Tag Archives: Twenty Something Burnouts

Venturing In Ventura

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

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

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

Hiking the Hollywood Sign, Sandstone Peak, Joshua Tree & more!

Nick & Bee Say: Happy 2016 everyone. We’re in a busy season with visitors at the moment, so sightseeing lots of exciting things. Our first guest was Craig, who had previously joined us on our Guatemala adventure, and was back for more. Over his three weeks here, we took in a whole variety of destinations, including a memorable week where we managed the mountains, beach, and desert. All of which are in easy reach of Los Angeles. So here’s our latest vlog detailing our adventures, including a Christmas Eve hike behind the Hollywood sign, a New Year’s Eve in Joshua Tree National Park, a secret side of Venice, and our favourite LA hike in the Santa Monica mountains. Enjoy!

Christmas in California!

Nick & Bee Say: Merry Christmas everybody! While no doubt many of you reading this will have been wearing warm winter clothes for weeks, and preparing for some snow, us in So Cal have been a little…hotter. We’re used to that though, seeing as we spent Christmas 2013 in Cartagena, Colombia. So we’ve still managed to get into the holiday vibe, and this year have incorporated a very special film into the festivities (spoiler it’s Star Wars!)

Here’s the latest in our Los Angeles YouTube escapades, a little Christmas bonus for you. We have a few blogs to come in the new year about weekend escapes from L.A. but in the meantime have a brilliant Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Living in California

Nick Says: Hello! Sorry for the slight pause there on the blog – turns out getting married (woohoo!) and then moving your entire life to the other side of the world is fairly time consuming. But we have lots to talk about, so let’s get started…

While we may have travelled for months at a time over the years, neither me or Bee have ever lived permanently in another country. About the closest I’ve come was 6 months in Australia, where I rented a room in Melbourne for 2 of them. But setting a up a home somewhere else? Brand new territory. So how can I sum it up so far? Exhilarating, terrifying, overwhelming, incredible. The superlatives are endless. And the cliche true by the way, visiting somewhere and living there are very different things.

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At some point, we will do a ‘how to’ guide for those who move to the USA – we’ve had to work out lots of things that would have been handy to know, from getting a social security number, to leasing a car, and finding an apartment. But for now, let’s give you highlights of what we’ve been up to in since moving here.

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Moving to Los Angeles so soon after our wedding meant we had to put our Honeymoon plans on ice for a bit (yes, I realise California isn’t a terrible alternative…). But we still wanted to decompress and celebrate our new marriage a bit, so we took our first weekend here to drive 2 hours south down to Laguna Beach. It was truly magical, and the perfect introduction to our new life as Californians. A beachside resort down in the O.C. Laguna Beach feels very much like an outsiders view of California distilled. It’s got the beautiful beaches, the beautiful sunkissed people (some with more work than others), the laid-back arty vibe, with the local gallery showcasing paintings of a giant grasshopper riding a motorbike down the Pacific Coast Highway, and some of the most dramatic sunsets I’ve seen in a long time, and as anyone who travels knows, you see a lot of sunsets. So take my word for it, these are very special.

We decided to treat ourselves and stayed at the Casa Laguna Inn & Spa, which was set a little bit out of the main town. During summer months though, a free trolley bus operates up and down the PCH, with a stop just outside the hotel, which meant we could ride to where all the bars and restaurants were located incredibly easily. The trolley itself looks like something from the beginning of the automobile age, made of wood and with no windows. Enjoy that sea breeze!

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As well as sunning ourselves on golden beaches, eating incredible food such as crab stuffed jalapeños wrapped in bacon washed down with jalapeño margaritas from fancy Mexican restaurant Carmelita’s, or having dessert generously paid for by a couple who sat next to us at another fancy restaurant (as a welcome to the USA gift!), we also stopped for lunch at a super cute diner just down the road, which required us to possibly illegally trespass over a fence into what seemed to be a school, in order to reach it by foot. They do not make things easy for pedestrians over here.

