English needed?


I blame the French. More specifically, the Frenchman who lost his temper with a 12 year old boy in Montdidier. In 1988. My attempt to put a year's worth of French lessons into practice had caused the octogenarian to rant and rage at me and then the sky, all in a language I didn't understand. Clearly I'd cause offense, although how remains a mystery. I suspect it was the charge of 60 British schoolchildren up the high street asking where the swimming pool is in rudimentary Franglais that tipped him over the edge, the poor bastard.

I'm not great with second languages. I'll make a stab at learning basic greetings before traveling somewhere new, but anymore than a few words is a struggle, but I'll take comfort in the fact that I make an effort rather than assume others will take up the slack and be able to speak English. I'm ignorant, but not as ignorant as some, which makes me clever by comparison. Go me.

It was while reading David's post about learning a second language that got me thinking about this topic - where in the world will a traveller really struggle if they can only speak English?

There may be several reasons:

- the country / region / city in question is rarely visited by English-speaking visitors, or there are few ex-pats - there may be no be tourism or trade that forces locals to speak a language other than their own

- there's no common history between the country and other English-speaking territories

- it's a cultural issue; locals and/or the country as a whole is wary of visitors, or perhaps there's little tolerance for pandering to outsiders

Is English is a truly global language, or are there vast swathes of the globe where you'll  struggle to get by? Which countries don't speak it? Which countries prefer not to? And is there anywhere that learning the basics is a must before you arrive? What do you think? Leave a comment or thought below...



By Paul Smith

Off the track



Nowhere in the world that cannot be explored with the help of reliable local guides. Livingstone might have become the greatest name in the history of exploration but he would not have been able to do what he did without the help of his unshakable guides Chuma and Susi. Where would Hillary have been without Sherpa Tenzing or Lewis and Clarke without the fearless Indian woman Sacajawea?     

I’ve mounted more than a dozen solo or team expeditions into uncharted (or barely explored) parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. In areas with at least some tourist infrastructure there will be national park authorities or tourist information offices that can recommend guides. The following tips however relate to more off-the-beaten-track locations where you’ll have to find your own expedition crew.

The following tips could prove invaluable in finding the perfect guides and, perhaps, to mounting an expedition that could very well turn out to be the highlight of your round the world trip.  

1. The police force hasn’t been formed that is more effective than community or tribal law. There are few better ways to find reliable guides that to ask a village headman to hand-pick them for you. A guide who is aware that he is custodian of the honour of his village – and that he will have to answer to tribal law should anything happen to you – is likely to be the most helpful and trustworthy you’ll ever find.

2. If you want to get from A to B with a minimum of delay arrange to pay for the trip rather than by the day. This can work best if, for example, provisions might be in short supply on the trail and you need to make the journey before food or water runs out. You might be surprised, however, to realise just how fast local people can move even in dense jungle. You could be in for quite a race!

3. If, on the other hand, soaking up the experience is more of a priority, arrange to pay by the day. This way your guides will be in no hurry and (as long as you have provisions) you can even extend the stay longer or make detours. Be ready however for unreasonable excuses for early stops to camp or seemingly unnecessary rest days. Make sure that your provisioning plans take into account a longer stay than you originally envisaged.  

4. If re-provisioning is likely to be needed part way through the trek take extra guides. Few guides will agree to walk solo through the jungle to carry provisions back from a village. Recently I lead an expedition in Chiapas. We were trekking through an unexplored part of Monte Azul Bio-reserve and, because of the area’s protected status, would not be able to hunt for meat. We took extra guide/porters in case a re-provisioning run back to a village was necessary...and we also took several live hens for fresh meat.

5. On longer expeditions it can be necessary to take a hunter with a gun. But if you really want him to be able to bring in meat you must be prepared to travel slower, allowing enough time for him to be able to hunt in the evenings or early morning. With a long, noisy column crashing through the bush don’t expect wildlife to be easily visible. Most important, give strict guidelines as to what can and cannot be shot: I had to convince my Kuna guides in Panama that under no circumstances were they to shoot jaguar for meat and in Borneo I was not sorry to arrive in a hunters camp too late to partake of their meal of orang utan!

6. Before departure try to research the community obligations of your guides. Few pastoral people will be prepared to guide you (whatever incentive you are offering) during one of those crucial periods of the year when the herds need to be moved. This was a lesson that I learned the hard way when I arrived in central Borneo just as the rice was being harvested...and spent three fruitless weeks travelling between various jungle villages and longhouses, unable to entice anyone into an expedition.   

