Preparing for trips

Last week I wrote about why I chose to do a package holiday to go horse riding in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and this week I want to go into a little more depth as to why it was so great.

Well, for one, I didn’t have to organise anything. It’s weird because I usually really enjoy the process of looking up things to do, finding obscure museums, streets, or cafes, and narrowing down what I want to do when I’m away. I usually keep my options open with a few things I want to do (always more than I actually have time for) so I can decide spontaneously on the day what I feel like doing.

Going on a package holiday is very different. I didn’t have to organise anything. Still, I bought my trusty Bradt guidebooks to prepare for the trip (reading that history and culture section a few times). The only thing I had to organise was book a flight, sort out my visas, and book the trip itself. It was really weird. But in a sort of liberating way.

Not having to plan anything freed up much of my time before the trip to do more work. yay?
No, I’m joking…a little bit.

Something that was weird about not preparing my own trip was that I should have had more time and energy spent on preparing for it mentally and physically, or even for just making myself extra excited about going. None of that happened though. It was weird. Because I didn’t have to figure out where I was going to sleep, how I was going to get from point A to point B, and because I didn’t really have to find obscure museums and places to eat, I somehow didn’t really prepare for the trip. I let it surprise me…which again, is something I don’t usually do.

It was lovely. It’s not how I want to spend every single holiday or trip I go on (I really really enjoy the process of figuring out what I want to do when I’m away), but it’s definitely something I want to do again the next time I go on a horse trek (let’s be honest, I can’t do this once and never do it again…).

Not having to worry about where you’re going to sleep at night is oddly liberating, and not having to figure out how to get there is just really nice. I will never forget my trip from Skodër, Albania to Kotor, Montenegro and then trying to figure out where to sleep that night (it was easter Sunday and I had forgotten what day it was because I’d been on the road for two months…) – I’ve got a little post about it here, but I think that entire day/evening deserves it’s own in-depth post at some point in the future…

Anyway, not having to think about how to get from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Murgab in Tajikistan was great, particularly because there isn’t, as far as I could find, any public transport that drives across the border. Acording to the internet that particular border crossing isn’t a great place for hitch hiking (though the rest of the countries seem to be okay-ish?), so I’d have to get a shared taxi – which is fine, but is basically what we did and had organised for us anyway.

Since this was the first proper holiday I’d had in a long long time, I also didn’t really want to have to worry about where I was going to sleep at night and how to get there. There’s a time and place for backpacking and hitch hiking (and I love both), but this wasn’t it. This was a time to not have to worry about things, to relax, and to sit on horseback riding through the jailoos of Tajikistan. And that’s what going on a package holiday let me do without having to worry about it.

So, when I started writing this post, I actually wanted to write about something completely different, namely my trip itself (Osh – Gulcha – Border crossing to Murghab – horse trek – Horse Festival in Murghab – Sari Kul – Osh), but oh well. This was an interesting exploration of what my head and heart does to prepare for trips.

Riding at high altitudes

I’ve been back in Newcastle for just over a week now and am slowly starting to process my holiday. I did something I’ve never done before, but something I’ll hopefully do again: I booked a package holiday.

Okay now before all the travel snobs get mad at me, hear me out.

It has been my dream for years, I’d say more than a decade, to go on a multi-day horse trek. Growing up, I went horse back riding and I’ve had a few short holidays with my mum (and sometimes my brother too) where we would drive into the countryside either while living in Romania or while on holiday back home in Austria (though there we’d drive to the Czech Republic – Znojmo, to be precise. If you’re in the area you need to go visit this lovely little town! It’s just an hour away from Vienna!). While in the countryside we’d usually stay in a little guesthouse or Bed and Breakfast type place that had horses. We’d then go riding for a couple of days having breakfast and dinner at the guesthouse and sleeping in a room there too.

I loved these trips. I loved the feeling of freedom and companionship I got from galloping through fields and forests. The serenity of walking through high grass on horseback and the excitement that overcame the horses and us riders when we had to wade our way through a particularly big river. Since having done the first of these trips when I was a little teenager I’ve wanted to do a horse-trek; but a real one. One where you have a pack horse and you carry your luggage in saddle bags. Where you go camping and ride through mountains, forests, rivers, or fields in what seems like the middle of nowhere.

I’ve done a fair bit of travelling, and almost everywhere I’ve been I’ve tried to find a place I can go horse riding. The thing with horse riding though is that stables are usually not in cities (and that’s a good thing – let horses run around. The need space, and grass, and fresh air!), but stables are also usually not in small towns. From where I’ve looked they’re somewhere in the countryside that is really hard to get to without having a car. Now, I can drive, but I’ve never really had teh organisational prowess, money, and time (all at the same time) to be able to rent a car for myself, find out where these stables are, somehow manage to find them, to then go on a short ride.

