And now…

…it’s all over. Nine months, 20 countries and 31 flights. My travelling style is militant. And I’m broken! I need a holiday…! Or just a decent duvet, lie-ins and Marmite. Lots of Marmite.

I love a question, so have summarised some FAQs to wrap this blog up.

What were the lows?

– rats partially consuming my favourite sandals in India
– being followed by a dog in Ecuador which kept licking an anal wound (it’s own!!)
– having to walk past a semi naked and begging toddler on a Mumbai roundabout
– being bitten by a monkey in Nicaragua

What were the highs?

– swimming through caves in Guatemala whilst holding up a candle for light
– being fed by happy families on sleeper trains in India
– wondering round Alcatraz Island at night in California
– Korea. Just…Korea
– getting a scar from a monkey bite in Nicaragua!
– …and too many more….

Was it lonely going alone?

At times, undoubtedly. But whilst your friends become strangers, strangers become your friends. Very quickly and very easily. More often I found myself wondering when I could steal some time alone to read / Skype / Misc Other.

What about Brad?

He is a paragon of all thing lovely. He looked after some of my life admin and was always contactable for catch-ups. I’m nauseous with gratitude! Spending time together at Christmas and Easter was also indescribably wonderful.

Worth it?

Absolutely. My mind has been blown more than my bank account. I have memories for my death bed.

Have I changed?

Yes. Browner and fatter. Higher resting heart rate. More information in my brain. And I like my feet more. They have been really useful.

It has also reinforced a deep contentedness with my life and huge appreciation…of being born…of family, of friends, of past jobs, of food, of health, of England and of small animals with furry faces (because they were always great).

———

If you’ve been reading my blog – thanks! It was mostly a venture to ensure I didn’t forget what I did, how I felt and what I thought. Others enjoying it has been a pleasant side effect. Travelling, writing this stuff – it’s been a ball!

And below is some pragmatic advise…

Byeeee!

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If your thinking of an adventure and you have the means…go. Admittedly, it took me a good 3 years of excuses to eventually bite the bullet. But I’m so glad I did. And if you do go, take these…

– extra long charging cables so you can plug in your electronics and sleep with them safely under your pillow.
– putty earplugs. Because they are amazing and people snore.
– gaffer tape. Fixes flip flops, seals food etc. Even if you never use it, others will and you get to look like a competent traveller
– nail brush. Good for hand washing grimy clothes.
– different bank cards. Because sometimes one just won’t work. Norwich & Peterborough do a debit card with no international fees. Capital One do a credit card with no international fees.
– screw top toothpaste. Clip down lid models have a tendency to pop open and decant over belongings
– wet wipes. For if you don’t have a screw top toothpaste
– see-through toiletry bag. Reduce daily rummaging.
– Lonely Planet Samples. Downloadable for free on kindle. Gives you top 10/20 sites and you can go from there. Apart from India! Full version needed. This is your bible.
– XE Currency Conversion App. Obvious.
– Coded Lock. For hostel lockers. And no key to lose.
– Chain. For securing backpack if taking sleeper trains or dodge buses.
– Anti-bacterial Gel. To kill the aids.
– Notebook. To transcribe hostel addresses etc when you don’t want to be flashing your phone about.
– Decent Backpack for day use. Such as the Jack Wolfskin Moab Jam 18. Don’t get me started.
– Small Shoulder Bag (for the ladies…). Because you don’t always want to look like a dork.
– black footless high denier tights (for the ladies…). Compact and lightweight modesty for temples and conservative Muslim areas. Can whack on under dresses and shorts rather than lugging around trousers.
– small lightweight gifts from home. Sweets, stickers… Really useful for street kids, saying thank you etc when you don’t want to give money.

Finally, as per Brads advise, all critical items (passport, bank cards, phone, cash) should have a ‘home’. If they are not in your hand, they should be in their home. Using this system you can save on unnecessary panicking and be quick to necessary panicking.

…that’s all folks!

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Bouncing around Burma (Myanmar!)

Landing in Yangon one of my first observations is that the ladies have yellow stuff smeared over their faces. Initially I assumed this to be a Buddhist tradition of some sort, though it transpires to be sap from the Thanaka tree which is used as a daily sunblock. Chunks of the tree are sold by most street vendors.

Driving to my hostel, Yangonites mill the streets holding an assortment of umbrellas to protect from the alternating powerful sun and monsoon showers. At traffic lights men sell quals eggs, cigarettes and disturbing holograms of winking babies.

