Notes from a small but perfectly formed boat

Facebook is responsible for a multitude of sins, and its latest insistence on letting you know ‘where you were two years ago’ is certainly up there with its most deadly.   After a revoltingly boozy Easter weekend, where I learned a few important life lessons including that I am in fact capable of drinking three bottles of wine to myself and that bourbon and coke is in fact delicious (who knew), on the dark Tuesday back at my desk contemplating the very meaning of my wine sodden existence, Facebook kindly reminded me that two years ago I was sailing to Nicaragua with the dynamic dream team Jessie and Neil.

I wrote about my experience for Jessie and Neil’s blog The Red Thread about one of the most magical, yes I said magical, experiences of my time in Central America.   So take thatFacebook, if you can’t beat the memory reminders, then why not reminisce about them.  (photo credits to Tim Sonmez Photography and The Red
Thread.) Continue reading Notes from a small but perfectly formed boat

No such thing as a free lunch?

‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’ the famous saying goes, or is there?

On a sweltering day exploring Anuradhapura, having exhausted the rough and ready charms of the temples and the surrounding area, we were looking for sustenance, our 6am roti hopper breakfast seeming an age ago. Lurking by the side of the road trying to work out where we might source lunch we spotted an innocuous looking corrugated iron shack which was alive with noise, but more importantly the unmistakably delicious wafts of curry and rice. We couldn’t believe our luck, jackpot, no quick bite from a road side stall for us!

We approached a local man at the entrance and asked if we could eat there, he looked slightly startled by our request and we had to ask several times if lunch was available until with a reassuring shake of his head he invited us in. As we entered the smell really hit us, and I am not ashamed to say I was nearly salivating. We were grabbed by people we assumed were the chefs/waiters and ushered over to the buffet where they piled our plates high with the best selection of curry and rice we had seen and pointed us to a plastic table, waving away our enquiries about how much and the rupees we were offering them. No matter we thought, we would pay them on our way out.

It was only when we sat down, poised to scoop pumpkin curry greedily into our mouths, that we noticed a wall of faces staring at us, in a mildly bewildered manner. It was then that we realised we were the only non Sri Lankans there, which was puzzling as there was curry and rice in abundance. We didn’t think too much of it as we smiled and greeted our dining companions who replied with a friendly head shake. We spoke not a word, which wasn’t down to food (although, I can still taste the pumpkin curry), but more because we spent the time observing everyone around us and trying to work out the lack of foreign faces as well as enjoying this rare and unexpected glimpse of local life. As we left, again we tried to pay, and were refused, embarrassed at eating for free (we are British after all) we persisted until it was explained that the meal was free, this was where the workers ate and they were happy to have us as guests.

As travellers you can spend entire trips looking for that unforgettable local experience that stays with you, we were lucky enough to stumble on it. Turns out there is such a thing as a free lunch…

Behind the Candelabra in Granada

After ten glorious days in Nicaragua, being dazzled by her many charms; the next on destination on the map was Granada: the widely marketed jewel in her crown.  On arrival there was no denying her beauty, her colourful exterior gleaming in the almost oppressive Central American sun.  Yet, like a Ming Vase, the overwhelming impression of Granada was that, despite being exquisite on the outside, she was lacking in inner soul.  Part of my excitement resulted from my positive experience  of similar peak-tourism towns like Antigua (Guatemala) and Trinidad (Cuba). However, their energy and vibe were left wanting here.

Miffed by this, we rapidly exhausted the town’s main sights and decided to look beyond for a different perspective.  Granada is situated on a Lake Granada, which continues out into Lake Nicaragua, providing  plenty of opportunity to get off the ‘Gringo Trail’ and explore the surrounding area.  As with all great travel exploration, there was a view to be had: the mystical volcanic peaks of Ometepe.  With bikes hired, we set off, throwing serious caution to the travelling wind, as we would later discover.

