Tag Archives: Twenty Something Blog

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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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!

A Birthday Weekend In Paris : Part i.

Bee Says: Well, it’s time to ‘fess up and admit the fact that from this moment on both Nick and I are living a serious lie. We are no longer TwentySomething (Burnouts), as this weekend Nick turned the grand old 3-0, making us both very much ThirtySomethings which definitely does not have the same ring to it. We won’t be re-branding, we will continue to live a lie and clutch to our youth, and we’d appreciate you keeping our secret! Shh! So, the bar was set extremely high for Nick’s 30th for two reasons. The first being that he took great time and effort on my 30th back in May when we went adventuring in Exmoor and the second being that, well, we spent his last birthday climbing Machu Picchu mountain which is kind of hard to beat. I had known for a while that I wanted to take Nick to Paris because he has never been (despite seeing almost all of Europe and the world!) and I haven’t been since I was a teenager; and then I went with my marvellous mum and so I haven’t done the whole city of love romantic thing! I booked the trip in June and since then have had to live with the secret which had nearly finished me off before we even stepped foot into France. Anyone who knows us in real life will know that Nick hates not knowing something and that I am the biggest northern motor-mouth when it comes to secrets. These two character traits combined led to him incessantly questioning me; and me having to basically become a mute for months in order not to spill. Finally, 5.30am on Saturday rolled around and I could give Nick his first present and breathe a huge sigh of relief, before shuttling us out of the house and onto the Eurostar.

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Nick Says: I remember asking Bee to take me to Paris even when we racing about Latin America. Despite having been to a fair few places in France over the years, I’d never quite made it to the capital. It felt like a really classic place to spend your 30th birthday, but then I threw a spanner in the works and also asked Bee to make my birthday trip a surprise. Talk about demanding… And so it was that Bee completely managed to trick me. I thought I’d blown my chance to go to Paris (and ride the Eurostar there which is half the fun of going to Europe) and I clambered into the taxi bleary-eyed but raring to go. Bee had told me we were off to an airport. But instead we drove to St Pancras, and it was off to Paris! Perfect! But of course panic set it – I couldn’t speak the language (months of Spanish had driven any lingering Francais from my head) and I was worried that Paris had a reputation for not being welcoming to us English speakers. Would the Parisians mock me? What was there to do in Paris anyway? Beyond the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre I actually knew next to nothing about the city. Luckily Bee had provided me with a guidebook, so I could spend the 2 hour journey there frantically researching. But then suddenly we arrived. We were in Paris. And of course it was all so familiar and looked incredible.It has that similar feeling to New York. You may never have been there, but of course you know Paris. You’ve seen it a thousand times, in films, on adverts, in magazines, and online. All my doubts disappeared – I was ready to get out there and start exploring the city.

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Bee Says: After a speedy whoooosh from St Pancras to the Gare Du Nord, we arrived to crisp chilly air and a beautiful blue sky. We hopped in a taxi and had our first proper taste of Paris; with a driver who ranted, raved and beeped his horn wildly for the whole 15 minutes it took to reach our hotel. This did at least mean that we knew some French by the time we checked in… but only swear words. I wanted somewhere special to stay for such a special occasion, and after a lifetime of TripAdvisor stalking I opted for the boutique Hotel Atmospheres. The hotel was something I was concerned about; as I felt it could really make or break the whole weekend. Luckily any doubts were quashed with one look at the beaming receptionist who greeted us and exclaimed “Welcome to Paris!” The hotel room was chic and opulent (I now want golden glittery flocked tiles in my shower please) and nothing was ever too much trouble, with the staff endlessly going out of their way to make us feel comfortable. For such a hip hotel; it managed to maintain a sense of homeliness that we enjoyed in the better hostels on our big trip; whilst still delivering on the luxurious “treat” feeling of a really swanky establishment. It was honestly one of the best hotels either of us has ever stayed in. Jackpot! Hotel Atmosphere is in the heart of the Latin Quarter; the East London of Paris, which was the ideal location to walk to all the sights in the day but then stay close to home for the nightlife.

Having already been awake for 6 hours; we took advantage of the fluffy cloud bed for a power nap and then it was time to pound the pavements and really explore Paris! I had prepared an itinerary for each day (control freak!) which we loosely stuck to so that we could fit everything in. For our first foray into the city; we walked down to the river and across to the Marais area. This was a fantastic opportunity to start getting our bearings and a sense of how the city slots together. En route we walked past this beautiful art deco/nouveau department store which sadly seems to be sitting derelict but apparently will be renovated in the next year and revived to its former glory; which is already a good excuse to go back.

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As our bellies started grumbling, Nick used his burger-spidey-sense to lead us to Blend, Paris’ #1 Burger joint as tipped off to us by the delightful fellow burger-botherer Wish Wish Wish Carrie’s Paris City Guide. Don’t be put off if you arrive to a queue; we had three tables worth of French folk ahead of us and were still seated within ten minutes; and boy was it worth it. We both went for the signature which was a serious stack of burger, bacon, blue cheese and onion confit; with sides of sweet potato and FRENCH fries; it was a dreamy first dish and the perfect feed to set us on our way. The waitress also gave me a wink as she handed me my diet coke; I think she picked the name especially. Shucks!

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Le Marais is a stunning arts district of Paris; with historical haunts and ancient architecture around every corner. It is such a joy just to wander the cobbles and peer up, down and all around at the beautiful buildings where turrets, wooden shutters and stained glass are standard. There are plenty of original shopping arcades to potter through; now filled with independent artists, designers and fabric shops. We spent plenty of time peering in through windows of various art galleries and even watched an old-fashioned Parisian tailor creating a suit from scratch. This is still very much the artistic heart of Paris and there seemed to be an exhibition or gallery party in every other street; with the great and grand of the city spilled out onto the street sipping champagne. We weren’t bold enough (or good enough at French) to try and sneak into one! We did however pop into Merci (111 Boulevard Beaumarchais, 75003) which was sort of a French Ikea and a rabbit warren of everything from books to crockery to homeware to clothes and stationery.

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As the sun started to dip we needed to stop for a leg-rest and Nick was keen for his first French beer, so we popped into a rickety treasure trove with a cafe lurking beneath the nik-naks.

Nick Says: A weird occurrence happened to Bee and I in France. We could not stop talking Spanish! We figure that it must be because this time last year we were basically never speaking English and by this point both nearly fluent in Español. It’s almost like now our brains default click into “foreign country. must speak Spanish to be understood.” I found it frustrating not to just be able to get by as I have been used to and it was a real wake up call to how useful it is to speak the language and how improved my Spanish got in Latin America, as when we first arrived I was reliant on Bee for everything and by the end I could get by in pretty much any situation. Back to Paris and neither of us could even remember the word for WATER (agua? aqua?) and therefore we were forced to drink only alcohol until one of us remembered to Google it back at the hotel. Unfortunately the nik-nak cafe only had Carlsberg on offer for bier drinkers, which was a disappointing start.

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We thought dusk would be a fine time to visit the Louvre, and arrived just in time to see it glowing to life. Despite being nestled amongst some pretty mighty and majestic buildings, the Louvre pyramid was still enough to make you gasp at first sight.

