Tag Archives: Lonely Planet

We Are Moving To LA!!!

Bee Says: Crikey, ok. Where to start? I guess the beginning would be a good place and trust me the beginning is really really recently. Before we went travelling I worked for a great visual effects company setting up their social media and digital marketing. This job took me out to their West Coast office (I blogged at the time about it here & here) which was a hoot. I loved the studio in Los Angeles when I visited; really soaking up the family-mentality and collaborative, supportive approach to work. I also appreciated the quality of life that the employees there seemed to strike a pretty perfect balance at; sure they worked super hard… but there was a big importance attached to going surfing, or to leave on time & go on an adventure whether that be to the desert, the mountains, the beach or the “wild west”. However time ticked by and I left that job to take the opportunity to travel South & Central America; and this blog was born! The end of our trip saw us back in… LA! And as you probably remember; we rather left our hearts there.

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We’ve had a few conversations since we got back from travelling about the future. Another epic backpack excursion doesn’t seem financially viable as it took us 3 years to save for the first one! We’ve also both enjoyed elements about getting our teeth back into our careers (although less about being back in pesky pricey London!) and so we have multiple times talked about wishing we could relocate to another city… another country… namely LA. However; it seemed like that ship had sailed. That moment had passed. That door had closed. Or so we thought.

I was approached by a colleague that I grew close in my previous role. And it just turned out they had an opening for a Head of PR & Marketing in their West Coast office, based in Los Angeles. And they wanted me. *insert general life imploding and ALL the feelings*

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I’ll skip over the business bits; but safe to say there were processes and long phone calls and interviews-but-not-interviews and negotiations and discussions. Overlaid on this were the soul searching, deep-digging conversations Nick and I had to have… and pretty quickly as all this has occurred in the space of weeks rather than months.

So yeah. We are moving to LA! We will head off rather promptly after our wedding in September; making the move a sort of perma-honeymoon. Obviously there are cons as with any life decision (I will miss my friends and family desperately, I’ll be sad to leave a position at Penguin that I’ve worked blooming hard at and colleagues I admire, we are going to be oh so far far away etc) but ultimately this opportunity feels like to us like we have won the lottery. What a way to start married life? With a whole NEW adventure. There is something so intoxicating and alluring about moving to California. The lifestyle, the trips we can take, the sunsets, the fact we will do our “grocery shopping” in TRADER JOES. I could talk about my thoughts and brain whitterings endlessly (and am sure I will – obviously we’ll be documenting this process in the usual method of blogging away) but they tend to revolve around “will I need black tights in LA”, “shit, I need to relearn to drive stat” “am I going to lose my northern accent?” “what the heck is a sloppy joe?” and “will we make new friends ok?”

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It is such a huge relief to have this out in the open. We actually haven’t told anyone bar family up until this point so please don’t be offended if you’ve seen us recently and we didn’t spill all (even when drunk – how impressive?!) We just didn’t want to tell anyone until we had our interview with the U.S consulate and our visas accepted. Because honestly until then it was all still pie in the sky – and I knew it wasn’t a done deal until we had that stamp. We wanted to just know for sure before doing well.. this! Getting excited! The whole process has been mind-blowing in that we’ve been working with an attorney (ooh la la) and I really extra appreciate that her last name was Cohen (fans of The O.C hands up). But here we are, and we are official, and it looks like California here we come…

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Nick Says: LA!!!!!!! That’s about all really. It really was too much of a great opportunity to say no to. It was the right time, in the right place. So while I’ll be sad to leave behind the UK (again), I cannot wait to go and explore a new part of the world. So expect a North American focus from TwentySomethingBurnouts over the next few years, as we see what the USA, Canada, Mexico and all the others have to offer. I’m already planning road trips, train trips, and back country adventures. I reckon we’ll be perfectly positioned in California to make the most of our time there. And for those who find themselves on the West Coast, look us up and we’ll go grab some fish tacos.

I loved my time in LA, way more than I expected to, and can’t wait to go back there, but this time to see it as our new home. It’s going to be a challenge for sure, but we’re lucky enough to know a few people who have lived abroad (and some in LA too) and will be asking them for all the advice we can. So see you all in LA! But before we go, we have the small matter of our wedding to sort out…

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8 Things I learnt from the Three Peaks Challenge

Bee Says: My company, Penguin Random House, is hot to trot on all things charity. At the start of each year every single person in the business has the opportunity to vote on a list of nominations for the charity of the year, and then the year is jam-packed with opportunities to band-together and raise money for that one cause. This year the charity is Mind, who in their words seek to “provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem and campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.” I was thrilled when Mind were announced as our chosen charity because I have experienced through friends & family how debilitating and devastating mental health problems can be – and how crucial it is to have access to the right people and support. With this in mind; when an email whizzed around the company in March asking for people to sign up to the Three Peaks Challenge I was quick to jot my name down; without giving an awful lot of though to what this would entail. A nice summer ramble, I thought. A bit of a jolly with my colleagues, I thought…

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What is the Three Peaks Challenge when it’s at home anyway? Well I soon learnt that it consists of climbing the three highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales. Those three bad boys stack up as Ben Nevis (1344m), Scafell Pike (978m) and Snowdon (1085m) and well, as if it’s not hard enough to lug yourself up three mountains; the stakes are raised by racing against the clock to complete the set in under 24 hours. The challenge racks up a total of 480 miles of driving, 25 miles of hiking, climbing a total of almost 3000 vertical metres, and.. 0 hours sleep. Sounds like fun… right?

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I thought it might be useful to share a few hints, tips and tricks I picked up through my experience in case you are considering something similar. I would HIGHLY recommend it – just book yourself a decent massage afterwards.

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1. You honestly don’t need to train that much

When I first signed up to the challenge and shared the news; I was met with bewildered and horrified faces and comments ranging from “isn’t that just for top athletes?!” to “you’re going to surely DIE”. So just to clarify, whilst the challenge is “challenging”, you just need to be at a basic level of good fitness. The event itself is actually so much more about psychological strength and grit (and ability to scoff scotch eggs at record speed). We did get given a 16 week training plan by Mind – which wasn’t ideal as we signed up with only 11 weeks to go! – but really the key suggestion was just that you do regular exercise of any type (be that walking, swimming, pilates, running, cycling… anything that tickles your fancy really) and that prior to the event you do a few mammoth walks, I did a 13 and a 19 miler, just to test the endurance of your legs. I have to say that by far the most important and useful training I did was taking the stairs at every opportunity. It’s 7 flights up to my desk at work and 3 flights up to my flat; and that was the bit that felt most similar to the vertical hiking of the peaks. Aside from a few super-hero-standard fitties, everyone in our team of 21 was a similar level of fitness and it was definitely an achievable challenge for people who are “quite active but also like sitting about eating crisps and watching Netflix”.

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2. You can never, ever predict the weather

You might think that a June weekend would be the ideal time to partake in this challenge; especially a June weekend where the rest of the country basks in a tropical heatwave. What I learnt (and maybe should have known but I was always very bad at geography, and… science) is that no matter the conditions on the ground, each mountain has it’s very own micro-climate. At best; the summit will be stuck in a cloud because it’s so high up there. At worst; you’ll experience 5ft of snow on Ben Nevis, hail, rain, wind gusts of up to 40mph on Scafell Pike and temperatures that plummet well below freezing. So ignore the weather forecast and pack for every eventuality; taking doubles of everything and waterproofs even if there is a heat wave. Trust me on this; as someone who climbed Scafell Pike with gloves that were soaking and then started to develop actual frost crystals (and turn my hands into white fat sausages) by the top. Even if it appears sunny and lovely as you embark; weather fronts can come in fast and furiously. It’s also always going to be pretty cold at the summit; and if you need a rest or hurt yourself and are sat about for any length of time – you need to keep warm and toasty.

