Home Again

Mark

“There are things you just can’t do in life. You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he’s ready to see you, and you can’t go home again.” Bill Bryson observed this in The Lost Continent. For the last month, we’ve been testing out the last of these.

It’s been 32 days since we landed, dishevelled, late, without our luggage and via a couple of unscheduled German cities, back in good old Blighty. The experience of getting from Thailand to the UK alone was enough to make us think that it may be time to put an end to our travels, at least for the intermediate future. There’s nothing like a miserable German barman trying to charge you 2€ for hot water when you haven’t eaten for 12 hours to really make you think that travel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Being the way we are, getting home was never likely to be a gentle settling in process. We took it at full throttle, landing and driving the 200 miles home in one day, packing and moving in the next, and Sadie started her job the day after. Quite how she managed it I don’t know. There’s a small but growing community of people who have done a similar, lets-sack-off-the-real-world-for-a-few-years kind of thing to us, and they all recommend taking some time when you get back to readjust to your new reality. In all likelihood, this one doesn’t include beaches, hostels, temples and weekday drinking. It can be something of a culture shock and most people don’t respond well to it.

I can only speak for myself when I say that it hasn’t really hit me yet. I was unemployed (or “funemployed” as it’s been renamed) for a couple of weeks upon getting back, which I spent fixing our house, undoing the damage of two and a half years of tenancy, as well as updating the décor to make it more suitable to our new, international taste, darling. We took an impromptu trip to Scotland that we booked in the pub, where all good decisions are made. We’re going to the English seaside over Easter and we’ve already booked our summer trip to Eastern Europe. To me it doesn’t feel like we’ve ended our travel lifestyle, just put it on ice and keeping it fresh for later.

I think what’s cushioned the coming home blow has been all the things we missed about home. Our friends and families come top of the list (just), but also the simple things you take for granted. Having your clothes in a wardrobe not a bag, having more than four t-shirts, staying in the same bed night after night with no fear of bed bugs, never wearing mosquito spray, sitting in your own lounge on a sofa and watching TV, cooking your own dinner, having a huge choice of food, speaking your own language, spending your own money, going to a shop where things have prices, driving, English beer and proper cider, not worrying about a time difference when needing to speak to your mum, your phone working, knowing where everything is… the list is endless. It’s the home comforts that make home… well, home. All these things you take for granted in your day to day lives suddenly become a bit of a revelation when you’ve been living out of a rucksack for years. I don’t really think travel has changed me massively, I’m not some gap-yah who has had a spiritual awakening; that said, it is really nice to have an appreciation of the things that are so integral to a normal life. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to reach into my wardrobe to see a few shirts that I can wear, and that they aren’t creased to hell and suncream-stained. The novelty of these things will definitely wear thin fairly soon, but I’d like to think that I will at least appreciate it while it lasts.

“How are you dealing with being home?” tends to be the question I get asked the most. Along with “Where was your favourite place?” (Argentina, New Zealand thank you, next). And the answer is we’re dealing with it. Focusing on the present doesn’t mean you have to forget the past. For the last few years we have been travellers (small ‘t,’ thank you). Now we aren’t, and getting back to a normal life is going to be a bit weird. The last few weeks have been the longest I have spent in the same place for God-knows how long, including the few months we spent at Sadie’s mum’s in the spring, seeing as we couldn’t stop driving around the country. When the novelty wears off and the reality really sets in, we’ll meet that head on too. For now, it’s nice to be home. What will come will come, and we’ll meet it when it does.

Sadie

I’ll be totally honest here, despite the journalism degree, I often leave these posts up to Mark. Partly because I, perhaps wrongly, presumed that our dear friends and family had lost a wee bit of interest in our gallivanting abroad – and really who could blame them – and that posting frequently was a waste of time. Plus, I’m quite lazy when I want to be. But if there is one post I should probably add to, it is this one.

Although we are very much going through this adjustment together, Mark and I have had quite different experiences coming home. I’ve been thrown straight into a routine, while Mark has been, and continues to be, a bit stuck in limbo until his new job begins in a few months. I’d love to say that the first few weeks of solely me working did not turn me into a slightly bitter old hag, but, uh they did. The salvation though? I bloody love my new job. Considering I dragged my poor husband home months early and cancelled countless fun plans, if this hadn’t worked out I don’t quite know what we would have done.

I spent last Spring working casually in our neighbouring village’s pub, because I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time training for a job that I knew I would leave within a few months for yet another trip abroad. I even turned down one I was scouted for, out of some misplaced sense of fairness. As a result I was miserable, truly miserable. I have always enjoyed hospitality, and never felt any shame in doing so (because why on earth should I?) but then I’ve always been lucky enough to work with great managers, and I’ve always felt valued. Despite living out of a backpack for close to 3 years, those few months were the only time in my life I have felt out of step, totally lost, and with only myself to blame.

I promised myself that when we returned to Sheffield, I wouldn’t settle for something I didn’t love doing. After years of freelance work and travel, a 9-5 was always going to be a shock to the system. It is early days, and there is a lot of adjustment still to go, but I’m getting there. I just hope for the same for Mark soon.

So yeah, that’s life now. For a while anyway. What, you thought we’d settle forever? It is like you don’t know us at all…

To everyone we met on the way, the friends we left at home and the family that have always supported us – thank you. We love you and couldn’t have done any of it without you. And to my wonderful husband Mark – spending every day with you, even the stupidly long and stressful ones, was a dream. You are my home, in every way. Thank you.

