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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Sunny Side Up

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As soon as I sorted out somewhere to stay – things immediately began to get easier. Having a place to come back to with a bed is seriously underrated. Showers are still cold but it’s a definite improvement!

Day 1 in Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga, and straight to work! I’ve been gathering together a network of contacts here to provide info/details/photos for articles. Lots of people are keen to promote Vava’u, particularly on the ‘off season’ so I’ve been hosted on many different tours and excursions. The first was a sailing trip with a lovely couple called Denis and Donna (or Donis and Denna, as I kept accidentally saying). They took me out of the harbour into the beautiful array of little islands that make up the ‘Vava’u’ region.

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The Islands all have hilarious names. Donna and Denis have just leased one called Malafakalava. Nuku Island was my favourite spot. Just look at the colour of the water! I couldn’t resist bothering the clown fish again when I headed out with the snorkel…

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Find Nemo!

Find Nemo!

Playing about with the colours a little

Playing about with the colours a little

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There are also the most incredibly caves dotted about the place. Swallows cave is famous for the clarity of the water for diving. It’s also got a huge series of swallows nests dotted like bats all over the roof, hence the name.

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The perfect introduction to Vava’u – enough to lift anyone’s moods!

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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.

Bring it on Down

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“I’m on a diet, so I had only five extra helpings.”

– Gagamaru, Sumo Champion 2010.

It seems bizarre to invent a sport that requires its competitors to become clinically obese to stand a chance against their opponents. One of the professionals in this stable was a whopping 192kg.  It was, however, fascinating to watch. Our guide was a lady called Noriko, who takes tourists to watch Sumos in their early morning practices in Ryogoku. There are fairly strict rules that you have to follow in order to watch the practice including complete silence and not moving off the cushion on the floor for the full three hours: Fair bit of pins and needles engendered, as you can imagine. It was incredible how elaborate and ritualistic the practices are, starting with training of the lowest ranking members of the ‘stable’ then working up to the professionals, in white Mawashi (pants).

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Cleaning up the sand ring in between sessions

Cleaning up the sand ring in between sessions

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Surprisingly flexible!

Surprisingly flexible!

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Being back in the Ryogoku area, where we stayed the first time we were in Tokyo, we couldn’t resist visiting our favourite bakery down the road. Was just as fresh and delicious as I remembered. Here’s a bean cake and raisin bun.IMG_7128

With only a couple of days left we then decided to whiz off to Asakusa, one of the top tourist areas of the city with the ‘sky tree’ tower attraction and Sensoki temple. It was however absolutely rammed full of people and not nearly as spectacular as the Kyoto temples, in my opinion.

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Here you can see the sky tower and some bizarre piece of architecture which sort of resembles a gold-plated dog turd...

Here you can see the sky tower and some bizarre piece of architecture which sort of resembles a gold-plated dog turd…

 To cap off our busy day we headed to the Roppongi district of the city, where we had a long awaited reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro. If you haven’t heard of Jiro before, he is an 88 year old sushi master, who’s spent his life perfecting the art of sushi, now running a three Michelin star restaurant underground in Ginza. Unfortunately, after many failed attempts, it became apparent that booking reservations for Jiro Ono’s own restaurant is next to impossible unless you’re local. (Much Thanks to Sheena for all her help with the attempted booking!). We instead made a reservation for his son, Takashi’s two Michelin star branch of the restaurant in Roppongi. Here’s a link to an advert for the film made about Jiro’s life’s work: ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi‘.

We arrived a little early for our reservation time and were the only people in the restaurant. Takashi then proceeded to cut, shape, paint with soy sauce and present to us 19 courses of individual pieces of sushi. These ranged from ‘needle fish’ to sea urchin. My favourites were the medium fatty tuna and, much to my surprise, the giant clam which I was fully expecting to hate. It was bizarre how things which I would normally not even dream about eating were made perfectly palatable, such as roe and sea eel. With only two (and eventually another two) people joining us in the restaurant it felt like a private interview with Takashi who prepared the course, watched us eat it then prepared the next pieces. The sushi is served at the perfect temperature for each individual fish and you’re not supposed to add any soy or ginger. I made the heinous mistake of trying to add a little ginger to the octopus, being pretty squeamish about eating it, and Takashi actually said no and picked off the ginger himself. Overall, yes, It was incredibly good, and it did make me try things that I would otherwise never have tasted but in all honesty I really don’t think it’s worth the absolutely ridiculous price tag. On this occasion I was extraordinarily lucky enough to be treated to the meal, though, so obviously can’t complain! Would definitely NOT recommend this for a budget trip I’m afraid. Certainly a fascinating experience though. Only at the very end did Takashi break his rather stony, serious exterior and come out for a photo with us and to shake our hands.