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3. Invest in some decent kit

The Three Peaks Challenge (or a similar event) will end up costing a chunk of change. I under-estimated this bit; although the good thing is that I will re-use most of the kit and it’s that type of snazzy outdoor wear that is built to last. The challenge itself cost £80 to sign up for; and then a minimum donation total of £550. This is because Mind don’t want to lose money on paying for the aspects such as bus, guide, accommodation in Fort William on the Friday night before you start, water etc. Mind provided us with a handy kit list and luckily I had some of the key bits – most importantly a good warm AND waterproof jacket. Mine is this Madigan beaut from Craghoppers which is so reasonably priced and has an Aqua Dry outer coat (which honestly repels water, it never gets wet!) and a micro fleece for 3 in 1 warmth, wind proof and water proofing. Also it’s definitely worth investing in some proper ankle height walking boots, again that are properly waterproof and will stop you coming a cropper on any crags. The only luxury item I found it totally worth buying was some walking poles! I had previously been a special sort of idiot who thought these were only for “old people”. These metal rods are crucial for navigating up and down mountains and not shredding your knees. You can even start to convince yourself you look pretty cool with them in a Where’s Wally kinda way.

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4. Waterproof gloves are a thing. And a very good thing.

I didn’t actually know waterproof gloves existed but boy do I wish someone had told me. I would buy yourself a pair, if only to avoid standing in a service station desperately trying to dry a pair of wet-dog stinky wool gloves under the hand dryer at 2am.

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5. The UK is SO beautiful.

One of the absolute best bits of this challenge is seeing bits of the UK I would never usually visit. It may have been a whistle-stop tour but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get a really good taste of the diverse terrain, the beauty, the views and the sights that the highlands, the lake district and Snowdonia have to offer. There was plenty of gazing out of the mini bus and time to plan future trips back to all these places to see them properly (just perhaps not the mountain bits) I think the most exciting place for me to visit was Glen Coe and the surrounding area of Scotland. Having never explored past Glasgow and Edinburgh; that scenery seriously packs a punch! It’s unlike anything anywhere else in the UK. Volcanic looking peaks, snow, ski lifts!, waterfalls cascading down the side of anything high, epic lochs that last as far as the eye can see, BIG sky and air that’s so fresh my London-riddled lungs could actually feel the difference with the first breath.

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6. Treat yourself to a Camelbak

This experience has been a real education in kit. I SO wish I’d known about the holy Camelbak when we were backpacking. It’s such an obvious solution to the pain of carrying about heavy bottles of water and having to stop every time you want a swig.The Camelbak is a hydration system; which is a posh way of saying a plastic pouch that can carry 3L of water, attached to a plastic hose you can dangle over your shoulder and then easily slurp from at any moment (see the blue pipe thing below). You can even drink whilst you are walking! Genius. I am now intending to fill my Camelbak with gin & tonic and fit it to my sofa.

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7. Distraction is key

I could not have completed the challenge without Katy Perry. That is a fact! I am so relieved that I packed my ipod and loaded it full of happy pop songs; because at the points where my brain was screaming at me that I couldn’t do it, I could drown that all out with some Roar on repeat. I also listened to a bunch of my favourite podcasts – Undisclosed, Watch the Thrones and You Are Not So Smart. Somehow having voices nattering in my ears made it feel less lonely as I clambered about something that resembled the surface of Mars (that’s you Scafell!) I mentioned earlier that the challenge is a psychological one, and I can never really put into words how gruelling it was. The tiredness of my legs and body honestly paled in comparison to the battering my brain took as I went through various stages of ~the fear~ and self doubt and wanting to throw my sticks down and give up!

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8. You can never have enough snacks

I went shopping for snacks three times leading up to the challenge (as this was the bit I was most excited about) and still munched my way through nearly everything. Protein bars, fruit and nuts, snickers, oatcakes, twiglets, pork pies, scotch eggs, babybel, flapjacks, jelly babies and anything else that can deliver you a quick boost of sugar or energy needs to be in your bag and belly. I feel quite sick even looking at this photo now, and think I’m retiring from both mountaineering AND snacks.

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Well that’s just a few of my thoughts. It was equally the best and worst thing I have ever done; but I am so proud of my team for hulk-smashing their way through the challenge! We went with a great company called Adventure Cafe (and in fact I’ve pinched a few of their photos here – thanks guys) Everyone was amazing at cheering each other along at bleak points, lending out woollens when the temperature dropped and generally keeping morale high and a sense of humour when things looked wet and wild. We were also lucky to have two fantastic guides who we were totally reliant on to get us up and down safely; and deliver that tough love of “no you cannot stop for jelly babies, it’s too cold to stand still”.

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I’m currently just £10 short of my sponsorship target, so if you are feeling generous – my page is here and every penny counts. In total, my group will have raised over £10,000 for Mind… and that makes every moment I’ve woken up in the night this week with leg cramp worthwhile!

 

Being in Beelin. Beerlin. I mean, Berlin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As you can see from the photo above, I’ve also managed to cram in a lot of stuff into a small space. My bag is a 37L Lowe Alpine beauty, bought from the fine folks at the Outdoor Emporium in Camden who are super friendly and knowledgeable about pretty much everything outdoorsy and travel equipment related. For those who want the 35L but are concerned they may need a bit more space every now and again, a very similar Lowe Alpine bag is available and highly recommended.

I’ll try not to repeat anything that me & Bee have duplicates of, but I will give a quick run-down of important clothing items in my bag.

Clothing

  • 1 pair of combats. I actually bought these from Next after finding nothing suitable in the outdoor shops, and they’re great. They include a zip pocket which is invaluable for storing passport and wallet.
  • 1 pair of boardies. Great as your swimming gear, plus double as a pair of shorts.
  • A 3/4 length pair of shorts. I usually take a pair of shorts this length on my trips, but slightly regretted it on this one. They were too bulky for the small pack, and also didn’t add anything extra that a normal pair of combat shorts would have done, with less space. So don’t follow my lead here.
  • 4 T-Shirts. These include my beloved Melburn shirt my friend got me as a memento of my time spent living in the fine city of Melbourne. 1 tee has already been binned as a health hazard, and been replaced by a Peruvian supermecardo special.
  • 1 Hoodie. Don’t leave home without it.
  • 1 krama. This is my favourite ever piece of travel clothing. It’s a Cambodian scarf, and the best 25p I’ve ever spent. It doubles as a warming scarf, sun hat, dust mask, and bandana. You can also get big versions which you can wear as a manly skirt.
  • Wooly hat/beanie – I picked mine up for about £2/$3 in a Bolivian market, and can’t recommend getting one more – travelling isn’t all fun in the sun. Especially in South America you’ll be hitting altitude, and the hat will come in very handy!

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

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

Keeping Clean

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Take Us Back To… Morocco!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Birthday Weekend in Paris: Part ii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you’re going to San Francisco

Bee Says: Fresh from our dreamy road trip and life on the open tarmac, we crawled into San Francisco at a snail pace. It turned out we had accidentally timed our arrival with that of the delegates to the huge annual Game Developers Conference (GDC); so San Fran! We inched our way into the city through the gorgeous toy-town pastel painted houses of the south side. We had also timed our arrival with that great American holiday… St Patricks Day! So Nick’s first impressions of San Fran (luckily I’ve been before) were of girls dressed in barely-there green hot pants, mardi-gras beads and low cut tops, puking into doorways at 3pm! A lovelier twist of timing fate had meant that my sister Jess’s partner Paul was in San Francisco at the exact same time as us! So with no time to lose, and being so incredibly excited to see some family after so long on the road, he appeared at Anish’s door and there was a lot of squealing and epic hugs and “you’re really really here!”. We swung by a sweet little Italian joint for some stomach lining pasta, having now got a case of the St Paddy day fear, then on to an amazing cider-specialist bar called UpCider. Despite the streets and bars heaving with people wearing green and yelling, Anish had amazingly found us a nice peaceful haven where we could hear each other talk and therefore do lots of chatting. The menu had us chuckling though because amongst an epic list of US produced craft cider (and beer) there was a couple of UK/Irish imports: Magners and Strongbow. The descriptions of these ciders talked of honey blossom tinges and smooth finishes. I feel sorry for anyone who opted for one of these atrocities over the really good stuff. Imagine there being a place in the world where Strongbow is considered a classy option!

