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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Kingdom Of Comfort

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To say that things went downhill after the previous post would be an understatement. Don’t be misled by my photographs – pictures tend to reflect the highlights! It would have been pretty unusual for me to have been ill, homeless and hungry and then whacking out a camera to take a photo of the patch of street.

The volunteer organisation I was with in Fiji are essentially a scam. The Brit I’d been sharing a room with rightfully complained about the bed bugs which were steadily chomping into our skin each night. As a result we were moved out of our home. I was very sad to leave the lovely family we had been staying with – they were pretty much the only positive aspect of life in Suva. The family were quite torn up about the episode too, deciding not to host volunteers in the future as they’d had the house fumigated previously but it was too difficult to get rid of the pesky bed bugs.

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'Bimbo' the family cat. I tried to tastefully explain the concept of what bimbo means in England which they all found very amusing.

‘Bimbo’ the family cat. I tried to tastefully explain the concept of what bimbo means in England which they all found very amusing.

My roommate and I were moved to a small double bed in a hostel which seemed more like a mental institution, aptly fitting my current state of mind at the time. We were then told by the organisers that they would be wondering around the village to try and find us somewhere to stay… needless to say – we were both horrified at the idea of setting up camp with a random Fijian family that had never hosted foreigners before etc etc. Meanwhile other volunteers were having money regularly stolen from them in their homestays…

I by no means had it the worst – my roommate had paid (a significant chunk of money) to do sports coaching. On arrival into Fiji she was told that it was school holidays so she’d be handing out fliers at the museum. Another girl was supposed to be helping disabled children in a school. Instead she was put into the leprosy ward to help bathe the patients and was asked to stitch up open wounds! Far from having a place to wind down after the challenging working days we all have ‘accommodation’ that pushes the word ‘basic’ to its limits.

My work at the Fiji Times started out extremely shakily – but I decided not to put up with sitting around being told I just needed to wait around all day. I ended up getting out to report on a few stories but to be honest they were boring as sin – making their way into the business section of the paper. Although I’ve had five articles published – the style of the paper is pretty shoddy in my view so I’m not particularly proud of them. My writing is by no means of a high quality but it was edited to have sentences beginning with ‘and’ and ‘because’…I thought that was frowned upon?!

The experience helped me to fairly firmly establish that I’m not interested in working in a news room. Horrific events and deaths are ‘stories’ to be probed into and dissected. If a girl is raped or killed the reaction is ‘great – let’s get someone round to the family, someone to the police and someone round to the hospital to try get something out of her’. The writing itself requires absolutely no creativity – being stripped of anything other than raw facts in their simplest form.

In my semi-homeless state after being moved out, I arrived at the magazine where I’d transferred my internship to. I jumped upon the offer to ship me out to Tonga for a series of articles – partly because I relished the opportunity to do some serious travel writing but also partly because I desperately needed an escape clause to get out of the situation I was in. The organisation had my passport in the process of getting a working VISA, so for one horrible moment I thought they were simply going to not let me leave the country…eventually we managed to sort it out though.

However – out of the frying pan…

I arrived into Tonga to end up wondering around for several hours with my luggage as every hotel seemed to be fully booked. It’s scary enough arriving into a new place (especially in a developing country) with no knowledge of where you are, how to get around, what the people are like etc. I eventually managed to sort a place to stay for the night but by this stage I had a horrible stomach bug and was feeling very sorry for myself.

I collapsed for a while but had to pick myself up the next day to head out around the island in order to get material for the articles. It was a truly beautiful place – perhaps I can post a draft version of my article once I get it sorted but for now I’ll let the photos talk for themselves. I’m now in a different part of Tonga but more on that later!

Natural land bridge on the south coast

Natural land bridge on the south coast

Kids waiting outside the church in their 'ta‘ovala' - short mat tried around the waist - traditional church-wear!

Kids waiting outside the church in their ‘ta‘ovala’ – short mat tried around the waist – traditional church-wear!

The ta‘ovala for women are longer.

The ta‘ovala for women are longer.

Lots of red and white houses dotted about the villages to match the flag! There's also been a recent coronation so there are bunting-esque decorations all over the place

Lots of red and white houses dotted about the villages to match the flag! There’s also been a recent coronation so there are bunting-esque decorations all over the place

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My Tongan taxi-driver!

My Tongan taxi-driver!

The most spectacular part of the island, in my view, were the miles of blowholes stretching down the south west coast!

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More of the same idyllic beaches!