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Snapshot of the Week (again): A right pair of Lankas.

Not going to lie, the title has absolutely nothing to do with this blog other than I liked the pun. Glad to get that off my chest.

Understandably, we did not want to leave the Maldives. Or should it just be “Maldives?” According to Wiki, its official name is “The Republic of Maldives.” Does this mean there is a single “Maldive” out there? Also, why does “Maldive” rhyme with “grieve” and not “hive?” OMG, why does “grieve” not rhyme with “sieve?” What the hell is wrong with our language? Argh!

Now I’ve had a lie down, it’s time to talk about Sri Lanka, which is why we are all here. What a journey we’ve been on.

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First things first, we had to fly into Colombo from the Maldives (let’s not get into that again). Amazingly when we checked in at Malé airport, the lady behind the counter gave us a pass to the business class lounge. Now, you know as well as I do that we did not book this, being two fine examples of nature’s ability to produce travel cheapskates. However, we kept quiet, strolled through security, up to the lounge where we were warmly welcomed in, bringing down the average net worth of the individuals in the room considerably as we did so. The lounge was lovely, although to sound like an absolute choosy beggar, of all the countries to get a free business class upgrade in, you wouldn’t pick one where alcohol is illegal… Anyway, we trotted off to the flight a few hours later, where we were also sat in “business class” too! I use the inverted commas because it was really premium economy, not beds and the like, and also the flight was only an hour long. So again, choosy beggar, but next time a mistake like this happens, long haul please. Still, got a free hot towel and a lukewarm beer out of it. Cheers, China Eastern.

Landing in Sri Lanka we got a quick downgrade. The line for security was colossal, a human traffic jam of sweaty idiots, all joining the wrong queues. To boot, the staff at the immigration desks had faces like they’d just been told their houses had burned down, which really gives you a warm welcome to a country. That is actually a bad choice of phrase, because Colombo airport’s air conditioning is shite, so our welcome was verging on sweltering.

We left Colombo early the next morning for Ella, a hilltop town in the South of the country. Upon buying tickets at the station we were pleasantly surprised at how cheap they were, shocked even. What a fantastic train system! Wrong. The trains were cheap because they made up for the low fares by packing an insane number of people onto them. Sardines would have complained. We were kept upright by the mass of bodies like hot dogs in a jar, and after a disturbingly short while we smelled remarkably similar. This journey was to last eleven hours, and, although three hours in we did manage to score a seat to share, we felt every last minute of it. This was a bit sad, because the journey is absolutely beautiful, especially the second half of it into the mountains, but we just couldn’t enjoy it. If you ever do the same thing, for God’s sake, book tickets in advance, especially for the Kandy-Ella leg. They are a lot more expensive but they don’t exactly cost the earth, and it’s so worth it for the amount of time you spend on the train. On the plus side, a kindly Sri Lankan family decided they wanted to feed us for the remainder of the journey, and we were supplied with a steady stream of nibbles. I’m not ashamed to admit it was more than a bit heartwarming.

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I wasn’t kidding when I said it was pretty.

I’ve dragged on a bit here (like that fucking train…), but Ella was totally worth it. It’s up in the mountains so its climate is gorgeous, warm but never oppressive, and it’s surrounded by lush, green hills, forests and tea plantations. We rented a scooter for two days and buzzed around the place, our pangs for the Maldives lessening by the hour. We had to leave, too soon, so took a terror-inducing public bus down to Udawalawe National Park. Actually, that’s harsh on the bus. It was terrifying until we were out of the mountains but actually once on the flatter roads it was fine, and exceedingly cheap. In Sri Lanka, buses>trains, every time.

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Sadie, more interested in tea than the enormous bridge behind her.
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Mark, looking nowhere near as cool as he felt.
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Sadie, next to a man too stupid not to wear a green t-shirt that blends perfectly with its surroundings.

The second half of our time in Sri Lanka was very animal-heavy, which is not a complaint.. In Udawalawe we saw elephants by the dozen, some close enough almost to touch. We moved on to Mirissa, where we both ticked something off our bucket list by seeing not one but two blue whales in the wild. To add to our good luck of spotting them fairly early in the day – it isn’t uncommon to spend an entire day out at sea chasing them – the ocean decided to play nice and remain relatively flat, so we didn’t have to hurl our breakfasts over the side of the boat. Admittedly Sadie (accidentally) took two seasickness pills so she was unconscious for a while, but we still chalked it down as a win. We really loved Mirissa as a place, it had a beautiful beach, a decent food scene and two-for-one sundowners aplenty. Our final stop was in Hikkaduwa where, just up the coast from the town, we released new baby turtles from a hatchery into the ocean at sunset, which was magical.

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The whale’s tail before she dived.

Like the Maldives, our time in Sri Lanka was too short and before we knew it we were on a train (awful – we’ll never learn…) back to the airport. We knew this to be the case before we came of course, but Sadie’s new job could only wait so long. We are cramming a lot into a short space of time, so we may be tired but we certainly won’t be bored. Our next stop, a brief stint in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat before on to Vietnam. That can wait for another post.

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Snapshot of the Week: Looking back…

Forgive me, reader for I have sinned.