7. Don’t skimp on porters. These days most backpackers are aware of the plight of the overworked, overloaded and underpaid porters who used to suffer in great numbers in trekking destinations as far apart as the Annapurna Circuit, Kilimanjaro or the Inca Trail. Hire enough guides, porters and camp assistants (or cooks) for your needs.

8. Listen to your guides when they advise what provisions are needed. In Asia few guides will be willing to travel without their pre-requisite ration of rice (frequently three plates each per day). In parts of Africa it might be mealie-meal/sadza/fufu. In the Andes you will have little chance of getting together a team of mountain guides unless you make an allowance for a sack of coca leaves. Unhappy and disgruntled guides will not add to the experience on any expedition...and, in the worst scenarios, an expedition that is not functioning well as a team could potentially be dangerous. In almost all areas a few cartons of imported cigarettes do wonders for team morale.

9. Don’t rush the delicate period of haggling. In many traditional communities it is considered the height of bad manners to launch straight into business without the prerequisite period of chit-chat. Haggle reasonably hard (but always with good humour and a smile) to fix the rate but make it clear that a good bonus will be offered on arrival if you are thoroughly happy with how the trip has gone. You will get a gut-feel about how to handle the payments from your guide’s personalities. If alcohol seems to be a problem within the community, perhaps offer half payment upfront the morning of departure – the rest on completion of the trek. This way there is a better chance that at least some of the money will make it into the households rather than be frittered away in bars on return from a long, thirsty trek.

10. Don’t skimp on porters out of some obscure obligation that you must carry your own pack: the last person who will thank you for this is the poor soul who loses a good pay-packet because of your - albeit laudable - scruples. For many years I refused to let a porter carry my kit...until at some point when I was already working as a professional photographer (I’m no longer sure but think it was somewhere in the jungles of Sumatra) I realised that for a few extra dollars – which some local guy was extremely grateful for – I was freed to move with so much more agility. Loaded only with my camera equipment I was able to chase the shots and angles that I was supposed to be there to get. I was freer to do my job effectively and he could do his.



By Mark Eveleigh

A good hostel



For many travellers embarking on a round the world trip, budgetary requirements mean that spending every night in a luxury hotel is simply not an option. Keeping the costs down means that hostels are often the prime option – but quality varies greatly.


Some hostels can be filthy pits and others in less popular destinations are pretty much reserved for people on bail and idiots. At the other end of the scale, you end up with some that are ram-jammed with facilities and are kept in a far better condition than most hotels. Making a good hostel isn’t an exact science, but there are some key ingredients to look out for. Such as...





This should be an absolute given. A good hostel keeps rooms, common areas and – most importantly – bathrooms cleaner than I keep my own.





This may seem silly, but a good hostel needs to have staff other than the owner/ manager. When it’s just one bloke (and it’s always a bloke) doing everything, things can start to get a little, um, eccentric. The one man band hostels are always the one with lengthy lists of laborious rules and the overwhelming feeling that the chap is doing you a massive favour by allowing ghastly, filthy backpackers to stay there. This said, a hands-on owner/ manager is a good thing. Someone who cares enough to be there and monitor how things are going tends to make for a better hostel.


Manageable size


Some hostels – particularly in Australia and New Zealand – are enormous 200 to 300 bed beasts. They may have great facilities inside, but you don’t half feel like you’re on a production line. Curiously, there more people there are in a hostel, the harder it is to meet anyone. It becomes a never-ending sea of faces, whereas in smaller joints you’ll end up bumping into and sitting next to the same people all the time. That tends to facilitate conversation. To me, around 30 to 70 inmates is about right for a hostel. Much more and you’re just a number, but dip below the 30 mark and you’re in danger of not having enough drinking buddies to choose from.



No bar


A lot of hostels have their own bars that host all manner of drinks promotions. Counterintuitively, these don’t to be the best ones for either socialising or drinking cheaply. For a start, these are the ones that won’t allow you to bring your own booze in and drink it in the common areas – and this is when friendships tend to be struck. If a hostel has its own bar, that tends to become the social focus – people go there instead of hanging around in the TV room. But the bar is less open, less communal and less inviting for idle chat – or planning who’s going out where later that evening.


Service focus


Really good hostels will provide wireless internet for free to anyone travelling with a laptop, while they’ll also tend to have little touches such as board games and bookshelves where guests can exchange books. There will also be lots of helpful info, such as updated notice boards letting people know what’s happening in town or booklets suggesting good places to go and eat or drink.


Other hostels go for a more corporate, profiteering approach – with surprisingly expensive on-site cafés, internet computers that cost a bomb and a never-ending urge to shunt you towards the tour desk. Type A recognises that guests have a choice and opt to do the best they can, Type B sees every guest as someone to maximise income from.









