Tag Archives: Nick Travel Blog

Road Tripping up the PCH

Nick & Bee Say: One of the best things about California is the sheer variety of landscapes on offer. From sandy beaches, to mountains, forests, and deserts, it truly has it all. One of the most scenic ways to explore it is driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, a trip we’ve been lucky enough to do on several occasions, including during our epic 6 month backpacking trip that launched this site.

Now we can do it on the weekend, and take the time to see some of the places we drove through before. Case in point, wine country! We took ourselves to Paso Robles, looking a lot like Tuscany, for some wine tasting, then drove past to visit the magnificent elephant seals, who call California home too.

Bookending this trip is a quick look at what else we’ve been up to – mini golf at a castle, and hiking with the Los Liones trail with ex-Angeleno Katie, who had had looked after us on previous visits to LA.

Oh, and we return to the UK next month for a bit! See you all soon!

Venturing In Ventura

Nick & Bee Say: Hello everyone! Hope 2016 is treating you well. We certainly seem to be racing through it already… Over here in California the El Nino storms briefly came in with a period of rain and cold weather, but the temperature is now soaring again and shorts and t-shirts are the order of the day.

This meant we decided to take a road-trip up the coast. Ventura is a city about 2 hours lazy driving on the way to Santa Barbara. We didn’t know anything about it really, so it turned out to be a amazing discovery for us, and a place we’ll be sure to check out in future. But don’t just take our written word for it, see for yourself below.

We’ve also had our second visitor while here, Nick’s brother Phil! He came over for a few weeks, and we used his trip here to basically eat everything. Our trim Latin America days are long behind us. We’ve also become quite the avid basketball fans since moving, almost as much for the halftime entertainment as much as for the game itself. Behold the madness…

Russia in Ten Days – Part Two

Nick Says: As you last left me, I was winding my way to the north of Russia towards the White Sea on a night train. Well I say night train, but it was bright light outside at 3am when we got on. For those heading this way at this time of year, a sleeping mask is a must. Travelling on a long distance train in Russia is a must too. Train travel is my favourite method of transport, and I don’t think I could ever get bored of it. Not even when I spent 3 days on the Indian-Pacific in Australia basically looking at a desert… One day we’ll do a post here about great train trips to take, but for now – RUSSIA.

DAY FIVE: After a very hot night sleeping in tiny bunks, we got off the train at Kem looking slightly weary. Kem is not the nicest place in the world. It was a former transit centre for the gulag, and looks a bit like one still. However, it’s the jumping off point for boats to the Solovetsky Islands, so a necessary destination. We went to the supermarket, loaded up on supplies, and jumped in a 4×4 with blacked out windows with a taciturn Russian man who then drove us to the dock. Once there we discovered a slight flaw in our plan, the boat had sold out. Undeterred, we bought the return and waited for everyone else to board. One thing I noted about Russia is that they love officialdom here. Everyone seems to be responsible for something or other here, with about 10 people doing the work of one. There’s even a person who sits in a little glass booth at the bottom of the metro escalators to make sure no-one misbehaves on them! But anyway, this boat was no different, with our official here a seemingly by the book lady. Our hopes at sweet-talking our way on seemed slim, especially when she turned away some latecomers. But then Alastair worked his magic, and we were on-board! But without any tickets. Apparently we were told we could pick some up from the office if we wanted, but seeing as the boat was leaving right now, and the office was a bit of a walk away, it seemed like a good idea to just get on board and let her keep the backhander…

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With little room onboard, we found a space for ourselves outside on the deck, wrapped up against the wind, and watched the world go by. We passed uninhabited archipelagos, fed trailing seagulls bits of food (one of the highlights of the boat passage according to our official), and slowly watched the Solvetsky’s come into view. The outline of the monastery was unmistakeable, and it looked massive. We’d learned a great bit of history about the place – in 1855 three British ships sailed into the harbour, made a load of demands to the monks, shelled the place for 9 hours, didn’t do any damage, and agreed to go away. There’s a monument on the island to it, called the Negotiation Stone. I would discover it was a mosquito ridden hell hole later that day.