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Our first full day in San Francisco was set to be action packed, as Anish is a man who takes his tour guide duty very seriously. He had put so much effort into thinking about where we could go and when and why, and it was such a relief after 6 months of permanently planning our next move to just sit back and be told which bus to catch and where to get off! He also, very thoughtfully, had chosen to live opposite our favourite store Trader Joe’s which gave us an excuse to stock up on even more cookie butter spread and chocolate covered peanut butter filled pretzels. We kicked off the day with our first breakfast (which turned into a daily tradition) at a gorgeous cafe, just around the corner, called Flour & Co. Not only was the coffee brewed to perfection, but the treat-offerings and items they class as legitimate breakfast foods were heavenly. My personal pick was a cluster of syrup soaked cinnamon dough balls covered in cream cheese frosting.

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It was then time to separate. Nick and the gang were off to Alcatraz! I had already been on my previous visit with Craig and it had been so perfect that I thought it would be silly to pay to go again, which I had such a blast the first time. So they departed with strict instructions from me to DO THE AUDIO TOUR, which I would advise anyone else. It’s the best tour of any tourist trap that I have ever experienced. He will fill you in on that, and in the meantime I had a very important date with… my second breakfast of the day (living the American dream!) and my good friends Jean and Saul. Jean is Che’s, of our Vegas extravaganza fame, sister and Saul is her adorable husband. We met up at Toast for some eggs and nattering, then I was lucky enough to get a peek at their gorgeous apartment. It’s always so fascinating to chat to people from other countries about the main differences or the pros/cons and I think we just about covered every topic from health care to politics, to cars, to quality of life, to diets and popular culture. Looking back, someone should probably have recorded us for some sort of international debate! I then got to do a really nice local lazy weekend morning activity, which was take Jean and Saul’s pooch for a walk to the park. The park had a panoramic view out over all of the city, the bay and even Alcatraz so I could give Nick a little wave from dry land…

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Nick Says: Welcome to the Rock. Alcatraz is just one of those places isn’t it? You’ve heard all about it, the stories, legends, and myths. And you know what? It lives up to it. After a walk down from Nob Hill (Anish does NOT live in Nob Town as I kept referring to it) through Fisherman’s Wharf via some of the more lovely parts of San Fran (there are a lot of hills in this town), we arrived eager and excited at the pier. The line was full of hubbub and excitability for the trip ahead. Anish had pre-booked our ferry tickets (which also give you entrance to Alcatraz itself) days before online, so we didn’t have to sort that out when we were there. Once on, we set sail for the short hop across the bay, on which you can glimpse the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory (except when it’s fog shrouded of course), and there, gradually looming larger, the rock itself.

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Home to Al Capone, the Birdman of Alcatraz, and hundreds more of the most dangerous men who ever lived, Alcatraz is the most famous prison there has ever been. A federal prison between 1933-63, it saw more than its fair share of incidents, including housing the most feared gangster of all time, a siege, and several escape attempts. The island itself has also played host to a Civil War fort, and was the scene of an Indian occupation, which has left its graffiti daubed slogans over most of the facilities to this day. But it was the 30 years of hard time which we were interested in, and if you want to get the best out of your day on Alcatraz, then 100% go and do the audio tour. It is absolutely incredible. Narrated by both ex-guards and ex-prisoners of the Rock, you receive a tour of the facilities, much of which remains exactly as it was during its prison days. The cells are tiny, the wind howls through the place, and you can glimpse the freedom of San Francisco just over a mile away. It’s heartbreaking to hear the prisoners recount how they could hear New Year’s Eve celebrations every 31st December, and then chilling to hear what it was like to serve time with hardened killers – men who scared even the other jailbirds. The sound design of the audio tour is superb, and you really believe you could be there over 50 years ago experiencing life behind bars. The tour takes you to pock marks in the ground where marines dropped grenades during the siege, and to the service tunnels which were used in a successful escape attempt. As living history goes, it is one of the most immersive tours I have ever been on.

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After emerging blinking back into the light, it was time take a tour of San Fran’s other big tourist draw – the Golden Gate. We picked up Bee and drove up to the Presido near the entrance to the bridge. After spending about 4 days looking for a space (Anish just had to get the perfect one), we finally leapt out, trotted up to the entrance and got to see the bridge in all it’s glory. Now, while I am unashamed to say I prefer L.A. to San Fran (which was somewhat of a surprise to me, I must admit), there is no denying that San Fran is one of the best looking cities in the world, and the Golden Gate Bridge really is the cherry on top. Belonging to that same era of post-recession public works as the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge is magnificent to behold. But even better to walk across. One side is for cycling, the other for pedestrians. While next time I’d love to cycle across, walking allowed us time to stop and take photos, marvel at the sheer spectacle of what we were seeing, and peer over the bridge to look at the sailing boats underneath, the surfers barrelling along, or the the kite-surfers jumping in the wake of powerboats. All in all, it was pretty idyllic.

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But why do I prefer L.A. to San Fran I hear you cry? Well don’t get me wrong, San Fran is incredible. Anish really showed us a side of the city you couldn’t experience without living here, but maybe it’s due to the fact I’m not part of the tech scene which dominates the place almost absolutely. In L.A. I got the industry everyone was talking about, and yeah it was sometimes as shallow as you imagine it is, but it’s also a really collaborative place where you can get involved in a hundred different projects. San Francisco has been accused of being a city which feels rich, and getting richer (despite the vast majority of tech workers earning a lot less than you’d think). Demographics always change in cities, but in San Fran it feels like it’s on the edge of tipping over (much like London in some respects). Which is a shame, because it felt like an amazing place to live, and quite rightly a place where Anish would want to make his home.

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Bee Says: Anish put an awful lot of work into showing us the various areas of the city that on a quick holiday flit you may well miss. We had an epic day which started off with the BEST sandwich that I have ever eaten in my life. Paying close attention to our engagement antics, he knew that a certain Mr Ike, and Ike’s Place, had been really important parts of journey. So, he took us to another Ike’s Place! This time serving up the most magical amazingness inside a sandwich sub, head here to just drool over the menu.

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I opted for the Forty!?? which involved something called chicken fried steak. I got into “chicken fried” everything whilst in the states, and am pining for that dirty delicious flavour that is so missing from British culture. I swear, I would chicken fry everything in my life if I knew how. I added every sauce possible to my order, which the rest of my road trip pals thought would equal a saucy soupy disaster… but luckily Ike knew what he was doing and it was JUST the right amount of sloppy. Nick was furiously jealous of my choice, which led to him asking innocently if he could have just one more bite, and devouring the lot in his gob! Never get between a middle child and their food. Luckily you get a free bag of homemade crisps with every sandwich (which is something else I’d like to import to the UK please) so I didn’t go hungry.

