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The Dollar Challenge: What will a buck get you in every Latin American country?

Bee Says: Before we went travelling, we got a few nice farewell gifts. For example, Nick’s dad gave us two identical emergency blankets, which luckily we could return to him unused at the end of our trip. Meg got me a nifty pink Leatherman and a super strength head torch. My favourite gift of all was from my good friend (and now member of Team Bridesmaid) Kerry. She works in a bureau de change, and knows ever-y-thing about currency and foreign moneys. She had the genius idea of presenting us with 15 dollar notes before we left; one for each country we would be visiting and she set us the great dollar challenge. We were to report back on what we felt was the best purchase we made for a dollar in each country. Not only was this just a really interesting project to keep us out of trouble, but it also really helps to highlight the strength of the dollar in different countries and the comparative wealth between them. So thank you Kerry for being such a smart cookie – check out her lovely Leeds foodie blog here, and we hope you (and everyone else) enjoy the results.

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1. VENEZUELA – GUARAPITA OVERLOAD

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Bee Says: Ah Venezuela, the first country we visited and which remains right in the top spots of our all-time favourite destinations. Whilst we were there, the exchange rate wobbled massively in our favour and meant it was the richest we were in any country. While the official rate was 10 bolivars to the pound, and 7 to the dollar, the black market had exploded and gave us rates of 50 bolivars to the pound and 35 to the dollar. To put this in context, a beloved bottle Polar beer cost around 30p! But our first winner for the great Dollar Challenge had to be our discovery of guarapita. Whilst flicking nervously through our South America on a Shoestring guide book on the flight to Caracas, my magpie eyes spotted a recommendation for a local Venezuelan cocktail; a combination of rum with passion fruit. On our last night in Puerto Colombia, we decided we had to go seek out this mysterious drink and see what all the fuss was about. I marched up to a van selling booze on the street and ordered two guarapitas (in my fumbling just-off-the-flight Spanish) and the guy behind the bar lifted out TWO huge litre bottles of orange stuff. Realising my mistake I quickly explained I only wanted two CUPS of guarapita. This was still misunderstood as I was passed a litre bottle with two empty plastic beakers! I was about to explain further, when the chap told me the price and the litre bottle cost… yup! About 75cents.

As you can see from the very legitimate old Russian Vodka bottle it came in, guarapita is brewed in someone’s back garden and certainly tasted as you’d expect. Heavy on the rum, less so on the fruit. We sat on a low wall next to the harbour, watching the sunset and the birds swoop and the locals coming out to dance on the street to music that an old car was playing from a huge sound system. One glassful had our cheeks rosey. Two glassfuls had our hearts thudding and by glass number three we both swore we could feel our hangovers already creeping in; so we donated the rest to some people next to us and staggered back to our hostel.

2. BRAZIL – HOT SAUCE SAVIOUR

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Nick Says: While the World Cup may be coming to an end, it’s been great to see images of Brazil on TV and all over the place for the last few weeks. Particularly Manaus, where we got to spend a week or so whilst waiting for our boat down the mighty Amazon. But we found Brazil a fair bit more expensive than Venezuela, thanks to the fact it isn’t in such dire economic and political turmoil as its neighbour… However, most things were a bit more than a dollar here, until we shopped for last minute supplies for the boat ride at a supermarket  (Carrefour!) and found some bargain hot sauce. While the 4 day boat trip through the Amazon was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the entire trip for us, it was the hot sauce that got us through it. A meal of bland beans, rice, and either chicken or beef twice a day quickly becomes tiresome, unless you just happen to have a bottle of fiery pepper sauce lying around. Then you suddenly become everybody’s best friend – which isn’t a bad thing on a boat where robbery isn’t entirely unknown… But 4 days of hot sauce changed me as a man. Before I was a bit bemused to watch Bee slather every meal with it. Now I’m right there with her, drowning any carefully prepared culinary delight in hot sauce (habanero preferably).

3. BOLIVIA – MICRO 4, THE ENDLESS BUS RIDE TO DINOSAURS

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Bee Says: Bolivia took us from Sugar, to Salt, to Stars and then up to the witch markets of La Paz and the epic Incan terrain of Isla del Sol. Our money certainly went furthest in Bolivia, and we reached the end of our month in the country under budget. It occasionally felt like it was actually hard to spend money, and this is probably demonstrated best by our adventure on the micro 4! Before we left for our travels we had been given a few “Top things to see before you die”, “50 Best bits of the world” type travel books and it was in one of these that we learnt we could walk with dinosaurs in Sucre, Bolivia at El Parque Cretácico (Dinosaur Park!!!) In most of Bolivia one mode of transport is a “micro” – a small mini bus that drives a circuit of the town but that can drop passengers at other spots on route for a few extra Boliviano. The micro’s are varying in quality, we saw one with a hole in the floor through which you could watch the road zoom underfoot (!) but they are generally a cheap, safe(ish) and easy way to navigate the city. We knew the number 4 micro would take us to the Dinos, so hopped on and asked the driver, who nodded. Twenty minutes later, we pulled in to a millitary zone and it was clear this was the end of the line. The driver waved us off up a dirt path with no dinosaurs in sight. Eventually we stumbled across a beautiful palace like building, and as we entered we were told we were at The Castillo de la Glorieta. NO DINOSAURS HERE! I think maybe the driver had different ideas about the Bolivian culture we should be soaking up so had basically forced us to his favourite tourist spot? Either way we had a look around, meeting a group of school kids in there who ALL wanted their photos taken with the weird muy blanco foreigners! But, we really wanted dinosaurs, so we walked back to where our driver had dumped us and were told that yes, the parque was on the micro 4 route, but the opposite end of the line! We boarded a new 4 and 45 minutes later we had basically seen the whole of Sucre for about 60p and were finally at our desired destination.