Once bags are dumped, I take to the streets and walk to Shwedagon Pagoda. This is a vast and compact area of temples and golden Buddhas. The centrepiece is a 99 metre high gold plated pagoda. The crown which sits at the very top is adorned with hundreds of rings, bracelets, necklaces and earrings attached through the links of small chains. The crown has 5,448 diamonds over 2,000 rubies.

The 21st century has made its mark as several Buddhas have flashing LED halos which oddly jar against the scene of bowing monks. And there is WiFi. And escalators.

On leaving the temple I head down to a small lake where you can pay 30p for a small bird. A lady reaches into a chattering cage of several hundred small winged creatures and expertly catches one pinched between her fingers. The intention is to pass it across and at my will it is released over the lake. Having never used force to constrain the flight of a small bird, and through the fear of breaking its delicate bones, I barely hold the thing as it swiftly escapes. I buy two more and manage to get the third under control. In one glorious moment, I raise my arms, release my grip, and Bird the Third flies to freedom. Then a large winged beast swoops from overhead and swiftly captures my small friend between its violently hooked beak. If I was under 10 I think I would have cried…

Being over 10, I chuckle morbidly and buy bread to feed the koi carp.

Soon after I find a backstreet market. The main produce is what looks like fish mixed with mud.

My sweaty day ends in Myanmar Zoological Park. For £1 entry you can feed hippos, elephants, otters, monkeys and more. Unfortunately, as is often the case with zoos, many of the animals look beyond depressed.

The next day I recruit a Jeremy from Australia for a furious amount of touristic activities. We start the day at San Pya Fish Market where we seem to have missed most of the dawn action. Alas, there is still lots of fish juices to enjoy in our open toe shoes. We then cab to Sein Lann So Pyay Gardens which are small and odd, with wooden Disney characters inexplicably lurking between the bushes.

A little out the city is an Allied War Memorial Cemetery which marks the graves of 6,000 men who lost their lives fighting in Myanmar. There is a strong band of UK funded caretakers maintaining the immaculate space.

Onto the Drug Elimination Museum. An extravagant communist pursuit across 3 sprawling floors ‘educates’ (completely terrifies) you about the use of narcotic drugs. There is some history about Empirialism and the widespread use of opium dens (6,442 across SE Asia in 1930). There is an interactive ‘Drugs Ruin Lives’ maze which houses bedraggled and broken mannequins, photos of dead people and finishes with an ominous red button which activates a motorised claw when pressed.

There are galleries showing photos of the ceremonial incinerations of heroin hauls, and rollers being driven over seized opium oil. A crude light and sound display allows you to burn your own pile of fibreglass narcotic drugs. A fun day out for all the family!

We spend the afternoon at Bogyoke Market. In the food hall (cave) the staff insist on fanning us whilst we eat our meal. I shamefully encourage them – being in Myanmar at this time of year is like living in a steamer.

After missing the sleeper train up to Bagan, I begrudgingly buy a ticket for the night coach. With time to spare I buy some supplies from a supermarket round the corner. This is then inspected with great interest by every member of staff at the ticket office (shack). They are a big fan of the single carrot.

As the coach station is outside the city I’m crammed into the back of a sweltering truck. With our belongings in the middle I’m amongst a sweaty pile of locals. It is much like in films when the back doors of a vehicle are opened to reveal resigned and overheated illegal immigrants.

This heat is promptly missed once on the coach which is Baltic with overzealous air conditioning. Thankfully, I’d met Ken from Malaysia who offered up a much needed fleece. We stick together to find accommodation in Nyaung Oo / Bagan, settling on a cheap b&b. It’s mad how you stop noticing things and your parameters of what’s pleasant and reasonable change…the corridors are mottled with mould, plugs are falling of the walls and the windows don’t close. But for $7 a night we think it’s a palace.

The day is spent on an electric motorbike exploring the bizarre landscape of 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries spread across the flat plains of Bagan. Sunset at Shwesandor gifts us a double rainbow and monsoon showers.

The next morning we head to Mt Popa, where a pagoda sits atop an abrupt lump of rock. Monkeys run riot and with bare feet you have to pick your way past their poo pellets and pools of piss to reach the summit.

Over food our UN of travellers discuss idioms from our respective countries. In Japan a small garden is referred to as being the size of a cats forehead. It also comes out in the wash that whats-his-face (forgotten) from Middleborough was the football team mascot for 3 years…Roary the Lion. Finally, I meet a celebrity.

A night bus winds it’s way down to Nyaungshwe town by Lake Inle. The driver is sprouting sporadic long hairs from his neck, but has no hint of established beard growth.

