Monthly Archives: August 2014

Snap happy


It is incredibly satisfying how much joy you can give to kids in poorer countries by taking their photo and showing them the result on the camera screen. It’s an icebreaker and a win-win. You get photos of cute kids and the chance to offer something that costs you nothing. They enjoy the novelty of posing and interacting with this magical technology.

Young girls here will often decline your offer of a photo and then chase after you asking for one moments later. It took us a while to figure out why. Then we clicked, they need a chance to put on their headscarves so they are respectably dressed for their portrait.

Plan bee


We’ve seen development aid projects advertised up and down the Hunza Valley. There are initiatives from the US, Japanese, German and Swiss governments at least, plus a sizable presence from Caritas, the Catholic charity.

Most of the project appear to focus on the empowerment of women. That’s probably appropriate when gender roles are still clearly defined here and, just a few valleys over, the Taliban are focussing on dis-empowering women.

Our favourite so far is a USAid initiative which helps women beekeepers recover from flooding and generally improve their output. They call it “Plan Bee”. Sweet name.

Joe’s guide to booking flights online: part 3 – breaking up fares

This post is part of a series sharing my views on how to book flights online. Forthcoming posts include fuel dumping and tricks for specific search engines.

One way to think about my series of posts on how to book flights online is that each challenges an assumption that we commonly make when booking. First I challenged the idea that a simple search would get you the best result. In “When to book” I challenged the assumption that sooner is always better. This post challenges the assumption that you get a better deal if you book your whole trip with one airline.

The one airline assumption isn’t unreasonable. We expect things to be cheaper when we buy from one source, like buying in bulk. But this isn’t always borne out with flights. Often booking one fare to an intermediate stop and another to your eventual destination will get you a better deal. I call this breaking tickets.

Lets start with an example. Imagine you want to fly from Auckland to Bogota on just before New Year, which is exactly what Fiona and I did last year. A search on kayak will yield $2002 (USD), and skyscanner $1947. But you can think laterally in a way that a search engine doesn’t. Search instead for one ticket to Los Angeles ($919) and one from there to Bogota ($356) and you’ve a grand total of $1275. That’s a solid 30% saving.

Breaking up is hard to do

There are two challenges with breaking fares. First, if your ticket isn’t booked as one then airlines aren’t obliged to rebook you if you miss your connection (though your travel insurer should reimburse your costs). So some caution with connection times is required.

Second, you can come up with almost limitless permutations and lose yourself in the search process. Why, for example, did we break our fare to Bogota at Los Angeles, rather than Honolulu, Miami or Santiago? The airline geek in me wants to say “you just know” because you spend your days looking at where airlines fly and why they do it. But failing that this post has some examples, and then some broad principles for when you should look at breaking things up. Nothing beats just messing around and trying different things, though. You just might strike gold.

Go nuts: the options I considered for our trip from Auckland to Bogota.

Good break ups

Okay, so, some examples. Excuse the New Zealand centeredness.

  • Break domestic and international legs. This is especially relevant if flying from a regional centre in New Zealand, but from Wellington and Christchurch too. Always look at a flight booked out of Auckland.
  • To the US (and also Central America) look to break flights at Los Angeles. Carriers to LA that don’t go on include Air Pacific and Air Tahiti Nui and the market to the Americas from LA is super competitive.
  • Getting to Latin America is also often cheaper via LA because of how incredibly uncompetitive flights across the South Pacific are.
  • To Singapore or Kuala Lumpur try one booking to Sydney and then another on Scoot or Air Asia.
  • For South East Asia good break points are Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. You can get there cheaply via Sydney (as above) or with Jetstar, Emirates or Etihad direct. From there you can often pick up low cost flights with Air Asia, Jetstar or Tiger Airways. Note that low cost carriers don’t always show up on search sites like
  • To Europe consider breaking your journey at Singapore or, increasingly, Shanghai. Bonus points if you use one of the cheap ways to get to Singapore described above. And if you want to get really clever also have a look at one booking to Asia and another that goes Asia-Europe-New Zealand.

And the principles that underpin those examples

The examples above will work sometimes, but not always, and they only cover a very limited selection of routes. So here’s my best go at articulating the principles that underpin them.

Start by testing competitiveness

To figure out how much investigation is worthwhile assess the competitiveness of your route. If a route is uncompetitive you might be able to stitch together two tickets for routes that are competitive and get a lower fare as a result. Conversely, if it’s super competitive, breaking fares might not do much good. You can get a sense of competitiveness by counting the airlines presented to you by an aggregator search. Kayak shows five from Auckland to Bogota, for example, but 23 from Auckland to London.