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Bat Out of Hell

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Lots of people don’t like bats – some even have phobias of them. It’s fairly easy to see why, due to their association with horror and darkness (hence the Meatloaf title). I am definitely not one of them – this little guy was so sweet. It’s easy to see why fruit bats get called ‘flying foxes’! Anyway – I jumped in half way through the day… let me start from the beginning.

I’m running out of days here now! Just when I’m starting to get to grips with the place, I’m going to have to leave! I woke up this morning and hopped on a bus up to the village of Mele, around 10 minutes from town. There are a few places of interest in that area – one of which is the ‘Secret Garden’. At the Secret Garden they apparently bring over men from Abrym Island – the island where black magic is said to originate from – to do magic shows for tourists. Unfortunately, as I was by myself, they hadn’t been able to justify asking the men to come and perform through the morning, so I rearranged to tomorrow morning when some other tourists have booked up to go to the show. They did, however, show me the animals they keep on site, which I was perfectly happy with as an alternative!

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These Fijian banded iguanas are rapidly decreasing in quantity due to destruction of their habitats…

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They explained to me how they rotate the animals every 6 months or so – releasing and catching new individuals. They were all remarkably tame. Many of them are actually endangered now as they’re unfortunately ending up on dinner tables too much. One such example is the coconut crab. They no longer have them on site due to the scarcity of crabs left! Another example are the fruit bats. I couldn’t resist this little guy – absolutely adorable! They don’t seem to have much meat on them anyway so I’m quite sure why they’re so popular as a food source… They’re just such weird creatures – the way he wraps his wings about himself really does make him look like Dracula, haha.

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More on ‘secret garden’ after I’ve returned for the show tomorrow.

Around 10 minutes up the ring road around the island you arrive at the ‘Mele Cascades’. Some entrepreneurial individual has set up a café near the base of a series of waterfalls in order to be able to charge people to visit. There wasn’t anybody there when I arrived, however, so I just walked on in. The cascades themselves were stunning: a series of waterfalls over an outstanding long stretch of river. The path along side is very well maintained by the people who run the café so it was a very pleasant half hour walk to the pièce de résistance at the end.

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I say ‘path’, some of it included sections like this, with ruts carved into the rock to walk up!

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Another half an hour back down the ring road and you come to the beach across from ‘hideaway island’. I didn’t bother going across to the resort as it was an incredibly low tide so not ideal for snorkelling. I loved the way the school kids were playing about on the beach in their lunch hour – their school is right on the shore!

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Back tackling with the internet again this evening, so going to draw a line there!

Shores of White Sand

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I’ve had a hectic day today – firstly I was trying to get a little work done, then ended up spending hours wandering around town trying to get people to participate in my survey. This was not easy! People seemed to not even understand the concept of a survey, let alone the reasonably complex personal questions I was asking about body image. A few hours later, I gave up and returned to my infuriatingly slow computer to start working through my photos. For some reason the computer, in addition to the internet, barely works. Not ideal.

Yesterday was far more idyllic. I headed out, with a small group, to Lelepa Island – around 30 minutes from Port Vila, followed by a short trip on the boat. We walked across the island to a spectacular beach with the most incredibly clear water.

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Caves where, apparently, the coconut crabs live

Caves where, apparently, the coconut crabs live

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Each area here seems to host its own collection of goodies for beach combers – this beach had tons of small grey sea beans and those beautiful dotted cone shells. The variety of sea slugs out and about was incredible. I even spotted a few nudibranchs in the low tide. They were a little plain though, unfortunately, but still fun to watch as they floated about!

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Whilst admiring this classic outrigger canoe, I asked one of the girls from the island if they still use it – to which she replied by taking me out for a spin!

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The man showing us around his island took us to some caves along the shore. He’d lit it up right to the back with candles to show us the hand prints his ancestors put on the walls when they arrived on the island. This was relatively recently actually but that didn’t seem to dampen the excitement for him! To my delight the roof was covered in tiny little bats trying to sleep. So sweet! They started to wake up and chatter to each other to complain about our intrusion!

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We promptly moved onto another beautiful snorkelling spot. The coral gardens around the island really were stunning.

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Finally we made it down to the village on the island where some of the ladies were weaving baskets in the hope to sell their wares to the nosey tourists walking about in their homes. They had a series of necklaces they’d put together from the shells with the amusing label ‘neckless’ beneath them… The village was right on the beach, with some of the houses actually built out of pieces of coral.

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Carving up a new outrigger

 

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All in all a beautiful day out to make up for the day in today! It’s taken around 4 hours to try and load photos. Needless to say – I’ve lost patience. Not sure if these are actually going to come through. Attempting to scroll back up to proof read is definitely not going to happen so apologies for that!