Nicaragua, as a country, is considered a safe haven, particularly relative to the infamous trio of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.  I had survived several trips through including  overnight stay in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, crowned ‘The Murder Capital of the World’ for several years. I therefore felt my time as a traveller living on the edge was through for the foreseeable future.  Petty theft is not uncommon; it is merely a by-product of being the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

In the searing midday heat, we began to get a sense of the surrounding area, minus the crowds, which was similar to the Nicaragua we had seen in the last ten days.   Past the lake and a heavily forested road we turned down a dusty track where we passed locals, herding livestock or carrying machetes going about their everyday lives. As the hours passed, covered in sweat and dust, I was becoming increasingly unenthused over the bike ride and its promised view. But, I’m no quitter especially when there is the allure of a rugged landscape to be marveled at, so I forged on.   Finally, after a few wrong turns and some choice words exchanged, we arrived.  It was the complete opposite to Granada. You could miss it if you weren’t looking for it, the landscape was seemingly innocuous with an old out of service chicken bus littering the edge of the lake.  Was the view worth it?  Well, although we didn’t see Ometepe, it was something different.  Sitting for half an hour watching the locals taking out their fishing boats, going about their daily chores is something the majority of people wouldn’t see. True, the journey to get to this point wasn’t exactly a pleasure but it allowed an insight into an authentic local life that is increasingly hard to find, and part of what makes Nicaragua so special. Snapping out of pensive-traveller-mode, we glanced at the guidebook, to make sure that we hadn’t missed anything in the area and noticed it mentioned not being there after sundown.  In hindsight, I should have read this before and not relied on my companion who is famously blasé about safety.  Still, no real cause for concern, it was still light and the locals on our journey down had been nothing but friendly.

With a last look at a fisherman in his boat, we headed back, passing locals, cheerfully greeting them ‘Hola, ¿cómo estás?’ ‘Muy bien; gracias’.  As we pulled out onto the main road, to the town, I realised my companion was lagging behind, which was strange as he is much faster than me and competitive, always wanting to be first.  What happened next is something that I look back on and still ask: ‘did that actually happen?!’  Completely oblivious, I sailed past a bandana clad man, brandishing a machete.   Just as I was reaffirming my love for Nicaragua in my head, suddenly I heard an almighty roar. I looked behind to see him, swiping a machete blindly at my friend’s head. I later learned he had jumped out and attempted to tackle him off his bike, missing him by inches.  He bellowed at me to run as I let out a strangled yelp of surprise and fear that I didn’t recognise as coming from me.  With the metallic taste of fear in my mouth, I found a speed I didn’t realise I possessed, looking behind to see the bandit chasing us, weapon held aloft, similar to a Barbarian or angry Scottish rebel.    Making sure we both got away safely, we raced as fast as we could to the town, exhaustion from the ride and extreme heat forgotten in the face of fear.   It was only then that I turned trembling and asked: ‘what the f*** just happened?!?’  With his classic calmness he said ‘we’re fine – crack on.’   ‘Crack on?!,’ ‘We nearly died?!?’ I could see the headline ‘backpackers attacked taking a wrong turn off the Gringo Trail’ or ‘reckless rookies meet machete end’.  After I had finished reeling off dramatic news headlines in my head, it was whilst treating ourselves to ‘staying alive’ mojitos, the fresh minty flavour tasting all the sweeter, I suddenly realised that it no longer felt so soulless. After four cocktails, the Ming Vase seemed full of water (or more mojitos).  We toasted to another day and mused over the very different experience that can be had mere miles from gringo filled streets.

So what lies behind Granada’s Candelabra?  An opportunity for adventure, a view (on a clear day) and that off-the beaten path experience that travellers increasingly crave in a world where they are hard to find.  A defining feature of Nicaragua is her rugged, unspoiled beauty, which must be seen and explored.   Just make sure the only thing you leave behind is a part of your soul, rather than an arm, or if you are really unlucky a leg.

Nothing is secret for long…

With Globalisation and the world more accessible than ever, those secret corners are becoming less and less, well, secret.  I’m a believer in sharing the love when it comes to hidden treasures, they will be discovered eventually so why not let people enjoy them whilst they still have an air of under-the-travel-radar mystery.