Try flying to a hub, and tagging an extra flight on

Find that when you search for the whole routing you get routed via a big hub airport? That airport is a good place to try breaking your tickets. Not all carriers that only fly to big airports have codeshare or interline agreements that let them book you through to the little ones. This is the principle that underpins the idea that you should always look at splitting domestic and international. Big international hubs are generally large world cities: Hong Kong, Dubai, Sydney, Singapore, Frankfurt, New York, Los Angeles, London etc.

Tap into low cost carriers when you can

Low cost carriers don’t fly everywhere but breaking into where they do will get you lower fares. Getting on to Spirit at Los Angeles (America’s most complained about and most profitable carrier) is what makes the example flight from Auckland to Bogota so cheap. Other low cost infested markets include Australasia (Jetstar), Asia (Air Asia, Cebu Pacific, spicejet, flyDubai), Europe (Ryanair, EasyJet and Pegasus Airlines) and North America (Spirit, JetBlue, SouthWest). Not China, though.

Generally, low cost carriers only fly short haul. Scoot (ex-Singapore), Air Asia X (ex-KL), Jetstar (ex-Australia) and Norwegian (over the Atlantic) are rare counter examples.

There are also carriers that, while not strictly low cost, tend to try and compete based on fares rather than services. In the Asia Pacific China Southern, Royal Brunei and Air Pacific are good examples. Aeroflot is another.

Practice makes perfect (flightfox experts)

Before it sadly changed its business model, I spent some time as an expert for flightfox. The idea of the site was that people specified where and when they wanted to go and the best pitch from an expert got paid. Most of the time when I won a contest it was because I knew where to break up routes to save travelers money.

These days flightfox works differently. Instead of crowd-sourcing fares flightfox employs experts and you pay a fixed fee to access their services. If your trip is complex their service can be very worthwhile. Because they, like me, do this all the time, they develop a good understanding of where to break a journey to get you the best fare that goes beyond a few examples and principles.

Passing through Passu


We spent a night in Passu, the next town down on the Karakoram Highway from Saeed’s place. Town is a relative term. The absence of population in Pakistan’s very northernmost corner reminds me of how it feels to drive from South Westland to Wanaka over New Zealand’s Haast Pass. Passu has, we estimate, about ninety homes.

What Passu has got in spades is mountains. Their craggy peaks surround the valley which the town follows. They look kind of hyper real. In fact they look photoshopped. They look very much like the mountains on the cover of those fantasy books I never read which are partly obscured by a scantily clad woman riding a dragon. They are, to say it simply, enormously impressive.

In what is becoming a trend in Pakistan, we were the only guests staying in our hotel and the only diners at the restaurant we visited for dinner. The owners of both told us the same story: Passu used to be a major tourist stop. Since 9/11 tourist numbers have dried up, and the ongoing association of Pakistan with words like Taliban and Bin Laden in the media has meant they have never come back. We estimate that tourist infrastructure is, at most, at 10% of capacity.

It’s a crying shame because this part of Pakistan is not only peaceful, its scenery is astounding. On our stroll back from dinner (where we enjoyed chicken curry and an exceptionally good apricot cake) we found ourselves making a list of all our friends who we will petition to make a visit. If you like mountains, if you like the outdoors, you would love Passu.

Can’t make round chapatis


What kind of family will want a daughter in law who can running around kicking football all day but can’t make round chapatis?

Mrs Bhamra, Bend it like Beckham

My family, evidently. For while running around kicking football would not be considered one of her key skills, Fiona is certainly superior at this (and many other things) to chapati making.

Chapatis are an unleavened bread that are eaten at basically every meal here, often to the exclusion of rice. Their only ingredients are flour and water and they are cooked over a fire. First they need to be rolled out, which is where the round bit comes in. Fiona got the chance to have a go when we stayed at a hut in a remote valley and were making chapatis and goat curry for dinner. Her chapati was too thick, had holes and was irregularly shaped. This despite the fact that she took at least three times as long as the main cook. More practice required.

Are you smarter than a Pakistani eleven year old?

We’ve talked about the detail that was in the textbooks of the Pakistani family that we stayed with. The eleven year old was also studying for a quiz. She had to memorise the answers to a hundred questions. Here’s a sample of five for you to have a crack at. Because I am generous I have made this multi-choice.

Officially how many Muslim countries are there?