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Bee Says: One final port of call was the Love Lock bridge; otherwise known as the Pont des Arts bridge where lovers attach a padlock with their names on to the walls and throw the key into the Seine, locking their love forever. This is one of the more controversial tourist traps, as some locals view the padlocks as vandalism and dislike the destruction of a historical monument. In fact, earlier this year the bridge had to be evacuated as parts of the bridge started to give way under the weight of the padlocks. I however am a sucker for anything that cerebrates the GOOD in the world; romance, love, hope. Hope is so important. I was surprised how moving I found the bridge; there is a really special hush and atmosphere as people gather to read the locks already hung, and then add their own romantic gesture. There are plenty of savvy salesman peddling padlocks on the bridge (and free marker pens to personalise them) so don’t worry about doing any pre-prep.

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Throwing the key into the river felt more permanent than our engagement! I can see all sides of the argument for and against the love lock bridge, but rather than feeling like a cheesy tick-the-box part of our trip it was actually really special and a memory I’ll definitely treasure. One slightly odd and frustrating for locals (I imagine) thing, is that the locks are spreading thick and fast. I noticed them on tons of the other non-official bridges, and actually wherever there was a piece of metal, be that a gate or a fence, there would be at least one or two locks. In fact, this is a different bridge entirely by Notre Dame and it’s also almost covered. Maybe at some point all the current padlocks will have to be clipped off and set free to make space for a new wave of lovers!

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Nick Says: We had grand plans to have a slap up meal out in the Latin Quarter to celebrate our first night in Paris. Instead I discovered Brewberry(18 rue du iron pot, 75005) which is a craft beer cave, serving up a list of over 50 brews from various heavy hitters such as Evil Twin, Hoppin’ Frog, Deck & Donahue and even Brewdog. We sat down at 7pm and by midnight we were still having “just one more for the road”, having been completely sucked in by the Brewberry charm and atmosphere. There was so much choice that it would have been rude not to keep sampling everything. I tried some local pale and blonde ales and Bee got stuck into the chocolatey porter and stouts. We came to a joint love-in over some Earl Grey infused pilsner. The bar was buzzy, they played every Queen song ever (what more could you ask for) and the “Brewberry Beer Geeks” took pity on our flailing Spanglish and spoke perfect English to us as they chatted knowledgeably about every brewery and showed us the best tactics for carrying up to 8 tankards at once. We even got chatting to various customers who came and went, which really gave us that back-on-the-road community feeling we have missed so desperately from travelling. All plans for food went out the window but luckily there are crepe sellers on every corner (why isn’t this a thing in London? Should I make it a thing?) so we could stagger back to our hotel with a nutella crepe in hand and a merry beery smile at our first day in Paris.

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Bee Says: Well that wraps up day one of the birthday weekend. I just want to mention a thank you to the team over at Caxton FX travel money card; who gifted us a Europe Traveller card (complete with £50 pre-loaded, which we drank most of in Brewberry – merci!) We met the Caxton team back at a blogger event in the summer and were instantly impressed by the concept. Caxon FX is a Visa card, which means you can top it up from your bank account before your trip; and then use it in as many places as you would with your usual card (anywhere with the Visa sign… so basically everywhere) and you can withdraw money as usual from ATMs. You link your bank account to the Caxton; meaning you can top up anywhere on the road at any point without actually needing to take your current / credit cards abroad. This is so appealing to us; as security is a massive issue when travelling and there would be nothing worse than having your cards stolen and your account emptied. This method of holiday currency means you only take as much as you need, and if it’s stolen it means the damage is seriously limited. It is also very handy for budgeting! Even better still is that Caxton have a snazzy app; so you can literally top-up within a minute at any time and in any place. I’ll definitely be using my Caxton any time I head away again, and will never ever take my bank cards or huge wedges of currency abroad with me again. There are enough things to stress about when it comes to travel; and now money and currency security won’t be one.

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There’s More To Sweden Than Stockholm : Part ii.

Bee Says: We last left you having done the epic cross-country drive from Northern Riala to Norrhult in the South-East. We hired an Air B&B loft space above a gorgeous home owned by Martin and Hetty. This was my first Air B&B experience and I was blown away by it; from the chatty communication before our arrival, to the warm welcome and then to being invited into Martin & Hetty’s lounge for drinks and nattering long into the night. These hosts certainly went above and beyond their host duty; and really made the holiday extra special. Encounters with locals was what made our Latin American trip so moving; and it was brilliant to share that experience again; it’s the only chance you get to get the real story on an area, and those personal tips and recommendations. Martin & Hetty also owned two of the biggest bear-dogs I have ever seen; who despite a fearsome front then went on to lollop around our feet and welcome us too. And then… when we thought it couldn’t get any better… Martin made us breakfast. Every morning! A feast to rival any 5* hotel buffet; there was fresh coffee, yoghurt, fruit, meats, cheese, hard boiled eggs and various type of fresh homemade bread with butter, jams and insanely delicious honey. I’m slightly drooling just recounting those mornings; the prospect (and tempting smells!) of those delicious wake-ups had as all up and at ’em extra early despite it being our holiday!

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Nick Says: Satisfyingly stuffed from breakfast each morning, we then tried to waddle around sightseeing. One of the major things to see in this part of Sweden is Kalmar. A port city, it was a big deal back in the day when it formed the border between Sweden and Denmark, It also played host to the signing of the Kalmar Union, where Sweden, Denmark and Norway stopped fighting each other and created a supergroup for a while. It didn’t last, but Kalmar made history. Now a gorgeous city to wander around in and explore for a bit (excellent cobbled squares to enjoy a hugely expensive beer in), we of course found ourselves drawn to the major attraction in town – Kalmar Castle. Well I guess we had to keep up the Medieval theme of this trip…

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Kalmar Castle is an amazingly preserved treat for any castle/ornate buildings/luxury history fans. You basically get the run of the place, and can stroll around looking into the royal bedchamber and sit on thrones at will. For both child me and adult me, this was a dream come true.

As the Swedish are so kind, everything was also helpfully explained to us in English – hugely detailed exhibitions about life at the castle meant you could spend hours swatting up on Swedish politics from the 16th century, and how the castle fitted in, or you could just admire the beautiful dresses. Or do both! But the whole castle really carried off a relaxed atmosphere in keeping with the rest of Kalmar that I really enjoyed. Plus there’s loads of rabbits leaping about the place which is always nice.

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Bee Says: We’d had a good few days on the trot that involved hour upon hour of driving. Sweden is stunning and you get to experience it so much better in a hire car; enjoying the fact that they are always playing either Robyn or Abba on the local radio… But realistically, there were five of us and so life on the road was getting pretty cooped and cosy. With our unused hiking boots and itchy feet; we requested a “stay at home” day where Sue and Nigel could head out and spot houses they had seen on Hemnet and Phil, Nick and I could do something adventure-y. We hadn’t decided exactly what, and were lurking around uncertainly when Martin swooped in and in typical nothing-is-too-much-trouble manner, offered us the loan of his canoe!

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We wheeled his pride and joy down to the lake, about ten minutes away, and got stuck in. I’d never been canoeing in my entire life and was practically delirious with excitement and giddiness! I certainly hadn’t expected this to be part of the trip and it was such an unexpected “first”. I let Phil and Nick go out first (yknow, to check it would actually float!) and then I went for my first attempt. At first I was a bit TOO keen, splish splashing all over the place and never getting in the same rhythm as whichever of the boys had been kind enough to humour me out on open water!