Inle Lake lounges between two mountain ranges. It is worth visiting due to the ‘floating village’, where inhabitants live in wooden shacks on stilts over the calm waters. They are supported by a ‘floating garden’ of tomatoes, cucumbers and more. The plants grow on grass rafts with bamboo to support growth and prevent the huge vegetable patch from drifting.

The obligatory silversmith, fabric workshop and umbrella factory follow. The lake is also home to several ‘long neck ladies’. These are women from the Kayan Lahwi tribe who elongate their necks using brass coils. Looking like a giraffe is seen as a sign of beauty and wealth. As we are invited to take photos, the only thing missing is a cage. It feels all sorts of wrong.

Lake Inle is also home to a couple of vineyards with ‘memorable’ wine. Good fun on a bicycle and on a budget. Before taking the sleeper bus back to Yangon, we head for a traditional Burmese massage. Brutal. I nickname my robust but quite aged masseuse The Tenderiser.

The trip back to the capital is a vast improvement on other journeys after upgrading to a luxury coach. Imagine individual armchairs placed in a bus. The only glitch was accidentally attacking the bag porter in the groin with my umbrella. He was a forgiving man.

Back in Yangon we track down the best hotel in the city and use their pool over a drawn out lunch. Our downtown hovel awaits us in the evening.

Myanmar is a surprisingly civilised and honest society. Tales of returned wallets, passports and miscellaneous other belongings were plentiful. The ‘tourist tax’ added to usual prices are minimal and quickly retracted when challenged. It’s a relaxed country (…in the areas we are allowed to travel!) of people living with contented ease.

On the down side, water bottles are always overfilled meaning they are impossible to open without spilling, power cuts are daily and the dried fish sold on the streets smells rancid. All forgivable ailments.

Big tick. I wouldn’t have wanted to end my travels anywhere else.

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Sidling up to Singapore

Just over the Straight of Johor at the tip of the Malaysian Peninsular, is Singapore. Five million people, 2 million foreign born and the 3rd highest per capita income (though also one of the largest disparities…).

Surprise surprise. Former British Empire. The country was founded in 1819 as a trading post for the East India Company by John Stamford Raffles.

War. Japanese. Chinese Massacred…

In 1963 Singapore was made independent and joined Malaysia. This union only lasted 2 years before Singapore was ‘expelled’. This was the result of heavily Malay focused policies which frustrated the substantial Chinese and Indian Singaporeans.

The country has grown into an economic powerhouse to rival Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpa. My first impressions are of a less brash Dubai. Kylie (Irish girl I met in Bali) and I set off on foot to explore Chinatown (Sweet and Sour Pork – 9/10) and traverse the city to Arab Street and Little India. We pass through the Central Business District which is close to a carbon copy of Canary Wharf, both in lay out and corporations.

Heat and humidity define the day. Condensation drips down the OUTSIDE of air conditioned buildings and at nighttime the lights of traffic blur in the steamy haze.

Plastered all over the city are campaigns aimed at politeness. ‘Move along Mary’ invites you to fill the aisles on public transport, ‘Stand up Simon’ to give your seat up for others…etc etc.

Through a happy fluke of changed flights, I’m in Singapore at the same time as Rob and Amy. There is no way they are escaping, so I tag along on a $150 Champagne Brunch Buffet with their lovely hosts (Robs former boss from RBS, his wife and their tiny offspring).

We tumble out onto the street after many a champagne and gin meringues (and ribs, sashimi, sausages, lobster, crab, risotto, duck…) and make a beeline for Settlers Cafe. Pretty much designed for Amy, they have over 600 board games and free flowing sodas. The walls are opaque glass for pictionary sprawlings and score keeping. Kylie joins and after 3 hours of gaming heaven we are burnt out and trundle home.

My Singapore fling is over. Avoiding militancy over museums, galleries and miscellaneous other, it was gloriously relaxing. Getting to prod two familiar faces was a winning perk.

To Myanmar (Burma)! My Final Destination. How time flies…and so must I.

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Inching round Indonesia – Part II

After the emotional distress of Dinky flying back to London, I taxi over to Canggu to meet up with a girl I met back in New Zealand (Tamsin). The taxi passes through a signposted ‘law abiding sector’ where cars have to travel in the right direction and stop at traffic lights. I couldn’t quite grasp the point of this selective enforcement.

The taxi driver was a most enthusiastic man who barked in my face for most the journey. I’m still not sure what he was communicating.

