Snapshot of the Week: Catching Up (Part II: Korea)

Korea was a story of friends and foes for us. We started out in Seoul and popping up to see the friendly neighbours to the North, then headed South and South again to visit some friends from University, now all teachers in Daejeon and Busan.

First though, the North. We decided to take a tour of the Demilitarised Zone (The DMZ, pronounced “zee” thanks to its American administration) and of the Joint Security Area, where soldiers of the two nations meet face to face. On the way, we visited the northernmost station in South Korea, constructed in the early 2000s in the hope that trains between the two countries could start running between the two and starting the extremely long slog towards unification. This happened with some success for a few years until North Korean soldiers shot dead a southern visitor when she strayed off her permitted path. After this incident, the border was slammed shut again. With this anecdote fresh in our minds, it was onto the frontier.

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The train station.

Before embarking on a bus to the border itself, we were asked to sign a disclaimer which explained that the United Nations were not responsible for your death in the event of an unexpected act of aggression from the North. It was one of many stark reminders that the two Koreas are still technically at war, having only signed an armistice – never a peace treaty – after the war in the 1950s which left millions dead in its wake. We were allowed into the conference room which straddles the border where the armistice was signed, meaning we technically strolled into North Korea by about 4 yards (still counts). We saw North Korean soldiers standing stoically staring at us, but we were under orders not to wave. This was very tempting for reasons I can’t entirely explain, but I was keen not to spark a diplomatic incident. Speaking of which, only 2 days after our visit, a North Korean soldier defected to the South across the JSA, getting shot 40 times in the process. Miraculously, at the time of writing, he is still alive. Another reminder, if we needed it, that these two nations are at an incredibly tense moment in their already tragic histories. We can count ourselves lucky that we have such stable world leaders at this time.

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South Korean soldiers facing North. They do this 24/7.
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The border. We are technically in North Korea taking this photo.

We left Seoul the following day to reunite with Anna and Sean, who were kindly putting us up in Daejeon, two hours south of Seoul. We spent our first night getting stupendously drunk and doing Korean karaoke, which is like normal karaoke but you have a room to yourselves. Shitfaced as we were, it was hilarious, but we certainly paid for it the next day, especially Anna. A takeaway McDonalds (the shame) and a crisp, country walk later and we were back in the game, ready for Korean fried chicken, which is utterly filthy fayre. Our last day as a four was spent in Jeong-Ju, a traditional small town packed with tourists, where Sadie got to fulfil a childhood dream of being a princess, for an hour at least. The town was beautiful and in the throes of autumn, again to Sadie’s delight. It was a great end to a really fun few days, and we were really sad to leave.

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Country strolling the hangover away. Note the water, and lack of a (bedridden) Anna.
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Boom, autumn.
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Princess Sadie in Korean traditional dress.

Next stop, Busan, Korea’s second city where Alice was next up to host us. She promptly took us for Korean BBQ and beers, so we felt straight at home there. Busan is a really cool little city (well there’s nearly 4 million people there so it isn’t exactly little…), full of character and charm. It is one of the very few Korean cities that wasn’t almost entirely decimated in the war, as the Northern forces didn’t quite make it into the city during their eventually failed invasion. There is everything from stunning temples to hillside villages to gleaming metropolitan skylines – it really had everything. The only downside was Alice contracting full blown man-flu while we were visiting, which I am pretty sure we were responsible for. Still, she was the most obliging host.

We are so lucky to have such great friends dotted all over the globe who are happy to offer us their beds and sofas (although admittedly we sometimes don’t give them much choice). If it wasn’t for them, our travels would be so much less of a rewarding experience and from time to time we have to remind ourselves of that. If any of you kind folks are reading this – thank you for putting up with us.

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Busan old…
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… and new.

After Busan we headed back to Seoul for a few days to have a little explore, then flew on to Tokyo, where I’m writing this. Japan will have to wait for next time, whenever we get round to it.  Let’s face it, it will be more than a week.

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Seoul’s answer to Beijing’s Forbidden City: Gyeongbok Palace.
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Snapshot of the Week: Catching Up (Part I: Hong Kong)

Why I even use the word “week” in the titles of these blogs any more I simply don’t know. The fact is we are either too busy or too lazy to write them that frequently and, let’s be honest here, we aren’t actually that interesting. That said, our last blog was three weeks ago and we haven’t bloody stopped since then, so here’s one half of what we’ve done in the meantime.

Our parting note from the last blog was our excitement about entering Hong Kong. We’d had useless and restricted internet for three weeks in China, and we were a little tired of being not far off completely unable to communicate due to the language barrier. Due to Hong Kong’s recent British past, neither of these would present much of an issue once we had left the mainland. Firstly though, we had to get there, which proved more stressful than it should have done thanks to China’s notoriously punctual bullet train network losing its notorious punctuality for a few hours. Still, late at night we pulled into the Pearl of the Orient, dishevelled but relieved. Incidentally, I’m pretty sure nobody calls it the Pearl of the Orient any more.