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After a few trips out, and one time where paddled too enthusiastically towards shore and nearly flung myself and Phil out, I started to get the knack. There was a surprising level of current on the lake, so it took a bit of huff and elbow grease to get about. This was no joy ride! Actual skill and effort is required. My favourite part was floating out to the middle of the lake and then just basking in the sun, taking in the breathtaking views and listening to the water lapping around me. Something I have missed so desperately since our big trip, is that sense of peace. It was something I started to take for granted; the remoteness, the lack of electricity, the lack of people or technology or distractions. Hurtling straight back in the London rat race and hectic city living has meant that I’d almost forgotten what it felt like just to sit back and take everything in. I loved canoeing so much I am now determined to own a lake-house and my very own (do they make them in pink?) canoe some day.

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On this out and about day, Nick and I also celebrated our three year anniversary. We sure have packed a lot in during the first bloom of our relationship, and bonding over travel has been at the heart of it all. It felt fitting to spend the day stamping around a lake and exploring foreign lands. Thank you for taking the time to read the blog and being part of our journey! I was a very lucky Fjallraven obsessive and Nick bought me an authentic Fjallraven G-1000 Foldsack No.1 FROM actual Sweden; home and heart of Fjallraven!

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I am so glad Nick had the good sense to purchase me a bag I’d actually use; rather than my first choice…

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Nick Says: After a har day adventuring, we left Bee napping in the house while me and Phil joined my parents snooping around Swedish houses. We went to one in a remote village that had been on the market for awhile, but looked lovely so we weren’t sure why. Perhaps this creepy doll that greeted you as you entered the house had something to do with putting potential buyers off?

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After fleeing the house and the doll curse it had probably put on us (if you’re reading this, it’s watching you,,,) we headed into the village to see what delights were there. The answer was not much, apart from this massive wooden spoon in the middle of a patch of grass which grandly claimed to be the world’s largest. Now I’m no expert, but I remain sceptical.It was pretty damn big though so I live in hope. Are any of our readers wooden spoon enthusiasts? Can you help answer this?! I mean, this photo doesn’t actually show the whole spoon, so for all you know it goes up a mile into the sky. Which would be amazing, if a slightly bonkers project for the Swedish spoon carvers of this unknown village to construct.

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Bee Says: I wasn’t sure what it would be like gate-crashing my future in-laws precious family holiday time. I soon remembered that Sue, Nigel and Phil couldn’t make me feel more welcome and that I had nothing to worry about, in fact it was just like being on holiday with my own relations. It was so much like being part of the family that by the final day I had morphed into one of the kids” and Nick, Phil and I rummaged through the guide books and leaflets before using the classic Lisa and Bart Simpson tactic on our poor, unsuspecting parents. “Can we go to the moose park? Can we go to the moose park? Can we go to the moose park? Can we go to the moose park? Please? Please please please?” They were powerless to our pesky ways, and agreed to take us to the moose park as long as they could go see the hand blown glass factory on the way home afterwards. With this fine compromise negotiated, we set off to Grönåsen Moose Park. The Moose Walk started off slowly and um… not very Moose orientated. We saw some chicken, some baby goats and a giant pig. Cute, but not the big guns we had in mind. We were then led into a room that house three dioramas that I can only describe a something out of a waking nightmare. They showed moose in various horrific situations; such as being eaten by wolves or, my personal favourite, hit by a car.

10597304_296097547241646_1440474282_nWe hadn’t quite expected our first moose sighting to look like this. After scuttling through the horror hall of moose death; we hit the nice bit of the park. A wooded path led us past forest, plains and fields where we could climb up look out points and take a look out for happier moose types. After a disappointing start; we were walking along a narrow pass-way trying to stay quiet as moose, I mean mice!, when suddenly we heard branches cracking next to us and suddenly a majestic female Elk was pottering along beside us. It was such a magical moment as she observed us observing her, and we all froze in our places.

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We walked another mile or so around the park, eager to get to the main attraction. They weren’t just your bogstandard moose at this park, oh no! We were about to be greeted by the King and Queen of the Moose world! Named after the King and Queen of Sweden; Karl-Gustav and Syliva awaited us and lived up to their royal reputation. At the very end of the Moose Park you were encouraged to eat… a Moose burger. Which we all found a bit weird considering we had just been enjoying these magnificent creatures in the wild. So we all politely declined.

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What a perfect final day in southern Sweden! That night we were treated to the best sunset of the holiday and another dinner of snacks and local brew beer from the ICA supermarket whilst we made the most of our cosy loft home one last time, before the giant drive back up the country to Riala.

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Nick Says: Back in the loving embrace of Stephan and Carola, we once again feasted like kings and enjoyed the companionship of friends determined to treat us to the best hospitality possible. After drinking copious amounts of wine, Stephan decided to show me and Phil the best thing of the entire holiday – this amazing documentary about a crazy group of Swedes who built an exact replica of an 18th Century sailing ship and then spent two years sailing it to China and back, where they proceeded to become huge media stars on Chinese television, Oh, and the captain of the ship was this Norwegian dude who spent most of the time topless thereby displaying his giant eagle chest tattoo. I don’t ask for much in life, but to meet that man would do it.

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Our last morning in Sweden was spent taking a walk around Riala to some of Carola’s favourite places. It’s such a beautiful country, and lakes such as the one above that we spent time admiring just demonstrate why. It had been so long since I really appreciated forest, and just how dense and magnificent it must have once been across all of Europe, Living in the UK, and especially London means you are surrounded by urban development, so it’s refreshing to spend time getting that out of your system,

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I love Sweden as a place to visit, and even though it had been over 10 years since I was last here, it felt like no time had passed at all. It’s one of those places that rewards you the more you explore. So many visitors just see Stockholm, and while that city is undeniably great, it felt like a breath of fresh air to go off-piste and see some more of this country. It’s a huge place, and seeing the south just made me want to jump in a car and head up north – where Stephan told us was really isolated. Considering we had barely seen anyone about down south, there must only be hunters and bears up there. I already can’t wait to go back and investigate.

There’s More To Sweden Than Stockholm : Part i.

Bee Says: Sweden is an extremely special place to my soon-to-be-bee-in-laws. Nigel (Nick’s dad) has a best friend called Stephan who came over for a years schooling in England and who Nigel was put in charge of looking after during that time. I don’t know how much looking after he did, as just seeing them together as adults makes it abundantly clear that there are a TON of naughty stories buried which no amount of bribery will result in either of them spilling! Stephan’s partner Carola is also a great friend of Sue (Nick’s mum) and Nigel, which means they spend a lot of time holidaying together over there. As a result, Sue & Nigel have lost their hearts to Sweden and as much-deserved retirement looms in their future, they want to have something more permanent over in Scandinavia and are planning to buy a summer house. Cue a family trip (which I was honoured enough to be invited along for) to house hunt! Introducing Team House Hunt: Nick, Sue, Phil and Nigel.

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Due to land not being a scarce resource in Sweden (it’s Europe’s third largest country), once you move away from the big cities, house prices are obscenely low and you get a lot of space (and style!) for your money. In the lead up to this trip we all got completely obsessed with a website called Hemnet; it’s worth browsing if only to admire the fairytale style gingerbread cottages and “the norm” additions of outhouses, saunas and acres of land or forest. The real point of this trip wasn’t to find an actual house, but it was really a fact-finding mission to explore a few different areas and work out scale, distances and the vibe of various neighbourhoods.  We were excited for the opportunity to get to know this beautiful country a little better; and we definitely learnt there is so much more to Sweden than Stockholm.

