Being in Beelin. Beerlin. I mean, Berlin.

Bee Says: Finally our European explorations are ramping up again, and they kicked off with me spending a busy Bee weekend in Berlin, Germany (or Beelin as Siri seems obsessed with auto-correcting it to!) My oldest friend from school is Sarah Mckay. We met in year five, and a quick Google tells me this would have made us a mere 9 years old. We had that instant you’re-my-best-friend-ok?-ok! connection and spent the next four years surgically attached and constantly sleeping over at each others houses and driving our parents mad with our experimental baking projects. Sad times came as in our teens we went to different high schools and were no longer able to be quite so much in each others pockets. Since then we have had a friendship that has ebbed and flowed through our teens and twenties as we both moved between different cities and countries and continents. Sarah has been in Berlin on-and-off for the past ten years, and full-time for the last four. I have been that annoying friend who says every January “I’ll DEFINITELY come and visit you this year” and then something else has come along and New Years Eve rolls around yet again without me doing it. So! This year, New Years Day knocked on the door and I responded by hopping onto sky-scanner. I picked a random weekend in March, which felt forever away at the time, and booked myself a long weekend to Berlin.

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I have been to Berlin once before and done the tourist trail. This time around my hope was to see a few of the treasures that are lesser known and get a glimpse into Sarah”s day to day local life there. The great thing about Berlin is that it’s only a 1.5 hours flight from London, making it practically commutable. I could leave work on Thursday at normal time and still be in Berlin for a beer before bed. Toll! Prima!

Nick Says: Bee kindly invited me along to her weekend in Berlin too. I declined as I’ve had slightly too much Berlin adventure in the last few years. I think it’s a great city, with such a unique vibe, and I love visiting, but I’m not sure if it loves me visiting it… On my first trip there, I spent an amazing few days soaking up the history of the place (and Berlin is a city that lives and breathes its history in a way like no other), caught a roller derby, got very drunk with the locals, and on the last day decided to tour round the place on a bicycle. It’s seems a city set up for cyclists, with wide cycle paths, and plenty of flat ground. So obviously I ended up becoming involved in a crash and broke my wrist. I then had to ice the break with beer, before sadly pedalling back to my hostel, and then the enxt day improvising my hoody as a sling while I flew home and headed straight to the hospital.

Round two in Berlin saw me arrive on a stag do. Surprisingly we managed to get a fair bit of culture in amongst the drinking. Tempting fate hugely, not only did I get back on a bike, but rode around on something called a beer bike which had its own bar attached. Ha, take that broken wrist of the past! This time however, fate had something else in mind for me. No sooner had we got off the beer bike (which is a huge, unwieldy contraption with a top speed slower than walking) and left it at its base then we were stopped by a couple of policemen. No problem I thought, they probably just want to do a quick search of us as we’re a large group of foreign men. But then another cop car showed up. The another. Then one more. Oh, then some unmarked cars with undercover police in. There was two policemen for every one of us. In between our poor German, and their not great English, we worked out they were trying to arrest us. At this point I swore never to return to Berlin, if I ever got to leave that was. But luckily a staff member from the beer bikes saw our plight and ran over. After a rapid fire exchange, she told us that the police had received a report of a group of guys trying to break in and steal a beer bike. Considering the aforementioned speed and size, this seemed a ridiculous idea. Doubly so for our group, as at the time we had the stag dressed up as a yellow jacketed Freddie Mercury… Hardly the most inconspicuous of robbery attire.

So as much as I love Berlin, and all it has to offer, I wasn’t too sad to be given this trip a miss and staying at home for the weekend, eating giant toblerones.

Bee Says: On Friday morning Sarah’s alarm went off at 6.30am (she’s a teacher) and I dozed on until something slightly more civilised for a holiday day. It felt truly surreal to actually remember I was in Germany; having arrived after a normal London rat-racing day and only speaking English since landing. Sarah lives on the outskirts of Kreuzberg which put me in the perfect location for strolling and sight-seeing. The Friday in question was the big day of the solar eclipse and so before I’d even had a coffee I was enjoying peeking at the pockets of people gathered on street corners with all sorts of DIY contraptions to view the sun safely.

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I holed myself up at Cafe Katulki (Friedelstraße 41,12047) to have a leisurely breakfast and finally rummage through my guide books to plan an itinerary to keep me out of trouble until Sarah was freed from the classroom. My stack of guidebooks, including the gorgeous Lomography guide, had been generously donated by my friend Amii and she helpfully annotated them with must-see and must-eats. She is a girl after my own heart (belly?) with eats outweighing sees about 4 to 1!

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Cafe Katulki has buckets a chintzy chic; and is an instagrammers heaven! From the insanely heaving cake counter, to the mismatching liberty china sets, to the tiled walls and rocking chair reading nooks; if I was a local I think I’d be in here more than my own house. Another great discovery was that the cafe has an Eastern European owner so was serving Schokolade; that hot chocolate so thick you can barely stir it. Once the sugar high kicked in, I started my stroll to destination number one – Hasenheide Park. The park is a 50 hectare green space with many treasures to discover. I hit jackpot with a clear blue skied sunny day, so could really appreciate ambling around every section stumbling across rose gardens, an open air theatre, a petting zoo, a doggy playground, a pair of grumpy camels (!) and a few sketchy drug dealers sadly; but they seemed happy enough to keep to themselves and let me walk along despite accidentally intruding on some sort of business moment. In addition to the enclosed animals; the park boasted oodles of lovely natural wildlife, even in winter. As I sat reading in a patch of long grass, a woodpecker was hammering away above my head. I also saw my FIRST EVER red squirrel! Despite many hours stealth stalking them on Brownsea Island I have never successfully spotted one of these incredibly creatures. It was a real unexpected delight, especially when I got a look at this fella’s huge ears.

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I exited the park from a lake filled with rowdy geese and duck, and was treated to the Friday call to prayer at a huge ornate mosque that dominates Columbiadamm. Being originally from Bradford this is a familiar sound and it felt special to hear it at that exact moment; as I strolled around with a brain buzzing with childhood nostalgia.

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From the park is was just a trot over the road to my most highly anticipated spot of the weekend; Temple Hof. I have a real lust for abandoned buildings and places but now that I’ve grown out of my teenage phase of shamelessly sneaking into old mills and crumbly places; I satisfy this desire through the fact that most of the people I follow on Instagram are urban explorers.

Berlin Tempelhof Airport was one of the original airports in Berlin. Situated in the south at Tempelhof-Schöneberg, after a chequered and varied history of operation, it finally closed its doors in 2008 as part of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport project (which is a whole other story if you don’t know about it. A hot topic that I heard discussed by a lot of Berliners over the weekend!) Tempelhof’s original terminal was constructed in 1927 and the main building was once among the top 20 largest buildings on earth; in contrast (wikipedia reliably informs me) it formerly had the world’s smallest duty-free shop! Having previously been one of the busiest airports in the world; during WW2 it was used by the Nazi government to assemble military aircraft. Nowadays the vast expanse of Temple Hof is home to a huge investment turning it into a “modern park” and that was evident through the various eco-gardens, nature reserves and kite-boarding tracks I saw.

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However, I was more interested in the fact that so much has been left behind. I am relieved that amongst the re-development; there are still plenty of historical relics. From old bombers, to an American shooting range, to the runway signage and the runways themselves; there is still such a sense of history and identity here that is fascinating. The space itself also had an incredibly special atmosphere. There was a sense of peace, quiet and zen that felt at-odds with the fact the park is just moments from the bustling city centre and surrounded by main roads. Once perched in the centre with my book; I could hear only the insects and the whistling wind. I stayed there for hours sitting between the slats of an abandoned railway line and having one of those perfect travel moments!

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One thing that I was crushed about, is that because I visited on a total whim, I didn’t do proper research and discover that you can actually tour the buildings themselves. So instead I spent the day with my nose smushed up against the mesh fencing thinking how amazing it would be to peer inside; little knowing I could have done exactly that and it’s the bit that would interest me the most. When I visit again (I’ve decided to try and make it an annual thing whilst Sarah is there) I’ll be snapping up a tour ticket and remedying my rookie mistake. Here is where you can do the same!

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I walked back to Sarah’s neighbourhood; ducking into Katies Blue Cat bakery (Friedelstraße 31, 12047) for a couple of the tastiest cookies I have ever devoured. I then sat by a stretch of the canal watching garishly coloured dotty beetles being busy, and hot air balloons flying over head. Yup; Berlin is a little bit like a Disney cartoon!

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Sarah was relieved to find me in one piece after my grand day of solo exploration, so we celebrated by going to her favourite burger joint. Except, well, she had forgotten where it was! We knew it was called Hamburger Heaven (or maybe Happy Hamburger) and that it was about a five minute walk from her flat. We walked for about twenty-five minutes before admitting defeat and Sarah announced that in true Berlin style, it was so obscure and cool that it was probably a pop up that had now decided to pop up somewhere new. I’m actually quite relieved that we never found Hidden Hamburger because instead we headed to The Bird (Am Falkplatz 5, 10437 // Kottbusser Damm 95 10967) which had been Amii’s #1 hot spot recommendation and in Sarah’s opinion the “best burger in Berlin” but as she is a vegetarian I had to really test this claim for myself.

The Bird is a super-hip NY style diner with an impressive line-up of the usual good stuff; burgers, hot dogs and grilled animal bits. They were also playing a pretty guilty pleasuretastic line-up of the tracks that populated Sarah and I’s mixtapes of the 90s – Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Offspring, Greenday… Limp Bizkit! So that was a fitting blast from the past. I made poor, patient Sarah translate every type of burger and topping available in great detail, as I struggled to make a choice, but we realised the entire menu was written in English on the back! In the end I opted for “The Woiks” which came with, well, everything. It was possibly the finest burger of my entire life; rivalled only by the holy Umami.

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I’m not a huge beer drinker (Nick has enough enthusiasm for both of us) but considering I had spent the past three months relentlessly hounding Sarah with the “two beers clinking” emoji on WhatsApp I thought it would be rude not to partake in one tankard. Which turned into two.. and three… because the beer in Berlin is SO tasty. I think Sarah said it’s something to do with wheat but I will hand over to Nick for the specifics.

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Nick Says: Well wheat does play a fair part, if you’re drinking Hefeweizen, but mainly it’s to do with the Reinheitsgebot, or the German Beer Purity Law. While relaxed in the early 90s, this meant that hundreds of years the only ingredients allowed were barley, water, and hops. Producing a lovely, clean beer you can drink lots of!

Bee Says: Rather than going out on the town on Friday night, we thought we’d have a sensible early night and save our energy for Saturday. But, after getting in bed we just chatted and chatted and fell into childhood habits of saying “good night” and then instantly one of us starting to natter away again. It must have been after 3am when we went to sleep! On Saturday morning we picked up immediately where we left off and by 11am were still in bed having an indepth conversation about the holocaust. I guess this is one of the perils of Berlin. We eventually dragged our weary bones to brunch and selected an innocent enough looking cafe called Citron. Once we had sat down and were pursuing the menu,Sarah gripped my arm and whispered that she had just remembered that the last time she had been into the cafe, about a year before, the waiter had asked her out on a date (she declined). I got a bit feminist rage-y about how presumptuous and rude that is; especially when you’re minding your own business and having a bite to eat – but Sarah defended him saying she had been sat revising in there all day and they’d chatted a bit. Anyway! I could tell by the look on Sarah’s face when our waiter came over that it was the exact same guy!! He didn’t seem to remember Sarah (or was styling it out) as we ordered eggs, coffee, juice etc,

The food was great, but when the waiter came to clear up, he leaned in and said something to Sarah in German. I thought he was asking if we wanted desert, but once he had walked off she informed me he had asked her out on a date AGAIN! This guy? He must just do it to all the pretty ladies! She had said no (again) and this time was a little more annoyed about the whole thing. I guess statistically it must work on someone occasionally; but unless you want a side of sleaze with your scrambles I would avoid this place.

I had been keen to visit the Topography of Terror but poor Sarah was having a bit of a gloomy personal life patch and thought that visiting the headquarters of the Secret State Police, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office and witnessing what occurred there; might not help her mood. We compromised on the WEST:BERLIN exhibition that was taking place at Ephraim-Palais
(Poststraße 16 10178 Berlin) I had previously known very little about West Berlin post WW2 and this exhibition used photography, video, artefacts, propaganda material and art to tell the story of this “island city” before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For a reasonably small collection there was enough to peruse and ponder for a good few hours; which was a good job because the day was drizzly and dismal.

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On the way home we went to hunt out the Berlin bear! There really is one. There has been a bear kept in central Berlin since the 1700s and the original cage was about the same size as two bears in total. Nowadays the official Berlin mascot has a more palatial pit and palace to roam around; but unfortunately we forgot that very important thing about bears… they hibernate through winter! Nothing to see here!

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On Saturday night we were treated to a Spanish tapas feast by one of Sarah’s friends Lia. I could lie and say we went to loads of hip cocktail bars and an “open air” (the done thing apparently!) but it was just a very VIP little house party; with an impressive schnapps collection to keep us merry into the small morning hours.

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On Sunday we took an hour long stroll through Kreuzberg and across the river, stopping for Sarah to indulge me with a go in the Photoautomat and to buy a Nutella ice cream for breakfast – such a British thing to do when it was -1 degrees but sunny!

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It’s so good to have a local with you when you’re the type of person who asks 100 questions. I had noticed these small cobble sized plaques on the ground, which Sarah quickly identified as Stolperstein or Stumble Blocks. They are a monument created by Gunter Demnig which commemorates victims of the Holocaust across Europe. Each Stumble Block commemorates an individual – both those who died and survivors – who were consigned by the Nazis to prisons, concentration camps, and extermination camps, as well as those who responded to persecution by emigrating or committing suicide. In Berlin the Stumble Blocks are placed on the pavement at every address where the individual lived. It was gob smacking once I knew what they were; to see how frequently they appeared beneath my feet. I think it’s such a subtle but important reminder to everyone in Berlin – visiting and living – of the scale of the atrocity and the fact the victims must be honoured and remembered on a daily basis.