For many people heading out on a round-the-world adventure, budget requirements mean that spending every night in a lavish hotel is out of the question. Frankly, unless you’ve got the sort of inheritance that allows you to splash the cash at will, then there’s a high chance that a significant amount of time will be spent sleeping in hostels. Thankfully, the old image of hostels – Spartan rooms full of Austrian hikers, 9pm curfews and an almost monastic code of miserable silence – are long out of date. But hostels do require some adjusting to and modification of behaviours and routines.






Picking the right hostel




There’s a surprising range of options out there when it comes to hostels. Some are big, modern affairs with surprisingly high quality facilities and innovations such as female-only floors. These will generally have their own bar, travel booking desk, internet café and swish common rooms with TVs, games etc. Unfortunately, they can also feel like a giant battery cage for backpackers – rather impersonal and like you’re part of a big machine rather than having a unique experience. Others can be a lot smaller and – occasionally – bedraggled. Some are aimed towards an older crowd, some have a party vibe, some pride themselves on their eco credentials. An awful depends on what you’re after – a good night’s sleep, cleanliness, a chance to meet other travellers or a launchpad for a big night out.Personally, my tip is to go for a medium-sized hostel that is generally regarded as clean and having decent facilities but doesn’t have its own bar.








Any more than 100 people in a hostel and it’s bizarrely hard to meet and talk to anyone – there’s too much of a crowd. Also, if there’s no bar, you can bring your own booze in. This is both a lot cheaper and a lot more sociable – people will sit around chatting to strangers in the common areas with a drink in hand. Also, there is an enormous difference between a 16 bed dorm and a four bed dorm. The fewer people snoring and getting in at silly o’clock, the better. Specialist hostel booking sites tend to have reviews on them – and these are generally more reliable than those on Tripadvisor, purely because the people using the sites are those likely to consistently stay in budget accommodation.










Unless you have a remarkable ability to sleep anywhere, staying in dorm rooms will send you loopy after a while. Getting a full night’s sleeping is something of an art – ear plugs are an essential investment – and sometimes it’s worth taking a financial hit in the name of sanity preservation. Every now and then, it’s wise to book yourself into a cheap hotel, or at least take a private room within the hostel. That space to sprawl out as you wish, shut out the world and have a good kip can be invaluable.






Hostel dos


  • If you’re leaving early the next morning, pack as much as you can beforehand. Then, when 5am (or whatever time you’ve got to be up) rolls by, get out of the room and pack the rest in the corridor. No-one likes an early morning bag rustler.
  • Book a private room (or at least surreptitiously venture into the showers) if you’re intending  to indulge in any funny business. It’s no fun trying to sleep next to (or underneath) a creaking bed and frenzied moaning.
  • This get a private room rule should really apply to anyone who knows they are an appalling snorer as well...
  • Everyone likes to cook something nice once in a while, but if you’re planning on rustling up a feast that takes up most of the pans in the communal kitchen, a whole hob and much of the preparation area, then do so at a non-peak time. To try this one at 7pm when everyone is starving and trying to cook their own meal is a one way ticket to massive unpopularity.
  • Learn to listen rather than just bang on about your own travel anecdotes. Otherwise you’ll become known as The Thailand Bore and suspiciously left out of invitations to hit the town.




Hostel don’ts


  • If using the communal laundry, don’t leave your newly clean pants in the machine for days. Try and pick up your washing as soon as possible so that others can use the facilities.
  • Stealing food is a no-no. If it’s in the communal fridge and it isn’t yours, don’t touch it. Curiously, this room never applies to toiletries left in the bathroom. They are absolutely fair game.
  • If there’s only one computer with internet access (very common in smaller hostels), don’t take up permanent residence there. Other people might like to check their e-mails too.
  • If you are having a big night out, at least try and have some respect for your room mates. Don’t charge in, turning all the lights on and singing Come On Eileen at the top of your voice, for example.
  • Never – unless specifically asked to by the majority of your fellow guests – get out a guitar and start sharing your renditions of Jack Johnson/ Red Hot Chilli Peppers songs.  Better still – leave your guitar at home; it won’t half help with the packing...








A fantastic round the world adventure can often be as much about the when as the where. Freezing your proverbials off in northern China or southern Patagonia might make for an excellent anecdote in retrospect, but it probably won’t be quite as enjoyable at the time. Similarly, you probably don’t want to be dodging hurricanes in Mexico or continually lashed by monsoons in South-East Asia.