Monthly Archives: September 2013

Do Go Chasing Waterfalls

Bee Says: When we left you last, we were nicely settled into our beach-bum bubble of Puerto Colombia, enjoying the picture postcard perfect diamond twinkly seas and white sands. This was our piece of paradise before the tough stuff started; the challenge of negotiating our way hundreds of miles from North to South Venezuela using the bus system. Nick and I had joked about “travellers diarrohea bingo” (cant spell the D word and no spell check, oops) and who would be the first of us to get struck down… and of course, the morning of our big bus day I got that ominous tummy rumble of the worst kind; making the next few days slightly testing (and stinky) for both of us. I think surviving this means I have earnt my first travellers equivellent of a girl guide badge. Not a newbie anymore! We took a taxi to Maracay, stopping en route for me to chuck up into the jungle (sorry jungle), and were dropped off slightly shell shocked and stunned in a chaotic, dusty bus terminal. We negotiated purchasing a ticket for an 8.30pm night bus that would drive 12 hours to Ciudad Bolivar. As we sat in the terminal my knees were trembling. We were so obviously the only non-locals there (a feeling we would get very used to, we didnt see another backpacker for our WHOLE time in Venezuela, which turned out to work to our advantage as being a novelty meant we got constant help from the wonderful people we encountered!) and questions flooded through my head. Would our tickets be ok? Would I be able to sleep? Would we get stopped/searched by police and military (something we´d been told to expect)? Would our bags be safe? Would there even be a bus to the next location once we arrived? As our bus pulled in, a station guard shouted us over and showed us through the scramble for seats to the two BEST seats on the coach. Deep reclining, tons of legroom and right under the air con. I have a suspicion that our taxi driver mentioned to him that I was poorly, and I could have hugged him. Apart from them playing The 3 Stooges on the TV at a million decibles for a few hours, we both had a better nights sleep than any hostel and all my frantic woorying dissolved. The buses here actually put the UK to shame, they are comfy, safe, on time and easy to navigate! And someone even comes around selling hot chocolate at night and coffee in the morning.

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Nick Says: We were dropped off at Ciudad Bolivar in the morning. Now it was on – no kind hostel host to lead us to our bus. Instead, we wandered around bleary-eyed searching for a ticket kisok. A tout came up to us trying to sell a tour. We explained we needed a bus instead out of here, and he kindly led us to the right place. Two tickets bought later (another night bus, we love them), and it was time to catch a bus into town. A quick word about buses in Ciudad Bolivar, and I imagine most of Latin America. They love to pump the tunes LOUD on the sound system. Even the official city buses, and not just the random one we leapt on as it passed by (shouting our destination at the driver, and then hanging onto the side of the bus for dear life). We were told that if the bus didn~t have good/loud enough music, people wouldn´t get on… Arriving in central Ciudad Bolivar, we needed a place to stay for the day. Thinking a nice park would do, we sadly found the Botanical Gardens locked. So obviously a kind Venezuelan lady came and found us, led us to the tourist information building, where another person informed us that it was shut due to a ´small tsunami´ (flood?!) but he would open it up especially for us, his only tourists that day/week. So basically we were given our own private estate for the day, where we could watch iguanas climb to the tops of trees and swish their long tails at us.

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Then it was on to Santa Elena, a dusty border town and the last stop before Brazil. As well as being there to cross over, we wanted to see the majestic Gran Sabana. A endless vista of lush green, forests and haunting flat-topped mountains (known as tepuis) the Gran Sabana is also home to hundreds of waterfalls. So what else was there to do but jump in a 4×4 and go swim in them? Our guide Yamal asked us if he could bring his wife along for the day. This is obviously the done thing in Venezuela, following our late night pick-up of a pyjama clad lady previously (see last post). Luckily Yamal´s wife was fully dressed and so we set off. Yamal was quite a character – half Trinidadian, half-Syrian, but living in Venezuela since he was 15 and a grandad to boot. They have kids young here, Yamal couldn´t have been much past 40. During the course of the day he repeatedly told me not to beat my wife or ´bad´ things would happen to me in prison, to put tiger balm on my balls to improve my sex life, and that apparently all Venezuelan men were downtrodden (all this in English so his wife couldn´t understand).

