Episode 15: That Time I Was A VIP

365 Dates of Travel Podcast

Transcript for Episode 15: That Time I Was A VIP

Introduction

Welcome to this week’s podcast all about the April chapter of the book, 365 Dates of Travel: The First Six Months. In the April chapter, there’s one story back to 1988 on a school camp, or the start of a school camp. So it’s in Australia, travelling from Victoria and going, not in this book, but all the way to Uluru after the first day in this book. It’s an introduction, that one. So I will be writing more about that trip at a later date. But also we have a short trip to Norway in 1996, which is in my penny pinching days and where I stole some electricity. There’s a lot about the wonderful 1998 trip. So in April, we’re traveling through Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania. Then we move forward to 2016 in Turkmenistan, 2017, a couple of days from the Poland trip, and also a few days and stories from an American trip in Los Angeles and Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2018. 

Now, I said a couple of weeks ago that March was the longest chapter in the book, but it was only longest by about two pages. And the second longest chapter happens to be April. So I think it’s the 1998 trip in particular that creates long stories. 

Future of second year of travel stories

But the chapter in April starts with Poland in 2017. And one of my favorite days of this trip, unfortunately, didn’t make it into the book. I was saving it for the second year of the 365 Dates franchise, but I guess I will kind of semi announce a little spoiler that the second year of stories may not make it into a book. I’m playing around with other options for those stories. So, unfortunately, I didn’t plan for that when I outlined the dates for the first book. So you might have to wait for awhile to get the Poland story. It may be in the form of a podcast next year, rather than in the form of a book in the same format as the 365 Dates of Travel. But there’ll be more about that in the future when plans are finalized. 

Poland

So the favorite Poland day is not in this first book or the second book, but the night before it is. And it was an interesting night. I got off the train late. It was dark. I was so happy to see a taxi waiting at the train station because I would not have known what to do to get a taxi in Poland. The taxi driver had to ask a few times for the address because it wasn’t somewhere he knew instantly. And we were travelling down these dark back roads where even the taxi driver, I think, was nervous. And we’re both kind of like, “Where are we going?”

And when we turned up at my booked accommodation, we still didn’t 100% feel like we were somewhere that could be called civilization. It was a big complex, but there was hardly anyone around. I do believe I was the only guest at the accommodation site that night because I didn’t see anyone other than the people behind the desk. Even the taxi driver, I think, was a bit worried about me. He kindly gave me his card, knowing that I’d be leaving the next day. I think he just wanted to make sure I was okay. 

I was okay, obviously. And even though it was a really weird night and the room, which it almost felt more like a dorm or even a convent. I could say that word. And there was this call bell on the wall with a picture of what could have been a novice nun. So in some orders, the novice nuns wear slightly different headpieces and clothing to the other more senior nuns. And this is exactly what this little picture looked like on this button on the wall. I didn’t press the button to find out what happened or would happen. I’m assuming it was probably disabled from whatever it might have been installed for in the first place. But I was very curious then, and to be honest, I’m still curious now. What would have happened if I’d pressed that button? Or what would have happened had someone pressed that button back in the day when it was working? What was going to turn up, a nun? I guess we’ll never know. 

Hopefully one day I will get to tell you the rest of the Poland stories. It really was an amazing trip. I can highly recommend traveling around Poland. And there was no problem on my own doing it on the trains. There was no tour involved or anything, just the odd walking trip, day tour and things like that. And I had an amazing time in Poland. It was so good I may have to turn it into a book on its own. We’ll see what happens down the track. 

America 2018

So also in this chapter, I’m on my trip to America in 2018. Now, at this time, I had created a mini Los Angeles obsession. It comes around in waves, me and Los Angeles. I was planning around a conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I specifically planned a full week or eight days even in Los Angeles on the way to the conference. 

Getty Villa

And I get to tell you how I’m living out my ancient Roman dreams in the Getty Villa. Amazing building. Like all the ruins I’ve been to, I’ve always imagined what these villas and fancy buildings and collanaded streets and everything would look like in their heyday. And the Getty Villa gives you a pretty good idea of what it would look like. I was early and had it to myself, which added to the whole atmosphere. But I can highly recommend the Getty Villa in Los Angeles for a visit, especially if you have any interest in ancient Rome at all. 