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We took our feast up to Buena Vista park, which despite it being the middle of a week was absolutely heaving with all sorts of folk; a very diverse patch of grass that one. We sat next to someone playing bongos, which was unfortunate but provided a lot of comedy value as she bizarrely started to take her clothes off whilst still merrily tapping away! It was gorgeous sunshine so we sat for hours just taking in the view and pondering if it would be obscene to immediately go and order another Ike’s Place sandwich…

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Instead we took our pennies to the Haight district of San Francisco, which has a reputation for being a bit boho/hippyish. We absolutely loved it, a really eclectic collection of pretty houses, brunch places and independent shops. The first stop to satisfy a pack of music geeks was Amoeba Records. It was hard not to buy everything we saw, but we settled on the new Beck album which is marvellous. By chance we also stumbled into a gorgeous little bookstore called The Booksmith which I would highly recommend for a visit. The pound to dollar exchange was in our favour, so we couldn’t resist picking up a signed (!) copy of Wildwood by Colin Meloy, the lead singer from The Decemberists and his artist wife Carson Ellis.

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Next we had a huge hike around Golden Gate Park, which is stunning. Don’t be expecting something on the scale of an English park however, this one is so vast that it has actual roads going through it. We stuck mostly around the Academy of Science/Conservatory of Flowers end, and looking at the Google Maps I realise we missed seeing a bison paddock, which sounds like the kind of dangerous animal encounter fitting of the rest of the trip. You could spend day walking this park and still not see everything though!

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Quite enough walking had been done, so it was time to do something a little crazy and that had been lacking from our lives in a major way. BOWLING! Lucky Strike was slightly mind blowing in terms of mod cons. Here Nick and I were, fresh from a trip where most places didn’t have electricity or flushing toilets. Suddenly we were in a bowling alley where you could change the music playing with an app, and settle your bill from your phone. No human interaction required! It was a definite shock to our systems. The bowling itself was a lot of fun, as we were all quite evenly matched at going from throwing a strike to getting nothing for the next two turns. No one needed the kiddy bars though… so we may become pin kings yet.

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We spent our last night of the road trip as any cool kids would. Drinking Trader Joe’s craft beer (12 bottles for $10!) and playing… Uno!

We’d had a really jam-packed wonderful few days in San Francisco and were pretty sad to be getting on the Megabus back to Los Angeles. I think the best part for me was seeing our friends; sharing the end of our trip with Paul, Jean, Saul, Anish, Amii and David made the whole experience extra special. However, I would agree with Nick that whilst I have enjoyed both my visits to San Fran I struggle to get behind the hype of the place. It’s a wonderful holiday destination and I’m sure the people there have a nice quality of life, but I feel like it takes itself a little seriously on the cool/tech front. Those steep hills also get me in a sweaty, breathy mess every time! I have to say, in the California stakes, LA steals my heart.

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Machu Picchu… Galapagos… Tikal… LAS VEGAS!

Bee Says: In 2011, my best friend and her now-husband tied the knot in Las Vegas. Whilst I loved my week of celebrating and gallivanting in sin city, I wasn’t sure if it was somewhere I would ever re-visit. However, when we worked out that our last few weeks of the trip would be in California, I started to feel the itch to return and this time get to show Nick around. After all, we have taken in many wonders of the world on this adventure and surely Las Vegas features in a list somewhere! Las Vegas is a super-short flight from Los Angeles, but being on a budget and still of the South American mindset that anything under 10 hours on a bus is short… we hopped on a 5 hour Megabus. Yes, you read correctly; Megabus! Our beloved British brand friend has now started running routes across California and at the same jaw-droppingly cheap prices. We got our bus back to Los Angeles for under $5 each. In fact the bus from our hotel to the bus station cost more, than the 276 mile Megabus. We were worried that for such peanuts, the service might be dreadful, but our double decker beaut pulled up promptly and we were boarded by a friendly chap. It was clean, the air con was pumping to protect us from the hot hot Nevada heat, there was wifi, power sockets and I managed to snooze almost the whole way. Oh, and they arrived 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Megabus UK… your USA pals are putting you to shame!

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En route to Las Vegas by road, about half way there you pass a sign welcoming you to the state of Nevada and directly next to it is a large casino complex. We heard a brilliant story that a friend of ours had driven for his first time to Vegas, saw the Nevada sign and the casino, and promptly pulled in believing he had arrived AT Vegas. It took him nearly an entire day to realise that he was actually just at a random hotel (perhaps when he hadn’t spotted the Eiffel Tower… or the NY NY rollercoaster… or well, any other hotels?) and had to get back in his car! For us our arrival into Vegas was made a lot easier by the fact that I have friends who live there. Yes, people DO live in Las Vegas! I first met Che and Joe at the wedding, and we have stayed in touch via the wonders of Skype and the internet since. They have been huge champions of our blog and trip, so it felt completely right that we should share part of the emotional ending with them. it also meant that after following our journey closely, they had put together an itinerary that they felt could rival Machu Picchu… the Galapagos… the Amazon. And they weren’t wrong.

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After some hugs and hellos, we loaded ourselves into Che and Joe’s car and within 30 minutes had been driven out to possibly my favourite place in the USA; Red Rock Canyon. Sitting in the shadow of the better known Grand Canyon, Red Rock is frequently overlooked by tourists, and is certainly somewhere I wouldn’t have discovered without local knowledge. Consisting of miles of arid desert cliffs, buttes and dramatically coloured rock formations,you enter the park by car and take the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area Scenic Route; 13 miles of one-way winding roads with regular parking areas to hop out and join hiking trails. We were itching to be back on two feet, so at the very first opportunity we rushed out to where professional climbers were dangling like ants on the cliff-face above us. Not wanting to miss out, we clambered up a few of the easier chunks and yelled out to hear our voices echo back around us. Being the first hiking spot, it was packed with visitors, so we tootled on to a more secluded spot.

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Having spent a huge portion of his life wandering these canyons, Joe had a favourite spot in mind to take us to. We ducked under cacti and clambered over scrub, clung to outcrops as we manoeuvred around the rocks, and then started our ascent. The familiar feelings of trekking through jungle or rainforest or salt flats returned, only this time we were wearing jeans and converse! At the top we had a perfect view of the breath-taking surroundings, where the crimson of the rocks dazzled against the bright blue of the sky. We chatted and chatted until a blissful calm settled on us, and we all sat silently mulling over our own thoughts, with only the distant swimming-pool sound of echoed voices and animal squawks in the far distance. We had come to Vegas expecting chaos and here we were feeling as remote as we had in the middle of Bolivia. It was hard to believe that the madness of the Las Vegas strip was close enough to be visible when we staggered out of the rough and back to the car.

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Joe is a talented drummer and big music cheese on the US music scene, and he told us an amazing secret; due to the acoustics of Red Rock Canyon he sometimes takes out his drum-kit and practises for hours out in the desert. You can imagine the surprise of people driving along the scenic route and they hear the thud of a bass drum coming over the crags. Apparently people have stopped to tell him they were convinced they were hearing the ghosts of tribes from days gone by! Mostly people stop to question him about why he’s there and listen to him perform an impromptu set. I like to think of him as the Drummer of Red Rock (say it in a spooky voice in your head) and maybe one day he’ll be in the Are They Real? books alongside the abominable snowman and big foot?

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With weary legs, we were excited to check-in to our hotel, and headed there next. After our last two hotel experiences being massive fails in Belize and Mexico; surely nothing could go wrong this time? Well, they say these things happen in threes and this time it was entirely my fault. In the stress of booking the Vegas hotel at the time Nick had just injured his back on the boat of doom, I had booked the room for February, not March. What an idiot! With Nascar in town for the weekend, a room was going to set us back $100 a night last minute, so luckily Joe and Che offered us their futon for the night (thanks guys!) which would give us time to find a cheaper last minute deal for the other 2 nights. The only option was to go and drink a cocktail strong enough to make me forget my booking stupidity, so we headed to Frankie’s Tiki Room.

