Saturday, 12 March 2011

Our trip is almost at an end. I'm sitting in the airport in Managua in Nicaragua awaiting a flight to take us to Mexico City where we will have one final weekend and then home. It's going to be emotional I'm sure.

Our last month has been spent in Nicaragua. Crossing over the border overland from Costa Rica was an interesting experience. Immediately we piled onto a chicken bus (as they call them in these parts) and we were off. No buying tickets separately, no fuss, just chuck your stuff on and go. They call them chicken buses as people use them to transport anything and everything including their uncooked (and still alive) dinner. They are classic US yellow school buses which I'm sure you have seen on the telly. Sadly we didn't encounter any chickens on our trip but I always enjoyed the buses. There is a really cool communal feel to the experience; people helping each other and the ticket collectors and drivers having a laugh. e are always boarding and selling stuff to eat and drink. It's like India in many ways but it happens in a completely hassle free way. The buses get used as postal services too with people putting on bags of, say, cement and paying to have them dropped in such and such a place. People throw things from windows for their friends as they go past. They really become the centre of communities in many ways.

A bus we took from a place called Tippitapa to Masaya was pimped out to the max. It had red curtains on the windows, the steering wheel and handles had red and silver striped tape all over them, furry animals hanging from roof, the the windscreen had big stickers all over it and it had a DVD playing (some extremely violent shoot em up starring the Rock) and best of all it had a massive soundsystem.  At first we thought it was a passing boy racer with the biggest subwoofers in history but then we noticed it was from the film. Serious bass pressure.

The great thing about Costa Rica and Nicaragua has been having music everywhere. Reggaeton is the flavour of the day but nobody thinks twice about having a big PA system outside their shop or house blasting out tunes. We heartily approve.

We have moved around a fair bit here: had some relaxed beach time, spent time in beautiful colonial towns, climbed a Volcano on Ometepe island, taken a bee keeping course on a farm, visited cigar factories and drank a lot of excellent Nicaraguan Rum. Flor de Cana rum is now the major constituent of my luggage for coming home.

We also had some close quarters experience with a scorpion in our room at night but that's a story for another time.

We have also eaten our own body weight in rice and beans. Rice and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner all washed down with chicken, chicken and more chicken. It's made me consider how much chicken you would have to eat before bad stuff started to happen to you. Like growing a gizzard or something. We must be only a couple of fried wings away from it...

Nicaraguan people have been really friendly but it has been a bit frustrating not being able to have proper conversations. My Spanish is pretty good for getting around, buying tickets, food, booking hotel rooms and asking directions but after a few pleasantries conversation is extremely difficult. It would have been great to find out more about the people who have had some turbulent times here in recent years.

Time for one last chicken rice and beans before the off.

Adios muchahos.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Back o' the net

On my last trip round the world nearly ten years ago my friend Ben and I spent about six weeks travelling around Thailand. We began to make a habit of turning up in strange places, dumping our bags and heading out to get drunk which made waking up in the morning an interesting experience most days. So it was that we arrived in the town of Pai in the north of the country after a long dusty journey from Bangkok, checked into a cheap wooden shack, left our stuff and headed out to find a bar. We were up till late by a campfire somewhere and saw Thai lanters being set off for the first time. I can also remember marvelling at the inbuilt homing device that takes you home to a place you don't even know in the dark at four in the morning.

Anyway we got back this night got into bed and tucked the mosquito net around the bed we were in and fell fast unconscious. The first thing I realised when I woke up was that I had a load of mossie bites and I cursed what must have been a hole in the net. It was only when I sat up that I realised that there was one large hole in the net...  so big there was a dog asleep in the bed with us.

Such misty eyed reminiscence has a point as I have just encountered what could possibly be an even less effective mosquito net. Gemma and I had the fortune to get to stay in a little hillside cabin in the rainforest in Chirripo National park in Costa Rica. It's a stunning place and our little electricity free cabin was beautiful. Wood burning stove, candles, hammocks on the porch and amazing views and it was just us up there with no-one around. The place was of course humming with life; spider monkeys were in the trees, we saw a bat falcon, vultures and humming birds buzzed busily around the flowers round the cabin as we sat and watched.
Somewhat alarmingly in the cabin there was a laminated sheet which showed different types of spider, scorpion and venemous snake that were to be found in the forest. The tarantula here can jump up to a metre and a half!