Santa Monica

I also got better acquainted with some of the less touristy places of Santa Monica. I was staying in a lovely place on the beach, with a view of the beach and also the Santa Monica Pier, but obviously very touristy down that end of town. So I walked to the other end or caught an Uber to the other end of Montana Avenue. And in my travel bible, I’ve said about Montana, it has shops, restaurants, and celebrities. And I also mentioned that I might come across a pig, a pet pig named Rocky, being walked on a leash. Now, unfortunately, I didn’t see Rocky the Pig or any celebrities. The busiest place was people coming in and out of the Whole Food Markets. So no celebrity sightings for me this time. I did feel a little bit of an impostor when walking around these streets. A little bit too fancy for me. But if for ever reason I did move to Los Angeles, it would absolutely be an area I would love to live in. There are lots of houses, which were probably very expensive, but there were a lot of apartment buildings and things as well, which made me think maybe I could afford to live in that area if I did happen to move to Los Angeles, but I have no plans to do that. 

Uber

I was in Santa Monica for a few days, and then I moved to a different hotel closer to the filming studios. As I had lots of other activities planned, it’s a lot easier to be closer rather than having to travel too far through any sort of traffic in Los Angeles. So most of what I did in Santa Monica, I could do walking or one bus out to the Getty Villa. And then when I got to my new hotel, besides Universal Studios, which I could walk to from my hotel, I utilised many Ubers, and Ubers made the trip possible. It would have been a nightmare without it, and I potentially would have had to drop sights from the itinerary just due to time constraints. 

Warner Bros Studios

So on the first day when I moved hotels, I caught an Uber to Warner Brothers Studios. I was meant to meet up with a friend who unfortunately had to change her plans. So I was solo as I was wandering around the Warner Bros. Studio tour. So I didn’t get a picture on the Friends couch with a friend or even without a friend, but that’s okay. I got to see it and it was probably one of the best parts of it. And it’s right near the end and I came home with my nice Friends souvenir in a soup mug, which I use regularly, so reminds me a lot of that trip. 

Universal Studios VIP

But the next day I could walk to my planned site, which was Universal Studios, and I paid extra for the VIP tour and I highly recommend it. It was probably one of the best days at a theme park, particularly considering one of the best days at a busy theme park. Obviously, I’ve had quite a few good times where I’ve had low occupancy, which is very good luck when you’re in a theme park. But for a day where it was busy, then the VIP package is worth it. It was a lot of money, but you get so much more out of the park in one day. So, particularly if you are only visiting for the one day and you do like seeing the shows and all the rides and doing everything, and you like to occasionally sit down and have some food and some drink and rest the feet, well, then this is the way to do everything in the one day and make it enjoyable. 

Everything’s included from food to fast passes to all the tours. You get a VIP tour, which is an extended tour of the studios out the back, which was the main reason I paid for the VIP, because it’s the only way you get off the bus in the sets out the back. And they still have the Back to the Future town square. So it’s a town square that’s been used in a lot of different movies and changed slightly depending on what is needed. But it looks like the original from the Back to the Future movie where it goes back to the 50s and to the 80s, where there’s the hoverboards going around and there’s the Town Hall and the chime. If you’re on the VIP tour, you get to get off the little tour bus and walk around all that square. And I still have that on my list of things to do one day. So I do have to go back to Universal Studios and repeat the VIP experience specifically so I can walk in that area. 

Unfortunately, the day I was there, another movie or TV show was using it to film, so it was a closed set. We got to drive past it, but we weren’t allowed to stop and get out. So that was very disappointing, I have to admit. But I got to see it, and I know the VIP is worth it. So I will go back one day and do the full experience. 

I mean, having someone hold your bag while you go on rides; having unlimited access to cold water when the heat is beating down on you; having someone pass you a poncho in case you get wet on the water rides; going straight to the front of the line at every single ride; having seats saved for you in the shade. Like it’s VIP all the way. 

Griffith Park

Over the next few days, Uber helped me achieve seeing the Hollywood sign from every single angle you could possibly see. I spent a whole day wandering around Griffith Park in various sections and doing walks on my own and walks in group tours. I even saw some local wildlife. I’m still up in the air. Was it a coyote? I really want it to be a mountain lion, but it was one or the other, and it was local wildlife, so go me for wildlife spotting.  

