Monday, December 30, 2013

Food doesn't have to be expensive

In my recent budget breakdown I didn't spend very much money on food. In fact I only spent $1600 in 9 months. I excluded the 3 months in New Zealand because I was too lazy to go through my holiday expenses even though I did record it all using a mobile phone App called Trail Wallet. I'll do a more detailed post on the NZ trip budget at some stage.

$1600 is a bit of an underestimate, as there are a few other hidden costs which I haven't included in that figure, which I'll explain later. I also didn't included cash purchases, like at the markets. Since I'm unable to differentiate my food purchases from them, I've added my total ATM withdrawals, which brings my total food budget to $2800 over 9 months. That works out at just over $10 a day.

How the hell did I do it? Am I living entirely on noodles? Of course not, though I am very partial to a good noodle soup!! I'm eating healthy home cooked meals with lots of vegetables, some fruit, and lots of grains and pulses. Huh? Doesn't eating healthy cost lots of money??

Nope, not if you bring your supermarket to your home and reduce your food miles radically.

WTF does that mean?

It means
  1. purchasing as much of your dry goods as possible on line, in bulk and having them home delivered for a price less than it would cost you to go to the supermarket.
  2. planning your shopping. Never make a special trip to the shops for one or two items, plan to do shopping as part of another trip, e.g. on your way home from work. If you haven't an ingredient, make do with something else, or change the recipe.
  3. cooking your own meals from scratch. No shortcuts, no bags of crisps. Home cooking the way grandma did it.
  4. not eating out all the time and taking your lunch to work
  5. growing your own food
  6. value adding
Food miles is not just an environmental term to indicate how much carbon dioxide is released getting your food to your table, it's also an economic idea. Popping down to the shops in the car uses fuel, which costs a lot of money. Getting food home delivered saves you heaps, especially if you buy in bulk. Planning your shopping expeditions, combining the trip with other chores, never running out of the basics and having a well stocked pantry, and not getting takeaway, all save you money, and food miles!

I purchase almost all my dry goods from 2Brothers, who provide home delivery for $3.50. Yep, from Perth to my door for less than it costs me to drive in to town. That's flour, grains, nuts, seeds, coffee, dried fruits, milk powder, spices, beans, pulses, canned tomatoes, the list goes on. I buy my few Asian ingredients that I don't grow myself from a small shop run by the local Cocos Island community. It's on my way home from town/work so isn't out of my way. 

I grow my own vegetables and fruit, and get fairly creative with what's seasonally available. I supplement my home grown veges with a trip to the Sunday Farmers Market every one to two weeks, where I can also buy locally grown produce like eggs, goats feta and haloumi, olive oil and organic seedlings for my garden. I don't have my own chooks since the last lot got annihilated by foxes.

I don't eat much meat, but do buy from a local butcher who is also on my way home. I will happily buy in bulk, portion into meal sizes, then freeze till needed. I no longer buy poultry as I am concerned about the use of chemicals and hormones in the industry, and the utter disparity between what I consider free range and what the chicken farmers do. It's an ethical choice that saves me money. My protein sources these days are occasional red meat, eggs (from a local farmer whose flock I have visited), seeds, nuts and a rather worrying addiction to chick peas. I gave up lentils due to an unacceptable wind problem...

I eat out at a local restaurant once a week with my friends Sally and Sheridan, although I wasn't doing this consistently earlier in the year. I usually eat meat or seafood. This costs me about $100 a month. Yes, you do the math, eating at home doesn't cost much at all does it?

I value add. This means I make milk from milk powder and yoghurt as well. If I want bread, chapatis, pizza, arepas... I bake them. I make my own natural muesli from grains and seeds bought in bulk. I make dips and sauces from scratch and have recently learnt how to make yummy polenta snacks. Many of these recipes not only are simple to make, they are so delicious you wonder what the hell is in that packaged food everyone's buying. As long as I have the basic ingredients on hand, I never run out of staples and don't need to pop down the shop for them either.

Home cooking makes such a difference to a food budget. Only purchasing the basic ingredients and cooking from scratch saves you 10% GST already! Have a look at your grocery bill next time you go shopping. I doubt the current government will keep this GST loophole, but whilst it's there, why not use it.