We had a lovely night with a fire and candles and ambient music on our speakers then it was off to bed. The mosquito net was to start with riddled with holes. Not good. Then it appeared that on one side it was split right up a seam from the bottom to the top making it more like a curtain. The opening of this curtain was right at my head as we slept. I wasn't overly bothered as the mossies hadn't been too active that night so far. I drifted off as the candles burnt down and the mix finished on the speakers...

...the next sensation I felt was a sizable creature crawling across my face. When I say sizeable I mean about the size of my hand. I felt footprints. I was dragged up from my heavy sleep and sat bolt upright in bed and swept wildly with my pillow to push whatever it was off the bed then shut the "curtain" net and pushed my pillow against it. Gemma woke up at the commotion but I half managed to convince her it had been a mossie bothering me. I lay back down with my heart racing and a sweat on my brow. It could have been a lizard but it could also have been a fucking tarantula! I lay there going over it in my head and a bit concerned about what was on the floor by the bed then a few minutes later I heard it scuttle up the wall and away. It sounded heavy. So heavy Gemma thought it was someone trying to break in.

So I will never know what it really was. I'm still alive to tell the tale though and that tale will no doubt err on the side of the massive tarantula as the years unfold.

Costa Rica-ca- ca

I woke up on January the 26th in a strange bed in New Zealand and I felt like my head was going to crack in two.  I shuddered at the thought of the amount of wine that had passed my lips the night before. Then I remembered what we had to do that day...

We had to get up (already a challenge there), walk for half an hour in the hot sun with all of our bags, get a thirty minute ferry, get a 50 minute bus, check in at the airport and then fly twelve and a half hours to LA, wait there for 2.5 hours then fly 5 hours to Miami before getting a taxi for half an hour to South Beach. The biggest nights always seem to be the ones just before we have to do something that will be utterly awful if you are hungover.

Miami was however two days of pure pleasure. I love South Beach and we had a perfect little American breather. We went to the cinema twice in a night to see first True Grit and then The King's Speech. The latter made the former seem very inferior. We ate in a traditional diner with bottomless coffee, pancakes, bacon and maple syrup. We strolled on the beach, had key lime pie and baby back ribs and a pizza the size of  satellite dish while watching Fox news and South Park. Then, just before we burst, it was time for Central America...
We were nervous about Costa Rica after our friends had everything pinched on a bus a few weeks back. Also if you've heard anything about Central America, you get the notion that theft is pretty much guranteed. Coming from the safe dreamlike land of New Zealand it was going to be a change of pace.  Arrival in San Jose did nothing to quell the fears. We got there late on a Friday night and our hostel was in what seemed like a double dodgy part of town and behind massive gates with a security guard. Our room was the most like a prison cell I have ever encountered apart from my years spent at Her Majesty's pleasure.*

Things always seem better in the daylight and this proved to be so despite Gemma almost getting her wallet swiped from her bag by some old biddy in the street. After a weekend in San Jose we really needed to get out into the country and so we headed to Tortugeuro which is dubbed the mini Amazon. What a tonic it was too. All our fears evaporated within minutes of our boat taxi to the town where we saw three crocodiles, a turtle, three Iguanas and a hatful of herons before settling down to jerk chicken, rice and peas for lunch and a stroll on the beach. That's more like it!

Since then we really haven't looked back in Costa Rica. It's a brilliant place to travel around. The Caribbean coast has a chilled reggae and rum fueled vibe with beautiful black-sand beaches and palm trees. The people are mega friendly and although the roads are a bit of a state the buses aren't too much of a hassle. Of course the wildlife is the main attractionand we are seeing it by the bucketload. Pura Vida as they say around these parts.