Our first impressions of HK (I’m a lazy typist) were, frankly, not good. Our Airbnb was in a gritty (read: shite) area of Kowloon and the stairwell up to our apartment was straight outta Trainspotting. Our room had no window. We were paying a small fortune for the privilege of this, which was a serious shock to the system after cheapo-China. It’s safe to say we weren’t exactly enamoured.

The next day we had earmarked to go and visit Jen, a schoolfriend of Sadie’s on Lamma Island. Lamma is not what you think of when you hear the name Hong Kong. Instead of glittering skyscrapers there are one- and two-storey buildings. Where you imagine eight-lane superhighways there are narrow streets with no cars (save the adorably tiny emergency service vehicles). Rather than the vast, busy harbour, there are white, sandy beaches. HK is in the tropics, after all. We spent a lovely afternoon catching up, drinking coffee and making sushi, and once Jen’s hangover had disappeared, cracked open the wine. On the ferry home, HK was enamouring itself to us somewhat more.

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The view from The Peak.
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We ruin the view.
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HK looks better at night.

It continued the next day. We explored HK’s crazy markets and visited the famous Victoria Peak (just “The Peak” now they’ve thrown off the shackles of colonialism, the ungrateful swines). We met a lovely Canadian lecturer called Deb on the way and, despite getting somewhat lost, spent an evening taking a million photos of HK’s incredible skyline. We rounded off the evening walking back home with my school and uni friend Matt, now a HK resident, drinking convenience store beers and eating dim sum. The weather and smog tried their damndest to spoil our last day, but we saw Jen again at the harbour at what has to be one of the finest night-time drinking spots in the entire world. We left the following morning, sad to be saying goodbye but with Jen’s insistence that we return and stay with her still ringing in our ears. We plan on honouring our promise.

Find Part II here.

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Smoggy Mc Smog Face
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But when it clears… wow.

 

Snapshot of the Week: China

As a child, I was obsessed with China. I adored everything about it – the elegant women with their powdered faces, the beautiful countryside and it’s pointy-hatted farmers, the palaces and temples, the legends of warriors and dragons, the emperor’s with cracking beards. Basically, I loved the simplistic, imperial China I’d seen in the Disney classic Mulan. Wear silk gowns all day and have a pet talking dragon? Yes please.

Then, in February 2014 I finally visited my land of dreams…and didn’t particularly like it.

Mark and I had spent one way-too-brief week in Suzhou and Shanghai visiting a good friend who was teaching for the British council. Despite a happy reunion, some great food and our hosts ever-impressive tour guiding talents, our impressions weren’t glowing.  It was grey. And noisy. Everyone smoked, everywhere. There were too many people and too much rubbish. People dropped food on the floor in restaurants, and shouted at each other constantly, Cars wouldn’t stop beeping, and the biggie: thanks to the overwhelming pollution, you couldn’t even see the sky. Coming from the idyllic beaches of the Philippines to Shanghai was like getting slapped in the face with a dirty towel. For someone who is slowly sliding down the OCD scale and at the time worked for a book publishers who specialised in sustainability, China outright upset me.

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Look how young we were… and how awful the quality of that photo is.

 

I wasn’t alone, Mark didn’t rate it much either. Which is why, when I suggested about a year ago that I wanted to give China a good and proper chance, he balked. But a few convincing arguments about the merits of not judging a very large book on one tiny page, and a couple of photos of the Great Wall and some nice National Parks, and he was in too.

After spending the last 3 weeks in China, I can honestly say, thank fuck we did come back. Because, China – messy, dirty, frustrating, noisy, capitalistic and communist (baffling, really) China – was worth it. I can’t pretend I’m on board with everything (for one, their smoke-filled trains are full-on disgusting) and I certainly couldn’t live here, but we’ve had a cracking time, and, thanks to our insanely overpriced 2 year multi-entry visa* we’re definitely coming back again.

Now, I’m sure if you’ve bothered opening my self-indulgent prattle you probably want to know what we’ve actually done here. So as a very brief overview, here goes:

 
Beijing
We did: Hung out and got drunk with Mark’s brilliant old school chum, James. Visited the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, The Bird’s Nest, Great Wall of China, Jingshan Park. Walked a ton and ate a lot of great cheap grub.

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A wall, that is great, found in China.

We thought: Really enjoyed our 6 days in Beijing, hated our overpriced and somewhat damp Airbnb. James was a cracking host and we had a couple of days of perfect weather to see the Forbidden City and the Great Wall – the latter of which was very deserving of it’s bucket list status. Found Beijing very affordable and accessible, though our first introduction to trying to order off a Chinese menu was borderline traumatic. (Luckily it was all super tasty and didn’t resemble dog one bit). When we were there the Communist Party Conference was in full swing, which was both positive (a lot of factories were closed for the week so pollution was much lower than usual) and negative (crazy amounts of security – we couldn’t even get in to Tiananmen square, and all the bars had been closed for the week). Coming from an – at least allegedly – very liberal country like the UK, into prime Commy stomping ground was a little bit of a shock though.

 

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Beijing can be surprisingly pretty.
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When in Rome…

Chengdu
We did: Visited Quinchengshan Mountain and the famous Panda Sanctuary. Walked a lot and killed our stomachs with spicy Sichuan food.