Growing your own veges saves even more money. A packet of seeds costs less than $2 and can potentially feed a family for a couple of years. Of course you need more than one packet but if you collect seed from your crop you may never need to buy seed again. Sure you need to water, feed, mulch, weed and nurture but if you enjoy gardening it isn't work. Spending time pottering in a vege patch is as good as a mental health session with a counsellor. And gives you your daily Vitamin D quota as well!

Which gets to those hidden costs I was talking about before. Establishing garden beds takes time, but doesn't need to take much money. A shovel and a few bags of manure and blood and bone can get you started. My entire garden is made from items I have repurposed, from cut down water tanks, to old pavers, to old irrigation hose. Compost can be made yourself from scratch, or purchased cheaply. Manure can be accessed from friends with livestock, or again quite cheaply from local suppliers. You can make your own seaweed tea if you live near the ocean and can forage for a bucketful of weed. Otherwise, it's pretty cheap to purchase as a concentrate.

Water, at least in Australia, is expensive. I invested in rainwater tanks and so far have managed through the last 18 months with daily hand watering from harvested rain. I use an electric pump, so there is a small power usage, but otherwise my water is free. If I were to add up the costs of purchasing the tanks I'm not sure when my investment would pay off, but given how expensive water is here, it probably wouldn't be long. I remember I once got a rebate back from the WA government for one of the tanks, sadly an initiative no longer.

I add compost and manure to my garden once or twice a year. This costs about $80 annually. Otherwise I feed with seaweed tea. I am currently trying to add clay to my soil to improve its water retention. Cost so far: $4.00

The real key here is flexibility. Grow what you can and then work out how to eat it. Recipes can be found on the internet for just about any ingredient, it's then up to you to experiment and come up with yummy satisfying food.

In a future post I'll do a day by day breakdown of my meals to illustrate how I do it. Let's just say I eat a lot of greens!!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Grinch news

Here we are in the final few days of 2013. The silly season is in full swing, when we all spend far too much money on presents and food, then even more money at the post Christmas sales.

My 2 treats for myself this Christmas (well nobody else except my lovely neighbours gave me anything) are a new Kindle Paperwhite and a $500 Qantas voucher. I bought a voucher last year too, it's a nice little bonus that Qantas offers every year where you get 10 frequent flyer points for every dollar spent, plus the points you'll get for flying. Since I bought it with my Amex, I also get another 500 points, so that's 5,500 points before I've even flown anywhere. I now have 12 months to spend the voucher...

The new Kindle is nothing short of awesome. I got on the Kindle bandwagon fairly early on, seeing the huge potential in being able to carry a digital library with me when travelling, in such a compact form. I'm a great fan of the simplicity of it, just black ink on white paper, only the electronic form of it. But my older generation Kindle was larger, and just that little bit too bulky to feel comfortable reading in bed. Plus my old eyesight isn't what it used to be... The Paperwhite is not only smaller (the screen is the same size but the keyboard is on the touchscreen) it's also backlit. It is absolutely perfect for whiling away hours reading a good book, in fact it's so good at fooling me that I found myself trying to turn the pages like a traditional paperback!!

In further news, it is 12 months since I started tracking my finances to see how much I spend. Not only did I wish to stick to a budget (I failed miserably) but I wanted to see just exactly where I was spending my income. And how much of it I was saving.

Doing this exercise definitely affects your spending habits. You think twice about impulse buying. I am not in a situation where I have to budget out of necessity (thank goodness) but from a very conscious decision to save rather than spend. As a result I managed to save just less than 40% of my income. And all of that went into debt reduction.

So what did I learn?

Let's just say that not working for 3 months and going on a ski holiday to New Zealand makes a dent in the savings. But since this is exactly what I plan to do in just over a year (not work), tracking these sorts of expenses allows me to determine whether I have the financial flexibility to retire. Turns out a ski holiday doesn't really cost me that much more than living here at home...

I continued to donate to charity. I will continue to do this forever, and one of my plans for retirement is to set up a not-for-profit charity myself that I can use to help people I meet in my travels. And yes, I'll invite others to give too.

I spent very little on clothes, shoes, hair. I only bought new shoes because I had to cover my toes for work and my running shoes were giving me electric shocks from the static electricity they'd generate. I went to the hairdresser twice in the last 12 months - the advantage of growing my hair - but it would have been no visits and $400 saved if I was ready to give up the foils. The price of vanity... As for clothes, aside from some specific travel related items and some badly needed new bras, the only new clothes bought this year were on a Target voucher from my Visa Rewards program.