It is because of these prior experiences that I booked a package holiday. I knew my next destination had to be Central Asia (again, I’d been wanting to go for ages. Pretty much since I was studying Eastern European and USSR history back when I was doing my IB History course in High School), and I knew I wanted to go horse riding. Since I haven’t really had a proper holiday since I finished my Bachelor’s degree, since I didn’t take any time off last summer, and since I was pretty upset about not having travelled very much last year, I went looking for an adequate destination and stable in Central Asia in November last year. In the end, I realised that all my previous troubles were true here as well, so I started to have a look at holiday packages that are completely organised. In the end, I went through Unicorn Trails and booked their Pamir Mountain Explorer holiday.

It was absolutely amazing. The holiday had everything I was looking for: there was a lot of horse riding, a lot of different terrains to ride through, beautiful nature, camping, we had pack horses (!), and everyone in the team got along nicely. It was the perfect way for me to have a proper break from my PhD, and when I came back I was ready to get on with my work. I looked forward to it, and really wanted to get back to writing. It took me a couple of days to get back into the swing of things, but this trip was not only a perfect break, it was also a way of really acknowledging that I love what I do. That I want to continue to do what I am doing, and that I really missed it whileI was away.

I think I need to write another post about the trip as a whole, but overall I did the thing I never wanted to do (book a package holiday) but absolutely loved it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m already trying to figure out what kind of horse trek I want to go on next!

The Sprint

Again, I start by saying that I’ve not been blogging recently. This time however I have at least a bit of an excuse: I was on holiday and didn’t take my laptop. I took my phone, but only to take pictures with. No work, no wifi, no electricity. So, that’s my excuse.

Now I’m refreshed and back in the lab, so hopefully my two-posts-a-week schedule will come back soon.

Today I want to write about something I did a long time ago: from the 30th of May until the 5th of June, to be exact. That was the week that things started to get very serious in my project with National Ugly Mugs (NUM). I have been working with them for a long time (since December 2015, actually) to support them in their technology use and development. To do that, I carried out an evaluation of their services that resulted in some small changes in their service delivery (like slightly changing the ways in which they title their alerts), a CHI paper, but also the decision to not only give their current website a new look but rather to redesign their digital systems. With this redesign we hope  to make some of the work that those in the office do every day just a little bit easier. By bringing together a number of different services and technologies that they use we centralise the process and in turn shave off a couple of minutes from each membership sign up, leaving a little more time for the vital parts of service delivery and advocacy work they carry out.

So during this week from the 30th of May until the 5th of June we started working on the website. I guess that’s not really true since I had been working on the website since the beginning of 2016 (what with my considerations for research ethics, field work, thinking, and writing…), but this was the first time that pieces of code were written for the new system. Tom Nappey and I had been working for a while on some design options for the look of the new website, and it was particularly in the weeks running up to the re-development of the website that we finalised all the requirements. This means we worked very closely with NUM staff to compile all the necessary features, all the features we’d like to see on the website. We had been doing this for a while, but now was the time for final decisions; what was initially a two-page skeleton of the website turned into a roughly 30 page requirements document.

This document alongside some mock-ups of pages on the website were what we started the week with. At the end of the week, we had a brand identity document (to outline the new logo and design of the NUM ‘brand’ as well as how to use the new logo), a justification document (that brings together the research I carried out and the design decisions we made as a team), and a half-finished website (the core features and design work is finished and functions as it should).

The core team was made up of 4 people, though we had a little additional help on one of the days from one more person, and of course we had a lot of contact with NUM office staff to make sure they were kept up to date with what we were doing, how we were doing it, and why we were doing things in this way. Throughout the week, we worked for roughly 338h, I visited the office twice, and had 10 phone calls with them.

We documented the week in a number of different ways:

  • we put up a GoPro on the wall of our main working space to create a time-lapse of the week
  • we had a whiteboard on which we wrote the goals of each day, crossed them off, and took a picture each evening
  • we took pictures of the progress throughout the week
  • I took notes on the conversations, phone calls, and impromptu meetings we had
  • we documented much of our work in the shape of screenshots of the website we had made up to that point
  • and finally, we produced the brand identity guidelines and the justification document (though the latter is still not entirely finished as we have a bit of work left to do on the website before its launch).

Overall, it was a really long and tiring week; but also a week in which we got a LOT of work done. We worked until Sunday the 4th of June, after which the three guys I worked with travelled back to Newcastle. I stayed in Manchester for one more night since the NUM board was having a meeting on the 5th of June. I attended a part of this meeting to show them what we had been working on and where we were up to. This resulted in a walk-through of the brand identity guidelines and justification document, as well as a whistle-stop tour of where we were up to on the new system (both the front-facing website, and the admin-login that staff would be working on to manage membership, reports, and alerts).

We’ve still got a long way to go until everything is finished, but things are getting there. We are moving forward and now it’s about delivering. It’s about documenting everything correctly and ensuring that training for current (and new!) staff is appropriate, useful, and complete; about producing documents that outline the technologies used, the reasons for their use, the Special Operating Procedures, and instructions on how to use each of the elements of the website. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we’ve gotten this far, so things are not too bad.