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First stop on the tour was a waterfall known as The Bride´s Veil. After a small trek through the jungle, we were greeted by the sight of a tropical paradise – cascading water flowing into a crystal clear pool. The endless night buses suddenly seemed like nothing, and we breathed easy. It was one of those scenes which make you take stock and appreciate what you´ve done – quit your life and flung yourself across the world. This wasn´t an ordinary vista for my everyday life, but it soon would be. And that´s part of the addiction of travelling for me. To make the surreal part of everyday life. Then Yamal interrupted – enough time at the bottom, it was time to see the real waterfall. That meant a near vertical climb to the top by the side of this one. I really couldn´t have been happier – a dangerous climb using tree roots to scramble up. Perfect.

Bee Says: There I was sat gazing at swooping giant butterflies, l’ibelula dragonflies and taking in our Disney movie surroundings, I couldnt have felt more tranquil. Cut to 30 seconds later… and our guide shouts to us to “walk up the side of the waterfall” like its no big thing. But this was no walk, this was a vertical climb, using my hands to drag myself up roots and gnarled tree branches, as the water gushed (suddenly very threateningly) right next to me. The climb would have been hard enough, without my jelly quivering legs, my sweaty palms and wide wild eyes. Nick was amazing at cheerleading me as I attempted an enforced out of body experience where I just focused on the next step, and not to plummet below. At one point I reached my pal down to stabalise myself and some holy sixth sense happened to make me look down to see my palm mere centimetres away from a huge hairy spider. That would NOT have helped my balance. But it did scare me into hot footing the rest of the way and honestly? My face says it all. The feeling I got once I had scaled it and plunged head first into the waterfall at the top was worth every skipped heart beat on the way up (and down again… which I did mostly on my bum).

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Next up on the tour (of which the sales pitch was waterfalls, waterfalls and more waterfalls!) was the Concitina which en route to, Yamal warned us that we would need to get changed very quickly. “The Puri-Puri here” (mosquitoes) he said, “… They don’t bite, they STAB”. By this stage in the trip we are experts in bites. We have had every bite going. Big white lumpy ones, red ones, fat ones, itchy ones. We took his warning with a pinch of salt and a massive eye roll. How stupid we were! We found ourselves half naked teetering on a rock, suddenly covered in drops of blood. Yamal was right, these puri puri were the stuff of horror movies, as their bites resemble a million tiny papercuts which instantly bleed and weep. Poor Nick took the feasting hit and is basically now more bite than man.

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Nick Says: Well, some may query calling me a man… So more bite than boy perhaps? We were then taken for lunch at an indigenous village, where we served delicious spit-roasted chicken. Or rural Nandos as Bee liked to call it. Then it was time for another waterfall swim – this time under the pounding torrent to a secret cave underneath the rocks where we could sit and enjoy the sensation of the water near us. Once again, these are the moments to savour. One of the unexpected benefits of this day was how cool it was compared to the heat of the trip so far. We were wet from water and not sweat for once which was a change! In fact, we had to stop for a coffee to warm up. A machine poured out a mocha, and I don´t know why but this machine coffee from in a plastic cup was probably the best coffee we´ve ever tasted. Time and time again it´s one of those clichés that come true – things taste better in amazing circumstances. By this time in the trip, we also had a car full of company. We´d stopped to pick up some school kids and their older sister from the side of the road, as their school is so far from their settlement they have to hitch hike to lessons and back. Now I don´t know if they needed to be somewhere, but Yamal basically kidnapped them and took them on the tour with us too. Which was nice. Especially when he ignored their cries to stop and drove on past their house… although we think their cries were quiet on purpose, as they seemed more than happy to join the tour.

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Bee Says: As we raced to Yamals favourite spot to watch the sunset, we both quietly contemplated that it was our last night in Venezuela. We both could easily have spent 6 months just travelling here along; scaling the Rormaina and not to mention actually going to the Angel Falls. Venezuela had been one long chain of helpful person, friendly face when we needed it and unexpected enchanting experience. Compared to the hustle and bustle of hostel life where you almost receive too much advice from fellow travellers, it was lovely to be by ourselves and navigating our way purely on our wits and instincts. Taking in the sunset over the flat top mountains, suddenly it was like nature wanted to throw everything it had at us for our final impression of this dazzling country. Thick clouds began to roll in beneath us, swamping the green plains that we had only just left. Fireflies glowed around us. The stars burst out into the horizon, including a few shooters. Finally, we experienced our first taste of thunderless lightening. A natural phenomena we had both become a little obsessed with seeing as it is unique to Venezuela. Cracks of bright white creased the sky as we hurtled back to Santa Elena.

Next up… Our first border crossing (a comedy of errors), making our first Brazilian friend who we then spent 24 hours with (!) and arriving in marvellous Manaus.