We thought: We really, really liked Chengdu. For a city that makes basically every Chinese holiday itinerary, it was surprisingly unspoilt by tourists. Our hostel was almost half the price of our Beijing Airbnb and absolutely beautiful, the food here was the best and cheapest we’ve found, and the Panda Sanctuary and day trip we made to Quinchengshan Mountain were both super affordable and great fun. We could barely deal with the cuteness of the baby pandas. Smaller and much easier to navigate than Beijing, Chengdu felt very liveable.

 

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The baby panda cuteness broke Sadie.
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Alright, mate?

Xi’an
We did: Only spent 2 days here and came solely for the Terracotta Army and the history of this ancient city.

We thought: Honestly, the Terracotta Army was a little overrated and a lot overpriced. Coming from lovely cheap Chengdu to a city getting its teeth well into exploiting the millions of tourists who visit every year was an unpleasant shock to the system. Everything in Xi’an cost more than anywhere else. A pagoda in the middle of a busy roundabout called the Bell Tower – nice but really nothing amazing – cost more than the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Terracotta Army, very overcrowded and slightly underwhelming, cost more than the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Panda Sanctuary combined. Essentially, our two days in Xi’an were very expensive, but we would have felt something amiss if we didn’t see the famous Warriors on our tour of China.

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Standing in line to / See the show tonight/ And there’s a light on / Heavy glow…

 

Yangshuo
We did: River cruising, partying, motorbiking, swimming and enjoying the ludicrously beautiful countryside.

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Bamboo boating on the Yulong river.

We thought: One of our favourite places we’ve been to on our entire trip, but one we most likely will never return to again. Yangshuo is becoming unbelievably popular, largely with Chinese tourists, and is on the tipping point or being ruined by it’s own success. If we thought Xi’an was expensive, Yangshuo is a bit of a piss-take. If we’d visited even two years ago, prices were literally ten-fold cheaper, according to blog posts from the time.

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‘Sup.

 

In spite of all of this though, Yangshuo has captured our hearts. It is breathtakingly pretty and in the Autumn it harbour a near-perfect climate. A bamboo boat cruise down the Yulong river was a highlight, and a motorbike adventure to the mountains through the weirdly Mediterranean-looking countryside was stunning, if a little scary to contend with Chinese driving. If you’re planning a Chinese adventure, get your arse there now, or better yet, get it there five years ago.

 

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Li River, the money shot.

We’re leaving for Hong Kong on Saturday. Part China, part independent and a weird cross between British and Cantonese, not to mention unrestricted internet access! We cannot wait.

 

*Be warned – Brits can now only choose this £180 option. Thanks China, you big meanies.

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Snapshot of the Week: Rushing through Russia

It’s safe to say that Russia does not have the best reputation internationally. Barely a day goes by without some scary story out of the Kremlin: an election rigging here, a corruption scandal there, a political assassination the other way. Nearly every documentary you see about the country involves the journalist being harangued by the police at some point, regardless of whether they are attempting to show Russia in a positive light or not. With Anglo-Russian relations at something of a low point, and given the painstakingly difficult process to get a Russian visa in the UK, you can imagine our nerves before our border crossing into the world’s biggest country.

Just to get this far had been, frankly, a pain in the arse. Due to the aforementioned geopolitical shenanigans between our two respective nations, each country has seen fit to punish the inhabitants of the other by making international travel between the two as difficult as possible. Consequently, to get a Russian Visa, we were require to fill in a stack of paperwork dozens of pages long (each), get a letter of invitation from a travel company, get new passport photos (in Sadie’s case a new passport because hers was full), declare all our social media profiles and assure the Kremlin that we had not ever, nor had any intention of overthrowing the Russian government or doubting the sovereign integrity of its territory. The paperwork also required us to list every country we have been to in the last decade, including when and why, which as you can imagine for full-time wanderers, took a while. Lastly, we had to go to bloody London to give our fingerprints and retina scans, which actually cost us more than our bus into Russia itself.

Anyway, I digress, but you can imagine how welcome we felt as we rocked up to the border. Our bus from Helsinki was full of Russians, all of whom seemed to know how to “do” the border, and they pointed us in vaguely the right direction. Eventually, with a bit of a scowl, they let us in. Success!

Our first stop was St Petersburg, Russia’s most popular tourist city. Within moments of arriving in the centre, we could see why – it was stunning. St Pete’s was designed by the Tsars over the centuries to impress upon people the grandeur of Russia, and it worked. For whatever reason, St Pete’s also escaped the ravages of the two great scourges of Russian architecture: war and Stalinism. Either that or after it was destroyed by the Nazis they painstakingly rebuilt it. Still – beautiful city. We spent days just wandering around the place soaking it in (literally – it rained every day). We went to the Winter Palace, an insanely opulent former Imperial residence, so full of gold and priceless artefacts that it made you realise why the Russians overthrew their royal family a century ago. We met an old friend for breakfast and made a new friend over drinks. We went to see a ballet (when in Rome) which I’m pretty sure was aimed at children, but never mind. All in all it was just a brilliant place.

