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into africa

From one ancient empire to another, we flew from Athens to Cairo. I always had a quiet fascination with Egypt and its ancient history. After reading about Howard Carter and his epic discovery of the boy-king Tutankhamen, aged 10, I decided that I wanted to be an Egyptologist so I dedicated all my efforts – dial-up internet had just become a thing – to finding a whole world of information online, printing off newspaper articles and filing them away into my Egyptology folder, protected lovingly in plastic pockets. I even tried learning hieroglyphics and had a mini excavation kit, the lot. Alas by my 12th year I was onto something else…

sunset egyptair

A lovely sunset aboard EgyptAir

I was also looking forward to visiting Egypt as I had fond memories of camping in the Omani desert with its vast dunes and wadis, which we used to drive to in our dusty Pajero on the weekends. But before Lucas and I went out exploring the Egyptian desert for ourselves, we spent some time in Cairo. In a sense, a similar kind of dusty desert, just an urban one.

But landing at Cairo airport was the beginning of our culture shock. Thinking I’d be somewhat familiar with the way of the Egyptians, as I figured they would be similar-ish to their Middle Eastern neighbours, it couldn’t have prepared me for the next few weeks.

We’d read up a bit on Egypt and had in our mind to be prepared for the badgering and touting, and as soon as we arrived into the baggage hall we were set upon as fresh bait. So, the tales were true – and it was just the beginning.

What also struck us upon arriving into Cairo was just how busy it was. There were so many people and cars everywhere. Lucas read the stats and there are apparently 16 million people in the capital alone! It put my stressful days of wading through crowded London streets to shame.

Motorways were six wide with, seemingly, no respect for law, or driver/passenger safety at all and everyone using a horn as if it was an accelerator that would get them to where they were going quicker. Speed limits seemed to be at each driver’s discretion, as did lanes, and traffic lights. Someone later told us, ‘if you drive in Egypt you must have eight eyes. Cars/people/donkeys/bikes come from everywhere.’ And he had a point. Sitting in the passenger seat was unnerving enough let alone driving.

Where pedestrians were concerned, it’s also the kind of place where (there being no pavements or zebra crossings) you have to just walk along the road and brave stepping out in front of cars to get to the other side, trusting they will move, swerve or slow down. I felt like I was going to die every time we went anywhere near a road. I even sent Mum a text saying how perilous the traffic was, as a kind of warning to not be surprised if she got a phone call. I had thought the streets of Vietnam were bad…

On the plus side, we did learn quickly that Egypt was also very cheap: great for backpacker budgets, and a welcome change from the average living costs in Europe. We booked into a hostel in the centre of Cairo, welcomed by the ironic catchphrase, ‘Welcome to Alaska!’, where the price of a double room was even cheaper than in Asia, usually impossible to beat, costing a mere £4 a night – with free breakfast!

From our seventh-floor vantage point downtown, we could see the Nile, the top of the Egyptian Museum and out over to the towers of the mosques in the Citadel. Every building in sight was streaked brown with layers of dust and sand and looking out over the horizon you could see a brown smog hovering over the city. It was everywhere, a light coating of desert on every surface, including inside.

Waking up on our first day to the droning sounds of the morning muezzin, something we’d not heard since Indonesia, we decided to visit the Egyptian Museum just a few hundred metres away, meaning it would take as little time as possible trying to navigate the deathly roads. But aside from what lay outside our door within walking distance, it seemed like the best way to explore Egypt, and certainly the easiest, was by organised tours and private drivers in some cases. Thankfully our hostel was amazing at sorting this out and we had our whole 2-week itinerary planned the night we arrived!

The Egyptian Museum was huge and even after spending three hours admiring the ancient exhibits we still didn’t see it all. There was so much to take in, from Tut’s real gold burial mask to 3000-year-old mummies where you could still see their hair and teeth intact. Cool, but creepy.

That evening, as newbies, we ventured out again into the bustling city to hunt down a local koshary restaurant around the corner. As I said, we were trying not to venture too far, avoiding roads if possible. Koshary is a typical Egyptian dish, heavy on the carbs, made of rice, spaghetti, macaroni, chickpeas, fried onions, and a fresh zesty tomato sauce which you were invited to spice and lemon to your taste. At just 0.83p a plate it was perhaps one of the cheapest meals we’d ever found. Including table service!

Our next Egypt outing, according to our schedule, were the Pyramids of Giza. Bucket list, check! My (inner) 11-year-old self was jumping up and down with excitement. Only the day before we’d seen so many artefacts from the tombs displayed at the Egyptian Museum, so it was fitting to see where they had been excavated from and piecing parts of history back together. On the way, we visited Saqqara, the site of the first ever step pyramid and later drove to the site of the giant 20m horizontal Ramses II statue in Memphis. For those who don’t know, King Ramses II is one of the most famous kings in all Egyptian history who famously had over 150 children with 200 or so wives. As you do.

saqqara

ramses ii

Step pyramid at Saqqara and the giant statue of Ramses II

Finally, arriving at Giza, we could spy the tips of the enormous pyramids from a mile off through our car windscreen. As we entered the ancient desert we were greeted by the epic, noseless Sphinx, with the tall towering pyramids in the background. They were huge. And so old! To see something that you read about as a kid in history books right up close was surreal and it was a major ‘pinch me’ moment to be there and see them in person.

We weren’t the only people admiring these ancient ruins, however. Oh no. Throngs of tourists and school kids were there too, along with salesmen and men atop camels and horses persistently trying to sell you a ride. The combination of annoying children and insistent men was a bad recipe with my hanger and Lucas had to make me stop and eat something before I really lost my shit.

Bar the wearisome touts, the pyramids were incredible, and we spent two hours walking around the fringe of the desert taking in these huge structures, trying to recall everything we had learnt about their regal occupants in the museums. One thing I couldn’t stop thinking about was, practically, how were they built, especially in the heat? We were visiting in November, so the temperatures were much cooler, but still in their low twenties. I could only imagine how difficult lugging these huge stones would have been in the searing hot summer before the days of air conditioning and iced water…

pyramids

sphinx

two pyramids

The epic pyramids and iconic sphinx

After gazing in awe at these giant pyramids, savouring the amazing ‘pinch me’ moment, but growing tired of constantly saying no to the men stalking us on their camels, we headed back into the bustle of Cairo, retreating to our room to decompress. In all its historic awesomeness, the city was a bit of a sensory overload. I mentioned being a pedestrian was a pretty hideous experience, not only in terms of navigating the cars and trying not to get run over, but each time you stepped out of the door you were met by a barrage of people trying to sell you things. The Egyptians are the epitome of opportunists and if there’s a chance for an upsell, they’ll take it. It’s hard to walk down the street without being accosted by shop owners who would hover on street corners waiting for new tourist prey, or restauranteurs persuading you that their fare is better than their neighbours.

‘No, thank you, I don’t want to look at your bazaar. No, thank you, I don’t want to see the good price.’ I felt like a bad person always turning them down, and you got the feeling they were probably saying something behind your back knowing you had the money to at least buy a small something, but that was just part of the game. And I wasn’t taking any of the BS sales tactics, no matter how genuine their offer. The ultimate cliché would be to fall victim to a scam. Once I spoke with a man who tried to befriend me with his charm, telling me that he had a Scottish friend from Auchtermuchty, in a bid to find common ground. An exchange made even more hilarious because of how you pronounce Auchtermuchty, which he did wonderfully.

To break from the chaos of Cairo, we booked an overnight trip to the White Desert. We were inspired to go having seen it on a Planet Earth a few weeks before, learning of the unique and naturally eroded rock sculptures, worn down throughout the ages into unusual shapes by the wind. We were checking the bucket list off quickly, as you can tell.

white desert

desert highway

The White Desert and endless miles of sandy highway to get there

At 7am we were dropped off underneath a dodgy looking bridge – seemingly this jumble of cars, vans and buses was the bus station – and piled into a car for a five-hour ride to the Baharya Oasis. It felt like a very long five hours, both bum cheeks went numb one after the other, but finally we arrived at the oasis to smooth out the cricks and crumples after driving along endless miles of sand-strewn highway.

It really was an oasis of green and palms, compared to the dusty red sand just a mile away and we were invited for lunch and ‘whisky tea,’ which was alcohol-free, sadly, but extremely strong and sugary. Rested and ready for more driving, even deeper into the desert, we were picked up by a Bedouin, Mahmoud our desert guide, in his huge 4×4 and sped through more miles of desert, further and further away from civilisation and anything green and growing.

bedouin 4x4

Mahmoud and his 4×4 in the Black Desert

We were camping at the White Desert, a National Park, but along the way we’d be stopping at the Black Desert, Crystal Mountain, and the dunes for sunset. The Black Desert was so named for its volcanic black rock and there were mountains of these dark peaks were everywhere, contrasted again the deep red and pink sand. The Crystal Mountain was a mountain made entirely out of salt as the desert used to be an ocean, millions of years ago, and since then tall salty mountains had been left in their place which, when chipped away, looked like crystal or quartz.

For sunset, we sped over dunes and through peaks of jagged rock to reach the edge of the White Desert to watch the sun go down. The Bedouins also brought out a sand board which Lucas had a go on. I decided otherwise after watching him schlep back up the 30m incline of sand which was quite a feat….

desert sunset

We enjoyed more than one beautiful sunset in Egypt

We arrived at the White Desert in the pitch black and I have to hand it to our Bedouin, Mahmoud, who was an excellent driver navigating through the rocky mountain desert narrowly avoiding the huge rock formations like a pro. I’d expected to arrive at a pre-erected camp, with dinner already on the go, and some form of tents or yurts as our sleeping arrangement. But no. We arrived at an empty sandy clearing amid these standing carved rock giants with nothing around.

Setting up in total darkness, the moon wasn’t even out yet, Mahmoud managed to unload the 4×4 and set up a cosy seating area with woven mats, rugs, and cushions on the floor. Later the same space would double up as our open-air bedroom. He also set up a makeshift kitchen with a small table and kerosene fire to cook with. He was not only the driver but chef too.

Once he’d hooked up a light to the car battery and made us a camp fire we sat back and relaxed, now that we could see, and silently contemplated how cool it was that we were deep in the Egyptian desert and about to spend a night under the stars! Errr, reality check please?

Quite the chef, Mahmoud knelt in the sand and with very rudimentary equipment rustled up tomato soup, heaps of rice, and spicy potatoes; he even grilled some chicken on the camp fire. A true maestro. And, as we devoured our Bedouin’s bounty, we were visited by the resident desert fox who frequented the area and who was often fed leftovers, so he seemed quite happy to see us.

We spent the night lost in reverie, either hypnotised by the fire or gazing up into space, at worlds beyond. Because we were so deep in the desert, over 8 hours away from any big city, we were treated to a magical show of stars that night. The skies were so bright and clear that it felt like you could see the whole universe – and I even saw two shooting stars!

That night, Mahmoud laid out cushions and sleeping bags in our former dining room and gave us heavy-duty rugs to sleep under (which smelt distinctly animal-like, but which worked a treat) and we slept out in the open. It was incredible. Neither of us had ever slept so exposed outside, without even the sheer protection of a nylon tent above our head.

We went to bed as the moon was rising, like a huge megawatt torch, made all the stronger by the reflective white sand. It obliterated the stars but created a new magical effect nonetheless – and you could go for a midnight pee without even needing your torch! I slept soundly that night, and didn’t feel the cold once, but at one point I was rudely awoken by a scuttling at my head and then I felt some tiny footsteps on my shoulder. Soon, and rather suddenly, I realised I was being climbed on by a little desert mouse. Although harmless, the shock was enough to send my heart racing – and wonder what other nocturnal animals could be crawling all over me as I slept unawares out in the desert…

bedouin camp

desert sunrise

Camping under the stars and watching sunrise in our sleeping bags

The next morning, we woke up with the sunrise at 6.15am and prepared for the long journey back through the desert and back to Cairo. A few hours later, we boarded a bus which looked like it was from the 70s and hadn’t been MOT’d since – there were people tinkering in the engine before we left, never a good sign. An hour into the journey to the capital we shuddered to a halt on the desert highway, engine gasping. Our fellow bus members all ran off to get involved and have a cigarette, but we were back on the road before long. Until, it happened again. Marooned at the side of the road on a dead bus, we considered hitch hiking to make up the remaining 5 hours, but thankfully a replacement bus pulled up alongside and we continued our journey back to Cairo… On the plus side, some very kind Egyptian man gave us delicious fresh dates which made the ride all the more bearable.