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Frankie’s is a Las Vegas insitution steeped in tradition. The interior of Frankie’s was built by Bamboo Ben, apparently the world’s foremost tiki bar designer and also grandson of Eli Hedley.  Eli was the original beachcomber, scavenging finds from the ocean to create the décor at iconic destinations such as Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Again, this is a location often overlooked by tourists, as it’s not directly on The Strip. However, anyone bothering to take the 5 minute taxi out will be richly rewarded with the killer strong drinks and the unique feeling of actually being in Beetlejuice. One of my favourite things about Frankies is the collectable cups. You can pay $10 more for your cocktail in one of their limited edition tiki mugs and take it home. Given this was my second visit, I am now the proud owner of two! We opted for the Wild Watusi as it strongly resembles a face that both Nick and I have perfected, which we refer to as the roaring goblin. It is a face we have relied upon for the last 6 months to entertain and silence crying babies on long buses journeys.

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After downing a delicious Sea Hag, we returned to Joe and Che’s. I sat down on the sofa for a slice of pizza and to watch an episode of Naked and Afraid (and disbelieving this show could ever get made!) before realising that Nick was missing. Stepping into our room I found him passed out in all his clothes, his trainers and with the lights blazing. One drink at Frankies is all it takes!

Nick Says: When you think of Vegas, you think of the bright lights, the casinos, the excess, and the mega-hotels. You probably don’t think of neighbourhoods and hidden restaurant gems. While the strip loomed over everything, it was a treat to explore this more hidden side of Vegas for a few days. We got to see Che and Joe’s favourite places, realise that normal people do exist in Sin City, and step outside the madness bubble that permeates the centre of Vegas. But there’s definitely no getting away from the dominance of what locals refer to as ‘gaming’. It seems standard that everyone will know what hotels are new, which ones are being renovated, and which ones will be pulled down soon. Who’s in town to play, game, or just hang out is also discussed with the intensity of bankers discussing stocks and shares in places like New York or London, and which new night-clubs and bars will make the biggest impact. Most jobs there do seems to revolve around the gaming industry to some extent, and it’s amazing to see everyone so invested in one thing. After our time in Los Angeles, and with San Francisco looming, it makes you realise just how vast the USA is – there are entire cities dedicated to one thing, whether this is entertainment, gambling, or tech.

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After waking up from my Sea Hag induced coma, it was time to experience this industry first-hand. It was time to take on the Strip. For those who don’t know Vegas, the Strip is the main street where the big hotels and casinos are based. Be prepared to do a lot of walking while there, it’s pretty massive. Oh, and be prepared to be detoured into almost every casino…Among the delights you’ll see is a fake Eiffel Tower, fake Venetian canals, a fake Egyptian pyramid, and a fake New York. And lest you forget that Vegas exists in a desert, one of the main attractions in the Miracle Mile shopping complex is a fake rainstorm. No matter the time of day, lights, sound, and people will be blaring at you on the Strip. Music pumps magically from bushes and trees. People either sit dead-eyed at the slot machines or giddy with gambling fever at the tables. The casino floors stretch on for miles. You become lost in the vastness and fear you’ll never make it out again. It took us an hour and several wrong turns to find the mono-rail in the MGM-Grand. It’s raucous and no-holds barred, and most definitely must see. I think my feelings on the Strip probably go for Vegas as a whole, I’m not sure if I liked it, but I really enjoyed it.

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After some time watching fake gondoliers sing for tourists at The Venetian, we suddenly got a call from Joe and Che. They had managed to get themselves the afternoon off work and were coming to pick us up! It was time to high-tail it out of Vegas for another adventure. And this time they were taking us to the Hoover Dam. Now, I don’t know about you, but we had no idea it was so close to Vegas. In fact, we found out loads of cool stuff was in reach of Vegas. Not just the Grand Canyon, but Zion, Boulder City, ghost towns, the aforementioned Red Rock Canyon, plus the amazingly named Valley of Fire. So even if gaming is not your thing, Vegas offers a place where you can take advantage of the cheap hotels, great food, and proximity to some amazing natural environments. 

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Another unexpected treat on our visit to the Dam was that we would cross state lines into Arizona. Our third state of the trip! What was particularly cool was that the state line crosses the Dam neatly in the middle, which for part of the year leaves one side in Nevada time (Pacific Coast Time) and the other an hour ahead in Arizona time (Mountain Standard Time). Although the title of this post jokingly puts the new build fake wonder of Vegas against all the natural and ancient wonders of Latin America we’ve seen on our trip, visiting the Hoover Dam was more than equal to any of these. It was an absolutely breathtaking piece of man-made engineering, and I highly recommend anyone in the area to visit it. The sheer scale of the project, and the speed with which it was completed (it took just 5 years between 1931-36 to construct) is mind-boggling. After parking at one of the free car-parks just over the Arizona side (do not be fooled by the $10 car parks, keep driving just round the corner), you walk across the Dam one side to the other, pausing to peer over the edge into what appears to be infinity.

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The smooth sides seem seductively deceptive – like you easily slide down them and be ok. However, you’d be unlikely to survive the 220m sheer drop to the base. Everything is also in amazing art-deco style, meaning this is probably one of the best looking industrial sites in existence, Even the men’s toilets, usually a by-word for grubby unpleasantness, are beautifully elegant, with bronzed hand-rails, marble floors, and striking art-deco motifs. It makes you slightly despair over modern architecture and design. But who knows, perhaps in 80 years people will be fawning over the looks of Crossrail? While sadly we arrived too late in the day to enjoy it, you can also go on what is said to be a fascinating and dramatic tour of the inner-workings of the Dam itself, where you go inside to see the big turbines at work, supplying electricity to Nevada, Arizona, and California. The place also has to be constantly stress-checked, as the smallest crack would be disastrous. All in all, it was a towering achievement to what humans are capable of.

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However, a darker reminder of what humans are also capable of sits right next to the Dam. The demands on its electricity have grown and grown, as Las Vegas and Los Angeles keep on growing. Meanwhile, the rainfall has dried up, the drought worsens and the water level has been steadily declining. Next to the Dam is a huge overspill channel, in case the water threatened to flow over the top of the Hoover Dam, which now looks like laughable optimism rather than careful planning. The rate it seems to be going, you can imagine Hoover Dam being obsolete and useless in our lifetime.

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Bee Says: After our day at the dam it was time to go and find our new hotel and finally luck was on our side. In my last visit to Vegas it hadn’t taken me long to decide that I way prefer Downtown to The Strip. As Nick explained, the Strip is the bit you see on holiday brochures and tv shows. For me, I could only spend half a day there before I had a pounding headache and felt like I needed to escape. Downtown is the “original Vegas” packed with the casinos that housed Elvis and the Rat Pack. Whilst The Strip is neon and loud and in your face, Downtown is old and shambling and I feel, the authentic Vegas. For a while Downtown looked like it might slip into the dangerous end of seedy, it was losing tourism and becoming a hot bed for dodgy doings. I was relieved to see this time that some real investment is occurring in Downtown, with hotel renovations and better transport links with The Strip, to tempt tourists over. 

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We had chosen to stay in the El Cortez, on a recommendation from Che and also because it was a bargainous $19 a night. After struggling with my lift-phobia in Mexico and being turfed out of the Ibis, this time my irrational fear worked in our favour. The only part of the hotel accessible by stairs was their vintage suites, so we were upgraded free of charge to a huge sprawling set of rooms that looked like something out of Mad Men. El Cortez is one of the longest running hotels in Vegas, originally opened 1941 and then quickly bought and run for the next twenty years by the mob! Despite refurbishments, the hotel has ensured they maintain the decor and style from the 1950s, to the point that the hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

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We couldn’t have had a better hotel experience. On arrival we were given an entire booklet of freebies, meaning we never actually paid to eat, drink or gamble in the hotel (the official term for this is juicing; where you are encouraged with treats to stay in the hotel gambling). We absolutely loved roaming the casino floors, peering at games of roulette and even partaking in a few rounds of caveman keno ourselves. Every night we would see the same people gambling at 11pm, who would still be there at 9am when we got up for breakfast! Vegas is all about psychology… Joe pointed out that you will never see a clock in a casino (and they blur the time out on any TV feeds), the windows are darkened and the lights are dim; so that no one can ever make a guess at whether it’s day or night.