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The Winter Palace
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Night streets
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Celebrating a break in the rain
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Palace Square

An overnight train later and we found ourselves in Yaroslavl, self-proclaimed capital of the so-called Golden Ring – preserved Russian towns which are essentially open air museums to Russia’s past. Yaroslavl was absolutely full of beautiful churches, to an almost ridiculous extent, and all of them were adorned with the famous “onion domes” which make them so unique. We really enjoyed walking around the town and probably would have done even more so, had it not been for the incessant rain that was becoming more and more a feature of our Russian experience.

Next stop: Moscow. We’d planned the last leg of our stay so we had a night in Moscow, then a one day trip to Vladimir, another Golden Ring town, then back to Moscow for a couple more nights before leaving. On reflection it was a bit thick, because it severely limited our time in Moscow itself, cost a pretty penny to visit, and was (quelle surprise) a bit of a washout. It was frustrating because you could tell the town was beautiful, just underneath a thick blanket of fog and drizzle. We also tried Russian wine there, which was sadly terrible. We headed back to Moscow, damp and praying that our last few days would be drier.

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I’d had enough of the weather

They weren’t. We really tried to make the best of Moscow but the rain finally got the better of us. We spent a night at the opera at the iconic Bolshoi Theatre, which was a heck of an experience. We saw the Red Square, the Kremlin and its most famous sites, and spent a freezing afternoon at a colossal souvenir market, but it simply would not stop raining and there is only so much sightseeing you can do when you’re piss wet through and shivering. We got our taxi to the airport a little sad that we hadn’t made the most of Moscow, knowing how hard it is to get in the country that we likely will not be returning to for a while, if ever.

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The stunning St Basil’s Cathedral by day…
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…and by night

I’m writing this from Beijing, jet lagged and somewhat irritable due to the annoying-as-hell great firewall of China. This basically means you can’t use Google (and therefore Maps, Translate, Chrome, the Play Store, YouTube), Facebook (and obviously therefore Instagram, to Sadie’s dismay), Twitter (wtf?) and a whole host of other things. You can’t even get on Pinterest for fuck’s sake. I mean really, who is going to bring down the government with a mood board? Anyway, more on that next time. If they don’t block the post, that is.

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A night at the opera

 

 

 

Snapshot of the Week: Finnish Friends and Ballin’ in Tallin

We’re back! Aren’t you glad? Haven’t you missed our self-congratulatory yet somehow self-pitying rants, observations and witticisms? No, obviously you haven’t, because a) it’s only been like 3 months and b) we only have like 50 followers, which is depressing. Hell, never mind, onwards and upwards.

So after a long, wet English summer, taking in two weddings, an engagement party, a funeral and two broken bones (Mark fell off his giant friend’s shoulders at our engagement party, utterly shitfaced, the dick), we packed up and left the UK again. This time, however, we weren’t heading for perpetual summer as we usually do. We were heading north to Finland to reconvene with our friends whom we had last bumped into, also shitfaced, in San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, way back in November last year. You know when people say “Yeah you have to come visit us!”? But you both know it will never happen? Well, we aren’t really the type for missing an opportunity to visit chums in foreign lands (complete with free digs), so 10 months later we rocked up at Helsinki airport to be greeted by Karoliina and Juha, our incredibly welcoming and obliging hosts.

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Finnish Friends!

Helsinki is a lovely little unassuming city. Despite being hampered by fairly shocking Baltic weather for over half the time we have spent here, we’ve really enjoyed our brief stay. We’ve also managed to do some really Finnish things – we went to a herring festival, as you do, we went to a sauna, jumped in a lake which was about 7°C and ate reindeer.

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We swam in this bad boy (briefly).

As an added bonus we spent a day in Tallinn, Estonia’s pretty little capital, courtesy of a bargainous €10 return ferry. We were a little surprised at how hipster Tallinn was outside the Old Town’s walls, but pleasantly so. The old town is as pretty as you would expect for a historic European capital, which thankfully escaped the ravages of the Soviet era’s architectural policy, if you can call it that. We rounded off our day in the most oddly-decorated bar possibly in the entire world. I can’t even begin to explain it, but there was one room decorated in foil and another with headless dolls dangling from a chandelier. Think a Salvador Dali-inspired acid trip meets 60-Minute Makeover and you probably won’t be far wrong.

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Look at that mental room.

We leave tomorrow for Russia, feeling a pretty familiar combination of excitement and apprehension. Russia is the first place we have been to where we can’t even read the alphabet and we can’t really expect any of the locals to understand a word of the Queen’s. We’ve also heard slightly unsettling whispers of the fun that can be had with corrupt Russian officials and incredibly tedious border crossings. Still, should be fun!

The Americas: Number Crunching

So here we are in Gatwick Airport (delayed, obviously, it seems appropriate really), and we have bid a sad farewell to the Americas. Since we last did a blog we celebrated America’s Independence from the nasty Brits on 4th July at a kindly strangers rooftop party, got stuck on a bus for what seemed like eternity on the way to Washington DC, further celebrated America’s Independence from the British in Boston with an old friend and did a lot of New Yorky things in New York.