After a lazy lunch at yet another of Sarah’s insanely talented-in-the-kitchen friends, it was time for me to feel the Sunday night blues creep in and start my long journey back to my flat in Chalk Farm. One thing I noticed from being fortunate enough to go to three different Berliner’s homes is that they have a really cute tradition where all guests are handed slipper socks on arrival! So you can take off your shoes and be instantly toasty and comfy. Imagine buying a stock of slipper socks purely for guests?! I think I need to transition this to the UK.

Thanks Sarah for an enchanting look in Berlin and life there. I already cannot wait to come back to this unique, achingly cool and layered city. I feel like yet again I have only scratched the surface!

Nick Says: While I may have stayed at home this time, I have been up to fair bit in the UK recently. Coming up soon is my tale of taking on a microadventure in Essex which then took a surreal turn when I accidentally stumbled into the filming of a very popular TV show set in that county…

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Welcome to the LIGHT Side: Packing for 6 months with a 35 Litre Backpack

Bee & Nick Say: This post is by far and away our most popular blog entry. We’ll leave it as we wrote it, but will constantly add some updates on what we found the most useful as the trip went on, fix broken links etc. Enjoy, and please add anything you can’t live without below!

Bee Says: Before we left, I meant to do a packing list blog, as I found reading other people’s so useful when preparing for six months away. However, I didn’t think mine would be that unusual until we got here and realised that every other person we have met has a bag double our size… and usually for less time! Then I posted a photograph of me loaded up with my 35 litre beaut and my friend Eleanor Jane asked if I could post some details about how on earth I have enough clothes for 6 months. I should also add that the clothes have taken me from 40 degree tropical heat to -5 freezing flats out on the Salar de Uyuni, which is surely proof that no one needs to struggle beneath a backpackzilla unecessarily. Here is my total kit, and bag on the top right.

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Clothes (layering is key!)
    • American Apparal Hoodie
    • Craghoppers Shirt – This comes into it’s own during Amazon and Jungle trips as it is made of durable breathable material that stops both sun burn and mozzie munching.
    • Karrimor Combat Trousers (that zip off into long shorts)
    • Denim Cut Offs
    • 3 x Cotton Tee Shirts
    • H&M TShirt Dress
    • Long sleeved Uniqlo Heattech Thermal Top
    • Uniqlo Heattech Thermal Leggings (that work as normal leggings with my dress)
    • Vest
    • 7 x Knickers
    • 2 x Bras
    • 2 x Bikinis
    • 3 x Hiking Socks
    • Woollen Hat & Mittens (bought in Bolivia)
    • Headscarf, Kirby Grips and Hairbands
    • Pashmina
    • Flip Flops
    • Small Festival Style Poncho
    • Montane Lite Speed Jacket – My biggest splurge and prized possession, this jacket squeezes down to the size of an APPLE. Its windproof, waterproof (tested in many stormy downpours) and is the perfect outer shell over my hoody and thermal in cold weather, keeping all the warmth in and the chill out. I got mine for 60quid on an outdoor retail website so shop around!
    • Sunglasses
    • Sun Hat – You can spend silly money on these in outdoor shops, so if you have a small head like me opt for a kids one. Mine cost 3quid as apposed to the almost identical adult ones for 25!
      • Karrimor Walking Boots (I wear these when travelling so they don’t strictly fit in my bag but can be tied to handles and dangle off Where’s Wally style)
      • 7 Litre Healthy Back Bag Day Pack – I use this day to day and leave my backpack in the hostel, but when travelling it folds down and fits in my big bag.
Keeping Clean
  • Beach Towel
  • Wash Bag with Aveda Miniature Shampoo, Conditioner, Shower Gel, Curl Cream and Moisurisor which when diluted down with water has lasted me neart two months so far.
  • Make Up Wipes (I BADLY wish I had bought about 5 packs of these, but I only packed 1. I used to use them every night back home to take off make off, but I am not wearing make up on this trip so instead I use them to – gross – clean off dust, dirt and travel grime. Because I have so few, using one has become a total luxury that I really look forward to… Sad! They also double up as a way of “showering” when there is not water at your hostel or you are on a boat etc.)
  • Tampons (no ones needs a photo of these but there is a box in there too, as you cant buy brands you may… prefer… over here, although there are sanitary products available so its your womanly preference with this stuff)
  • Deodrant
  • Mini hairbrush
  • Dry shampoo
  • Razor and 2 Blades
  • Toothbrush and Toothpaste
Essentials
  • Travelproof Silk Sheet – This silk sleeping bag liner is a travel MUST have. You dont need to cart around a full sleeping bag, even the cheapest hostels in cold locations have piles of blankets and you can hire a sleeping bag if you camp on treks or tours. All you need is a silk sheet – it keeps you warm, it stops bed bugs and mozzies biting, it gives you something clean to sleep on when sheets look questionable and it is also a handy caccoon on cold night buses.
  • Travelproof Double Mosquito Net – We thought that hostels in Malaria regions would all provide mozzie nets… and we were SO wrong. I bought a double sized net and am so relieved I did, as it’s stopped me being bug food on many a night and especially whe sleeping on a boat or outdoor in a hammock. Don’t risk heading to South America without one.
  • Ear Plugs
  • Emergency Foil Blanket (present from Nicks dad, which hopefully by having means we will never need to use!)
  • Eaglecreek Silk Money Belt – Comfortable, safe and I basically wear it constantly, it has all my money, cards, passport, important info and memory cards in. The silk makes it non bulky underclothes and…  pretty sweat resistant for those big trek days.
  • Coin Purse
  • iPod Shuffle & Headphones
  • Plug Adaptor
  • Head Torch
  • Pen Knife
  • Blow Up Pillow
  • Document Holder – For Insurance Info, Yellow Fever Certificate, Innoculation Booklet, Itinerary etc.
  • Kindle – When I went backpacking to Canada, books took up half of my bag space. My paperwhite is the best thing, I never run out of entertainment and whenever there is Wifi I can download new reading material. I have a bashed up, old book looking case which helps security wise and hopefully itll last the duration of the trip!
  • Lonely Planet – Im carrying around Central America, Nick has South.
  • Digital Camera – About 5 years old and Im not too attatched to it but for the sake of snapping photos I hope it lasts the trip.
  • Chargers for all of these electric things.
  • Homemade Spanish Phrase Book
  • Diary
  • Playing Cards – Mine are special Taytos branded, a present from my Irish friend Chloe, and have already seen aLOT of heated hostel games of Shithead.
Medical
  • Overlanders Medical Kit – This honestly takes up a fifth of my backpack! But as we are visiting remote regions with no real medical care, we would be crazy not to bring a decent kit. Obviously the hope is that we don’t need it, but so far we have delved into it to stitch Nick up post window smashing on him and I ploughed through the rehydration sachets in week one. There is enough space for extra bits, so we also have it stuffed with plasters, travel sickness pills, anti diorrhea tablets etc.
  • A4 Ziplock of Tablets – Another big space chomper is the zip lock full of anti-malerias, which we have to take for the full 6months. I also have contraceptive pill, valerian root to help sleep AND spare asthma inhalers, so am basically a walking pharmacy, but the nice thing is that everytime I take a pill I know there is that tiny bit more extra room coming my way…
  • Flight Socks
  • 4 x Deep Heat Patches – Are you a girl? Do you have periods? Dont travel anywhere, or live your life generally, without these. The ultimate banisher of period pain.
  • Insect Repellent – Just pack one, you can buy DEET out here
  • Sun Cream – Same, you can buy all factors out here
  • After-Sun
  • Tiger Balm – The BEST miracle cure for bites, grazes and anything sore.
  • Germaline
  • Rescue Remedy
  • Anti Bac Hand Gel
  • Vasaline
  • Spanx – Not to help my figure, but these are amazing the day after a big hike or trek when you have sore back and legs. It takes all the pressure off and helps you limp around a little easier.

And that’s it! My life in a bag, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nicks Says: Well Bee has basically covered everything in brilliant detail, so I won’t bore with going over too much of the same stuff. But the good news for the guys is that you can get away with even less stuff.

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As you can see from the photo above, I’ve also managed to cram in a lot of stuff into a small space. My bag is a 37L Lowe Alpine beauty, bought from the fine folks at the Outdoor Emporium in Camden who are super friendly and knowledgeable about pretty much everything outdoorsy and travel equipment related. Even though I have a bigger bag, boy’s clothes are bulkier than tiny lady ones so I often find myself with less space. I won’t repeat anything that me & Bee have duplicates of, but I will give a quick run-down of important clothing items in my bag.

Clothing

  • 1 pair of combats. I actually bought these from Next after finding nothing suitable in the outdoor shops, and they’re great. They include a zip pocket which is invaluable for storing passport and wallet.
  • 1 pair of boardies. Great as your swimming gear, plus double as a pair of shorts.
  • A 3/4 length pair of shorts. I usually take a pair of shorts this length on my trips, but slightly regretted it on this one. They were too bulky for the small pack, and also didn’t add anything extra that a normal pair of combat shorts would have done, with less space. So don’t follow my lead here.
  • 4 T-Shirts. These include my beloved Melburn shirt Rhiannon got me as a memento of my time spent living in the fine city of Melbourne. 1 tee has already been binned as a health hazard, and been replaced by a Peruvian supermecardo special.
  • 1 Hoodie. Don’t leave home without it.
  • 1 krama. This is my favourite ever piece of travel clothing. It’s a Cambodian scarf, and the best 25p I’ve ever spent. It doubles as a warming scarf, sun hat, dust mask, and bandana. You can also get big versions which you can wear as a manly skirt.

I’ve also got just about enough underwear to keep it fresh and Bee happy, but every now and again I join the ULF (the underwear liberation front). When travelling to a new place, we make sure to wear all our bulky items and save on space. This is especially important for my trail shoes which can fit in my pack, but make it a bit of a squeeze… I chose the Benefaction II shoes from Berghaus, which were brilliant in every condition and stood up to some pretty tough punishment. Sadly they no longer seem to be on sale anywhere, so here’s a link to similar pair of shoes.

The most important and versatile item I took though was definitely my Montane Lite-Speed jacket. It kept me warm on top of the Andes in very cold and windy conditions, yet didn’t overheat me in the tropics, was waterproof enough to keep the rain off while running for shelter during a tropical storm, and best of all packed down to the size of an apple – meaning that I barely noticed it in my backpack, and could easily take it in my daypack. It’s so good that I now regularly wear it back in the UK. I bought it from this site, where they usually guarantee you a good price.

Keeping Clean

I also made sure to pack a bottle of all-purpose soap, vital for when you have to wash clothes in the sink. I remember not really using much of it in 9 months when I travelled with just boys, but with Bee’s totalitarian cleaning regime , it’s almost all gone! (You mean it spilt in your bag!! – Bee) A loo roll is also VERY IMPORTANT, as they don’t like to supply you with much over here. Finally, one of my must pack items is a Swiss army knife. My current one was a present from my big brother Joe, and although I’ve not had to to take out any stitches with it (a former use of mine in Bangkok), it’s been super handy. Added to that I chucked in a few travel sized shower gels and shampoos, plus a beach towel. I found that those travel towels are generally a waste of money and feel horrible. A beach towel packs away almost as small, dries quickly, and looks better when you’re sunning yourself on golden sands.

If there’s one item I regret not bringing, it’s an E-Reader. Books take up loads of room, plus I’ve been stuck with old ones and no book exchange. Which meant I’ve read the guidebook cover to cover. I’m not even going to Argentina, but I can tell you all about it’s wine growing regions… Probably should have used the time to read the phrasebook instead.

Bee & Nick Say: There are obviously pros and cons to travelling light…

PROS
  1. Our bags are small enough to put in hand luggage on flights, and in the rack above us on coaches and buses. Some bags get tampered with or stolen from the hold, and since we spend half our life on buses, we were keen to never have them out of sight.
  2. They are light enough to trek with if we want to, like we did on Isla Del Sol. Most people we see are literally struggling to even get their huge backpacks on their backs, then cowering beheath the weight even walking to the bus. It does not look fun.
  3. Packing takes us about 5 minutes, usually less. Sleeping through the alarm doesnt mean PANIC!
CONS
  1. This is no fashion show. We have to wear the SAME things day in, day out, and we start to refer to our “uniform”. I dont care most of the time, but there has been the odd occasion where I have felt really dowdy and underdresses such as the Manaus opera house where I was surrounded by women in beautiful gowns and I was wearing… Combats and walking boots.
  2. No room for luxuries! Dont even think about hair dryers, GHDs, make up etc. Packing light is definitely for happy scruff bags like me. I figure that I spend alot of time on my appearence in “normal life”, so 6 months off is allowed. When you are wearing a hat and sunglasses most of the time, it doesnt really matter what your hair and face look like underneath.
  3. You pong a bit… Laundry is an expensive treat, so day to day washing has to be done in the sink with soap. This obviously means after a week or so, everything is on varying levels of gross and slightly-less-gross. Fresh washed clothes is the BEST day when we do get a proper wash done!
  4. No space for presents! You cant really stock up on any gifts or souveniers bigger than fridge magnets. We did a big shop in La Paz for friends and family and then posted it home, which we felt is probably more secure than carting it all around for another 4 months… but there is a cost attached

Have we convinced you to travel a tad lighter? What size is your backpack?

 

 

Take Us Back To… Morocco!

Bee & Nick Say: Ah travelling. We have managed to pack in a fair amount since landing back in London from our Latin American adventure! There’s been Ghent, Paris and Sweden, as well as a few UK-breaks. However, 2015 is a slightly different kettle of fish because we have that quite major holiday to save up the pennies and ideas for; the one that starts with honey and ends in MOON! With that in mind; travel will be a little more limited until Autumn and so we thought we could share some of the adventures we had before our backpacking as part of a “Take Us Back To…” series.