 

Back in the Mud

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Despite the excitement, it can be pretty unsettling arriving into an unfamiliar place, with chickens and pigs running about on the ‘highway’, and trying to make your way around without drawing too much attention to yourself. After touch down in Samoa, they were asking for too much for taxis at the airport so I headed in the direction of the bus stop when a taxi scooped me up for half the price – he did, however, have absolutely no idea where he was going, spoke little to no English, and had to stop at various hotels to ask for directions. He didn’t fail to make sure I had his number to arrange ‘picnic’ the next day though.

The hostel itself has no internet, maps or information. In fact the whole country apparently does not ‘do’ free wifi. Or signal on my phone, for that matter. You can buy a certain number of limits at a steep price but sometimes it takes such a long time to establish a decent connection that most of the minutes have gone! (Really irritated currently as have just lost 45 minutes of paid internet time as I couldn’t get signal to open the browser in order to log off so it just ticked away my time L Will have to just wait til the morning and try again). I headed to the tourist office in the local town several times to get my bearings. I was a little dismayed to find that the ‘fale’ I’d booked is essentially a (shared) wall-less hut. I bumped into a nice twenty-something guy from the Czech republic who helped me carry my shopping from the supermarket – he couldn’t remember the name of his hotel but it then amusingly transpired that he was a couple of beds down in the next fale. It’s all a little too close for comfort with people you’ve never met before! IMG_4060

I didn’t push myself on that first day: popped in to check out the flea market, familiarised myself with town and bought some crackers and peanuts (not the best selection at the supermarket) to serve as food for the next few days! Speaking of fleas – have just let the hostel’s cat jump onto my lap for some attention and am slightly regretting the decision.

The next day, Leiataua, the same taxi driver, returned to the hostel at the arranged time to take me down to Black Sand beach on the south of the island. Our language barrier led to a number of entertaining miscommunications. My favourite was when I asked what, if any, wild animals they had on the island. He seemed a little confused so I painstakingly tried to explain through a number of different means such as ‘animals that are not kept for foor or as pets’, ‘animals that are part of the natural environment’ etc. He confidently told me that he understood and after much deliberation announced that they have cows and chickens. Aside from these rather advanced questions he’d generally just respond with a ‘yes’ and a nod of the head, regardless of what I’d said.

Again, he had no idea where he was going and stopped to ask every person on the edge of the road. That isn’t an exaggeration – he would drive 10 metres then ask again as if he either had short-term memory loss or had no faith in the previous answer. We ended up somewhere different from what I’d requested but the hilarity of what ensued made up for that disappointment.

We had to park the car and get out as the road to the beach was only suitable for four wheel drive. I explained that I was happy to go by myself and come back but he didn’t seem to understand and just said ‘now we walk’ ‘you and me’ to which he giggled. We ended up going on what was apparently a 7 mile round trip, wading through rivers, knee deep mud and at one point being drenched by a monsoon. The poor guy fell over a couple of times and was needing to pee every 30 minutes but meanwhile I just couldn’t get over the surreal nature of the situation: I was out on a tropical hike with my obese taxi driver.

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The beaches at the end of this expedition were certainly beautiful – largely because it’s easy to imagine that they are completely undiscovered. I particularly love the volcanic rock everywhere and the rich black sand that it gets ground down into.

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Hole in the lava rocks where the waves would whirl through and erupt out of

Hole in the lava rocks where the waves would whirl through and erupt out of

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ripples of solid lava falling into the sea

ripples of solid lava falling into the sea

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Leiataua tried to charge three times the price advertised. I think this was due to the fact that the walk annihilated him – he was panting and sweating like he’d just run a marathon. I gave him all I head which wasn’t enough so not sure how that’s going to resolve itself…he wants to take me out for another ‘picnic’ trip (tickles me how any trip out is just called ‘picnic’). However hilarious, I’m not overly keen to head out on another adventure with him but he now thinks I owe him money…I’ll have to get some out from the bank but am reluctant to give him the extortionate price asked for as I’ve already spent too much.

Safely back at the hostel – I took the 30 minute walk through town to the marine reserve and headed out with my snorkel to cool down a little. It was pretty, but ridiculously shallow – the high salt content meant I could float on the top but I couldn’t move my legs or arms down at all or they’d make contact with the coral and that never turns out well! With only a few minor scrapes I eventually made it out to the drop off area where things got much more manageable!

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Look how far out I was - and the reef was still only half a metre below the surface!

Look how far out I was – and the reef was still only half a metre below the surface!