The last 6 months have been, in no particular order: challenging, scary, tiring, fun, eye-opening, leisurely, cultural, beautiful and pretty damn amazing. There have been ups and downs, a lot more work than we anticipated but just as many rewards. We’ve met so many wonderful and generous people who we owe so much to, and cannot thank enough. We can’t quite believe that it was 9 months ago we quit our jobs and went on this trip, but thank goodness we did. It felt right, being on the road, just as it feels right to be heading back to the UK for the summer. We might get itchy feet, but right now they’re pointed towards home.

To try and sum it all up would be impossible, and frankly, very boring for you to read. So below is our last 6 months in numbers:

186
 Days (4464 hours, 267840 minutes, 16070400 seconds).

£19,375 spent (ouch). Inc of all flights, shopping and daily spends. This works out as….

£95 spent on average per day, for both of us. The complete cost per country can be found here

12 Countries
3 Continents
2 Hemispheres
20 US States
6 Timezones

55 beds
28 Flights
11 Overnight buses
2 Airport overnighters

1 Case of food poisoning (both of us)
1 Root Canal
1 Road trip
1 Booked wedding 🙂
6 Visits from/to friends & family
2 Multi-day hikes which both ended in torrential rain
We’d also like to sign this off with a massive thank you to so many people. Firstly and of course most importantly, thank you to you for reading our rambles. Then thanks to everyone we’ve met along the way: our friends and our families who gave us a bed and a roof over our heads, all our Airbnb hosts, hostel owners and all the random strangers who have pointed us in the right direction, invited us to parties, helped us with our bags and all the random acts of kindness that go unmentioned but not unappreciated. It’s been a hell of a trip and we couldn’t – and wouldn’t – have done it without you. We won’t be boring you for a  short while as we try to undo the financial damages of the last 8 months, but we’re back on the road in the autumn and we’ll post more of our self-indulgent babbling then.

We can’t wait.

Mark and Sadie x19601300_10154889832904075_325640112210836640_n

Snapshot of the Week: Kings (and Queen) in the North

Where were we? Right, San Francisco. Since then we’ve been north of the border and back again, met up with friends old and new, said goodbye to Steve and drank far, far too much.

So we left San Francisco a little sad. It was possibly our favourite city so far, absolutely full of charm and packed with stuff to see and do. We took an early morning flight to Vancouver, only slightly complicated by the fact that none of us were aware that we needed a visa to get into Canada now (rude). Luckily we were able to do it over wifi in the airport and we were all, to our immense relief, granted one instantly. We arrived in Vancouver to be greeted by absolutely beautiful blue skies – the first of the year according to the locals – and a view out to snow-capped mountains beyond. We were going to like it here.

Our first full day in Van City was spent with Mark’s best friend’s parents who just happened to be in the city at the same time as us (stalkers). We wandered, ate a lot (who knew the Canadians could do good chippy?) and had some great beer. It really was a lovely introduction to a fantastic city.

We were in Vancouver, among other reasons, to reunite with an old friend, Luke. He volunteered to be our tour guide for a few days and did a brilliant job. He took us to the surrounding mountains, to Whistler, to beautiful waterfalls and stunning viewpoints. He also claimed to be a “rubbish” guide, which was utter bollocks. We had a blast in Vancouver and our 6 days there absolutely flew by, again it was difficult to leave. It also meant saying goodbye to Steve, who has been our companion these last few weeks. He was London-bound while we were heading back to the USA.

Chicago was our next stop. It was only a very short one, as we had arranged to meet up with Josh again in Nashville and someone (Mark) got the dates wrong, so we had 2 and a half days to blast through the Windy City, so blast we did. We had a Chicago tick list of pizza, architecture and blues, all of which we accomplished with aplomb. A particular highlight was a night spent at a blues club, where the bands played amazing music all night, with the added bonus of being free since we had student cards with us.

There was actually only one downside to Chicago, which was our neighbourhood. We stayed in a place called Garfield Park, which is one of the most dangerous ‘hoods in one of the most dangerous cities in America. There were constant drunk and cracked up people on the street, crime was rampant and sirens wailed non-stop. While we were there, there was a fatal shooting one street away. Dead bodies turn up in the park frequently. Honestly, after dark it was pretty damn terrifying. We did not know this before we stayed (obviously) and would have avoided the area like the plague otherwise. Luckily, other than some kids throwing fireworks near us (at us?), nothing bad happened and we were able to take our night bus to Nashville unscathed.

We are now in Nashvile, Music City USA. We’ll write about this next time, once our livers have recovered from the experience.

Snapshot of the Week(s): Drivin’ USA

We haven’t written anything for a good while now. We haven’t just been lazy bums, we have been stupid busy since we left the Bahamas just over two weeks ago. We’ve been to seven states, three National Parks, driven 2316 miles (I counted) and had nowhere near enough sleep. You can see our Lego selves in our first stop, New Orleans, in the famous Jackson Square.

It all started back in Florida, where we spent our first night in the US of A sleeping on a bench in Fort Lauderdale airport. As far as airport sleeps go it wasn’t actually too bad, but it was hardly a glamorous introduction to our US adventure. From there we took an early flight to New Orleans where our tour could start in earnest.

