In Pursuit of the ‘Holiday Experience’

A guest post by The Happy Hippy.

Holidays are very important to me.

All my holidaying life I have very rarely travelled to the same location, except to visit friends in foreign places, and my husband and I attempt to give our children ‘experiences’ which they will remember – and also hopefully ones which shape and change how they view the world.

Every year we have the same dilemma, where and when to go and how much to spend.

With three growing kids it’s hard to balance the cost with the right experience for us all, and in an attempt to match my ‘green credentials’, I’ve also always tried to ‘do the right thing’ – buying local products, using public transport, being responsible etc. It can often be difficult to balance these green aspirations within the mix.

But last year we found that rare thing – a holiday experience which met all of our expectations and more !

I’ve always tried to book destinations which are a little off the beaten track, offer some kind of engagement with the locals – avoiding at all cost the high-rise, the fight for the beach beds, the noise and glitter of a ‘resort’ . . . much to my kids’ disappointment. I hear them now . . . ‘ please mum can we just go into one arcade for candy floss and kiss me quick hats’ . . . ‘NO’ I say, ‘we must have an experience !’

The destination that managed to make us all happy last year was Transylvania.

I can honestly say that Transylvania was by far one of our best experiences to date. Our initial concerns about vampires and dark dangerous forests were soon dispelled upon arrival. Apart from the usual ‘what a beautiful country’, ‘great views’ etc – what made it special was seeing how sustainably many of the locals live.

Romania joined the EU in 2007 and you would think that they would have embraced all the EUness of their neighbouring countries. While the rest of Romania, leaving behind its communist history, may be on this route, hopefully Transylvania will remain one of the hidden gems of the world.

The first thing I have to mention was the food – divine ! Everything was handmade, the jam, the yoghurt, the elderflower and raspberry juice and not a plastic bottle in sight. The wine was produced in the neighbouring valley and was perhaps the best wine I have had anywhere – and it was organic. There is something quite special about seeing the food being grown on site and watching the cook hand picking fruits and vegetables from the plot for that evening’s taste sensation. All the villages had gardens full of fruits, vegetables and flowers.

We stayed in the small village of Miclosva for a few nights, then moving further into the Carpathian Mountains, to an even smaller village. There was no TV, no mobile phone signal, occasionally no electricity and there was no phone, as the copper had been stolen from the overhead cables. . . and where were all the cars ? How would my husband and kids survive ? I was worried, I wanted us all to have that ‘experience’, but I didn’t want us to be bored! I needn’t have worried.

Usually one of my children would do anything to avoid the ‘countryside’ but even they were excited by the nature walk. Our guide, Garbor (fantastic name and fantastic guy) was very knowledgeable and engaged with the children, showing them a multitude of wildlife, exploding plants, fields of butterflies and bear trails, including their ‘poo’. We all shared a scary moment in the graveyard late that night when Garbor took us bear watching. We had to remain as quiet as possible lying on a bank and listening and focusing on the clearing in the woods. I couldn’t believe the children were able to remain quiet for so long, not a sound, us all waiting in anticipation.  We heard grunts, gruffs and heavy breathing getting closer . . . then all of a sudden Garbor jumped up shouting and screaming, the bear had approached from the side and in fact was worryingly too close! Thankfully the bear was sent on his way and the kids thought this was one of the highlights of the whole holiday and told the story many times of how we were nearly caught by a bear !

We spent our days on horse and cart visiting the charcoalers, the sheep and goat farmers who had to milk their 200 strong herd twice a day every day, the Ferrier and their work horses, the farmer who worked the land by hand with the help of their children, the baker who baked real bread, the shopkeeper who sold nothing which the kids could relate to – all working together as part of their village community.

Perhaps as close to a truly sustainable way of life as perhaps it’s possible to get these days ?

Early one evening my daughter and I were taking a gentle stroll along the dirt track through the village; all the villagers were sitting out in front of their houses chatting with neighbours, their children playing with the dogs, puppies and ducklings. Everybody we passed spoke to us and smiled, many inviting us to chat and offering us drinks. On our way back my daughter, who was then 12 – and like all 12 year olds loves her shopping – said, ‘these people don’t have much money do they, they don’t really appear to have anything?’ ‘No’ I said pondering on her remark. We walked in silence for a few seconds and then she said something which put all the rights and wrongs of the world into perspective . . . ’but they are all so happy and friendly’.

How meaningful I thought from a 12 year old but how true. It’s sparked many a meaningful conversation since and when she asks for a new designer sweatshirt, I remind her of this experience.

I hope for their sake the EU, with its regulations and policies, does not change them too much . . . . . unless they want to be changed of course.

A number of companies offer eco-holidays to Transylvania, including Responsible TravelGreen Mountain Holidays and Transylvanian Eco-Holidays.

RELATED ARTICLES –  Nature Deficit DisorderReconnecting

Back to Basics Cycling

Guest post by David Lesser – keen cycling enthusiast.