In February 2013 we went on our first foreign holiday together and after lots of contenders; settled on the dreamy location of Morocco. Neither of us had visited North Africa, and we were also keen to go somewhere that we could get out in the wilds of and use it as almost a “test” before the big trip. This post was first blogged over on Bee’s lifestyle blog likeaskeletonkey but we have edited and added to it, so join us as we return to our sanctuary deep in the High Atlas.

Bee Says: Last Tuesday my alarm went off at 4am and I didn’t mind AT all! We bundled out of the house and a taxi whooshed us to Victoria to pick up a train to Gatwick. It had snowed overnight so all the parks were Narnia-like and frost glistened on the silent streets. Somehow the blue lips and cold fingers as we waited for the train made the fact that in a few hours we’d be landing in 30 degree African sun even more satisfying. The glorious Easyjet fly to Essaouira, Agadir and Marrakesh, and our flights cost £70 return each, so if you book in advance a Moroccan escape can be cheaper than holidaying in Europe. As we creaked up into the air the captain informed us that thanks to a stiff tail wind (heh) we’d be there in a brisk 3 hours as opposed to the scheduled 3 hours 45 minutes. A bumpy trip and beautiful sunrise later and we were descending over the Atlas Mountains.

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This was both Nick & I’s first time in North Africa. Rather than staying in one of the bustling cities, we had chosen to stay in the High Atlas. This is the edge of the Atlas Mountains, and about a 25 minute drive from Agadir. After a fair bit of research we had fallen head over heels in love with the Atlas Kasbah which is an Ecolodge situated in the middle of the hills in a small Berber community. The Kasbah ticked the boxes of everything we wanted from the holiday; to be immersed in a new culture, easy access to mountains, desert, beaches and souks and… a pool to lounge around next to on our lazy days.

Nick Says:One of the thrills of travel for me is to go somewhere that feels totally alien, where the sense of the unknown is overwhelming, a tiny bit scary, but utterly compelling. South-East Asia and South Korea previously ticked those boxes for me. I could now add Morocco to the list. I’d never travelled to a primarily Arab country before, and the cultural shift was immediate even upon landing. It felt different, and exciting, and… hot. Very hot actually. An incredible dry heat that you felt immediately upon exiting the plane. This might be a sweaty trip. We had arranged via the Atlas Kasbah to be get a taxi transfer to the hotel from the airport. If there’s ever this option, I would probably advise to do it. Take it from someone who has wandered through the choked streets of Chennai struggling to find somewehere to sleep after a long-haul flight to India and a crowded train trip into the city. Or on their first trip to Asia got thoroughly lost in a pounding rain storm in Kuala Lumpur after deciding ‘finding this hostel will be easy, who needs a map?’ Or… well, you get the picture. Anyway, as well as making getting to the hotel easy, arranging our transfer meant we met a valuable guide for our week in this part of the world, the amazing Saeed. He would prove invaluable, super-friendly, and a knowledgeable man in the days ahead. He started by chatting through the local area on our drive and teaching us a few basic words of Arabic and Berber. Outside the window, the landscape was a marvel. Reddy-brown hills dotted with bushes and scrub (which would later turn out to be the source of argan oil) and seemingly impossibly arid. It immediately conjured up images of nomads roaming the hills on camels, and hidden cities springing up from the desert. But before we knew it we rounded a corner and spotted what seemed to be a fort on a hill. We had arrived at the Atlas Kasbah.

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Bee Says: We couldn’t have been more impressed with the Kasbah, in fact on the feedback survey I marked everything 10/10! We were absolutely spoilt with the local cuisine, as in the Kasbah local chefs and cooks from the village create traditional dishes. Everything from the vegetables, to the herbs used in the tea, are grown at the ecolodge in gardens and over the week we ate the best food of our life! From heaps of fluffy couscous, to steaming tagine, to this amazing invention called pastilla (a sort of noodle pastry pie filled with chicken and sweet almond) and every meal was opened with piping hot just-baked flat bread. Even breakfast, which I expected to be a lame buffet effort (HOW wrong) was an epic feast. Every morning we’d wake with the sun rise and stroll out into the immaculate gardens. Sitting in the shade of the trees, we ate a barley soup to warm our stomachs which was a bit like a tepid savoury rice pudding but curiously addictive. We would then be brought pancakes, warm bread, cake and an omelette, along with natural yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice and 6 mini tagine pots filled with honey, pureed apple, dates, jam, butter and almond butter. Nick drank the spiced coffee but as I’m still caffeine-free (and was green with envy!) I opted for mint tea.

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Mint tea needs a whole paragraph of it’s own! Now lets just get this straight, the Moroccan mint tea isn’t like the ol’ packet peppermint stuff we have here. It’s the pillar of Arabic culture. We were lucky enough to get a lesson in making the mint tea by the Kasbah host M’bark. The tea is made with fresh mint (50 types of mint grow in Morocco), green tea and a serious amount of sugar. The tea takes 10 minutes to prepare as the water is boiled over hot coals, then poured in and out of metal teapots into small glass beakers over and over, to dilute the sugar and mix the ingredients. You can certainly taste the love that has gone into it. During our various trips we were invited to take tea with 3 different families, to whom we were complete strangers, and each time the process was done with such care (and always by the man of the house – it’s serious business remember!)

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In fact the main recommendation I would give for Morocco is how friendly and welcoming everyone is. I had read before going that in Arabic culture everyone they meet is viewed as a gift from Allah and destined to be there, and this attitude is absolutely clear by how warm and open everyone we met was. Especially given the massive language barrier! In Morocco, French and Arabic are the dominant languages, with Berber also spoken in Berber communities. We learnt that Berber people actually refer to themselves as Amazigh which means free people, as Berber was a name given by outsiders and is actually quite offensive (sort of equivalent to barbarian) although still commonly used. I speak no French and given that I’m now 8 weeks into re-learning Spanish, was desperately trying to avoid using French as I was worried the Spanish would all drop out of my brain! Nick, we soon realised, also could speak no French other than the very helpful “shut your mouth” and “I don’t give a damn” which wouldn’t exactly endear us to the local community. We soon decided it would be just as easy (and hopefully a bit more impressive) to learn key phrases in Arabic and Berber. So we made a big effort on our first day to practise and perfect how to say hello, please, thank you and no problem. It’s amazing how far these 4 phrases used alongside some sign language and big wavy arm movements can get you.

Nick Says: After a pretty lazy first day of mainly eating and drinking mint tea, we decided to spend the day hiking in the nearby foothills. Our guide was Ahmed, who lived in the local village. We assumed it would be a nice stroll about, especially considering how blisteringly hot it was. However,  Ahmed’s idea of a stroll was to walk 5 metres ahead at all times, with an almost jogging power pace, and then turn round with almost disapproving look that we couldn’t keep up with him! We later discovered that he cheekily told the Kasbah staff that he’d worked us hard because they are young! Added to the furious pace and heat was the fact that Bee was extra covered up on her arms and legs to respect the culture. This is a key thing in Muslim countries (and also in Italy when I visited some pretty religious towns) and worth bearing in mind, even if you’re male. However, it does not make hiking any easier… But it was truly awe-inspiring to be out in wilderness like this. London felt another world away. We walked miles and miles into the hills, barely seeing another living creature. What struck me about the terrain was how rocky and craggy everything was. Even beautiful flowers were covered with spiney stems and dusty leaves. The trees, despite being green, had thorny gnarled trunks. It felt like everything had to be extra tough and coarse to survive the lack of water and the desolate environment.

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Bee Says: Eventually we reached the peaks of the hills, where the nomads live. At night, we could see the nomads fires blazing in the distance and it was comforting and humbling to think of them out there, living such a simple lifestyle (especially when we had been patting ourselves on the back at going without iPhones for a week) We then hiked down to Ahmed’s villlage. En route he encouraged (ok politely forced) us to stroke a very poisonous-looking caterpillar and we both wondered if we might drop dead within minutes… but luckily we didn’t. Instead we made it to the village, and were fortunate enough to visit the Argan Oil Cooperative. As part of a push to create more jobs for women, cooperatives have been set up around Morocco where women gather to create Argan Oil (specific to the region and one of the biggest exported goods). We sat with the women for half an hour, using the stone tools to attempt to crack open Argan fruit and then crack open the nut inside, then free the small white seeds which are then crushed to make the precious oil. The women working away found it hilarious that Nick sat down and mucked in, and were howling with laughter the whole time! It felt really special to spend the time there, witnessing what daily life is like for the villagers.

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We were then invited to Ahmed’s for mint tea and a flatbread/honey feast. We met his wife and two young children and he proudly showed us his home, his chicken and the area he lived in. We started to realise that perhaps he had been walking so fast because he was excited to get us back to see his house! As we headed home in the late afternoon, the village mosque was calling to prayer. We spotted this glorious blue lizard and spent the evening star gazing.

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Nick Says: On Valentines Day we drove into Agadir. We were excited to see the local city, and take in a different kind of culture than the village life we’d adapted to. Agadir itself was a mixed experience. If you’re interested in this part of Morocco,I’d probably advise you just fly in and out of this city… Our first port of call was the Kasbah that overlooks the city, perched atop of a huge hill and visible from everywhere in Agadir. The view from there was breath-taking, and Bee had the added bonus of seeing her first ever camel, which she duly took a snap of, but was a bit frightened to pet. They are pretty bad-tempered though, so I don’t blame her. I once saw a wild camel charge a truck in Australia. Anyway, I digress. Back to the ruined Kasbah which majestically overlooks Agadir, and serves as a stark monument to the power of nature in this part of the world. The panoramic perspective clearly shows the shift caused by the disastrous earthquake that hit Agadir in 1960, killing half the population and completely destroying the old town. The Agadir we visited is apparently unrecognisable from its previous state, having been entirely rebuilt and so I guess you should bear in mind that it’s a city still recovering from a devastating natural disaster.

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Bee Says: We spent a lot of the day on the beach; which was clean and pleasant. The town however didn’t really have much to offer. Sadly (well not if you like that kind of thing) Agadir is dominated by resorts. Tourists flock for the cheap flights and guaranteed heat, but then stay in these Club-Med style resorts with huge walls and gated access. Actually I think I only need to say one thing to describe Agadir; there’s an English Pub. And for me, that’s exactly what I was trying to escape! We tried to make the most of the day by visiting the Valley of the Birds; a free nature attraction. However, as I excitedly scampered in and ran up to the first cage of blue parrots… I recoiled in horror. All the birds were balding. Some had almost no feathers. Some had actual bits of them missing, obviously having been gnawed off by their cage-mates. The ‘valley’ was an unfortunate one-way system so we were forced to carry on through what Nick coined the gauntlet of horror and we were very relieved to escape, if a little traumatised. One good thing about Agadir was that we could visit the huge Uniprix (supermarket). Morocco is a mainly dry country = no booze for sale in restaurants! So if you want a few drinks on an evening, you have to bring them yourself. Our Kasbah were very accommodating – and would happily put drinks in the fridge for us, open them to serve with dinner etc. They just don’t have the license (or inclination…) to serve it. The Uniprix is the only place in Agadir to legally sell alcohol, so we picked up a bottle of bubbles and also 4 bottles of the local Casablanca beer. I’m absolutely gutted we just had hand-luggage allowance as otherwise we would have bought a crate of this back! It was a beautiful beer, and a steal at just over £1 a bottle. The highlight of Agadir, and reason I would still recommend a visit, was twilight. As the sun sets, you can sit on one of the beach front bars drinking mint tea (obvs) watching the birds swarm around the port and then the motif on the Kasbah hill that says ‘God, Country, King’ lights up and sparkles in the distance. It was a really tranquil moment and a favourite memory of the trip.

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Nicks Says: Our big adventure day saw Saeed back once again to show off his country. He had actually given us a lift back from Agadir the night before, and so by now we felt pretty comfortable with him. After discussing where to go, and what to see and do, we decided in the end to drive the 2 hours down to Souss-Massa National Park. There were endless options of big day trips we could have done – Marrakesh, the oasis of Ait Baha, sampling fresh honey, the waterfalls of Imouzzer or the imperial city of Taroudant. We chose the national park because it was close to the city of Tiznit so we felt we could combine a half day of wilderness and then taking in a traditional souk. At Souss-Massa we were met by a local villager Ahmed (another Ahmed!) and his trusty and much loved binoculars. He took us on a 3 hour trek which trailed the river Massa to the beach, where the sands are the same as those in the mighty Sahara. Along the sea front lay a small fishing village. Although in the distance for the time being, Ahmed gestured that we would be walking towards it through the park. We knew before we visited that Souss Massa was home to the near-extinct Bald Ibis bird. Half of the worlds population (of which there are only 800) reside there and there’s a huge local push to preserve and protect this critically endangered species. We were desperate to see them, but didn’t hold out much hope. So imagine our surprise when Ahmed suddenly whooped for joy, and a V formation of bald ibis swooped over our heads! As we stood stunned on the sand, we saw about 3 different flocks of these incredible creatures and Bee even turned professional wildlife photographer and managed to get a brilliant shot that shows their amazing baldheads. The camel photoshoot had obviously primed her. This has to be the highlight of our trip, seeing one of the rarest birds in the world. Ahmed kept saying bon chance, bon chance as it’s so unexpected to see them. Apparently he hadn’t seen any since Christmas, which was a month and a half before. We also tracked wild foxes, found a wild boar skeleton, flocks of yellow billed herons in the trees and of course… sea gulls aplenty.