4. CHILE – HAIRY LITTLE LLAMA MAGNET

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Nick Says: Chile has stated aspirations to be a ‘first world country’ in the next few years. It already feels like it’s there to be honest. It is the strongest economy in South America, and easily felt the most prosperous of all the places we visited. But as a result, it was also the most expensive of all the Latin American nations we went to. Making it even more expensive was the fact we had pitched up in San Pedro de Atacama – the major tourist destination in all of Chile. So while we managed to live as cheaply as possible (street food served in cage, delicious red wine from origin) it was pretty tricky trying to find something that matched the dollar challenge. But then we saw it, eyeing us up inside a tourist tat/artisan craft shop. It wanted to be bought. And it got its wish, and now lives on our fridge – becoming the Chile instalment of our other challenge, buying a fridge magnet from every country we visited.

5. PERU – HUANCHACO PIER (DAY OFF FROM BEING SICK…)

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Bee Says: Whilst we had some of our trip high points at Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo, Peru wasn’t great to us for many reasons particularly Puno and the fact it will always be remembered as Poo-ru rather than Peru. When we weren’t frantically tag-teaming a toilet, we struggled to find much to write home about that cost less than a dollar. Tourism has hit Peru in a big way (its basically the new Thailand) and as such, prices reflect this. We had a nice day out in the sunshine in Huanchaco though, and we handed over a dollar for both of us to stroll around the creaky wooden pier. From here we stood for hours watching local lads fishing with bits of wire glued to a square of wood; which seemed to be working well for them judging from the splish-splashing buckets full of fish we saw.

 6. ECUADOR – PINK CATERPILLAR RIDE OF JOY (THE WINNER!!!!)

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Nick Says: We’d just taken a last minute decision to fly out to the Galapagos Islands, paid out a not-insubstantial amount of money to a tour agency (which we had no idea would be legit or not – but turned out to be amazing) for a 7 night cruise around the islands, and were now sitting eating a slice of pizza and drinking a beer while trying to get our heads round the fact we no longer had the money. Was it a good idea or not? Had we made a mistake? One beer led to another, and then we heard a rumbling along the road. Not much traffic goes past on the Galapagos, so we were pretty curious. But this curiosity turned to first disbelief, then incredible excitement once we saw the source of the rumbling –  a giant motorised pink caterpillar on massive wheels came zooming past. We looked at each other and nodded. We quickly grabbed our stuff and shouted, ‘let’s chase it!’ Which wasn’t the best plan as it was really quick. Finally we caught up with it as the next bunch of excited people (mainly children if I’m being honest) got on-board. We leapt on, ready to hand over any amount of money to ride the pink caterpillar (a phrase I never thought I’d write) and laughed with joy as the man asked for a dollar each for the privilege. We knew we had a winner before the ride even started, but the journey confirmed it. Putting peddle to the metal, we roared off on a whistle stop tour of Puerto Ayora. No stopping for you pedestrian! Out of my way giant tortoise! We rode on for what seemed to be miles, careering around corners like a bat out of hell. But then came the surprise ending. Pulling up at what we thought to be the finish, the driver then proceeded to doughnut the pink caterpillar in high-speed circles. We whooped at him to keep going. He obliged. What a dollar. A few days later as our cruise stopped by Puerto Ayora we talked most of our fellow passengers to hop and ride with us again. They loved it.

7. COLOMBIA – SECRET JUNGLE PAN AU CHOCOLAT

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234adc4c6a9c11e3838a1219189c01ee_8Bee Says: From our Galapagos adventuring where we spotted giant tortoises, swam with sharks and scampered about with blue footed boobys  (and pink caterpillars..!) next we hiked into the wilds of Colombia, spending some time camping in Tayrona National Park before celebrating Christmas in  40 degree hot hot hot Cartagena. Not being a natural adventurer, the one thing that tempted me into this remote jungle was the TRAVEL LEGEND that somewhere… deep beneath the canopies… was apparently the best pan au chocolate in South America. It’s hinted at in Lonely Planet and people who have visited Tayrona whisper hished directions to the bakery as they pass in hostels and bars. We ended up hitting jackpot with our campsite, as it was a mere 2 minute stroll (follow the irrisitable smell that starts wafting to your tent at 4.30am!) to pick up these giant chocolate loafy beauties, which fill you up all day for hiking and swimming. You could easily walk past the small shack serving up these unexpected delights, so to find them we had to follow the eau de chocolat with our nose; cartoon style. Forget yoga, stuffing my face with these was my number 1 happy place!

8. PANAMA – SOAP AT LAST

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Bee Says: By the time we hit Peru, our supplies of British shower gel had well and truly run out. We weren’t worried; after all we had managed to stock up on sun cream, shampoo and pretty much every other essential we needed whilst on the road. However, shower gel and soap were another matter entirely. For three long countries trekking, we just could not find anything! The odd shower gel we stumbled over would be imported from USA and cost about $20 a pop, so we had to sadly return it to the shelf and carry on our stinky sticky way. Panama was almost a dollar challenge bust; firstly because after our real-life-horror-story crossing the Darian gap, and Nick’s nasty back injury, we spent the majority of our time in a hotel room where nothing cost less than a dollar! Then one night I snuck out to purchase a few make-your-own-mini-bar snacks from a shop over the road and on the shelves were… SOAP! A real life bar of soap! And better yet, it cost $1. This beaut gave us a great deal of joy and lasted us all the way to Mexico, even if by then it was a scraggly slither of joy rather than in its original glorious form.