The first and most obvious sin is that we have been away for three and a half weeks and not written anything. I actually said in my last post that I’d write something on the flight home, and this didn’t happen either. This is largely due to laziness, but also to being busy. We’re already on our fourth country in that time and we aren’t slowing down any time soon. We also tried to allow a little flexibility in this trip, so we have spent a few evenings planning and booking – such fun.

The second sin is that I, Mark Butterworth-Jones, first of his name, have lost our Lego mascots. I had them in Marrakech before Christmas and I know they came back with me, so somewhere in Sadie’s mum’s house is a little zip-lock bag with plastic versions of ourselves in it. Lord knows I looked but they are still at large. We then decided to take the wedding-attire versions, but within about a week Lego Mark’s hair had disappeared, and we took it as a sign that it just wasn’t meant to be. I’m a little bit gutted that the very last leg of our journey will be without the mascots who have accompanied us all the way. The cover photo for this blog will be the last Lego one (sad face).

Anyway, onwards and upwards. You may remember that before Christmas we were a little bummed with travel. The weather was a bit crap and we were quite underwhelmed… so we decided to go to the Maldives. Using our credit card points (and a bit of cash, sadly) we took a British Airways flight direct to Male, with a bit of free champagne to boot. A far cry from what we are used to.

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The Maldives are impossible not to be impressed by. They are just the epitome of paradise islands, little sandy specs in the middle of a turquoise ocean. We went to three: Gulhi, Fulidhoo and Maafushi. These are all “local” islands, as opposed to the large number of private islands owned by resorts. The upside of these islands is that they are cheap, friendly and largely unspoiled. Gulhi and Fulidhoo are very undeveloped, Maafushi a bit more so but still has long stretches of untouched beach. The downside of them is that the Maldives is a strict Muslim country, which means no alcohol. We were a bit apprehensive about this, but actually it didn’t bother us at all. The islands were so peaceful and utterly beautiful that we didn’t need booze.

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“Need,” of course being a careful choice of word. Nobody needs booze, but when you’re in paradise it’s quite nice to watch the sunset with a cold beer. Luckily, the private resort islands are able to cater for that, so we took a day trip to one to sample how the other half live. In all honesty, the resort itself wasn’t that spectacular – just a normal standard of nice hotel, just on a private island – but a day of all inclusive food and alcohol and the opportunity to explore the famous over water bungalows was worth the slight wallet-bashing required to get us there.

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Frankly we were devastated to leave the Maldives. It was somewhere I never thought we would be able to afford, so to go and experience it was just amazing. Luckily, we had Sri Lanka to look forward to, which will be in the next post. In the meantime, just look at these Maldives pictures and get booking your flight before the sea swallows them up.

Snapshot of the Week – Moorish adventures

I was going to start this blog with my usual apology for the long gap between posts but honestly I don’t think anyone cares at this I point. Or expects any different.

Last time I wrote I was being a miserable shit, quel surprise. I’m going to be more positive this time, I promise, because we’ve had, for the most part, an upturn in our meteorological fortunes. Being British, the sun (small ‘s’) makes us happy and the rain makes us mardy.

So after Merida we had a whistle stop tour of Andalusia. Seville, Cordoba, Granada, and Ronda in about a week. It seems so long ago that I don’t really know what to write so I’ll try and sum each of them up in a sentence and a photo to spare you my prattle.

Seville is big, full of oranges, beautiful in the sunshine, boring in the rain and has great tapas.

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Cordoba is old, full of oranges, full of flowers, has a big old church-mosque hybrid and is pleasant without ever being amazing, and also has lovely tapas.

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Granada has the incredible Alhambra, oranges and amazing tapas.

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Ronda has a really cool bridge and tapas.

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You will note a few themes; oranges, which are literally everywhere in Andalusia, and tapas, which we ate incessantly to the detriment of our waistlines. Worth it. Give me a 2€ jamon asado sandwich and I’m anybody’s. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that in public.

While we enjoyed Spain immensely, we did have a fraught couple of days in Seville, when the rain was against us once more. On one of these days we drove to one of the famous pueblos blancos, the white towns, called Arcos de la Frontera. Mercifully it was dry there, but we had something of an epiphany on the road back to Seville. It went something like this: “what the fuck are we doing here?”

We mentioned in our last post that we had given too much time to a few places on this trip. This thought was echoed in Seville, driving through drizzle to look at yet another village in the grey. What’s the bloody point? We’re spending our limited time and money being bored, trudging through towns just for the hell of it before heading back to our Airbnb to watch tv on the laptop.

We looked at the forecast for Morocco and saw that our next two weeks were set for downpours (in Morocco!!) and I lost the plot a bit.

The long and short of it was that night we decided to shorten our trip slightly. Just by a week to cut down on the pointless days going through the motions. It also gives us a bit more precious time at home to work and see friends and family. It meant that we shaved a few days of Andalusia, and 4 or 5 off Morocco. It meant that Morocco was going to be snappy, no wasted days which pleased us both greatly.

Dammit I was a whiney bitch again wasn’t I?