Our busy modern lifestyles leave us all too frequently stressed and struggling with debt. We have to work long hours to pay the mortgage and the finance on the car, run around being a taxi service for the kids and then, if we’re lucky, try to find time to go and get some desperately needed exercise in the gym.

Many of us strive to improve the balance in our lives, but any changes we make need to avoid adding to our stress and save us both time and money. My previous post described how, for many of us, cycling to work instead of going by car, could help us with all three !

So what holds us back from doing so ?

What are the barriers to cycling ?

It wasn’t that long ago when bicycles were the only real form of transport for most working people, taking them to work and back during the week, and giving them the freedom of the countryside at the weekend. A period that was beautifully portrayed in the 1949 film A Boy, A Girl and A Bike.

As more people became able to afford cars, bikes became rarer on our roads, even though many people had to struggle financially and encumber themselves with debt to afford to buy a car.

Between then and now the image of cycling has changed. On TV bikes often seem have become comic plot devices for sad middle aged men squeezed into inappropriate lycra trying to shed excess pounds. Occasionally we are treated to the sight of a middle class woman gently cycling through parks, with a baskets on the front of her bike. The only other time we tend to see bikes on TV is in sport.

The association of bicycles with sport has been a long one, but it sadly these days it seems to have the effect of ‘raising the entry bar’ for cycling – compelling us to believe we need hi-tech bikes and a huge range of accessories, even for using a bike as an everyday means of transport.

Going into a bicycle shop today you’ll be faced with rows of carbon fibre bikes, replete with hundreds of gears. You’ll be offered all sorts of extras for your safety, expensive lights, yellow jackets and light-weight helmets. All together it may well cost more than the first years repayments on a car. And it won’t even include anywhere to carry your sandwich box !

For most of us, all we need from a bike in order to cycle to work every day is an ordinary solid road bike with a handful of gears, mudguards and a chain guard so our work clothes don’t get dirty, and a set of basic lights. It’s probably a good idea to also have a simple maintenance kit too.

Is this part of what is stopping us using bikes for commuting ?

We should reconsider any preconceptions we might have about cycling, and, as with many things in our over-complicated lives, strive to get a little more ‘back to basics’, and just enjoy cycling more.

Similar articles – Half the Fun is Getting There

Photo by Indywritervia Flickr

Half the Fun is Getting There

Guest post by David Lesser – keen cycling enthusiast.

Every day on my way to work I am baffled at the queues of people sitting in their cars.

I’m lucky. Currently I’m blessed with a commute of around a mile, but at various times over the years it’s often been much longer !

I’ve previously used cars, bikes, trains and busses to get to work in the past – both urban and rural, and overall I’d have to say my least favourite method has been by car. Sitting in a car with only a radio or music to break the monotony can quickly get tedious. You tend to become dulled by the experience, and have the same to look forward to at the end of your day.

My favourite commuting  journey was Gloucester to Cirencester by bike. It’s a bit of long way so I only used to do it two or three times a week, but it was really enjoyable. It was off the main roads and I rarely saw more than a couple cars along the whole 22 miles, but I did get to be entertained by birdsong and the various country wildlife. My next favourite journey was Gloucester to Yatton by train, which I mostly spent reading. That period of my life gave me an opportunity to become really well read. It was also surprising how many people I got to talk to on the train, and would even describe as friends when I changed jobs a couple of years later.

So the million dollar question is “why do so many people persist in using their cars for commuting, making their lives more miserable in the process ?” Accepting, of course, that there will be a few people who actually enjoy sitting in traffic in their car!

The obvious starting point is a mix convenience and economics.

Let’s take a look at the economics.

The cost of motoring is high – in the UK petrol is now over £1.35 per litre. A typical newish car could expect to manage around 50 miles per gallon (urban driving), which works out at about 11 miles per litre. Now that we buy our fuel in litres, but still typically consider performance in gallons, it’s become harder to visualise the real fuel costs of motoring.

The statistics say 71% of UK workers commute by car, with the average journey to work being 8.7 miles, and taking 27 minutes – that’s 54 minutes a day, or4.5 hours a week, or nearly nine whole days a year !

Based on these averages, the average cost in fuel to get to work and back each day is around £2.14.

You also have to pay the VED (vehicle tax), insurance and depreciation for your car whether you drive it to work or not. There’s also the cost of servicing and maintenance. 8.7 miles each way per day works out at 3910 miles per year, which equates to approximately ¼ of a set of tyres, ¼ of an annual service.

So an average commute by car costs £2.58 a day, or £12.87 a week, £55.77 a month, or £592.35 a year.

So what are the alternatives ?

Walking might be a bit tricky, as 8.5 miles will probably take the best part of 3 hours each way, a bit much !

In an ideal world taking the bus would make financial sense. Where I live in Gloucester, the cheapest ticket option for a monthly ticket, the ‘Gloucester Megarider’ currently costs £44 – or £2.20 per day, a relatively modest saving of £86.35 per year. A monthly Cheltenham to Gloucester ‘Megarider’ ticket costs £60 – or £3 per day. Admittedly you can use it for other journeys, but travelling by bus gives at best only a marginal saving.