But first we disembarked on the island. My first impressions of the place were that I could well imagine it as a gulag. The sky was overcast, the wind whipped us, and the bleak wooden buildings looked forbidding. But the sky was beginning to lighten, and the island quickly revealed itself as a truly beautiful location. After several nights of not much sleep, we had decided to go and stay in a guest-house. From his previous visit, Alastair knew a good one. So it was we found ourselves at Vladimir’s. An ex navy captain who had decided to settle on the islands after he retired, we soon realised this gruff outdoorsman had the soul of a poet – he had built all the cabins and carved incredible pieces of furniture, full of intricate designs. We were staying in what seemed to be his own house too, so he would come and sit at the kitchen table with us while we drank tea, and tell Alastair about the island and his life. Sadly my Russian had not advanced enough in four days to understand what he was telling us, although he helpfully did show us a lot pictures on his phone to illustrate the point.

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It was then time to understand the history of the islands a bit better. To do that we went to the Gulag museum. One of the first gulags in the Soviet Union, the Solvetsky Islands became a prison camp in 1921. It’s remote nature proved to be the perfect place to house supposed enemies of the state, and escapes were rare and almost always unsuccessful. The museum unflinchingly told the story of the prisoners, through photos and often their own words, supplementing this personal narrative with harsh facts about the labour expected, and the survival rate. It was truly sobering, and an element of Russia that I found hard to reconcile. This was a beautiful place, with so much to offer to tourists, yet with a dark and brutal past, enough for the place to be named ‘Island of Hell’.

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After this, Mark went off to rest up his swollen ankle, but duracell bunny Alastair refused give into any sort of weakness like that. So we took a two hour cycling trip around the island, including to the Negotiation Stone where mozzies would attempt to eat my face, before allowing ourselves the sweet embrace of a bed and hot shower for the first time in days.

DAY SIX: The easy times were over. Big Brother (as we had begun to call task-master Alastair) quickly had us out of bed and marching to the islands camping site to pitch up our tents again. Then it was time to get back on our bikes, this time donning wellies, as we set off to cycle to a neighbouring island called Muksalma. Why wellies? Well the track down to Muksalma is a swamp-ridden pot-holed watery mess, which involved carrying your bikes as much as riding them. It was glorious. Pushing through, we eventually emerged to find a stone causeway created by monks hundreds of years earlier to connect the two islands.

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Muksalma was home to an abandoned building which served as the female isolator unit for the gulag, so we took a look inside. It had some seriously creepy vibes going on. We then attempted to cycle to the other side of the island, but were turned back by the fact the path became a swamp, and we were attacked by mozzies every time we stopped. I could see the disappointment in Big Brother’s eyes. He does not like to shirk a challenge. Even if the challenge is a silly idea.

On our way back to Big Solvetsky, we were stopped by a Russian woman, who asked us if we were hungry, and then proceeded to give us some sweets called ‘Zephyrs’ a marshmallow like treat. A completely random act of kindness, but one which was totally in keeping with all the people we had met on the trip. Again and again I found the people of Russia (or at least the ones I met anyway) to be amongst the friendliest and generous of folk I’ve encountered around the world. I guess I half expected to find them more guarded and even a bit distrustful of tourists, so it was a pleasant surprise to have that proved a ridiculous notion, and one which probably betrayed my own suspicions of Russia!

Later that evening, as we were pedalling about the main island, we discovered Olga, Olga, and Maragrita, the Russian girls we had befriended on the bus to Petrozavodsk. Together we then went and explored the monastery, which is currently undergoing extensive renovation work, and even got to look in one of the massive towers, before being evicted by a security guard. We had once again strayed where we were not allowed.

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That night provided us with a feast fit for kings at one of island’s only restaurants. It was full on traditional Russian fare aimed at the tourists, complete with the wait staff dressed in ‘authentic’ garb, bear pelts on the wall, and bear’s flesh on offer on the menu. It was massively expensive though, so no bear was consumed by us. I wish I could say it was also due to moral reasons too, but I once ate dog in Korea so I’m forever damned.

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Then it was time for the Russian girls to show us how to properly camp. They mocked the way we made our fire (although ours actually stayed lit, ha!) and questioned why Alastair was sawing wood with his Swiss Army knife. When he replied ‘it’s Swiss technique’, Margarita took the wooden log, stamped it in half and replied, ‘Russian technique’. A good point well made.