 9. COSTA RICA – SWEATY BORDER CROSSING COCONUTS

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Bee Says: Costa Rica heralded sloths, snakes, night hikes, the best Mexican food we would ever eat and… the WORST border crossing of the entire trip. We went through the main Panama/Costa Rica border crossing, at Paso Canoas. First we were herded into a little room where our names were ticked off and sniffer dogs smelt our bags (and cheekily pulled out some of my underwear!) before being herded back out again and into a massively long queue for an exit stamp. After a breezy hour or so, we were finally let out of Panama and allowed to queue up for Costa Rica entry/searches/waiting around for no real reason. That wait went on… and on… and on… and in total the border crossing took over 4 excruciating hours of standing around. As Nick said in our original post about Costa Rica: For those of you thinking backpacking is all beers on the beach, try standing around a sweaty border crossing for a few hours while men with guns ask you questions! When we had finally been allowed to enter Costa Rica officially, we were both feeling weary, wiped and woeful. And just then, a man approached us selling coconuts… 2 for a dollar! Suddenly travel life was on the up again.

10. NICARAGUA – BASEBALL ON BIG CORN

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Nick Says: Ah Nicaragua. Probably our favourite country on the entire trip. Whether it’s a visit to the gorgeous colonial city of Granada, going to the world’s weirdest museum in Leon, riding on a boat with pigs and meeting the incredible Ike on Big Corn, and of course getting engaged on the tropical island paradise Little Corn, this was a country full of adventures and stories. It was also fertile ground for the dollar challenge. Beer was a buck, lobster not much more, bus rides and museums were a dollar, but the winner had to be the baseball game we went to on Big Corn. One tiny island, four competitive teams all battling it out for the championship. Saturday night was baseball night. The standard is high – one Big Corn local had made it to the Major League in recent years. The atmosphere was amazing, all beers and reggae music blasting out. We paid our dollar equivalent entry and walked in. We saw 5 balls before the tropical storm that had plagued us for days strike one last time, and rain off the whole thing. Days later, once we were back from Little Corn and catching up with Ike once again, he told us about the rearranged game the night before – and that he had tried to get hold of us over on Little Corn in order to ship us back, put us up for free at his, and take us to the game as he knew how much we wanted to see it! What a guy. But luck was on our side, as the last game of the championship had been brought forward. I could go. Sadly for Bee she was laid low with illness (/engagement boozing hangover), so I dashed across the airfield, got into the stadium, grabbed some fried chicken and watched a classic. My team (North End) may have been beaten in the last innings, but the game had it all. The crowd had even more. Sign me up to next year’s games.

11. EL SALVADOR – DESPERATE TIMES MCDONALDS

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Bee Says: There’s not much to say about El Salvador as sadly we were so squeezed for time that we only passed through San Salvador and the only money we spent was on… McDs! We tried to avoid the golden arches on the majority of our trip, but on this occasion we’d been in a bus since 3am for over 10 hours with no food, and being forced to watch a really weird almost-porno movie in a tiny sticky mini bus going over pot holes… we just could not bring ourselves to travel far to scavenge for food. McDonalds winked at us as we pulled into San Salvador and we were powerless to resist. Luckily it made for a handy (predictable) dollar challenge winner, as it turns out they have the pound-saver menu everywhere and our cheeseburgers were $1. Fun fact; in McDonalds in Latin America they put jalapenos in the burgers instead of pickles.

12. HONDURAS – MARKET PLACE EARRINGS

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Nick Says: My solo trip to Honduras was pretty eventful. When not scampering about Mayan ruins, or drinking delicious German beer in a micro-brewery, I was trying to dodge fiery protests  and bribery requests at the border. In between all that though, I was able to take time to do a little bit of shopping in Copan Ruinas. A beautiful, if somewhat heavily patrolled by soldiers, town the market offered loads of goods for great prices. I managed to pick up these earrings with a dollar after buying a few other pieces from the friendly market stall trader, and got to treat Bee with them on my return. I think she liked them!

13. GUATEMALA – ONLY A BLOOMIN’ ENGAGEMENT RING!

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Bee Says: After rocking my finest biro-bling for the journey to Guatemala, we thought it was time to upgrade to something a lil snazzier (but still unlikely to make me a target of crime). I found this beautiful hand-carved two tone wooden ring in a trinket treasure trove in Flores, and yep – it was $1 exactly. Obviously the real deal once we got back cost a wee bit more but if it hadn’t been for the fact that by the time we returned to England this wooden number was pretty much rotting off my finger and smelling pretty funky… I might not have been so hasty to upgrade to diamond and sapphires!

14. BELIZE – THE ORIGINAL CINNABON

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Nick Says: Caye Caulker was one of the most photogenic parts of the trip. A Caribbean getaway, we kicked back here for a week before heading onto Mexico and the end of our time in Latin America. The big thing in Belize was the food. We’d been a whole heap of different things ‘you just gotta try’, and they certainly lived up to the hype. Eating in restaurants may have been a bit pricey on the island, but street eats were plentiful and bargainous. We had cakes a-go-go from a big friendly chef guy, fried fish, breakfast burrittos to die for, and ice cold Belikin beer to wash it down. But the number one food we were told to try by everyone was cinnamon rolls from one specific bakery on the back-streets. Open only for a few hours twice a day, the cinnamon rolls would normally be sold out in about 30mins. So we turned up a dutiful 15 mins early, camped out by the door, and rushed through a soon as the sign was turned round to ‘open’. Did we want frosting on them? the baker asked. We sure did. I can still taste them now, simply some of the finest cinnamon rolls I’ve ever eaten, and two of the for a dollar!

15. MEXICO – CHEESY CHURROS IS WRONG

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Nick Says: I can’t say we really saw a whole lot of Mexico, but we did see a mariachi band playing in a food court and drink tequila with Mexican businessmen in a hotel lobby. We also went to the mall a lot, and were tempted daily by churros – delicious deep fried doughnut treats loaded with chocolate, caramel, or cheese. Wait, what? Yep, who doesn’t want hot liquid cheese on the sugary snack? It looked wrong, and potentially illegal. And at $2 sadly out of the budget for the dollar challenge, so the cheesy tempter remained uneaten, and we satisfied ourselves with 2 regular churros for the same price – making them a dollar each.