NOLA was everything we hoped it would be. It’s very difficult to portray the feeling in the city without resorting to cliché, but the best word I can think of for the place is that it’s fun. The famous French Quarter positively buzzes with live music; jazz and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, street performers and artists decorate every corner and smells from the incredible Cajun and Creole cookery are almost as intoxicating as the liberal amounts of alcohol flowing day and night down Bourbon Street. We spent pretty much all our days wandering the streets, dodging the baking heat as much as possible and avoiding the occasional torrential downpour. We took a cookery class, did a graveyard tour and did a late night bar crawl, taking in the full range of opportunities the Big Easy has to offer. We were sad to leave when we ran out of time there, but we had a Steve to pick up in Vegas.

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St Louis Cathedral.
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Bourbon Street.
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A rather revolting “hand grenade.”

When we arrived in Vegas things got a little interesting.  Steve arrived, quite a bit little later than planned but otherwise in good health, but his bag (which included some clothes of ours also) had not made the connection. Luckily the nice chap at JetBlue customer services assured Steve that his bag would be on its way to our accommodation the next day. Reassured, but no less tired, we made the 3-hour journey to our lodge in Utah which neighboured Bryce National Park, arriving at a solid 4am. Although we had kept the lodge posted on the delay, it seems sleep had overcame them, resulting in some very ungainly banging and shouting on our parts. We managed to wake the poor owners and get a solid 3 hours’ sleep. The most frustrating part? Mark and I had booked the more expensive flight, so we arrived at a similar time to Steve and with plenty of wiggle room to get to the lodge at a reasonable hour. OH THE IRONY.

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Wow.

The next day revealed two things to us – 1) even with minimal sleep Bryce is an absolutely stunning destination, and we had a cracking day. 2) Steve’s bag wouldn’t be joining us in Utah that day. Or the next day. Perhaps the day after, when we’d already left though. 3 further hours on the phone later, and we were reassured that the bag would be with us in Vegas, by the following day, at 5pm. Definitely. Totally. 100%.

We spent the next day at Zion National Park, which though very busy – cleverly I arranged for us to visit on a Saturday in the Kids’ holidays – was absolutely amazing. Sadly, we had to leave fairly early to pick up Steve’s bag.

You can guess the rest I bet. Long story short: We didn’t get the bag back until two cities later, in San Francisco. On the plus side, Steve got some sick new threads at JetBlue’s expense.

As we’d dithered at the airport for so long, and then went shopping to replace our party clothes (Vegas is notoriously picky about these things) we arrived at the Strip after midnight, and proceeded to spent the next 7 hours, not clubbing or gambling (not quite budget traveller pastimes, after all), but drinking tinnies, people watching and climbing into fountains. It was a blast.

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The infamous strip.
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A sunrise dip.

One hungover day visiting the Hoover Dam, followed by another delightful 3am wake-up for the 5 hour drive to San Diego. San Diego was a combination of marine life watching and eating Mexican food, but sadly we didn’t have time to check out the city itself. I think the lack of sleep and the sheer amount of driving had caught up with us a little. This in mind, we awoke the next day at 4am to drive the 540 miles up the coast to San Francisco. We were supposed to be going to see a baseball game in the evening but the start time had changed to lunchtime, so we stood no chance of making it. Instead we drove up the Pacific Coast Highway and made a day of it. We drove through Los Angeles at rush hour, enjoying (not the right word) its notorious traffic, then cruised up the coast through Malibu to Santa Barbara where we stopped for an insane breakfast. From there it was another few hundred miles up the beautiful coast to San Fran, where we were staying with our friend Josh who we met down in Patagonia back in March. The drive itself was one hell of an experience, something of a bucket list moment for me, but I was glad to arrive in the city, over 12 hours after we set off. We watched Josh play softball (he won, convincingly), had a few beers and some incredibly spicy hot wings and passed out, somewhat exhausted.

As well as doing all the touristy stuff (a hell of a lot of Golden Gate Bridge photos), Sadie had the delights of a dentist appointment to deal with. As South America does not have a reputation for particularly safe dentistry, she had held off until she could see a clinician without the risk of infection/death. As much as nobody wants to go to the dentist when visiting a city, it was a huge relief to get rid of the pain that had been bothering her on and off since Christmas. Once the (hilarious) anaesthetic had worn off, we could still spend a productive afternoon in the city, capped off by an evening watching a pod of passing humpback whales off the shore.

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See? Bridge, innit.

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From San Fran, we had a lovely jaunt to Yosemite planned, which (of course) meant another ridiculously early start. Yosemite is only about 200 miles from San Fran but the roads aren’t great, meaning that it takes a while to get there. It is an incredibly beautiful place but it is SO busy, especially on weekends. Even with this in mind, it was one of the most beautiful places we have ever been to.

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After an incredibly sweaty evening in a nearby lodge, complete with a tarantula spotting, we were more than happy to return to Josh’s beautiful San Francisco flat (sans Josh sadly, as he had departed for Italia, until our reunion in Nashville in a few weeks). Words cannot really describe how grateful we are, not only to have been able to stay with Josh, but to have had the opportunity to kinda play-act living in the city for the last week. We’ve spent a lot of time people watching, drinking in parks and wandering around beautiful hipster neighbourhoods. Tie dye and flowers are everywhere, being a foodie is seemingly obligatory and colourful bongs line shop windows. Honestly, the only downside to SF is the price tag – I can only imagine what hippies of the past would think of an eight of marijuana selling for $60.

