Category Archives: Feelings

Adios to Latin America

Bee Says: Our journey from Caye Caulker to Cancun was the last epic cross-country travel day we would embark on. As if we needed one final test, it got off to a pretty ropey start, with a 6am wake-up followed by two hours aboard a sweat-box boat on endlessly choppy seas. I also picked the worst seat, ending up next to a large group of Lithuanian holidaymakers who were so hungover that the stale booze smell was gushing off them and into my nose. If that wasn’t bad enough, they then cracked open a huge bottle of rum and downed the lot, which meant the beefcakiest of the gang got so merry that he kept accidentally punching me in the head everytime he put his arm around his girlfriend. Safe to say, I was in a pretty crabby mood when we finally arrived at the Mexican border in Chetumal.

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The arrival got off to a dramatic start, as this is the only border where I would say the officials are geniunely making an effort to tackle drug smuggling (rather than just pretending to). The second we stepped off the boat, our bags were lined up on the tarmac and a sniffer dog was walked rigorously up and down them. We hadn’t experienced anything like this and felt a bit like we were in an episode of CSI. The dog was impressive to observe at work, and he clearly picked out and pawed two bags for further inspection… luckily neither of ours, which meant we could watch smugly as two very sweaty looking bag owners spread their possessions out for checking by the police. We couldn’t help but chuckle when one of the bags picked out was the most travelator effort going (woven multi-coloured hemp complete with a subtle herbal leaf print) that belonged to a teenage boy with dreads, piercings, happy pants and many a henna tattoo. The other bag however belonged to a very bemused looking American gentleman of about 60 whose snazzy leather briefcase also had to be emptied out. He kept yelling back to his wife in an accusatory manner as if she might have planted something on him! In the end, neither bag actually had anything in it (apparently the dog could have picked up that something suspect had previously been carried) so we were all free to head towards the entry point, where we were greeted by the navy marching band trumpeting our arrival! This was our 15th border crossing and it was by far the easiest, most professional and least stressful. The customs official even had print-outs (PRINT OUTS! So organised!) of our details and happily provided a receipt for the tourist tax. Oh and they smiled! And welcomed us to their country. A big change from the usual; guns waved at us, money extortion attempts and lots of yelling in Spanish. From here it was a quick taxi ride to the ADO bus station, and onto a regular 8 hour bus ride to Cancun.

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We had previously toyed with the idea of stopping off in Tulum, a coastal resort with some impressive Mayan ruins, but in the end the hostel we wanted to stay in was full… as were all the other recommended picks… and given that we are now travelling on financial fumes (otherwise called a credit card) we chose the cheaper and lazier option of heading directly to Cancun. Sadly Mexico lost out to our adventuring in South America, and is the only country we are the first to admit that we haven’t done justice to at all. It’s so vast and there is so much to do, that it’s on the list for a return visit when we have the time, money and enthusiasm. This time, all we really wanted from Mexico was some cheap eats, a budget hotel (to provide our first hot water shower in 3 months!) and some rest and relaxation before hopping on our bargain flight to LA.

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Nick Says: Sadly though, a hot shower would have to wait for another few hours. The budget deal we got at Ibis (a brand hotel!) turned out to be too good to be true. For those who don’t know, Bee is a bit claustrophobic which rules out any lifts. This has never ever been a problem in any hotel in the world apart from this one Ibis in Cancun, who point-blank refused to let us use the stairs. Deciding not to take up the staff’s unhelpful suggestion that they accompany Bee everytime she wanted to use the lift (oh yes of course that’s all she needed to get over this phobia, some stranger in the lift with her), and after a protracted arguement discussion to get our money back, we were back on the street and homeless.

I’m going to break into the narrative here, to talk about how we felt at this point. Never mind we were sweaty and exhausted from a day of travelling. Or that a big corporation had just tried to rip us off and basically kicked us out of a hotel. We were exhausted from the entire trip, both mentally and physically. I like to think I can rough it with the best of them, and over the years in places such as India, Albania, Cambodia, and eating foie gras in France, I like to think I’ve proved it. But 5 months on the road was starting to take its toll. It’s the longest I’d ever gone without a home base, constantly on the move with no real respite. Even on my 9 month trip back in my early twenties, every 2-3 months I would be able to crash in someone’s (or my own) apartment for several weeks. This trip had been a lot more full-on, and I don’t think either of us appreciated just what we were taking on. I’m not ashamed to admit that 7 years of relatively easy living in London had left me a weakened shell of my former travel self. Suffice to say, we were close to the edge. Our dreams of the first hot shower since November were fading away.

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So why all of the above? Well I guess its to explain why we went across the road and put a week’s stay at a slightly more upmarket hotel (not too upmarket though, think Premier Inn/Comfort Inn level) on the credit card. Maybe younger travel me would have abhorred this decision, and derided older travel me for not being ‘authentic’ enough. Well, I say younger travel me’s an idiot. We had a great time in the hotel, actually getting clean in the scaldingly hot shower, watching trashy cable TV, and even luxuriating in the nearby mega mall. The hotel seemed to be full of Mexican business people, but they didn’t seem to mind a pair of scruffy looking British backpackers in their midst. One of the more endearing aspects of our stay was the nightly party they laid on for us all. Rather than a mini-bar in your room, each evening around 7pm they would set up bowls of snacks, and put out a massive bottle of bacardi and another of tequila. The rest was up to you. At first, I was suspicious – were we crashing someone’s event? But no, it was all free for the guests. So each night we would come down, sit at the canteen style tables in the lobby, and have drinks. It was reminiscent of attending a daily awkward office party.

