Convenient Parking

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Ok so there’s a lot of catching up to do (roughly two years) but Dad’s requested an update on current travel situation. This will be my first ever post entirely by phone and in the sad absence of a proper camera.  Expect typos, poor grammar etc, the usual. All photos will be straight from my Samsung phone without any editing so you’ll get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the poor saturation. In fact the internet’s the worst it’s been since PNG so I’ll be delighted if they load at all.
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We arrived into Ohrid, Macedonia, the night before last and headed out to a local restaurant for food. My large pizza cost less than two pounds :s Everything costs around half the price of what you’d expect elsewhere in Europe – judge for yourself from the photos but I definitely think this city is an untapped resource: Stunning scenery, lovely weather, incredibly friendly people and rock bottom prices.
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IMG_8477The one slightly odd thing is the bizarre way in which the term ‘road’ is used. We were directed down roads in our little hire car where there was less than an inch gap between the side of the car and the houses either side of the crumbly cobbled streets, made worse by the fact that locals had parked willy-nilly along the precipices and stray dogs, poles and rocks popped up in unexpected places. We eventually had to reverse out of the town at 4mph and walk back with our suitcases. No wonder the man at the hire car stall had gone over the car with a magnifying glass to note down every minor scratch.
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Although it’s always fun to complain, that’s about as far as it goes with Ohrid. Just beautiful.
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And the flag’s fun too!

This Easter morning we had the rather more challenging feat of driving across the border to the coast of Albania.
We stopped off en route at St. Naum monastery, another idyllic spot. What made St. Naum particularly special were the fresh water springs surrounding it which feed into the lake.
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IMG_8480IMG_8478Across the border you noticed an immediate difference in terms of road quality and the quantity of half built, abandonned constructions. My favourite new addition to the landscape was the frequent appearance of a man on the roadside, poised as if he’s trying to hitch-hike, but on closer inspection he’s brandishing a large trout. They’d effectively just plucked fish from the water and were wiggling them about in front of drivers in an attempt to scrape a living. Very entertaining, if nothing else. We must have passed about 20 of them.
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Although Google maps is the best improvement to life since air con, it really has absolutely no idea what the hell’s  going on with the roads in Albania. Like a slavic bermuda triangle. We ended up on some ridiculous ‘scenic’ routes with potholes formed in the wake of some sort of nuclear apocalypse. We eventually decided to ignore it and emerged onto the Albanian ‘Riviera’.
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Pretty, but so far it appears that ‘off season’ roughly translates as ‘everything within a 40 mile radius is shut until June’. I’ve given up trying to upload photos now as it’s just too slow. Update on our cashless, foodless situation tomorrow.
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Have You Fed The Fish?

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“Flowers… are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last day in Tokyo 😦 I headed out in the early morning to the Tsukiji fish market, following a recommendation from my lonely planet guide book. It was incredibly easy to find, all I needed to do was follow the locals with their large empty baskets, bikes and lorries! It is absolutely gargantuan, undoubtedly the largest fish market I’ve ever seen (and by quite a considerable amount). There were the most bizarre sea creatures for sale in the dingy light including sea cucumbers, urchins and many things that I couldn’t recognise. Men were carving up enormous tuna steaks with what looked like swords and live fish and shell fish scuttled about in every direction. Many stalls had sashimi for sale at quite a price: could only be fresher if the fish was actually eaten whilst alive. Not really my cup of tea!

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Striking buckets full of huge tuna heads, can’t quite get the full scale here.

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After stopping at a bakery, to munch on a rather more appealing steamed chocolate bun made into a bear face, we headed out to Shinjuku in an attempt to find a novelty goods store (mainly thinking of Karl Pilkington’s ‘crisp picker’). We tried out ‘Tokyu Hands’ which, similar to ‘the Loft’ which I tried out in Shibuya, is like a department store which starts to hint at the crazy novelties that we were after. Llama mascara, anyone?

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Looking for bedside table decorations? Jellyfish in a jar should hit the spot. This one's upside down and looking incredibly sorry for itself.

Looking for bedside table decorations? Jellyfish in a jar should hit the spot. This one’s upside down and looking incredibly sorry for itself.