*I was the Queens special prison cell monitoring ...erm...butler. Yeh that's it royal prison cell monitoring butler.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Bobby Waistline.

Being in Japan was like having a mini winter in the middle of our Kiwi summer. 10 days of freezing cold and one morning of heavy snow is quite long enough for me and despite loving Japan it was nice to pull the shorts and flip flops out again on the south island. We landed in Christchurch and spent a day stocking up on essentials and visiting the fantastic Ron Muek exhibition . I also experienced my first earthquake albeit a (thankfully) very minor aftershock. Loads of shops were closed in central Christchurch and evidence of the big September quake were all around. Scary stuff.
Being back in the land of the long white cloud again we had our sights firmly on one pursuit- tramping. This kiwi term for hillwalking has always tickled me. Particularly the book I once saw called "101 Great Tramps". I've often modelled my life on those "great" tramps. The heroes of the parkbench standing proud with can of Tennants Super in hand...
Anyway we were here for the walking and having pre booked ourselves into the bunkhouses for the "kepler track" a four day hike we had some serious training to do. We did a couple of training one day walks including an incredible day climbing Avalanche Peak near Arthur's Pass on a cloudless day. The views were mindblowing and the summit accompaniment of half a dozen Keas was the icing on the cake (see pic).

The Kea is a very amusing bird in a land of interesting avian life. It's a big, friendly-but-cheeky, comedy Alpine Parrot. Seen inthe urban setting it slides down the windscreen of cars on its bum and will pinch anything you leave lying around.
New Zealand is a fascinating place historically due to its extreme isolation. Humans only made it here 10,000 years ago and what they found when they arrived was a sort of massive banquet waiting for them. The only native mammal in New Zealand is a bat. No wombed critters with sharp teeth and cunning running around with which to upset birds by pinching eggs or biting wings off. So birds evolved to become very large, without fear and some forgot how to even fly! What a mistaka to maka!
The hungry Maoris found such walking feasts as the Moa which were inquisitive, without fear, were 12ft tall and weighed in at about 35 stone! Just imagine the family bucket if Colonel Saunders could have got his hands on one of those bad boys!

Sadly but perhaps unsurprisingly the Moa and some other birds were rendered extinct by their own tastiness. Then came waves of intruder animals. Rabbits arrived and their popululation exploded. So stoats were brought to eat the rabbits. The stoats also eat loads of birds too and so a further hit to populations occurred. Other introduced pests included possums, rats and mice. The department for conservation here do their best to trap and kill stoats to help protect native birds. However I think that the process of introducing other animals to hunt the ones already introduced should have been continued to its logical conclusion. Christ, with a bit of forethought and planning I could have been on a three week safari here looking at tigers, lions and elephants rather than the odd tiny bird or alpine parrot!
Training complete, we took on the Kepler track and thoroughly enjoyed it. Staying each night in bunkhouses you need to carry your own food, clothes, sleeping bag etc. We planned what we would need to eat for the four days and went shopping but on the morning of the treck found that our packs were far too heavy for what could have been a gruelling bit of walking. So we left what we could and set off. Sadly for us we left too much food and we were starving hungry for pretty much the whole thing. Don't get me wrong we had enough food for breakfast lunch and dinner but the amount of calories we were burning were not being matched by our meagre rations. We are still alive. That's about all you can say for the amount of food we had.
Thankfully three months or amazing Indian food followed by Xmas and New year excess had left me with a few pounds to shed. I even toyed with a new band name for when I get back: "Bobby Waistline and the Ample Reserves". What do you think?

Monday, 10 January 2011

Round up

Australia passed in a bit of a blur. Reverse culture shock, jetlag and alcohol blurring the edges. It really was unusual being in such a clean and ordered place where we could move around easily, have a hot shower, use a real towel and drink good coffee. I'm not a huge coffee drinker at home but not being able to get any decent coffee in India for three months had made me crave it. For a country that produces it's own coffee it really was served up in ways that just were not my cup of tea (ahem). From the watery, simply had a bean wafted at it version served in the Indian Coffee House (of all places) to the freeze dried, powdered milk and sugar already added abomination served almost everywhere else it simply was not good enough. Cut to Melbourne and New Zealand and it was like dying and being sent to heaven by being roasted, ground, put under pressure and having hot water flushed through us. Café culture is in an extremely advanced state in Melbourne and we rejoiced in it. Mine's a double shot flat white if you are buying.