Right, so we’re now in Morocco which has been brilliant thus far. It is kind of everything you imagine and more, like everything is turned up to 11. The medinas are more complex, the smells are more intense, the cities are more chaotic and the scenery is more beautiful than the most fervent imagination can cook up. We went to a blue town in the mountains called Chefchaouen where it chucked it down for 3 days straight and we didn’t care (fine a little bit) because it was so beautiful it didn’t matter.  We rode camels at sunset in the Sahara which was magical and simultaneously destroyed our bottoms. We spent no less than FOUR HOURS bartering over 3 leather pouffes in Fez, and still failed to get the price our numerous Moroccan hosts had insisted we aim for. Admittedly this only amounted to a few pounds difference, but sometimes these things are just a matter of pride. Incidentally our pouffes are lovely, and smell strongly of pigeon faeces thanks to the ancient tanning methods of the Fez merchants. Practical and smelly. What more could you want?! Well I can answer that actually: decent wifi. It’s a pig to upload pictures here so Morocco will get its own post next week.

I don’t actually know how to end this. We’re a week away from coming home now and I have hugely mixed emotions. I’m looking forward to being home for Christmas and all that goes with it, but I feel guilty for wishing away our travels, especially somewhere as special as Morocco, even if it is exhausting at times. I’m going to write a post on the flight home to sum it up for 2018, and I promise, I’m not going to be miserable once.

 

Snapshot of the week Part II: Ciao Portugal, Hola Spain

Another week (or so) and another country done and dusted. I never did learn the word for ‘goodbye’ in Portuguese, but the locals used “ciao” so I’m okay with that. We have left Portugal behind and we’re now in Spain, where, despite us not being on the plains, it is pissing it down.

Portugal for us has been a bit of a misadventure. We’ve made a load of amateurish traveller mistakes, something that after all this time on the road we shouldn’t do any more. We’ve also been pretty damn unlucky with the weather, or maybe just a little foolish booking the Iberian peninsula in October. On reflection this was mistake number 1.

Mistake number 2 was our packing. Starting in Portugal, going through Spain and into Morocco, we anticipated hitting a range of climates. What we were not expecting however, was cold. Not a little nippy, but bloody English-style, school PE lesson cold. Our first two days in Porto were utterly beautiful, 25C and sunny. Flip flops out, suncream on, lovely. Then the weather turned and it hasn’t really looked back. The temperature literally dropped over 10C overnight. Of our two weeks there has been rain on over half the days and to really complement my bad packing, both of our puffer jackets have decided now is the time to lose their waterproof-ness. Grr. Consequently I have a suitcase with shorts, t-shirts and vests in it, when really I should have brought a scarf and a hot water bottle.* Sadie is suffering just as badly, but I’d rather not bring it up since it was me who told her that it would be warm… In my defence the internet said it should have reached the 20s every day. Evidently this has not been the case.

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Lovely Porto

This actually leads neatly onto mistake 3. The suitcase. Not backpack, you notice, but suitcase. We had a little misfortune with our suitcase in Australia when the retractor handle broke, meaning I had to carry all 20kg of it through the Australian summer. Then we got a new one for Croatia and EasyJet broke it. So we got anotherone and, a week in, this broke too. A wheel axle snapped and it was not fixable and so, after an angry email to TK Maxx, I had to go and buy a replacement and leave my brand new, now three-wheeled suitcase in Lisbon.

The problem with suitcases that we, incredibly stupidly, had not foreseen, is that a good chunk of European pavements are made of cobbles. Cobbles are suitcase killers. They are to luggage what syphilis was to Native Americans; unexpected, wholly unprepared for and especially lethal. So after buying the new suitcase, we arrived in a Portuguese old town called Evora and I had to carry the damn thing to make sure we didn’t lose another wheel to the cobble curse. I can’t wait for Morocco, where I can only imagine the pavement quality is nothing but flawless.

So lastly, mistake 4. We have gone FAR too slowly. We’ve had just over two weeks in Portugal and if we’re being brutally honest, we could have done it in less than one. We’ve just had too many nothing days, which of course has not been aided by the weather. The odd lazy day here and there doesn’t really matter, in fact they are quite welcome a lot of the time, but we have simply allowed far too long in towns that we could quite easily complete in half a day. Once you’ve seen so many churches and old towns they get pretty easy to knock off. We really should have brought the car so we could go through the country at our own pace but hey, you live and learn.

Goodness me, what a load of bitching! Lighten up, Mark, you miserable shit. Well, on the flip side, Portugal has not been all doom and gloom, not by a long shot. Porto is a fantastic city, full of beautiful architecture, great food (and wine) and really reasonable to boot. We also got chance to catch up with our friends Rachel and Rob who we met in Dubrovnik, and therefore an excuse to have a bit extra of the aforementioned cheap wine. The Douro valley, home to Port wine vineyards by the barrel (zing!) was absolutely stunning and despite the fog one day we still saw some spectacular scenery the next.  Guimaeres, Braga, Coimbra and Obidos all had some lovely sights, although they probably only needed a day at most each. In Lisbon we got the chance to meet up with Thuha, whom if you have been following closely, you will remember that we met almost a year ago to the day on Halloween back in Yangshuo, China. I went to watch Benfica in my first football match of these travels. Sintra, just 40 minutes from Lisbon, was a beautiful, brightly coloured little town with more palaces than you can shake a stick at (why would you shake a stick at a castle?).