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Bee Says: As we crossed the sandy planes to the fisherman’s village, I made Ahmed laugh with a crocodile impression (the international language of signing coming in handy again) and in return he gave me his Berber headscarf which I wore for the rest of the day. On another baking hot day, it was sorely appreciated. As Ahmed took his headscarf off, a big curly mop of sun-bleached hair appeared, and we realised that he was a cool surf dude undernearth the traditional dress. He also had an amazing ironic teeshirt, considering he is a guide at a national park, he was wearing a Yellowstone national park tee! After a couple of hours hiking across the type of Sahara sand I have only seen in movies; we walked around a corner and what had previously just looked like a sheer cliff face shimmering in the heat suddenly revealed itself to actually be host to multiple cave houses. It was breath-taking. Just as we were blinking to believe what we were seeing; Ahmed proudly pushed us into one of the caves, which it turned out belonged to his brother, where we took… mint tea! His cave house was beautifully painted and so cosy, the way you could see the sea lapping in the distance from his bed. Any language barrier was easily overcome by Ahmed showing us photographs of a giant dead whale that washed up on the coastline last May (BIG FISHING VILLAGE NEWS!) with men stood around it looking the size of ants. Again I was struck by how little you need to be content, and how simple his life was looking out on the ocean. On the way home Ahmed encouraged us to climb up some stairs built into the sand cliff, which then turned into… just sand. The ground gave away (imagine how slippery vertical sand is!) as we scrambled our way up the cliff. Ahmed of course remained cool as a cucumber, whilst I imagined just how much damage landing on those spiny, sharp rockpools would do to my face… Yet another near-death scrape, but as he tugged me over the final cliff-lip, the views were almost worth it.

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Sandy and sun-kissed, we drove an hour to Tiznit. On the way we didn’t see another car, only ragged rugged plains as far as the eye could see, peppered with the occasional nomad’s tent. Tiznit was a delight, and I’d definitely recommend you visit. We were the only tourists and that always reassures me that you are seeing a city in its natural state rather than putting on a show for visitors. I haven’t been to Marrakesh to compare, but I imagine this is a less intense alternative. Tiznit is the capital of silver, and we got to see a local man creating silver that looked like delicate spun sugar. I bought an ebony bracelet with silver etchings, which has shot to the top of my most favourite and precious jewellery items and would definitely get saved in a fire! Tiznit is split in two, with an old terracotta town with huge towering walls and staircases that lead to nowhere. This was where the souk was, and it was a wonder to walk around – heaps of tagine pots, Moroccan slippers, jewels, oils galore, while Saeed kept encouraging me to eat random bits of what looked like twig that he plucked from the market stalls that were apparently good for women (he didnt say how, and they tasted like tree. I even got a tongue splinter.)

Nick Says: You could tell Saeed loved showing off Tiznit. He took us to his favourite Tagine place to eat lunch (it was good, but not as good as the Atlas Kasbah), and ducked and dived around the souk chatting to people and showing off various stalls. He even decided to buy Bee a present, a lovely scarf to help her in the heat. It was such a kind gesture from a tour guide, and was yet another example of the warmth and friendliness we found everywhere in this country.

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Bee Says: From Tiznit we drove out into the proper heights of the Atlas Mountains to the Ben Tachfine dam.  As we wound narrow roads I had no idea what to expect, and as we stepped out of the car I couldn’t catch my breath. No photo or words or describing will do justice to how beautiful the view was, and how silent and peaceful and just mind-blowing this moment was. I couldn’t have felt further from home. An 86 year old nomad lived at the top of the mountain and invited us for mint tea… and offered Nick to swap me for his donkey. It was quite a nice donkey.

Nick Says: Luckily for Bee though donkeys are my number one most hated animal (a childhood biting incident is to blame) so I was able to refuse the nomads offer. He was a properly grizzled old dude though, and was obviously loving life at the top of the dam. Driving around the mountains made me realise just how vast and empty Morocco is. It felt like we would go for hours without seeing a single sign of life, instead bumping along dusty roads and staring at the parched landscape. Then suddenly we would hit a wellspring of life and activity, or perhaps pass a few nomads in tents, before leaving the far behind in the distance.

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Bee Says: So, days merged into days, and a lot of dips in the pools, hours reading in the dusky sun, exploring the high Atlas and sleeping (we averaged around ten hours a night) and for our final trip we drove out to a surf town near Essaouira which is fondly referred to locally as banana beach. Weirdly enough Nick & I had never tried surfing before, despite me having holidayed at Fistral Beach in Newquay and Nick having er.. lived in Australia! I can’t remember at what point we agreed to try in Morocco, but we thought it would be nice to try something entirely new for the first time together. We went with Surf Town who we were reassured were experts with beginners, and they lived up to the claims. We paid £54 for half a day surfing and that included a very hands-on tutor, equipment and wet-suits. We joined a group of 5 friendly Russians and together embarked on our efforts to take on the sea.

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I couldn’t believe how MASSIVE the surf board was. I am a weakling, and could barely lift the thing let alone contemplate riding it! But actually once in the water (and attached to my foot) it was a little easier to control. We learnt the basics of surfing on the sand, and then hit the (huge) waves. I have to say, I absolutely loved it. Surfing requires intense concentration, a good sense of timing (to know when to paddle, when to attempt to stand etc) but once you get up on the board it’s the most satisfying, free feeling. Although every moment of exhilaration is matched with an hour of face-planting into crashing waves, sand and (for me) rocks. Woops. I definitely caught the surf bug though, and it helped to be doing it in a glorious exotic location with camels roaming the beach and herons swooping overhead. I managed to stand up once, whereas Nick was basically Beach-Boys level surf star within hours. What I didn’t expect was the world of pain that followed the next day. Every muscle in my body was screaming, so being squished into a full-capacity Easyjet flight for nearly 4 hours wasn’t the best treatment. We both agreed that it’s something we can’t wait to try again. I can’t see us getting his n hers boards and spending the days at the beach, but I reckon we’ll definitely go again this year. It’s quite nice to have started on one of the coastlines that world class surfers long to surf on!

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So that’s the end of our first ever trip to Morocco. You have probably gathered that it stole a piece of our hearts, and we’re desperately blue at being back in -5 degree London, which currently is snowing constantly at that level that makes me feel like I’m walking around in Silent Hill. Morocco has been my best ever holiday, and I would recommend everyone and anyone to visit. You can pick and choose absolutely anything you could wish for from a holiday, and be as adventurous or as lazy as you like. I also can’t recommend Atlas Kasbah enough. Every member of staff seemed so personally invested in us having a good time, and were patient, welcoming and endlessly friendly. Nothing was too much trouble, and they made our holiday so much more special because they were from the local area so were endless sources of knowledge and tips and information.

Nick Says: Morocco is a truly remarkable country, and we barely scratched the surface on what to do there. Exploring deep into the valleys of the mountains remains a must. Diving into the manic press of humanity in Marrakesh should be experienced. A night-trek on camel to the Sahara is on the list. As is a proper trip to Essaouira. But most of all I’m tempted to come back to the Atlas Kasbah and do it all again. Which is something I’ve never felt before – I love doing new things and seeing new places. So that must mean Morocco and the Atlas Kasbah did something truly special.

Bee and Nick Say: (Back in current day mode!) Despite all our further travels, there were only a handful places in Latin America that lived up to Morocco in our minds. Morocco is a truly magical place, which sounds like a cheesy term, but its accurate. It’s a land of souks, and silver, and special tea, and nomad fires burning in the distance. The alien-ness to anything anywhere else is palpable; from the warmth of the locals, the unique cuisine, and the language, smells, colours and nature. There’s also a vital lesson to learn from Morocco and its people; the most important thing in life is taking time to just sit down, share a tea and live alongside one another in peace for a moment… or a lot of moments. Nothing is better than that. On our last night we were treated to the most spectacular lightning storms we have ever seen, as if we hadn’t seen enough already, one last gift from one of the most picturesque parts of the world.

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A Christmas Market Weekend in Ghent : Part ii.

(Hold your horses! Have you read Part i?)

Bee Says: Although Ghent had been kind to us so far, the weather unfortunately hadn’t. So imagine our surprise when we woke up on Saturday morning to clear blue skies and dazzling winter sunshine. As this was our only full day for exploring, it made the drizzly start and finish completely worth it. We had quite the packed agenda which took in the really diverse offerings Ghent has in bucketloads. Firstly we wanted to take a walk to the tourist information office, just to double check they didn’t have any top tips that we had missed with our Google researching.

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If you are heading off to Ghent, one of my tips would be… don’t bother with the Tourist Information office! Talk about the opposite of helpful; it has recently had a make-over and inside is so slick and swanky that actually there is barely any information, there were no leaflets in English that we could see (!) and the staff were the least friendly people we met in all of Ghent (when everyone on the whole was SO friendly) so yeah, not a exactly helpful on the tourist or information front. We decided to stick to our planned schedule and hunted out the part of Ghent we were most excited about… the castle! Having already visited the magnificent Kalmar castle during my Swedish summer adventure I had high hopes. It was looking pretty good from the outside though…

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Another top tip about Ghent, is that if you are under 25 you get cheap tickets EVERYWHERE. So make sure you mention it, and milk it! I only know this fact because every time I tried to go somewhere or eat something I’d be asked my age. I was left entirely baffled by this (is there an age limit for this castle? What kind of castle IS this?!) until I realised that I was actually receiving the best Christmas present of all. Multiple people were thinking I was under 25! And I wasn’t even wearing make up for the whole trip! Thanks Ghent, having turned the dreaded 3-0 this year, you were a huge confidence boost to this old face.

The castle was in its Winter Wonderland phase, which seemed to just be the average castle lay out but with the odd jarring sight; such as an unexpected giant polar bear statue that took up an entire room and a huge Christmas tree with cushions underneath for kids to sit on… right next to a room of torture instruments. There were a few rooms filled with armour, maps, guns and various bits of military before we followed signs to a windy narrow spiral stone staircase that felt like it went on forever. Luckily there were little slits so you could judge that solid ground was creeping further and further away, otherwise it might have started to feel a bit Groundhog Day. Eventually we burst out into the sunshine again and were at the top of the castle; where we took in gorgeous birds eye views of Ghent; the rivers and stacked higgeldy-piggeldy buildings. I’d be roaming around taking photos and craning my neck over the top of the battlements, when I realised I had been stood on a rickety looking plank of wood with absolutely nothing beneath it. So I snapped another shot of my death-defying moment and hurried back towards the safety of the long stroll back down.

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IMG_1591Being King (or Queen Bee!) of the castle at the top was definitely the highlight, but if you are into the grizzlier aspects of history then a treat awaits.The main exhibition in the castle gives detailed accounts of the various forms of torture that was committed there; with demonstrations, detailed graphic drawings and models. It felt a bit of a shame that here everything was translated into perfect English, whereas that wasn’t the case in the rest of the castle! So I can tell you far more about the torture than any of the actual history. The main thing that I picked up was that the fancy folk who it was initially built for quickly pronounced it was TOO COLD, moved out, and it became mainly used for fighting and torture. I can sympathise with the cold thing. When George R R Martin wrote this, I swear he was talking about Ghent in winter…

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After our jaunt in the castle it was time to hoover up some lunch, so we decided to go graze on some festive fare. The day before at the market I had seen a quirky looking stall that sold something called a potato Twizzler. They had this nifty contraption where the lads on the stall stick a potato through what looks like a Play-Doh factory, and it spirals the potato onto a wooden stick. That’s then fried and covered in whatever spice/herb combo takes your fancy. We opted for their recommended house mixed spice and paprika, wish lashing of mayo.

IMG_1588The result it a hybrid of crisps and fried potato, and insanely tasty. We asked the boys on the stall a million questions; which resulted in them very sincerely informing us that their boss had patented the contraption and you couldn’t get these Twizzlers in London or even ENGLAND yet. So I had to laugh when last week I went to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, London and saw a stall selling the exact same thing under a different name! At least it meant Nick got to taste them too. The Twizzlers were handily positioned right next to a stall selling my all time favourite dessert of the sugar, cinnamony, deep fried variety. With added Nutella. Ah… it would have been rude not to.

IMG_1568With warm bellies, we set off on a less historical mission. Let’s gloss over the fact I was a wannabe graffiti artist as a teen (true story, but you have to buy me mulled wine to hear the cringy details and just how legal it all was!) That aside, I’ve always been a huge street art admirer and Nick’s elder brother Chris had told me there was some nice art here to scope out. It turns out that there is an actual street art heaven in the form of Werregarenstraat that is a long stretch of alley, entirely legal and constantly changing with new pieces and paste ups. Definitely worth a detour, for a contemporary taste of Belgium.

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Next on the Ghent tour was a BOAT ride! It felt like time to give our numb toes a rest from pounding the cobbles, and there is always something extra to gain from viewing a city from a new, watery angle. There seemed to be two main tour operators running from just outside the Marriott along Korenlei, they were the same price and the only difference was that one side had open top boats, the other closed. Despite the chill, we wanted a decent view so opted for the open top boat. We had to wait about 20 minutes, but were soon boarding and setting off for the tour which was a generous 30 minutes. I was too busy gazing and listening to take too many snaps, but the tour took us to every corner of Ghent and offered us a look at places we wouldn’t have had time to walk to. The tour guide did a great job of translating into 4 languages, although my ear muffs might have prevented me hearing quite all the details to report back here. It was enjoyable all the same, and I’d definitely recommend taking the tour to learn alot of facts in a small amount of time.

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After all that it was time to retreat for some more cloud-bed reading (I had my nose stuck in a particularly gripping Tana French novel and was itching to read some more). Earlier in the day we had made an executive decision which is quite unusual for us. Usually we sample as many different restaurants and cafes as possible… but the meal at Monopol the night before had been so amazingly good, and the service so perfect (aka left alone to natter a million miles a minute without disruption!) we booked a table again! I also had a case of serious unfinished business. Remember my massive case of food envy? Well I fixed that by ordering myself the mysterious delicious cuckoo dish. Oh! But prior to that we built up our appetite with one last look at the market and a go on the carousel. I know, we are far too old for carousels, but they are about the bravest either of us gets at the fairground and we can never resist going on; if we are together we share the embarrassment.

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After another incredible nights sleep, we woke feeling really sad that it was our last day in Ghent. The weather mimicked our mood; and the sleety ice rain was back. We had a lazy morning, getting breakfast in the hotel before one last mission… a tour around St Nicholas’ church! In the centre of Ghent there are three beautiful churches laid out in a line. St Nicholas’ is the middle, and in my opinion, most impressive. Am I biased because my fiance is called Nicholas and encouraged us to go and see his namesake? Yes, yes I am!