Mount Fuji fancy dress...

Mount Fuji fancy dress…

Final stop of the trip was the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. It didn’t disappoint. Stacked full of the later blooming kind of blossom, it was simply breathtaking. The highlight has to be the traditional Japanese style part of the garden, with a couple of tea houses:

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Trimming the shaped trees

Trimming the shaped trees

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Man staring in disbelief at a cat...quite amusing.

Man staring in disbelief at a cat…quite amusing.

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After a fantastic last day I’m now sat wasting time in Beijing airport…home soon!

 

Last supper (actually breakfast) in Tokyo Haneda airport - finally found some edamame beans.

Last supper (actually breakfast) in Tokyo Haneda airport – finally found some edamame beans.

Ocean Breathes Salty

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This morning we embarked on yet another extensive train journey in the fantastic, clear weather, giving great final views of Fuji-San. The train network here, in combination with the absolutely incredible tool that is Google maps, is fairly easy to understand so the journey was faultless, again. Such a clear and organised country!

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Six hours later we arrived in Matsushima, 2 hours north of Tokyo on the Shikansen bullet train. It’s famous for being one of the ‘Three Views’ of Japan, and it’s clear why. To me, it’s like a Japanese version of Halong Bay. The area is scattered with 260 tiny islands (shima, in Japanese) covered in pine trees (matsu). It’s incredibly beautiful, particularly in the cool, crisp sunset. I may have to get up for the sunrise though as that would be over the ocean rather than the set which was behind the hills.

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Smoke and Ashes

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“What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it’s been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.”
– John Hersey

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Gimme Shelter

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!”

   – From ‘To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough’ by Robert Burns

 Plan: 20:15 transfer flight from Thailand – Tucked up in bed in pre-booked accommodation in Yangon by 9:30 after a long couple of days travelling.

Reality: Wandering round the streets of Bangkok in the rain at 11 at night, alone, luggage in tow trying to find a place to spend the night.

How did this happen?  Well. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve had a ‘testing’ day.

I arrived into Bangkok airport, frail and exhausted, at around 6 o’clock local time after two long flights and a transit period in Delhi. The ‘jet airways’ Indian plane food had not made the experience any easier on my stomach. I won’t go into detail on that point. I head straight to the transfer desk stopping to inquire first that my luggage was going to be on the flight – I didn’t want a repeat of Rio. The young women at the desk promptly told me, with smiles on their faces I may add, that I wouldn’t be allowed to enter the country without a visa. What the hell was all of that bollocks I read about a ‘Visa On Arrival’? Absolute nightmare. Clearly my thorough research had been outdated or just plain wrong.

At this stage I had a minor break down as all the difficulties this presented became apparent to me: I would need to go and get a Visa from the Myanmar embassy in the city tomorrow. Of course they gave no helpful information such as how long this might take or where it was – they just guessed a couple of days. I therefore managed to push my case firmly enough to get my flight rescheduled for two days time. I then frantically headed off to find internet – calling the hotel I’d booked to warn them of my delayed arrival as I went.

The major problem in all this was the complete lack of English spoken. In fact, as my story develops the language barrier becomes increasingly crippling. This is actually the first time I’ve been to a country which doesn’t have a European-based first language (or places where pretty much everyone speaks English anyway) so I felt completely isolated.

I found out that it was in fact possible to get a visa in one day – with lots of queuing and a day spent at the embassy to look forward to but I couldn’t really be picky at this stage. So I hurried to the arrivals (being now shut off from the previous desk that’d been ‘helping’ me) and after 10 minutes of frantic searching found someone who could change my flight again to tomorrow.

Great. Well now at least I only had one night in a strange city to worry about. As far as strange cities go, Bangkok is pretty outstanding. It seems like a scene out of a vivid nightmare – a chaotic mesh of roads crossing over each other in the mess and rain. Taxi’s are the least of the evils but even then, you can’t be sure that you’re not about to re-enact ‘taken’ – but crucially without Liam Neeson and his ‘particular set of skills’. I looked up a hotel near the embassy, gave the name to a taxi driver and off we went.