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DAY SEVEN: Some days you have just click. This was one of them. We woke up late, and realised that we wouldn’t be able to make the low tide in order to reach an island where you can whale watch. But who needs whales anyway? Especially when the sun had finally decided to shine, and we had a whole island to explore. First off we got on our trusty bikes and made our way to the boat station. In the middle of Big Solovetsky is a series of freshwater lakes, connected by canals (made by those industrious monks again). For the princely sum of 900 rubles, or around £10, you can hire a rowing boat for three hours and paddle around to your hearts content. So that’s exactly what we did. Rowing out across the wide lakes, the steering our way through forest lined canals, with mirror like still water, was a truly beguiling experience. If you want to get away from it all, I couldn’t think of a better place then in the middle of a lake, in the middle of a remote island, which is in the middle of the White Sea, in the middle of the Russian north. As we rowed back, the sun beat down and the water looked far too inviting. So we did the sensible thing and dived off the boat to have a swim. Far warmer then Lake Ladoga, it still took my breath away, so after brief paddle I scrambled back aboard in an undignified manner. But the feeling of leaping off the boat and hitting the water is exactly why I travel. Complete and utter freedom.

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After eating fresh fish pies (in the shape of fish no less) which he had bought from the bakery near the monastery, we then embarked on a 30km bike ride to the highest point on the island. To say it was tough would be bit of an understatement, but it was also the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike, and made me realise that you don’t just have to crash one and break your wrist when you ride (see previous trip to Berlin…).

At the top of Sekirnaya Hill was one of the most tragic things I’ve ever seen though. The mass graves of prisoners who died in the isolator unit here. The mosquitoes swarmed, and it was easy ti imagine the agonies of prisoners who would be placed naked outside and fed on by the swarm. There was also a steep set of stairs on the other side of the hill – after guards were forbidden from executing prisoners, they would instead arrange for them to have ‘accidents’ and plunge to their death from the top.

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But as we cycled off, down hills and tracks, and past shimmering lakes, we were reminded again that the dark past existed alongside some the most beautiful wilderness I’d ever seen. I guess that crudely sums up Russia.

After finally making it back to camp, it was time for a traditional Russian treat. The banya. A cross between a sauna and a steam room, the banya is also much more than that. The banya house consisted of several rooms. Each one was increasingly hotter. The first was were you could sit and chat around a table, drink beers, and hang out. Then there was the changing room. Next came the showers, and then finally the banya itself. You take your beers in with you, put on a banya hat made of hemp, and then pour water over the hot rocks to really get the temperature going. And we really got it going, upwards of 80 degrees Celcius. That coupled with the beer was enough to send you a bit sideways. But then of course as soon as you get too hot, it’s time to rush out and pour cold water over yourself. And that is almost all there is to a banya. Well, apart from the fact you also whip each other with birch branches to ‘stimulate the blood flow’. I meant, seems legit to me right? So there I was, basically naked in a steam room, whipping two of my friends. Thank-you Russia. Sadly I was too busy filming to take a photo, but luckily Mark snapped a steamy effort which you can see right here.

I have never been more relaxed than after an hour of banya time, and the rest of that evening passed in what can only be a daze. I’m not sure it even really registered that we got back to the camp only to find we’d been raided by some sort of beast, and all our supplies eaten…

DAY EIGHT: Today Alastair had arranged for us to go a guided tour of a nearby island. Thinking he had finally taken pity on us, we were looking forward to a relaxing boat trip, and quick stroll about the place. But the beautiful weather of the day before had gone. In its place was icy rain and howling winds. As I stood on an isolated island, looking at a stone labyrinth built in pre-historic times for unknown purposes, and listening to our guide speak Russian, which I couldn’t understand, all the while being pelted by the elements, I wondered what I was doing out here. But I don’t think I was alone, judging by the cheer that went up when the guide announced the end of the tour.

The all too soon it was back on our boat in order to return to the mainland. Once back at Kem, we took the opportunity to visit an abandoned church on the shoreline. If there’s one thing Russia has plenty of, it’s abandoned buildings. But when they all look as hauntingly beautiful as this one, it’s not so bad.