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I’m not usually too into churches, but this one really had something about it.The huge stone pillars, intricate wood carvings depicting all sorts of fruit, fauna, cherubs and heavenly goings ons. There was a real sense of calm and freedom as we walked around; both particularly noting the organ that was set way up in the top of the church; which must be quite something to see when it’s being played. It was a lovely place to hide from the damp outdoors and definitely worth popping in; it’s free!

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All that was left before catching our train was to potter through a few more streets en route to the tram that would whisk us back to the train station. We felt like we’d really only scratched the surface of Ghent, slightly due to weather and slightly due to the Marriott luring us into spending so much time lazing there! I am so glad we did though, as for once I returned to work refreshed rather than needing another break from my break. It also means there is a lot of reasons to return, which I’d really like to do but perhaps in summer to explore the parks and outdoor space, and slurp a fruit beer on the river side.

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Nick Says: Hello! I’ve been missing in action the last few entries, forgive me! While Bee was off gallivanting around Europe’s most underrated country, I wasn’t just sitting around in my boxers watching films and drinking beer (I was). I also returned to the West Country, scene of Bee’s birthday surprise  and more recently the beginning of my epic British road-trip.I spent the weekend with my brother, my sister-in-law, and my adorable nephew and niece. My nephew Riley is 4, and has just realised how amazing Christmas is. He woke me at 7am one morning with the rapid-fire, no pausing for breath sentence, ‘It’s 19 days to Christmas. Do you know it’s 19 days to Christmas? I love Christmas. Do you love Christmas?’. He also asked me how Father Christmas knew where to find me and Bee last year (as we were in Colombia), so I told the tiny true believer that my Mum & Dad (aka Nanny & Da) wrote him a letter. I have a feeling he’s going to be one excited little boy in a few days. Anyway, I then returned to find a tired but happy Bee, laden with delicious Belgian chocolates for me. Win!

Bee Says: Thanks again to Eurostar for the generous covering of my travel, and enabling me to discover the Marriott with the saved pennies; a new home from home. Thanks mum for being a fantastic travel companion and giving me such a lovely excursion from London rat racing; and quite a different trip to the tropical ones I was taking this time last year. Ghent really does have something for everyone, and I think it’s time it stepped out of Bruges shadows. I enjoyed it just as much, if not more.

A Christmas Market Weekend in Ghent : Part i. (in Association with Eurostar)

Bee Says: I had barely stepped foot back onto English soil from gallivanting around Paris (read all about it here and here) when I was packing my suitcase and heading back onto my new favourite form of transport; the Eurostar! My mum and I have a tradition of going on a weekend city break every year. We’ve been known to pack ourselves off to chic European locations like Paris… Bruges… Liverpool… Manchester… Nottingham (it honestly is chic! more here) and Lille (more here). This trip was an extra special one for us, because we’ve been planning it since before Nick & I went off backpacking around the world and it was sort of an anchor in the future where we knew we’d be reunited and have some real quality time.

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Our criteria for this trip was:

  • Somewhere we could reach on the Eurostar (it’s faster & greener than flying, and as this blog reveals; I have clocked up way too many air-miles in the last year)
  • Not too far to travel / easy connections
  • Something festive!
  • Walk-able once there
  • Delicious Food / Wine

I was fortunate enough to be approached by Eurostar who told me all about their “Any Belgian Station” deal as we got to planning our trip, and it seemed to be the perfect solution. “Any Belgian Station” tickets start at £79 return and the offer includes Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and stations along the Belgian Coast. So all we had to do was pick one! In the end we selected Ghent because we have already been to Bruges and when we did, we passed through Ghent on the train and had both noted how beautiful it looked. Plus… we knew that Ghent could easily tick off the something festive criteria, as it is famous for the traditional Christmas market.

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Soon enough the first weekend in December rolled around and we were up at the crack of dawn to escape London before the rush hour crush. On the journey over we were in the standard premier coach which was lovely; spacious, with plush leather seats, those fancy little table lights, free magazines (in three languages; if you fancy testing your skills) and breakfast consisting of oodles of tea/coffee, fresh bread, croissants and jam. The staff were so friendly and it made for a really pleasant experience as we zoomed out to Brussels. The Any Belgian Station ticket means you can swiftly change at Brussels onto your connecting train; a top tip is to work out online what the final destination of the train you need might be; as with our train Ghent wasn’t the last stop. The clouds gathered and swirled as we set off towards Ghent, and by the time we arrived we were met with pouring rain. This made navigating our way to our hotel slightly tricky, as I held a map my mum had smartly printed out in one hand and tried to connect to Google maps in the other. The train station is a 45 minute walk out of the town centre, and our grand plans for walking along to canal into town were soggily spoilt as we admitted defeat after becoming lost within 5 minutes! We did stumble across the most bikes I have ever seen in one place though. Ghent is all about the cycling, I don’t think I saw one taxi, and barely any buses, the whole time I was there.

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Damp and disorientated we spotted a very swanky looking opticians and felt so self concious as we rolled our suitcase in; creating puddles in the lovely shop and clearly not looking to buy a new set of specs! But immediately a very dapper Belgian map swept us inside, printed off non-rain-soaked maps and set us off in the way of the tram that would take us almost right to the door of our hotel. He was so kind and generous; and it really turned our spirits around! It turned out that getting into central Ghent was super easy; there’s a #1 tram that runs into town about every 5 minutes and leaves from right outside the train station. We were soon in eyesight of our hotel; which we didn’t know when we booked was on the most photographed street in all of Ghent; Korenlei. You can see why!

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Because Eurostar had kindly covered my travel costs, we decided to use the money saved there and treat ourself to a more upmarket hotel than we might usually opt for. The Marriott in Ghent is their flagship hotel, and you can absolutely see why. I wouldn’t say either my mum or I know much about hotels and chains and brands; or have a preference. In fact, our standard choice is a Premier Inn! But after being thoroughly spoilt in our Marriott experience I think we have both been utterly convinced by this trip that we would seek out a Marriott wherever we go in future! Firstly it helped that on arrival we could hardly believe our eyes that we were staying on the most picturesque, stunning strip of Ghent. Then the welcome we received was so genuine, and nothing was too much trouble for the staff who checked us in (between us we managed to have a lot of questions!) and the hotel itself is SO cool. A combination of authentic old stone and modern glass structure; the lobby area was home to a huge Christmas tree and a cosy bar and restaurant area. At night there were carol singers around a piano, which was an unexpected festive touch. That’s not to mention our room. Despite being a standard room it was mammoth, with two huge beds as soft and magical as sleeping on an actual cloud and a bath for us to rest weary legs after days pounding the cobbles. The atmosphere in the hotel was so homely that it was very tempting just to stay lazing in our room reading (we did that a lot) or sitting underneath the tree drinking coffee, that always came with a shot of chocolate Jenever, a local Belgian liquor, in a glass filled with whipped cream. No matter what time of day! It worked a treat at thawing out numb toes and fingers; as it was barely above 0 degrees for our entire trip.

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Dry, rested and happy; we eventually bundled up in all our winter woollens and headed out to the Ghent Christmas Market, which fortunately was having its opening night on the exact day we arrived. The hotel was in perfect location for the market, which was taking place about a five minute walk away with chalets, fairground rides and bars winding their way from Korenmarkt up to Sint-Baafsplein. We explored about half of the market; taking in all the smells and sights of mulled-everything, local cheeses, chocolate and knitted bits and bobs. We happened across an ice rink in the centre and to celebrate the opening night there was a performance from some professional skaters, which was way more impressive than watching Londoners who’ve drunk too much mulled wine stumbling around clinging to the edges (my usual Christmas ice rink experience!)

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Unfortunately the rain from earlier had now turned in to some sort of ice rain that was seeping in through our hats and scarves. We set out towards Patershol; the historic restaurant quarter in the hope we could find some local delicacies. I blame our Jenever-addled brains as unfortunately we set off in entirely the wrong direction, managed to find ourselves on the only sketchy isolated street in all of Ghent (!) and then alongside a canal on the outskirts of town. By this point we were really cold and really wet; so we walked back to the lights of the big wheel in the distance and then decided to go to a restaurant called Monopol (Korenmarkt 37) that was just round the corner from our hotel. Most of the eating places near our hotel had been quite cookie-cutter looking places with tourist menus and outside eating areas covered in plastic (that I imagine are gorgeous in summer months). Monopol had stood out; set slightly back off the street with cosy candle-lit tables and an ambience you could pick up even from outside. As we blustered in from the wintry weather, we were seated next to a radiator where we laid out all our sorry soggy knitwear. The restaurant seemed to be run by just one chap who was doing everything and managing an amazing job of seeming attentive and calm, when it was quite bustling and there was a large rowdy-sounding group in a room upstairs.

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The food was AMAZING. I honestly don’t think we could have found anything better even if we had walked for hours, successfully located Patershol and tried every place we liked the look of. We shared cheese croquettes and shrimp in garlic for starter, then I had steak with Roquefort and my mum had something that had curiously been called “cuckoo” on the menu but was actually a local dish made up of chicken in a pastry en croute case with sausage meat and white sauce. I had instant uncontrollable food envy, despite my steak being perfect. Also please note the Everest-sized mountain of frites. I never thought I could be defeated by frites aka one of my favourite foods, but this portion left me shamefully sending some back un-devoured. We had a lovely rose wine, that was unlike any I have had before in that it was a little bit sparkling. I am kicking myself for not making a note of the name now.

On the walk back to our hotel we had chance to admire the Ghent light plan. As if Ghent could get any more beautiful than in daylight; the city has an award-winning lighting plan. When the sun sets, the city lights up again in a new way, as thousands of lights are switched on. It’s not a mishmash of styles, but a carefully crafted network of atmospheres and accents that make the most of light and shadows to create a totally different looking place to the one you’ve walked around all day. The concept was developed by the famous lighting designer Roland Jéol and I feel like this is something that gives Ghent the edge on anywhere else I have been in Europe; as it’s unusual to be able to explore a city in an entirely new way once darkness falls.

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Bee’s Mum Says: What an honour, and unexpected surprise, to be asked to write my thoughts about Ghent. I have read every Twenty Something Burn Out blog and loved sharing all the ‘armchair’ experiences over the last year; and now I am to make my own real life contribution – a bit scary, but fun too!

I don’t expect many readers of this blog are as old as me, but, like Bee, you might one day take an older relative to Ghent, so I will tell you a few relevant snippets that may be helpful. Firstly, we didn’t realise it but we went a month too soon for me – in Ghent Senior Concessions start at the age of 65, not 60 as is usual in the UK. Secondly, and this would apply to any age, but more so for older people, if you have a suitcase with a handle that usually seamlessly follows along behind you on our pavements, then think again before you go to Ghent. There are cobbled streets everywhere and it feels like you have to haul the suitcase over every join in the cobbles, to and from the hotel! Thirdly, and we were lucky that this wasn’t a factor on our visit, if it was at all icy then those cobbles would have been treacherous and I don’t think I would have dared go out at all. When we arrived it was damp and a kind fellow tourist grabbed our case and took it down some very slippery looking steps by a bridge – only one example of the friendliness that we found everywhere, from locals and tourists alike.

Having said all that I must say we had a brilliant weekend, and fell in love with Ghent. The weather, which is of course unpredictable, is the only other factor to take into consideration, and on our full day of exploring we were lucky enough to have sun and blue sky all day, which enhanced the whole experience for us. I will leave Bee to give you the low down of how we spent our time, and the wonderful hotel experience. I can’t wait for our next adventure!

Bee Says: Thanks Mum – a most VIP blogging guest!  I’ll leave you here for now; with part iicoming soon and taking us to the castle, a riverboat tour, back for Christmas Market the sequel and St Nicholas’ church. You will also have a sneak peek of how Nick spent his time, whilst we were getting festive without him. As I mentioned, Eurostar very kindly covered my tickets to Ghent in exchange for sharing the details of Any Belgian Station deal wide and far. I have to say that it took less time to get from London to Ghent (just under 3 hours) than it sometimes takes me to get home to Bradford! So it really is easily done for a weekend. Another perk of Eurostar is the baggage allowance in comparison to a plane, which I definitely needed once I had hit the chocolate shops on our last day. I also hadn’t previously known that Eurostar tickets give you 2 for 1 entry in some museums and galleries in Paris, Lille and Brussels which is a good excuse for me to go back to all three. If you fancy exploring Belgium then you can buy tickets here or by phoning 08432 186186. You even have a few days left to get over there and hit the Christmas markets if you’re behind on your shopping!

Project Opportunity Nicaragua

Bee & Nick Say: Hola! In a break from our current European adventures, we just thought we’d cast your mind back to our adventures in Latin America, and in particular Leon in Nicargaua. One of the things that is never far from our minds is how lucky we are to be able to travel to these countries, and then share our adventures with you guys. But for many people who live there, daily life is a struggle. It was something that was really brought home to us when we met Deborah and Kate, two amazing women who help run Project Opportunity. We still remain in contact, and recently they asked us to help spread the word about them by sharing their fund-raising letter. They’re currently fundraising for next year, and if you can be generous in this festive season it would be much appreciated. We unfortunately saw a lot of corruption with charities and NGOs in Latin America, with funds not going where they were supposed to, so it was breath of fresh air to discover Project Opportunity. Everyone of your donated pennies goes to where its needed, rather than into someone’s back pocket, so you really will be helping make a difference, however much or little you can spare. Anyway, that’s enough from me, here’s their fundraising letter and details on how you can help…

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Deborah & Kate Say: Project Opportunity begins its 7th year of grass-roots work in Leon, Nicaragua, thanks to many generous contributions and several grants. We’re writing to ask for your help to support Project Opportunity programs in 2015. Soon we’ll be joining our on-the-ground team in Leon. To learn more about how Project Opportunity benefits Nicaraguan children and families please visit our website www.projectopp.org.