I ended that day with the sunset from the Griffith Observatory. It is a beautiful place to spend any time, but particularly at sunset. So if you’re in Los Angeles, time your visit there around sunset, because it is absolutely spectacular. 

Charlotte, North Carolina 

From Los Angeles, I headed over to Charlotte for the conference, and had a couple of extra days after the conference in North Carolina, so I could see some things that I wanted to see, and one of them, unfortunately, even Uber couldn’t help me to get to. 

Car hire and credit cards

So I hired a car. And car hire in the US is always complicated. At least with Uber, you don’t have to deal with frustrating staff. I mean, you order an Uber and it comes. With a car, you book it online, but that’s still no guarantee you’re going to get a car, or at least the car you booked. I mean, do they really have so many no shows that they don’t hold cars for bookings, and just give cars away to anyone who walks in? It’s just the most bizarre system, if you ask me. 

And it’s funny, because hiring cars in the US was the motivation for getting my first ever credit card, because the process of having bonds and deposits and things like that for the car when you don’t have a credit card were even more complicated. So I literally got my first credit card so it made hiring a car in the US easier. I’m a lot more trustworthy now when it comes to money. I’ve never paid interest on my credit card. I’ve always paid the month off in full, which I absolutely would not have done back in 1992. Had I been given a credit card when I first applied. I would have maxed the card out probably in the first week of that trip and still be paying the debt off now. 

But it was very good training, always saving for money and paying for it at the time, rather than paying for it at a later date. So I’m really glad I had that experience. I think it’s easier to save the money in advance and then enjoy it, than enjoy it and then have to work to pay it off. But that’s just me. 

Driving in America

Even though I’ve driven quite a bit in America, particularly when I was living there and I had access to a car, which was my first ever access to a car, I still get so nervous to start with. Like, literally, my stomach is turned inside out with fear and nerves and knowing I am going to feel that way, why do I still decide to do it? And I still decide to do it because by the end, I absolutely love it and I’m happily driving away and I don’t want it to stop and I get disappointed when I have to return the car. So, despite the nerves and the fear that happens in those first few hours or day of driving, it’s worth it in the end. 

Biltmore

There are a lot of places you can’t go without your own car, particularly if you’re on a time limit. The Biltmore house, which is what I went to see with the hire car, was absolutely worth it. It made all my Victorian mansion dreams come true. And literally, coincidentally, it just happened to be hosting a Titanic costume exhibition. So all the costumes were on mannequins and dotted around the mansion and I had no idea that was happening when I decided to go visit. It was just icing on the cake. But I love how Titanic keeps coming back into my life in all various ways over the years and different trips. 

Africa, 1998

A lot of the dates in April is given over to the Africa 1998 trip. 13 dates out of April are about Africa. And they come and go in the chapter. So you can always skip forward to read them all if you want to read them in a row and then go back and read the stories in between, if you like to. It does skip around. 

Morocco

So we are in Morocco to start with, and Vinnie and I have branched out on our own for a little while. I don’t want to do too much spoiler alert, so you’ll get the full story about what actually happened by reading the full stories in the book. I don’t want to ruin it now.

Vinnie and I went off to Todra Gorge, which I don’t know why, but it is a trip that seems to stick in my memory so clearly. And I talk about relaxing on our roof, reading a book, and we literally stayed on the roof, as in a flat concrete roof where we put our camping mattresses, which I had a brand called the Thermorest at the time. So it’s my Thermorest on the concrete and complete sky above me. Nothing in the way but Todra Gorge one way and just the concrete roof all around me. 

I remember sitting there reading the book and I remember the book I was reading. It was a “what if” style book about King Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936, and what would happen if he had a child with his mistress who became his wife in Wallace Simpson. It was a fascinating idea of what could have happened. So it’s a very interesting book. I think it was called Emerald or something along those lines, and I found it in a second hand bookstore in London just before I left for this trip. I paid one pound for it and it was such a great buy. 

Travelling with books

And in these days, you couldn’t travel with multiple books because books are quite heavy and you already had to take guidebooks because that was all you had for all your knowledge and information. So I would buy a cheap book and then leave it somewhere and replace it with another cheap book along the way, or borrow a book from somebody else and swap books with somebody else so that you didn’t have to carry lots of books. And that way you opened your eyes to all sorts of varieties of books because you didn’t have an extensive choice when you were just buying whatever you could along the way. But I do remember reading Emerald and it is one book I wish I’d been able to keep because I wouldn’t mind reading again. Maybe I can get it on my Kindle these days. And when I first got my Kindle, that was a game changer for travelling. It was so nice to be able to have multiple books, including your guidebook, all in the one little piece of equipment. 