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Our man in the blacked out 4×4 once again appeared to drive us back to the train. While previously silent as a tomb, he was now the life and soul of the party, explaining pretty much his whole life story, extolling the virtues of fishing, driving incredibly fast, and giving us many, many handshakes. As we surmised, he was either an evening type of guy, or he’d been having a nip of something before driving out…

Then it was back on-board another long distance train, this time for a 15 hour ride all the way back to St Petersburg. We were in a slightly better class of accommodation this time, due to the train being fairly booked up. This meant that we had a four person compartment. Nominally there was also a girl in there sharing it with us, but she was asleep when we got on at 8.30pm, and pretty much remained so until midday the next day. So basically we had the place to ourselves. At the end of every carriage on the trains is a samovar for boiling water. So bring yourself a mug, tea, and coffee, and it’s all good. Although if you do buy a tea, it gets served to you in these amazing ornate mugs which shit all over the paper cups we get in the UK.

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Oh, and also bring vodka to drink. I would say it was to help me sleep, but mainly I wanted to drink vodka on a Russian train as it seemed a cool thing to do. As was buying Russian train slippers from our attendant. The same stony faced attendant who while sternly addressing me and Mark, would break into a huge smile every time she saw Alastair and ask him if he wanted to buy ‘biscuits’ from her. The minx.

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DAY NINE: We rolled back into St Petersburg at lunchtime. After dropping our gear off, it was time to finally see the sights of this city. But not before we had gone into a pie shop and had a two course pie lunch. Priorities after all.

After feeding, our first port of call was the Winter Palace, which houses most of the Hermitage museum. The Hermitage is so massive, that not even a huge ostentatious palace is enough to contain it. I know it’s on every single must see list, but I really can’t recommend this place highly enough. From the entrance hall, to the state rooms, to the hallways, the extravagant wealth and opulence of Imperial Russia is absolutely incredible to behold. It makes you realise just how vast the power of the Tsars was, and how large the gulf between the nobility and the peasants truly was. Something on this scale is impossible to even imagine in the UK, but in Russia it feels almost natural. A huge palace for a huge country. Nothing is done by halves here.

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However, we were unable to see everything we wanted to at the museum, as we were once again politely but firmly evicted while trying to look at Siberian art. I think it was near closing time, and the attendants wanted to go home.

Then it was time for a walking tour of the city. St Petersburg is several islands, connected by canals and the mighty Neva River (which flows from Lake Ladoga). At certain times in the night, the bridges are all raised to allow cargo ships through, meaning if you’re in the wrong part of town from your house, you can be cut off for hours.

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Proving it’s still the Russian city of artists, we met up with some of Alastair’s friends at the Dostoyevsky Day celebrations. With a local jazz act playing, giant posters depicting various covers of his books had been put up to honour the man. From there, we headed to a pretty old-school cafe, which housed photos of various Russian leaders past and present, as well as busts of Lenin and Marx, wearing jaunty hats and ties. While the food was questionable, the drinks were not, and we all toasted the trip, watched a group of Russians come in and chant ‘vodka, vodka’, before being replaced by a girl who wept at her table and was consoled by the other patrons. It was like some sort of play, and seemed totally fitting for the place.

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DAY TEN: Our final day had dawned. We just had time to go to a old Soviet donut shop (which had opened in the 50s and remained basically the same ever since), and see a couple more St Petersburg sights, before we had to return to the airport and catch our flight home.

So, Russia. I had been constantly surprised at every turn. Yes there is the cult of Putin and the t-shirts with his face on. The politics of the place are a joke. Low level corruption is obviously rife, and I’ve read plenty about industrial scale bribery at the top level. It’s a place which deserves better leadership. But then don’t most places?

Russia is a huge country full of amazing people which constantly defies expectations. I saw so many incredible things I’d never even knew existed before this trip. I started to grasp just how big this place is. I took a train for FIFTEEN hours and barely made a dent in the map. RUSSIA HAS A PACIFIC COASTLINE! I find that fact pretty crazy. I would love to come back and explore more. I can see why Alastair made it his home. But I’m glad I got to see this part of it at least. I hiked, biked, rowed, swam, and was whipped with birch branches. I drank vodka toasts with real Russians in Russia. I went to a remote island in the middle of the White Sea. I stood on the shores of Europe’s largest lake at 1am and it was light. I had the best time.