What country produces the largest amount of wool in the world?

What period is known as the zenith of the Muslim world?

What is the meaning of the name Pakistan?

How many Muslims are living in China?

I am unable to take responsibility for the correctness of any of the answers.


“He pointed the gun at me” – what Pakistani textbooks say

Saeed was fiercely proud of the private school education he was providing for his children. Whenever we’d ask anything about schooling he’d find a way to get the word “Oxford” into his reply. We didn’t really know what he was getting at until a daughter was called upon to show off her workbooks all of which displayed the Oxford University Press logo prominently.

Fiona catches up on her Pakistani history, as told through a sixth grade social studies book.
Fiona catches up on her Pakistani history, as told through a sixth grade social studies book.

The school books gave an interesting insight into what Pakistani kids learn (At least the privileged ones who have good quality texts, these were light years ahead of what we had at Mairposas). Social studies books, for example, placed Pakistan first in the Islamic world, and then in South Asia. But they were upfront about the historical reasons that Islam spread to the sub-continent and though they always marked Kashmir as part of Pakistan in their maps, they were honest enough to clearly label it “disputed territory”, something you’d never see on a Chinese map of Taiway, let alone Xinjiang.

My personal favourite was the English texts which added a distinctly Pakistani flavour to the lessons they taught. Working on “at” as a preposition they gave examples like “She is at the shop”, but more pertinently “He pointed the gun at me” and “The two countries have been at war for three years”.

The level of English being taught was impressive, especially considering its a third language for these kids. Nuzhat, six, knew all the letters of the alphabet and one morning set about learning to write Allah of her own accord. At first she wrote right to left, which is pretty excusable when you consider that’s the direction of written Urdu. Her older sisters set her straight. I wouldn’t say they were fluent in English, but I would say they were comfortable. Sosun, the oldest, liked reading aloud from Fiona’s kindle about Malala Yousafzai. Never having come across a full length book, she was confused that she’d only made 3% progress. We’re now on a mission to find age (and Muslim culture appropriate) books we can send to eager eleven and thirteen year old Pakistani girls. Suggestions much appreciated. We need to avoid sexual themes, but I’m hoping we don’t have to reach into the Famous Five archives to achieve that.

The kids had a broad knowledge and the  quizes they were supposed to be studying for had a wide range of pretty tough questions including, oddly for an eleven year old, the definition of Balance of Payments. But the world they inhabit is actually quite small. Because they come from a relatively privileged family they’ve visited what their father calls “Down Cities” or “Pakistan”, places like Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. But they are likely to spend their lives in the village where they were born. And though they knew to ask us whether we liked organges, bananas and mangoes, they’d never tasted them themselves.

There’s some religious instruction at school, but mostly that’s reserved for evening classes which all the kids in the village attend a few nights a week. And while many jobs are still strictly gendered there was no evidence we could see in Saeed’s family that his son was likely to get more education than his daughters. The girls play cricket too, they told us, in teams where they are mixed up with the boys. The boys aren’t their friends though. They have whatever cooties are in Urdu.

Such soft hands

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Coming back from our trip to the Abghaj valley were running through an area prone to rock slides when Fiona took a small tumble cutting her hands and grazing her knees. When we got back to Morkhun Saeed used one of the endless invitations to take tea to get some better first aid than the band aids we had applied from our day pack.

Fiona was served apricots and anti-bacterial lotion by three young women. The youngest was sixteen. She had just begun teaching at a local public school. She had matriculated – a word I am pretty sure went out of fashion in New Zealand in the 1930s – but had no other training. The next, eighteen, was working in a hospital, so she got to apply the bandages. She had to move away from home to achieve this, and was just visiting when we stopped by. She lived with a relative in the larger town of Gilgit, but missed her family village, she said. The oldest, twenty five, worked around the house and, we sensed, was hoping for a marriage invitation to arrive any day now. As the women tended Fiona’s cuts they remarked that she had very soft hands. They were jealous. Theirs had been hardened by working in the fields.

There are work opportunities for women outside the home, as these young health and education workers show, but there is still a strong expectation that they will run a household, get married and have kids. And that they will do a bunch of reasonably heavy labour tending to crops (apricots, apples, potatoes, onions, peas, wheat…) and animals (cows, goats, donkeys, sheep…). This means their hands are more weathered by twenty than Fiona’s might be by forty.

What travel nirvana looks like

We’ve already talked about how dearly we loved staying with Saeed and family. Here are some more photos of our time with them.