The car cost me $5000, including fuel, registration, insurance, a nasty little $700 speeding fine and a little electrical work done to connect the alternator up to a plug at the back that I can use to charge the camper trailer battery when on the road. It needs an oil change and service - that'll be next year!

I spent a lot ($3300) on computer stuff. This included upgrading my entire storage system after 3 hard drives crashed last Christmas and purchasing a thunderbolt dock to run all the hard drives off. Although I expect to have to continue to purchase a few hard drives over the years I think most of my big expenses were this year. I'm hoping I still have a few more years left with my current 2011 MBA. I'm waiting till the SSDs are 1TB!

I spent $400 on photography purchases. This includes books, Apps, video courses and some snazzy filters. I included my Creative Cloud subscription (currently $30 a month) in my computer expenses.

I spent $1500 on Hazel. I miss her...

I spent $1600 on food, not including that spent during my 3 months in New Zealand. I spent $11,000 on my house and garden. That's all costs, including insurance, maintenance, pest inspections, phone, electricity, water, rates and gas. No mortgage payments, just day to day living. It's a lot isn't it!

The job cost me $5200 in medical registration, college membership, and indemnity insurance. This was a lean year as I already had all my continuous education points for the triennium so I went to no conferences and paid for no courses, but next year a new triennium begins so I'll have to cough up for more training courses to get my education points.

I spent $1500 on travel specific purchases - like a tent, a new sleeping bag, a new pair of trousers, a solar travel pack - that I expect will be lasting me some time. Given the last tent/sleeping bag/stove I purchased was over 20 years ago I figure I might just be right! I bought good quality items that were lightweight, supporting the adage that you can only ever have 2 out of the triad: sturdy, light and cheap.

I spent $2200 on a new windsurfing board. I'm very happy with it. My other one broke...

There was the weekend trip to Canberra to attend mum's 80th birthday celebrations, and a few once off purchases. There was a carefully budgeted, but not cheap, ski trip to New Zealand.

All up, my personal expenses for the last 12 months were $46,000. This was a lot more than I was expecting but actually around about what my superannuation website says would be the expected required income for a single person to live comfortably in retirement. If we remove the work related expenses we're spot on!

So, we've done the expenses, what about the income? I won't have that sort of income coming in after 2014. Once I sell property to pay off my debt I can only hope to bring in a half of that, and that includes if I rent out my current residence. I will have some positive cash flow though - a debt free existence will be quite a novelty!

My plans for my first 10 years of retirement are to mostly travel. At this point in time Australia is probably the most expensive place to live on the planet, so living almost anywhere else is likely to be cheaper. If I choose to travel in less developed countries most of the time I can reduce my expenses hugely. I can likely live within my means!!

But at some point in the grand plan I will be back in Australia, and I will need money to live on. And that's what I need to plan for. Sure I can access my Super once I get to 60, but I'd like to see whether I can live on a lot less right now.

After this first year of tracking my spending, next year I start grinching. How much can I really live on over the next 12 months? I've made almost all of my major purchases for the foreseeable future and I have a cheap holiday in Indonesia planned for 2014 rather than a ski trip. Can I reduce my spending by one third? By a half?

There is one rather large expense still to pay. Next year my house is getting a new roof. This blows my entire budget out of the water, but is a house maintenance necessity. Aside from this one off blowout, I'm going to give it a try.

Let's try for $30K. Wish me luck!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

December garden notes

OMG we are half way through December already. I cannot believe how quickly the last few months have flown past and am somewhat amazed at how productive I have been. Perhaps committing to a retirement date was the motivation I needed to finish off lots of small projects. Not that I'm finished mind you.

Let's start with the north side garden. This is my attempt at a tropical theme and I think it's fairly successful. After removing the bougainvillea stump I paved the area and installed an outside shower so I can wash off when I get back from the beach. Just need to paint the wall and I'm done.

I've also removed another feature on the northern side of the house: a water fountain. This was a DIY job I put in a few years ago, involving burying a black garbage bin in the garden, filling it with water, installing a pump and then covering with stones. Since I wasn't turning the pump on much, and the water was just being a mosquito breeding ground I decided to pull it out, fill it in, replace the stones and place a few pot plants there. I'm liking the look.

