A popular present these days, a scratch map is an actual map of the world or a single country with land bits covered in scratchable foil. The task is easy: you scratch the foil off the countries or areas you have visited and proudly manifest to the world how well-travelled you are. The intern in question chose her gift after we had shared enough conversations for her to decide I was an incorrigible globetrotter and therefore had plenty of scratching work to do.
And right she was! After spending hours scratching at least a kilo of foil off Russia, China and Canada (I decided I would clear entire countries even if I hadn’t visited all their regions), and even more time carefully isolating the tiny Kosovo in the part of Europe I had otherwise travelled at length, I glued the map to a wall in my office.
Scratch map: my wrist still reacts painfully to mentions of Russia
Where are you off to next then?
My work life has become much more social since. Several senior colleagues regularly stop by to check my “scratch progress” and passers-by whose names I do not even know occasionally throw in comments, too. Some linger for a while, study the map closely, ask me questions and then break into their own travel stories. The scratch map has proven a great conversation starter, albeit a major distraction from work.
By far the most common question I receive is what my next travel destination is. Thankfully, I am very much able to answer that – as, believe it or not, I have already made tentative travel plans for the next 2-3 years. Certainly anything can happen in life, but, as a content City worker with a permanent job and stable performance, I hope to complete my travel plan before the next major financial crisis strikes.
Why plan so early? Well, at 31 and counting, a certain biological clock continues to tick and some scheduling is inevitable. I figure I have a good 2-3 child-free years ahead which I would like to spend in the best way possible – doing plenty of sports, mastering the languages I already speak and learning new ones, enjoying quality time with my much adored boyfriend and (of course) travelling the world. Courtesy of my wonderful employer, I have a generous holiday allowance, the entire of which I am welcome to take. Knowing the number of free days I have per year makes travel-dreaming easy: a week here, a couple of weeks there and three weeks for the price of one around Christmas. It is not the “dream life” led by full-time travel bloggers who have dropped their 9-to-5 in the name of freedom, but a combination of a settled working life with frequent getaways suits me just fine.
Saudi Arabia? No, thanks
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am not as well-travelled as most people think. Indeed I have never taken a gap year (my extended escapade to Greece doesn’t count) and only ever used my holidays to travel. In addition to being quite attached to the idea of home, I have not chosen the life of travel for another reason: I am simply not interested in seeing every single country of the world. It escapes me why anyone would want to see places like Saudi Arabia, Nauru or Central African Republic as a tourist – those that do must have truly compelling reasons.
The list of countries I wouldn’t mind seeing is, however, not insignificant. Right now I have narrowed this list down to about a dozen. Two to three years should be ample time to cover these:
• Burma (2014): A friend of mine is getting married in Sri Lanka this winter. Since I have only limited interest in Sri Lanka itself, I will use most of my holiday on Burma. The plan is to explore Yangon on its famous circular train route, hop on a day train to Mandalay, take a boat to the historic Bagan, fly to Heho to hike around the rustic Inle Lake, then spend a few days on the beach in Ngapali and backtrack to Yangon. With Burma only recently having opened up and getting mercilessly popular with tourists, I hope to catch the place still relatively untouched.
• Iran (2015): The descendant of the ancient Persian kingdom has long been on my list. No wonder I have already booked the flights! In April 2015, inshallah, Turkish Airlines will take me to Iran’s city of Tabriz and out of Shiraz a couple of weeks later. I am still working on what happens inbetween, but the plan is to make my way down Iran in two and a half weeks using solely the ground transport. I plan to be seen haggling for 24-karat gold in the bustling capital of Tehran, stroking woven carpets in Kashan, walking around with my mouth wide open at Isfahan’s gorgeous Muslim architecture and stopping over in Na’in, Yazd and Kerman before reaching Shiraz. I already have all my Muslim-friendly loose clothing from the past trips to India; the only thing missing are the pennies for that 24-karat gold.
• Andaman Islands (2015): Formally part of India, the Andaman Islands actually lie far closer to Burma between the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Having visited several parts of the diverse melting pot that is India, I am keen to see another Indian territory so far afield. For now I am imagining a mix of turquoise blue Thai seas and Indian spice scents, all that to the honks of the Subcontinent’s ubiquitous auto-rickshaws. There is no definite itinerary for the Andamans yet except a return ticket to Chennai, but I am pretty sure I will not be venturing to meet the indigenous Andaman tribes and instead take it easy on the larger islands for a week.