Keeping such treasures to yourself is, let’s face it a selfish act and it is important to fight the urge to squirrel them away in your memory bank for a casual boast during the inevitable penis comparing travel stories when on the road.   No one wants to be the person who says ‘oh, I went to this uh-mazing place, but I don’t want to tell you about it, because, you know, I don’t want it to be ruined’.  Everyone party to that particular conversation will secretly be thinking ‘classic travel-wanker, just bloody tell us, bet it is in the sodding Lonely Planet anyway’.  FYI it usually is, it is after all their job to know about places off the beaten track.  So in the spirit of sharing the love, here are my top secret desert island beaches:

Continue reading Nothing is secret for long…

The Mystique of The Masai

The Masai Warrior, swathed in blood red robes, stalking through the landscape, is surely one of the most evocative images of East Africa.  There is something about the Masai tribe, whether it is their colourful attire, long lithe bodies or beautiful homeland, it is hard not to feel an intoxicating interest about their daily lives.  There is real pride at being a Masai, not only because of their heritage and longstanding culture, but many also hold high profile positions in the government, for example Joseph Ole Lenku is currently a Cabinet Secretary.

Naturally visitors to Kenya are drawn to this and are eager to go on a tour around the Masai Village, which is often an option on many of the safari tours in the Masai Mara.  We were offered such an opportunity, for an extra twenty dollars we would get a brief glimpse into the life of the Masai.  I was reluctant to do this for a number of reasons, apart from staying in a Kuna Village in the San Blas Islands (I have no idea how to make that statement sound less wanky), my experience in visiting tribal villages have always been overwhelmingly uncomfortable and ended with a request for money, which is all very well, but usually means you leave with a slightly sour taste in your mouth.  Despite my reservations I was persuaded to pay my due and visit the village.  David our guide was a beautiful young warrior, possessing both excellent English and an engaging manner, he made me feel ready to be proved wrong.

Continue reading The Mystique of The Masai

The dreaded question….Is this place safe?

I have to confess I hate this question, but I after my post on Diani beach’s decline that it was worth answering.  In general, unless you are planning a trip to Somalia or Afghanistan (check out One Step Forward Blog to find out how to travel there) I would always say in general most places are ‘safe’ (nowhere is 100% safe, buses can come out of nowhere and knock you flat) to travel, and Kenya certainly is.

Foreign Office reports will always put the fear of god into you, they have to err on the side of caution, but never let that put you off.  Yes it is unadvisable to visit certain areas of Kenya, Eastleigh in Nairobi is pretty much a no go, as are some areas up by the Somali border, however the majority of Kenya is not dangerous, but exercising caution and sense is always a good idea.  As with anywhere, unpredictable events can occur at any time that are beyond your control, however the majority of crimes against tourists are scam or petty theft related.  Remember in Africa (as with many other places) as a tourist you will always be a potential target for robbers, we have expensive phones, cameras, laptops, tablets and passports that represent more than a year’s wages to the average Kenyan so if they can swipe your phone and $10 they will.   To maximise your chances of trundling through Kenya sans robbery/attacks etc, here are some insights into how we managed to return with all our possessions, including my friend’s camera, which is nothing short of a miracle:

Be careful where you stay – so I am not one for being snobby about digs on the road, however, in Kenya (and other parts of Africa as well) it pays to go with recommended accommodation that people have reported safe.  If you are not in your room, make sure all valuables are locked in a safe (there have been reports from people of ‘inside jobs’ where hotels have tipped people off and have had all their possessions pinched).

Don’t carry around valuables – there may be times that you can’t avoid this, waiting for a bus, killing time at stopover places, but where possible do not carry anything around of any value that you would be sad/stranded if it got stolen.  Also always carry money ($10 is fine) in case you do get robbed to avoid them becoming frustrated that you don’t have anything.

LEAVE ALL JEWELLERY AT HOME – even if it is only of sentimental value, it can attract unwanted attention.

Read up on common scams and dangers – sounds obvious, but some-people-who-will-not-be-named don’t and therefore can walk obliviously into potentially dangerous/difficult situations.

If you stay on River Road in Nairobi – be vigilant and avoid going out after dark/order a reputable taxi from your hotel.