 

Touch-Down Venezuela

(Apologies for the typos, rogue punctuation like this ¡¡ and the pixelated images. We are on the worlds slowest Wifi and also paying for every minute and hopefully you will understand that we want to spend more time adventuring and less writing in here!)

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Bee Says: It feels like a hundred years ago now, but on Wednesday morning we woke up at 5.30am and creaked out of Nick´s parents house to Gatwick. By this point I think I was virtually paralyzed with fear and having a little bit of a last minute WHAT AM I DOING?! meltdown… but only on the inside. On the outside I just swooshed through security as if I was going on holiday… not leaving my whole life behind. We had a quick flight to Madrid before boarding our Air Europa flight to Caracas, Venezuela. The words ´budget¨and ¨longhaul¨ together don´t make a happy pair but actually the journey was not so bad, we even had the choice of two movies in English! The only woeful bit was the food which was so inedible that at one point Nick turned to me and said “just pretend we are in prison” although I´m not sure how that made it any better. Who knows if the pastry below was fish, meat, cheese. In the Lonely Planet books they bang on about three things- avoid turning up at a new place at night, in the dark or in bad weather. We surfaced from our flight… at night, in pitch black and to a tropical rainstorm. What could possibly go wrong..?

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Nick Says: The phrase ´airport transfers available´ conjures up images of being picked up in a luxury executive car by a suited and booted driver and whisked effortlessly to your destination. This actually does happen sometimes – in Bee´s previous life as a marketing mega-cheese we were once picked up from her swanky Lower East Side hotel in New York by a fancy car (complete with your own personal iPad) and driven to JFK. However, the more common reality is something like we experienced upon arrival to Caracas, As we wanted to get to the coast as quickly as possible, we had opted for the airport transfer service from our Posada. Greeted by a slightly overweight Venezuelan guy with a limp, we were taken to his beaten up car outside, complete with mystery writing on the back window and religious icons on the front dashboard. He then set off. A few idle notes about driving over here. They love weaving into every single lane of traffic. They also love having full beams on at all possible times. The result was blinding. What was undeniable though was how beautiful Caracas looked at night. Set on several mountain sides, the city glittered at night and looked positvely inviting. But only from a distance. Stopping at a garage to grab some water our driver came in with us to stand guard as we shuffled in bleary eyed. We didn’t understand the money, and had no idea what anything should cost. Nor did we understand what the guys over the road were shouting at us as we got back in the car…

But we soon left Caracas behind, and quickly zoomed towards our destination. Or rather, to his home instead. The owner of our guesthouse had called once we had arrived to welcome us to Venezuela, and also let us know that the driver would be going home to pick his wife up first, and for us not to be scared when we got there. Which was pretty lovely. And so there we found ourselves – in a suburb of an unknown Venezuelan city outside our driver’s house picking up a middle aged woman wearing pyjamas. This is the reality of most airport pick-ups. From there myself and Bee could barely keep our eyes open, 24 hours awake had done for us. But as we surfaced from time to time, we saw we were plunging through a rainforest. First up one side of a mountain and then down the other with the noises of the jungle filtering into our brains. The hairpin turns flashed by and then finally we had made it. We were at our Caribbean home for the next few days.

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Bee Says: I can only compare Puerto Colombia to a real life tropical world. The smells, the humidity that whacks you the second you leave a car or your room, and the noises that buzz contantly. It´s possibly the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and certainly setting a high bar for the rest of our trip. We sloped through the first couple of days getting our bearings and acclimatising. We explored the Grande Playa (beach), nearly melted into puddles hiking to an old lighthouse towering over the harbour and spent our evenings watcing the sun set over the malecon (harbour) and drinking cerveza in the rowdy local bar. We had an amazing dinner at a restaraunt that was… well… a candle-lit table in someones backyard. Dido played on repeat and the waitor spoke enough English to tell us of his love for Rowan Atkinson! Luckily since we are both hungry horses who eat basically everything, so far we have opted for asking our waitors what they would recommend and eating whatever shows up. Most of the time we have NO idea what´s coming, it´s like teatime roullette but so far it´s paying off and we´ve mainly ended up with delicious fresh fried local fish, such as Bonefish (which oddly had no bones).