Here are examples of accomplishments during 2014:
  • Preschool bathroom and septic system – constructed to replace pit latrines and benefit 75 children and staff, what an improvement!
  • Hotel housekeeping job training – 11 mothers completed our classes and internships in Leon hotels; 4 are now employed and the remainder receive coaching throughout their job search.
  • “Save a Life” classes – 18 classes were taught for 240 teachers, social workers, hotel and restaurant workers and parents. To date, we know of 9 lives that have been saved by former participants.
  • Scholarships – 10 dedicated students receive tutoring, counseling support and payment of their school expenses.
  • Primary education – 6 adults attend our twice weekly classes and will earn their 6th grade diplomas in December.
  • Dental health – 14 mothers were hired and trained to help us teach oral hygiene and tooth brushing with over 250 children.
  • Educational and teaching materials - 7 preschool classrooms received books, paper, posters, crayons, scissors, toys and more.
What’s new for 2015? In addition to continuing the above programs, we have some new plans for the coming year:
  • Practical adult classes on topics such as basic accounting for home businesses (e.g., making and selling tortillas), job search skills and parenting strategies for young mothers.
  • Construction projects: In collaboration with parents, we’ll help with a new preschool classroom and replace the faulty wiring and hazardous electrical system at the preschool.
Please consider contributing to Project Opportunity this year. Because we continue to pay our own expenses and most overhead costs, your donated dollars directly serve Nicaraguan children and families.
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Here’s how to make your tax-deductible donation:
By checkPlease make your check to: Project Opportunity  and mail to:
Project Opportunity
PO Box 22302
Seattle, WA 98122
USA
 
By credit card and Paypal:    www.projectopp.org
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Nick & Bee Say: So there you go, please consider donating to this amazing cause. It really is well worth it!

A Birthday Weekend in Paris: Part ii

Nick Says: Bonjour! We last left you drinking in Brewberry and eating midnight crepes. Sunday in Paris dawned bright, clear, but cold, and my day’s itinerary was revealed to me (Bee had planned everything meticulously). It was to be a true day of dreams, and started in the best way – by going to a nearby patisserie and grabbing some coffee and pastries. Near our hotel was the original Eric Kayser. Now a global chain spanning several continents, the first (and some say the best) is still open for business on rue Monge. Very patiently understanding our very, very, basic French, we were able to order hot drinks and delicious croissants (and maybe an extra pan au chocolat too) which we quickly wolfed down. Then it was off for a walk through the empty Sunday morning streets of Paris to the Jardin des Plantes, one of the finest parks in Paris. On the banks of the Seine, it houses many things, including an incredible Alpine garden with its own micro-climate. If you ever find yourself in this beautiful city I highly recommend an afternoon here – we barely scratched the surface.

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Our first stop-off here was to the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes. The oldest civic zoological garden in the world, it houses mid to small sized rare animals. Zoos are always slightly controversial. It’s never nice to see animals caged for our amusement, but without them these species may well die out never to be seen again. For what it’s worth, I thought the facilities here were among the better ones I’ve seen, and in many ways preferable to London Zoo, which I’m not a fan of. Apart from a sad Orangutan, none of the animals looked in any sort of distress.

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As well as the 19th century architecture, highlights in the menagerie included some sort of mountain goat whose coat was a giant white afro (disco goat), the rare and giant cassowary (razor clawed flightless birds that love to charge and attack you), and a flock of pink flamingos, who were just as smelly and bad-tempered as their wild brethren we saw in the Altiplano of Bolivia. But the best thing we both saw had to be the panthers/leopards. We just happened to miss a big crowd of people who had been watching for any signs of movement, but got bored and left. With no-one around apart from me and Bee, the panthers emerged (they had been hiding in almost plain sight). One was a big man panther, and the other an almost as big lady panther. Suddenly the man panther leapt on the lady panther, roared, then ran off to sulk in a corner. The lady panther rolled around on her back a bit, then went over to see where her bad-tempered boyfriend was. Bee asked me if they had tried to mate. I told they had. It lasted seconds. ‘No wonder he’s gone off to sulk’ replied Bee. Nobody but else had seen it. It felt pretty voyeuristic.

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Bee Says: After seeing all these glorious living animals… what better way to extend the experience than by checking them all out again… but in skeletal form! The Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée (Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy) also sits in the stunning Jardin des Plants. Inaugurated in 1898 the collection consists of finds from collections the great expeditions of the traveller-naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as from the ménagerie that we had just visited. Through the power of Google I knew what to expect when we walked through the huge wooden front doors of the building. Nick on the other-hand had no idea, and just LOOK at his face!

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I’m not exaggerating when I say that despite seeing half of the world in the last year; this is one of the most incredible sights of them all. It’s absolutely mind boggling! To see almost every species in existance lined up amongst each other. Every bones, every vertebrae,every flipper, tail, horn and fin. From the teeny tiny birds right up to the towering elephant, whale and giraffe. There is just this in-describable atmosphere in the room; I guess from the hundreds of lives that occurred prior to becoming a gallery of Funny Bones. The museum was extremely educational; and even though it felt a bit ghoulish examining human skeletons and bones, I realised how little I knew about what I look like under all my padding. I loved the fact that the museum still feels like something from another century too; thick wood panelling and creaky floorboards and ancient labelling and phrasing. This is a real hidden treasure of Paris and one not to be missed. After taking a peek at every animal ever, there is another, quieter, floor packed with fossils and DINO bones; including a terrifying scale model of a wooly Mammoth. I am so happy those guys don’t roam around any more; they are unfathomably big (think 10 elephants stuck together – that’s the scientific description I’m sure)

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Nick Says: After all that animal time (alive and dead) it was time to cross Paris and discover more of its wonders. But this time we would be going from the almost secret, to its most famous – the Eiffel Tower. It was about an hours walk from our hotel to the tower, and a pretty nice one too – walking down the streets of Paris, imagining we lived there, popping into shops we discovered along the way and grabbing the odd coffee to warm us up and keep us going. But then before I knew it, we could spot the Eiffel Tower looming increasingly larger in the skyline. We were really about to see it! Like all iconic buildings and monuments, there’s something almost indescribable about seeing it with your own eyes. I had it the first time I saw the Sydney Opera House, Uluru, the Statue of Liberty,Michelangelo’s David, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Tikal, and even the Hollywood sign. A thrill that runs through you, the wondrous brought to life before your every eyes and made real. It looks exactly how you imagine it, but it’s more, so much more. It’s why being an armchair tourist and a real one can never compete. We need things to be made tangible to truly affect us I think. Why is tourism the biggest industry in the world? Because of moments like this. There was the Eiffel Tower, looking exactly how I expected it to, but being so much more.

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One of the best tips I’d been given about going to the top was from my brother Chris. He said not to take the lift, and instead to climb. It’s super easy, and also cheaper. It’s 15 euros to take the lift up, but you won’t have earned those views. Instead, pay 5 euros to hike up. The first benefit is that the queue to get in is a lot shorter than for the lifts, so you’ll have less time standing around on the ground and more time admiring the view. You can only climb to the second viewing platform, which for many is plenty high enough to get the incredible atmosphere and sights of Paris, but for those who do want to go all the way to the top you can buy lift tickets without the giant queues from here. Walking up to the first platform is surprisingly easy, and you can feel the workmanship of the 300ft tower all around (did I imagine that creaking?).

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After catching your breath and admiring the view, you can then tackle the second set of stairs, which is a lot harder than the first! You definitely feel the height you’re going up above the ground here, exposed to the air (if not the elements) as you are. But then you’ve made it, and Paris looks incredible! It really did blow me away up there. Here I was, the last day of my 20s, standing in one of the most iconic spots in the world. I didn’t know how else to commemorate it than buying an over-priced miniature version of the Eiffel Tower, from the gift-shop on the Eiffel Tower itself! Inception all over.

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Bee Says: We marched home from the Eiffel Tower, watching it glittering on the horizon as we walked further and further away from it and back towards the Latin Quarter. I think I mentioned last time that this is the best area to stay in to be close to the night life and so we were keen to head out to the streets where the local spend their time, around Rue Mouffetard, for Nick’s special birthday dinner. We eventually decided that the best possible dinner choice would be something involving lots of melted cheese so headed for a beautiful, rustic looking restaurant called l’assiette aux fromages. We figured if it had cheese in the title it must know its stuff! The place had such a lovely atmosphere; all gingham and Le Creuset (drool over their full range here!) and wood panelling, with a super friendly owner who greeted us like he knew it was a special occasion. We weren’t let down as we gobbled our way through French onion soup, pate and then a giant pot of molten boozy blue cheese fondue. Oh and a bottle of their best red wine.

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We snuck out into the freezing night with warm bellies full of cheese; but as some inspiring Brazilians taught us in Manaus “the night is a child!” (we think they meant the night is young, but this has become our favourite phrase to bust out when one of us wants to stay out late) And so it was on to another creperie; but we got bored of queuing, so we headed to the Arts Bar that sits along side a quaint little courtyard and fountain. It was there that I ordered a lovely raspberry beer. Nick ordered a local beer… only to discover it was 12%! Perhaps the hint was in the name (the beer of the devil!) and Nick spluttered and squirmed his way through this delicacy. On our early hour stroll back to the hotel, we were very grateful that our home for the night was only round the corner as I think we’d walked about 15 miles in total that day! Oh… and you know that Eiffel Tower miniature we bought on the actual Eiffel Tower that Nick was so proud about? Lets just say the wine and boozy fondue combo meant that someone left it it in its box and gift bag on the floor of the restaurant. WOOPS!

Nick Says: And so Monday came around. Our last day in Paris, and also my 30th birthday! After arranging me a delicious breakfast in bed (thanks to the hotel for being so accommodating with this), Bee then pointed us in the direction of Montmatre for a day of enjoying one of the more picturesque parts of the city. Once again we walked (taking an hour or so), and you really get to see how the city changes from arrondissement to arrondissement. We went via the Moulin Rouge, which as you can see from the photo below, is pretty shit. If you’re in Paris and want to specifically see this place, my advice would be not to bother. Honestly, all I’ve said about iconic places only truly coming alive when you visit them can be disregarded here. The Moulin Rouge is far more appealing and fulfilling in the history books and in movies…

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Speaking of movies though, we also managed to get some lunch in les Deux Moulins, known better as the cafe Amelie works in. Fortunately this lived up to the hype, as beyond a few posters, and a little shrine to the film featuring props in the toilet/telephone box, it’s still very much a cafe first, tourist destination second.

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Consuming yet more cheese and wine, we then slowly made our way up to the Sacre Cour, past the hundreds of tourists (Montmatre is definitely not a peaceful place to spend a Sunday afternoon).

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It was worth it though, as the view was spectacular up here. Then all we had to do was run the gauntlet of dodgy guys trying to tie bracelets onto us as we went down the hill (the only time something like this happened while we were here) and we could march back to the Latin Quarter. Our time in Paris was drawing to a close, but we still had to time to cram in one more amazing thing – Notre Dame Cathedral. Put off by the huge queues earlier in the day, we swung by around 5pm, when we were able to gain immediate entry. Before I go on though, the day before we had walked past the hulking Gothic cathedral, as the famous bells chimed. I couldn’t help but make the obvious, ‘the bells!’ comment, only to have Bee look at me in wonder and ask, ‘is this where the Hunchback of Notre Dame is set?!’. Sometimes, for a very clever person, Bee can still amaze me.

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Inside Notre Dame was incredible, Not a place for quiet contemplation by any means, as the sheer number of sight-seeing going on puts paid to that, but a place where you can truly be in awe about the commitment to make a building like this hundreds of years ago. It was an inspiring and intimidating place.

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But then all to soon, it was time to leave. We were back at gare du nord, and checking in to Eurostar. But there was one last birthday treat – upon finding out it was my 30th birthday the impeccably stylish Frechman at the check-in upgraded me to 1st Class! Almost made me leaving my 20s behind worth it. So we sped back to the UK fuelled by more cheese and wine, and looked back at Paris as perhaps the perfect weekend city break, especially for those based in the UK. Friendlier than you’re led to believe, easily walkable, and full of incredible sights and experiences around every corner, it’s a place I’m already looking forward to returning to. I’m making a list of places I didn’t get to see – and I think that says it all.

Bee Says: Paris really did have it all; and we are already itching to go back. The main take-away I had was how friendly the city is. I am really perturbed by the reputation the locals have; because as far as I can see it is completely incorrect. It was like any capital city in a foreign place in that you get out of it what you put in. We made effort to speak the language and smile a lot; and everyone we met made an effort to communicate back and welcome us. One final Parisian note… eagle eyed blog readers might spot that yes, I was that girl that spent 3 days in Paris and wore a different striped top every day and didn’t even realise until I was coming home. I clearly own WAY too many stripes! Paris, we loved you, thank you for giving Nick the best 30th possible and maybe, kinda, beating Machu Picchu!

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A Birthday Weekend In Paris : Part i.

Bee Says: Well, it’s time to ‘fess up and admit the fact that from this moment on both Nick and I are living a serious lie. We are no longer TwentySomething (Burnouts), as this weekend Nick turned the grand old 3-0, making us both very much ThirtySomethings which definitely does not have the same ring to it. We won’t be re-branding, we will continue to live a lie and clutch to our youth, and we’d appreciate you keeping our secret! Shh! So, the bar was set extremely high for Nick’s 30th for two reasons. The first being that he took great time and effort on my 30th back in May when we went adventuring in Exmoor and the second being that, well, we spent his last birthday climbing Machu Picchu mountain which is kind of hard to beat. I had known for a while that I wanted to take Nick to Paris because he has never been (despite seeing almost all of Europe and the world!) and I haven’t been since I was a teenager; and then I went with my marvellous mum and so I haven’t done the whole city of love romantic thing! I booked the trip in June and since then have had to live with the secret which had nearly finished me off before we even stepped foot into France. Anyone who knows us in real life will know that Nick hates not knowing something and that I am the biggest northern motor-mouth when it comes to secrets. These two character traits combined led to him incessantly questioning me; and me having to basically become a mute for months in order not to spill. Finally, 5.30am on Saturday rolled around and I could give Nick his first present and breathe a huge sigh of relief, before shuttling us out of the house and onto the Eurostar.