We stayed in luxury with our friends Simon and Mo and their two kids Ezra and Sylvie. It was the perfect place to decompress. We managed to take in some sights, galleries, a gig (Little Dragon, De La soul and Gorillaz) and take a trip to the Grampians to do a good walk. We stayed in the town of Halls gap and did the Wonderland Walk to the Pinnacle and then carried on and did the Sundial circuit. It took 7 hours but was really enjoyable. Lots of good views and nature then back to the pub (complete with Emu's in the car park) for a Chicken Parmigiana and some beer. Perfect.

New Zealand was next and the promise of some real outdoor activities; weather permitting. Katie and Pete let us stay at their place in Wellington which has amazing views. Wellington was one of my favourites last time I was in new Zealand and it was again this time. Fantastically manageable and gorgeous city. We eat great food, drank more coffee and saw Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings at the Embassy theatre and Gemma and Katie were in a select few invited on stage to dance with Sharon. Great performance (the gig was ok too).

Our main goal leaving Wellington was to do the Tongariro Northern Circuit before Christmas. The circuit is a three/four day trek regarded as the one of the best in New Zealand. However as has been the norm on this trip the weather wasn't kind to us. Visibility on the day of our trek was about... oh fifty yards? We made do with a sodden woodland walk for a couple of hours then changed our plans and decided that the best course of action was to seek out an activity that the weather couldn't stop. It was time to go underground. We abseiled 100metres into the 'Lost World' and the caves below Waitomo. The abseil itself was great but I particularly enjoyed the cave walk and the gloworms that light up the roof like stars. Decent compensation I think you'll agree.

From Waitomo we made a whistlestop tour of the rest of the north island to Auckland. Rock climbing and hot tubs in Taupo, geysers and geothermal wonders at Wai-o-tapu and lake swimming and woodland walks near Rotorua.

A boozy Christmas eve was spent in Auckland before we basked in the joy of business class on the way to Japan with Katie and Pete thanks to her airline connections. I can honestly say that I didn't want to get off that flight after 11 hours. I also appeared to be quite drunk and had gained a stone in weight. A strange side effect.

So to Japan. It's a place that I have previously discounted on the grounds that it would be expensive and difficult to get to grips with as a traveller. I was wrong on one of those things. It was shockingly easy to get around and to do things, especially after our experiences in India. Despite the obvious language issues, obtaining information was incredibly easy. People went above and beyond the call of duty to help you out. Japan is the very antithesis of India. The cleanliness of everything, the order, the readily available information, the punctuality, the neatness and politeness. I wish we had flown straight here from Mumbai. Our heads may have exploded.

In the sea in Goa, as she did a fast front crawl, Gemma was pursued by an Indian man and then asked if she liked swimming. I was also accompanied by a gentleman as I jogged along the beach one morning with my headphones on. I took them off and as he breathlessly ran beside me he asked me what I was doing and whether I liked running. The endless inquisitive nature and complete lack of awareness of personal space or solo activity by Indians was at once comical and utterly infuriating. In contrast I think if I was to stand up on a train platform in Tokyo and juggle fire clubs naked with a feather sticking out my bum while shouting obscenities, I wouldn't attract a sideways look. The places are very different. I didn't find one speck of dust in 10 days in Japan. In India I didn't see any dust either because it was covered up by shit*.