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Yesterday was our first big ventura of the trip! A seven hour trek through the dense jungle, to put our hiking boots through their paces. We met our guide Emmanual at 7am and spent an hour waiting for the local bus, we are NOT in London anymore! With most tours our guide won´t speak English, which is what we expected in this case, so it was a huge treat to find Emmanual spoke fantastic English having lived in the states for a decade. That said, it didn´t stop him still needing Nick to translate my Northern accent! He is a real force of nature and at 73, has lived a million lives. His stories were worth the trek fee alone and it´s a travesty that someone hasn´t made a film or a book out of his life story – in short his father was a spy in Belgium during the war, and the SS came for him and beat his mother and trashed the house, and so they fled to Morocco. From Morocco the Venzuelan embassy was the first place to offer his father protection, and so they took a boat for three months and settled here. He´s lived in the USA, been married more than twice (at the same time!), had children, seen the world and now lives in a self-designed house in the middle of the jungle and running a truffle-making factory in his backroom. It was truly a priviledge to get to spend the day with someone so awe-inspiring. Even if he did start the day by making us walk over the top of a dam – our stomachs churning as we gingerly stepped over the 30 metre high fast flowing water.

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The photos probably do more explaining than I can in words, but the jungle was incredible. Vast canopies, giant bamboo (bought over from China to protect the trails), rare butterflies that only appear at this time of year – bright blue and the size of dinner plates, We got to one point on the walk and Emmanual told us that we could here take a detour down to the most famous water hole in Venezuela BUT…. it had been raining heavily and the near verticle slope was slippy and a bit dangerous. I think Nick expected me to say no but by this point I was so sodden with sweat that a wild swim in a private tropical jungle pool seemed worth risking a few bones for. We took big woodens Hobbit-sticks and headed down the mountain. Our climbing experience came into it´s own as we focused more on where our next foothold was and less on the mud giving way around our boots. The main thing driving us on was that if a 73 year old man could make it look easy, then we could at least half walk-half fall down behind him. And it was worth it, we took a dip in a beautiful pool and dried off on the rocks surrounded only by nature and noises and another world. Every now and then something slimy would touch my feet and I´d have to repeat the mantra “it´s just a leaf… it´s just a leaf”

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Cacao is the PRIDE of Venezuela so our trek had a distinctly chcolate theme. We visited an abandoned Sugar Cane Plantation and walked through endless forests of Cacao trees. Cacao is basically plant that cocoa comes from, and Venezuela produces the highest quality in the world. Any worries we may have had about creepy crawlies had to go out of the window as we marched headfirst through dense thickets towards our ultimate destination, a local Cacao plantation. Saying that, Nick did disturb his first snake of the trip but luckily it darted off out of the path. We walked round inspecting the fermentation process, the drying rooms and how much effort goes into something we take so easily for granted. The final stop was possibly the best bit of the day – we went to Emmanuals exotic jungle house for hot cacao! We drank from metal prison style mugs and chatted about his life and our lives and lizards skittered around on the floor. At one point he lept up and dug around in his bedroom before putting on a DVD of his  “favourite English man” – it´s Peter Gabriel he shouted! (It wasn´t, it was Phil Collins, but we didn´t have the heart to correct him and sat listening to the whole live show with him!). He offered us a second mug of chocolate and we spent another hour there before his friend drove us back through the jungle into a raging Saturday night in Puerto Colombia.

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Nick Says: On a final note, I¡d just like to mention how good the exchange rate here is at the moment. While the offical rate is 10 bolivars to the pound, and 7 to the dollar, the black market has recently gone crazy – giving you rates of 50 bolivars to the pound and 35 to the dollar. Any good guest-house owner will exchange for you, meaning you don’t have to go in the street and do it yourself, and more importantly it also meant we walked out of our first meeting with the posada owner five times richer. To put this in context, the breakfast we had just eaten and thought cost us 8 quid each was actually just over 3 pounds in total, while a beer is now around 30p! Yeah! It means that right at this moment, Venezuela is the best valu and most affordable Caribbean destination on the planet. You could probably do a two week holiday with flights included for around 1500 pounds, and that’s not skimping on eating etc.

Anyway, that¡s it for now – next stop is a 20 hour bus ride to the south of Venezuela and onwards to Brazil!