Originally when we first planned our great USA jaunt, we both said San Francisco was somewhere we would happily have stayed for a couple of weeks, but after a quick peek at the accommodation options (£70pp for a crappy dorm bed!) we quickly realised this was not within our budget. To have met Josh back in Chile, and has the opportunity to stay with him was beyond lucky, and as a result this city has rocketed to the top of both our lists (and Steve’s). So THANK YOU so very much Josh, for showing us your beautiful home and current hometown. We’ve both mused about returning for a workaway stint, so I’m afraid you haven’t seen the last of us yet (sorry).

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Next stop avec Steven: Vancouver. Poutine, maple cinnamon whisky shots, the infamous Grouse Grind… it’s gonna be sweet.

Snapshot of the Week: Bahama Dreamin’

The last week has, without a shadow of a doubt, been the easiest week of our 8 months or so on the road. But for the generosity of Sadie’s Aunt Barbara, it wouldn’t have been possible. As it stands, we have spent 7 nights on Long Island, what Wikipedia calls “the most picturesque island in the Bahamas,” (quite an accolade), and we are not going to disagree with them.

Getting to Long Island was an interesting experience. After an overnight stay in Nassau airport, we walked to our gate to see what was essentially a large tin can with wings. There’s no way we’re on that, we thought. We thought wrong. The plane was so small that passengers were arranged according to weight to keep the balance right. There was no separate cockpit so you could see the pilots from your seat – apparently hijacking isn’t really a thing in the Caribbean. Still, it was probably the most interesting flight we’ve ever been on, and arriving at Deadman’s Cay (how cool is that name?) airport was definitely the least stressful airport experience we’ve had, as the terminal is the size of a petrol station all-night shop, and someone brings you your bag on a hand-pulled trailer. They even have a picnic table next to the runway, to have a cheeky beer while you wait. We knew then that it was going to be good.

Our days here have consisted of being chauffeured around the island by our hosts, seeing stunning beach after stunning beach, napping and drinking rum. I am struggling to think of a better way to pass a week. The beaches come straight from a holiday brochure – all white sand, water so blue that it looks Photoshopped, sunny skies and palm trees at a rakish angle like they too are getting into the relaxed, Caribbean spirit. The best thing about them, though, is that they are completely deserted. These beaches in other parts of the world would be teeming with tourists, touters and tat-merchants. Here you have them entirely to yourself. It is bliss.

 

We paddled with piggies, strolled down beaches and enjoyed Long Island’s regatta and my aunt’s adorable little boat. We also dived into the world’s deepest blue hole, which was more than a little heart-pounding.

Unless you have a fat wallet, Long Island isn’t somewhere you’d generally visit. Of the total population on the 80-mile-long island (less than 3000 people) we could count the tourists we’ve seen on two hands. Bahamas isn’t exactly a cheap destination to begin with, but Long Island and the Family Islands (i.e. the quieter, smaller islands) are pretty much reserved for the honeymooners and the wealthy Americans (God bless that almighty dollar). Combined with my aunt’s beautiful home, brilliant tour-guiding skills and endless supply of liquor, we feel incredibly lucky to be here.

Now, we will be the first to correct anyone who says our daily life is just like “a holiday”. It’s not. Although I happily spam social media with gorgeous photos, and feel incredibly lucky to see the amazing things we have, for obvious reasons we omit the bad stuff.

The days we spent willing the electricity, the water or the Wi-Fi back on. The overnight stays in airports, bus stations, and quite memorably, the street. The 24-hour bus rides or the days locked away in a hostel room with catastrophic diarrhoea.  The hours spent planning, working, or generally doing chores. While some days ARE absolutely holidays, a lot have just become…well…life. We don’t expect sympathy – we chose this, absolutely love it, and would much rather be here than working – but it isn’t all fun and games all of the time.

(Note: The next time you see a boastful, beautiful insta-traveller, showing of her perfect manicure and beautiful villa, just remember that 90% travellers get the shits. It makes me feel better anyway.)

HOWEVER, this week, we will eat a massive slice of humble pie and admit that this has been one hell of a holiday! Backpacking is hard? Pfffft.*

It’s time to move on tomorrow and return to budget travelling. We have an overnight stay in Fort Lauderdale airport (see?) and then on to New Orleans. I think it’s safe to say we’re both crazy excited to start our USA tour, as well as a little nervous at what this country will do to our poor, battered bank balance. We’ve got gumbo, voodoo, jazz and ghost stories to sample, then it’s onto the Sin City and its surrounding natural beauty. Next time you hear from us we’ll be in Nevada, shooting dice and with money burning holes in our pockets*, as well as with our good friend Steve in tow. It’s going to be a blast.

 

* We would also add how wonderful it has been, just to exist in a normal, family home for a little while. Sitting on the sofa, making dinner in a proper kitchen and going to the same bed every night has been honestly, pretty glorious.
**We will not be doing this. Our budget does not cover gambling, despite Mark’s assurances to the contrary.