My accommodation in Canggu is an open sided barn. Mattresses are layed out and sarongs hung from beams to create individual ‘rooms’. A number of bean bag make up our lounge area, and surfboards hang from the ceiling.

Over the next 3 days our tropical squat is a base for surfing in Batu Bolong. I’m introduced to my first ‘pointy place’ where locals feed. Behind glass are a selection of rices, vegetables and meats. With some discriminate pointing, a towering pile of goodness can be purchased for pennies (about 50 of them). There is the added excitement of food tickets which you present to pay on leaving. The more you eat, the more tickets you get. I was often ‘winning’.

It’s in ‘pointy places’ I discover es jeruk (iced sweet orange), bala-bala (veg tempura like) and gado-gado ( steamed veg with satay sauce). Locals always leave a small amount of food on their plates ‘for the gods’. I can’t do this and struggle not to raid others left overs.

Two girls from camp head into Kuta for a night out with two local surfers. The girls bump into some friends from earlier travel days but the Balinese men refuse to mix, stating that it ‘wasn’t the plan’. After much debate, the men realise that exclusivity to their female company will not be granted so they head home. In both retail and romantic pursuits, the Balinese males can be quite predatory… I learn that tourists are called ‘bulis’ and such men ‘buli hunters’. Avoid!

Tamsin and I head on to Ubud, located in Central Bali. Ubud is a maze of art, craft, cafés and yoga. With a couple of others we hire a taxi and and go to point our eyes at some old stuff.

First up is Goa Gajah, or Elephant Cave, a stepped jungle valley of 9th century Hindu temples. The main attraction is a stone mask whose gaping mouth leads you into a cave of worship. A sign proudly proclaims that Goa Gajah is a ‘1995 Unesco World Heritage Site (Tentative)’. Tentative? This is bruising.

We move onto Tirta Empul which houses cleansing pools for public use. No soaps though as the pools are home to several voluptuous koi carp. Hindu visitors leave ladened down by buckets filled for home use.

Soon enough the compulsory Spice Tour comes around (unavoidable, third one of my travels…!). After traipsing round the usual, we meet the headline act…the Luwak. This is a large nocturnal meerkat like creature which feeds on high quality coffee beans which are then extracted from their faeces, roasted, and sold as a premium coffee. Yep. Luwak Coffee. Go get yours now…

Last up are views of paddy fields and a museum which briefly focuses on Hollands invasion of Indonesia under Queen Willomena. Contorted wooden masks with wild mains of hair (rangda) and two person operated beasts (barong ket) used in traditional dances are also displayed.

Back in Ubud I join an Arial Yoga class which involves conducting various asanas (poses) using a sling which hangs from beams overhead. Faddish but fun.

As Tamsin heads to Lombok I travel west to the coastal town of Sanur. The hostel has a sign up warning about sociopaths with advise on how to spot them. This is new. There are also giant rats which jump out of bins at night. Not so new.

One evening was spent watching the Netherlands v Australia World Cup game. We had just one Australian in our midst. Against stereotype, he was enthusiastically uninterested in sport. This self taught didgeridoo player, educated me on how didgeridoos are formed by termites hollowing out the insides of tree trunks. They form small rivulets which run the length of the instrument creating the distinctive timbre when played. He acquired his own ‘didge’ by tapping on trees to find a hollow trunk. He also pointed me in the direction of this mind blowing artist (link).

The Netherlands won and I shouted ‘Go Football!’ four times.

A couple of studios in Sanur run Balinese Yoga classes. I toured these for variation, though it transpired the same teacher reigned over the whole patch so I just appeared to be stalking him. Balinese yoga is a mix of steady Vinyasa and Hatha styles…for anyone this makes sense to! And I’m NOT ashamed to admit I paid for a ‘flower bath’ (boring after 2 minutes).

I circle back to the hellish but beguiling splat of Kuta. A Canadian girl on the shuttle bus is heading to the airport to fly home for her birthday. Her friends and family, however, are expecting her back two months later. She’d asked her mum to get family and close friends round for a communal Skyping session ‘to Indonesia’. She also suggested a feast in her honour and this was duly arranged. At the scheduled call time, as the small crowd are huddled round the computer, the doorbell will ring and she will arrive at the birthday party she subversively and expertly planned herself!

I spend my last night in Bali watching the sunset with a pick and mix of people (Vietnamese, Canadian, Argentinian and French). The Canadian guy enlightens that the singular long nail many older Indonesian men possess is a status symbol of not working in manual labour.