Leaving & Feelings

Bee Says: With mere days to go until we begin our trip, I’ve had a fortnight of jobless limbo visiting Yorkshire and Norfolk (which you can read about here) to say goodbyes to friends and family. Both counties put on an incredible performance of blissful weather and incredible walks, wildlife and views; on more than one occasion I’ve thought what a tough act South & Central America have to follow. I’ve also been taking as many baths as physically possible without turning into a prune. They are certainly one of the things I am going to miss the most whilst being away; as I’m half mermaid and if I had my way would spend hours sloshing around in the soak every day. It’s been a strange time and I’ve had a fact that I already feared completely confirmed; I am awful at goodbyes. I just haven’t felt emotional at all, but I think that’s because the fact I’m leaving still hasn’t quite sunk in. I get the odd flutter of butterflies or cold sweat of panic but mostly it still feels absolutely surreal. I wonder how many weeks it will take into the process before I am writing in here “ok, it feels real now!”.

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I’m spending most of my time completely pre-occupied by daydreaming of what we are going to be doing and seeing, but also I’ve had a few twinges of disappointment of things I will be missing here. Firstly – the end of Great British Bake Off. This is the only programme I tune in to on a weekly basis and disallow anyone to so much as open their mouths to breathe whilst I watch! I’m sad that I won’t see if my favourites Kimberly or Ruby mix to victory. Also I am missing my favourite band The National play AND the premier of the documentary about them Mistaken For Strangers at the London Film Festival. I got as far as having tickets in my basket for the latter before realising, ah yes! I’ll be on the other side of the planet, not lurking in London. I have the distinct impression that I will care a LOT less about these things once I am out of the country (and off Twitter.)

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Something that I have to mention here, as it’s been driving me slowly beetroot… is the fear-mongering I’ve experienced over the past few months, which has taken me completely by surprise. It’s been person after person after person who I have met up with, filled with excitement, who then thinks it’s appropriate to say things such as (and these are genuine quotes):
“You’re crazy, it’s SO dangerous in x, y, z”
“You’re going to get drugs planted on you/kidnapped/robbed”
“In that country terrible things always happen to tourists”
“You’ll regret it when you catch a tropical disease…”
The list goes on and on. My main issue is that the first question I ask these people is, “Have you actually been to the country you’re talking about?” And the answer every single time is NO. What then, makes people think it is ok to basically slander that country, that culture and community? It is so offensive to the people who live there and are trying to open their part of the world to tourists and visitors. Secondly, it’s offensive to me! Obviously I have booked my ticket, I am well and truly going, so why would I want to hear someone dooming my fate and trying to whip me into a terrified frenzy? As the person going, I can guarantee I have done more research and know more about the security and safety elements of each individual country and am planning my trip according to my boundaries and comfort levels. Mainly, because I am not stupid! And I don’t want to risk any part of my trip of a life-time being unpleasant.

/Rant over! If you are a reader who is planning a trip, my advice is to ignore all these nay-sayers and don’t let them even get started on their a-friend-of-a-friend or I-read-on-the-internet helpful advice. If you are a friend of someone planning a trip, then of course I understand that sometimes the comments come from genuine concern and are mostly a misplaced demonstration of showing how much they care. Rather than pile on the mounting stories of gloom and doom, do something practical like check the Government warning websites for genuine concerns, log onto the Lonely Planet forums and run your questions past people who actually live in the country OR buy your friend the Rough Guide to Travel Survival and wish them all the best. Luckily I’ve had all of this before, as when I travelled to both South Africa and Namibia I got the same wide-eyed, horror story reactions from certain people and very much enjoyed coming home and telling them how wrong they were. All of this is part of my motivation to keep this blog actually, as I want to provide honest responses and reviews of everywhere we visit and a big part of that will be how comfortable I feel there. I’m a natural scaredy-cat and control-freak, but if I succumbed to those parts of my personality I would never leave my duvet. In a way I think I get more out of travelling due to these characteristics, because I’m always proud to push my comfort zone and the sense of achievement once I’ve done it is huge. I’m not naïve, and I am sure there will be some tough days and hairy experiences over the next six months. I live in London, I have a scary experience of some kind at least every six months just staying put there! I also think as a traveller safety should always be at the forefront of your mind, but that’s my responsibility and no one elses!

Nicks Says: You think I’d be used to this by now – about to step into unknown (for me) territory armed with nothing but my trusty backpack and a tiny compass pendant I wear around my neck. You think I wouldn’t even give the trip a second thought and that it would just be another exotic land to tick off the list. But you would be very wrong.

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Before every trip I go through several stages. Firstly there’s an incredible excitement about actually deciding to go. Then the rush of planning, and thinking about everything I need to take. I’m one of those people who actually likes the excuse to basically just wear flip-flops and boardies all day every day, and only alternate it with combats and trekking shoes. I have a suspicion that underneath my average urban media exterior, there’s a clichéd surfer bum or hard-core middle-aged rambler trying to break free.