It feels so great to be able to relax in my hut now, even if it is dark. Am going to purchase a few more minutes wifi to get this up and running so fingers crossed it gets through! Bye for now.

Bright Lights, Bigger City

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As our time in New York draws to a close, I thought I’d focus on two of the highlights of our trip: Central Park and the museums. I must admit, the attempted ‘renaissance style’ of many of the ‘old’ buildings did amuse me a little – purely because I’ve been spoilt by living in Europe. The architecture of the museums was still pretty impressive (if you don’t try to compare it!).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the side of the park, was enormous! We particularly enjoyed the Monet, Manet and Degas collections but, arguably, the most unique installation was the 10 B.C. Egyptian Temple of Dendur – that’s right the entire temple has been installed into the museum! Up on top there’s a summer drinks bar with beautiful views of the skyline over the park, but be warned: it has very limited seating.

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Temple of Dendur

Special exhibition - China through the looking glass.

Special exhibition – China through the looking glass.

That iconic Seurat

That iconic Seurat

View from the roof

View from the roof

We accidentally snuck into the Museum of natural history round the back as couldn’t find the entrance… it certainly rivals the London equivalent. For us, the Blue Whale representation and dinosaur collection were the best parts!

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Butterfly dispay

Butterfly display

Next onto the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This is definitely one not to be missed – the Andy Warhol collection was particularly impressive but the whole gallery was impeccable.

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We ran out of time and money for the Guggenheim but at least managed to admire it’s unusual structure as we walked down the east side of the park.

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The park, in general, was draw-dropping – not just because of its immense size but also due to the beautiful variety. We loved the huge rock structures dotted about the place between the trees.

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We loved watching the little turtles poking their noses out from the algae. Spot the two here that have ventured out to enjoy the sun.

We spent ages eagerly watching the little turtles poking their noses out from the algae. Spot the two here that have ventured out to enjoy the sun.

Belvedere 'Castle'

Belvedere ‘Castle’

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We got very excited watching the various baseball games going on throughout the lawns – it always surprises me how different American culture is to English! Speaking of which – only in America would you get a complementary cake with your meal! Brunch here is apparently a huge thing at the weekends so Katherine and I headed to ‘Friends of a Farmer’ in Greenwich Village for omelette and pancakes with free apple corn cake stuff. Having said that, the portions are not as big here as they had been on the west coast – perhaps we’ve just not been going to the right places; in general we’ve found food to be extremely expensive, particularly fruit and veg. I paid $4 for two apples the other day. FOUR dollars.

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Final stop: Empire State building. We went up at night to get a little variety from the ‘Top of the Rock’. The view was suitably incredible but I still maintain that the top of the Rockefeller is better purely because you have the iconic Empire State within the view. It’s just like the Eiffel tower in Paris – you can go up the tower but I think better views of the city can be achieved up the Arc de triumph as the iconic structure dominates the skyline, creating views that truly can’t be mistaken for another large city.

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And that’s all for now folks. Been kicked out of the Airbnb so just perched in Starbucks waiting to head to the airport for my two day flight to the South Pacific now!

Summer in the City

Washington Park Jazz

People say you shouldn’t visit New York in the summer. At first we thought this was immaterial as the heat seemed perfectly bearable, but over time it seems to have hit us! The worst area is the subway, as waves of very hot air keep you dripping with sweat whilst waiting in the dingy, run-down stations.

New York Subway New York Subway

The best way to sight-see to avoid the heat is on a boat/ferry! We splashed out on a ‘landmark cruise’ as wanted to get the best value out of our ‘explorer pass’ but if you haven’t got a pass or want to use it on other things then the Staten Island ferry is a viable alternative. We looped around the south of Manhattan and got some great views of the iconic, but surprisingly small, Lady Liberty.

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To get a few different angles of the city we have been wandering around various districts to try and get a flavour of the variety here: Chelsea art’s district boasted the ‘high line’ park, created from an old rail line; Greenwich village was like stepping into the set of ‘Friends’ or ‘Sex in the City’ with locations from both shows available to track down for keen fans; Chinatown and Little Italy speak for themselves and Harlem was notably….how to put this kindly…’edgier’.

Flowers in 'High Line' park.

Flowers in ‘High Line’ park.

Apartment block from Friends.

Apartment block from Friends.

Harlem Street Art

Harlem Street Art

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I love pinkberry! It's a frozen yoghurt brand dotted about the place that we became familiar with in LA so it was nice to find it again!

I love pinkberry! It’s a frozen yoghurt brand dotted about the place that we became familiar with in LA so it was nice to find it again!