Indonesia is HUGE and inconveniently arranged for speedy travel. I’ve only seen a morsel but will miss the too sparse but distinctive native calling cards. The throbbing pulse of wind through overhead kites, the ubiquitous scent of frangipani incense and the nonchalant artistic talents (carving, painting, music, singing, on and on).

I’ll miss the colourful array of delicate banana leaf offerings laden with flowers, rice and sweets. Bringing good fortune to…everything, they politely obstruct shop doors, stack up in temples and sit atop ATM machines.

Finally…the cats. Due to human cruelty or island inbreeding (juries out) they parade an unusual display of stumpy, curled or bent tails. I meet one heavily pregnant cat with a stumpy set-up. With her bulging belly she looks like a small goat.

I’m now on a plane to Singapore, taxing past the beach where Dinky and I were stood not so long ago on our failed plane stroking expedition. So long Indo! Sumatra and Java next time…

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Inching round Indonesia – Part I

Arriving at Bali’s Denpasar airport, I’m driven through the sprawl of Kuta to my hostel. The journey was pitched at 350 rupiahs. We settle on sixty. This becomes a theme…

Once arrived, a small collective of us head off surfing. One English guy is relishing the company after spending a couple of days with someone he ‘thought was alright, until he started talking about eating babies’??

Kuta is a scrambled and loud mess of shop touts, bars and massage spas. At night, Australians are out en masse and the largest clubs offer endless free drinks between 9-10am. And no entry fee. Whilst this seems overly generous, it does create a partially incapacitated audience lacking in good judgement. In due course, the price of drinks rocket, and a sizeable chunk stick around.

I move to a super duper luxury hotel (£6 per night…) send a box of warm layers home, nap (top 10) and meet Alex (henceforth Dinky) at the airport. With a couple of others we head to tripadvisors #1 eatery, Fat Chow. Take away one letter and that is how I felt after hoovered up their delicious offerings.

The following day we chuck ourselves about on surfboards and Dinky visits a shady backstreet currency exchange. After a taxi ride to Padang Bai we find ourselves hussled into the Tourist Information building (shed), which has chickens scratching around the desk. We are sold tickets to Gili Trawangan, then spend 4 hours on a ferry which takes us to Lombok. Fail. We entertained ourselves along the way by getting a Balinese man to practise his English by reading to us from Wuthering Heights.

We eventually find ourselves in the small coastal town of Singgigi. The ocean currents are fierce but thankfully run parallel to the beach. The force is impossible to swim against, but makes for some cruisey snorkelling. A long walk back up the beach and you can ride the lazy route to your hearts content.

After booking a 3 day trek up Mount Rinjani, the volcanic peak of Lombok, we carb load on a trio of bread, rice and potatoes. Our pick up arrives at 4.30am. The driver has one eye and hotboxes the car with his cigarette smoke.

In light of the peak being over 3,000 metres above sea level, we are advised to hire trousers and jackets. Before we set off, we have to nag endlessly until some clothes are produced. We are rewarded richly with an eclectic mix of garments which would look at home in an M&S advert from the 70s. Please see photo below.

Our woes are deepened when we realise the company are one porter short. As a result, a boy who looks 14 ends up carrying our backpack on his front, with another on his back. We feel quite evil, until we spy the porters transporting the food and tents. For each man, about 30kg are bundled up and attached to either end of a 2 metre length of bamboo. This is then balanced on their shoulders as they run, climb and shimmy their way up the tracks, in flip flops! We spied a couple of people on the fancy version of our trek and their porters were carrying a blender…

The Rinjani trek puts the Cuidad Perdida (Colombia) and Tongariro Crossing (New Zealand) to shame. It is brutal. I lost my lungs more than once. The scenery was better than kittens, but didn’t stop camera tripods from looking like very attractive zimmerframes.

Dinky talks about cycling to work at the BBC after I got her in the habit when working together at L’Oreal. I proudly proclaim that I have changed her life to which she answered that I haven’t, but I have changed her thighs. And what strong sparrow legs she has!

When the group are discussing the value of the trek, we realise we have been monumentally ripped off by our agent, Mr. Abel. Three times the normal amount ripped off. And we thought we were getting a steal! Have the last 8 months taught me nothing?!?!

The highlight (and lowlight) of the trek was waking at 1.30am to reach the summit for sunrise. The volcanic scree forms a precarious path of unfathomable inclines. It is also being blasted by arctic winds. Whilst we wait for first light we huddle together like penguins to abate wild shivering. We have socks on our hands.

After the final days descent (via volcanic crater lake and bubbling geothermal pools) we revel in victory. Bizarrely, for the last 500 metre the Swiss lady in the team hitches a lift on the back of a moped driven by an Indonesian dwarf.