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When not stuffing our faces (USA! USA!) we found time to enjoy the hotel. From our little balcony at the back of our room, we had a view of the Pacific Ocean. Mornings would find us sat here at the little table and chairs provided with a cup of coffee each just admiring the view and not quite believing any of this was real. Despite being on the highway, the hotel felt amazingly secluded and peaceful. Done up in Spanish colonial revival style, they brilliantly told us the historic part of the house was from the 1920s (our flat in London was from the early 19th Century I believe). Getting fully into the relaxed zen vibe, Bee had booked us onto a ‘togetherness’ massage – which meant we were massaged while lying next to each other. I think it was meant to be extremely romantic, but we were far too English to fully relax ha! Much better was the bit after where they turned on the hot tub, which is outside and also overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and gave us a bottle of champagne. So we downed the bubbles, and watched the sunset from our own private jacuzzi. One week in and we’d changed.

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Of course, it hasn’t all been swigging champers in hot tubs and enjoying the beach. We’ve also been exploring L.A. Which due to the fact it was about 40 degrees when we got here, actually did mean enjoying the beach. Making the most of our rental car, we spent the next weekend up in Malibu, an easy 45 minute drive north up the Pacific Coast Highway, with spectacular views of the ocean to keep you occupied while sat in the occasional traffic jam. While Zuma beach is probably my favourite, a wide expanse of golden sand which you can walk along for miles, and never feels crowded despite its popularity, a little treasure trove of a beach is definitely Paradise Cove. To avoid the $40 parking fee (yep…) I would recommend parking up the hill on the PCH itself, which is free. Then it’s a quick 5 minute walk down a hill to the beach itself. It’s set up like a mini resort, with a restaurant serving food, and a shop selling beer for you to drink while sunbathing. The sun loungers and chairs were all free to use (I double checked with one of the many helpful and friendly staff) which was a unexpected bonus, and it was pretty easy to while away an afternoon here. No sunset view to be had, but one of my fave beaches so far.

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But there’s fun to be had at nighttime too in L.A. Which is lucky, as at the moment it gets dark about 5pm so that’s a lot of hours to fill. One of our favourite discoveries so far is First Friday’s in Venice. Venice itself is infamous as the weirder side of L.A. Head down here if you want to see Muscle Beach, t-shirt hawkers, and a Sikh man in full turban rollerskating along the bike path playing an electric guitar with a mini amp strapped to his back. Basically, it’s the Camden Town of Los Angeles – but by the sea and sunny. Anyway, every first Friday of the month around 20 of the best food trucks in the city all gather together for a big event. It used to be 70, but then it got a little bit out of control, loads of people got drunk and caused mayhem, and they scaled it back down. Still, it’s pretty epic and has a fun festival feel. It also introduced us to the best food we’ve had since arriving here, Howlin’ Rays Nashville style hot chicken. Words will never describe the taste sensation it was. Also a fan of this food truck was a pretty famous face. Bee noticed a man in the queue looking pretty intently at us, having clocked our British accents. Then Bee whispered to me, “is that Chris Martin?’ You know what Bee, it was. Then seemingly to make sure we really knew it was him, the Coldplay frontman started singing and dancing in front of us. I genuinely am not making this up. We snapped a paparazzi shot of him, but as it’s got one of his kids in the background I won’t put it up. We then saw on Twitter that he’d gone into a local shop and offered everyone free chicken. Incredible scenes.

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It’s not all been eating (mainly it has). While we were staying in Miracle Mile for the first month (a pretty central area which seemed to be 25 minutes away from everywhere else in the city) I took myself off to the La Brea Tar Pits for the afternoon. If you ever visit then I definitely recommend a trip here – the park is free, but the museum is worth your $12 for sure. They have millions of fossils on display, perfectly preserved skeletons of mammoths, sabre tooth cats, and other giant creatures, plus real tar (asphalt actually) which bubbles up from the ground all over the park, so watch where you step. It’s a fascinating look into the natural history of a place we associate with modernity, entertainment, and urban sprawl.