And now we’re in Spain. A lovely little town called Merida, chock full of Roman ruins. It’s  amazing it isn’t more famous, really. Of course it chucked it down but in between the downpours we saw loads of cool ruins, took some photos and actually got down to our tshirts in the intermittent sunshine. Our room is still freezing, mind, (seriously Iberia, central heating is your friend!). We’re off to Seville tomorrow, where it will be warm, dry and beautiful. We’ll have tapas on terraces and sangria until we pop. It’s going to be epic. And if the rain follows us? Well, sangria coats it is.

 

*I bought a hot water bottle in Primark in Lisbon., don’t judge. If these countries won’t invest in central heating… also the desert in Morocco is going to be FREEZING.DSC_0056

 

Snapshot of the Week: A Whirlwind October – Part 1; Hopping Home

Once again, we have succumbed to lazy blogger syndrome. Last time I wrote anything was back in Santorini, Sadie was still reeling from her bed bug attack, there had been a small hurricane and we were off to Milos. Well since then we went to Milos, Naxos, Paros and Mykonos, flew home, went to a wedding and flew out to Portugal. It was pretty hectic but all in good fun.

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After her fourth bed bug attack, Sadie decides to end it all

Starting with the end of our time in Greece, I feel like it’s only fair to be more positive than I was last time out. Understandably given the bed bug-hurricane combination, we were a little down on Greece at the time, but it really did pick up. Milos was a dream of an island with insane beaches, although I did manage to crash our moped at approximately 3 miles per hour turning it round on a beach. It left a nasty cut and a bruise on my leg, but a much bigger one on my ego, having relied on Sadie to help lift the damn bike off me. Dignified it was not. Still, the bike hire people didn’t charge us anything for the scratches so we left Milos feeling quite chirpy.

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‘sup

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Our chirpiness was a little dented on the way to Naxos however, when the ferry company added a stop – and THREE HOURS – onto our onward journey all to pick up a local football team. Totally normal. This wouldn’t have mattered so much had the seas not been choppier than Edward Scissorhands, however we soldiered on (with many seasickness drugs) like the troopers we are. Naxos passed without much further incident, although I did stack the hire car into a massive pothole which cost us €40 in wheel damages. I think I was lucky to get away with that to be honest, but Christ knows how big the hole was and what the hell I was looking at to miss it… let’s not dwell on that. Still, two crashes in four days doesn’t look great does it? Oh well. Anyway, Naxos was lovely and the sunset was absolutely spectacular, although it was bloody cold thanks to the wind that was still hanging around post hurricane. I don’t know if it’s normally so windy in the Cyclades, but it was a definite feature of our time there. Probably pretty welcome in the middle of a scorching summer, mind.

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Our last stops were Paros and Mykonos. We essentially did nothing in Paros, having decided that tourism for the hell of it is just not our style any more. We went to a village because we heard it was “nice,” stayed for about 20 minutes and then got the next bus back. There was nothing wrong with the village, it was indeed “nice,” it was just that it wasn’t any different to any other village we’d seen over the previous few weeks. Consequently, we elected to spend the next day on the beach, because frankly it was gorgeous, and given that it was the middle of October, we probably wouldn’t be getting the chance to do so again any time soon. So it proved to be on Mykonos, where it was freezing. Myknonos is, incidentally, stunning. The queen of cutesy Greek towns. Sadly, like Santorini, its popularity has sapped its authenticity. If you’re looking for partying and beach clubs and don’t mind the heftier price tag, fair play – it is ideal. If you want something that “feels” more Greek, we’d 100% recommend the quieter islands. Anyway, we were only there for one night anyway to fly home the next day to our friends’ wedding.

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The wedding was amazing and a great chance to see a load of people we hadn’t seen since our own nuptials. We did feel like utter crap the next day however. It kickstarted a hectic week at home, sorting our lives out before turning round and flying out to Porto. I’ll put that in a different post – I think I’ve rambled on enough here.

Travel tip: If you’re looking for gorgeous beaches then Milos is your best best in the Cyclades. Cheaper than its more famed neighbours and pleasingly varied, it was our favourite island. We also found Paros to be a very easy and reasonable beach destination. However, if you are still looking longingly at iconic Santorini, then we’d suggest a couple of days there to brave the hordes and take in beautiful Oia and its famed sunsets, before heading to its tiny neighbour Folegandros for a few days of chill. We were denied this by the hurricane, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned?

Snapshot of the week: Acropalyctic

We’ve been in Greece for 9 days now, and at the risk of sounding slightly spoiled, they have been pretty hit and miss so far. While I appreciate nobody wants to read about how hard it is to be on the Greek islands while they are stuck in work, please indulge me for the next few hundred words and allow me to explain. As you will recall from our last post, we ended our otherwise lovely stay in Albania with Sadie being completely savaged by a horde of bed bugs. The bites were everywhere, and there were hundreds of them.

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A small selection… see?

Understandably, the prospect of an overnight bus from Gjirokastra to Athens did not fill either of us with joy, less still the bitten, itchy one of us. Our moods were further enhanced at the Greco-Albanian border, where a drunk tried to sneak onto the bus and into Greece. This would have been less of a problem had he not asked us to hide him and asked for one of our passports, thus implicating us in his crime. A good start then. The final act of indignation was upon our arrival in Athens. The bus was supposed to arrive at 6.30 but actually arrived just after 5am. It was at this point I realised that I hadn’t sorted out early access to our Airbnb, so we were stranded until lunchtime. Sadie was, understandably, cross. We decided to go get a hostel for the rest of the night, and got ripped off by a mean Athenian taxi driver in the process. All in all then, not the best of starts.