Nick Says: This was Bee’s first holiday with my family, and it was nice to see them spend time together outside of Christmas, birthdays etc. I came out of the loo at the airport to find the Horton’s crying with laughter and making Bee repeat the word, ‘giraffe’ before doing it themselves. For those who don’t know, Bee’s broad Yorkshire accent makes it sound like, ‘g’RAFF’.  I knew it was all going to be ok. It was also lovely to get the chance to go back to Sweden, a place I’d been to three or four times before, but not since I was a teenager. I also hadn’t been on a proper family holiday for years, so was looking forward to spending time with the parents and Phil too. Plus time off work is always nice! We flew BA like fancy folk and arrived safe and sound at the super stylish Stockholm Arlanda aioprt. While you can bus it into the city, the benefit of family holiday was splitting the cost of the car. So unlike most of our adventures in Latin America, we wouldn’t be at the whim of a crazy bus driver or tour guide…Naturally we got a Volvo (true fact, there are no other cars allowed in Sweden) and set off to Stephan’s country pad. We hadn’t set the sat nav  to Swedish, so we had a few interesting pronunciations of directions, including describing a road that sounded suspiciously like “shit the bed”…

Riala is a small village about an hour or so north of Stockholm near the major town of Norrtaelje. Like a LOT of Sweden, it’s beautiful, heavily wooded, and sparsely populated. Wolves have been known to roam in the forest, and numerous sparkling lakes are dotted about waiting to be discovered. It’s also where Stephan has set up shop after moving out of Stockholm. After a cross-country adventure in the car (thanks sat-nav!) we finally pulled in to his cosy house to be greeted by Carola waving from the porch. Stephan quickly followed, and it immediately felt like we were home.

I can remember Stephan visiting since I was about 4 years old. Him coming over was some of te=he most exciting times of my tiny life. I then got older, became a teenage, and visited him instead in Sweden. There he took me, my brothers, and my Dad around the Stockholm archipelago on his boat, and set in my mind the idea of exploring the world and having adventures.  But the last time I saw him was at my eldest brother’s wedding 10 years ago. How had so much time gone by? But in 10 years, nothing had changed. He was still the same Stephan, generous and welcoming. Crola was as brilliant and lovely as I remember. As we found on our travels, making (or having) friends in a different country really creates a strong bond and experience. It brings you closer to the place, and invests you more into it. I was really happy to be back in Sweden, and had that warm glow you get when the whole holiday stretches in front of you. I also had a incresingly warm glow from the amount of alcohol Stephan and Carola were plying us with. Wine, mysteroius local schnapps, whisky, beer… I didn’t think I could keep up with my parents and our hosts!I

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Bee Says: Safe to say there were a few sore and fuzzy heads the next morning, but these were swiftly eased as Sweden do breakfast (and well, most things) SO well. Stephan and Carola managed to be fresh daisies, despite drinking their fair share of box wine the night before, and scuttled around us making toast, hard boiled eggs and fresh coffee. We ate it with cheese, ham and freshly baked bread, although none of us indulged in the local caviar; bright orange and fresh out of a tube! All the while we could gaze out at the forest surrounding the house; Stephan says he sometimes finds curious deer and elk peering back.

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There were a few options of ways to spend our first day of the holiday, but as soon as Carola mentioned the words Medieval and Fayre, our eyes all simultaneously lit up! A short drive down to a 1330s castle (Penningby Slott) and the second we were out of the car it was like stepping into a time warp. We were all practically rubbing our eyes in disbelief as we stomped into the grounds and past knights, horses, chickens and traditional markets. Smoke filled the air and the smell of gun powder, hay and roasting meat billowed around us. The attention to detail was incredible!

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Long-time readers of the blog won’t be surprised to hear that Nick immediately sniffed out the most dangerous area of the fayre; the WEAPONRY. One field was dedicated entirely to swords, cleavers, archery, axe throwing and various other bits of kit; mostly being wielded by tiny children or people who looked like they’d already had a few glasses of mead. I loved the total lack of heath and safety that you know in a similar event in the UK would be stifling.

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The best game was one where you selected your weapon from a pile of impressive looking swords, some so heavy that the brothers could barely lift them, and then you paid 1 Kroner to have 3 chances at hitting a potato that was flung towards you on a bit of string. It seems like Nick and Phil should really be reborn in the medieval age as they were both really talented at this game and had soon attracted a crowd of locals cheering them on!

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The rest of the fayre was just as entertaining. We saw some canons and synchronised gun fire (I’m sure there’s technical term for this), ate samples of fresh soda bread, local honeys and amazing sour sugar candies. All around us were people in costumes racing around acting out little scenes or playing instruments or demonstrating olden time crafts. The weirdest of which was a game where we paid 1 Kroner to guess which way a mouse would run around a miniature castle, in order to win a magic stone. Sadly, we didn’t win and the mouse didn’t even look too happy about defeating us.

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As we started to grow a little weary and ready for some afternoon fika, napping and reading; there was one final treat in store for us. We stamped over to the castle to take a look at the amazing building and the horses roaming around outside, when suddenly I spotted something on the horizon staggering towards us. MEDIEVAL BABY! Definitely the best bit of the day; if not the holiday.

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Nick Says:  What could possibly top a Medieval Fayre? Not a lot that day as it turned out.  We drove onto Norrtaelje to have a look round, and while undeniably beautiful the spectacular sunshine which had been shining on us so far decided to turn into miserable rain. Which reminded Phil that he hadn’t actually brought a coat on this trip. Still, nothing that an on-brand visit to H&M couldn’t fix!

After a slightly less boozy evening at Stephan’s, the next day we were due to drive down south to begin the house hunt. While Carola had to go back to work, Stephan had decided to take a couple of days off and travel down with us. He immediately commandeered me, Bee, and Phil for his car (a giant monster 4×4, which didn’t look out of place in the giant landscapes of Sweden, unlike the tiny streets of London where I usually see them) we set off down the packed highways (about 4 cars spotted all day). We drove through tunnels which bored into mountains, skirted past endless forests, and eventually came to a service station where I could indulge two of my Swedish passions. The first was a Winner Taco, the greatest ice cream ever invented and sadly no longer available on our shores, ans the second was a cinnamon bun. I also took the time to smash my head on a metal bar while scampering up a children’s slide I was too big for, almost knocking myself unconscious and certainly giving myself a case of mild concussion which I felt for the next few days. Go holiday injuries! It also resulted in me being banned from driving (thanks for nothing head injury) which also meant I was relegated to the back of the car. Bee swiftly sat up front and quickly assured Stephan she would be the official elk spotter on this leg of the journey. It was a grand speech about howshe was honoured to be in Sweden, couldn’t wait to see the mighty elk, and would be his eyes on the side of the road. Powerful stuff. I looked back about two minutes later to find she had instantly fallen asleep instead.

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Bee Says: After nearly 8 hours on the road we finally pulled off the motorway and into a truly picturesque little lake town called Norrhult (Phil said it was like “driving through Hemnet!) where our Air BnB awaited. We had rented the top floor apartment of a home belonging to a super chirpy Dutch couple who had recently moved to Sweden. They were full of handy local tips and knowledge, and showed us to the gorgeous little grotto that we would be calling home for the rest of the week. After a quick trip to the local ICA for beer and snacks, we settled in to watch the sun dip over the lake from our window and started planning for the week ahead.