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Bee Says: Thank you for bearing with us on our life hiatus! As Nick said, we might have ever so slightly underestimated that leaving one job/house/city, getting married and moving around the world to a new job/house/city/life/culture basically feels like stepping onto the waltzers. It feels like we are only just starting to know our heads from our toes again! And now that we have, we are really excited to share our little corner of the world with you again. There’s more to talk about than we can possibly expect you to read in one sitting without an intravenous of coffee, so I’ll pick a few highlights and then I promise we’ll be back soon(er) with new news. As Nick mentioned when we first moved here we were living in an Air BnB in Miracle Mile for a month. Whilst the location was great (and when I say great you can read “walking distance from an Umami Burger) we quickly learnt that living in an Air Bnb is far from ideal on a long term basis. The apartment was sweet, but absolutely fit to bursting with someone elses stuff! Which meant we couldn’t unpack, I was having to try and dress appropriately for a new job every day without the ability to even properly unpack my suitcase and generally we felt like intruders in someone elses home. It has made a HUGE difference to get our own place.

Whilst I was at work Nick had the daunting task of house hunting; pretty overwhelming when we were shiny new off the plane and unaware of good areas, good deals or what was what. We were under the time pressure of having to find somewhere before our Air BnB ran out and to reduce my commute. Everywhere we viewed was not quite right; the most not right being a flat that looked lovely online only to turn out to be somebody’s GARAGE they had converted?! As the realtor said “you need to pass through the family home to get in and out, but they are ever so nice” we started to get a little bit of the fear that we’d never find somewhere. Lady luck shone on us though, and one day Nick saw an advert on “hot pads” with no photos, no text and just a phone number. Luckily he persevered and rang the mystery number, making an appointment to view. We turned up to a beautiful block decorated in batenburg shades (in typical me style I decided I wanted to live there based on how cute that would look on Instagram) and found an open door to an apartment with no one inside. After a quick scout around, we couldn’t believe it when we realised the place was a two bedroom apartment yet on the market for a one bed price. A Guatemalan lady called Paulina soon found us lurking inside an we basically leapt on her and signed up there and them, forcing a deposit on her as more and more couples arrived to look round. Being the first over the stoop gave us first refusal and the rest is history! Amazingly (and unlike in the UK) in the week between signing and moving in, Paulina worked her socks off to get us new flooring, an A/C unit and a professional clean. We also both have a walk-in wardobe! Living the Cher from Clueless dream.

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Having a proper home has instantly got us feeling more settled. Another key to the LA puzzle is the fact it’s in an area we are completely besotted with. Culver City is actually its own independent city in the county of Los Angeles. It’s the original “Hollywood” where the film studios were first set up – such as MGM in the 1920s. Its motto is “The Heart Of Screenland” & The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, King Kong and ET were all filmed here. It’s so the “real Hollywood” that in 1937 the Culver City Chamber of Commerce petitioned to have the city name changed to Hollywood (as the sign had become so iconic) but it was declined. As a result, studios such as MGM started placing “Made in Culver City” front & centre of the credits before all their films!

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The area is safe, pedestrianised (RARE for LA!) and super buzzy. To get a sense of it… The Wonder Years filmed its outdoor scenes on our street! The area is super well maintained; fairy lights twinkle from the palm trees and there is a real community atmosphere. We are walking distance from my work, a Trader Joes, an In-n-Out burger, a coffee shop that makes a mean Mexican Mocha, gift shops, banks, about 40 restaurants, an Arclight cinema and a Cold Stone Creamery (lethal). We also have a diner, S & W Country Diner, that is everything you’d wish from a local hangout. Kitsch decor, booths, a menu as long as your arm and insanely friendly staff who remember you and your preferences! We go every weekend and it’s basically our new second home.

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What with all this eating, we are also fortunate enough to live next to Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. This is a great hike that takes you up some gruelling vertical steps (where we regularly see the USC Trojans training!) to take in a 360 view of LA from the top. We tend to head up there at 6.30am to catch the sun rising, and I could honestly sit there for hours just watching the planes take off and land over at LAX… the sea lapping in the distance and the Gotham-like towers in Downtown. It’s always a wrench to head back down and into the day.