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The heart of Downtown is the Freemont Street Experience; the pedestrianised road that runs between the cluster of huge old-time hotels including the Golden Nugget and the Four Queens. The sky is covered in a canopy of screens that show video and light shows, set to pumping music. The street itself is dazzling, with bright lights saturating every surface. I loved watching Nick’s face as he took it all in with a gaping mouth; the huge neon cowboys and flamingoes, the people stumbling around with giant frozen margaritas, the signs claiming “loose slots and $2.99 shrimp”… I love every bit of it.

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This is how I imagined Vegas before I visited and it’s always the best way to really get to the heart of it. Talking of hearts; where else in the world would you get a Heart Attack Cafe? The nurses dress in medical scrubs and anyone over 350lbs eats free. Offerings include buttermilk-milkshakes, triple-quarter-pounders and all the food has been Guinness Record approved to be the most calorific diner food in the world. We stopped to pick up a few cheesy souvenirs, claim some free mardis gras beads and then trotted back to meet Joe and Che for the best Mexican food of the trip (which I feel we were owed after our terrible Mexican in Mexico)

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Nick Says: The Freemont Street Experience really was everything I imagined Vegas to be in my lurid old-school neon fantasies. Elvis impersonators sang in the streets and threw their neckerchiefs at the screaming and adoring fans, and you could easily imagine bumping into Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jnr. While I could take or leave the Strip, I think Downtown might have me coming back to Vegas for one more spin of the wheel (sorry). As well as some finally decent Mexican, we also got to visit Hash House A-Go-Go. As well as never being able to resist going anywhere with ‘a-go-go’ in the title, this place was also the scene for Lol’s pre-wedding dinner. Which considering the size of the portions, may have not been her smartest decision. Each massive plateful of food was greeted by, ‘oh my gawds’, and ‘shoot, look a the size of that thing’, as well as horrified faces. It was truly monstrous, but oh so delicious. We smugly shared a plateful of the Man Vs Food Special, and just about managed to finish.

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Of course we weren’t quite finished with the secret tour of Vegas, and Joe and Che took us to one of their favourite hang-outs, the Double Down Dive Bar. This place is a riot, with a huge sign on the wall proclaiming ‘SHUT UP AND DRINK’, which I think succinctly sets out the bar’s agenda. Populated by an incredibly varied cast of characters at the bar (including on occasions former N*Sync member Joey Fatone, who went apparently went unrecognised until he wore his trademark baseball cap), the Double Down oozes authenticity – rather than some try-hard hipster spots, you believe the signs on the wall which offer ‘puke insurance’, and fear the ominously named house cocktail ‘ass juice’. While I enjoyed the suspiciously sweet concoction in small doses, I was glad to not take inspiration from Bee’s previous visit here on the wedding, where she became known as the Maid of Dishonour…

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Spilling out of the bar we felt like we had really experienced the best of Vegas. Having Che and Joe guide us around their home town made sure we discovered a side of the city many could easily miss. We saw the best of the glitz and glamour, got out of dodge when it became too much and saw nature and man-made marvels at their very finest, and got to see how the locals interact with their city, one of the craziest in the world. We also felt pretty proud that thanks to our free vouchers from the hotel, we beat Vegas. By gambling $20 of free money, we won $7.50 of REAL money. We may not be high rollers, but we were winners – and the free drinks (provided to you as you place cents in the slot machines), and free food only added to it. As we rolled out of town and back to L.A. slightly broken and sleep deprived, it felt like Vegas did fit into our wider trip –  a place full of surprises, brilliant people, and total mayhem.

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Nick & Bee Say: As some of our more eagle-eyed readers/friends may be aware, we have actually returned to the UK (wahhh!) but don’t worry, our hearts are still in adventure-mode and TwentySomething Burnouts will continue with updates about our road trip, San Francisco and of course… how we feel now we are back to reality.

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PS: Did we or didn’t we..?

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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Semuc Champey to Tikal – Guatemala’s Gems

Nick Says: Our first day at Utopia lived up to the promise of the night-time arrival. It really was the most incredible place to stay. A super relaxed vibe, beautiful scenery, and super friendly staff who by the end of our stay felt more like friends then people fetching you a beer. All in all, it was one of the best places we’ve stayed on the trip. John, the owner, greeted us over breakfast and chatted for awhile, before uttering the ominous phrase, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news’. Turned out they had double-booked our super swanky river-front lodge we’d stayed in, so we had to move. However, and this summed up the whole ethos of the place, they comped us the second night for free to say sorry. In the end though I think this may have been some sort of genius ploy on John’s part, as we celebrated our cash windfall by blowing the lot (plus change) on a LOT of beers and brownies (the most delicious blonde brownies I’ve ever tasted) that night. Oops.

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But our decadent beer and brownie splurge was still to come. First of all we had some serious relaxing to do around the grounds of Utopia. Situated on the bend of an outrageously photogenic river, you don’t even have to go very far to experience some outdoor adventure. Still a bit bruised by our ride in the back of the pick-up, we headed down to the river to show Craig one of our favourite activities on the trip, wild swimming. Despite assurances that the swimming hole was protected from the fast flowing currents of the rest of the river, we were either lied to or the rains of the previous days had changed things. After swimming out a bit, we were almost swept away (much to the amusement of a fisherman on the far shore). Things didn’t get too much better when we came in to the shallows as first Craig slipped on a rock and almost brained himself (3 days and we broke him), and then we came under attack from an unexpected source. Sitting and chatting, a small object  suddenly flew in between us at great speed, splashing water. At first we thought it was a nut or something that had fallen from the tree, but on closer inspection we saw it was a pebble! What the hell? We looked up, and saw a furious monkey in the tree, who quickly scampered off following his failed assault. I’ve no idea what we did to enrage him, but he wasn’t happy…

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As well as the aforementioned beer and brownies, nights at Utopia also revolved around the ‘family’ style dinner they serve. With no other dining options nearby, you’re basically forced to eat there or go hungry, but luckily they make the food tasty and the dining experience worth your time and money. Family style means you’re all served the same dinner, and sit round long tables which ensures you get friendly with your neighbours. I’ve always liked this way of eating, as it means you get to know everyone very quickly. You can’t really be friends with someone until you’ve eaten with them can you? And at a place like Utopia, there’s always someone fascinating to share stories with over your tea. In our time there, we met Tom the micro-brewer from Minnesota, his French girlfriend who had been relocated to the States, the flooded family from Cornwall whose daughter was volunteering in Guatemala, plus a whole host of other characters (including a very posh mosaic artist who travelled with a young girl we assumed was his daughter, before finding out she was his girlfriend! The fact she spent most of the time flirting with some teenage German boys does not bode well for their future…). As I mentioned before, we also got on brilliantly with all the staff including a very crazy  funny German girl named Pia who left us a very sweet note when we left, a Northerner called Alex who dreamed of setting up a photography tour in the area, and my favourite, a mysterious Frenchman who loved Doctor Who, made chocolate on-site and dressed like a wizard. I never did find out his name, but he seemed to like it when I drunkenly referred to him as the ‘chocolate wizard’. Sounds a bit like a euphemism though.