Escaping the city once more, a night later we took the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor (which was an experience in itself) for a three-day Nile Cruise south down to Aswan. We swore we’d never be ‘cruise people,’ but there you go. It was a bit of a splurge, at five stars – there was even a pool on the top deck! – but it was worth it and a unique way to experience the lush Egyptian countryside and rich green farmland along the Nile, while being a bit fancy.

cruise room

Nile views from our room

We boarded the boat and were assigned a lovely room with huge floor to ceiling windows that looked onto the river. But before we set off on our Nile voyage, we spent the day and night in Luxor, nicknamed the greatest open air museum in the world, and had the day to explore all the historic sites. We joined a tour group and headed out to the Valley of the Kings to see more tombs and ancient hieroglyphics, learning about the iconic ancient Pharos, Kings and Queens who walked the land before. Did you know when a new king was appointed people would start digging his tomb and would continue to do so until his death. So, the longer you were on the throne, the jazzier your temple and the better your afterlife would be, essentially! But there are no photos of the tombs as photography was not allowed. Unless you bribed the guards.

Back on board, it was pretty much an all-inclusive vibe where food was concerned, and we gorged on unlimited buffets day and night. It was also one of the only places we’d been to in Egypt that sold alcohol. So, drinking a cool Stella beer watching the sun set was a rather enjoyable experience, too.

nile river bank

kom ombo

nile sunset

Banks of the River Nile, Kom Ombo, and another spectacular Egyptian sunset

During the cruise we travelled from Luxor, down to Kom Ombo, and then onto Aswan. We saw temples galore and learnt about all kinds of things along the way. We even visited a crocodile mummification museum. Who knew that was a thing? After three nights of luxury and learning we boarded a train back to Luxor for a rather special once-in-a-lifetime activity: hot air ballooning! The one and only place that does it in Egypt is in Luxor by the Valley of Kings – a pretty spectacular location – so we didn’t want to pass up such a unique opportunity.

We woke for a 4am pick up and joined a group at the river to cross from the east side of the Nile to the west to make our way to the Valley of the Kings. Once we’d arrived at the site and been allocated our balloon (which was to take off first!) we clambered into the wicker basket, which held 24 people, and our pilot took us through the safety briefing getting us to practice our landing poses and advising us to hold onto our phones as we leant out the basket… After a smooth take off, we dipped and rose, reaching an altitude of over 600m taking in the vast views over the valley with the sun rising behind the iconic River Nile. It was an incredible morning. Needless to say, I took a million photos…

hot air balloon 3

hot air ballon

Hot air ballooning over Valley of the Kings

After Luxor, we’d almost exhausted the bucket list of ‘things to do’ in Egypt. We’d been on a speed date of every historic attraction and museum we could think of and so to relax and unwind for the last few nights we decided to head over to the Red Sea to do absolutely nothing. We also hoped that we’d be able to escape the endless touts and selling men.

We chose Hurghada, a touristy all-inclusive place which we shared with hoardes of Brits, Russians, and Germans, and had a lovely time doing sweet FA. We did go on a snorkelling trip one day, however, and saw lots of beautiful coral and exotic fish in the reef. But after 2.5 weeks we were ready to call time on our visit to Egypt. We felt it was a good enough length to be able to experience what we did and get a good feel for the culture, as well as have some R&R to decompress. But some culture differences were just too much to ever get our heads around.

I can’t think of any country I’ve been to that is quite like Egypt, both good and bad, and if I were to offer any advice for people going, especially inexperienced travellers, make sure you toughen up your poker face in any high-pressure sales situation, prepare to say no a lot, and be defiant in crossing oncoming traffic (you won’t die!). But most of all, be prepared to be blown away by the history, it will surely rekindle your love for all things ancient and you won’t be disappointed!

We were leaving Egypt to explore the opposite corner of northern Africa: Morocco. We had booked onto another yoga retreat (Lucas is quite the yogi now) which included surfing so the vibe was guaranteed to be more fun than the last, as we were joining a group of 20-something-year olds from my old studio in Brixton. I couldn’t wait!

surfing agadir

surfing

Surfing on Imourane beach

We flew to Agadir for the retreat which was in a tiny fishing village called Tagazhout, the country’s surf spot. The village was full of laid back surfer dudes in traditional Moroccan riads, guesthouses decorated with hand-painted tiles around an open courtyard with a roof terrace for sunrise and sunset yoga. It was idyllic. The weather was beaut at a comfortable 25 degrees every day which meant we could top up the tans on the beach, in between our classes.

The group from Brixton Yoga couldn’t have been better, we all got on really well and there was a great mix of people. We practiced yoga twice a day with meditation and yoga nidra in the evenings, after optional workshops (including dance!) and surfing in the day. We also spent an afternoon at Paradise Valley and did our sunset yoga in the dunes. After five days of an amazing retreat, we were sad to leave our new yoga family and healthy routine but we were excited to explore more of this amazing country. So far the people had been great, so friendly and laid back, and always willing to help. They were a far cry from the Egyptians and their badgering ways.

Our next stop was Marrakesh. I’d always wanted to go to this exotic bustling city with its bright colours, souks and markets so I was excited to finally see it for myself. We booked into a riad in the medina, which, we didn’t realise until we were turfed out of the taxi, was a car-free zone and made up of narrow winding streets, unmarked on Google Maps. Spotting our newbieness straight off the bat, a young man took us right to our door for a small fee. Thankfully, as we never would have managed it ourselves. It took us a few wrong turns to find our way back after dinner, too.

morocco decor

Traditional riad decor in Marrakesh 

Another thing about Morocco is that one of their spoken languages is French. So, trying my best, I dug deep for my (now very basic) French vocabulary to try and communicate and moreover negotiate. Like the French, however, the Moroccans were want to reply back in English even though I tried so hard to speak to them in their language. Clearly my s’il vous plaits and merci beaucoups weren’t up to their standards.

Marrakesh was just as busy and bustling as I’d expected, and the souks were filled with everything from jazzy printed trousers, to gilded mirrors, leather shoes, and silver jewellery. A tourist’s delight! While unlike Egypt on the whole (sorry, but we couldn’t help but make comparisons) we did still get hounded by sellers and restauranteurs tempting us into their establishments. One very opportunist lady doing henna actually grabbed my hand in the square and started drawing on it, even embellishing with glitter. Unfortunately I didn’t actually want any and had to shake her off (I’m so bad at saying no!) and we scarpered away without paying her anything… Lucas wasn’t best impressed with my naive street dealings, I have to say. He has a better game face than I do.

Once we’d been scared off the souks (only going back for last-minute souvenirs) we spent the rest of our days in Marrakesh holed up in cafes working and eating delicious food (chiwarma and chips) before planning a hiking trip into the Atlas Mountains. Slowly, the temperatures had been dropping (it was now December) and we had been getting used to wearing jeans and wrapping up in layers for the evenings, so we expected the peaks Atlas to be far colder. Packing a small rucksack each for the 2 nights we were staying in homestays in the mountains, we were practically wearing all our layers by the time we got out of the car and started hiking. It was very cold! Everyone was in their high-quality mountain wear with proper boots and woolly hats and we were in jeans and leggings, Nike shoes and light jackets. So out of place. Some Belgian hikers even commented on how underprepared we looked, but hey, we managed it and didn’t need anything extra.

mule

atlas mountains

Our trusty mule and views of the Atlas Mountains

We had planned to trek up to the second highest peak but it had snowed the night before, very delicately dusting the tops of the mountains of the Toubkal National Park. But although it was pretty, it meant we had to change route and stay lower, so we hiked the three valleys instead. The hiking wasn’t overly arduous but offered great views over the passes and in between the valleys. Plus – we could say we’d seen snow in Africa!

Our guide Ibrahim was amazing and he had been hiking these trails since a kid and for 9 years professionally, so knew them like the back of his hand. He told us of the history of these simple Berber farming villages and their traditions and customs and told us that up to 16 people would live in one of these tiny clay houses, all one big family. It was custom to all live together and look after the elders, something our cultures do very differently, we said. I was concerned as to how they kept warm in the winter (the temperature dropped to -6 degrees inside the gite we were staying in) and he told us that there would only be one fire in the house, which they would also use to cook with, but they kept their livestock in the stables below, in their basement, as another form of heating. It was astonishing how they managed to keep warm. He also said they could get snow a metre deep in some places and here we were little children running around with flipflops on and sundresses. They must have been a hardy bunch.

Where their hospitality was concerned, you couldn’t fault them. The Berber people of the Atlas Mountains, which included our guide and cook who followed us with a mule loaded with supplies for the two nights, were so friendly and approachable, always asking us if we wanted anything and making conversation. Not to mention serving up some of the most delicious food, all cooked on a tiny camping stove.

After three days and two nights of hiking and incredible mountain views we headed back to civilization. Basing ourselves in Marrakesh again, to turnaround for our next jaunt, we had planned to venture north to the picturesque town of Chefchouen, but having checked the weather forecast we decided otherwise. Ever the fairweather travellers, Lucas and I, we thought that heading back to the coast would be our safest (and warmest) bet, remembering the heat of our beach days in Agadir.

So, three hours directly east from Marrakesh, we chose Essaouira (a name I always had trouble pronouncing: eh-sa-wee-rah). This historic port was a big hit with the hippies by all accounts and was a hot spot for water sports in the summer. There were some people SUPing even then in December.

We spent three nights in Essaouira’s medina, again, full of market stalls selling everything from avocados to artisanal plates and the standard Moroccan tourist stock. We stayed in another wonderful traditional riad with a modern take, with huge high ceilings and exposed beams, plus our first hot shower in a week. Each morning we dined on Moroccan pancakes and fresh French bread served with jams and marmalades upstairs on the terrace. There was even a resident seagull which flew by especially for the meal, ready to swoop in and pinch any leftover butter.

handpainted plates

morocco stalls

All the colours in Essaouira

Because it was December, we refrained from any water sports – as did most people – and instead mainly used Essaouira for its reliable wifi and range of delicious independent restaurants at which we enjoyed a few nice meals out. Unlike Marrakesh, most of them also sold booze which was a welcome treat for a Muslim country. Essaouira definitely seemed to be a higher end tourist destination with its sea views and beach, but also had a bohemian feel to it. Perhaps it was to do with the abundant supply of hashish offered throughout the day by men carrying armfuls of home baking and ‘happy cakes.’

After wining and dining in this seaside market town, we moved on but stayed along the coast, choosing the sleepy village of Sidi Kaoki to spend our final days in Morocco, just 30 minutes away by local bus. Our riad was quite literally 50m from the sand and 50m from four out of the five restaurants, and only local businesses, in the area.

We discovered there wasn’t much to Sidi Kaoki, it was tiny. There wasn’t even an ATM and the only place that sold beer did so on the sly in case anyone of authority walked past. At first, five days in this tiny village seemed too long (what was there to do?) but in the end, it was perfect, and we’d not come for socialising or late nights anyway so we quite enjoyed the slow pace and quiet days.

We spent our mornings lounging on the roof terrace after breakfast, drinking tea and reading, and in the afternoon having a sandwich on the beach and going for long walks to discover what lay beyond the headlands and down the trails. We discovered camels roaming in the brush, local fishermen casting out on the rocks, houses abandoned midway through construction, and the secret local surfing spot where the best waves broke. After our walks, each evening we watched the sun set before dinner, lighting up the sky with magnificent golds and pinks and as night fell wild bursts of stars emerged on our walk back.

sidi camels

sidi kaoki sunset

Sidi Kaoki’s camels and coastline and sunset over the Atlantic

Much like any surfer town, the vibe in Sidi Kaoki was very laid back, welcoming people from all nationalities and walks of life for any length of time, days, weeks, months… Some had clearly settled there for a while and had their campervans parked along the shore, others had even got jobs working in the local restaurant. I can’t forget to mention the town’s cutest and most coddled resident, the runt pup, Couscous, who seemed to change hands with every passer through who wanted to play mother and claim him as their own (myself included), wooing him with scraps under the table and picking the fleas from his ears.

The quiet life of Sidi Kaoki was a wonderful way to end our trip. Soon enough we were back to Marrakesh, for the last time, to catch our planes back for Christmas to see our family and friends – and dig up some festive spirit. (That’s the thing about spending the run up to Christmas in a Muslim country, there isn’t a string of tinsel or carol singer in sight.)

As I look back on our time – 5 and a half months galavanting around Europe, Egypt and Morocco – my God, has time flown! But now, we’re enjoying our time in the mother lands, and getting ready for our next adventure: Colombia and Central America… Roll on 2018.


down the coast

For those who read about our amazing Slovenian adventures, you’ll know that any country to follow was going to have a tough job. We binged on so much natural beauty (remember those picture perfect mountains and turquoise rivers) so had spoiled ourselves rotten. There were some big boots to fill.

Itching for new lands, regardless, we were onto the next, swapping the tiny landlocked country we had called home for a few weeks for a sprawling coastal one: Croatia. I’d been to Croatia once before to go to a dance festival over a mad weekend bender in my early twenties (sigh of nostalgia) and I remembered the searing hot summer days, crystal clear waters and pebbled beaches. That was my pull to return; a slave to the sun.