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Tune in for part 2 next weekend, which sees us meet the King & Queen Elk of Sweden, have a close encounter with the worlds biggest wooden spoon, find some creepy bits and pieces during our house hunts AND… my first ever time in a canoe. Who wants to start placing bets on whether I fell in or not?!

Land’s End to John O’Groats: Britain in 10 Days

Nick Says: I recently went on a trip. Without Bee. Shocking as that may sound to readers of the blog, we do actually go off and explore places without the other. In particular, I like to go on ‘Brother Adventures’. For those that don’t know, I have 3 brothers. In age order, we are Joe, Chris, Me (Nick), and Phil. We all like to explore. Previous trips have included over-landing from the Czech Republic to Albania, and a road-trip around Western Europe (which you can watch here). This time, we decided to take on Land’s End to John O’Groats via A & B roads. We had 10 days, a somewhat unreliable old car, and a lot of miles to tackle.

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It was great to explore Britain, and especially excellent to properly see the country I live in (most of the time anyway). It had been something I’d really wanted to do even when marvelling at Latin America, and let me tell you it did not disappoint. So here’s a round-up of 10 manic days that involved a Cornish miner called Percy, giant cream teas, setting the car brakes on fire, recording a special road-trip song, watching incredible Peak District sunsets, getting hissed at by an owl, punched by a dog, drunkenly debating Scottish independence over whisky, and visiting the smallest street in the world…

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The trip started in Cornwall, as all good Lands End to John O’Groats journeys probably should. After picking up Joe from his home in Somerset (via Stonehenge) we sped on our way to Penzance. I shocked my brothers by admitting I’d never been to Cornwall in my life. I’d always meant to go, but ended up staying in Devon and never quite making it. So I had no real idea what to expect. What I got was a part of England culturally and geographically unique from the rest of the country. Palm trees abounded down here, the coast looked like it belonged in the Mediterranean, and the people were fiercely proud of their heritage.

After a night in Penzance which involved eating at a pirate themed (a very loose theme) meadery, we went for a few drinks in the local pubs. The tip from a barman at a rival pub led us to the Dock Inn, which I highly recommend. Then on a balmy stroll back, Chris asked myself, Joe, and Phil to be his Best Men at his wedding. Huzzah! Brothers unite! A great start to the trip indeed.

The next day dawned a bit fuzzy, but there was no time to rest. In fact there would be not time to rest on the entire trip. We drove down to a misty Land’s End, where we snapped the obligatory pics, added a UK Man Voyage twist to the sign, and went to a weird Brian Blessed voiced Search for King Arthur interactive thing. I’m not entirely sure what was supposed to be going on for most of it, but it was nice to hear Brian Blessed booming tones shouting at us and wishing us well on the trip (might have imagined that last part).

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Next stop was Porthcurno and the incredible Minack Theatre. A labour of love for the incredible (and possibly slightly barmy) Rowena Cade, the theatre is an open-air amphitheatre built into the cliff-face. With the gorgeous beach at Porthcurno and its beautiful turquoise water as a backdrop, it felt truly like we were in another country. In fact, the stage of the Minack had a certain Game of Thrones quality about it, so it felt like we were on another world! I could have happily spent hours exploring the place, but we had only 45 minutes to make it to the Poldark Mine. The clock was counting down. Mine me!*

The Poldark Mine was a true highlight of the trip. Mining really is the big thing in Cornwall, and this mid-sized former tin mine is one of the few you can go down and have a real nose around. Recently taken over by an eccentric chap who introduces the tour, the real star beyond the underground marvel you descend into is your guide. Percy is a proper Cornishman who is proud of his heritage and LOVES his mine. His tour as it stands is well worth your time and money, as he is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about everything, but his ideas for an extreme mining tour would be brilliant if they pan out. So go there and demand it. And post a letter from the UK’s deepest mail box while you’re at it.

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We finished up the first day by camping in Paidstow. Picturesque and lovely, and complete with Rick Stein’s fish & chips, this was quintessential Cornwall. The bar had been set pretty high for the rest of the country. The next day we were heading to Taunton to drop Joe back home, and decided to take a look at Tintagel and some of Devon along the way. After admiring the castle ruins, we tucked into a Cornish pasty by a car park, and zoomed on. Devon for us was dramatic to say the least. We stopped at Lynton and Lynmouth, rode the funicular railway (piloted by Blake, one of the coolest men in the UK) and then treated ourselves to cream tea. Which was absolutely bloody massive. Honestly, the scone was the size of my head. Me and Joe heroically battled through it and finished the beast, while Chris and Phil were overcome and outfaced by its size and admitted defeat. I expected more.

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As we drove through the Quantocks a couple on a motorbike shot past us at a crazy speed. 10 minutes down the road we had to break heavily on a steep hill due to an accident up ahead. You can probably guess who had been involved. Thankfully it didn’t look to be fatal, but it unnerved us. The fact that the brakes on the car started pouring smoke at the same time probably didn’t help either, and it was with some relief we managed to limp into Taunton and safety that evening.

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Our car, named ‘the Van’, is an old diesel VW Polo given to my brother Chris by our Great-Uncle Hubert. Chris has driven it everywhere, and if a man can love a car, then Chris loves the Van. They’re buddies, amigos, besties. But this was looking like it would be his last voyage. So I couldn’t help but feel like the Van was punishing us for daring to suggest he no longer had it; after the brakes incident he then decided to make his wing mirrors fall off. As Phil pointed out, as we stopped for a extended period in Taunton the following day in order to tape up the broken mirrors, a lot of our problems and delays on the trip could probably have been avoided with another car. But would it have been as fun? Probably not.

After saying farewell to Joe and finally leaving Taunton, we spent the day heading up to the Peak District via the Cotswolds. England was truly putting on a show for how beautiful it was, and we were lapping it up. Apart from the bit where we had to eat Ginsters sausage rolls sat in the window seat of an A-Road petrol station. That was a low-point. But the jumbo jet graveyard we randomly drove past made up for that.

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After seeing an awe-inspiring sunset across what seemed to be the whole of the Peak District, we finally rolled into Hayfield and the Kinder Lodge. Famous for being the location of the actual village in the BBC drama ‘The Village’, Hayfield is another classic British location. Which was to be a recurring theme of the trip. All these vastly different places, people, and traditions, but all instantly recognisable as ‘British’. Which I guess is the strength of this country. You can take each individual element and have a brilliant time, but together it’s the best. Yay UK!

The next morning we paid a visit to Chris’s friend and occasional band-mate James. While he was supposed to be working, we quickly put a stop to that and instead suggested we recorded a song to commemorate the trip. It turned out pretty good, so watch this space for a link to the finished track. Soundtracked by ourselves, we then drove on into Yorkshire, paid a quick visit to the marvelous Yorkshire Sculpture Garden (well worth a visit) and then arrived into Bradford, where Bee and her family would be hosting us for the night. Which reminded me, just what had Bee been up to while I’d been gone?