The dollar really is the currency of the world, and it was amazing to see what  we could, and couldn’t, get with a buck. It added a fun game to the times when we had to tighten our budget, and I can’t thank Kerry enough for setting us up with the greenbacks. So, if you guys have found anything amazing for a dollar on your trips, please let us know!

 

The One Where We Get Engaged on Little Corn.

Nick Says: The usual way of getting to Little Corn from Big Corn is on a panga, which leaves around 10am from the main dock in Brig Bay. However, on Monday and Thursday they lay on a bigger boat which they call the yacht, giving you a covered ride and apparently a smoother one too, albeit slower. We thought we’d hit the jackpot when we got to ride this bad-boy across, but sadly we hadn’t reckoned on the fact that we were inside, meant there would be no breeze, while we roasted in oven like temperatures. It was an incredibly sweaty hour crossing to Little Corn, and everybody was immensely happy to finally get across – many people rushing straight off the boat and jumping in the sea to cool off.

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A tiny place, Little Corn revolves around tourism. While on Big Corn you won’t see too many other holiday-makers, here you can’t move for them. But it’s easy to see why we all flock here. If you were asked to describe a tropical island paradise, you’d describe Little Corn. The place is drop dead gorgeous, with palm fringed jungle plunging straight onto beautiful golden beaches and clear Caribbean sea. You arrive in the tiny little Village, where most restaurants are based and the majority of the islanders lived. Along the east and the north of the island (sadly we didn’t quite make it to the south) are a handful of beach cabanas where you can stay, all with names such as Elsa’s Place, Grace’s Cool Spot, Derek’s Place, and Carlito’s. There’s also a few amazing places to eat, great snorkeling, and plenty of rum to drink. As you quickly see the same faces again and again in such a small spot, you quickly start recognising and chatting to everyone you pass, and everyone you pass has the same dazed smile on their faces, as if they can’t quite believe this place is real. We remarked more than once on our stay that it felt like a dream, and that we’d stepped out of reality for a few days. As the owner of Tranquillo café remarked to a backpacker who announced they were going to stay for a few more weeks, ‘That’s what I did. Seven years ago.’

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The emphasis of tourism on Little Corn means that you’re definitely not left to get on with your own thing, like on Big Corn. You can’t go 20 minutes without someone trying to sell you a snorkeling or fishing trip, get you to go to their restaurant for Rondon/Run Down (an unappetising looking but apparently delicious local dish made with fish and coconut milk), or generally get you to buy something. Our first evidence of this was when we got off the yacht and met a crowd of touts, each trying to get us to go to their respective hotel/beach hut. Knowing that places can get full quickly, we’d booked in with Grace’s a month or so before. We saw our guy at the dock, and followed him to Grace’s. But on the 20 minute walk across the island, he managed to completely turn us off the idea of staying there. If he wasn’t telling me, and the other guys we were walking with, about the fact that Grace’s had really hot Chilean girls there for us to try it on with, he was waving a condom in my face and telling me I could get some (this while I was holding hands with Bee…), or telling us that Grace’s was the party place on the island and no old people were allowed to stay there. Despite it looking a really nice place to stay, thanks to him we decided to walk on to the next place and lose our $10 deposit. The next place luckily happened to be Carlitto’s, a friend of Ike’s. Minutes later, and with us sat outside our new beach hut, the dude from Grace’s Place staggered over. Thinking he was going to ask us why we had run off, we were a bit surprised when he instead tried to sell us a snorkeling tour. The guy was so blazing that he had totally forgotten who we were and the fact he had just spoken to us five minutes earlier!

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Bee Says: The good fortune that Ike brings to our lives continued on Little Corn, as we mentioned him to Carlitto’s wife and she gave us their very best cabana, at a discounted rate. The little tin roofed cabin sat atop wooden stilts, with a decked porch that we liked to sit and drink daytime beers on whilst chatting to anyone who passed our house. We then had a slice of private beach and miles of turquoise twinkling water. From leaving bed, to being in the sea, could be done in under a minute. I know, because I tested this theory! The island is only 1km square, with no vehicles and no roads, just some paved tracks winding in and out of dense jungle to cross the island. It is the most pristine, perfect place I have ever seen and for those 90s kids from the UK, it is basically the Bounty telly advert come to life. The pace of life is slow, with absolutely nothing to go and nowhere to be, and this communal sense of giddy freedom. Unlike Big Corn with its bustling dock, cargo boats and planes of all sizes zooming in and out, Little Corn is only accessible one way. That is by boat, once in the morning and once at night. The same goes for leaving. The rest of the time? Well you may as well lay back in your hammock and bask in the fact you are completely marooned on a desert island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.

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If you do decide to visit Little Corn (why wouldn’t you?) my one piece of advice is – pack your flashlight/torch! We were staying on the East, but socialising in the Village on the West, which inevitably meant that late night jungle treks back to bed. One such evening, Nick used his well-honed spidey-sense to track down the cheapest beer vendor, which also happened to have the most beautiful thatched little seating decks, with a panoramic view over the docks and with Big Corn twinkling in the distance. The sunsets were the kind you simply cannot take a bad photograph of and as we sat watching the magenta hues slice the violet sky, I was lucky enough to spot a shark circling and splashing about 20 metres away in the shallows. After a few sun downers (a phrase we have only learnt whilst travelling, basically it is a classy way of saying Happy Hour) and a plate of fresh fish tacos, we ducked into the wilds for our twenty minute stagger back to Carlito’s. Whilst there is power running off generators in restaurants and shops, there is no street lighting, so once you step under the canopy of the jungle it is PITCH black, with just the smattering of stars overhead to lead the way. Hence the need for a torch! These impromptu night hikes were some of my favourite times on Little Corn though. You never knew who was going to bowl around the corner, or what animal eyes would flash neon in the reflection, and there was always the slight chance you were going to get hopelessly lost. Well, as hopelessly lost as is possible on a 1km sq island.