Of course, it’s never that simple. He took me to a different hotel with a similar name. I’d even pointed at a map! It became increasingly apparent that even the taxi drivers don’t have a clue about places in the city. So I had to appeal to another non-English speaking lady at the reception of a hotel miles away from where I needed to be with a price tag as high as Mount Everest on the rooms per night. She thankfully helped me to order another taxi which, of course, had no Idea what I was talking about. I eventually managed to break through with ‘Myanmar embassy’ so we headed there where he promptly dropped me in the middle of nowhere.

Here we are back where I started. I did manage to find a hostel eventually, thank-god. Fingers crossed that tomorrow will be easier.

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Ironically this is the hostel I’ve sought shelter in. Not really feeling the love right now. Forgive the absence of photos – have not really felt it appropriate to whack out the camera as of yet.

London Calling/ Halfway Home

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“Never make your home in a place. Make a home for yourself inside your own head. You’ll find what you need to furnish it – memory, friends you can trust, love of learning, and other such things. That way it will go with you wherever you journey.”

-Tad Williams

I love this quote, it’s very comforting when you’re on the other side of the world from all that’s dear to you. However, I am ready to see my loved ones in the flesh, now. I want to see my dogs/cats and I want to see my bed.

Right. Almost there now. Luggage miraculously in one piece, well as much as it can be, having lots the wheels and the zips en route in Central America. Am now loitering in Paddington Station after a restless 24 hours.

I was rather disgruntled early this morning to find out that I needed to buy a VISA just to pass through the states (Newark) in transit. Not amused. I also had to go through the USA customs and immigration (which took a good hour or so) just to put my bag straight onto the next plane and go through security again. United Airlines were undoubtedly the worst airline I’ve flown with, including isolated centres in Papua New Guinea, largely due to the appalling customer service. As an example, an Indian man in front of me was causing a bit of fuss, perfectly understandably in my opinion, as there was nothing other than beef on the menu, without even the option to pre-book a vegetarian meal. The air hostess was audibly saying to herself under her breathe ‘God, I hate that man’ in front of his two sons who were sitting next to me. I was not impressed.

I was however appeased by the fantastic selection of airport food in Newark. I had a ‘Jamba juice’ – the best smoothie I’ve had since the Brazilian Acai and some vegetarian food, at last: a delicious tofu & noodle stir fry. Yum. It was also a pleasant surprise to have great views of New York on the landing, including my first glimpses of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State.

Now back into the iconic ‘grey and green’ of the UK. Although I hate to admit it, it’s a little disenchanting to suddenly feel incredibly banal after having been ‘foreign and exotic’ for such a long time, despite all of my complaining!!

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Sol Y Sombre

 

“It is better to be alone than in bad company.”
 – George Washington

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It’s strange to think that this was only a month and a half ago. It seems as if at least half a year has past. In the absence of being able to take my camera out I’ve been sifting through my photos…

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Frustratingly the main things to see and do in this area are outside of the actual city, costing significant amounts in transport or for tours which I can’t afford at this point. Of all the places to be stuck in, that I’ve visited so far, I have the feeling that I’ve drawn the short straw.

I’m getting more than a little disgruntled by standing out like a sore thumb in this dodgy Panama city neighbourhood. I just popped down to the shop to get a couple of apples and a drunk Panamanian ran ahead of me and lay down in a puddle for me to walk over, pretending that I was the queen. Ok, granted that is a particularly amusing example. I found it very difficult to maintain a straight face as I walked on by. When he intercepted me on the walk back and repeated this episode, this time with his friend joining in, I couldn’t help but burst out laughing at how ridiculous the situation was. This did not help, however, as they then continued to crawl after me on their hands and knees until I managed to shrug them off. 

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I can’t seem to find a place to while away the time in the hotel either. I’ve been trying to soak up some last minute sun before heading back to the rain; yesterday, late afternoon, I went up for a dip in the roof top pool (more of a plunge pool really, but I can’t complain for the price I’m paying! Also it’s got a hell of a view to make up for it). There were not one, but two couples making out heatedly in the square metre of pool. That’s what your rooms are for you morons. Get out of the communal area. Anyway, standing there wrapped in a towel, I felt it would look ridiculous to turn around straight away and walk back down, so I determinedly got in the pool and awkwardly swam a couple of ‘lengths’. It didn’t take long before I couldn’t take it any more and retreated back to my cave room.