From Slovenia’s capital, we hopped on a bus and worked our way down through Rijeka, in the north of Croatia, to Split, the gateway to the islands, to board a ferry for Brac – pronounced with a ‘ch’ – the first island of our island hopping adventure.

Having been recommended Brac by a few different people, I had high hopes, and we headed over to the south side of the island to a town called Bol, overlooking Hvar island, its party animal neighbour, which, we were told was frequented by the likes of George Clooney, among other A-list celebs. Casual name drop…

Bol, in contrast, was a very tiny but very chic fishing village with plenty of rustic charm. Its seafront was lined with bars and restaurants with cushions on the harbour walls for you to sit and watch the bobbing fishing boats as you sipped on a cool glass of wine, awaiting your freshly caught calamari.

zlatni rat.jpg

brac apartment

Turquoise Croatian waters and our picturesque apartment

We stayed in a little apartment, called Flower Garden Terrace, aptly named for its bold floral front gardens lining the way to our door. Our private patio had drooping vines to keep out the midday sun overhead and with an ocean view what more could we want. It’s no surprise that we quickly got used to this new island life and Slovenia felt more distant by the day.

The island itself is famous for the beach Zlatni Rat, a national treasure and one that you’ll find shouted about in any Croatian travel brochure. Its long golden tongue of sand sticks out into the sea, changing shape with the currents; sometimes it will be curved, others straight out, its colour contrasted with the gorgeously turquoise waters around it. From there was a dusty trail leading away from the sandy spit where we discovered a hidden enclave of nudies and some private alcoves. Noted for future reference, we went back another day – only semi-nude – and hid among the rocks, both for our own privacy and also so that we didn’t have to look at our naked neighbours. Why is it that most naturists are old men?!

By the end of the week, we’d tallied up that it had been about 50/50 rain and sun. But according to the proud Croatians, the weather was unusually bad for that time of year – September – and they kept saying how it hadn’t rained for 3 months. One particularly stormy night we were kept up with lashing rain and a spectacular thunder and lightning show through our French windows, sending our poor vines blowing in the wind, but decorating our patio prettily with petals for the following morning.

vidova gora

The island’s peak, Vidova Gora, the highest peak in the Croatian islands, and Zlatni Rat beach in the bottom left

Our second Croatian island was Vis. The quietest and furthest island out from Split. Although Brac wasn’t overly lively by any means, it was fairly touristy, so we were looking forward to a more authentic and rural Croatian way of life.

As Sod’s law works – literally, it had never happened before – we slept through our alarm the day we were meant to travel to Vis so missed our 7am ferry (which perhaps was a blessing as it was pissing it down) so didn’t quite start the day according to plan, running around frantically trying to book new tickets online and calling a last-minute taxi.

Anyway. We made it, and what we arrived to in Vis was noteworthy.

NB: when you stay in as many apartments and hotels, hostels, etc as we do, you generally have a decent level of tolerance or leniency in terms of location, cleanliness, and facilities, with a benchmark of what is ok and what is not.

Now, when I said we were excited about authentic, rural living… Up the top of an unnamed road, we located a mysterious, unnumbered flat which bore the most resemblance to the photo on our email than any of the other houses. There, we were met by a raspy old man with an unfortunate and rather large cyst on his throat and whose fly was undone, holding a beer in one hand, accompanied by a young woman who appeared to be his translator.

Caught a little off guard by this unconventional welcome, but open-minded nonetheless, he unlocked the apartment below his, which let out a stench of stale cigarette smoke and whose whole appearance gave off a distinct crack den vibe. Having come from our super cute cottage-y apartment with flower garden and ocean view, this couldn’t have been more different and we tried not to let our disappointment show….

But first impressions aside, the raspy man (I never knew his name!) who owned the flat proceeded to bring us a bottle of his home-brewed grappa – a lethal local wine that tastes a bit like whisky – as a welcome drink and was very pleasant whenever we later crossed paths.

Once we’d spent a day or two in the crack den, we began to look at it with a new a fondness. We didn’t mind its sticky patches or wobbly floorboards. Ok, the ‘sexy’ (but not) standing power shower with jets and a flip down seat was still a bit weird, but you get used to these things.

vis.jpg

vis fishing houses

Local harbours and old fishing villages on Vis

Our unique accommodation aside, Vis was a beautiful little island. Not yet really touched by the mass tourism of Brac, and certainly not Hvar, the little towns dotted around still retained their authenticity and rustic farm feel, with a smattering of family-run restaurants and vineyards to entice passers-by.

We were also lucky that we had three beaches near our place which we could walk to in just 10 minutes. Much to Lucas’ disappointment, it seemed that everywhere in Croatia had stony pebble beaches – not comfortable for sunbathing for any length of time without some serious padding. A sarong just didn’t cut it. We did try lying out on the pontoon-like rocks like the locals did and succeeded in topping up our tans nicely, despite our sore bottoms.

rock pontoon

vis beach

Sunbathing on rocks and finding the secret beach

The one thing about Vis being so rural and not yet touristy is that if you ventured far from the port town itself – which we did – without any means of transport yourself – which we hadn’t – you were effectively marooned. On the day we wanted to explore the island autonomously we had to walk 8km to the main Vis town to rent a scooter for the day.

Not being very big, we managed to scoot around most of Vis before sunset, visiting a local vineyard and another famous Croatian beach, obscured behind two huge cliffs. After dropping our wheels back off at the pier we treated ourselves to our first meal out on the island, date night! Making the most of being out of our cosy crack den, we dined and drank at leisure, finishing up well into the night. Little did we know that when it came to paying the bill and ordering a taxi, island taxi drivers had stopped their shifts at 6pm. Good luck finding a ride back, they said. Where did we need to go? Errrr, to the other side of the island…

So pretty sozzled and very full, we didn’t have a choice but to start the 8km back over the hill. Ever the hopeful, and quite desperate for my bed, I stuck my hand out at any passing car to hitch a ride until finally, we got one from a very kind man who turned out to be a sous chef from the restaurant we had just been at. Such a small world. Perhaps he knew we were out of sorts and out of luck…

After our time on Vis, we headed to Hvar island for an Autumn Equinox Yoga Retreat in the quiet hillside town of Dol, just up from the historic Stari Grad – Croatia’s oldest town, by all accounts. The retreat was hosted at Suncroket, a cosy old converted farmhouse, with a small, and very quiet, group – including Lucas, his first ever one. (He did very well.)

We moved and meditated through a great week of Ayurveda and yoga, detoxing from alcohol and coffee, as well as meat. The booze was a welcome detox, and the meat was easy, but the coffee was shockingly hard. The first three days I was a crabby cow snapping at everything, while Lucas had migraine-like headaches as we struggled through our caffeine withdrawals and their vice-like grip.

After going cold turkey, I vowed after never to have coffee again knowing that my body was so addicted to a substance that had such an effect and which wasn’t natural… it was crazy how much even a coffee a day affected me when I didn’t have it. So, since then, I haven’t (wittingly) had a coffee that hasn’t been decaf since. (Mini fist pump.)

After a week of downdogs and detoxing, we were revived and recharged and bade farewell to Croatia. We ended on a (spiritual) high – Lucas may say otherwise – and set off for a new country, Bosnia & Herzegovina, a place we knew fairly little about, let alone why it had two names…

Mostar seemed like a nice place to spend a week so we rented an Airbnb (and adopted the neighbour’s kitten, who I named Ernie) and we didn’t do much other than work, eat, cook and mooch around the old town to get the obligatory views of the bridge and river. Mostar bridge is now famous because of the Red Bull diving competitions, attracting tourists from around the world to jump from its 24m arch. We did see one guy throw himself off quite successfully. But the town seems to have changed a lot in the last 30 years and you wouldn’t have known it had been under siege by the looks of it, bar the bullet holes in some of the walls.

mostar bridge

mostar wall

Mostar Bridge and some iconic street art outside our apartment

We decided to head over to Blidnje National Park for a long weekend to get some forest baths and break from the city. Booking a little apartment in the area’s ski resort, we watched the temperature drop from 26 degrees in Mostar to a mere 6 when we arrived at our destination. It was the second time we’d experienced the cold in pretty much a year, and it was a shock to the system (the first being the other ski resort, Vogel, in Slovenia). Wearing all of our layers and digging out our warmest jackets we whacked the thermostat up as soon as we locked the door and tried to thaw out. Something we’d be doing for the duration of our stay.

Looking forward to the walks and fresh country air, we explored our remote mountain town, abandoned in the off-season save for a few construction workers. It was clearly a place where people spent their summers and only returned when the snow was heavily fallen to ski on the peaks. In the months in between, it was a ghost town, and we used it to our advantage.

Please don’t judge us for what I’m about to admit, it was for waste-control, honest! And, in our defence, our nearest supermarket was 30km away…

Lucas the Forrager (I’ll blame him) went off on a mission to collect wood for the fire burner in our living room but was sidetracked by rows and rows of vegetable gardens. These green-fingered holiday house owners clearly took pride in their patches and had left a considerable amount to pick before the winter frost killed them off. So, armed with a bag, we went digging among the patches to salvage/steal a bit of everything, gathering for ourselves a delicious vegetable feast – for free! Parsnips, carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, collard, the lot! We had a very organic fare to sup on for the next few days.

It did take a while to scrub the mud out of our fingernails and bleach the purple beet juice out… Nothing like a guilty conscience and hiding the evidence.

Kleptomania aside – I hope no one from the Lake Blednje Neighbourhood Watch is reading – the area was beautiful and save for a day of frozen fog we had bright blue skies to explore. We rented bikes and cycled to the lake, we hiked around getting lost in the unmarked trails and managed to find a cosy wooden guesthouse selling red wine to warm us up.

blidnje bikes

blidnje

His & Hers bikes and exploring the mountains of Blidnje

But a few days was all my crap circulation could manage and we were off again, this time to Kotor Bay, nestled in the mountains of Montenegro. Not only is Kotor famous for its picturesque bay and towering mountains, but it has a huge number of cats! So I think it was fate that we ended up there to celebrate my birthday.

cat museum.jpg

Yes, there was a cat museum and yes, we went to it

I couldn’t wait for this part of the trip as two of my mates were coming out to visit so I was counting down the days. We had hired a huge villa, complete with seaside pontoon and garden (with three randy turtles) overlooking the bay and were primed for some carnage – note, I purposefully didn’t say culture.

Due to the nature of our being in Kotor, it was mainly an eating and drinking experience. We dined extremely well, picking a new restaurant every night and visited the local market for cheese and olives for lunch, sampling various local wines and downing free shots of grappa after our meals.

kotor bay

private pontoon

The views from our villa and private pontoon

We did enjoy a bit of culture, I admit, when we ventured out for a nice walk along the bay,  visiting a pretty coastal town overlooking the floating monasteries. On one particularly sunny day, we also hired a speedboat for the afternoon and jetted out to visit the blue cave and a WW2 submarine tunnel used in a Bond film. That was pretty cool and a kind of ‘pinch me’ moment. The private speedboat, not the tunnel, I mean.

It was so nice to see Aaron and Char and to catch up on months of news in person, and it really made me miss my little community back in London. I was sad they had to leave and I wished they could have stayed longer but they had jobs to go back to and we had a flight booked to Mykonos a few days later to go exploring the islands of Greece as our final stop in Europe.

The day we were meant to fly to Greece our flight was delayed from Kotor meaning we missed our connection at Belgrade (of all places) to get to Athens to connect to Mykonos. It was the first time we missed a flight and then had to run through the airport with all of our stuff and bang on the check-in desk, pleading with them to still let us board the plane. Real Drama. By the skin of our teeth, we made it onto a later flight and arrived in Mykonos at the same time. Phew.

mykonos poolside

 

mykonos molinos

Mykonos Molinos and poolside views

Mykonos was a safe option to start with and certainly one of the prettiest with its whitewash buildings and blue wooden paintwork. It was also one of the fanciest, too, and we paid more than one eye-watering bill, but it was nice to spend time by the pool and luxuriate under the cloudless skies, eating fresh octopus and calamari at the beach with some local wine. We spent five days pretending we could afford it all before fleeing to a more affordable Naxos, a three-hour ferry ride south.

Where we stayed in Naxos island absolutely made it. Again, abandoned for the off-season, we were the only people staying there, bar about four others working in the local shops within a mile radius. Our little sea view apartment was a stone’s throw away from three stunning golden sandy beaches that were so deserted we had them all to ourselves. Cue naked sunbathing.

Adopting another cat, Sylvester, we settled into quiet life where there wasn’t much to do but beach and read. There was a little market down the dusty road and a restaurant which was open all but the time we decided to go and that was it!

plaka beach

private beach

bonfire on the beach

Private beaches and bonfires

The weather was amazing and having no one there made it even more special. As if we had the island to ourselves. We even managed to have a secret bonfire on the beach at sunset which was definitely a night to remember.  Thanks, Lucas, for being a pyromaniac!