We head to the inert Gili Meno island for some much deserved r and r. Our small wooden boat is already struggling to contain a full restaurants worth of bamboo furniture. Locals and unkempt travellers are loaded on top. We have to keep moving from side to side to avert sinkage. It feels unbalanced enough for me to be holding a small bag with just passports, cash and bank cards, ready to jump ship. Whilst making the crossing, Dinky and I continually assess and agree the direction in which we would swim.

Thankfully, we make it unscathed and after a day of doing less than little we hop over to Gili Trawangan. Bicycles and horse drawn carts are the only island transport. After thinking better of a tandem we ride regular bikes round the perimeter, stopping for a snorkel on the way. We witness a poisonous sea snake attacking its prey and chase squids (they win). After shelling out for a sports massage for my aching limbs, I walk away partially crippled and regretful.

A speed boat bumps us back to Bali as we sit on the roof for Burn Fest 2014. We arrive red and rattled to our hotel in Seminyak. It’s pretty odd. There is a huge painting of a puppy listening to an iPod and the proudly displayed certificates make reference to a completely different establishment. But it’s okay, because the rooms come with a pet cockroach. We name ours Mr. Abel.

After a couple of withered salads we head to a flashy resort, Cocoon, to sup cocktails and pretend we are travelling with Samsonite suitcases. Alas, we cannot deny our roots as by the end the night we are eating deep fried chicken skin (surprisingly good) in a local joint.

The next day Dinky decides to SPOIL EVERYTHING by having a trapped nerve in her neck. We have to cancel our trapeze lesson. No, really. Unlikely as it may sound! We decide to walk 5 hours to the airport to stroke the bellies of planes as they land. Turns out there’s heavy security and you can’t get so close. Whodathunkit?

We dissolve the evening with pirated films and comatose ourselves on a plethora of high salt and/or sugar content substances.

The following morning Dinky flies onwards. I’ll be missing that face. Alas, I must venture alone once more…

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New Zealand – Part III (Auckland & Around)

I’ve one evening in Auckland. My hostel room is above a karaoke bar which projects the wailings inside through a speaker outside. This wafts nicely into the dorm room, making for some fitful sleep. The longer term residents have used the fire sprinkler pipes as clothes racks and created a sense of privacy by hanging towels round their beds. I sprawl freely and in plain view.

Nursing a fully developed cold, I briefly venture into the non-descript streets before passing out for 13 hours straight.

Catching a bus to Taupo, the driver is a man in a blonde wig called Rachel and the guy sat across from me has put the drawstrings of his hoody in his ears.

Taupo is a sleepy town. I watch a man up a ladder cleaning a large metal fish and an information board celebrates their native ‘Giant Carnivorous Hermaphrodite Snails’. In the hostel I’m soon adopted for an evening trek up to the hot thermal river. An hour or so later and five of us are sat in a waterfall. It’s hot, too hot. One person (Marie) faints.

Marie put her working visa to use on a dairy farm producing organic yogurt. I feel nauseous when she describes having to milk the blood clots out of a cows badly bruised udders. She also informs that the females of mixed gender twin calfs are always infertile.

As weather has delayed the Tongarero Crossing, Marie and I walk to Huka Falls, along the Waikato River. The Waikato provides 15% of New Zealand’s power and converges through a narrow gorge to form the falls. A wild torrent churns through at 200,000 litres a second (or 5 Olympic Pools a minute). An early explorer described it as “a very considerate stream”. He was an idiot. It’s huge and ridiculous and I want to pour vats of (biodegradable) bubble bath off the bridge.

We revive ourselves at a honey shop where they appear to be showing a horror film…I had NO IDEA that a queen bee arose from a normal larvae being fed royal jelly, secreted from the HEADS of young worker bees. I had NO IDEA that several queen bees FIGHT TO THE DEATH before the winner is instated. This includes unhatched larvae being STUNG TO DEATH through their protective shells. Brutal stuff.

Serial murders aside, we enjoy Beenut Butter and Bacon Jam before heading on our merry way.

With blue skies but sub zero temperatures the following day, the Tongariro Crossing is on. Over seven arduous hours we pass Mt Doom (Lord of the Rings. Lost on me), stand on volcanic rocks with the trickle of streams underfoot, smell luminous sulphur lakes, spot a tui bird, and walk through clouds.

Leaving Taupo I have only one regret. This was failing to visit Prawn Theme Park. I have a penchant for prawns…and theme parks. Their marketing materials feature a young boy holding a giant prawn whilst looking indescribably terrified.