How I remember India: wondering how similar (or not) the Andamans are
• Bhutan (2015): I have wanted to visit Bhutan ever since I’d heard it wasn’t straightforward to do so. Most foreign visitors need mandatory escort of a local guide and can only travel on a pre-booked tour with a state-approved local agency. While some travellers have complained of the service mismatched with the substantial daily rate of $250 (supposed to include everything), I am willing to give the small Buddhist country in the Himalayas the benefit of the doubt – along with my cash. My ideal trip would involve Thimphu, Paro valley, the Valley of Punakha-Wangdue and anything else a week’s visit can fit.
• New Zealand (2015): Having considered New Zealand several times before, I am finally hoping to visit at the end of next year. While my optimal way of visiting a country like New Zealand would be aboard a self-driven camper van with my other half, I will have to make do with one of those hop-on, hop-off buses for North Island and change to some sort of a driven vehicle once the boyfriend joins me on South Island later. I hope to fly into Auckland, travel down to Wellington via Rotorua and a few other sights, take the ferry across to South Island, embark on a TranzAlpine rail journey from Christchurch to Greymouth and continue to Franz Josef Glacier and the Fiordland National Park. Some people have told me New Zealand is the closest I will find to resemble my beloved Norway – here is hoping it is true.
• Chile (2016): I was passionate about Chile even before visiting Argentina last April. After seeing the spectacular beauty of Patagonia, I have thought of little else than hopping on a plane to Chile in the hope of seeing something equally breath-taking. I will make sure to come in the Chilean autumn to avoid the crowds and the heat, flying into Santiago and visiting Easter Island and Puerto Varas – the country’s so-called Lake District – before transferring to the stern and windy Punta Arenas. From there, I will allocate at least five days to hike in Chile’s famous Torres del Paine National Park where I expect the scenery to be very similar to what I saw in Argentina. After a quick visit to Tierra del Fuego, I plan to fly to the UK’s Falkland Islands for a week. I think I have already mentioned that visiting the Falklands is the ultimate goal and dream of the traveller inside me.
Patagonia still captivates my heart
• Bolivia (2016): This small country has hopelessly enchanted me through reflections, blogs and photos of other travellers. Somehow Bolivia embodies everything I have ever imagined about South America as a whole: tall mountain peaks, alpine lakes, indigenous population of Indian descent and old colonial towns full of colourful Catholic churches. It has an added advantage of being a good destination in July, which I always considered to be a dead month for travel. I plan to do the usual “gringo” route from Santa Cruz to the colonial wonders of Sucre and Potosí before exploring the glistening miracle of Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. I then hope to travel north to La Paz to visit the nearby Lake Titicaca and possibly descend into the jungle. There is simply an unbelievable amount of sightseeing to be done in Bolivia.
• South Korea (2016): My trip to North Korea last year was widely covered in this blog. However, few people know that I am equally fascinated by North Korea’s sister nation in the south. The reasons for this are multifold, ranging from my adoration of Korean cinema to absolute obsession with Korean food. The history of the Korean peninsula is by far the best covered subject on my book shelf and the Korean language fascinates me endlessly. Korea is probably the only country where I am not remotely fussed about any itinerary; so far the idea is to land in Seoul and eat my way down the peninsula all the way to Busan. The exact route is, well, of less importance.
My only visit to South Korea was a 4-hour stopover in Seoul in early 2014
• Colombia (2016): I burst into improvised song and dance so often that my boyfriend often says he would love to accompany me to Colombia – just to see me “fit well in there”. Intrigued as I am, this is not the only reason I want to see the country. I would love to witness the bustle of Bogota before exploring quieter settlements in the area. I am dying to explore the colonial Cartagena which, I fantasise, should be my closest reminder of Cuba. I would love to take it easy for a few days chilling on the Caribbean coasts of Santa Marta and Isla de Providencia. And, if I end up bursting into song and dance at every step, that would only be a bonus.
And the scratching begins
I have tried to imagine what my scatch map would look like with the above seven countries duly scratched off (South Korea already is as I briefly visited Seoul last January). Unfortunately, I would still be a long way off from calling myself well-travelled. One solution I have in mind, should I ever succeed in becoming a mother, is taking a round-the-world trip on my maternity leave; after all, if I am bound to be bleary eyed and sleep deprived for months, I might as well be doing that in Dubai, Sydney and San Francisco? Not having to show up in the office for months seems too tempting a time to be stuck in the Big Smoke.
That is a topic of a completely different blog post though. As for now, I will continue – quite literally – scratching the surface.