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Longtime readers of the blog, may remember that back in Peru we celebrated Nick’s birthday. One of his presents from me was an IOU voucher for a slap-up meal of his choice, complete with cocktails and fancy long-forgotten things like dessert, that he could cash in at the location of his choice. In an unexpected act of patience, he hung onto this little scrap of scribbles until Little Corn. Therefore on the Saturday night, we donned the fanciest gear we own (my dress and Nick’s shirt were picked up at a goodwill store in Granada for the occasion) and headed to the Turned Turtle. We had selected this restaurant because during our stay on Big Corn we received three separate rave reviews from tourists saying they had eaten there pretty much every night as the food was so spectacular. Luckily it was a five minute stroll from our cabana too, so no hiking around in my fancy frock required. We arrived at 5.30pm to ensure we bagged the best table and view, then set about ordering. The thing Turned Turtle do really well, is the sense of value for money. You order a main course, and then you receive “free of charge” a starter, a soup/salad and a dessert. All for the price of your main, which is the standard reasonable Nicaraguan pricing for more upmarket places. We gorged on cheesy bread bites, a phenomenal sundried tomato salad, surf & turf of lobster & steak and then black-bottom banana cream pie. Just listing it reminds me of how phenomenally full we were, as 5 months of street food has left us with half the appetite we used to have for munching through London’s cheeseburger joints. That aside, the food was all just mouth watering and went down nicely with a few giant margaritas.

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We had a lovely meal, then after we strolled to a secluded beach that we had visited earlier in the day. It was just as beautiful at night. The air was balmy, the sea smelt incredible, and we sat snuggled up doing some star gazing. And then… Nick ASKED ME TO MARRY HIM! I will keep the finer details just for us, as what I liked most about it was that it was so private, but I will say that I had no idea it was coming! So it was the most amazing surprise. I had rationalised that there was no way Nick could bring a ring with him, so in my head I had completely parked the idea of any proposal speculation. He couldn’t have asked at a more perfect time in our lives and trip, and I am just so honoured to call him my fiancé (although everytime he calls me it, I think he is calling me Beyoncé, which is getting a little wearing for him!) We didn’t know what to do immediately after we got engaged… Do we run into a bar? Buy champagne? Go night swimming? In the end we settled on a couple of frosty Tona beers and sat alone on our favourite place… the porch, just listening to the sea crash in and out.

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I didn’t know, but Nick had actually taken me to the exact spot he was going to propose, the day before and we took some selfies that now have an extra significance!

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Nick Says: Even though I had been planning on asking Bee for a long time, and had an inkling she might say yes, it was still one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever had to say in my life. But now the feeling is incredible, and it’s made an already unforgettable adventure even more special. We’ve just got on so well throughout the trip, and enjoyed spending so much time together, that marriage seems the perfect way to carry on.

When not asking girls to marry me, I also took the time to hike round the island and do a bit of exploring. I set off on one blue-skied morning and found myself on the north of the island, where if possible the perfect beach island has it’s best beaches. While there I got chatting to a couple also hiking around, Pam & Doug. On first impressions they seemed a very pleasant 60ish American couple on their holidays. However, first impressions are often misleading, They were two of the most fascinating and slightly crazy people we’ve met along the way. Bearded and long-haired (what he described as his Willie Nelson phase) Doug was a Vietnam vet, while Pam was a war protester, and along the way I found out all sorts of amazing war stories – including Doug fishing for the local village kids by firing his machine gun into a lake, and also how the GIs used to float out to sea on their inflatable mattresses and get incredibly stoned. Currently the pair are conspiracy theorists (they talked to us about Area 51 and faked moon landings) and rum enthusiasts. One memorable drinking session with them included Doug disappearing for what seemed an age, before being spotted at the bar downing shots, while beautiful twenty year old girls surrounded him with their arms around his waist. Doug was a dude. We also liked that Pam always referred to us as ‘the kids’, which softens the blow that this is the year we turn 30…

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But there can be too much of a good thing, and after 3 days of paradise, we decided to head back to Big Corn, or what we now referred to as ‘home’. Our time on Little Corn was the perfect slice of dream living, and it’s a place I can see myself returning to more than once in the future. We hopped on the 1.30pm panga back, riding back with a Canadian couple called Mike and Nicole we had befriended on Little Corn. Despite a few warnings that it could be bumpy, the ride was super smooth and quick, the very antithesis to the panga ride of doom back in Colombia. Arriving back in Big Corn, Ike was there to greet us like long lost friends at the dock, before heading back to his place. After being rained off last time, the baseball was back on and so leaving Bee to recover from a dodgy tummy (maybe cocktail related), I headed off to the big game. Having never really paid much attention to baseball before, it’s always bemused me how it’s attracted such a passionate following in the Caribbean. But after a few hours at this game, I could understand why. The sun was shining, the reggae was blasting out full volume in the stadium, the crowd (who knew all the players from birth) would shout encouragement or jibes, the beers were flowing freely, and everyone was knowledgeable about the game. The only thing missing was a win for North End, after they threw a lead away in the last innings. Damn.

The next day we were able to Skype and FaceTime our families to share the good news. Brilliantly, Big Corn has the best internet connection we’ve had on the whole trip, so we were able to reach everyone with no trouble. I particularly liked seeing my older brother Chris still at work in his classroom, and having one of my old college teachers pop up mid-chat, lending a slightly surreal air to the proceedings. That evening we met up with Mike & Nicole for dinner, and no sooner had Bee’s mum Phil said to us to make sure we celebrated with bubbles, then these super friendly and generally excellent Canadians were offering us a bottle of champagne to split with them (it was their honeymoon gift from their hotel). That set the stage for a great night of chat with some fascinating people (my favourite story was how Mike, a Mountie, had lined up the taxi drivers in Managua and frisked them after having his wallet stolen) and a brilliant welcome back to Big Corn.