Cycling does more than a bit better economically! Depending on your journey (and your fitness) cycling. 8.7 miles shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes. A reasonable bike suitable for commuting might cost around £200, and you’ll need to throw in some lights etc. But once you’ve got the bike the fuel is free – or at least no more than the cost of your breakfast !

So is cycling to work worth it ?

Of course we all have to weigh-up our options and decide for ourselves, clearly cycling is never going to be an option available to everyone.

But it might be that you’ve never really given much thought to the possibility of cycling to work, instead of using the car, and if so it might be worth a bit more thought ? You might be able to save £500 or more a year (after tax), and you probably won’t need to renew your gym subscription either !

If you’re really lucky, you might be able to do away with your car completely, saving all the tax, insurance and other costs – it’s always possible to hire a car at reasonable rates when needed.

Needless to say the economics of commuting will only ever part of the equation, there’s also the small issues of convenience and sustainability – which will be the subject of my next post.

In the meantime, enjoy your commuting :)

Photo by MonkeyMagnus, via Flickr

Should I Open the Window ?

Guest post by Gareth Hooper – Environmental Scientist.

If I open the window, do I improve the air in my home ?

For most of us, our modern lifestyles mean indoor air is something we breathe far more of than outdoor air. But if you search for ‘air quality’ on the internet, you’ll have to scroll quite far down to find any information on the air quality indoors.

For those of use living in cooler climes, double glazing helps keep us warm, and along with keeping out draughts, lowers our heating bills. If we were to open all our windows we’d be colder, poorer and might perilously be encouraging climate change !

Additionally many of us live in homes close to busy areas, roads, aircraft flight paths or industry and keeping our windows closed keeps out noise and air pollution.

But we are also locking-in our own indoor air pollution !

Which is worse ?

This is a familiar dilemma – take red wine, which has been linked both with giving us longer lifespans . . . and shorter ones. Or jogging, which makes us fitter, but makes our joints sore. Everything in moderation…..until we tell you otherwise ?

So how about leaving the bedroom window slightly ajar. Does it do more harm than good ?

Hopefully you’ve not been holding your breath waiting for me to get to the answer – because it’s not that simple.

Outdoor air pollution has many sources, but one is dominant.

In the UK we don’t have ‘pea-souper’ smogs of the 1940’s and 1950’s anymore, when we all burned coke and coal (and almost anything else for that matter) in our fireplaces, but in it’s place came traffic pollution from our cars. Like any new technology, air pollution particles have become smaller, and we can’t often see air pollution these days. Of course, a bus or a lorry kicks out a plume of pollution when it pulls noisily away from traffic lights, but our bodys are pretty good at keeping those large, visible particles out. It’s the pollution we can’t see that is more harmful to us.

This particularly applies inside our cars !

A report by International Center for Technology Assessment  in the USA says:

‘… the air inside of cars typically contains more carbon monoxide, benzene, toluene, fine particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides than ambient air at nearby monitoring stations used to calculate government air-quality statistics. In-car pollution is often even worse than pollution in the air at the side of the road.’

Even the much sought after ‘new car smell’ is a collection of chemicals that we don’t particularly need !

The good news is that in much of the developed world, the levels of these pollutants are slowly diminishing, as engine and fuel technology improve, and legal emissions standards increase, but walking to your destination would be better for both your and everyone else’s air quality.

Whenever we do travel by car, we could try opening  the windows when we can and draw some of that outside air in – improving the air inside. Probably best to also avoid air fresheners, and to vacuum the seats every now and then – not to mention the occasional spot of dusting.

Outdoor air quality is the responsibility of the authorities, but indoor air quality within our own home, is largely down to us.

There are a number of straightforward things we can all do to improve the quality of the air within our homes:

• Remove asthma triggers such as mould and dust, in which mites can live

• Keep all areas clean and dry. Clean-up any mould and get rid of excess water or moisture

• Be sure to ventilate bathrooms and kitchens well, as these rooms give rise to the most warm, damp air

• Don’t let people smoke indoors

• Try to select lower odour or volatile cleaning products and paints

• Always ventilate when using products that can release pollutants into the air

• Tightly close the lids of stored products (such as paint, cleaning products etc)

• Inspect fuel-burning appliances regularly for leaks, and make repairs when necessary

• Have a number of indoor plants, which may help improve indoor air quality

• Consider installing a carbon monoxide alarm

So there’s no easy answer to the original question – it depends on the degree of pollution in the air outside, compared to the air inside your home – but it’s probably true that for most of us opening a window will probably be of benefit.

We’re responsible for the quality of the air in our own homes, and should probably give it more attention.

We might also want to contact our authorities responsible for the quality of the air outside, including our local Councils, to discuss it with them, and encourage them to do all they can.

Photo by Bio Friendly via Flickr