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An unexpected event is that we have both become big Clippers fans. Obviously there is an endless choice of sports to get into in America but basketball zoomed into our hearts the quickest. When we first moved here, Nick’s old housemate and our good friend Laura was spending her last month as an Angeleno before moving to NYC. This was perfectly timed for us to team up on a ton of our firsts/her lasts together. One of these was an introduction to the Clippers. From the moment we arrived at the Staples Centre, I knew I was about to become addicted. Firstly, basketball is easy to follow. There are no crazy rulebooks to digest and it’s obvious when someone is winning. Secondly, it’s so much more about the experience than the sport! We saw fireworks, we saw babies racing across the court to win their parents a jeep (!) we saw the National Anthem being sung, we saw “kiss cam” where the big screen display people who must then kiss on demand (I think they try to go for the people they have sussed are couples…) we saw randoms from the audience come up to try and score a slam dunk, we saw celebs lazing on the front row… the list is kind of endless. There is way more faffing about with entertainment than actual spot. That said, the sport is really nail biting. We witnessed the Clippers win 67-66 by scoring with 0.03 seconds to go… the crowd went CRAZY! It’s super good fun and the key – it’s cheap. You can get nose-bleeder seats (where the best atmosphere is I reckon!) for as little as $8 (about a fiver!) and we can ride the metro there and back, which costs about £2 return. No wonder we are averaging a game a fortnight! Those Clippers work hard too, they play about 5 games a week and are even playing on Christmas Day.

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Another great experience was heading to the Día de Muertos celebration at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. We had wanted to visit the cemetery for a while; it’s iconic for being the final resting place for more Hollywood founders and stars than anywhere else including Johnny Ramone and Toto the dog from Wizard of Oz. It’s a surprisingly tranquil and beautifully maintained place; it isn’t tacky at all which is what I was fearful of. There are various cultural events and celebrations throughout the year, but Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is one close to Nick and I’s heart after we celebrated it with locals on Isla Del Sol in Bolivia. Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, in particular the Central and South regions, but also acknowledged through various other parts of South America and the world. The holiday is used to gather family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help “support their spiritual journey.”

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Ever since I learnt about the holiday I’ve been completely in awe of it. To me, it seems such an incredibly healthy and necessary way to talk about and deal with mortality. It’s actually how even the British used to deal with death (we learnt this at Highgate Cemetery tour) by creating mausoleums and huge shrines that were visited and decorated in a not dis-similar manner. However after World War 1, for obvious reasons, this changed dramatically to the more private, sheltered and intimate attitude to death we experience now. Having a day dedicated to talking about and remembering those we have lost is such a beautiful thing; and my favourite part is that this is a real celebration. There is amazing food, dancing, music and costumes. Everywhere has their own approaches (in Bolivia they fly kites) but the positivity is infectious. At Hollywood Forever we listened to an amazing Mariachi band playing The Smiths covers, we brushed off our Spanish to chat to some of the wonderful artists and people crafting, and we felt incredibly privileged to join in this special moment of the year, in such an amazing location.

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So that’s a little glimpse of Los Angeles life. We’ve been packing it in right? Don’t worry, we still have time to nest on our new sofa and binge watch Master of None and Jessica Jones. I’ll leave you with a classic Bee and Nick quote. Driving back into LA from a weekend away we were driving through a nice looking neighbourhood. Nick: “These are such lovely houses. What area is this? Why don’t we live here?” Bee *checks Google Maps* “This is Beverly Hills.”

 

We Are Moving To LA!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Russia in Ten Days – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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8 Things I learnt from the Three Peaks Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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2. You can never, ever predict the weather

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

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3. Invest in some decent kit

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

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

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

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5. The UK is SO beautiful.

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

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6. Treat yourself to a Camelbak

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

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7. Distraction is key

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

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8. You can never have enough snacks

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

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

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

 

Being in Beelin. Beerlin. I mean, Berlin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!