The tropical bed is looking lush. The shade cloth I installed last year when I removed the bougainvillea had come loose in various places, but with Papayas and Palms starting to get some height I'm having to be a little more selective where I replace it. Instead I've just installed a small shade sail over the ornamental ginger plant and am hoping the rest of the plants cope with the hot summer sun. I'm doing a little more watering and am working on improving the soil (more on that in another post).

This weekend I replaced my laundry tub and removed the old plumbing, replacing it with new pipes that I will rejig into a grey water recycling system. Likely I will use the old laundry tub as the first step in the filtration system. This is a good job for summer because most of the construction work can be done inside out of the heat. There's a little painting still to be done here too.

Now let's take a quick squizz in the back yard, where the tyre wall construction is in hiatus now that the weather has hit the red hot dial. I still have a small part of the second tier to finish building, but have started covering the tyres with chicken wire and filling gaps with stones, bottles and cans and have even managed to do some rendering. Most importantly, I have mortared up all the loose stones at the end of the stone wall and connected them to the newly rendered section so I now have a fully functioning retaining wall even if the cosmetics aren't finished yet. I'll do a more detailed post next year when I've done a little more work on the wall, but now that the temperatures are well over 30 degrees it's too hot to continue. Good news though, I've found a friend with a concrete mixer I can borrow. Yay!!

On to the southern side, where I've replumbed the pump for the second water tank, meaning less frequent disconnections and water wastage. The kangkung is going crazy and I'm contemplating growing more in a second tub. Likely I'll resite to the north garden and use treated grey water.

Which brings us to the main food garden out front. Where do I start? How about with strawberries?

So much for thinking the eggplant was finished. A bit of pruning and I've got lots of little fruits coming on. I love picking them when they are small and just the right size for one meal - this is when home gardening really pays off.

The lettuce plants have all gone to seed but there's new plants coming on so hopefully I'll not have a harvesting gap. The Asian greens haven't done well and the okra seedlings are slow too.

Over in the "super cucurbit tub", the heat of the last few weeks has wreaked havoc. Even with daily watering and shade sails. Time for further soil improvement...

A couple of months ago I cut off a frangipani branch from the tree, dried it out for a week or so and then planted it in the spot where I'd had a fig plant. I pulled the fig out because it had done sweet FA for the entire 2 or 3 years it had been in that spot, and popped it in a pot. I am absolutely gobsmacked because in 2 months it has grown 3 times more than it grew in the last 2 years!!

The frangipani, by the way, is already putting out new growth in the fig's old spot.

The dragon fruit plant has gone bananas! I am so going to get lots of fruit next year, hooray!

There's lots of small passionfruits ripening, and the grape vine is up and over the top now. I popped a hammock up under the arbour so it's now a nice relaxing spot to sit and contemplate the garden.

I have a ridiculously huge chilli harvest again - time to make some chilli sauce methinks.
Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Blues

Lately I have been feeling very unmotivated. I don't much feel like going windsurfing, and the job is drudgery. I am wondering whether my depression is rearing its ugly head again.

The thing is, I have been sick of my job for much longer than this mood has been upon me, so I don't believe my cynical views about the value of my work to be a symptom of depression. I don't just prescribe pills, I spend my days capacity building and problem solving these barriers patients have, yet it makes little dent in people's ability to self manage their chronic diseases. Objectively questioning whether the traditional doctor patient relationship is an effective antidote to the barrage of fast food advertising and temptations out there in the real world is a pretty valid argument I think, particularly when our outcome statistics aren't improving. Feeling good about yourself because you are doing something, well that's just self gratification if the clinical outcomes aren't there to prove what you are doing makes a difference.

I am not saying what I and my colleagues do doesn't make a difference. I believe it is valuable work, but I do question how much my medical school knowledge and the traditional doctor-patient consultation can have an impact. I think that model is totally broken when it comes to chronic disease, when it comes to teaching people what being healthy feels like, why sugar addiction is the most pervasive and dangerous addiction in our world today, and how the hell they can change that all around. Writing a script for a pill, an exercise program, or a dietitian review is not the answer when the stores tempt people with rubbish food or when parents push the sugar drug on their kids by pouring soft drink in their bottles. We need environmental change, we need fast food advertising to be banned from children's television time slots and we need high taxes on fast food. I and my colleagues can't compete with the golden arches!!