Wacky Races in Mauritania

But as the April stories continue on the Africa trip, we travel through Morocco down south to the middle of nowhere. We travelled via a military convoy through a minefield in Western Sahara and then the desert and on the beach with three cars and one guide across Mauritania Wacky Races style with the red team, the green team and the orange team. The red team was us in our red Land Rover. Then we had the orange team, who we’d met earlier in the trip, and they had a Forward Control 101 that was painted bright orange and called Stumpy. And Stumpy was just the best car ever. 

If I had a choice between all three cars, I would absolutely choose good old Stumpy. In the back, it was one big mattress, so you always had somewhere comfortable to sleep, and underneath was where all the storage was. Or you could have your packs and things on top of the mattress as well. And the back door opened so you could have it open to the air. It wasn’t like you had to close the doors and be sleeping inside trapped in a metal vehicle. It was much better just having the mattress in the car than stuffing around with camp mattresses and tents. So that would be my first choice if I had the option. 

The travellers in Stumpy were three English people, two guys and one girl. The two guys, Keith and Alby, were hoping to travel down to South Africa, like us and their female friend Emma, who was joining them. She was just joining for a short time, but she was there during the time that we were sort of traveling with them. 

The green team, well, their truck, or I don’t know what else to call it, was literally a mashup. They had a flatbed truck and stuck a caravan on top. They bought an old caravan and sliced halfway through the caravan and then on one side they did another slice, breaking it into thirds, and they removed one of those thirds completely. And then they put the other side with hinges on it so they could fold it down so that the height was half of the original height, which obviously is much better for air drag. But then when they stopped, they could open up the flap that was on the hinges and stand that side back up, creating an angled roof so they could sort of stand up in it if they were in the high side, but then couldn’t stand up on the other side. So it was like an angled roof down. But all the bottom part of the caravan was the normal caravan type stuff. So they had the bed and the caravan style kitchen and things like that. So it was quite an ingenious little setup. But it was also kind of a bit weird and like you’ve heard, quite hard to actually explain and I’m probably not quite getting it exactly right, but I’m hoping that sort of gives you a bit of a visual. So a caravan sliced in half and then a flap so that you could raise it one side back up to full height, and then they attached it to the flatbed of a truck and the truck cab was painted green. So we called them the green team. 

There were two guys travelling in that vehicle, two French guys, Florent and Tristan. And there’s a few more stories about those two that you’ll get a little bit of it in this book and there’ll be some more coming when I write the full stories in a full book later on. But I really did quite enjoy their crazy driving. It was kind of fun. 

The three vehicles literally played Wacky Races. If you don’t know what Wacky Races is, you have to Google it and you have to watch it because everybody needs to know what Wacky Races is. 

A lot of the Africa trip is driving. There were days after days sometimes when we were just driving and travelling, getting from one place to the next, or one place, to hopefully somewhere that might be a place soon. And so I’d be writing my diary sometimes when sitting in the back, if able, and I was always a bit late, and so I’m filling in here and there, but then when something would happen, like at the time, I would interject and put the exact time things were happening. So I was writing what was happening at the time and sort of going backwards and forwards, filling in details on other dates. And so as an example, on the 28th, here’s an excerpt from the diary. 

We’re now driving the wrong way with car bonnet up to go back to the others, as the green team seems to have been having a few problems and the orange team are with them now. We have the guide, so are ahead. 

6:12 pm Green team gone missing. 

6:26 pm On the way to join the others, following their tracks after Keith spotted them from the roof. 

6:30 pm Altogether, the green team were helping out another vehicle who was stuck. They told us not to get too close as sand very soft. Emma and I stayed in the car. Keith, Florent and Joe gone to help. 

6:34 pm Green team beside us, stumpy on the other side. We’re off again. 