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Bee Says: Nearly a week of Big Corn living stretched ahead of us, but it passed in the link of an eye. We spent most days on Long Bay, our favourite beach by far, which we had entirely to ourselves every time. A beach like that anywhere else on our trip would have been heaving, so we were reminded once more why we are besotted with Big Corn. Long Bay beach also has a brilliant bar and restaurant called Island Style, run by the friendliest chaps around who whip up some mean plantain treats if all the sunbathing gets you peckish. We chose one day as our snorkeling day, but sadly the visibility was bad (we could see sand… sand… and more sand…) so we hung up our flippers and roamed around the island hunting our cheap lobster instead. On our last night on Big Corn, Ike excelled himself to the maximum, by throwing us an impromptu engagement party! As we haven’t been able to celebrate in person with friends and family, it was extra special and just another example of this man who, aside from his sweary-sailor stories once drunk, is basically a saint. His generosity and life advice will continue inspiring us for years after the trip. Heck, I would recommend a trip to Big Corn JUST to meet this man, let alone the paradise beach thing.

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Ike’s assistant Eva had baked us a phenomenal meringue cake, and Ike had ordered a platter of the best Caribbean fiesta food; shrimp, chicken wings, plantain, beef strips and fried fish. Oh and of course, a bottle of red wine, a bottle of white wine AND a huge bottle of Flor de Cana rum. We donned our Ike’s Place tee-shirts for the do, and then felt a bit embarrassed when Eva arrived looking Hollywood-movie stunning, in a dress and sparkly accessories. The bar opened at 5pm, and by midnight we were STILL sitting around the table, nattering on about everything and anything. At one point Ike bought out a big map of the Caribbean and we had an amazing Geography lesson mixed in with all his riotous tales from his time as a sailor and salesman working the Caribbean coast in the 70s and 80s. Most stories ended up with all of us doubled over in belly laughs, tears streaming down our faces and only gathering our senses to burst out laughing again. It was a really special night, with us feeling firmly a part of his Big Corn family. We even got Ike to drunkenly promise to attend our wedding (he has air miles aplenty) and plan to remind him every week until the day itself!

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With heavy hearts (and absolutely hangin’ hangovers – although of course Ike and Eva looked fresh as a daisy at breakfast!) it was time to big Corn Islands farewell. As Nick mentioned, we this special place has now become a huge part of our story. It will always be the place we got engaged, and therefore without a doubt we will be back here before long, which makes it a tiny bit easier to say goodbye… for now. We both agreed that if we didn’t have an important date to make (more about that in a moment), we would probably have sacrificed Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, and just stayed here for a month. Granted the blog would have become very dull (“sat in a hammock… ate fresh fish… drank pirate rum… sat on the beach… repeat…”) but it is the only destination of our whole 5 month trip that we have felt this way about, which says it all really. Luckily for you we HAVE left (back on the cattle cargo boat of course) and are now en route to Guatemala, via Honduras and El Salvador, to meet our friend Craig in Antigua, a city in Guatemala – not the Caribbean island, confusing! He has chosen to spend his holiday/vacation joining us for part of our trip, which as we have both agreed, gives him a free pass for life for us to do anything in return for him. We really appreciate him using the precious time to share this adventure with us and cannot wait to have a new travel team member (and he is bringing precious supplies from England such as CLEAN underwear! pain killers! Dime bars!).

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The blog may well have a little break for Craig’s visit, as it won’t be much fun for him sitting for hours in a cyber café sweatbox, so expect some bumper updates mid February. In the meantime you can follow mini updates on our adventures on Twitter here:

Bee

Nick

 

 

Corn of Plenty, Nicaragua.

Bee Says: The Corn Islands are a pair of ex-pirate islands, approximately 70km into the Caribbean sea off the Nicaraguan mainland. In fact, Big Corn (La Isla) and Little Corn (La Islita) were the starting point for planning the rest of our Central America leg, with everything else shifting into shape around the fact we both knew that we HAD to see these islands. There are two ways of travelling to Big Corn from Managua (best up to date reference on options is here) :

1. The Easy Way (90 minute flight from Mangaua: $100)

2. The Hard Way (Bus to El Rama, Cargo Boat to Big Corn: $30)

And I am sure you can guess exactly  which route we opted for. We set off from Granada on a Monday morning, getting to the rather sketchy capital city Managua at about 11am and headed to the Costa Atlantica bus station. Our night bus to El Rama wasn’t actually leaving until 9pm but we needed to be on it to meet our boat, so didn’t want to risk it getting sold out (an annoyingly frequent occurrence). Queue a long, hot, sticky day of waiting. And waiting. And waiting! We played a LOT of “20 questions” but we’ve been travelling together so long we are verging on psychic and just kept guessing straight away, however obscure the item eg. A monkeys hut. We also tried to order some soft drinks, but they came in a plastic bag with no straw…

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At 9pm we boarded our bus, a battered old American school bus, so not exactly comfortable for our night on the road. We knew the bus arrived into El Rama at 3am, a dreadful time to arrive anywhere, but the blogs we had read ASSURED us that people are then allowed to sleep onboard until daybreak. So imagine our slight panic when at 3am we arrived and were immediately booted off into the thick night. El Rama only has a one line deception in the Lonely Planet. “Not as seedy as it once was… But it was pretty damn seedy”. Based on this we didn’t fancy a stroll in the dark, and luckily there was a hotel next to the bus stop which had some benches laid out in the car park, and a tv playing a Latin American version of Judge Judy on repeat, where everyone from the bus seemed to slope off to wait for morning. So we followed suit. We tried to ask for a room at the hotel but they were full. By 8am we were nearly delirious, and also getting increasingly anxious as we know the boats to the Big Corn are notoriously unreliable, hard to get information on and likely to change routes/days if they have to pick up extra cargo. Despite the fact I’d spoken to “Capitan D” on the phone, we still had an increasing fear that he wouldn’t actually be there, which was compounded by the fact the locals I asked kept telling me he left “ayer” – yesterday.