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Bee Says: As this was the official “Man Voyage” I had to be respectful not to turn into the equivalent of (in Chris’ words!) “The bit where Ewan McGregor’s wife comes along and surprises him and RUINS EVERYTHING in The Long Way Down” so after welcoming the travel weary lads to my parents house, I got taken out for a fanceh Thai meal with my mum and dad, whilst my little brother took the Horton boys off for some craft beer at Fanny’s in Saltaire and then on to a curry. I had obviously hyped Bradford’s curries up to epic, unbeatable proportions so we had to laugh when it dawned on us that the day was actually… Eid. And therefore the single day of the year that most curry houses are closed! Luckily after a few frantic phone calls, a back up option was located. After my meal, we waited for the guys to come back so we could all share some wine and my mums speciality; CHEESY WHIRLS (buttery pastry mixed with a ton of cheese, served piping hot from the over and melt in the mouth addictive!). We waited.. and waited… and suspiciously neither my brother or Nick’s phone seemed to be working. Eventually they rolled in, a little bit merrier than us but I was happy to see Bradford had been such a highlight and stood up to the stiff competition of the trip so far. For the rest of the week I pretty much spent my time either in the bath, reading, wearing PJs, watching Cat Fish with Lol and um… eating cheesy whirls. Guess who was most rested at the end of the week?!

Nick Says: Top marks to Bee’s brother Tim for showing us the best of Bradford. Foolishly timing our trip for Eid, we found many of my favourite curry houses shut for the holiday. But luckily the Rajpoot was open for business, and a fine time was had by all, even if the waiter was potentially wired on coke. He really, really, really, wanted to show how fast he could tap the buttons on the till.

Next up was the Lake District, and returning the Van to its ancestral home of Workington, Cumbria. Great-uncle Hubert lives up there, so it was only right and proper we paid him a visit and showed off his former motor. He was pretty impressed with how well Chris had looked after it, and gave him his seal of approval. Good work Chris!

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Driving through the lakes we really started to feel the terrain becoming more wild and mountainous. Scotland was beckoning. But, only after another night of camping, drinking rum while sat in the Van and taking the ugliest selfies we possibly could, and a morning visit to the Cumberland Pencil Museum; home of the biggest colour pencil in the world.

We picked up the scenic A7 and headed towards Scotland. It felt odd that this could be the last time any of us would visit Scotland and still be touring one country. The independence debate would permeate a lot of our time up there, and be discussed with some passion. I’ll repeat here what I said to the vociferous ‘Yes’ supporters, ‘I can understand why you would, but please don’t go – I think we’re better together’.

Our aim for the first night in Scotland was to head over to Glasgow to soak up the Commonwealth Games atmosphere. Trouble was, there were a lot of people wanting to do the same. After a panicked hour or so trying to find accommodation (a search carried out in a roadside Holiday Inn while powered by Irn Bru), we finally found a slightly shabby hotel in Falkirk. Intrigued by the fact that Falkirk was named Scotland’s prettiest town in 2011, we set off to explore.

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Now I don’t know who Falkirk’s opposition was in 2011, but I would never ever want to visit them. Falkirk, while it has several charms, is not exactly ‘pretty’. It does though have the Kelpies, the biggest horse statue in the world, so that makes up for a lot. And they really are bloody massive statues of horses. But it also had excellent transport links to Glasgow, and we were quickly on the train and on our way.

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We’d had nothing but beautiful weather our entire trip, so of course it absolutely sheeted it down as soon as we turned up in Glasgow. That didn’t seem to dampen things though, and we explored the city and caught some of the games on the big screen. While obviously on a smaller scale, I was instantly transported back to the  2012 Olympics, my favourite ever time to have lived in London. Everyone in Glasgow seemed really keen to show off the city at its best, and help three lost brothers get around to where they needed to go. I’m a big fan of Glasgow, and now also a big fan of a Chris recommendation, The Hillhead Book Club. Next time I go I hopefully won’t be on a budget and exhausted from several relentless days on the road…

It was into the Highlands the day after, and yet another amazing looking National park – the Cairngorms. Trying to overtake the slow moving trucks with an equally slow moving old Polo proved tricky, but luckily that just gave us more time to soak up the scenery. The plan for the evening was to find a remote wild camping spot and live the off-the-grid Scottish dream. Except it proved really hard to find somewhere remote enough. We drove through Newtonmore, Kingussie, and Aviemore, only to be told there was nowhere we could camp where we wouldn’t be chased away from by angry shot-gun wielding land-owners. Hmm, didn’t sound peaceful and relaxing to me. Admitting defeat, we decided to head to a organized campsite. Except they then turned out to all be full. All we got was vague instructions to follow a Dutch guy who was heading to a car park where we could wild camp. Or something. So we got in the Van, and sped off after him. He led us to Loch an Eilen. I curse that name.

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At first it was beautiful… and everything we hoped for. A stunning loch, and a space to pitch our tent. Sure it was by a car park, but it was wild and we were free! We set up camp. But it was August in Scotland. It was the time of the midgie (or ‘midget’ as a Dutch girl corrected a German guy). At first a few appeared. Then hundreds. Then thousands. We couldn’t breath without spluttering midgie. They were everywhere. In our mouths, our hair, our clothes. OH GOD THE HORROR. Phil tried to brave it out and got in the tent. Chris broke down and revealed this was one of the worst experiences of his life. I stood there in stunned silence not quite believing the living nightmare I was experiencing. We obviously cracked, and took down the tents. We drove as fast as we could away, but the midgies had got in the car. It didn’t stop. It would never stop.

A few hours later, and another panicked search for accommodation, we found ourselves back in Newtonmore at the incredibly friendly Strathspay Mountain Hostel being roared at by owner Laurie, a big Scot with a dubious ginger wig. Life had improved immeasurably. Tomorrow it would get even better, as we were due to go to the Clan MacPherson Highland Games.

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The games proved everything we hoped for. While the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow may have had world class athletes striving against each other in top level competitive sport, it didn’t have massive men with beards tossing the caber. It also didn’t have a team from the USA competing either, and as we saw during the first event (which involved sticking a garden fork in a hay bale and tossing it over a bar) the Americans take their Highland Games very seriously indeed. They even had their own special garden forks! When not watching big men straining their muscles and chucking things, we found time to admire the kilts, eat horrible chips, and watch Chris get hisses at by an owl. Which was an odd experience to say the least. The best part though, was the Clan MacPherson march, where massed bagpipers and drummers played a spine-tingling melody as they strode down the road. I’d never been that close to so many bagpipes before, and I’ll never forget how incredible it sounded.