There are lots of stops and starts when you’re travelling through sandy desert. It was such an amazing experience, those few days that we had on our own with the guide in the three cars. The moment we got to the so called city, we all just want to turn around and do it again. And I literally could have done it continuously for weeks on end. It was just that much fun. And the sand was just amazing. And then sometimes to be literally on the beach, so you’ve got sand dune on one side, ocean on the other, and it was just magical and so much fun. There’s no stress, there’s no hassles to deal with. It was just driving, amazing scenery and obviously hoping you didn’t run out of water or your car broke down along the way, but that’s why you don’t travel on your own. And we had three vehicles. As always, I wish I had more photos of this time. I really had a terrible camera, which I didn’t quite understand until it was too late. And I’ve written that I’ve thrown out 30 photos from my Africa trip. I wonder what it was that I tried to take photos of and I’ve just lost. Film was expensive back then and you had to carry it and then pay later to develop it, and you had no idea if the photo was going to come out until you were well and truly home. There was no just going back and taking a photo again or, 

“Oh, I don’t like that. Hang on, don’t move. Let’s do it again.” 

That we can do now on our digital cameras. But I wish I had so many more photos. But luckily my memory is pretty good with this trip because it did make such an impression. 

Tang

We never ran out of water but I talk a lot about how disgusting the water tasted. It was always something in the back of your mind that you needed to have water. Water is life. But that’s why I originally bought the Tang from earlier in the story, because Tang just made the bad taste disappear. It just tasted like tang, which is what you’d prefer than the disgusting taste of the water. But the Tang disappeared. So once Vinnie and I sort of left, a few things disappeared along the way. We came to know it as,

 “Oops, it must have bounced out the back.”

All sorts of things bounced out the back on this trip, which we blamed on the broken door and other factors. Sometimes things bounced out the back on purpose, and sometimes they bounced out the back by mistake. But I’m pretty sure Sarah and Joe threw out my Tang and my Vegemite while Vinnie and I were off on our own. 

Green team

One photo I do have is of the green team. Tristan is waving with one hand on the wheel. But there’s one detail I don’t mention in the book, and that was Tristan only had one hand. The other hand had been lost in an accident and he had a prosthetic with a semicircle shaped hook, so to speak, in the place of the hand. The steering wheel had an extra piece added to it, so it could be driven with one hand or be gripped by his prosthetic. So just another reason why I enjoyed driving and travelling with them. It added extra adventure watching his hand on the steering wheel. 

Africa 1998 book

I do hope you enjoy the 1998 Africa trip stories because it’s definitely a unique trip. But like I said earlier, I think I will make it into a book on its own because it really was an amazing trip and I think a lot of people will like it. Similar to the 1992 America trip, it’s just one of those fascinating trips that most people will find something that they like about. 

Turkmenistan

April is also the start of my trip to Turkmenistan in 2016. It’s such a fascinating country, which most people have never heard of, but it’s highly worth a visit. There’s just nothing quite like it out there. The main city, Ashgabat, can be quite empty and everything is white marble. The sky is as blue as blue and it’s so glary, like even sunglasses don’t take away the glare. The guidebook describes it as a mix of Las Vegas and North Korea. 

My favorite building was the indoor Ferris wheel. It’s the largest in the world and I had no idea indoor Ferris wheels existed. To me, it resembled Cogsworth, the clock character in the cartoon version of Beauty and the Beast. And you’re just standing there looking at it and I swear it could just jump into life at any given moment, which just added to the experience. 

Wrap Up

So there’s lots of interesting things in the April chapter. I hope you find something that you do find interesting and want to know more about. There will be more about most of these stories elsewhere down the track, but obviously you can find more instantly in the book 365 Dates of Travel: The first six months. It’s time to read it if you haven’t started, because 365 Dates of Travel: The SECOND six months is coming out soon. Launch date for the second book is looking like it’s going to be on the 25th of June, so not long now. 

For updates, you can go to my website and see what’s happening there, or better still, sign up for my newsletter while you’re at the website, which will give you the latest details of everything. You’ve got the Podcast page where you can listen to this podcast as well as all the other weeks and future weeks, and direct links to buying the first six months book, if you haven’t already got your copy, on the Books page. 

The website is franheapwriter.com and you can find direct links to everything from the home page, as well as links to my Facebook author page, which is also Fran Heap, Writer, and I’m also Fran Heap Writer on Instagram. 

Next week, I will be reading three stories from the April chapter to give you a little bit more of an insight if you still haven’t bought the book.  Until then, I’d just like to say thank you for listening today and until next time, I wish for you an interesting day and week.

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