A rather inconspicuous exterior in the middle of the otherwise highly ostentatious Roppongi hills shopping mall.

A rather inconspicuous exterior in the middle of the otherwise highly ostentatious Roppongi hills shopping mall.

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Sea Urchin

Sea Urchin

Whole shrimp

Whole shrimp

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Salmon Roe

Salmon Roe

Medium fatty tuna

Medium fatty tuna

Octopus’s Garden

Nha Trang Coral Reef

“The ocean is a mighty harmonist.”
 – William Wordsworth

Despite being warned that the snorkelling here at Nha Trang wasn’t that great I decided to head out on a motorboat to check it out for myself.

I love the coral formation's resemblance to roses when the colour's removed.

Aquatic ‘rose garden’.

Nha Trang Coral Bed

Yes, ok – it’s no Maldives but you can still find incredibly beautiful arrays of vividly coloured coral beds. All the usual suspects are flashing about for you to admire: Parrot, trigger, butterfly and clown fish etc (despite their irritating talent for dodging the camera). There were also a variety of stunning live cowries – relishing, no doubt, the absence of any avid shell collectors.

Nha Trang Coral

Nha Trang blue starfish

Cornetfish

I enjoyed the presence of the slightly more unusual cornet and trumpet fish – two of the more ridiculous looking creatures on the planet –  with hilariously elongated ‘noses’ . I also love the way the Moorish idols (what a lot of people, including me, inaccurately call angel-fish) seem to leave little white scribbles behind them in the water as they dart about.

The trip out on the boat also provided the opportunity to find more natural, secluded spots than the bustle of the main beach. One of the stops was a tiny little island, complete with miniature Buddhist shrine. Another interesting sighting were little fishing villages built to entirely float on the water. Built largely out of corrugated iron, they weren’t particularly photogenic, but a novelty nevertheless.

An example of some of the houses precariously built onto the cliffside.

An example of some of the houses precariously built onto the cliffside.

Getting out of the town allowed me to see a more endearing side of the Nha Trang area. It was sorely needed. Particularly after being practically mugged by an old lady demanding money in the street in an incredibly violent way – grabbing my arm in a vice-like pincer grip and trying to pull my bag off my back! Not what you’d expect from an innocent looking ‘grandma’.

This is to satisfy any curiosity as to what the inside of a dragon fruit looks like. The inside's just as unexpected as the out.

This (served up on the boat) is to satisfy any curiosity as to what the inside of a dragon fruit looks like. The inside’s just as unexpected as the out.

The camera doesn't quite capture the incredible neon florescence of this coral. Love how the rock in the middle looks like an artist's used paint pallet though.

The camera doesn’t quite capture the incredible neon florescence of this coral. Love how the rock in the middle looks like an artist’s used paint pallet, though.

 

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Fins

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!

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A beautiful spotted Eagle Ray

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Crocodile Rock

Perhaps I was slightly over dramatic last night. Madang is gorgeous. When I woke up in the morning I realised that we are literally a couple of metres from the sea. It really took me by surprise! We drove up the coast picking up increasingly larger numbers of Mrs Nomino’s relatives until the car was packed up like taking pigs to market. I tried some fruits that I hadn’t even heard of: Laulau, which is a very strange fruit a little bit like a pear but with a large seed like an avocado. Delicious. Also these strange swollen little bananas which were white and tasted oddly milky. We stopped off at a couple of points to get in the water. It was so nice to be in the sea again, I didn’t realise how much I missed it. I happily passed away a couple of hours meandering through the beautiful reef (thankfully Verena leant me a snorkel). It was surprisingly good – the variety of enormous, vibrant coral formations were to rival the Maldives (Unfortunately the water was significantly murkier though!) I managed to find a little nudibranc which brought back fond memories of Pemba Island and at one point came face to face with a large eel less than half a metre away – That’s what you get for diving down to look in the little caves in the reef! The area really was spectacular, with dark volcanic sand between thick rainforest and turquoise sea. Every now and then a few flying foxes would spring out from the tree tops and fly passed us.

One sun-burnt back and a couple of reef cuts later we headed back to the house, drinking from some coconuts that we picked up on the way. The sun was setting when we arrived back and the water was irresistible. The fact that it’s prime crocodile territory here was not a strong enough deterrent.

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