Next on the emotional journey is the absolute bind panic about what the hell I’m doing. This happens every-time, whether it is going on a nice holiday to Italy, or deciding to overland it to Albania without even consulting a guidebook. This time, it is the fear of flying to a place where I don’t speak the language and initially into a country which isn’t on the Gringo Trail. But then this panic is a good thing I think. It shows you’re actually doing something different and unusual, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Why do we go and travel after all? Well for me it’s to expand my life experience, gain perspective and get to see how other people live, as well as have a brilliant time in places I never even knew existed let alone thought I’d spend 12 hours on a bus towards.

Once the panic has subsided, a calm reality sinks in. On the one hand, I’m super excited to get out there and start adventuring, on the other I know how tough some of it is going to potentially be. People often forget that it is hard work to independently travel. While a lot of the time your main decision will be ‘what beach am I going to today?’, some of it is horrendous early starts to catch buses that may or may not go where you need them too, dealing with a completely unfamiliar way of doing things, roughing it when required, and constantly being responsible for looking after your own well-being. It’s absolute freedom from every little role and routine we’ve put ourselves in during everyday life, and at the same time it’s liberating and terrifying.

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Then finally, in the last few weeks the actual process of packing up your life and getting ready to go takes over. The excitement is still there, bubbling away, but it won’t come out unfettered until I’m on the plane. I think that’s the main difference to the first backpacking I did. Last minute excitement compared to last minute terror. I remember that when I went away on my first big trip my Mum said I didn’t look nervous at all until they saw me walk away by myself through airport security. I sat in the waiting lounge absolutely overwhelmed until my friend Mark arrived, and then we were gibbering like monkeys with joy at what we were about to do. It still didn’t stop me from getting insomnia for the first week away though! And even now, I have the same three worries – how will I know where to go when I’m there? How will I get to places? What do I do about money? Then I realise, all of this will become easy once I’m there. So now I’m ready. Psyched up for the trip and raring to go. Ready for all the stories which we’ll share right here.

Let’s Get Medical

Bee Says: When you make the decision to jet off to tropical climes, your brain is instantly filled with a flickbook of tropical islands, gushing waterfalls, exotic creatures and (in my case) all the rum cocktails I have lying ahead of me. The last thing that enters your head is those boring niggles such as insurance, vaccinations and medical preparation. Who wants to bore themselves with that when all you want to do is daydream about pina coladas?! Well, it doesn’t need to put a kink in your pre-travel haze, if you plan far enough in advance.

As a total travel rookie, when my (ex-doctor) dad sent me a list of “have you sorted out…” followed by what seemed like a never-ending list of potential ailments and medical concerns around South & Central America, I was absolutely overwhelmed. I felt like I’d already been ousted as a travel-failure, as I didn’t have a single answer to his sensible questions. My experience is specific to our itinerary (link) but hopefully the advice would be useful to anyone taking a trip to far-flung locations, as even a two-week honeymoon to Asia or quick business trip to Africa has similar implications.

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Vaccinations
Give yourself at least THREE months to sort your vaccinations, and actually six months would be ideal. This sounds like a ridiculously long amount of time, but with many of the vaccines you actually need numerous injections over the course of weeks to provide inoculation. With some vaccines, each booster has to be on a very specific day (e.g.  day 1, day 14, day 21 of a month) so clear your diary. Also, in my case I needed an MMR and Yellow Fever. These are both “live” vaccines, and need a clear month between jabs. Therefore if I hadn’t given myself so long to prepare, I wouldn’t have had anywhere near enough time to fit in the necessary vaccinations.

Most importantly; you don’t need to take on the battle of researching what vaccines you need yourself! There is plenty of support and help out there to make sure you are covered. My first port of call was the nurse at my GPs. Book an extra-long/double-slot appointment, and together you can go through your itinerary and work out what you need. Only limited vaccines are available on the NHS (and as with most health-things,  it seems to be a postcode lottery as Nick’s GP had a wider range available than mine) so your second trip will need to be to one of the fantastic Nomad Travel Clinics  or MASTA clinics. If you can’t find either of these in your area; there is a search engine for your closest clinic here or Nomad/MASTA will happily recommend a reputable local resource.