A second entire day of waiting for transport that may or may not arrive stretched out in front of us, and a second disheartening discovery was that using my tired Spanish I’d found out that IF Capitan D was there, he’d be at a port 2km away! Not the handy little dock that our hotel was next to. Darkness fell once more, and at 7pm we had to find a Tuk-Tuk and head off into the unknown. I was sick with tired and worry, as if the boat wasn’t there we would either have to wait in El Rama for it to come (once a week.. and El Rama is not a place you want to spend a day, let alone a week) or give up our Corn Island dreams and retreat forlornly to Managua. We arrived at the port and a nice security man (carrying a machete but we have got used to this “normal” Latin America accessory by now) walked us to the dock and YEAH! There in all his glory… the Capitan D! The boat was real AND there! We practically skipped on and were greeted with our first glimpse of life on deck: a group of weathered looking sailors hosing down three PIGS! Not exactly our luxury Galapagos cruise anymore. The lower deck of the boat was all cargo (mainly food, sandbags, 3 pigs, 2 cows and postal deliveries) The upper deck was amazing, no cabins but an open plan room full of triple decker bunk beds!

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We set sail, after hours of loading up, at 10.30pm. The first 12 hours were river sailing (ahh Amazon boat memories!) and only about 7 passengers sleeping in the “dorm”. We thought we’d hit jackpot and had a lovely nights sleep and I could see a gorgeous sunrise from my bed. Then at 10am we docked in Bluefields (named after a pirate who ran his smuggling trade there, obviously) and all hell broke loose! We waited 4 hours while the boat loaded more animals and cargo, and every single bunk became full, often with families of 5 sharing one bed. It soon became very hot and cramped but it was fun with a typical fiesta atmosphere of people singing, chatting in Spanish and our first taste of the amazingly accented Caribbean English patois that is spoken in the Corn Islands. We set off again and called in at El Bluff for a final cargo stock and more passengers. We were fit to bursting, Departing at 6pm and headed out to open water, we had braced ourselves for a rough crossing so could hardly believe it when it was so calm there was barely any difference between the river and ocean… we had no idea at the time but it turns out we were experiencing a first-hand dose of “the calm before the storm”. Capitan D creaked into Big Corn docks at 11pm, by which point we had been travelling non-stop for 3 days and spent 26 hours on board. As a result, we sacked off all future plans and decided we needed 2.5 weeks on the islands to recover.

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Nick Says: Tiredly hauling our packs with us, we stepped off the boat and breathed in the sea air. We had made it. Even in the darkness you could see how crystal clear the water was. Life here was going to be good. But first we had one more little adventure before we could reach Ike’s Place, our final destination. We jumped in a little taxi, asked for Ike’s and set off. To a completely different place. The taxi driver, after failing to get us to a ‘great hostel’ he knew about, dumped us next to the nearest hotel on the road and assured us it was Ike’s, before taking our money and disappearing into the night. This presented a slight problem, as it was fast approaching midnight, we were exhausted and near delirious, and had nowhere to sleep. Luckily we found a slightly grumpy night-watchman at this random hotel. Despite the fact he only spoke Spanish, we managed to explain our predicament to him, and waited as he disappeared. And waited. And waited. Hmmm. But then success! He came back with a very groggy looking manager, who we were able to press our tattered post-it note on which Dr Dru (my American chiropractor who helped me in Panama, and had put us in contact with Ike) had scrawled down phone numbers. Our sleepy saviour managed to get hold of Ike, and then put us in the hotel van before driving us all the way across the island (our legit taxi man had gone completely the wrong way) to Ike’s Place. After rousing Ike, he then refused any money and wished us well, with the seemingly grumpy night-watchmen all smiles and shaking hands. Big Corn, what a first impression.

About 10sq km in area, Big Corn is a world away from the Spanish speaking Central American mainland. A former British protectorate, English is still the main language here (although you’ll also hear Spanish and Miskito), and the relaxed Caribbean way of life prevails. It’s an island surrounded by clear turquoise seas, and a place where you can jump in a shared taxi and most likely know the other person sitting in it after only a few weeks. A place where sometimes you can’t get anything from the nearby bakery because Ingrid the baker is asleep in her rocking chair, but when she’s awake you’ll be there hours chatting. It’s a place which feels lived in, real, and seductive. A place where we were promised the Caribbean dream. It was also a place where a tropical storm crashed it’s way into hours after we arrived.

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While we could have been forgiven for not picking up on the whole calm before the storm thing, maybe we should have paid more attention to the guy running around the Captain D telling everyone there was a hurricane on the way. But to be honest he seemed pretty mad, and I was sleepy so ignored him. What I couldn’t ignore the first day we woke up on the island was the howling wind and lack of water or electricity. But it takes more than a giant storm to put our amazing host Ike in a bad mood. Apologising to us for us waking him up (I know), he greeted us all smiles despite the wind. I’m not sure if words can ever do Ike justice. He’s one of the most welcoming and friendly people I have ever met. A quick look at his glowing Trip Advisor reviews show just what an impression he has made on people. Nothing is ever too much trouble for him, and he was always there for a chat. And boy he has interesting things to say. He told us all about the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, about hoping for a brighter future, about being forced to flee the country, and about finally returning to his home. He told us that despite what some of the histories say, the revolution wasn’t the black and white struggle between a dictator and the people it’s sometimes portrayed as, or in Ike’s words, ‘you don’t know what it’s like unless you live through it’. He told us all about the corruption he faces on the island, with some authorities always trying to get a bigger slice of the pie, or local people being swindled by a few rogues. But despite all this, he always has a smile and a positive view of life. For an insight into what type of man he is, I snuck a look at his shopping list one day as we drove about the island. Ike is a man who has jelly and beans as his top two items. I think that sums up him and the island.

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Bee Says: Our first five days of tropical paradise, mostly consisted of gale force winds and sheet rain. Oh and occasional losses in power and water supply, so one day we had to use the very glamorous method of bucket-showering in rain water.