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Nick Says: I remember asking Bee to take me to Paris even when we racing about Latin America. Despite having been to a fair few places in France over the years, I’d never quite made it to the capital. It felt like a really classic place to spend your 30th birthday, but then I threw a spanner in the works and also asked Bee to make my birthday trip a surprise. Talk about demanding… And so it was that Bee completely managed to trick me. I thought I’d blown my chance to go to Paris (and ride the Eurostar there which is half the fun of going to Europe) and I clambered into the taxi bleary-eyed but raring to go. Bee had told me we were off to an airport. But instead we drove to St Pancras, and it was off to Paris! Perfect! But of course panic set it – I couldn’t speak the language (months of Spanish had driven any lingering Francais from my head) and I was worried that Paris had a reputation for not being welcoming to us English speakers. Would the Parisians mock me? What was there to do in Paris anyway? Beyond the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre I actually knew next to nothing about the city. Luckily Bee had provided me with a guidebook, so I could spend the 2 hour journey there frantically researching. But then suddenly we arrived. We were in Paris. And of course it was all so familiar and looked incredible.It has that similar feeling to New York. You may never have been there, but of course you know Paris. You’ve seen it a thousand times, in films, on adverts, in magazines, and online. All my doubts disappeared – I was ready to get out there and start exploring the city.

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Bee Says: After a speedy whoooosh from St Pancras to the Gare Du Nord, we arrived to crisp chilly air and a beautiful blue sky. We hopped in a taxi and had our first proper taste of Paris; with a driver who ranted, raved and beeped his horn wildly for the whole 15 minutes it took to reach our hotel. This did at least mean that we knew some French by the time we checked in… but only swear words. I wanted somewhere special to stay for such a special occasion, and after a lifetime of TripAdvisor stalking I opted for the boutique Hotel Atmospheres. The hotel was something I was concerned about; as I felt it could really make or break the whole weekend. Luckily any doubts were quashed with one look at the beaming receptionist who greeted us and exclaimed “Welcome to Paris!” The hotel room was chic and opulent (I now want golden glittery flocked tiles in my shower please) and nothing was ever too much trouble, with the staff endlessly going out of their way to make us feel comfortable. For such a hip hotel; it managed to maintain a sense of homeliness that we enjoyed in the better hostels on our big trip; whilst still delivering on the luxurious “treat” feeling of a really swanky establishment. It was honestly one of the best hotels either of us has ever stayed in. Jackpot! Hotel Atmosphere is in the heart of the Latin Quarter; the East London of Paris, which was the ideal location to walk to all the sights in the day but then stay close to home for the nightlife.

Having already been awake for 6 hours; we took advantage of the fluffy cloud bed for a power nap and then it was time to pound the pavements and really explore Paris! I had prepared an itinerary for each day (control freak!) which we loosely stuck to so that we could fit everything in. For our first foray into the city; we walked down to the river and across to the Marais area. This was a fantastic opportunity to start getting our bearings and a sense of how the city slots together. En route we walked past this beautiful art deco/nouveau department store which sadly seems to be sitting derelict but apparently will be renovated in the next year and revived to its former glory; which is already a good excuse to go back.

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As our bellies started grumbling, Nick used his burger-spidey-sense to lead us to Blend, Paris’ #1 Burger joint as tipped off to us by the delightful fellow burger-botherer Wish Wish Wish Carrie’s Paris City Guide. Don’t be put off if you arrive to a queue; we had three tables worth of French folk ahead of us and were still seated within ten minutes; and boy was it worth it. We both went for the signature which was a serious stack of burger, bacon, blue cheese and onion confit; with sides of sweet potato and FRENCH fries; it was a dreamy first dish and the perfect feed to set us on our way. The waitress also gave me a wink as she handed me my diet coke; I think she picked the name especially. Shucks!

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Le Marais is a stunning arts district of Paris; with historical haunts and ancient architecture around every corner. It is such a joy just to wander the cobbles and peer up, down and all around at the beautiful buildings where turrets, wooden shutters and stained glass are standard. There are plenty of original shopping arcades to potter through; now filled with independent artists, designers and fabric shops. We spent plenty of time peering in through windows of various art galleries and even watched an old-fashioned Parisian tailor creating a suit from scratch. This is still very much the artistic heart of Paris and there seemed to be an exhibition or gallery party in every other street; with the great and grand of the city spilled out onto the street sipping champagne. We weren’t bold enough (or good enough at French) to try and sneak into one! We did however pop into Merci (111 Boulevard Beaumarchais, 75003) which was sort of a French Ikea and a rabbit warren of everything from books to crockery to homeware to clothes and stationery.

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As the sun started to dip we needed to stop for a leg-rest and Nick was keen for his first French beer, so we popped into a rickety treasure trove with a cafe lurking beneath the nik-naks.

Nick Says: A weird occurrence happened to Bee and I in France. We could not stop talking Spanish! We figure that it must be because this time last year we were basically never speaking English and by this point both nearly fluent in Español. It’s almost like now our brains default click into “foreign country. must speak Spanish to be understood.” I found it frustrating not to just be able to get by as I have been used to and it was a real wake up call to how useful it is to speak the language and how improved my Spanish got in Latin America, as when we first arrived I was reliant on Bee for everything and by the end I could get by in pretty much any situation. Back to Paris and neither of us could even remember the word for WATER (agua? aqua?) and therefore we were forced to drink only alcohol until one of us remembered to Google it back at the hotel. Unfortunately the nik-nak cafe only had Carlsberg on offer for bier drinkers, which was a disappointing start.

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We thought dusk would be a fine time to visit the Louvre, and arrived just in time to see it glowing to life. Despite being nestled amongst some pretty mighty and majestic buildings, the Louvre pyramid was still enough to make you gasp at first sight.

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Bee Says: One final port of call was the Love Lock bridge; otherwise known as the Pont des Arts bridge where lovers attach a padlock with their names on to the walls and throw the key into the Seine, locking their love forever. This is one of the more controversial tourist traps, as some locals view the padlocks as vandalism and dislike the destruction of a historical monument. In fact, earlier this year the bridge had to be evacuated as parts of the bridge started to give way under the weight of the padlocks. I however am a sucker for anything that cerebrates the GOOD in the world; romance, love, hope. Hope is so important. I was surprised how moving I found the bridge; there is a really special hush and atmosphere as people gather to read the locks already hung, and then add their own romantic gesture. There are plenty of savvy salesman peddling padlocks on the bridge (and free marker pens to personalise them) so don’t worry about doing any pre-prep.

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Throwing the key into the river felt more permanent than our engagement! I can see all sides of the argument for and against the love lock bridge, but rather than feeling like a cheesy tick-the-box part of our trip it was actually really special and a memory I’ll definitely treasure. One slightly odd and frustrating for locals (I imagine) thing, is that the locks are spreading thick and fast. I noticed them on tons of the other non-official bridges, and actually wherever there was a piece of metal, be that a gate or a fence, there would be at least one or two locks. In fact, this is a different bridge entirely by Notre Dame and it’s also almost covered. Maybe at some point all the current padlocks will have to be clipped off and set free to make space for a new wave of lovers!

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Nick Says: We had grand plans to have a slap up meal out in the Latin Quarter to celebrate our first night in Paris. Instead I discovered Brewberry(18 rue du iron pot, 75005) which is a craft beer cave, serving up a list of over 50 brews from various heavy hitters such as Evil Twin, Hoppin’ Frog, Deck & Donahue and even Brewdog. We sat down at 7pm and by midnight we were still having “just one more for the road”, having been completely sucked in by the Brewberry charm and atmosphere. There was so much choice that it would have been rude not to keep sampling everything. I tried some local pale and blonde ales and Bee got stuck into the chocolatey porter and stouts. We came to a joint love-in over some Earl Grey infused pilsner. The bar was buzzy, they played every Queen song ever (what more could you ask for) and the “Brewberry Beer Geeks” took pity on our flailing Spanglish and spoke perfect English to us as they chatted knowledgeably about every brewery and showed us the best tactics for carrying up to 8 tankards at once. We even got chatting to various customers who came and went, which really gave us that back-on-the-road community feeling we have missed so desperately from travelling. All plans for food went out the window but luckily there are crepe sellers on every corner (why isn’t this a thing in London? Should I make it a thing?) so we could stagger back to our hotel with a nutella crepe in hand and a merry beery smile at our first day in Paris.

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Bee Says: Well that wraps up day one of the birthday weekend. I just want to mention a thank you to the team over at Caxton FX travel money card; who gifted us a Europe Traveller card (complete with £50 pre-loaded, which we drank most of in Brewberry – merci!) We met the Caxton team back at a blogger event in the summer and were instantly impressed by the concept. Caxon FX is a Visa card, which means you can top it up from your bank account before your trip; and then use it in as many places as you would with your usual card (anywhere with the Visa sign… so basically everywhere) and you can withdraw money as usual from ATMs. You link your bank account to the Caxton; meaning you can top up anywhere on the road at any point without actually needing to take your current / credit cards abroad. This is so appealing to us; as security is a massive issue when travelling and there would be nothing worse than having your cards stolen and your account emptied. This method of holiday currency means you only take as much as you need, and if it’s stolen it means the damage is seriously limited. It is also very handy for budgeting! Even better still is that Caxton have a snazzy app; so you can literally top-up within a minute at any time and in any place. I’ll definitely be using my Caxton any time I head away again, and will never ever take my bank cards or huge wedges of currency abroad with me again. There are enough things to stress about when it comes to travel; and now money and currency security won’t be one.

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There’s More To Sweden Than Stockholm : Part ii.

Bee Says: We last left you having done the epic cross-country drive from Northern Riala to Norrhult in the South-East. We hired an Air B&B loft space above a gorgeous home owned by Martin and Hetty. This was my first Air B&B experience and I was blown away by it; from the chatty communication before our arrival, to the warm welcome and then to being invited into Martin & Hetty’s lounge for drinks and nattering long into the night. These hosts certainly went above and beyond their host duty; and really made the holiday extra special. Encounters with locals was what made our Latin American trip so moving; and it was brilliant to share that experience again; it’s the only chance you get to get the real story on an area, and those personal tips and recommendations. Martin & Hetty also owned two of the biggest bear-dogs I have ever seen; who despite a fearsome front then went on to lollop around our feet and welcome us too. And then… when we thought it couldn’t get any better… Martin made us breakfast. Every morning! A feast to rival any 5* hotel buffet; there was fresh coffee, yoghurt, fruit, meats, cheese, hard boiled eggs and various type of fresh homemade bread with butter, jams and insanely delicious honey. I’m slightly drooling just recounting those mornings; the prospect (and tempting smells!) of those delicious wake-ups had as all up and at ‘em extra early despite it being our holiday!

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Nick Says: Satisfyingly stuffed from breakfast each morning, we then tried to waddle around sightseeing. One of the major things to see in this part of Sweden is Kalmar. A port city, it was a big deal back in the day when it formed the border between Sweden and Denmark, It also played host to the signing of the Kalmar Union, where Sweden, Denmark and Norway stopped fighting each other and created a supergroup for a while. It didn’t last, but Kalmar made history. Now a gorgeous city to wander around in and explore for a bit (excellent cobbled squares to enjoy a hugely expensive beer in), we of course found ourselves drawn to the major attraction in town – Kalmar Castle. Well I guess we had to keep up the Medieval theme of this trip…

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Kalmar Castle is an amazingly preserved treat for any castle/ornate buildings/luxury history fans. You basically get the run of the place, and can stroll around looking into the royal bedchamber and sit on thrones at will. For both child me and adult me, this was a dream come true.

As the Swedish are so kind, everything was also helpfully explained to us in English – hugely detailed exhibitions about life at the castle meant you could spend hours swatting up on Swedish politics from the 16th century, and how the castle fitted in, or you could just admire the beautiful dresses. Or do both! But the whole castle really carried off a relaxed atmosphere in keeping with the rest of Kalmar that I really enjoyed. Plus there’s loads of rabbits leaping about the place which is always nice.

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Bee Says: We’d had a good few days on the trot that involved hour upon hour of driving. Sweden is stunning and you get to experience it so much better in a hire car; enjoying the fact that they are always playing either Robyn or Abba on the local radio… But realistically, there were five of us and so life on the road was getting pretty cooped and cosy. With our unused hiking boots and itchy feet; we requested a “stay at home” day where Sue and Nigel could head out and spot houses they had seen on Hemnet and Phil, Nick and I could do something adventure-y. We hadn’t decided exactly what, and were lurking around uncertainly when Martin swooped in and in typical nothing-is-too-much-trouble manner, offered us the loan of his canoe!

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We wheeled his pride and joy down to the lake, about ten minutes away, and got stuck in. I’d never been canoeing in my entire life and was practically delirious with excitement and giddiness! I certainly hadn’t expected this to be part of the trip and it was such an unexpected “first”. I let Phil and Nick go out first (yknow, to check it would actually float!) and then I went for my first attempt. At first I was a bit TOO keen, splish splashing all over the place and never getting in the same rhythm as whichever of the boys had been kind enough to humour me out on open water!

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After a few trips out, and one time where paddled too enthusiastically towards shore and nearly flung myself and Phil out, I started to get the knack. There was a surprising level of current on the lake, so it took a bit of huff and elbow grease to get about. This was no joy ride! Actual skill and effort is required. My favourite part was floating out to the middle of the lake and then just basking in the sun, taking in the breathtaking views and listening to the water lapping around me. Something I have missed so desperately since our big trip, is that sense of peace. It was something I started to take for granted; the remoteness, the lack of electricity, the lack of people or technology or distractions. Hurtling straight back in the London rat race and hectic city living has meant that I’d almost forgotten what it felt like just to sit back and take everything in. I loved canoeing so much I am now determined to own a lake-house and my very own (do they make them in pink?) canoe some day.

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On this out and about day, Nick and I also celebrated our three year anniversary. We sure have packed a lot in during the first bloom of our relationship, and bonding over travel has been at the heart of it all. It felt fitting to spend the day stamping around a lake and exploring foreign lands. Thank you for taking the time to read the blog and being part of our journey! I was a very lucky Fjallraven obsessive and Nick bought me an authentic Fjallraven G-1000 Foldsack No.1 FROM actual Sweden; home and heart of Fjallraven!