Our first night in Tokyo saw Pete and I popping out for a quick beer to change some high denomination notes before bed and stumbling immediately upon what is now one of my favourite little bars of all time. An analogue heaven in a digital city. The Corner spot was a jazz bar that could hold 20 max. It had an old record player playing dusty jazz records, stacks of records and smoke stained cd's, boxes of musical instruments and a friendly sozzled proprietor watching ice skating on the tiny old fuzzy telly. After a confusing and unsuccessful attempt to order a drink: “two beers please (translated from the guide book)? Asahi? Birru? Erm...”) and convinced that Japan was going to be difficult, I was informed loudly in English that the bar sold only beer or whisky on the rocks. Pete and I had a few beers watching the ice skating and then ended up in a sing along to Beatles songs played on the guitar with the only other patron.

Our ten day trip took us to Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima before heading back to Tokyo for new year. Kyoto was fantastic with and incredible train station. amazing shrines and temples, food and little bars. We even got a thick layer of snow on our final day. Eating was a real highlight though: Okonomiyaki, Sushi, Yakatori, Ramen, Gyoza, Tempura and the list and variety goes on and on. Mmmmmmmmmm.

New year was a bit unusual. Most of Tokyo seemed to have disappeared and at midnight we were in a bar that was almost empty in a city of 35 million. Most people were queueing to visit a shrine to make their prayers for the following year. We made do with good company and high quality booze and saw in the new year in fine style.

On our last night we had an early drink in the Park Hyatt hotel bar (from Lost in Translation) on the 52nd floor. Unbelievable views of the city and fine wine. Just don't ask for the bill (cheers K and P).

After a mere ten days of winter (quite enough if you ask me) it was back to New Zealand and summer once more. A new year of contemplation, not of work just yet, but instead my ever expanding waistline. Some serious exercise required but I reckon I'm in just the right place for it.

*I'm being deliberately harsh here for comedic effect. I truly love India to bits.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010


Towards the end of our three month Indian odyssey my thoughts started to turn towards Australia and so it was that on a long taxi journey back from Anjuna market in northern Goa to Patnem that I nodded off and began to dream. A bump in the road or a car horn stirred me from my slumber and as I rubbed my eyes to wake myself I realised that I had been dreaming of squeezing ketchup onto a genuine old fashioned ozzie meat pie. I will miss India's food forever but new culinary delights await. Some of those delights may or may not be cow flavoured.

Mumbai was the final hoorah and a fitting place to say goodbye to all that makes India such a dizzying incredible place. I loved Mumbai although I had been a bit nervous before arriving having read so much and having had our heads so fried in Delhi. It is however a brilliant city; very European in parts, great food, interesting sights, vibrant. Still utterly bonkers though and so while it has embraced the west and has money flowing freely through it it has retained the very essence of India.  You can get your knives sharpened by a man operating a grinding wheel with a modified bike, have a shave, get a deep fried snack, peruse state of the art laptops, drink fresh coconut milk and buy a balloon that it four foot long and a foot wide all on the street outside your hotel.

We capped our trip off with Gin and Tonics in the iconic Taj Hotel which cost more than an entire days budget for both of us. Farewell India. I smell much better for having left you but things will never quite be the same again.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Well hi there!

It's been a while.

What have you been up to?

How are things back home?

Anyway enough about you. What have I been up to? Well lots actually. Yes that's right. Tonnes of stuff.

Since leaving Tamil Nadu and resuming our travels we have really been in the groove. India no longer seems difficult or makes me want to pull all my hair out and jam it in my eyes. Well not every day at least.

People always talk about the bewitching effect this place has on you and I have to say it's true. It sneaks up on you and we are now going to be very sad to leave. Normal food is going to seem very, very dull. We had brought our onward flights forward by two weeks but since then we have changed them back.  India has wound itself round us and won' let go.

So after an overnight train from Trivandrum in the south and a night in Benaullim in Goa we took a 9 hour train to Hampi in Karnataka. We had heard lots of good things about Hampi and it didn't disappoint. I think it has been the highlight of my India experience so far. The boulder strewn landscape is a marvel and you can spend hours looking at the scenery and pondering the duration of time it took to create it. Huge rocks seemingly dropped from the sky into random places. It's such a dramatic place that it seems strange to consider it as being one of the most stable geological sites on earth. For all you armchair geologists out there the rocks are made of granite and unlike volcanic rock were formed underground and forced up to the surface by the movement of the earth billions of years ago. The shapes have been carved painstakingly over the millenia not by Glaciers or cataclysmic events but by the simple and constant action of wind and water. It bends your head to think about that amount of time. But it certainly puts the minutiae of your daily life or indeed the duration of the entire human race in perspective.