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In Nicaragua the storm season finishes in November and restarts in May, so the “weather coming down” (as the locals refer to it) was a total freak occurrence that had everyone on the island chatting and swapping predictions and rumours. Everyone we passed on the street wanted to share the latest storm-gossip, and we felt very British and at home sharing the thrill of permanent weather small talk. The main information we gathered was that after the extreme cold spell in East Coast USA, this storm was that same weather front, heading down Central America towards Panama. We didn’t let a little bluster dampen our spirits, and even managed a 12k walk one day, returning drowned but happy rats. The irony wasn’t lost on us that the place we have worn our raincoats the most is a Caribbean island! No boats arrived to the mainland since we did, and on the last few days of the storm we experienced rationing at some of the shops. This is an island after all, which relies entirely on cargo boats and planes bringing in supplies. We also had high hopes for a fun (if still damp) day as we had tickets to the local baseball game! There are 4 teams on the island, and the number one social activity is to gather at the stadium and cheer on your faves. I donned my $5 fangirl shirt, and headed over ready for a day of beer, frito (BBQ chicken) and ball. However we watched about 4 boys bat… before the heavens opened and after 15mins the pitch was waterlogged and the game was cancelled! We shuffled home in the rain. It was fun while it lasted.

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One of my favourite things about the island is; where else in the world would the directions to get to the ATM be “You just walk down the airfield runway if nothings coming”. The airstrip runs down the length of the island, and planes only land twice a day so the rest of the time it becomes a vital connection between the north and south. It also seems to be where all the cool teen girls hang around gossiping, people of all ages gather to play barefoot baseball… and the occasional goat races take place.

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We definitely had our best/weirdest dining experience of the trip on Big Corn. One night, ducking in from another downpour, we visited Comedor Maris. Officially classed a restaurant… it is actually just a couple of coffee tables set up in Mari’s living room! With wide eyes taking in all the family photos, trinkets, jumble and décor, we sat down next to this ladies sofa and she offered us fish or shrimp. We got both, along with fried plantain and rice & beans (traditional Nicaraguan side dishes) oh and a nice cold beer from her fridge. From our table we could watch as she cooked right there in her little kitchen, served us, then sat back on her sofa and completely ignored us, instead watching “The Shawshank Redemption” on her TV whilst we ate. After so long on the road, we really missed being in someone’s actual home, so long after finishing our food we stayed to watch the end of the movie then trotted home. Frogs were ribbiting from the puddles in the dark.

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I can’t deny, that even with the wild, wet, windy start, I lost my heart to Big Corn within days of arriving. The sea view alone is enough to steal your breath, even under grey skies. Vast coral reefs slice dark patches into the bright turquoise waters and white sandy bays, backed by dense green wilds, stretch as far as the eye can sea. Tin roofed shacks, pastel painted bakeries, selling fresh coconut bread & pumpkin pie, and palm thatched bars dot the road, along with “killer crab” road signs and arrows pointing to “the swamp”. Everyone you pass acknowledges you, with either a bellow or a wave or a subtle head nod. Country music blares from unseen speakers and the smell of the salty ocean mixes with the hot heavy smell from the jungle. Big Corn is rough around the edges, but that is what makes it magical. This isn’t a Disney-version of a desert island, this is an authentic Caribbean community living and breathing and existing in the middle of the sea and their unique laid back way of life sucks you immediately in.

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Nick Says: As the rain showed no signs of abating, we decided to keep our heads down and drink rum. These were former pirate islands after all. Heading back to dock, we settled ourselves in to Fisher’s Cave, the locals choice for seafood places. Breaded lobster for $10? Shrimp in jalapeno sauce? YUM! And the most fabulous waiter we’ve ever met. Plus of course a bottle of Flor de Cana dark rum to wash it all down with. So good we had to drink it again the next night while we hid out in our room.

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But then the next day dawned bright and clear, and the sun had returned to the Corn Islands. The power was working, and so was the water. We went down for our morning routine of breakfast – a traditional Nica breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans), scrambled egg, and cheese, together with coffee and fresh star fruit juice, all lovingly prepared by Eva, Ike’s helper. Ike himself would greet us every morning for a chat, and this sunny day announced he was going to take us on a tour of the island. So we jumped in his 4×4 and set off. Seeing as Ike grew up on Big Corn, it was as much reminisces about his youth (here’s where I learnt to swim) as sight-seeing tour. He also knows EVERYONE on the island, and every 10 metres or so we would stop to greet yet another passer-by. The tour also took in some more unusual sights of the Big Corn. At one place we pulled up, and Ike pointed at a man sat by a bar, ‘That there is the black Santa Claus’. The man looked up, waved and called out, ‘It’s true. I’m just like him. But black’. He did have a magnificent white beard, but I’m not sure if Santa sits around in his underwear drinking rum at 10am in the morning.

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We also drove down a secluded part of the island to reach a $4 million house. Built by Morgan, the richest man on the island (he runs all the seafood export business), this home was designed to be a dream weekend retreat for him and his wife. There was only workmen there when we arrived, but Ike had been there many times and let us in to have a look. The place was spectacular, hand-carved dark wood pillars, a huge master bedroom, and the best view on the island. But it had taken Morgan 10 years to build, and now he was an old man who couldn’t live in an isolated location, nor allow his wife to live there either in case something happened. So the dream house stands empty, but still requiring a full-time staff to maintain it and a watchman to guard it, while Morgan stays in his former house in the main town of Brig Bay. A lesson if ever that the money to build yourself whatever you want isn’t always worth it.

After a week on the island, and with the beautiful weather continuing, we decided to seize our chance to make the 7 mile crossing to Little Corn. I had been wanting to see this island for years, and now it stood less than an hour away. It was also the place where I’d been planning on asking Bee something very special, but feared the weather might put paid too. For now the sun shone, and we set off for the docks to catch the boat…

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