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But with no time to waste, we were off again the next day. After a quick stop at the excellent Highland Folk Museum to see how the Scots lived through the ages (in dark windowless huts full of peaty smoke) and another at Loch Ness, we headed up to our hostel for the night. No more chancing it with wild camping or panicked ring rounds of local hostels for us this night, we had actually got organized and booked somewhere. Full marks to Phil for picking this place – and what a place it was – a really unique hostel called Sleeperzzz in the village of Rogart, about halfway between Inverness and John O’Groats. What makes it so unique is the fact that the rooms are converted First Class railway carriages, complete with kitchen, living room, and showers. There was sadly no space for us on the train though, which meant we had to settle for this brilliant converted 1950s bus instead – which just happened to sleep three. Perfect! For £16 each a night, it was probably the best value accommodation of the trip. It also gave us the opportunity to drink more whisky with locals in the village pub, and get into a pretty spirited debate about independence with a Glaswegian guy. He was very much pro leaving the UK. He liked to express this in a sometimes friendly, sometimes slightly terrifying, and at all times sweary manner. Then at the end of the night the landlady let a pack of about 7 dogs into the pub, who were the most excitable dogs that have ever lived. Me and Chris (drunk at this point) decided the best thing to do would be to leap in the middle of this already wild pack of animals and start jumping around with them. So it was probably no surprise when one of the hounds punched me…

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Then it was day 10 of the trip, and our final run up to John O’Groats. With everyone feeling slightly worse for wear, we stopped in at Wick (the last major town that side North on the mainland) for Irn Bru and sausages. Wick also gave us the chance to see the shortest street in the world, Ebenezer Place, which occupies all of 2 metres and houses one address, No. 1 Bistro, part of Mackays Hotel. Then fuelled up on sugary orange drinks we pressed onwards to our goal – John O’Groats!

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It was pretty emotional when we finally pulled up to the end of the road. I’m not afraid to admit I was a bit choked up as I got out the car. A lot more chilled out and rugged than the tourist bonanza at Lands End; John O’Groats was a great place to finish the trip. It had been an amazing last 10 days and a chance to experience Britain in way I’d never done before. I had spent 6 months (and most of my adult life before that) flinging myself across the world and soaking up other cultures, but never really stopped to appreciate this truly special island we live on. It’s as beautiful, wild, interesting, and surprising as anywhere else on the planet, and for all its faults, I’m lucky to call it home.

*top marks if anyone gets that paraphrased reference btw. It was an inspiration for the trip.

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

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

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1. VENEZUELA – GUARAPITA OVERLOAD

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

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

2. BRAZIL – HOT SAUCE SAVIOUR

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

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

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

4. CHILE – HAIRY LITTLE LLAMA MAGNET

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

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

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

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

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

7. COLOMBIA – SECRET JUNGLE PAN AU CHOCOLAT

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

8. PANAMA – SOAP AT LAST

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

 9. COSTA RICA – SWEATY BORDER CROSSING COCONUTS

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

10. NICARAGUA – BASEBALL ON BIG CORN

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

11. EL SALVADOR – DESPERATE TIMES MCDONALDS

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

12. HONDURAS – MARKET PLACE EARRINGS

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

13. GUATEMALA – ONLY A BLOOMIN’ ENGAGEMENT RING!

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

14. BELIZE – THE ORIGINAL CINNABON

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

15. MEXICO – CHEESY CHURROS IS WRONG

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

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

 

Take a long drive with me on California 1

Nick Says: After returning to our LA home-from-home following our big weekend in Vegas, it was time to get ready for another grand adventure; a road-trip on the California 1 all the way up to San Francisco. I’d always wanted to do this classic road-trip, and it was floated from the start as a possible end point to the whole trip. Luckily for us, we managed to convince some others it was a good idea too. My friend David and his girlfriend Amii would be joining us from the UK for the drive, and another friend, Anish, lived in San Fran and was flying down to drive us up. After our LA experience of convertibles and beaches, I had dreams of us cruising the highway in a sporty soft-top, the wind blowing in our hair, and everyone envious of how cool we all were. This fantasy was quickly shattered as Anish pulled up in a mini-van, which would be the envy of any family wanting to know how to comfortably move their children and pets around. Still, it meant we had plenty of room (three rows of seats), cavernous head space and automatic electric doors. Looks and style be damned! It also allowed us the dubious honour of waving to any other Chrysler touring vans we saw en-route, although I think we were the only ones playing this game.

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If you were to take the boring interstate 5 which cuts through California, you could do the LA – San Fran trip in about 7 hours. If like us though, you have a few days to spare then I highly recommend the 1. Built as a Depression-era labour project, it winds its way up through the State hugging the Pacific coast. This leads to some absolutely incredible views and driving opportunities, although a bit more on that later. It also means you can pass through some really unique and charming towns along the way, and if you don’t quite fancy hours upon hours driving, then any one of them would provide a good stop off. After our consistently epic bus journeys in Latin America, our mind-set was now firmly stuck in the opinion that anything under 10 hours is a “short journey”. Therefore we had to chuckle when planning the trip via email, that the rest of our companions suggested that we’d need to stop twice for night stop-overs on the way, so as to avoid driving for over 4 hours at a time! On reflection though this was a fine idea, as it made the journey into more of an event and game us chance to explore bits of California we’d have never seen otherwise. With this in mind… we had selected the ocean-side town of Santa Barbara for stop number one, only 2 hours driving time from LA. Known predominantly as a university town, Santa Barbs (as we lovingly referred to it) was a gorgeous first stop. After an ill-advised 12 mile hike through LA the previous day, I think David and Amii were a little shell-shocked, so the ocean breeze, jangling of boats at the marina, and walking down the picturesque pier in the sunshine was probably just what they needed. They’d also somehow managed to book us into a swanky Hilton hotel (incredibly it worked out cheaper than the hostels in town), so we were able to stay in luxury during our night there. Free delicious cookies were provided (my favourite part of our stay in Panama) and while Anish had to slumber on a child’s camp bed, the rest of us had a damn comfortable stay. Considering some of the shacks we’d stayed in previously, this felt like we’d won the lottery.

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Santa Barbara is really easy to walk or cycle around, and as I mentioned, has an amazing pier dominating the beachside, so you can always find your bearings if you get turned around. Opposite the pier at the town end is what seems to be the main street, and it was here that we headed in search of a drink. One of the things we’d been struggling to get used to again in the States was the prevalence of technology. Considering some of the places we’d been had no electricity and the barest access to the outside world, we felt at times like we’d been frozen and woken up in a bright, shiny future. And here in Santa Barbara Anish would demonstrate just how different things were up here. We’d been discussing going to craft breweries on the road-trip (California being home to some of the finest in the world), and he’d obviously done some research. But now thanks to the power of Google Now, his phone could read his mind and pre-emptively suggest a micro-brewery here in Santa Barbara before we could even think of searching for one ourselves. It suggested an absolute corker too, taking us to the Santa Barbara Micro Brewery bar on State Street. For anyone in this part of the world, this is a must visit. Great atmosphere, friendly staff, great happy hour deal, and most importantly a huge range of tasty beer you can see being made in kegs metres from your seat. Although one of the guest beers is Stella Artois, which always amuses me. For those readers not from the UK, Stella has a terrible reputation as being the lager louts beer of choice over here. It is NOT a classy drink. Do not be fooled.

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Many, many drinks later, plus a tasty Thai meal a handy few doors down (Google Now did not anticipate inebriation and a desire for a curry, so failed to send us there. Damn you technology, you’ve betrayed me!), we then walked back through town to the hotel. Taking advantage of our fancy-pants hotel’s facilities we went to jump in the hot-tub, only to find a couple of yoofs in there. While me and David swam about in the pool pretending to be mermaids and secretly too intimidated to get in the tub with a couple of loud teenagers, Bee and Amii strolled over, got in and deployed the fact they were women in bikinis to first render the boys silent, and then quickly had them move on (for a cold shower I think). Yeah!