Leaving Naxos and our little seaside apartment with private beach was hard, it was definitely one of the best places we ever stayed, but we didn’t move far, the next island we chose was Paros, right opposite Naxos. We had grown to love the chilled and picturesque Greek island life – it was hard to resist. The weather was great, the food was amazing (the octopus and cheese have rocked my world and changed my tastebuds for life), and the people were so lovely.

Much like in Naxos, in Paros, we stayed a stone’s throw away from the beach, beside a quiet fishing port offering a selection of seafood restaurants and not much else to do but enjoy the scenery and sand. One of the days we weren’t exploring the bays and discovering golden beaches with no one on them, we took a local bus to walk the Byzantine path where, along the way, we managed to befriend a dog, Gilda, as her name tag read, who followed us all the way down from the village, 5 km later to the road. Thankfully her tag had a number on it and I had to call their owner in very broken English to please come and collect your very friendly but very intrepid dog.

paros water

gilda

Stunning Paros and Gilda the stalker dog

We had an idyllic few weeks on the sleepy islands of Naxos and Paros and we were a bit reluctant to move onto Santorini (who even says that?!) preparing ourselves for people (!) and tourists (!). We took another ferry down to see the famous blue domed roofs of the cliffside town of Oia, and, as our taxi driver told us, the throngs of Chinese people who fly there especially to get married. Seriously, it’s a thing.

In all fairness, it was beautiful and picture-perfect and watching the sunset was lovely but other than the sunset and the pretty (expensive) boutiques, there’s not much else to shout about. It’s definitely a luxury place for the honeymooners, with beautiful cliffside villas and private pools tiered down the side of the island. So two nights was enough and we were happy to move onto Athens but sad to leave behind the Greek island life. And octopus!

santorini

fresh octopus

Iconic views of Santorini and freshly caught octopus

Our fifth, and final, stop in Greece was Athens. The main reason for coming here was to go to an Austra gig – her song Utopia had been our anthem in Asia so we couldn’t pass up a chance to see her live, even if it was the only song we knew! The gig wasn’t until the weekend, but due to ferry schedules stopping at the end of October we had to leave the islands earlier than planned to get to the mainland before we were marooned. We booked a nice Airbnb with views of the Acropolis and settled down for a week, able to experience Athens at leisure.

Athens reminded me a bit of Rome in that all the ancient ruins are scattered in the centre of the city which has built itself up and around it over the centuries, or rather, millennia. You just need to walk down the street to see historic temples and sunken streets hidden among restaurants and abandoned buildings decorated with graffiti.

We were a bit poor on the historic sightseeing, preferring instead to mooch around and explore the city by accident; more the modern-day urban tourists. We made the most of the capital’s first-world amenities like a bookshop and an organic vegan store, and of course the night of the gig was a huge success, too. And, I might add, worth the wait.

But we did make a special trip up to the Acropolis which was incredible and offered endless views of the city and out into the mountains. Just be prepared to get a bit lost before you get there – for a world-famous historic site, it’s shockingly signposted.

acropolis

amphitheatre

The ancient Acropolis

With no queues to contend with (off-season is the best!), we explored the ancient ruins fairly undisturbed, marvelling at how incredibly old everything was! I was thinking back to the days of the toga-clad Grecians, ruling their empire from the top of this epic hill, surveying their land.

Alas, after a week in Athens, our time was up and we were off again. The last five months exploring Europe had been amazing. Above all, Greece – I’ll never forget the private beaches (and bonfire) of Naxos, or the juicy grilled octopus tentacles we ate… oh my. And. So. Much. Feta. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

But we were swapping one ancient empire for another. Egypt was our next stop, Africa was calling…

slovenia dreaming

I’m going to fast forward through lots of hours on buses and trains and the crazy-but-fun blur that was Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Budapest and jump straight to Slovenia! This place deserves the credit.

We were super excited to get there, not only to slow down our mental speed travelling, but we were ready to get out of the hustle and bustle of the big cities. We’d not seen, let alone been in, real ‘nature’ since Capileira so we were overdue a forest bath, as Lucas calls them.

We had a quick two-nighter in the tiny picturesque Slovenian capital, Ljubljana (pronounced loo-blah-nah), before hopping straight over to Bled – possibly/probably one of the most iconic places in Slovenia.

lake bled

lake bled view

You might have come across photos of Bled; it’s pretty stunning. The church on the island in the middle of the lake, with the castle just behind it, and the dramatic mountains in the backdrop? Well, that’s exactly what it looks like in real life.

As soon as we arrived we couldn’t resist a lap of the lake, taking a zillion photos of everything, from every angle, as if we were afraid it was all going to disappear in the morning. The weather was gorgeous and there were people swimming, SUPing, rowing, and sunbathing along the banks… It seemed pretty idyllic, no wonder the place was so popular.

The next day, eager to explore, we hired bikes and mapped out an ambitious cycle route to get our bearings. We cycled through towering mountains, past fields of huge waving corn, and into little villages with award-winning vegetable patches, clearly tended to by devoted green-fingered gardeners.

We were having a great time, dilly-dallying and taking in the incredible views – until a brief thunderstorm chased us into a pizzeria (wearing our uber sexy blue plastic ponchos) where we hid out and dried off watching the heavens open while the ‘gorgeous’ weather took a lunch break.

bled map

Ever the keen beans, the next day we unfolded our map once more and hiked around the lake and up to a viewpoint to see the iconic vista from up high. Like I said, we were excited to be able to do stuff outside!

We didn’t find the official viewpoint, getting lost along the way, but we did find an off-piste secret clearing with the same iconic vista (well, near enough, and tourist free!) where we sat down with some chocolate raisins contently.

lake bled high

We needn’t have bothered with snacks really – another great thing about Bled, or rural Slovenia in general, is that there are fruit trees everywhere!

Lucas the Forager, as I should call him, would dash into wild prickly bushes and come out with handfuls of blackberries – which we hoped on first bite weren’t poisonous – and fresh apples that had just fallen from the trees. You’d even find the odd plum and pear, too, if they hadn’t been pecked by the birds.

Talk about getting your five a day…

After our excited burst of outdoor galivanting, we were shattered every evening – but in a good, satisfying way. I don’t think we saw nightfall properly for our first few days, holing ourselves away from dusk with a home cooked dinner and a good book until we passed out.

At one of the hostels, a group of young lads even asked us if we’d been out clubbing and could we recommend some good places. We looked at them as if they’d asked us a question in a foreign language.

bled sunset

One night we ventured out, however, watching the sun set behind the lake. That was pretty special. 

If we hadn’t done enough already, we also managed to walk to and through the Vintgar Gorge, as well as rent a boat and go rowing on the lake, just to tick off more of the ‘must do activities in Bled.’

But, the coolest thing we did – and definitely the most daring – was to paraglide off the side of a mountain at 1500m high. It was a pretty spontaneous decision, and pretty random for a Wednesday morning at 10am, but it was so cool!

We were dropped off at the top of a rocky mountain trail in a battered up old jeep with our two tandem jumpers who we had met just 5 minutes before – and who we were entrusting with our lives. Dramatic, I know.

para drop down

para drop

It was easy to be all excited and confident at the start, but when I saw the drop and actually comprehended what was about to happen, my body flooded with an ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod adrenaline rush.

My tandem man wasn’t particularly forthcoming with instructions either, which did nothing for the nerves, so I had to ask him exactly what I was meant to do in our paragliding partnership and to please go over it a few times, looking down nervously from where we were standing…

‘Run and then don’t sit until I tell you,’ he said.

And then that was it, suddenly his weight was propelling me down the hill and we ran until the ‘kite’ caught the wind and… then we were flying! I think I buggered up the ‘don’t sit too early’ part, oops.

As I was first to fly we were able to spin back around and face the mountain so that I could watch Lucas and his tandem instructor take off, too. They made it look effortless.

The whole flight/glide was about 15 minutes, and you could see all the way to Lake Bled and to the mountains that separated us (Slovenia) from Austria. We were closer than I thought.

paragliding

We did a few sharp twists and turns – I may have shrieked, just a bit – as my previously untalkative tandem man told me about his world championship paragliding wins which did a lot for building my confidence. I wish he’d told me sooner.

After that I was happy to sit there admiring the incredible view until we landed down with a gentle thud to the bum.

On that note, that was how we rounded off Bled! There was more excitement and activities to come.

Our next stop was Bovec, a town the other side of the Triglav National Park, where we’d booked into a campsite, opposite the pebbled beach where Narnia was filmed, to explore the Soča Valley.

If you google images of Soča (pronounced with a ‘ch’) you’ll see why we chose to go there. Its crazy crystal turquoise water and massive mountains were just too good to miss.

We took the bus right over the pass which looked onto the tallest mountain in Slovenia – the eponymous Triglav – as we switched back countlessly, down and round hairpin bends before driving along the river giving us a sneak preview of what we’d come for.

triglav

In the early morning we hitched a ride into town (more successfully than anticipated) to catch the bus up to Isvir Soča, the Soča River source, where we would walk the Soska Pot (Soča Trail) all the way back down to Bovec: a 25km long hike. It was far, but we were confident we’d have bags of time before we needed to get back to camp and, more importantly, get back before night fell.

From the start the views were insane, incredible, breath-taking, awesome – and all the other superlatives you can think of. Real ‘Sound of Music’ views. And yes, I burst into song more than once along the way.

sound of music

The only other time I’d seen such massive mountains was in Sri Lanka and I remember genuinely feeling awe-struck – I think I might have even burst out laughing at the sheer scale of them.

Here, in the Soča Valley, wild flower grassy meadows were shouldered by these huge Julian Alps which seemed snow-capped their rock was so white. The turquoise water running in the river below us looked even more amazing in real life than it did on the Instagram pictures we’d seen, colours I’d never seen before in a river.

It was so clear and so greeny-blue that if you cropped a photo of the banks of white pebbles with the turquoise river, it could be mistaken for the shores of a secluded island in the Philippines – if you swapped pines for palms, too.

so blue

lunch

Optimistically, we’d brought our swim stuff but there was no chance of using them. The water was – no joke – about 2 degrees. It was freezing. That didn’t stop Lucas stripping off and having a very refreshing cool down though. He came out pink!

A toe dip was all I could manage.

The good thing about it being so cold was that when we refilled our bottles at least it was extra chilled. So not only was the river stunning, but it was also great to drink as well as look at. It was what was coming out of the taps at our campsite but drinking it straight from the source was even better.

Many hours later, and a little bambi-legged, we had been spoilt by the beauty of it all and had enjoyed the hike so much that we decided to do it all again – well, part of it. And after a deserved rest day in between.

We were a little crazy, yes.

Picking the best length of the hike, two days later we took the early morning bus back to Trenta to do the stretch down to Soča again – it was too nice not to, just look at the pictures!

soca river

Knowing we weren’t on so much of a time limit – and with about 15km less to do – we took it far more leisurely and were able to stop for scenic breaks much more often. We’d also taken all the photos the first-time round, so it was nice to be able to stop and really look outside the lens.

The whole area was so beautiful and we said we wished we could stay for longer and do it all again, and again, and again.

Plus, we hadn’t even done what people go to Soča and Bovec for, which was the kayaking, rafting, and rock climbing.

Alas we had to return briefly to ‘civilization’ and dust off our laptops for a few days in Bohijnska Bela, a small mountain village outside Bled. But that was ok, because we’d already planned to go back to the National Park for more epic mountain views, where we’d booked into a (very off season) old ski chalet at the top of Vogel cable car.

vogel

At 1535m up, the cable car itself was an experience looking down the sheer drop and onto the lake and huge Julian Alps in front. 

But, as Sod’s law goes, the weather forecast was bleak. Typical: we’d been so lucky for weeks. Rain, fog, thunderstorms… the whole lot was predicted while we were marooned up a mountain. Even a bit of snow!

We weren’t prepared for this inclement weather (or rather I wasn’t and I’m slightly phobic of the cold) having acclimatised to the 25-30 degree heat we were used to.

Arriving at the summit to howling winds and clouds that skated across the sky, brewing a beast of a storm, we seized the short but sweet weather window (optimism is key!) and headed straight out to make the most of it.

Picking the Sija trek, we chose the second to highest peak after Vogel to accomplish at least something before being stuck inside for the next few days.

chair lift

For anyone who has ever been to a ski centre, nearly off-season, at the end of summer before a storm – isn’t it eerie? At least I thought it was. The chair lifts were hanging, empty and unmoving but swaying in the wind, as if abandoned before some apocalypse that we knew nothing about…

Scrambling across the loose pebbly stones, headlong into the gales, we fought our way up against the elements to the top.