Heading down south we went to visit the very moving 9/11 memorial. It is incredibly well done: a series of square waterfalls lead to a middle drop where you can’t see the bottom, creating a ‘void’ where the two towers once stood.

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The old with the new. Over the memorial stands the 'One World Trading Centre' built to replace the twins. It is now the tallest building in the country.

The old with the new. Over the memorial stands the ‘One World Trading Centre’ built to replace the twins. It is now the tallest building in the country.

Brooklyn Bridge was pretty but packed! We didn’t walk the whole way across as were dead on our feet at this point. Below is the view back towards the financial district.

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I got excited by recognising the steps of the Courts of Justice from countless films, but Wall street itself was much like any other financial district. I’m not sure what I was expecting, perhaps for Leonardo DiCaprio to spring out into the street spilling cocaine trails behind him.

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Speaking of celebrities, we came down from a roof top bar south of Central Park to find a small group of paparazzi waiting outside the Directors Guild Theatre and stopped to ask what was going on. Crowds quickly gathered, nobody knowing what was happening at all, and crowd mentality led to us all hanging around for over an hour gossiping, sharing ‘speculations’ and generally swapping stories. The whole experience was actually pretty hilarious – trying to get intel out of the ‘pap’ who wouldn’t budge then asking the drivers in the flashy cars waiting outside… finally Tom Cruise emerged to much excitement and a flurry of flashes and screaming.

We cooled down with a trip to Times Square to see the mayhem at night.

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Outro

Lotus Flowers

“Summer ends, and Autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night.”
 – Hal Borland

The time has finally come for my summer to draw to a close. Bangkok has whizzed past in a blur of alcohol and cheap massages.

I’m not viewing my homecoming as the end, per say, more like a new start in a different place. To be perfectly honest I’d been looking forward to escaping the omnipotent smell of fish sauce.

Khao San Road - great spot for a big of haggling over typical backpacker goodies: baggy clothes, jewellery, pirated dvds etc etc

Khao San Road – great spot for a big of haggling over typical backpacker goodies: baggy clothes, jewellery, pirated dvds etc etc

Don't be alarmed - it's not me. Sandra, my mexican room mate, decided on a slightly clichéed visit to one of the multiple Bangkok tattoo parlours.

Don’t be alarmed – it’s not me. Sandra, my Mexican room mate, decided on a, slightly clichéd, visit to one of the multiple Bangkok tattoo parlours.

 

As has come to be a habit when visiting new cities, I took a trip to the National Art Gallery. It was in pretty bad condition; It appeared of going through some sort of construction work, with most of the building empty. However there was an inspiring little exhibition in an odd set-up outside of the main building. I was rather taken with a duo of intricate and lively collages by a man called Sittichoke Wichian entitled ‘Living Ways, Bonds and Happiness’. Here’s one of the two:
Bangkok National art gallery

Below is another piece which caught my eye as it reflected the craftsmanship that’s typical throughout South East Asia – silk weaving. It depicts a series of poses of a shrouded nun, through gaps in the indigo silk work.

Bangkok national art gallery

I’ve also tried to make the most of the fantastic street food in the last few days. My staple diet of curry, pad thai, Mango sticky rice and tofu stir fry extended into breakfast. Here’s my eight a.m tofu green curry!

I have to admit though, birds eye chillies in a green curry first thing in the morning are not so easy on the stomach.

I have to admit though, birds eye chillies in a green curry first thing in the morning are not so easy on the stomach.

I’m still not entirely won over by Bangkok, being a little put off by the overly aggressive approach of some of the vendors and the slight sketchy feeling you get from certain places at night time. However, I can’t deny that it’s a fun place to visit. It’s particularly great at the end of a trip as you can stock up on souvenir’s and $10 full body massages before heading back to reality. In my case, the return was a lavish three day journey, the highlight being the night spent on the stone floor of Mumbai airport.

Needless to say, it’s good to be home. It was a bit of a shock to the system to descend into the freezing grey ‘mizzle’ but as Steinbeck wisely puts it in his ‘Travels with Charley‘ “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” I’m heading out on a whole new adventure in a few short days as I move up to London to finally re-start university. This is by no means the end – more like a respite from excessing moving about the place  – with any luck there will be many more summers to come so WATCH THIS SPACE!

I really want to thank-you all for being such a huge support to me throughout this adventure – I really do appreciate it more than I can say. I’ll leave you with a quote from the brilliant Albert Camus as I attempt to descend once again into the charted waters of the bitter cold. Let’s hope the unpleasant days of the 2011 winter, the last one that I was around to experience, are behind me.

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

~Albert Camus

Khao San Road by day