The next few days, to put it bluntly, were a write off. Sadie, still covered in itchy red sores and now feeling sick from the effects, didn’t really feel like going out. Consequently I spent the entirety of two days trekking back and forth to the laundry, washing and drying every item of fabric that we own to make damn sure we weren’t carrying any bed bugs with us. Aside from being a royal pain in the arse, this cost us a small fortune.

On our final day in the Greek capital we decided to venture out, only to be greeted by what is now known as a Medi-cane. This sounds like something Donald Trump would try and get repealed, but it is actually a portmanteau of two words that shouldn’t be anywhere bloody near each other, ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘hurricane.’ Apparently it is a rare phenomenon that happens about once a year in winter, so of course it blew into town when we were visiting. We soldiered on to the Acropolis anyway, only to get literally blown off our feet by the howling wind. The dust storm was apocalyptic (or Acropolytic – ha!). We had dust in our eyes, our hair, our clothes – it was grim and quickly put paid to our tour of ancient Athens. Frankly it was just the dusty icing on a shitty cake that had been the last few days. We trudged off to the airport late that night as we had a flight to Santorini at 5am.

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Notice the girls’ hair and the flag trying to escape its pole…

On arrival in Santorini, we weren’t particularly cheered. Santorini is one of those places that positively oozes romance. White villages with blue domed roofs, twisty narrow streets with donkeys clattering up them, azure seas turned fiery orange by a world-famous sunset. Dreamy, eh? Unfortunately, however, Santorini only looks good when the sun is shining, which thanks to the aforementioned Medi-cane, it was not. And the wind was still howling, so it wasn’t just dreary but actually surprisingly cold too. Oh yeah, and some dickhead (me) lost Sadie’s hoody during either the hostel stay or the tons of laundry, when it was a fairly important item of clothing.

Anyway, things took an upward turn from then on in. We got some sunshine, admittedly interspersed with a lot of cloud, and we trekked up to Oia to see the famous sunset. We got our spot early and sat for a few hours drinking Prosecco and making friends. The view was beautiful and everything was ready for a gorgeous sunset… until the clouds made an unwelcome return and ruined it, right at the money shot. Still it wasn’t just us who were disappointed, there were literally thousands of tourists in the tiny village, all waiting to see the orange ball drop into the sea. Gutted. Still a cracking view though.

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You can see those pesky clouds lurking

The next day we were supposed to be going to Folegandros, the polar opposite in terms of popularity in the Cyclades and a welcome change from the business of Santorini. Unfortunately, the Medi-cane ended this plan too as all boats were cancelled for a couple of days. We were stuck on Santorini for another two nights (someone fetch me a violin), before we took a ferry on to Milos where I am writing this. Milos feels a lot quieter and more up our street than Santorini. After a couple more islands and hopefully a bit of sun, we’re home in just over a week for a wedding. More likely we’ll get stranded by another hurricane. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Snapshot of the Week: Surpassing all expectations, a week in Albania

Last time we wrote a blog we were just leaving Montenegro with slightly mixed emotions. We’d been away a week or so and found Dubrovnik a beautiful tourist trap, Kotor absolutely stunning and Budva a little disappointing once you left its tiny old town. We were also a little nervous about heading to Albania, a country with a somewhat sketchy reputation. Spoiler alert: that reputation is entirely undeserved – we have absolutely loved it here.

From Budva we headed to Shkodër. Or Shkodra. Or Skadar. Or Scodra. Or Scutari. Basically, translating Albanian into English is more art than science. From now on I’ll stick with the first one because that’s what Wikipedia goes with on its title page. Shkodër is a decent size town of about 130,000, sitting in the shadow of the Accursed Mountains, which – no arguments – have the best name of anywhere we have visited thus far.* The mountains were why we were here – we had a hike planned. Shkodër would be our city base for a trek in the Theth National Park.

Our original plan was to to do what is now quite a well-established route from Valbona to Theth. However, getting to Valbona involved a few hours on a boat as well as a few hours on some twisty-ass roads, which would possibly have resulted in Sadie’s demise. So we decided to go straight to Theth and just do a hike from there – we’d still see the best scenery and we’d be able to take a bit more stuff with us (didn’t fancy leaving the laptop behind in the hostel anyway, to be honest), so it worked out nicely. Our only downfall – literally – was not having hiking boots or poles with us. To be honest, neither of us wanted to lug hiking boots around for a month and a half to use them on one day, so we thought we’d be fine in trainers and be done with it. Wrong. Much to our chagrin, the path up to the pass was in places steep enough to feel vertical and covered in extremely slippery scree. Accursed indeed. Our city trainers were not cut out for this kind of thing and both of us ended up on our respective arses. Sadie still has the bruises for her troubles. I’d love to post the pictures but it’s a bit NSFW for this blog, and I think she’d divorce me faster than you can say “bruises like a peach.”**

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Anyway, enough bitching. The views were absolutely mind-blowing – completely worth the bruised bottoms/pride. We took a million photos but none of them do it justice at all. It shot up both our lists as one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been to, and we maybe had to share the entire national park with 50 other people. I’d advise going there now, because when they get their road network fixed it is going to absolutely explode. We’d also suggest doing the traditional route if you want to see the lake, which did look beautiful, but if you want a base Theth is fantastic.