Bee Says: After a peaceful night (no snorers in our road trip gang) we were ready to get back on the road, this time our destination was Carmel, just north of the majestic Big Sur. I have actually done this road trip before, although it was in reverse, heading from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I blogged about it here and my one regret was that we hadn’t stopped to explore Big Sur. I’m an absolute sucker for pine trees, wooded hideouts and stomping around forests, which Big Sur can provide in spade-loads. After pitching in the prospect to everyone a few months earlier, we set about finding a log cabin for the night. Unfortunately it wasn’t a simple task, as due to the demand on Big Sur accommodation, most locations had a 2-night minimum and a steep price tag attached. In the end, we couldn’t justify the cost and Anish booked us into what he referred to as a “crack motel” in Monterey and thus the Big Sur dream was squished. Or so we thought. Whilst we have had a fair few scrapes and spots of bother on our 6 months of travels; we have also had plenty of unbelievable bits of good fortune. One of these was the fact that when we visited Katie’s family for the Oscar party and chatted to her parents about our trip up route 1, they announced they have a cabin out in Carmel which miraculously was free the day we planned to pass through! Despite never having met our three fellow road trippers, they were incredibly generous and offered us to spend the night there.

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Zooming out from Santa Barbs, we hooked up Amii’s ipod and were treated to her impeccable selection of Cali-themed tunes. It was definitely a cheesy/amazing moment to be driving along past the twinkling ocean and crooning loudly to “Califoooorniaaaa here we cooooooome” by Phantom Planet. Once our bellies started grumbling over the sound of our off-key singing, we pulled over at the very next town we saw, which happened to be Morro Bay. A quick drive around revealed a bleak looking location, mainly consisting of a sketchy gas station and a sole restaurant called “Taco Temple” which made Nick and I recoil in horror, as we had munched our way through enough bad Mexican for a lifetime on this trip. Luckily David consulted his trusty USA Lonely Planet which recommended Giovanni’s Fresh Fish Market and Galley. As we drove around the block to 1001 Front Street, it was like being in a completely different part of California. A harbour sat glistening in the sun, with ships bobbing up and down, and seals hooting from the rocks. Joining the queue for Giovanni’s, we ordered a fishy feast; clam chowder that was spooned out of a giant steaming cauldron, their house special garlic fries and deep fried bits of various sea dwellers. It was one of my favourite meals of the trip and found completely by chance.

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On my last drive down route 1, one of the highlights had been the zebras that graze on the roadside outside Hearst Castle in San Simeon, as part of Hearst’s exotic animal collection. After banging on about zebras and getting everyone to spend the best part of two hours craning their necks looking for them… They weren’t there! Does anyone reading know why they have gone? My fictional hypothesis is that driving along at a reasonably high speed on a busy freeway is perilous at the best of times; made only more so by an unexpected herd of unexpected near-mythical creatures suddenly popping up in your periphery! So perhaps that is why they are absent. Or maybe it was just to make me look totally delusional; which it did.

The biggest wow-moment of this section of the drive is the beach at Piedras Blancas, which for most months of the year has some sort of elephant seal activity occurring. We leapt out and joined the crowds cooing at the huge assortment of seals busily snoozing on the beach; with the odd swimmer, honker and waver thrown in. I had never seen an adult male elephant seal and holy moly, are they beasts! Think an actual elephant crossed with the thing out of 1990 classic “Tremors”.

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For the next few hours we sat back and enjoyed the seemingly endless long stretches of windy roads where you can see the 1 zig zagging over the hills way out in front of you. At certain points of the drive, clouds lurked in and hugged the road tightly, meaning we were always driving in and out of Silent Hill territory. Anish was cool as a cucumber in these conditions, which as a driver I would have found slightly un-nerving. The beauty of the 1 is that there are regular vista points, so you can regularly park up and stretch the pegs and take photographs of the stunning surrounding. At one of these stops I made friends with a pair of kissing chipmunks.

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We were all growing slightly weary, looking forward to exploring our cabin and magic hour light was beckoning the end of the day. As we drove into Big Sur, we passed one of those yellow warning signs featuring a Disney-esque prancing deer. I remember thinking to myself how nice it be to see an actual deer and not just sign after sign. Well, be careful what you wish for! As the next think I knew, we rounded a corner and directly in front of us was a ginormous deer… in the exact ‘prancing’ motion from the sign. We were extremely fortunate to just miss hitting it, if we had arrived there a split second earlier, I think it could have caused quite a nasty car accident. Ah well, the pesky deer just adds to the list of scorpions, snakes, giant lizards and spiders that have tried (and thankfully failed!) to do away with us on this trip.

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As twilight twinkled, we arrived at Carmel and followed some amazing instructions that included the word weiner, to find our new home. The “cabin” was less cabin, more luxury log mansion. It was so beautifully maintained and kitted out; feeling entirely rustic and authentic, but also very fancy indeed with every home comfort you could wish for. From the wooded cabin deck we drank beers and gazed out over the lapping waves and picturesque caverns on the beach below.

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Considering we had stuffed our faces with fish earlier, we opted for a dinner we could snaffle from bits at the tiny general store; nachos and the hugest tub of ice-cream I have ever seen. After our feast we sat around in the lounge chatting when suddenly we saw what looked like a torch beam flitting across the room. Hmm… weren’t we meant to be in the middle of nowhere? Nerves slightly rattled, we carried on nattering, only to then be interrupted by the scrabbling and scratching of something on the wooden walls! I think we were all slightly worried this was turning into a Cabin in the Woods scenario, but luckily the creepy lights and noises stopped in time for us to go to bed and have a peaceful nights slumbering.

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Nick Says: After one of the best night sleeps I’ve had on the trip (despite the mysterious lights and the scrabbling…) we woke up refreshed and ready to see Carmel in the morning light. After grabbing some coffees and pastries from the store just across the California 1, we went to explore some more of the cabin’s surrounds. We’d been off-handedly told about a beach they shared with the neighbours, but we didn’t quite realise it was going to be our own private beach complete with cove. It was incredible, and we felt very lucky indeed as we strolled down the path and supped our coffee while the waves rolled in.

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But then in the distance we noticed a park ranger approaching looking very serious. When he finally reached us, he stood on a rock and proceeded to tell us off for being on the beach, and that he would have to cite us for going down a path (from the other side I think) which had been shut. We then told him we were guests of the people who owned the property, which somewhat deflated the poor guy. I think he quite liked rushing into action, and seeing young(ish) looking people apparently trespassing must have made his day. Sorry officer for having a legitimate reason to enjoy the stunning beach while no-one else could. Haha.

The cabin and Carmel was absolutely the highlight of the road-trip for me, and I could have happily spent a very long time there indeed. I can understand totally why this is such a sought after part of the world. But for those who don’t meet people who own their own cabin in this neck of the woods, one of the more intriguing accommodation options we passed had to be Pigeon Point Hostel, where you can stay in a cabin attached to an old 19th century lighthouse! So cool.

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There was an amazing sense of peace in the cabin, and the closeness of the pine forest to the breathtaking coastline gave you a sense of wilderness and remoteness which would seem at odds with its central Californian location. Coupled with this is the whale spotting opportunities from the cabins deck, and I think Katie’s parents may have found they had a squatter if we hadn’t been heading somewhere equally as enticing – San Francisco! Anish had made his home there several years ago, and I couldn’t wait to get the local’s tour of the place. It’s one of the most hyped cities in the world, and would be a pretty epic coda for what had been an life-changing trip already. So with a sad wave of goodbye, we left Carmel and carried on down the California 1.

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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