Next up is Rotorua, famous for varied geothermal activity. The whole city smells of eggs. As someone (me) once (today) said ‘It is a liberated land where one can fart freely’.

In Wai-O-Tomo, there are projectile mud pools, bubbling aquamarine lakes and burning vegetations near smouldering rocks. The huge Maori man driving the shuttle back to town tells me about a tribute to his tribe which can be found back home in Clandon Park. Curious…

The evening is spent wondering aimlessly. A military recruitment poster uses the logos of the Army, Navy and Air Force. The emblem of the Air Force is a kiwi bird…which is a flightless bird. Bad choice?

I’m still a sickly lump of lethargy in need of lengthy hibernations. Activities are minimal, stories are lacking. I finished reading Jane Eyre…which was completely brilliant.

On the way back up to Auckland I stop at the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. After meandering through the cave formations, we drift through dark waterways with paint spatterings of glow worms over head. They gather and branch out in elongated groups. The effect is similar to looking down on islands and coastal cities at night.

Back in Auckland I had booked to get eyelash extensions. They are as ridiculous as they sound. Tiny fibres are attached to your natural lashes, creating the illusion of a very generous god. A small Korean lady is running a half price offer and with Indonesian sea dwelling round the corner, I want to look less like a drowned rat.

Lying on a table out back, she starts by placing a series of tapes around my eyes which render them quite closed. She gets to work with tweezers and other ancillary items. It’s a good hours worth of input. Occasionally she tends to a customer. I hear a guy in the shop, seemingly on his mobile. After a few moments, the Korean lady jumps up screaming and runs out the shop. I can’t see a bleedin’ thing but I assume he’s nicked something. I scramble around on the floor for my handbag (which contains passport and all bank cards!!!). Blissfully, I find it, feel my way back to the table and sit clutching my bag with my eyes still taped shut. A few minutes later she’s back, having managed to get some men to chase down the thief. Her mobile phone is retrieved and we get back to work. It is quite shameful to be rendered blind in crisis through your own vanity!

After an evening of playing pool and staring at other peoples food (I still have lots of apples to work through …) I spend my last day in Auckland doing life admin in the library (ultra modern deluxe wonderfulness) and visiting Auckland Museum (ultra modern deluxe wonderfulness) where they are displaying Wildlife Photographer of the Year images. There were a few other hostel related experiences which left me seething, including the discovery of a used sanitary towel in the shower. Who does that??

Tonight I fly to Indonesia, soon to be joined by my buddy ol’ pal, Alex(andra).

New Zealand (exception of Auckland) has reminded me of home. The people possess reserved eccentricities and public amenities are politely shabby. The landscapes are ‘sweet as’ and most hostels come with a ginger cat.

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New Zealand – Part II (Christchurch – Queenstown)

One of the coffee shops in Christchurch sells a poster of the city map with “there is nothing to see here” emblazoned across it in red. This reflects the general sentiment of travellers heading away from the city. Not me!

As a result of the 2011 earthquakes, I was forewarned of tangled roadworks, a perpetual ivy of scaffolding and blocks of barren properties. Which there was. But also a lot more besides.

The staggering destruction is morbidly fascinating in itself. The majority of buildings in the central business district remain boarded up or partially collapsed. There is a new abundance of debris strewn common land and car parks where buildings have been demolished. Looking through the windows of abandoned shops, ceiling tiles and light fixtures are on the floor, along with fallen clothes racks and their loads. Where one roof has collapsed you can see exposed rows of seating in what used to be a theatre.

The original stone Cathedral collapsed, leading to the construction of Christchurch’s Cardboard Cathedral. The council worked with a Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban, who specialises in quick, temporary structures following natural disasters. With a lifespan of only 50 years, a campaign is now alive to ensure its permanency.

Just opposite is ‘185 Empty Chairs’ a temporary memorial to those who died. Each chair is hand painted white and nearby are the names and ages of those they represent. I notice there are 3 victims under 1 year old. Looking back at the chairs I spot a pram and two highchairs. It’s quite choking.

Despite the solemnity which hangs over the city, there are playful and pragmatic steps forward. The high street, banks and all, have relocated into a number of brightly painted shipping containers and loud murals can be found on newly exposed walls. One shop is selling wooden jewellery made from the salvaged timbers of broken homes.

Within Christchurch Museum is a photographic display of the earthquake aftermath. The exhibition is described as ‘temporary – as is life’.

The next exhibition displays native animals – the sadness does not subside…when laying an egg the hips of the female kiwi break. Consequently, the males undertake the care-taking whilst the ladies settle nearby to recover.