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From Theth we went back to Shkodër and on to Berat, home to distinctive Ottoman-style architecture and one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world. It is also a UNESCO protected site, which is fully justified, even if UNESCO do seem to be giving it away these days, the sluts.

It was beautiful, quaint, quiet on the tourist front and had some of the best, cheapest grub we’ve had on all our travels.

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We are currently in Gjirokaster, another beautifully unspoiled Ottoman-style UNESCO city (SEE?!) and Mark just walked in the door, with fried chicken and a free beer from the takeaway owner who speaks 5 languages fluently. It says it all really.

In summary, get your arses here before this country gets the attention it justly deserves, but don’t tell too many people yeah?

 

* Although I have just remembered Deadman’s Cay in the Bahamas. Call it a tie.

**Sadie: In a way I kind of want to share it too, to justify my whining at the time, but frankly it isn’t my best angle.

 

Post-script
It appears we spoke a bit too soon. Albania, up until writing this blog had been flawless. Alas, on our last night in the country, the bed bug curse struck again – this time with an absolute vengeance. For those of you keeping track, this is the FOURTH time this has happened to Sadie. She has been absolutely, utterly and totally savaged by the little bastards – we counted about 200 bites before we gave up. It is important to point out however that this isn’t a “dirty old Albania” thing. Last time it happened was in arguably our poshest digs of the entire trip, in Kuala Lumpur, and they are frighteningly common in the USA. Essentially it can happen anywhere – it was just a shame that they had to spoil our final day in a wonderful country! We still hope to return for a trip to Albania’s gorgeous coast one day. Until then though, we’ll be checking the mattresses a bit more carefully…

 

 

 

Snapshot of the week: Croatia and Montenegro

It’s been a while. It’s not even like we’ve just been sat at home on our backsides doing jackity boo. Since last time we wrote a proper one of these we came home, got jobs, planned a wedding, left our jobs, got married, drove around Europe, came home and went on tour again. That blog was really hard to write, frankly, so I decided to skip over it and write about the last week or so instead. Actually, I never really tried with the last one. As Homer once said, trying is the first step towards failure.

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We got married!

Anyway, flash forward from last time and it’s now September. The heatwave is long gone, the Beast from the East a mere snowy memory. Everyone is back to school, the holidays are over and dickheads are already posting on Facebook about how many “sleeps” it is until Christmas. Those people can get to fuck, frankly, you’re 29 for Christ’s sake. But I digress.

We, on the other hand, are in the sunny Balkans. We flew into Dubrovnik, aka King’s Landing, and spent a few days there being touristy as hell without letting our wallets be too badly brutalised. (There is a witticism in here somewhere about Lannisters paying their debts but I’m too stupid to think of it, answers in the comments please). Dubrovnik is bloody beautiful but goodness me they know how to rip tourists off. The city walls, about 2km long, were £20 – each – to walk on. This time last year they were £15, this time 4 years ago they were free. Apparently it’s a result of the mammoth amount of cruise ships they receive. During high season there are at least 6 cruises a week into the city, meaning 2000 extra people each day flood into the tiny little old town, and since they don’t eat in the restaurants or stay in the hotels, the powers that be decided that the best way to make money from these tourists was to charge a large fee for the one thing that every visitor to Dubrovnik wants to do.

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Still, the weather was absolutely glorious and we met some lovely people. We shared a taxi from the airport with a couple, Richard and Philip, as our flight was delayed and we missed the last bus. Another brief digression – Luton airport is absolutely fucking grim. I reckon I’ve been to over 100 airports worldwide now and Luton is up there with the very worst (JFK or Nairobi, since you asked). Well, this turned out to be a stroke of luck as they recommended a tour for us to do – an obligatory Game of Thrones walking tour with a bit of history thrown in for good measure. We geeked out for a bit and spent the afternoon in the bar with our new friends, which is up there with my favourite ways to spend a day.

 

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“It will be quiet at night,” they said…

Too soon it was time to leave Dubrovnik and head to a new country (yay!), Montenegro. The bus down was predictably shit – overpriced, slow, late, and with customer service learned from a concentration camp, but it got us to Kotor safe and sound. One thing we swiftly learned from Montenegro was that our phones didn’t work, at all. This was a shock to the system to us, now so used to our data being included in EU countries. It really makes travel so much easier – no maps, no printouts, no payphones, no need to be organised essentially. As we arrived nearly 2 hours late our pre-arranged lift was not still there waiting for us, but luckily the bus station staff were kind enough to let me use their phone and call our guy. He came and picked us up and we cracked on with Kotor. Set in what looks like a fjord but Wikipedia reliably informs me is not, the Bay of Kotor is ridiculously beautiful. I don’t know what they put in the Adriatic water but it is somehow bluer than seas elsewhere. Surround that with dramatic cliffs, picturesque villages and crystal clear skies and you have a heck of a holiday destination.

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I’m writing this from Budva, half an hour down the coast towards the Albanian border. Budva is a gorgeous old town surrounded by a bit of a “meh” town. It feels a bit like Eastern European Benidorm. The old town however is bloody adorable. Our next stop is Albania, which is a little different to say the least. It will be fun to hit another new country and have some new challenges along the way. Bet our phones don’t work there either, though.

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We’re back!