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I am so glad Nick had the good sense to purchase me a bag I’d actually use; rather than my first choice…

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Nick Says: After a har day adventuring, we left Bee napping in the house while me and Phil joined my parents snooping around Swedish houses. We went to one in a remote village that had been on the market for awhile, but looked lovely so we weren’t sure why. Perhaps this creepy doll that greeted you as you entered the house had something to do with putting potential buyers off?

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After fleeing the house and the doll curse it had probably put on us (if you’re reading this, it’s watching you,,,) we headed into the village to see what delights were there. The answer was not much, apart from this massive wooden spoon in the middle of a patch of grass which grandly claimed to be the world’s largest. Now I’m no expert, but I remain sceptical.It was pretty damn big though so I live in hope. Are any of our readers wooden spoon enthusiasts? Can you help answer this?! I mean, this photo doesn’t actually show the whole spoon, so for all you know it goes up a mile into the sky. Which would be amazing, if a slightly bonkers project for the Swedish spoon carvers of this unknown village to construct.

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Bee Says: I wasn’t sure what it would be like gate-crashing my future in-laws precious family holiday time. I soon remembered that Sue, Nigel and Phil couldn’t make me feel more welcome and that I had nothing to worry about, in fact it was just like being on holiday with my own relations. It was so much like being part of the family that by the final day I had morphed into one of the kids” and Nick, Phil and I rummaged through the guide books and leaflets before using the classic Lisa and Bart Simpson tactic on our poor, unsuspecting parents. “Can we go to the moose park? Can we go to the moose park? Can we go to the moose park? Can we go to the moose park? Please? Please please please?” They were powerless to our pesky ways, and agreed to take us to the moose park as long as they could go see the hand blown glass factory on the way home afterwards. With this fine compromise negotiated, we set off to Grönåsen Moose Park. The Moose Walk started off slowly and um… not very Moose orientated. We saw some chicken, some baby goats and a giant pig. Cute, but not the big guns we had in mind. We were then led into a room that house three dioramas that I can only describe a something out of a waking nightmare. They showed moose in various horrific situations; such as being eaten by wolves or, my personal favourite, hit by a car.

10597304_296097547241646_1440474282_nWe hadn’t quite expected our first moose sighting to look like this. After scuttling through the horror hall of moose death; we hit the nice bit of the park. A wooded path led us past forest, plains and fields where we could climb up look out points and take a look out for happier moose types. After a disappointing start; we were walking along a narrow pass-way trying to stay quiet as moose, I mean mice!, when suddenly we heard branches cracking next to us and suddenly a majestic female Elk was pottering along beside us. It was such a magical moment as she observed us observing her, and we all froze in our places.

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We walked another mile or so around the park, eager to get to the main attraction. They weren’t just your bogstandard moose at this park, oh no! We were about to be greeted by the King and Queen of the Moose world! Named after the King and Queen of Sweden; Karl-Gustav and Syliva awaited us and lived up to their royal reputation. At the very end of the Moose Park you were encouraged to eat… a Moose burger. Which we all found a bit weird considering we had just been enjoying these magnificent creatures in the wild. So we all politely declined.

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What a perfect final day in southern Sweden! That night we were treated to the best sunset of the holiday and another dinner of snacks and local brew beer from the ICA supermarket whilst we made the most of our cosy loft home one last time, before the giant drive back up the country to Riala.

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Nick Says: Back in the loving embrace of Stephan and Carola, we once again feasted like kings and enjoyed the companionship of friends determined to treat us to the best hospitality possible. After drinking copious amounts of wine, Stephan decided to show me and Phil the best thing of the entire holiday – this amazing documentary about a crazy group of Swedes who built an exact replica of an 18th Century sailing ship and then spent two years sailing it to China and back, where they proceeded to become huge media stars on Chinese television, Oh, and the captain of the ship was this Norwegian dude who spent most of the time topless thereby displaying his giant eagle chest tattoo. I don’t ask for much in life, but to meet that man would do it.

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Our last morning in Sweden was spent taking a walk around Riala to some of Carola’s favourite places. It’s such a beautiful country, and lakes such as the one above that we spent time admiring just demonstrate why. It had been so long since I really appreciated forest, and just how dense and magnificent it must have once been across all of Europe, Living in the UK, and especially London means you are surrounded by urban development, so it’s refreshing to spend time getting that out of your system,

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I love Sweden as a place to visit, and even though it had been over 10 years since I was last here, it felt like no time had passed at all. It’s one of those places that rewards you the more you explore. So many visitors just see Stockholm, and while that city is undeniably great, it felt like a breath of fresh air to go off-piste and see some more of this country. It’s a huge place, and seeing the south just made me want to jump in a car and head up north – where Stephan told us was really isolated. Considering we had barely seen anyone about down south, there must only be hunters and bears up there. I already can’t wait to go back and investigate.

There’s More To Sweden Than Stockholm : Part i.

Bee Says: Sweden is an extremely special place to my soon-to-be-bee-in-laws. Nigel (Nick’s dad) has a best friend called Stephan who came over for a years schooling in England and who Nigel was put in charge of looking after during that time. I don’t know how much looking after he did, as just seeing them together as adults makes it abundantly clear that there are a TON of naughty stories buried which no amount of bribery will result in either of them spilling! Stephan’s partner Carola is also a great friend of Sue (Nick’s mum) and Nigel, which means they spend a lot of time holidaying together over there. As a result, Sue & Nigel have lost their hearts to Sweden and as much-deserved retirement looms in their future, they want to have something more permanent over in Scandinavia and are planning to buy a summer house. Cue a family trip (which I was honoured enough to be invited along for) to house hunt! Introducing Team House Hunt: Nick, Sue, Phil and Nigel.

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Due to land not being a scarce resource in Sweden (it’s Europe’s third largest country), once you move away from the big cities, house prices are obscenely low and you get a lot of space (and style!) for your money. In the lead up to this trip we all got completely obsessed with a website called Hemnet; it’s worth browsing if only to admire the fairytale style gingerbread cottages and “the norm” additions of outhouses, saunas and acres of land or forest. The real point of this trip wasn’t to find an actual house, but it was really a fact-finding mission to explore a few different areas and work out scale, distances and the vibe of various neighbourhoods.  We were excited for the opportunity to get to know this beautiful country a little better; and we definitely learnt there is so much more to Sweden than Stockholm.

Nick Says: This was Bee’s first holiday with my family, and it was nice to see them spend time together outside of Christmas, birthdays etc. I came out of the loo at the airport to find the Horton’s crying with laughter and making Bee repeat the word, ‘giraffe’ before doing it themselves. For those who don’t know, Bee’s broad Yorkshire accent makes it sound like, ‘g’RAFF’.  I knew it was all going to be ok. It was also lovely to get the chance to go back to Sweden, a place I’d been to three or four times before, but not since I was a teenager. I also hadn’t been on a proper family holiday for years, so was looking forward to spending time with the parents and Phil too. Plus time off work is always nice! We flew BA like fancy folk and arrived safe and sound at the super stylish Stockholm Arlanda aioprt. While you can bus it into the city, the benefit of family holiday was splitting the cost of the car. So unlike most of our adventures in Latin America, we wouldn’t be at the whim of a crazy bus driver or tour guide…Naturally we got a Volvo (true fact, there are no other cars allowed in Sweden) and set off to Stephan’s country pad. We hadn’t set the sat nav  to Swedish, so we had a few interesting pronunciations of directions, including describing a road that sounded suspiciously like “shit the bed”…

Riala is a small village about an hour or so north of Stockholm near the major town of Norrtaelje. Like a LOT of Sweden, it’s beautiful, heavily wooded, and sparsely populated. Wolves have been known to roam in the forest, and numerous sparkling lakes are dotted about waiting to be discovered. It’s also where Stephan has set up shop after moving out of Stockholm. After a cross-country adventure in the car (thanks sat-nav!) we finally pulled in to his cosy house to be greeted by Carola waving from the porch. Stephan quickly followed, and it immediately felt like we were home.

I can remember Stephan visiting since I was about 4 years old. Him coming over was some of te=he most exciting times of my tiny life. I then got older, became a teenage, and visited him instead in Sweden. There he took me, my brothers, and my Dad around the Stockholm archipelago on his boat, and set in my mind the idea of exploring the world and having adventures.  But the last time I saw him was at my eldest brother’s wedding 10 years ago. How had so much time gone by? But in 10 years, nothing had changed. He was still the same Stephan, generous and welcoming. Crola was as brilliant and lovely as I remember. As we found on our travels, making (or having) friends in a different country really creates a strong bond and experience. It brings you closer to the place, and invests you more into it. I was really happy to be back in Sweden, and had that warm glow you get when the whole holiday stretches in front of you. I also had a incresingly warm glow from the amount of alcohol Stephan and Carola were plying us with. Wine, mysteroius local schnapps, whisky, beer… I didn’t think I could keep up with my parents and our hosts!I

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Bee Says: Safe to say there were a few sore and fuzzy heads the next morning, but these were swiftly eased as Sweden do breakfast (and well, most things) SO well. Stephan and Carola managed to be fresh daisies, despite drinking their fair share of box wine the night before, and scuttled around us making toast, hard boiled eggs and fresh coffee. We ate it with cheese, ham and freshly baked bread, although none of us indulged in the local caviar; bright orange and fresh out of a tube! All the while we could gaze out at the forest surrounding the house; Stephan says he sometimes finds curious deer and elk peering back.

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There were a few options of ways to spend our first day of the holiday, but as soon as Carola mentioned the words Medieval and Fayre, our eyes all simultaneously lit up! A short drive down to a 1330s castle (Penningby Slott) and the second we were out of the car it was like stepping into a time warp. We were all practically rubbing our eyes in disbelief as we stomped into the grounds and past knights, horses, chickens and traditional markets. Smoke filled the air and the smell of gun powder, hay and roasting meat billowed around us. The attention to detail was incredible!

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Long-time readers of the blog won’t be surprised to hear that Nick immediately sniffed out the most dangerous area of the fayre; the WEAPONRY. One field was dedicated entirely to swords, cleavers, archery, axe throwing and various other bits of kit; mostly being wielded by tiny children or people who looked like they’d already had a few glasses of mead. I loved the total lack of heath and safety that you know in a similar event in the UK would be stifling.

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The best game was one where you selected your weapon from a pile of impressive looking swords, some so heavy that the brothers could barely lift them, and then you paid 1 Kroner to have 3 chances at hitting a potato that was flung towards you on a bit of string. It seems like Nick and Phil should really be reborn in the medieval age as they were both really talented at this game and had soon attracted a crowd of locals cheering them on!

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The rest of the fayre was just as entertaining. We saw some canons and synchronised gun fire (I’m sure there’s technical term for this), ate samples of fresh soda bread, local honeys and amazing sour sugar candies. All around us were people in costumes racing around acting out little scenes or playing instruments or demonstrating olden time crafts. The weirdest of which was a game where we paid 1 Kroner to guess which way a mouse would run around a miniature castle, in order to win a magic stone. Sadly, we didn’t win and the mouse didn’t even look too happy about defeating us.

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As we started to grow a little weary and ready for some afternoon fika, napping and reading; there was one final treat in store for us. We stamped over to the castle to take a look at the amazing building and the horses roaming around outside, when suddenly I spotted something on the horizon staggering towards us. MEDIEVAL BABY! Definitely the best bit of the day; if not the holiday.

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Nick Says:  What could possibly top a Medieval Fayre? Not a lot that day as it turned out.  We drove onto Norrtaelje to have a look round, and while undeniably beautiful the spectacular sunshine which had been shining on us so far decided to turn into miserable rain. Which reminded Phil that he hadn’t actually brought a coat on this trip. Still, nothing that an on-brand visit to H&M couldn’t fix!

After a slightly less boozy evening at Stephan’s, the next day we were due to drive down south to begin the house hunt. While Carola had to go back to work, Stephan had decided to take a couple of days off and travel down with us. He immediately commandeered me, Bee, and Phil for his car (a giant monster 4×4, which didn’t look out of place in the giant landscapes of Sweden, unlike the tiny streets of London where I usually see them) we set off down the packed highways (about 4 cars spotted all day). We drove through tunnels which bored into mountains, skirted past endless forests, and eventually came to a service station where I could indulge two of my Swedish passions. The first was a Winner Taco, the greatest ice cream ever invented and sadly no longer available on our shores, ans the second was a cinnamon bun. I also took the time to smash my head on a metal bar while scampering up a children’s slide I was too big for, almost knocking myself unconscious and certainly giving myself a case of mild concussion which I felt for the next few days. Go holiday injuries! It also resulted in me being banned from driving (thanks for nothing head injury) which also meant I was relegated to the back of the car. Bee swiftly sat up front and quickly assured Stephan she would be the official elk spotter on this leg of the journey. It was a grand speech about howshe was honoured to be in Sweden, couldn’t wait to see the mighty elk, and would be his eyes on the side of the road. Powerful stuff. I looked back about two minutes later to find she had instantly fallen asleep instead.

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Bee Says: After nearly 8 hours on the road we finally pulled off the motorway and into a truly picturesque little lake town called Norrhult (Phil said it was like “driving through Hemnet!) where our Air BnB awaited. We had rented the top floor apartment of a home belonging to a super chirpy Dutch couple who had recently moved to Sweden. They were full of handy local tips and knowledge, and showed us to the gorgeous little grotto that we would be calling home for the rest of the week. After a quick trip to the local ICA for beer and snacks, we settled in to watch the sun dip over the lake from our window and started planning for the week ahead.

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Tune in for part 2 next weekend, which sees us meet the King & Queen Elk of Sweden, have a close encounter with the worlds biggest wooden spoon, find some creepy bits and pieces during our house hunts AND… my first ever time in a canoe. Who wants to start placing bets on whether I fell in or not?!