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As lovely as Utopia was, the main reason we had come to this hard to reach part of Guatemala was to explore the caves and pools of Semuc Champey. We’d heard so much about the place, we were starting to wonder if it could live up to the hype. We set out the next day to see for ourselves. Most of the hostels in the area offer a full day tour for about 180Q (which is about $23 or 13 quid). For this you get a morning exploring a cave system, and then the afternoon in Semuc Champey itself, before some optional river tubing. Not being overly fond of small, dark spaces, Bee opted not to do the cave part of the tour. Me and Craig however, took the plunge.

Stripping down to our boardies and socks (essential for keeping your balance on slippy rocks – we learnt this in the waterfalls of Venezuela), we followed our guide to the entrance of the caves. One of the first things he did was describe himself as ‘muy loco’ which means ‘very crazy’, which possibly didn’t bode well for a man about to lead you into a dark space with him responsible for your safety! With no lights to guide you, you’re given candles for the tour, which is actually a very cool and atmospheric way to explore underground. We quickly became experts in learning how to relight a damp wick (bite and fray the ends my friends!), and edged our way through the rock formations. For those budding geologists out there, you will learn NOTHING about the cave system on this tour. It is a full-on action tour pure and simple. Being as I enjoy that type of tour, it was perfect for me. Not long into the tour, we quickly plunged into waist deep water. It was pretty chilly, but this was only the beginning. The waist deep water then became chest-deep, and then we couldn’t touch the bottom. So we all quickly learnt how to swim one-handed while holding a sputtering candle in the other. We trekked almost a kilometere into the dark, clambering up gushing waterfalls along the way, sliding down mysterious holes, and finally leaping off a 3m high ledge into a pool of water (which you must hit in one exact spot, or it’s game over). For those wondering, there is no real health and safety down here, which makes up a lot of the fun. However, it’s probably not for the faint of heart! It can also get pretty crowded down there when one or more tour groups come together, and on the way out prepare to be abandoned for long stretches by your guide as they herd everyone out. It got pretty dark and lonely for me and Craig at the back, until he remembered he had a head torch with him…

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Bee Says: I confess, my kryptnonite is small spaces. I can handle vast heights, tiny tin can planes, the roughest oceans and various other hairy scary moments, but the idea of wriggling around tiny dark damp caverns is not something I would spend my precious Quetzales on. Instead I got to laze by the river spotting the hugest, most exotic butterflies of the trip (with a few even making a home on my dress) so I had a very different Disney-movie morning whilst the boys chucked themselves off scary cave ledges. We were then reunited for an action-packed afternoon, starting with a hike to the viewing platform that would give us the iconic (and first) view of the Semuc Champey pools. The sign marking the footpath to the hike stated that it should take 1 hour 30 minutes. Our guide announced we would do it in 20 minutes and with that he marched off into the wilderness leaving us huffing and puffing in his dust. Hmm, what an attentive guide! The trek to the viewing platform was vertical. Steep slippery jungle paths soon dwindled to nothing and were replaced by rickety wooden steps that snaked around the side of the mountain at jutting angles. Luckily the tree canopy hid the full extent of the drop below, but the creaking and juddering of the structure ensured that we kept a fast pace and completed the hike in the alloted time, mainly with terror spurring us on! The moment I walked out onto the (equally rickety) wooden viewing platform will be a memory I clutch to once we are back in the world of fulltime jobs and zzz commutes. Firstly I saw Craig beaming bigger than I have ever seen before, then behind him the source of his glee: the most dramatic green, turquoise and aqua pools, surrounded by lucious green trees and backed by a gushing waterfall. Beautiful is a word I cannot help but overuse, but of every single place we have visited, this is the single most beautiful place on earth I have ever seen. We’ve seen more than our fair share of dramatic, stunning, otherworldy places and had beautiful experiences, but Semuc Champey definitely tops out in terms of pinch-yourself-am-I-really-seeing-this-or-am-I-dreaming?-ness.

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As we stood taking in the spectacular view, we were sweating profusely as a result of the vertical trekking and the intense jungle humidity. Before every snap we had to wipe our faces on our tee-shirts; a nice behind the scenes tidbit for you! It was hot hot hot, so you can imagine how tempting, cool and refreshing the pools looked, to the point I could have dived off that viewing platform into them right there and then (and with Guatemala´s lack of health and safety, I´d have probably been cheered on by my guide!) A quick march/run back down the mountain took us right up to the pools where we stripped off and raced into the lapping water. Semuc Champey is an entirely unique natural formation. It is a limestone ´bridge´ under which a ferocious river races. We started off our tour of the pools standing at the top, watching the river-turned-waterfall gushing, then vanishing underground. The limestone bridge is covered in these natural pools, which end when the river reappears (a bit you certainly wouldn’t want to bathe in).

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As you relax in the tranquil waters, it is hard to believe there is a furious swell of a rapids racing beneath you! The first pool was perfect for reclining, sunbathing and letting little fish suckle on our toes. The pools then increased in terms of deepness, distance to clamber in and size of the fish. In the last pool lived a fish that was so big when it brushed against my leg, I thought it was a human. You can imagine how much Craig enjoyed this element, given that his kryptonite is…. yup, fish! By far the most fun part of our day of pool-hopping was the fact that to move from one pool to another, we had to use the mini waterfalls connecting them, with the super-slippery limestone making nifty natural water slides. The biggest one was 8 foot, sending me shooting out into freefall before waterbombing into the pool (and Nick, whoops) below. I hadn´t really given any thought to how we would get back out of the pools… you guessed it, I had to scale the super-slippery waterfalls. This bit was slightly trickier than zooming down on my bum.

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Nick Says: I won’t lie, I was a bit worried about how Bee would cope with all the leaping around slippery waterfalls. But any fears I had about her being too scared were dispelled as I turned around to see her arms and legs akimbo flying through the air with a look of unadulterated glee on her face. A priceless memory!

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Bee Says: On our final morning in Heaven… I mean Utopia, we set our alarms and sat out on the deck from 5.15am watching the sunrise, milking every last misty magical moment. Then it was time to be herded into the back of yet another jeep (our fouth time, so by now we were experts at which bits of padding to shove against the bars to avoid bashing and bruising) and dumped in Lanquin to await a tourist shuttle to zoom us to Flores. As we waited for the shuttle, I overheard the type of conversation that makes me despair at the attitude of some fellow travellers. A British guy was also waiting for the shuttle, and made a point of going up to the Guatemalan driver and asking “will there be any locals on the shuttle?”, to which the man answered that yes, sometimes locals use the service. At this, the British guy recoiled and annuonced “well I was ensured that there would be no locals on the transport. I only want to travel with other tourists”. (!!!!) The driver, through gritted teeth, informed the guy that the services are so expensive that only wealthy locals use them. I guess this was meant to reassure him that they wouldn´t be interested in him or his luggage, but personally I don´t think he should have justified the Brits complete ignorance with a response. How dare that he travel to a country and then demand he doesn´t interact with the local people?! The reasons that this is beyond offensive are too many to list, and my blood pressure is raising just recalling it! I didn´t go and have it out with the idiot, because we were about to spend 10 hours in a tiny mini-bus together, but I really wish now that I had said something. We have used public transport for 99% of our journeys, and have much preferred travelling with locals to masses of fellow tourists. The local people have constantly been informative, with impeccible manners (as long haul buses are a regular part of life) who make no fuss about the lack of air con, or bumpy roads or lack of bathroom stops. Even new born babies and toddlers seem to fall in line, as we have shared buses with up to 10 tots who barely make a sound for hours! As if to highlight this point, the very same shuttle that the Brtish guy had kicked off about, was one of our most unpleasant travel experiences. The shuttle set off from Lanquin with us onboard and stopped at a local hostel to pick up more passengers. As they boarded, they noticed there were some jackets splayed on some seats, so moved them off and took their seats. The bus then returned to where we had set off from, picking up a Dutch couple had stayed on to finish their breakfast. As they boarded, they realised their jackets (reserving their places apparently) had been moved, and that they would have to sit seperately on different seats. Immediately they started screeching, yelling, swearing and being SO aggresive to the girls that had sat in their seats. The women from the couple then proceeded to sit on the girls!! Saying she would stay there until they moved. It was so awkward and un-necessary and appaulling to witness. How can you have such a loss of perspective when you are travelling around one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere?? Get me back on that public transport, stat!