 

 

Snapshot of the Trip: Coming Home Again

1 year, 4 months and 9 days. 71 weeks to the day after setting off for Mexico, in considerably worse shape and more than considerably worse off, we’re coming home again. Yes, we have been back in the meantime, but this time is different. It’s different because we don’t know what is coming next.

Reaching the end of a mammoth trip like this is strange. It’s like the end of a relationship in a way, but one where the travel has dumped us and not the other way around. There’s a lot of sadness that it’s over and reflections on the stuff we could have done differently, rather than remembering all the brilliant times we had. Lots of “shoulda woulda coulda,” and very little in the way of acceptance that maybe this is the best thing for us, simply because we want it back.

The latter stages of such a long adventure have been so different to the backpacking we had done previously. We found a second home in New Zealand, a place that thanks to the generosity and the welcome of friends, found a place in our hearts like no other. On a practical note, we had a car of our own, a bedroom, a place to put our clothes, a local shop, all the things that we didn’t know we would miss before we left. It made it gut-wrenching to leave, but thankfully we next headed to Australia where once again we were made so welcome by our friends. In Sydney we stayed with an old friend Kate, someone who both Sadie and I have known since we were children. It was like staying with family, and softened the blow of leaving NZ somewhat. Our next stops were Brisbane and Melbourne, and we stayed with friends who we had met back in our very first stop, Mexico. Having only known them all for short periods of time, we didn’t know what to expect too much, but their hospitality absolutely blew us away. Our “travel friends” will be friends for life, of that I am certain. They showed us kindness that I can only hope we will repay one day if they ever find themselves in our hemisphere.

The flip side of this wonderful experience was that it made us feel very much at home. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing – and it isn’t – but we felt like we were living in a place, not visiting. It took all the urgency out of us and that, coupled with what by now is quite apparent travel burn-out, we struggled to motivate ourselves to go and be tourists. We were happy simply to see our friends and do what they would do on a weekend, something which I think may have surprised our hosts, who would have wanted to show off their incredible cities. Burn-out affects lots of long-term travellers. When you become apathetic to the amazing things you are seeing in front of you, and to not be grateful for the opportunity you’re currently experiencing, it’s time that relationship comes to an end. It’s time to go home.

To exemplify my point, I am writing this in Dubai. Our friends Lauren and James have put us up in their lovely apartment and they want to show us the city. Unfortunately, Sadie is unwell and the weather hasn’t been on our side, but we are just as happy merely existing, going to the mall and watching films, as we would be exploring the cool stuff on our doorstep. It’s laziness, induced by the feeling that maybe we’ve seen everything, or at least enough, already. And to be honest, that makes me feel guilty as hell, like a spoiled, prissy, first-world-problem-burdened little shit, and adds to the teetering “shoulda woulda coulda” pile to boot.

Such is the contradiction we are both feeling. We know it’s time to go home, but we don’t want to. We want to travel more, see more awesome things, eat more exotic food, meet more incredible people. But we both know that if we carry on we aren’t going to appreciate these things. We need a dose of reality to make us realise quite how fortunate we have been.

This time however, the reality is tinged with uncertainty and contradiction. We want to keep travelling but need to go home. We need some structure but don’t know for how long. We need to save some money but we can’t move back into our own house. We’ve got a wedding coming up in August, but what after? Maybe a trip to Eastern Europe or Asia, maybe work for a month or two more. We’re honestly not sure right now, which is both as liberating as it is terrifying.

For now, it’s time to say goodbye to the road. As George Moore once said, a man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it. We have had, make no mistake about it, a fucking unreal adventure. We’ve seen things we never thought we’d see, done things we never thought we’d do. We’ve met incredible people and made friends for life. We’ve been to 31 countries on 5 continents, covered hundreds of thousands if not millions of miles and spent enough money that it makes me cry if I think about it too much. We made mistakes, we were too ambitious at times, not ambitious enough at others. We spent far too much money. Had too much structure and pre-booked too much. We slept on airport floors, got savaged by bedbugs. We burnt, we froze, we got stuck at borders, we got stranded in the middle of nowhere, got lost, got robbed, got sick and fell out (a lot). And you know what? I wouldn’t change it for the world.

We’re coming home. I think we found what we were looking for, I’m just not quite sure what it was yet. I’ll let you know when I do.
P.S from Sadie: As much as I wish I could tell you I’ve changed for the better, that these experiences have enriched me or taught me something deep about myself, I can’t. From the age of 18 and my first big trip abroad, I have treasured travel. Nothing challenges me quite the same way, and I can’t stress how important I think it is to see as much of this beautiful world as possible, with its varied cultures, people and privilege. I never dreamed to see so much of it in a lifetime, and as clichéd as it is, I feel so damn blessed to. I also feel a little sad, that I can never experience so much afresh again, which is one of the many reasons it is time to take a break. I feel very lucky to have met the people I have, and experience such generosity from so many.

 My lasting feeling though, is how lucky I am to have every spent every beautiful, frustrating and tiring day with the man I am going to marry. My parents worked their asses off, waiting for the weekend, for holidays, for retirement, for some proper time to spend together. Unfortunately, my father died at the age of 56 and left my dear mother to experience that well-earned freedom alone. This whole trip kinda started because I didn’t want to take that same gamble, to wait for our lives to start. Thank goodness I didn’t, and thank you Mark, for looking after me, loving me, and most of all, joining me on this crazy adventure. It’s been a blast.

Some of our highlights…