And what a view.

triglav vogel

fog top

In front were the huge Julian Alps we’d seen from our time in Soča and from behind you could see the clouds streaming up and over from the valley below. It was really quite something.

We could have stayed up there for hours, taking in the amazing panorama but we surrendered to the weather and retreated when we saw a blanket of grey approaching ominously, happy to settle into our wooden cabin ready to hibernate with home cooked (not by us) goulash and Slovenian sausage.

The only other times we ventured out into the smothering fog – in between the rain- we were accompanied by a herd of goats (seemingly we were the only people up the mountain).

goats

foggy lift

Finally, on our last day, the rain stopped and the fog cleared up (we could see again!) so we took the cable car down and walked around Lake Bohijn where we’d planned to do all manner of fun things like rowing, or SUPing, if we’d had the time… You can’t win them all.

Three fun-filled weeks later, our time in Slovenia had flown by and we’d certainly had a good dose of nature and forest baths, so to speak.

Slovenia is definitely up there on one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. For anyone planning a holiday or trip to Europe – if you get the chance to visit, GO!

The landscape is just stunning; its vast mountains and crazy clear rivers and lakes are so hard to describe even though I’ve tried! And I don’t even think the photos do them justice.

But onwards into our next country where we were swapping Alps for the Adriatic, making our way down the coast into Croatia for a few weeks of island hopping to catch the end of the summer sun in September.

I’m hoping that by the time I write the next post I’ll have that tan back…

la vida iberica

After bidding Asia farewell (not forever) and then spending a few weeks with our respective families and friends back home in June, Lucas and I reconvened and relocated to Europe for the next few months.

To kick off our new route, Lucas met me in London for a few days where I was able to give him a whistle-stop tour of the capital so he could experience a bit of British culture (i.e., drink a cider, eat fish & chips, and ride the Tube) before we flew onto Palma, Mallorca – our first port of call. Pardon the pun.

palma port

palma castle

Mallorca isn’t on your average European gringo trail, so to clarify, we weren’t in Palma to do any intrepid travelling or have any budget backpacker experiences – we were with my family and plus ones for a weeks holiday, sailing around the island. It’s also fair to say that we were eased in very gently, and very comfortably, to our stint in Europe. Thanks, Dad!

I shan’t gloat for too long, but our indulgently lazy days puttering around the island of Mallorca consisted of cala hopping, swimming in the bright blue waters, and paddle boarding in the bays. Interspersed with drinking, eating, and siesta-ing. It was all very continental.

By night we’d play beer pong, or card games sipping Spanish wine and Scottish whisky, before piling into the dingy and going on shore for a typically late Spanish dinner at 10pm.

It was a tough week, as you can tell, and certainly a unique way to experience this beautiful Balearic island. And hats off to Ferg who maneuvered the beast of a boat the whole time – especially during those nail-biting rough swells…

cala 1.jpg

cala 2

After exploring the coastline of Mallorca, luxuriating in idleness, and bonding en famille, it was time to say our goodbyes and Lucas and I set off on shaky sea legs – and about two stone heavier – for the next part of our journey.

We didn’t stray too far though, just into mainland Spain.

We’d been enjoying practicing our Spanish – which improved after a caña or two – and I’d always wanted to go to the Sierra Nevada, so we flew into the Moorish Andalusian city of Granada for a few days to get some work done post-hol, and to see the famous Alhambra, before heading into the vast mountain range for a few days of hiking.

Although we didn’t get to spend too long there, I really liked the vibe in Granada and would have stayed longer. It was different to the charming and polished nautical style of Palma; more authentic and rustic in its southern Spanish culture infused with Moorish history – and a little rougher round the edges in that cool grungy way.

alhambra

Unfortunately we only got to see the outside of the Alhambra – note: book tickets in advance. It was still beautiful from afar.

But, as Lucas is more the mountain guy, and I’d had my fair share of wide open blues in Mallorca, it was time we had a change of scene so our priority was to get up into the Sierra and out of the city.

Four hours by bus south of Granada, we chose a tiny village called Capileira to call home for the next few days; one of the highest mountain villages in the Alpujarra region of the Sierra Nevada.

We’d picked the Alpujarras because it had good hiking routes and we were keen to get some good walks in, then coincidentally Lucas read about local alternative living hippie communes in an EasyJet inflight magazine, which peaked our interest of the area even further.

Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any of said communes but we did see some pretty down-and-out junkies camped out on the streets of Orgiva on our way through…

capileira 2

capileira town

Capileira was a traditional little town of old white houses packed in along narrowed cobbled streets, tiered down the mountain.

It was hard not to fall in love with the place – Capileira was so picturesque and the location was perfect. We stayed in one of the traditional white cottage-style apartments with a stone terrace that looked onto the impressive ridges, where we sat drinking our morning coffees and in the evening €2 wine with local cheese and crusty bread.

The weather was cooler than the city heat of Granada, which was a welcome respite, and we spent hours exploring the surroundings of our little village before tackling the area’s big 18km hike on our last  day.

We rose early to make the most of the cold morning – or as the Spanish say, when it was fresquito – and began our hike: the Sendero Acequias de Poqueria.

It was a beautiful trail through the gorge, we were surrounded by huge mountains on all sides and a fresh water stream ran below as we followed the trail-marked stones and hiker’s cairns under the watchful eyes of circling hawks and mountain goats.

capileira 3

capileira 1

Six hours later and very dusty, but very satisfied, we finished the loop of the gorge and treated ourself to a few cañas and tapas to toast our efforts and the amazing Alpujarras.

We could have spent longer in Capileira – it was so beautiful and so peaceful – and it was great to experience local village life and breathe fresh air, but we were keen to move on so we could fit in a visit to Portugal before we flew to Amsterdam at the beginning of August. Time flies when you’re having fun.

To get to Lisbon we could get a bus from Seville, so we decided to have a quick stopover in the Andalusian capital, home of the famous flamenco dancing.

seville

Despite having literally 48 hours, we could only mooch at a slow and steady pace as the barometer hit a stifling 39degrees. Nevertheless, Seville was certainly one of the most architecturally beautiful cities I’ve been to, and the people were so coiffed and elegant.

We couldn’t leave without watching a flamenco show either, of course, so we bought tickets on our last night for an incredible hour-long performance set in the courtyard of an old building. Seriously, it sent chills down my spine.

It was on that note that we left Spain, and ventured into neighbouring Portugal. I was excited to go back and this time with Lucas as I’d been to Lisbon the year before and loved it – and ask any of my friends, they’re as obsessed as I am.

lisbon

lisbon 3

Again, endless sunshine and blue skies made exploring the city even better. 

By day we found a hipster coffee shop to work in called Hello, Kristoff – whose team uniform seemed to be beanies, skinny jeans, and beards – and after we would make the most of the long evenings and walk around the historic old town, the waterfront, up and down the steep cobbled hills with colourful street-art walls, and take in the views at the miradours overlooking the bay and lookalike Golden Gate Bridge.

We drank cold Portuguese beers and vinho verde, and supped on the speciality, bacalau, as well as Portuguese tapas.

Needless to say, Lisbon enchanted me for a second time and I could see parallels to what drew me to Granada with its cool understated rough-around-the-edges vibe.

After the capital we moved north, up to Porto, the second biggest city, and famous for not much else other than Port, the sweet fortified wine. The place had come recommended so I suggested we go there in the hope that it would be as good as Lisbon!

Firstly, if you think Lisbon is rough-around-the-edges, then go to Porto. But I don’t mean that in a bad way! Lisbon has its hipster ways but Porto is right behind it – just give it a few years…

For instance, you won’t find a Hello, Kristoff, but you will find a retro music shop-come-bar, or an old church converted into a restaurant, and even a craft beer pub run by a grey-whiskered old man.

Another thing that fascinated me about Porto – which I also saw noticed in Lisbon – were the crumbling abandoned townhouses, in their ruinous but romantic ways, calling out to be loved. You could still see their beautiful architecture beneath the peeling paint and boarded up windows.

Lucas can tell you how many times I made him stop and look as I lamented about the state of these wonderful but woebegone buildings, wondering about their history and how and why they were left as they were…

porto 1

porto 3

However, the conventional beauty of Porto, lay down by the river – where you’d also find all the tourists – with Gaia on the otherside of the old steel bridge.

And, like the tourists, we ticked the boxes: did the river thing, crossed the bridge, and drank a glass of Port at the end of it to round off our time in Portugal.

By this point, we’d experienced a fair amount of Iberia; we’d remastered conversational Spanish, nailed the siesta thing, struggled with our non-existent Portuguese but loved the country nonetheless, and finally decided that getting free food when you ordered a beer (aka tapas) was just the best.

But it was time for a culture change and our plans were to head further East, first to Amsterdam for a week in an Airbnb with a cat called Wallie, before a quick stop in Hamburg, a festival in Budapest, then on into Slovenia and the Balkans.

It’s all go – and as I said, time flies…

Oh, and in all the miles we’ve travelled in Europe so far, not once have we had to show our passports or go through immigration! The joy of travelling in the Schengen.

memories of myanmar

Back in May, Lucas and I spent three weeks in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. Piecing it all together all these months later, I am reminded again why I loved it so much.

Myanmar was so different from anywhere else I’d been in South East Asia; not yet tainted by crazy tourism and over-westernisation. But much more authentic, with fascinating customs and traditions still much a part of everyday life.

The way of the Burmese people was something else and their kindness, eagerness, warmth, and generosity knew no bounds. No matter where we were; the busy city, ancient UNESCO town, rural mountain village, or lakeside, there was always an unspoken but unmistakable community feel.

We’d often see courtesy water containers left on the side of the street with communal cups for anyone and everyone to use (it was best not to dwell on the hygiene), and if you stopped at a local restaurant there would be pots of green tea on the tables, free to drink. Apparently, it was offensive to refuse a cup if anyone offered.

Another image I’ll never forget is that, despite the simplicity and poverty of the Burmese people’s lives, the locals always looked so turned out.

tanaka

The women would be dressed in fitted blouses with beautiful patterned wrap-round skirts, decorated with nothing but creamy tanaka paste, squared across their cheeks and foreheads.

They believed tanaka to have many beautifying properties which is why it was applied liberally. Even boys would indulge every so often, dabbing at a rogue spot or two.

The men also rocked the ‘smart casual’ look with their rolled up shirt sleeves and traditional floor-length longhis – but their elegance was slightly offset by their blood red mouths, stained by the addictive betel they chewed.

yangon neighbours

But back to May. We started off our Myanmar travels in Yangon where we stayed in a skinny townhouse, 7 floors up, near the city centre. You can see it was hard not to indulge in a bit of voyeurism.

One of the first things we did was visit the huge golden Shwedagon Pagoda, dating back over 2600 years; one of the country’s most famous religious buildings, by all accounts.

In the hazy sun of the late morning, even as we approached it from afar you could see the pagoda’s 362 feet of (real!) gold like a beacon of light. Up close you could barely look at it.

Inside, the whole complex was dazzling, from the white marble floor, to the painted buddhas, not to mention the mini pagodas and shrines all around adorned with gold bells, diamonds, and other jazzy gems.

It was quite a sight.

We lasted all of fifteen minutes before searing our eyes to near blindness – but at least we were able to take some good photos.

swegadon.jpg

In search of some exotic ‘street food,’ that evening we went to Yangon’s so-called Chinatown to dine in the night market.

It was bustling with people, music, lights, and open-fronted eateries with plastic chairs and tables spilling onto the street and we feasted on countless delicious meaty sticks of (debatable) chicken heart, pig ears, spicy beef, and pork belly….

As an appetiser Lucas ate a whole bag of crickets, too, from a man wheeling a cart down the street. He didn’t need any encouragement to finish them all. I didn’t have the balls to try one…

crickets

The next day we decided to buy tickets (each at £0.40) for a three-hour round trip to see the city suburban sights on the Yangon Circular train.

Once you had your forty pence ticket you were effectively one of the locals and it was up to you to sit, stand, hover, or hang out the window for the duration of your journey.

Little did we know that the trains in Myanmar were notoriously slow – so slow that many people actually advise against using them – and the one we were on was no exception.

But speed aside, it was worth it – and quite the experience, not to mention the ultimate opportunity for indulgent people watching (I am not shy of a good stare).

What I also realised in those three hours was that the people of Myanmar are some of the most vocally expressive I have ever come across. They would raise the decibels of their voices as if they were running scales before an opera. Each following word was at least an octave higher or louder than the one before it. And those having the conversation would usually only be sat two feet away from each other.

There was certainly never a quiet moment throughout the journey.

Alongside Lucas and I were women on their way to the Sunday market with their ‘goods,’ selling everything from wooden side tables to hot steaming curries, and there was one guy roaming the carriages selling fresh ears of corn.