Being in London I had the pick of places, so opted for Nomad – as they have an affiliation with Sta Travel. I had booked my flights and insurance via Sta, and this bagged me a whopping 10% discount off all my kit purchased at Nomad AND crucially, the pricey vaccines. I was pin-cusioned at the Victoria branch of Nomad, and treated by a lovely nurse named Beverly who instantly won me over a) by looked like Zooey Deschanel but b) being instantly reassuring and a clear expert in travel vaccines. On the first session we worked out my schedule of appointments, my options and everything was explained clearly, calmly and with no medical jargon. Every session has been a delight (despite the pain factor) as Beverly always has taken time to check how I reacted to previous injections, fill out my vaccine card and explain clearly any potential side-effects and symptoms.

For South & Central America you need the following:

NHS Provided (Free!)

  • Hepatitis A
  • Tetanus, Polio & Diphtheria
  • MMR (recommended)

Nomad Provided (Paid for)

  • Hepatitis B (£90, £30 per dose)
  • Typhoid (£30)
    There is a national shortage of this vaccination, therefore I had this orally which involved shenanigans with a cool bag and frozen peas as I travelled around, as the tablets can’t be kept in anything other than fridge-like conditions and need to be taken over the course of six days. So, be sure to give plenty of advance notice if you need this as it can’t be obtained instantly, there is a waiting list. I’m not sure how long the national shortage will last, but if there wasn’t a shortage it would be available on the NHS for free and lasts for 3 years.
  • Yellow Fever (£50)
    This is a legal requirement for entering most countries we are visiting as it is endemic in many regions. For this reason you are provided with a yellow fever certificate to prove you are inoculated before entering. Don’t think you might be able to wing-it, as if you can’t provide a vaccination certificate you will be expected to pay sometimes up to £100 to be vaccinated before crossing the border, so it’s safest and easiest in the long run to just suck up the cost and do it here. You must be vaccinated 7 days pre-travel to be covered.

Optional

  • Rabies (£150, £50 per dose)
    This is entirely at your discretion, and most travellers don’t get vaccinated. However for peace of mind both Nick and I have forked out and got the rabies protection as we are travelling to so many areas with feral and wild animals, and we like petting things. This combination just means we would rather be safe than sorry. Even with the vaccine, you would need a booster if you were bitten, but if you are going to be in the wilderness then it buys you the precious time to travel to a clinic or hospital. Once we return to the UK, we have one booster and then are protected for 5 years, so for regular travellers like us then splitting the cost over 5 years makes it a smarter investment

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The two questions on everyone’s lips I’m sure are…
Did they hurt? None of the vaccines were more than your standard short, sharp scratch that you can barely feel and is over before you notice it hurting. The one tricky customer was Hep B, as the vaccine is a syrup-y consistency so just a little bit more stubborn going in, but it didn’t hurt at all. So none of these injections are anything to worry about AT ALL and it helps that you can gaze at maps on the walls of the amazing locations you are getting them in order to visit.

Did you have any gross side effects? I was fortunate enough not to have any side effects, except lead-heavy sore arms on the days I had multiple jabs in one arm. Nick had a reaction to Typhoid, which is very common, but that was a night of queasiness and then he was right as rain in the morning.

How much does it all cost? As you can see the financial hit is far worse than the physical pain and these were with discount. I can’t stress enough to start factoring in your vaccine costs at the earliest possible stage. They can’t be avoided and whilst they seem pricey; they aren’t HALF as costly as your medical bills / flight home would be if you skip out on getting them and then get sick. Leading me nicely on to…

Insurance
Two words: Get it! There’s a hideous statistic out there about 75%+ travellers not taking out insurance which give me chills. There are plenty of online price comparison sites out there, for those without pre-existing medical conditions, such as lucky Nick! He got his insurance via Columbia for £150. If you havea pre-existing medical condition then you will need to get special cover, as your condition invalidates any cover if it’s not declared. I recommend Sta Travel, firstly for the sweet nomad discount, but secondly because of the easy process to insure your existing condition. It’s just a swift 5 minute phone interview, where you are quoted then and there. My insurance is the more costly £300 but this is due to my asthma and the fact I had surgery less than a year ago. Having feared I wouldn’t even GET insurance, this feels reasonable. One BIG pearl of wisdom, that we are literally paying for our own mistake on, plan your flights carefully. Our flight home takes us ONE DAY over 6-months, which means we have to pay for 7-months of cover. Bah! Also, you can’t lie and say you fly home a day early because any claims will need the flight details of your homeward leg of the journey so you’ll be busted and invalidated and sad.

No one wants to focus on illnesses, accidents and unexpected emergencies… but you don’t have to if you’re prepared and that’s why I’m relieved we’ve done it properly so we can be spontaneous souls once we are where it counts most – on our trip!