It’s takes the Paua House to raise spirits. This is a re-creation of Bluff residents, Fred & Myrtle’s front room which was lavishly decorated with the petrol slick patterned paua shells. Before they passed away, visitors from around the globe would meet the elderly couple to enjoy the eccentricity.

In a Maori exhibition the displays show how settlers used to store cooked wood pigeon in seaweed pouches, preserved by their own run off fats. These packages were stored in raised huts, the stilts of which had indents which were smeared with fat to prevent rats climbing up.

Christchurch also has a wizard. This is an old man in a long black gown and towering pointed hat. He sits in the city centre and lectures on his outlandish views. I spot him having coffee with a similarly dressed youngster. Maybe he has an apprentice. Or an overenthusiastic /sarcastic traveller cling-on.

After bumping into a French girl I met in Colombia 5 months ago (!!) a group of us head to a local pub for overpriced beers and free pool games.

The following day I take the TranzAlpine train through Arthur’s Pass in the Southern Alps and into Greymouth. The views are meant to be stunningly good, but are smothered by fog and rainstorms. Rainbows and milky green rivers make it partially worth the effort.

A commentary reveals the corrupt ways of the Bealey Hotel, located by a river crossing mid way through the mountains. Back in the days of arduous foot passage over the countries spine, the hotel owner dug pits in the river crossing causing people to be saturated and in need of an immediate bolt hole for drying off.

Connecting onto a coach down the coast to Franz Josef, we stop in Hokitika. Unfortunately, their Sock Machine Museum is closed. And they offered free entry. God knows why…

Back on the bus I meet Matt and Tom from West Yorkshire. Both have lost their passports. Tom’s got an emergency one issued which has a white external cover and is very thin. Not dissimilar to its owner.

Franz Josef is lashed by storms over the following two days. I spend the first trekking to the glacier. I walk with the clouds along the River Waiho, Maori for “steamy water”, an effect created from the glacier water meeting the relatively warm air. Three hours later, ferocious winds and driving rain have left me sodden and shivering. I hitch back to town and defrost in the hot tub.

The following day I catch the 8 hour bus to Queenstown. We stop for breakfast at an isolated Salmon Farm in the ar*e end of nowhere (Paringa). Considering we are likely to be their only (involuntary) custom for the day, the staff are grumpy and borderline racist to an Indian family. And the food is overpriced as our bus driver is served up a free feast for his favours. Four hours later we learn that the Haast Pass to Queenstown in closed for the day. We head back, via the same Salmon Farm for lunch…

One duvet, several movies and a weetabix later, we are back on the bus for attempt number two. The same bus driver, George, trots out the same running commentary of our drive. For breakfast we stop at…the salmon farm!

I hate salmon.

I do, however, like apples. Especially 70 for only $10. Our last stop before Queenstown was a fruit farm. I’ve been handing apples out to anyone and everyone since. Apples have even been used in exchange for free wifi. Yay for apples!

Queenstown perches on the edge of Lake Wakatipu, nestled between snow capped mountains. The city has the look and feel of a ski resort, which it effectively becomes for several months of the year.

There is a small collective who have bundled into Queenstown after encounters further north. We head out into the ice cold night. Max is a German guy taking a break from his job as a skydiving cameraman. He talks about how he has a ‘tongue trigger’ to take photos. The tandem masters also get paid extra when jumping with overweight customers. This is due to the added strain on their back. There was also quite a moving story about his mother doing a skydive on her 60th birthday. Quite a leap (pun intended) from previously begging him to find a safer profession.

The following day brings an epic journey to Milford Sound. Actually a fjord as caused by glaciers rather than rivers…who knew…? I want to say it was breathtaking, moved me to tears etc etc, but, it wasn’t and it didn’t. Stops at the Mirror Lake and native temperate rainforest were markedly more memorable.

I’ve been suffering since. Sore throat, runny nose and a head full of cotton wool. On my last morning in Queenstown I haul my wheezing self up to a viewpoint over the city. Also located at the top is a luge racing track where the energy needed to beat Max is duly summoned. One Fergburger later and I’m on a flight to Auckland.

I’d experimentally booked the cheapest hostel in Auckland. It’s a good walk from the city centre (especially with 26kg of accessories), next door to a homeless shelter and drunk men decorate the streets. The receptionist looks 12 and barely speaks English. People in the common area look the same as those lingering outside. I decide to forgo the deposit and find a hostel with better street lighting. Auckland feels quite different!

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