The route took us out of the city and through smaller suburban villages made up of simple shacks right on the railway, next to sad piles of rubbish heaped everywhere – and right on their doorstep. It really was an eye opener into the poverty of the country. Yet the children we saw seemed so content and innocent, happily playing with sticks in the mud with their friends.

train

train2

Although not the most conventional of experiences, it was a great insight into local life and the whole three-hour experience (averaging a speed of no more than 10km an hour) felt like a National Geographic documentary.

After the excitement of the city, our next planned stop was Bagan. I naively had assumed that getting from A to B in Myanmar would be much like our Sulawesi experience (ie: a challenge) and organising travel would be a torment of teeth pulling and misunderstandings.

Namely, I was recalling the frustration on Lucas’ birthday; irritably negotiating with the locals in the bus station.

But here it was so easy, you just had to go up to the desk at your hostel and they would make a call on their mobile and within five minutes you’d have two £3 tickets on a VIP air con bus for a 10-hour journey. It was that easy – and the ride was pretty luxurious.

Arriving the next day in dry and dusty Bagan was a total climate change from Yangon. I could feel an oncoming nosebleed as soon as I got off the bus. It was super arid and felt much like it would standing in an oven.

Note: for those planning on going to Bagan, get used to showering 2-3 times a day and bring a good book as you’ll want to hide out in the comfort of your airconditioned room for a decent part of the day.

We learnt quickly that if you wanted to do anything – mainly temple hop – you had to head out early morning or later in the evening otherwise you’d wilt in a heap on the side of the steaming tarmac.

So, adhering to the laws of the land, Lucas and I hired some bicycles and with a crumpled A4 paper map of Old Bagan went exploring the ancient temples that the UNESCO Heritage Site is so famous for. Apparently, there are 2,200, says Wikipedia.

Needless to say we got lost (not naming names) and by no means did/could we even try to see them all.

biking

sunset bagan

The highlight was watching the sun set behind the silhouettes of temples in the hazy heat of dusk.

We took a break from the bikes one day to rest our saddle sores (it was easy to rack up over 45k of cycling in a day alone) and left Bagan to visit Mount Popa, an extinct volcano with a precariously balanced temple atop its mound, for a change of scene.

The views both of this incredible feat of engineering and architecture and from it, the neighbouring valleys and Irrawaddy River, were equally as impressive, but the most entertaining thing about the place were the hordes of monkeys who about outnumbered the tourists.

Claiming their territory, they lay lazily but menacingly across the temple steps, nibbling at stolen half-empty crisp packets and cans of Mirinda from the rubbish.

mount popa

monkeys

After five days in Bagan and god knows how many bike rides and temples (it gets to a point when you think ‘seen one temple, seen them all’), we set off for the cooler climes of Lake Inle at the end of another typical journey of 7+hours by bus.

Our drive from Bagan to Lake Inle reminded me of the road to Pai in Thailand, as we drove up and around the mountains of Kalaw, holding onto our seats as we were flung from side to side as the driver navigated the sharp hair pin bends at speed. But we made it to Lake Inle with no nausea to report, and just in time for a refreshing thunderstorm which shook the windows and thrashed rain against the tin roof of our new room.

I say refreshing; we hadn’t seen rain in months so it felt quite the novel experience, not to mention the temperature dropped a good 5 degrees so that it felt (dare I say it) cold.

Lake Inle, we discovered, was much like Bagan when it came to transportation: the way to get about was to cycle. So the next day we rented some more bikes to explore the area and taking our two wheels up to the local vineyard to watch the sunset. Who knew Myanmar was a wine producer?

We ended up sharing a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc (which actually wasn’t that bad and at £1.12 a glass who could complain) and a table with a Canadian travel blogger and a Welshman who lived near my grandparents in Abergavenny. Such a small world.

We spent the rest of the night bonding over travel tales, along with our impressions of the local wine, and we found out the pair had also been on the cooking course we planned to do the following night.

They promised us we weren’t to be disappointed and advised us to arrive with empty bellies.

Nursing slightly sore heads the next day, we lay low and waited with rumbling stomachs for our Burmese cooking course at Bamboo Delight, later that afternoon.

Sue and Lesley, the owners, couldn’t have fed us better and we cooked up some of the best hangover cures ever.

bamboo delight

The space was simple with tables of makeshift cookers (coal-filled wooden buckets) and fresh ingredients bought that morning from the market.

Recipe-wise, it wasn’t that complicated. The hardest thing was choosing what to make.

We – us and 3 Brits – ended up with a feast to share with everything from spicy river fish curry and spring onion rice dumplings, to banana flower salad and chicken and lemongrass coconut curry.

There was so much we even boxed up what was left and took it for our lunch the next day. Waste not, want not.

Although we were in Lake Inle, we hadn’t actually seen the lake yet so anticipating the boat trip we’d booked for the next day, we cycled to a tiny village on the west side of the lake and found a local man who took us on his longboat across to the other side – with our bikes! – to get a glimpse of the water.

bikes boat

On our real boat tour, we were met by an enthusiastic guide called – or pronounced – Ee Ee, a bright eyed 19 year old who lived in one of the stilted villages on the lake. She wanted to be a tour guide so badly that, although she lived three hours south of where we were, and even though she had had to travel up the night before to meet us at 8am, she said it was worth it for all the practice she would get on these smaller ‘tourist’ boat tours.

I respected her enthusiasm and was keen to help her practice her English. You had to take your hat off to her – not many young Brits her age would be that driven…

We travelled up, down, and across the lake, admiring the fishermen using their ancient traditional techniques – very successfully, may I add – and puttered through villages and floating gardens of hyacinths and tomatoes, meeting the local people and drinking green tea at every available opportunity.

lake inle 1

lake inle 3

After four serene hours on the water and very burnt shoulders – alas even after months in Asia my fair Scottish skin was still susceptible to singeing – we called it a day and waved goodbye to our wonderful guide and packed up for our next adventure: a three-day trek across the mountains of Kalaw.

In hindsight, we planned this the wrong way round as we had to leave Lake Inle, only to hike back to it after 3 days of trekking through the surrounding mountains and valleys. But hey ho, that’s what you get for doing zero research.

We decided to brave the train again – knowing full well it could take twice as long – but we thought we’d get some good views, and if anything it could prove for a good anecdote.

We arrived at the local train station with half an hour to spare – ever the keen and punctual travellers – and were told by the only other 2 foreign people that they had been waiting since 8am for their train which had been cancelled without them knowing why and that our train was also delayed but by how long, no one knew.

An hour plus later, the train mercifully came chugging in and we piled into upper-class (which cost £0.67 a ticket and bought you a cushioned seat and not a wooden bench) and got settled in by the window. Credit where credit is due, the carriages were quite roomy and the seats very comfortable.

Twenty minutes later, we still hadn’t left the station due to some technical faults and we sat listening to the metallic screeches of plyers and hammers working at the underside of our carriage…

We didn’t want to jump to any conclusions but it didn’t seem like a good sign. And certainly didn’t sound it either.

We abruptly jolted to a start and crawled – literally, a crippled dog could have moved quicker than we did – about 30m down the track before shuddering to a stop and then jerking backwards, retracing our crawl all the way back to the station where some more banging of the mechanics ensued.

Bemused, we wondered if we would ever end up in Kalaw, quietly calculating how much it would cost if we were to get a taxi there instead and at least be guaranteed to arrive. But no one else in the carriage seemed too perturbed, especially not the Burmese. Clearly this happened all the time…

To cut a very slow story short (Lucas even wondered aloud, ‘do you think this is the slowest train in the world?) we puttered down the track for four hours at 10km an hour – breakneck speed – and arrived in Kalaw in time to check in with our hiking guide for the next day and enjoy a cold beer in town.

The journey was worth it though and we soon forgot about the locomotive drama the day before as we set off into the beautiful hills straight after breakfast with our congenial guide, Hein (pronounced ‘Hey’ with an n at the end): a young twentysomething guy, born and bred in Kalaw. He couldn’t have been nicer or more open and honest, and we had some great chats as he answered my one and every question about life as a young person in Myanmar, the popular culture, and dating scene. (Some things you don’t read about in the guidebooks.)

Hein’s obsession with romantic Bollywood films and Indian women will be something I’ll never forget. He even had the hand movements and lyrics down to a t.

Our 3 day, two night hike would take us from Kalaw and down into the valleys ending up at the lake in Inle itself. Hein had managed our expectations very wisely the day before: day 1 we’d be hiking around 21km, day 2 about 25km, and day 3 about 16km, stopping at viewpoints, resting and recharging with cooked local lunches, and refreshing on plenty of green tea along the way before arriving at the homestays for the evening.

kalaw day 1

kalaw day 12

The first day consisted of a lovely green hike along rice paddies and a railway line, as well as a jungle forest. I even managed to find a leech stuck to my ankle within the first half hour. I suppose it wouldn’t be a jungle trek without one and it made me nostalgic for our selvatic explorations in Borneo.

For lunch, we stopped off at a lovely local hilltop ‘caf’ whose patron had a very affectionate bald little baby who I don’t think had seen many foreign people. She was all dribbles and grins and wanted to touch everything we had. It was probably the only baby that has ever warmed to me, not being much of the maternal type.

After Hein expertly rustled up a spicy Shan style chicken noodle soup with lots of exotic fresh fruit, we sped off extremely full, excited to see our homestay.

Lucas and I have quite a pace when we walk – we had been told this before by our guide at Mount Kinabalu and when we outpaced our group to the top of the Pinnacles. Poor Hein had to make excuses for us as we arrived at our homestay much too early and took the girls by surprise, sending them into the house in a flurry of activity, abandoning their work, to make our beds and set out our space for the night.

Hein had told us the homestays we would be staying with were true local Burmese families, who let trekkers stay in their home for free, in exchange for the trek chef cooking their breakfasts and dinners.

As every member of the family works from the crack of dawn to dusk at backbreaking work, not having to cook a meal at the end of a long day, or at the beginning of the next – let alone pay for it – could be seen as very much of a good deal.

Our homestay consisted of a one-room bungalow, an outdoor kitchen in a separate thatched hut, two outdoor hut toilets (beside the pigs), and an area of pegged tarp around a well of water with a bucket, which was the shower.

 

pigs

It was simple but it had everything you needed and just made you realise how lucky we were to have more – and did we need it?

All the land around their house was being farmed with mustard plants which the girls had been tirelessly dividing into little bags of soil for hours, then planting seed by seed into each one, lining them up meticulously in the front plot.

The little village and their house was the epitome of ‘rural:’ we even watched a huge black water buffalo walk right through their garden on a leash, with a farmer at the end of it. The scene was so in keeping with where we were that it was like watching someone cross the street walking a dog.

Lucas and I were staying in the family’s house, a very simple bungalow with a raised ledge to sleep on and a shrine in middle of the longest wall, with one light in the whole space.

Control of the light and the biggest ‘room’ was allocated to us, which was overwhelmingly generous as this family of five (all adults bar one young boy) squashed into the adjacent ‘room,’ which was merely the rest of the bungalow behind a partition and a scarf forming a makeshift door, who slept on a mattress on the floor.

homestay

The fact that they had sacrificed their space and their room for us was just another show of the hospitality of the Burmese.

Unfortunately, we were unable to fully express our gratitude in so many words, but I hope Hein was able to convey it for us.

The next day, we woke at 6am to set off  with 25km to go, heading to our second homestay a few mountains and valleys away….

The landscape on the second day was different to the first: we’d emerged out of the jungles and forests and into open wide farmland, with rolling hills and box hedges, much like a country scene in the UK.

It was surreal to be somewhere so familiar, but so different – it wasn’t the landscape I’d expected!

kalaw day 2

kalaw day 21

A local old woman showing us how to weave traditional Shan scarves.

Because we’d marched ahead so fast on day one, Hein told us we’d have a mandatory  2.5-hour lunch break so that we could a) nap and b) not finish as quickly yesterday. So after a lunch of steaming vegetable noodles, we happily lay down on the floor of an unused house on some straw mats for some well deserved shut-eye, before setting off through valleys of tall karst ridges and cliffs, getting in at the homestay at a slightly more acceptable time.

This homestay was a bit bigger than the last, and we didn’t have to turf the family out of their own bedroom, thankfully. Their livelihood also didn’t seem to be farming mustard seeds. We soon learnt what it was, after the family’s sons arrived half an hour later from their labour in the fields, with a truck full of potatoes which were brought in by the sack load.

By the looks of how strong they were, it seemed gruellingly hard work. And we thought the 25km we’d walked to get there that day was hard…

Needless to say, we dined like kings again and practically fell asleep in our plates at 7.30pm, barely able to keep our eyes open and function after nearly 50km of walking in 36 hours.

On the third and final day there was (only!) 16km left to reach Lake Inle – hurrah! – and we arrived back in time for lunch. I was knackered but overwhelmed with appreciation for the wonderful country we’d been able to explore more intimately and the people we’d been able to meet. Not to mention overwhelmed at the distance we’d walked in 35 degree heat. But the trekking had been great, shout out to Hein.