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Once the Jeremy-Kyle style scrapping had ended, we drove off to Flores. The road got bumpier, and bumpier, and our teeth were audibly clattering as we reached a sudden stop. The driver vanished and eventually we snuck out to investigate what was happening. As I enquired Que Pasa to the workmen who had stopped our shuttle, I was informed that the road we were driving on was actually still being built! We couldn´t help but chuckle. With a few hurried phone calls, some bribes and sweet talking our driver persueded the workmen to let us drive on the muddy not-yet-a-road and we were soon back en route. After 4 hours of pot-hole rattling I couldn´t hold in the call of nature anymore and asked the driver to stop for a bano naturale (natures toilet!) I found myself a great shady spot amongst some long (prickly, ouch) grass and did my business… before turning round and finding a family of Guatemalan women watching me from a house that I had failed to spot when I started. Smooth! Shortly after this, we finally rejoined a tarmacced road, and the shuttle errupted in cheers and applause! The last surprise of the journey was when we stopped suddenly again, this time at a large river. It´s been a while since we had the joy of some bus-on-barge action and were so thrilled that we got to share this surreal experience with Craig.

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On arrival in Flores, there was a lot of faffing around and being moved onto another bus, and general confusion, before eventually arriving in Isla Flores. Craig had been in charge of booking this bit of accommodation (such a treat), and had opted for a hostel on San Miguel which is a region on the mainland with a view over Flores. To get there we had one final trip to make, a quick water-taxi across to San Miguel. As we stepped onto the water taxi Craig announced that he felt just like James Bon….. then promptly lost his balance and fell over! As opposed to touristy Flores, San Miguel is a peaceful residential area and Craig had excelled himself in accomodation choosing! Neil, our chatty Belizean hostel owner, led us from the bar/restaurant terrace out along a winding path through ornate gardens and past hammocks and a pool, to our private wooden jungle cabin. It almost rivalled Utopia for amazing accomodation, and was a gorgeous place to spend our last few days together. The thing I loved/hated the most about our cabin, was that as it was on stilts and in the middle of the Guatemalan wilderness, the nature noise at night was almost deafening. It was a constant onslaught of chirrups, caws, and clattering as beasties raced around beneath us. I learnt that the local monkeys make haunting baby-like midnight cries to each other, and at times the soundscape resembled some sort of jungle horror movie. I couldn´t help but lay prone, listening to the noises though, and actually loving it, because I knew that it wouldn´t be long before the night noises return to sirens and blaring cars.

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Nick Says: Ensconced in the comforting silence of my earplugs, I slept soundly through the night jungle. Not that we slept much though, as it was time for yet another early start. Today was the day we were off to visit Tikal, the mightiest of all the Mayan ruins and the jewel in Guatemala’s tourism industry. As the heat and humidity becomes unbearable throughout the day, we left Flores at 4.30am to visit the site in the morning. It takes about an hour to drive there, and then another half hour to actually reach the ruins from the park entrance. What makes Tikal so unique and inspiring is the fact that the temples are surrounded by jungle still, and the place seems locked in constant combat against the onslaught of nature – as if at any moment it will be swallowed up again by the jungle, where it remained hidden for hundreds of years after the collapse of the Maya.

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We had opted to go on a tour of the place, and while it was interesting and informative, the group was too massive to really get a personal guide of what we were seeing. But that didn’t matter too much though, as the ruins really do speak for themselves. While Copan in Honduras  was a masterpiece in elagant carvings and artistic vision, Tikal impressed by its sheer scale and awesomeness of what you were seeing. It wasn’t enough it seems to just have one epically scaled Mayan temple for the kings that ruled there, they wanted dozens! Clambering around and taking it all in was amazing, as was hearing the guttural roar of the howler monkeys that call this place home. Yet another Jurassic Park moment on this trip.

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While all of it was magnificent, my one particular moment of ‘eeeeeeee I’m really here!’ came while standing at the top of Temple IV. incredible as a piece of engineering, it is also famous for appearing in Star Wars. Now having grown up on those films, and assuming as a kid that this amazing Rebel base/temple was some kind of set, it gave me nerd goosebumps to be looking out over Yavin IV.

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Bee Says: It took me a while to warm up to Tikal. In my head I couldn´t help comparing it to Machu Picchu, which really packs a punch when you arrive, as the view takes your breath away. With Tikal, it´s a slow burn, as you visit the smaller temples first and have to walk for half an hour or so between each monument. Once I had reached the Main Plaza however, the scale of what I was seeing finally sunk in, and I was completely overwhelmed by the awesomeness of what was around me. The part that, for me, meant I massively preferred Tikal to Machu Picchu overall, was the space. The size of the site, added to the fact it isn´t the top tourist trap like Peru, meant we could regularly sit at one of the sites and be alone with our thoughts and experiences.

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It gave us some precious time to take a seat (at the love hotel apparently, where Mayans kept their babes!) which provided a spectacular view of the plaza and residential area. It felt like I could just scrunch my eyes and imagine exactly what life used to be like there. Tikal has been so well preserved and maintained, I wasn´t expecting to be able to clamber up and around so many of the temples. This made the experience extra special, as the views from high in the sky with the temples poking out of the jungle canopy were enough to set my heart fluttering. We visited Tikal on Valentines Day, and I know it´s cheesy but I felt like the luckiest girl alive to share it with my fiance and my incredible, inspiring and all-round bestest of friends Craig, clambering around ruins and sharing such a special adventure. I think it´s pretty un-beatable!

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It was over too soon though, and back in Flores there was just time for one more spectacular sunset on the lake and a boozy pizza dinner… then it was time for Craig to jet back to London and finish this amazing chapter of our trip.

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Craig Says: As a lover of travel and miss-er of best friend I could never refuse the chance to join Bee and Nick on their adventure of a lifetime. “Guatemala?” they asked.”Why not” I replied. And booked the flights. Nick and Bee had the itinerary planned and it was truly astonishing – volcano? Check. Ancient Mayan ruins? Check. Jungle paradise? Check. I couldn’t argue with that so it was just a matter of preparing and packing. This was the most distant and thrilling travel destination for me to date but the guys useful packing blog post was referenced scrupulously. Armed with a backpack 75% full of fresh clothes and British foodie treats for the guys I was off.

I hadn’t given much thought to joining two backpackers part way through a trip – would we have different aims? Would we be on different budgets? Would a fresh-off-the-plane Londoner drive them mad?! The truth is it was inspiring, exhilarating, fascinating – and so much fun. If you are thinking of doing something similar – do. I guess you could compare it to going to a really great party at the time it’s really great. The passion and enthusiasm for their trip was addictive and infectious; over the last five months Bee and Nick have seen all of life and I could’ve listened to them narrate their stories and scrapes endlessly.

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What I didn’t expect was how incredibly humbling it would be to know my presence was a boost to them as they neared the end. Five months on the road is tough to say the least so it’s easy to understand how revitalizing a familiar face from home is but I was quite overwhelmed by their excitement at my arrival.

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Practicalities aside on a personal level this was a hugely special, personal voyage. To spend ten exclusive days with my lovely best friend and her equally as lovely fiancée was exceptional. We laughed constantly, ate a lot and talked for hours. The three of us will have some amazing memories of this trip that we’ll be talking about when we’re old and wrinkly in our arm chairs.

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