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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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Project Opportunity Nicaragua

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

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

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

There’s No Place Like Home

Nick Says: As we bid farewell to the charms of San Francisco, and jumped on the faithful Megabus back to L.A. we were doing more than just setting off for Southern California; we were beginning to set off for home, also known as the U.K. We only had a day left of the whole adventure, and we knew it. The 7 hour trip down whizzed by, and before we could get itchy feet we were back in Echo Park and ready to go out for cousin David’s birthday. One of the reasons I love Los Angeles so much was due to night’s like this one – everyone spends all day talking about the entertainment business, about what projects they’re working on, and all that. Then they all set off to a dive bar and sing karaoke without a care in the world. As we knocked back the beer and whisky, sang (badly) a whole bunch of tunes, and chatted to everybody, the weight of what we’d accomplished over the last 6+ months started to sink in. But what a night to finish on, partying with people from another city, in another country, in another world from what we were used to. And when one of their producer friends suggested that I should be an actor (he was drunk), I’m not ashamed to admit there was a part of me caught up in the L.A. magic and believed I really could live the dream out here…

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But sadly that is not to be. The next day dawned bright and sunny, and with it the knowledge that today was the day we flew back home. Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and the USA – we’d seen it all, crossed a LOT of borders, and made countless more friends. But now as we sat in David & Katie’s front yard and waited for our super-shuttle airport pick-up service to arrive, we had to contemplate the fact that the next country we saw would be the one we grew up in.

We were the first to be picked up and our shuttle took us on a nice tour of down-town L.A.It felt like a farewell lap to be honest.But then far too soon we were at the airport, checked in, and sat having a coffee while the hours ticked down before lift-off. My memory is hazy of boarding the plane – simply too much was going through my brain to really appreciate what was about to happen. No more tropics, no more near deathly jungle/boat/animal encounters for a bit, no more trekking and sweating. It had been an incredible ride, but now it was time to go back to the world we had left behind.

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Bee Says: I funnily have the opposite to Nick’s brain-blank when it comes to the LAX wait for our great flight home. It feels like every weird, surreal detail is totally emblazoned onto my memory. We were probably waiting around for 2 hours maximum, but it felt like forever. I think the weight of what we had just achieved, the ups and downs, the culture shocks and the fact that we were two very different, grown people stepping foot on this flight compared to the ones who left London the year before. When writing this post, I couldn’t resist revisiting our first post (aw, bless) here; “Touch Down Venezuela!”  and I notice how I kind of gloss over my Gatwick melt-down. I have never, ever been more scared than when we stepped foot on our plane to Caracas and left everything I knew as normal-life behind. As you can hopefully tell from reading this blog, and the fact we got engaged on route rather than chucking one another off a boat or our of a tiny plane, Nick and I are very solid. Most of the time, we almost have a hive-mind and just want to do or say or eat or see the same exact things. This makes life dreamily easy. However, in the few weeks before we left for this trip; I think we were the most distanced ever. Nick could barely contain his excitement. He was chomping at the bit, so giddy and overjoyed to be off to see the world again. He had been backpacking before, and knew exactly how mind blowing and incredible the trip would be. I however, was paralytic with fear. I knew I wanted to see Latin America, and I knew I needed something to shake up my rat race rut. However, I couldn’t get excited. I couldn’t stop thinking about what might go wrong and all the things I would miss when I was thousands of miles away. In those few weeks we were on different pages of the same book, and neither of us could exactly empathise with where the other one was coming from. Stepping into the airport this time, we were back in the same brain frame; and we were devastated it was over.

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We were catching an Air Zealand flight, and actually hopping on half way. Most of the passengers had flown from Auckland the previous day and were just on stop-over to London. As we walked through customs, there was a chatty member of staff on the microphone repeating over and over what could and couldn’t be taken through security. As I passed, he said loudly into the microphone “now you look the type to have some tequila stashed in that bag” (! he knows me so well). My unsavoury vibe struck again moments later, when after the creepy full body scan, I was pulled aside to have my fingers swabbed. Who knows what for? But in my head I was just thinking how typical it would be if I successfully survived the Darian Gap, only to get arrested on the last hurdle home! Luckily I was innocent of whatever the swabbing was about and we could proceed to duty-free where Nick kindly let me buy Nylon magazine for the journey. Another niggle on our exhausted airport brains, was that for the past 7 months our whole lives had been pretty focused, every day there was a plan; catch this bus, cross that border, book this hostel, visit that historical monument… or even just “drink a pina colada and send a postcard”. Suddenly the very real fact that our future once we landed in Heathrow was a giant question mark, had us both a little rattled. That’s the only reason I can think to explain why we decided to spend the last of our precious travel budget on a GIANT (even in US portion size, GIANT) Domino’s pizza about five minutes before we boarded the flight. Neither of us even like Domino’s pizza and yet here we were, eating enough to feed a small family, whilst also knowing that we were about to get fed on-board the plane. I think it took the entire 11 hour flight to digest my meal.