Strap your belongings to you on buses, especially overnight ones – this is applicable anywhere, but most buses and matatus are primarily local so just take extra precautions, wrapping bags around your legs and padlocking them is a worthwhile safety measure.

When at the beach do as recommended and don’t wander around after dark – take taxis or tuk tuks, it really is not worth the risk. As romantic as a stroll along the beach at night is, being attacked with a machete is not.

Ladies, don’t engage in conversations with people to be polite (I do this all the time) and if you feel threatened or receiving unnecessary attention tell the person firmly you are not interested and find a hotel/restaurant to take refuge in.  Also saying you are waiting for a male friend is usually effective in dismissing unwanted attention.

NEVER. EVER. RESIST A ROBBERY – this really should go without saying, but amazingly people still do it, your life is not worth a phone or a camera or $10.  If you have insurance, as long as you file a police report, you will be covered.

I realise that list seems rather long, but these are just precautions to ensure you get the best out of Kenya and that it is not marred by an avoidable incident.  Granted some incidents are unavoidable (being eaten by a lion, leopard, chicken), but it is always best to be prepared and know any potential issues.  Kenya is won’t disappoint, so don’t let the Foreign Office reports or news updates deter you.

The African Dream

I’m not a massive one for bucket lists, or the new 30 before 30 craze, which considering when I was 18, I thought by the grand old age of 27 I would be engaged, have a house and a great job that paid me well, of which I have achieved zero (UPDATE: since writing this post I have a new job, which pays well and I enjoy, so 18 year old me wasn’t so far out).  I would clearly be setting myself up for inevitable and dismal failure.

Having said that I am one for achieving whatever ‘dreams’ you can in particular when it comes to travel, as they are usually a sure fire success, less moving factors than other life goals.  With that in mind I finally achieved a lifelong dream of persuading someone to come to Kenya with me, found a cheap deal for safari, and achieved my dream of seeing a giraffe in the wild in the Masai Mara.  No ring, no interview and no mortgage needed.

Continue reading The African Dream

A Tale of One City

Continuing with my Kenya hiatus (fear not it will be back with a vengeance) and with my theme of taking a look at things closer to home, London was next on my list for back garden exploration.  With that in mind during the confusing period between Christmas and New Year when you have no idea who you are, what day it is or that any food other than cheese exists, I decided to go where I had never gone before and make the trek to Richmond Park and take a tour of Highgate Cemetery (festive, I know). Continue reading A Tale of One City

New Year…New Realisations

Being underrated, is, well, underrated.   Surely there is nothing better than a lukewarm reputation, only for the reality to be so much better.  The green and pleasant land that is England must be one of the most over-looked destinations.  Most Brits (me included) have a woeful record when it comes to exploring our country.  I once read a particularly wanky travel story where the journalist proclaimed ‘I know Laos better than I know Wales.’  Whilst that statement is undoubtedly obnoxious, there is truth in it.  Why is that we overlook our back garden in favour of foreign lands?  Over a third of Americans never leave their own state, and yet we can’t wait to get on the first flight to somewhere exotic.

We decided to shun a European New Year break in favour of a weekend in the chocolate box perfect Cotswolds.  Uley was our chosen destination, and whilst Gloucestershire is no stranger to me, exploring a new place in this oh-so-beautiful of counties was an opportunity we relished.

Continue reading New Year…New Realisations

2016: The Year That Was…

2016, you really have been an annus horriblis.  From global political meltdown to beloved celebrities dropping like flies (George Michael on Christmas Day, really?!?), it has been a year that many would like to forget.

Mine has certainly not been up there with the best, but I am grateful to have made it through alive with my sanity, for the most part, intact.  That is almost entirely due to travel (and my amazing best friend – but she is not travel related).

As the saying goes ‘nothing is ever completely awful’ (I’m not sure it does, I may have made that up) and whilst other aspects of my life have hurtled full throttle down the hill, travel has been the one constant that has brought a great deal of happiness and perspective.   Travel is something you can control, where you go, how you go and what you achieve whilst there is entirely in your own hands. That is why year on year, whatever else happens, seeing the world ensures memorable (in a good way) achievements.

Continue reading 2016: The Year That Was…

Travel inspiration for those stuck at home