Nick says… 

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Medication
So after you’ve spent more on vaccinations than you’ll spend on actually going back-packing, it’s time to worry about all the medication you’ll have to lug with you. What do you really need to take? Travel books will recommend a whole heap of stuff I’d never heard of (such as lidocaine cream) and on my previous trip I dutifully took everything. And then didn’t use half of it. So… take what you’d generally use in everyday life. Inhalers etc. if you suffer from asthma. This also means painkillers for those nights you’ve enjoyed a bit too much of the local hospitality or for those days where you’ve been on a punishing trek/ran away from bandits. I would also recommend an antiseptic of some sort – I swore by little bottles of iodine last time I went, but sadly you can no longer get them. But you’re bound to need wounds cleaning up at some point in time when you’re away. That’s not me being super gory, it’s just a fact. In my previous trips I’ve managed to cut up feet, shins, hands, and also had to take someone’s stitches out. You need something to clean it all up with. A spray based one is a good bet as that stops you prodding and wiping any cuts with your grubby little fingers. Although not strictly medical, I wouldn’t go anywhere without tiger balm. It’s basically magic in a tiny jar. Good for headaches, muscle pain, and even bites – the tingling removes the itching! You can pick this up from Boots for about £4. If you don’t know where it is in the store, just ask – it’s usually near the rescue remedy.

However, that’s not to say you shouldn’t take all the bells and whistles if you’re worried. It’s just that you probably won’t need them. Unless you’re off on a lot of solo hikes, a standard medical kit should be just fine (you can buy them from Nomad or other travel shops for around £30, or you can make up your own and put it in an ice cream box or something). For anything that gets a bit more serious, such as badly infected bites, you’ll most likely be able to find doctors that can help you out. Medical care does exist all over the world.

For those travelling to tropical climes, mozzies are going to be a big problem. You will get bitten, but you can take measures to discourage these pesky things. The most obvious is getting yourself a Deet based bug spray. Then liberally douse yourself. It stinks and tastes horrible, but it does work. Spray your ankles and wrists especially as these seem to be hotspots. Mozzie coils to burn at night are also a good idea. Again, most places you stay will probably already own them so just get a lighter out and get them going.

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But what about anti-malarials?
Oh yes, the great anti-malarial debate… Again, it’s totally up to you if you take them or not. If you’re headed somewhere that’s known as a malarial region then I would probably take them. It’s an extra-insurance against quite a nasty disease. I once knew a guy who got bitten only a few times in India and ended up having to have a blood transfusion over there after he fell ill. But then again, people spending a lot of time in malarial regions often don’t bother due to their side-effects. I’ve previously experienced photo-sensitivity, but nothing like night terrors you hear about.  Again, each person is different.

If you do decide to go with taking anti-malarials, there are a few things to know. Do your research on which ones you’ll need. There are several different types. Your travel nurse will be able to help you with this. Some cannot be taken with other meds or pre-existing conditions. Some don’t work in various regions – the mozzies have developed immunities. If you get them pre-trip, they’re going to be expensive. If you get them while you’re away, they’ll be a lot cheaper. When I went to South-East Asia (Laos is a malaria area) I bought mine in a pharmacy in Thailand, saving me about £50. This time I’ve bought them pre-trip, costing me about £75. Why the change? Well last time I wasn’t getting to Laos until about 7 months into my trip, I just didn’t need to carry them around for that long and only needed one specific type of tablet for a month long period. This time I’m going to be in tropical malarial regions within a week of landing, and needed a mix of anti-malarials. Doxycycline for South America and Chloroquine for Central America. I wanted to talk through with my nurse what to do about swapping over and when was the best time to do it. It felt right to sort it all out before, even if it was more expensive! To save costs, you can also go through online pharmacies. Your nurse can recommend legitimate, reputable ones to go to – Bee bought her Malarone and Proguanil from Travel Pharm and it was half the cost that Boots quoted. Bear in mind you will still need a private prescription from either your doctors or travel clinic to use these sites.

Things do go wrong on the road, but unless you’re very unlucky then it’s nothing you won’t be able to sort out yourself. By being insured, vaccinated, and aware of the possible diseases in the areas you’re going to, you’ll be much more likely to avoid anything nasty. However, please do plan into your budget how expensive it all is to get ready to go away. I had most of my vaccinations in date from previous trips, and I still forked over a couple of hundred quid to be stuck with needles. Bah!