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The flight was a-ok. Frankly nothing will ever be as scary as our teeny tiny tin can in Panama, or our electrical storm LA landing. We had both been excited to watch Frozen, as every movie we had seen in the cinema be that Peru, Ecuador, Colombia or Mexico had shown the trailer for it… in Spanish (muy frio, muy frio!) but we knew it was getting a ton of internet hype and love, so before we had even hit cruising altitude we had our earphones in and had done that fiddly lets-try-start-the-inflight-entertainment-at-the-exact-same-moment-thing which obviously failed so Nick was chuckling about 5 seconds before me every time! I loved the movie, but think the post-travel blues were nestling in as I cried more times than is healthy for a Disney movie. Luckily, we had paid a little extra for two seats alone, so only Nick had to put up with a damp shoulder. As we watched Frozen, we skirted over the snow-capped Rockies, which felt extra dramatic whilst watching a snowy movie on the other side of the window pane.

About half way through the flight, Nick got really sick. I think it might have been a combination of going-home freak out feelings, our crazy pizza purchase and some shifty looking air food. This wasn’t the emotional end to the journey we had wanted, as poor Nick kept rushing to the toilet and back. Eventually he settled down on my lap and I covered him in every blanket I could pinch from the seats around us. I ploughed through the Carrie Diaries, stubbornly not sleeping a wink, until suddenly… what was that! Oh yes, it was the rolling hills of Ireland!

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I woke Nick up and we both had a bit of a teary eye as we saw the terrain and familiar sights that we had missed so badly. We got an extra good London view as the weather was gorgeous, so the Thames and the Palace and the Eye all greeted us a welcome home. As we bumped onto the tarmac, I felt so proud of everything we had done. I am so privileged to have seen some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the world, and to have done it with my best friend by my side. Thank you to everyone who shared the journey with us. We had to spend a lot of hours in many a sketchy cyber cafe in order to keep this blog, but every thoughtful and encouraging comment made it all worthwhile.

NickSays: I can only copy Bee’s sentiments- thanks to all of you who have read this blog, whether from the start because we made you, those who stumbled across it online, and those who have asked us questions in the comments. It’s been a pleasure writing for you.

My parents were there to greet us at Heathrow. As we emerged blinking into arrivals, their smiles must have lit up the place. It seemed paradoxically like no time and all the time in the world since they had tearfully sent us on our way to Venezuela. Now we were back, and driving along familiar British motorways. It all felt comfortingly familiar, but like a dream I couldn’t quite remember. We had no idea how we could fit back into life as we knew it, but also looked forward to having a routine, stability, and no more guns pointed us as a hilarious joke. We also knew that we would be going away again one day. There’s just too much out there. It’s not just a part of our lives, it’s a way we want to live our lives.

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Which means that this isn’t the end of TwentySomethingBurnouts (despite Bee turning, ahem, 30). We’ve got a ton of new content to put up. Whether it’s the results of our dollar challenge (just what can you get in each country for a buck?), our travel tips for Latin America on a budget or time-scale, adventures in the UK, and some more jaunts abroad, we’ll still be keeping you updated and hopefully entertained. So thank-you readers for being with us, thank-you Latin America for being incredible, thank-you USA for welcoming us with open arms, and thank-you Bee for being the perfect travel buddy. Let’s do it again.

Bee Says: Aw shucks, thanks Nick for proposing to me and making the trip a dream come true! We are looking forward to writing all about our future adventures. If you want to read some more rambly day-to-day London lifey stuff, I also blog over here at Like a Skeleton Key where I have jotted quite a bit about what its like to adjust back to UK life.