We discovered that there was the possibility of doing some rockclimbing here and so we went to the quiet village of Agondi over the river from Hampi. This place was a treat in itself and arriving early in the morning we could see a scene that could have been played out for hundreds of years as people went about their morning routines and cockerels and dogs and cattle went about theirs.

I have never climbed outdoors before having only started climbing this year so was a little nervous. However I was the only person there and two excellent local instructors took me out into the rocks. Turning up that day and the instructor just picking up his bag and saying "lets go?". No forms. No car rides on landslide roads. Hardly any money. No bullshit. Just get amongst it. Amazing. I can't think of many places better to start your outdoor climbing career than Hampi. It's a paradise for it. My climbing wasn't amazing as I was out of practice and a bit out of shape but the whole experience was incredible. Note Gemma on the top right of the first picture.

After that early morning Gemma and I crossed back over the river on a tiny coracle boat and then walked back along the river bank towards Hampi Bazaar. It was probably a 3 or 4 km walk but there was no path and no other people around and we hopped from boulder to boulder making our own adventure amongst the landscape as old as anything you can ever see. I was in awe of the place. I was in my element. I can't remember being as happy as during that walk.

The Mango Tree is a fantastic restaurant in Hampi serving incredible food, with the Aloo Paratha being a highlight. Like a Cornish pasty but made in heaven rather than Cornwall.

After three days in Hampi we took an overnight bus (surprisingly palatial) back to Goa and we spent a night in Panaji or Panjim as it is also known. It's Pan-jim but not as we know it? The capital of Goa is a cool town displaying load of old Portuguese architecture and colonial charm. We only stayed a night though, the beach was calling. We took a couple of local buses to the south of Goa and Pallolim beach. The bus rides were incredible. We started each journey with only a handful of people on the bus and we sat back smugly thinking we were in for a relaxing spacious, scenic journey. This is calm and organised Goa but it's still India boyo so don't go getting any ideas.

The conductor hung on the side door for the duration of the journey calling out enthusiastically to passers by informing them where we were headed. I swear some of the people didn't even want to go to those places but they got on anyway and they kept getting on.  There were so many people on board that he had to physically re-arrange the people standing in the aisle to get more people on.  They didn't know how to minimise their postures for maximum passenger numbers but he did. Goa Tetris champion 2010.

On and on he called for more to board. Faster an faster were his calls until it seemed like he would have a fit and pass out. Unfortunately the fit never occurred and more people crammed on board. I have to say that after a while it just got bloody silly. I had an armpit in my face for an interminable period and an old woman was sick out the window in front of us.  People still cheerfully clambered past her and joined us in the crush. Still with her lunch evacuated the conductor saw that some space had been freed up and another passer by was hoisted aboard.

Not one person was turned away and there were comfortably 20 more than the safe maximum in the aisle. This kind of shit is old hat now for Gemma and I. Seasoned Indian travellers that we are. We eat bus rides like that for breakfast with beggar curd, a car horn chapati and a poosmell pickle on the side. 

Pallolim beach was still in construction as they take the huts down every year for the monsoon and as previously mentioned the monsoons are all over the shop this year so they were about three weeks behind schedule. We stayed three nights then moved to a lovely little room rented out by an Indian family in nearby and more chilled out Patnem beach. We really lucked out on the price and the quality of our lodgings. This is where we currently reside and life is about as idyllic as it gets. I won't bore you with the many pleasures of beach life (just yet) but let me just say that on my first dip into the shallow, calm waters at Patnem I saw a dolphin in the sea about 20 yards from me. I was alone in the sea and nobody on the beach was nearby. It bobbed around a few times before heading back out to sea. A truly magical moment.