlessly shuffle through an old church or monument for a few minutes, staring blankly here and there and snapping the odd photo. Perhaps some people like to tick off as many sights as they can in a trip. For me, I’d rather see less and take in more.

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