Because we’d already been in Inle for a week, we had pretty much seen and done everything we had set out to see and do, so we left the next day on a 12 hours bus back down to Yangon to splurge in a ‘fancy’ hotel with a pool, where the plan was to chill out and recoup (and not have a bucket shower) for our last 2 days in Myanmar before Lucas flew back to the US and I flew to Sri Lanka.

I remember even at the time thinking how quickly our visit to Myanmar seemed to have gone – and looking back over the three weeks, we did loads so it’s no wonder it flew by!

I can safely say that Myanmar is one of my favourite Asian countries and I’m so glad we went there before it got crazy commercialised and mega touristy. The beautiful culture and landscape has certainly made an indelible impression in my mind, but most of all I’ll remember the amazing people.

Writing all this makes me want to go back again so badly…

 

 

the land of smiles

Coming back to Thailand has been a lot of fun; confident in knowing the lay of the land, experiencing it through different eyes – more open since my first visit – and also with Lucas who had also already been to Thailand before, a few years ago.

We both had places we wanted to revisit and to show each other around from fond memory so we had plenty planned in for a 30 day visa.

We started our Thailand travels in Chiang Mai where Lucas had already been for a week, while I was being a miserable bastard in Sydney. It was good to be back (and in a private room with no bunkbeds, or 7 other people!) and we spent the first night earning ourselves a decidedly savage Changover for the next day – a brilliant word I can’t claim as my own.

We had booked to go up to Pai straight away, one of my favourite places from before, so I couldn’t wait. My mum wasn’t surprised at my wanting to return, asking, ‘is this party Pai?’ and whether I would end up getting a tattoo again…

Piled into a shared mini van, we sped off for 3 hours up the country and into the mountains, around hairpin bends and climbing 45degree inclines, all the while trying to find an unmoving horizon to control the waves of nausea from the previous night’s beer binge.

I hadn’t fully appreciated the effect of the change in season, it being 6 months later. Gone was all the green (I had a memory of lush verdant views) replaced instead with almost autumnal colours of reds and browns on stick-like, on-the-verge-of-dying trees, and gone was the humidity. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were hit with a wall of dry air, so dry it felt as if someone were blowing a hairdryer behind my face. (This would later lead to spontaneous nosebleeds at rather inopportune moments…)

pai canyon

buddha

But despite the sweltering heat and haze, I was adamant we would enjoy Pai. We climbed 353 steps up to a massive white Buddha on the mountain, we scooted to a waterfall (ok it was more like a stagnant pond), and we went to the dystopian-like canyon for sunset with its surreal landscape of tree skeletons, charred earth, and burning embers. Striking nonetheless.

I managed to resist getting another tattoo and we hadn’t really had the opportunity to indulge in ‘party Pai.’ Until….

One night after a particularly lethargic day struggling with the 40-degree heat, we shuffled into town for a ‘quiet night’ aka just a couple of beers. (Isn’t that how it always starts?)

Next thing we know we’re bundled into the back of a taxi-jeep with 8 other farang on our way to a ‘jungle rave’ called Therapy, playing ‘deep house and dark progressive psytrance’ – whatever that was. The barman should have got a commission on our tickets; he was very convincing, and he promised to meet up with us later to give us some glitter. We’d drank more than ‘just a couple’ beers so it didn’t take much to push us over the edge, and we nodded at each other and said ‘fuck it, sounds fun.’

Slight false advertisement in the ‘jungle’ part (there was sparse living vegetation remember) so it was more of a dusty field, but even so, the ‘rave’ vibe was unmistakably there with hypnotic lasers, strobes, neon lights, and glowing bonfires. It felt like a small festival and I was in my element.

We’d made some new friends from Minnesota on the journey, so Lucas was happy to have fellow countrymen to chew the fat with – I’m sure he was desperate for a break from my British colloquialisms – while I was dancing with my eyes closed like all the other loons around me, thrilled with how this spontaneous night was turning out.

To censor the story short (you never know who’s reading) we were still awake as people were eating breakfast the next morning, head to toe in dust, and rather worse for wear. It had been an epic night/morning and an experience that definitely lived up to ‘party Pai’s’ infamy.

pai hike

Redeeming ourselves (once we’d slept for 14hours) we decided we ought to sweat out the bad stuff and do the Mae Yen Waterfall Trek. Already a 30minute walk from our guesthouse, we set out with a backpack and two waters, our trainers on, and swimsuits packed for the refreshing waterfall at the end. I was praying there actually would be water as the ‘river’ we were supposed to be following along the way resembled more of a dribble.

Lucas had read that it would take around 2.5 hours there and the same back again, which was confirmed by someone else, scoffing in our faces at our stupidity setting off into the hottest part of the day. But hey, we love a challenge – gluttons for punishment, right?

We were already drenched in sweat by the time we actually started the trail into the barren jungle of dead trees and smoldering bark. (We had had to log our names in case there was a forest fire so the locals would know how many people to go back in for….)

I’d taken 2 bananas from the breakfast buffet for our ‘elevensies’ which were warm and liquid-like within minutes and that was all our food for the potential 6 hours we’d be out in nature’s oven. Not anticipating how tough the heat would be either, we greedily gulped down our water, forgetting to consider whether we’d have enough for the way back. Which, surprise surprise, we didn’t.

After an arduous, but somewhat meditative, trek for the whole 2.5 hours we made it to the waterfall and thank god there was water – and it was wonderful. There were only a few other hikers there, as crazy as we were, and we sat silently in the fresh pools sifting gold glinting sand through our fingers and soothing our burning skin, savouring the moment while trying to find some energy reserves before having to turn back around and do it all over again.

Thankfully going back felt shorter, probably because my slow and steady pace had turned into more of a quick and determined march, desperate to quench my insatiable thirst, made no more bearable due to the river which taunted us cruelly all the way.

We didn’t die of dehydration, obviously, and we left to go down to Bangkok for Songkran (Thai New Year) the following day.

Songkran fell over three days on 13th April so, as the biggest annual celebration in Thailand, everyone was in the party spirit. The festivities nowadays involve water fights in the street; everyone armed with a water pistol at all times and buckets (that are usually filled with alcohol) filled with water, thrown at passers-by. Lucas had been there for it two years ago so it was his turn to share the experience.

While we relaxed during the day (we managed to sneak into a posh hotel’s rooftop pool for free) by night we were out firing our XXL water gun, dodging squirts and hoses, and getting in the Songkran spirit – even finding the local mini Khao San Road slash red light district down a place called Cowboy Street, of all names.

cowboy st

rooftop

To balance out the damp debauchery, we also went unashamedly upmarket to enjoy some uber fancy rooftop bars, escaping the chaos 39 floors below, sipping wine and whisky, overlooking the hazy urban skyline. We didn’t blend in very well though, still dressed like backpackers in our crumpled t-shirts and shorts.

Our next stop after the capital was the Thai islands, which I had never been to. On our way down we stayed at the beautiful Railay, on the Krabi coast, where we would set off south from there. Spending just a day in Railay with Lucas, we befriended the Rasta barmen of the aptly named Why Not bar, a motto they also upheld openly in their recreational habits, and lazed about on the beach admiring the iconic scenery of limestone cliffs and greens seas, bookended by wooden longboats.

railay

I’d booked to go on a mini yoga retreat for the following few days, on a small island nearby called Koh Yao Noi – which in a nutshell was amazing. Not having practiced for 6 months, however, I was stiff as an old dog and nearly fell asleep in savasana at the end of my first class, which technically you’re not supposed to do.

Diligently, I followed a schedule of morning meditations, countless hours of  sweaty yoga, sunrise tai chi (just the once), and I even fit in some island hopping with a local fisherman called Pong – ‘like ping pong,’ he said – one of the smiliest and friendliest Thais I have ever met. He was also learning English and proudly showed me the phonetic scribbles in his notebook as we spoke about the correct usage of ‘decoration,’ of all words.

pong

After an intense but invigorating 4 days I left feeling re-balanced and re-energised, pumped full of endorphins as if on a high, and went to Phi Phi Island to meet back up with Lucas.

Ironically, you could say it was a fitting onward destination to undo the hard work and detox of my previous few days, as Phi Phi is much akin to Gili T: a tanked up tropical island, a hive of boozy tourists.

We stayed in a ‘boathouse,’ opposite a tattoo shop, right on the shore, down from the clubs and bars that were open from 9pm-3am every night. Adamant we’d go ‘out out’ on our first evening, we set into the garish lights and ear-throbbing music, surrendering to our environment, aided by buckets of vodka lemonade. When in Rome, as they say…

I’d laughed at a comment Lucas had made earlier, saying, ‘if it’s too loud, it means you’re too old.’ And despite the buckets, it rang true, or at least we felt it did, so we retreated from the neon painted people at the beach and found a karaoke-style bar instead where we were happy feeling more our age, belting out classics from Bon Jovi to Britney Spears.

When we finally straggled home we watched a woman drinking beer get a tattoo on her hip at 4am in the tattoo shop opposite our place. I would have loved to know what she got, or if she had any recollection of getting it done when she sobered up.

We enjoyed a few more days on Phi Phi, relaxing by the pool, renting a two-man kayak to explore the bay, and watching amazing sunsets outside our ‘boathouse,’ before heading to our final island in the Andaman Sea, Koh Lanta. I’d been excited to go for ages, hearing people rave about it, saying that it wasn’t like the other islands, so I had high hopes.

FullSizeRender

Staying at Klong Nin Beach – one of many beaches on the island – Koh Lanta couldn’t be more different to Phi Phi; we had a kilometre of sand to ourselves (or that’s what it felt like) and there wasn’t a flame thrower or loud-speaker in sight come nightfall.

The general vibe in Koh Lanta was super chill, for instance, our local was a laid-back Rasta Reggae Bar and Mong Bar*, down the road, had its own resident duck. By day you could lose yourself in the endless views of the ocean stretching out as far as the eye could see, save for a few hazy islands and passings ships on the horizon, and it felt much more isolated and secluded than it actually was. I understood why everyone loved it so much.

*Actually, Mong Bar deserves another anecdote. If you were brave enough to close your eyes, put your palm flat on the bar with your fingers spread wide, and let the barman stab a meat cleaver hurriedly between your digits without touching them (or cutting your finger off), you’d get a free drink. We saw one man offer up a shaky hand just to get a Chang ‘on the house.’ Thankfully the barman didn’t cock up.

island hopping

A highlight of Koh Lanta was an Island Hopping trip we did with a speedboat full of ‘white’ people, all in various shades of burn to brown, reflecting their efficacy (or lack of) at sun cream application. We spent the day exploring the neighbouring islands, snorkelling, indulging in a lazy 2 hour picnic on the beach under the shade of palm trees, and lastly swimming through the Emerald Cave.

Without really understanding what this Emerald Cave would entail – other than dodging the jellyfish drifting carelessly close to our boat (Lucas missed it by an inch) – we were asked nonchalantly whether we’d want lifejackets or not. We said no.

Then to our amusement, boatloads of Chinese tourists emptied into the water, seemingly by the hundreds. I curse myself for not having taken a photo of what we saw next.

A sinewy stronger-than-he-looked Thai held onto a solid life float, pulling a never-ending buoyant line of luminosity (over 30 Chinese tourists, strapped desperately into bright yellow lifejackets) through the water and into the depths of the cave, where more buoyant lines of luminosity had gone through just moments before. All you could hear, once you lost sight of them, was the splashing of water and thrilled (or terrified, we didn’t yet know) screeches.

In hindsight, a lifejacket might have been a good idea – even if we looked as foolish as the Chinese tourists did. In our case, lifejacketless, it was every man/woman for themselves. We had to swim 80m into a darkned cave, through swelling waves which pulled you back and forth as they crashed into the rocks around you, while your legs and arms fought for water among the other hundred submerged limbs. Gotta love Asian health and safety.

There was the threat of potential hysteria, without a doubt, and instinctively I wanted to get out of the cave and through to the other side as quickly as possible. (I think I actually forget to enjoy the ’emerald’ part of it, the sunlight shining through into the green water).

But emerging breathlessly into a pocket of bright green jungle with a tiny sunlit beach, it was at least worth the mild panic. And it was definitely worth seeing the swimming lines of luminous lifejackets to get there – that image won’t leave me for a very long time.

Alas, our time in Koh Lanta was too short, and our weeks in Thailand had flown by. But as with most things, it’s good to leave on a high. Plus Lucas’ 30 days of free visa were up so we had to be out of the country.

Excited for a new destination, and a fresh stamp in the passport, we set off for its neighbour, Myanmar, and with no real plan other than having Google Mapped a rough itinerary on our 6-hour layover to Yangon, we’re making it up as we go along.