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Do Go Chasing Waterfalls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Leaving & Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Backstory

WELCOME! Have a look around, be sure to read all about who we are and what we are doingmeet Nick, meet Bee and swat up on where our South & Central American travels will take us. With a month to go until we head up, up and away, we thought we’d start by filling you in on when the plans for this adventure first began…

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Bee says: Ever since we met, Nick & I have been committed to taking a huge adventure. Nick has done quite a bit of backpacking before, and is certainly bitten by the bug. I love visiting foreign lands, but have never had that opportunity to skip out on real life and leave the country for any extended amount of time. For this reason… it would probably surprise all of our friends and family to learn that it was ME who first suggested this trip.

Nick & I first met two years ago (almost exactly) at Media Guardia Edinburgh International Television Festival. We were both a few years into careers in the media, and applied for a scheme called “Ones to Watch” which gives you the training, exposure and access to big TV cheeses to in theory “fast track” your career.  From hundreds of applicants we were both selected to attend. Part of the application had been to pitch an idea for a strand in BBC2’s The Culture Show and out of the 40 delegates, four of us were chosen to then pitch the idea LIVE to a panel of industry experts/commissioners and in front of an audience of 200 wider television festival attendees. So, kind of like Dragon’s Den, but live, and with our entire future media careers and reputations on the line. No pressure! You can probably guess where this is leading… Both Nick & I were selected and had to go head to head, in this super daunting and pressured environment. We love to think about the geeky maths and statistics involved in us meeting – both being selected from 500+, to 40, to 4. It’s strange to the think how many people and processes played a part in our relationship. Rather than becoming sworn rival enemies, we actually helped each other practice and prepare and over post-its, power points and cue cards…  Neither of us won the pitch, but we did win each others hearts (way better than five minutes of fame) and that night we celebrated our blossoming love in that classiest of ways; tequila!

In a Jose Cuervo fuelled haze, at 2am, I asked Nick if he wanted to run away? It’s the first and only time I will ever ask someone this question, and despite only knowing me for about 36 hours at this stage, luckily for me he said yes. It may have taken two years of scrimping, saving (discovering Friday Night Lights and swiftly consuming all five seasons really helped with this part) and then the perfect opportunity landing in our laps to get that one-way flight booked, but here we are teetering on the edge of a month to go and we’ve finally come good on that drunken promise. I can’t wait to drink tequila IN Tequila, Mexico to celebrate…

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Nick says: Bee’s pretty much summed it up right there. Well, at least the reality of how this trip is happening. The truth is that for me, I’ve wanted to go to South America since I was 18. I always knew that I would go back-packing after Uni. With my friend Mark, I planned a grand trip to Australia, South-East Asia and then through Asia, a quick stop back in the UK to say hello, then onto South America. Except it didn’t quite work out like that. Not knowing the world’s greatest recession was just around the corner, I blindly leapt into the unknown in late November 2006, visiting Oz and South-East Asia and returning 9 months later after detouring to South Korea for a month to help teach/have a quick look in North Korea. Broken both financially and physically (thank-you Thai boxer), I needed to get a job.

So I moved to London. And there I struggled to earn a living, pay rent, and have a life. I tried to save, I really did. But my token travel fund never really got above £1000. Then I spent that clearing my credit card debt. All the while, people I knew always asked me if I’d made it to South America, then expressed surprise when I said I hadn’t., ‘Oh, I thought that’s what you told everyone?’. Then they started going over there themselves. While I lived in an over-priced box room in East London. I told myself I only wanted to go there if I could go for months on end, otherwise what was the point? Then I started going to other places instead – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Albania, Italy, India, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany. Short trips, but trips all the same. But was I scratching an itch or feeding the beast? South America began to sound like a pipe dream, something you tell yourself, ‘I’ll do that one day for sure’, and then never do.

Then I met Bee. Then we had a tequila fuelled conversation. Then I knew I was going to make it to South America after all.  I’d always planned a solo trip, but truthfully I probably would never have made it without her. We got organised, motivated, and dedicated to saving. I changed career path in order to become freelance and give myself the flexibility to take this trip – and then that paid off when an absolutely brilliant work opportunity came along which enabled us to go ahead of schedule and live the dream (and claim we’re busy dammit!) Now here we are – about to finally reach South and Central America.

// Before we leave the UK, we’ll be blogging about our experience in preparing for something like this – particularly focusing on saving and budget tips, the medical implications (no one can prime you for the news that you need 15 vaccinations!) and packing; given that we have opted for the smallest 35 litre option backpacks, packing for six months will certainly require some sort of miracle.