I know that the new crop of young doctors coming through training are completely unprepared or skilled to manage these issues. There remains a continuing view from the ivory towers of tertiary hospitals and medical specialists that doctors actually have control over whether patients take their medication, or go for a walk, or binge eat on lollies and cakes. Of course hospitalised patients are totally at the mercy of their doctors in an artificially controlled environment. No wonder their diabetes is well controlled when they have no access to junk food. Do these specialists have any idea how many patients stop smoking in hospital and then immediately restart at discharge? And that's my fault???

As you can see, I am very passionate about my work, but there comes a point where continually doing what I am doing becomes soul destroying. I'd like to do even more capacity building with patients, sort of life coaching, but the fee structure doesn't allow this, so I can't. And there's limited alternative options due to only five allied health visits a year being covered by medicare. Certainly not enough to turn a person's life around. Without support from society, I see it as a losing battle. Does that mean I'm depressed??

So back to the mood. I am a little blue, but I'm pretty comfortable with blaming most of that on Hazel's recent passing. It marks a big change in my life, from obligation and commitment to free agent. What was keeping me grounded is no longer present, and that is causing me some anguish. I want to just get the fuck outta here, but I can't.

I can't because I'm still working towards my financial goals. I can't because I commited to working next year mainly for succession planning. I need to pass on my corporate knowledge of the last 13 years to my colleagues. I may be tired of being the go to girl, but I don't want to destroy the great gains we've achieved. I believe in working towards self redundancy. That's my job for 2014.

I'm not getting the anxiety attacks I got last time. I don't not want to go to work any more now than a few months ago, even a year ago. I do know that something changed when I returned to work in October, that I understood that I needed to plan my exit because long breaks were no longer cutting it. When I got back in October I looked younger and happier and people commented on it. I now look older and grumpier...

I'm a bit inclined to think that some of my mood is also part of letting go. That if I enjoyed my job I'd be inclined to continue a bit longer, save a bit more money.... I kind of like that this mood motivates me to plan my future.

Which is why this isn't depression. All I can think about is my future. I am planning, researching, purchasing, researching, organising, decluttering, budgetting.......all for my future non doctor life. It's what I get up in the morning for, it's why I look at a 35knot wind day and go "meh". It's why I no longer veg out in front of the TV but read books and research on line. Yet on the weekend I went down to Coros anyway, just because I wanted to catch up with windsurfing friends I hadn't seen since last year. I didn't care to sail, but I enjoyed chatting with my friends.

I think that this excessive planning may be screwing with me a bit though, so I have begun meditating again, and have restarted a running program. Minor mishap though when my heart rate monitor battery died... easily sorted.

I have been quite busy in the garden, having started on the rendering of the second tyre wall, as well as tending the vege patch with great love and care. I have some great updates on those projects coming soon.

So I'm a little blue, I'm a lot cynical, and I'm ready to move on. Just I've friggin' gotta be patient.... AArrgh!!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

2 beers and a bottle of meths

In just over a year I'll be giving up the day job and heading off on an indefinite travel itinerary. In the meantime I'm preparing.

One of the things I'm really interested in doing is some long distant hiking. Over the years I have accumulated quite a number of books detailing almost all the famous long distance hikes to be had in both Australia and New Zealand. And that's before I think about ones in Europe or North America!

I've done 3-5 day hikes in the past (ones where you carry all your gear and food, not guided trekking like I did in Asia) so I'm not a novice to the sport. I've also spent months cycle touring around the UK and Europe, camping and cooking along the way. But since the late 90's I've mostly car camped, where little regard for space saving or weight is required.

Last time I bought a camping cookset was in the 1980s. I bought a trusty Trangia cookset in Scotland and took it cycle touring through the Western Isles and over to the European Continent. It came on a few bushwalking trips back in Australia, as well as a cycle tour of the Atherton Tablelands but it hasn't seen much use since.

The Trangia uses a small alcohol, or meths, stove which is unpressurised and not particularly efficient. It's not a bad system, but there's now lighter and more compact cooksets available and I don't really need a kettle and 2 pots. I'm pretty good at one pot cooking, but I also like having a frypan. Finding something that fits my needs may not be so easy.

My research found me the GSI Pinnacle Soloist, which is a perfect setup for a single backpacker, and allows you to store a gas canister and burner inside it. Or even an alcohol stove. It has a single pot, a spork, a cup, a lid/strainer, and a wash sink. No frypan though....

For some reason I can't locate my alcohol stove that came with the Trangia, perhaps I lent it to someone who never returned it, so I looked for some other ideas. Which is when I discovered the penny stove.