The Best and Worst of South America

So we did this for Central America and kind of enjoyed it. It was also a good way to pass a bus journey. Some things were impossible to pick, some an absolute piece of cake. We did not fall out about any of these, honest.

Top 10 Cities (in no particular order):

  1. Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  2. Bariloche, Argentina (Definitely a town not a city, but it has an airport so shhh).
  3. Pisco Elqui, Chile (Ok this is a tiny village).
  4. Ilha Grande, Brazil.
  5. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
  6. Valparaiso, Chile.
  7. Mendoza, Argentina.
  8. Cartagena, Colombia.
  9. Florianopolis, Brazil
  10. Arequipa, Peru.IMG_20170529_230008

Top 10 Experiences (in no order):

  1. Standing in the Devil’s Throat at Iguazu Falls getting utterly soaked.
  2. Pre-Carnaval in Florionopolis and Rio.
  3. Seeing bottle-nose dolphins off Isla Damas in Chile
  4. Visiting the penguin reserve in Puerto Madryn, Argentina
  5. Seeing the clouds clear over Macchu Picchu, Peru.
  6. Sunrise at Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia
  7. Visiting the vineyards, the Andes and Aconcagua around Mendoza, Argentina.
  8. Stargazing in the Elqui Valley, Chile
  9. Seeing the world’s largest flying birds, condors, in the Colca Canyon, Peru.
  10. The Gray Glacier in Torres del Paine, Chile.

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Top 10 Meals:

  1. Steak at Alto El Fuego, Bariloche, Argentina.
  2. Five course lunch at Bodega Domaine Bousquet, Mendoza, Argentina.
  3. Ridiculous steak lunch at Bodega Lopez, Argentina (There is a theme developing here isn’t there?).
  4. Picada lunch at Mendoza, Argentina.
  5. Hungover steak in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
  6. Street BBQ in Florianopolis, Brazil.
  7. Oysters in Florianopolis, Brazil.
  8. Fabiano’s Pizza in Cuenca, Ecuador
  9. Ceviche and Sushi at Jack Fish, La Serena, Chile.
  10. Moqueca in Salvador, Brazil.

Top 10 Regional Foods:

  1. Acai: The best thing ever. All over Brazil (and mystifyingly nowhere else).
  2. Acaraje, Bahia, Brazil. Spicy prawns in a deep fried bean roll, utterly filthy street food.
  3. Ceviche; Chile, Peru and Ecuador. These three countries squabble over who makes the best (especially the first two) but honestly they are all pretty damn good.
  4. Corviche, Ecuador. Admittedly we only found this in one place, but it was a deep fried plantain ball filled with either prawns or fish, served with coleslaw and spicy aji sauce.
  5. Empanadas, specifically baked ones. These are everywhere all over SA but Argentine ones took the metaphorical biscuit.
  6. Stuffed arepas, Colombia. A Thick, grilled corn tortilla, filled with guac, cheese, spicy sauce, sour cream… pretty much anything you can imagine.
  7. Moqueca, Bahia, Brazil. Spicy seafood curry. Best served sizzling with a limitless side of beer.
  8. Morcilla, blood sausage, Uruguay and Argentina.
  9. Coxinha, mashed potato balls stuffed with chicken and breaded. Sound disgusting but they are brilliant road-food.
  10. Fusion sushi, Peru and Chile.

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Top 5 Hostels:

  1. La Cupula Hostel, Copacabana, Bolivia.
  2. The W Circuit Hostel, Puerto Natales, Chile.
  3. Casa de Mathilde, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
  4. Hostel e Pousada El Shaddai, Iguazu Falls, Brazil.
  5. Hostel Achalay, Bariloche, Argentina.

Top 6 Historic Centres

  1. Cusco, Peru.
  2. Colonia, Uruguay.
  3. Pelourinho, Salvador, Brazil.
  4. Cuenca, Ecuador.
  5. Cartagena, Colombia.
  6. Bogota, Colombia.18816568_10154791785014075_404692381_n

5 Worst Experiences:

  1. Food poisoning, Bolivia. When your chef is also your driver and he uses “Inca toilets” without hand sanitiser, you should be wary of your food. We suffered the consequences of this and felt crap for weeks.
  2. Sadie’s useless tooth. A persistent infection coupled with drastic changes in temperature and altitude does not a good combination make. Thank god for cheap over-the-counter antibiotics.
  3. Cancelled flights. Take this as life advice: NEVER FLY WITH VIVA COLOMBIA. Our first flight with this airline was cancelled without our notice at all, we actually made it to the airport to find it simply didn’t exist. Our second flight was cancelled 12 hours before we left for the airport (how courteous of them), and took forever to sort out. An absolutely useless, shambles of a company.
  4. Getting to the top of the Salkantay Pass and seeing precisely bugger all. 2 days of hiking up to the 4700m summit revealed a view of, well, fog. And drizzle and sleet.
  5. Getting washed out of the Torres del Paine National Park. This 5-day adventure cost us an absolute fortune and for the first 4 days of it it rained endlessly. There were landslides, path closures, raging rivers where trickling streams used to be, the works. In fact, it was the worst in-season rainfall in over a decade. Lucky us.

 

It’s been emotional.