More about Myanmar next time.

the immigration game

Looking back, the past month and a half has been an absolute whirlwind. In a nutshell, I’ve gone through three international passport controls – Indonesia, Australia, and Thailand – not to mention countless domestic bus, plane and ferry terminals too, racking up god knows how many carbon footprints and collecting enough ticket stubs to kindle a small fire. 

To recap from the last blog post, when we were back in Malaysia, our next stop was to be Indonesia. More precisely: Sulawesi.

‘Where?’

Exactly. That’s what I said.

Turns out, not many people know about Sulawesi – including backpackers. It wasn’t until Lucas showed me on a map, keen to go, that I had any idea a place with that name existed, or that it was in Indonesia…

Exploring such an unfamiliar and untrodden territory was both a blessing and a curse, and we threw ourselves into the (shallowest) deep end by flying into Makassar, Sulawesi’s capital, to get our bearings. 

We were welcomed back to Indonesia (both our second time) in clouds of clove smelling cigarettes, followed by curious wide-eyed stares and enthusiastic heckling by those intrigued by our otherness. We were quick to realise that Westerners were about as uncommon to see as flying pigs.

As big Asian cities go, Makassar was nothing to write home about; it was just another busy and noisy capital with not much on offer apart from places to eat, drink, and work. However, our plan was to base ourselves there while we set about planning ‘things to do’ for our 2 weeks in Sulawesi.

But planning these ‘things to do’ was a challenge in itself.

No one – or barely anyone – spoke English, so basic communication was a struggle; hurdle number one. 

Hurdle number two: there was hardly any information on the internet either to help us figure our shit out. 

It became apparent that Sulawesi was a relatively untraveled country – and safe to say far removed from the average backpacker’s radar – which meant there were barely any blogs or forums with tips on how to get around or where best to go on this huge Indonesian island. 

It didn’t take long before we began to feel frustrated and inept as travellers, while caged in the capital. 

Craving a change of scene ASAP, there was even more reason to get out of the city with Lucas’ birthday at the weekend. I was adamant that we were not going to be celebrating it in Makassar’s flamboyantly pink, conference-style Fave Hotel where we had been staying up til then. We could do better than that.

bara beach

I had seen photos of a beach in a place called Bira (a mere six hours east of Makassar) so I went on a Google frenzy to evacuate us from the capital, pronto.

In my haste and desperation, I accidentally (yes, accidentally) reserved a non-refundable beach hut on Bara Beach, in Bira, a quiet but beautiful sandy strip of coastline on the other side of South Sulawesi. So that was that – we would leave the capital for five days, in search of the Indonesia we’d been hoping for. 

Fingers crossed it would get better.

When I arrived with the birthday boy at the local bus terminal to get the coach to Bira, a shitstorm of chaos ensued.

It seemed that two white travellers asking for bus tickets to go as far as Bira was not the norm and we became prime targets, swarmed by touting drivers offering private rides galore. The one thing I had managed to read on a blog post was NOT to take a private ride to Bira, so I was instantly on the defense. 

Within seconds I was in my ‘don’t give me your shit’ zone, big time – probably embarrassingly so – refusing to be mugged off and scammed by opportunistic taxi drivers.

As we stood out in the sun, sweating with our backpacks on, overwhelmed and totally at a loss with the inability to communicate, the situation becoming increasingly more stressful, I was wondering ‘is Bira bloody worth it?’ Guilty that all this was happening on Lucas’ birthday… (but one to remember, surely?)

After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, bargaining and promising, we agreed on a fixed price in a shared car and off we went – trusting our driver, ignoring the blog post, and trying to chill out and hope for the best. There was no way they were going to sell us a ticket for the bus anyway, so it was the only way we’d get there.

Six hours later, we made it, and at first sight it already seemed to be bloody worth it. I was practically horizontal with relief that I hadn’t cocked everything up by sending us on a wild goose chase across the island at the last minute.

Bara Beach turned out to be everything I’d  hoped for – it had sunsets, pure white sand, turquoise water, and hardly anyone else around. It was dreamy. We happily spent the next five days swinging lazily in our hammock on the balcony of our little beach hut, playing frisbee in the sea, and walking along the wide empty stretches of beach in our new paradise, away from the city. 

hammock view

bira sunset

cats

We also spent many a merry evening at Cosmos, next door, where we befriended a nice Dutch couple and fell in love with a family of baby kittens.

Bar a few intense paparazzi-inclined Indos who had a habit of shoving their iPhone 6s in our face taking selfies and videos of us (as I said being white is a big thing there) we kept ourselves to ourselves and were able to enjoy Sulawesi properly for the first time since arriving.

After some R&R we reluctantly headed back to Makassar, begrudgingly swapping our beach hut for the flamboyantly pink Fave Hotel once again. Almost immediately, back in the mayhem, deafening calls to prayer searing our senses, Lucas turned to me and said ‘I think I’m done with Sulawesi, I’m ready to go to Bali now’. To which I replied, without even needing to think, ‘me, too.’

So that was our brief stint in Sulawesi. I’m sure the country has so much more to give, and is definitely one for the ambitious traveller, but strapped for time and strapped for patience, Bali’s comforting westernisation was calling a little too strongly. 

For anyone who’s spoken to me about Bali, you’ll know it’s not my favourite place (I won’t go on another rant about why) but for the sake of some home comforts, affordable luxury, and avocado-based meals, I was willing to give it another go. Also, I kind of had to as my (twice postponed) flight to Sydney left from Denpasar a few weeks later, so it was time to go back regardless – unless I was going to postpone it a third time. Which was tempting…

canggu pool

We stayed in Canggu first, the hipster/surfer hotspot, where nothing much had changed from before (rife with arrogance and ego, tattoos, tans, and beautiful bodies.) But in fairness we did stay in a beaut hotel overlooking the rice terraces, with a pool, and resident cat.

The majority of our days there were spent eating tofu and avocado variations while pikeying wifi in cafes packed full of resident ‘DN’s clacking away at keyboards. The nights we spent drinking and dining off even more fancy menus, truly making the most of these novel ingredients and western amenities.

Once we had exhausted Canggu’s restaurants, and a lot of our money, we booked ferry tickets to head to the Gilis to get back in touch with the ‘real’ Asia and cut our spending by half. We decided to stay a night in Gili T – the wilder of the three Gilis – with a reputation for drinks, drugs and debauchery. Having come from the quieter bar and cafe culture of Canggu, it was both a welcome and warisome adventure.

Gili T was reminiscent of any party town abroad where the sun is out: imagine a scene of extremely sunburnt, half naked people in their late teens to early twenties, in all states of disarray, who have been drinking since midday – some already completely shitfaced, hugging their knees in the sand trying not to be sick on themselves. 

It evoked a Magaluf-meets-Festival vibe, with a mixture of hippies and hotpants, dreadlocks and diamantés. Perhaps it’s needless to say, but if I were to generalise, I would say the majority of people there were Brits.

But hey, I was too, so god knows what people thought of me.

We tried to get into the Gili T party spirit, we really did. We even had some interesting commercial propositions involving some oregano-looking marijuana and soggy shrooms from the local lads. But having gone for a candle-lit dinner on the beach (there are some nicer areas, I suppose) we decided to call it a night after the Bintangs failed to boost morale.

gili meno

The next day we took a short ferry over to Gili Meno, literally across the water, where we would spend the next four days. Gili Meno was the complete opposite of Gili T – it was secluded, quiet – we practically had the beaches to ourselves – and there were no drunken dickheads. The island was so small you could walk it in a day (which we did) and the water was crazy clear with some of the best snorkelling ever. 

We spent about three hours in the water, one day, swimming with turtles, surrounded by shoals of glittering rainbow fish, and looking for sharks in the depths, being tossed and turned in the rolling currents all the way round the island. I say ‘we’, some other members of our snorkelling group did otherwise. Namely a super cringe forty-something-year-old Russian woman who was prone to throwing tantrums, one reason being that she claimed there weren’t enough fish in the sea and what a waste of time it was. The captain was near about ready to throw her overboard and leave her in the sea. I would have helped him, to be honest.

Sedated by a few lazy days in the sun, we headed back to Bali after Gili Meno, this time to spend just under a week amid the verdant views of Ubud where we had booked a private villa through airbnb (still affordable luxury) complete with our own rice terrace and an amazing outdoor shower.

ubud rice terrace

ubud shower

Ubud, again, hadn’t changed enough to alter my first impressions of it – and I doubt it ever will. Gone are the true spiritual journey seekers, replaced instead with hoards of travellers and tourists buying dream catchers and miniature buddhas. So we holed ourselves away in our private apartment playing house, drinking wine and eating cheese while bird-watching on the terrace. How very civilised it all was.

One morning, however, we woke with a start – and it wasn’t to do with one glass of Pinot too many the night before. At around 7am there was a huge shudder; a shudder that went on and on, growing stronger, until it felt like the walls were moving and the bed was jumping off the floor. 

In my sleepy haze, I tried to rationalise it as the vibrations of a helicopter, or a big lorry down the road…. Right?

Wrong. It was an earthquake, rocking the foundations from the stilts up, through the floor and the walls.

It lasted less than two minutes but it was long enough to set my heart racing. The look on Lucas’ face of wild excitement confirmed that yes, it was an earthquake, asking me, did I feel it? Which was perhaps a rhetorical question – it would have been hard not to.

Fuelling the drama, we went online and saw that a quake of 5.5 magnitude had struck just south of Bali, in the ocean, sending aftershocks all the way up to us in the mountains on the mainland and beyond.

As exhilarating and surreal as it was, thankfully there was no damage (except to my nervous system) and when we emerged from the villa later that morning, triumphant that we’d lived to tell the tale as earthquake survivors, the locals were already going about their normal lives and couldn’t care less. I guess these things happen all the time in Indonesia, a bit like when it rains in Scotland. It’s not national news unless a road is closed.

After the quake we enjoyed a few more aftershock-free days in Bali, lolling about a fancy pool in a jungle in Ubud one day, and watching the sunset against the stormy sea back in Canggu the next, before getting ready to head off on our separate ways for a while. I had to catch my flight to Sydney to get my visa activated before it expired (remember when moving to Australia in December was the original plan….) while Lucas was going to northern Thailand, before we would rendezvous in a few weeks back in Bangkok.

If I’m honest, I didn’t really want to go back to Australia. I was hesitant. Or perhaps reluctant is more the word. I spent hours ummming and ahhhhing about whether or not I should postpone my flight to Sydney again – or just not get on the plane at all and spontaneously fly somewhere else, Cambodia, perhaps – adamant that I didn’t want to live there anymore having changed my mind along the way, so what was the point. 

(Reading that back I know I sound like a spoilt brat.)

But being in Bali and being close enough to be able to ‘just pop over to make sure’ made it seem silly not to go and try and remind myself why I loved it in the first place.

australia window

After the red-eye from Bali and domestic connection from Sydney, I arrived in Byron Bay, which was where my love affair with Aus started back in NYE 2015. I thought if anywhere Byron would be able to trigger my old feelings and turn my head around again. Alas – and to cut a long(er) blog post short – it didn’t. 

I spent five days in Byron Bay chilling on the beach (before the tail-end of cyclone Debbie hit), visiting old haunts, and hanging out with my cousin and his girlfriend who were mercifully there on holiday, too. We spent many an hour drinking wine and catching up on months of gossip and banter, but I just couldn’t acculturate to Australia and felt disenchanted with it all.

Sticking to my guns, I went down to Sydney for the next few days to see if I could coax myself out of my Asian obsession and realise that yes, Sydney is meant to be, it is my calling, stick to the bloody script, and stop putting it off! 

It didn’t work though.

Don’t get me wrong – Sydney was a great city, it had beautiful beaches (I stayed in Bondi which – when it was sunny – was wonderful), great food, and it reminded me a lot of London. I got the insider scoop by my friend, Judith, who I met in Vietnam, taking me to the Opera House, Newtown and Manly, and I went for drinks in the CBD with a babysitter I had when we lived in Argentina, way back when. But despite having fun, it wasn’t enough to keep me there. 

bondi 2

bondi

It’s funny to think that it was only last October when Sydney was the ‘be all and end all,’ driving me to pack up my life in London and fly to the antipodes to start afresh, with a minor detour in Asia to let my hair down for a bit along the way. Who could have guessed that the ‘minor’ detour would become a ‘major’ one, now six months in (and counting) with no sign of stopping, or a moving date to anywhere else….

Call it a culture shock, or what you will, but when I was in Australia I missed all those things I’d come to look on with comforting affection in Asia, like the insane humidity, bum guns, and stray cats. And I suppose, Lucas, too.

So I booked a flight to Thailand a week early and in all honesty, I couldn’t wait to get back.

Now we’re looking forward to celebrating Songkran with buckets of water and squirt guns, as you do. But I’ll wait to divulge our Thai adventures in the next blog post…