This stove is an ingenious modification of the double walled tin can stoves that anyone can make with a couple of aluminium drink cans and some gentle persuasion. The addition of the penny - in my case a no longer current Australian 2cent coin - allows for a pressurised effect which increases the fuel efficiency markedly. It really does take less than 5 minutes to boil.

A wire coat hanger cut and bent into shape makes a sturdy trivet, and a few layers of aluminium foil makes a lightweight wind guard. The stove won't blow out in a big wind (I tried that) but without the guard it uses up the fuel far too quickly and becomes very inefficient. All up, minus fuel, the set up weighs 383g.

I'm yet to do any proper cooking with my new stove and cookset, but I certainly plan to do that before my trip next year. Yes, this will be part of the 7kg challenge. In the meantime, I may just make a few more stoves and really perfect my finished product.

And find a frypan...

Monday, December 2, 2013

Dear Thorn Tree

Sometimes I lurk over on the Lonely Planet travel forum known as Thorn Tree. It's not quite the same as it used to be since they shut down the site a year or so ago and then banned links for a while and they still haven't reinstated PMs. But it is fun to see what sort of questions people pose to the worldwide community of travellers, and even more amusing to read the replies.

On your average TT forum themed around a particular country or geographic region there'll be a question about visas at least every couple of days. Almost all the visa questions are identical, and doing a google search would almost always supply the answer. So the worldwide travellers' replies aren't always very polite!! Wry smile and snigger from the lurker here..

Then there's the "where should I stay, which hotel is better, etc" type of question, something that is totally personal and really, Trip Advisor is probably a better forum for this. Especially as most people asking this question are looking to do an internet booking of their accommodation, and a fair few of our world weary travellers seem to be great supporters of the cheap homestay that hasn't got itself an online presence yet. As I happen to be in the wander around town looking for cheap digs with character group of travellers, I usually roll my eyes at this one too.

I particularly like the "Warning I got scammed" posts, because they are often the same scam, just different person being scammed. Message to original poster: If you had bothered to read Thorn Tree before you left, you would have read about the chap who got scammed identical to you the week before. But since the first and only time you write a post is to warn us not to get scammed, then.... well does anyone else see the problem here???

There are the "where can I meet up with other people travelling" type posts, because, let's be honest, we don't go travelling the world to meet the locals do we? You do occasionally see somebody ask the latter question, but not nearly often enough. There could be some awesome answers to that question. There aren't any to the former, aside from direct yourself to the nearest backpacker ghetto...

Single female travellers post asking whether it's safe to travel alone. Ummm, good question, but darling, it's been answered 300 times before in the last fortnight!! The answer, by the way is yes, unless you are wandering around drunk late at night, in which case it isn't, but nor is it safe in your home town either....

The most amusing post I've seen for a while was regarding a chap wanting to know where he could change Travellers Cheques in deepest darkest Sumatra. Apparently he doesn't like using ATMs because they charge fees, and was furious when we all said that we used ATMs. It's a bit like getting angry that you can't find typewriter ribbon for your antiquated Olivetti because everybody uses computers now. And just because one country still has ribbons, expecting another country will too. And that the majority's choice to go over to using computers is some sort of sellout. I think our chap is a wee bit unbalanced myself.

For me, the most depressing part of lurking on the forum is to discover that the same old questions, about the same old routes, get asked on such a frequent basis that people stop being helpful. Do people not bother to do at least some rudimentary research before blabbing out the self same question that got asked last week? So one time travellers answer them with less accurate information and the old hands fail to even bother to reply, seeing as they've already answered that question fifty zillion times already, maybe even written a website about that region...

As an inveterate researcher of destinations I find it incredibly easy to find the same information about a handful of destinations, yet almost impossible to find information about places not on the well travelled route. And when someone does ask about an off beat destination, the pool of replies is very limited, and sometimes non existent.

So are community forums useful if you want to travel further afield than the usual tourist destinations? I'd say yes, but only if you can post your questions in more detail, and be able to PM certain forum members that you know have the knowledge. So Thorn Tree, get the hurry on for reinstating PMs please!

My new best friend is Google, and Google Translate. It isn't perfect, but it's a very effective way of translating local tourist and government information into your own language. We all know there's a lot more to see in your own village than ends up in a guidebook. Bypass the guidebook and go straight to the local source. Now in my language too!

Can't do that on an Olivetti!!