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Bee Says: When we weren’t either in the shower or enjoying actually clean sheets, and no cockroach bed companion or iguana room-mate, we made the most of exploring the biggest mall in Cancun which was across the road from our hotel. By this point of the trip, every single item of clothing that had left the UK was now full of holes, perma-musky smelling and weirdly damp to touch. Having only bought 35 litre bags, everything got worn to the point of being toxic. In Mexico we decided we couldn’t show up to the USA (and Hollywood of all places!) like this, so we promptly discarded/donated all our dorky hike-wear and hit the mall. After a few hours, and the discovery of Pull & Bear,  we resembled Cher from Clueless and surfaced laden with bags of jeans, sneakers and clean tee-shirts. Nick found his new wardrobe easy to locate, whereas mine was a trickier task. The womenswear shops of Cancun were a gauntlet of bling, diamante, sheer and see-through. I’d see a nice enough looking flannel shirt…. oh no, its backless! Or a demure looking dress which on trying on was actually short, tight and basically underwear. I finally found a few bits that didn’t make me resemble Xtina Aguilera in her Dirrrty days, including this marvellous $7 jumper.

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It was SO weird to be wearing jeans and proper trainers again. Everything felt so tight and awkward and strange! I did also treat myself to a pair of PJs. Anyone who knows me would probably agree that I spend 80% of my life outside of work in PJs, so 5 months with none has been bleak.

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Other antics we got up to in the mall was eating daily churros (a sort of sugary fried donut wands) although not opting got the questionable local favourite with cheese. We saw a terrible movie, called Pompeii. Even Jon Snow couldn’t make it watchable. We also went to watch a Mariachi band play in the food court!

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Not wanting to spend the entire week in a mall or hotel, we did take a walk downtown to visit the artisan market and check out the more residential part of Cancun. We then caught a bus out to the Hotel Zone, which is where most tourists who go to Cancun stay. It’s what you would expect really; row after row of huge luxury hotels, facing onto the turquoise oceans. The beaches are all private owned and hotel-only apart from one public beach which is where we slunk to. It wasn’t all that bad, just a little bit rocky. We both had a dip, enjoyed the sun and felt good for at least visiting this part of town… but it wasn’t really for us. There was constant pumping dance music playing from every bar or cafe, drunk people doing bungee jumps at 10am, touts selling booze cruises and other Spring Break specialties and rowdy tourists having loud business conversations on their phones.

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We stopped off at a cafe with a nice view on the way home and had just started sipping our drinks when we were informed that the tables were for paying customers only. I explained in Spanish that we were paying, to which I was told that we needed to drink faster because other paying customers needed the table (I couldn’t see the phantom customers) and the whole thing was so rude and weird. We did stubbornly stick to our table long enough to see a snazzy fashion shoot happening in front of us, where a teenage model had a team of about 20 adults around her; one of whom’s job seemed only to be to carry a drink around.

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A disappointing part of our time in me-hi-hoooo was the food! I LOVE Mexican food, and had been dreaming of my stomach’s pilgramage to the motherland of guacamole, tacos, toastadas and cheese on everything. Sadly, it turns out that the Mexican food I like is either Baja-Mexican (the area north near California) or Tex-Mex, so err not authentic at all. The options in Cancun were fish tacos or anemic looking tortillas stuffed with chicken and a bit of cheese. No sour cream! No hot sauce! No chipotle! It was so bad that we actually ate McDonalds…. twice! And delicious it was too, as they put jalapenos in the cheeseburger rather than gherkins. That’s more like it. Perhaps if you have more than a $4 per night budget, there is amazing Mexican food to be found, but for shoestring travellers I would prepare to be disappointed.

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Nick has already touched on this, but by this stage of the trip we were TIRED. I know it sounds rich, because how can you be tired when you’ve been on holiday for 5 months, but backpacking was way tougher than I expected. In South America we arrived full of beans and determined to rough it as much as possible, but the cumulative effect kicked in when we reached Central America and suddenly everything seemed more of a struggle. The constant planning of our next location and journey, never knowing what the hostel would be like or if there would be space, arriving into strange places at night, irritating mosquito bites, checking my shoes for scorpions, remembering to take my anti malarials, having a dodgy tummy again... a perfect storm of little annoyances gradually take their toll and for us, 5 months was the maximum we could really keep moving at such a heady pace. To have fitted in 15 countries in 5 months now seems almost laughable! I will never regret our trip, but I certainly would stress how important down-time and home comforts are to keep psychologically and physically fit whilst on the road. I felt like I practically crawled into Cancun a broken, weary and emotional girl-wreck. The sheer amount of experiences we have had is sometimes overwhelming! But… we have done it, and it has been the best experience of my entire life. I wouldn’t change a thing, because even things we perceived to be bad (eg Nick hurting his back) led us directly to the best parts of our trip (eg being introduced to Ike). This has been a vital lesson to learn, and one that will change my entire approach to life.

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Armed with our dazzlingly clean new trainers and refreshed from a week of naps and movie channels, it was time to fly to LA and kiss goodbye to Latin America… and the backpacking element of the trip. From here onwards we are staying with friends and family, for 3 weeks of USA exploration that will take us to LA, Las Vegas and road tripping to San Francisco. So just a little bit different to the itinerary so far!

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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.