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Back in the days when I knew people here so felt comfortable taking my camera out, this poor planning error caught my eye. The elevated hands of Jesus in ‘Casco Viejo’ make the perfect perch for the local vultures. Not sure that’s the image they had in mind…

P.S. Warning to vegetarians. Panama city = not ideal. Went scouting round a series of cafés/street stalls/restaurants and could not find anything at all without meat. I thought Brazil would be bad but this is by far the worst place for it yet.

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Caye Caulker

We’ve now settle for a couple of days in a town called San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border in Belize. Following my previous post we crossed the border from Mexico into Belize by speedboat after a very thorough search by the Mexican military and sniffer dogs!!

We then headed out to a little Belizean Island called Caye Caulker which was absolutely gorgeous. I think Belize is a little hidden jewel of a holiday destination, entirely under-rated. As an ex-British colony English is the first language which makes life easier. The Islands dotted about the coastline are all essentially little Caribbean islands. Incredibly beautiful, incredibly laid-back and with fantastic marine life!

Caye Caulker is incredibly small – you can stroll the length of the island, along the sand roads, in around 20 minutes with reggae music filling the air from the local shops and cafes. I particularly enjoyed somebody calling out to me as I rushed to get my camera from the hotel before leaving on the sailing boat “Where you goin’ in such a hurry girl?” In a heavy Jamaican accent. They’ve probably never seen somebody running in their life! They’re certainly unaccustomed to even the slightest stress!

Unfortunately we were only staying in this little paradise for two nights so we booked a days snorkelling excursion for our one whole day. It was certainly worth it. In one of our stop-offs the local nurse sharks had become accustomed to being fed by the sailing boats full of snorkelers so they surrounded our boat. In my excitement I jumped straight into the water in my snorkelling gear and startled the others by screaming loudly in my surprise at being surrounded by numerous large sting rays! The nurse sharks themselves are toothless so I was able to get incredibly close to them, even stroking their bodies and feeding them by hand! At one point around 12 of them were gathered in a feeding frenzy supplied by our captain throwing sardines into the sea. The current in the water pulled me right into the frenzy itself so I had the metre and a half long sharks thrashing all around me! It was an incredibly experience.

The captain, who is also the equivalent of a ‘park warden’ for the marine conservation area which we visited, was catching the sharks and the rays for us to ‘pet’! Seeing how docile the creatures were I then dived down in front of one of the rays so that it slid up and over my body!

At our next stop we also became acquainted with three of the local green turtles, again ridiculously accustomed to humans to the point where I could dive down and stroke their smooth shells!

For any enthusiastic snorkellers or divers out there I would definitely recommend Belize as an interesting marine destination!

Caye Caulker Green Sea Turtle

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An inquisitive Green Moray Eel!

SeaLife DC1400

A beautiful spotted Eagle Ray

SeaLife DC1400

Cold Town

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“Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.”
Mark Twain

My lower intestine would beg to differ.

Shortly after arriving in Potosi, the highest altitude city of its size in the world, I began to notice the problem with eating the ridiculously cheap market food and salads, washed in local water. Unfortunately though, I cannot particularly blame the food or water as I’ve also had a raging fever for the past 24 hours and a belligerent head cold to match.

I must say, although I like to visit different places and different cultures, freezing my ears off on top of a mountain is not really my cup of tea. The bright light of the salt flats has additionally resulted in thorough sun burn and sun blindness resulting in an appearance much like the emperor off Star Wars.

One little nugget of useful information I’ve managed to obtain from this is that the local Mate ‘coca’ tea is really good at taming your altitude sickness! Although to be honest I’ve been finding it hard to tell the difference between altitude sickness and virus!

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I couldn’t resist a shot of this fantastic old beatle!

Unfortunately I can’t find The Fast Show ‘Jesse’s Diet’ (yoghurt) clip on youtube which I wanted to include…those of you who have seen it will know the one I was aiming for!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/fastshow/characters/jesse.shtml